Tag Archives: organization as a system

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

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

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

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

Madison County courthouse in London, Ohio.

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

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

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

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

How to Lead From Any Level In the Organization

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

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

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

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

The Art of Influence in an Organization

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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The New Age of Robots and What it Means for Jobs

I believe we have reached a turning point in the usefulness and effectiveness of industrial robots. For several decades it was pretty easy to predict wholesale adoption of “the robots will save us” mantra would be followed by failure. I still strongly believe Toyota’s method (thoughtful use of robotics to enhance people is the best strategy). But the ease of using robots to succeed in the long term is much easier today than 10 years ago.

Robot-first strategies are going to be succeeding quite a bit going forward. Those efforts will not be good enough when competing with companies using the best strategy well (but that will be rare).

I wrote some about this some previously: Technological innovation brings great opportunity for improving results and our quality of life. But transforming potential benefits into real results comes with many challenges…

Essentially I see people today too dismissive of the usefulness of robots in business. And they have past examples to point to in showing how a large commitment to robot-first failed. It isn’t that today robot-first is the best strategy, but I do believe the real world conditions have improved to make the blanket assumption that such efforts will fail as unwise.

A big part of this is that while we can simplify the argument to “robot first” or “robots helping people” it really isn’t that simple. There are many reasons why today the conditions are different than they have been. Technological and software improvements are a big part of that.

But also there is more thoughtful consideration of the advantages Toyota’s management philosophy brings. Sadly not enough, but still companies are better today at thinking and acting as if their employees have brains than they were 30 years ago. Granted there is still a long way to go, but still progress has been made it seems to me at the macro level. Many companies that are not doing as well creating systems that maximize the benefits available from using the minds of every employee as those reading this blog would hope are still doing better in that vein than was true 30 years ago.

Certainly many people today understand the vast benefits provided by industrial robots. There is reason to worry about the risks of organizations hopeful that just installing industrial robots will fix all their problems.

Industrial robots are the most advanced application of robots in business today but they are still far from plug and play solutions. They require skilled experts to have them work effectively; but the capabilities and usability have greatly increased over the last 20 years. Respect for people (and all that entails about the management system) is an important part of creating a management system to have the most success integrating robots.

C3PO android from Star Wars

My photo of C3PO at the Star Wars Interactive Exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston

We refer to industrial “robots” for machines that do jobs people used to perform in plants, but those robots are nothing like what we think of robots as a stand alone concept. In the last 20 years industrial robots have become much more “thoughtful” and have gained software that makes them seem more like “robots” in the sense that they are more than just a machine. But they still look nothing like robots. Autonomous cars look nothing like our C3PO vision of robots (androids) but are in many ways pretty robot-like (making many decisions and likely conversing with us in ways approaching out C3PO vision.

Interactive speakers (like Alexa) exhibit some of the characteristics of robots but again look nothing like our vision of them in our mind. The next 5 years will see an explosion in the use of machines much closer to our vision of robots (like the Pepper robot shown above). Smart phones already perform many aspects of the 1960s view of how robots would be making our lives easier. And small vacuums take on that specific cleaning task (without the ascetics of an android pushing a vacuum cleaner but ticking off that feature for robots to perform for us).

The ability of us to create technological solutions to accomplish tasks that required people has exploded in the last 20 years and will continue to. Lawyers are finding much of what they do can be done by a computer. Much, doesn’t mean all, obviously. Search and rescue in disaster areas is another task that robots are playing an increasing role in; and the use of robots will likely continue to grow quickly. Technology is taking over many aspects of medical care that were not long ago seen as requiring highly trained and experience medical professionals (reading scans, diagnosing illness…).

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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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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