Tag Archives: Systems thinking

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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Quality Processes in Unexpected Places

This month Paul Borawski asked ASQ’s Influential Voices to explore the use of quality tools in unexpected places.

The most surprising example of this practice that I recall is the Madison, Wisconsin police department surveying those they arrested to get customer feedback. It is obvious that such “customers” are going to be biased. Still the police department was able to get actionable information by seeking the voice of the customer.

photo of a red berry and leaves

Unrelated photo from Singapore Botanical Garden by John Hunter.

Certain of the police department’s aims are not going to match well with those they arrest (most obviously those arrested wish the police department didn’t arrest them). The police department sought the voice of the customer from all those they interacted with (which included those they arrested, but also included those reporting crimes, victims, relatives of those they arrested etc.).

The aim of the police department is not to arrest people. Doing so is necessary but doing so is most similar in the management context to catching an error to remove that bad result. It is better to improve processes so bad results are avoided. How the police interact with the public can improve the process to help steer people’s actions away from those that will require arrests.

The interaction police officers have with the public is a critical gemba for meeting the police department’s aim. Reducing crime and encouraging a peaceful society is aided by knowing the conditions of that gemba and knowing how attempts to improve are being felt at the gemba.

All customer feedback includes bias and personal preferences and potentially desires that are contrary to the aims for the organization (wanting services for free, for example). Understanding this and how important understanding customer/user feedback on the gemba is, it really shouldn’t be surprising that the police would want that data. But I think it may well be that process thinking, evidence based management and such ideas are still not widely practiced as so the Madison police department’s actions are still surprising to many.

Quality Leadership: The First Step Towards Quality Policing by David Couper and Sabine Lobitz

Our business is policing, our customers are the citizens within our jurisdictions, and our product is police service (everything from crime fighting and conflict management to safety and prevention programs.)

If we are to cure this we must start to pay attention to the new ideas and trends in the workplace mentioned earlier that are helping America’s businesses; a commitment to people, how people are treated — employees as well as citizens, the development of a people-oriented workplace, and leadership can and does make a difference.

If we change the way in which we lead the men and women in our police organizations, we can achieve quality in policing. However, wanting to change and changing are worlds apart. The road to change is littered by good intentions and short-term efforts.

This article, from 1987, illustrates the respect for people principle was alive and being practiced 25 years ago; most organizations need to do a great deal more work on applying practices that show respect for people.

Related: Quality Improvement and Government: Ten Hard Lessons From the Madison Experience by David C. Couper, Chief of Police, City of Madison, Wisconsin – SWAT Raids, Failure to Apply System Thinking in Law EnforcementMeasuring What Matters: Developing Measures of What the Police DoThe Public Sector and W. Edwards DemingDoing More with Less in the Public Sector – A Progress Report from Madison, Wisconsin

Software Process and Measurement Podcast With John Hunter

In my podcast with Tom Cagley, Software Process and Measurement Cast: John Hunter on Management Matters, as you might expect there was a bit of a focus on software development and agile software development as related to the ideas I expressed in Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

photo of John Hunter at the Borobudur Temple

John Hunter at the Borobudur Buddhist Temple in Indonesia.


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Podcast Discussion on Management Matters

I continue to record podcasts as I promote my new book – Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability. This the second part, of 2, of my podcast with Joe Dager, Business 901: Management Matters to a Curious Cat. The first part featured a discussion of 2 new deadly diseases facing companies.

image of the cover of Managmenet Matters by John Hunter

Management Matters by John Hunter

Listen to this podcast.

Links to more information on some of the topics I mention in the podcast:

More podcasts: Process Excellence Network Podcast with John HunterBusiness 901 Podcast with John Hunter: Deming’s Management Ideas Today (2012)Leanpub Podcast on Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability

Indirect Improvement

Often the improvements that have the largest impact are focused on improving the effectiveness of thought and decision making. Improving the critical thinking in an organization has huge benefits over the long term.

My strategy along the lines of improving critical thinking is not to make that the focus of some new effort. Instead that ability to reason more effectively will be an outcome of things such as: PDSA projects (where people learn that theories must be tested, “solutions” often fail if you bother to look at the results…), understanding variation (using control charts, reading a bit of material on: variation, using data effectively, correlation isn’t causation etc.), using evidenced based management (don’t make decision based on the authority of the person speaking but on the merit that are spoken).

