Tag Archives: quote

Most Popular Management and Leadership Quotes on Our Site in 2016

These were the most popular quotes on the Curious Cat Management and Leadership Quotes web site in 2016 (based on page views). Follow the link on the quote text for the source and more information on the quote.

  1. Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.Taiichi Ohno
  2. Performance appraisal is that occasion when once a year you find out who claims sovereignty over you.Peter Block
  3. Don’t look with your eyes, look with your feet. Don’t think with you head, think with your hands.Taiichi Ohno
  4. The answer to the question managers so often ask of behavioral scientists “How do you motivate people?” is, “You don’t.”Douglas McGregor
  5. People who can’t understand numbers are useless. The gemba where numbers are not visible is also bad. However, people who only look at the numbers are the worst of all.Taiichi Ohno
  6. quote image with photo of Dr. Deming - A bad system will beat a good person every time.
  7. Real benefits come when managers begin to understand the profound difference between “cost cutting” and “eliminating the causes of costs.”Brian Joiner
  8. Standards should not be forced down from above but rather set by the production workers themselves.Taiichi Ohno
  9. A bad system will beat a good person every time.W. Edwards Deming
  10. A leader is a coach, not a judge.W. Edwards Deming
  11. Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.Sheryl Sandberg*
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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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Most Popular Management and Leadership Quotes on Our Site in 2015

These were the most popular quotes on the Curious Cat Management and Leadership Quotes web site in 2015 (based on page views). Follow the link on the quote text for the source and more information on the quote.

  1. Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.Taiichi Ohno
  2. Managers who don’t know how to measure what they want settle for wanting what they can measure.Russell Ackoff
  3. Don’t look with your eyes, look with your feet. Don’t think with you head, think with your hands.Taiichi Ohno
  4. The answer to the question managers so often ask of behavioral scientists “How do you motivate people?” is, “You don’t.”Douglas McGregor
  5. Performance appraisal is that occasion when once a year you find out who claims sovereignty over you.Peter Block
  6. A bad system will beat a good person every time.W. Edwards Deming
  7. People who can’t understand numbers are useless. The gemba where numbers are not visible is also bad. However, people who only look at the numbers are the worst of all.Taiichi Ohno
  8. We believe customer number one, employee number two, shareholder number three… Because you’ve take care of the customer, take care of the employees, shareholder will be taken care of.Jack Ma
  9. A leader is a coach, not a judge.W. Edwards Deming
  10. Real benefits come when managers begin to understand the profound difference between “cost cutting” and “eliminating the causes of costs.”Brian Joiner
  11. Standards should not be forced down from above but rather set by the production workers themselves.Taiichi Ohno
  12. A problem never exists in isolation; it is surrounded by other problems in space and time. The more of the context of a problem that a scientist can comprehend, the greater are his chances of finding a truly adequate solution.Russell Ackoff
  13. 95% of changes made by management today make no improvement.Peter Scholtes
  14. blame the process not the person. We need to ask, “how did the process allow this to happen?”Brian Joiner
  15. Good execution of performance appraisal is not the solution. More people are realizing that improving how performance appraisal are done is an attempt to do the wrong thing better. If you insist on doing the wrong thing, I suppose you might as well do it better but how about just not doing the wrong thing at all?John Hunter
  16. A system is more than the sum of its parts; it is an indivisible whole. It loses its essential properties when it is taken apart. The elements of a system may themselves be systems, and every system may be part of a larger system. – Russell Ackoff
  17. All Models Are Wrong But Some Are UsefulGeorge Box
  18. It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.W. Edwards Deming
  19. the aim of leadership should be to improve the performance of man and machine, to improve quality, to increase output, and simultaneously to bring pride of workmanship to people. Put in a negative way, the aim of leadership is not merely to find and record failures of men, but to remove the causes of failure: to help people to do a better job with less effort. – W. Edwards Deming
  20. There are three ways to get better figures… Improve the system… Distort the system… Distort the figuresBrian Joiner

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Wonderful advice and so poignant. But actually, if you read the whole poem, what we take from the quote isn’t what the poem was saying. Earlier in the poem it says

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same

view out windows of a temple

photo from a temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia by John Hunter

Robert Frost was poking fun at his friend who would obsess over what fork to take in the path as they walked when in reality the choice made no difference.

