Provide training and tools to employees to document customers voices. Train employees to learn as much as possible from customers. Value the time employees spend listening to customers and learning from them.
Most customers won’t speak up, those that do speak up provide valuable insight. Don’t waste what they offer.
Create a management system focused on continual improvement that is engaged in seeking out customer feedback and continually improving the value provided to customers.
Most organizations do the opposite of this. They make put many barriers in the way of customers speaking to anyone that will listen. They put systems in place to discourage feedback from customers.
Those organizations use surveys of customers that seek to limit customers voices to a few well defined paths that don’t learn from customers at all. How large USA companies design customer surveys.
Did you think we were great, very good, good or other?
If you didn’t think we were great which front line employees should we blame?
Sure they word it a little bit differently, but that is close to what I see almost every time I get a survey to complete. And there is no room to explain that the problems are not the fault of front line employees but decisions by the company to waste customers time. A few organizations behave differently. But not many.
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.
Learning about how people learn and remember is important to allow you to communite well. And most people seem to understand this. But they also seem to have no shame in not improving their performance in relation to these common weaknesses.
I have never understood why so many people talk about weaknesses in how people learn (people only remember “10% of what they hear, 20% of what they read, and 80% of what they see and do”; you must repeat something 7,9,12… times before most people will remember it; people will retain more if they are given concrete examples relevant to them; people will remember more if they speak or write than if they just passively listen; a good visual will make an idea presented much more likely to be remembered…) but never seem to seek to improve their weaknesses in these areas.
Yes, it is harder for us to retain new information when we just hear about it or if good information is presented poorly. But if you do a much better job of learning and succeed in retaining what you hear or see (even if often people fail to do this well) you will be better off.
Yet what I see is people spouting these statistics, not as a way of learning what they need to improve themselves but as a way of explaining that it is inevitable and they won’t do any better (or even bother to attempt to do so). It just isn’t true that you can’t do better. You can train yourself to learn more than most people when the material is presented in a less than perfect manner by learning how we commonly fail to learn and making efforts to do better yourself.
Sure, learn these common traits to know how you need to take them into account when communicating with others. But also examine yourself and see if you have the same weaknesses and improve in those areas you are weak. Also you can learn from them how to be more successful in retaining good ideas (write them down, think about applying them in your context, make a note to actually apply them at work tomorrow or next week…). You can blame whoever was communicating the ideas to you for failing to present it as well as they should but that won’t help you learn more.
Also companies would be wise to put more effort into helping people learn better. I see lots of focus on how presenters should do better, but very little on how people can improve their capacity to listen and learn. Yes, those presenting should continually seek to improve and be aware of their customers (those they are communicating with). Those that are learning should also seek to improve their ability to learn, even if the way material is presented isn’t optimal.
My career has been largely shaped by the pursuit of better ways to communicate. I grew up surrounded by those seeking to improve management (Bill Hunter, George Box, Brian Joiner, Peter Scholtes…). When I was in grade school that focus was largely on statistics and the value of multi-factor experiments (Dad was a statistician who wrote the “bible” on design of experiments, with George Box and Stu Hunter: Statistics for Experimenters). As I moved into high school Dad was doing much more direct management consulting (it was also a combination of statistics, engineering and management but the emphasis shifted over time) based on Deming’s ideas.
Technology can help improve our adoption of better understanding. Creating a climate and expectation of continued learning is also important, but I won’t talk about that in this post.
I published and presented (I think at an ASQ conference though I can’t recall which one right now) a paper on Using Quality to Develop an Internet Resource in 1999. The purpose of that internet resource was to share knowledge about quality management and the article provides insight into both those ways of looking at what was done (using quality ideas to create a resource and using the internet to spread quality ideas).
A few years later I started this blog to help people find knowledge that would make them more likely to succeed with efforts to improve management. I believe deeply in the value of Deming’s ideas on management but see so many companies make poor attempts to improve management. There are many things needed to improve the success of organizations improvement efforts but I believe the right knowledge (the ideas talked about by Deming, Ackoff, Ohno, Scholtes, etc.) will help a great deal.
Intranets are great tools to share knowledge within your organization. They can also be powerful tools to connect people to internal resources within your organization.
Wikis are a great tool to share a knowledge base (and to maintain things like standardized work, visual job instructions etc.). Wikis are a wonderful technology because of how easy they make the management of shared knowledge. It may well be you print out various things to post and make more visible (depending on what makes sense for the work environment).
I still remember being in high school and George Box talking about the primary value of conferences was talking to colleagues in the hallway. This seemed very odd to me, as it seemed that the reason for going to a conference was to learn from the talks.
I also didn’t really understand the value in catching up with people in person. I could see it would be somewhat useful but I didn’t really understand the benefits of personal communication. Pretty much all of my communication at that point was person to person. So I didn’t really see the huge loss of fidelity of any other communication (phone, email…).
At early conferences that I attended my main benefit was still in sitting in sessions and learning what people had to say. I did also benefit from discussions with other attendees. And I started to form relationships with others which grew over the years. And over time the networking benefits did exceed the learning from sessions benefits.
