Inspector Clouseau

inspector-clouseauSo, a bloody good mate of mine manages a team that delivers an important public service – let’s call him Charlie. We have a weekly coffee after a challenging MAMIL 1 bike ride….and we thoroughly explore our (comedic) working lives.

And so to our most recent conversation – Charlie told me that his department is due an inspection (a public sector reality)…and how much he, ahem, ‘loves’ such things! 🙂

“Oh, and why’s that?” I say.

His response2 went something like this: “Well, they come in with a standardised checklist of stuff, perform interviews and site visits to tick off against a set of targets, and then issue a report with our score, and recommendations as to what we should be doing….it’s not exactly motivational!”

“Mmm” I say…”but presumably their intent – to understand how well things are going – is good?”

Here’s the essence of Charlie’s reply: “Yep, I ‘get’ the intent behind many of the items on their checklist, and I accept that knowing how we are doing is really important…but, rather than act like robotic examiners, I want them to:

  • understand us, and our reality (what we are having to deal with3)…and I want them to focus on what really matters in respect of our service, not hide behind narrow ‘currently trendy’ targets and initiatives set from above;

  • give us the chance to demonstrate:
    • how we are doing;
    • where we know we have room for improvement; and
    • what we are doing to get better; and finally 

  • assist us, by adding value (perhaps with useful references to what they’ve seen working elsewhere) rather than be seen as ‘taking up our time’. “

“Righto”, I said ”…that sounds excellent! I’ll write a post on that lot”…so here goes:

A ‘short but sharp’ generic critique of inspections:

inspectionInspection requires someone looking for something (whether positive or negative)…and this comes from a specification as to what they believe you should be doing and/or how you should be doing it.

The ‘compliance’ word fits here.

…and, as such, the inputs, behaviours and outcomes from inspections are rather predictable. You can expect some or all of the following:

  • people, often (usually?) from outside your service, spend time writing (often inflexible) specifications as to what you should (and should not) be doing;
  • people are employed, and trained, as inspectors of those specifications;
  • you and your team spend precious time preparing before each imminent inspection:
    • running preparatory meetings to guess what might happen;
    • window-dressing solely for the benefit of ‘the inspector’ e.g. making your work space look temporarily good, filling in (and perhaps even back dating) ‘paperwork’;
    • even performing ‘dummy runs’ (rehearsals!);
  • you and your team serenade the inspector around during their visit, with everyone on their best behaviour;
  • questions are asked, careful (guarded) answers are given, and an inspection report is issued;
  • your post-inspection time is then consumed rebutting (what you consider to be) poorly drawn recommendations and/or drafting action plans, stating what is going to be implemented to comply.

…and after it’s all over, a big sigh is let out, and you go back to how you were.

Wouldn’t it be great if, rather than playing the ‘inspection game show’, you truly welcomed someone (anyone) coming in to see what you actually do and, when they arrive, you carried on as normal because you are confident that:

  • you are operating in the way that you currently believe to be the best; and
  • you want them to see and understand this, and yet provide you with feedback that you can ponder, experiment with, and get even better at delivering against your purpose4.

…so how might you get to this wonderland?

A better way:

just-one-questionI’m a huge fan of a (deceptively) simple yet (potentially) revolutionary idea put forward by John Seddon:

“Instead of being measured on compliance, people should be assessed on whether they are able to show that they are working to understand and improve the work they do.

It is to shift from ‘extrinsic’ motivation (carrot and stick) to intrinsic motivation (pride), which is a far more powerful source of motivation.”

…and to the crux of what Seddon is suggesting:

“Inspection of performance should be concerned with asking only one question of managers:

‘What measures are you using to help you understand and improve the work?’ “

This, to me, is superb – the inspector doesn’t arrive with a detailed checklist and ‘cookie cutter’ answers to be complied with; and the manager (and his/her team) has to really think about that question!

To answer it, the team must become clear on:

  • the (true) purpose of the service that they provide;
  • what measures5 would tell them how they are doing against this purpose (i.e. their capability);
  • how they are doing against purpose (i.e. as well as knowing what to measure, they must be actively, and appropriately, measuring it for themselves);
  • what they are working on to improve, and how these are affecting the performance of their system; and
  • what fresh ideas have arisen to experiment with.

You can see that this isn’t something that is simply ‘prepared in advance’ for a point-in-time inspection. It is an ongoing, and ever maturing, endeavour – a way of working.

