Category Archives: Systems thinking

Expand the View of the System to Find Ways to Improve Results

Here is an example of improvement made possible by expanding the view of the system (and viewing the results from the perspective of the customer instead of just looking at internal process measures).

I was working to improve the processing time for court orders of child support (in the retirement system for the USA federal government). The time to process the court orders was taking far too long (longer than legally allowed). The first process improvements took place in the office (there were many easy ways to improve the process). In a few months things we finally starting to be under control and it was obvious the results were still far from acceptable. Looking at the whole process the time delay due to our office had been nearly entirely eliminated.

However the total time was still far too long. That time was not under our control, so how could it be our problem? Just because you do not control a portion of the process does not mean you cannot influence those results. By using a system that was already in place (but was used very rarely) to have the mail go directly to us rather than to a central mail processing location I was able to improve the process by more as any internal improvements.

Madison County courthouse in London, Ohio.

Madison County courthouse in London, Ohio (Wikimedia image).

The delay from getting mail forwarded to our location from the central mailing location was many weeks long. I was able to have the orders for child support sent directly to us. Thus I was able to greatly improve the results with an improvement that was seen as not part of our system (the mail system delay before we received the orders). There are often ways to make improvements that are (or seem) outside of your area of responsibility and control.

By expanding the system view and looking at the results of the entire system it is often possible to find improvements that are not possible by only looking at “your” system. These changes can sometimes be more challenging to accomplish as they may require convincing others to make changes.

Related: Quality of the Entire Customer ExperienceThe Importance of Critical Thinking and Challenging AssumptionsActionable MetricsGood Project Management Practices

Annual Performance Evaluations are a Poor Management Practice

Sports provides visible examples of the futility of accurate performance appraisal. We have athletes who thousands of people devote a huge amount of time to dissecting their strengths and weaknesses and those evaluations are constantly shown to be wrong. Teams are constantly paying free agents tens of millions that completely flop. Others hire someone no-one else wanted for the league minimum and they become a big contributor.

Yes, it isn’t hard to figure out Stephen Curry is a far better basketball player than some bench warmer. But trying to value some non-world-class-superstar is extremely difficult. Yet we have many people that think they can provide a great assessment of exactly what rating their people deserve. If someone is really able to judge people that well they should move into the front office of a sports team because they would pay a huge amount for such talent.

photo of mural of kids and animals

Mural at the Smith Samlanh Education Center in Phnon Phen, Cambodia

When you understand the challenges with evaluating a complex system it isn’t hard to know that evaluating individuals is not easy. Much of the evidence of individual “performance” is so dependent on impacts within the system that are totally out of even the individual’s influence. Yet it is easy to find numbers within a complex system that can be used to argue for or against an individual’s performance.

The contributions any individual brings to an organization is largely dependent on the system in place (see: 94% Belongs to the System).

Related: Expand Your Circle of InfluenceRighter Performance AppraisalPerformance without Appraisal

Interview of Bill Hunter, Brian Joiner and Peter Scholtes on Better Management Practices

Interview with Bill Hunter, Brian Joiner and Peter Scholtes (listen to the interview) on a Public Affair, National Public Radio about improving management practices in the USA. The interview is over 30 years old now but the better management ideas are as true today as they were then.

Sadly we have not improved management practices based on these ideas very much. There have been improvements in how many organizations are managed but those improvements are so slow that fundamental problems remain serious problems decades later.

Brian Joiner

Brian Joiner (quotes from the interview):

You cannot really produce quality in any cost competitive way by relying on inspection to achieve quality. The only way you can really achieve quality in the modern sense is by improving all the processes that go to deliver that product or service. And that requires that you study those processes. And when you study them you very often need to collect and analyze data to find what are the causes of problems.

[We place] a great deal of emphasis on identifying the causes of problems rather than shooting from the hip and jumping to solutions before you really know what the problems are…
Many many dollars, many many hours of time are wasted on “solutions” that are not really solutions.

Bill Hunter:

The problem that employees at Motor Equipment were aware of at the very beginning of this whole business, and for a long time previous – I mean years, was that the city of Madison did not have a preventative maintenance program for vehicles because a mayor said, many years ago said “we fix trucks and other things when they break and then we will save money because we don’t be fiddling with them before.

Well the people out there realized the city was just losing money with this policy so they gathered data, they put it together, they put together a solid case that nobody could argue with that the city should have a preventative maintenance program.

They were able to put together a presentation to the mayor and city council people making their case that there should be a preventative maintenance program. The mayor and the city council people there listened to this presentation of the data and they conclusion was a good proposal.

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How to Lead From Any Level In the Organization

This was originally published on the Aileron blog; since it has been deleted from the blog I have reposted it here.

In looking to create great results, we have to balance getting results in the near-term with building our organization’s capability to maximize results in the long-term.

But what are the methods and ways in which we can help encourage this kind of continual improvement within our organization? And how can anyone, no matter their role or authority level, create value and shape their influence so that the company can amplify positive results?

To answer these questions, we asked John Hunter, a Senior Facilitator for the W. Edwards Deming Institute. John has also written a book called Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability, a book that provides an overview for using a systems view of management.

