To 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 theclean 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 usefulquestion 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.
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.
However this solution addresses something quite different – a time and a place to work. The workplace is removed, so work time stops. This places the expectation on people to go away and recuperate.
For this company the ‘ritual’ of shutting away the desks sets the norm. It makes people get into the habit of switching off. And for a creative company that is important, letting the bran organise the day’s thinking without distractions of actually having to go back to work.
I wonder what the impact is on productivity…
Covey, S. (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.
This blog title is provocatively paradoxical. The assumption is that something measured is something proved.
This is not the case.
In practice, when we decide to define a fact, we then define what it is, how it is to be measured, then measure to verify.
In deciding the measurement, we simply place a judgment – our opinion of reality, onto something that isn’t there. For example:
The label on a blanket reads “50 per cent wool” What does this mean? Half wool, on the average, over this blanket, or half wool over a month’s production? What is half wool? Half by weight? If so, at what humidity? By what method of chemical analysis? How many analyses? The bottom half of the blanket is wool and the top half is something else. Is it 50 per cent wool? Does 50 per cent wool mean that there must be some wool in any random cross-section the size of a half dollar? If so, how many cuts shall be tested? How select them? What criterion must the average satisfy? And how much variation between cuts is permissible? Obviously, the meaning of 50 per cent wool can only be stated in statistical terms (Deming 1975).
Is it now becoming clear?
“Without theory (hypothesis), data are meangingless or nonexistent. There is thus no true value of anything: true value is undefinable operationally. There are, however, numerical values that people can use with confidence if they understand their meaning (for the tensile strength of a batch of wire, for example, or for the proportion of the labor force unemployed last month).” (Deming 1967).
The trick is to understand the meaning of numbers.
Not everything that can be counted counts.
Not everything that counts can be counted.
Just because you can measure something it does not mean that you can manage it. Many things are relatively unmeasurable, but important, like staff morale, contentment of customers (or even their excitement!). Mintzberg (2015) suggests that “when we hear the word ‘efficiency’ we zero in―subconsciously―on the most measurable criteria, like speed of service or consumption of energy. Efficiency means measurable efficiency. That’s not neutral at all, since it favors what can best be measured“
Deming was very clear on this point: “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.” We can end up spending effort measuring and reporting the wrong things and also losing sight of the ball – forgetting the real purpose of our work.
So the first useful question about an issue of performance is:
“what do we knowabout this?”, then “what will help us to improve?”
Think about this next time you set a goal, or measure results…
Deming W.E. (1967) Walter A. Shewhart, 1891-1967. The American Statistician, 21(2): 39-40
Deming (1974) On probability as a basis for action. The American Statistician, 29 (4): 146-152
Fellers G. (1994) Why Things go Wrong: Deming Philosophy in a Dozen Ten-Minute Sessions. Pelican Publishing
“Hard work is only a small part of productivity” says Richard Farson in his short book ‘Management of the Absurd’. But this can’t be true can it? What about work ethic, effort and all those other good things? Farson’s argument is that we should distinguish between what it is that makes people work hard and what accounts for productivity. Our work organisations. Now, not wanting to just re-regurgitate Farson’s already well considered arguments, it is worth adding a fresh angle to emphasise what he has observed.
Deming has very strong views on this: “Hard work and best efforts will not by themselves dig us out of the pit” – working hard may get you no-where fast (and you will be none the wiser until it is too late).
In a late response to the drama of the football world cup I have a list of lessons learned prompted by HR Grapevine. I have amended their proposed list and have included a couple of items which I have interpreted quite differently, so here is my personal list:
1: Don’t be too reliant on one star player
A number of matches have shown balanced teams succeed ahead of those that relied on one star player. Argentina’s Lionel Messi underperformed in the final and the German team got the result. Brazil struggled as soon as Neymar was ruled out through injury. Uruguay were at sea without Suarez. Weeks earlier in the tournament England were too reliant on the Rooney factor and appeared simply not to set up to act as a unit.
The system should be greater than the sum of its parts, and no more so than in a team. Algeria, Mexico and Costa Rica performed above and beyond expectations.
The same is true about the capability of any team.
2: Trying hard will only get you so far
I think the England team were well prepared and earnest in their efforts (despite the hype – both negative and positive – from the tabloids). Best efforts are often a sure fire way to failure (Deming has a lot to say about this). However mediocrity can be turned around – but this needs a transformation in approach.
A huge amount can be achieved by engaged the people who are ‘good enough’ to enable them to perform even better (see point one above).
