The source of an idea: Front Office – Back Office

An officeI’ve read a number of John Seddon’s books over the years and they are ‘sprinkled’ with critiques of a range of conventional management ‘fads and fashions’. One of his key critiques is of a particular 1978 HBR article written by a Richard B. Chase, titled ‘Where does the customer fit in a service operation?’

The article title sounds relatively innocuous, but Seddon puts it forward as having been a catalyst for the splitting up of service systems into ‘front office – back office’ functions…because it will (according to Chase) make them much more efficient.

Now, whilst (I believe that) I’ve understood Seddon’s critique of the splitting up of service systems into a myriad of (supposedly) specialised components…and the hugely damaging sub-optimisation that this has caused1, I was never quite sure as to the level of ‘blame’2 that could be levelled at Chase’s article – mainly because I hadn’t read it.

…so, as chance would have it, I’ve just managed to get hold of it. And, wow, yep, it was quite illuminating. I thought that I’d write this post to ‘get behind’ the HBR article title and pull out the bones of what Chase was saying. Here goes:

In the first paragraph…

So I read the following in the very first paragraph of the article:

“…the less direct contact the customer has with the service system, the greater the potential of the system to operate at peak efficiency…”

On its own this quote reads very badly. My hackles are raised instantly, but I hold my nerve and carry on – perhaps I need to read it in context…so I take a deep breath and carry on…

Chase goes on to offer a ‘classification of service systems’ according to the extent of required ‘customer contact’ in ‘creation of the service’.

Chase defines:

  • ‘customer contact’ as the “physical presence of the customer in the system”; and
  • ‘creation of the service’ as “the work process that is entailed in providing the service itself”

He puts forward a table showing high contact services at the top (health care, public transportation, restaurants, schools….), low contact at the bottom (manufacturing) and mixed services in-between (banks, post offices,…). So far, so what.

service contact spectrum

He states that service systems with high customer contact are more difficult to control. Why? Because the customer can affect the demand – e.g. the time it takes, the exact nature of what’s being required, and their particular view on what defines quality.

I think that Seddon would wholeheartedly agree with these points regarding variety within customer demand (Seddon would say that “the customer comes in customer shaped”3). The difference between Chase and Seddon is in their polar opposite thinking of what this lack of control should lead on to.

Where did Chase’s article take it?

Chase went on to state what he considered were the ‘implications for management’:

“…a distinction should be made between high-contact and low-contact elements of a service system. This can be done by a separation of functions: all high-contact activities should be performed by one group of people, all low-contact activities by another. Such an adjustment minimises the influence of the customer on the production process and provides opportunities to achieve efficiency…”

In short, Chase is about breaking up the system (de-coupling the supposed ‘front’ and ‘back’) to make its components more efficient!

Mmmm, any systems thinking giant (or apprentice), even without knowing the details, might conclude that this isn’t going to end well.

Developing the idea…

developing an ideaChase then develops his proposed treatment by asking a set of questions and providing answers.


Chase asks about ‘gearing your operating procedures to your system’:

“Obviously, paying service workers according to the number of customers served tends to speed up service in the high-contact system. However…if the customer feels rushed…he is likely to be dissatisfied with the organisation.

Further, it makes little sense for a seller of any service that can be at all customised to measure system effectiveness in terms of total number of customer served when in fact one should be giving more leisurely attention to a small number of ‘big spenders’.”

Wow, there’s a lot to unpack within this lot!

  • The idea of ‘speeding up’ service by the use of incentives completely ignores the dysfunctional behaviour that this may cause, the failure demand likely to arise and the re-work to be performed. It is clear component-level logic at the expense of the system;
  • I have always hated the idea that a service organisation should smooch with the ‘big spenders’ (and thereby demote the rest as 2nd…and even 3rd class customers) so as to milk them of their cash!

The mind-set of the above is completely ‘inside-out’: the customer is merely a host to bleed money from. The attitude being portrayed is ‘what can we (the organisation) do to you?’ rather than ‘what do you need?’


Chase asks ‘can you realign your operations to reduce unnecessary direct customer service?

“Managers have long recognised the desirability of having ‘attractive’ personnel greet the public…while being more concerned with technical skills on the part of those individuals removed from customer contact…”

I’ve got visions of the ‘ugly people’ being hidden in the back office!

I guess that we should make allowances for the fact that he wrote this back in 1978 (a different world?) but, again, he’s trying to optimise components rather than improve (and remove) inter-dependencies between them.


Chase asks ‘can you take advantage of the efficiencies offered by low-contact operations?’

“Can you apply the production management concepts of batch scheduling, forecasting, inventory control, work measurement and simplification to back-office operations?…”

His suggestions seem laughable now.

Essentially, he is proposing the techniques that manufacturing used ‘back then’ to be applied to service ‘back offices’….and yet just about all of these manufacturing methods would now be seen as poor practise!

Just go into a well-run factory today4 and see the pulling (not pushed by forecasting) of units of work (not batches) through flow (not requiring inventory) on a production line able to handle variety (not simple), using measures against purpose (not narrow activity measurement)

…and you’ll also see those same manufacturing workers trying to get as close as possible to their customers so as to understand them and what they need.


Chase asks ‘can you enhance the customer contact you do provide?’

“If the low-contact portion of a worker’s job can be shifted to a different work force [i.e. a back office], then the opportunity exists to focus that worker’s efforts on critical interpersonal relations aspects.”

Boom! This gets to the nub of the problem – Chase misses the monumentally important point that interpersonal relationships are (worse than) useless if the ‘front of house’ worker can’t actually help the customer with their need.

In short: ‘I can smile sweetly, look good and even say nice things to you…but, sorry, I can’t help you with your need…I’ll just have to pass that on to someone else and hope for the best…but I’ll do so with a really great smile 🙂 ’

Not much customer satisfaction in that!


Chase asks ‘can you relocate parts of your service operations to lower your facility costs?’

“Can you shift back-room operations to lower rent districts…or get out of the contact facilities business entirely?”

And so we get to the eventual end game of this logic – outsourcing of the back office…because it’s (ahem) got no connection whatsoever with the customer anymore. Wonderful!

Not content with creating the unnecessary ‘front-office back-office’ interdependencies, the final nail in the coffin is to make these relationships even harder to handle by splitting up the location and ownership structure.

As Donella Meadows wrote: “Changing interconnections in a system can change it dramatically.”

To conclude:

variety of shoesYep, I see why Seddon has such a downer on this 1978 HBR article…and, sadly, I can also see that many (most?) service organisations bought it ‘hook, line and sinker’.

Rather than leaving it on this depressing note, I should take us back to a Seddon quote:

“Service differs from Manufacturing. There is, inherently, more variety in customer demand

…in service organisations, the problem is how to design the system to absorb variety [rather than frustrate it]” (Seddon)

If you want to understand what is meant by absorbing variety…then here’s a post I wrote earlier: “You keep saying that…but what does it mean?!”

…and I’ll write another post (to follow this one) that delves further into ‘Front Office/ Back Office’ and what a healthy alternative could look like.