The Art of Influence in an Organization

John says that in Steven Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, there are three concepts brought up: the circle of control, the circle of influence, and the circle of concern. When it comes to leading and influencing other people in an organization, these concepts provide an effective framework to look at how you can influence decisions over time.

The circle of concern is what we are concerned with at work. “Our circle of concern covers those things we worry about. Often, we believe because we worry, that we should find solutions,” explains John. For example, an employee who regularly has face-to-face interaction with customers might have a sphere of concern that is centered on pleasing customers.

In your circle of control, you have much more autonomy—and much more perceived control. “The idea is that this domain is totally within your control, you don’t have to worry about convincing other people,” he says.

“This is a useful construct, but it is often much more complex than it sounds. What it really comes down to is almost everything is in your sphere of influence. When you’re talking about organizations—which are made up of people—nearly everything is about sphere of influence. Even the stuff that’s called circle of control is largely influence,” says John.

Recognize that you can change (and grow) your sphere of influence over time

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Interview of Bill Hunter: Improving Quality and Productivity in Organizations

Interview of William G. Hunter on Improving Quality and Productivity in Organizations by Peter Scholtes.

Bill taught a course at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Improving Quality and Productivity in Organizations, which was co-sponsored by the business school, statistics department and industrial engineering department.

There were a few undergraduate students, more graduate students and even more students who were working full time (many of whom only took this course – they were not pursuing a degree at the university). The course met 7 to 9:30 PM (often going longer) once a week. The main focus of the course was projects undertaken at banks, industry, city government, etc..

The course was designed with an understanding of how adults learn. The interview includes a discussion of andragogy, pedagogy and how to facilitate learning by adults. The course was designed to let students apply the ideas on management improvement in real organizations while learning about the principles.

Bill discusses the parallels to how a manager applying management improvement principles is very similar to an educator facilitating adult learning. Rather than an authoritarian approach where the boss tells subordinates what to do a manager helps employees achieve better results by supporting their efforts.

A student mentioned a common objection that managers have to adopting the management improvement methods that promote respect for people:

[Applying these management methods] requires that the workers care about what they are doing, to contribute ideas, to get involved, to be enthusiastic and to try and make things work better and to improve productivity. They are not going to do that, I mean, they come and they are sort of in prison from the time they come to work until they go home. It is when they leave work that they get to live and enjoy themselves. Going to work is just getting a paycheck… It is simply not going to work.

Bill talks about the experience with Joe Turner and Terry Holmes at the City of Madison First Street Garage. Out of the Crisis by W. Edwards Deming includes a couple pages on a project involving them (and Bill Hunter and Peter Scholtes). The bottom line is those two gave a presentation to the class sharing how the attitude in the question was overcome at their unionized workplace.

This question though is a challenging one. The problem is that overcoming decades of bad management practices that lead many people to think in the same way this questioner did is not easy. I have written several posts related to this topic, including: Effective Change Management Strategies and Tactics, People Take Time to Believe Claims of Changed Management Practices, How To Create a Continual Improvement Culture and A Practical Approach to Change: Some Strategies and Tools, a presentation by Peter Scholtes. Sadly you don’t have a huge advantage that the City of Madison project had, the involvement of Bill Hunter and Peter Scholtes.

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Factfulness – The Importance of Critical Thinking

Factfulness by Hans Roling (of TED talks and Gapminder charts fame) is an exceptionally good book. It provides great insight into how to think more effectively and how to understand the reality of the world we live in (versus the large distortions so common in most people’s view of the world).

Today the people living in rich countries around the North Atlantic, who represent 11 percent of the world population, make up 60 percent of the Level 4* consumer market. Already by 2027, if incomes keep growing worldwide as they are doing now, then that figure will have shrunk to 50 percent. By 2040, 60 percent of Level 4 consumers will live outside the West.

book cover of Factfulness

One of the significant focuses of the book is the need for critical thinking.

constantly test you favorite ideas for weaknesses. Be humble about the extent of you expertise. Be curious about new information that doesn’t fit, and information from other fields. And rather than talking only to people who agree with you, or collecting examples that fit your ideas, see people who contradict you, disagree with you, and put forward ideas as a great resource for understanding the world.

I have come to see a willingness to value critical thinking, even when it means forcing the organization to address tough issues, as one the differences between organizations that succeed in applying management improvement methods and those that fail. In many organizations that fail, more weight given to making things easy for your bosses versus continual improvement in providing value to customers (which often requires challenging existing processes, beliefs and power structures in the organization).

Challenging the status quo is difficult and most organizations prefer to maintain a culture that takes an easier path. Management improvement often requires a willingness to encourage challenges to the status quo. The importance of challenging the status quo in your organization and in your own thinking is under appreciated.

An example of the systems thinking and economics views Hans shares in the book:

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My Willing Worker Award

Here is an image of the employee of the quarter award I received from Bill Scherkenbach.

award certificate - employee of the quarter

I took part in the Deming Red Bead Experiment and earned this award for my exceptional performance.

