People Copy Examples and Wonder Why They Don’t Succeed

By John Hunter, author of the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog (since 2004).

People copy examples and then they wonder what is the trouble. They look at examples and without theory they learn nothing.

W. Edwards Deming in The Deming of America. See a longer quote with more context.

We can learn from looking at what others do well. But when we try and copy practices, processes, techniques, etc. most of the time we fail. The entire system works together to create results. When we try and copy from one system and place it into another it is very unlikely to work well. When it does work well it is usually a very simple process that has few interactions or dependencies with the containing system.

American management thinks that they can just copy from Japan—but they don’t know what to copy!

W. Edwards Deming in “If Japan Can…Why Can’t We?” (an NBC TV white paper broadcast in 1980)

Learning from what others do well can be effective if done properly. To improve your practices you can see what works for others and then abstract the principles for that success and then determine how to adopt those principles to your situation.

So perhaps you see how quickly a company is able to adapt the software they use to meet their needs. The system that produces that will include many factors: in-house coding expertise, software developers that know the business processes (understand the user gemba), direct communication from employees to those modifying the software, coded in Ruby on Rails, the software developers have a foosball table, the software developers wear t-shirts, the organization allows those doing the work to decide what software features are a priority, software code the company creates is managed using a continuous deployment model, the company doesn’t use “profit center” accounting to allocate resources, a good system to deliver working software quickly and on and on.

Some of the factors are very important, many of the factors are inter-dependent (and doing one without doing another in the right way is dangerous), some factors are not needed (or not needed in your system but are critical in their system). When people seek to copy they almost always get 1 or 2 or 3 of the factors declare that as what needs to be copied. Then they copy that and if there is improvement at all it is often very small. Often things get worse, but even if they don’t the effort taken to make the change is rarely worthwhile.

See a classic discussion with Dr. Ackoff and Dr. Deming on the futility of trying to put together best parts/processes without an appreciation for the system.

What needs to happen is to learn what was principles were at play and what those principles rely on. If it is possible for your system to adapt some of those ideas then run through the PDSA cycle and improve your systems.

It may be that your organization is forced to mold processes to your software instead of molding software solutions to your continually improving processes. This is a very common result in my experience when a centralized IT department (and often one cut off from the gemba of where the work of the organization is being done) buys huge software solutions that are supposedly customizable but in practice result in the organization fitting itself into what the software allows easily.

If your organization decides to focus on rapidly continually improving processes and you find that software used in the organization is constantly is a constraint to such efforts you may wish to deal with this problem. You can look around and see other organizations don’t suffer from software making continual improvement (and experimenting and learning) very difficult (even if those companies are in the minority). So you can read about companies that succeed in having technology systems that support continual improvement or go to conferences and learn, or interact with them online, or even go visit them.

What those companies will tell others about what they do will almost never cover most of what is critical. There are just so many factors you can’t easily explain all the factors unless there has been a huge amount of effort to figure it out (so for example, a huge franchise organization that is well run may well have a decent idea of the critical factors and how the are inter-dependent, but most organizations will not).

So you will hear about the cool things and stories that people tell themselves about what is important (and of course a good story has to ignore most of the factors to be engaging). And these will often even give you several ideas about what abstract principles are important (especially in my experience in software development where systems thinking is much more common in day to day operations and in crafting stories to explain some idea or practice). So if you just accept the stories you often think you are getting principles and the applying them to your situation.

One of the best ways to make sure you don’t just copy practices is to learn from organizations in different fields because then you can’t just copy what they do (normally) you have to think about how to adapt it to your situation. But you will most often find people seeking to learn only from those doing the same thing they are.

To some degree learning from those very similar to you does make sense, what you need in you 8 person marketing team for you USA based luxury business is going to align pretty closely with many companies that are very similar to you. The risk is until you mastered certain skills (viewing the organization as a system; thinking systemically about what is working well and how to improve processes; testing improvements by rapidly turning the PDSA cycle, etc.) you are very likely to just copy without knowing what it is you really should be learning and adapting to your situation.

Related: Experience Teaches Nothing Without TheoryEffort Without the Right Knowledge and Strategy is Often HarmfulSoftware Process and Measurement Podcast With John Hunter

To copy is to invite disaster.

W. Edwards Deming, The New Economics.

If you focus first on establishing a sensible management system based on Deming’s principles that is continually improving I think you will be better off. Such a system will automatically deal with the issues of copying and will allow you to benefit from the advantages of learning from others.

In such cases the discussion will automatically focus on the organization as a system and potential improvements will automatically be tested on a small scale using PDSA, etc.. Such organizations also are not looking for magic bullets. Instead they have a good understanding of the strengths and weakness of the organization and are continually working to improve. Part of that improvement will come from learning from others. But you won’t find them copying. And when they do see good ideas they will think of how to adapt it within their organization and then will test it before deploying it more broadly.

from Interview with Dr. Ackoff and Dr. Deming

Dr. Russell Ackoff: A very simple example would be if you took one each of every make of automobile available in the United States and brought them together and had a group of engineers decide which one had the best engine — perhaps the Rolls Royce — which had the best transmission, which the best alternator. And for each part required for an automobile; found the best one available, if you- then instructed the engineers to take those parts off the automobiles and assemble the best possible automobile out of all the best parts, you would not get an automobile.

Dr. Deming: No, it would not run.

Dr. Ackoff: No. The parts wouldn’t fit, and that’s the critical part about a fifth (‘5’) system.

Dr. Deming: They would not work together.

Dr. Ackoff: Good. So it’s the working together that’s the main contribution to systemic thinking, as opposed to working in parts separately.

Dr. Deming: Yes, so easy it is to observe, to see, to understand, and yet people do not know about it.

Dr. Ackoff: Yes. The art of managing interactions is very different indeed than the management of actions, and history requires this transition for effective management.

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