Is Our System Constipated?

There are some very common system ailments that we do not talk about in public – they are not socially acceptable topics of conversation.

We all know they exist because we all suffer from them at sometime or other – and some more than others.

Our problem is “how do we solve sometheng that no one wants to own up to and talk about?”  Grin-and-bear it? Trial-and-error? Or seek competent, confidential, professional assistance?

One such ailment is chronic system constipation. Yes – I said it!

The usual symptoms are recurrent, severe pains in the middle management area associated with ominous rumblings, intermittent eruptions of unpleasant hot “air” and accompanied by infrequent, unpredictable and often inconsequential output.

The signs are also characterstic: bloated budgets, capital distention and a strained and pained appearance of the executive visage.

The commonest findings on further investigation are accumulation of work in progress inside the organisation that is caused by functional bottlenecks, accumulation of undigestable red-tape, and process paralysis.  These findings confirm the diagnosis.

The more desperate organisations may seek help from corporate quacks who confidently prescribe untested yet expensive remedies such as mangement purges and corporate restructure.  These harsh treatments only serve to impoverish the patient and exacerbate the problem. They are also sometimes fatal. 

The patient who avoids or survives the quacks may seek competent help – and reluctantly submit themselves to a more intimate examination of their orifices.  This proceeds in a back-office to front-of-house order looking for accumulations of work-in-progress (WIP) and their associated causes.  The usual finding is apathetic and demoralised staff burned out by over-complicated, error-prone processes and pushing against turgid bureaucracy. 

The first stage of treatment is to relieve the obstruction that is closest to the discharge orifice first.

Often the intimate examination itself is sufficient to stimulate spontaneous ejection of the offending obstruction; sometimes a corporate-level enema is required to facilitate the process.  Either way the relief is immediate, dramatic and welcomel and is usually followed by vigorous expulsion of the remaining offensive material and restoration of both regular flow and disspiation of the gaseous bloating.

The timid or inexperienced corporoproctologist may be tempted to try exogenous stimulants instead – an inspiring podcast or an executive awayday perhaps.  This well-interntioned palliative treatment may distract attention and sooth the discomfort but the effect is short-lived and the symptoms soon return; often with a vengeance.

The more courageous and experienced Improvement Science practitioner knows that “if you don’t put your finger in it you will put your foot in it” and they come prepared with the organisational equivalent of rubber gloves and lubricating gel: flip charts and hot coffee.

So to avoid the squirming discomfort of the probing questions it is better to seek enematic advice well before this stage. And you may not be surprised to hear that it is all common-sense:

  • Avoid all high-bureaucracy diets.
  • Steer clear of  high-technology quick-fixes.
  • Stimulate the flow of creativity with regular service improvement exercises.
  • Monitor continuously for corporate complacency.
  • Treat early and vigorously with a high-challenge dialog.

But we know all this – don’t we? It is just common sense. 


This exclamation is most famously attributed to the ancient Greek scholar Archimedes who reportedly proclaimed “Eureka!” when he stepped into a bath and noticed that the water level rose.

Archimedies realised that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged but this was not why he was allegedly so delighted: he had been trying to solve a problem posed by Hiero of Syracuse who needed to know the purity of gold in an irregular shaped votive crown.

Hiero suspected that his goldsmith was diluting the pure gold with silver and Archimedes  knew that the density of pure gold was different from a gold-silver alloy. His bathtime revalation told him that he could now measure the volume of the crown and with the weight he could calculate the density – without damaging the crown.

The story may or may not be true, but the message is important – new understanding often  appears in a “flash of insight” when a conscious experience unblocks an unconscious conflict. Reality provides the nudge.

Improvement means change, change means learning, and learning means new understanding.  So facilitating improvement boils down to us a series of reality nudges that change our understanding step-by-step.

The problem is that reality is messy and complicated and noisy. There are reality nudges coming at us from all directions and all the time – and to avoid being overwhelmed we filter most of them out – the ones we do not understand.  This unconscious habit of discounting the unknown creates the state of blissful ignorance but has the downside of preventing us from learning and therefore preventing us from improving.

Occasionally a REALLY BIG REALITY NUDGE comes along and we are forced to take notice – this is called a smack – and it is painful and has the downside of creating an angry backlash.

The famous scientist Louis Pasteur is reported to have said “Chance favours the prepared mind” which means that when conditions are right (the prepared mind) a small, random nudge (chance) can trigger a Eureka effect.  What he is saying is that to rely on chance to improve we must prepare the context first.

