Category Archives: Systems; Processes

Why Stuff Fails

There’s a recurring theme on several of the various discussion boards I frequent. ISO, Baldrige, six sigma, lean, performance management…all can be valuable operational process enhancers. Still, too many well-intentioned and much-needed initiatives fail badly. They never get the traction needed to climb the long hill toward sustainability.

Then along comes someone hawking culture, values, engagement, mindfulness, well-being, spirituality. Sensible leaders’ eyes glaze over if they haven’t already. Why?

To think about for starters: when you chase two rabbits both will escape.

Experience Shapes Perspective
Most of my career has been in Operations either directly or in a close supporting role, wandering through the maze of JIT, SPC, LeanSigma, 5-S, 6-S, RCCA and a host of others I’ve mercifully forgotten. Last, I’ve designed various control systems and have been a lead assessor for the ISO9001 and Baldrige models. Detailed because it needs to be clear: I’m not all about the soft stuff only.

On the “people” side I am a practitioner of engagement, change theory, the spiritual side of well-being and other human dynamics practices. I’ve been in the trenches for two major culture change initiatives and several lesser skirmishes, and am a regular facilitator of strategy development, alignment and execution, performance / project management, and other processes that impact performance excellence.

This broad experience shaped my perspective. The people background drives my commitment to engagement and leadership, my process lineage compels me to deliver hard results. There is no conflict when you understand you’re chasing only One Rabbit!

Proposed: doing stuff and producing results is less important than how you act while you’re doing it because the how is crucial to long-term sustainability. People and the soft fuzzies they crave are a vital part of the equation and cannot be ignored.

Performance excellence applies to people and process. You cannot improve one without the other. People fix broken processes, no production process in the world is capable of fixing broken people. People are the one differentiator. Technology can be bought but people and culture cannot be replicated. So which takes precedence?

I’ve turned it over, around and upside down again and it still looks the same: people issues, culture, values—soft stuff—are the key enablers of sustainable success for any initiative and for the organization itself. Still, people issues draw the short straw after the obligatory lip service is out of the way. The mantra:
“xyz initiative requires a cultural transformation, winning peoples’ hearts and minds, commitment and visible, genuine support from top leaders”.

It’s not so bad hearing the chant over and over because it’s absolutely true. What is hard to fathom is why ignoring this truth is so common, so predictable. Put simply: you cannot achieve optimal bottom line results without focusing on “people” issues!

Let’s Demystify and Downgrade the Voodoo
I was addicted to science fiction growing up. Now I enjoy studying really ‘out there’ business and social theory. But personal enjoyment has little bearing on what must be done. My mission: take the right approach to integrating the right soft stuff into the mainstream of running a business, by focusing on maximizing performance excellence and producing hard results. It’s a covert operation, which means killing the spotlight shining on engagement and culture, downplaying their significance. Do the right things the right way by leveraging repeatedly validated enablers of engagement. That does not mean preaching the gospel of engagement. If you don’t even utter the “e” word, engagement will come of its own accord and the right culture will grow, if you enable it.

(Part two, Sustainability in Initiatives outlines a process of integrating rather than alienating)

Engagement is not the high-performance motor that will win the race. Engagement is simply an additive for the fuel that makes the vehicle go down the road faster and longer. Essential, yes: without the right additives the motor will gunk up, bog down and eventually seize up altogether. And you’ll get terrible mileage along the way.

It makes such sound business sense and it’s been validated so many times over the past twenty years that it should be impossible to ignore. But the engagement industry’s approach isn’t conducive to earning mainstream acceptance; we’re guilty of making engagement inaccessible. It shouldn’t be surprising that leaders are paralyzed—we’re sticking pins into their dolls.

Physician, Heal Thyself!
I can say this because I was one of the guilty ones hawking my brand of silver bullet, expecting clients to learn a new language, new tools, new techniques even if the client was already doing basically the same thing by a different name and process and achieving similar outcomes. Demanding that clients become something they’re not.

I was introducing noise into the system, and resistance should have been expected. That’s OK, while we’re at it let’s learn about change management….ka-CHING!

Integrate, don’t alienate! Unless things are really beyond repair, why re-create wheels? Simply check the pressure, re-balance, align, rotate. Don’t buy a whole new set of tires. Lean and six sigma tools and techniques can be seamlessly integrated into nearly any operation. ISO and Baldrige are both highly adaptable and they do not require full implementation. They can be a supplement to counter a specific vitamin deficiency, an exercise regimen to address a specific weakness or train for a specific event.