3: Utilise technology – if it makes sense to do so
FIFA endorsed the use of goal-line technology to deal with the age-old problem of knowing whether a ball had crossed the line for a goal or not. This is not new technology – similar approaches have been used in cricket since 2001 and tennis since 2006. The issue is will it solve the problem? It has been a great success.
Another nice innovation was the marker foam to set positions of defenders in a ‘wall’ at free kicks. Again this was a repeating problem – could we make the job of the referee easier to implement? Simple and effective and in this instance no digital technology in sight.
The first question with technology and innovation is – will it improve what we want to achieve?
4: You need to align team and individual goals
One of the big stories for England in the run up to the world cup concerned whether Wayne Rooney would finally get a goal after 3 unsuccessful tournaments. A bigger question for England fans should have been ‘who cares?’. Ultimately the world cup is not about individual players achieving anything it is about a team wining the championship. All else is a side story.
The problems occur when one person’s goal overrides the team’s goals. Did Rooney shoot when he could make passes to better placed team members? Did he dive into shots which other players were about to take themselves? Did he neglect his defensive duties on the left against Italy allowing them to win the match? There is evidence that points to all of these things. Did England switch off once Wayne had ‘got his goal’ in the game against Uruguay ? Who knows?
The winning German team successfully rotated a whole range of players to do the job. The Netherlands played a recognised centre-forward as a wing back (Dirk Kuyt) and he studiously grafted into that unfamiliar role with great effectiveness. The Dutch even drafted a substitute goalkeeper just for the penalty shootout.
5: Clarity of purpose, identity, belonging and vision pay off
Germany’s plan to recapture the world cup (which they last achieved in 1990) started back in 2000 after a poor showing in the European championships. The German Football Federation invested heavily in the future with new academies and a manager with a long-term plan.
They developed an identity for German international football and engaged players on the basis of playing to that philosophy.
A footnote to this is that German midfielder Sami Khedira picked up an injury in the warm up a few minutes before the start of the cup final and had to be replaced. Khedira will be devastated to have missed the game, but it was clear in the post match celebrations that he revelled in the team’s success and fully identified with the achievement of the team for the part that he had already played in the tournament up to that point (see point 4 above).
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.
In the light of previous sporting posts it would seem improper not to refer to Andy Murray’s historic men’s singles tennis victory at Wimbledon – the first by a Briton in 77 years. Can we link his achievements with ‘change and improvement’?
One key element worth reflecting upon is Murray’s level of improvement in the last 12 months since working with new coach Ivan Lendl. This period has seen Murray win Olympic gold and also achieve a first grand slam title at the US Open; an ascencion in the sport which culminated in Sunday’s epic Wimbledon final. Ahead of these breakthrough achievements, Murray’s quote following the 2012 French Open is notable:
“There’s not been one radical change. A lot of it is minor details. But if you pick 10 small things to work on and change, that can turn into a big difference.” Andy Murray
This reminds me of a previous post; British cycling coach Dave Brailsford applies the same philosophy in bringing his team to world-conquering levels of performance. They key is that these cases hold a common belief in learning and continuous improvement – they see significant change as a set of small, relevant (and often testable) improvements – working on the system to improve capability.
Change which is focused on these aspects enables you to influence your success; work on what you CAN influence in the reasonable hope that improvements will overcome the factors over which you have no control (like the weather or how well the other person is playing). More effective thinking like this may help our teams, our services, our performance, our generation of knowledge to become even better.
Covey, S. (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.
Deming, W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.
Juran, J. (1989) Juran on Leadership For Quality, The Free Press, NY
It is important to focus on relevant priorities when navigating through change. Few things are more irritating to people than being forced to implement changes which don’t deal with the issues. Consider the things that might really occupy people’s minds;
* what does it mean for me?
*are my ideas being heard?
* will things be better?
*will work be more effective?
*do we agree that these are priorities?
* will new costs replace the old ‘bad’ ones?
*will users’ complaints be addressed?
*will changes add any real value?
*will this just create more layers of ‘work’?
If we ignore obvious issues we risk establishing a norm where honesty is avoided in conversations. This leads to people wrongly assuming that honesty should be traded-off against ‘support for change’ such that people fall into ‘towing the party line’. Unfortunately, over time, a lack of openness undermines trust. More fundamentally, there are more immediate operational effects, since filtered discussions block learning and improvement. Previously we have pointed out that (quoting Basil Fawlty) the ‘bleedin’ obvious’ can be unhelpful. This is true if noticing the obvious is not followed by thinking about the issues- seeking symptoms not causes.
