Tag Archives: organization as a system

Technological Innovation and Management

Technological innovation brings great opportunity for improving results and our quality of life. But transforming potential benefits into real results comes with many challenges.

ASQ has asked their Influential Voices to explore the idea of the fourth industrial revolution: “this new era is founded on the practical use of technological innovations like artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT).”

For many years GMs huge investment in robotics in the 1980s ($billions) has been an example of how pinning hopes on technology often doesn’t produce the desired results. I think that a capable management system is needed to make technological innovation as successful as it needs to be.

In this decade we are finally reaching the point where robotics is really making incredible strides. Robotics has provided huge benefits for decades, when used appropriately, but the ease of use and benefits from robotics have greatly increased recently.

I think robotics is going to be an incredibly powerful source of benefits to society in the next 20 years. Amazon is very well placed to profit in this area. Several other companies (Toyota, Boston Dynamics*, Honda, SoftBank…) are likely to join them (though which will be the biggest winners and which will stumble is not obvious)

Cliff Palace historical ruins

Photo by John Hunter of Cliff Palace (built in the 1190s), Mesa Verde National Park.

I am less confident in the Internet of Things. It seems to me that much of the IoT effort currently is flailing around in ways similar to GMs approach to robotics in the 1980s and 1990s. There is huge potential for IoT but the architecture of those solutions and the impact of that architecture on security (and fragile software that creates many more problems than it solves) is not being approached wisely in my opinion. IoT efforts should focus on delivering robust solutions in the areas where there is a clear benefit to adopting IoT solutions. And that needs to be done with an understanding of security and the lifecycle of the devices and businesses.

I think it will be much wiser to have an internet hub in the business or home that has all IoT traffic route through it in a very clear and visible way. Users need clear ways to know what the IoT is trying to do and to have control to determine what is and what is not sent out from their system. Having devices that share information in a non-transparent way is not wise. This is especially when those devices have cameras or microphones.

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Organizations as Social Systems

Organizations are social systems made up of people.

Social systems often amplify what happens.

If good things happen, more good things often follow.

When bad things happen, more bad things often follow.

To improve it is wise to this into account and design elements of the management system to encourage the amplification of what is good and that seeks to stop what is bad from being amplified.

Building in elements to stop the negatives from reinforcing and creating more negatives is important.

Building in elements to support and enhance positives so that they led to more positive results is also useful.

people at seminar listening to speaker at a flipchart

John presenting a Deming seminar in Singapore.

Related: Podcast with John Hunter on Building Organizational CapabilityWhat to Do To Create a Continual Improvement CultureUsing Incentives to Guide Social System ImprovementsBuilding a Great Software Development Team

Cater to Customers Desires to Achieve Customer Delight

Customer delight requires understanding your customers needs and desires. Often even your customers don’t understand these well. Businesses that have a deep appreciation for what their customers, and potential customers, desire and that create systems to deliver solutions that delight those customers benefit greatly from that effort.

To build a sustainable enterprise you must provide value customers will appreciate.

Your customers do not have one unified set of desires. Some customers may want as good an experience as is possible and if that costs substantially more they are happy to pay. Others want to pay the least possible while having an acceptable experience.

Singapore Airlines can cater to creating a great experience. And even within that system they can segment the offering a bit and create coach class, business class and first class. They seek to provide a great experience for everyone but have extra space and amenities offered for higher classes of service for those wanting that given the cost.

Southwest Airlines can cater to providing a friendly and inexpensive experience while passing on providing certain amenities. Southwest understands that they are creating a system to deliver value to customers that appreciate a no frills environment that still treats them with respect. treat customers honestly and with respect.

Aligning what is delivered with what is marketed is also important and something Southwest does well. Other airlines market as if they will provide what Singapore Airlines does and provides a miserable experience instead. I think it helps provide Southwest focus in marketing and operations seeing how badly many of their competitors frustrate customers continually in very visible ways.

To delight customers determine what they desire based on a deep understanding of them. Make sure you understand what they act on not just what they say.

Even if you determine what they want is to spend as little as possible don’t try to trick them with false claims about low prices. The most despised companies all seem to do this (cable TV companies, airlines, mobile phone plans, some contractors…). Essentially they play bait and switch except they don’t even offer the choice to decline once they provide the real price. They just slap on extra fees after they sold you with promises of the cheaper cost.

