Concept of Constraints in Facing Problems:

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In today’s post, I will be looking at the concept of constraints in facing problems. Please note that I did not state “solving problems”. This is because not all problems are solvable. There are certain problems, referred to as “wicked problems” or complex problems that are not solvable. These problems have different approaches and none of the approaches can solve the problems completely. Some of the alternatives are better than the others, but at the same time they may have their own unintended consequences. Some examples of this are global warming and poverty.

My post is related to the Manufacturing world. Generally in the manufacturing world, most of the problems are solvable. These problems have a clear cause and effect relationships. They can be solved by using the best practice or a good practice. The best practice is used for obvious problems, when the cause and effect relationship is very clear, and there is truly one real solution. A good practice is employed where the cause and effect relationship is evident only with the help of subject-matter-experts. These are called “complicated problems”. There are also complex problems where the cause and effect relationships are not evident. These may be understood only after-the-fact. An example for this is launching a new product and ensuring a successful launch. Most of the time, the failures are studied and the reasons for the failure are “determined” after the fact.

The first step in tackling these problems is to understand what type of problem it is. Sometimes, the method to solve a problem is prescribed before the problem is understood. Some of the methods assume that the problem has a linear cause and effect relationship. An example is 5 why. 5 why assumes that there is a linear relationship between cause and effect. This is evident in the question – “why did x happen?”  This works fine for the obvious problems. This may not work that well for complicated problems and never for a complex problem. One key thing to understand is that the problems can be composite problems, some aspects may be obvious while some aspects may be complicated. Using a prescribed method can be ineffective in these cases.

The concept of constraints is tightly related to the concept of variety. The best resource for this is Ross Ashby’s “An Introduction to Cybernetics” [1]. Ashby defined variety as the number of distinct elements in a set of distinguishable elements or as the logarithm to base 2 of the number of distinct elements. Thus, we can say that the variety of genders is 2 (male or female) or as 1 bit (based on the logarithm calculation). Ashby defined constraint as a relation between two sets. Constraint only exists when one set’s variety is lower than the other set’s variety. Ashby gives the axample of a school that only admits boys. Compared to the set of gender (boys and girls), the school’s variety is less (only boys). Thus the school has a constraint imposed on itself.

A great resource for this is Dave Snowden and his excellent Cynefin framework [2]. Snowden says that ontology precedes epistemology or in other words data precedes framework. The fundamental properties of the problem must be understood before choosing a “tool” to address the problem. Prescribing a standard tool to use in all situations is constraining oneself and this will lead to ineffective attempts at finding a solution. When the leader says we need to use lean or six sigma, this is an attempt to add constraints by removing variety. Toyota’s methodologies referred to as Toyota Production System, was developed for their problems. They identified the problems and then proceeded to find ways to address them. They did not have a framework to go by. They created the framework based on decades of experience and tweaking. Thus blindly copying their methodologies are applying constraints on yourself that may be unnecessary. As the size or scope of a project increases, it tends to increase the complexity of the project. Thus enterprise wide applications of “prescribed solutions” are not generally effective since the cause-effect relationships cannot be completely predicted leading to unintended consequences, inefficiency and ineffectiveness. On the other hand, Ashby advises to take note of any existing constraints in a system, and to take advantage of the constraints to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

A leader should thus first understand the problem to determine the approach to proceed. Sometimes, one may have to use a composite of tools. One needs to be open for modifications by having a closed loop(s) with a feedback mechanism so that the approach can be modified as needed. It is also advisable to use heuristics like genchi genbutsu since they are general guidelines or rules of thumb. This does not pose a constraint. Once a methodology is chosen, then a constraint is being applied since the available number of tools to use (variety) has now diminished.  This thinking in terms of constraints prevents the urge to treat everything as a nail when your preferred tool is a hammer.

