It is 90 years this month since Ed Deming completed his PhD in Physics, but it is his work with statistical understanding of processes and performance of organisations, and its impact on human behaviour and leadership which is his lasting legacy. Deming was alays open to learning new things, up to the end of his life at the age of 93 – a lesson for us all.
A few important concepts which he identified for leaders include:
90% of problems are cause by the system – and the system belongs to management
Banish any form of individual ranking or reward because 90% of variation is due to the system and not individual performance.
There is no substitute for knowledge. Seek knowledge not opinion or assumption.
Engage people in change. From day-to-day activity they know the problems and issues of work better than managers. Give them the measures to understand the activity and they can better make efforts to improve it.
Best efforts tend to cause problems. If we just ‘try harder’ it is likely to make things worse, unless we change the system of work
Drive out fear. Innovation, ideas, creativity enable high work performance. Fear crushes all of these things.
Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.
Deming W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.
Voehl, F. (1995) Deming the way we knew him. St Lucie Press, FLA
To reduce costs, the expectation is that we must ‘gain efficiency’. This means speeding up the activities which we carry out or reducing the amount of money spent each time we do it. To understand the speed of activities, we should (surely!) count those activities or their cost – and perhaps see how quickly they are repeated or how much cost they accrue. Does this make sense so far? If it does, then you have been led down the garden path.
Meaningful change should relate to the purpose of the team (essentially their focus on the work), and the team’s purpose should fit with the wider organisation’s purpose. Efficiency gains mean nothing if purpose is compromised. Even cost savings to save a business must be purposeful (and related to core business) if that business is to have any chance to succeed in the long term – otherwise it is just giving respite to an essentially lost cause.
Next consider whether your change is going to impact/intervene with the task (work), the team, or a particular individual (or individuals).
With task changes you are interested in both the value of the task (output quality as assessed by the user) and the flow of the activities (timeliness and waste/repetition/failure recovery etc).
With team you are looking at effectiveness of contribution and team energy, morale, sharing, learning, synergy and interactions.
With individuals it is about their contribution, development and commitment.
If people have been brought along with the change, the reasons, how it fits with team purpose and how it improves output for users at less effort for us (or at least, less wasted effort), then you are much more likely to avoid problems with ‘team’ and ‘individual’. So in a roundabout way a holistic view is important. But it is important at the outset – during the design of your intended change (when you consider what /where/when) and how you design the ways in which to get people on board in that design.
The reason people get bothered by change is either:
1) because they know the work and can see the pitfalls and would prefer to implement changes that would make a real difference (potential positive constructive contributors), or
2) they know the pitfalls and want to hide them because they should have raised those problems themselves, so feel a bit exposed (likely negative grumblers).
The ‘1’s will be in the majority – you need to make sure those people don’t become grumblers because their input has not been sought or valued!
Adair, J. E. (1973). Action-centred leadership. McGraw-Hill.
Seddon, J. (2003). Freedom from Command and Control. Buckingham: Vanguard Press.
Best practice standards are commonly seen as a sure-fire route to successful improvement. After all – who could question the value of implementing best ? If you are by now used to my Best practice standards are commonly seen as a sure-fire route to successful improvement. After all – who could question the value of implementing best writing style you will have guessed that I am one person who would question the value of ‘best practice’.
Why question it?
Any method has to make sense in the context and purpose of what it is trying to deliver. Best practice in cleaning tables might be vital in preparing an operating theatre but might be excessive, costly and irrelevant when applied to a door making factory. The purpose of the work is important. Best practice in answering a phone call succinctly, clearly and efficiently might be the last thing that a service caller with an unusual problem wishes to hear.
I can remember being told by a customer service clerk, when attempting to return a clothing item in exchange for a refund or credit note, that “the company’s returns policy was recognised as best practice in the sector” – but sorry – no I could not have a refund (they suspected, or should I say assumed, that I had already used the item – which I plainly hadn’t). Their answer was no answer and no help to anyone (I did eventually get my refund).*
In services you need to build in flexibility. This means that you have to think carefully about what your users want and therefore what you must do to meet that need – otherwise a poorly considered method will not deliver what is really needed. Deming always asked ‘by what method?’
Over and above this, if you do implement a standard way of working, you tend to build in both rigidity (a lack of flexibility to meet differeing needs) and you push users’ experiences further away from the ideal. Seddon states “Don’t codify method” in services – in other words don’t write it all down and demand that everyone sticks to the written code. But why – surely standardisation will ensure quality (especially if the standard is shown to be best)?
Imagine – you call a service centre with a particular query in your mind – the telephone menu asks you to press 1,2 or 3 for different services, then at the next menu another 1,2,3. Even if you get through cleanly to the final stage do you really feel satisfied as a user? And what about the false trails, the accidental hangups or the misdirection to the wrong department? It all gets a bit depressing and, frankly, wasteful.