Instead cater to meet the importance of low price but still treat customers with respect. Yes, you might cut some corners a bit so customers have to wait longer for support or don’t have as much hand holding as they could get for a higher price. But there are many things that can be done with well designed systems to provide very good service while keeping costs low. In fact often better service can be provided at lower costs because systems designed well include less waste and create fewer problems. Those problems are costly to solve and damaging to customers.

Your customers will not have monolithic desires. A big factor in the success of providing solutions that delight customers. Sometimes that means creating product and services that delight people with a wide range of expectations. Other times it means delivering different solutions to delight the different audiences.

My mechanic is trustworthy and less expensive than my other options. He also lacks many of the amenities others might desire. But for me I am delighted with his service. I am happy to drive 30 minutes to get service from him, passing by many other options. I trust him to know what to do and act in my best interest while charging a fair price.

My dentist is very good and expensive. He doesn’t accept insurance (if you have insurance you can submit the bills yourself but his office doesn’t get involved). He does all the dental work himself, including cleaning (which is rare in my experience – often the simple tasks are assigned to others). Assistants deal with scheduling and billing. His market is to provide great service to those customers willing to pay. This is not a strategy that would work for most dentists I don’t think, but it works very well for him and his delighted customers (like me). The customers willing to pay for this level of service is limited but if you delight enough people who are willing to pay you create a sustainable business.

Knowing what your customers want and creating systems to deliver that to them is how to build a great business. It sounds easy but few businesses really do know what their customers want. And even fewer focus on delighting them by continually improving the value they offer.

Related: The Customer is the Purpose of Our Work (2012)
Customer Focus with a Deming Perspective (2013)the most important customer focus is on the end users (2012)What Job Does Your Product Do? (2007)What one thing could we do better? (2006)

Podcast: Building Organizational Capability

The Software Process and Measurement Cast 420 features an interview with me, by Thomas Cagley, on Building Organizational Capability (download podcast).

John Hunter in the podcast:

Changing how organizations are managed makes a huge difference in people’s lives, not all the time and I understand most of the time it doesn’t. But when this is done well people can go from dreading going to work to enjoying going to work, not every single day – but most days, and it can change our lives so that most of the time we are doing things that we find valuable and we enjoy instead of just going to work to get a paycheck so we can enjoy the hours that we have away from work.

photo of John Hunter

John Hunter, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

Here are some links where I go into more detail on some of the topics I discuss in the podcast:

Thomas Cagley: If you have the power to change any 2 things that affect decision making what would they be and why?

John Hunter:

First that results are evaluated. Make decisions then evaluate what actually happens based upon what you do. Learn from that, improve how you make future decisions and keep iterating.

That idea of evaluating what actually happens is extremely powerful and will reinforce going in the right direction because if you evaluate most decisions many organizations make nothing got any better. And after doing that many times you can learn this isn’t working, we need to do something better.

And the second would be more prioritization. Make fewer decisions but take more time to make those decisions, implement those decisions, evaluate those decisions, learn from those results and iterate again.

I hope you enjoy the podcast.

Related: Software Process and Measurement Podcast With John Hunter on my book Management MattersDeming and Software Development

Continually Improving Using a Focus on Delighting Customers

ASQ asked the ASQ influential voices to respond to this question: What is the best way to ensure quality and customer integration grow together?

When I first got involved in the quality field that name (quality) seemed to vague for me. And different people and organizations seemed to have vastly different meanings in mind for efforts they all grouped under the heading of quality. What I came up with to capture what I was interested in was customer focused continuous improvement. Continual is actually a better word than continuous for what I had in mind, I now know.

But that phrase has held up in my mind (unfortunately it is a bit long and so isn’t ideal either). Focusing on continually improving with a deep understanding of customer needs and the marketplace will do you well. Customer integration is required in the customer focused continual improvement framework I have discussed on this blog and in my book: Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

Beach with reclining chairs and thatched toped umbrella looking into the ocean with small boats in the view

Wonderful beach near Hoi An, Vietnam where you can order food and drinks in peace. See more photos by John Hunter.

Accepting that as a wise course of action leaves the question of how to continual improve with an integrated deep focus on customers. These shouldn’t be two isolated activities. And even to continually improve without worrying about customers requires viewing the organization as a system is critical in my view (which further enhances integrating the customer into the organization’s DNA). As anyone reading this blog knows my beliefs build on the work of W. Edwards Deming, so appreciating the importance of a systemic view is to be expected.

