Category Archives: Systems thinking

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

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)

Unpacking the Components of Hard Work to Design Better Work Conditions

Effort is grossly underrated by Jamie Flinchbaugh:

There is a common phrase of “work smarter, not harder.” I get the appeal of that. Effort without clarity, efficiency, and effectiveness, has severe limits. Working smart is essential. But does that mean working hard has no value? No, effort is grossly underrated.

I believe we should aspire to work smarter and harder. Neither is sufficient, both are required…

My father used to convince himself working smarter should be the main focus and then he would return from Japan and say yes working smarter is important but they also just work harder. Then he would revert to moving to a primary focus to working smarter, then return of Japan and repeat. It took maybe 3 trips to have it sink into his consciousness that it really was both.

I am slower than my father to accept the necessity of hard work 🙂 I still think we could reduce the hours of work if we worked smarter and the processes were improved to eliminate wasted time and we worked hard for fewer hours. To some extent some agile software development efforts have shown this by changing the system of work and including as part of that a commitment to long term sustainable pace of work (no overwork).

I think if people define work as hard as a large number of hours then that can be reduced. If they define hard as putting forth their best efforts (in a smart and effective way) continually for the hours they put in then I can’t see reducing hard work as a goal. The hard work of doing the challenging things when they are important cannot be abdicated. If anything that is one of the most important methods to reduce the hours of work needed – doing the things that often people avoid because it will be difficult, upset people, make people uncomfortable, upset the way things are done…

farmers tilling a rice field with a machete and a tractor

Tilling a rice field in Bali. See more of my photos from Indonesia.

“Hard work” is often code for “work I despise doing.” If you create a system where people take pride and joy in their work the same time spent working is not nearly as “hard.” If they are proud of what they accomplish a difficult task is often rewarding, and not seen as working “harder.” As is so often the case “hard work” is really packing together numerous ideas in one phrase.

  • long hours
  • difficult tasks (physically, emotionally or intellectually)
  • unrewarding work
  • unpleasant tasks
  • inflexible work (It is a “hard job” if it prevents you from for example, seeing your child’s basketball game. If you were able to see the game and finish up 2 hours of work after they went to bed that is less hard.)
  • difficult work environment (whether that is due to the stress level, physical demands, or other things – like a boss that is difficult to work for)

I think you can reduce many of these parts of hard work by creating a better system of work in the organization. But to do so you increase the need for focused effort on what is important. The key to me is designing a management system in which the effort required by work is the effort you want to give and the amount of unproductive, unrewarding and unpleasant work is reduced. Creating such a management system is not easy; it requires hard work, and it requires working smarter.

Related: Dream More, Work LessSigns You Have a Great Job … or NotRespect People by Creating a Climate for Joy in Work

Podcast: Building Organizational Capability

The Software Process and Measurement Cast 420 features an interview with me, by Thomas Cagley, on Building Organizational Capability (download podcast).

John Hunter in the podcast:

Changing how organizations are managed makes a huge difference in people’s lives, not all the time and I understand most of the time it doesn’t. But when this is done well people can go from dreading going to work to enjoying going to work, not every single day – but most days, and it can change our lives so that most of the time we are doing things that we find valuable and we enjoy instead of just going to work to get a paycheck so we can enjoy the hours that we have away from work.

photo of John Hunter

John Hunter, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

Here are some links where I go into more detail on some of the topics I discuss in the podcast:

Thomas Cagley: If you have the power to change any 2 things that affect decision making what would they be and why?

John Hunter:

First that results are evaluated. Make decisions then evaluate what actually happens based upon what you do. Learn from that, improve how you make future decisions and keep iterating.

That idea of evaluating what actually happens is extremely powerful and will reinforce going in the right direction because if you evaluate most decisions many organizations make nothing got any better. And after doing that many times you can learn this isn’t working, we need to do something better.

And the second would be more prioritization. Make fewer decisions but take more time to make those decisions, implement those decisions, evaluate those decisions, learn from those results and iterate again.

I hope you enjoy the podcast.

Related: Software Process and Measurement Podcast With John Hunter on my book Management MattersDeming and Software Development

Continually Improving Using a Focus on Delighting Customers

ASQ asked the ASQ influential voices to respond to this question: What is the best way to ensure quality and customer integration grow together?

When I first got involved in the quality field that name (quality) seemed to vague for me. And different people and organizations seemed to have vastly different meanings in mind for efforts they all grouped under the heading of quality. What I came up with to capture what I was interested in was customer focused continuous improvement. Continual is actually a better word than continuous for what I had in mind, I now know.

