Polishing a Turd

turd polishWhen I was growing up, I remember my dad (a Physicist) telling me that it was pointless, and in fact meaningless, to be accurate with an estimate: if you’ve worked out a calculation using a number of assumptions, there’s no point in writing the answer to 3 decimal places! He would say that my ‘accurate’ answer would be wrong because it is misleading. The reader needs to know about the possible range of answers – i.e. about the uncertainty – so that they don’t run off thinking that it is exact.

And so, with that introduction (and flashback to my school days) this post is about the regular comedy surrounding business cases, and detailed up-front planning…and what to do instead.

A seriously important concept to start with:

The Planning fallacy

Human beings who desire something to be ‘a success’ (e.g. many an Executive/ Senior Manager) tend to:

“make decisions based on delusional optimism rather than on a rational weighting of gains, losses, and probabilities. They overestimate benefits and underestimate costs. They spin scenarios of success while overlooking the potential for mistakes and miscalculations. As a result, they pursue initiatives that are unlikely to come in on budget or on time or deliver the expected returns – or even to be completed.” (Daniel Kahneman)

This isn’t calling such individuals ‘bad people’, or even to suggest that their actions are in some way deliberate – it is simply to call out a well-known human irrationality: the planning fallacy.

We all ‘suffer from’, and would be wise to understand and guard against, it.

I’ve worked (or is that wasted time) on many a ‘detailed business case’ over the years. There is an all-too-common pattern….

“Can you just tweak that figure till it looks good…”

models are wrongLet’s say that someone in senior management (we’ll call her Theresa) wants to carry out a major organisational change that (the salesman said) will change the world as we know it!

Theresa needs permission (e.g. from the board) to make a rather large investment decision. The board want certainty as to what will happen if they sign the cheque – there’s the first problem1.

Theresa looks around for someone who can write a great story, including convincing calculations…and finds YOU.

Yep, you are now the lucky ‘spreadsheet jockey’ on this proposed (ahem) ‘transformation programme’.

You gather all sorts of data, but mainly around the following:

  • a ‘base case’ (i.e. where we are now, and what might happen if we took the ‘do nothing’ option);
  • a list of ‘improvements’ that will (supposedly) occur if the board says ‘Yes’;
  • assumptions relating to the potential costs and benefits (including their size and how/when the cash will flow); and
  • some ‘financial extras’ used to wrap up the above (interest rates, currency rates, taxes, the cost of capital…and so on)

You create an initial broad-brush model and then, after gaining feedback from ‘key’ people, you work through a number of drafts – adding in new features and much detail that they insist as being essential.

And voila! We have a beautifully crafted financial model that has a box at the end with ‘the answer’ in it2.

You show the model to Theresa.

Wow, she’s impressed with the work you’ve put in (over many weeks) and how sophisticated the model is…but she doesn’t like this initial answer. She’s disappointed – it’s not what she was looking for.

You go through all of the assumptions together. Theresa has some suggestions:

  • “I reckon the ‘base case’ comparison will be worse than that…let’s tweak it a bit”
  • “Our turnover should go up by more than that…let’s tweak it a bit”
  • “Nah, there won’t be such a negative productivity hit during implementation – the ‘learning curve’ will be much steeper!…let’s tweak it a bit”
  • “We’ll save more money than that…and avoid paying that…let’s tweak it a bit”
  • “Those savings should kick in much earlier than that…let’s tweak it a bit”
  • “We’ll be able to delay those costs a bit more than that…let’s tweak it a bit”

…and, one of my favourites:

“Mmm, the ‘time value of money’3 makes those upfront costs large compared to the benefits coming later…why don’t we extend the model out for another 5 years?”

And, because you designed a nice flexible model, all of the above ‘suggestions’ are relatively easily tweaked to flow through to the magic ‘answer’ cell

“now THAT looks more healthy! The board is going to LOVE this. Gosh, this is going to be such a success”.

Some reflections

John Dewey quote on learningSome (and perhaps all) of the tweaks might have logic to them…but for every assumption being made (supposedly) tighter:

  • one, or many, of the basic assumptions might be spectacularly wrong;
  • plenty of the assumptions are being (conveniently4) ignored for tweaking…and could equally be ‘tightened’ in the other direction (i.e. making the business case look far worse); and
  • there are many assumptions that are completely missing…because you simply don’t know about them….yet…or don’t want to know about them.

With any and every tweak made, nothing has actually changed: Nothing has been learned about what can and will actually occur. You have been ‘polishing a turd’…but, sadly, that’s not how those around you see it. Your model presents a highly convincing and desirable story.

Going back, your first high-level draft model was probably more useful! It left many ‘as-yet-unknowns’, it contained ranges of outcomes, it provided food-for-thought rather than delusional certainty.

We should reflect that “adding more upfront planning…tends to make the eventual outcome worse, not better” (Lean Enterprise). The more detailed you get then the more reliant you become on those assumptions.

The repercussions

Theresa gains approval from the board for her grand plan and now cascades the (ahem) ‘realisation of benefits’ down to her direct reports…who protest that the desired outcomes are optimistic at best, and sheer madness at worst (though they hold their tongues on this last bit).

Some of the assumptions have already proven to be incorrect – as should be expected – but it’s too late: the board approved it.

The plan is baked into cascaded KPIs…and everyone retreats into their silos, to force their part through regardless of the harm being caused.

But here’s the thing:

“Whether the project ‘succeeds’ according to [the original plan] is irrelevant and insignificant when compared to whether we actually created value for customers and for our organisations.” (Lean Enterprise)

The wider point…and what to do instead

validated learningIt’s not just financial models within business cases – it is ‘detailed up-front’ planning in general: the idea that we should create a highly detailed plan before making a decision (usually by hierarchical committee) as to whether to proceed on a major investment.

The Lean Start-up movement, led by Eric Ries, makes a great case for a totally different way of thinking:

  • assumptions aren’t true! (it seems daft to be writing that…but the existence of the planning fallacy requires me to do so);
  • we should test big assumptions as quickly as possible;
  • such testing can be done through small scale experimentation (which doesn’t require huge investment) and subsequent (open-minded) reflection;
  • we will learn important things…which we did not (and probably could not) predict through detailed up-front planning. This is a seriously good thing – we can save much time, money and pain, and create real customer value;
  • we may (and often will) find a huge flaw in our original thinking…which will enable us to ‘pivot’5 to some new hypothesis, and re-orientate us towards our customer purpose.

The big idea to get across is what has been termed ‘validated learning’.

Learning comes from actually trying things out on, and gaining direct feedback from, the end customers (or patients, citizens, employees etc.), rather than relying on our opinions about them.

Validated is about demonstrating what the customer (or patient, citizen, employee etc.) actually does (or doesn’t do), not what they say they would do when asked (i.e. from external market research or internal survey). It is to observe and measure real behaviours, rather than analyse responses to hypothetical questions.

