Books – Part 2: “There’s a book coming out…”

apples-vs-orangesI have bought and read a fair few ‘management books’ over the years. Some start off usefully but go on to ‘wind me up’, others are absolute diamonds….and so I had a little think about why this might be.

I realised that, whilst obviously hugely important, the quality of the writer’s prose isn’t the fundamental factor – it comes down to the author’s intent.

In an effort to expand and examine my thinking, I tried to ‘put it down on paper’ – I spewed out a ‘compare and contrast’ table.

…and so, in this post I present a short 2-column table breaking management books into two types (of author, and their intent).

These two types – ‘Guru’ and ‘Educator’ – originate from a wonderful Russell Ackoff quote that I shared some time back.

Here goes:

‘Guru’ book: ‘Educator’ book:
Billed as a ‘new’ idea that “changes everything”! Modestly recognises and builds on what’s already been achieved but, importantly, adding much wisdom.
Claimed by the author(s) as (mainly) their own brilliant discovery. Humble recognition of past giants, and their work.
Narrowly drawn – to solve the supposed problem. Wide, and general – offering self-reflection rather than solutions.
A panacea, presented as if some new world order is coming! Caveats and clarifications, usually relating to systems and people.
Presented within a 2 x2 grid (or other such framework) to show that it is all so simple. Recognition that it is complex and multi-dimensional.
The book merely flogs the same material as in the earlier ‘best-selling Harvard Business Review’ (HBR) article (i.e. the same thing, just massively padded out). There isn’t a separate HBR article and book!

The author’s aim isn’t to top the ‘management books’ hit parade.

Gives advice on how to implement their solution – perhaps with a step by step plan and/or a self-assessment checklist. Provides thoughts on further reading, exploration and self-education.
Includes chapters on carefully curated ‘Case Studies’ of organisations that have (apparently) magically transformed themselves. Warts and all consideration of its applicability and usefulness.
Does not seek out or, worse, ignores problematic counters to the idea. Openly explores criticisms and scenarios that don’t appear to fit.
…the narrow idea expands into some management methodology and becomes a cult (complete with consultants offering their ‘thought leadership’ services)…for a few years…

…until the next book comes out!

…requests further work to move ‘our’ combined thinking further.

…the funny (or sad?) thing is that there is usually much that could be of value within the guru’s idea…but their choice of presentation conceals the kernel from its true long term potential…and can do much harm.


1. I reckon there’s probably a link between the two columns in this post and the three book types in my previous post.

2. Of course the table represents two extreme ends of a spectrum: A given book is likely to tend towards one end…but may not display every ‘quality’ imagined above…blimey – if it DID then it would either be bloody awful or bloody brilliant!

3. A book that, for me, sits in the left hand column (and sits ‘on the surface’ per the last post) is ‘The Balanced Scorecard’…the ink is drying on a post that explains. Watch this space 🙂


Correction, Clarification and Continual Learning

model-t-chassisI wrote a post some months back (July 2016) titled ‘The River Rouge – A divergent legacy’. If you haven’t read it, then it is necessary context for this post.

I received an interesting comment at the end of the post (from a contributor called Andrew) as follows:

You’re perpetuating an inaccurate myth about the Model T and production at Highland Park. The Model T was produced with tremendous variation – far more than a modern car. There were at any given time at least six different body styles of Model T, representing a lot more complexity than a simple color change.

As to color, the Model T was available in several colors – but not black – in its early days when the production rates were low. Black was introduced, not to minimize variation, but because black paint dried quicker and enabled faster, higher production rates. By 1926, paint science matured to the point that six additional colors were introduced to go along with black (and better compete with Chevrolet).”

I replied to Andrew’s comment and promised that I would add an addendum1…and then, as is usual, life carried on and time flew by. It is now, in this quieter Christmas/ New Year period that I realise that I have a hole to plug.

So here goes…


My original post, whilst (in my view) highly positive of what Henry Ford achieved, used the enduring “you can have any colour you like, as long as its black” line. I used this as the strap line to observe that “[Ford’s] manufacturing process was not designed to handle variety”, as explained in separate books by H. Thomas Johnson and Mike Rother.

