The Incomplete Solution:


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.”


“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”.


“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.

Three Reminders for 2017:


As 2017 is unfolding, I wanted to write a post to remind myself of three pieces of advices for this year. They are from Epictetus (55-135 AD), Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD) and George Pólya (1887-1985). Epictetus and Aurelius are two famous Stoic philosophers of the past, and Pólya is a famous Hungarian mathematician.

1) Epictetus:

Epictetus spent his youth as a slave which laid the backdrop for his stoicism. His original name is unknown. The name “Epictetus” in Greek means “acquired”. Epictetus himself has not written any books, however his follower, Arrian, wrote down his teachings. One of the most famous quotes attributed to him is;

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

Epictetus’ famous work, The Enchiridion (Translated by Elizabeth Carter), starts off as;

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

In the same book, Epictetus continues;

“With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it.”

My thoughts:

The above quotes gel together to form an important lesson. Not all of my ventures are going to be successful this year. There may be several setbacks. However, all setbacks are experiences to learn from. They provide lessons that I can only learn from the school of life. They increase my knowledge and prepare me for the next harder setback. My triumphs are built on the setbacks I faced before. The setbacks provide an opportunity for reflection. To loosely paraphrase a lesson from Information Theory, failures have more information content. They provide a reason to challenge our hypothesis. Successes do not necessarily challenge us to take a second look at our hypothesis. We thus learn more from failures. The point is to not look for failures, but to keep an open mind. This is a great lesson to remember as a new year starts.

2) Marcus Aurelius:

Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, was a Roman Emperor. His famous work is “Meditations”.  My lesson from this book, translated by Maxwell Staniforth, is as follows;

“Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours.”

My Thoughts:

Far too often, we let the past dictate our present actions. Either we stay complacent and stay in our comfort zones by relying on our past victories; or we let our past failures control our actions and we remain in the comfort zone. Both these thought processes keep ourselves from taking risks or venturing outside our comfort zone. The past is past and the future is not yet here; what we truly have is the present moment. This Zen-like teaching is an important lesson for this year. We can only change the present moment by taking the right action. Of course, not all of our actions will lead to tremendous successes. This is covered under the first lesson above.

3) George Pólya:

George Pólya was born in Hungary and later came to America and taught at Stanford University.  One of the famous quotes attributed to him is;

“If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it.”

This quote was written by the famous Mathematician John H Conway in the Foreword to a 2004 printing of Polya’s book “How to Solve It”.

My Thoughts:

“How to Solve It” is a gem of a book written in 1945 by Pólya. The above quote attributed to Pólya is a great lesson when we are trying to solve a problem and we get stuck. Pólya offers two different plans of action. One is to find a similar but easier problem to solve. He says;

If you cannot solve the proposed problem do not let this failure afflict you too much but try to find consolation with some easier success, try to solve first some related problem; then you may find courage to attack your original problem again. Do not forget that human superiority consists in going around an obstacle that cannot be overcome directly, in devising some suitable auxiliary problem when the original one appears insoluble.

The second plan of action he offers is called as the Inventor’s Paradox. Loosely put; to prove what you want, try proving more than what you want so that you get the flow of information to work properly. George says that “the more ambitious plan may have more chances of success”. This idea is quite paradoxical. He advises that going to a more general problem is going to create more questions that may be easier to answer than just one question. This approach may lend us a new view at the problem that will help us solve the more general problem along with the original problem.

The two plans lead us to step back from the current problem and look at the problem from a different light. Pólya points to us the importance of “some vision of things beyond those immediately present”.

Final words:

The three lessons above have a common theme – obstacles. We can be certain that this year will come with obstacles; it is up to us to decide how to treat them. I wish all of you a great year, one that will make you a better person.

