download (1)Professor Stafford Beer wrote that “the purpose of a system is what it does.” which is often stated by its acronym of POSIWID.

This is looking at systems via a kind of backwards logic. (See my earlier ‘harmony or cacophony’ post if you’d like to look at them going forward first!)

Another quote might help:

“Every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets.” (Don Berwick)

Okay, so let’s see if these examples exercise your mind a bit:

 Example: Supposed purpose: (unintended?) Reality:
School (Teacher) Help our children grow into well rounded individuals capable of sustaining themselves in the world Train our children to pass tests on a specified curriculum and go up the ‘league tables’.
Parliament (Politician) Help deliver a better life for the electorate Get elected next time round/ get set up for a nice life ‘after’ politics.
Police Help keep us safe Meet targets for resolving reported crime and completing paperwork.
Call centre Satisfy the callers actual need (however long this takes) Deal with callers as ‘efficiently’ as possible (‘average handling times’).

In Stafford Beer’s words:

“The purpose of a system is what it does. This is a basic dictum. It stands for bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than the familiar attributions of good intention, prejudices about expectations, moral judgment, or sheer ignorance of circumstances.”

So, what’s the point? There’s a BIG difference in what we might like the purpose of our (organisational) system to be and what it actually is!

You can say that the purpose of the system is [XYZ] until you are blue in the face but, if this isn’t what it actually delivers, then by point of fact it ISN’T its (current) purpose.

How should we use POSIWID to assist us?

POSIWID is used to counter the belief that the purpose of the system can be understood purely from the intentions of those that design, operate or promote it. Complex systems (which organisations certainly are) are not controllable by simple notions of management. Interventions in complex systems can only be properly understood by observing their true effect on system behaviour.

This means:

  • listening to and observing demand*, particularly failure demand;
  • finding out:
    • what the system is currently capable of (using measures, NOT targets); and
    • how it actually works – get facts, don’t rely on opinions….which fits in perfectly with going to the Gemba; and
  • taking a scientific (open minded!) approach to interventions….which must avoid shonky experiments!

* a big part of the purpose of your system (at whatever level you define this) is to deal with the current demands coming into it….whatever they may be.

A final point on Management’s intent and Management controls

If we look above the value streams and observe an organisation’s management system, we are likely to see leaders saying wonderful things about respecting, empowering and supporting the process performers….yet people who work within a ‘command and control’ environment experience a set of management controls (cascaded personal objectives , numeric activity targets , contingent rewards , and performance appraisals ) that contradict and constrain these ideals.

“No matter what you say your values and beliefs are, the mechanisms of control define what your culture really believes about who can be trusted with what. [The desired management system] won’t work if you pay lip service to it.” (Mark Rosenthal)  

Note: Stafford Beer (1926 – 2002) was a theorist, consultant and professor and founder of the field of Management Cybernetics. He is another giant who, sadly, is no longer with us.


the-beatings-will-continueI’ve written about why cascaded personal objectives and contingent rewards aren’t a good idea.

Question: What’s the worst form of this practise?

Answer: A rigged game.

Now clearly, contingent rewards are set by those (hierarchically) above you so as to strongly encourage you to comply with their wishes. That’s the whole point. But we should be very clear that compliance should not be mistaken for motivation.

“Rewards and punishments induce compliance, and this they do very well…but if you want long term changes in behaviour…they are worse than useless – they are actually counter-productive.” (Alfie Kohn)

The rigged game explained:

Consider if the objectives being set and the carrots/ sticks on offer really mean the following:

Carrot: “We’ll pay you money for saying what we want you to say…which will then make us look good…and is effectively buying you.”


Stick: “If you don’t act as we want, we will make sure that you will lose out and even be disciplined.”

If a politician did this, they would be hung out to dry!

There was an interesting article on Stuff recently regarding an Australian company (Cotton On) that could easily be accused of playing this rigged game. Here’s an extract of that article, referring to their HR department’s leaked* four page code:

Failure to portray “fun, entrepreneurial, keeping it real, family, ethical, engaged” behaviour was unacceptable, the Australian clothing chain said.

It could result in counselling, warnings or instant dismissal, according to the four-page code** which was leaked to Fairfax Australia newspaper The Age.

