Category Archives: Management

The New Age of Robots and What it Means for Jobs

I believe we have reached a turning point in the usefulness and effectiveness of industrial robots. For several decades it was pretty easy to predict wholesale adoption of “the robots will save us” mantra would be followed by failure. I still strongly believe Toyota’s method (thoughtful use of robotics to enhance people is the best strategy). But the ease of using robots to succeed in the long term is much easier today than 10 years ago.

Robot-first strategies are going to be succeeding quite a bit going forward. Those efforts will not be good enough when competing with companies using the best strategy well (but that will be rare).

I wrote some about this some previously: Technological innovation brings great opportunity for improving results and our quality of life. But transforming potential benefits into real results comes with many challenges…

Essentially I see people today too dismissive of the usefulness of robots in business. And they have past examples to point to in showing how a large commitment to robot-first failed. It isn’t that today robot-first is the best strategy, but I do believe the real world conditions have improved to make the blanket assumption that such efforts will fail as unwise.

A big part of this is that while we can simplify the argument to “robot first” or “robots helping people” it really isn’t that simple. There are many reasons why today the conditions are different than they have been. Technological and software improvements are a big part of that.

But also there is more thoughtful consideration of the advantages Toyota’s management philosophy brings. Sadly not enough, but still companies are better today at thinking and acting as if their employees have brains than they were 30 years ago. Granted there is still a long way to go, but still progress has been made it seems to me at the macro level. Many companies that are not doing as well creating systems that maximize the benefits available from using the minds of every employee as those reading this blog would hope are still doing better in that vein than was true 30 years ago.

Certainly many people today understand the vast benefits provided by industrial robots. There is reason to worry about the risks of organizations hopeful that just installing industrial robots will fix all their problems.

Industrial robots are the most advanced application of robots in business today but they are still far from plug and play solutions. They require skilled experts to have them work effectively; but the capabilities and usability have greatly increased over the last 20 years. Respect for people (and all that entails about the management system) is an important part of creating a management system to have the most success integrating robots.

C3PO android from Star Wars

My photo of C3PO at the Star Wars Interactive Exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston

We refer to industrial “robots” for machines that do jobs people used to preform in plants, but those robots are nothing like what we think of robots as a stand alone concept. In the last 20 years industrial robots have become much more “thoughtful” and have gained software that makes them seem more like “robots” in the sense that they are more than just a machine. But they still look nothing like robots. Autonomous cars look nothing like our C3PO vision of robots (androids) but are in many ways pretty robot-like (making many decisions and likely conversing with us in ways approaching out C3PO vision.

Interactive speakers (like Alexa) exhibit some of the characteristics of robots but again look nothing like our vision of them in our mind. The next 5 years will see an explosion in the use of machines much closer to our vision of robots (like the Pepper robot shown above). Smart phones already perform many aspects of the 1960s view of how robots would be making our lives easier. And small vacuums take on that specific cleaning task (without the ascetics of an android pushing a vacuum cleaner but ticking off that feature for robots to perform for us).

The ability of us to create technological solutions to accomplish tasks that required people has exploded in the last 20 years and will continue to. Lawyers are finding much of what they do can be done by a computer. Much, doesn’t mean all, obviously. Search and rescue in disaster areas is another task that robots are playing an increasing role in; and the use of robots will likely continue to grow quickly. Technology is taking over many aspects of medical care that were not long ago seen as requiring highly trained and experience medical professionals (reading scans, diagnosing illness…).

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Advice for Managers Who are Just Starting Out

John Hunter at Bryce Canyon National Park

John Hunter at Bryce Canyon National Park. See more photos from my travels.

I was interviewed by Vidal Graupera for his Managers Club blog, excerpts from that interview:

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Convincing organizations to adopt better management methods. People are very attached to historical ways of managing. While it is much harder to convince people to adopt more effective management methods than I would have predicted before attempting to do so there are strategies and tactics that help.

What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?

Read the Leader’s Handbook by Peter Scholtes and use it as a reference to guide your actions on a weekly basis.

Learn to experiment and iterate quickly. Your main aim should be to manage the management system (which may mean the management practices used within your scope of authority or influence). As you start it will involve a significant amount of managing projects, to demonstrate your ability to deliver results, but that should be used to transition to building a strong management system.