I will finish off with a great lesson in Zen from the great Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In his book, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, Suzuki Roshi talks about the story of four horses. He recalls the story from Samyuktagama Sutra. It is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent horses, good horses, poor horses and bad horses. The best horse will run as his master wishes before it sees the shadow of the whip. It can run fast and slow, right and left and always at the master’s will. The second best horse runs as well as the best horse and he does that just before the whip reaches its skin. The third best will run when it feels the pain on its body. Finally the fourth one will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!

Almost all of us want to be the best horse. If that is not possible we want to be the second best horse, and so on. However, in Zen this is the wrong approach. When you are determined to practice zazen (a form of sitting meditation), it is valuable to be the worst one. In your imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Suzuki Roshi continues that those who can sit perfectly physically usually takes the most amount of time to obtain the true way of Zen. But those who find great difficulties will find more meaning in it and thus obtain the actual feeling of Zen – the marrow of Zen. Thus the “worst one” may be the best student.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Clause for Santa – A Look at Bounded Rationality.

Clause for Santa – A Look at Bounded Rationality:


It is Christmas time in 2016. My kids, ages 6 and 9, believe in Santa Claus. It bothers me that they believe in Santa Claus; mainly because it is not logical to believe in a magical being bringing materialistic presents and also because we, their parents, do not get credit for the presents they receive.

From my children’s perspective though, Santa does make sense. Think of it as a black box; they write what they want in a list, believe in Santa, and on Christmas day they find their toys under the Christmas tree. The output matches the input, repeatedly over the years. This passes the scientific evidence based sniff tests’ criteria. They also find additional evidence in the form of stories, movies, songs etc. of Santa Clause and his magical flying reindeers. From their standpoint, they have empirical evidence for making a decision to believe in Santa.

This line of thinking led me to reflect on “Bounded Rationality”. Bounded Rationality is a concept that was created by the great American thinker Herbert Simon. Herbert Simon won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1978 for his contributions.

According to the famous German Psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, in the 1950s and 60s, the enlightenment notion of reasonableness reemerged in the form of the concept of “rationality”. Rationality refers to the optimization of some function. The optimization can be maximization or minimization. Simon determined that there is a limit to the “rationality” of humans, and his views were against the ideas of a fully rational man in neoclassical economics. Simon believed that we cannot be fully rational while making decisions, and that our rationality is bounded by our mental capabilities and mental models. In his words;

Bounded rationality refers to the individual collective rational choice that takes into account “the limits of human capability to calculate, the severe deficiencies of human knowledge about the consequences of choice, and the limits of human ability to adjudicate among multiple goals”.

 Bounded rationality does not, therefore, argue that decisions and the people taking them are inherently irrational, but that there are realistic limits on the ability of people to weigh complex options in a fully logical and objective way. Bounded rationality therefore concerns itself with the interaction between the human mind (with its prior knowledge, competing value systems and finite cognitive resources) and the social environment – the processes by which decisions are made and how these processes are shaped by the individual and their wider circumstances.


Thus, we do not make the best choices because; we do not have all the information, we do not understand the consequences of all the options or because we do not take time to evaluate all the alternatives. Furthermore we do not always understand that our decision was based on an imperfect model. This leads to the next idea that Herb Simon created – “satisficing”. Satisficing is a word created from two words – satisfy and suffice. In other words, satisficing is the tendency for us to latch on to “good enough for now” solutions. Simon introduced a “stop rule” as part of satisficing criterion: “Stop searching as soon as you have found an alternative that meets your aspiration level.” He later modified it to be a dynamical rule such that the aspiration level or the current criterion is raised or lowered based on previous failures or successes. Gerd Gigerenzer strongly reminds us that Bounded Rationality does not mean optimizing under constraints (finding the best option under the constraints set by the situation) or irrationality (total absence of reasonableness).

