Which Way You Should Go Depends on Where You Are:

compass

I recently read the wonderful book “How Not To Be Wrong, The Power of Mathematical Thinking” by Jordan Ellenberg. I found the book to be enlightening and a great read. Jordan Ellenberg has the unique combination of being knowledgeable and capable of teaching in a humorous and engaging way. One of the gems in the book is – “Which way you should go depends on where you are”. This lesson is about the dangers of misapplying linearity. When we are thinking in terms of abstract concepts, the path from point A to point B may appear to be linear. After all, the shortest path between two points is a straight line. This type of thinking is linear thinking.

To illustrate this, let’s take the example of poor quality issues on the line. The first instinct to improve quality is to increase inspection. In this case, point A = poor quality, and point B = higher quality. If we plot this incorrect relationship between Quality and Inspection, we may assume it as a linear relationship – increasing inspection results in better quality.

Inspection and Quality

However, increasing inspection will not result in better quality in the long run and will result in higher costs of production. We must build quality in as part of the normal process at the source and not rely on inspection. In TPS, there are several ways to do this including Poka Yoke and Jidoka.

In a similar fashion, we may look at increasing the number of operators in the hopes of increasing productivity. This may work initially. However, increasing production at the wrong points in the assembly chain can hinder the overall production and decrease overall productivity. Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System, always asked to reduce the number of operators to improve the flow. Toyota Production System relies on the thinking of the people to improve the overall system.

The two cases discussed above are nonlinear in nature. Thus increasing one factor may increase the response factor initially. However, continually increasing the factor can yield negative results. One example of a non-linear relationship is shown below:

productivity

The actual curve may of course vary depending on the particularities of the example. In nonlinear relationships, which way you should go depends on where you are. In the productivity example, if you are at the Yellow star location on the curve, increasing the operators will only decrease productivity. You should reduce the number of operators to increase productivity. However, if you are at the Red star, you should look into increasing the operators. This will increase productivity up to a point, after which the productivity will decrease. Which Way You Should Go Depends on Where You Are!

In order to know where you are, you need to understand your process. As part of this, you need to understand the significant factors in the process. You also need to understand the boundaries of the process where things will start to breakdown. The only way you can truly learn your process is through experimentation and constant monitoring. It is likely that you did not consider all of the factors or the interactions. Everything is in flux and the only constant thing is change. You should be open for input from the operators and allow improvements to happen from the bottom up.

I will finish off with the anecdote of the “Laffer curve” that Jordan Ellenberg used to illustrate the concept of nonlinearity. One polical party in America have been pushing for lowering taxes on the wealthy. The conservatives made this concept popular using the Laffer curve. Arthur Laffer was an economics professor at the University of Chicago. The story goes that Arthur Laffer drew the curve on the back of a napkin during dinner in 1974 with the senior members of then President Gerald Ford’s administration. The Laffer Curve is shown below:

Laffer curve

The horizontal axis shows the tax rate and the vertical axis shows the revenue that is generated from taxation. If there is no taxation, then there is no revenue. If there is 100% taxation, there is also no revenue because nobody would want to work and make money, if they cannot hold on to it. The argument that was raised was that America was on the right hand side of the curve and thus reducing taxation would increase revenue. It has been challenged whether this assumption was correct. Jordan used the following passage from Greg Manikiw, a Harvard economist and a Republican who chaired the Council of Economic Advisors under the second President Bush:

Subsequent history failed to confirm Laffer’s conjecture that lower tax rates would raise tax revenue. When Reagan cut taxes after he was elected, the result was less tax revenue, not more. Revenue from personal income taxes fell by 9 percent from 1980 to 1984, even though average income grew by 4 percent over this period. Yet once the policy was in place, it was hard to reverse.