…and to do the above rapidly by experimenting with ‘minimum viable products’ (MVPs).

Delay (whilst writing a beautiful document, getting it approved, and then building a seemingly golden ‘solution’) prevents the necessary feedback from getting through.

Caveat: Many an organisation has read ‘The Lean Startup’ book (or employed a consultant who has) and is using the above logic merely at the start of their legacy ‘investment decision’ process…but, through grafting new labels (such as Lean) onto old methods and retaining central hierarchical approval committees, their process remains ostensibly the same.

You don’t do validated learning merely at the start of an investment process – you re-imagine what ‘making investments’ means!

“It’s moving leaders from playing Caesar with their thumbs up and down on every idea to – instead – putting in the culture and the systems so that teams can move and innovate at the speed of the experimentation system.”

“The focus of each team is iterating with customers as rapidly as possible, running experiments, and then using validated learning to make real-time investment decisions about what to work on.” (Eric Ries)

 Notice that it is the team that is making the investment decisions as they go along. They are not deferring to some higher body for ‘permission’. This is made possible when:

  • the purpose of the team is clear and meaningful (i.e. based around a service or value stream);
  • they have meaningful capability measures to work with (i.e. truly knowing how they are doing against their purpose); and
  • all extrinsic motivators have been removed…so that they can focus, collaborate and gain a real sense of worth in their collective work.

Nothing new here

You might read the above and shout out:

  • “but this is just the scientific method”; or
  • “it’s yet another re-writing of the ‘Plan – Do – Study – Act’6 way of working”

…and you’d be right.

Eric Ries’ thinking came about directly from his studying of Deming, Toyota etc. and then applying the learning to his world of entrepreneurship – to become effective when investing time and money.

His book, ‘The Lean Startup’, and the ‘validated learning’ concept are an excellent addition to the existing body of work on experimentation towards purpose.

Footnotes

1. We should never present a seemingly certain picture to a board (or merely hide the caveats in footnotes)…and we should coach them to be suspicious if they see one.

2. For the financially aware: this will likely be a net present value (NPV) figure using a cost of capital (WACC) provided by the finance department, or some financial governance body.

3. The ‘time value of money’ reflects the fact that $1 now is worth more to you than $1 in a year’s time.

4. Conveniently doesn’t mean intentionally or maliciously – it can just be that lovely planning fallacy at work.

5. Pivot: This word has become trendy in many a management conversation but I think that its original (i.e.intended) meaning is excellent (as used by Eric Ries, and his mentor Steve Blank).

Eric Ries defines a pivot as “a structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis….”

6. PDSA: Popularised by Deming, who learned it from his mentor, Walter Shewhart. A method of iterative experimentation towards your purpose, where the path is discovered as you go, rather than attempted to be planned at the start. Note that, whilst the first step is ‘Plan’, this DOESN’T mean detailed up-front planning of an answer – it simply means properly planning the next experiment (e.g. what you are going to do, how you are going to conduct it, and how you are going to meaningfully measure it).

 

Toilet Humour

UrinalSo, I’m in the process of moving office and I’m clearing out paperwork around my desk. I came across something which made me reflect, and have a giggle…and I thought I’d share:

We moved into our current building about four years ago – approximately 100 people, with only one urinal in the men’s toilet.

It all started with an email which read something like this…

“Would the men please stand over the urinal before doing their business.”

The motivation for this email? Well, let’s just say that there was a fair bit of ‘dribbling’ going on, creating ‘puddling’ on the floor…and (unsurprisingly) some of the male toilet goers weren’t particularly enamoured with their colleagues’ failure to aim…and neither was the cleaner!

So that email should have sorted it all out, yes?

No.

The next email was more direct, dropping any attempt at politeness.

Then, a hand-written sign was put above the urinal. The author’s aim was clearly to insult the culprit(s) – the phantom dribblers.

Finally, the cleaner refused to mop the male toilets.

Action was required…and this came in the form of a mop and bucket of chemical solution, bought for us men, and installed next to the urinal.

Another ‘direct and to the point’ email was sent around informing us of the ‘mop and bucket’ purchase, and what to do with it!

Things quietened down for a while. I definitely detected that a little mopping was happening. A change, but nowhere near perfection.

We then got an email about the mop. Apparently, mops left in chemical solution ‘all day, every day’ quickly dissolve – we were going through a mop head every week! We were now instructed to take the mop out of the bucket once we had cleaned up.

I observed (through my natural toilet visits each day) that the mop was being balanced in all sorts of weird positions – often not making it out of, or falling back into the bucket (splashing chemicals over the floor).

Taking a different approach

It was at this point that I saw an opportunity to experiment.

Emails operate at a point in time, far from the gemba – the urinal in this case! And those emails were clearly proving to be ineffective.

Question: When does someone most need instructions, and/or prompts?

Answer (Hypothesis): At the time and place that the ‘action’ occurs (!), in a format that they can understand and (importantly) accept1 and relate to.

Proposed Countermeasure: Create a clear (and non-judgemental) poster and put it up on the wall, by the urinal.

…and so I did:

Musings of a mop

…and every time I went to the toilet I observed the condition of the urinal2.

So how did that go?

Miraculous! The toilet floor was virtually always mopped clean (it was still shiny from the last fella passing through)…and the mop was always balanced nicely on the bucket.

Hilariously, I found myself regularly reading my own poster and checking the floor and mop3 – I was altering my own behaviours.

The floor stayed nice and clean for many months and I became bored of reading the poster (my words were annoying me)…and so I wanted to perform another experiment – what would happen if I took the poster down? And so I did.

Did the wheels fall off?

Well, no, not really.

I’d say that the floor doesn’t stay quite as clean as it used to…but, in general, people will mop up, and best of all for Mopsy, he remains nicely balanced on the side of the bucket, away from those harsh chemicals.

Learnings

In summary:

  • clear, practical and non-judgemental visual controls at the gemba really work;
  • emails telling you off, and/or telling you what to do, don’t!
  • new behaviours can become habitual (hence why the poster could be taken down4).

I know that there are loads and loads of far more meaningful examples of the enormous power of visual management…but I thought that I’d introduce a little bit of ‘toilet humour’ into our office move process…and now my fellow male office dwellers5 know who wrote the poster 🙂 .

A serious point to end

My editor for this post (thanks Paul) made the most excellent comment:

“It’s interesting that when something is not good then we behave with ‘blaming’…

Asking ‘why’ over ‘who’ is better. [Whether we do this] must be something to do with the environment!”

Paul is calling out that:

  • we so easily jump to blame, looking for the WHO…and think that by naming and shaming, we will force things to improve;
  • we can achieve so much if we look for the WHY, and then do something meaningful about this.

The emails and rude notes were aimed at people.

The mop and bucket, and visual control, were focused on the activity.

Footnotes

1. Acceptance: All those emails (and rude signs) were deficient because, just like cars, no-one believes that they are a bad driver. Unless you are presented with direct evidence of your deficient behaviour, it’s always somebody else!