I will finish with a great story from the great Zen master Huangbo Xiyun;

Huangbo once addressed the assembly of gathered Zen students and said; “You are all partakers of brewer’s grain. If you go on studying Zen like that, you will never finish it. Do you know that in all the land of T’ang there is no Zen teacher?”
Then a monk came forward and said, “But surely there are those who teach disciples and preside over the assemblies. What about that?”
Huangbo said, “I do not say that there is no Zen, but that there is no Zen teacher…”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Jidoka, the Governing Principle for Built-in-Quality:

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Cybernetics-W-Ross-Ashby/dp/1614277656

[2] http://cognitive-edge.com/blog/part-two-origins-of-cynefin/

The Effectiveness of Automation:

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In today’s post, I will be looking at automation. Stephen Hawking, perhaps the most famous Scientist alive today, warned us about automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in his column on The Guardian. He said;

The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.

Bill Gates recently talked about the concept of taxing robots who are taking away the manufacturing jobs. Interestingly, these concerns are not new. Lillian Gilbreth talked about “The Human Side of Automation” in a 1957 speech at the Society of Women Engineers National Convention. She put forth the need to evaluate the responsibilities of the engineers doing the automation. She advised relying on the scientific method and ethics, and proposed adding “human resources” to the definition of automation. Her concept of automation is about the removal of “drudgery” from work. However, she warned that there are different ways someone views what drudgery is.

In my mind, the main question that needs to be answered is the effectiveness of automation. The aspect of making a job easier to do is part of continuous improvement activities. Frederick Taylor, often cited as the father of Scientific Management, changed the manufacturing world by pushing the concept of finding the one standard way of doing the job. He pushed the concept of time and motion studies with the help of the Gilbreths. The wasted motions were eliminated and this surged the productivity in the plants. The pursuit of wasted motions is as valid today as it was back when Taylorism was around. The consequences of Taylorism were the focus on only efficiency and the reliance on a small group of experts, which paved the way to mass manufacturing with the assembly lines. The “experts” designed the manufacturing floors and the work, sometimes with minimal input from the operators. This continued until, Toyota came into the picture with the ideas of Toyota Production System. Toyota also pursued efficiency; however they realized the lessons of Lillian Gilbreth as well. The employees are invaluable resources, and they focused on the Thinking Production System (TPS) where the employees were asked to bring not only their pairs of hands but also their brains. The Toyota Way, Toyota’s attempt to codify the implicit knowledge, was written with the two pillars of Toyota as “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People”. Unfortunately, when TPS was reinterpreted as Lean, sometimes the focus was put back on efficiency alone which led to the pejorative definition of LEAN as “Less Employees Are Needed” or what Mark Graban calls as LAME. Lillian Gilbreth, in her 1957 speech advises us to keep this in mind when improvement activities are performed – What happens to the employees? This impacts the company culture.

Russell Ackoff, the great American Systems Thinker, when talking about Toyota asked an important question about effectiveness. He asked why the focus is not on improving the environment since cars can cause pollution. This is the big picture question. Toyota has been working on zero emissions and recently launched Mirai, which is a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. The question of effectiveness is about the betterment of human kind.

Automation can replace only those portions of the jobs which are ordered or complicated – which means there are strong cause and effect relationships, and have repeatable operations. This is almost as if following a script- if this happens, then do this. Automation cannot handle complexity at this point in time. In Complex situations, there are no straightforward cause and effect relationships. Every situation is unique. Artificial Intelligence has not been able to make strides in these areas. The concept of efficiency is strong in complicated regions and the concept of effectiveness is strong in the complex regions. Creativity and continuous improvement are not repeatable activities. A robot with a melted candy bar in its pocket next to a magnetron cannot invent the next microwave oven, at least not yet.

The push for automation can again put us back into the mass manufacturing era. We can start making things for the sake of not keeping the robot idle. We can start making things that people do not want to purchase. We can keep making the wrong things. The push for automation for the sake of cost reduction which leads to loss of jobs is not pursuing effectiveness. There is no easy answer to this. We do need automation to replace “drudgery”. However, the betterment of humanity must be the focus at all times.