And “that has made all the difference” is poking fun at self justifications of our actions; congratulating ourselves for doing something not really worthy of accolades.

Still the top three lines do seem like insightful advice. Of course what is really needed is insight into when choosing the road less traveled is wise (or at least a sensible gamble) and when it is less traveled for very good reasons.

I do believe we far too easily slip into habits encouraged by the well worn path most people take. And therefore think balancing that tendency with at least considering the road less traveled more often is wise. But I actually like that when you read the full poem it really isn’t saying that.

Related: Chomphet Hike, Luang Prabang, LaosOlympic National Park PhotosThe Aim Should be the Best Life – Not Work v. Life BalanceMaking Better DecisionsRhinoceros Hornbills on Mount Santubong

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Interview of John Hunter by Jimena Calfa On Quality

Jimena Calfa interviewed me for her blog OnQuality as part of her Quality Interview Chain.

John Hunter with river and cloudy hills in the background

John Hunter, Yangshuo, China. See photos from my trip to China

What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and improve as a professional and/or as a person?

John: I don’t do anything consciously to achieve that. I think if we retain a thirst for knowledge and curiosity and have a desire to do a good job we will do what is necessary. I follow my passion to learn largely through the internet (blogs, webcasts, articles and podcasts). And I constantly question and experiment and adapt based on what I learn.

Which is your favorite quality quote?

John: There are so many – I don’t have a favorite, more like 50 favorites. But here are four:

“The old-fashioned idea of a good manager is one who is supposed to know all the answers, can solve every problem himself, and can give appropriate orders to his subordinates to carry out his plans… A good modern manager is like a good coach who leads and encourages his team in never-ending quality improvement” by George Box – When Murphy Speaks, Listen

Read the whole interview on OnQuality.

Related: Leadership While Viewing the Organization as a System (interview with Bill Fox)Software Process and Measurement Podcast With John Hunter (interview by Tom Cagley) – Management Improvement Leader John Hunter (interview by Tim McMahon)Lean Blog interview with Mark Graban: Podcast #174 – John Hunter, Management Matters

Poor Results Should be Addressed by Improving the System Not Blaming Individuals

My response to: Where is the Deming study that asserts most errors are in organization or process?

There is no such study, it is based on Dr. Deming’s experience as I discuss in 94% Belongs to the System (improve the system, don’t blame the people in 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 W. Edwards Deming

Getting hung up on the figure 94% is a mistake. His point was that you improve performance going forward by improving the system not blaming people. His two books provide background and the thought process involved behind why we are failing to manage better. Changing the people, while leaving the system in place, most often doesn’t help.

Variation does confuse people sometimes. The same mistake as say yelling at someone any time results are really bad. Most likely results will get better. Not because yelling helps but essentially regression to the mean. So you can move people out after really bad results and things get better. Of course, most of the time they would have gotten better if you left the people there (and did nothing or yelled).

Even when the person did totally mess up, why did the system allow that? Why did the system put that person in a place where they were not qualified? Answering and fixing these types of questions would help improve the system and the results going forward.

Yes, occasionally the answer might be that Joel was hired sensibly, managed and coached sensibly but he just became a complete jerk and won’t respond to coaching and this is only his fault. But normally that won’t be the case, even when the person seems nearly totally to blame (and that isn’t even a very common situation) normally there are obvious weaknesses in the system that put them in the place to fail and will likely put anyone else in the same place in the future.

