Depths of ‘Transformation’

butterflyI’ve been meaning to write this post for 2 years! It feels good to finally ‘get it out of my head’ and onto the page.

It’s about that lovely ‘Transformation’ word.

Before I go on, I’ll repeat a definition from an earlier post:

Transformation: In an organisational context, a process of profound and radical change that orients an organisation in a new direction and takes it to an entirely different level of effectiveness….transformation implies a basic change of character and little or no resemblance with the past configuration or structure.” (businessdictionary.com)

To repeat the key phrase: An entirely different level of effectiveness! …and, just in case you missed it, the word is effectiveness, not efficiency.

I’m going to outline 3 levels of (supposed) transformation and I’ll do this by borrowing the bones of an idea from Mike Rother’s excellent ‘Toyota Kata’ book and extend it with a large dose of my own ‘poetic license’.

Level 1 Transformation: ‘On the surface’

iceburgSo, picture the scene: It’s the late 1970s. Your organisation desperately wants to improve and, on looking around for someone achieving brilliant results, you spot the awesome Toyota (or such like1).

You go on a Toyota factory visit. You are amazed at what you see and excitedly ask them how they do it.

You easily observe (‘on the surface’) lots of obvious methods and tools…and so you grab evidence of how these are carried out – e.g. some template forms, and the instructions that go with them. You also take lots of pictures of their (visual management) walls to show all this working in situ.

You run back home, hand out the methods and tools and mandate that, from now on, this is what we are doing.

toolboxYou helpfully provide training and (so called) ‘coaching’…and you put in place ‘governance’ to ensure it’s working. You roll it all up together and you give it a funky title…like your Quality Toolbox. Nice.

So what happens?

Well, yep, those tools and methods sure are ‘shiny new’ and easily applied. There’s an initial buzz, probably because of senior management focus…and pressure to prove the comedy ‘Return on Investment’ (ROI) calculation that had to be set out in the short-term thinking ‘will you pay for our factory trip?’ business case.

But the initial effects fall away. Anything achieved was a one-off, or of limited and low level benefit. The changes aren’t sustained – with a slide back to the old state. People start to misuse the tools and methods, and do much damage rather than good. There is a brief and ugly fight with the ‘methods and tools’ compliance police but disillusionment sets in and the early good work becomes discredited and abandoned (just like the last silver bullet…and the one before that…)

Timely reminder: “A fool with a tool is still a fool” (Grady Booch)

Note: This ‘on the surface’ transformation attempt has been likened to organisations going over to Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s and coming home to fanatically ‘do Total Quality Management’ (TQM)…and then quietly dropping it a few years later. Sure, some organisations sustained it but most didn’t.

Level 2 Transformation: ‘Under the skin’

skinSo it’s now the 1990s. The methods and tools that came out of the initial Toyota factory visit weren’t sustained but the pressure is still on (and mounting) to transform your organisation…and your management can’t help noticing that Toyota are still doing amazing!

“Perhaps we didn’t look hard enough or close enough or long enough…perhaps we should go back and have a look ‘under the skin’.”

…and so you go for another factory visit (once you’ve been given permission following another well written story business case 🙂 ).

This time you take real care – studying ‘at the gemba’ for weeks, asking questions, watching activities, understanding the nature of changes being made to the system before you.

“Eureka! There’s something underneath those methods and tools! We can see that there’s an underlying logic that we missed last time round…oooh, we could codify them into a set of principles!

And here’s basically what you arrive at:

0. Everything should belong to, or support, a value stream (a horizontal flow from customer need, through to its satisfaction)

…and for each value stream we should:

1. Specify value, where this is through the eyes of the customer; then

2. Identify all the actions performed within the value stream, and expose and remove the obvious waste; then

3. Create flow by understanding and removing the barriers; then

4. Establish pull by producing only what is needed, when requested; and finally

5. The ‘golden nugget’: we should continually strive for perfection because this is a never-ending journey

Wow, that was profound – your factory tour team now need to give it a name!

And so, after a fun focus group, a young member of your team called John2 shouts out “It needs less of everything to create a given amount of value, so let’s call it ‘Lean’.”

Whoop, whoop, he’s only gone and cracked it!

You run back home to tell everyone about the wonders of ‘Lean’. You hand out books, provide training courses, coaching and mentoring and you slot all those wonderful tools and methods nicely into their place…neat…this is going to be great!

So what happens?

Well, everyone absolutely LOVES the principles. They make sooo much sense. They particularly liked playing with Lego in the training sessions to demo flow, pull, kanban and ‘stop the line’ thinking.

But after a while (and some short-term gains) you realise that there’s a huge tension building. No one can make those darn principles work because they continually clash with existing management practises.

Your senior management employ a gaggle of so-called Lean coaches to try to change the people at the bottom whilst they carry on at the top as before!

Your ‘Lean Office’ has become an island of coaches doing great work with the people but unable to turn the tide. Coaching conversations end with responses like:

“Yes, I can see that would be the right thing to do for the value stream…but that’s not what my objectives, performance rating and bonus is based on…or what my manager above me would support…so I’ll stick to soul-destroying fighting within my silo. Sorry about that 😦

This culminates in huge frustration; a revolving door of broken coaches; and many a good employee finding a better organisation to work for. If you ran an employee survey at this point, the results would make for ugly reading – you’ve created a complete divide between worker reality and management ‘cloud cuckoo land’.

Oh, and that lean word? Well it became capitalised! LEAN…as if it were a thing. You’ve all forgotten that it was just a label thought up by John in a focus group merely to describe what the factory visit team saw.

Pause for reflection: Taiichi Ohno is considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System (TPS) but he didn’t want it to be written down3 (codified) because he wanted it to remain dynamic.

And as for that name:“Ohno did not call his innovation ‘lean’ – he didn’t want to call it anything. He could, perhaps foresee the folly of a label.” (John Seddon)

Caution: …and if you did this ‘under the skin’ (supposed) transformation within a service organisation, you may find (if you properly stood back to look at it!) that you’d totally f@ck$d it up!

Credit: The ‘Level 2’ principles jotted down above are the core of the 1996 book ‘Lean Thinking’ by Womack and Jones….which they wrote following their research in Japan. They explicitly set out 5 principles, with a foundational one implied (hence why I’ve labelled it as ‘principle nought’).

Level 3 Transformation: ‘In the DNA’

dna…and so to the 2000s. The pressure to change your organisation is relentless – the corporate world is ‘suffering’ from seemingly constant technological disruption…but Toyota continues to be somehow different.