In the 2001 book, “Bounded Rationality – The Adaptive Toolbox; edited by Gerd Gigerenzer and Reinhard Selten, there is a chapter dedicated to the role of culture in bounded rationality. This chapter discusses how sociocultural processes produce bounded rational algorithms. Both ethnographic data and computer modeling suggest that innate, individually adaptive processes, such as prestige-biased transmission and conformist transmission, will accumulate and stabilize cultural-evolutionary products that act as effective decision-making algorithms, without the individual participants understanding how or why the particular system works. Systems of divination provide interesting examples of how culture provides adaptive solutions.

One of the examples they cite is the complex system of bird omens amongst the Kantu of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) swidden farmers. Swidden agriculture is a technique of rotational farming. Each Kantu farmer relies on the type of bird and the type of call that the bird makes to choose the agricultural site. This creates a random distribution of the agricultural sites and ultimately helps the Kantu farmers, thus keeping their tradition alive. As a quick and thrifty heuristic, this cultural system suppresses errors that farmers make in judging the chances of a flood, and substitutes an operationally simple means for individuals to randomize their garden site selection. In addition, by randomizing each farmer’s decision independently, this belief system also reduces the chance of catastrophic failures across the entire group — it decreases the probability that many farmers will fail at the same time. All this only works because the Kantu believe that birds actually supply supernatural information that foretells the future and that they would be punished for not listening to it. How many of these cultural traditions do we still carry on in our work lives?

I found this quite interesting and maybe because it is Christmas time I could not help but draw comparisons to how we try to keep the idea of Santa alive for our kids. I thought I would dig into this deeper with my kids. I wanted to push my kids to go beyond their biases and heuristics and try to give them an opportunity to look for more information with regard to their belief in Santa. I started asking them questions in the hope that it would make them reevaluate their current decision to believe in Santa. With enough probing questions, surely they should be able to reevaluate their thinking.

I first asked them “Why do you believe in Santa?”

My youngest responded, “Believing in Santa makes him real”.

My middle child responded, “We saw him at the shopping mall parking lot loading presents in his car.”

My oldest responded with the following facts, “We get presents every year from him. We put out cookies and milk, and they are gone by Christmas day.”

Not giving up, I pushed, “If Santa gives presents to all the kids in the world, I never got any presents when I was a kid in India. Why is that?”

“You were a naughty child”, my youngest responded giggling.

“It takes a long time to get to India”, my middle child also gave her reasoning.

I thought I would give some stats with my questions, “There are about 1.9 billion kids in the world. How can Santa have toys for all of them?”

“That’s easy. Santa is super rich and can buy all the toys he wants” was the response.

“OK. How can he go around world giving toys to all the kids?”, I asked.

“He has magical reindeers” was the response.

Finally, I gave up. My attempts to crack their belief in Santa were failing. I then realized that perhaps it is not bad after all, and that my kids being kids is the most important thing of all. And it makes Christmas more magical for them.

There is always next year to try again!

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping in Systems?

What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping in Systems?


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:


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:


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.

Sideroxylon Grandiflorum and the Unintended Consequences Phenomenon:


Recently, I came across the story of Sideroxylon grandiflorum (tambalacoque), a tree valued for its timber in Mauritius. In the 1970’s it was thought that this species of tree was becoming extinct. According to University of Wisconsin ornithologist Stanley Temple, there were about 13 trees remaining in Mauritius in the late 1970’s. In his account, these trees were over three hundred years old. He was puzzled by the near extinction of this species of tree. He finally “figured it out” and wrote a paper detailing his hypothesis. He concluded that the near extinction of Sideroxylon grandiflorum was caused by the extinction of the famous bird species – the Dodo. He hypothesized that the tambalacoque fruits have endocarps (shell) and the seeds germinated by passing through the digestive tracts of the Dodo bird. With the extinction of the Dodo bird, the germination of any new seeds stopped, and this was leading to the near extinction of the tambalacoque trees. Temple then tried using wild turkeys in place of the Dodo birds for germination of tambalacoque tree seeds. Even this was not ideal, since the wild turkeys were not as effective as the Dodo birds.