I will finish off with a story that Mrs. Lillian Gilbreth told in her speech;

Lillian was at a factory with her husband Frank. Frank had arranged for a trolley to move the iron back and forth so that the woman operator did not have not to do any heavy lifting. Frank asked the operator, “Mary, how do you do like this nice little trolley I made for your iron?”

The operator looked at him straight in the eyes and asked, “Do you really want me to tell you?”

Lillian knew the answer was not going to be good and wanted to move on. But Frank persisted for an answer.

Mary said, “Well, I think it is the work of a big, fat, lazy man.”

Lillian concluded in her speech that by creating the trolley, Frank had taken away all the satisfaction from Mary’s work. Mary was the only one strong enough to do what she did and she took pride in what she did. Now it was a job anybody could do. Lillian also noted that they should have been “intelligent” enough to notice that what seemed drudgery to them was not necessarily the case to Mary. They should had asked for input and better defined what drudgery actually was.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Practicing Lean, a review:

Minimal Critical Specification:

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In today’s post, I will be looking at Cherns’ second principle of Sociotechnical Design – Minimal Critical Specification. Albert Cherns, the late famous social scientist who founded the Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, documented nine principles for designing a sociotechnical system (1976). I discussed one of these nine principles, the Forth Bridge principle earlier here.

The principle of Minimal Critical Specification has two aspects, negative and positive, according to Cherns;

  1. The negative aspect states that no more should be specified than is absolutely essential.
  2. The positive aspect states that we need to identify what is essential.

Cherns continued – “While it may be necessary to be quite precise about what has to be done, it is rarely necessary to be precise about how it is to be done… It is a mistake to specify more than is needed because by doing so options are closed that could be kept open.”

This is quite an enlightening lesson from Cherns. A common misconception about leadership and managers is that it is the manager’s responsibility to determine what needs to be done, and then tell the employees exactly what needs to be done. This type of thinking is a leftover from Tayloristic Management from the turn of Twentieth century. Frederick Taylor’s brilliant contribution that worked at the time, was to focus on the labor activities and improve efficiency by streamlining motion and eliminating wasted motions. An unavoidable consequence from this was to view the operator as any other equipment. This meant that the operator was asked to bring his pair of hands to work and not his brains. The brains were provided by the managers and engineers. From a complexity science standpoint, this is using the perspective of a complicated system. There is some form of a cause and effect relationship, and with the help of experts we can control how the complicated system works. In other words, this is viewing an organization as a technical system in some regards. This leads to relying on a small group of experts to determine how the system should be designed. This worked at that point in time because, to put simplistically, the world was not complex then or not as complex as it is currently. The demand for variety from the market was easily attained by the variety that was able to be offered by the manufacturing plants. Tayloristic thinking paved the way to mass manufacturing and great hikes in productivity. However, the information age changed the world landscape, and the use of complicated thinking did not seem to work anymore. There came a realization that all organizations are sociotechnical systems. In Cherns’ words, the realization was that the organizational objectives were best met not by the optimization of the technical system, and the adaptation of a social system to it, but by the joint optimization of the technical and the social aspects.

It is said that the management style at Toyota is not to tell the subordinate exactly what needs to be done. The manager’s role is to develop the subordinate by allowing him to come up with solutions, and in turn develop oneself through the process. This concept aligns neatly with the principle of Minimal Critical Specification. Telling exactly what needs to be done is managing people, however developing them by giving them the minimal critical specification is managing the interactions that act on the subordinate. Russell Ackoff, the great American Systems Thinker, advises us that the most important role of a manager is not to manage people, but to manage the interactions between the people, making it easy for them to do their job. Toyota also talks about their production system as the Thinking Production System. Toyota does not see their employees simply as a pair of hands, but as a valuable resource which allows Toyota to grow.