Still, we’re too often guilty of jumping straight to a heart transplant and we risk losing the patient on the table. Or they elect not to have that scariest of all surgeries and grab onto whatever quality of life they may have left without any intervention.

A Lesson to Learn From Spirituality. I read a beautiful article by a bonafide swami who insisted that yoga was the One True Path to spirituality. I’m not a scholar, but I am an avid student. I feel we collectively need a higher level of spirituality, in some form.

One discussion responder stated that yoga has been linked to demon worship. Not that he believed it, he was just making a valid observation. Perception is reality.

When spirituality or a derivative is linked to a formal practice and especially to religious doctrine, it’s bound to take potshots from purists of another belief system. Intolerance is our heritage dating back to the Inquisition and beyond. The really “out there” fringe cries “demon worship, heresy, eternal damnation!” Look at the current situation—at the fanatics who are terrifying disruptors of global peace and social well being.

I highly respect devoted practitioners of any religion, of any discipline like yoga until they try to drag me down the “my way or the highway” path. What level of “spirituality”? What form of “enlightenment”? What’s wrong with my beliefs? If you don’t like them can’t you just stick to yours? Whatever works for you is great by me, we can co-exist.

Numerous best practices can help individuals discover their own path to spirituality and enlightenment. It’s too individual to assign specifics and labels or prescribe a cookie cutter course of action. Best practices are not exclusive to one discipline or belief system.

The reason for this spirituality sidetrack: any initiative can suffer from the same issues. Think about it, and read the Spirituality section again with that perspective.

(It’s dangerous for me to take this position, because I’m leaving myself wide open to attack by a whole lot of fringe purists from several religions at once. But maybe we can talk about it before we blow each other up)


CI Boot Camp Beyond Tools and Techniques

(this is also featured at LinkedIn’s Pulse)

You’ve probably also noticed numerous discussions in the various communities that all ask the same basic question: why do our ______efforts fail? I took that to task in Earth to Big Thinkers a while ago, am targeting continuous improvement (CI) specifically here.

My formal CI training and practitioner experience goes back to the middle 90’s with SPC, early TQM and just-in-time, evolving more recently to leansigma, ISO and Baldrige management systems, performance excellence and engagement theory. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a good deal of hands-on systems design and implementation support via training, project team facilitation and follow-up.

To me there are essentials that are too often not considered, a layer underneath the mechanics, toolbox and techniques of continuous improvement: the human and organizational dynamics of CI. Please add your own to my short list of success factors that are too often forgotten:

  1. Deming’s public enemy number one was variation. Goal: consistency in process and outputs, but also in methods. In the spirit of standard work, the framework of a formal approach to continuous improvement is a necessity. People need to speak the same language;
  2. The most direct path to results starts at the ground level. Like anything, a strong foundation allows an enduring structure to be built. Informing and educating helps to achieve buy-in, making it much easier to involve the right people, give them the right tools, then facilitate their progress toward improving the way they do their work;
  3. Change management rules apply! The standard list of questions people have when faced with doing something new or different: what exactly is involved? Why do we have to change this? How does this affect me? Why should I care? What if I don’t want to do this differently? Have real and plausible answers ready ahead of time and make sure they are part of the foundational work;
  4. The same as 5-S, the first few steps are a cake walk compared standardizing and sustaining improvement. It’s human nature to backslide to the comfortable way of doing things when nobody is looking. People tend to hunker down in their foxholes, thinking “this too shall pass” if they keep their heads down. Controls and measures must be implemented and the improvements verified for effectiveness on an ongoing basis.
  5. Direct in-process communication, ongoing communication of project status and results and then follow-up from leadership with improvement teams provides encouragement along the way and reinforces the new way of doing things. Let people know “we’re really paying attention to what you’re doing, and we appreciate what you’ve done!”
  6. As noted in “Earth to Big Thinkers” simplicity must be the standard. An over-abundance of theories, tools and application methods makes it easy to over-complicate continuous improvement. It is what it is…CI experts are more highly valued the more formal certifications they possess, and their expert status is generally viewed more favorably by leaders the more technical and detail-intensive the reports and results are. But CI lives and dies at the non-expert level, in the hearts, heads and hands of the do-ers.

Earth to Big Thinkers….Come In Big Thinkers

Systems Thinking World is a discussion forum for both experienced systems thinkers and those wanting to learn their way around systems thinking. I’m somewhere in between, and one of my current Big Thoughts is that there must be more awareness of system dynamics incorporated into employee engagement. So I’m in hot pursuit of understanding both concurrently. Most importantly, I’m studying how to communicate both in a way that sinks in.

