Polishing a Turd

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

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

A seriously important concept to start with:

The Planning fallacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You show the model to Theresa.

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

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

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

…and, one of my favourites:

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

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

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

Some reflections

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

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

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

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

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

The repercussions

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

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

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

But here’s the thing:

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

The wider point…and what to do instead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing new here

You might read the above and shout out:

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

…and you’d be right.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


‘Chain’ beats ‘Triangle’

chain-beats-triangleFollowers of ‘Modern’ (?) management find themselves in essentially the same position: Trying to increase value1 to their investors. But, if this is their outlook, where to start?

Introducing the Triangle

Perhaps the place where ‘the triangle’ is seen most visibly is within many a traditional project management book – you will likely see a lovely little diagram within its first few foundational pages, with the words ‘quality’, ‘cost’ and ‘time’ at its points.

triangleIt will go on to suggest that the Project Manager’s job is to juggle these three variables so as to deliver ‘on time, within budget and to an acceptable quality’.

The key thing to notice is the assumption that there is an equation in which these variable are somehow related….and received wisdom goes on to suggest that there is a trade off and ‘we can’t have it all’ e.g. if we want higher quality then this would sacrifice time and/or cost.

…and the thinking behind that triangle isn’t limited to projects…it goes right across the organisation, in everything it does – basically that faster and cheaper are the opposite of higher quality.

All makes sense doesn’t it – nothing to see here. Blog post over?

Well no, as you’ve probably guessed, I’m just revving up!

And so to Dr Deming:

In his book ‘Out of the Crisis’ (1982)Dr W. Edwards Deming wrote about the “folklore…that quality and productivity are incompatible: that you can’t have both. A manager will usually tell you that it is either or. In his experience, if he pushes quality, he falls behind in production. If he pushes production, his quality suffers. This will be his experience when he knows not what quality is nor how to achieve it.”

Deming’s last line suggests that there could be value in exploring:

  • What ‘quality’ means; and
  • His thinking on how to achieve it.

What is quality?

It’s obvious isn’t it? Surely, it’s simply “how good something is!” Well, yes…but that doesn’t get us very far. It poses the rather obvious question “good for who?”

There are two levels to drill into:

Level 1 (and perhaps you’ll all be yawning reading this much-stated point) is that quality is, and can only be, defined by ‘the customer’ (or citizen or patient or….).

It follows that you can’t tell your customers what quality is, or quietly determine this for them. Instead, if you really want to deliver ‘quality’, you’d better spend time constantly understanding2 your customers and what they want/ need from your product/ service/process.

Level 2 is that there is no such thing as the average customer – no two customers are the same – and, as such, quality is defined by each unique customer…and this point has profound implications (particularly for service organisations).

For example, it would be a mistake to create a ‘customer specification’ and think that you have solved the quality conundrum. We need to understand the particular customer before us and design a system that can effectively, and efficiently, absorb their variety. This would be the opposite of trying to force them into a straight jacket.

“You’ve ‘dissed’ the triangle…but what’s your ‘Chain’ got to do with it?”

And so to Deming’s thinking on how to achieve quality. I’ll start by introducing his ‘quality chain reaction’:

Deming wrote that, in the post World War 2 period, some Japanese companies observed that “improvement of quality begets naturally and inevitably improvement of productivity.” i.e. that when quality goes up, costs actually come down. This would seem to be the opposite of our triangle!

How can this be so? Well, when the quality goes up, costs decrease due to fewer mistakes, less rework, fewer delays…reduced failure demand…and on and on. This leads to a continually improving flow.

Deming went on to write that the following “chain reaction was on the blackboard of every meeting within top management in Japan from July 1950 onwards:”

Improve quality – costs decrease – productivity improves – capture market (better quality, lower prices) – stay in business – provide jobs…and more jobs.

Notice where it ends – jobs. Contrast this with where most cost-cutting ‘initiatives’ start – jobs…but not to create them!

Deming calls out a difference in thinking3:

“Western Industry is satisfied to improve quality to a level where visible figures may shed doubt about the economic benefit of further improvement. As someone enquired, ‘how low may we go in quality without losing customers?’ This question packs a mountain of misunderstanding into a few choice words. It is typical of management’s misunderstanding in America.