A deep appreciation for the long term needs of your customers and potential customers should guide where in the system to continually improve. And my belief on how to continual improve is to create and continually improving management system with principles of experimentation (with the necessary understanding of what conclusion can be drawn from results and what cannot), an understanding of the organization as a system and respect for people as principles to be guided by to achieve continual improvement.

Quality practices of experimentation directed at continually improving management practices and internal processes need to be completely integrated with the efforts to continual improve customer delight. Those efforts should be one process and therefore they automatically grow together.

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Burning Toast: American Health System Style

Democrats and Republicans have created a health care system in the USA over the last 40 years that “burns toast” at an alarming rate. As the symptoms of their health care system are displayed they call in people to blame for burning toast.

Their participation in the “you burn, I’ll scrape” system is even worse than the normal burning then scraping process. They create a bad system over decades and ignore the burnt toast just telling people to put up with it. And when some burnt toast can’t be ignored any longer they then blame individuals for each piece of burnt toast.

They demand that those they bring before them to blame, scrape off the burnt toast. And they act shocked that the “toaster” burns toast. It is the same “toaster” they designed and maintain at the behest of those benefiting from burnt toast and of course it burns toast (those results are the natural outcome of the system they designed and maintain).

We need to fix the decades old broken toaster that the Democrats and Republicans built and have maintained. Dr. Deming called excessive healthcare costs a deadly disease decades ago yet Democrats and Republicans allowed it to continue harming us year after year and decade after decade.

We don’t need distractions blaming a few individual for what the two parties have created and maintained for decades. We need leaders to address the real issues and stop the distraction that those benefiting from the current system want to continue to see from those in Washington.

You don’t fix the system if all you do is blame individuals for each piece of burnt toast. Fixing blame on each piece of burnt toast is exactly what those that have continued to make sure the system is designed to continually burn toast love to see. It is a good way to make sure the fixes needed to the design of the toaster are not addressed. Both political parties have done well by those they receive payments from to ensure that the current toaster isn’t changed.

For decades the data shows the USA health care system costs are nearly double that of other rich countries with no better results. And we are not comparing to some perfect ideal, those efforts we compare to need much improvement themselves. So how bad much the USA health care system be to cost nearly twice as much as those systems that have plenty of room for improvement themselves?

Related: EpiPen Maker Also Hiked Prices on a Slew of Other MedicationsUSA Health-Care System Ranks 50th out of 55 CountriesDrug Prices in the USA, a system continually burning toast (2005)USA Heath Care System Needs Reform (2009)2015 Health Care Price Report – Costs in the USA and Elsewhere

Lead by Building Organizational Capability

The result of a recent interview with me has been posted: How to Lead From Any Level In the Organization

2. Help people solve their problems.

Similar to helping other people grow their careers is the idea of helping other people to solve their problems. Again, this starts with a clear understanding of your sphere of influence. “It determines what strategies you can pursue, and building your sphere of influence should be part of your decision making process.”

What it comes down to is proving yourself in this way—and doing so consistently. “It isn’t some secret sauce. Prove yourself to be valuable and you will gain influence. Help people solve their problems. They will be inclined to listen to your ideas.” And helping people to solve their problems doesn’t mean you are giving them the answer. It may mean you asking empowering questions.

John says if you focus on building the capability in the organization to understand variation and to appreciate how to use data—then you are on the right path, and can increase your influence in addition.

“You need to build into the organization things like a focus on pleasing the customer instead of pleasing your boss.” When combining all of these methods, that is when your leadership is going to be most effective.

Hopefully you will find the entire post worthwhile.

More links related to interviews with me about improving management: Leadership While Viewing the Organization as a System, Business 901 Podcast Deming’s Management Ideas Today, Meet-up: Management Improvement Leader John Hunter.

Integrating Technical and Human Management Systems

ASQ has asked the Influential Voices on quality management to look at the question of integrating technical quality and human management systems. How do different systems—technical or human—work together? How should they work together?

My view is that the management system must integrate these facets together. A common problem that companies face is that they bring in technical tools (such as control charts, PDSA improvement cycle, design of experiments, kanban, etc.) without an appreciation for the organization as a system. Part of understanding the organization as a system is understanding psychology within this context (as W. Edwards Deming discussed frequently and emphasized in his management system).