It means that any inspector (or interested party) can arrive at any time and explore the above in use (as opposed to it being beautifully presented in ‘this years’ audit file ring-binder)

 “Are you saying that ‘specifications’ are wrong then?”

i-love-to-clarifyBefore ending this post, I’d like to clarify that:

  • No, I’m not saying that specifications are (necessarily) wrong; and
  • I’m also not saying that scientific know-how, generated from a great deal of experience over time should be ridiculed or ignored ‘just because it comes from somewhere else’.

Taking each in turn,

  • Specifications (e.g. the current best known way to perform a task) should be owned by the team that have to perform them…and these should be:
    • of adequate depth and breadth to enable anyone and everyone to professionally perform their roles;
    • suitably flexible to cater for the variety of demands placed upon them (requiring principled guidelines rather than concrete rules); and
    • ‘living’ i.e. continuously improved as new learning occurs6

  • If there is a central function, then their role should be to:

    • understand what is working ‘out there’; and
    • effectively share that information with everyone else (thus being of great value to managers)

without dictating that a specific method should be ‘complied with’.

The point being that we should not think in terms of ‘best practise’…we should be continuously looking for, and experimenting with, better practise, suited to each scenario. This is to remove the (attempted) authority from the centre, and place it as the (necessary) responsibility where the actual work is performed, by the service (manager, and team) on the front line.

In this way, ‘the centre’ can shift itself from being seen as an interfering, bureaucratic and distant police force, to a much valued support service.

To Ponder:

If you are ‘being inspected’ then, yes, I ‘get’ that you currently need to ‘tick those boxes’…but how about thinking a little bit differently:

…how would you show those ‘inspecting you’ that you truly understand, and are improving, your system against its purpose?

You could seriously surprise them!

If you can really answer that one question, then you are likely to be operating a stable, yet continually improving service within a healthy environment, both for your team and those they serve.

Who knows – ‘the inspector’ might want to share what you are doing with everyone else 🙂

And, going back to the top – i.e. Charlie’s reply as to what he really wanted out of an inspection – I reckon he was ‘right on the money’!

A final comment…for all you private sector organisations out there:

Don’t think that this post doesn’t apply to you!

If you have centralised ‘Audit’, ‘Quality Assurance’ and/or ‘Business Performance’ teams (i.e. that are separate from the actual work), then virtually everything written above applies to your organisation.


1. MAMIL: Middle aged men in lycra

2. To ‘Charlie’ – Please excuse the poetic licence that I have taken in writing the above…and I hope it may be of some use (woof woof 🙂 ).

3. What we are really dealing with: I picked the ‘Inspector Clouseau’ picture to allude to the possibility (probability?) that many an inspector, stuck with their heads in their audit checklist, hasn’t a clue about what is really going on within, and/or what really matters for, the service before them….and for some, this is still true AFTER the inspection has been completed 😦

I’m not trying to ‘shoot at’ inspectors – this is a role that you have (currently) been given. You might also like to ponder the above and thereby look to re-imagine your purpose. Doing so could dramatically improve your work satisfaction…and help improve the services that you support.

4. Purpose: not to be confused with the lottery of attempting to meet a numeric target.

5. A set of Measures that uncover how the system is performing, NOT one supposedly ‘all seeing’ KPI and an associated target.

6. Living: Years of (regularly futile) experience have proven to me that ‘learning aids’ (whether they be documents, diagrams, charts, pictures….) will only ‘live’ (i.e. improve) if they are regularly (i.e. necessarily) used by the workers to do the work. An earlier post (Déjà vu) fits here.

7. I think that a couple of previous posts are foundational and/or complimentary to this one:

The Principle of Mission: That clarification of intent, and allowing flexibility in how it is achieved, is far more important than waiting for, and slavishly carrying out ‘instructions’ from above.

Rolling, rolling, rolling: The huge, and game-changing difference between rolling out and rolling in change. One is static, the other is dynamic and purpose-seeking.

“You keep saying that…but what does it mean?!”

what-does-it-meanSo I recently had a most excellent conversation with a comrade.

I’d written some guff in the usual way and he wanted to push back on it…great! I need to be challenged on my thinking, particularly the more I verbalise (and therefore risk believing) it.

His push back:

I’d used the ‘absorb variety’ [in customer demand] phrase yet again…and he (quite rightly) said “but what does it mean?”