These things often take time. And they support each other. As people start to understand variation the silly discussion of what special causes created the result that is within the expected outcomes for the existing process are eliminated. As people learn what conclusions can, and can’t, be drawn from data the discussions change. The improvements from the process of making decisions is huge.

As people develop a culture of evidence based management if HiPPOs try to push through decision based on authority (based on Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) without supporting evidence those attempts are seen for what they are. This presents a choice where the organization either discourages those starting to practice evidence based decision making (reverting to old school authority based decision making) or the culture strengthens that practice and HiPPO decision making decreases.

Building the critical thinking practices in the organization creates an environment that supports the principles and practices of management improvement. The way to build those critical thinking skills is through the use of quality tools and practices with reminders on principles as projects are being done (so until understanding variation is universal, continually pointing out that general principle with the specific data in the current project).

The gains made through the direct application of the tools and practices are wonderful. But the indirect benefit of the improvement in critical thinking is larger.

Related: Dan’t Can’t LieGrowing the Application of Management Improvement Ideas in Your OrganizationBuild Systems That Allow Quick Action – Don’t Just Try and Run FasterBad Decisions Flow From Failing to Understand Data and Failing to Measure Results of Changes

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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Using Incentives to Guide Social System Improvements

When confronted with the challenge of managing a social system (or market) I like to find ways to use a few simple rules that will guide the system to find improvements. I favor allowing participants in complex social system to determine how to adapt. So I support, for example, a carbon taxes where the market can decide where it is most effective to invest to reduce carbon use (both to reduce our depletion of the resource and to reduce pollution leading to climate change).

I like to try and keep prescription rules as limited as possible and instead set simple rules that will allow people to make choices. These rules will often allow for people to judge when they need to temper the extremes (in management examples) and in economic situations they often can have costs that escalate as the system is strained (so low pricing if the road is currently not heavily used and increasing the cost to users as congestion increases). The more prescriptive the rules the less ability people have to find creative solutions.

Traffic congestion is a perennial problem with high very costs to society. I very much like congestion pricing. You set a rule that puts increasing costs on those creating an overload on the system (which has costly negative externalities). Then allow people to figure out how to adapt.

The video also provides a very good example of why leadership is important. In Stockholm people were against congestion pricing (70% to 30%). This isn’t surprising they see a new tax that only is a cost. They don’t understand that the system performance is going to improve – the cost will provide a benefit. Leadership is required to push forward when the benefits are not obvious to everyone. Once people saw that congestion was greatly decreased 70% supported congestion pricing.

Jonas Eliasson: “Don’t tell people how to adapt. Nudge them. If you do it correctly – they’ll embrace the change”

Related: The Case for Physically Separated Bike LanesUrban Planning in Northern VirginiaDisregard for People by FedEX and UPS – Systems thinking allowed the engineers to design a solution that wasn’t about enforcing the existing rules more but changing the system so that the causes of the most serious problems are eliminated. – Using Outcome Measures for Prison Management

Special Cause Signal Isn’t Proof A Special Cause Exists

One of my pet peeves is when people say that a point outside the control limits is a special cause. It is not. It is an indication that it likely a special cause exists, and that special cause thinking is the correct strategy to use to seek improvement. But that doesn’t mean there definitely was a special cause – it could be a false signal.

This post relies on an understand of control charts and common and special causes (review these links if you need some additional context).

Similarly, a result that doesn’t signal a special cause (inside the control limits without raising some other flag, say a run of continually increasing points) does not mean a special cause is not present.

The reason control charts are useful is to help us maximize our effectiveness. We are biased toward using special cause thinking when it is not the most effective approach. So the control chart is a good way to keep us focused on common cause thinking for improvement. It is also very useful in flagging when it is time to immediately start using special cause thinking (since timing is key to effective special cause thinking).

However, if there is result that is close to the control limit (but inside – so no special cause is indicated) and the person that works on the process everyday thinks, I noticed x (some special cause) earlier, they should not just ignore that. It very well could be a special cause that, because of other common cause variation, resulted in a data point that didn’t quite reach the special cause signal. Where the dot happened to land (just above or just below the control limit – does not determine if a special cause existed).

The signal is just to help us systemically make the best choice of common cause or special cause thinking. The signal does not define whether a special cause (an assignable cause) exists of not. The control chart tool helps guide us to use the correct type of improvement strategy (common cause or special cause). But it is just a signaling device, it isn’t some arbiter of whether a special cause actually exists.