Another aspect that Cherns talked about with the principle of Minimal Critical Specification was regarding bureaucracy. He complained that most organizations have too much specificity regarding how things should be conducted. He even says that “working to rule” can bring the whole system to a grinding halt and that employees have to contrive to get the job done despite of the rules.  Dave Snowden, the great thinker of modern times and creator of the Cynefin Framework, has talked about the dangers of using too many constraints on an ordered system where there is a strong cause and effect relationships. The employees create informal structures and processes to work around the strict constraints. This means that the problems, when they arise, do not always come to the surface. They stay hidden from the top management. Unfortunately, this means that when the system ultimately breaks down, it is generally catastrophic because the system is not prepared and the informal structures are simply not capable.

I will finish with a Zen story;

Zen teachers train their young pupils to express themselves. Two Zen temples each had a child protégé. One child, going to obtain vegetables each morning, would meet the other on the way.

“Where are you going?” asked the one.

“I am going wherever my feet go,” the other responded.

This reply puzzled the first child who went to his teacher for help. “Tomorrow morning,” the teacher told him, “when you meet that little fellow, ask him the same question. He will give you the same answer, and then you ask him: ‘Suppose you have no feet, then where are you going?’ That will fix him.”

The children met again the following morning.

“Where are you going?” asked the first child.

“I am going wherever the wind blows,” answered the other.

This again nonplussed the youngster, who took his defeat to his teacher.

“Ask him where he is going if there is no wind,” suggested the teacher.

The next day the children met a third time.

“Where are you going?” asked the first child.

“I am going to the market to buy vegetables,” the other replied.

 Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Incomplete Solution.

The Incomplete Solution:

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The world of Systems is very wide and deep. This article does not claim to be perfect and all encompassing. The goal of this article is to emphasize that solutions based on incomplete models lead to incomplete solutions. I am not calling it incorrect solution- just incomplete solution. Every problem model is a mental construct. Unfortunately, this means that the problem “reality” and the problem “model” are not identical. The mental construct of the problem model depends very much on the person constructing the model. This is impacted by his mental models, heuristics, knowledge, wisdom and biases. This leads to what I am calling “the Incomplete Solution.

The system model must be as close to the actual system as possible. The problem model must be as close to the actual problem as possible. However, this cannot be done. Thus the problem model is an incomplete construct.  Furthermore, the solution must match the problem construct. Thus the solution derived from the incomplete problem model is also incomplete.  

The concept that a model of the system is required before regulating it comes from Conant and Ashby who said;

“Every good regulator must be a model of that system.”

They identified that any regulator that is maximally both successful and simple must be isomorphic with the system being regulated. Making a model is thus necessary. Daniel L. Scholten has stated this in terms of problem and solution as;

“Every Good Solution Must be a Model of the Problem it Solves.”

And

“Every Good Key Must Be A Model Of The Lock It Opens.”

However, humans are terrible at creating accurate models of systems due to limitations of the mental capabilities. This idea was put forward by Herb Simon, the great American thinker who won Nobel Prize for Economics in 1978, with the concept of “Bounded Rationality”. Wikipedia currently defines “Bounded Rationality” as the idea that when individuals make decisions, their rationality is limited by the tractability of the decision problem, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the time available to make the decision. The complete knowledge of all the details, and the consequences of the actions cannot be known. This indicates that a mental construct of a system is incomplete.

This concept is further echoed by the American statistician George Box who stated in the proceedings of a 1978 statistics workshop;

“All models are wrong but some are useful”.

And

“Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.”

The notion of “cause and effect” is paramount in the problem solving process. However, this idea cannot be as simple as that. One can use the idea of “cause and effect” to determine the complexity of the system. In an ordered system, the cause and effect is direct, and thus a problem statement is very straightforward. For example, turning the switch does not turn the light on, because the bulb is burned out. Replacing the bulb thus solves the problem.