Part of this also occurs as your knowledge increases and you have less to learn from the average speaker. George was obviously well past this stage when I was talking to him. For me I still learned a lot from some of the speakers but also found I was learning much less and skipping sessions to talk to people I could learn more from was an increasing benefit. Still I have difficulty doing that and would focus more on networking at lunch, between sessions and in the evening.
The costs of attending conferences are easy for companies to calculate. The benefits they bring are very hard to calculate. I can see why companies often are very tight with budgets for conferences.
I think the benefits of getting people outside the building and letting them interact with others to learn and think about new ideas is very valuable. I do think it is much less valuable in most companies than is should be because they have bad management systems that are atrophied with poor practices that are going to be extremely difficult to improve even if people have good ideas to try.
The organization really should focus on improving the management system so it isn’t such a barrier to improvement. But I think most organizations instead find it easy to just estimate a poor return on investments in conferences because those returning don’t actually make any improvements. Again, I think the cause of the failure to improve is more about the bad management system than the benefit of the conferences.
Of course, to some extent, the conferences should be focusing on how to improve given so many attendees organizations are crippled with a poor management system. But often people seem reluctant to acknowledge or discuss that. And those that point out problems often are seen as the problem (based on their actions – I can only conclude blaming the messenger makes sense to some people). And these factors are often even more pronounced in those the organization is willing to invest in (they are often more focused on making the bosses happy rather than something like improvement and change which often rubs people the wrong way).
Children try a variety of novel ideas and unusual strategies to get the gadget to go. For example, Gopnik says, “If the child sees that a square block and a round block independently turn the music on, then they’ll take a square and take a circle and put them both on the machine together to make it go, even though they never actually saw the experimenters do that.”
And that flexibility may disappear earlier than we think. Gopnik’s lab has also compared toddlers and kindergartners in doing these tests of abstract thinking, and found that the diaper set are actually better at focusing on the relationship between the objects, rather than on the things.
George Box lecture on Statistical Design in Quality Improvement at the Second International Tampere Conference in Statistics, University of Tampere, Finland (1987).
Early on he shows a graph showing the problems with American cars steady over a 10 years period. Then he overlays the results for Japanese cars which show a steady and significant decline of the same period.
Those who didn’t get to see presentations before power point also get a chance to see old school, hand drawn, overhead slides.
He discusses how to improve the pace of improvement. To start with informative events (events we can learn from) have to be brought to the attention of informed observers. Otherwise only when those events happen to catch the attention of the right observer will we capture knowledge we can use to improve. This results in slow improvement.
A control chart is an example of highlighting that something worth studying happened. The chart will indicate when to pay attention. And we can then improve the pace of improvement.
Next we want to encourage directed experimentation. We intentionally induce informative events and pay close attention while doing so in order to learn.
Every process generates information that can be used to improve it.
He emphasis the point that this isn’t about only manufacturing but it true of any process (drafting, invoicing, computer service, checking into a hospital, booking an airline ticket etc.).
He then discussed an example from a class my father taught and where the students all when to a TV plant outside Chicago to visit. The plant had been run by Motorola. It was sold to a Japanese company that found there was a 146% defect rate (which meant most TVs were taken off the line to be fixed at least once and many twice) – this is just the defect rate before then even get off the line. After 5 years the same plant, with the same American workers but a Japanese management system had reduced the defect rate to 2%. Everyone, including managers, were from the USA they were just using quality improvement methods. We may forget now, but one of the many objections managers gave for why quality improvement wouldn’t work in their company was due to their bad workers (it might work in Japan but not here).
He references how Deming’s 14 points will get management to allow quality improvement to be done by the workforce. Because without management support quality improvement processes can’t be used.
With experimentation we are looking to find clues for what to experiment with next. Experimentation is an iterative process. This is very much the mindset of fast iteration and minimal viable product (say minimal viable experimentation as voiced in 1987).
There is great value in creating iterative processes with fast feedback to those attempting to design and improve. Box and Deming (with rapid turns of the PDSA cycle) and others promoted this 20, 30 and 40 years ago and now we get the same ideas tweaked for startups. The lean startup stuff is as closely related to Box’s ideas of experimentation as an iterative process as it is to anything else.
He also provided a bit of history that I was not aware of saying the first application of orthogonal arrays (fractional factorial designs) in industry was by Tippett in 1933. And he then mentioned work by Finney in 1945, Plackett and Burman in 1946 and Rao in 1947.
The education system is important and not very good in my opinion. As a kid I found it boring and constraining and a system designed more to extinguish my quest for knowledge than increase my desire to learn. As a kid I was told by adults that adults knew better and I shouldn’t complain.
I was told “don’t you realize you are in one of the best school systems in the USA?” With a bit of data I was convinced that seemed likely. To me this seemed like an even more ominous sign. If the best was this bad what was everything else like?
The argument that made the most sense to me (for why I should be happy with, or at least accept, the lousy system I was stuck in) was that as a kid I probably just didn’t understand why this environment that seemed to bore not just me, but most all the kids around me and this system that crushed our desire to learn must somehow be working otherwise the adults would certainly fix it.