The way of doing this is called structured reality – deliberately creating a context so the reality nudge has maximum effect.  So to learn and improve and at the same time avoid painful smacks we need to structure the reality so that small nudges are effective – and that is done using carefully designed reality immersion experiences.

The effect is remarkable – it is called the Eureka effect – and it is a repeatable and predictable phenomenon.

This is how the skills of Improvement Science are spread. Facilitators do not do it by delivering a lecture; or by distributing the theory in papers and books; or by demonstrating their results as case studies; or by dictating the actions of others.  Instead they create the context for learning and, if reality does not oblige, at just the right time and place they apply the nudge and …. Eureka!

The critical-to-success factor is creating the context – and that requires an effective design – it cannot be left to chance. 

The Hierarchy of Constraints

Improvements need to be sustained – but not forever.

They should be worthwhile on their own and also provide a foundation for future improvement.

Improvement flows and it does so down the path of least resistance. Improvement will not flow up the path of most resistance. And resistance to flow is called a constraint.

 Many things flow: water, energy, money, data, ideas, knowledge, influence – the list is endless – so the list of possible constraints is also endless.  But not all constraints are the same: a constraint that limits the flow of water – a dam for instance – does not limit the flow of ideas.

The flows and their constraints can be arranged on a contiuum with one end labelled “Physics” and the other end labelled “Paradigms”.  Physical flows are constrained by the Laws of the Universe which are absolute and stable. Philosophical flows are constrained by beliefs which are arbitrary and mutable.

This spectrum is often viewed as a hierarchy – with Paradigms at the top and Physics at the bottom – and between these limits there is a contiuum of constraints.  The Paradigm is completely abstract and intangible and is made actual through Policy, guided by Politics, and enforced by Police.  The root of all these words is “poli” which means “many” and implies the collective of people. So, a Policy is an arbitrary constraint that limits what is and what is not allowed. It is the social white line that indicates what behaviours the collective expect from the individual.  A Policy is implemented as a Process.

What actually happens is constrained by the Physics. Irrespective of the Paradigm, Policy and Process – if the Laws of Physics say something is impossible then it does not happen. It is impossible to squeeze, store or reverse time. It is impossible to do something that requires 30 mins of time in 5 minutes; it is impossible to store time to use later; it is impossible to rewind time go back to a previous point in time.

From the perspective of reality our hierarchy of constraints is upside down – Physics dictates what is possible irrespective of what the Paradigm indicates is believable.  What is believable may not be possible; and what is possible may not be believed.

Improvement Science is the art of the possible – of what the Laws of Physics do not forbid – a wide vista of opportunity.  It is now that our Paradigm acts as the constraint – and Improvement Science is the ability to challenge our Paradigm.  Only then can we create the Policy and the Process that will deliver actual, valuable and sustainable improvement.

Some parts of our Paradigm are necessary to provide explanation and meaning. Other parts are not needed – they are our “belief baggage” – the assumptions that we have picked up along the way; the mumbo-jumbo that obscures the true message. When we focus on the mumbo-jumbo we miss the message and we open the door to cynicism and distrust.

Our challenge is to separate the two – the wheat from the chaff; the diamond from the dross and the pearl-of-wisdom hidden in the ocean-of-data.  What do we actively include? What do we actively exclude? What do we actively remove? What do we actively improve?  We need to monitor all four parts of our Paradigm and that task is what The 4N Chart® was designed to help us do.

Click here get The 4N Chart template and here to get The 4N Chart instructions.

Steps, Streams, Silos and Swamps.

The late Steve Jobs created a world class company called Apple – which is now the largest and most successful technology company – eclipsing Microsoft.  The secret of the success of Apple is laid out in Steve Jobs biography – and can be stated in one word. Design.

Apple designs, develops and delivers great products and services  – ones that people want to own and to use.  That makes them cool. What is even more impressive is that Steve Jobs has done this in more than once and has reinvented more than one market: Apple Computers and the graphical personal computer;  Pixar and animated films; and Apple again with digital music, electronic publishing; and mobile phones.

The common themes are digital technology and end-to-end seamless integrated design of chips, devices, software, services and shops. Full vertical integration rather like Henry Ford’s verically integrated iron-ore to finished cars production line.  The Steve Jobs design paradigm is simplicity. It is much more difficult to design simplicity than to evolve complexity and his reputation was formidable. He was a uncompromising perfectionist who sacrificed feelings on the alter of design perfection. His view of the world was binary – it was either great or crap – meaning it was either moving towards perfection or away from it.