Footnotes:

1. Seddon is standing on Deming’s shoulders in this respect.

“If the various components of an organisation are all optimised, the organisation will not be…” (Deming)

2. Regarding ‘Blame’: I’m referring to the article, not Richard B. Chase. I don’t know the man. 1978 was a long time ago – I suppose that he may think quite differently now.

3. Customer shaped: Seddon credits Taguchi with observing that we must first understand exactly what a customer wants (their nominal value) and only then can we aim at perfection.

 4. A well run factory: You know what I’m going to write next don’t you….yep, the ‘T’ word: You could understand what Toyota does 🙂

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“I’m confused…what are we doing?”

LabelSo I heard a really good question at a meeting recently, which (with a touch of poetic licence) I’ll set out as follows:

“We seem to be talking about all sorts of different things at the moment, such as ‘Agile’ and ‘Systems Thinking’…this can be quite confusing (and/or frustrating)…can we be clear as to what we are doing?”

The question nicely highlights the problem with giving something a label, and of having multiple labels ‘out there’ all at the same time.

Most ‘things with a label’ in the world of organisational change relate to a specific philosophy, with defined methods, and a collection of associated tools and techniques. Perhaps they arose from a seminal business article (e.g. in the Harvard Business Review) or ‘meeting of minds’ (e.g. at a conference) …which got turned into a best-selling book…which became a movement…and then a healthy1 consulting revenue stream.

People often say that “we are doing [name of current thing]”, with some becoming quite fanatical in its application.

Conversely, some will (properly) argue that the philosophy is the important bit…but they are often (usually?) still trying to ‘implement’ it…which doesn’t make much sense (see intervention bit near the end).

Consider, compare and contrast

So, the two labels in the quote above are ‘Agile’ and ‘Systems Thinking’. Let’s examine them a bit:


Agile ManifestoAgile:

In the beginning…: Computing is a relatively new phenomenon, well at least in terms of human years. (If you believe in evolution then) we’ve been roaming around this planet as Homo Sapiens for roughly 300,000 years…but the first computer that could store and run programs didn’t get built until around 70 years ago2.

Early computer programming efforts borrowed the existing thinking derived from the mature discipline of engineering – such as up-front customer requirements, robust planning and estimates, detailed documented specifications and ‘sign offs’, and clear stages and processes within.

However, around the 1990’s the use of such a ‘heavyweight’ approach (often referred to as ‘waterfall’) was becoming a big problem: software development projects were taking many years from start to delivery and regularly didn’t achieve what was actually required…and were often un-useable and even scrapped!

The new science/art of software development was clearly different to a classical engineering project, in two particular ways:

– Dynamic: the customer/ worker/ user environment is constantly changing…what you needed today may be quite different tomorrow; and

– Emergent: ‘an answer’ isn’t (and usually can’t be) known ‘up front’…because what is desirable and possible is constantly evolving.


What is ‘Agile’ and where did it come from? Software engineers were getting frustrated with the situation and, rather than sitting on their hands, were experimenting with doing things differently, to make their work more timely and responsive to actual needs. A whole bunch of (so called) ‘lightweight’ software development ideas were being tried.

A group of software development ‘thought leaders’ began collaborating. A seminal moment occurred in 2001 when they met (at Snowbird, Utah) to discuss the lightweight software development methods that had been developed so far.

Together, they published a ‘Manifesto for Agile3 Software Development’. This short and concise document4 proposes four values and twelve principles

…and that’s it!

Some things to note: It was explicitly about software development. There were no methods, no tools, and no techniques mentioned…and if you read the values and principles, then there’s a lot to like within. In fact, (I think that) it would be hard to objectively argue with them.


And so where did ‘Agile’ go, and what has it become? I’ll start this bit by putting up a diagram to express how I see it:

Agile diagram

The starting point (green box) is the software development values and principles (a.k.a ‘The Agile Manifesto’). This then feeds into a whole bunch of potential methods, which include:

– some that already existed and were then aligned and further developed; and

– new methods that have since been derived.

As such, in ‘Agile Manifesto’ terms, there aren’t right or wrong methods – what matters is whether they fit, and are carried out in accordance, with the values and principles.

If we go below methods, we can get to a whole set of techniques that people use. Many of these techniques may be used across multiple methods…and that’s fine. But, again, the important bit is how they are being used. For example: anyone can do a ‘stand-up’5 …but it’s not much good if I ‘commanded and controlled’ my way through it.

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

(If you want to get a good understanding of the important difference between techniques, methods, and principles then please read my earlier post ‘Depths of Transformation’ that uses another (related) label of ‘Lean’ to explain.)

And so, at this point, you can imagine that we’ve got lots of different teams working towards constantly delivering useful software in a timely manner, and each such team will have arrived at a method (and set of techniques) that works for them. Nice.

The next thing that happened was the desire, usually within large ‘IT shops’ to co-ordinate all this (now labelled as) ‘Agile’ work together into a portfolio…and we get the birth of approaches6 aiming to scale the method – to align and co-ordinate all those agile teams. It sounds like a reasonable thing to do but there’s a big risk here: such attempts at scaling can obliterate the simplicity, add top-down hierarchy and cause inflexibility and confusion…all things that the Agile Manifesto was trying to cut through….and putting the well-intended ‘Agile’ label in jeopardy.

Further, the ‘Agile’ label, having been created for the specifics of software development, has been pushing its boundaries to become more generalised. Those that (might be said to) ‘love the label’ are applying it to wider areas, such as project management and product development.

And yet further, the word ‘Agile’ is being used to describe an even higher aspiration for business agility…which is taking us to a literal dictionary definition:

Agile: Able to move quickly and easily. Synonyms: nimble, alert.” (Oxford Dictionary)

Now, whilst this might be a commendable (and valuable) aim, it’s a long way from (just) software development. As such, it definitely needs to come back to (i.e. be grounded in)  philosophy rather than methods and techniques.

Right, so that’s a short trip around ‘Agile’….moving on to:


Systems thinking diagramSystem Thinking:

What is ‘Systems Thinking’? Unlike ‘Agile’ (or its relation ‘Lean’7), there wasn’t a seminal moment when people sat around in a meeting and invented/ derived something and labelled it as ‘Systems Thinking’. There isn’t some ‘central body’ that (might attempt to) define and regulate it….however there have been a number of (what I would term) ‘Systems Thinking’ giants over the years.

Rather, ‘Systems Thinking’ is a discipline (heavily based in the fields of science and logic) that has been developing over hundreds (if not thousands) of years, sometimes splitting into new fields, sometimes coming back together again.

“Systems Thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes rather than parts, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots, and for understanding the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character.” (Peter Senge)

It’s about a shift of mind from seeing problems as caused by someone or something ‘out there’ – to seeing the role that our actions (and inactions) have in creating the problems that we experience.

(If you want a bit of a Systems Thinking history lesson then please read my earlier post ‘Hard, Soft or Laminated?’)


