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).

 

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“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.

 

‘Catch ball’

catch ballCatch ball: Participative approach to decision-making in which information and ideas are thrown and caught back and forth, up and down throughout the organization”

(www.Businessdictionary.com)

Jeffrey Liker clarifies further:

“A two-way conversation, not a one-way mandate…[where this is] a real conversation based on facts, not just lip service.”

‘Consultation’

Many a ‘command and control’ organisation will point to (what is known as) their ‘consultation process’ as evidence of their ‘best practise’ in engaging with their employees.

But what is actually happening here?

  • consultaitonA solution to a hypothetical/ ideological/ management perceived problem is proposed and released ‘for consultation’;
  • Those who notice it then scramble around to alert those that they see as being affected: “hey people, have you seen what’s just gone up on our intranet?!…you’ve got x days to say something about it!”;
  • There is much confusion about what the actual problem is, why the solution is proposing such radical ‘silver bullet’ change…and why the people at the coal face weren’t properly asked about it first;
  • Some people respond (many ‘choose‘ not to), FAQs are crafted, the consultation period ends, and a ‘finalised’ solution is issued (i.e. it becomes ‘organisational law’) and everyone is thanked for their contributions that brilliantly demonstrated [insert ‘corporate attitudes’ here]
  • …and if required, the sponsor of the ‘solution’ then employs some ‘change manager’ to force it through and, hey presto, all sorted!

If the first (real) step in supposed consultation is for an organisation’s management to issue a solution to a problem, and if that solution is then ‘finalised’ after the consultation period is closed then this is a one-way mandate masquerading as meaningful collaboration.

‘We need each other’

The above is not saying that there isn’t a role for management when making improvements. Indeed there is, but a radical different one than has become the norm.

Management’s job is to be very clear on customer purpose, on the value streams required to deliver against this, and how each value stream is performing against its purpose (i.e. its capability) and then to facilitate the front-line (value creating) workers through constant improvement.

The front line worker’s job is to constantly increase their competency in delivering value to their customers, and through this, know where in the process needs improvement.

…and, together, management and front line worker can pull improvements to where they are most needed ‘at the gemba’ and work through a logical 2-way problem solving method.

Implicit in the above is management’s number 1 task: to create, and sustain, a positive, collaborative environment in which each and every person is intrinsically motivated to fully engage and grow, towards a mutually agreeable purpose.

Consensus through ‘Catch ball’

The word ‘Consensus’ means agreement reached by a group. However, Liker expands this meaning within a Toyota context:

collaboration“Consensus does not mean that everyone agrees – that would be impossible.

Consensus at Toyota means that each person feels that he/she has been respectfully heard, and that his/her ideas have been seriously considered.

A leader tests, modifies, and improves a proposal at all levels of the organisation before it gets [put forward].”

This means that it starts with clarity on the problem, through understanding of the facts…it proceeds through 2-way conversations, engaging in real discussions, experiments and innovation…and it culminates in consensus.

But won’t this take ages?!

Well, yes and no. This is to ‘go slow to go fast’.

Imagine if every change made was supported from the moment it is put in place! Think of all the cr@p that would be avoided. Think of how everyone would feel, and therefore how energised they would be to get involved, to come up with ideas, to listen to and consider alternatives to the status quo.

Use knowledge not opinions!

So, on looking at the above method, here’s a concern from management: “We have to accept that this is a really large organisation. We’d love to listen to all our people but every time we ask for their opinions we get hundreds of different, and contradictory, ideas! We simply can’t satisfy everyone all of the time.”

No, you can’t….so, to clarify: Don’t solicit opinions (like talk back radio). Start with and always come back to the facts!

…and if you’re not sure about something, don’t guess – go back and look deeper.

Start with a clear and meaningful challenge

Now, the ‘consensus’ bubble conversation above is better than the ‘consultation’ one…but it still starts with management suggesting the problem to the front line.

Let’s go one step further – Management should start with a very clear challenge (where this is a meaningful step towards the customer purpose) and then, through facilitation, help the workers identify the problems.

“But why would the workers do this?” I might hear you ask…well, yes, they will only do this if their environment is such that they are intrinsically motivated to do so. Remember that Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.

Management should:

  • Be absolutely clear on purpose (of the system in focus);
  • Study the system at the gemba so as to truly understand its current condition (collect the facts, get knowledge);
  • Set the next challenge (the target condition – the end state to be achieved);
  • Facilitate the value-creating workers through experimentation towards the challenge;
  • ….and when achieved, set the next challenge – and repeat.

Rather than waiting for problems to arise, it is far better to “get your butt to the gemba and anticipate them” (Bicheno).

truthThe truth – can you handle it?

To end on a related point:

Many an organisation attempts to craft corporate communications and manage their people’s voices such that everything appears to be ‘on message’. Displays of ‘incorrect’ attitudes are frowned upon (and guarded against).

This means that, through the behaviours that this then creates, management cannot know the truth.

Contrast this with Toyota leaders who go out of their way to see and feel dissonant data. They want to know reality and most certainly don’t want to succumb to believing in a dream world!

A favourite quote of mine:

“If you cannot argue with your boss, then he [she] is not worth working for.” (Deming quoting Lt General Leslie E. Simon)

This is not championing anarchy. This is simply pointing out that if you are ‘in management’ and:

  • your people do not regularly and passionately challenge you; or if they do
  • you firmly argue with them ‘towards your way of thinking’

…then you are commanding and controlling your way to a soul-less wilderness.