2. Analysis: Don’t worry, I didn’t set up a formal measuring regime and/or start making deliberate trips to the toilet. For the benefit of any hard core researchers reading this post – my observations can only be described as anecdotal.

3. I’m not saying that I was ‘the phantom dribbler’! I just felt compelled to share the burden and have a little mop up 🙂

4. Taking down the poster: I’m not suggesting that visual controls should be taken down after a period of time. I am suggesting though, that they should be regularly revisited to be refreshed – to keep people’s attention, and improved – to make things even better.

5. …and the females around the office are either disgusted (not having known that some of the males were ‘dribblers’) or pleasantly surprised (that males can change their habits!)

Obedience to authority

LearnerWhat if we set up an experiment to test how human subjects (and therefore we) respond to ‘authority’ ordering them to break their moral code?

What if this experiment went so far as to order the (effective) killing of another human?!

…and, of immense importance, what do we learn from this?

Some of you may be guessing where this is going: This post is about Professor Stanley Milgram’s infamous1 experiments at Yale University (1960 – 63) in which he wanted to test our obedience in the face of orders from an accepted authority that defy our conscience.

My intent in this post is to clearly set out a hugely significant point such that this can be subsequently built upon (by you in pondering what it means in application to your world, and by me in likely future posts).

The grounds for Milgram’s research were the Nuremburg trials, and the consistent defence from those ‘in the dock’ that they were “following orders” which, to most of us, invokes judgement of amoral and/or cowardly people offering excuses, and fills us with disgust.

But this begs the hugely uncomfortable question: ‘So, given the same orders, would you be any different?’ The answer might ‘shock’ you.

I came across Milgram’s psychology experiments many years ago and was fascinated by them…but it was only recently that I read his book (first published in 1974) that vividly chronicles exactly how the experiment (and its various permutations) was created, carried out, de-briefed and concluded upon…and it is one of the most thought provoking books I’ve ever read.

(Note: The experiment has been reproduced many times – across cultures, genders and in modern times – with comparable results)

The Experiment explained

Now, for those of you who don’t know (much) about the experiment, here are the basics

  • An advertisement was placed in the local newspaper asking for people from all walks of life to take part in a study of memory and learning by the psychology department at Yale University. Volunteers would be paid $4 for one hour of participation. It made clear that no special experience was needed, and there would be no further obligations once the study had been performed.

  • Many people came forward. The researchers considered ages, educational levels and occupations to balance participation across all the permutations of the experiment that they would carry out. Over 600 volunteers were used. Each was sent an exclusive allotted time to attend.

  • The experiments were conducted in a laboratory of Yale University so as to make it appear legitimate. As in many psychology experiments on humans, it required confederates* to act certain roles and thus make the volunteer (the person who is unwittingly the subject of the experiment) to believe that they are part of what appears to be something else all together.

* Confederate: An actor who participates in a psychological experiment pretending to be a subject but in actuality working for the researcher.

Here’s how the experiment works:

  • Two people turn up for the experiment at the laboratory as per their invite and are greeted by an experimenter. He is dressed in a grey technician’s coat and will ‘run’ the memory and learning experiment, explaining what is taking place, setting it up and controlling it.

  • The experimenter explains that the study is concerned with better understanding the effect of punishment on learning and, in particular, whether people learn things correctly by being punished for making a mistake (such as smacking a child).

  • TeacherUp-front explanation: The experimenter (E) explains that there are two roles: learner (L) and teacher (T).
    • The teacher will read a set of four word pairs to the learner, and then ask the learner to remember a correct pairing;
    • The learner is to indicate the correct answer by pressing one of four switches;
    • Whenever the learning makes an error, the teacher will administer an electric shock, starting at 15 volts.

  • Role selection: The experimenter asks the two people for any preferences as to which role they take and then suggests they draw for it. In fact, one of the men is an actor (i.e. working with the experimenter) and the draw is rigged so that he is always the learner. Thus, we have set up our one true volunteer (the subject of the study) into the role of teacher.

  • Taking up positions: the learner (our actor – and soon to be ‘victim’) is taken into a side room, strapped into a chair and an electrode is attached to his wrist. The strapping is explained as to prevent excessive movement whilst being shocked”. The experimenter makes sure that the teacher is present and assists (i.e. knows exactly what is happening).

The experimenter and teacher return to sit in designated seats in the main laboratory next door, ready to begin.


  • shock generatorShock generator: On the teacher’s desk is a large piece of apparatus. It has a line of thirty switches, labelled as ranging from 15 to 450 volts, in 15 volt increments. There is also a written scale underneath the switches starting at the left with ‘slight shock’, through ‘moderate’, ‘strong’, ‘very strong’, ‘intense’, ‘extreme intensity’, ‘danger – severe’, and finishing at the 450 volts end simply with ‘XXX’. The experimenter provides the teacher with a sample shock using the 3rd switch (45 volts), making the volunteer strongly believe in the authenticity of the generator through an “owch”!

  • Instructions: The teacher is provided with the memory exercise questions to read out and told to administer a shock to the learner each time he gives a wrong response. The key bit – the teacher is instructed to move one switch higher on the shock generator each time the learner gives a wrong answer and to announce the voltage level to the learner just before applying it.

  • Victim feedback: So, firstly, you’ve probably guessed it by now – our victim isn’t actually going to receive the electric shocks but the teacher (our subject) most definitely believes that he is! Instead, a tape recording has been made of our victim acting out highly believable responses to being shocked, and this is played to the teacher at the appropriate moments.
    • The victim’s responses start with little grunts, rising to shouts of pain.
    • At the 150 volt level, the victim cries out that he doesn’t want to be a part of the experiment anymore.
    • His responses escalate, repetitively asking to be let out such that, by 270 volts, it is an agonising scream.
    • At 300 volts, he refuses to provide any more answers (see below for how this is dealt with).
    • His screams and protests reach a peak and then, from 330 volts, no further noise is heard – utter silence.

  • Experimenter feedback: As you would expect, our subject (the teacher), on hearing the victim’s worsening feedback, is going to increasingly turn to the experimenter for guidance…and, as for our victim, the experimenter’s responses to the teacher are scripted.

They start simply with “please go on” through an increasing sequence of “the experiment requires that you continue”, then “it is absolutely essential that you continue” and then “you have no other choice, you must go on”.

  • Three other specific pieces of feedback are scripted:
    • whenever the teacher asks or protests about the victim being hurt then the experimenter is to respond “Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage so please go on”;
    • whenever the teacher asks about what to do when the learner doesn’t want to go on, then the experimenter’s response is “Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly”;
    • and, finally, if the teacher asks about what to do when the learner doesn’t reply, then the experimenter’s response is to advise the teacher to allow the learner 5 to 10 seconds and take no response as a wrong answer (i.e. carry on up the shock scale) and continue on to the next question.

