All posts by Simon Black

Things will always go wrong…better to look at what is predictable

Ed Deming used to say that ‘things will always go wrong’. This is true in the complex work and business environments that are encountered day-to-day.

We can be victims to this, much as we would be for unforeseen natural disasters: hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions. Alternatively we can prepare for a likely disaster and have plans in place to mitigate its effects: bunkers, safe havens, evacuation plans.

Better is for us to be able to predict these occurrences. This is true for natural disasters, but for most of us are not obviously threatened by such calamity (which is why we probably fuss more with the trivia of the world of work!). So lets talk work – the importance of prediction is true in how we handle day-to-day ‘disasters’.

Things go wrong for two reasons – (1) underlying problems in the way things are set up we means we have cycles of good days and bad days, and (2) problems caused by an assignable factor. Deming called the first ‘common causes’ and the second ‘special causes’. the importance of this differentiation is n what we do in response to those issues. Things will always go wrong.

If performance is below the level we need on a predictable basis then we have an underlying set of ‘common causes’ which are built into the system of work – its design, the training of people, the job design, raw materials, plans. This takes a lot of effort to test new methods, monitor progress and change and embed new approaches. No quick fix.

If a one off problem occurs think – do we know the cause? Is it a one-off? Can we mitigate for that cause? What would we do if it occurs again? Fr this situation never go through redesign of the system – that will only make things worse and put what was under control, to now spin out of control. However if you find the cause then stop and think – does knowing this fact give us a clue to future fundamental improvements?

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Deming W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Systems ignorance and unintended damage

Cause and Effect Analysis is often considered a comprehensive approach to addressing problems and identifying solutions. This approach is true in closed systems where linear cause-effect relationships typically occur. Many areas of manufacturing and assembly would fit into this model.

Most work situations do not occur in a closed system but instead are in open systems where many factors affect an outcome.

Ishikawa recognised this in his ‘fishbone analysis’ approach to problems. He recognised that many causes, and layers of causes  can affect an outcome. He also advocated for the collection of data on causes and outcomes before relying on an intervention to have a desired affect.

If we ignore this advice we will implement actions which will have unintended consequences. Send a ‘communication’ and it is interpreted as a threat. Give a pay-rise to one person and it is seen as a betrayal of trust by a dozen other people. Instigate an inspection system and it generates a new industry (and associated cost) to the sector. Seek to drive down costs by reducing resources and it will increase costs by causing repeated failures.

If you have a lunchtime to spare it is worth listening to Peter Senge’s discussion about systems in organisations:

Peter Senge’s keynote speech “Systems Thinking for a Better World” at the 30th Anniversary Seminar of the Systems Analysis Laboratory “Being Better in the World of Systems” at Aalto University, 20 November 2014.

The myth of restructuring

 

Re-structuring and re-organising is probably the most common change management method used in organisations. It is the organisational equivalent of management accounting – moving things to make an impression that things have changed.

managers like to make an impression, and many are prepared to even if it involves complete illusion. The problem with restructuring is twofold.

First organisational structure has much less influence on organisation performance than does organisational culture. uit is the behaviour of

The phenomenon is not new. In the magazine article “Merrill’s Marauders” (Harper’s Magazine, 1957)  Charlton Ogburn described his experiences in the british Army during the  Burma Campaign of World War II thus:

“We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. Presumably the plans for our employment were being changed. I was to learn later in life that, perhaps because we are so good at organizing, we tend [as a nation] to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.”

If you want to look busy spend your time, and other people’s time doing a restructure. Aside form wasting time and resources (including redundancies, pay rises, consultants fees, etc) it will have the added benefit of making things worse.

On the other hand act professionally, use knowledge accrued by organisation development over 50 years and consider the overall system of work, what is affecting people’s effectiveness and work with them to make things better. It involves everyone, fixes the problems which people are actually experiencing, and is a lot cheaper.

Reading:

Beckhard, R. (1972) Optimizing Team Building Effort, J. Contemporary Business.  1:3,  pp.23-32

MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK

 

Still no ‘instant pudding’

An earlier version of this was first posted on 3rd June 2013

When we consider change in the workplace we should “see things as a human system: people, the work that we do, the interactions we have with each other, the physical environment that we create and use. These

Don't go for the "quick mix-quick fix"
Don’t hope for the “quick mix – quick fix”

are the routes to change.”