The Laffer curve may not be symmetric as shown above. The curve may not be smooth and even as shown above and could be a completely different curve altogether. Jordan states in the book – All the Laffer curve says is that lower taxes could, under some circumstances, increase tax revenue; but figuring out what those circumstances are requires deep, difficult, empirical work, the kind of work that doesn’t fit on a napkin.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Epistemology at the Gemba:

Advertisements

Meditations at the Gemba:

Aurelius

In today’s post, I am looking at Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” and how it relates to us today. Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD, was a follower of Stoicism, a type of philosophy that extols a way of life based on moral virtue. It emphasizes logic and rationality, and views man as a microcosm corresponding to the macrocosm of the universe. Man has to use his reason to discern the universal order present in nature and he is obligated to live his life in accordance with nature [1].  I have identified 10 lessons from “Meditations” that I hope will be valuable to the lean leader. I have used the translation of “Meditations” by George Long for my notes[2].

1) Make Time for Contemplation:

“We ought to remember not only that our life is daily wasting away and a smaller part of it is left, but also that if a man should live longer, it is quite uncertain whether his mind will stay strong enough to understand things, and retain the power of contemplation to strive after knowledge of the divine and human.”

Marcus believes in making time for contemplation. He encourages us to “retire” into ourselves to recharge on a frequent basis. This is similar to the concept of “Hansei” in Lean. He continues;

“It is in your power, whenever you shall choose, to retire into yourself.”

Marcus talks of cleansing your soul so that you are free of discontentment and this allows you to return to the “stale things” with a refreshed mind. He reminds the reader that things cannot touch your soul since they are external to you, and that our perturbations come from our own opinions and viewpoints. This too shall pass.

2) Observe the Small Things in the Light of the Big Picture:

“We ought to observe also that even the small characteristics of things produced according to nature have something in them pleasing and attractive.”

Marcus believed that everything must be aligned with nature. Even the smallest detail has its own charm and beauty in the big picture. Marcus talks about the example of the cracks in the surface of a loaf of bread. In his eyes, they are beautiful even though they were not designed or intentionally added by the baker. They are visually appealing and stimulate the appetite. Observing small details in relation to the bigger picture is a beautiful thought. On the contrary, small characteristics are not pleasing and attractive when they are not according to nature. This is an important lesson for us at the Gemba – Why is the operator reaching out to get his retracted tool every time? Small characteristics not according to nature indicate all of the wasteful motions which can have a negative impact on a rational natural process.

3) Labor Not Unwillingly:

“Labor not unwillingly, nor without regard to the common interest, nor without due consideration, nor with distraction”.

When we do something, do we pay attention to the purpose? How many times do we catch ourselves doing things without thought, just to realize that we have wasted away a whole weekend. Does my action do anything to improve the common betterment of my organization, my family, or my neighborhood?

Marcus continues;

“On every occasion a man should ask himself, ‘Is this one of the unnecessary things?’”

Tim Ferriss talks about a Not-To-Do list [3], which is a list of things not to be done instead of a list of thing that needs to be done. This different approach trains our minds to pay attention to the habits that secretly steal valuable time away from us.

Marcus also advises us to “Do every act with a purpose.”

4) Don’t Jump to Conclusions:

“Honor the faculty which produces opinion. On this faculty it entirely depends whether there exists in your ruling part any opinion inconsistent with nature and the constitution of a rational being. And this faculty urges freedom from hasty judgment.”

Marcus clearly explains why we should not jump to conclusions. We need to recognize the faculty to ensure that the opinion is consistent with nature (virtuous) and rational.

Marcus continues;

“Make for yourself a definition or description of every object presented to you, so as to see distinctly what it is in its own naked substance, complete, and entire.”

Marcus is advising us to use a methodical approach to give us a rational and virtuous opinion when a situation presents itself to us the next time at the Gemba.

5) Be Virtuous:

“Whatever you do, do it as befits that character of goodness in the sense in which a man is rightfully supposed to be good. Hold this rule in every act.”

Virtue is a key theme in Stoicism. Virtue is getting the human mind aligned with nature.

Marcus continues;

“To a rational being the act that is according to nature is according to reason.”