In conjunction with quick iteration and adoption of improvements your focus should be on coaching people to help them be more effective (among other things on helping them learn how to effectively practice evidenced based decision making and continual improvement).

Read the full interview on the Managers Club website.

Read more interviews with John Hunter on improving the practice of management.

RSS feed for Management Improvement Blog Posts

You may have noticed that recently I am not publishing new blog posts as often as I have previously. This less frequent publishing schedule is likely to continue. I have added a service to allow you to read Curious Cat Management Improvement blog posts more frequently – even though I will not be publishing new posts as often.

I have created a RSS feed for select blog posts from the start of the Curious Cat Management Improvement blog in 2004 (as well as other posts I have made on management improvement on other blogs). Subscribe to the John Hunter management improvement RSS feed. Doing so will add a post each day to your RSS feed reader from my past blog posts. Of course, the normal RSS feed for this blog will continue to provide access to the new blog posts that I publish.

cover image for Statistics for Experimenters

Some of the recent posts in the RSS feed include:

I hope you find this feed of my posts on management improvement over the last 12 years to a useful resource.

As I have mentioned before, using a RSS feed reader is the best way to manage your use of blogs.

I also have a RSS feed on my posts on all topics (management improvement and also investing, travel, software development, engineering…) for those of you who are interested.

Related: Popular Management Improvement Blogs Directory by Curious CatNew JohnHunter.com Websiteblogs by John Hunter

Don’t Expect Short Quotes to Tell the Whole Story

When people try to use a short quote as an accurate encapsulation of a management concept they will often be disappointed.

It is obvious that Dr. Deming believed that organizations failed to use data effectively to improve needed to change and use data effectively in order to thrive over the long term. He believed that greatly increasing the use of data in decision making would be useful. He also believe there were specific problems with how data was used, when it is was used. Failing to understand variation leads to misinterpreting what conclusions can appropriately be drawn from data.

Using data is extremely useful in improving performance. But as Deming quoted Lloyd Nelson as saying “the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable.”

I believe Dr. Deming would have said something like “In God we trust, all others bring data” (I haven’t been able to find a source verifying he did say it). Others don’t believe he would referencing the Lloyd Nelson quote and all Deming’s other work showing that Dr. Deming’s opinion that data isn’t all that matters. I believe they are correct that Dr. Deming wouldn’t mean for the quote to be taken literally as a summation of everything he ever said. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t use a funny line that emphasized an important message – we need to stop relying so much on unsubstantiated opinion and instead back up opinion with data (including experiments).

Quotes can help crystallize a concept and drive home a point. They are very rarely a decent way to pass on the whole of what the author meant, this is why context is so important. But, most often quotes are shared without context and that of course, leads to misunderstandings.

image of quote - It is wrong to suppose that if you can't measure it, you can't manage it - a costly myth.

A funny example of this is the Deming quote that you often see: “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Deming did actually say that. But without the context you get 100% the wrong understanding of what he said. Deming’s full statement is “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.” Now normally much more context is required to truly understand the author’s point. But this is a funny example of how a quote can be even be accurate when passed on to you and yet completely misleading because it is taken out of context.

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The Importance of Critical Thinking and Challenging Assumptions

There are many factors that are important to effectively practice the management improvement ideas I have discussed in this blog for over a decade. One of the most important is a culture that encourages critical thinking as well as challenging claims, decisions and assumptions.

I discussed this idea some in: Customers Are Often Irrational. There is a difference between saying people wish to have their desires met and people act in the manner to maximize the benefits they wish to receive.

It is important to study customer’s choice and learn from them. But being deceived by what their choice mean is easier than is usually appreciated. Often the decision made is contrary to the ideal choice based on their beliefs. It is often poor decision making not an indication that really they want a different result than they express (as revealed versus stated preference can show). People that ignore the evidence behind climate change and condemn coastal areas to severe consequences don’t necessarily prefer the consequences that their decision leads to. It may well be that decision to ignore the evidence is not based on a desire to suffer long term consequences in order to get short term benefits. It may well be just an inability to evaluate evidence in an effective way (fear of challenging ourselves to learn about matters we find difficult often provides a strong incentive to avoid doing so).