My post then went on to contrast two very different approaches to handling the variety conundrum.

Andrew’s comment pointed out that the Model T was available:

  • in more than one colour; and
  • with different body styles.

He went on to suggest that “The Model T was produced with tremendous variety – far more than a modern car”.

coloursColours: Yes, I can see a number of sources that refer to different colours. However, I would suggest splitting the colour story into three parts (each of which Andrew’s comment eludes to):

The early years (1908 – 1914): From cross-checking a number of Ford related websites, it would appear that the Model T was available in a small variety of colours during its early low-level production years (grey, green, blue and red).

The volume years (1914 – 1926): This period corresponds to breakthrough improvements in producing at scale (and reducing the price)….and the only colour available was black.

In his 1922 ‘My Life and Works’ autobiography Ford refers to his salesmen wanting to cater for their customers’ every whim, rather than explaining that the product already satisfies their requirements…and it was this exchange that caused his “so long as its black” idiom:

“Therefore in 1909 I announced one morning, without any previous warning, that in the future we were going to build only one model, that the model was going to be “Model T”, and that the chassis would be exactly the same for all cars, and I remarked: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

Reference is made across a number of sources that black paint was used because its fast-drying properties aided speedy production. Other reasons suggested are the cheap cost of black paint, its durability and ease of reapplication (e.g. when repairing).

The end (1926 – 27): Colour choices were reintroduced…but this can be seen as an attempt to prop sales up and fight off the inevitable death of the Model T:

“Alfred Sloan [General Motors] began to offer inexpensive Chevrolets with amenities that the Model T lacked…..the market began to shift…styling and excitement suddenly counted to the customer.

 But Henry Ford refused even to consider replacing his beloved Model T…only one person persisted in warning him of the impending crisis: his son, Edsel…it was the first of many arguments that Edsel would lose.

 The Chevrolet continued to take sales from the dour Model T. By 1926, T sales had plummeted, and the realities of the market place finally convinced Henry that the end was at hand. On May 25th 1927, Ford abruptly announced the end of production for the Model T.” (Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Time)

Body styles: Andrew’s comment usefully provides a link to an image showing a number of different Model T body styles, though I note that the title refers to 1911 which sits within the ‘early years’ pre-mass production period.

Breaking the body styles comment into a few parts:

The chassis: The Model T Ford was made up of the chassis (see title picture of this post) and then a body connected on to it.

From what I have read (including Ford’s words), the key point about the Model T Ford was that the chassis ‘moving down the line’ were all the same. Sure, they would differ over time as the design was (regularly) improved, but not ‘in the line’.

I find the picture below quite interesting – it shows2 a long line of Model T chassis waiting for a body (of differing styles) to be lowered on to it from a side process. Note the overhead rail coming in from the right.


Factory Bodies: Yes, I can see that different bodies were available – as can be made out from examining the above picture – but there was a limited range of standard designs (e.g. the Tourer, Roadster, Coupe and Sedan3).

You might ask “but what about all those other body styles out there?”

Aftermarket ‘engineering’: You can come across all sorts of weird and wacky looking vehicles all around the world that have been built on a Model T chassis. This is unsurprising given the sheer volume (and market share) of Model T’s that were out there.

A fair bit of ‘reconfiguring’ occurred, with owners hacking the car apart and customising it for their own needs. Many specialist aftermarket companies sprang up to perform conversions, even maturing to selling prefabricated kits for specific purposes, such as tractors. If you want a laugh at the sorts of conversions carried out then have a look at some of the images here (including a tank, a camper van…and a church!).

So, yes, I do need to correct my previous post’s implication that you could only ever buy a black Model T, and that one Model T was exactly the same as any other.