You pluck up the courage and ask for a sabbatical for 6 months – you want to find the meaning of life…well, perhaps not that deep…but you sure as hell want to know what Toyota have got that you don’t…and to work this out, you are going to have to go in deep – to their DNA.

Toyota are happy to see you again. But, rather than repeating what you did on the last two trips, you come straight out with it:

“Okay, you’ve shown me your tools and methods…you’ve let me uncover your principles…and I know that these aren’t the answer! What are you hiding from me?! Come on, I get it, it’s a competitive world out there but PLEASE let me in on your secret.”

The Toyota managers are perplexed. They don’t know what else they can do. They are adamant that they aren’t hiding anything from you.

…and so, rather than go straight back home empty handed, you ask if you can work with Toyota to experience what day-to-day work is actually like. They humbly agree to your request.

And six months later your mind has been totally blown!

You really get it….no, REALLY GET IT!

You couldn’t see the wood for the trees but now it’s as obvious as can be.

It’s all about the environment created by management’s actions, which come from their beliefs and behaviours about human beings: about society, about customers…and, most profoundly, about employees.

This is invisible on a factory visit! But it’s still there. It’s simply ‘in the DNA’.

Sure, you could provide a list of attributes as to what this looks like…but management can’t just do them, they have to believe in them – in fact, ‘be’ them!

Further, there’s nothing to be ‘implemented’ because it can’t be!

Everything flows from management’s beliefs and behaviours: It’s from these that Toyota creates new principles, methods and tools all the time…and throws out old ones that are no longer appropriate. Their systems thinking and human thinking is solid and profound, whilst their method is dynamic and agile.

…and the realisation sinks in: No wonder Toyota are happy to open their door to anyone. The thing that makes them great can’t be copied. It has to be lived and breathed…and nurtured from the shop floor all the way up. Oh sh1t!

…and so to your new headache: you totally ‘get it’ but how on earth do you change your organisational system – now that is THE nut to crack. That would be transformational!

Reflection time:

So ‘On the surface’, ‘Under the skin’ or ‘In the DNA’: What level of transformation are you playing at?

…if you are at level 1 or 2 then it’s not actually transformation.

…if you are truly at level 3, then here’s the final mind blowing bit – it is self-sustaining.


To close: I have been asking myself a HUGE question for a fair while now: Can management’s beliefs and behaviours change within a large floating (i.e. short-term thinking) shareholder owned organisation.  I’m nearly there with writing down my thoughts. Watch this space…

Footnotes:

1. Just Toyota? I use Toyota in this story since everyone knows who they are…and visits to their factories is precisely what happened regularly over the last several decades. But it isn’t just Toyota.

Your own ‘Toyota’ factory visit could be to another great organisation…and it needn’t be a factory making products – it could be a service organisation. Handelsbanken would be a great financial services example.

Though beware, there aren’t that many ‘true Toyotas’ out there. And perhaps none that have sustained it for so long.

2. ‘John’: He’s even called John in the true story – John Krafcik, a young researcher on Womack’s MIT research team…and those were his words back in 1987 (as recalled by Womack) to give birth to the Lean label.

3. Writing it down: Ohno finally relented when he retired in 1978 and wrote a book on TPS.

4. Clarification: I think a great deal of Lean Thinking, but not a lot about ‘LEAN’ – the implementation movement. I respect Womack and Jones, and their writings…but I note that my favourite Womack book is ‘Gemba Walks’ written about a decade after ‘Lean Thinking’ in which he humbly reflects that it was about far more than the tools and the principles. It was really about the management system (or, in my words, the DNA).

Where’s the meat in your sandwich?!

sandwichI came across a LinkedIn ‘research’ report that had been shared on a social media platform the other day. It had a grand title:

The 2016 Workforce Purpose Index: ‘Purpose at work – the largest global study on the Role of Purpose in the Workforce.’

Mmmm, sounds interesting. And, wow, ‘largest global study’ – must be important – I’d better have a read…and so I did…and then I found myself doing a bit of frothing at the mouth. I do that when stuff winds me up…I’m okay, honest 🙂

Now I am absolutely NOT getting at the person who shared the ‘report’, or any persons liking or positively commenting on it. Just to clear up any potential confusion at the start: I totally agree that the premise of ‘purpose at work’ is to be ‘liked’….and in fact passionately argued for. An earlier post uses an Ackoff essay to explain why this so.

But here’s some other stuff that I thought as I read through the ‘report’:

Helpfulness?

The introductory pages deliver the usual ‘listen up people – purpose matters’ message. This is, for me, like the ‘Buy low, sell high’ advice – blindingly obvious…but not particularly useful.

Profit?

And so to the page on “Purpose brings profit”: Yes, I agree with this…but, at the risk of repeating my ‘blindingly obvious’ mantra, this shouldn’t really be surprising i.e. if you passionately understand and serve your customers with what they actually need (this is fundamentally different to ‘selling to them’), then you have a high chance of success. Simples.

What the report fails to tackle, let alone drive home, is that many organisations get their logic ‘in a twist’ i.e. their (subconscious?) thinking is that ‘If we craft, and then regularly, state a cool-sounding purpose, then we can focus on our real purpose of profit.’ This is NOT what ‘purpose brings profit’ means!

A focus on growth and profitability doesn’t unlock purpose – indeed it will likely do the exact opposite. This isn’t to say that you can’t grow and be profitable. Of course you can. It is to correctly state the cause-effect relationship between a fanatical focus on a meaningful purpose (cause) delivering sustainable and healthy growth and profitability (effect).

Again, I’ve written about the ‘what and why’ of this previously in a post titled ‘Oxygen isn’t what life is about’.

People?

To quote from the report:

Key Finding: Given the right role and environment, [people] are ready to tap into their purpose and reach a higher potential at work”.

Now, I absolutely agree with this statement but I get sick of, what I consider to be, the spectacularly obvious being dressed up as a ‘finding’. This is ‘McGregor 101’: How you treat me will determine a massive amount of how I behave.

And so to the next quote:

“this correlation of satisfaction at work and purpose orientation was consistent in virtually every country and industry studied.”

This is where I write “No sh1t Sherlock!” That would be because we are all humans – which is a nice segue to Dilbert, and the Theory of Evolution.

Capt obviousIt’s a bit like all those scientific research projects spending scarce grant money to confirm that ‘water quenches our thirst’ or ‘alcohol gets us drunk’ or [insert one from today’s supposed news].

The trouble, for me, with stating the obvious but missing out the important contextual piece is that organisations then run away shouting “oooh, quick, quick…we’ve got to find our purpose! Let’s gather round and play with some words.”

And they spectacularly miss the point.