The natural life is one controlled by reason. Stoics believe that happiness is found in virtue. How would you apply this in your organization? Are people happy in your organization? Does your organization provide happiness to your neighborhood? For example, one of Toyota’s Guiding Principles is –  “Dedicate our business to providing clean and safe products and to enhancing the quality of life everywhere through all of our activities.”

6) Pursuit of Rationality:

“Always hasten by the short way: and the short way is the natural one. Say and do everything in conformity with sound reason. For such a rule frees a man from trouble and strife and artifice and ostentatious display.”

Marcus is advising that the easy way is not necessarily the shortest way. The path chosen with sound reason, in alignment with nature is the short one. In the first manual of Toyota Production System, there was a concept that was introduced as the “pursuit of rationality”. Marcus has explained this really well. It is not always about efficiency, but about effectiveness. We should pay more attention to effectiveness than efficiency.

7) Staying Calm:

“You can pass your life in a calm flow of happiness, if you can take the right way, and think and act in the right way. The two things common to the soul of God and to the soul of man, and to the soul of every rational being, are not be hindered in their purpose by another; and to holds good the disposition of justice and the practice of it, and in this to let your desire find its satisfaction.”

Stoics are expected to remain calm in all situations, like an emotionless being. This is not exactly true. Stoics are expected to express emotions like being startled by a loud sound, but they are not to dwell on the emotion. They find calmness and happiness when they do not let the opinions and emotions control them. They do not get distracted by the acts of others or by things that are beyond their control, as long as they stay on their path. This is similar to the Serenity Prayer[4].

Marcus continues;

“I do my duty. Other things do not trouble me, for they are either things without life or things without reason, or things that have wandered and know not the way.”

“No man can hinder you from living according to reason of your own nature; nothing will happen to you contrary to the reason of the universal nature.”

Things can go against your way on a frequent basis at the Gemba. To be a good leader, heed Marcus’ advice.

8) Holistic View:

“Consider frequently the connection of all things in the universe and their relation to one another.”

 “All parts in the universe are interwoven with one another, and the bond is sacred. Nothing is unconnected with some other thing.”

“Observe the continuous spinning of the thread and the single texture of the web.”

Marcus believed in the grand scheme of things and the natural order. He advises us to look at everything from a systems standpoint. Everything is connected to one another. Changing one thing here can cause changes at another end, and sometimes we cannot anticipate the extent of the consequences.

“That which is not good for the swarm, is not good for the single bee.”

He also advises us to look at the optimization from a system standpoint and not from a local optimization standpoint.

9) Respect:

“He who acts unjustly acts irreverently. For since the universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another, to help one another according to their worth, but in no way to injure one another.”

“First, do nothing thoughtlessly or without a purpose. Secondly, see that your acts are directed to a social end.”

Being rational in Stoicism means to work towards a  common good in accordance with nature. This also indicates that you should allow everybody to reach their greatest potential, which is the rational thing to do. Harmony is a key theme in Stoicism, and this means being harmonious with nature as well as with other human beings. There is a lot of similarities between the concept of “Wa” in the Japanese culture. I have talked about it here [5].

Marcus also talked about being willing to request help from others.

“Be not ashamed to take help… Stand erect or be helped to stand erect.”

10) Change Must Happen:

“Is anyone afraid of change? Why, what can be done without change?”

Marcus advises us that change is inevitable. Marcus continues;

“Life is more like wrestling than dancing, in that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets, however unexpected.”

We must be ready to wrestle while being rational. We should pursue rationality, engage in contemplation on a regular basis, do things that are only just, and be prepared.

Final Words:

Marcus Aurelius did not write “Meditations” in the hopes that it would be read by generations to come. He wrote these passages as part of his journal. The book does not have any particular organized structure to it. It is also strange that the title that Marcus gave to the book did not mean “Meditations”. In Greek, it meant “To Himself”. The title was given by an anonymous person much later.

My favorite section from the book also captures the essence of the book:

“Where every act must be performed in accord with the reason which is common to gods and men, we have nothing to fear; when we can profit by activity which is successful and in harmony with our nature, need suspect no harm.