He went on to say that, whilst he understands and agrees with a great deal of what I write about, he doesn’t fully agree with this bit. He has reservations.

So we got into a discussion about his critique, which goes something like this:

“I agree that we should be customer focused, but…‘absorb their variety’???

You can’t do anything for everybody….they’d start asking for the world…you’d go out of business! There have to be rules as to what we will or won’t do.”

He gave an example:

“If a customer asked you to fax them their documents [e.g. invoice, contract, policy…], surely you’d say no because this is such old technology and it doesn’t make sense for people to use it anymore.”

Yep, a very fair view point to hold…and an example to play with.

So, in discussing his critique, I expanded on what I mean when using the ‘absorb variety’ phrase. Here’s the gist of that conversation:

First, be clear as to what business you are in

Taking the “you can’t do anything for everybody” concern: I agree…which is why any business (and value stream within) should be clear up-front on its (true) purpose.

However, such a purpose should be written in terms of the customer and their need. This is important – it liberates the system from the ‘how’, rather than dictating method. It allows flexibility and experimentation.

Clarification: ‘liberating’ doesn’t mean allowing anything – it means a clear and unconstrained focus on the purpose (the ‘why’ for the system in question). If you don’t have a clear aim then you don’t have a system!

Understanding the customer: who they are, what they need.

fredOkay, so the purpose is set, but each customer that comes before us is different (whether we like this or not). The generic purpose may be the same, but what works best for each unique customer and their specific situation will have nuances.

On ‘unique’: A service organisation (or value stream within) may serve many customers, but a customer only buys one service – their need. We need to see the world through their eyes.

“The customer comes in customer-shaped” (John Seddon)

Let’s take the scenario of an insurer handling a house burglary, with some contents stolen and property damage from the break-in.

The customer purpose of ‘help me recover from my loss’ is generic yet focused…it clearly narrows down what the value stream is about.

But, at the risk of stereotyping, here’s some potential customer nuances:

  • Fred1 is an old person that lives at home alone. He’s very upset and concerned about his security going forward;
  • Hilary is a really busy person and just wants the repair work done to a high quality, with little involvement required from her;
  • Manuel2 doesn’t speak English very well;
  • Theresa is currently away from the country (a neighbour notified the police);
  • ….and the variety goes on and on and on3

Each of these customers needs to recover from their loss…but the specifics of what matters differ and these can be VERY important to them.

If we (are ‘allowed’ by our management system4 to) make the effort up-front to (genuinely) understand the customer and their specific unit of demand, and then work out how best to meet their needs then they are going to be very happy…and so are we…AND we will handle their need efficiently.

If we don’t understand them and, instead, try to force them into a transaction orientated strait-jacket, we can expect:

…adding significant and un-necessary costs and damaging our reputation.  Not a great place to work either!

Do what is ‘reasonable’ for them

Right, so you may agree that we should understand a customer and their reality…but I still hear the critique that we can’t do anything and everything for them, even if it could be argued as fitting within the purpose of the value stream in question.

So let’s consider the ‘what’s reasonable?’ question. ‘Reasonable’ is judged by society, NOT by your current constraints. Just because your current system conditions5 mean that you can’t do it doesn’t make it unreasonable!

computer-says-noA test: if you (were allowed to actually) listen to the customer, understand the sense in their situation and the reasonableness of their need…but respond with “computer says no” (or such like) then your value stream isn’t designed to absorb variety.

And so we get to what it means to design a system that can absorb variety.

It doesn’t mean that we design a hugely complicated system that tries to predict every eventuality and respond to it. This would be impossible and a huge waste.

It means to design a system that is flexible and focuses on flow, not scale. This will be achieved by putting the power in the hands of the front-line worker, whilst providing them with, and allowing them to pull, what they need to satisfy each customer and their nominal value. This is the opposite of front-line ‘order takers’ coupled to back-office specialised transaction-oriented sweat shops.

How does that ‘fax request’ example sit with the above? Well, on its own, I don’t know…and that’s the point! I’d like to know why the customer wants it by fax.

  • perhaps they aren’t in their normal environment (e.g. they are on holiday in the middle of nowhere) and the only thing available to them is some old fax machine;
  • perhaps they didn’t know that we can now email them something;
  • perhaps they don’t (currently) trust other forms of communication…and we’d do well to understand why this is so;
  • perhaps, perhaps perhaps…

Each scenario is worthy of us understanding them, and trying to be reasonably flexible.