There was some variety, but does that mean Henry Ford had built a manufacturing process specifically aimed at handling this? And so I move on to….


clarificationGetting back to the point within my original ‘River Rouge’ post – that of handling variety in the line:

Andrew’s comment of The Model T was produced with tremendous variety…” might imply that Ford had indeed solved the variety riddle. I don’t think that this is the case and I’ll use a couple of passages from Ford’s own 1926 ‘Today and Tomorrow’ book to illuminate why I believe this:

“Whenever one can line up machinery for the making of exactly one thing and study everything to the end of making only that thing, then the savings which come about are startling.” (Chapter 5)

“The strongest objection to large numbers of styles and designs is that they are incompatible with economical production by any one concern. But when concerns specialize, each on its own design, economy and variety are both attainable. And both are necessary…

…we believe that no factory is large enough to make two kinds of products. Our organisation is not large enough to make two kinds of motor cars under the same roof.” (Chapter 7)

An underlying philosophy of Ford’s tremendous production success was a standard product (i.e. the opposite of variety)…which nearly became his undoing and set his organisation onto a path of catch-up with General Motors from the late 1920s onwards.

…none of this takes away from what Ford achieved and what then happened in American manufacturing and, in contrast, across the world in Japan. To summarise:

  • Henry Ford made amazing advances in respect of manufacturing, but the Model T’s homogeneity became its Achilles heel (a fact that he eventually conceded to his son Edsel and to his competitors);
  • In general, American manufacturing from the 1950s onwards went in the direction of scale and ‘unlearned’ much of what Ford had shown them; whilst
  • Toyota (learning from Ford) carried on in the direction of flow and worked out methods of handling variety in the line…thus achieving great things.

It’s worth reflecting that Taiichi Ohno credits Henry Ford with Toyota’s foundations:

“Taiichi Ohno…always spoke glowingly of Ford’s achievements…In 1982, Philip Caldwell, then head of Ford Motor Company, visited Japan. When Caldwell asked Eiji Toyoda, head of Toyota Motors, where Toyota had learned the production methods they employed so successfully in the 1970’s, Toyoda replied, ‘there’s no secret to how we learned to do what we do, Mr Caldwell. We learned it at the Rouge.’” (Johnson, quoting from David Halberstam’s ‘The Reckoning’)

Continual Learning

continual-learning-treeAndrew’s comment on my original post provided me with the impetus to learn some more.

  • I entered into a useful dialogue with Tom Johnson and Mike Rother;
  • I bought and read Ford’s book ‘Today and Tomorrow’;
  • I read around (and cross-checked) a fair bit of internet content; and
  • …I pondered what all of that lot meant.

I reflect on a wonderful Ackoff quote:

Although being taught is an obstruction to learning, teaching is a marvellous way to learn!”

i.e. it is in the act of attempting to explain something to others (e.g. via a post) that we can truly learn.

(I believe that) I now know more…but I’m even more certain that there’s much more to learn. A never-ending journey 🙂


1. Writing an Addendum: I am mindful that a number of you may have read my original post but not seen Andrew’s comment or my reply. So, rather than allowing this to remain somewhat hidden, I thought it only right (and respectful of Andrew’s fair and useful comment) to elevate my response* to a further post.

(* I am not a fan of the ‘gutter press’ splashing scandalous statements across their front pages, only to publish a unapologetic, one-line ‘retraction’ in tiny text somewhere buried on page 13)

2. Using photos: I am mindful that Ford’s production processes changed all the time and I have been warned to be careful when using a black and white picture of Model T production methods – such a picture shows how it worked at a point in time…and could easily have changed radically very soon afterwards!

3. Body Styles information taken from It shows that each of the main body styles evolved over time e.g. the Touring car went from 2 doors from 1909, to 3 doors from 1912 and then 4 doors from 1926.

…and I just have to add a picture of (what I understand to be) a Model T chassis with a body style of a house – definitely ‘after market’:


Oh…so that’s why ‘Command and Control’ doesn’t work very well!

social systemWarning (or advert for some): Sometimes I write long(er) ‘foundational’ type posts – this is one of them 🙂

Russ Ackoff researched and wrote a great deal about systems.

It is within his writings1 that I find an excellent explanation about why many organisations adopted the command and control management model, why there is a major problem with this and, most importantly, why there is a better way.