But that phrase has held up in my mind (unfortunately it is a bit long and so isn’t ideal either). Focusing on continually improving with a deep understanding of customer needs and the marketplace will do you well. Customer integration is required in the customer focused continual improvement framework I have discussed on this blog and in my book: Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

Beach with reclining chairs and thatched toped umbrella looking into the ocean with small boats in the view

Wonderful beach near Hoi An, Vietnam where you can order food and drinks in peace. See more photos by John Hunter.

Accepting that as a wise course of action leaves the question of how to continual improve with an integrated deep focus on customers. These shouldn’t be two isolated activities. And even to continually improve without worrying about customers requires viewing the organization as a system is critical in my view (which further enhances integrating the customer into the organization’s DNA). As anyone reading this blog knows my beliefs build on the work of W. Edwards Deming, so appreciating the importance of a systemic view is to be expected.

A deep appreciation for the long term needs of your customers and potential customers should guide where in the system to continually improve. And my belief on how to continual improve is to create and continually improving management system with principles of experimentation (with the necessary understanding of what conclusion can be drawn from results and what cannot), an understanding of the organization as a system and respect for people as principles to be guided by to achieve continual improvement.

Quality practices of experimentation directed at continually improving management practices and internal processes need to be completely integrated with the efforts to continual improve customer delight. Those efforts should be one process and therefore they automatically grow together.

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Bell Labs Designing a New Phone System Using Idealized Design

I remember hearing this same story when Russ Ackoff spoke at the Hunter Conference on Quality (which was named in honor of my father) in Madison, Wisconsin.

If you haven’t heard this story you are in for a treat. And if you haven’t heard Russell Ackoff before you get to enjoy a great storyteller.

"Tape" of Ackoff’s Bell Lab Lecture at the US Navy.

If you would limit yourself to paying attention to 5 thinkers to advance your understanding of managing organizations Ackoff should be one of them. Of course, many managers don’t even try to learn from 5 leading management thinkers to do their jobs better over their career. So for many people just learning from Ackoff, Deming, Scholtes etc. they would be far ahead of the path they are now for their career. Of course you are not limited to learning from 5 people so you can learn from more if you want to be a better manager and leader.

I probably remember a great deal from maybe 5 talks from the more than 5 years I attended the Hunter Conference (and they were the best conferences I have attended – this might explain why the last conference I attended was maybe 7 years ago). This was one of them. And I realized that Ackoff was someone I could learn a great deal from and it caused me to learn a great deal from Russ Ackoff over the next decade.

Watch the video for much more but the basic idea of idealized design is to create a new design for a product, service or the organization based on existing feasibility but without the constraints of the existing setup. Then you can use that ideal to figure out a plan to move from the existing state to that idealized design. Russell Ackoff co-authored a good book on the topic: Idealized Design.

Related: Ackoff, Idealized Design and Bell Labs (2006)Corporations Are Not Led By Those Seeking to Maximize Shareholder Value, Russ AckoffTransformation and Redesign at the White House Communications AgencyRussell L. Ackoff: 1919 -2009Dr. Russell Ackoff Webcast on Systems ThinkingDesigning a New Organization (2005)

Integrating Technical and Human Management Systems

ASQ has asked the Influential Voices on quality management to look at the question of integrating technical quality and human management systems. How do different systems—technical or human—work together? How should they work together?

My view is that the management system must integrate these facets together. A common problem that companies face is that they bring in technical tools (such as control charts, PDSA improvement cycle, design of experiments, kanban, etc.) without an appreciation for the organization as a system. Part of understanding the organization as a system is understanding psychology within this context (as W. Edwards Deming discussed frequently and emphasized in his management system).

To try and implement quality tools without addressing the systemic barriers (due to the management system and specifically the human component of that system) is a path to very limited success. The failure to address how the organization’s existing management system drives behaviors that are often counter to the professed aims of the organization greatly reduces the ability to use technical tools to improve.

If the organization rewards those in one silo (say purchasing) based on savings they make in cutting the cost of supplies it will be very difficult for the organization to optimize the system as a whole. If the purchasing department gets bonuses and promotions by cutting costs that is where they will focus and the total costs to the organization are not going to be their focus. Attempts to create ever more complex extrinsic incentives to make sure the incentives don’t leave to sub-optimization are rarely effective. They can avoid the most obvious sub-optimization but rarely lead to anything close to actually optimizing the overall system.

image of the cover of Managmenet Matters by John Hunter

Management Matters by John Hunter

It is critical to create an integrated system that focuses on letting people use their brains to continually improve the organization. This process doesn’t lend itself to easy recipes for success. It requires thoughtful application of good management improvement ideas based on the current capabilities of the organization and the short, medium and long term priorities the organization is willing to commit to.

