Tag Archives: management

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

Continue reading

Popular Posts on the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog in 2019

These posts were the most popular posts on the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog in 2019 (as measured by page views recorded by my analytics application).

14 posts are repeats from the 2018 top 20 list. Of the new top 20 posts 3 were published in 2010, 1 in 2008 and 2 in 2019. The long term value of good blog content is overlooked by many people. I hope you continue to enjoy this blog, both the new content and the content I published many years ago. I have a historical Curious Cat management RSS feed to help you view that content (also see other Curious Cat RSS feeds).

photo of John Hunter with the US Capital in the Background

John Hunter with the US Capital in the background, Washington DC

Continue reading

Design the Management System with an Appreciation of Confirmation Bias

photo of John Hunter with a walking stick

John Hunter hiking at Fraser’s Hill, Malaysia, when I was a bit younger.

To create strong organizations we must create management systems using an appreciation of psychology. We must understand that people have tendencies that must be addressed by designing a management system built to take advantage of the strength those people bring and mitigate the risks the weaknesses (such as confirmation bias) that those people also bring.

One way to do this is to seek out voices in your organization that question and challenge accepted positions. Often organizations promote those that make things easiest for everyone, which correlates very well with supporting existing biases within the organization while making things difficult for those that challenge the existing thinking.

As I wrote previously in, How We Know What We Know:

the way people build up beliefs, is full of all sorts of systemic problems.
… [people] tend to think someone entertaining is more educational than someone not entertaining. They may be more entertaining, but taking the ideas of those who are entertaining and rejecting the ideas of people who are not is not a great strategy to build up a great system of knowledge.

To more effectively adopt good ideas and reject bad ideas, understanding the theory of knowledge (how we know what we know) and then applying that knowledge to how you learn is a better strategy. Learning to recognize confirmation bias and take steps to avoid it is one positive step. Learning to recognize when you accept ideas from those you like without critical judgment and reject ideas from those you find annoying and then learning to evaluate the ideas on the merits is another positive step…

I also wrote about these ideas in, The Importance of Critical Thinking and Challenging Assumptions:

Often we have created cultural norms that make it difficult for people to ask for evidence of claims. And the culture in many organizations can make those that seek evidence for claims as being difficult or even personally attacking those that support a certain course of action. However this is a dangerous attitude and it is directly counter to the fundamental aspects of management improvement efforts (evidence decision making, continual improvement, etc.).

Learning to challenge confirmation bias in your own thinking is hard. Often it is much harder to learn how to get the organization as a whole to change from one where confirming (and maybe ignoring anything that might make it difficult to maintain the existing belief) what most of us believe (or wish to be true) to one where challenging the assumptions underlying our thought process is appreciated.

Great benefits flow to organizations that encourage the challenging of beliefs, ideas and the lessons we draw from data. But such a culture can create friction in organizations without other strong management practices (respect for people, an understanding of what data does and does not reveal…). Often creating such a culture is something best left until the process of building the capability of the organization is well underway.

Related: The Illusion of UnderstandingManaging Our Way to Economic SuccessExperience Teaches Nothing Without TheoryThe Dangers of Forgetting the Proxy Nature of Data

20 Most Popular Posts on the Curious Cat Management Blog in 2018

These posts were the most popular posts on the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog in 2018 (as measured by page views, as recorded by my analytics application).

photo of large river clearing in the Hoh Rainforest

Hoh River Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park by John Hunter


Continue reading

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?
Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Quality of the Entire Customer Experience

Customer expectations are high in the highly competitive marketplace today. The quality of a product or service alone is no longer a differentiator; instead the overall quality of the experience is now the differentiator for customers.

ASQ has asked their Influential Voices to explore how this “new” expectation impacts on how we need to manage our organizations. See my past blog posts as part of the ASQ Influential Voices program (I have participated since 2012).

To some degree the premise is faulty and is making the common mistake of declaring old thoughts as if they are new. This is a common problem that hampers the application of the management improvement concepts: because the history of using the ideas are not explored to learn what has worked and what problems organizations have faced adopting the ideas.

But there is some truth to the idea that customer expectations have risen. Product quality, in many ways, has been raised in the last few decades and this naturally results in raised expectations. This pattern was well known in the 1960s (and before). Kano’s theory of customer satisfaction expressed how new features moved from being “delighters” for customers initially and eventually became minimum expectations (you gain no credit for delivering them but will upset customers if you fail).

It is also true that raising the overall customer experience is more difficult than raising product quality (due to the nature of the systems that deliver the results in each case).

I do think there is truth to the idea that customers have raised expectations for businesses to improve the entire experience. Customers are less willing to accept excuses about how the provider is not responsible for various aspects of the experience.

photo of mural of kids and animals

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

We expect to be able to pay for our purchases online and have an easy to use history of our purchases available. One of the examples of businesses continually failing in this expectation is seen at many USA financial institutions that often fail to provide history after a very short period of time (sometimes even as low as 1 or 2 years). This is an example of how far some organizations have to go. It is ludicrous to not keep permanent records of financial transactions in most cases.

While in many ways overall customer experiences are improving we still have huge room for improvement. Many companies continue to fail to even meet minimal required features (forget actually providing customer delight).

One way that shows the idea of focusing on the customer experience is nothing new is that it is the natural focus of the traditional management improvement methods (as described by Deming, Ackoff, Box, etc.). When people were seeking alternatives to “quality management” (as the use of that term was so vague in practice that it was difficult to know what was meant by “quality management”) I settled on “customer focused continual improvement.” That remains my touchtone.

An organization in 1980, 2000 or 2017 should have had the same focus on continually improving the customer experience. Reading through my posts on this blog (which I started in 2004) provides many examples of managing with that in mind: The most important customer focus is on the end users (2012), What Job Does Your Product Do? (2007), What Could we do Better? (2006), Delighting Customers (2010). These links all discuss the importance of understanding and continually improving the overall customer experience by gaining an in depth understanding of their needs and desires.

Continue reading

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

Lessons for Managers from Wisconsin and Duke Basketball

What can managers learn from Duke and Wisconsin’s basketball teams? Duke and Wisconsin are in the college basketball championship game tonight. They reached this stage through a great deal of hard work, skill, training and coaching.

Raw talent matters to mangers and even more to college basketball coaches. But raw talent alone won’t succeed (for college basketball teams a great system starved of raw talent would also fail).

The lesson many people miss is that college teams are mostly about developing a team that wins. Developing individual players is a part of that, but it is subordinate to developing a team. I think college coaches understand this reality much more than most managers do. But a management system that develops a team that succeeds is also critical to the success of business.

Managers can learn from successful college basketball programs the importance of creating a successful team. Part of doing that is developing individual skills of players. A huge part of it is developing an understanding of the system within which those players must operate.

Recruiting is an important part of developing an elite college basketball team. And it is critical to developing a world class business organization (though recruiting is less important to business, in my opinion). Recruiting is important in business, but it is easier to be very successful with good people, the skills needed in business are not often so rare as those needed in high level basketball.

Continue reading