Related: Firing Workers Isn’t Fixing ProblemsPeople: Team Members or CostsCreate a System That Lets People Take Pride in Their WorkFind the Root Cause Instead of the Person to Blame

You are a Fool if You Do What I Say

Guest post from Mark Graban

There’s an interesting quote from Taiichi Ohno in “Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management,” which I was re-reading today…

“You are a fool if you do what I say. You are a greater fool if you don’t do as I say. You should think for yourself and come up with better ideas than mine.”

The best examples of Lean in healthcare are examples where leaders and organizations learned, but did not blindly copy. Sami Bahri DDS (the “lean dentist”) read Deming, Shingo, Ohno, etc. and had to figure this out himself, rather than copying some other dentist.

ThedaCare is the first to say “don’t directly copy what we do.”

We can learn from others, run our own experiments to see what works, and keep improving to make it better than even Ohno or Shingo would have imagined.

Related: Two resources, largely untapped in American organizations, are potential information and employee creativityRespect People by Creating a Climate for Joy in Work

Experience Teaches Nothing Without Theory

“Experience teaches nothing. In fact there is no experience to record without theory… Without theory there is no learning… And that is their downfall. People copy examples and then they wonder what is the trouble. They look at examples and without theory they learn nothing.”

W. Edwards Deming in The Deming of America

Our brains are good at creating theories, from our experiences, so that our brain can learn. However when this is done only subconsciously we can be led astray. And in complex situations where it is not easy to see the causal relationships (managing human systems for example) it easier for us to be led astray when we are not consciously thinking about the theory driving our thoughts and decisions.

When we are learning (as little kids) we don’t understand that are brain is creating theories to help us learn. But our brain is creating theories and testing them out. What happens when we push the spoon off our high chair? Lets try it 500 times and see. After repeated experiments, we learn a good deal about how gravity will affect objects no matter where you are, no matter if you are in a highchair, or a stroller or a slide or your mother’s lap… We also learn about how people will react (psychology).

Our brains are great at creating theories and testing them even without us understanding that is what is going on. But managers need to push past this subconscious learning to understand the theories behind their actions or they will spend lots of time on activities that are wasteful, similar to the bird in this webcast:

Worm charming is a behavior birds use to encourage worms to go to the surface so the birds can then eat them. The methods used vary, however tapping earth with feet to generate vibrations is widespread. One theory for why the worms go to the surface is the vibrations are similar to those produced by digging moles, which prey on earthworms.

This bird doesn’t understand the theory behind their instinct. Therefore the bird can’t understand that a worm is not likely to burst through the pavement. Too often managers are applying behaviors without understanding the theory (or without evidence showing that the practice based on the theory is effective – failing to practice evidence based management). And so the managers don’t understand that the behavior will not be successful given the conditions they find themselves in.

Related: We are Being Ruined by the Best Efforts of People Who are Doing the Wrong ThingHow We Know What We KnowThe Illusion of Knowledge

Leadership and Management

I don’t think the attempts to separate leadership and management are useful. I read plenty of things that are variations on Peter Drucker’s:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

A manager that is not concerned about doing the right things is a lousy manager. And a leader that doesn’t care about doing things right is a lousy leader.

Another theme of this contrasting type quote says some version of:

“Managers care about efficiency and leaders care about effectiveness”

A manager who doesn’t strive to be effective is also a lousy manager. It is also odd to suppose the detached leader (the type that lets the manager deal with the mundane while they dream), one that doesn’t concern themselves with customer focus, value chains, going to the gemba really has a clue about effectiveness. The idea seems mainly to view a manager is a cog looking at some tiny process and making it efficient without understanding the organization as a system or value chains or customer focus.

I think, the main problem is all of the attempts to contrast leaders and managers. Much of the time people are saying managers don’t do things they certainly should be doing.

The desire to express how leadership traits can be used by those without organizational authority are useful. Discussion of how certain traits can be seen as within the domain of leadership I suppose may be useful (it can help our minds see how various traits and practices combine to help get results – and we can categorize these under “leadership”).