Purpose driven?

So let’s get to the nub of my critique: The report implies that there are three different types of people*, these being those who are primarily:

  • Purpose-driven; or
  • Status-driven; or
  • Money-driven.

They then follow this line of reasoning with….have you guessed it?…the recommendation to search for and select purpose-oriented ‘talent’.  It even suggests adding the ‘what is your primary drive?’ dimension to an organisation’s talent selection criteria 😦

The hilarity of this is that they may recruit lots of (currently) purpose-driven people…and then kill it. It’s the same old talent message – don’t endlessly seek talent, recognise and tirelessly work to unleash the talent from within.

So, back to the ‘research report’: sure you can ask someone to respond to survey questions as to which category they currently associate themselves most with (i.e. purpose, status, money)…but where is the consideration as to WHY someone might answer as they did.

* are they ‘types’ of people….or are they outcomes that people have arrived at or been driven to?

Some examples:

  • how many of you started a new job with passion and purpose, but within 6 months – 1 year, had been beaten back to surviving on merely the money and seeking some status to get noticed?
  • how many of you started your ‘careers’ focused on getting on the ladder and earning enough money to gain a roof over your heads and have a family….and how many of you have reached a certain level of wealth and/or experience where your priorities have changed?1

To conclude:

Yep, purpose is important.

Yep, I can’t really disagree with the blindingly obvious littered throughout the ‘report’.

…but if the report were a sandwich, it is bland, limp and empty – where’s the important and insightful stuff that needed to be said?

In short, where’s the meat in the sandwich?!

Does this matter? Well, yes, it does. The problem with such reports is that they allow the top management of traditional (‘command and control’) organisations to gleefully wave them about, shouting “nothing to see here – we know all of this and, even better, we’ve got it totally covered!”

Total codswallop.  As I wrote in an earlier ‘Blackadder’ post, a report is only valuable if it covers what needs to be said, not what they want to hear.

The report spectacularly misses the huge point that:

“People’s behaviour is a product of their system. It is only by changing [the system] that we can expect a change in behaviour.” (John Seddon)

What sort of system environmental things am I talking about? If you read Deming’s 14 points for management you will get a good idea. At a high level, let’s compare two environments and then you tell me which would enable you to focus on your purpose and which would see you struggling to survive through status and money:

Traditional A better way!
Hierarchical (authority…superiority) ‘Social’ (responsibility, equality)
Fear/ blame Trust/ ‘safe to fail’
Rules and consequences Guidance and support
Growth and Profitability Customer, customer, customer
Budgets, financial measures, cost cutting ‘Purpose’ operational measures, variation
Implement ‘best practise’ on the people (plans) Problem solving by the people (experiments)
Cascaded personal (or team) targets Value stream capability measures
Judgement, through rating and ranking Coaching, through non-judgemental feedback
Carrot and stick compliance Intrinsically motivated
Incentives Profit sharing
Competitions, and hero (people) awards Collaboration, and achievement focus

 Whether a person can (will) be purpose-oriented is hugely down to the environment in which they work. Simples.

Footnotes

1. This is rather obvious: take your pick from ‘Herzberg’s Motivators & Hygiene factors’ or ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’.

2. I ‘get’ that LinkedIn are merely trying to drum up business by suggesting we all need to find ‘talent’ but….grrrrrr.

Lost in translation

keep off the grassSo I came across a PowerPoint slide recently that was headed something like ‘Deming’s 14 points for management translated for our organisation today’ (emphasis added).

It then contained 14 very brief (i.e. 2 or 3 word) phrases of unclear meaning.

I am familiar with Deming’s 14 points for management, having them on my wall, and many (most?) of the phrases on the PowerPoint slide were alien to me.

Now, the reasons for this apparent mismatch could be one, or many, of the following. The author of the slide:

  • doesn’t understand Deming’s principles; or
  • doesn’t agree with Deming; or
  • doesn’t think that they apply to his/her organisation or to the world as it stands today1; or
  • does understand, does agree with them and does think they are applicable BUT doesn’t want to ‘upset the applecart’ with the inconvenient truth that some (many?) of Deming’s principles might go completely against how his/her organisation currently operates2

…and so considers it necessary and acceptable to, let’s say, ‘adjust’ them.

Now, the point of this post is not to dwell on my translation concerns on what I read on a PowerPoint slide (I mean no disrespect or malice to the writer). The point is to faithfully set out Deming’s 14 points as he wrote them and to pull out some pertinent comments…and, in so doing, to point out where many organisations have a way to go.

“Hang on a minute Steve…

…erm, you seem to be suggesting that Deming’s points are akin to a holy book! What’s so important about what Deming had to say?!”

If you are wondering who on earth Dr W. Edwards Deming was then please have a read of my earlier ‘about the giants’ post on Deming.

In short, he may be considered a (the?) father figure for post war Japan/ Toyota/ Lean Thinking/ Vanguard Method/ Operational Excellence…and on and on. If you believe you are on a ‘Lean Thinking’ journey, then Deming is a hugely important figure and I’d humbly suggest that anyone/everyone study and understand his thinking.

So, here they are!

Deming’s 14 points for management, as summarised3 by Deming (the blue italics), with additional comment from me4:

“The 14 points are the basis for transformation. It will not suffice merely to solve problems, big or little. Adoption and action on the 14 points are a signal that management intend to stay in business and aim to protect investors and jobs

…the 14 points apply anywhere, to small organisations as well as to large ones, to the service industry as well as to manufacturing.


1. Create constancy of purpose towards improvement of product and service, with the aim to become competitive and to stay in business, and to provide jobs.

Purpose is about improvement for the customer, not growth and profitability per se. If we constantly pursue our customer purpose, then success (through growth and profitability) will result …NOT the other way around. You have to act as you say, the stated purpose cannot be a smokescreen.


2. Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.

Deming’s reference to Western management might now be referred to as ‘Command and control’ management and ‘management by the numbers’. Not all of western management today is command and control (there are many great organisations that have escaped its grip using Deming’s wise words) and, conversely, command and control is not limited to the west – it has sadly spread far and wide.

It’s a philosophy: Deming isn’t putting forward an action plan. He’s putting forward an aspirational way of being. The distinction is important.


3. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality. Eliminate the need for inspection on a mass basis by building quality into the product in the first place.

“Quality cannot be inspected into a product or service; it must be built into it” (Harold S Dodge). If you have lots of ‘controls’, then you need to consider root cause – why do you deem these necessary?

Controls cannot improve anything; they can only identify a problem after it has occurred. What to do instead? The answer lies (in part) at point 12 below.