To try and implement quality tools without addressing the systemic barriers (due to the management system and specifically the human component of that system) is a path to very limited success. The failure to address how the organization’s existing management system drives behaviors that are often counter to the professed aims of the organization greatly reduces the ability to use technical tools to improve.

If the organization rewards those in one silo (say purchasing) based on savings they make in cutting the cost of supplies it will be very difficult for the organization to optimize the system as a whole. If the purchasing department gets bonuses and promotions by cutting costs that is where they will focus and the total costs to the organization are not going to be their focus. Attempts to create ever more complex extrinsic incentives to make sure the incentives don’t leave to sub-optimization are rarely effective. They can avoid the most obvious sub-optimization but rarely lead to anything close to actually optimizing the overall system.

image of the cover of Managmenet Matters by John Hunter

Management Matters by John Hunter

It is critical to create an integrated system that focuses on letting people use their brains to continually improve the organization. This process doesn’t lend itself to easy recipes for success. It requires thoughtful application of good management improvement ideas based on the current capabilities of the organization and the short, medium and long term priorities the organization is willing to commit to.

There are principles that must be present:

  • a commitment to treating everyone in the organization as a valuable partner
  • allowing those closest to issues to figure out how to deal with them (and to provide them the tools, training and management system necessary to do so effectively) – see the last point
  • a commitment to continual improvement, learning and experimentation
  • providing everyone the tools (often, this means mental tools as much as physical tools or even quality tools such as a control chart). By mental tools, I mean the ability to use the quality tools and concepts. This often requires training and coaching in addition to a management system that allows it. Each of these is often a problem that is not adequately addressed in most organizations.
  • an understanding of what data is and is not telling us.

An integrated management system with an appreciation for the importance of people centered management is the only way to get the true benefit of the technical tools available.

I have discussed the various offshoots of the ideas discussed here and delved into more details in many previous posts and in my book – Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability. An article, by my father, also addresses this area very well, while explaining how to capture and improve using two resources, largely untapped in American organizations, are potential information and employee creativity. It is only by engaging the minds of everyone that the tools of “technical” quality will result in even a decent fraction of the benefit they potentially can provide if used well.

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Change Management: Create a Culture Seeking Continual Improvement or Use Band-Aids?

Successfully shepherding change within an organization is often a challenge. Often change management strategies are mainly about how to cope with a toxic culture but exclude the option of fixing the toxic culture. Why not address the root causes instead of trying band-aids?

The most effective strategy is to build an organizational culture into one that promotes continual improvement. A continual improvement culture is one that is constantly changing to improve (grounded in long term principles: respect for people, experiment, iterate quickly, etc.).

You can try to push change in an ad hoc basis by adopting some strategies to create a similar feeling about the individual change effort. But that isn’t as effective as establishing them in the culture are. Strategies such as: going the gemba, pdsa, build trust via respect for people…

These tools and concepts build trust within the organization. The do that by showing people are respected and that the change effort isn’t just another in the long line of wasted effort for ineffectual change. The first part can be addressed, normally the second part can’t be addressed effectively. Often that is at the core of the issue with why the change effort isn’t working. It is a bad solutions. It hasn’t been tested on a small scale. It hasn’t been iterated numerous times to take a seed of an idea and grow it into a proven and effective change that will be successful. If it had been, many people would be clamoring for the improvement (not everyone, true, but enough people).

But still you can use strategies to cope with lack of trust in your intentions with the change and lack of trust in the effectiveness and fear of change. Some of those are included in the links below. But mainly my strategy is based on focusing on building the proper culture for long term excellence and the change management strategies are just short term coping mechanisms to help deal with the initial challenges. Using those strategies as a long term solution for dealing with change in a toxic culture isn’t a very sensible way to manage.

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Transforming a Management System – A Case Study From the Madison Wisconsin Police Department

This post in an excerpt from The Quality Leadership Workbook for Police by Chief David Couper and Captain Sabine Lobitz (buy via Amazon).

cover image of the New Quality Leadership Workbook for Police

The New Quality Leadership Workbook for Police

Transformational Steps
A Case Study Madison, Wisconsin (1981-1993)

Step 1: Educate and inform everyone in the organization about the vision, the goals, and Quality Leadership. This step must be passionately led by the top leader.

  • Begin discussion with top management team and train them.
  • Discuss and ask employees; get feedback from them.
  • Share feedback with the chief and his management team.
  • Get buy-in from top department managers.
  • Survey external customers—citizens; those who live and work in the community.
  • Create an employee’s advisory council; ask, listen, inform, and keep them up to date on what’s going on.
  • The chief keeps on message; tells, sells, and persuades, newsletters, meetings and all available media.