First, A recap:

Before looking at types of systems, I should allow Ackoff to remind us what is meant by ‘a system’ and why this matters:

“A system is a network of inter-dependant components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system…

The two key pieces here are that:

  • there is an aim; and
  • it is made up of parts that need to work together (either directly or indirectly) to achieve that aim

If you have parts but no aim then you don’t have a system…you simply have a ‘collection’.

If you have a part that (truly) isn’t required to achieve the aim then it isn’t actually part of the system…which is why your ‘appendix’ body part got its name.

…If each part of a system, considered separately, is made to operate as efficiently as possible, the system as a whole will not operate as effectively as possible…

The heart and lungs are parts of the body but if they function according to what’s best ‘for themselves’ then they won’t function as required for the overall good of the whole. It’s no good if the brain is telling the heart and lungs to ‘work flat out’ to run like hell from a chasing pack of lions and these organs both respond with a “no thanks, this doesn’t suit  us!” The same is true for parts of (e.g. functions within) organisations.

…The performance of a system depends more on how its components interact than on how they act independently of each other…

You can buy a ‘light as a feather’ carbon frame, an awesome set of aero wheels and a precision engineered 11-speed group set but you can’t ride them as a bike if they don’t fit together. Further, someone with a basic ‘sit up and beg’ bike frame with cheap wheels and components that do fit will easily beat you in a bike race.

…When a system is taken apart it loses its essential properties.”

If you take apart an alarm clock, you will have all of the parts necessary for the system but the disassembled collection of parts isn’t sufficient to tell you the time.

The above has huge implications.

So, on to Ackoff’s system types:

Ackoff defined a number of types of systems2 and the problems that occur when an organisation adopts a management model that does not match the correct system type.

Here goes….

Type 1: Deterministic (e.g. mechanisms)

alarm clockA deterministic system is one which has no purpose and neither do its component parts. This might seem rather strange…”Erm, I thought you said a system had to have an aim?!” – the point is that a deterministic system normally serves a purpose of an entity external to it, such as its creator. Its function, and that of its parts, is simply to provide that service when required.

Mechanisms are the most obvious examples of deterministic systems: An alarm clock is such a system. Its purpose (to tell the time) has been provided to it by its creator (the clock maker)….and that is what it is for, nothing more and nothing less. It can’t decide to do something else!

Even a computer, whilst incredibly more complicated than an alarm clock, is such a system – it is reliant on the inputs and programs provided to it by its external sources.

Type 2: Animated (e.g. most organisms)

monkeyAn animated system is one which does have a purpose of its own but its parts don’t.

Animals (and therefore humans) are the most obvious example. They have a purpose of their own – where this might be argued as (at a minimum) survival, and (more optimistically) to enjoy doing so, in the manner of their own choosing.

The animal is made up of parts (e.g. organs) and whilst these parts have a necessary function for the good of the whole, they do not have a purpose of their own.

In this way we can compare a computer to a person and see that they are fundamentally different. The computer’s purpose is provided to it whilst the person provides their own.

Type 3: Social (e.g. organisations, societies)

flagsA social system is one which has a purpose of its own and so do its parts (the people within).

Indeed each social system is usually part of a larger social system (e.g. a family is part of a community, which is part of a nation, which is part of ….)

And even more complex, a person belongs to multiple social systems – which have different, sometimes conflicting, purposes3.

So, bringing these three types together, we have:

System Type4: The whole is: The Parts are:
Deterministic (e.g. a mechanism) Not purposeful Not purposeful
Animated (e.g. a human) Purposeful Not purposeful
Social (e.g. an organisation) Purposeful Purposeful

These three system types form a sort of hierarchy: The deterministic alarm clock is given purpose by the animated (clock making) person who also lives within their social group. The linkages don’t go the other way….or at least they shouldn’t…which leads on to…

Okay, interesting stuff but what’s the point?

Well, now that we have an understanding of three different types of systems, we can see the consequences of the misunderstanding of an organisation as a system:

A ‘deterministic’ model applied to an organisation:

Adam Smith (often referred to as the father of economics and of capitalism) wrote a famous book called ‘The wealth of nations’ (1776). In it, he used the example of a pin factory to explain the concept of ‘the division of labour’. He explained that one person performing all the steps necessary to making a pin could perhaps make only 20 pins a day but if the pin-making process were broken up into a series of limited operations, with separate people performing them in a joined-up line, productivity could rise to thousands of pins per day per worker.