In a complicated system, there are more layers and the cause and effect relationship is not straightforward. However, with the help of experts and solid problem solving processes, a good solution can be found. There will be several solutions that can work. The ordered and complicated systems use the approach of hard systems. They are deterministic in nature. An example of the complicated system might be the entire electrical wiring in a house. The cause and effect relationship may not be direct for inexperienced, but it can be established. In some regards, in the manufacturing world the processes are dealt as ordered or complicated, and there is a desire for high predictability from their operations.

In a complex system, there are several interwoven parts that make the cause and effect relationships murky. There are definitely no linear cause and effect relationships. Here the hard systems approach cannot be used. Moreover, the problem(s) in a complex system might be messes. One problem is most likely linked to other problems. Russell Ackoff, the great American Systems Thinker called this a mess. Ackoff said;

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consists of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and charts … Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.

Thus focusing on one problem may not show the whole picture. There can be hidden portions not visible to the team. For instance in Soft Systems Methodology, Peter Checkland advises not forming the problem statement until the rich picture is understood. Analysis, in soft systems approaches should consist of building up the richest possible picture of the problem situation rather than trying to capture it in system models. (Source: Systems Thinking, Mike Jackson.)

In ordered and complicated systems, the incomplete solutions may be adequate. In complex systems, this can have unintended consequences. Hard systems are based on a paradigm for optimization where as soft systems embrace a paradigm of learning. A good reference quote for this concept is – “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” by Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Final Words:

Incomplete solutions may be adequate in systems where the cause and effect relationships are linear and direct. However, in systems where the cause and effect relationships are murky and non-linear, the incomplete solutions can have unintended consequences and moreover, this detrimental impact may not be understood even in hindsight. Some of the ways we can improve our system models are;

  • Involve the people close to the system,
  • Go to the Gemba,
  • Encourage opposing and diverse worldviews and perspectives,
  • Understand that the solutions are incomplete, and thus never “done”,
  • Build in feedback systems,
  • Encourage diversity,
  • Understand long term thinking,
  • Complexity of the solution must match the complexity of the problem. Using a simple checklist or more training as the solution for a complex problem will not work.
  • Do not go for shortcuts and fast solutions (silver bullets). In some regards, this also explains why silver bullets do not exist. Simply copying and pasting methods (lean, six sigma etc.) without understanding your systems and the problems do not work. It can actually cause more harm in the long run.
  • Understand the cause and effect relationships,
  • Stay curious and always keep on learning.

The corollary to the incomplete solution is that – there is almost always a better solution than the one on hand. Thus there is always room for improvement.

I will finish off with one of my favorite Zen koans that looks at the dynamic nature of perspectives;

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, “The flag is moving.”

The other replied, “The wind is moving.”

Huineng overheard this. He said, “Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.”

Koans are beautiful because they raise questions in your mind when you hear them. There are no correct or wrong answers to the questions. They are meant to make you think. In this koan, the question might be – what did Huineng mean by the mind is moving? Perhaps Huineng is saying that the two monks’ minds are like the wind and the flag – not settled. The monks are fighting over who is right or wrong. The monks, who should be able to control their minds and focus on a still mind, are letting their minds flutter in the wind like the flag. The reality is that there is flag, there is wind, and the flag is moving.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Three Reminders for 2017.

What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping in Systems?

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Zen koans are stories that are meant to make you think. These lead to questions that do not always have correct answers. The purpose of a koan is to challenge your mental model and go beyond what you thought to have understood. One of my favorite koans is – what is the sound of one hand clapping?

As a teenager, I used to make my right hand alone clap and proudly say “this is the sound of one hand clapping”. This made me feel smart. But I was missing the point of the koan. There is no correct answer, but there is a correct response- to think, to meditate on what you think you know so that you realize you do not truly know it all. I have read that the answer to the sound of one hand clapping is any sound you want it to be and also that the correct answer is silence with the gesture of one hand clapping.