Leaders that are primarily “big thinkers” and motivators without a clue about how to actually do the things they advocate (the model of “managers” deal with the implementation with blinders to the system while “leaders” are “above the fray”) is not useful in my opinion. It does note a somewhat common practice (in organizations today) but not one that is wise. Separating leadership from the gemba is not wise. Separating leadership from a deep understanding of customers is not wise. Separating leadership from how the organization actually works is not wise.

Plenty of others seem to disagree with my opinion though, there are many articles, blog posts, podcasts, talks… on separating leadership from management.

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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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The Art of Discovery

Quality and The Art of Discovery by Professor George Box (1990):


Quotes by George Box in the video:

“I think of statistical methods as the use of science to make sense of numbers”

“The scientific method is how we increase the rate at which we find things out.”

“I think the quality revolution is nothing more, or less, than the dramatic expansion of the of scientific problem solving using informed observation and directed experimentation to find out more about the process, the product and the customer.”

“It really amounts to this, if you know more about what it is you are doing then you can do it better and you can do it cheaper.”

“We are talking about involving the whole workforce in the use of the scientific method and retraining our engineers and scientists in a more efficient way to run experiments.”

“Tapping into resources:

  1. Every operating system generates information that can be used to improve it.
  2. Everyone has creativity.
  3. Designed experiments can greatly increase the efficiency of experimentation.

An informed observer and directed experimentation are necessary for the scientific method to be applied. He notes that the control chart is used to notify an informed observer to explain what is special about the conditions when a result falls outside the control limits. When the chart indicates a special cause is likely present (something not part of the normal system) an informed observer should think about what special cause could lead to the result that was measured. And it is important this is done quickly as the ability of the knowledgable observer to determine what is special is much greater the closer in time to the result was created.

The video was posted by Wiley (with the permission of George’s family), Wiley is the publisher of George’s recent autobiography, An Accidental Statistician: The Life and Memories of George E. P. Box, and many of his other books.

Related: Two resources, largely untapped in American organizations, are potential information and employee creativityStatistics for Experimenters (book on directed experimentation by Box, Hunter and Hunter)Highlights from 2009 George Box SpeechIntroductory Videos on Using Design of Experiments to Improve Results (with Stu Hunter)

George Box

I would most likely not exist if it were not for George Box. My father took a course from George while my father was a student at Princeton. George agreed to start the Statistics Department at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and my father followed him to Madison, to be the first PhD student. Dad graduated, and the next year was a professor there, where he and George remained for the rest of their careers.

George died today, he was born in 1919. He recently completed An Accidental Statistician: The Life and Memories of George E. P. Box which is an excellent book that captures his great ability to tell stories. It is a wonderful read for anyone interested in statistics and management improvement or just great stories of an interesting life.

photo of George EP Box

George Box by Brent Nicastro.

George Box was a fantastic statistician. I am not the person to judge, but from what I have read one of the handful of most important applied statisticians of the last 100 years. His contributions are enormous. Several well know statistical methods are known by his name, including:

George was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974 and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1979. He also served as president of the American Statistics Association in 1978. George is also an honorary member of ASQ.

George was a very kind, caring and fun person. He was a gifted storyteller and writer. He had the ability to present ideas so they were easy to comprehend and appreciate. While his writing was great, seeing him in person added so much more. Growing up I was able to enjoy his stories often, at our house or his. The last time I was in Madison, my brother and I visited with him and again listened to his marvelous stories about Carl Pearson, Ronald Fisher and so much more. He was one those special people that made you very happy whenever you were near him.

George Box, Stuart Hunter and Bill Hunter (my father) wrote what has become a classic text for experimenters in scientific and business circles, Statistics for Experimenters. I am biased but I think this is acknowledged as one of (if not the) most important books on design of experiments.

George also wrote other classic books: Time series analysis: Forecasting and control (1979, with Gwilym Jenkins) and Bayesian inference in statistical analysis. (1973, with George C. Tiao).

George Box and Bill Hunter co-founded the Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984. The Center develops, advances and communicates quality improvement methods and ideas.