“Er, okay Steve…that’s about as clear as mud…so what does it actually involve?

 Well, put simply, it is about:

  • understanding what is meant by a system8, and the implications that flow from this;
  • observing how a system behaves, over time, to better understand:
    • how it actually works;
    • whether it is stable or changing; and therefore
    • what interventions may be beneficial, when considered against the system’s purpose
  • understanding how human beings think (rationally…and irrationally);
  • designing intervention experiments, towards the system’s purpose; and
  • measuring whether, and how these interventions alter the system (for better or worse) and therefore whether to attempt to amplify or dampen them.

 Here’s another nice ‘Systems Thinking’ definition:

“a disciplined approach for examining problems more completely and accurately before acting. It allows us to ask better questions before jumping to conclusions.” (thesystemsthinker.com)


HabitsWhat habits need to be learned and practised to enable ‘Systems Thinking’?

I’ve deliberately used the word ‘habits’ rather than ‘skills’ as they mean different things. I’ve also held back from talking about methods and techniques.

It wouldn’t be right (in my view) to say that person X is a systems thinker and person Y is not.

Systems’ thinking is something for each and every one of us to work on….which is a nice link to the Waters Foundation’s one-page poster9 setting out (with useful pictures) the ‘Habits of a Systems Thinker’…go on, have a quick look – it’s very good.

These habits:

  • can (and should) be used in any and every setting, whether at work or home, and with regards to society or our environment…and everywhere in-between; and
  • are lifelong practises, to be constantly explored, matured and extended.

In this sense, it doesn’t make sense to say “we are ‘doing’ Systems Thinking here”…rather, it’s a journey.

Commonality

I’d argue that ‘Agile’ and ‘Systems Thinking’ are two very different things, and it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges.

Agile to systems thinking target diagramIf I absolutely had to link them together then I quite like this diagram because:

  • ‘Agile’ began as being about improving software development;
  • ‘Lean’ began as being about improving value streams (from customer need to its satisfaction)…where software might be a useful enabling component within this; and
  • ‘Systems Thinking’ is about navigating through, and improving our whole world…where (true) ‘Lean’ and ‘Agile’ thinking fit very well within this endeavour.

In fact, the extension of the meaning and usage of the ‘Agile’ label from its software development roots outwards kind of shows that it was all about the foundational system thinking.

Intervention

I shouldn’t end this post without making a comment about intervention.

You can want the philosophy behind ‘Agile’, ‘Lean’….[and the next label] but you’ll only truly move towards it when you understand about how to intervene successfully.

I’ve written a fair bit about this10 so I won’t repeat it here…but I will say that it’s not about (attempting to) do things to people, it is about helping people discover, experiment and learn for themselves….just give them a clear purpose and conducive environment to do so.

“People don’t resist change, they resist being changed” (Scholtes)

You don’t ‘implement’ Systems Thinking…you constantly learn about, and question, your thinking, whilst experimenting towards a system’s (customer) purpose.

To close

I started this post using the word ‘label’…because a label can become really problematic11. Here’s a great quote that (hopefully) puts labels into perspective:

Don’t call it anything: If it has a name, then people, including you, will waste time arguing about what ‘it’ is and isn’t… but

Call it something: otherwise nobody can ever talk about.” (Thinkpurpose.com)

i.e. when thinking about labelling something, you are ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’.

Footnotes:

1. Healthy – I mean large 🙂

2. Computers: If you want a history of the term ‘computer’ and the dates of various advances in computing then see this informative webpage

3. The informal use of the word ‘lightweight’ got given the label ‘Agile’.

4. The Agile manifesto can be found here

5. Stand-up: A regular (e.g. daily) meeting where team members have a collaborative conversation about what they’ve done towards the current goal, what they are doing next and any impediments preventing them from making progress. It’s called a stand up because it is intended as a short meeting (hence people usually stand).

6. Scaling methods: Two well-known methods are called SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) and LeSS (Large Scale Scrum). There are others.

7. Lean: I mention Lean because it may be seen as a parallel (and related) development to ‘Agile’. The ‘Lean’ label came about from the study of how Toyota were making high quality cars in a highly efficient manner.

8. Definition of a system: “a network of inter-dependant components that work together to try to accomplish the aim [purpose] of the system” (Deming)

9. Habits poster: It’s worth printing out and putting on your wall…and getting into the habit 🙂 of looking at.

 10. Intervention: Here’s an earlier post that should assist ‘What do germs have to do with modern management?’

 11. Misuse of Labels: If someone attempts to justify prescribing a specific tool or technique by saying ‘this is Agile’ or ‘this is ‘Systems Thinking’ then I hope that you can politely point out that this is unlikely to be the case. A tool/ technique could be useful…but not if you are unclear as to why it is being used or if it is being forced upon you.

A thimble of goodness within a sea of chaos

ThimbleI’m a regular user of a few social media tools (e.g. Facebook and LinkedIn).

As such, I often see the (well-intended) sharing of articles about someone passionately scooping plastic out of our oceans – perhaps with a newly invented contraption – and then lots of people (understandably) pile in with a ‘like’ of what they see. Yep, I often press ‘like’ too.

…yet I get really frustrated with the (seemingly weekly) sharing of such apparent ‘good news stories’ – sure, they appear highly desirable, but I see them as a ‘thimble of goodness within a sea of chaos’.

There’s so much more that we don’t see/ question/ understand/ shout/ do something about. I’d love to see a systemic view – of the problem, and the interventions…and their effects.

What on earth am I talking about? Well, I’m no expert but what follows is my layperson’s (current) thinking. I’d love the real experts to take it on and give us all a regular (i.e. dynamic) and highly visible (i.e. transparent) dose of whole-system reality.

A close-up look:

Here’s a diagram of our oceans – I know it’s not quite accurate…. bear with me…it’s a simplified view! 😊

Plastic picture 1

If you want to get a bit theoretical about it then Professor Jay Forrester, in his early work on System Dynamics, wrote about ‘levels’ and ‘rates’2:

“The level (or state) variables describe the condition of the system at a particular point in time.” i.e. the level (or amount) of plastic in our oceans as of today. I usually visualise a bucket and the current level of its contents.

The value of a level at the start of operation is called the initial condition” which, for the subject of this post, would have been zero plastic in our oceans, because it doesn’t occur naturally.

“The rate (action) variables tell how fast the levels are changing” and “…are defined by ‘rate equations’…that describe action in a system.  In short, we can think of taps into our bucket and scoops (or perhaps drains) out of our bucket. Each of these are rate variables.

“The level variables accumulate the results of actions within the system.” i.e. the current level of plastic in our oceans will (rather obviously) be:

The initial condition (zero in this case);

Plus: the accumulation of all the plastic that we’ve ever put into it;

Minus: the accumulation of any plastic that we’ve taken out.

“A level variable is computed by the change, due to rate variables, that alters the previous value of the level.” i.e. whether our level of plastic in the ocean is going up, staying the same or coming down is determined by ALL the rates into and out of the ocean. So, yes, we might have made a wonderful scoop BUT if we’ve also opened up the tap some more (let alone closed it) then that level will still be going up! And probably rapidly ☹.