* you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to see why it was leaked…being told to have fun ‘or else’ is quite a message to stomach!

** the need for a four-page code speaks volumes about a lack of trust. (Does your organisation trust you?)

Surveys linked to rewards:

Another example of rigging would be if you ask people to fill in a survey and then link (some aspect of) their rewards to the results of that survey. You can’t say that the outcome of such a survey can be unbiased.

An organisation’s culture will not be understood from reviewing survey results that merely capture how people felt they were expected to answer. In fact, the reverse is the case – the results from such a survey will hide, distort and confuse… leading to ignorance of the true state of play and the wrong conclusions being drawn.


I personally dislike the idea that an organisation thinks it needs to tell me what specific ‘attitudes’ I should be adopting at work. What is much worse (and moves towards the rigged game) is that I am then rated and rewarded according to their judgement as to how well I meet them! This is not far removed from the Cotton On example.

The only difference is that Cotton On were daft enough to spell out the ‘stick’ as opposed to concentrating on the ‘carrot’….but this misses the point that, in every carrot there is a hidden stick (that you can be denied the reward).

The crucial point:

Our behaviours are a result of the environment in which we find ourselves.

If you want me to be motivated, happy, collaborative, engaged, ‘real’ … [keep going with a long list of words in a dictionary that are blindingly obviously desirable!]…don’t tell me to BE these words…don’t blackmail me to SAY that I am these words….provide the environment such that I AM these words!

Oh, and the final crunch point: I (and most normal human beings) actually WANT to be motivated, happy, collaborative, engaged, ‘real’. I’d be weird if I didn’t. It’s down to the management system (which defines the environment that I work within) that determines whether I can be.

The above is perfectly reflected in the saying “the beatings will continue until morale improves”.

A clarification: I’m certainly not saying that attitude isn’t important. In fact, I think that ‘attitude’ is just about the most important thing there is for a human being!

Here’s one of my favourite quotes ever (I have it on my wall at home and at work):

“The longer I live, the more I realise the impact of attitude on life. Attitude to me is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than success, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearances, gift, or skill. It will make or break a company…a church…a home.

The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the string we have, and that is our attitude.

I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you…we are in charge of our attitudes”. (Charles Swindoll).

It is this quote that often helps me write these (professionally provocative) posts. My attitude is that there’s not a lot of point in moaning about my environment. I choose to try to do something about it.

The Spice of Life

spices-442726_640Variety is the spice of life. If everything were the same it would be rather boring. Happily, there is natural variety in everything.

Let me use an example to explain:

I was thinking about this as I was walking the dog the other day. I use the same route, along the beach each day, and it takes me roughly the same time – about 30 minutes.

If I actually timed myself each and every day (and didn’t let this fact change my behaviour) then I would find that the walk might take me on average 30 minutes but it could range anywhere between, say, 26 and 37 minutes.

I think you would agree with me that it would be somewhat bizarre if it always took me, say, exactly 29 minutes and 41 seconds to walk the dog – that would just be weird!

You understand that there are all sorts of reasons as to why the time would vary slightly, such as:

  • how I am feeling (was it a late night last night?);
  • what the weather is doing, whether the tide is up or down, and even perhaps what season it is;
  • who I meet on the way and their desired level of interaction (i.e. they have some juicy gossip vs. they are in a hurry);
  • what the dog is interested in sniffing…which (I presume) depends on what other dogs have been passed recently;
  • if the dog needs to ‘down load’ or not and, if so, how long this will take today!
  • …and so on.

There are, likely, many thousands of little reasons that would cause variation. None of these have anything special about them – they are just the variables that exist within that process, the majority of which I have little or no control over.

Now, I might have timed myself as taking 30 mins. and 20 seconds yesterday, but taken only 29 mins. and 12 seconds today. Is this better? Have I improved? Against what purpose?