Now that sounds fantastic doesn’t it! But for who?

Smith’s thinking was taken on board by industrialists who went on to employ vast factories of ‘unskilled labour’ in the new concept of ‘manufacturing’ (and who likely still do in the sweat shops of 3rd world countries).

Standing back, we can see that this is using people as replaceable machine parts i.e. we have a defined mechanism (the manufacturing process) which is given its purpose externally by its creator (e.g. make pins)…and wow, this mechanism sure can make pins!

Henry Ford’s phenomenal success worked in the same way. He designed a mechanism to make Model T Fords (his mass production factory) and installed workers as the mechanism’s parts. He (and other ‘owners’ at this time) could use workers in this mechanistic way because:

  • unskilled workers, whilst poorly educated, were adequate for the simple tasks required of them;
  • such workers were willing to tolerate being treated as a machine part since there was high unemployment and virtually no social security safety net…giving them little option (i.e. work as required or starve);
  • there was a large pool of available labour – the human parts of the machine were easily replaceable; and
  • such business owners were subject to very little societal controls (such as governmental interventions and constraints) limiting their treatment of their worker ‘parts’4.

It’s worth noting that, even though worker conditions were massively in his favour, Ford’s ‘mechanism’ had an astounding 370% turnover of workers in 1913, with new hires staying an average of only 3 months. Many workers simply ‘walked off the job’ without notifying anyone…which is what happens if you ask humans to perform monotonous (demoralising) work without having to use their brains.

An ‘animated’ model applied to an organisation

So times moved on. We had two world wars that caused/ enabled major societal changes – a major shakeup of the class system, the birth and rise of the Labour movement and worker unions, massive improvements in education, social security and welfare, and great advances in technology.

The other significant change was the raising of capital (necessary for post war growth and development) from the public and the consequent birth/ rise of publically owned corporations. This separated the ownership and management of these new organisations.

A big difference from before was that:

  • the workers were now far more educated and empowered; and
  • the required work had become far more skilled (utilising new technologies).

Managers were no longer able to treat workers as merely replaceable cogs in a machine – it took time to train them, and they now had worker rights and choice.

Now, rather than seeing an organisation as a deterministic system with the all-powerful owner dictating its purpose (as the likes of Ford had done), they operated as an animated system would6: with a ‘brain’ (senior management) and a ‘body’ (the various operating functions performing the work).

Such a model works by senior management providing the instructions (the what: commands) and procedures (the how: controls) and then the operating units carrying them out accordingly.

“Command and control represents the division of labour between decision-making and doing the work.” (Seddon)

We all know that the ‘operator’ parts within the organisations ‘body’ are actually human beings but the ‘command and control’ management instruments don’t really recognise this fact:

  • the organisational ‘brain’ (often annually) decides the strategy and breaks this down into a set of objectives for the parts of the ‘body’ and locks these into a cascaded grand plan;
  • the organisational ‘brain’ provides incentives for the ‘body’ to act as it requires: thus assuming that it is simply a matter of extrinsically motivating each part to comply as required;
  • the organisational ‘brain’ considers the performance of each part of the ‘body’, scores it and delivers this judgement back: thus assuming that each part can and will accept such feedback for the good of the whole;
  • the organisational ‘brain’ performs (frequent) reorganisations on the ‘body’ parts, as if shifting pawns around a game board. The brain does this by dictating such redesigns to the body rather than asking the body if (and how) it could better rearrange itself;
  • The organisational ‘brain’ thinks that the answer to an increasingly complex environment is simply to increase the quantity and regularity of communication with the ‘body’ parts. This fails to realise that communication is not the underlying problem.

But the reality for every organisation is that they have purposeful parts – you and I – whether they like it or not…and so to treat these parts as merely having a function for the whole is to inevitably generate conflict.