To summarise the obvious: There’s a HUGE gushing tap of plastic being dumped into our oceans…and a tiny, irregular scoop of plastic being taken back out. That scoop represents those social media articles we so like.

Why the monumental discrepancy between our tap and our scoop? Well, we’ve got nearly 8 billion (and increasing) people devouring plastic daily, combined with ever-widening uses of plastics3we’ll never have a scoop that can cope with that!

The other bit of interest to me in my simple diagram is what happens after the scoop. Great, we’ve collected tons of plastic…but then what? It’s still plastic and will be for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

And it’s at this point you’d say to me “Don’t be stupid Steve! The collected plastic gets recycled”.

But does it? And even more relevant, does this really assist?

Looking a bit wider:

Here’s my 2nd ‘wider system view’ of plastics diagram:

Plastic picture 2

Now I’ve got four level variables (or, in simple terms, buckets) and four rate variables (the drains from one, and taps into another, bucket)

The raw materials represent the necessary ingredients found on planet earth for the making of plastic (which I understand to be mainly oil). We act in our daily lives (particularly with regards to plastics) as if these raw materials are non-exhaustible…which clearly isn’t the case.

I’ve combined made and in use into one bucket to represent the productive plastic in existence. It’s worth noting that there is an array of different kinds of plastics, and most plastic will go through a journey from its initial conversion into plastic pellets, through its forming into plastic objects, to its assembly as part of a specific product and then to its sale and consumption. This can be a short or long time-cycle (think ‘single use’ plastic vs. plastic used in, say, a car).

I’ve coloured my disposed of bucket brown to represent the fact that such plastic can be found all over the place (not just in our oceans). Most of it is likely piled up on, or buried under, land.

That all looks simple doesn’t it. Surely we just need to collect it (increase rate 3) and then feed it back round (increase rate 4). A lovely closed loop. However…

Adding some of the tricky details

Here’s my 3rd diagram:

plastic picture 3

I’ll take each of the four sub-systems, starting at collected and working my way backwards:

Collected: Much of what we, as consumers of plastic, see (and therefore think about) in terms of recycling is only the front-end collection piece. We can (rightly) feel good about having gathered it all up…but we have very little understanding of what (if anything) happens afterwards. For example, do you know:

  • what % of the plastic that you have lovingly collected is re-useable…and, more importantly, is actually re-used?
    • Corollary: what is done with any plastic that is ‘rejected’ for re-use?
  • how efficient is the re-cycling process? i.e. what % of your collected plastic makes it to a re-cycled state once the various processes are performed upon it (cleaning, de-stickering, de-capping, separating….)
    • Corollary: what is done with any plastic that falls out of this processing?
  • what can your re-useable plastic be used for? And what can’t it?

and most significantly:

  • have your efforts prevented ‘virgin plastic’ from entering the system?

Disposed of: My revised diagram is showing that plastic can be responsibly disposed of, or can be discarded (anywhere and everywhere), and can then leak down the chain through the land and rivers to the oceans. There’s masses of it, everywhere!

Made or In use: There’s some really important points of note within this sub-system.

  • Types of plastic: There are thousands of types of plastic, and because of this, it’s not simply a case of plastic collected and put back into the system again. Not all plastics are alike. Yes, there are some common types, but manufacturers are free to develop very specific plastics for their needs…which can then preclude it from being re-cycled (or at least currently).

  • ‘Virgin plastic’: Some plastic applications require 100% brand new plastic. I understand that (much of) the food industry (currently) sits in this category.

  • ‘Down-cycling’: A great deal of what we call the re-cycling of plastic is in fact ‘down-cycling’. i.e. yes, we have got plastic that we can use for something….but in many cases we can’t (or at least don’t) re-use it for its original purpose. Sure, we can make items like hard chunky plastic furniture (a common use) but is this really a good thing? Has it prevented new plastic entering the system? Do we need these down-cycled items?

A common ‘down cycling’ application that is touted as a great thing is the creation of polyester clothing…. which takes us to the thorny issue of micro fibres. Every time we wash ‘plastic fibres’, some bits come off into the water and enter our environment…and our food chain.


  • Re-cycling: Even if we are re-using plastic, many such applications require it mixing with virgin plastic to do so, often in high proportions. Sure, you might be pleased that some of your collected plastic has come back round the loop, but that’s not much good if 9 times as much new plastic is required to do so4.

  • Re-purposing: I often see links to video clips where plastic has been collected and then made into ‘art’. Yes, the result might look very nice (and desirable) but all we’ve done is found a place to sequester the plastic for a few years! Such repurposing has no effect on the gushing tap.

Raw materials: Every time we use raw materials to make plastic (i.e. the red flows on my 3rd diagram) we are adding to the existing problem, no matter how much is collected and returned. Put simply, we are created more plastic that will go somewhere on this earth.

The only sure way to close the loop would be to return the plastic to its original state – the green flow on my final diagram. Can this (truly) be done? That’s where, as a lay person looking at the whole system, I frustratingly admit that I don’t know. I’ve seen videos of people running small scale experiments on this, but I’ve got no idea if this is being (or will be) ‘industrialised’.

There’s probably nothing in the above that you didn’t already know but, because it’s never put to us in one glorious picture…we are good at compartmentalising it all away (hitting ‘like’ on a feel good article) and getting on with our (plastic consuming) lives.

The Whole system

We, the citizens of this world should want to know about the whole system. Sure, that scoop collecting our detritus out of the ocean is (currently) necessary but it’s soooo not sufficient.

Personally, I want my government5 to show us (i.e. everyone) the ‘warts and all’ picture. Transparency of what’s happening (i.e. feedback) is required – without it we aren’t in a position to properly respond.

For your information: Here’s a diagram from a 2017 research study into the amount of plastic ever produced and where it currently resides…

Plastic in the world

Some notes:

  • The figures in the diagram represent millions of metric tons (Mt). i.e. 8,300 Mt is 8,300,000,000 tons.
  • If, like me, you don’t really understand what a ton looks/feels like (I’ve never picked one up) then imagine a 1 kg bag of sugar. 8,300,000,000 tons is 8,300,000,000,000 kg.
  • I’ve not really helped you much there…because that’s unimaginable!!!6
  • This plastic only started to be produced in scale from the 1950s…we’ve achieved this mess in as little as 70 years….and it continues to accelerate.
  • 60% of all plastic ever produced is ‘out there’, discarded
  • Only around 7% has been recycled…but this hasn’t stopped new plastic entering the system.

The simple message within this post is for us to set out, look at, and continue to focus on, the whole.

Addendum

This post was about plastic on our planet but the idea of ‘seeing the system’ rather than ‘focusing on one sub-system within’ is applicable to all complex, dynamic systems.

Turning to models: Forrester defined a model as “…a substitute for an object or system” and went on to write that:

“any set of rules and relationships that describe something is a model of that thing. In this sense, all of our thinking depends on models.”