Step 2: Prepare for the transformation. Before police services to the community can be improved, it is essential to prepare the inside first — to cast a bold vision and to have leaders that would “walk the talk.”

  • Appoint a top-level, full-time coordinator to train, coach, and assist in the transformation.
  • Form another employee council to work through problems and barriers encountered during implementation of the transformation and Quality Leadership.
  • Require anyone who seeks to be a leader to have the knowledge and ability to practice Quality Leadership.

Step 3: Teach Quality Leadership. This begins at the top with the chief and the chief’s management team.

  • Train all organizational leaders in Quality Leadership.
  • Train all employees as to what Quality Leadership is, why the transformation is necessary, and what it means for them.

Step 4: Start practicing Quality Leadership. If top managers within the organization are not authentically practicing Quality Leadership neither will anyone else.

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Don’t Ignore Customer Complaints

I find Paul Graham’s ideas very useful. I disagree with his recent tweet though.

tweets from Paul Graham

Update: See note at bottom of the post – Paul tweeted that his original tweet was wrong.

Base your assessment of the merit of an idea on the actual merit of the idea, not the category you place the person in that is expressing the idea.

His reply tweet addresses the problem with the first one in a very specific case. But you have “bugs” that are part of your management system, “policies,” products or services. Few customers will bother to voice those problems. Rather than ignoring some of what you hear, you should evaluate the merit of the complaint.

If the complaint is not something that should be addressed or explored fine. But that has nothing to do with the category of the person (“complainer” or not); it has to do with the merit of the complaint.

I understand some people are annoying because they make lots of meritless complaints. Ignoring the meritless complaints is fine with me. But just as I think ignoring advice because the person giving the advice doesn’t follow it is a bad practice I think having a policy of basing decisions on something other than the merit of the complaint/suggestion is unwise.

This is especially true since organizations on the whole do a lousy job of listening to customers and understanding customer desires. We need to greatly enhance the practice of customer focus not seek to reduce it. Every organization is unique, however, and if customer focus is exceptionally great, I can understand the idea of the tweet: that we are devoted to customer focus and each new insight, but we have taken it too far and need to discriminate better. I still think discriminating based on the merit of the complaint is a better than doing so based on our categorization of the complainer but in that case (which is very rare in organizations) the advice isn’t nearly as bad as it is for most organizations.

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Attracting Members and Volunteers to Professional Organizations

This month Bill Troy, ASQ CEO, asked ASQ Influential Voices bloggers to explore recruiting members and volunteers amid a changing landscape.

In most ways the answer is the same as any large question on directing an organization. We must figure out the value we wish to offer that is in demand and provide it in a package people desire. As part of that we need to continually focus on the customer and adjust to their changing desires and the changing realities of the marketplace.

Organizations frequently get attached to their ways of doing things and fail to adapt to changing conditions. I have been saying for more than a decade the extreme barriers put up to old content by ASQ don’t seem consistent to their mission to me. They seem tied to an old business model that made sense when costs to distribute and access information were high.

The costs to distribute and access information are low today (thanks to the internet). Other than the old model growing into a business case that had ASQ pursuing a high income level from old content I don’t see why an organization that exists to promote quality puts up paywall barriers to old content that would promote quality if it were not hidden away. Even if you are a member there is a ludicrously high charge for old articles.

Mount Rainier national park

Trail in Mount Rainier National Park by John Hunter

I think this is a symptom that many membership organizations have. They turn from being focused on promoting their mission to being focused on perpetuating their organization. I don’t see why ASQ members would care much about how big ASQ is.

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A Strong Management System Handles the Transition of Leaders With Ease

Part three (of three) of an interview of me with Bill Fox has been published.

Leadership While Viewing the Organization as a System

…So if I see the weak management system as the problem, the solution is not nearly as easy as coming up with a new CIO. I don’t really think the problem is so much the CIO not being a good manager – because the system shouldn’t allow a new manager to come in and ruin a good management system. The management system is the problem. So we need to fix that and that’s a very long, hard thing to do well, but it’s the kind of thing that a company like Toyota does.