A social model applied to an organisation

…and so we reach the point at which we conclude the obvious that:

  • the organisation (hopefully) has a purpose;


  • the humans working within it have separate purposes.

…and therefore any management model that doesn’t understand and work within such a social system will be very limiting – causing loss of immeasurable value to the organisation AND to the people within.

Now you might say “okay, interesting stuff, but treating an organisation as an animated system and using command and control methods has worked fine so far…why do we need to change?”

The rate of change in our world has been massively accelerating. It used to be that change was seen as generational and this made it relatively easy for people to adapt but this no longer holds true.

Organisations are operating in more complex and less predictable environments with the result that:

“Over the last 50 years, the average lifespan of S&P 500 companies has shrunk from around 60 years to closer to 18 years.” (Source: The art of corporate endurance )

Here’s a classic Deming quote: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

But if survival is desired, then the best chance that an organisation has is to operate a management model that actually fits with the correct type of system! In so doing, it can get the best out of everyone within.

What might this model look like? Studying ‘Deming’s 14 points for Management’ would be a great start. A post to follow next.

Who’s been successfully operating a social model for decades? Two brilliant examples are Toyota and Handelsbanken.


1. Credit: The core of this post comes from learnings derived from a classic Ackoff essay entitled ‘Reflections on systems and their models’ which can be found in the book ‘Ackoff’s Best: His classic writings on management’.

2. I’m aware that other system thinkers have created other, more sophisticated, classification schemes (e.g. Boulding, Beer). Ackoff’s system types nicely serve the purpose of this post.

3. This fact is probably relevant to the need for, and creation of ‘soft systems thinking’…which is where Peter Checkland’s work fits in (A ‘giant bio’ currently in draft)

4. For those ‘system’ geeks out there: Ackoff explained a 4th system type, that of an ecological system – where the parts are purposeful but the whole is not. Ecological systems contain interacting mechanistic, organismic and social systems, but do not have a purpose of their own. However, their function(s) serve the purpose of the systems that are their parts.

Example: the purposeful use of fluorocarbons as propellants by humans (a purposeful part of the ecological system) affects the ozone layer in a way that is determined, and not a matter of choice for our planet (the whole)…the planet cannot decide that it is harmful to it and decide to ‘do something about it’– the outcome (even though we may not understand it) is determined.

5. Henry Ford realised the problem and, in an attempt to compensate for their conditions, paid his workers well as compared to what they could earn elsewhere.

6. Stafford Beer wrote a famous book called ‘The brain of the firm’ (1972) that explored in detail the analogy of an organisation working as the human body does.

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).



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

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

It’s too simple!

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

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

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


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

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

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

What on earth are you on about?!

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

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

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

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


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

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

Standardisation in service is not the answer.

Cause and Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The starting point should be:

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

The starting point is NOT simplification.

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

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

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


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

Rolling, rolling, rolling…

cheese-rolling1So let’s suppose that we (‘Management’) have come up with (what we think) is a great idea to improve a process. We’ve tried it out in one place (such as a branch/ outlet or a team/ shift or a channel/ brand) and we now want everyone else to change to our new brilliant way.

i.e. let’s do a roll out!

Excellent, so let’s ‘grease those wheels’ by bringing in a ‘change manager’1 who can work out sensible things to make this roll out happen:

  • Let’s ‘big it up’: We’ll prepare fancy presentations (and perhaps some posters for around the office) that explain the change in an up-beat and positive way that makes it sound just great!
  • Let’s deal with the worries: We’ll have a period of consultation, prepare a set of FAQ’s in response, and make small changes to show that we have taken these worries on board;
  • Let’s ‘motivate them’ to want it: We’ll adjust everyone’s balanced scorecard and related objectives, targets and incentives so as to make it ‘front and centre of stage’;
  • Let’s create a launch: We’ll design a competition2 where ‘demonstrated compliance’ with the new way wins prizes for an initial period of time.

…does any (all!) of the above look familiar?