However, “There are several major defects in mental models of dynamic systems that can be alleviated (not eliminated) by converting from mental models to models represented by explicit statements in the form of flow diagrams.”

Further, “…because we cannot mentally manage all the facets of a complex system at one time, we tend to break the system into pieces and draw conclusions separately from the sub-systems. Such fragmentation fails to show how the sub-systems interact.”

See, and work on, the whole.

Footnotes

1. Health: This post has totally ignored any ill-health effects on humans (and other life forms) from using plastic. That’s a far bigger topic, and one that I don’t know (enough) about to comment on.

2. A Book: I don’t know if it’s currently in reprint but the early work on this is ‘Principles of Systems’. I bought it years ago. It contains Forrester’s original undergraduate course on System Dynamics.

Note: Modern system dynamics seems to talk about stocks and flows in place of levels and rates. Different words, same thing.

3. Plastic use: If you did a ‘plastic usage’ audit for one day of your life…then it’s scary what you’d find, even if you are attempting to be a responsible citizen. When it comes to plastic, we often don’t get a choice!

4. Mixing: here’s a short video clip of the making of plastic bottles. It shows a ratio of 10% recycled plastic to 90% virgin. Not much ‘closed loop’ recycling going on there! I don’t know how current or standard this video is…but you get the point. The narrator explains that “Recycled plastic loses some of its physical properties, so the recycled content can’t exceed 10%”.

5. Government …because I don’t suppose that the plastic producers will do this, at least not objectively.

6. Unimaginable: Some people have tried creating some info-graphics to assist. Here’s one:

what does 8300 Mt of plastic look like

 

Counts, categories and computations

This post sits squcalculatorarely within the ‘measurement’ section of this blog – a topic dear to me, given the vagaries of measurements that we are subjected to or are required to produce in our working lives1.

The catalyst for writing it was from revisiting a ‘Donald Wheeler’ chapter2 and reminding myself of being around some ‘daft work assignments’ of years ago.

I’ll start with an ordinary looking table that (let’s say) represents3 the feedback received by a presenter (Bob), after running a 1 hour session at a multi-day conference.

I’ve deliberately used a rather harmless-looking subject (i.e. feedback to a presenter) so that I can cover some general points…which can then be applied more widely.

Bobs presentation tableSo, let’s walk through this table.

Conference attendees were asked to evaluate Bob’s session against five perfectly reasonable questions, using a five-point rating scale (from ‘Poor’ through to ‘Excellent’). The body of the table (in blue) tells us the percentage of evaluators that awarded each rating per question (and, as you would expect, the ratings given for each question sum to 100%).

Nice, obvious, easy….but that table is sure hard to read. It’s just a blur of boring numbers.

Mmm, we’d better add some statistics3 (numbers in red)…to make it more, ahem, useful.

Pseudo-Average

So the first ‘analysis’ usually added is the ‘average score per question’. i.e. we can see that there is variation in how people score…and we feel the need to boil this down into the score that a (mythical) ‘average respondent’ gave.

To do this, we assume a numerical weighting for each rating (e.g. a ‘poor’ scores a 0…all the way up to an ‘excellence’ scoring a 4) and then use our trusty spreadsheet to crunch out an average. Looking at the table, Bob scored an overall 1.35 on the quality of her pre-session material, which is somewhere between ‘average’ (a score of 1) and ‘good’ (a score of 2).

…and it is at this point that we should pause to reflect on the type of data that we are dealing with.

“While numbers may be used to denote an ordering among categories, such numbers do not possess the property of distance. The term for numbers used in this way is ordinal data.” (Wheeler)

There is a natural order between poor, average, good, very good and excellent…however there is no guarantee that the distance between ‘excellent’ and ‘very good’ is the same as the distance from ‘good’ to ‘average’ (and so on)…yet by assigning numbers to categories we make distances between categories appear the same5.

If you compute an average of ordinal data then you have a pseudo-average.

“Pseudo averages are very convenient, but they are essentially an arbitrary scoring system which is used with ordinal data. They have limited meaning, and should not be over interpreted.”

Total Average

Okay, so going back to our table of Bob’s feedback: we’ve averaged each row (our pseudo-averages)…so our next nifty piece of analysis will be to average each column, to (supposedly) find out how Bob did in general…and we get our total average line. This shows that Bob mainly scored, on average, in the ‘good’ and ‘very good’ categories.

But what on earth does this mean? Combining scores for different variables (e.g. the five different evaluation questions in this case) is daft. They have no meaningful relationship between themselves.

It’s like saying “I’ve got 3 bikes and 10 fingers….so that’s an average of 6.5”. Yes, that’s what the calculator will say…but so what?!

“The total average line (i.e. computing an average from different variables) is essentially a triumph of computation over common sense. It should be deleted from the summary.”

Global Pseudo-Average

And so to our last piece of clever analysis…that table of numbers is quite hard to deal with. Is there one number that tells us ‘the answer’?

Well, yes, we could create a global pseudo average, which would be to compute a pseudo average from the total average line. Excellent, we could calculate a one-number summary for each presenter at our conference…and then we could compare them…we could even create a (fun!) league table 🙂

Oh, bugger, our Bob only got a 2.4. That doesn’t seem very good.

To compute a global pseudo-average would be to cross-pollinate the misleading pseudo-average with the nonsensical total average line and arrive in computation purgatory.

The wider point

which wayLet’s move away from Bob’s presentation skills.

Who’s seen pseudo-averages, total average lines and global pseudo-averages ‘used in anger’ (i.e. with material decisions being made) on ordinal data?

A classic example would be within software selection exercises, to (purportedly) compare competing vendors in a robust, objective and transparent manner.

  • In terms of pseudo averages, we get situations where 10 ‘nice to have’ features end up supposedly equaling 1 ‘essential’ function;
  • In terms of total average lines, we get variables like software functionality, support levels and vendor financial strength all combined together (which is akin to my bikes and fingers);
  • …and at the very end, the ‘decider’ between selecting Vendor A or B might go down to which one has been lucky enough to garner a slightly superior global pseudo-average. “Hey, Vendor B wins because they got 6.85”

The above example refers to software but could be imagined across all selection exercises (recruitment, suppliers,….).

Ordinal data is used and abused regularly. The aim of this short post is just to remind (or educate) people (including myself) of the pitfalls.

Side note: as a rule-of-thumb, my ‘bullshit-ohmmeter’ usually starts to crackle into life (much like a Geiger counter) whenever I see weightings applied to categories…

In summary

Before ‘playing with numbers’, the first thing we should do is think about what we are dealing with.

“In order to avoid a ‘triumph of computation over common sense’ it is important for you to think about the nature of your data…

…a spreadsheet programme doesn’t have any inhibitions about computing the average for a set of telephone numbers.”

Addendum: ‘Back to school’ on data types

This quick table gives a summary of the traditional (though not exhaustive) method of categorising numerical data:

Data types table

Footnotes

1. It’s not just our working lives: We are constantly fed ‘numbers’ by central and local government, the media, and the private sector through marketing and advertisement.

