Do Bosses need Hugs too?

The foundation on which Improvement Science is built is invisible – or rather intangible – and without this foundation the whole construction is unstable and unsustainable.  Rather like an iceberg – mostly under the surface with only a small part that is visible and measurable – and that small visible part is called Performance.

What is underneath?  To push our Performance through the surface so that it gets noticed we know we must synergise the People with the Processes but there is more to it than just that. The deepest part of the foundation, the part that provides the core strength and stability, is our Paradigm – our set of unconscious  beliefs, values, attitudes and habits that comprises our psycho-gyro-scope: our stabiliser. 

Our Paradigm creates inertia: the tendency to keep going in the same direction even when the winds of change have shifted permamantly and are blowing us off course.  Paradigms resist change – and for good reason – inertia is a useful thing when there are minor bumps on the journey and we need to avoid stalling at each one. Inertia becomes a less useful thing when we meet an immovable object such as a Law of Physics – because if we hit one of these then Reality will provide us with some painful feedback. Inertia is also less useful when we have stopped and have no momentum,  because it takes a bigger push for a longer time to get us moving again.

An elephant has a lot of inertia because it is big – and perhaps this is the reason why we refer to  attitudes and beliefs that represent resistance to change as Elephants in the Room.  The ringleader of a herd of organisational elephants is an elephant called Distrust which is the offspring an elephant called Discounting who in turn was born of an elephant called Disrespect.  We see this in organisationswhen we display and cultivate a disrepectful attitudes towards our peers, reports workers and our seniors. The old time-worn and cracked “us-versus-them” record.

So let us break into the cycle and push the Elephant called Distrust into spotlight – what is our alternative. Respect -> Acknowledgement -> Trust.   It doesn’t make any difference who you are: the most valuable form of respect is feedback:  Honest, Unbiassed and Genuine (HUG).  So if we regularly experience the Elephant called Distrust making a Toxic Swamp in our organisations and we feel discounted and disrespected then part of the reason may be that we are not giving ourselves enough HUGs. And that means the bosses too.

Sentenced to Death-by-Meeting!

Do you ever feel a sense of dread when you are summoned to an urgent meeting; or when you get the minutes and agenda the day before your monthly team meeting; or when you see your diary full of meetings for weeks in advance – like a slow and painful punishment?

If so then you may have unwittingly sentenced yourself to Death by Meeting.  What?  We do it to ourselves? No way! That would be madness!

But think about it. We consciously and deliberately ingest all sorts of other toxins: chemicals like caffeine, alcohol and cigarette smoke – so what is so different about immersing ourselves in the emotional toxic waste that many meetings seem to generate?

Perhaps we have learned to believe that there is no other way and because we have never experienced focussed, fun, and effective meetings where problems are surfaced, shared and solved quickly – problems that thwart us as individuals. Meetings where the problem-solving sum is greater than the problem-accumulating parts.

A meeting is a system that is designed to solve  problems.  We can improve our system incrementally but it is a slow process; to achieve a breakthrough we need to radically redesign the system.  There are three steps to doing this:

1. First decide what sort of problems the meeting is required to solve: strategic, operational or tactical;
2. Second design, test and practice a problem solving process for each category of problem; and
3. Third, select the appropriate tool for the task.

In his illuminating book Death by Meeting, Patrick Lencioni describes three meeting designs and illustrates with a story why meetings don’t work if the wrong tool is used for the wrong task. It is a sobering story.

There is another dimension to the design of meetings; that is how we solve problems as groups – and how, as a group, we seem to waste a lot of effort and time in unproductive discussion.  In his book Six Thinking Hats Edward De Bono provides an explanation for our habitual behaviour and a design for a radically different group problem solving process – one that a group would not arrive at by evolution – but one that has been proven to work.

If  we feel sentenced to death-by-meetings then we could buy and read these two small books – a zero-risk, one-off investment of effort, time and money for a guaranteed regular reward of fun, free time and success!

So if I complain to myself and others about pointless meetings and I have not bothered to do something about it myself then I now know that it is I who sentenced myself to Death-by-Meeting. Unintentionally and unconsciously perhaps – but me nevertheless.