Even in Ofsted inspections of schools, the error of inspecting and expecting a best method of teaching is now discouraged since the method is dependent on the learning needs and nuances of the students at the point of the teaching intervention. Yes – it figures.
To paraphrase Mitch Ditkoff, when imitation replaces creativity, something invariably gets lost – and innovation eventually goes down the drain.
Deming, W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.
Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.
*P.S. As I gave my explanation they could see my receipt where the value of other items I had bought (with no refund requested incidentally) far exceeded the value of this item by about a factor of 5! As a clearly ‘valued’ customer (read: insulted) I chose to withdraw my custom from that outlet – for about 15 years – the lifetime of family clothing purchases – not out of spite, I may add – I just lost any sense of preference to buy from that store.
We all know that the world is a big place, with lots of complexity and over 7 billion people living in it.
Let’s just stop for a moment and take a look at this photograph…
Taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, this image is notable for the diagonal coloured stripes; but don’t be distracted – these colours are just artefacts of sunlight glancing off the camera housing. They are not the subject of the photograph.
The most important piece of the image is however, the nearly unnoticeable speck of blue just over halfway down the brown stripe on the right. This is Earth.
Carl Sagan, astrophysicist, astronomer and author, pointed out that: “all of human history has happened on that tiny pixel, which is our only home” (speech, Cornell University, 1994).
So what shall we think about when we return to work on Monday?
Rather than worry about the wider world and the vastness beyond it, we should perhaps take note of Stephen Covey’s suggestion and focus on our Circle of Influence, namely the things close enough to us that we can do something about. If we proactively work on what we can change in ourselves it will cause a ripple outwards and increase our influence to inspire and change others.
Covey, S. (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.
Postscript: A more recent photograph of earth has since been taken from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft (peeking from behind Saturn) which shows Earth a little more defined far beyond the rings of Saturn.
If we start to address these questions and filter out assumptions and preconceptions, we are able to make some sensible decisions about how to make effective changes that will have a positive effect on performance.
The world is not perfect and we are unlikely to always have the time and resources to gather the complete picture of what is happening. Nevertheless it is important that we seek out and analyse relevant data in order to make some reasonably robust assumptions about what we can do.
There are two common failures of action, lets call them type 1 and type 2 (which is what statisticians call them), or perhaps a mistake in identification between ‘common causes’ and ‘special causes’ of variation. Without understanding the difference we risk just ‘tampering’, where we feel like we are doing something useful but actually only making things worse (Deming, 1982).
Common cause situations are those where performance goes up and down over time and if analysed properly can be seen to occur over a relatively predictable pattern: if we change nothing, the performance level will most likely continue. The problems arise when someone thinks they see a real difference between points of data when in fact no such thing exists. This a type 1 error: we observe a change which is really only a natural effect of background ‘noise’ yet we choose to act on that ‘change’. For example someone in the office achieves a great result whilst others do not achieve the same result. Is the difference because of the person, or something else in the wider context? Perhaps, as is often the case, they just got lucky and happened to be the one that achieved the good result. Next week it might be someone else. The analogy is a fire alarm going off indicating a fire when in fact there is no fire. It is easy to fall into type 1 errors assuming highs and lows of performance which don’t exist. This is a ‘mistake of commission’ – doing something that should not have been done (Ackoff et al 2006).
Some special causes are obvious, for example a major increase or decrease in performance or a freak accident. However, sometimes hidden patterns of performance can indicate a real change which might easily go undetected if we consider each data point as a ‘one off’. This is a bit like a fire breaking out but the fire alarm not ringing. The fundamental problem is that these genuine changes are due to ‘Special Causes’ something real which is impinging on the system. The issue here is that the solution sits outside the system – don’t redesign what you have as it will not replicate the situation – that is just meddling and will make things worse. For example, cycles of deteriorating work output followed by improving work output by one person might indicate an underlying special cause which needs to be addressed (health for example), so meddling with the design of the work in itself would be counterproductive. Furthermore if the manager does not look at performance over time, these cycles might not be detected anyway – on average they might look like a reasonable level of output. Ackoff calls this a mistake of omission – not doing something that should have been done.
Of course to detect differences between special cause and common cause varuiations in performance requires new skills and disciplines of thinking. When you understand the organisation as a system, improving service starts with a leap of fact, not faith.
Ackoff, R.L.; Addison, H. J. Bibb, S. (2006) Management f-Laws: How Organizations Really Work. Triarchy Press
Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.
Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.
Dealing with change usually involves debate: what to change, why, where, when, how and who?
