Category Archives: Systems thinking

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).

Good Project Management Practices

I find myself working as a project manager, or a program management consultant more frequently in the last few years. As would be expected by those reading the Curious Cat Management Improvement blog, my project management views are based on the management improvement principles I have discussed here for over 20 years.

This post is in the style of my Good Process Improvement Practices and Practical Ways to Respect People posts.

Good project management practices include

  • Deliver a working solution quickly; add value as you have time. Don’t aim to deliver a final product by the deadline and risk missing the deadline. Deliver a good solution early, adjust based on feedback and add more as you have time.
  • Prioritize – do fewer things, and do them well.
  • Limit work in process (WIP) – finish tasks, avoid the problems created by splitting attention across numerous tasks.
  • Consider the long term from the start – build solutions that allow iteration and continual improvement. An initially very good solution that is difficult to adapt as desires change is not a good solution.
  • Grow the capability of the organization while making progress on projects.
  • Use data wisely (data can be extremely valuable and should be used much more, but it must be used with a critical eye).
  • Use retrospectives during the project and at the end of the project to continually improve the process of managing the project (and the capability of the organization to manage projects overall).
  • Practice respect for people
  • Coach people on good management improvement practices as those opportunities present themselves as the project moves forward. This will let them be more effective on the project and also build the capability of the organization for the long term. Don’t just “trust” people to succeed without giving them the proper training, coaching and authority.
  • Select the right people for the project – the decision makers and those working on the project need to include those most knowledgeable about end users for the what the project will deliver. Those involved also need to have the right knowledge, personality, skill and roles in the organization.

Tips

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Poorly Stratified Data Leads to Mistakes in Analysis

Getting organization to think of data as critical to making effective decisions is often a challenge. But the very next problem is that while data is used it is actually more misused than used.

How Not to be Wrong (book cover)

What is important is not just having numbers mentioned when decisions are being made. Or even having numbers mentioned when those decisions are evaluated after they have been implemented (or course many organizations don’t even evaluate the results of many changes they adopt, but that is a different problem). What is important for “evidence based decision making” is that what those numbers actually mean must be understood. It is easy to be mislead if you don’t think critically about what the numbers tell you and what they do not.

Poorly stratified data is one problem that leads to mistakes in analysis.

How ZIP codes nearly masked the lead problem in Flint

As I ran the addresses through a precise parcel-level geocoding process and visually inspected individual blood lead levels, I was immediately struck by the disparity in the spatial pattern. It was obvious Flint children had become far more likely than out-county children to experience elevated blood lead when compared to two years prior.

How had the state so blatantly and callously disregarded such information? To me – a geographer trained extensively in geographic information science, or computer mapping – the answer was obvious upon hearing their unit of analysis: the ZIP code.

Their ZIP code data included people who appeared to live in Flint and receive Flint water but actually didn’t, making the data much less accurate than it appeared [emphasis added].

This type of assumption about data leading to mistakes in analysis is common. The act of using data doesn’t provide benefits is the data isn’t used properly. The more I see of the misuse of data to more importance I place on the skill of thinking critically. We must challenge assumptions and challenge what the data we look at actually means.

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Looking in the Mirror at Customer Focus

Most organizations say they are focused on meeting and exceeding customer needs. But, as a customer, this often isn’t what I experience.

Delighting customers is critical to long term business success. Satisfied customers will remain your customers until they see the opportunity for something that might be better or is cheaper. Delighted customers are loyal and much more likely to remain customers.

Delighting customers is often about paying attention to the small details. Paying close attention to customer’s jobs to be done is a powerful tool. Then apply creative thinking and a knowledge of your industry, technical possibilities and business realities to provide solutions that delight customers.

Mirror in bathroom that is usable after a shower

Photo by a colleague of mine at Hexawise in his Japanese hotel room.

This photo shows a respect for customer’s jobs to be done. In many hotels the mirrors in the bathroom are obstructed after a shower. This mirror has been designed (with a heating element behind the mirror – applying technical engineering and scientific knowledge) to allow customers to be able to use the mirror effectively in the very common use case (after they shower). It is a small detail. It is also the kind of detail that an organization focused on customer delight will get right. Matt shared this photo on Reddit and it received over 80,000 upvotes (there is an appreciation for this improvement).