So, you have to try to build that strong organizational structure; one that isn’t so fragile that when one or two senior leaders change, things fall apart. But it’s very difficult and many organizations have weak management systems. It’s a lot easier to accomplish in smaller organizations, because individuals can have a bigger say. If you’re in an organization of a hundred people, and there’s been some real success with lean or Deming’s ideas, and some new person comes in and tries to get rid of it, people stand up and say “No”.

In big, huge organizations, it often can be very difficult because there’s all sorts of big internal politics and issues that get involved

It is a fragile management system that allows the change of one or two leaders, whether they are leaders as in a CFO sense or whether they are this great software developer that had the whole team doing lean software and as soon as they leave, it just falls apart because they were the personality that made the whole thing work. When the changes relied on that person, there wasn’t really a system improvement: as soon as they left, the apparent system improvements collapse.

Read the full interview with more on how to build a strong management system based on the understanding of the organization as a system.

Related: If a a company is dependent on one (or a few) people to perform then it is in dangerExecutive LeadershipA Good Management System is Robust and Continually Improving

Take Advantage of the Strengths Each Person Brings to Work

The players have weaknesses. But it is our job as coaches to find the strengths in what our guys do. They all have strengths, and that’s what we highlight. What really helps is having Russell. He is so committed to improving on the littlest things every day. I try to find a word for this sometimes, but I can’t … it’s his refusal to fail. No detail is too small, and he makes sure to stress that every day.”

Darrell Bevell, offensive coordinator of the world champion Seattle Seahawks and former quarterback of the Wisconsin Badgers provides a good guide for managers. “Russell” in the quote is Seattle’s quarterback Russel Wilson; also a UW-Madison alumni.

Street art in Singapore 4 people sitting and a kid

Street art in Singapore. Photo by John Hunter.

Managers should be setting up the organization to take maximum advantage of the strengths of the people in the organization while minimizing the impact of weaknesses.

“Refusing to fail” by saying you refuse and yelling and stomping around if you fail doesn’t work. But if you commit to improve, not just the exciting stuff but every important detail you can create a climate of success. You create a system that works and builds on the skills, ability and desire to do great work that your employees bring to work.

Sure you fix what is broken. But you also improve what is working well. You figure out where the system isn’t optimized for the abilities of the people and you address that by changing the system to take advantage of everyone’s capabilities while limiting the impact of people’s weaknesses.

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Building a Great Software Development Team

twitter screen shot of the quoted conversation

Elliot: I worked with some of the best programmers I’ve ever known at the tiny, obscure ASEE

Adam Solove: Why do you think that happened? They hired for passion, rather than experience?

If I had to pick one thing, passion would likely be it but really it is a complex assortment of things. Passion for the right things, based on what we aimed to be, mattered a great deal. That took the form of being passionate about the user experience, being passionate about good software development practices, being passionate about good software itself, being passionate about treating each other with respect, being passionate about learning and improving.

I think there were several other important factors, such as: the skill to turn a passion for good software into actual good software. This required intelligence, interest and knowledge about software development but didn’t require specific experience (computer science degree, 2 years of Ruby on Rails development, certification or any such thing). Hiring based on experience is a big mistake. In my opinion hiring based on capability and potential (which is based partially on experience) is wise.

Another factor is that we had people (those first few hires were critical) that were really knowledgable about programing good software and that became a self reinforcing process. The gaps one person’s ability and knowledge could be filled by someone else helping them understand and get better.

The expectation was that we found great solutions. If we didn’t we kept looking and asked each other for help (another factor in creating a great team). We didn’t just accept that we were confident the solution wasn’t very good but couldn’t find any better options so I guess this is the best we can do.

We were interested enough in good results that we would push for better options instead of just accepting something that was kind of ok. This shouldn’t be such a big deal; but in practice it is huge. So many places just end up avoiding conflict to the extent that it is a huge detriment to results.

Without confidence, honest debate about ideas is suppressed as people are constantly taking things personally instead of trying to find the best ideas (and if doing so means my idea is criticized that is ok). Our group was great at this. It is something I find it a bit silly to say a workplace was “great” at but in most places I find the fear of someone being concerned stifles discussion to an unbelievable extent.

This is also one of many areas where the culture within the team was self reinforcing. As new people came on they understood this practice. They saw it in practice. They could see it was about finding good ideas and if their idea was attacked they didn’t take it nearly as personally as most people do in most places. I sought to understand if people we looked at hiring would be comfortable in such an environment.

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A Good Management System is Robust and Continually Improving

imagine various people working within it, somehow swapping out gears and cogs without the clock stopping or slowing down even a little.