Now to reverse this logic:

Imagine that every team:

  • Understands its capability (against a system’s purpose) and works in an environment that wants to continually improve;
  • …so wants to experiment (for themselves) with new ways of working;
  • …so, as well as coming up with their own ideas (which their environment encourages), is really interested in going to see what other teams are doing;
  • …so brings back new ideas to adjust, try, consider and conclude upon (using the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle);
  • …so is intrinsically motivated to rolling in new ways of working that they believe in.

John Seddon came up with the label ‘Roll in’ to explain this point. Here are his definitions:

Roll-out: Method that involves developing an improved process, standardising it and applying it to other areas*. This tends to create two problems:

  1. The solution is not optimised for each specific context so it is not a good fit;
  2. The staff in the other units have not been through the same learning and therefore feel little sense of ownership. They may also feel a loss of control and resist change.

(*I note that the much used ‘achieving buy-in’ phrase is synonymous with the ‘rolling out’ phrase i.e. it is actually about someone trying to sell something)

Roll-in: A method to scale up a change to the whole organisation that was successful in one unit. Change is not imposed. Instead each area needs to learn how to do the analysis of waste for themselves and devise their own solutions. This approach engages the workforce and produces better, more sustainable solutions.”

…meanwhile back at Toyota:

You might have heard that a big part of the hugely successful Toyota Production System (TPS) is standardisation3. and you might then make the mental leap to assume that every shift in every comparative production line in every Toyota plant across the world conform to the one ‘standard’ (i.e. the exact same methods). Yet such an assumption would be incorrect.

Liker’s decades of Toyota research makes clear that change is most definitely NOT imposed on the people and their processes. Instead, each unit (at all levels) is set a clear challenge (a target condition ) that aligns with purpose and is then coached through experiments to achieve it. And, once achieved, the cycle starts again.

So a given team on a given line in a given plant will want a standard way of working so that they are very clear on how to (currently) perform a task but this standard may be quite different to another team/ line/ plant.

Key points in this Toyota way of thinking:

  • The challenge that is set isn’t about rolling out some pre-defined solution. The solution is not known. It is up to each team to work out how to get there for themselves (see ‘how to have a successful journey’);
  • Each challenge is specific to each team, taking account of their current condition;
    • A mature plant in Japan would have very different challenges set to a much newer plant in, say, America, even though they might be making the same car model;
  • It is perfectly acceptable for one plant (say) to arrive at a different method of working to another. This is in fact considered a good thing because it keeps people thinking, broadens ideas and sets off yet deeper studying and understanding…fuelling yet more improvements;
  • It creates a desire for collaboration between plants: they are very interested in what others are doing (going to each others ‘Gemba’* ). This is the total opposite to the competitive (and myopic) mentality of ‘Our team’s way is the best way…it must be – we won a prize!‘;
    • In fact, a mature Japanese plant wants to go and see what a newer American plant has come up with because they understand that the ‘newbies’ may have come up with completely different (and potentially step-change) ways of thinking.
  • If a team from plant B do a Gemba walk at sister plant A and sees something of interest, they don’t just go home and implement it! They can’t – because that would just be the ‘plant visit’ team dictating to their colleagues back home. No, instead, they will explain what they saw, experiment, decide whether it is of use to them and, if so, adapt so that it fits for their needs;
    • The original plant A is highly likely to do a ‘reverse’ Gemba walk to see what plant B has done with their ideas…and then rush back home to experiment again….and, hey presto, what a healthy innovation cycle we have!

(* Reminder: Gemba roughly translates as ‘the place where the work happens’)

In short: Seddon didn’t invent the ‘roll in’ idea (Toyota, as an excellent example, have worked this way for decades) but he is very good at putting it into words, giving it a name and passionately championing it.

Looking back, it seems pretty obvious that if people find out about and learn things for themselves then this will be fulfilling and lead to real and sustained successes….which will create a virtuous circle. No such worthy circle exists from ‘stuff being done to you’.

But what about that Iceberg?

Many of you will have been introduced to, and likely read, John Kotter’s well written business story book called ‘My Iceberg is melting’. If you haven’t then it’s about a colony of penguins having to deal with a change being imposed upon them (the clue to that change is in the name of the book!).