Stanley Temple’s paper was later contested by others, and they were able to show that the seeds could be germinated in the open without the aid of any animals or birds. They argued that the trees were not near extinction and that there were several hundred trees (some younger than three hundred years) in the wild. There was indeed a decline in the tambalacoque tree population and this was caused by large-scale deforestation for sugar cane production, and the introduction of several new species to the island.

Stanley Temple’s paper would have been the perfect case of unintended consequences if it was not challenged by peers. Still, it does give us food for thought. Unintended consequences are events or outcomes from a previous action that was not anticipated at the time of the previous action. These outcomes may sometimes be beneficial and sometimes be detrimental. An example of beneficial result is finding that aspirin, which was originally intended for pain relief, was found to be an excellent anticoagulant. An example of detrimental result is the story of the “A380 Airbus” which was touted as being the “quiet airplane”. Emirate Airline started using A380 Airbus and they received complaints from the travelers and the airline staff alike about it being too quiet. Now everyone could hear “everything” like every crying baby, snoring passenger and flushing toilet.

One of the first people to detail unintended consequences and identify the potential causes was Robert K Merton. He was an American Sociologist and Economist (1910-2003). Merton is credited with creating phrases such as “role model”, and “self-fulfilling prophecy”. He detailed five causes in his 1936 paper “The unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”;

  1. Lack of adequate knowledge – “sole barrier to correct anticipation.”
  2. Error in appraisal of the current situation – “assumption that actions which have in the past led to the desired outcome will continue to do so.”
  3. Imperious immediacy of interest – “paramount concern only with the foreseen immediate consequences which excludes the consideration of further or other consequences of the same act.”
  4. Basic Values – “no consideration of further consequences because of the felt necessity of certain action enjoined by certain fundamental values.”
  5. Self-defeating Prophecies pertaining to human conduct – public predictions of future social developments fail because the prediction itself changes the initial course of developments. This flip side of this idea was later developed by Melton as the self-fulfilling prophecy.

I have identified four ways to tackle unintended consequences;

  • Think in term of Systems:

Thinking in terms of systems helps you in anticipating the consequences. Thinking in terms of systems makes you look at the parts and how the parts interact with each other. This forces us to look at the interconnectedness of the parts and evaluate potential consequences.

  • Welcome and Encourage Diversity in Thinking:

One of the ways to deal with the unintended consequences phenomenon is to welcome diverse and varying perspectives for decision making. In Toyota Production System, Toyota talks about gaining consensus. Toyota UK Blog talks about this;

Nemawashi is the first step in the decision making process. It is sharing of information about the decisions that will be made, in order to involve all employees in the process. During the nemawashi, the company is seeking for the opinion of the employees about the decision.

  • Challenge your Mental Models:

Jay Forrester, an American Systems Scientist, argues that most social organizations, from corporations to cities, represent a far higher level of complexity and abstraction than most people can grasp on their own. And yet corporate and government leaders of all sorts persist in making decisions based on their own “mental models”. The mental models become the limitations no matter how intuitive and comforting they are. We need to challenge our current mental models and look for information challenging them.

  • Share Information, Knowledge and Wisdom:

Russel Ackoff, talks about the difference between information, knowledge and wisdom. Information is data with context, knowledge is gaining useful meaning from the information, and wisdom is knowing what to do with the knowledge in familiar and new environments. The sharing of information, knowledge and wisdom ensures that you are prepared and have a redundant support system. Keep learning and encourage learning.

I will finish off with possibly my favorite unintended consequences story. This came from Dr. Ariely;

In 1976, the average CEO’s pay was about 36 times the average employees pay. In 1993, the average CEO was paid about 131 times as much. This prompted the Federal Securities Regulators to force companies to reveal how much their top executives were being paid. The intent was that this would slow down or even reduce the increase in the top executives’ pay since this information would be public and the top executives will be pressured by the media and the citizens.