Knowing the difference between choosing short term benefits over long term consequences and a failure to comprehend the long term consequences is important. Just as in this example, many business decisions have at the root a desire to pretend we can ignore the consequences of our decisions and a desire to accept falsehoods that let us avoid trying to cope with the difficult problems.

photo of me with a blackboard in my father's office

Photo of me and my artwork in my father’s office by Bill Hunter

It is important to clearly articulate the details of the decision making process. We need to note the actual criticism (faulty logic, incorrect beliefs/assumptions…) that results in what some feel is a poor conclusion. But we seem to find shy away from questioning faulty claims (beliefs that are factually incorrect – that vaccines don’t save people from harm, for example) or lack of evidence (no data) or poor reasoning (drawing unsupported conclusions from a well defined set of facts).

Critical thinking is important to applying management improvement methods effectively. It is important to know when decisions are based on evidence and when decisions are not based on evidence. It can be fine to base some decisions on principles that are not subject to rational criticism. But it is important to understand the thought process that is taken to make each decision. If we are not clear on the basis (evidence or opinion regardless of evidence) we cannot be as effective in targeting our efforts to evaluate the results and continually improve the processes in our organizations.

Describing the decision as “irrational” is so imprecise that it isn’t easy to evaluate how much merit the criticism has. If specific facts are called into question or logical fallacies within the decision making process are explained it is much more effective at providing specific items to explore to evaluate whether the criticism has merit.

When specific criticisms are made clear then those supporting such a decision can respond to the specific issues raised. And in cases where the merits of one course of action cannot be agreed to then such critical thought can often be used to create measures to be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the decision based on the results. Far too often the results are not examined to determine if they actually achieved what was intended. And even less often is care taken to examine the unintended consequences of the actions that were taken.

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Organizations as Social Systems

Organizations are social systems made up of people.

Social systems often amplify what happens.

If good things happen, more good things often follow.

When bad things happen, more bad things often follow.

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

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

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

people at seminar listening to speaker at a flipchart

John presenting a Deming seminar in Singapore.

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

Why Do People Fail to Adopt Better Management Methods?

It is confusing to know that better methods exist but to see those better methods being ignored. It seems that if there were better ways to manage, people would adopt those methods. But this just isn’t the case; sometimes better methods will be adopted but often they won’t. People can be very attached to the way things have always been done. Or they can just be uncomfortable with the prospect of trying something new.

In this post I will look at a very visible example of free throw shooting. A few details in this post might be a bit confusing if you are not familiar with basketball but I think the underlying idea can still be understood.

For shooting free throws the evidence seems pretty clear that results can be improved by using an underhand style of shooting. I won’t go into it here, the data is sparse so conclusion are perhaps not absolutely conclusive yet. In addition to the data, there are good explanations on the physics of why the underhand shot is more likely to be successful.

Personally, I just wish the Wisconsin Badgers would adopt the better method and everyone else can keep ignoring it. Rick Barry’s son can continue using the style (he plays for Florida Gators now and uses that style successfully – see video). His father was one of all time most accurate free throw shooters (using the underhand style). I believe, Chinanu Onuaku, a little used player, is the only current NBA player using the underhand style (he is 2 for 2 this year).

Sadly if Wisconsin did use this improved method, then others may copy them. But that isn’t certain, as you can see this better method has been known for decades without most people taking it up.

The reluctance to use better methods can be very strong. Just as the USA auto companies didn’t use known better methods until Japanese automakers were dominating them in the marketplace my guess is other teams will ignore adopting better free throw methods until a team, or even several teams, have most of their players using the better method. Often the reluctance is very similar to adopting the free throw improvement. It isn’t done just because it feels uncomfortable to do something in a new way (whether it is a different way to shoot a free throw or a different way to manage).

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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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Cater to Customers Desires to Achieve Customer Delight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 Most Popular Posts on the Curious Cat Management Blog in 2016

These posts were the most popular posts on the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog in 2016 (as measured by page views, as recorded by my analytics application).

photo of John Hunter

John Hunter, Frijoles Canyon, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, USA.

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