Of note: The experimenter uses no force, or threat of force, or threat of any form of retribution for disobedience. He merely uses his position of authority.


What was expected?

So, the true question that the researchers wanted to study: At what point (i.e. level of volts) will the teacher disobey the experimenter and refuse to continue delivering electric shocks?

Milgram did a rather cool thing – he staged a lecture on the topic of ‘obedience to authority’ and invited three different groups of people to attend: middle-class2 adults, college students and psychiatrists. He explained the experiment in detail to his audience without disclosing the results in any way.

shock control panelHe provided each person in his audience with a diagram of the shock generator and asked them to reflect on the experiment as just explained to them, and privately record how they believed they would personally perform if they had been the ‘teacher’ subject i.e. mark at what point on the scale they would disobey the experimenter. He then gathered in their responses.

I guess it’s no surprise that not one single audience member (whether middle-class adult, college student or psychiatrist) said that they would administer the 450 volt shock i.e. they all predicted defiance on their part.

Some indicated that they wouldn’t deliver any shocks at all, and a very few indicated that they would disobey at the 300 volt level, with the rest of the audience falling somewhere in between. The mean predicted ‘point of disobeying’ for the middle-class adults, college students and psychiatrists in the audience was 120 volts, 135 volts and 135 volts respectively i.e. no real difference in their thinking.

Further, Milgram realised that people like to see themselves in a favourable light and therefore the above predictions from the audience could have a vanity bias. He therefore asked the psychiatrists a different question: how do you predict other people would perform? They predicted that most subjects would not go beyond 150 volts and that about one in a thousand (i.e. someone with a psychological disorder) would administer the full 450 volt shock level.

Milgram explains that if the actual results were statistically different to these predictions then there is something very important going on that we should want to study and understand.

So, what actually happened?

Well, the results of the experiment were nothing like people’s predictions, and surprised the researchers!

For the basic version of the experiment (as explained above), 65% of subjects (the teachers) delivered the maximum (i.e. lethal) 450 volt shock to the victim and, of the minority that disobeyed, it took until the 300 volt level before the first one did so. Now that’s troubling! It’s important to note that there was a great deal of stress feedback exhibited by the teachers (i.e. it wasn’t a scene of happy compliance)…but, significantly, this didn’t prevent them from continuing.

If you’d like to get a really good feel for what all of that actually looks like, and understand some of the emotions involved, then here’s a very good ten minute YouTube showing the British “mentalist and illusionist’ Derren Brown accurately re-performing the experiment with unsuspecting people for one of his TV programs4. If you’ve read this far (!) then it really is worth watching.

What’s going on?

Milgram went on to create 17 variations to the experiment, to find out more and his analysis is highly significant. I hope to write some further posts that explore the reasoning, and its application to our world at work.

A basic conclusion for now:

“The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: Often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.” (Stanley Milgram)

Notes

  1. The experiment was infamous because it was criticised at the time as being unethical. You should know that every volunteer was thoroughly debriefed afterwards and was followed up later by way of interviews and the sharing of the outcomes.
  1. It seems a bit weird writing ‘middle-class’ but this was Milgram’s categorisation back in the 60’s. Perhaps wording from another age? (or perhaps not?)
  1. Recommendation: So I’ve gone into a fair bit of detail in the above so that you appreciate the experiment…but I’d still thoroughly recommend the book ‘Obedience to Authority’ by Stanley Milgram.
  1. The final comment from the last subject on the YouTube clip (about making ‘more notches on the machine’) is quite amazing!

Crossing the Divide

Picture1Are you interested in crossing that divide?

Okay, listen up 🙂 …this post is my attempt at one of those important bringing-it-all-together ones that provide a big message (see – look at the picture!)…which means that it’s a bit longer than normal because it needs to be.

I thought about breaking it into pieces and publishing bit-by-bit but this would make it longer (each bit needing a top and a tail) and hard to mentally put back together.

So I’ve decided to keep it together and let you, the reader, decide how you consume it. You might like to read it in one; or dip in and out of it during your day; or even set yourself an alert to finish it the next day…so (as Cilla Black used to say) “the choice is yours”. Here goes…

Mike Rother wrote what I believe to be, a very important book (Toyota Kata) about how organisations can improve, and what thinking is stopping them.

In particular, Chapter 9 of the book deals with ‘Developing Improvement Kata [pattern] behaviour in your organisation’. I thought it worthwhile posting a summary of his excellent advice derived from his research….

…and I’ll start with a highly relevant quote:

“Do not create a ‘Lean’ department or group and relegate responsibility for developing improvement behaviours to it.

Such a parallel staff group will be powerless to effect change, and this approach has been proven ineffective in abundance.

Use of this tactic often indicates delegation of responsibility and lack of commitment at the senior level.” (Mike Rother)

Many an organisation has gone down the ‘Lean department’ (or some such label) route…so, given this fact, here’s what Rother goes on to say, combined with my own supporting narrative and thought:


1. Be clear on what we are trying to achieve

If you really want to cross that divide then the challenge that we should be setting ourselves is learning a new way of thinking and acting such that we:

  • get the ‘improvement behaviour’ habit into the organisation; and then
  • spread it across the organisation so that it is used by everyone, at every process, every day.

And to make it even more ‘black and white’: the challenge is NOT about implementing techniques, practices or principles on top of our existing way of managing.

It means changing how we manage. This involves a significant effort and far reaching change (particularly in respect of leadership).


2. What do we know about this challenge?

  • Toyota (from the foundational work of Taiichi Ohno) is considered the world leader in working towards this challenge…they’ve been working towards it for 60+ years;
    • We can study and learn, but should not merely copy, from them;
  • The start, and ever-continuing path, is to strive to understand the reality of your own situation, and experimenting. This is where we actually learn;
  • No one can provide you with an ‘off-the-shelf’ solution to the challenge:
    • There isn’t likely to be an approach that perfectly fits for all;
    • It is in the studying and experimenting that we gain wisdom;
    • ‘Copying’ will leave us flailing around, unknowingly blind;
    • Our path should continually be uncertain up until each ‘next step’ reveals itself to us.

Wow, so that’s quite a challenge then! Here are some words of encouragement from Rother on this:

“There is now a growing community of organisations that are working on this, whose senior leaders recognise that Toyota’s approach is more about working to change people’s behaviour patterns than about implementing techniques, practises, or principles.”


3. What won’t work?

If we wish to spread a new (improvement) behaviour pattern across an organisation then the following tactics will not be effective:

Tactic a) Classroom training:

Classroom training (even if it incorporates exercises and simulations) will not change people’s behaviours. If a person ‘goes back’ into their role after attending training and their environment remains the same, then expect minimal change from them.

“Intellectual knowledge alone generally does not lead to change in behaviour, habits or culture. Ask any smoker.”