Here’s 3 weeks of imaginary dog walking data in a control chart:


A few things to note:

  • You can now easily see the variation within and that it took between 26 and 37 minutes and, on average, 30 mins. Understanding of this variation is hidden until you visualise it;
  • The red lines refer to upper and lower control limits: they are mathematically worked out from the data…you don’t need to worry about how but they signify the range within the data. The important bit is that all of the times sit within these two red lines and this shows that my dog walking is ‘in control’ (stable) and therefore the time range that it will take tomorrow can be predicted with a high degree of confidence!*
  • If a particular walk had taken a time that sits outside of the two red lines, then I can say with a high degree of confidence that something ‘special’ happened – perhaps the dog had a limp, or I met up with a long lost friend or…..
  • Any movement within the two red lines is likely to just be noise and, as such, I shouldn’t be surprised about it at all. Anything outside of the red lines is what we would call a signal, in that it is likely that something quite different occurred.

* This is actually quite profound. It’s worth considering that I cannot predict if I just have a binary comparison (two pieces of data). Knowing that it took 30 mins 20 secs. yesterday and 29 mins 12 secs. today is what is referred to as driving by looking in the rear view mirror. It doesn’t help me look forward.

Back to the world of work

The above example can equally be applied to all our processes at work…yet we ignore this reality. In fact, worse than ignoring it, we act like this isn’t so! We seem to love making binary comparisons (e.g. this week vs. last week), deriving a supposed reason for the difference and then:

  • congratulating people for ‘improvements’; or
  • chastising people for ‘slipping backwards’ whilst coming up with supposed solutions to do something about it (which is in actual fact merely tampering)

So, hopefully you are happy with my walking the dog scenario….here’s a work-related example:

  • Bob, Jim and Jane have each been tasked with handling incoming calls*. They have each been given a daily target of handling 80 calls a day as a motivator!

(* you can substitute any sort of activity here instead of handling calls: such as sell something, make something, perform something….)

  • In reality there is so much about a call that the ‘call agent’ cannot control. Using Professor Frances Frei’s 5 types of service demand variation, we can see the following:
    • Arrival variability: when/ whether calls come in. If no calls are coming in at a point in time, the call agent can’t handle one!
    • Request variability: what the customer is asking for. This could be simple or complex to properly handle
    • Capability variability: how much the customer understands. Are they knowledgeable about their need or do they need a great deal explaining?
    • Effort variability: how much help the customer wants. Are they happy to do things for themselves, or do they want the call agent to do it all for them?
    • Subjective preference variability: different customers have different opinions on things e.g. are they happy just to accept the price or are they price sensitive and want the call agent to break it down into all its parts and explain the rationale for each?

Now, the above could cause a huge difference in call length and hence how many calls can be handled…but there’s not a great deal about the above that Bob, Jim and Jane can do much about – and nor should they try to!. It is pure chance (a lottery) as to which calls they are asked to handle.

As a result, we can expect natural variation as to the number of calls they can handle in a given day. If we were to plot it on a control chart we might see something very similar to the dog walking control chart….something like this:

Control chart 2

We can see that:

  • the process appears to be under control and that, assuming we don’t change the system, the predictable range of calls that a call agent can handle in a day is between 60 and 100;
  • it would be daft to congratulate, say, Bob one day for achieving 95 and then chastise him the next for ‘only’ achieving 77…yet this is what we usually do!

Targets are worse than useless

Let’s go back to that (motivational?!) target of 80 calls a day. From the diagram we can see that:

  • if I set the target at 60 or below then the call agents can almost guarantee that they will achieve it every day;
  • conversely, if I set the target at 100 or above, they will virtually never be able to achieve it;
  • finally, if I set the target anywhere between 60 or 100, it becomes a daily lottery as to whether they will achieve it or not.

….but, without this knowledge, we think that targets are doing important things.

What they actually do is cause our process performers to do things which go against the purpose of the system. I’ve written about the things people understandably do in an earlier post titled The trouble with targets.

What should we actually want?

We shouldn’t be pressuring our call agents (or any of our process performers) to achieve a target for each individual unit (or for an average of a group of units). We should be considering how we can change the system itself (e.g. the process) so that we shift and/or tighten the range of what it can achieve.

So, hopefully you now have an understanding of:

  • variation: that it is a natural occurrence…which we would do well to understand;
  • binary comparisons and that these can’t help us predict;
  • targets and why they are worse than useless; and
  • system, and why we should be trying to improve its capability (i.e. for all units going through it), rather than trying to force individual units through it quicker.