This is a fairly good quote on a good management system. Some people might not like the mechanistic model – comparing an organization to a clock, and I agree that isn’t the right model, but even so it is a good quote.

The quote, from a story about the San Antonio Spurs captures what should happen with a good management system. Things just keep running well as inevitable changes take place (and keep getting better in the case of a management system).

A good management system doesn’t rely on heroic efforts to save the day. The organization is designed to success. It is robust. It will succeed with all the variation thrown at it by the outside world. A good management system takes advantage of the contributions people offer, but it is not perform poorly when others are relied on.

A well run organization has graceful degradation (when one component fails or one person is missing the performance doesn’t suffer, bad results are avoided).

With software for example, a decently created web sites may use javascript to enhance the user experience but if javascript is unavailable the site works fine (just missing some neat features that are nice but don’t prevent users from getting what they need). Poorly designed software has critical dependencies on conditions that cannot be guaranteed to be present for end users and the software just fails to work when those conditions are not met. Ungraceful degradation is too common in software. It is also too common in our management systems.

An organization succeeds because of the efforts of many great people. But the management system has to be created for an organization to prosper as what we all know will happen, happens: people will leave and need to be replaced. And the people that stay will need to adjust to new conditions inside the organization and in response to external forces. A good management system is constantly improving performance, innovating, increasing the robustness of systems and increasing the capability of people.

Related: Bad Weather is Part of the Transportation SystemHow to Sustain Long Term Enterprise ExcellencePerformance dependent on specific individuals is not robust and not capable of continuous high quality performanceEuropean Blackout: Human Error-Not

94% Belongs to the System

I should estimate that in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to the proportions something like this: 94% belongs to the system (responsibility of management), 6% special.

Page 315 of Out of the Crisis by Dr. W. Edwards Deming.

the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.

Dr. Deming’s quote from the introduction to the Team Handbook

I think, in looking at the total of Deming’s work, that the point he is trying to make is that looking to blame people is not a good strategy for improvement. The impact due solely to a person’s direct action (not including their interaction with the system and with others) is small in comparison to that of the system within which they work. So, Deming (and I) want people to focus on improving the system; which will achieve better results than searching for what people did wrong.

What did Deming want people to take from his statements?

Did he want us just to accept bad results? No. He was not saying it is the system there is nothing we can do just accept that this is how things are. He wanted us to focus on the most effective improvement strategies. He saw huge waste directed at blaming people for bad results. He wanted to focus the improvement on the area with the greatest possibility for results.

Did he want to say people are just cogs in the machine? No. Read or listen to most anything he said at any significant length (a full chapter of this book, a full article he wrote on management, an hour from one of his videos) and it is hard to maintain such a thought.

photo of forest trail

Pinetree Trail, Frasers Hill, Malaysia by John Hunter

Did he believe that people were not important? No. He was trying to direct the focus of improvement efforts to look not at the fault with one person but to look at the system. I believe strongly he was correct. If you blame a person as the root cause of a problem, my first, second and third reactions are why? why? why? It is possible the person is to blame and there is no benefit to exploring system improvement instead of settling for blaming the person. But that is rare.

I have written about the importance of developing people to build the capability of the organization. My father wrote about it previously, “American organizations could compete much better at home and abroad if they would learn to tap the potential information inherent in all processes and the creativity inherent in all employees.”

I wrote about the importance of the ideas behind Deming’s quotes here, back in 2006 – Find the Root Cause Instead of the Person to Blame

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Building Adoption of Management Improvement Ideas in Your Organization

Continuation of How to Get a New Management Strategy, Tool or Concept Adopted

Target something that actually provides a good story. It often helps if there have been failures in attempts to solve a problem in the past. That makes the new success more impressive. Something that is relate-able to the audience you are trying to win over is also useful. Even if senior management cares about an issue, if the solution is so technical they are completely baffled, they will be happy with a solution but they won’t be as excited about expanding the strategy you are trying to encourage when they can understand the process that lead to a solution.

Favor efforts that will help you build organizational capacity to do more of what you want going forward (adopt lean thinking, use design of experiments…). Some of this is about building expertise in the organization. It is also about building your circle of influence. Growing your ability to influence how the organization grows will help you encourage the improvements you believe in.

