Tag Archives: technology

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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Using Technology to Improve The Sharing of Knowledge

This month the ASQ is asking Influential Voices to discuss methods to aid in sharing knowledge. Manu Vora kicked the discussion off with his post on The Gift of Knowledge Transfer Through Technology.

My career has been largely shaped by the pursuit of better ways to communicate. I grew up surrounded by those seeking to improve management (Bill Hunter, George Box, Brian Joiner, Peter Scholtes…). When I was in grade school that focus was largely on statistics and the value of multi-factor experiments (Dad was a statistician who wrote the “bible” on design of experiments, with George Box and Stu Hunter: Statistics for Experimenters). As I moved into high school Dad was doing much more direct management consulting (it was also a combination of statistics, engineering and management but the emphasis shifted over time) based on Deming’s ideas.

The knowledge of how to properly experiment on system with multiple important factors to experiment with (nearly all experiments) has been around for almost 100 years. Yet, even so, still many college level courses talk about the need to adjust one factor at a time (OFAT) and many businesses still experiment this way. The rate at which we incorporate new knowledge is still very poor.

Technology can help improve our adoption of better understanding. Creating a climate and expectation of continued learning is also important, but I won’t talk about that in this post.

I published and presented (I think at an ASQ conference though I can’t recall which one right now) a paper on Using Quality to Develop an Internet Resource in 1999. The purpose of that internet resource was to share knowledge about quality management and the article provides insight into both those ways of looking at what was done (using quality ideas to create a resource and using the internet to spread quality ideas).

A few years later I started this blog to help people find knowledge that would make them more likely to succeed with efforts to improve management. I believe deeply in the value of Deming’s ideas on management but see so many companies make poor attempts to improve management. There are many things needed to improve the success of organizations improvement efforts but I believe the right knowledge (the ideas talked about by Deming, Ackoff, Ohno, Scholtes, etc.) will help a great deal.

Intranets are great tools to share knowledge within your organization. They can also be powerful tools to connect people to internal resources within your organization.

Wikis are a great tool to share a knowledge base (and to maintain things like standardized work, visual job instructions etc.). Wikis are a wonderful technology because of how easy they make the management of shared knowledge. It may well be you print out various things to post and make more visible (depending on what makes sense for the work environment).

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The Value of Professional Conferences. Also Why Has There Been So Little Innovation?

In the most recent ASQ Influential Voices post, Julia McIntosh takes a look at the costs and benefits of professionals attending conferences.

I still remember being in high school and George Box talking about the primary value of conferences was talking to colleagues in the hallway. This seemed very odd to me, as it seemed that the reason for going to a conference was to learn from the talks.

I also didn’t really understand the value in catching up with people in person. I could see it would be somewhat useful but I didn’t really understand the benefits of personal communication. Pretty much all of my communication at that point was person to person. So I didn’t really see the huge loss of fidelity of any other communication (phone, email…).

At early conferences that I attended my main benefit was still in sitting in sessions and learning what people had to say. I did also benefit from discussions with other attendees. And I started to form relationships with others which grew over the years. And over time the networking benefits did exceed the learning from sessions benefits.

Part of this also occurs as your knowledge increases and you have less to learn from the average speaker. George was obviously well past this stage when I was talking to him. For me I still learned a lot from some of the speakers but also found I was learning much less and skipping sessions to talk to people I could learn more from was an increasing benefit. Still I have difficulty doing that and would focus more on networking at lunch, between sessions and in the evening.

The costs of attending conferences are easy for companies to calculate. The benefits they bring are very hard to calculate. I can see why companies often are very tight with budgets for conferences.

Egyptian carving of figures into a stone sarcophagus

A stone sarcophagus from ancient Egypt. I took this photo after presenting a Deming 2 1/2 day seminar in Boston (at the Boston Fine Arts Museum – see more photos).

I think the benefits of getting people outside the building and letting them interact with others to learn and think about new ideas is very valuable. I do think it is much less valuable in most companies than is should be because they have bad management systems that are atrophied with poor practices that are going to be extremely difficult to improve even if people have good ideas to try.