Everywhere and at all times it is in your power to accept reverently your present condition, to behave justly to those about you, and to exert your skill to control your thoughts, that nothing shall steal into them without being well examined.”

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Gemba Playlist:

[1] Ethics: The Study of Moral Values – Mortimer J Adler and Seymour Cain

[2]Marcus Aurelius and His Times by Walter J Black Inc.

[3] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/not-to-do-list-9-habits-stop-now-tim-ferriss

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer

[5] https://harishsnotebook.wordpress.com/2016/05/15/the-idea-of-wa-in-nemawashi/

Concept of Constraints in Facing Problems:

220px-Atlas_Santiago_Toural_GFDL

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/

Entropy in the Manufacturing World:

ukiyoe

In today’s post, I will be looking at Entropy in the Manufacturing world. Entropy is generally defined as disorder. This general definition can sometimes be inadequate. Let’s look at the example of a desk in an office; One could say that if the desk appears to be in order (neat and tidy), then it has low entropy. However, the concept of orderliness is very subjective. Entropy can be referred to as the measure of disorderliness. To me, if I am able to know where everything is, and I can access each item quickly, then my desk has low entropy. It may not seem “ordered” to an outsider, and he may conclude that my desk has high entropy. The second law of Thermodynamics can be loosely stated as – the entropy always increases. Thus, a desk will always get messier. There is a probability aspect to entropy. There are many different ways the things on my desk can be arranged, and only a very small number of those arrangements can be concluded as “ordered”. There is a multitude of more ways a desk can be seen more disorderly than the small number of ways it can be seen as orderly. Thus, from a probability standpoint, it is always likely that a desk is messy unless there is a consistent process in place to keep it back to the “ordered” state at frequent intervals. This line of thinking also shows that the more things you have on your desk, your desk is always most likely to be in a state of “messiness”. Interestingly, 5S in Lean requires you to limit the number of items in an area to only those items that are needed. All of the extra items are encouraged to be removed.

Entropy can also be explained in terms of the element of surprise. For example, a brand new deck of playing cards in order has low entropy because one knows exactly where every card is. There is minimal element of surprise. If one were to riffle shuffle the cards once, there is still some form or order maintained in the cards. For example, the order of the cards from Ace to King is not disturbed. There may be some different cards in between, but the Three of Hearts is still above Four of Hearts, even though there may be other suit cards in between them. This concept is known to magicians and used in several magic tricks. When the cards are shuffled again and again, the knowledge of any form of order is lost, and the entropy thus increases. With a good shuffled deck of cards, any card presents an element of surprise – new information. With the same logic used in the previous paragraph, it is very unlikely that continuous shuffling will bring a deck back to the original new deck order. There is always more ways for the deck to be in a different order than a new deck order. In the new deck order, if you are required to produce the King of Hearts, it is simple to do it since you know the order of the cards. You can do this fairly quickly. However, when the deck is shuffled, this becomes harder. You will need more time to look through every single card until you get to the King of Hearts. Although it is not exactly the same, it is stated that as entropy increases, it causes decaying of energy. In other words, the useable energy becomes less and less. Thus if one were to put the concept of value with regards to entropy, one could say that high entropy states do not yield value. Jeremy Campbell, in his wonderful book “Grammatical Man” states;

“At the heart of the second law (of Thermodynamics) is the insight has order has value.”

From this light, one can understand the need to maintain order in the manufacturing plant. The management strives to maintain low entropy within the manufacturing system, and they surely do not appreciate elements of surprises. From their viewpoint, painting all cars black does make sense. Producing the same item in big numbers using the principles of mass manufacturing is an attractive proposition for management. More number of products and components bring disorder and increase in entropy. Thus minimizing the variety of products manufactured also will be an attractive proposition for management.

However, the world has become smaller globally, and the market is asking for variety. From a Complexity Science standpoint, one can say that the manufacturing processes are ordered or complicated. There are good cause and effect relationships, and these can be easily controlled. However, the complexity outside a manufacturing plant is increasing with the advent of the information age. A manufacturer in China can sell his goods in America, and vice-versa easier. The demand for variety from the market is increasing and the manufacturer cannot make only black cars anymore to stay in business.