The Six Learning Pebbles

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of taking Alice and Sophie to school. When I am doing the school run we often play a game of “interesting conversations” and we talked about what were were planning to do today.  “I am going to demonstrate the Six Thinking Hats method of solving problems” I said and gave a thumbnail sketch of Edward De Bono’s inspired invention. “That sounds like our Six Pebbles of Learning that we learned in SEAL” said Alice. “What is SEAL”?  I asked. “Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning” she replied “it is one of our lessons”.  My curiosity was pricked. “Wow! And what are the Six Pebbles? ” I asked.  Alice reeled them off immediately “Watching, Asking, Listening, Thinking Carefully, Perseverence and Learning from Mistakes”.  I was speechless – they didn’t teach that stuff when I was at school!  There are many organisations that invest small fortunes on “Team Development Programmes” which sounded to me like the same stuff – schools seem to have moved on a bit!

So, after a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon juggling the Six Hats I looked up the Six Pebbles on the Internet and here is what I found …
One stormy night, far, far away, a woman gave birth to four healthy sons. She wrapped them up and laid them in a row next to her. What would happen to them? She prayed to the magic spirit of her family. There was a flash and a beautiful spirit appeared. The spirit looked at the first baby. Out of her golden bag she drew a shiny purple stone and sang, ‘You will be a talented musician.’ To the second baby she gave a green stone and sang, ‘You will be a fantastic farmer.’ To the third baby she gave a red stone and sang, ‘You will be a talented artist.’ When she came to the fourth baby, she drew out of her bag six ugly brown pebbles. ‘And you will be a good learner’, she sang. There was a fearful bang and a flash of light and the spirit disappeared.

What did she mean?’ the woman asked herself. She looked at the pebbles. ‘It can’t be very important’, she thought. Even so she carefully put the pebbles in a small bag and hung them round the baby’s neck.

As soon as the first three sons could walk they showed their talents. People always asked to hear the first son sing. If one of their animals was sick, they brought it to the second son and he immediately knew what was wrong. The third son drew pictures so beautiful that when he was still young people asked him to decorate their houses and clothes. When the woman looked at the fourth son she kissed him on the forehead and smiled, and thought that it was a good job he had such talented brothers.The fourth son looked at the six pebbles and wondered what they meant. He was very proud of his three brothers. He wanted to be like them, so he looked carefully at what they did. He asked them questions and listened carefully to what they said. He thought about what he saw and heard. He imitated what they did and when it didn’t work he didn’t give up, but learned from it. The brothers loved him dearly and, because he was so helpful and good to be with, they spent lots of time with him. When the four sons were nearly grown up the woman said to the first three sons, ‘Go off and make your fortunes. You have all the talents you need.’ They left the farm. The fourth son asked if he could go too but the woman said, ‘You haven’t any special talents so perhaps you had better stay here. What have you got to offer the world?’

That evening she was feeling sad. ‘I wish someone was here to cheer me up,’ she said. The fourth son opened his mouth and sang a song. It was beautiful – as beautiful as the songs of the first son. The next day one of the animals was sick. The fourth son looked at the animal and knew what to do. The next day it was better, just like the animals that the second son had looked after. When the woman woke up the next day she saw a lovely new picture on the wall, as beautiful as the pictures painted by the third son.

She took the small bag from round fourth son’s neck and looked at them. She remembered what the spirit had said: ’And you will be a good learner.’

Is a Queue an Asset or a Liability?

Many believe that a queue is a good thing.

To a supplier a queue is tangible evidence that there is demand for their product or service and reassurance that their resources will not sit idle, waiting for work and consuming profit rather than creating it.  To a customer a queue is tangible evidence that the product or service is in demand and therefore must be worth having. They may have to wait but the wait will be worth it.  Both suppliers and customers unconsciously collude in the Great Deception and even give it a name – “The Law of Supply and Demand”. By doing so they unwittingly open the door for charlatans and tricksters who deliberately create and maintain queues to make themselves appear more worthy or efficient than they really are.

Even though we all know this intuitively we seem unable to do anything about it. “That is just the way it is” we say with a shrug of resignation. But it does not have to be so – there is a path out of this dead end.

Let us look at this problem from a different perspective. Is a product actually any better because we have waited to get it? No. A longer wait does not increase the quality of the product or service and may indeed impair it.  So, if  a queue does not increase quality does it reduce the cost?  The answer again is “No”. A queue always increases the cost and often in many ways.  Exactly how much the cost increases by depends on what is on the queue, where the queue is, and how long it is. This may sound counter-intitutive and didactic so I need to explain in a bit more detail the reason this statement is an inevitable consequence of the Laws of Physics.