I had a curious thought recently – what is the sound of one hand clapping in light of systems thinking? Simplistically put, systems thinking is the understanding that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. This concept was first put forward by Aristotle. Aristotle taught that the whole is made up of its parts but it still differs from the sum of its parts. One key concept in systems thinking is the emergent properties in a system. Emergent properties are the unique characteristics of a system that are generated only from the interaction of different parts in the system. The emergent properties constitute the “wholeness”. No part taken alone can generate the emergent property. An example of an emergent property is the ability of a bicycle to go from one point to another. This ability only happens when a rider interacts with the different parts of the bicycle like the pedal, the steering, etc. Sometimes these emergent properties are designed into the system and sometimes these emergent properties are not clear when the system is being designed. The reductionist thinking is to take things apart and ignore the interactions between the parts. This is also referred to as mechanistic thinking. This type of thinking leads to local optimization which ultimately results in an inferior system performance.

Coming back to the question – the sound of clapping only happens with two hands. However, just by having two hands, there is no sound of clapping. The sound only happens when the two hands interact with each other. One hand alone does not generate a “half clap” such that two hands creates a “full clap” as the sum of two “half claps”. The two hands have to physically come in contact with certain force, and this generates the sound of clapping. The sound is an emergent property. Looking at the sound of one hand clapping is reductionist thinking. The emergent property of the sound of clapping come when two hands are taken together and the interaction understood.

Dr. Deming has talked about managing people from a systems view. If there are two people, A and B, then the true capability from these two people working together is not simply A + B. The true capability is A + B + AB – E, where AB is the interaction between A and B, and E is an error term I inserted to represent any noise that may arise due to the interaction with the environment. The most important role of a manager is not to manage people, but to manage the interactions between the people, and make it easy for them to do their job.

I will finish off with the koan of the sound of one hand clapping.

The master of Kennin temple was Mokurai, Silent Thunder. He had a little protege named Toyo who was only twelve years old. Toyo saw the older disciples visit the master’s room each morning and evening to receive instruction in sanzen or personal guidance in which they were given koans to stop mind-wandering.

Toyo wished to do sanzen also.

“Wait a while,” said Mokurai. “You are too young.”

But the child insisted, so the teacher finally consented.

In the evening little Toyo went at the proper time to the threshold of Mokurai’s sanzen room. He struck the gong to announce his presence, bowed respectfully three times outside the door, and went to sit before the master in respectful silence.

“You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together,” said Mokurai. “Now show me the sound of one hand.”

Toyo bowed and went to his room to consider this problem. From his window he could hear the music of the geishas. “Ah, I have it!” he proclaimed.

The next evening, when his teacher asked him to illustrate the sound of one hand, Toyo began to play the music of the geishas.

“No, no,” said Mokurai. “That will never do. That is not the sound of one hand. You’ve not got it at all.”

Thinking that such music might interrupt, Toyo moved his abode to a quiet place. He meditated again. “What can the sound of one hand be?” He happened to hear some water dripping. “I have it,” imagined Toyo.

When he next appeared before his teacher, Toyo imitated dripping water.

“What is that?” asked Mokurai. “That is the sound of dripping water, but not the sound of one hand. Try again.”

In vain Toyo meditated to hear the sound of one hand. He heard the sighing of the wind. But the sound was rejected.

He heard the cry of an owl. This also was refused.

The sound of one hand was not the locusts.

For more than ten times Toyo visited Mokurai with different sounds. All were wrong. For almost a year he pondered what the sound of one hand might be.

At last little Toyo entered true meditation and transcended all sounds. “I could collect no more,” he explained later, “so I reached the soundless sound.”

Toyo had realized the sound of one hand.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Never Let a Mistake Go To Waste.

Never Let a Mistake Go To Waste:

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I wanted to call this post “Failing Successfully”, but I changed my mind and decided to paraphrase the famous epistemologist of randomness and risk, Nicholas Taleb.