However, this had the opposite effect. When the information on the pay was made public, the CEOs started comparing their pay, and started demanding more pay. In “Predictably Irrational”, Ariely says that the average CEO now makes about 369 times the average employees pay – about three times more than when the information was made public.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Big Picture of Problem Solving.

The Big Picture of Problem Solving:


In today’s post, I will be looking at Problem Solving. I am a Quality Professional, and this is a topic near and dear to my heart. There are several problem solving methods out there which includes tools like the Ishikawa Diagram, 5 Why, etc. I will try to shed light on the big picture of problem solving.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of reductionist thinking when trying to solve problems. The reductionist approach is to take things apart and study the parts in isolation. We need to understand that problems are sometimes attributed to the emergent properties of the system and are manifestations of the interactions between the parts. This means that a system has parts, and that the properties of the system are the sum of the whole of the parts and the interactions between the parts. The parts themselves cannot perform the function of the system. For example, the wheel of a bicycle cannot do anything by itself. The same is applicable to the handle. Even when the different parts are put together, the bicycle by itself cannot do anything by itself. When there is a rider, then there is the possibility of the pedals moving, and the wheels rolling. We can say that the system is the bicycle and the rider combined together, and this system has a purpose – to go from one place to the other.

From a problem solving standpoint, we should use both reductionist and holistic approaches. Reductionist thinking is mechanistic in nature, and it does not look at how everything works in relation to one another. However, this thinking has value and is needed to some extent. Russell Ackoff, the famous Systems Thinker, has stated that reductionist thinking, the idea that everything can be reduced to its individual parts, helps us in understanding how a system works. However, this does not explain why a system works the way it does. This requires holistic thinking. Holistic thinking is the “big picture” thinking – how the parts interact together to align with the system’s purpose, and how the system’s emergent properties align with the system’s purpose. This is the thinking that leads to the understanding of why a system is acting the way it is.

When we add humans in the mix, we are introducing parts that have a purpose on its own that may not align with the system’s purpose. The problems that arise from the interaction of humans and other parts in the system are tricky. One of my favorite stories on this is the Cobra Effect story. During the British rule in India, there was a concern about the high number of venomous snakes, especially deadly Cobras, in Delhi. The British regime in Delhi posted rewards for dead Cobras. This had some impact initially since the farmers started killing Cobras. However, things soon got out of hand when some of the farmers started breeding Cobras in order to get the reward. The reward program was scrapped by the British regime when they became aware of this. The interaction between the farmers and the reward system was strong, and the purpose of the farmers was to get as much reward as possible, where as the intent of the system as desired by the British regime was to eliminate or reduce venomous snakes. It is not easy to predict all things that can go wrong, however as we build a system we should look into resilience properties of the system with the expectation that some interactions have been overlooked.

This also reminds me of a manufacturing related story from my Materials Selection class in school. A plant started utilizing ultrasonically welded plastic parts to which plastic tubes were assembled on to. After 6 months, an operator noted that all of the assembled components in inventory were cracked. This puzzled everybody, and the finger was first pointed at the suppler that provided the welded plastic parts. However, the inventory of the incoming components did not show any cracked parts. It was later identified that a new operator started using alcohol as a lubricant to assemble the tubes onto the plastic parts. The operator was trying to make the operation easier to do. The alcohol-induced chemical-stress along with the residual stress from the welding led to the cracking. The human interaction on the part – the ease to assemble was not looked at. The operator’s purpose was to make his process easy and did not look at the big picture – how this interacted with other parts in the system.

Reductionist thinking alone is linear in nature and leads to quick fixes and band-aids.  Some examples are simply replacing a part of the system or providing training alone as the reaction to the problem.

Holistic thinking, on the other hand, is not linear in nature and does not lead to quick fixes with the hope that it addresses the problem. Holistic thinking results in either changing a part of the system, or changing how a part interacts with the system. Both of these result in a modified system.