In contrast, the Japanese go right ahead and improve the process without regard to figures. They thus improve productivity, decrease costs, and capture the market.” (Deming)

‘Triangle’ thinking requires a detailed business case, showing a healthy (yet imaginary) ‘return on investment’ (ROI) before anything can gain authorisation to proceed. This is, unhelpfully, labelled as ‘governance’.

‘Chain reaction’ thinking uses a clear vision, for the customer, and gets on with constantly experimenting towards it, whilst checking the results. This generates a purpose-seeking learning organisation.

Updating the Quality chain

Dan Jones, in one of his YouTube videos, expands Deming’s quality chain reaction to show its wider effect on the full organisational system4. I really liked what he had done on his slide…but I wanted to make it clearer still…and so I ‘tweaked it’ (see below5)…showing that, if you start at quality, the chain reaction is kicked off and then continues to flow around and around the system:


Now, many a command-and-control organisation would look at the above and shout out “that’s exactly what we are doing!”…and so, to counter this riposte, I thought I’d re-do the diagram but this time start at cost.

i.e. if your starting point is to reduce costs (usually by interrogating line items on the P&L, and focusing on activities) then you are NOT on the quality chain reaction. You would be on quite a different journey:


In a sentence:

Customer Purpose (which, by definition, means quality) comes first…which then delivers growth and profitability, and NOT the other way around!

…and, for all you executives/ senior managers out there, many (most!) of your people already know this6.


1. The definition of Value: I reflect on a rather nice quote from Jeffrey Liker: “The first question…is always: ‘What does the customer want from this process?’ This defines value.

Unfortunately, the modern corporate world has somewhat twisted this definition, and has come to believe that value is defined by the providers of ‘dead money’.

2. Understanding your customer: This requires much more than simply asking them what they want/ need. They often don’t know or, even if they do, can’t (or won’t) clearly articulate this. We need to listen to, and observe, the demands that they place on the system…and then we can truly understand how they behave.

3. Deming’s ‘Western/ American vs. Japanese’ comparison reflects the age, and focus, that he was operating within. Times have changed – not all Western/ American organisations can be tarred with the same brush…and not all Japanese organisations have stayed true to this thinking.

I suggest a modern interpretation would be to compare how organisations are run, by:

  • Command-and-Control ‘financial engineers’, attempting to use remote-control management; with
  • ‘Systems thinking’ value stream managers

4. Dan Jones presentation: See his slide with the heading ‘defining value’

5. Value for investors: I’ve added employees to the ‘value to investors’ column label within the diagram, to reiterate my recommendation that the system needs ’live moneyto enable this way of thinking.

6. A common aim: The production worker in Japan, as anywhere else in the world, always knew about this chain reaction; also that defects and faults that get into the hands of customers lose the market and cost him his job.

Once management in Japan adopted the chain reaction, everyone there from 1950 onward had one common aim, namely, quality.

With no lenders nor stockbrokers to press for dividends, this effort became an undivided bond between management and production workers.” (Deming)

I know that it’s a broken record but…this last sentence returns back to “Your Money or your Life!”

Slaughtering the ‘Sacred Cow’

moo-cowI’ve written enough posts now to ‘write a book’ 🙂 …so it’s about time I dealt with a seemingly sacred cow – the ‘Balanced Scorecard’.


First, I’ll delve into a bit of history…

Robert Kaplan and David Norton performed a research project back in 1990 in respect of measuring organisational performance.

It was based on the premise that:

  • An organisation’s knowledge-based assets1 were becoming increasingly important;
  • The primary measurement system remained2 the financial accounting system; and
  • Executives and employees pay attention to what they measure and, therefore, were overly focused on the (short term) financials and insufficiently on the (longer term) intangible assets.

balanced-scorecardThe outcome of their research project was the concept of a Balanced Scorecard of measurements (and, of course, the accompanying Harvard Business School (HBS) management book).

This retained the organisation’s financial measures (as historic results) but added three additional perspectives:

  • Customer;
  • Internal Business Processes; and
  • Learning & Growth.

The last two were said to represent the lead indicators of future financial performance.