4. End the practise of awarding business on the basis of price tag. Instead minimise total cost. Move towards a single supplier for any one item, on a long-term relationship of loyalty and trust.

How many suppliers (such as outsourcing and IT implementations) are selected on the basis of a highly attractive competitive tender and are then paid much much more once they have jammed their foot in the door, and the true costs emerge once we have become reliant on them?

True strategic partnerships beat a focus on unit prices.


5. Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service, to improve quality and productivity, and thus constantly decrease costs.

The starting point and never-ending journey is quality, in the eyes of the customer. The outcome (result) will be decreasing costs. Cause and effect.

To start at costs is to misunderstand the quality chain reaction (a post to be written). Focussing on cost-cutting paradoxically adds costs and harms value.


6. Institute training on the job.

 Management (of ALL levels) need constant education at the gemba and, when there, need to understand capability measurement and handle (not frustrate) variation.


7. Institute leadership. The aim of supervision should be to help people and machines and gadgets to do a better job. Supervision of management is in need of overhaul, as well as supervision of production workers.

Management should be farmers, not heroes.


8. Drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.

The fixed performance contract (incorporating targets and rewards) is management by fear. Replace with trust.


9. Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and in use that may be encountered with the product or service.

This doesn’t mean turn everything on its head! Many an organisation misunderstands and attempts a grand re-organisation from vertical silos to horizontal streams. This is not the point. There is a need for (appropriate) expertise – the problem are the barriers that prevent collaboration across such teams….such as cascaded objectives, targets, rewards, competitive awards…and on.


10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.

The role of management is to improve the environment that people work within, rather than constantly badger and bribe people to do better.


11.

a) Eliminate work standards (quotas) on the factory floor. Substitute leadership.

b) Eliminate management by objective. Eliminate management by numbers, numerical goals. Substitute leadership.

Numeric targets and straight jacket rules do not improve processes. On the contrary – they create dysfunctional behaviour that clashes with ‘serve customer’ as people struggle to survive.


12.

a) Remove barriers that rob the…worker of his right to pride of workmanship. The responsibility of supervisors must be changed from sheer numbers to quality.

b) Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means, inter alia, abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objective

This means removal of the performance review process!

 To improve, the value-adding workers need to be given the responsibility to measure, study and change their own work. This fits with the front-line control (devolution) lever.


13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement

i.e. learn about Deming, about all the other giants …but through education, not merely training; through educators, not gurus….and then experiment.


14. Put everybody in the company to work to accomplish the transformation. The transformation is everybody’s job.”

…but don’t fall into the ’empowerment’ trap! Empowerment cannot be ‘given’ to teams, or people within…it can only be ‘taken’…and they will only take it if their environment motivates them to want to, for themselves.

 True collective accountability (i.e. where everyone can and wants to work together towards the same common purpose) comes from profit sharing within an ideal-seeking system.

Beware ‘making a message palatable’

Going back to that translation: Some of you may argue back at me that the person that carefully ‘translated’ Deming’s 14 points into something more palatable is ‘working with management’ and ‘within the system’ and that this is the best thing to do.

I don’t subscribe to this way of thinking (and neither did/do the giant system thinkers such as Ohno, Ackoff, Scholtes, Seddon etc.)

To borrow a John Seddon quote:

“Fads and fashions usually erupt with a fanfare, enjoy a period of prominence, and then fade away to be supplanted by another. They are typically simple to understand, prescriptive, and falsely encouraging – promising more than they can deliver. Most importantly fads and fashions are always based on a plausible idea that fits with politicians and management’s current theories and narratives – otherwise they wouldn’t take off.”

Beware the trap of ‘adjusting’ an unpalatable message (to the current status quo) in an attempt to progress. In making it ‘fit’ with management’s current thinking you will likely have bleached the power from within it.

For example: to translate Deming’s point 12 and (conveniently) omit his words around abolishing management by objectives and the performance rating system is to (deliberately) strip it of its meaning. Sure, it’s been made ‘agreeable’ but also worthless.

Deming’s philosophy is no fad or fashion! As such, it is important that it shouldn’t be treated that way. Managers should be exposed to what he said and why…and those that are true leaders will pause for self-reflection and curiosity to study their system, to get knowledge as to what lies within.

Footnotes:

1. Deming wrote about the 14 points in his 1982 book ‘Out of the Crisis’

2. If this is the reason then it strongly suggests that the organisation fails on Deming’s point 8: Management by fear.

3. Whilst this is only Deming’s summary, he wrote in detail on each point i.e. if you want a deep understanding of one (or all) of them then you can.

4. There’s far too much to pull out of the above to do justice to Deming within this one post – I’ve merely scratched the surface!…and, if you have been a reader of this blog for a while, you will likely have read enough that supports most (all?) of his points.

So, you think you’ve got a problem!

Mr MessyI wrote in my bio of Russell Ackoff that he was a favourite giant of mine…but I haven’t covered much of his work in my writings to date. I recently re-read a couple of chapters from his wonderful ‘Ackoff’s Best’ collection of essays on management (and education) and this post is the result.

Ackoff wrote that:

“There are four ways of treating problems: absolution, resolution, solution and dissolution.

1. To absolve a problem is to ignore it and hope it will go away or solve itself; 

…and how much of what occurs around us (in whatever organisation) fits into this category?!


2.  To resolve a problem is to do something that yields an outcome that is good enough, that satisfies. Problem resolvers…try to identify the cause of a problem, remove or suppress it (relying on ‘experience’ and ‘common sense’), and thereby return to a previous state;

 …this fits with a ‘copying’ what you or others have already done, and an ‘implementation’ mentality. Nothing’s really been solved, just hidden or worked around;

…to my mind ’outsourcing’ fits here: i.e. the hope that ‘giving the problem to someone else’ to sort out for you is a good idea. (There’s a post ‘shouting to get out’ here)


3. To solve a problem is to do something that yields the best possible outcome, that optimises. Problem solvers…rely heavily on experimentation and analysis;

 …we may therefore move forward in a continuous and incremental manner

…but, whilst ‘solution’1 is a word that we all seem to be devoted to:

– no problem ever stays ‘solved’ due to the dynamic nature of reality; and

– every solution creates new problems. If you doubt this then reflect on the phrase that ‘Systems bite back’!


4. To dissolve a problem is to eliminate it by redesigning the system that has it [such that the problem no longer exists]. Problem dissolvers try to idealise – to approximate an ideal system – and thereby do better in the future than the best that can be done now.