I have identified nine points to further improve our big picture understanding of problem solving;

  • Problems as Manifestations of Emergent Properties:

Sometimes, the problems are manifestations of the emergent properties in the system. This means that the interactions between parts in the system, when the system is taken as a whole, resulted in the problem. This type of problem cannot be addressed by looking at the parts alone.

  • Cause- Effect Relationship is not Always Linear:

It is not likely that the cause-effect relationship is always linear. Factor “A” does not cause Effect “B”. Factor “A’s” in the interaction with Factor “D” and Factor “E” in the presence of the environment of the system resulted in the problem. The problem and the cause(s) are not always direct and easy to trace.

  • It’s About Interactions:

When trying to solve a problem, understand the interactions in the system first. This was explained by the two stories above.

  • Does Your Solution Create New Problems?

The “verification” stage of a problem solving activity is always deemed as important. This is when we verify that our solution addresses the problem. However, we also need to look at whether the solution can create a new problem. Are we impacting or creating any new interactions that we are not aware of? This is evident from the adage – “Today’s problems are created by yesterday’s solutions”.

  • Go to the Gemba:

The best and possibly the only way to truly understand the interactions and how the system behaves in an environment is by going to the Gemba – where the action is. You cannot solve a problem effectively by sitting in an Office environment.

  • How Much Does Your Solution Fix the Problem?

There is always more than one solution that can address the problem. Some of these are not feasible or not cost effective. One solution alone cannot address the problem in its entirety. There are two questions that are asked in a problem solving process. a) Why did the problem happen? And b) Why did the problem escape the production environment? In the light of these questions, we should understand, how much of the problem can be fixed by our solutions.

  • What is the Impact of Environment?

Sometimes problems exist in certain conditions only. Sometimes problems manifest themselves in certain environmental conditions. The most recent Wells Fargo incident is reported to have started by the push from the Management to meet the aggressive sales goals. This created an environment that eventually led to fraudulent activities. An article on CNN reported; “Relentless pressure. Wildly unrealistic sales targets.” The employees were asked to sell at least eight accounts to every customer, from about three accounts ten years earlier. The reason for eight accounts was explained by the CEO as – “Why eight? “The answer is, it rhymed with ‘great,

  • Quick Fixes = Temporary Local Optimization:

Problems persist when the first reaction is to put band-aids on it. We have to see quick fixes as an attempt to temporarily optimize locally in the hopes that the problem will go away. This almost always leads to an increase in cost and reduction in quality and productivity.

  • Involve the Parts in your Solution:

It goes without saying that the solutions should always involve the people involved in the process. It is ultimately their process. It is our job to make sure that they are aware of the system in its entirety. For example, train them on how a product is eventually used. What is the impact of what they do?

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was In-the-Customer’s-Shoes Quality.

In-the-Customer’s-Shoes Quality:


I had a conversation recently with a Quality professional from another organization. The topic somehow drifted to the strict Quality standards in Japan. The person talked about how the product gets rejected by his Japanese counterparts for small blemishes, debris etc. The “defects” met the corporate standards, yet the product gets rejected at their Japanese warehouse. This conversation led me to write this post. My response was that the Japanese were looking at the product from the eyes of the customer. The small blemishes and debris impact the perception of quality, and can bring distaste as the product is being used.

In Japanese, the term for quality is Hinshitsu (hin = goods, and shitsu = quality). With the advent of TQM (Total Quality Movement), the idea of two “Qualities” was made more visible by Professor Noriaki Kano. He termed these;

  1. Miryokuteki Hinshitsu, or Attractive Quality
  2. Atarimae Hinshitsu, Must-Be Quality

These concepts were not exactly new, but Prof. Kano was able to put more focus on this. The “Attractive Quality” refers to something that fascinates or excites the customer and the “Must-Be Quality” refers to everything that is expected from the item by the customer. For example, a new phone in the market is expected to function out of the box. It should be able to make calls, connect to the internet, take pictures, play games etc. But if the phone came with the case or if the phone came with the name of the owner etched on the back, then that particular attribute is exciting for the customer. It was not something that he was expecting, and thus it brings “joy” to the customer. The interesting thing about the Attractive Quality is that today’s Attractive Quality becomes tomorrow’s Must-Be Quality. Would you purchase a phone today without the ability to browse the internet or take pictures? These features were added as Attractive Quality features in the past, and they have become Must-Be Quality features today.