Once we understand the variation within our system we now have a useful measure (NOT target) to consider what our system is capable of, why this variation exists and whether any changes we make are in fact improvements.

Going back to Purpose

You might say to me “but Steve, you could set a target for your dog walks, say 30 mins, and you could do things to make it!”

I would say that, yes, I could and it would change my behaviours…but the crucial point is this: What is the purpose of the dog walk?

  • It isn’t to get it done in a certain time
  • It’s about me and the dog getting what we need out of it!

The same comparison can be said for a customer call: Our purpose should be to properly and fully assist that particular customer, not meet a target. We should expect much failure demand and rework to be created from behaviours caused by targets.

Do you understand the variation within your processes? Do you rely on binary comparisons and judge people accordingly? Do you understand the behaviours that your targets cause?


Toilet-engaged-sign-007So, here’s a short ‘thought for the day’ shared with me by Helen (thanks H):

“A person who feels appreciated will always do more than what is expected.” (Author unknown)

I think it’s a great quote that really sits with Systems Thinking and is worth pondering over.

…and before any managers think “wow, that’s cool, I had better run off and show lots of appreciation to people because then I’ll get better results…and hopefully instantly!”, let’s just put some qualifiers/ caveats around it:

  • There isn’t much that is more precious to a human being than feeling that we truly matter, that what we do is valuable and is valued;
  •  A worldwide study (cited in a 2012 HBR article) found that the single highest driver of engagement is whether workers feel that their managers are genuinely interested in their well-being. Less than 40% of workers felt this way;
  • Conversely, the feeling of being devalued* is incredibly toxic;

(* whether from negative comments/actions or, just as bad, neglect through presumption, inaction and a lack of care);

Appreciation has to be authentic! Any/all instruments used to extrinsically motive (e.g. contingent rewards) and judge people (performance appraisals) will seriously harm/ undermine management’s ability to show genuine appreciation.

The answer always seems to be…

images…empowerment! But what does that even mean?

As usual, I thought I’d better get myself on firm ground by looking the word up in the dictionary. Here’s what I get:

Empower: Give (someone) the authority or power to do something.” (Oxford Dictionary)

And why aren’t ‘they’ (or, depending on your viewpoint, ‘we’) empowered in the first place? Here’s an eye-opening quote from John Seddon:

“Empowerment is a pre-occupation of command-and-control managers, who:

  • design systems that dis-empower people…;
  • …notice the problem and send people on ’empowerment’ programmes;
  • …and then put them back in a system that…”

i.e. it is a merry-go-round in which people’s hopes are raised (often offsite by a cool and groovy external training company) about the wonders of empowerment…and then they get plugged back into their old reality!

The instruments of a ‘command and control’ system dis-empower people. Leaders can ‘happy talk’* about empowerment and even provide training, tools and (worse) incentives to encourage empowerment….but, if the underlying management system remains the same, they are mostly wasting their time. (* if you’ve not heard this ‘happy talk’ phrase before I provide an explanation at the bottom of this post).

Saying ‘you are empowered’ and meaning it are two very different things:

Here’s a lovely quote I came across recently on a Lean Thinking blog that I follow:

Leader:     “I want my employees to feel empowered.”

Counsel:     “You realise empowerment means your employees start making decisions, right?”

Leader:     “Oh… I want them to feel empowered. I didn’t say I wanted them to be empowered.”

(Mardig Sheridan)

The main reason why people aren’t empowered is because of the environment they work within, not because they don’t want to be!

You can’t simply move to an empowered culture:

It’s easy (and usual) to want the result…but simply wanting it (as in ‘Stating the obvious’) doesn’t magically deliver it.

There are two risks for ‘leaders’ who have always told ‘their’ people what to do (via the likes of transformation programmes, change projects and cascaded personal objectives) when they tell everyone that they should feel empowered:

  • The leader stands back completely: this will create a void in which people won’t know what to do…which will end up with those same ‘leaders’ saying “well that didn’t work, I’d better take control again.”


  • The leader continues to tell them what to do: creating a battle between leader and worker and much resentment and disbelief. And just to spell it out, you are telling them what to do by default if you simply say ‘no’ to everything they suggest or request permission to experiment with.

You can’t just say ‘you are empowered’ – you have to create the environment to make it happen! So how do we go about truly creating an environment in which people are genuinely empowered?