It is very helpful to show connections between individual efforts. Often you build using various tools: in several instances using PDSA cycle to guide improvement, in others mistake-proofing to cement improvement, in another adopting one piece flow to make problems visible and encourage improvement, in another assuring the respect for people to build the right culture for improvement, and in another using an understanding of variation to make evidence based decision rather than jumping to faulty conclusions with limited information. These management tools, concepts, methods and ideas any many more, are used together for a reason. They support each other. So it is very helpful if you tie them together. As you start adding new tools, ideas and concepts to the management system show how they support each other. Individual tools can help. But the gains they offer are minor compared to the gains possible with a systemic change of management.

Another good strategy is picking the right people to involve in an effort. If you are trying to gain support, find those people in the organization that set the tone that others follow (which are not merely those with organizational power due to their job title). It is nice if you can find such people that have generally positive outlooks and like new challenges (this is often the case). If the culture is very toxic you may well have some who are likely to try and discourage hope in others (often because they have been disappointed so many times themselves they have finally decided not to be disappointed again). Often (though not always) you can win these people over.
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Circle of Influence

In, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey discusses the circle of control, circle of influence and circle of concern. This provides a good framework from which to view issues as you look for improvement strategies.

Within your circle of control you have much more autonomy and have less need to win others over to your plan. However, in practice, even here, you benefit from winning over those who are involved (for example you are their boss).

Our circle of concern covers those things we worry about. Often, we believe because we worry we should find solutions. Problems that fall into this category (but outside our circle of influence) however often prove difficult to tackle. And often people don’t understand why they get frustrated in this case. You can save your energy for more productive activities by seeing some things are outside your influence and avoid wasting your energy on them.

A problem with this, I see in practice however, is that if you are creative many things that people think are beyond their influence are not. With some imagination you can find ways to have influence. Good ideas are powerful. And often that is all that is needed for influence is offering a good idea.

Understanding to what extent an issue is within your control or influence can help a great deal in determining good strategies. Where you have a good chance to influence the process you can focus on strategies that may require much more of your participation to be successfully adopted. As you have less influence such a strategy is likely a poor one.

You should remember, that there is a temporal component to your circle of influence. On some current issue, I may have a very low chance of success for getting the organization to adopt an improvement I think is best. But certain actions can build the understanding that will allow me later to have more influence. This can even be completely separate from how people normally think of circle of influence. By building an organization that moves toward data based decision making and therefore reduces HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) decision making I increase my ability to influence decision making in the future.

Long term thinking is a very powerful, and much under-practiced, strategy. Your influence within an organization is limited today but has great potential to expand, if you act wisely.

Thinking about the extent a current issue falls within your sphere of influence is important it determining the best strategies. But the most valuable insight is to understand how import your sphere of influence is. It determines what strategies you can pursue. And building your sphere of influence should be part of your decision making process.

By taking the long view you can put yourself in good positions to have influence on decisions. There are many ways to do this. My preferred method is fairly boring. Prove yourself to be valuable and you will gain influence. Help people solve their problems. They will be inclined to listen to your ideas. Provide people useful management tools and help them apply them successfully. Help get people, that you know are good, opportunities to succeed. Often this gains you two allies (the person you helped gain the opportunity for and the person that was looking for someone to step in). Work hard and deliver what is important. It isn’t some secret sauce for quick success but if you make those around you successful you grow your circle of influence.

Related: How to ImproveHelping Employees ImproveOperational ExcellenceManagement Advice FailuresManagement Improvement

Transformation and Redesign

Here is an excellent article from 1999: Transformation and Redesign at the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) (pdf link) by March Laree Jacques

This article describes an organizational transformation effort undertaken at the White House Communications Agency. It shares the Agency’s efforts through the period of 1992-1998, beginning with a Deming-based approach to continuous quality improvement through implementation of a total organizational redesign using systems thinking precepts. It describes the
obstacles to implementing quality concepts in a high visibility, high security organization and examines the influence of Agency’s organizational culture on quality performance and improvement. The discussion examines the applicability of several broadly accepted quality concepts to the “ultimate command-and-control” organization.

The article is informative and interesting, enjoy. A couple years after this article I I went to work for Gerald Suarez at the White House Military Office (WHMO). WHCA is one of seven operational units of WHMO, others include: Air Force One, Camp David and the White House Medical Unit.

See more management improvement articles including in the Curious Cat Management Improvement Library.

Related: articles and podcasts by Russel AckoffDeming on ManagementDeming related blog postsPublic Sector Continuous Improvement Site