As an adult what I find is my thoughts as a kid were essentially completely correct (except that last one that adults wouldn’t stick with some pitiful system without good reason) and plenty of education experts had been saying the same things. Adults seem perfectly fine not adopting proven better education practices just as they are fine not adopting proven better management practices.
When Dr. Deming was asked what to do instead of performance appraisal, when he railed against performance appraisal, he said do “whatever Peter Scholtes says.” To the question of what we should we do about the education system I say do whatever David Langford and Alife Kohn say.
I know more about the specifics of what educational systems following David Langford’s idea are like, and all I can say is they are wonderful. If I had kids I would definitely consider moving somewhere that had such a system (like Leander, Texas where they have been moving down that path for 20 years). They focus on helping student learn in a way that is so much more sensible than the one I had to sit through and most everyone reading this had to sit through.
The percentage of students that graduate with a desire to keep learning from an educational system like Leander is much greater than the traditional path. My high school had more National merit scholars than any public high school in the USA the year I graduated (some prep schools beat us, but only a few – partially because we were so large and they are often small). We had many students that were smart, dedicated and capable of succeeding at prestigious universities. Of course with tons of University of Wisconsin faculty as parents this is not a very surprising result.
Bill Fox interviewed me and has posted part one of the interview on his web site: Predicting Results in the Planning Stage (sorry, the link has been hijacked to forward to an unrelated page [so obviously I removed the link], I have posted the interview which can now be reached here):
Bill: John, what is your best process improvement strategy or tactic that has worked well for you or your clients?
John: I would say the PDSA improvement cycle and a few key practices in using the PDSA properly like predicting the results in the plan stage—something that a lot of the times people do not do—to determine what would be done based on the results of that prediction.
People discover, especially when they’re new to this stuff, regarding the data that they’re collecting, that maybe even if they got the results they are predicting, they still don’t have enough data to take action. So you figure that even if that number is 30, they would need to know three other things before they make the change. So then, in the plan stage, you can figure that you need to address these other issues, too. At any time that people are collecting data is useful to figure out, for instance: “What do we need to do if the result is 30 or if the result is 3?” And if you don’t have any difference, why are you collecting the data?
Another important piece is the D in Plan, Do, Study, Act. It means “do the experiment”. A lot of times, people get confused into thinking that D means deploy the results or something like that, but thinking of D as ‘doing the experiment’ can be helpful.
A really big key between people that use PDSA successfully and those who don’t is that the ones that do it successfully turn the cycle quickly.
Bill: What is the biggest misunderstanding about the Deming Management System you think people have?
John: I would say that there are a couple. The followers that want to pin everything to Deming tend to overlook the complexities and nuances and other things.
The other problem is that some of the critics latch on to a specific quote from Deming, something like a one-sentence long quote, and then they extrapolate from that one sentence-long quote what that means. And the problem is that Deming has lots of these one-sentence quotes that are very memorable and meaningful and useful, but they don’t capture every nuance and they don’t alone capture what it really means (you need to have the background knowledge to understand it completely).
They are sort of trying to oversimplify the message into these sound bites, and I find that frustrating. Because those individual quotes are wonderful, but they are limited to one little quote out of hours of videotape, books, articles, and when you don’t understand the context in which that resides, that’s a problem.
See the full interview for more details and other topics. I think it is worth reading, of course I am a bit biased.
“Experience teaches nothing. In fact there is no experience to record without theory… Without theory there is no learning… And that is their downfall. People copy examples and then they wonder what is the trouble. They look at examples and without theory they learn nothing.”
Our brains are good at creating theories, from our experiences, so that our brain can learn. However when this is done only subconsciously we can be led astray. And in complex situations where it is not easy to see the causal relationships (managing human systems for example) it easier for us to be led astray when we are not consciously thinking about the theory driving our thoughts and decisions.
When we are learning (as little kids) we don’t understand that are brain is creating theories to help us learn. But our brain is creating theories and testing them out. What happens when we push the spoon off our high chair? Lets try it 500 times and see. After repeated experiments, we learn a good deal about how gravity will affect objects no matter where you are, no matter if you are in a highchair, or a stroller or a slide or your mother’s lap… We also learn about how people will react (psychology).
Our brains are great at creating theories and testing them even without us understanding that is what is going on. But managers need to push past this subconscious learning to understand the theories behind their actions or they will spend lots of time on activities that are wasteful, similar to the bird in this webcast:
Worm charming is a behavior birds use to encourage worms to go to the surface so the birds can then eat them. The methods used vary, however tapping earth with feet to generate vibrations is widespread. One theory for why the worms go to the surface is the vibrations are similar to those produced by digging moles, which prey on earthworms.
This bird doesn’t understand the theory behind their instinct. Therefore the bird can’t understand that a worm is not likely to burst through the pavement. Too often managers are applying behaviors without understanding the theory (or without evidence showing that the practice based on the theory is effective – failing to practice evidence based management). And so the managers don’t understand that the behavior will not be successful given the conditions they find themselves in.