What Steve Jobs created was a design stream out of which must-have products and services flowed – and he did it by seeing all the steps as part of one system and aligned with one purpose.  He did not allow physical or psychological silos to form and he did this by challenging anything and everything.  Many could not work in this environment and left, many others thrived and delivered far beyond what they believed they could do.

Other companies were swamps. Toxic emotional waste swamps of silos, politics and turf wars.  Apple computers itself when through a phase when Steve Jobs was “ejected” and without its spiritual leader the company slipped downhill. He was enticed back and Apple was reborn and went on to create the iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad and now iCloud. Revolutioning the world of digital commnication.

The image above is a satellite view of a delta – a complex network of interconnected streams created by a river making its way to the sea through a swamp.  The structure of the delta is constantly changing and evolving so it is easy to get lost it in, to get caught in a dead-end, or stuck in the mud. Only travel by small boat is possible and that is often both ineffective and inefficient.

Many organistions are improvement science swamps. The stream of innovative ideas gets fragmented by the myriad of everchanging channels; caught in political dead-ends; and stuck in the mud of bureaucracy.  Only small, skillfully steered ideas will trickle  through – but this trickle is not enough to keep the swamp from silting up. Eventually the resistance to change reaches a critical level and the improvement stream is forced to change course – diverting the flow of change away from the swamp – and marooning the stick-in-the-muds to slowly sink and expire in the bureaucratic gloop that they spawned.

Steve Jobs’ legacy to us is a lesson. To create a system that continues to deliver and delight we need to start by learning how to design the steps, then to design the streams of steps to link seamlessly, and finally to design the system of streams to synergise as sophisticated simplicity.

Improvement cannot be left to chance in the blind hope that excellence will evolve spontaneously. Evolution is both ineffective and inefficient and is more likely to lead to dissipated and extravagant complexity than aligned and elegant simplicity.

Improvement is a science that sits at the cross-roads of humanity and technology.

Life on the Fence

Long, long ago in a land far, far away there were two kings who ruled neighbouring kingdoms.

King Bore liked things to be completely predictable and risk free. His subjects were happy with his Laws, there was no fear, and nothing ever changed. Everyday was as it had always been for as long as anyone could remember.

King Ran was the opposite – he liked things to be unpredictable and risky. His subjects were happy with his Laws, there was always excitement, and nothing ever stayed the same. Everyday was never the same as anyone could remember.

The kingdoms were named after the two rulers – Boredom and Random.

A fence marked the boundary between their domains – and despite their different cultures, most of the citizens lived near the Fence and spent much of their time sitting on it and debating what lay on either side. Their debates lasted for generations.

The Boredoms argued for doing everything the same as before; while the Randoms argued for doing everything different.

The fence was not fixed – it was continually being removed and rebuilt. Sometimes the Randoms brought news of exciting new discoveries and shared it during their Fence debates. Those who were convinced by the evidence would vote to incorporate the new knowledge and move the fence towards the Random reward. At other times the Randoms shared news of catastrophes and the Fence Sitters would voted to move the fence away from the Random Risk. Everyone could choose to live where the balance of stability and instability felt most comfortable for them. Everyone was happy.

One day a Great and Unexpected Storm arrived and devastated both kingdoms.

When the storm has passed the surviors emerged from their shelters and surveyed the damage.  Most of Boredom had been blown or washed away because its inhabitants were unable to react to the unexpected threat. Random was always changing anyway so the storm appeared to have little effect but there were many who had also been blown or washed away.

The survivors were those who had sheltered closest to the Fence – but the Fence had been smashed – so the survivors rebuilt the Fence – and continued to live as before – debating the next move – not knowing when the next storm might arrive – but feeling more confident that at least some of them would survive.

After each Storm the populations of Boredom and Random were reduced – those who preferred to live furthest from the Fence were less likely to survive – and after each storm the Kingdom of Random gained ground. The survivors were those most able to balance conservative with creative.

Between the Storms new discoveries became incorporated and ossified as dogma and the Kingdom of Boredom gained ground as the balance shifted – until a Storm would once again smash the complacency and force a rebuilding.

It appeared that the key to survival was to learn how to both sit on the Fence and to keep a foot on both sides and to be ready to jump one way or the other to shelter from the Storm.