2. Wheeler’s excellent book called ‘Making Sense of Data: SPC for the service sector’. All quotes above (in blue) are from this book.

3. ‘Represents’: If you are wondering, these are not real numbers. I’ve mocked it up so that you can hopefully see the points within.

4. Statistic: “a fact in the form of a number that shows information about something” (Cambridge Dictionary).

We should note, however, that just because we’ve been able to perform a calculation on a set of numbers doesn’t make it useful.

5. Distance: A nice example to show the lack of the quality of distance within ordinal data is to think of a race: Let’s say that, after over 2 hours of grueling racing, two marathon runners A and B sprint over the line in a photo finish, whilst runner C crawls over the line some 15 minutes later…and yet they stand on the podium in order of 1st, 2nd and 3rd. However, you can’t comprehend what happened from viewing the podium.

Bobs presentation table26. Visualising the data: So how might we look at the evaluation of Bob’s session?

How about visually…so that we can easily see what is going on and take meaningful action. How about this set of bar graphs?

There’s no computational madness, just the raw data presented in such a way as to see the patterns within:

  • The pre-session material needs working on, as does the closure of the session;
  • However, all is not lost. People clearly found the content very useful;
  • …Bob just needs to make some obvious improvements. She could seek help from people with expertise in these areas.

Note: There is nothing to be learned within an overall score of ‘2.4’…and plenty of mischief.

 

 

 

 

“Erm, I don’t know yet!”

I dont know yetThis short post is about receiving text messages from service organisations: Some are (or could be) useful, whilst many others are (ahem) ‘bullshit masquerading as customer care’.

I recently had to arrange an MRI scan. I’m getting old(er)…and so are my joints.

The initial mix up.

A medical consultant referred me for an MRI scan. She told me to expect an appointment within the next 4 – 6 weeks. Cool, that doesn’t sound too long.

I started to question things when I hadn’t heard anything after 10 weeks. I rang to chase it:

“Oh, sorry to hear that you haven’t heard from [the MRI service]. We sent the request through to them the very day that you saw your consultant. They must have ‘lost it’. I’ll send through a second request marked’ urgent’. Let me know again if you don’t hear from them.”

Making a booking

Thankfully, a member of the MRI service’s booking team rang me about a week later.

She asked me some clarifying questions, explained what would happen, gave me a few appointment slot options and I agreed to a day and time for next week. Excellent – an easy and friendly conversation. That was a good customer experience (though, please don’t ask me to give an NPS score!)

However, do you know that feeling when you put the phone down and think1:

“hmmm, I’ve hastily scribbled ‘Thursday at 9 a.m.’ down on my doodle pad next to me….I think that’s the slot that we agreed on….I hope I’ve got that right….I hope that’s what she put into her system.”

…and so what I really really really wanted was an immediate text (i.e. within minutes of ending the call) confirming the day, time and address for my scan. So simple, so easily done and so valuable.

They did send me a text. Here’s what it said:

“Hi Steve. If you need to move your appointment with [name of MRI service], please call [tel. number], thanks.”

Face palmAaaargh! That’s about as much use as a chocolate fire guard. It gives me no information of value. They have quite brilliantly engineered a near certain failure demand call from me – they’ve even given me the number to call!

So, I ring the number that they have so helpfully provided, and they confirm that, yes, I did have it right and, no, it wasn’t a problem me ringing to check – they get it all the time (operation face palm).

So that’s all well and good.

Two further texts

Time goes by and then, 24 hours before my appointment I get two (separate) text messages from the MRI service.

Here’s the first:

“Confirming your appointment with [name of MRI service] at [address] on [date], please arrive at [time]. Please phone [tel. number] if you have any queries.”

Brilliant. This is the exact text message that I wanted when I first booked. Now, don’t get me wrong – I like getting the above text the day before as a reminder…but AS WELL AS, not INSTEAD OF an initial confirmation text.

Now, I know that this blog post is totally about ‘first world problems’ and I’m really grateful for the access to the medical services that I have.  I mainly wrote this post because of the second text2 and to illustrate a point about it.

how did we doHere’s what the second text said:

“How was your recent experience with our booking team? Go to [URL].”

…and I thought “Erm, I don’t know yet…I haven’t had my scan!”

And why does this matter you might ask?

Well, I might turn up for my scan and:

  • they aren’t ready for me (perhaps there’s a huge queue); or
  • they might not have my information ‘in their system’ yet (e.g. because it hasn’t been passed on by another silo); or
  • they might have ‘double booked’; or
  • they might not have any record of my booking; or
  • they might not have informed me of something I needed to bring/wear/not wear or do/ not to do; or
  • …and on and on.

The text feedback request sent before I receive the service shows quite clearly that the organisation is trying to score a vertical silo (i.e. the booking team, and quite likely a specific person within) rather than caring about (let alone understanding) whether the horizontal service worked for the customer.

I care about ‘from my need through to its satisfaction’. I don’t care about the ‘booking team’ (sorry booking team, no offence meant).

The booking team can talk to me as friendly and efficiently as they want (which, no doubt, I would find agreeable) …but this makes up about 5% of the value of the interaction. I will only find out about the quality of my booking interaction when I come to have my scan.

Turning to the general point

I don’t mean to pick on the MRI service. It’s just the last example in a long line of service organisations sending out ‘surveys’ asking how well they did from a single interaction with me.

Whether it’s the bank, telecommunications, utility or insurance company…or even the local council.

The point is the same for ALL of them. I don’t really care about a contact, I care about whether you satisfied my need. These are totally different points of view.

In summary:

If you really want to improve your organisation, change your viewpoint from ‘inside out’ to ‘outside in’.

Addendum

Of course I had to go to the URL given to me in that last text to confirm my suspicions as to what I would find…and oh yes, regular blog readers have guessed it – they want me to give them a score from 1 through to 10 about whether I’d recommend them to my friends and family.

Ho hum.

Footnotes:

1. You might not be like this. However, I’m the sort of person where people (including my wife) deliberately ask me down the pub whether I locked the front door…just to see the doubt creeping across my face.

2. The rest is just the comedy side baggage that also occurred.

“What did you just call me?!”

what did you just call meSpeaker: “Erm, sorry, but I don’t think I ‘called you’ anything. I was just pointing out that, in this particular case, I believe that you are ignorant of what is actually happening….”

Receiver: “How VERY dare you!!!”

Speaker: “No, no, there’s nothing wrong with this – it’s not an accusation…”

When a rather useful word goes bad

If I look up the meaning of the word ‘ignorant’ in, say, the Oxford dictionary, I get a couple of meanings:

1. “Lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about a particular thing”; and

2. “Discourteous or rude”

The example sentence given is “he was told constantly that he was ignorant and stupid”.

Unfortunately, this example sentence ensures that definition’s 1 and 2 are tangled together, and this ‘insult’ meaning has become the normal usage of the word – just as implied by the receiver in the introductory conversation.