The Box Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Industrial Statistics recognizes development and the application of statistical methods in European business and industry in his honor.

All models are wrong but some are useful” is likely his most famous quote. More quotes By George Box

A few selected articles and reports by George Box

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Customers

Customer focus is critical to succeed with management improvement efforts. Few argue with that point, though my experience as a customer provides plenty of examples of poor systems performance on providing customer value (usability, managing the value stream well, etc.).

At times people get into discussion about what counts as a customer. Are customers only those who pay you money for a product or service? What about internal customers? What about users that don’t pay you, but use your product (bought from an intermediary)? What about users that use a service you provide for free (in order to make money in another way, perhaps advertising)? What about “internal customers” those inside your organization without any payment involved in the process?

I find it perfectly fine to think of all these as customers of slightly different flavors. What is important is providing what each needs. Calling those that actually use what you create users is fine, but I think it often just confuses people rather than adding clarity, but if it works in your organization fine.

To me the most important customer focus is on the end users: those that derive value from what your organization provides. If there is confusion between various customer groups it may be helpful to use terms like end user, but really using the term customer for a wide range or customers is fine (and modification such as internal customer to provide some clarity).

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Respect for Everyone

TL;DR – The two pillars of the Toyota Way are: respect for people and continuous improvement.

One of the big reasons my career followed the path it did (into management improvement) was due to the impact of respect for people. My father was a professor (in statistics, engineering and business) and consulted with organizations to help them achieve better results. To achieve results he took advantage of the gains possible when using statistical tools to manage with respect for people.

Managing Our Way to Economic Success: Two Untapped Resources, 1986: “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.”

After he died, for years, people would talk to me about the difference he made in their lives (at conferences mainly). Other than those with PhD’s in statistics (of which there were many, but a very small number compared to all the others) the thing that made a difference was respect for people. Those who chose to talk to me are obviously a self selected group. But of those, the people that made the largest impact on me basically said he talked to me as though everything I said mattered. He didn’t talk down to me. He helped me see how I could help improve: the organization and my own skills and abilities.

This didn’t happen 5 times or 10 times of 20 times, it happened many more times than that. Year after year of this helped push me to stick with management improvement. These served as a great incentive to perserve as I ran into the typical difficulties actually improving management systems.

The senior executives he talked to were not very impressed that he spoke to them with respect. So none mentioned that with awe, but a few did notice that he was able to connect with everyone – the senior executives, nurses, people on the factory floor, secretaries, salespeople, front line staff, engineers, janitors, middle managers, doctors, union leaders. The senior executives were more likely to be impressed by the success and his technical ability and knowledge as well as communication skill. Doctors, statisticians and engineers were more impressed with knowledge, technical skill, skill as a teacher and advice.

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Ackoff: Corporations Are Not Led By Those Seeking to Maximize Shareholder Value

If I had to limit myself to a handful of management experts, Russel Ackoff would definitely be in that group. Thankfully there is no such limit. Ackoff once again provides great insight with great wit in the above clip.

A corporation says that its principle value is maximizing shareholder value. That’s non-sense. If that were the case executives wouldn’t fly around on private jets and have Philippine mahogany lined offices and the rest of it. The principle function to those executives is to provide those executives with the quality of work life that they like. And profit is merely a means which guarantees their ability to do it.

If we are going to talk about values, we got to talk about what the values are in action, not in proclamation.

Related: Ackoff, Idealized Design and Bell LabsDr. Russell Ackoff Webcast on Systems ThinkingA Theory of a System for Educators and ManagersCEOs Plundering Corporate Coffers

Leading Improvement and Enjoying the Rewards

The better job you do of managing the easier your job becomes.

As a manager your primary responsibility is to improve the system: both the systems within your sphere of control and those outside of it. The more effectively you do so, the less firefighting you have to do. The less firefighting the less hectic and chaotic your days are. And the more time you have to focus on improving the system.