 …this is to look at the ‘problem’ within its context – the bigger system that it sits within; to go ‘above’ the problem and look to understand how and why it exists in its wider environment;

…and, by redesign, achieve breakthrough improvement (or in Ackoff’s words a “discontinuity”).

Some ‘command and control’ organisational examples

…to ponder in respect of problems and their (re)solutions:

  • Why do we try to continually draft, and redraft cascaded personal objectives in the hope that we can make them SMART and good for the stated purpose of the system?
  • Why do we continue to fiddle with the incentives system so as to ‘motivate’ our people to ‘do what we want’, whilst increasing ‘controls’ to stamp out the resultant undesirable dysfunctional behaviour?
  • Why do we constantly strive to ‘give’ people empowerment (which is an oxymoron) and ‘make them’ engaged with their work, and yet continue to command and control what they do?

why don’t we look at the management system (which reflects management’s beliefs and behaviours) that currently requires cascaded personal objectives, targets, the rating of people and the dangling of contingent rewards…and redesign it …and thereby dissolve these recurring ‘problems’?!

(Clarification: A reorganisation does NOT qualify as redesign!)

So how do we redesign?

You study your system, get knowledge and then, and only then, intervene for the good of your employees and customers….which sustains a long-term result for your investors.

But you don’t simply ‘intervene’: The manner of your intervention is vital to the outcome.

In a recent post, ‘Think Purpose’ brilliantly explained a somewhat profound point – that “change doesn’t happen AFTER finding the solution, it IS the solution.”  His post (along with the simple yet insightful diagrams within) is worth taking the time to read.

Looking at what is written above, I see a strong correlation between dissolving problems and people understanding and improving their system for themselves.

Okay, so we’ve looked at different ways to treat a problem but…

What’s a problem anyway?

Ackoff went on to explain that:

There’s no such thing as ‘a problem’. They don’t exist – they are a concept. A problem is an abstraction, extracted from reality by analysis. It’s isolated from reality.

A problem is to reality what an atom is to a table: You experience tables not atoms – you experience the whole, not the parts that you have reduced it to by conceptual reduction.

What we experience (i.e. reality) are dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of problems, not individual or isolated problems. I call such systems messes.

When a mess, which is a system of problems, is taken apart, it loses its essential properties, and so does each of its parts. The behaviour of a mess depends more on how the treatments of its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other.”

“Erm, right…I think – got any examples to illustrate?”

Okay, I’ll go with two topical examples in the news.

Let’s start with Donald Drumpf3:

  • DrumpfProblem: (supposed hoards of) illegal Mexicans
  • Resolution: Build a wall! Obvious really :).
  • So how will that help? If you want a hugely funny take-down of Donald’s overly simplified problem-resolution thinking, watch John Oliver’s hilarious 18 min. piece about how determined ‘aliens’ will easily get around the wall. The bit where Donald answers his own question by suggesting they might just use a rope to lower themselves down is hilarious.

I could have written all day about other absurdly simplistic Drumpf-isms to everything and anything but, frankly, he’s too easy a target. What comes out of his mouth are supposed ‘resolutions’ to problems without thinking about the mess from which they come….and the many many new problems that they will spawn.

Without wanting to be political, I would note that Bernie Sanders appears to look underneath the problems at the systemic root causes, with a huge desire for redesign.

And so on to ‘BREXIT’:

BrexitOn 23rd June 2016 Britain votes on whether to remain in or leave the EU.

The ‘problem’ that the leaders of the ‘Leave’ campaign appear fixated on is the control of (supposedly unmanageable) immigration…mmm, there’s a similarity with Drumpf here.

Now, I’m not saying that leaving the EU is impossible – of course it’s not…but I believe that the suggested miracle ‘cure’ of leaving the EU is many magnitudes worse than the abstract ‘problem’ of resolving immigration.

An attempt at ‘dissolving’ the problem might look at why they want to leave their homes. Bombs could have something to do with it.

(If you don’t mind the swearing – I warned you – then I love this 3 min. Jonathan Pie ‘BREXIT’ video)

So what about an organisational example to end on?

Resolving the problem of high costs by ‘cost-cutting’ fits here!

We should remember that “Costs aren’t causes. Costs come from causes.” (Deming).

We can’t look at a line item in the management accounts, say it is too high and command that it be cut…and then not expect this to harm the system. The abstract ‘problem’ of a (seemingly) high cost cannot be separated from the system that causes it.

Ackoff’s ‘mess’ thinking now makes so clear the underlying reasons behind Seddon’s message:

“Managing value [i.e. the purpose of the system] drives out cost.

Cost cutting [i.e. an abstract ‘problem’] paradoxically adds costs, and harms value.”

To conclude

Here’s the hugely important point in a final Ackoff quote:

“A partial solution to a whole system of problems is better than whole solutions of each of its parts taken separately.”

  • A partial solution for the whole is good for the system’s purpose, and can be improved yet further as we study and learn more;
  • ‘Whole solutions’ to each part will likely harm, and can ultimately destroy, the system and its purpose.

Or, in American-speak:

  • A small step towards gun control is better than arming everyone4;
  • A small step towards cultural, racial and religious tolerance/integration is better than building a wall and throwing people out of the country.

Neither of these small steps eradicates the mess, but both start to untangle it.

Notes:

  1. Many ‘Lean (Systems) Thinkers’ prefer to use the word ‘countermeasure’ rather than ‘solution’ because they understand the reality of a complex and dynamic system;
  2. If you are new to this blog and don’t appreciate what the word ‘system’ means then please take the time to enlighten yourself  – this is foundational to everything;
  3. If you don’t know why I’m calling Trump ‘Drumpf’…John Oliver provides the answer 🙂
  4. Here’s Donald Drumpf’s simplistic rationale on arming the ‘good guys’ (who ever they may be!): “[the recent massacre in Paris] would have played out differently with the bullets flying in the other direction.”
  5. I’ve always intensely disliked the rather conventional ‘go after the low hanging fruit’ business improvement phrase, which refers to taking a cursory glance at something, coming to some quick judgements and ‘wading in’ with solutions. The phrase “Don’t think about it, just do it” springs to mind! Ackoff’s brilliant systems thinking work firmly puts the ‘low hanging fruit’ mentality in its place (at least for me anyway).

 

“Sir, Sir, Sir…have you marked it yet?!”

class with hands upSo my son had some school exams and this post was triggered from a conversation I had with him just afterwards:

I expect all of you can cast your minds back to school and if you’ve got teenagers then, like me, you will also be sharing their experiences.