Forget all that!

take-a-lookOf course the above means virtually nothing.

You’d need to see the variety in your system for yourself to believe, and understand, it…and the way to do that would be to listen and see how your current system DOESN’T absorb variety.

How would you do that? Well, from listening to the customer:

  • in every unit of failure demand;
  • within each formal complaint made to you;
  • …and from every informal criticism made ‘about you’ (such as on social media)

I’ve got absolutely no idea what you would find! But do you?

 The funny thing is…

…if we allow front-line/ value-creating workers to truly care about, and serve each customer – as individuals – in the absence of ‘management controls’ that constrain this intent (e.g. activity targets) then:

  • the ‘work’ becomes truly inspiring for the workers, ‘we’ (the workers) gain a clear purpose with which we can personally agree with and passionately get behind;
  • we become engaged in wanting to work together to improve how we satisfy demand, for the good of current and future customers; and
  • the ‘management controls’ aren’t needed!

If I asked you, as a human being:

  • do you primarily care about, say, a ‘7 day turn-around target’? (other than to please management/ get a bonus)


  • do you really want to help Fred (or Hilary, Manuel, Theresa…) resolve their specific needs and get back on with their lives?

…how would you answer?

We need to move away from what makes sense to the attempted industrial production of service delivery to what makes sense in the real worlds of the likes of Fred.


1. Fred: The picture of Fred comes from a most excellent blog post written by Think Purpose some time ago. This post really nicely explains about the importance of understanding customer variety in a health care setting.

2. Manuel: A tribute to the late Andrew Sach (a.k.a Manuel from Fawlty Towers) who died recently. He wasn’t very good at English…


3. Variety in service demand: I’ve previously written about Professor Frances Frei’s classification of five types of variety in service demand and, taken together, they highlight the lottery within the units of demand that a service agent is asked to handle.

4. Allowed to: This is not a criticism of front-line workers. Most (if not all) start by wanting to truly help their customers. It is the design of the system that they work within that frustrates (and even prevents) them from doing so.

You show me a bunch of employees and I’ll show you the same bunch that could do awesome things. Whether they do so depends!

5. System Conditions may include structures, policies, procedures, measures, technology, competencies…

6. Bespoke vs. Commoditisation: It has been put to me that there are two types of service offerings. Implied within this is that there are two distinct customer segments: One that wants little or no involvement for a low cost and another that wants, and is willing and able to pay for, a bespoke service.

This is, for me, far too simplistic and misunderstands customer variety. Staying with the world of insurance…

A single customer might want low involvement when managing their risk (taking out a policy and paying for it, say, ‘online’) but to deal with a human if they need help recovering from a loss (i.e. at claim time).

That same customer may switch between wanting low involvement and the human touch even within a value stream – e.g. happy with low involvement car insurance but wants a human when it comes to their house insurance.

…and even within a given unit of demand, a customer may be happy with low involvement (say registering a claim)…but want the option of a human conversation if certain (unpredictable) scenarios develop.

The point is that we shouldn’t attempt to pigeon-hole customers. We should aim to provide what they need, when they need it…and they will love us for it!

7. Automation: On reading the above, some of you may retort with “Nice ideas…but you’re behind the times ‘Granddad’ – the world has moved to Artificial Intelligence and Robotics”. I wrote about that a bit back: Dilbert says… lets automate everything!

Chapter 4: What possible ‘defences’ exist against the harm of ‘Money Power’?

So I’ve:

  • set out Ford’s explanation of Dead vs. Live money (Chapter 1);
  • ‘shot at’ organisations that claim they get this –as in “see, here’s my purpose!” (Chapter 2);
  • explained why shareholders are probably the last people you’d want as guardians for an organisation’s successful longevity; and
  • put forward a logic as to why executives behave as they do (including the recent Mylan example to consider) (Chapter 3).

light-bulb…and at this point you may reasonably ask “so what can be done about this situation?”

Thankfully not everywhere is the same…and we can look around for ideas.

Ha-Joon Chang writes that “most rich countries outside the Anglo-American world have tried to reduce the influence of free-floating shareholders and maintain (or even create) a group of long-term stakeholders (including some shareholders) through various formal or informal means.”