…but I think the purely factual definition in meaning 1. is REALLY important and shouldn’t be taken negatively.

Pointing out the facts:

We are ALL ignorant, and whilst the nature of our ignorance will change, we will always be so.

This is where the following well-known quote2 fits in:

“The more you know, the more you realise how much you don’t know.”3

This is a good thing, because if we accept this, then it gives us an incredibly valuable platform to embark on a never-ending but ever-interesting journey of discovery and learning.

Trying to reclaim a word:

So, how about embracing the word ‘ignorant’.

I want to know if something I say or do shows that I am ignorant in respect of something important. In fact, I’d hate you to know this and NOT let me in on it!

But of course, in the same spirit, hopefully you might be uncertain as to whether it’s the other way around i.e. that I might know something that you don’t…

…and we have the perfect environment for a collaborative, non-judgemental conversation about our current worldviews.

Who knows what we might learn – we’ll probably find out that we are both ignorant 🙂 ….but we’ll both be the better for it.

(hopefully obvious) Clarification: I’m NOT suggesting that you rush out and start telling people that they are ignorant! Rather, I’m asking you to rethink the word, and what good it could do us all.

To close: You are very welcome to point out my ignorance in the comments section of any post that I publish…and I will (try to) read and consider in the manner that I describe above.

Footnotes

1. This short post comes from my weekly coffee conversation with my good mate Paul. We always talk over stuff and find out new ways of thinking about things.

2. Quote source: attributed to just about anyone and everyone over time!! (From Aristotle through to Einstein)

3. There is an addition to this quote: “The less you know, the more you think you know”and this takes us directly to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

I often find myself smiling whenever I think about the Dunning-Kruger graph. Here’s how the conversation goes in my head:

Dunning Kruger effect“Mmm, I lack confidence as to whether I know….so my doubt must put me towards the ‘expert’ right-hand side of the graph…

…but me thinking this (i.e. being confident) then throws me to the ‘novice’ left-hand side of the graph…

…but then this doubt about whether I actually know anything puts me back over on the….

…oh, never mind where the hell I sit on that bloody graph! Just accept your ignorance, and enjoy continually learning.” 🙂

 

Lights, camera…and ACTION!

Clapper boardMy last post explained the thinking behind the softening of systems thinking – to include the reality of human beings into the mix.

I ended by noting that this naturally leads on to the hugely important question of how interventions into social systems (i.e. attempts at improving them) should be approached

What’s the difference between…?

The word ‘Science’ is a big one! It breaks down into several major branches, which are often set out as the:

  • Natural sciences – the study of natural phenomena;
  • Formal sciences – the study of Mathematics and Logic; and
  • Social sciences – the study of human behaviour, and social patterns.

Natural science can be further broken down into the familiar fields of the Physical sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Earth Science and Astronomy) and the Life sciences (a.k.a Biology).

The aim of scientists working in the natural science domain is to uncover and explain the rules that govern the Universe, and this is done by applying the scientific method (using experimentation1) to their research.

The key to any and every advancement in the Natural sciences is that an experiment that has supposedly added to our ‘body of knowledge’ (i.e. found out something new) must be:

  • Repeatable – you could do it again (and again and again) and get the same result; and
  • Reproduceable – someone else could carry out your method and arrive at the same findings.

This explains why all ‘good science’ must have been subjected to peer review – i.e. robust review by several independent and objective experts in the field in question.

“Erm, okay…thanks for the ‘lecture’…but so what?!”

Well, Social science is different. It involves humans and, as such, is complex.

The Natural science approach to learning (e.g. to set up a hypothesis and then test it experimentally) doesn’t transfer well to the immensely rich and varied reality of humanity.

“In [social science] research you accept the great difficulty of ‘scientific’ experimental work in human situations, since each human situation is not only unique, but changes through time and exhibits multiple conflicting worldviews.” (Checkland)

I’ll try to explain the enormity of this distinction between natural and social scientific learning with some examples, and these will necessarily return to those repeatability and reproducibility tests:


sodium into waterUnique: I’ll start with Chemistry. If you were to line up two beakers of water and (carefully) drop a small piece of sodium into each then you would observe the same explosive reaction…and, even though you could predict what would happen if you did it a third time, you’d still like to do it again 🙂

I was looking for a ‘social’ comparison and, following a comedy coffee conversation with a fellow Dad, the following observation arose: If you are a parent of two or more children, then you’ll know that consistency along the lines of ‘sodium into water’ is a pipe dream. I’ve got two teenage sons (currently 17 and 15 years old) and whenever I think I’ve learned something from bringing up the first one, it usually (and rather quickly) turns out to be mostly the opposite for the second! They are certainly unique.

The same goes for group dynamics – two different groups of people will act and react in different ways…which you won’t be able to fully determine up-front – it will emerge.


Electric circuitChanging over time: Now, over to Physics. If you were to select a  battery, light bulb and resistor combination and then connect them together with cables in a defined pattern (e.g. in series) then you could work out (using good old Ohm’s law) what will happen within the circuit that you’ve just created. Then, you could take it all apart and put it away, safe in the knowledge that it would work in the same predictable way when you got it all out the next time.

However, in our ‘social’ comparison, you can’t expect to do the same with people…because each time you (attempt to) do something to/with them, they change. They attain new interactions, experiences, knowledge and opinions. This means that it is far too simplistic to suggest that “we can always just undo it if we want to” when we are referring to social situations.

Just about every sci-fi movie recognises this fact and comes up with some ingenious device to ‘wipe people’s minds’ such that they conveniently forget what just happened to them – their memories are rewound to a defined point earlier in time. The ‘Men in Black’ use a wand with a bright red light on the end (hence their protective sunglasses…or is that also fashion?).

In reality, because such devices don’t exist (that I’m aware of), people in most organisations suffer from (what I refer to as) ‘Change fatigue’ – they’ve become wary of (what they’ve come to think of as) the current corporate ‘silver bullet’, and act accordingly. This understandably frustrates ‘management’ who often don’t want to see/ understand the fatigue2 and respond with speeches along the lines of “Now, just wipe the past from your mind – pretend none of it happened – and this time around, I want you to act like it’s really worth throwing yourself into 110%!”.

Mmmm, if only they could!


scalpelsConflicting worldviews: Finally, a Biology example. Let’s suppose that you’ve done a couple of lung dissections – one’s pink and spongy, the other is a black oogy mess3. Everyone agrees which one belonged to the 40-a-day-for-life smoker.

However, for our ‘social’ comparison, get a bunch of people into a room and ask them for their opinions on other people and their actions, and you will get wildly differing points of view – just ask a split jury!

The social phenomena of the ‘facts’ are subject to multiple, and changing, interpretations.

After reading the above you might be thinking…

“….so how on earth can we learn when people are involved?”

Kurt LewinThis is where I bring in the foundational work of the psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890 – 1947).

Lewin realised the important difference between natural and social science and came up with a prototype for social research, which he labelled as ‘Action research’.