Rother makes the useful contrast of the use of the ‘training’ word within sport:

“The concept of training in sports is quite different from what ‘training’ has come to mean in our companies. In sport it means repeatedly practicing an actual activity under the guidance of a coach. That kind of training, if applied as part of an overall strategy to develop new behaviour patterns is effective for changing behaviours.”

Classroom training (and, even better, education) has a role but this is probably limited to ‘awareness’….and even that tends to fade quickly if it is not soon followed by hands-on practising with an appropriate coach.

Tactic b) Having consultants do it ‘to people’ via projects and workshops:

Projects and workshops do not equal continuous improvement. This is merely ‘point’ improvement that will likely cease and even slip backwards once the consultant (or ‘Black Belt’) has moved on to the next area of focus.

Real continuous improvement means improving all processes every day.

Traditional thinking sees improvement as an add-on (via the likes of Lean Six Sigma projects) to daily management. Toyota/ (actual) Lean/ Systems thinking (pick your label!) is where normal daily management equals process improvement i.e. they are one and the same thing.

To achieve this isn’t about bringing experts in to manage you through projects; it is to understand how to change your management system so that people are constantly improving their processes themselves. Sure, competent coaches can help leaders through this, but they cannot ‘do it for them.’

And to be clear: it is the senior leaders that first need coaching, this can’t be delegated downwards.

“If the top does not change behaviour and lead, then the organisation will not change either.”

Tactic c) Setting objectives, metrics and incentives to bring about the desired change:

There is no combination of these things that will generate improvement behaviour and alter an organisation’s culture. In fact, much of this is the problem.

If you don’t get this HUGE constraint then here are a few posts already published that scratch the surface* as to why: D.U.M.B., The Spice of Life, and The Chasm

(* you are unlikely to fully ‘get’ the significance from simple rational explanations, but these might make you curious to explore further)

Tactic d) Reorganising:

Shuffling the organisational structure with the aim (hope) of stimulating improvement will not work. Nothing has fundamentally changed.

“As tempting as it sometimes seems, you cannot reorganise your way to continuous improvement and adaptiveness. What is decisive is not the form of your organisation, but how people act and react.”


4. How do we change?

So, if all those things don’t work then, before we jump on some other ideas, perhaps we need to remind ourselves about us (human beings) and how we function.

The science of psychology is clear that we learn habits (i.e. behaviours that occur unconsciously and become almost involuntary to us) by repeated practice and gaining periodic fulfilment from this. This builds new and ever strengthening mental circuits (neural pathways).

Put simply: we learn by doing.

We need to start by realising that what we do now is mostly habitual and therefore the only way to alter this is by personally and repeatedly practising the desired (improvement pattern) behaviours in our actual daily work.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (Aristotle)

“To know and not to do is not yet to know.” (Zen saying)

Further, a coach can only properly understand a person’s true thinking and learning by observing them in their daily work.

In summary, we need to:

  • practise using actual situations in actual work processes;
  • combine training with doing, such that the coach can see in real time where the learner is at and can introduce appropriate adjustments; and
  • use the capability of the actual process as the measure of effectiveness of the coaching/ learning.

5. Where to start?

So, bearing in mind what is said above (i.e. about needing to learn for yourselves), what follows is merely about helping you do this…and not any ‘holy grail’. If there is one then it is still up to you to find it!

An experienced coach:

“Coaches should be in a position to evaluate what their students are doing and give good advice…in other words, coaches should be experienced….

…If a coach or leader does not know from personal experience how to grasp the current condition at a process, establish an appropriate challenge [towards customer purpose] and then work step by step [experiment] towards it, then she is simply not in a position to lead and teach others. All she will be able to say in response to a student’s proposals is ‘Okay’ or ‘Good job’ which is not coaching or teaching.

The catch-22 is that at the outset there are not enough people in the organisation who have enough experience with the improvement kata [pattern] to function as coaches…

…it will be imperative to develop at least a few coaches as early as possible.” (See establishing an Advance Group below)

A word of warning: Many people assume a coaching role, often without realising that they are doing so. Such a presumption seems to be something that anyone hierarchically ‘senior’ to you considers to be their right. As in “Now listen up minion, I am now going to coach you – you lucky thing!*”

(* I had a rant about this in my earlier post on ‘people and relationships’ …but I’m okay now 🙂 )

So: Before any of us assert any supposed coaching privileges, I think we should humbly reflect that:

“The beginner is entitled to a master for a teacher. A hack can do incredible damage.” (Deming)

Who practises first?

The improvement pattern is for everyone in the organisation……but it needs to start somewhere first.

“Managers and leaders at the middle and lower levels of the organisation are the people who will ultimately coach the change to the improvement kata [pattern], yet they will generally and understandably not set out in such a new direction on their own. They will wait and see, based on the actions (not the words) of senior management, what truly is the priority and what really is going to happen.”

The point being that, if the organisation wants to effect a change in culture (which is what is actually needed to make improvement part of daily management) then it requires the senior managers to go first.

This statement needs some important clarifications:

  • It isn’t saying that senior leadership need to stand up at annual road-shows or hand out some new guru-book and merely state that they are now adopting some shiny new thing. This will change nothing. Far better would be NOT to shout about it and just ‘do it’ (the changed behaviours)…the people will notice and follow for themselves;
  • It isn’t saying that all senior leaders need to master all there is to know before anyone else can become involved. But what is needed is a meaningful desire for key (influential) members of the senior team to want to learn and change such that their people believe this;
  • It isn’t saying that there aren’t and won’t be a rump of middle and lower managers who are forward thinking active participants. They exist now and are already struggling against the current – they will surge ahead when leaders turn the tide;
  • It isn’t saying that the rest of the people won’t want the change: the underlying improvement behaviours provide people with what they want (a safe, secure and stimulating environment). It is just that they have understandably adopted a ‘wait-and-see’ habit given their current position on a hierarchical ladder and the controls imposed upon them.

Establishing an Advance Group

The first thing to notice from this sub-title is that it is NOT suggesting that:

  • we should attempt to change the whole organisation at once; or that
  • we should set up some central specialist group (as in the first quote in this post)

Instead, it is suggesting that we:

  • find a suitable1 senior executive to lead (not merely sponsor!2);
  • select/ appoint an experienced coach;
  • select a specific value-adding business system3 to start with;
  • form a suitable1 group of managers (currently working in the system, not outside it);
  • provide initial ‘awareness’ education;
  • ‘go to the Gemba’ and study4 to:
    • gain knowledge about purpose, demand, capability, and flow; and then
    • derive wisdom about the system conditions and management thinking that make all this so;
  • perform a series of improvement cycles (experimenting and learning);
  • reflect on learnings about our processes, our people and our organisation…
    • …deriving feelings of success and leading to a new mindset: building a capability to habitually follow the improvement routine in their daily management;
    • …and thereby crafting a group of newly experienced managers within the organisation who can go on to coach others as and when other business systems wish to pull their help.