These include:

  • government ownership (either direct or indirect) of a sizeable share to act as stable shareholders (examples in France, Germany, Korea);
  • differential voting rights for different classes of shares e.g. for founders and their families to retain significant control (Sweden);
  • formal representation by the workers on the company supervisory board (Germany);
  • minimising influence of floating shareholders through cross-shareholdings amongst friendly companies (Japan)

“Being heavily influenced, if not totally controlled, by longer-term stakeholders, companies in these countries do not as easily sack workers, squeeze suppliers, neglect investment and use profits for dividends and share buybacks…all this means that in the long run they may be more viable…

Running companies in the interests of floating shareholders is not only inequitable but also inefficient, not just for the national economy but also for the company itself.”

(Of course, I should reflect that there are lots of other ownership models ‘out there’, such as State Owned Enterprises, Mutuals and Co-operatives…and I have read many a good-news story about what can be achieved with the latter.

If you already have one of these ownership models, please stay as you are! What follows is aimed squarely at the Dead Money corporations).

Exploring the employee option:

proft-sharing-quoteI’m a big fan of the ‘employees as long-term owners’ method.

Now, many a ‘large corporate’ would respond that their people can buy shares in their company and, further, that they encourage this by administering some form of ‘employee share buying scheme’.

So how’s this different to share ownership through profit sharing (as in the Oktogonen Foundation)?

Well, if we consider a typical ‘employee share buying scheme’:

  • You are asking employees to put up their own money as risk, rather than rewarding them for their ‘blood, sweat and tears’;
  • Only a limited number of employees will buy shares (for a variety of reasons – the most obvious being their level of affluence and their attitude to risk);
  • The minority that do buy a small ‘side salad’ of shares have simply been added to the vast pool of floating shareholders…worried about short-term profits and dividends.

In contrast:

The power in ‘share ownership through profit sharing’ is that EVERYBODY in the organisation becomes an owner, and thereby connected with the same aim.

The power in setting up a foundation specifically for this purpose is that the employees as a GROUP obtain a significant voice, creating representation on the board.

The power in defining a long-term method of payment (say, at pensionable age) is that employees (past and present) care deeply about the LONG TERM success of the organisation…which will produce a genuine focus on the CUSTOMER (and society).

Now these words might cause the following reaction from existing shareholders and executives: “Whoa…I don’t like the sound of ‘worker power’ – this is Trade Unionism by the back door…and look at where that always ends up!”

Here’s why it is the exact opposite:

The birth, and historic basis, of the Trade Union movement was to protect the workers from the power of the owners. In response to Trade Union power, the owners would regularly claim that the employees were ‘biting the hand that feeds them’…and thus a hugely adversarial battle became the norm1 (usually with the customer, and consequently the organisation, suffering in the cross fire).

But, rather than employee ownership through profit sharing stoking the ‘worker – owner’ flames, it actually dissolves the problem! Everyone is pointing in the same direction.

Even better, a foundational base is set to enable the business to become so much more efficient and effective because all those commanding and controlling ‘management instruments of torture’ can be torn down – that would be incentives and Performance Management2 for a start!

….just think how easy it would become to engage with the workers – or should we call them ‘long term guardians’ now?

“Just close your eyes and imagine…”

imagineI have often found myself in company presentations with management eulogising about the next ‘cost cutting’ initiative. A usual candidate is the travel and expenses budget (and the associated rules to be complied with)…and they always use the same logic:

“Imagine it as your own money!”

Ponder upon this for a minute: management ‘get’ that it isn’t our money, and that this will alter how we think about it…but they want us to play a game of ‘pretend’. Hmmm – they’re missing something there.

But what if THEY (management) altered their thinking such that it IS the employees’ money. They can dispense with those silly games, and potentially all those wasteful cost cutting initiatives. Imagine that!

“But it’s not their money!!”

Now, there may be a backlash of comments from shareholders with a view that the company would be giving away their money.

Some thoughts on this:

  • The organisation doesn’t need to raise capital to do this! It just needs to STOP the offering, and paying, of contingent rewards. There’s plenty of money right there;
  • For those shareholders that don’t realise this…there is loads of cost spent in administering the performance management/ incentives lark…and a great deal of harm caused that is unmeasurable! This is no longer required;
  • But, fundamentally, a long term ownership interest (Live Money) will change the way that employees think…for the good of the customer and therefore the organisation…and, as a result, to the benefit of those that invest.

A start to the journey

silver-bullet‘Necessary but not sufficient’: I’d like to be clear that, whilst profit sharing could be game changing, it’s not a silver bullet….but it is a hugely sound foundation from which the right type of business can be successfully built and sustained.