The management has to realize that the organizations are not technical systems, but sociotechnical systems. When you treat an organization as a technical system you assume that direct, linear cause and effect relationships exist, and that it is able to control the system through hierarchy. The most important requirement in this case becomes to minimize entropy. Entropy has a negative relationship with efficiency in mechanical (technical) systems. The goal of a sociotechnical system is not primarily to lower the entropy at all times. Complexity lies between low entropy and high entropy. Complex problems require complex dynamic solutions. Organizations should become complex adaptive systems and be able to move between phases in order to thrive. “Everything changes” is the reality, and thus the organization should be able to change and adapt the actions to meet the needs posed by the environment. The idea of order implies a state of permanence. The organization has to go through phases of permanence and impermanence to be able to thrive. Analogically, this is similar to the idea of kaizen in the Toyota Production System, where kaizen requires standards. Kaizen, the idea of change to improve, requires order (standards).  This is also the going back and forth between permanence and impermanence. In the complex world today, nothing should be set in stone.

I will finish with a wonderful lesson from Shunryū Suzuki-roshi;

“Suzuki Roshi, I’ve been listening to your lectures for years,” a student said during the question and answer session following a lecture, “but I just don’t understand. Could you just please put it in a nutshell? Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?”

Everyone laughed. Suzuki laughed.

“Everything changes,” he said. Then he asked for another question.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Minimal Critical Specification.

Minimal Critical Specification:

bur

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.

Three Reminders for 2017:

whch-horse

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.

Never Let a Mistake Go To Waste:

chaosmonkey410

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.

Sideroxylon Grandiflorum and the Unintended Consequences Phenomenon:

dodo-trees

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.

Ten Things I Learned from The Walking Dead

wd

The Walking Dead is one of the most successful TV shows in America. The story follows Rick Grimes and his group of friends and family in a Zombie apocalypse. I got hooked onto it last year and binge watched all the available seasons on Netflix with my wife. I have come to realize that The Walking Dead can teach you one or two things about Management. Here is my list of 10 things I learned from The Walking Dead. I am hopeful that you can also learn to survive the “problems apocalypse” in your work or life.

  • Observe and let the patterns emerge:

The whole world is falling apart. Nobody knows what to do. Everybody is turning into zombies. It is chaos everywhere. Have you felt that sometimes at work everything is falling apart? There is one problem after the other. What is going on?

You have to let the patterns emerge to start making sense of things. At first Rick and his group thought that you have to be bitten for a person to become a zombie. It was later learned that any person once he dies becomes a zombie. Similarly, they learned that a zombie can be “killed” by destroying its brain. The group has learned to observe and let the patterns emerge! Once the patterns emerge, you can start creating basic rules to survive.

  • This too shall pass:

Rick and his group have learned the important lesson – this too shall pass. If you see a horde of zombies coming your way or if you are surrounded by zombies, panicking will not help. Understand that the problem seems insurmountable at the time, but the problem too shall pass. Each problem is an opportunity that you can learn from.

  • Learn to adapt/ keep learning new things to survive:

Rick’s group contains people from different walks of life. Glenn, a major character was a pizza delivery boy prior to the zombie apocalypse. Glenn learned the superior zombie survival skills to emerge as a leader in his group. Rick’s group had to learn to adapt to live in the new world. They had to always keep learning new things to survive, such as fighting, using guns, hunting etc. Similarly, to overcome stagnation apocalypse at your work or in life, you have to keep learning new things.

As Dr. Deming may or may not have said:

“It is not necessary to adapt/change. Survival is not mandatory.”

  • Teamwork:

The only way Rick’s group is able to keep on surviving is because of only one thing – teamwork. Each person in his group is important. They have appointed Rick as their leader, and they work together to survive. Rick’s group goes out from their haven to the outside world in order to scavenge food and necessities to survive. They risk their lives to do this, and they are able to do it only because of teamwork. Nobody tries to sub-optimize. They know that it is not about one person, and that it is about the group. Anybody trying to look out only for themselves gets killed. It is about system optimization!