Picture the following scenario:

  • You’ve studied for, let’s say, a maths exam1;
  • You’ve spent 2 long hours sat on an uncomfortable school chair, whilst being watched by the beady eyes of the maths teacher (who was actually asleep), and have just emerged from the exam hall;
  • You and your mates fall straight into discussing the trauma that you’ve just been through:

“What did you put for question 4?”

“Oh [beep], I hadn’t realised it was about that! I wrote about [something else that was completely irrelevant to the question]”

“Could you work out the pattern in that sequence of numbers?…’Fibonacci’ who?”

“What do you mean there were more questions over the page?!!!”

…and so on.

What you will notice is that they are all ‘switched on’ in the moment, whether they ‘enjoyed’ the exam or not. They really want to know what the answers were and how they did against them!

The after’math’ 🙂

So, next day, they have double-maths…whoopee!

The Students all plead together: “Sir, Sir, Sir…have you marked our exam yet?”

Teacher: “Whoa, hold your horses, I’ve barely sat down! I’ll do it as soon as I can.”

…and the students engage in yet more chatter about the exam but their memory of the exam is beginning to fade.

At the end of the week, they have maths again:

The majority of Students: “Sir, Sir, Sir…have you marked our exam yet?”

Teacher: “No, not yet, I’ll do it over the weekend.”

…much less chatter now. They have forgotten most of it.

So, now it’s the following week and maths:

A few keen Students: “Sir, have you marked our exam yet?”

Teacher: “Sorry, no, I’ve been writing reports so I haven’t got around to it yet. I’ll definitely do it by the end of this week.”

…the mood has changed. The content of the exam has been forgotten and so, instead, they fall back to merely wanting to know a score.

End of week 2 maths lesson:

One diligent Student: “Sir, have you marked our exam yet?”

Teacher: “Yes I have! I’ll read out the marks” and the marks are duly read out to the class, which brings out the whole spectrum of emotions (from feelings of elation to tears of despair, with a healthy dose of indifference in between).

That diligent Student again: “…but Sir, can I have my marked exam paper back?”

Teacher: “Erm, yes…I haven’t got them with me now…I’ll bring them in next week.”

What do we think about this?

We all know that by far the best thing to do for effective learning to take place is to mark this exam, get the marked papers back to the students and then go through the paper to explain and then discuss it question-by-question…and to do all of this As Soon As Possible.

(… and I know that this is what all good teachers will try to do)

We can see that:

  • There is a human desire for immediate and meaningful feedback, which quickly dissipates over time;
  • An overall score (the result), whilst potentially providing some useful indicative data, cannot help with learning – you can feel emotions from receiving a score but you can’t improve. Instead, you need to know about the method (or, in this exam scenario, each question);

“We don’t learn from our mistakes, we learn from thinking about our mistakes” (Ralph Tyler, Educator)

  • There is little point in just the teacher knowing the current capability of each of their students. Each student should be very clear on this for themselves.

So, to organisations:

The above might seem blindingly obvious and a world away from work but every day we all carry out actions and interactions within value-streams for the good of our customers…and the usual buzz phrase uttered at regular intervals is ‘we want to continuously improve!‘…but do we provide ourselves with what we need to do so?

Think of the richly varied units of customer demand that we* strive to satisfy as analogous to the maths exam:

  • (how) do we all know how we (really) did?
  • (how) do we find this out quickly?
  • (how) do we know what specifically went well and what didn’t?
  • …and thus, (how) can we learn where to experiment and how this went?!

(* where ‘we’ refers to the complete team along the horizontal value stream)

There’s not much point in senior managers receiving a report at the end of the month that provides them with activity measures against targets and some misleading up/down arrows or traffic light colouring. Very little learning is going to occur from this…and, worse, perhaps quite a bit of damage!

…and when I say learning, I hope you understand that I am referring to meaningful changes being made that improve the effectiveness of the value stream at the gemba.

The value-creating people ‘at the gemba’:

The people who need the (relevant) measures are the people who manage and perform the work with, and for, the customer.

If the people who do the work don’t know how they are truly doing from the customer’s point of view then they are no different from the students who don’t have their marked exam papers back.

hamster wheelThere should be no surprise if the workers are merely clocking in, turning the wheel, collecting their pay and going home again. It’s what people end up doing when they are kept in the dark….though they likely didn’t start out like this!

Senior Management may respond with “but we regularly hold meetings/ send out communications to share our financial results with them, and how they are doing against budget!”

  • This gives people the wrong message! If you lead with, and constantly point at, the financials, you are telling people that the purpose of the system is profit, and NOT your stated ‘customer centric’ purpose;
  • You can’t manage by financial results. This is an outcome – ‘read only’. You have to look at the causes of the results – the operational measures;

To repeat a hugely important John Seddon quote:

“Use operational measures to manage, and financial measures to keep the score”

I am championing what may be termed as ‘visual management’: being able to easily see and understand what is happening, in customer terms, where the work is done.

A whopping big caution

caution signHowever, ‘visual management’ should have a whopping big warning message plastered all over its box, that people would have to read before undoing the clasps and pushing back the lid…because visual management works for whatever you put up on the wall!

If you put up a visual display of how many calls are waiting or how long your current call has taken or a league table of how many sales each member of your team has made or….etc. etc. etc. people WILL see it and WILL react….and you won’t like the dysfunctional behaviours that they feel compelled to engage in!

So, rather than posting activity measures and people’s performance comparisons, what do the value creating people need to know? Well, put simply, they need to know how their system is operating over time, towards its purpose.

Here’s what John Seddon says about the operational measures that should be “integrated with the work: In other words they must be in the hands of the people who do the work. This is a prerequisite for the development of knowledge and, hence, improvement.

  • Flow: what is the capability of the system to handle demands in one-stop transactions? Where a customer demand needs to go through a flow, what is the capability of that flow, measured in customer terms? 

…in both cases we need to know the extent of variation – by revealing variation we invite questioning of its causes. By acting on2 the causes, we improve performance.”

A final thought: This blog has often said “don’t copy manufacturing because Service is different! But gemba walks through a well run ‘Lean thinking’ factory floor may very well assist your understanding of what is meant by good visual management. No, I’m not saying ‘copy what you see’…I’m suggesting that you might understand how a well run value stream has a physical place alongside the gemba where its participants gather and collaborate against a background of what they are currently achieving (their current condition) and what experiments they are working on to improve towards some future target condition.

To close – A shameless segue:

So I’ve been writing this blog for nearly 2 years…and I know many people read it…but I don’t get much feedback3.

If you have read, and accept the thinking within this post, you will understand that this limited feedback ensures that I am somewhat ‘in the dark’ as to how useful my writings are for you.