The better you are at leveraging your efforts, the greater your impact, and more quickly your job gets easier. Most effective leveraging involves improving the system. Improvement to the system continue to deliver benefits continuously.

A specific form improving the system is coaching people so they are able to be more effective at improving the system themselves. One valuable role you can play is to help avoid the existing traps that prevent improvements. Early in a transformation to a continual improvement culture there are significant barriers to improvements. Those not only prevent the system from improving rapidly they can easily derail the motivation people have to improve. It is hard to maintain a desire to improve if every effort to do so feels like a long slog through quicksand.

As you create a system where people have the knowledge, drive and freedom to improve you get to enjoy continual improvement without any direct action by you. As this happens you are able to spend more time thinking and learning and less time reacting. That time allows you to find key leverage points to continue the progress on improving the management system.

Related: Engage in Improving the Management SystemKeys to the Effective Use of the PDSA Improvement CycleGood Process Improvement Practices

Management Blog Posts From November 2006

I have selected a few great posts from the Curious Cat Management Blog back in November 2006.

  • What Could we do Better? – There are many important ideas to improve management. This is one of the most important tips to aid improvement that I know of: it is easy to do, brings huge benefits and most organizations fail to do it. Ask your customers: “What one thing could we do to improve?”
  • Ackoff’s F-laws: Common Sins of Management presents 13 common sins of management, such as: Managers who don’t know how to measure what they want settle for wanting what they can measure
  • Common Cause Variation – “Every system has variation. Common cause variation is the variation due to the current system. Dr. Deming increased his estimate of variation due to the system (common cause variation) to 97% (earlier in his life he cited figures as low as 80%). Special cause variation is that due to some special (not part of the system) cause.”
  • Sub-Optimize by Interrupting Knowledge Workers – “The general consensus is that the loss from interrupting [software] developers is much greater than for interrupting most other forms of work and therefor a great deal of effort is placed on improving the system to allow developers to focus.”
  • Amazon Innovation – “I believe Amazon uses technology very well. They have done many innovative things. They have been less successful at turning their technology into big profits. But I continue to believe they have a good shot at doing so going forward (and their core business is doing very well I think).” [Amazon announced great sales numbers today, continuing their long term tread. They are also continuing to be very slow to grow profits (CEO, Jeff Bezos remains willing to challenge common practices – such as his willingness to build business and sacrifice current profits)].

The Customer is the Purpose of Our Work

photo of poster with Gandhi quote

Quote from Gandhi on customer focus at the Chakra restaurant

A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption in our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider in our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us an opportunity to do so.

Mahatma Gandhi

A snapped this photo at the Chakra restaurant in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. Ironically the food is great but the service isn’t what I would like. But I will gladly go back many times. I’d like a bit more attentive service but I love the food and that is more important to me.

I think service at restaurants is one of the tricker things to do well: different customers have different desires. I basically want great food, my water to be filled up and my bill to be given to me before I finish so I don’t have to wait around to pay. But lots of people will find it annoying to get a bill early, feeling that they are being rushed out the door.

Still there is a certain standard I share with lots of people for things like not having to wait around for a long time to get the bill after I am done. Getting water filled up as needed, pleasant decor, etc..

In Johor Bahru there are a fair number of Japanese restaurants (the food is very good and the service is also good). Several of these restaurants have buzzers on your table to press when you want service. I love Indian food. I must say I like the Japanese service (it did take me a bit to warm up the buzzer idea – it is very practical). It do believe some of the things I would see as weaknesses in customer service are partially a cultural difference (it is interesting to see the different customer service experiences at the different restaurants here).

The quote from Gandhi is great. “He is the purpose of it” is something we would all benefit from taking to heart. To do so, I think we are wise look at how we can better meet customer desires every day.