There is often the danger that skeptical inquiry can creep towards defensiveness and cynicism. Here are some things to challenge when these attributes appear in negative arguments presented by others (adapted from Paine 2013):
POOR responses in discussions include:
Attacking the person not the argument, or stereotyping a position to make attacks easier.
Relying on ‘authority’. Hierarchy should make no difference, one person’s opinion should be no weightier than another’s (both are, after all, just opinions) – what are the facts?
Observational selection (counting positives and forgetting the negatives, or vice versa).
● Statistics of small numbers
(such as drawing conclusions from inadequate sample sizes)
● the ‘sample of one’: using a single case which could be an extreme outlier rather than the norm
‘conveniently’ considering only two extremes to make the opposing view look worse:
● Excluding the middle options in a range of possibilities
● Short-term v long-term: “why pursue research when we have so huge a budget deficit?”.
● Slippery slope – unwarranted extrapolation “give an inch and they will take a mile” – would they…always?
Misunderstanding the nature of statistics
Confuse correlation & causation (cause & effect):
‘it happened after so it was caused by’ – is this really justified?
Appeal to ignorance
(but – absence of evidence is not evidence of absence).
To address these arguments ask: what is the purpose of the discussion? what do we know? what are the facts? what are we assuming? what knowledge can we reasonably base our decision making upon? how can we examine, predict and monitor outcomes?
As Deming says, most of what is important is unknown or unknowable, but we don’t assume that it doesn’t exist.
When it comes down to it, what are we really committed to? How can we test our integrity, our true priorities and principles? How do people judge our choices and interpret our values? How do we show what we think is important? The answer is startlingly simple. In the words of a valued former colleague, Derek Middleton, whom I worked with many years ago,
“You show your commitments by what you say and what you do“
Derek implied that he was quoting someone else, but I have yet to find a source in the intervening years, so I will attribute it to him.
The statement is far from a banal truism. It is a test of character:
Do we link what we say with what we do?
Do we do the things which we say are important?
Do we say the things which we know are important?
Do we prioritise our actions just as we do our words & ideas?
Lets face it – are we really committed? We can apply this to our ethics, our respect of others, our work values, our plans, goals, priorities, sense of self, use of time. It forces us to be honest with ourselves, to reject the excuse: ‘I haven’t got the time‘. It is about self-management and real priorities.
Analogies from the worlds of sports and entertainment tend to fail in these discussions; dedication tends to be relatively time-bound (to achievement, excellence or skill acquisition) and is a relatively poor relation to true commitment; what we say & what we do.
Coppin, A. and Barratt, J. (2002) Timeless Management, Palgrave MacMillan, NY
Covey, S. (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.
Lovell, J. and Kluger J. (1994) Lost Moon – the perilous voyage of Apollo. Houghton Mifflin, NY
Traditional change management follows a linear approach, defining a goal, identifying a plan and delivering to that plan. The process is logical and surely unquestionable. The approach to setting targets for change and measuring progress now has its own name ‘deliverology’ – but this does not change traditional linear thinking.
The problem is that organisations do not act in a linear fashion, they are much more complex systems. This means that if you change one thing then something unexpected is likely to happen somewhere else – and what you had intended may or may not happen.
Of course understanding systems can be a difficult thing to do. Instead managers either resort to ‘giving their view’ on things, or setting success measures, kpi’s and so on, based on those views. Having a view on why things are a problem is one thing, but for John Seddon, it is better to get knowledge by collecting data.
He suggests that it is better to define the following:
Purpose is the definition of why we are here, best understood from the customer (or user’s) perspective.
Measures allow us to understand what is likely to happen going forward if the systems doesn’t change.
Method – can be addressed when we understand the data derived from our measures.
Systems Theory tells us that Purpose Measures and Method are fundamentally linked – it is a systemic relationship. This systemic relationship can either work for you or against you depending on how you set things up.
If you impose arbitrary measuresyou create a de facto purpose, which is the one that the workforce will follow. This will constrain method. It will prevent people from improving the work.
On the other hand if you derive measures from the users point of view (e.g. customers) and then put those measures in the hands of people doing the work you and enable people to improve method so that measurable improvements can be pursued, then you can systematically deliver success.
The paradox is that in this system, change requires no plan. For Seddon, change is simply an emergent property. Innovation can only occur if you set things up that enable people to innovate in response to the real system of customers and organisation – what happens.
Any attempt to plan change otherwise is fiction.
Instead Seddon suggests that you need to see your organisation as it really behaves – how things work relative to your purpose ‘warts and all’ – because then at least you will know. Once you know that you can respond by innovating – enable people to innovate and overseee the changes that need to happen and you will improve morale.
John Seddon speaks briefly about innovation and change.