It can act as a catalyst for all those things that you’ve been saying, but not been able to do. Why? Well, because it fundamentally changes the employee – company relationship.

It brings Live Money onto the scene and, if done well, brings Service Power back to the fore.

(Note: I’ve written this whole serialised post because – after many years of pondering – I came to the conclusion that you can understand and passionately want to change your ‘culture’ BUT you won’t (meaningfully or sustainable) achieve this if you don’t address your ownership structure…and this relates to Money Power).

To close: A comment on the current ‘side show’

The current ‘large corporates’ hymn is all about diversity….and that this will ensure the future of an organisation – all those different people, with all those different perspectives and ideas! What’s not to like?!

Now, I’m all for diversity. I believe in respect, equality and fairness for all.

However, you can be as diverse as you like, but if you don’t change the system (of management and ownership) then you’ll simply get more of the same.

To repeat my regular John Seddon quote (I have it ringing in my head most days!):

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

Or, to a Deming pearl of wisdom: “A bad system will beat a good person every time”

Stop trying to change people and, instead, perform a paradigm3 shift so that they change for themselves.

I should add that the diversity thing will be so much easier to achieve when all employees want to collaborate together (profit sharing) rather than competing with each other for ratings, rankings and contingent rewards. i.e. If you really want diversity, and what it can offer, then change the system first.

Okay, so I’ve argued that employee ownership through long-term profit sharing is a bloody good way to go…but there’s a few people that I really need to convince first. That would be a) the existing shareholders and b) the CEO. And that is the subject of my next, and final, chapter 🙂

Update: Link forwards to Chapter 5


1. Owners vs. Unions: As usual, Henry had something useful to say on the matter:

“Business does not exist to earn money for the capitalist or for the wage-earner. The narrow capitalist and the narrow trades unionist have exactly the same view of business – they differ only on who is to have the loot.” (Ford)

2. On the merit system (i.e the rating and rewarding of people’s performance): Here’s a nice Deming exchange in a Q & A part of one of his famous lectures:

Question from the audience: “What do you propose to replace the merit system with?”

Deming: “Replace it? What, you want something to destroy people better than that does?!

Replacement means another method to do the same thing. [Do] you know of anything more effective in the destruction of people?

Question rephrased: “But is there any way to change the merit system?”

Deming: “Change it? Abolish it! Look at what it’s done to us.”

3. Paradigm: I usually hate using the ‘p’ word – it seems so ‘management consultancy’ to me…but in this case it is spot on!

4. So…what if you don’t (yet) want Live Money: If you don’t want to do the profit sharing thing (even though you’ll be seriously missing out) then STILL GET RID OF THE INCENTIVES!

Depths of ‘Transformation’

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

It’s about that lovely ‘Transformation’ word.

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

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

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

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

Level 1 Transformation: ‘On the surface’

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

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

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

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

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

So what happens?

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

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

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

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

Level 2 Transformation: ‘Under the skin’

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

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

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

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

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

And here’s basically what you arrive at:

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

…and for each value stream we should:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what happens?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level 3 Transformation: ‘In the DNA’

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

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

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

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

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

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

And six months later your mind has been totally blown!

You really get it….no, REALLY GET IT!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflection time:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Where’s the meat in your sandwich?!

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


To quote from the report:

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

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

And so to the next quote:

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

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

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

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

And they spectacularly miss the point.

Purpose driven?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some examples:

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

To conclude:

Yep, purpose is important.

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

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

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

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

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

The report spectacularly misses the huge point that:

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

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

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

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


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

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

Lost in translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hang on a minute Steve…

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

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

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

So, here they are!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True strategic partnerships beat a focus on unit prices.

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

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

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

6. Institute training on the job.

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

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

Management should be farmers, not heroes.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

This means removal of the performance review process!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware ‘making a message palatable’

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

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

To borrow a John Seddon quote:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

So, you think you’ve got a problem!

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

Ackoff wrote that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some ‘command and control’ organisational examples

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

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

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

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

So how do we redesign?

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

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

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

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

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

What’s a problem anyway?

Ackoff went on to explain that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s start with Donald Drumpf3:

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

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

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

And so on to ‘BREXIT’:

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

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

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

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

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

So what about an organisational example to end on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

To conclude

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

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

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

Or, in American-speak:

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

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


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