There’s a great book by David Marquet on this called ‘Turn your ship around’. It relates to his time as Captain of a US Navy Nuclear submarine. There’s also a really nice 10 min. animated version enabling you to quickly watch and get the gist. I recommend you watch it right now.

…so, what is needed is:

  • clarity of purpose (of the system in which the people operate), which
    • must be from the customers point of view; and
    • is NOT anything like ‘to implement xyz’ – that’s a dictated solution;
  • the building of your people’s competence;
    • which means far more than just knowing their basic job…it includes them understanding the system in which they operate and the likely effects of their decisions towards it purpose
  • the definition of capability measures (against purpose), and the ongoing transparency of this critical information to those operating the system; and
  • the removal of the barriers that define ‘the old way’ (most of my other posts explain what these are so I won’t repeat myself)

Leadership and empowerment

A reminder of three types of leaders:

“There are three kinds of leaders. Those that tell you what to do. Those that allow you to do what you want. And ‘Lean’ [Systems Thinking] leaders that come down to the work and help you figure it out.” (John Shook)

I hope you can see the cause and effect relationship between leadership and empowerment…it is only the 3rd style of leadership that is meaningful. This is true coaching through an ongoing back-and-forth dialogue between mentor and mentee.

It is only through true leadership (which includes trust, support and humility) that an organisation’s people can become empowered.

But isn’t it simply about hiring the right people?

A quote to finish on:

“Don’t bother trying to hire positive people only to give them crappy jobs and a line of bullshit about empowerment. If you are serious about reaping the benefits of an empowered workforce, make sure you are committed to providing good jobs, fair policies, and remarkable leadership, then go hire good folks and invite them to partner with you to continuously improve your workplace. (Bret L Simmons)


‘Happy Talk’ (Pascal Dennis):

“I remember the first time I attended a leadership conference at [my organisation] about three years ago. I walked away from the event really frustrated with leadership because the messages they shared seemed so disconnected from the reality of the work I was doing each day.

You know the type of event: leaders standing up confidently in front of their peers throwing around buzz words and all the ‘right answers’. What Pascal Dennis refers to as ‘the happy talk’.

Basically we got told what we wanted to hear as opposed to what we really needed to hear. It’s a lot harder to talk about problems and deliver disturbing news than to talk about everything that is going great.” (DailyKaizen.org)

Scrap the ‘100 day plan’

Blank desktop calendarI’m sick of leaders coming into new roles with the ink already dry on their ‘100 day plans’. I’m sick of the conventional view that such an up-front and detailed plan is “critical for success”…success of what?

Throw that plan in the bin!

  • Who are you to know what the hell actually needs doing, by whom, and by when?
  • Even if some of your plan is vaguely logical (for the system and its purpose), how is your ‘commanding and controlling’ going to help the people accept your proposed changes and, even more importantly, learn for themselves so that an environment of improvement is sustained?

Instead, go to the Gemba, study the system with a truly open mind (and open eyes and ears) and get knowledge.

In this way you will get to understand:

  • The true purpose of the system, from the customer’s point of view;
  • The nature and frequencies of demands being placed upon it (including failure demands);
  • The current capability of the system (including the variation within) against its purpose;
  • How the work flows (or not!);
  • The system conditions that cause the above to be so; and most importantly…the underlying cause…
  • The current management thinking that makes the above the way it is.

Now, you can properly appreciate how the current management system constrains the system from achieving its purpose.

Now, you are in a position to help the people see, accept and make the necessary changes themselves that will truly and sustainably improve the system against its purpose….and meaningfully measure the effects.

Now, you can help the people experiment and learn, to make ongoing long term sustainable improvements rather than carry out knee-jerk ‘activities’ on a plan.

I can hear management’s riposte now: “We can’t take the time to do that! We’ve got to get results now!”

A reminder of the quote:

“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”

Taking actions does not equate to transformation. Your 100 day plans become ongoing nightmares!

A true but comedy illustration: I met a guy who had just come into a role. He had his 100 day plan (that he had presented at his interview and which had secured him the job). I asked him whether he had met his team yet. His reply? “Oh no, not yet, that’s not until day 21 on the plan.”