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New Deadly Diseases

Management and the economy keep evolving. Many good things happen. In the last decade the best things are probably the increased deep adoption of lean thinking in many organization. and the adoption of lean and Deming methods in software development (agile software development, kanban and lean startup [which I do realize isn’t limited to software development]).

Sadly all the deadly diseases Dr. Deming described remain. And, as I said in 2007, I think 2 new diseases have become so widespread and so harmful they have earned their place alongside the 7 deadly diseases (which started as the 5 deadly diseases). The new deadly diseases are:

  • extremely excessive executive pay
  • systemic impediments to innovation

In my view these 2 diseases are more deadly to the overall economy than all but the broken USA health system. The systemic impediments to innovation are directly critical to small percentage (5%?) of organizations. But the huge costs of the blocks to innovation and the huge “taxes” (extorted by those using the current system to do the oposite of what it should be doing) are paid by everyone. The costs come from several areas: huge “taxes” on products (easily much greater than all the taxes that go to fund our governments), the huge waste companies have to go through due to the current system (legal fees, documentation, delayed introduction, cross border issues…) and the denial of the ability to use products and services that would improve our quality of life.

The problems with extremely excessive executive pay are well known. Today, few sensible people see the current executive pay packages as anything but the result of an extremely corrupt process. Though if their personal pocketbook is helped by justifying the current practices, some people find a way to make a case for it. But excluding those with an incentive to be blind, it is accepted as a critical problem.

More people understand the huge problems with our patent and copyright systems everyday, but the understanding is still quite limited. Originally copyright and patents were created to provide a government granted monopoly to a creator in order to reward that creator for contributing to the development of society. Copyrights and patents are government granted interventions in the free market. They are useful. They are wise policy.

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Creating a Quality Culture

This month Paul Borawski (CEO of ASQ) has asked the ASQ Influential Voices to share their thoughts on the Feelings and Quality Culture.

I don’t think creating a culture of continual management improvement is complex but it takes more commitment than most organizations seem to have. To build a culture that supports customer focused continuous improvement a management system needs to reinforce consistent behavior over the long term.

There is far too much saying certain things (customers are valued, people are our most important assets, etc.) but not backing those claims up with management systems that would be needed to operationalize those beliefs. Failing to do this just results in surface changes that have no depth or commitment and will shift with the winds (no culture change).

It is very difficult to create a culture that supports customer focused continuous improvement that doesn’t understand the failings of: extrinsic motivation and arbitrary numerical goals.

An understanding of variation and how to properly use data to aid improvement is also critical (otherwise huge amount of waste are generated on all sorts of fruitless efforts to explain common cause variation leaving far to little time to actually for on quality). An appreciation of the long term is necessary, which means reducing time spent on trivially urgent matters so focus can be given to important but not urgent matters.

And a respect for people is needed: a real respect, not just claims – which nearly every organization makes. The huge egos of most USA senior executives result in them taking huge amounts from the company to such an extent that they are inherently dis-respectful. The hero culture they profess with their pay package makes it extremely difficult for anyone to take them seriously when they claim to care about a culture that values the stakeholders of the organization.

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Customer Focus by Everyone

There are many critical elements to a management system. One that is fundamental, yet still poorly executed far too often, is creating a system where all staff can focus on enhancing value to the customer every day.

If your enterprise does not focus on this, it should. If you think your enterprise does, my first, second and third suggestions are to think more critically about whether it really does. If the answer is yes, then you are lucky to work in such an organization.

Saying that customers are valued is easy. Actually designing systems to focus on providing value and continually improving to provide value more effectively is not. It really shouldn’t be obvious to a customer in 5 minutes of interacting with your organization that it is obvious customers are not very important.

It is very difficult to create a system with customer focus by all staff without several basic supports in place. Respect for people needs to be practiced – not just mentioned. If there isn’t time to work on improvements to the system, often meaning you have the equivalent of sickness management instead of a “health care system” that is a shame. The reality of most organizations seems to be to make it very annoying for customers to even bring an issue they are having to the attention of the organization and even then the gaol is to use the absolute least amount of effort for the band-aid that can be tolerated.

Staff have to be given authority to act in the interest of customers. But this can lead to chaos if a good system isn’t in place to steer this process. And without processes in place to capture (systemically) needed improvements there will be huge waste.