However it is not clear if a creative office space stimulates creative thinking, or whether it is the elimination of bad office design that appears to free up the minds of workers (i.e. workers may have been creative already, but just get it sucked out of them by a poor environment). After all did the innovative and creative workers of the past have wacky working environments (maybe they were not really as creative!)?
A 2017 survey of the employees at Expedia – the highest ranked company in the UK workplace satisfaction survey (and famous for groundbreaking office designs including on-site perks like table tennis, football, gaming consoles and a cocktail bar) found that people like working there because of the business, not the fancy office. “Culture” and “career opportunities” rate high, yet the physical surroundings barely merit a mention.
This should not be a surprise. Frederick Herzberg identified ‘hygiene factors’ in the 1960s – things having no positive impact on motivation but are merely the basics that need to be sorted out (along with pay, management style, working relationships etc). Over the long term there is a risk, unless the managers at these organisations are doing something else (i.e. addressing the working culture and career development), that their workforce may not be motivated to make a real difference to the performance of the business – will they still have leading products and services of the future or will better alternatives emerge from their competitors?
Over the past few decades it has become clear that whilst many ‘enlightened’ managers have dutifully followed the good manager mantras: developed themselves as leaders, worked on motivating staff, built trust and rapport, coached and developed, and engaged in team-building, the things that really matter is a common sense of purpose, how work is designed and what power people have over decisions and quality of the work that they do. This sounds fine in theory, perhaps, but in reality job design often sits in the lap of central departments (like HR), rather than the worker or the team, so the power even to design jobs is not at the point of knowledge – the people doing the work. The result is that managers can only be left to fiddle around the edges with team-building and cheer-leading. Or perhaps some just repaint the office.
An effective manager will learn how to understand and design work and how to engage people to ensure improved performance. An effective team will seek a clear purpose, investigate how their performance affects users, will challenge thinking, ask questions and engage in improvement.
Group working is one of those topics that is awkwardly both straightforward and complex depending upon how you look at it. Conventional wisdom sets us to assume that ‘more heads are better than one’ and this maxim is often a justification for working in teams. But is it always a helpful perspective?
Teams may be created to simply fulfill a structural need; to fill an office space or to organise a number of individuals under the supervision of a particular manager. These are not necessarily good reasons for organising group working.
What do we really know about team performance? And, if we are honest with ourselves, do groups always work better than individuals?
The answer, surely, is no. Have you ever sat on a committee and wondered ‘why are we all here?’?
Let’s take a sporting analogy. Put five excellent runners into a relay team. How well do they perform? In many cases, really well. In some cases they are good sometimes and poor another (the British men’s sprint relay team, in four of the last five Olympics and with largely the same personnel have been disqualified – 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012 – but won gold in 2004. Why is there such a wide difference between good and poor performances? It is easy to blame a mistake; incompetence or lack of attention, but the truth lies deeper.
The Ringelmann effect suggests that something different can happen in teams. If people’s personal roles are similar they can be disinclined to put everything into their work (this is a subconscious effect causing ‘free-riding’ rather than deliberate loafing). This effect has been shown in cases where a single worker has been put in a team with ‘non workers’ (i.e. people deliberately faking effort, but not actually doing real work). Even in these instances, the ‘real’ worker is often measured as putting in LESS effort than if they were doing the task on their own. In the classic experiment, assuming that men pulling a rope individually perform at 100% of their ability, apparently two-man groups perform at 93% of the average member’s pull, three-man groups at 85%, with eight-man groups pulling with only 49% of the average individual member’s ability.
So what is the solution? Never work in teams? No this would be a bit foolish, there are better questions…
1. Does the team have a clear sense of purpose?
2. Have we designed team work carefully – goals, roles, work ?
3. Have reasonable and relevant measures of performance been set?
4. Do we agree how to work together?
5. Are people ready to seek improvements as part of their role?
6. Do we encourage trust and mutual respect in the team?
7. Are our relationships based on an understanding of 1-5 above?
So, reverting to my previous blog on teamwork, we must focus on our purpose, our goals, understand our differing roles, agree how we work together at a practical level and look to build positive working relationships based on mutuality and trust.
Like anything in life, if we have a team of people, we need to regularly re-consider the purpose of the team. Do we have a team because it adds to achieving the purpose, or is it just because we have always had a team?
Next time you are in a turgid committee meeting, or your project team has ground to a halt, have a think about how the group could work better…
Beckhard, R. (1972) Optimizing Team Building Effort, J. Contemporary Business. 1:3, pp.23-32
Ingham, A.G., Levinger, G., Graves, J., & Peckham, V. (1974). The Ringelmann effect: Studies of group size and group performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 10, 371–384.
MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK
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