I have received other awards and I don’t think those awards were given with any more understanding of the contributions to results due to the management systems in those cases than was shown when giving me this award. Even knowing how little impact I could make on the results I was still happy to receive this award: psychology is not always (often? ever?) sensible.

Read some of the lessons from the Red Bead Experiment from my post on The W. Edwards Deming Institute blog:

Data very similar to that provided by the Red Bed Experiment is used everyday in businesses to reward and punish people. Data is used to blame those who fall short of expectations and reward those who have good numbers. In the Red Bead Experiment we know the numbers are not a sensible measure of value provided by the employee. But in our organizations we accept numbers that are just as unrelated to the value provided by the employe to rate and reward employees.

There is a powerful need to improve the numeracy (literacy with numbers) in our organizations. It isn’t a matter of complex math. The concepts are fairly simple…

Related: Guest Post by Bill Scherkenbach – Analysis Must be Implemented by People to Provide ValueRighter Performance AppraisalExperience Teaches Nothing Without Theory

Effective Change Management Strategies and Tactics

ASQ has asked their Influential Voices to respond to the question: What are some recommended strategies or tactics to help achieve successful change management? See my past blog posts as part of the ASQ Influential Voices program (I have participated since 2012).

I have explored the idea of how to create a culture that promotes effective change management in several previous posts on the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog.

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

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

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

How To Create a Continual Improvement Culture

Very few organizations take nearly enough time to train and educate employees. If you want to create a culture of continual learning and improvement you almost certainly need to focus much more on education and learning than you are. Education can be formal but also focusing on learning as you apply quality tools is extremely useful and very overlooked. Coaching is a big part of doing this well, but coaching is another thing that is massively under-appreciated. Most supervisors and managers should be spending much more time coaching than they are.

photo of Van Gogh self portrait

Van Gogh self portrait photo by John Hunter, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

This effort should be iterative. Create systems focused on continual improvement (which require changes that make a positive impact on results) with built in checks for frequent assessment, reflection and adjustment to the changes the organization attempts to make.

Building the capacity of the organization to successfully adopt improvements will directly aid change efforts and also will build confidence that efforts to change are worthwhile and not, as with so many organizations, just busy work. People will be skeptical if they have a good reason to be so, and poor management practices found in many organizations give people plenty of reason to be skeptical that their efforts to improve will be successful.

Why Do People Fail to Adopt Better Management Methods?
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Peter Scholtes on Teams and Viewing the Organization as a System

In this presentation Peter Scholtes provides an explanation of teams within the context of understanding an organization of a system:

We will not improve our ability to achieve our purpose by empowering people or holding people accountable. I know that those are fashionable words but what they have in common that I think is the wrong approach is that they still are focused on the people and not on the systems and processes. I’m sure that will trigger quite a bit of conversation and perhaps some questions.

He is right, though those are difficult old thoughts to break from for many. He does a good job of explaining how to seek better methods to achieve more success in this presentation and in the Leader’s Handbook. Following the links in the quote above will also provide more details on Peter’s thoughts.

Peter includes a description of the creation of the “organization chart” (which Peter calls “train wreck management”) that we are all familiar with today; it was created in the Whistler report on a Western Railroad accident in 1841.

Almost a direct quote from the Whistler report: “so when something goes wrong we know who was derelict in his duty.” The premise behind the traditional organizational chart is that systems are ok (if we indeed recognize that there are such things as systems) things are ok if everyone would do his or her job. The cause of problems is dereliction of duty.

Peter then provides an image of W. Edwards Deming’s organization as a system diagram which provides a different way to view organizations.

In the old way of viewing organizations you look for culprits, in this way of viewing the organization you look for inadequacies in the system. In the old way of viewing the organization when you ask “whom should we please” the answer is your boss. In this way of viewing an organization when you ask “whom should we please” the answer is our customers.

This is an absolutely great presentation: I highly recommend it (as I highly recommend Peter’s book: The Leader’s Handbook).

Without understanding a systems view of an organization you can’t understand whats at the heart of the quality movement and therefore everything else you do, management interventions, ways of relating to people, will reflect more likely the old philosophy rather than the new one.

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The Best Form of Fire Fighting is None at All

The best form of problem solving is to avoid problems altogether.

At the point you have a “fire” in your organizaiton you have to fight it. But it is better to create systems that avoid fires taking hold in the first place.*

This is a simple idea. Still many organizations would perform better if they took this simple idea to heart. Many organizations suffer from problems, not that they should solve better, but problems they should have avoided altogether.

Lake with Mountain in the Background

By John Hunter, see more of my trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.

A stronger management system based on continual improvement using experimentation based practices (PDSA etc.) while viewing the organization as a system should reduce the need for heroic action to fix problems.

Related: Add Constraints to Processes CarefullyRighter IncentivizationThe Edge-case ExcuseThe Trouble with Incentives: They WorkPracticing Mistake-Promoting Instead of Mistake-Proofing at Apple

* This idea is sensible for management systems and cities; for forests that have evolved complex ecosystems in which fires play a roll it may well not be a wise strategy (as the US Forest Service has learned).