Taleb said;

“Every plane crash has lowered the probability of next plane crash. That is a system that is overall anti-fragile. You never let a mistake go to waste”.

The concept of antifragility is a strong concept. This is something beyond resiliency. Resiliency is about getting back up when you fall. Antifragility is gaining from the fall and getting back up stronger. There is famous Japanese proverb that says – “Fall seven times, stand up eight.”  To me this is the essence of resilience. However, antifragility is falling seven times, and standing up each time stronger than before. In Taleb’s words, antifragility makes things gain from disorder.

Embracing Failures:

We can say that we learn more from mistakes and from failures. Failures challenge our mental models and it shows that there was something that we did not consider in our model. From an information theory standpoint, failures have more information content whereas successes have none or minimal information content. When we succeed we do not understand if it is because our mental model is correct or if it is because of something else. We do not look any further. In a similar vein, when we fail we still do not know if it is due to our incorrect mental model or if it is something else. However, we will be more determined to look into why we failed. Nicholas Taleb has also said;

“It does not matter how frequently something succeeds if failure is too costly to bear.”

Safe to Fail Environment:

Our aversion to failures is generally related to consequences. This is where the concept of “safe to fail” probing comes. The concept of “safe to fail” is to knowingly create environments where we might fail, but the failures cause minimal damage. This is causing failures in a controlled environment. We are encouraged to experiment as often as possible so that we can uncover any potential weak spots. Dave Snowden from Cognitive Edge (co creator of Cynefin framework) has done a lot of work in this. He talked about the importance of safe to fail experiments within a complex system as follows;

One of the main (if not the main) strategies for dealing with a complex system is to create a range of safe-fail experiments or probes that will allow the nature of emergent possibilities to become more visible.

I have underlined the “emergent possibilities” in his statement. The trick with a complex system is to understand all of the possible emergent outcomes since there are no clear linear cause and effect relationships between the parts, and this is why failures are sometimes unpredictable and can have devastating consequences. The following principles identified are inspired by Dave Snowden.

  1. If it is not broke, why is it not broke? Success does not mean absence of failure points.
  2. Experiment as often as possible with the anticipation of failures.
  3. Monitor the experiments and have resources available to react to failures.
  4. Teach others to experiment and create an environment that is not only tolerant to failures but encourages innovation and creativity.
  5. Be a lifelong learner and share what you have learned.

A pretty good example for all this is Netflix’s Chaos Monkey. Chaos Monkey is a software service that creates “chaos” on purpose in a safe to fail environment. From Netflix’s blog;

We have found that the best defense against major unexpected failures is to fail often. By frequently causing failures, we force our services to be built in a way that is more resilient.

Chaos Monkey runs only during certain hours when there are resources available and this is again to ensure the fail to safe environment. Netflix claimed that Chaos Monkey keeps on surprising their team by uncovering many hidden failures points.

There are many failure scenarios that Chaos Monkey helps us detect. Over the last year Chaos Monkey has terminated over 65,000 instances running in our production and testing environments. Most of the time nobody notices, but we continue to find surprises caused by Chaos Monkey which allows us to isolate and resolve them so they don’t happen again.

Final words:

Learning from failures and getting stronger from it is an organic principle. This is how an individual or an organization grows. Getting up from a fall is resilience, but getting from a fall and learning and getting stronger from it is antifragility. Either way, never let a mistake go to waste and reduce the next failure’s probability!

I will finish with a great story about Tom Watson Jr., CEO of IBM in the1950’s.

It is said that while Tom Watson Jr. was the CEO, he encouraged people to experiment and learn from failures. One of his VPs led a project that failed and cost IBM millions of dollars. The VP was distraught when he was called to Tom Watson’s office. He expected to be fired for his mistake and quickly typed up a resignation letter. The VP gave the letter to Tom Watson and was about to leave the office. Tom Watson shook his head and said, “You think I will let you go after giving you millions of dollars worth of training?”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Forth Bridge Principle.