The Balanced Scorecard quickly gained traction in many corporations. This was helped by many a ‘big consultancy’ cashing in3 on the lucrative ‘implementation’ revenue stream.

Version 2.0

Over a decade later (2004) Kaplan and Norton then took things further by linking strategy formulation and execution to their measurement ideas and came up with the Strategy Map concept (and, you’ve guessed it…an accompanying HBS management book). I imagine that this was for two reasons:

1. They saw some improvements to/ holes in the original idea;

…and with my cynical hat sat jauntily on my head…

2. They now had an adoring following that would buy the sequel which, as ever, sets out:

– the big idea in detail;

– a set of carefully curated case studies; and

– instructions on how to implement ‘the big idea’ in (on?) your organisation

strategy-mapThe ‘Strategy Map’ turned the four quadrants of the balanced scorecard into a linear cause-effect view (see picture)

The idea went that the desired financial outcomes would be stated at the top, which would then be achieved by reverse engineering down the strategy map to the bottom.

Thus, through setting objectives from top down to bottom and using measures, targets and action plans (involving initiatives with business cases and budgets), the desired outcome could be achieved.

Wow, that all looks really cool – neat looking and oh-so-complete! Doesn’t it?

So why the ‘Sacred Cow’ reference?

Well, many (most?) organisations feverishly adopted the Balanced Scorecard/ Strategy Map tools and technique as if it were common sense. Indeed, some 20 years later, it has become ‘part of the management furniture’. Unquestioned…even unquestionable.

However, I believe that there are a number of serious problems within…so let’s consider whether that proverbial sacred cow deserves to be slaughtered…

There are two angles that I could come at it from:

  1. The thinking within the Balanced Scorecard/Strategy Map logic; and
  2. How organisations typically implement these ‘big ideas’.

It would be too easy to shoot at how organisations typically implement them (i.e. how they might have bastardised it4)…and you could easily accuse me of ‘cheap shots’, saying that these aren’t Kaplan and Norton’s fault. So, instead, I’ll critique the foundational logic using four headings.

Here goes…

1. Measurement:

The foundation of Kaplan and Norton’s logic is that we must have measures if we are to manage something…and this is regarded as conventional wisdom…but here’s a counter-quote from W. Edwards Deming to ponder:

“Of course visible figures are important but he that would run his company on visible figures alone will in time have neither company nor figures. The most important figures are unknown and unknowable but successful management must nevertheless take account of them.”

His point is that we seem to be obsessed with trying to measure the effect of a given change (usually to ‘claim it’ for some recognition or even reward), but that we cannot accurately do so…and it is a mistake to think that we can. Sure, we can likely determine whether a change is having a positive or negative effect on the system (and thereby try to amplify or dampen it) but we cannot isolate the change from everything else going on (internally or externally; occurring right now, previously or in the future)

Deming went on to provide some examples of ‘important but unknowable’:

  • The multiplying effect on sales that comes from a happy customer, and the opposite from an unhappy one;
  • The improvement of quality and productivity from teamwork (across the horizontal value stream and with suppliers);
  • The boost in quality and productivity all along a value stream from an improvement at any activity upstream;
  • The loss from the annual rating of people’s performance (the time taken by everyone to perform this process and, of far greater concern, the resulting de-motivation and relational damage caused)
  • …and so on

Deming famously wrote that “it is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.”

feedback-cartoonExample: Can I manage how employees feel? Yes, by how I behave.

Should I become obsessed with measuring employee feeling through those dreaded culture surveys? No!!!!

…just continue to manage how people feel – by constantly and consistently applying simple philosophies such as the most excellent “Humanity above Bureaucracy” (Buurtzorg).

Leave the constant crappy ‘surveying of the obvious’ to those organisations that (still) don’t get it.

The balanced scorecard was derived because of the major limitations of purely financial measures. However, we should not assume that such a tool is a definitive answer for what we need to manage.

Indeed, it causes damaging behaviours – with management wearing blinkers when focusing on the scorecard “because we’ve tied all our management instruments into it and therefore that’s all that counts round here.”

The highly limited and ‘helicopter view’ scorecard becomes a major part of the ‘wrong management system’ problem.

2. Balance:

This word is used as if we need to balance our focus on the four different quadrants, playing one off against the others as if they are counterbalances to keep in check.