The Japanese Quality guru Kaoru Ishikawa called these “Forward-looking qualities” and “Backward-looking qualities”. He called the special features like “easy to use”, “feels good to use” etc. as forward looking qualities. In contrast, “absence of defects” was called as backward looking. The father of Statistical Quality Control, Walter Shewhart called these as Objective and Subjective qualities.

Sometimes the Miryokuteki Hinshitsu also refers to the “Aesthetic Quality” of the product. Apple products are famous for this. There is a lot of attention paid by the Apple Designers for the Aesthetic Quality of their products. The IPhone should feel and look good. Even the package it comes in should say that it contains a “quality product”. In the Japanese culture, the concept of Aesthetics is rooted in “Shibui” and “Mononoaware”. Shibui can be defined as a quality associated with physical beauty “that has a tranquil effect on the viewer”. It brings to attention the naturalness, simplicity and subdued tone. Mononoaware on the other hand refers to the merging of one’s identity with that of an object. (Source: The Global Business by Ronnie Lessem, 1987).

The Total Quality Movement (Or Total Quality Control Movement as it is often referred to in the Japanese books) was taken quite seriously by the Japanese manufacturers. The following concepts were identified as essential;

  1. Customer orientation
  2. The “Quality first” approach
  3. Quality is everyone’s responsibility – from top management down
  4. Continual improvement of Quality
  5. Quality assurance is the responsibility of the producer, not of the purchaser or the inspection department
  6. Quality should be extended from the hardware (i.e., the product) to the software (i.e., services, work, personnel, departments, management, corporations, groups, society and the environment)

Source: Kaoru Ishikawa

Rather than relying on inspection, the Japanese manufacturers, including Toyota and Nissan, believed in building in quality throughout the entire process. The awareness of quality was seen as essential by the operator involved in making the product. It became a matter of owning the process and taking pride in what the operator did. Kenichi Yamamoto, the previous chairman of Mazda, is quoted to have said by BusinessWeek – “any manufacturer can produce according to statistics.”Yamamoto’s remark is about not focusing simply on quantities. Even when we are focusing on quality we should focus on both the objective and subjective quality. This reflects how our company culture views the ownership of quality.

Final Words:

I have always wondered why the windows in an airplane are not aligned with the airplane’s seats. It appears that the plane’s body is built based on a standard, and the seats are later added based on what the plane carriers want. There is not always a focus on what the customer wants, which explains why the seats are not aligned with the windows. I refer to the idea of the quality of a product as “in-the-customer’s-shoes quality”. If you were the customer, how would you like the product?

I will finish off with a story I heard from one of the episodes of the delightful TV show, “Japanology Plus”. This story perfectly and literally captures the concept of in-the-customer’s-shoes quality.

The episode was interviewing a “Japanophile” who was living in Japan for quite a long time. He talked about one incident that truly changed his view on Japan. He went to a small tea house in Japan. He was requested to remove his shoes before entering the room. After the tea, when he came out he was pleasantly surprised to see that his shoes were now moved to face away from the room. This way, he did not have to turn around and fumble to put his shoes on. He can simply put the shoes on his way out without turning around. He was taken aback by the thoughtfulness of the host.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was “Four Approaches to Problem Solving”.