This question was posed to the systems thinker community…why is six sigma so widely accepted, when systems thinking is not?  A great many responses followed, deep and scholarly assessments of the state of systems thinking, level of understanding and, more importantly, level of acceptance with the general public. Big concepts, big words…vast amounts of tasty thought morsels were offered by the systems thinking community. But not much in the way of resolution.

Engagement suffers from the same problem as systems thinking—no mainstream acceptability —very probably due to the same root cause. I played with this same thought some time ago, in Much Ado About Nothing.

thinker-doerExperts, a challenge: step back a few paces and read your field’s literature and discussions through the eyes of a novice sneaking a peek at your stuff for the first time. Systems thinking, engagement, even basic continuous improvement—this applies to all these disciplines. Most regular folks’ eyes glaze over in a hurry and survival mode kicks in when they take that cautious peek. Every now and then an innocent entry-level question is met with a deluge of scholarly responses that go nowhere with substance. Result: the neophyte is pushed even further away and the safer survival instinct is reinforced: don’t fight and ask questions, simply flee.

Hypothesis: experts have made systems thinking and engagement too complex, too theoretical, too “expert” to be accessible to the mainstream. The various community experts, especially in engagement and systems thinking, have pretty much earned their reputation as unapproachable purveyors of dark, scary practices. Too much high-level thinking and theoretical musing to be attractive to most, not enough doing and results to sell the do-ers and decision-makers.

Does this exchange sound familiar?

What do you do?
I’m an engagement specialist (or…I’m a systems thinker)
OK….(quizzical look)…come on man, what do you really do to earn your paycheck?!

    SixSigma has numerous tools that can be used within the DMAIC framework, but most practitioners and projects stick with only a handful of heavy lifters. Some sixsigma training still insists on reviewing the entire toolbox gamut. Impressive to few, confusing to most;
    A Microsoft Project power user produces a mind-blowing Gantt chart that the project’s worker bees can’t make sense of. Who benefits, what is accomplished?
    SixSigma is based on statistical formulas. While it is essential to understand variation, and what “sigma” means, is it really necessary for all the players to understand how sigma is calculated?
    The purpose of engagement is to maximize performance, but too often the stated emphasis is more like “our goal is to raise employee engagement levels”. A fuzzy target rather than tangible action and real results;
    SixSigma focuses on specific problem characteristics and generates tangible, measurable results using a specific process with specific tools. However,
    Systems Thinkers and engagement experts cruise at 50,000 feet where the air is simply too rare for most. Should the experts expect others to do without oxygen, or should we make a greater attempt to cruise at a lower, safer altitude, fill the seats and still get to where we need to go?

In a continuous improvement project the goal is to make something better, period. As facilitator or project manager I must be aware of systemic dynamics as they are critical and someone must be mindful of them. And there is always an opportunity to preach the gospel of engagement, as engagement practices will help standardize and sustain the initiative.

But those add-ons divert the improvement team’s focus away from the basic target: improve. It is much better to simply involve the right people, give them the right basic tools, and facilitate the improvement journey. Along the way, throw in an occasional guiding nudge of systems thinking or engagement theory as the opportunity comes up. Don’t force the issue.

With this casual drive-by approach it isn’t even necessary to reference systems thinking or engagement by name. Doing so only begs for further explanation. The message will be plenty meaningful if presented in the right context—accomplishing the task at hand. It does not and should not be center stage.

The same message would not be so easily received if delivered in a full-blown presentation on systems thinking and engagement theory. However, if the team or organization ever gets to the point that systems thinking or engagement officially takes center stage, these casual hands-on project touches are invaluable examples: “hey, this is nothing new. Remember when we….?”

One discussion respondent suggested that system thinkers “….design (or borrow) a meeting or process to move this valuable discussion out of the casual discussion stage and into the “let’s get serious about discovering a solution that works” stage.” In other words, find a concrete way to further systems thinking. A reply to that: “…contributors have provided a snapshot of a dynamic through their experiences…a hypothesis needs fully testing. Do you have a hypothesis?”

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Much ado about nothing. Thinkers exploring concepts is critical as it furthers our understanding. But when we need broader acceptance, maybe a separate application-only discussion group is called for:

  1. Describe the situation;
  2. What is the best action and desired outcome of that action? And,
  3. Very briefly, what is the theory or concept the action is based upon? (just for context, to placate the deep thinkers).

Would it work? Could we stave off the urge to confound the issue by burying it in complexity?

Is this idea just another Big Thinker Thought in disguise? The whole point of this post is…all this wonderful thinking is pointless if it doesn’t lead to stickiness and action / results. So, what next?