But this isn’t the case. If we did a little bit of, say, learning and growth (e.g. developing our people) and/or customer focus but then said “whoa…steady on, not too much…we need to balance the financials” then we aren’t understanding the nature of the system….and we certainly don’t ‘get’ cause and effect.


A metaphor for business to help explain the point:

Let’s suppose that you keep breaking out in a nasty skin rash.

You could pour ice cold water on it, apply a lotion or scratch it…until it bleeds (ouch).

These actions might appear to alleviate the effects…but they are also likely to make things worse…and none of them have considered (let alone dealt with) the cause!

If you continue to ignore the cause and just treat the (currently visible) effects, things could escalate…with new effects presenting…complicating any necessary treatments…causing long lasting or permanent damage…and even death.

If you want to get rid of the rash…and keep it that way (and perhaps even improve your skin complexion and wider health)…then you need to focus your attention on its cause:

  • are you reacting to something you are putting on your skin?
  • what about something you eat, drink or otherwise introduce into your body?
  • maybe it’s something else more complicated?

And once you’ve worked out the likely cause(s) then you need to do something about it.

You work on the cause (such as stop using that brand of sun cream or stop eating shell fish or…stop injecting heroin!!) whilst checking whether it is working by observing the effect (what the likes of Seddon and Johnson would refer to as ‘keeping the score’).

You don’t think “mmm, I’ll balance the cause and the effect”…because you understand the glaringly obvious definitions behind the words ‘cause’ and ‘effect’

Cause: A person or thing that gives rise to an action, phenomenon, or condition

Effect: A change which is a result or consequence of an action or other cause.” (Oxford Dictionary)

Okay, back to that Balanced Scorecard/Strategy map thingy and a cause – effect journey:

  • mgmt-cause-and-effectSenior Management’s beliefs and behaviours determine (i.e. cause) the management system that they choose to put into effect and (often stubbornly) retain;
  • The management system creates (i.e. causes) much of the environment that the people work within (effect);
  • The work environment is the foundation of (i.e. causes) how people act and react whilst doing their jobs (e.g. whether they are engaged, innovative, intrinsically motivated…or not);
  • How people act influences (i.e. causes) how processes are operated and the nature, size and speed of their evolution (whether by continuous or breakthrough improvements);
  • How processes operate and improve creates (i.e. causes) the outcomes that customers experience…and tell other potential customers about (i.e. as advocates or detractors);
  • Customers (whether they buy from, and advocate for us or ignore, avoid and slag us off) determine (i.e. cause) whether we stay in business.

The bl00dy obvious point is that THE FINANCIALS ARE THE EFFECT! So why are we so focused on them, other than to keep the score5.

…or, in a short, snappy sentence: This isn’t something to be BALANCED!!!!!!!!

The ‘balanced’ word keeps people tied to a ‘manage by results’ mentality, rather than managing the causes of the results such that the results then look after themselves.

What winds me up even more than the balanced bit is….wait for it…applying % weightings on the four quadrants5….usually with the financials (yes, the effect) getting the lions share!

That’s like saying “We’ll focus 75% on scratching the rash but only 25% on taking fewer heroin injections”. Aaaargh!!!

Now, you might respond to me by saying you believe that Kaplan and Norton understood the problem with the ‘balanced’ word…which is why they, ahem, ‘refreshed’ their logic with their ‘Strategy Maps’ book.

The problem with this is that they didn’t attack the results thinking, they merely added to it and, as such, many (most?) organisations continue with balancing and weighting…and spectacularly missing the point.

3. Key Performance Indicators vs. Capability:

kpi-statusOkay – let’s suppose that senior management accept that measures aren’t everything and that we shouldn’t be balancing (let alone weighting) things – I hope that we can all agree that some “right measures, measured right” (Inspector Guilfoyle) are going to be very useful…

…and so to the next whopper problem – the “measured right” bit.

Nothing (that I have seen) within the Balanced Scorecard/ Strategy Map logic reflects on, let alone deals with, the hugely important subject of variation and the need to always visualise measures over time.

Management simply use a set of KPIs on a ‘scorecard’ and look at their red down/ green up arrows against last period and/or their traffic lights against budget.