The organization really should focus on improving the management system so it isn’t such a barrier to improvement. But I think most organizations instead find it easy to just estimate a poor return on investments in conferences because those returning don’t actually make any improvements. Again, I think the cause of the failure to improve is more about the bad management system than the benefit of the conferences.

Of course, to some extent, the conferences should be focusing on how to improve given so many attendees organizations are crippled with a poor management system. But often people seem reluctant to acknowledge or discuss that. And those that point out problems often are seen as the problem (based on their actions – I can only conclude blaming the messenger makes sense to some people). And these factors are often even more pronounced in those the organization is willing to invest in (they are often more focused on making the bosses happy rather than something like improvement and change which often rubs people the wrong way).

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Toyota Understands Robots are Best Used to Enhance the Value Employees Provide

Toyota has always seen robotics as a way to enhance what staff can do. Many USA executives think of robotics as a way to reduce personnel. Toyota wants to use the brainpower of employees to continually improve the organization. Toyota wants to free people for monotonous or dangerous work to let them use their minds.

Humans Steal Jobs From Robots at Toyota

Humans are taking the place of machines in plants across Japan so workers can develop new skills and figure out ways to improve production lines and the car-building process.

“We cannot simply depend on the machines that only repeat the same task over and over again,” Kawai said. “To be the master of the machine, you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine.”

Kawai, 65, started with Toyota during the era of Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System envied by the auto industry for decades with its combination of efficiency and quality. That means Kawai has been living most of his life adhering to principles of kaizen, or continuous improvement, and monozukuri, which translates to the art of making things.

“Fully automated machines don’t evolve on their own,” said Takahiro Fujimoto, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Manufacturing Management Research Center. “Mechanization itself doesn’t harm, but sticking to a specific mechanization may lead to omission of kaizen and improvement.”

We need more companies to learn from the executives at Toyota. They show real respect for people. They are not focused on how much they can extract from the corporate treasury to build themselves castles at the expense of other employees, customers and stockholders as far too many USA executives are.

Toyota has been extremely innovative in investing in robotics as human assistants (partially this is due to the extreme demographic problems Japan faces): Toyota Develops Thought-controlled WheelchairToyota’s Partner RobotToyota Winglet – Personal Transportation Assistance.

Related: Webcast on the Toyota Development ProcessDon’t Hide Problems in ComputersAkio Toyoda’s Message Shows Real Leadership

Deming and Software Development

I am sometimes asked about how use Deming’s ideas on management in a software development context. My belief is Deming’s ideas work extremely well in a software development context. The main issue is often unlearning some assumptions that people might have about what the Deming management system is.

It really is surprising to me how many “knowledge workers” respect Deming ideas but then say his attempts to treat factory workers as thoughtful people who should be respected and involved in improving their processes doesn’t make sense for them because they are “knowledge workers.”

There are many good things being done to improving the software development process. I think many of them are very Deming-like in their approaches (but to me miss out on aspects of the Deming management system that would be helpful). I think Dr. Deming’s approach to software development would focuses on the system of profound knowledge (the 4 inter-related areas below):

  • Understanding variation – software development has quite a bit of variation, some probably innate [unique work] and some due to not having good procedures, batching work, not fixing problems right when they are seen, quick fixes that leave the system venerable in the long term (when you make one simple change to the code it has an unanticipated consequence due to poor practices that could have been eliminated), etc.. Many good coding practices are effective strategies to deal with this issue. And building an understanding of variation for managers (and business process owners/product owners) is very helpful to the software development process. The ideas in agile and kanban of focusing on smaller delivery units of work (one piece flow, just in time, cycle time…), customer value, maintainable code, sustainable work conditions, etc. are directly found in a Deming management system.
  • Appreciation for the system of software development. Don’t just complain about bugs. Examine the process of development and then put in place mistake proofing efforts (don’t duplicate code, use integrated regression tests, don’t put artificial constraints on that result in system distortions – unrealistic targets…). Use things like kanban, limited work in progress, delivering value to customers quickly, think of success in terms of getting working software to customers (not meeting internal delivery goals), etc. that take into account our experience with systemic software development problems over the decades.
  • Theory of knowledge – how do we know what we know? Are estimates reliable? Lets look at what users do, not just what they say (A/B testing…). Software developers often appreciate the value of usability testing, even though they rarely work for organizations willing to invest in usability testing. In my experience when software developers object to usability testing it is normally really an objection to overwork, and the usability testing is just going to give them more work or criticize things they were not allowed to spend the time they needed to do great work. That won’t always be the reason but it is the main one in my experience (I suppose their is also fear and just the psychology of not wanting to hear anything negative about what has been created – even if the usability testing shows tons of great results people will often focus on the negative).
  • psychology and respect for people – This pretty much seems like it is the same for software development as everywhere else.