It would be more helpful to stop ignoring the ‘elephant in the room’; we should stop pressing on regardless or merely ‘just doing our best’ in the face of genuine difficulties. Nevertheless, it does take effort to change; we need new types of knowledge and skills. People need to establish new ways of thinking and working, to share ideas, to identify and test recommendations, to communicate those ideas and implement relevant action. The good news is that all of these things can be learned.
There are also some useful ways to analyse problems which help to identify priorities, such as 80/20 thinking (see Barratt and Coppin 2002), which Joe Juran was the first to identify as a “universal principle” applicable to many fields; focus on the ‘vital few’ rather than the ‘trivial many’. It is helpful to be ready to seek knowledge (and get some hard data) before plunging headlong into well-intentioned but mis-directed effort.
Coppin, A. and Barratt, J. (2002) Timeless Management, Palgrave MacMillan, NY
Juran J. (1989) Juran on Leadership For Quality,The Free Press, NY
Organisations are complex places and change can become a complex business. We cannot simply expect to make a change here and see an outcome there; outcomes are rarely as simple as ‘cause and effect’. There are many reasons for this, one of which is the fact that different people will see things (and respond) in different ways.
One key point was that although many people can see or know the obvious, often the important knowledge is what is largely unknown (to some degree). We need to look further than just what fictional hotelier Basil Fawlty would call ‘the bleedin’ obvious’.
This means that we must ask the right questions. Deming gives a great example of how to improve performance, describing a children’s charity which raises money for medical care and food support, using appeals run through mailing lists (Deming 1993). He points that final performance (how much money is donated to the charity) is largely unaffected by the efficiency of the steps of printing, mailing, payment, receipt, acknowledgement; improvement effort in these areas will be largely irrelevant. The important step which impacts on the willingness of donors to give money is the quality of the message which has been written to them (and which is formulated right at the start of the process); zero defects in the rest of process is of much less importance. This is where a lot of today’s approaches, like ‘lean’, ‘benchmarking’ and ‘process-re-engineering’ fall down – they encourage people to apply tools to a situation – dealing with the obvious; efficiency, flow and defects, without thinking about purpose and what affects the system as a whole. The result is that, after the initial rush of enthusiasm, people do not see great benefits in the change.
This is a warning to those looking at change – are we fiddling around the edges or are we dealing with fundamental change that will make a real difference?
This is not to say that statements of the obvious are unimportant – we can be blind to things that are abundantly clear to our users. People’s observations and opinions of the obvious are not trivial, the key is to examine what sits behind those phenomena and understand them properly.
In a higher education institution, the notion of involving students, although understood and welcomed can nevertheless be accompanied by a little hesitation or even reservation. This suggests to me a degree of discomfort on the part of staff (Will students understand the constraints that we have to work under? Will they have unrealistic expectations? Can students really understand what they themselves need?). Let’s face it, life would be simpler if we didn’t involve students – but that wouldn’t make things better either. We need to challenge our discomfort, face up to the weaknesses, illogicalities and frustrations that continually haunt our work and face up to the need to think differently and make new efforts.
Why? Because any discomfort we have in involving our users in the change process (whether they are students, partners, clients or customers) probably reveals our unrecognised, unknown or deliberately concealed concerns with how the system is currently under-performing for those very people. It challenges the way we work now and how we should work in the future. Basil Fawlty’s chaotic hotel would be fundamentally improved if he and his wife Sybil really worked out how they could together offer great hospitality to their guests – whereas instead they usually (hilariously and painfully) fiddle around the fringes of service, battling against each other.
So let’s not focus on the obvious and superficial. Deming, himself a well-renowned teacher (he won the US National Medal of Technology 1987 and the National Academy of Science, Distinguished Career in Science award 1987), makes an interesting observation on university teaching “I have seen a teacher hold a hundred and fifty students spellbound, teaching what is wrong. His students rated him as a great teacher. In contrast, two of my own greatest teachers in universities would be rated poor teachers on every count. Then why did people come from all over the world to study with them, including me? For the simple reason that these men had something to teach. They inspired their students to carry on further research” (Deming 1982).
In other words, in some cases the obvious (“a good approach”) masked the fundamentals (“poor content”), whereas the real value lies in delivering what people are really looking for. A university could ask students to rate it on trivial and obvious matters and think it is doing great, when in reality it is letting its students down – do we always ask the right questions?
Now that would be a challenge for change…
Read more here:
Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.
Deming W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.
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