Suppose the queue comprises perishable goods; goods that require constant maintenance; goods that command a fixed price when they leave the queue; goods that are required to be held in a container of limited capacity with fixed overhead costs (i.e. costs that are fixed irrespective of how full the container is).  Patients in a hospital or passengers on an aeroplane are typical examples because the patient/passenger is deprived of their ability to look after themselves; they are totally dependent on others for supplying all their basic needs; and they are perishable in the sense that a patient cannot wait forever for treatment and an aeroplane cannot fly around forever waiting to land. A queue of patients waiting to leave hospital or an aeroplane full of passsengers circling to land at an airport represents an expensive queue – the queue has a cost – and the bigger the queue is and the longer it persists the greater the cost.

So how does a queue form in the first place? The answer is: when the flow in exceeds the flow out. The instant that happens the queue starts to grow bigger.  When flow in is less than flow out the queue is getting smaller – but we cannot have a negative queue – so when the flow out exceeds the flow in AND the size of the queue reaches zero the system suddenly changes behaviour – the work dries up and the resources become idle.  This creates a different cost – the cost of idle resources consuming money but not producing revenue. So a queue/work costs and no queue/no work costs too.  The least cost situation is when the work arrives at exactly the same rate that it can be done: there is no waiting by anyone – no queue and no idle resources.  Note however that this does not imply that the work has to arrive at a constant rate – only that rate at which the work arrives matches the rate at which it is done – it is the difference between the two that should be zero at all times. And where we have several steps – the flow must be the same through all steps of the stream at all times.  Remember the second condition for minimum cost – the size of the queue must be zero as well – this is the zero inventory goal of the “perfect process”.

So, if any deviation from this perfect balance of flow creates some form of cost, why do we ever tolerate queues? The reason is that the perfect world above implies that it is possible to predict the flow in and the flow out with complete accuracy and reliabilty.  We all know from experience that this is impossible: there is always some degree of  natural variation which is unpredictable and which we often call “noise” or “chaos”. For that single reason the lowest cost (not zero cost) situation is when there is just enough breathing space for a queue to wax and wane – smoothing out the unpredictable variation between inflow and outflow. This healthy queue is called a buffer.

The less “noise” the less breathing space is needed and the closer you can get to zero queue cost.

So, given this logical explanation it might surprise you to learn that most of the flow variation we observe in real processes is neither natural nor unpredictable – we deliberately and persistently inject predictable flow variation into our processes.  This unnatural variation is created by own policies – for example, accumulating DIY jobs until there are enough to justify doing them.   The reason we do this is because we have been bamboozled into believing it is a good thing for the financial health of our system. We have been beguiled by the accountants – the Money Magicians.  Actually that is not precise enough – the accountants themselves  are the innocent messengers – the deception comes from the Accounting Policies.  The major niggle is one convention that has become ossified into Accounting Practice – the convention that a queue of work waiting to be finished or sold represents an asset – sort of frozen-for-now-cash that can be thawed out or “liquidated” when the product is sold.  This convention is not incorrect it is just incomplete because, as we have demonstrated, every queue incurs a cost.  In accountant-speak a cost is called a liability and unfortunately this queue-cost-liability is never included in the accounts and this makes a very, very, big difference to the outcome. To assess the financial health of an organisation at a point in time an accountant will use a balance sheet to subtract the liabilities from the assets and come up with a number that is called equity. If that number is zero or negative then the business is financially dead – the technical name is bankruptcy and no accountant likes to utter the B word.  Denial is not a reliable long term buisness strategy and if our Accounting Policies do not include the cost of the queue as a liability on the balance sheet then our finanical reports will be a distortion of reality and will present the business as healthier than it really is.  This is an Error of Omission and has grave negative consequences.  One of which is that it can create a sense of complacency, a blindness to the early warning signs of financial illness and reactive rather than proactive behaviour. The problem is compounded when a large and complex organisation is split into smaller, simpler mini-businesses that all suffer from the same financial blindspot. It becomes even more difficult to see the problem when everyone is making the same error of omission and when it is easier to blame someone else for the inevitable problems that ensue.

We all know from experience that prevention is better than cure and we also know that the future is not predictable with certainty: so in addition to prevention we need vigilence, prompt action, decisive action and appropriate action at the earliest detectable sign of a significant deterioration. Complacency is not a reliable long term survival strategy.