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Your Online Presence and Social Networks for Managers

This month Paul Borawski asked ASQ’s Influential Voices which social networks do quality professionals use?

TL;DR My bottom line suggestion is to first start with blogs (get a feed reader and subscribe, read and comment on blogs). Next join Reddit and subscribe to the sub-reddits you are interested in, and participate. Next start your own blog. Then join Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+. Put your learning first; other measures are largely “fools gold” (such as number of followers).

photo of John Hunter at Zion National Park

John Hunter at Zion National Park, Utah, USA.

Blogs are the best way to use the internet to learn, network, share and grow. That includes reading blogs, commenting on blogs and writing your own blog. Thankfully there are tons of great management improvement blogs (especially on lean thinking) for managers to learn from. There is a great opportunity for six sigma blogs as the field is not crowded with high value blogs on that topic.

Writing your own blog is the very best online way to create a brand for yourself (and to learn and grow). Given the workplace today, and how the future seems likely to unfold, building your own brand is a valuable career tool. Writing your own blog also builds your understanding of the topic. As you put your thoughts into words you have to examine them and often build a more complete understanding yourself before you can write about it.

You also build a network as you read and comment on other’s blogs and as others read and comment on your blog. YouTube can be used in a similar way (though I would use a blog to add text to the webcast and encourage comments on the blog rather than YouTube). Using an RSS blog feed reader is the first social network tool you should use (way before you sign up for Twitter or Facebook or anything). Podcasts can also. I have done a few podcast, most discussing the ideas in my management book. Videos and audio connect more deeply to people so they are wonderful methods to reach people. I should get some webcast up on YouTube; it is one of my plans that I haven’t gotten to you yet.

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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)

Pay Attention to the Results that Matter

Play pumps is a great sounding idea. Most people reading this blog have clean tap water a few steps away. Over a billion people today still struggle to get water every day. A common method to get water is using pumps to bring up water from deep in the ground.

Some energy is needed to bring up the water and that often mean people (at time wind energy is used). Most sites that are providing water to villagers don’t have integrated energy system that can be tapped to bring the water up – as most of those of the readers of this blog rely on (without having to think about it).

Play pumps had the idea of putting a merry-go-round on the site and letting children playing on it provide the energy. It sounded great and I wrote about it on my engineering blog. Many others found it exciting and funded it with tens of millions (The USA government, Steven Case foundation [AOL founder], )… Which is great.

Frontline, which is a great news organization, went back to look at the success of the program after much fanfare in the marketing of the program. Sadly the pumps are having many issues. The solution does not appear to have been executed well.

Several factors are extremely disappointing. There seems to be little customer focus. As with any enterprise that fails this basic tenet of good management this spells trouble. The maintenance process appears to be completely broken. In our throw away lives maintenance is often a minor project point. For bringing water to those without it maintenance is known to be the primary issue. For decades the failure of program has had this as the primary reason (the possible competition is corruption). Failing on the known largest issue is again extremely disappointing.

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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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Lessons from Toyota’s IT Strategy

Another interesting post from Panta Rei: Lessons from Toyota’s IT Strategy:

In order to use IT effectively as a tool, we think that it is important for the top management to not see IT as something that can be applied superficially. First they must see the facts of the business, the facts of the gemba, and on top of this foundation further consider the feelings of people and how to motivate them. Then rules must be written and standardization must be done properly on the basis of the global business framework, before IT is implemented.

The words hardly seem revolutionary. The importance, I believe is understanding how differently Toyota acts upon what it says. For more on Toyota IT see: Toyota IT Overview.

Related: Infromation Technology management improvement related postsToyota IT for KaizenDell, Reddit and Customer FocusIT Management Training Program