FYI Hexawise is hiring a senior software testing consultant, in case you want to go see this mirror for yourself and also to work with me and Hexawise to improve customer delight with the software that impacts our lives so much these days.

Solutions must be something that is free (improving processes often reduces costs so it is not always a matter of extra cost) or something customers will pay for (business/market realities). It isn’t useful to create a solution that your customers would like enough to pay 1% extra for if it adds 15% to your costs.

As with so many management improvement strategies how a desire to delight customers is expressed is dependant on many aspects of the existing organization. You can’t wake up on day to the wisdom of delighting customers and announce this new strategy and expect anything to really change. It is dependent on viewing your organization as a system and making the appropriate adjustments to allow the organization to be optimized to delight customers (see creating a culture that values customer focus and How To Create a Continual Improvement Culture).

It is critical to design the organization to maximize the potential information generated at the point where customers interact with the organization. That is not a simple thing to do in isolation (based on the current culture of most organizations today). It requires a deep commitment to continual improvement, respect for people and all the rest of the management improvement practices I have been writing about in this blog for over 10 years now.

Related: Aligning Marketing Vision and ManagementDelighting CustomersCustomers, “Internal Customers” and End UsersWhat Job Does Your Product Do? (2007)Stated Versus Revealed PreferenceInnovation Strategy

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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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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Lessons on Competition from Mother Nature

An interesting short article by Joel Barker with some ideas to think about, Surviving the Fittest: New Lessons on Competition from Mother Nature:

As a result of this emerging body of research, we now must reexamine our competitive paradigm and factor in the new information. It is now clear that ‘the fittest’ not only don’t win all the time, but are only a piece of the more complex system. This information can lead to new strategies for small companies and new insights for the big companies that presently dominate their industries.

The idea that what is winning right now is best is flawed. What is successful now is dependent on the larger system and the conditions that impact that system. In the news the last few days British Airways had to shut down flights worldwide. This has happened numerous times for major airlines in the last few years.

view from a train in Rocky Mountain National Park with tree and snow covered mountains in the background

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

The systems that they settled on may seem to be working well for years and then suffer catastrophic failures. Why did they accept systems that could fail so completely? Given the frequency it is happening numerous competitors are choosing solutions that are too fragile. And it isn’t just one organization doing it, numerous huge airlines (United, Delta, British Airways, Southwest) have found themselves caught in a situation where they fail to deliver what customers pay for due to so complete a failure of their IT system that they cannot fly any planes many hours in a row.

I suppose this could be evidence that designing an IT system for a huge airline is not something that can be done with the reliability we expect from most things (that the business doesn’t have a day every decade or two where they business just can’t operate that day). But I doubt it. It seems much more likely the existing system creates organizations that are more focused on other things than building a reliable, robust IT infrastructure.

A post I wrote on my Curious Cat Science and Engineering blog a few years ago, 500 Year Floods, looked at the problem of making judgements about unknown systems. The concept of 100 and 500 year floods is to help us make decisions about long term planning and risks. Looking at an area to build a building (or city) can be aided by history and seeing what the area has experienced in the past. But you can’t just assume the future will be the same as the past. Systems change over time. What worked in the past doesn’t necessarily work well in the future.

And as I mentioned in my article, our evidence and understanding also changes (hopefully by us gaining more knowledge and gaining a clearer understanding as we learn more). Thinking systemically takes into account the impact of interactions on results. Results are not independent of the circumstances.

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Improving Management with Tools and Knowledge

Too often today I hear people disparaging management tools/concepts (PDSA cycle, mistake proofing, flowcharts, design of experiments, gemba…). The frequently voiced notion is that tools are being applied and not helping improve management in the organization.

But it seems to me using these tools re-enforce the best practices of management improvement. Yes, ignoring the underlying principles (while applying tools and concepts) drastically limits how successful an organization will be in improving management practices (and limits the results the organization will achieve). But using the tools is not the problem. Using the tools is a necessary but not sufficient part of the process to improve.

What is needed is to use the tools with engaged people that are continually learning and adjusting the management system based on their increase understanding of the organization as a system. Using management tools effectively (if you are unsure of what those tools are, read the posts on this blog discussing many management improvement tools) supports gaining insight into the underlying management improvement principles.

It is important to understand there are fundamental concepts that connect and reinforce each other. And those organizations that are successful are using management tools and continually building their understanding of the underlying principles.

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