Related: Delighting Customersquotes by Mahatma GandhiPaying New Employees to Quit

Keys to the Effective Use of the PDSA Improvement Cycle

The PDSA improvement cycle was created by Walter Shewhart where Dr. Deming learned about it. An improvement process is now part of many management improvement methods (A3 for lean manufacturing, DMAIC for six sigma and many other modifications). They are fairly similar in many ways. The PDSA cycle (Plan, Do, Study, Act) has a few key pieces that are either absent in most others processes of greatly de-emphasized which is why I prefer it (A3 is my second favorite).

The PDSA cycle is a learning cycle based on experiments. When using the PDSA cycle prediction of the results are important. This is important for several reasons but most notably due to an understanding of the theory of knowledge. We will learn much more if we write down our prediction. Otherwise we often just think (after the fact); yeah that is pretty much what I expected (even if it wasn’t). Also we often fail to think specifically enough at the start to even have a prediction. Forcing yourself to make a prediction gets you to think more carefully up front and can help you set better experiments.

An organization using PDSA well will turn the PDSA cycle several times on any topic and do so quickly. In a 3 month period turning it 5 times might be good. Often those organizations that struggle will only turn it once (if they are lucky and even reach the study stage). The biggest reason for effective PDSA cycles taking a bit longer is wanting more data than 2 weeks provides. Still it is better to turn it several times will less data – allowing yourself to learn and adjust than taking one long turn.

The plan stage may well take 80% (or even more) of the effort on the first turn of the PDSA cycle in a new series. The Do stage may well take 80% of of the time – it usually doesn’t take much effort (to just collect a bit of extra data) but it may take time for that data to be ready to collect. In the 2nd, 3rd… turns of the PDSA cycle the Plan stage often takes very little time. Basically you are just adjusting a bit from the first time and then moving forward to gather more data. Occasionally you may learn you missed some very important ideas up front; then the plan stage may again take some time (normally if you radically change your plans).

Remember to think of Do as doing-the-experiment. If you are “doing” a bunch of work (not running an experiment and collecting data) that probably isn’t “do” in the PDSA sense.

Study should not take much time. The plan should have already have laid out what data is important and an expectation of what results will be achieved and provide a good idea on next steps. Only if you are surprised (or in the not very common case that you really have no idea what should come next until you experiment) will the study phase take long.

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Agile Story Point Estimation

In agile software development tasks are documented as user stories. Then the level of effort for those stores can be estimated by assigning each story points. The velocity that can be produced in a period (called a sprint, for us 2 weeks) can be estimated. Thus you can predict what can be delivered in the next sprint (which can help business managers make priority decisions).

I have found estimation to be worthwhile. In doing so, we accept there is a great amount of variation but points give a hint to scale. They can help prioritize (if you have 5 things you want but 1 is much harder you may well drop that to the bottom). I have always accepted a great amount of variation in the velocity, worry about the variation I don’t find worthwhile. I do think trying to act as though the velocity is precise can lead to problems. At the same time having a measure of velocity, even accepting understanding variation was present, was useful.

Over time reducing variation (probably largely through better estimation and perhaps a few better tools, reduced technical debt, better documentation, testing…) is helpful and laudable. We made improvement but still lots of variation existed. The biggest help in reducing the measured velocity was breaking down large stories to more manageable sizes. The challenge of estimating user stories, I suspect, has some fairly high variation (even with good system improvements that can help reduce variation).

Large stories just can hide huge variation in what is really required once getting into implementing it.

The way we did estimation (discussing in a sprint planning meeting) did take some time (but not a huge amount). It was agreed by those involved that the time spent was worthwhile. Sometimes we did slip and spend too much time on this, that was an area we had to pay attention to. The discussions were educational and helped provide guidance on how to approach the story. The value of discussions around estimations was probably the biggest surprise I have had in implementing any agile ideas. The value of those discussion was much higher than I imagined (I basically anticipated them just as non-value added time to get the result of an estimate, but they were a source of learning and consensus building).

Related: Assigning Story Points to Bug FixesMistake Proofing the Deployment of Software CodeChecklists in Software Development

These thoughts were prompted by: Story Points Considered Harmful – Or why the future of estimation is really in our past…

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