Now, if you are having a change imposed upon you, then Kotter’s logic might be very useful to you….but, wow, wouldn’t it be sooo much better if you decided on your own changes!

I think one quote sums much of this post up nicely:

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

Be realistic!

“Oh come on Steve, sometimes change is imposed and you’ve just got to deal with this!”

Yes, this is most definitely so. But here’s some counters to this critique:

  • Such a change should be coming externally (such as a legislative, societal or environmental change)…not from within the organisation;
  • Even if such change occurs, it is still better for the organisation to deal with it by setting its people suitable challenges (rather than dictated solutions) and leading them through rolling in changes for themselves;
  • If your people are used to the ‘roll in’ change paradigm then you will have a whole bunch of people who are skilled, creative and motivated problem solvers …just imagine how fantastic that capability would be for an organisation every time the challenge of an external change has to be handled!

…and finally:

Here’s an Ackoff ‘f-Law’ that might resonate with you as a true-ism:

“The only thing more difficult than starting something new in an organization is stopping something old.”

I think we all recognise that the ‘roll out’ problem doesn’t stop with merely getting someone to do something new…

Consider that, in contrast, by using ‘roll in’ the people are choosing for themselves to stop doing the old (whatever that is for them).


Addendum: I always ask someone (relevant to the subject) to act as editor before I publish. My editors always add great value Here are a few improvements:

  • Whilst Toyota may not enforce the same standard way of working across everywhere, it could be argued that they do have a cross-organisational standard way of thinking and acting (i.e. their management system, which has been termed ‘The Toyota Way’)…but, just like rolling in, this wasn’t copied from elsewhere and dictated to them – it came about through years of humility and experimentation;
  • If you want everyone rolling in the same direction then you still need a very clear (and meaningful) purpose, and systems thinking, such that all challenges being set lead to the same point on the horizon;
  • The ‘corporate form’ (e.g. a public body, private enterprise, large publicly quoted company,…) will likely have a huge impact on where you are now, and where you can get to;
  • You might like the idea of rolling in (as compared to rolling out) and say “yeah, great…how do we get there from here?” This is a BIG question, and just happens to relate to a future post which the ink is drying on….so, with that segue, please tune in again then.


  1. Change management within command and control organisations is usually about senior leaders getting people to do what they want them to. Their employment of a skilled ‘change manager’ (of which there are many) may substantially improve the roll out outcomes…but it is still a roll out, with all its associated limitations.
  2. Competitions: Please don’t run ‘change’ competitions like this…or, if you do, know the harm that they cause. Research* shows that: Providing a reward for doing something seriously devalues that thing; and people think even worse of that thing once the reward period has finished, thus likely slipping back to how it was before and then making it that much harder to ‘get them to change’ (* see Alfie Kohn’s book ‘Punished by Rewards’).
  3. Standardisation: Don’t make the assumption that this standardisation principle is exactly the same for service organisations – it isn’t. I use it in this post merely to explain and demonstrate the roll-in principle.

Educator, not Guru

theloveguruFollowing the theme of my earlier post on education, I’d like to share a great Russell Ackoff quote which he wrote as part of the forward to Peter Scholte’s superb book ‘The leaders handbook’:

“A guru is one who develops a doctrine and seeks disciples who accept and transmit it without modification. No deviation is acceptable. Any modification is a sign of disloyalty, in fact, heresy. Its consequence is excommunication.

Educators, on the other hand, encourage and even try to inspire progressive deviations from what they have said. Their objective is not to remove the need for further learning, as is the guru’s, but to initiate it – to provide a springboard from which their students can dive into their own minds, discover what is there, and develop it.

The number of management gurus is increasing at an alarming rate. We do not yet have one guru per manager but we are rapidly approaching that number. The ultimate success of a guru is to produce the fad of the week, becoming number one on the managerial hit parade. Successful or not, gurus preach panaceas the validity of which they pretend to have received directly from the Great Manager in the Sky, who actually resides in the mind of the gurus.

What educators teach comes from experience, their own and that of others, not from revelation.”

Be wary of the management cults of… [please insert the name of today’s panacea].