This is to completely ignore the dynamics of a system, and whether such movements are predictable or not….and therefore whether any special attention should be paid to them.

The Balanced Scorecard/Strategy Map approach can therefore create a set of Executives exhibiting the ‘God complex’ (as in “I have the answer!”) whilst being fooled by randomness” (Taleb) – blissfully ignorant of the capability of their value streams (or processes within) and doing much damage by tampering.

and last, but by no means least…

4. Strategy vs. Purpose:

The underlying assumptions within the Balanced Scorecard/Strategy Map thinking would appear to be the conventional ‘shareholder value’ view of the world.

(I’ve previously written a 5-part serialised post on what I think about this….so I won’t repeat this here)

We get fed a feast of:

In short: The core problem (for me) with Kaplan and Norton’s two books is that, not only do they retain the problematic traditional command and control management system, focused on delivering shareholder value – they use it as their foundation to build upon.

It’s therefore no wonder that organisations carry on as before (doing the same crappy stuff), whilst waving their supposedly game-changing ‘Strategy Map’ around a lot.

Have you got hold of that cow? Good…now where’s my ceremonial knife?

To end: ‘having a go’ at me because I’m being so negative

You might shout back “okay you cynic…what would you do instead?!”

Well, I’m not going to be able to answer that in a paragraph – even Kaplan and Norton took two (rather verbose) books…and more than a decade in-between…to present their logic – but I’d suggest that, if you are curious, the 130+ posts on this site would go some way to expressing what I (and I believe my giants) think.

…and if you want to start at measurement then you might want to look here first.


1. Knowledge based assets: Kaplan and Norton list the following as examples of assets that aren’t measured and managed by financial measures: employee capabilities, databases, information systems, customer relationships, quality, responsive processes, innovative products and services.

2. Measurement system remaining financially based: H. Thomas Johnson’s book ‘Relevance Regained’ makes clear that it wasn’t always so. Financial measures used as operational measures (a bad idea) only came into being from the 1950s onwards. Johnson refers to the period 1950s – 1980s as the ‘Dark Age of Relevance Lost’ and ‘Management by Remote Control’. I would argue that many an organisation hasn’t exited this period.

3. Big consultancies ‘cashing in’: I can (sadly) write this because I have first hand evidence – I was there! 😦

4. Bastardising the Strategy Map includes organisations changing the order of the four elements!!!

5. Financials: There’s a HUGE difference between a) using financial measures to keep the score (which would be good governance) and b) attempting to use them to make operational decisions! Using financials to make operational decisions is to attempt to ‘make the tail wag the dog’.

Yes, accountants should keep the score, for cash flow monitoring and assisting with longer term investment decisions…but accountants should not be attempting ‘remote control management’ of operations.

6. Weighting the elements of the scorecard: See, for example, fig. 9.8 in ‘The Balanced Scorecard’ (1996) and the related commentary.

7. Diversity: I understand that the cow is a holy animal to some. Please don’t be offended by my use of an English phrase in expressing my thinking – no real cows were harmed in the writing of this post…and no harm is intended to those living now, or in the future 🙂


It’s complicated!…or is it?

mandelbrot-setI’ll  start with a question: What’s the difference between the two words ‘Complex’ and ‘Complicated’?

Have a think about that for a minute…and see what you arrive at.

I did a bit of fumbling around and can report back that:

  • If you look these two words up in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), then you’d think they mean the same thing; however
  • If you search Google for ‘complex vs. complicated’, then you’ll find oodles of articles explaining that they differ, and (in each author’s opinion) why; and yet
  • …. if you were to read a cluster of those articles you’d find totally contradictory explanations!

Mmmm, that’s complicated…or is that complex?

This post aims to clarify, and in so doing, make some incredibly important points! It’s probably one of my most ‘technical’ efforts…but if you grapple with it then (I believe that) there is gold within.

Starting with definitions:

Here are the OED definitions:

Complex: consisting of many different and connected parts.

  • Not easy to analyse or understand; complicated or intricate”

Complicated: consisting of many interconnecting parts or elements; intricate.

  • Involving many different and confusing aspects
  • In Medicine: Involving complications.”

So, virtually the same – in fact one refers to the other! – but I think we can agree that neither are simple 🙂 . They are both about parts and their interconnections.