Four Approaches to Problem Solving:


As a Quality professional, I am always interested in learning about problem solving. In today’s post I will be looking at the four approaches to Problem Solving as taught by the late great Systems Thinker, Russell Ackoff. He called these “Problem Treatments” – the ways one deals with problems. They are;

  1. Absolution – This is a common reaction to a problem. This means to ignore a problem with the hope that it will solve by itself or it will go away of its own accord.
  2. Resolution – This means to do something that yields an outcome that is “good enough”, in other words, that “satisfices”. This involves a clinical approach to problems that relies heavily on past experience, trial and error, qualitative judgment, and so-called common sense.
  3. Solution – This means to do something that yields the best outcome that “optimizes”. This involves a research approach to problems, one that often relies on experimentation, quantitative analysis, and uncommon sense. This is the realm of effective counterintuitive solutions.
  4. Dissolution – This means to redesign either the entity that has the problem or its environment in such a way as to eliminate the problem and enable the entity involved to do better in the future that the best it can do today – in a word, to “idealize”.

I see it also as the progression of our reaction to a big problem. At first, we try to ignore it. Then we try to put band aids on it. Then we try to make the process better, and finally we change a portion of the process so that the problem cannot exist in the new process. Ackoff gave a story in his book, “The Democratic Corporation”, to further explain these ideas. Ackoff was called in by a consultant to help with a problem in a large city in Europe. The city used double-decker buses for public transportation that had a bus driver and a conductor in it. The driver got paid extra based on how efficiently he could keep up with the schedule, and the conductor got paid extra based on how efficiently he could collect fares and keeps track of receipts. The conductor was also in charge of letting the driver know when the bus was ready to move by signaling to them from the rear entrance to the bus. During peak hours, problems arose. To meet the high volume of passengers, conductors started to let passengers in without collecting fares with the thought that they could be collected between stops. The conductors could not always get back to the entrance to signal to the driver that they were ready to move. The drivers started to determine themselves when they could move by trying to see that no one was getting off or on to the bus. All this caused delays that were costly to the driver. This resulted in great hostility between the drivers and the conductors. The drivers were trying to do what was best for them, and the conductors were trying to do what was best for them.

The management at first tried to “absolve” by pretending that the problem would go away on its own. When things got worse, the management tried to “resolve” by proposing to retract the incentives. This was not met well by both the drivers and conductors, and the management was not willing to increase their wages to offset the incentives. Next the management tried to “solve” the problem by proposing that the driver and the conductor share the total sum of incentives. This also was not met well by the drivers and the conductors because of lack of trust and unwillingness to increase their interdependence.

Finally, Ackoff proposed a modification to the process. He proposed that during the peak hours the conductors should be taken off the bus and placed at the stops. This way he can collect the fares from the people already at the stop, and he can verify the receipts of the people getting off the bus. He also can easily signal the bus driver. The problem was “dissolved” by this modification to the process.

Final Words:

One of the best teachings from Ackoff for Management is that to manage a system effectively, you must focus on the interactions of the parts rather than their behaviors (actions) taken separately. The next time you are facing a problem, think and understand if you are trying to absolve, resolve, solve or dissolve the problem. I will finish with a great story from Osho about the butcher who never had to sharpen his knife.

There was a great butcher in Japan and he was said to be a Zen master. After hearing about him, the emperor came to see him at his work. The emperor asked only one thing, about the knife that he used to kill the animals. The knife looked so shiny, as if it had just been sharpened.

The emperor asked, “Do you sharpen your knife every day?”

He said, “No, this is the knife my father used, and his father used, and it has never been sharpened. But we know exactly the points where it has to cut the animal so there is a minimum of pain possible — through the joints where two bones meet. The knife has to go through the joint, and those two bones that meet there go on sharpening the knife. And that is the point where the animal is going to feel the minimum pain. I am aware of the interactions.”

“For three generations we have not sharpened the knife. A butcher sharpening a knife simply means he does not know his art.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Respect for People in light of Systems Thinking.