This is great because as humans we have the privilege of choice; we can be proactive and make things happen.

The down side of this is that this situation is by its nature complex – other people might not feel the same as us and may put up barriers or counter-proposals.

As a consequence, to make things change, we need to encourage people to change – or at least the people who have an impact on outcomes (note: trying to change people who cannot affect change is a sure-fire route to getting unpopular AND will fail to have impact in any event – so don’t make people the problem).

To encourage people to change we need to change their thinking, how they value people, how they understand why results occur, how systems work (or don’t work), how to distinguish between ups and downs, between real improvements and one-off blips in performance.

Some people may have an epiphany and see new ways to operate, whilst other people may more gradually understand the need for a new perspective. Either way new thinking has to be embedded in our habits and ways of working and this usually takes practice.

This is consistent with Herrero’s (2006) suggestion that new behaviours are needed FIRST  to support proposed changes in processes and systems.

Quoting his mentor Deming, Donald Wheeler tells us  that “The [new] way of thinking – has to be cultivated. This will take both time and practice. There is no instant pudding. There is no shortcut.”

To effect change is to do it… and to keep doing it. To be the change … and sticking to it.

As Wheeler says “There’s nothing to it but to do it.”

Further Reading:

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

Wheeler D.J. (2000) Understanding Variation: the Key to Managing Chaos, SPC Press, Knoxville, TE

Tell me – what’s your purpose?

An earlier version of this was first posted on 2nd May 2013

sub purposeTo be clear about our work – namely, who we are serving, how to do the work, how to change, what is ‘good’, how to measure results, and what improvement looks like – we must be clear about one thing:

WHAT IS OUR PURPOSE?

Peter Scholtes was one of the clearest writers on this concept. For him, like Deming before, everything starts with purpose;  “Without a purpose there is no system”.

Until we have clarity of purpose, all we are doing is completing sets of tasks. ‘Purpose’ should be embedded in our thinking about work, people and organisations.

Scholtes offers an example to illustrate the importance of purpose:

“Cleaning a table cannot be a system until the purpose of the clean table is made clear. A table clean enough to eat on requires one system of cleaning. Clean enough to dance on requires another. Clean enough to perform surgery on requires yet another. Everything starts with purpose.

‘What is your purpose?’ is the most useful question one can be asked.” 

When thinking this way, work is transformed from being seen as tasks to carry out, to become a complelling reason to do something; a framework for making decisions and seeking ways to improve.

Read more:

Deming, W. E. (1993) The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, second edition. MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Scholtes, P. R. (1998) The Leader’s Handbook: A guide to inspiring your people and managing the daily workflow, New York: McGraw-Hill

Scholtes P.R. (1999) The New Competencies of Leadership, Total Quality Management, 10: 4&5, S704-S710.

Leadership lessons from Deming

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.

Reading:

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

 

Costs are found in flow – not within activities

 flow2To 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!

 

Reading:

Adair, J. E. (1973). Action-centred leadership. McGraw-Hill.

Seddon, J. (2003). Freedom from Command and Control. Buckingham: Vanguard Press.

Does ‘Best’ Method Always Mean ‘Best’ Results? Impacts On Excellence


This blog was launched 6 years ago.

We continue to issue key early contributions alongside new articles.

An earlier version of the following was posted on December 8th 2014

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’.

Does one size fit all?
Does one size fit all?

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.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-26161340

 

*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.

 

The Pale Blue Dot – paradigms and the big picture

An earlier version of this was first posted on November 1st 2013

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…

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Pale_Blue_Dot.png

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.

Further Reading:

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.

Links:

BBC News (2013) Cassini probe takes image of Earth from Saturn orbit, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23419543

California  Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory News Release (2013) NASA Releases Images of Earth Taken by Distant Spacecraft saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/newsreleases/newsrelease20130722/

Improving service starts with a leap of fact, not faith

An earlier version of this was first posted on October 10th 2014

Leap of Fact

  • What should we improve and why?
  • What has changed?
  • How do we improve things, where … when?
  • Who should we involve?

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 Causes”

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).

“Special Causes”

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.

Reading:

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.