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My New Book: Management Matters

Image of the book cover of Management Matters by John Hunter

Management Matters by John Hunter is now available.

I have a new book in progress: Management Matters. It is now available in “pre-release format” via leanpub. The idea I am experimenting with (supported by leanpub) is pre-publishing the book online. The ebook is available for purchase now, and comes with free access to the updates.

My plan is to continue working on the book for the next few months and have it “release ready” by October, 2012. One of the advantages of this method is that I can incorporate ideas based on feedback from the early readers of the book.

There are several other interesting aspects to publishing in this way. Leanpub allows a suggested retail price, and a minimum price. So I can set a suggested price and a minimum price and the purchaser gets to decide what price to pay (they can even pay over suggested retail price – which does happen). The leanpub model provides nearly all the revenue to the author (unlike traditional models) – the author gets 90% of the price paid, less 50 cents per book (so $8.50 of a $10 purchase).

They provide the book in pdf, mobi (Kindle) and epub (iPad, Nook, etc.) formats. And the books do not have any Digital Rights Management (DRM) entanglements.

Management Matters covers topics familiar to those who have been reading this blog for years. It is an attempt to put in one place the overall management system that is most valuable (which as you know, based on the blog, is largely based upon Dr. Deming’s ideas – which means lean manufacturing are widely covered too).

I hope the book is now in a state where those who are interested would find it useful, but it is in what I consider draft format. I still have much editing to do and content to add.

Leanpub also provides a sample book (where a portion of the content can be downloaded to decide if you want to buy). If you are interested please give it a try and let me know your thoughts.

Corporate Social Responsibility

This month Paul Borawski (CEO of ASQ) has asked the ASQ Influential Voices to share their thoughts on the Intersection of Quality and Social Responsibility.

An understanding of system thinking allows people to see the relationships of connected elements in a system. As you gain the insight provided by such knowledge, the ignorance of connections seems odd. It is hard to have an appreciation for systems thinking and not appreciate the fundamental interconnection between people, corporations and society.

Respect for people is another management principle that extends to social responsibility. Some companies may see respect for people as only respect for workers but a wiser approach is to view it as respect for all people (as Deming, Toyota, Patagonia and many others do).

Society makes the rules for how we live together. Corporations are allowed because society decided there was a benefit to society to allow them. One can argue the benefit to society is entirely independent of social responsibility. The argument that by ignoring the reason they are allowed to exist will result in that aim being met effectively isn’t what any quality management flavor I know of would suggest.

In the time of the robber barons in the 19th century those leading corporations tried to make the claim that the business world was amoral (morality didn’t apply in that realm). As a society we rejected that assertion. Society has decided morality and ethics do apply to business leaders. Even if so many business leaders themselves show a shocking failure to act ethically in practice (see the endless line of banking executive failures, etc.). The attitude of so many current CEO’s (that you deserve whatever you can take and if you are not caught and stopped it was fine) is passed onto those they work closely with. It is no wonder those people, that are suppose to be leading the organization, instead are just bleeding the organization for whatever they can get away with. That result is very likely when you fail to encourage systems thinking and respect for people (inside and outside the company).

There are many reasons for a corporation to be moral and practice social responsibility but the most important is that is it the ethical thing to do. In addition to that it will be effective. When you create a culture that treats the system as it doesn’t matter that is damaging. We currently do a bad job of systems thinking in general. Building an appreciation for systems thinking will provide great benefits. Ignoring the system impacts so you can justify unethical behavior is damaging.

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Customer Focus

Customer Focus is at the core of a well managed company. Sadly many companies fail to serve their customers well. To serve customers, a thorough understanding of what problem you solve for customers is needed. The decisions at many companies, unfortunately, are far removed from this understanding.

It is hard to imagine, as you are forced to wind your way through the processes many companies squeeze you through that they have paid any attention to what it is like to be a customer of their processes. When you see companies that have put some effort into customer focus it is startling how refreshing it is (which is a sad statement for how poorly many companies are doing).

If the decision makers in a company are not experiencing the company’s products and services as a customer would that is a big weakness. You need to correct that or put a great amount of energy into overcoming that problems.