Turning to the ‘science’ of systems:

scienceWhilst the OED uses the ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’ words interchangeably, Systems Thinkers have chosen to adopt distinctly different meanings. They do this to usefully categorise different system types.

Reading around systemsy literature2, I repeatedly see the following categorisation usage:

Simple systems: Contain only a few parts interacting, where these are obvious to those that look; Extremely predictable and repeatable

Example: your seat on an aeroplane

Complicated systems: Many parts, they operate in patterned (predictable) ways but ‘how it works’ is not easily seen…except perhaps by an expert

Example: flying a commercial aeroplane…where, of note, its predictability makes it very safe

Complex systems: unpredictable because the interactions between the parts are continually changing and the outcomes emerge – and yet look ‘obvious’ with the benefit of hindsight.

Example: Air Traffic Control, constantly changing in reaction to weather, aircraft downtime…etc.

“…and the relevance of this is?”

There is a right way, and many a wrong way, to intervene in systems, depending on their type! Therefore, correct categorisation is key.

A (the?) major mistake that ‘leaders’ of organisations make is they presume that they are dealing with a complicated system…when in fact it is complex4. If you initially find this slightly confusing (it is!) then just re-read, and ponder, the definitions above.

Management presume that they are operating within a complicated (or even simple) system whenever they suppose that they can:

– administer a simple course of ‘best practise’ or external expert advice…and all will be well;

– plan in detail what something will turn out like, how long it will take and at what cost…when they’ve never done it before!;

– implement stuff as if it can simply be ‘rolled back’ to an earlier state if it doesn’t work out…not understanding that, once acted upon, the people affected have been irrevocably changed (and regularly suffer from what I refer to as ‘change fatigue’5);

– isolate and alter parts of the system to deliver a predicted (and overly simplistic) outcome…by which I am referring to the slapstick ‘benefits case’ and it’s dastardly offspring the ‘benefits realisation plan’…

…Management can, of course, invoke the Narrative Fallacy to convince themselves that all that was promised has been achieved (and will be sustained)…whilst ignoring any inconvenient ‘side effects’;

– strip out (and throw away) fundamental parts of a system whilst invoking their constant simplification battle cry…because they can’t (currently) see, let alone understand, why these parts are necessary;

…and I’m sure you can carry on the list.

The distinction between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ fits quite nicely with Russell Ackoff’s distinction between deterministic (mechanistic) and organic systems; and  John Seddon’s distinction between manufacturing and service organisations (and the complexity of variety in customer demand).

Put simply 🙂 , in complex systems, it’s the relationships between the parts (e.g. people) that dominate.

So what?

jack-deeWell, if Management understand that they are dealing with a complex organisation then they will (hopefully) see the importance of designing their system to take advantage of (rather than butcher) this fact.

Such a design might include:

  • aligning individual and organisational purpose, by sharing success (and removing management instruments that cause component-optimising behaviours)
  • putting capability measures into the hands of front line/ value creating workers, where such measures:
  • allowing and supporting the front line/ value creating workers to:
    • absorb the customer variety that presents itself to them; and
    • imagine, and experiment with, ways of improving the service for their customers
  • …and much much more systemsy thinking

This would mean creating a system that is designed to continuously adjust as its components change in relation to one another. That would be the opposite of ‘command and control’.

Huge clarification: Many a command-and-control manager may respond that, yes, they already continually adjust their system…I know you do!!!  It’s not you that should be doing the adjusting…and so to self-organisation:

From simple to complex…and back again6

answersThe giant systems thinker Donella Meadows wrote that highly functional systems (i.e. the ones that work really well) likely contain three characteristics – resilience7, self-organisation and hierarchy8.

I’ll limit myself here to writing about self-organisation:

“The most marvellous characteristic of some complex systems is their ability to learn, diversify, complexify, evolve…This capacity of a system to make its own structure more complex is called self-organisation(Meadows)

Wow, ‘complexify’ – a new word?!…and it can be a very good thing…and goes 1800 against the corporate simplification mantra:

“We would do better at encouraging, rather than destroying, the self-organising capacities of the systems of which we are a part….which are often sacrificed for purposes of short-term productivity and stabiliy7(Meadows)

It turns out that complexity isn’t of itself a bad thing…in fact quite the opposite – a system can achieve amazing things as it becomes more complex. Just consider that, through the process of evolution, ‘we’ have ‘complexified’ (can you see what I did there) from amoeba to human beings!