The Forth Bridge Principle:

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The Forth Bridge is a famous railroad bridge in Scotland and is over 125 years old. It needs painting to fend off rust. Albert Cherns, the late famous social scientist who founded the Department of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, identified the Forth Bridge principle as part of the nine principles for designing a sociotechnical system. He also referred to this as “the principle of Incompletion”.

The main idea is that the Forth Bridge was never fully freshly painted – it was always incomplete. The posse of painters started at the Midlothian end, and by the time they reached the Fife end, the Midlothian end would require repainting. In Cherns’ words;s;

Design is a reiterative process. The closure of options opens new ones. At the end, we are back at the beginning.

As soon as design is implemented, its consequences indicate the need for redesign.

This concept is further elaborated in the book, “Knowledge Management in the SocioTechnical World” edited by Coakes, Willis et al;

Cherns emphasizes that all periods of stability are in effect only temporary periods of transition between one state and another.

Cherns identified the nine principles in his 1976 paper “The Principles of Sociotechnical Design”. I will discuss this list further in a future post. He called all organizations as sociotechnical systems and called for joint optimization of the technical and social aspects. The systems are dynamic and always changing. Cherns also stated that there is no such thing as a final design of the system. The system has to be continuously changed to cope with the impact of changes in the environment the system is in and the impact of changes within the system. This is the idea behind the Forth Bridge principle.

The Forth Bridge principle reminds me of the concept of kaizen and standards in the Toyota Production System. The concept of kaizen is about never being satisfied with the status quo, and improving the process. The concept of standards is about having a high definition of all activities. Dr. Steven Spear in his HBR article with H. Kent Bowen “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System talked about the first rule as – All activities are highly specified in terms of content, sequence, timing and outcome. The standard consists of three elements. They are;

  • Takt time
  • Work sequence
  • Standard Inventory

Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System talked about the relationship of Kaizen and Standards as;

“Without standards, there can be no kaizen”.

The problem with standards is that it can create a need to maintain the status-quo. This is against the principle of kaizen. Cherns wrote about the “stability myth” in 1987;

“The stability myth is reassuring but dangerous if it leaves us unprepared to review and revise.”

It is important that we realize the concept of the Forth Bridge principle and appreciate it. The system design is never finished, and we have to keep on improving it. The system is always incomplete and it is our duty to keep on making things better – make the standard, review the standard, make it better, and repeat. This is a Zen-like lesson.

I will finish this post with a story about the never ending quest.

After years of relentless training, a martial arts student has finally reached a pinnacle of achievement in the discipline. He knelt before his sensei in a ceremony to receive the highly coveted black belt.

“Before granting the belt, you must pass one more test,” the sensei solemnly tells the young man.

“I’m ready,” responds the student, expecting perhaps one more round of sparring.

“You must answer the essential question: What is the true meaning of the Black Belt?”

“Why, the end of my journey,” says the student. “A well-deserved reward for my hard work.”

The master waits for more. Clearly, he is not satisfied. The sensei finally speaks: “You are not ready for the Black Belt. Return in one year.”

As the student kneels before his master a year later, he is again asked the question, “What is the true meaning of the Black Belt?”

“It is a symbol of distinction and the highest achievement in our art,” the young man responds. Again the master waits for more. Still unsatisfied, he says once more: “You are not ready for the Black Belt. Return in one year.”

A year later the student kneels before his sensei and hears the question, “What is the true meaning of the Black Belt?”

This time he answers, “The Black Belt represents not the end, but the beginning, the start of a never-ending journey of discipline, work and the pursuit of an ever higher standard.”

“Yes,” says the master. “You are now ready to receive the Black Belt and begin your work.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Sideroxylon Grandiflorum and the Unintended Consequences Phenomenon.