Another critical area of customer focus is to know how your customers use your products. It isn’t enough to know how you want your products to be used. Or to know the problems you intended people to use your products for. You need to know how people are actually using them. You need to know what they love, what they expect, what they hate, and what they wish for. This knowledge can help offset experiencing the products and services yourselves (in some cases getting that experience can be quite difficult – in which case you need to put extra effort into learning the actual experience of your customers).

You cannot rely on what people tell you in surveys. You need to have a deep understanding of customers use of the products. Innovation springs from this deep understanding and your expertise in the practice of delivering services and building products.

One of my favorite improvement tips is to: ask customers what 1 thing could we do better. It is very simple and gives you an easy way to capture what customers really care about. You shouldn’t rely only on this, but it is an extremely powerful tactic to use to aid continual improvement (with customer focus).

Related: Delighting CustomersThe Customer is the Purpose of Our WorkCustomer Focus and Internet Travel Search

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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

Moving Beyond Product Quality

This month Paul Borawski (CEO of ASQ) has asked the ASQ Influential Voices to share their thoughts on moving beyond product quality.

The opening paragraph of the Quality Council’s perspective is, “For some organizations, ‘quality’ remains a set of tools and techniques associated almost exclusively with quality control. For others, quality has evolved into a critical partner, closely linked with business model development and the enterprise-wide execution of long-term strategy to achieve results.

The way to move beyond just the set-of-tools mindset is very similar to the March topic on selling quality improvement.

What is needed to move beyond quality tools into a new management system is to make changes to the system that allow for that management system to be continually improved. Using the tools helps improve product quality a great deal. Much more can be done (both for product quality and overall effectiveness) if we don’t limit the use of modern improvement efforts to the manufacturing line.

At first it is often difficult to get managers and executives to accept the kind of change to their work that they will direct others to make. But once the process of improving the management system gets started, it takes a life of its own and is a very strong force to move beyond product quality.

Here are some previous posts on methods and strategies to move forward the organization into adopting a customer focused systemic effort to continuously improve every aspect of the organization – including the management system:

Related: Dr. Deming in 1980 on Product Quality in Japan and the USA

Customers Are Often Irrational

Penney Pinching

“The first rule is that there are no irrational customers,” Drucker wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “Customers almost without exception behave rationally in terms of their own realities and their own situation.”

“in terms of their own realities and their own situation.” is a huge caveat. Essentially plenty of customers behave irrationally – by any sensible definition of rational. I agree, to make them customers and keep them as customers you need to develop theories that can make sense of their behavior. And it doesn’t make sense to think if they behave irrationally that means randomly (chaotically, unpredictably, uncontrollably). Customers can be predictably irrational (as a group).

Seeing that people will chose* to fly lousy airlines because the initial price quoted is a little bit cheaper than an alternative (or because they are in a frequent flyer program) you can say the customer is behaving rationally if you want. Coming up with some convoluted way to make their decision, which based based solely on their desired outcomes (and cost factors etc.) is not rational, to be seen as rational seems like a bad idea to me. Instead figure out the models for how they fail to behave rationally.

They consistently chose an option they shouldn’t rationally want; in order to save some amount of money they don’t care about nearly as much as the pain they will experience. And the amount they will then complain about having to suffer because they chose to deal with the badly run airline. That isn’t rational. It is a common choice though.

The problem is not in thinking the customers are being irrational for not buying what you are selling. The problem is in thinking the customers will behave rationally. Your theory should not expect rational behavior.

There are plenty of other examples where customers make irrational decisions. I don’t think calling them rational (within the irrationality of their “own realities” makes sense). People will buy things because they think it is a better bargain to get the more expensive item that is the same, for more money, because originally the store charged more and now it is on sale. Anchoring isn’t an understanding of how people are rational. It is an understanding of how psychology influences people in ways that are not rational.

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Continual Feeding

I like growing things. I think it is part the connection to system thinking I have had since I was a kid. I like finding ways to leverage my effort so that I put in a bit of thought and effort and then get to enjoy the fruits of that effort for a long time. This idea also guides my investing approach.

I planted a vegetable garden in my yard a few years ago. My strategy was to find methods that gained me what I wanted (yummy food) without much effort required from me. I don’t want to deal with persnickety plants. Basically I composted leaves, grass and yard waste. I put that into the garden spot and put in some seeds and small plants to see what would happen. I watered things a bit early on and if we had very little rain for a long time. But in general my attitude was, if I could get success with some plants with this level of effort that was good. Only if nothing would grow would I bother with more involvement from me.

photo of wineberries

Wineberries in my backyard.