(for explanatory notes for superscripts 1 – 4, see bottom of post)

Caution: Don’t put a timescale on the above – it can’t be put into an ‘on time/budget/scope’ project straight jacket. The combination of business system, team and organisational environment is infinitely varied…it will take what it takes for them to perform and learn. The learning will emerge.

A number of things should be achieved from this:

  • meaningful understanding and improvement of the selected business system’s capability;
  • highly engaged people who feel valued, involved and newly fulfilled;
  • a desire to continue with, and mature the improvement cycles (i.e. a recognition that it is a never-ending journey);
  • interest from elsewhere in the organisation as they become aware of, develop curiosity and go see for themselves; and
  • A desire to ‘roll in’5 the change to their own business system.

A caveat – The big barrier:

Every system sits within (and therefore is a component of) a larger system! This will affect what can be done.

If you select a specific value-adding business system, it sits within the larger organisational system;

If you move up the ‘food chain’ to the organisational system, it potentially sits within a larger ‘parent organisation’ system

….and so on.

This is a fact of life. When studying a system it is as important (and often more so) to study the bigger system that it sits within as studying its own component parts.

It is this fact “that so often brings an expression similar to that of the Sheriff Brody in the film ‘Jaws’ when he turns from the shark and says ‘we need a bigger boat’. Indeed we do!” (Gordon Housworth, ICG blog)

If the bigger system commands down to yours (such as that you must use cascaded personal objectives, targets, contingent rewards and competitive awards) and your learning (through study and experimentation) concludes that this negatively affects your chosen business system then you need to move upstairs and work on that bigger system.

You might respond “But how can we move upstairs? They don’t want to change!”. Well, through your studying and experimentation, you now have real knowledge rather than opinions – you have a far better starting point!


…and there you have it: A summary of Mike Rother’s excellent chapter mixed with John Seddon’s thinking (along with my additional narrative) on how we might move towards a true ‘culture of improvement’.

There is no silver bullet, just good people studying their system and facilitating valuable interventions.

Notes: All quotes used above are from Mike Rother unless otherwise stated.

  1. Suitable: A person with: an open mind, a willingness to question assumptions/ conventional wisdom, and humility; a desire and aptitude for self-development, development of others and for continual improvement (derived from Liker’s book – The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership)
  2. On leading: “Being a…Sponsor is like being the Queen: you turn up to launch a ship, smash the champagne, wave goodbye and welcome it back to port six months later. This attitude is totally inappropriate for leading…in our business environment. We need ownership that is one of passion and continual involvement…” (Eddie Obeng)
  1. The business system selected needs to be a horizontal value stream (for the customer) rather than a vertical silo (organisational function) and needs to be within the remit of the senior executive.
  1. Study: Where my post is referring to Seddon’s ‘Check’ model
  1. Roll in: The opposite of roll out – pulling, instead of pushing. Please see Rolling, rolling, rolling… for an explanation of the difference.

Tampering

FunnelAny of you reading this who have been on my Systems Thinking course will have had the fun of being involved in Dr Deming’s famous red bead experiment.

This post is about Dr Deming’s other (not quite so famous but equally important) Funnel experiment. The experiment teaches about the harm caused by ‘Management by Results’ (MBR) …where this occurs through tampering.

Here’s the experiment set up:

Funnel experiment set upWe have a flat horizontal surface (let’s say a table) with a piece of paper placed on top of it. We also have a kitchen funnel (like we would use to decant a liquid from one bottle to another), and a marble that we will drop through the funnel towards the paper below.

Let’s assume that the funnel is held upright in some sort of stand, say 50cm above the piece of paper.

Now we mark a cross in the middle of the piece of paper.

Goal: to hit the cross with the marble by dropping it through the funnel.

Round 1: We position the funnel over the cross and then drop the marble through the funnel 50 times. For each marble drop, we mark the spot on the paper where it hits.

We are likely to see something like this on the paper (looking from above):

nelsons-funnel-stable

Remember, we simply dropped 50 marbles without attempting to make any changes in-between drops and the paper shows the system to be stable. However, note that there is variation as to where the marble landed. It continually landed near the cross (with probably a few direct hits) but there was variation.

Round 2: So this time, we think that by adjusting the position of the funnel between each marble drop, we can ensure that the marble hits the cross on the next drop!

So we drop the 1st marble, note where it lands as compared to the cross and then move the funnel to compensate for this error. i.e.

  • if the marble landed 1 cm to the left (west) of the cross, we move the funnel 1cm to the right (east) of its current position….because this ‘fine tuning’ will make the next drop hit the cross, right?;
  • if this 2nd marble lands 2cm below (south of) its new position, then we move the funnel 2cm north from where it is currently positioned;
  • ….and so on, iteratively moving the funnel

So, what happens after we use this approach with our 50 marbles, iteratively adjusting the funnel’s position after each drop?

Well, it’s somewhat disappointing!

nelsons-funnel-adjust-to-target-1

Our attempts at compensation have made the variation increase drastically (experiments show by approx. 40%). We’ve made things much worse.

Clearly our ’round 2′ method of compensating didn’t work as we wished. Is there another way of compensating and therefore getting better at hitting the cross?

Round 3: The new idea is to do the opposite of the last idea! This time, we will move the funnel directly over where the last marble landed and keep doing this for the 50 drops.

Oh dear, the marble is moving away from the cross and will eventually move off the table and (as Deming put it) all the way “off to the Milky Way”.

nelsons-funnel-drift-1

Perhaps using the last marble drop as a guide isn’t a good idea!

Conclusions: So which method was best?

  • Round 1 was clearly the best.
  • Round’s 2 and 3 are examples of tampering (though in different ways). They show the effects of tweaking a process based on the ongoing results of that process…it will simply increase the variation and the chances of failures.

So, what should we do? To actually improve a process requires an understanding of the sources of the variation…and then the performance of controlled experiments to identify process improvements.

For our Funnel system we could experiment with:

  • lowering the funnel;
  • decreasing the size of the funnel hole;
  • strengthening the stand holding the funnel to make it more stable;
  • …performing the process in a vacuum 🙂

All of these proposed improvements involve changing the system rather than merely tampering with it based on previous results.

So what?

Now all of the above looks like good fun…I’m already thinking about borrowing a funnel…but it seems an awful long way from our working lives. So let’s explain why in fact it’s not…

Taking the production/ selling of something, let’s say a sandwich shop as an example:

  • you sold 10 sandwiches on Monday, so you make 10 for Tuesday..
  • you only sold 2 sandwiches on Tuesday, so you throw 8 in the bin (not fresh anymore) and you only make 2 sandwiches for Wednesday….
  • you have 6 customers on Wednesday, so you sell the 2 sandwiches you made, have 4 disappointed would-be-customers but make 6 sandwiches for Thursday…
  • …and so on. You can expect to have major stock problems and a lot of unhappy customers!
  • it would be much better to make a set number of sandwiches each day, collect information about demand variation over a sensible period of time and then adjust your system accordingly.