…but what’s REALLY interesting is that this complexity is enabled by simplicity!

“System theorists used to think that self-organisation was such a complex property of systems that it could never be understood…new discoveries, however, suggest that just a few simple organising principles can lead to wildly diverse self-organising structures.” (Meadows)

Meadows went on to note that:

“All of life, from viruses to redwood trees, from amoebas to elephants, is based on the basic organising rules encapsulated in the chemistry of DNA, RNA, and protein molecules.”

In short: Simple rules can allow complex systems to blossom, self-learn and grow.

I believe that a wonderful, and complex, organisation can be created and sustained from living a simple philosophy.

“Simple, clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behaviour.

Complex rules and procedures give rise to simple and stupid behaviour.” (Dee Hock)

….so what might such a simple philosophy be? Well, Deming was ‘all over’ this with his ‘Theory of Profound knowledge’* and ’14 points for Management’.

* Deming explained simply that we should:

  • Observe, and handle, the world around us as systems (which, by definition, require a purpose that is obvious to all);
  • Expose, and understand, variation;
  • Gain knowledge through studying and experimenting;
  • Understand psychology and truly respect each and every human being ; and
  • Lead through our actions and abilities.

…and a final warning against that oversimplification thing:

“Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.”  (Clay Shirky)

The short ‘simple’ version at the end of the long ‘complicated’ one 🙂

‘Complexity’ is not the inherently bad ogre as persistently painted by contemporary management. Rather, it can be a defining property of our organisational system that we would do well to understand and embrace.

Let’s feast at the ’complex but right’ bookcase of knowledge, design appropriate and evolving responses based on simple scientific wisdom and climb the mountain…rather than automatically follow the crowd over the ‘simple but wrong’ cliff!


1. Opening Image: This image is a part of the Mandelbrot Set – an amazingly complicated (or is that complex?) image that is derived from the application of a simple mathematical formula. It sits within the fractal school of Mathematics (repeating patterns) alongside others such as the Koch snowflake.

Image Source : CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=322029

2. Systems Thinking Literature: This systems thinking is taken, in part, from a 2011 HBR article Learning to Live with Complexity.

3. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework is built (partly) around the difference between complicated and complex….and the importance of correctly identifying your system type before intervening. Snowden’s framework also adds the idea of chaotic systems, where there is some emergency that requires urgent action (without the time to experiment)…where the action chosen may determine how the chaos is halted…which may or may not be in your favour!

4. The inclusion of people in a system likely makes it complex.

5. Change Fatigue: This is my phrase for those people who have worked for an organisation for many years and had the annual ‘silver bullet’ change programme rolled out on them…and got bored of the same lecture and the same outcomes. It is very hard to energise (i.e. excite) someone with ‘change fatigue’.

6. Cartoon: I LOVE this cartoon! It is sooo apt. The vast majority are on the simple road, following the crowd over an (unseen) cliff…or at least not seen until it is too late. A few turn right at the ‘bookcase of knowledge’ – they take a book or two and then travel a circuitous and uphill road to an interesting destination.

7. Resilience vs. stability clarification: “Resilience is not the same thing as being…constant over time. Resilient systems can be very dynamic….conversely, systems that are constant over time can be unresilient.” (Donella Meadows)

8. Hierarchy: I’m aware that some organisations have experimented without a formal hierarchy (e.g. Holacracy). However, even they create a set of rules to assist them co-ordinate their component parts.

It’s worth noting that “Hierarchies evolve from the lowest level up…the original purpose of a hierarchy is always to help its originating subsystems do their jobs better…[however] many systems are not meeting our goals because of malfunctioning hierarchies…

 To be a highly functional system, hierarchy must balance the welfare, freedoms and responsibilities of the subsystems and total system – there must be enough central control to achieve co-ordination towards the large-system goal, and enough autonomy to keep all subsystems flourishing, functioning, and self-organising.” (Meadows)


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!

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).