I do know that people see/ open my posts…but I don’t know too much more:

  • you might read the title or first few lines of a post, yawn, and go and do something else;
  • you might get half way through and not understand what on earth I am rambling on about;
  • you might read to the end and violently disagree with some or all of what I’ve written;

but…and here’s the punch line, how would I know? 🙂

Notes:

  1. It’s clearly a totally separate, and MUCH bigger question as to whether taking exams is good for learning – I’m aware that many educators think otherwise. The genesis of this post merely comes from my son’s exam reality. Just for clarity: I’m not a fan of the ‘top-down standards and constant testing’ movement.  
  2. Seddon writes ‘acting on’, NOT ‘removing’ the causes of variation. The aim is not to standardise demand in a service offering…because you will fail: the customer comes in ‘customer shaped’. The aim is to understand each customer’s nominal value and absorb it within your system as best you can…and continue to experiment with, and improve how you can do this.
  3. A big thanks to those of you that do provide me with feedback!….and I’m most definitely not criticising those that don’t comment – I’m just saying that I have a very limited view on how I am performing against my purpose…just like many (most?) people within their daily work lives.

 

The Principle of Mission

NapoleanSo I’ve written a few posts to date about ‘purpose’.

This post explains a related term, ‘Principle of Mission’, by taking us back through military history (sadly the source of much of our breakthrough learnings).

The phrase ‘Command and Control’ as applied to the common form of organisational management is associated with the military and how they traditionally functioned.

I expect most of you have seen some classic war films/documentaries of a bygone age and you can paint the picture of the following scene in your mind’s eye:

  • A large area of land, perhaps outside a castle/ fortified town or out on the plains;
  • Various units of men drawn up in formations on either side
    • perhaps divided into infantry, cavalry, archers and artillery (where the technology available would depend on the age – from catapults through to cannons);
  • …and a small huddle of officers up on a hill (and a safe distance from ‘the action’), surrounding their General seated on a white stallion.

The General has an objective and a detailed plan of how he is going to achieve it!

“Roll cameras, action”, and we see the General giving orders (Command), watching the melee (perhaps via the help of a telescope), receiving reports ‘from the front’ (Control) and adding to and/or revising these orders.

battle scene

And so to 14th October 1806 and the twin Battle of Jena-Auerstadt , at which Napoleon’s far smaller French force faced the might of the Prussian Army. However, Napoleon won a decisive victory and he did so because he did far less of the commanding-and-controlling thingy and, instead, used a different way of thinking.

In the aftermath, the Prussian military performed what we might call a retrospective to work out how they were so convincingly beaten and what they should learn from this.

Their post-mortem noted that Napoleon’s system provided his officers with the authority to make decisions as the situation on the ground changed and, crucially, without needing to wait for approval through a classical ‘chain of command’. Thus, they could adapt rapidly to changing circumstances.

If a French regiment got stuck in the proverbial mud, there was no wallowing around waiting to see what Napoleon thought they should do about it! Conversely, the Prussians in that same quagmire would be cannon fodder.

In the decades subsequent to the Battle, General Scharnhorst and then Helmut von Moltke built a new Prussian military culture, aimed at leading under conditions of uncertainty. Von Moltke wrote1.:

  • “in war, circumstances change very rapidly, and it is rare indeed for directions which cover a long period of time in a lot of detail to be fully carried out”;
  • “[I recommend] not commanding more than is strictly necessary, not planning beyond the circumstances you can foresee”;
  • “[instead] the higher the level of command, the shorter and more general the orders should be. The next level down should add whatever further specification it feels to be necessary…this ensures that everyone retains freedom of movement and decision within the bounds of their authority.”

And perhaps to the key point: Military orders must always clearly explain their intent i.e. the purpose of the order. This means that anyone carrying them out is focused on the intent and not blinded by any prescribed method.This new military way of thinking has been adopted widely though, perhaps surprisingly, the old command-and-control logic has lingered.

Hence why we get the best selling book ‘Turn the Ship Around!’(2012)2. in which Captain L. David Marquet eloquently writes about how he turned the fortunes of a U.S. Navy Nuclear submarine around by turning followers (his officers and staff) into leaders. A major theme in his story is about enabling his staff to think in terms of intent instead of merely waiting for, and following orders.

“What happens in a top-down culture when the leader is wrong? Everyone goes over the cliff.” [Marquet]

Bringing this together, The Principle of Mission is for leaders to describe the intent of the organisation’s mission, clearly communicate why it is being undertaken and then let the people get on with working out how to achieve it …and this is instead of, not as well as, making highly detailed plans and then controlling their execution.

And so to organisations:

We aren’t ‘in the army now’ but we all work with organisations that can learn from the above. We should be clear on each of our value-streams and their (customer-driven) purpose.

Such purposes set out clear intent to the system and its people tasked with delivering it.

…and a reminder that profit is not the purpose (or at least it shouldn’t be).

The role of the leader:

John Seddon wrote a fascinating book in respect of the UK public sector called ‘The Whitehall effect’3. In his chapter ‘Getting a focus on purpose’ he writes that:

Politicians* should get out of management. But they should have a lot to say about purpose….

[this] means a shift away from the central dictation of operating specifications such as targets, standards and activity. Instead, service leaders must be free to make responsible choices about the measures that will best enable them to achieve the purpose…Freed from the obligation to deploy the paraphernalia of [dictated methods], it will be up to the service leaders to choose how they improve their services against purpose, placing value on ‘better practise’ which is dynamic (anything can be improved) rather than ‘best practise’ [Ref. Benchmarking] which is static (as well as misleading). They will be guided by the rudder of efficacy, not the rudder of compliance – and they will be judged by the same token.”

* The Politicians in this quote are the leaders of what has been termed ‘UK Plc’. I am asking leaders of organisations to substitute themselves for the politicians in this quote.

Thus, the leader-service manager feedback question changes drastically:

  • From: “Have you done what I told you to do?”
  • To: “How do you know how well you are doing in achieving the (customer driven) purpose of the service?”

This is a radical shift and opens the way for true adult – adult coaching conversations.

An aside: Steering committees

I have seen a fair few high level steering committees over the years. Most fall into the command-and-control trap. Picture the scene:

  • A Project Manager reports back to the steering committee;
  • The committee discuss what is before them and, using their opinions, dictate how the Project should proceed;
  • The Project Manager is uncomfortable with this outcome but chooses to carefully manage his stakeholders (i.e. doff his cap to them)…so he takes the committees ‘decisions’ back to the team;
  • …and the team quickly and clearly explain why following such a path would be quite mad;
  • …and so the Project Manager has to commence an impossible juggling act.