There are principles that must be present:

  • a commitment to treating everyone in the organization as a valuable partner
  • allowing those closest to issues to figure out how to deal with them (and to provide them the tools, training and management system necessary to do so effectively) – see the last point
  • a commitment to continual improvement, learning and experimentation
  • providing everyone the tools (often, this means mental tools as much as physical tools or even quality tools such as a control chart). By mental tools, I mean the ability to use the quality tools and concepts. This often requires training and coaching in addition to a management system that allows it. Each of these is often a problem that is not adequately addressed in most organizations.
  • an understanding of what data is and is not telling us.

An integrated management system with an appreciation for the importance of people centered management is the only way to get the true benefit of the technical tools available.

I have discussed the various offshoots of the ideas discussed here and delved into more details in many previous posts and in my book – Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability. An article, by my father, also addresses this area very well, while explaining how to capture and improve using two resources, largely untapped in American organizations, are potential information and employee creativity. It is only by engaging the minds of everyone that the tools of “technical” quality will result in even a decent fraction of the benefit they potentially can provide if used well.

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Unintended Consequences

Using data to understand your processes and improve them is very useful.

But using data often results in unintended consequences. If you don’t have a good understanding on the pressures collecting data will bring to bear on the system you can create pressure for results that damage the delivery of value to customers.

In this example there are requirements to take action if certain conditions are present. In this case, if the airplane is pushed back from the gate for more than 3 hours without taking off passengers must be given the opportunity to get off.

The Tarmac Delay Rule in 2010 has led to a jump in the rate of flight cancellations

Indeed, to avoid the fines, airlines are now far more likely to cancel flights that are sitting at the gate or on the tarmac than they once were, explains Vikrant Vaze, an assistant professor of engineering at Dartmouth and a co-author of the study. That means you’re now more likely to board your plane, sit there, and then still have the flight canceled.

It doesn’t seem the conditions imposed are unreasonable to me. But the expectation was for airlines to make sensible adjustments and not force customers to wait so long in the airplane sitting on the ground. The system could be improved by having more gates in operation, not pushing loading planes if you knew plane wasn’t going to leave for more than 30 minutes, etc.. But when customer value is taken very lightly (as USA airlines do) it isn’t surprising the USA airlines would take a very customer unfriendly method to avoid the issue that was the source of the new rules.

Distorting the system or distorting the data are often the result, instead of the process improvement that is desired and expected.

Related: Bad Weather is Part of the Transportation SystemPoor Customer Service at USA AirlinesData is Important and You Must Confirm What the Data Actually SaysUnited Breaks GuitarsRespect for Employees at Southwest Airlines

Giving Executives 40% of Revenue is Insane

I have previous written on my belief that excessive executive compensation had reached the level of a deadly disease of western management (building on the W. Edwards Deming’s list of 7 deadly diseases). I named excessive executive pay and a broken “intellectual property” system as new deadly diseases in 2007.

Here is a graphic from, It’s Twitter’s birthday, and its executives are getting huge stock-based gifts, showing the massive executive give-away at Twitter.

chart showing how much Twitter gave to executives as percent of total revenue

Twitter has given executives $2,000,000,000 in just stock based compensation from 2011 through 2015. Twitter’s revenue for those 4 years was only $4,709,000,000. So Twitter gave executives 42.5% of revenue. This is of revenue, not earnings, Twitter isn’t even profitable.

Granted this is an extremely bad case but this pattern of giving away hundreds of millions of dollars to executives is common. It is destructive. It is disrespectful. It is a stain on those participating in the looting of companies for the benefit of the executive bureaucrats – those that enable them to siphon off the returns generated by companies into their pockets.

Related: Toyota Post Record Profit: Splits $15 million in Pay and Bonus for top 21 Executives (2014)Business 901 Podcast: Two New Deadly Diseases for Business (2013)Massive Bonuses Encourage Executives to Take Massive Risks (leverage etc.)

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

Successfully shepherding change within an organization is often a challenge. Often change management strategies are mainly about how to cope with a toxic culture but exclude the option of fixing the toxic culture. Why not address the root causes instead of trying band-aids?

The most effective strategy is to build an organizational culture into one that promotes continual improvement. A continual improvement culture is one that is constantly changing to improve (grounded in long term principles: respect for people, experiment, iterate quickly, etc.).

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).

But still you can use strategies to cope with lack of trust in your intentions with the change and lack of trust in the effectiveness and fear of change. Some of those are included in the links below. But mainly my strategy is based on focusing on building the proper culture for long term excellence and the change management strategies are just short term coping mechanisms to help deal with the initial challenges. Using those strategies as a long term solution for dealing with change in a toxic culture isn’t a very sensible way to manage.

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