“The method that [Lewin] evolved was of involving his subjects as active, inquiring participants in the conduct of social experiments about themselves.” (Argyris & Schon)

His reasoning was that:

“People are more likely to accept and act on research findings if they helped to design the research and participate in the gathering and analysis of data.” (Lewin & Grabbe)

Yep, as a fellow human being, I’d wholeheartedly agree with that!

Who’s doing the research?

I hope that you can see that the (potentially grand) title of ‘social research’ doesn’t presume a group of people in white lab coats attached to a University or such like. Rather, applied social research can (and should) be happening every minute of every day within your organisation – it does at Toyota!

Argyris and Schon wrote about two (divergent) methods of attempting to intervene in an organisation. They labelled these as:

  • ‘Spectator – Manipulator’: a distant observer who keeps themselves at arms lengths from the worker, yet frequently disturbs the work with ‘experiments’ to manipulate the environment and observe the response;

and

  • ‘Agent – Experient’: an actor who locates themselves within the problematic situation (with the people), to appreciate and be guided by it, to facilitate change (in actions and thinking) by better understanding of the situation.

You can see that the first fits well with natural science whilst the second fits with social.

‘The ‘spectator – manipulator’ method also describes rather well the reality of commanding and controlling, through attempting to implement (supposed) ‘best practise’ on people, and then rolling out ever wider.

The nice thing about action research is that the researcher (the agent) and the practitioner (the people doing the work) participate together, meaning that:

“The divide between practitioner and researcher is thus closed down. The two roles become one. All involved are co-workers, co-researchers and co-authors…of the output.” (Flood)

Proper4 action research dissolves the barrier between researcher and participant.

And, as such, ‘Action research’ is now often relabelled as ‘Action learning’…. because that is exactly what the participants are doing.

A note on intervention

InterventionAny intervention into a social system causes change5. Further, the interventionist cannot be ‘separated from the system’ – they will change too!

Argyris and Schon wrote that:

“An inquiry into an actor’s reasons for acting in a certain way is itself an intervention…[which] can and do have powerful effects on the ways in which both inquirer and informant construe the meaning of their interaction, interpret each other’s messages, act towards each other, and perceive each other’s actions. These effects can complicate and often subvert the inquirer’s quest for valid information.

Organisational inquiry is almost inevitably a political process…the attempt to uncover the causes of a systems failure is inevitably a perceived test of loyalty to one’s subgroup and an opportunity to allocate blame or credit…

[We thus focus on] the problem of creating conditions for collaborative inquiry in which people in organisations function as co-researchers rather than as merely subjects.”

You might think that taking a ‘spectator – manipulator’ approach (i.e. remaining distant) removes the problem of unintended consequences from intervening…but this would be the opposite. The more remote you keep yourself then the more concerned the workers will likely be about your motives and intentions….and the less open and expansive their assistance is likely to be.

So, as Argyris and Schon wrote, the best thing for meaningful learning to occur would be to create an appropriate environment – and that would mean gaining people’s trust….and we are back at action learning.

The stages of action research within an organisation

Action research might be described as having three stages6, which are repeated indefinitely. These are:

  1. Discovery;
  2. Measurable action; and
  3. Reflection

Discovery means to study your system, to find out what is really happening, and to drive down to root cause – from events, through patterns of behaviour, to the actual structure of the system (i.e. what fundamentally makes it operate as it does) …and at this point you are likely to be dealing with people’s beliefs.

…and to be crystal clear: the people doing the discovery are not some central corporate function or consultants ‘coming in’ – it’s the people (and perhaps a skilled facilitator) who are working in the system.


Measurable action means to use what you have discovered and, together, take some deliberate experimental action that you (through consensus) believe will move you towards your purpose.

But we aren’t talking about conventional measurement. We’re referring to ‘the right measures, measured right’!


Reflection means to consider what happened, looking from all points of view, and consider the learning within…. leading on to the next loop – starting again with discovery.

This requires an environment that ensures that open and honest reflection will occur. That’s an easy sentence to write, but a much harder thing to achieve – it requires the dismantling of many conventional management instruments. I’m not going to list them – you would need to find them for yourselves…which will only happen once you start your discovery journey.

What it isn’t

Action research isn’t ‘a project’; something to be implemented; best practise; something to be ‘standardised’…(carry on with a list of conventional thinking).

If you want individuals, and the organisation itself, to meaningfully learn then ‘commanding and controlling’ won’t deliver what you desire.

…and finally: A big caveat

warning trianglePeter Checkland adopted action research as the method within his Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) and yet he was highly critical of “the now extensive and rapidly growing literature” on the approach, calling it “poverty stricken”. Here’s why:

“The great issue with action research is obvious: what is its truth criterion? It cannot be the repeatability of natural science, for no human (social) situation ever exactly duplicates another such situation.” (Checkland)

The risk of simply saying “we’re doing action research” is that any account of what you achieved becomes nothing more than plausible story telling. Whilst social research can never be as solid as the repeatable and reproduceable natural science equivalent, there must be an ‘is it reasonable?’ test on the outcomes for it to be meaningful.

There’s already plenty of ‘narrative fallacy’ story telling done within organisations – where virtually every outcome is explained away in a “didn’t we do well” style.

To be able to judge outcomes from action research, Checkland argues that an advanced declaration is required of “what constitutes knowledge about the situation. This helps to draw the distinction between research and novel writing.”

This makes the action research recoverable by anyone interested in subjecting the work to critical scrutiny.

So what does that mean? Well, taking John Seddon’s Vanguard Method7 as an example, the Check stage specifically starts up front with:

  1. Defining the purpose of the system (from the customer’s perspective – ‘outside in’);
  2. Understanding the demands being placed on the system (and so appreciating value from a wide variety of customer points of view); and
  3. Setting out a set of capability measures that would objectively determine whether any subsequent interventions have moved the system towards its purpose.

…and (in meeting Checkland’s point) this is done BEFORE anyone runs off to map any processes etc.

In summary:

We need to appreciate “the role of surprise as a stimulus to new ways of thinking and acting.” (Argyris & Schon).

People should be discovering, doing and seeing for themselves, which will create a learning system.

Footnotes:

1. Experiments: If you’d like a clearer understanding of experiments, and some comment on their validity then I wrote about this in a very early post called Shonky Experiments

2. Not wanting to see the change fatigue: This would happen if a manager is feverishly working towards a ‘SMART’ KPI, where this would be exacerbated if there is a bonus attached.

3. Lung dissection: I was searching around for an image of a healthy and then a smoker’s lungs…but thought that not everyone would like to see it for real…so I’ve put up an image with a collection of surgical scalpels – you can imagine for yourself 🙂

4. Proper: see the ‘big caveat’ at the end of the post.

5. Such changes may or may not be intended, and may be considered as positive, negative or benign.

6. Three stages of action research: If I look at the likes of Toyota’s Improvement/Coaching Katas or John Seddon’s Vanguard Method then these three stages can be seen as existing within.

7. The Vanguard Method is based on the foundation of action learning.