In short: Committees should not dictate the ‘how’, but they should be absolutely clear on the ‘what’* and ‘why’ (the principle of mission).

* this is referring to a target condition, not a target date.

A HUGE clarification:

It doesn’t matter how clearly Napoleon, or any other leader, articulated intent if their people don’t want to follow.

Setting out a clear and meaningful purpose is but one (key) part of the overall system. The rest comes down to management’s beliefs and behaviours, and the environment that this creates.

…and finally, if you like the military discussion above, here’s a link to a short and highly related post called Why don’t you just written by ‘The Lean Thinker’.

Notes

  1. Source of quotes: von Moltke’s ‘Guidance for Large Unit Commanders’ as quoted by Stephen Bungay in his book ‘The Art of Action’.
  2. Marquet’s book is an excellent, easy read.
  3. For those of you who don’t know too much about the UK, Whitehall is a road in central London on which most of the government departments and ministries reside. When someone talks about ‘Whitehall’ they are usually referring to the centre of the British government and its civil servants.

The catalyst for writing this post was reading about the term ‘Principle of Mission’ within the book ‘Lean Enterprise’ by Humble, Molesky and O’Reilly.

Oversimplification

!cid_image001_png@01D18034So it seems that many an organisation repeats a mantra that we must “simplify, simplify, simplify”…they accompany this thrice repeated word with rhetoric that implies that this is so blindingly obvious that only a fool would query this!

As such, anyone questioning this logic is likely to hold their tongue…but I’ll be that fool and question it, and here’s why:

It’s too simple!

Here’s where I mention the ‘Law of requisite variety’ which was formulated by the cyberneticist1 W. Ross Ashby in the context of studying biological systems. Stafford Beer extended Ashby’s thinking by applying it to organisations.

Now, rather than stating Ashby’s technical definition, I’ll put forward an informal definition that I think is of use:

“In order to deal properly with the diversity of problems the world throws at you, you need to have a repertoire of responses which is (at least) as nuanced as the problems you face.” (What is requisite variety?)

!cid_image002_png@01D18034

Using the diagram above, let’s say that the problem types on the left (shown by different coloured arrows) represent the different types of value demands from our customers.

Let’s say that the responses on the right are what our system* is designed to cope with (* where system means the whole thing – people, process, technology – it doesn’t refer merely to ‘the computer’).

We can see that our system above is not designed to cope with the red arrows and incorrectly copes with some of the yellow arrows (with an orange response)….the customers with these value demands will be somewhat disappointed! Further, we would waste a great deal of time, effort and money trying to cope with this situation.

What on earth are you on about?!

“Management always hopes to devise systems that are simple…but often ends up spending vast sums of money to inject requisite variety – which should have been designed into the system in the first place.” (Stafford Beer)

Many large organisations engage in ill thought out and/or overly zealous ‘complexity reduction’ initiatives (incidentally, system replacement projects* are corkers for this!) that strip out more than they should and the outcome is unusable and/or hugely harmful towards satisfying customer value demands…which ends up creating un-necessary complexity as the necessary variety is ‘put back in’ via workarounds and ugly add-ons and patch-ups.

(* Large public sector departments have been excellent at this….often scrapping multi-million $ projects before a single live transaction gets into a database.)

Note: for readers aware of the ‘Lean Start-up’ thinking, you might cry out that this appears to go against the Minimum Viable Product (MVP)/ experimentation point…but it doesn’t…in fact it supports thinking in terms of target conditions rather than merely stating ‘make it simple’ objectives and setting related arbitrary targets.

Standardisation?

You might think that, because service demand is infinitely variable 2, then I am suggesting that we need to build infinitely complex systems that can cope with every eventuality with standardised responses. Well, no, that would be mad…and impossible.

In service, we can’t hope to know every ‘coloured arrow’ that might come at us! Instead, we need to ensure that our service system can absorb variety! This means providing a flexible environment (e.g. guidelines, not ‘straight jacket’ rules), and empowering front line staff to ‘do the right thing’ for the specific variety of the customer’s demand before them, and pulling appropriate expertise when required.

Standardisation in service is not the answer.

Cause and Effect

Don’t confuse cause and effect. Simplification should not be the goal…but it can be a very agreeable side effect.

“To remove waste [e.g. complexity], you need to understand its causes….if the system conditions that caused the waste are not removed, any improvements will be marginal and unsustainable.” (John Seddon)

If you think “We’ve got too many products and IT applications…we need to run projects to get rid of the majority of them!” then ask yourself this: “Did anyone set out specifically to have loads of products and IT applications?” I very much doubt it…

You can say that you want fewer products, less technology applications, less complex processes…less xyz. But first, you need to be absolutely clear on what caused you to be (and remain) this way. Then you would be in a position to improve, which will likely result in the effect of appropriate simplification (towards customer purpose).

If you don’t understand the ‘why’ then:

  • how can you be sure that removing all those products and systems and processes will be a success? and
  • what’s to stop  them from multiplying again?

The goal should be what you want, not what you don’t want

“If you get rid of something that you don’t want, you don’t necessarily get something that you do want…improvement should be directed at what you want, not at what you don’t want.” (Russell Ackoff)

The starting point should be:

  • studying your (value stream) systems and getting knowledge; and then
  • experimenting towards purpose (from the customers point of view) , whilst monitoring your capability measures

The starting point is NOT simplification.

A classic example of the simplification mantra usurping the customer purpose is where organisations force their customers down a ‘digital’ path rather than providing them with the choice.

  • To force them will create dissatisfaction, failure demand and the complexity of dealing with it;
  • To provide them with choice will create the simplicity of delivering what they want, how they want it…with the side effect of educating them as to what is possible and likely moving them into forging new habits (accepting that this takes time).

In conclusion

So I’d like to end on the quote that I have worn out most over my working life to date:

“Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.” (attributed to Einstein)

The great thing about this quote is that it contrasts ‘relative’ with ‘absolute’. “As simple as possible” is relative 3 – it necessitates a comparison against purpose. “Simple” is absolute and, as such, our pursuit of simplification for its own sake will destroy value.

Thus, the quote requires us to start with, and constantly test against, customer purpose…and the appropriate simplicity will find itself.

Notes:

  1. Cybernetics: the science of control and communication in animals, men and machines. Cyberneticians try to understand how systems describe themselves, control themselves, and organize themselves.
  2. Infinite variability: We are all unique and, whilst we will likely identify a range of common cause variation within service demand (i.e. predictable), we need to see each customer as an individual and aim to satisfy their specific need.
  3. There’s probably an Einstein ‘relativity’ joke in there somewhere.