Luckily it turned out great. Lots of great tomatoes and peppers and peas and beans and cucumbers and more, and very little effort from me.

I actually even had more success with wineberries. I didn’t even have to plant them (some bird probably seeded them for me and I just let them grow). It was wonderful for several years. Then I had a huge area with huge amounts of tasty berries: it was wonderful. Sadly then birds started to eat them before I go them and I got far fewer good berries than before. The berries were so good I went to effort to keep the birds from devastating my reward (to some success but with much effort). Oh well, I didn’t really mean to get onto that – those berries were just so great.

Now I am living in Malaysia and growing plants on my balcony. It is wonderful in many ways but one of the issues is I have to continually water the plants. Even though we get a great deal of rain, not nearly enough reaches the plants (and also the dirt doesn’t retain the water well – especially given the small volume of the containers). So if I want the fresh vegetables I have to continually water the plants. This goes against my desire to plant seeds and let me sit back and enjoy the bounty of my limited efforts (ok it is still pretty limited).

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Selling Quality Improvement

In this month’s ASQ influential quality voices post, Paul Borawski asks How Do You “Sell” Quality?

I am amazed how difficult it is to sell quality improvement. I look at organizations I interact with and easily see systemic failures due to faults that can be corrected by adopting management improvement strategies that are decades old. Yet executives resist improving. The desire to retain the comforting embrace of existing practices is amazingly strong.

What sells to executives are usually ideas that require little change in thinking or practice but promise to eliminate current problems. What Dr. Deming called “instant pudding” solutions sell well. They are what executives have historically bought, and they don’t work. I can’t actually understand how people continue to be sold such magic solutions but they do.

If you want to enable effective management improvement, as I do, you need to both have buyers for what you offer and offer something that works. Honestly I am not much of a salesperson. Based on what I see executives buy the sale should be packaged in a way that minimize any effort on the executive’s part. However, that doesn’t interest me because it nearly always leads to failed improvement efforts. For years (decades?) Dilbert has provided a humorous view on the continuing tragedy of these efforts.

Another sales option is look for desperate executives that have already tried taking the easy way out 5 or 6 or 7 times and are still in desperate for improvement. Once they can’t see any options offering simple solutions they may be willing to work at a solution.

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Learn to Code to Help Your Career

I believe there are big benefits to knowing how to code (programing, software development). What is possible for your organization is often significantly impacted by understanding how to properly use software (and create it, coding, when needed). The lack of understanding of software is a significant problem not just for those wanting a job coding (that are available for those with the right skills) but also for those making decisions about what the organization should do.

The profound ignorance (meant not in a pejorative way but in the descriptive way) of software is a significant problem for managers today. The critical role of software in our organizations is only growing. And the importance of understanding software (which coding provides in a way no other learning does) is only increasing. My guess is a decade or two or three from now a understanding of coding will not be nearly as critical for managers. I am just guessing the nature of coding will be significantly changed and not understanding the details needed to code will not be as critical as it is today. Maybe I am wrong about the importance of understanding coding fading over time (it is more a feeling than a chain of logic I can clearly explain easily).

There are many indirect benefits of learning to code. In the same way that those with an education in engineering do very well in their careers overall, even if they take a path where they are no longer engineers a background in coding prepares you well for your career. Actually, similar to engineering, part of this effect may well be those that can graduate with an engineering degree and those that can be employed for several years as a software developer have skills and abilities that would have made them successful even if they didn’t pass through those experiences (still I think, those experiences to add to their success).

Good programmers have a strong tendency to think in ways that those interested in management improvement need (and, sadly, often lack): systems thinking, customer focus, efficiency focused [good coders often hate wasting their time and naturally despise non-value added steps], a willingness to speak up about things that need to be improved, a desire to make a difference, passion for what they do…

If you work along side good programmers these traits will be reinforced every day (this was my favorite part of my last job – working with great programmers that pursued these principles and re-enforced my doing so also). Yes there are also things you might have to temper in dealings with non-coders (being a bit kinder/less-direct about perceived failures, for example). Also some coders can be so engaged they expect an unsustainable commitment from peers (this is one of the great benefits of a good agile software development system – a focus on creating an environment for sustainable development [not expecting unreasonable effort/hours on the part of coders]).

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