The sandwiches are a very simple example of any process. What about taking a call centre as an example:

  • There will be a great deal of natural variation in customer calls throughout a day (with a number of causes, categorised and explained in this earlier ‘Spice of Life’ post)…so the number of ‘calls waiting’ will constantly fluctuate, though likely between predictable bounds. No surprises there.
  • …let’s assume that Bob’s job is to constantly monitor the current ‘calls waiting’…
  • …it gets to a point where Bob thinks the number of calls waiting is high…so he sends out an urgent request for everyone to drop what else they are doing and get on the phones…and they all rush to do so…
  • ….so the number of ‘calls waiting’ now drops really low and even disappears…excellent. Now Bob sends out a screen pop-up message along the lines of “panic over, people who missed out on their breaks can go now”
  • ….so the number of ‘calls waiting’ now jumps up again…and the up-and-down cycle continues.
  • Bob has a really stressful job looking at the numbers and continually tampering (using the ’round 2′ method) in a hopeless attempt to exactly match supply to demand.
  • A better way would be to increase our understanding of the system by studying demand (its types and frequencies) and amending its design based on what we learned. There might be:
    • loads of failure demand in there (which is a waste of capacity); and
    • frequency patterns within the different types of value demand

Clarification: Many of you working in contact centres may say “but Steve, of course we analyse incoming calls and look for patterns!” I would note that:

  • whilst you can, and should, look for predictable patterns in the data, I doubt that you can tell me how many calls you will get in the next 15 minutes and how long they will take. There will be variation and this is outside your control….does this make you tamper?
  • Nearly all contact centres simply see incoming calls as ‘work to do’ with an ‘average handling time’. Hardly any will analyse this demand. Can you tell me what types of value and failure demand you get, and their frequencies…and what conclusions you draw from this?

I’m not picking on contact centres – I simply use it as an example that we should all be able to understand. Tampering happens all over the place.

In general, managers often look at the results of the last hour/ day/ week/ month* and attempt to make adjustments accordingly, whether by congratulating or berating staff, moving people between queues, changing work quotas, knee-jerk reacting to defects and so on.

(* where the unit of time will depend on the nature of the transactional service being provided)

In fact, praising someone one week for a perceived outstanding result (likely against the lottery of a target that they had very little control over meeting) and then giving them a ‘talking to’ the next because their result was considered poor is tampering.

The point is to understand the system and the reasons for variation. Then (and only then) you can make meaningful changes instead of merely tampering.

Note: The ‘Round 3’ type of tampering is not as common as the ‘Round 2’ type…but it does happen. Consider the following cases of using the last example to inform the next:

  • Using the last board cut as a pattern for the next; or
  • Train the trainer: Mary trains John who trains Bob who trains Jess.

Both of these examples show that any variation from purpose will be retained and amplified as it is passed on, like a chain of whispers.

Credit: I’ve seen the funnel experiment performed a few times now but, rather than taking the laborious time to recreate it, I have borrowed the 3 marble drop pattern pictures used above from this website.

Note: For those aficionados amongst you, this post represents a slightly simplified version of Deming’s full funnel experiment. There is yet another tampering rule (which I have left out for the sake of brevity) …but, just so you know, it also doesn’t work. You can read all about the funnel experiment in Chapter 9 of Deming’s book ‘The New Economics’.

How to have a successful journey

photo-winding-roadMike Rother, in his excellent book ‘Toyota Kata’, explains that ‘command and control’ organisations see the ‘implementing’ word as a very positive one but that their obsession with it actually impedes their progress and the development of their people.

To explain what is meant by an implementation versus a problem solving mode:

Implementation mode (‘Go fast to go slow’)

This mode can be characterised as:

  • The need for a clear and (usually overly) simple ‘solution’ up front arrived at by some expert(s) a la “we have the answer!”;

(where this answer is normally derived from copying what others have already done);

  • A detailed plan (the more lines on the Gantt chart, the better!) that sets out exactly what needs doing, when, and by whom to implement the answer;
  • A target date (along with some incentives), established to motivate (!) people to put on their ‘implementation’ blinkers…nothing must get in the way;
  • A finish line mentality – “we got it in!…now let’s move on to something else.”

…in reality:

  • The above requires the organisation to assume everything is ‘steady state’ (which includes ignoring the effects of the rest of the system on the component(s) in focus);
  • However, there is continual change both inside and outside the environment (which may or may not be noticed…and which is unlikely to be understood);
  • It is impossible for us to predict what will actually eventuate;
  • We spend vast sums of money trying to shoe horn our answer into this changing reality, often years after it was conceived;
  • There has been very little meaningful learning and development going on!

“Humans have a tendency to want certainty, and even to artificially create it, based on beliefs, when there is none. This is a point where we often get into trouble. If we believe the way ahead is set and clear, then we tend to blindly carry out a preconceived implementation plan rather than being sensitive to, learning from, and dealing adequately with what arises along the way. As a result, we do not reach the desired destination at all, despite our best intentions.” [Rother]

Problem solving mode (‘Go slow to go fast’):

There are three things we need to know with certainty (none of which is to know the answer up front!). These are:

  • Where we are (current condition);
  • Where we want to be (target condition); and
  • A method by which to manoeuvre through the unclear territory in-between

Some key points to make:

‘Where we are’ means that we really understand our current condition, which includes why we are like this (i.e. the system conditions and management behaviours that make it so).

‘Where we want to be’ doesn’t mean “we want to have implemented x”. That’s just the implementation mode by another name. It means clearly stating a target condition (our challenge towards purpose): how should the process operate i.e. can we describe this in terms of relevance to the customer and the process performers. This description can’t know how it is to be achieved….this will unfold via…

…the ‘method’ (experimentation), which IS clear. The experiments themselves will not become clear until we progress step-by-step through the obstacles within the unclear territory.

“True certainty and confidence does not lie in pre-conceived implementation steps or solutions, which may or may not work as intended, but in understanding the logic and method for how to proceed through unclear territory.” [Rother]

So what’s the point?

Too many ‘projects’ are merely the implementation of a new technology or ideology (that someone has been convinced they need) with:

  • a reverse-engineered ‘business case’ that attempts to justify what should be achieved from ‘putting it in’; and
  • a grand plan with supposedly certain time, scope and cost.

Such projects regularly fail, sometimes spectacularly and even if they ‘complete’ (whatever definition they use for this word), there has been little value added or learning achieved….in fact they often (usually) destroy value and repeat the same errors and pitfalls as the last project and the one before that.

Instead, we should adopt a mindset of:

  • being really clear on what we are trying to achieve (in respect of customer purpose); and then (and only then)
  • work our way towards this ideal through a series of steps:
    • learning as we go; and
    • deciding the next step (the how) as we learn, adapt and ‘see’

Okay, so I’ve ‘scratched the surface’ of the idea that a brilliant implementation plan is not the answer. For those that would like an excellent analogy to think about this, here’s a useful (and short) post: The difference between launching a rocket and driving a car.

