Break the Cycle

Post by Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute

Russell Ackoff had a profound capacity for using stories to educate his audiences about the basic concepts of managing systems, both in his lectures and in his books. He also had a profound way with words. One of my favorites is his warning that “it’s better to do the right thing wrong, than the wrong thing right”, a concept he claimed to have borrowed from his good friend, Peter Drucker. The challenge, of course, is determining what is right to do, for such a label is far too easy to apply. Yet, the outcomes are far too hard to see, especially when one is confident in the direction of apparently independent action, and when the system is open to both familiar and unfamiliar unknowns. Should the system be small enough, the actions would always seem right. Only with expansion of the system, in time and/or in space, could there be doubt as once unknowns become known.

I offer these comments as feedback on efforts to apply improvement principles, including the Toyota Production System, to turnaround situations. In appreciation of systems, Ackoff offered advice on how to steer past the time-honored traps that prevail in our traditional mechanistic thinking, which can lead us to narrowly judge efforts as either wasteful or non-value-added.  And, with what context or system is such a judgment made?  Instead, he encouraged us to shift our focus from managing actions, such as parts, tasks, modules, components, departments, divisions, and program elements, to managing the interdependence (interactions) between these (connected) entities, being ever mindful of the value proposition of shifting our thinking to seeing ever-larger systems. Such thinking embodies the “production viewed as a system” advice that W. Edwards Deming offered his many audiences in Japan, including students such as Shoichiro Toyoda, whose humble beginnings led to Toyota’s far reaching Total Quality Control efforts and the eventual appreciation of Toyota’s “Just in Time” (JIT) advocate, Taiichi Ohno.

In a recent conversation with a friend who serves as both a management consultant and leadership coach, he shared a few lessons he’s learned in 30 plus years of engagement in turnaround efforts. He commented on the self-described qualities and skills of the senior managers he has guided. When the topic of our conversation turned to questioning skills, he shared that curiosity is rarely acknowledged by senior managers as a leadership trait. As such, how could these leaders suspect that the pending turnaround is but a left hand turn around a racetrack, leading left turn after left turn to the starting point of a need for another turnaround? From where will the cycle end and the right hand turn emerge with a vision for managing interactions and not the actions taken separately?

In his first book on management, Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position, Dr. Deming summarized a list of interactions (interdependent actions) for senior managers, which he defined as his “14 Points for Management,” which later evolved into his System of Profound Knowledge.   Whether prompted by a crisis and the subsequent need for a turnaround, or an essential effort in an organization’s continued success, these points (and a deepening appreciation of the System of Profound Knowledge) are well worth studying and adopting if one desires to turn right and break the cycle of left hand turns.

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