So what is the way forward? Dispense with the accountants? NO! You need them – they are very good at what they do – it is just that what they are doing is not exactly what we all need them to be doing – and that is because the Accounting Policies that they diligently enforce are incomplete.  A safer strategy would be for us to set our accountants the task of learning how to count the cost of a queue and to include that in our internal finanical reporting. The quality of business decisions based on financial data will improve and that is good for everyone – the business, the customers and the reputation of the Accounting Profession. Win-win-win.

The question was “Is a queue and asset or a liability?” The answer is “Both”.

The Rubik Cube Problem

Look what popped out of Santa’s sack!

I have not seen one of these for years and it brought back memories of hours of frustration and time wasted in attempting to solve it myself; a sense of failure when I could not; a feeling of envy for those who knew how to; and a sense of indignation when they jealously guarded the secret of their “magical” power.

The Rubik Cube got me thinking – what sort of problem is this?

At first it is easy enough but it becomes quickly apparent that it becomes more difficult the closer we get to the final solution – because our attempts to reach perfection undo our previous good work.  It is very difficult to maintain our initial improvement while exploring new options. 

This insight struck me as very similar to many of the problems we face in life and the sense of futility that creates a powerful force that resists further attempts at change.  Fortunately, we know that it is possible to solve the Rubik cube – so the question this raises is “Is there a way to solve it in a rational, reliable and economical way from any starting point?

One approach is to try every possible combination of moves until we find the solution. That is the way a computer might be programmed to solve it – the zero intelligence or brute force approach.

The problem here is that it works in theory but fails in practice because of the number of possible combinations of moves. At each step you can move one of the six faces in one of two directions – that is 12 possible options; and for each of these there are 12 second moves or 12 x 12 possible two-move paths; 12 x 12 x 12 = 1728 possible three-move paths; about 3 million six-move paths; and nearly half a billion eight-move paths!

You get the idea – solving it this way is not feasible unless you are already very close to the solution.

So how do we actually solve the Rubik Cube?  Well, the instructions that come with a new one tells you – a combination of two well-known ingredients: strategy and tactics. The strategy is called goal-directed and in my instructions the recommended strategy is to solving each layer in sequence. The tactics are called heuristics: tried-tested-and-learned sequences of actions that are triggered by specific patterns.

At each step we look for a small set of patterns and when we find one we follow the pre-designed heuristic and that moves us forward along the path towards the next goal. Of the billions of possible heuristics we only learn, remember, use and teach the small number that preserve the progress we have already made – these are our magic spells.

So where do these heuristics come from?

Well, we can search for them ourselves or we can learn them from someone else.  The first option holds the opportunity for new insights and possible breakthroughs – the second option is quicker!  Someone who designs or discovers a better heuristic is assured a place in history – most of us only ever learn ones that have been discovered or taught by others – it is a much quicker way to solve problems.  

So, for a bit of fun I compared the two approaches using a computer: the competitive-zero-intelligence-brute-force versus the collaborative-goal-directed-learned-and-shared-heuristics.  The heuristic method won easily every time!

The Rubik Cube is an example of a mechanical system: each of the twenty-six parts are interdependent, we cannot move one facet independently of the others, we can only move groups of nine at a time. Every action we make has nine consequences – not just one.  To solve the whole Rubik Cube system problem we must be mindful of the interdependencies and adopt methods that preserve what works while improving what does not.

The human body is a complex biological system. In medicine we have a phrase for this concept of preserving what works while improving what does not: “primum non nocere” which means “first of all do no harm”.  Doctors are masters of goal-directed heuristics; the medical model of diagnosis before prognosis before treatment is a goal-directed strategy and the common tactic is to quickly and accurately pattern-match from a small set of carefully selected data. 

In reality we all employ goal-directed-heuristics all of the time – it is the way our caveman brains have evolved.  Relative success comes from having a more useful set of heuristics – and these can be learned.  Just as with the Rubik Cube – it is quicker to learn what works from someone who can demonstrate that it works and can explain how it works – than to always laboriously work it out for ourselves.

An organisation is a bio-psycho-socio-economic system: a set of interdependent parts called people connected together by relationships and communication processes we call culture.  Improvement Science is a set of heuristics that have been discovered or designed to guide us safely and reliably towards any goal we choose to select – preserving what has been shown to work and challenging what does not.  Improvement Science does not define the path it only helps us avoid getting stuck, or going around in circles, or getting hopelessly lost while we are on the life-journey to our chosen goal.

And Improvement Science is learnable.