We should know ‘before we leave the house’ what our intended destination is, why and how we would know how we are going towards it…and we should steer our way there (unconstrained) as we meet the unknown obstacles on the way.

There would be little point in claiming ‘completion’ because we had spent our quota of time, distance or cost if we hadn’t actually arrived!

Falling into that trap!

BearTrap_01.jpga203455b-ef09-4c5a-be36-5fe7351fd23fLargeSo I cycle to work when I can. It’s approx. 22km from one side of the city of Christchurch to the other, right through the middle. I (usually) enjoy it immensely.

I upgraded my cycle computer a few months back to a fancy new GPS one. It’s got this cool screen that tells me lots of information. I can also download each cycle ride’s data onto my computer to analyse later – perfect for a geek!

I’d been using this computer for a few weeks and was starting to get an understanding of my average km/ hour for each trip. Sometimes I could get it into the 27 km/hour range, other times I could only manage 23 km/hour….and before all you MAMILs* out there guffaw thinking “how slow?!” the average speed takes into account stopping at lots of junctions (traffic lights, roundabouts, road works) and crossing busy traffic….not that I’m saying that I am fast.

(* MAMIL: middle-aged men in Lycra…and I must confess to being a member of)

Further, the computer tells me my average km/ hour at the bottom of the screen as I cycle. I can see it going up and down throughout the journey. If I stop at a junction I can see it plunge rapidly whilst I am sat idle and then if I cycle on a long flat straight I see it slowly rise back up again.

Now, I fell into the trap! I began to get distracted by the average km/ hour reading as I cycled. Without consciously thinking about it I set myself a target of completing each ride at an average of 25 km/hour or higher. The fact that I was doing this only dawned on me the other day after I performed a dodgy manoeuvre in my obsession to keep my average above the target… my sudden sense of mortality put me into a reflective mood.

Here’s what I reflected on:

What had I become?

  • I had started to look at the average km/ hour reading all the time and obsess about it dropping below the magical 25;
  • If I was stopped at traffic lights, I watched the average km/hour reading sink before my eyes. I was then in a mad hurry to get off so as to get that average back up again as quickly as possible:
    • which meant that I was trashing my legs and blowing them out too early in the ride…
    • which put me at huge risk of pulling a muscle/ injuring a joint whilst piling on the pressure to get back above that target…
    • which meant that I didn’t cycle the next day because I couldn’t!
  • If I was ‘on the cusp’ of the target and coming up to a junction then I was starting to do dangerous things in order to keep going, like running orange lights or crossing lanes in between cars;
  • Even more bizarrely, I had unconsciously started to cheat!
    • I had changed my behaviour to only turning on the computer after I had got going from my house because the few seconds getting up to speed from rest might count!
    • If my average was 25.0 as I got to work I would turn the computer off before I came to a rest…so that it couldn’t drop down to 24.9 as I slowed…because that would have meant failure!
  • Conversely, if I was well above the target (let’s say because I had a good tail wind or I had been really lucky with the light sequences), then I was pretty happy and relaxed…no need to push since I was ahead. I could have gone faster.

Reading the above, you may think me to be a bit of a nutter! Did I really do those things? Well, yes, I did…and I can honestly say that the 25 km/ hour target that I had set myself was to blame.

Now for those of you who have been on one of my courses or who have read the majority of posts on this blog, you will likely have a good laugh at me – “he bangs on about the evils of targets all the time!”

So, getting away from my target:

What is my actual purpose in cycling to work?

On reflection I came up with the following:

“To safely cycle to work so that I get fitter and I use the car less.”

Three things come out of this purpose:

  • Fitter: I wanted to get better at it
  • Use the car less: I needed to be able to cycle consistently, day after day
  • Safely: there’s no point in getting killed or badly injured cycling!

This clarity of purpose has helped me drastically change the way I cycle!

Thinking about variation within the system:

In this case, the system is the cycling to/from work and the conditions I encounter in doing so. One cycle ride is a single ‘unit of production’. I should be thinking about the capability of the system (about how all units go through it), not about a single unit.

Here’s a control chart showing the variation in the last 20 of my rides:

bike control chart

The control chart enables you to visualise what a table of data can’t…that my riding is stable. It shows the meaninglessness of the target and variance analysis.

The following are the more obvious causes of variation:

  • Head wind or tail wing (makes a huge difference!);
  • Wet or dry weather;
  • Heavy or light traffic;
  • Whether the traffic light sequences are with me or not;
  • …and so on

Some special causes might be:

  • An accident;
  • Road works

…although if you live in Christchurch you will know that there’s nothing special about road works !!!

You can see that it would be bizarre for me to achieve the same average km/ hour every day. Going back to that target: Some days it will be impossible for me to hit the 25, other days it will be really easy…and that’s without me changing anything about my riding.

Note: Looking back at the control chart, you might think that you detect an improvement from around ride 15 onwards. In fact, it was at around ride 15 that I had my ‘I’ve fallen into the target trap’ epiphany….so, yes, there could be something in that. However, you should also know that whilst ride 20 looks fantastic (it was), I had a massive Nor’ Wester wind behind me literally pushing me along.

What can I experiment with to increase my capability?

The first thing I need to do is STOP LOOKING at the average km/hour as I cycle. Then I can consider what I can change about my cycling for every ride.

Since ride 15 I’ve begun to experiment with:

  • Junctions: looking well ahead and adjusting my pace to time myself through them so that I reduce the need to slow down/ stop
  • Pedalling: trying to pedal more smoothly and efficiently
  • Crossing lanes: improving my balance when looking behind me so that I can safely do this whilst retaining my speed with the traffic
  • ….and so on.

Each of these changes will lead to small improvements on every ride, no matter what the conditions are. It’s not about the current unit, it’s about every unit.

Results?

Well, it’s too early to draw valid conclusions (I need more data), and it’s a never ending journey of improvement BUT I can say that I am cycling more often (because I didn’t wreck my legs the day before) and I’m having far less ‘that car’s a bit too close for comfort’ moments.

So what’s the point?

Targets cause dysfunctional behaviour. As Simon Guilfoyle makes clear:

“As a ‘method’ [Setting a target] is rubbish because it disregards the capability of the system and natural variation. … It assumes that the system knows the target is there and will respond to it (it doesn’t and it won’t!) It ignores the fact that the greatest opportunity for improving performance lies in making systemic adjustments rather than berating, comparing, or otherwise trying to ‘motivate’ the workers to achieve the target.”

‘No targets’ doesn’t mean ‘no measurement’! In fact, it’s quite the reverse. It means actually studying meaningful measures (i.e. against purpose) over time (via a control chart), understanding the capability of the system and therefore truly understanding whether it is improving, staying the same or getting worse.

Do you have targets? So what dysfunctional behaviours do they cause, moving us away from purpose?