  • Rotate/follow-up:

Even if you are good at what you do, you need to rotate your job. You need experts but your team thrives from cross-training. Especially on an assembly line, rotation of the job is important to stay alert. If you are not on the assembly line, request review of what you do. You will learn more that way. Give and take feedback! Remember this, when you are on a watch for zombies, always rotate for survival.

  • Ground Yourself:

Life can be stressful. Your work can be stressful. It is easy to lose hope. You need to learn to manage stress. Find joy in the little things of life. You have to learn methods to ground yourself back to your place of confidence and serenity. The lesson of grounding yourself is very important in martial arts disciplines such as Aikido. Rick’s group has enemies in both zombies and remaining predatory human survivors. Rick’s group knows that losing your cool can get yourself killed.

  • There is almost always a way:

No matter how unsolvable a problem is, there is always a way. Sometimes, there is more than one way. Rick’s group has been in several situations where they felt like there is no way out. But always they found a way out.

Something that I have always wondered while watching the show is– why not climb a tree to escape from the zombies? Zombies do not climb trees.

  • Make sure everybody knows the plan:

One thing that Rick is really good at is that he lets his group know what the plan is. This is important in order to survive. Rick has laid down the rules, and everybody is happy to adhere to the rules. In the show, whenever the leader does not share his plans (e.g. the governor, a negative character in the show) it always ends up bad for his group. When everybody is working towards the common goal, you reach your goal faster, better and cheaper. You need to let your team know the what, the why, the who, the when and the how. Keep your communication lines open and your plans transparent.

  • Develop your people:

Rick is wise to know that you need to develop your people. Almost all the members in his group started off as scared and unsure. For example Carol, a strong character and care taker in his group, was initially portrayed as meek and defenseless. Carol has become a resourceful and strong leader in her own right. She provides counsel to Rick with difficult decisions and protects the group from outside dangers.

Rick helped develop his group members to be strong and able to handle themselves in an emergency. Rick has developed his group with a strong purpose – survival of the entire group. Rick is able to let others lead when required. Rick knows that he cannot survive without his group.

  • Don’t rest on your laurels:

This is most likely the largest of Rick’s pet peeves. He hates the idea of being complacent. His group has been through a lot, but he does not want them to drop their guard. One misstep can lead to a big loss. He is keen on growing themselves and being ready for what comes next. Today’s success does not guarantee tomorrow’s success.

Always keep on learning, and remember to run for the tree when the zombies come…

Who is right?

132

I came across a great graphic that I thought I should share.

right

The graphic above shows the importance of understanding the perception of the other party involved. This helps us in understanding their viewpoint.

It is also important as a leader in your organization that when you are trying to spread your vision, to make sure you understand how your employees view your vision. The view at the top of the organization may not match the view at the bottom of the organization.

The view at the top of the organization may not match the view at the bottom of the organization.

Alexander the Great and the monk:

There is a great story I heard from Devdutt Pattanaik, that explains this really well. I have paraphrased it.

Alexander the great reached India after conquering a lot of nations. On his path to conquer India, he met a monk. The monk was sitting on a rock enjoying the beauty of nature. The monk was naked, and belonged to a sect of Jainism.

Alexander watched the monk for a while. The monk was just sitting and smiling, totally oblivious of Alexander watching him.

“What are you doing?” Alexander asked the monk.

“I am enjoying being nothing.” the monk looked at Alexander, and said.

“What a fool to sit there and do nothing?” Alexander laughed at him. Alexander saw the monk as wasting his life away, doing nothing.

“What are you doing?” the monk asked Alexander.

“I am conquering the world”, Alexander replied with great pride.

Now the monk started laughing at Alexander.

“What a fool to pursue such a futile effort?” the monk thought to himself.

The next time, you face an opposing view; try to understand where the other party is coming from. What is his viewpoint? Are you the monk or Alexander?

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Lean and the Mountain.