The Effectiveness of Automation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always keep on learning…

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

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Entropy in the Manufacturing World:

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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.

The Incomplete Solution:

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

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

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

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

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

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

And

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

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

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

“All models are wrong but some are useful”.

And

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Words:

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

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

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

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

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

The other replied, “The wind is moving.”

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

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

Always keep on learning…

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

What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping in Systems?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toyo wished to do sanzen also.

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

But the child insisted, so the teacher finally consented.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sound of one hand was not the locusts.

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

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

Toyo had realized the sound of one hand.

Always keep on learning…

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

The Forth Bridge Principle:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Takt time
  • Work sequence
  • Standard Inventory

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

“Without standards, there can be no kaizen”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always keep on learning…

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

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.

Respect for People in Light of Systems Thinking:

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Respect for People is one of the two pillars in the Toyota Way and in today’s post I will be looking at Respect for People in the light of ideas from the late great Systems Thinker, Russell Ackoff. This post is inspired by Ackoff’s teachings.

Back in the old days (Renaissance period onwards – 1400’s) humans knew little and thought that they knew everything. There was a lot of stress on “Analysis” and “cause and effect” thinking. The thinking behind “Analysis” is that one learns a phenomenon by taking things apart. This was seen as the only way to understand the universe – by breaking down things and studying each part. This fostered the idea of cause and effect thinking. Every relationship was seen as a cause and an effect, in a linear fashion. In Ackoff’s words, this led to interesting doctrines;

The commitment to cause-and-effect thinking led to … if we want to explain a phenomenon, all we have to do is find its cause. To further explain that cause, we simply treat it as an effect and find its cause. But is there any end to this causal regression? If the universe can be completely understood, there had to be a first cause—and this was the official doctrine as to why God exists. God is the only thing in the universe that could not be explained because God was the first cause.

This type of linear thinking led us to thinking of the world as a clockwork machine. The Industrial Revolution introduced the machine age where work could be mechanized. Work was seen in a reductionist viewpoint as a simple transformation of matter through energy. Frederick Taylor, proponent of Scientific Management, introduced the ideas of improving efficiency through principles of Industrial Engineering. Work could now be broken down into basic elements – analysis, and each element can be focused on to improve it. The modern factory consisted of machines and humans engaged in these basic tasks in a clockwork fashion. In Ackoff’s words;

The machines and people were then aggregated into a network of elementary tasks dedicated to the production of a product—the modern factory. In the process of mechanizing work, however, we made people behave as though they were machines. We dehumanized work.

This goes against the idea of Respect for Humanity. Toyota teaches that its production system is a Thinking Production System, and that their operators are not just a pair of hands.

Ackoff concludes that the idea of free will, introduction of the Uncertainty principle and Systems Thinking launched the Systems Age in the first half of Twentieth Century. In Systems Thinking, the approach of “Synthesis” was introduced. “Synthesis” uses the opposite approach to “Analysis”.” Synthesis” is the idea of putting things together to understand the system. In Ackoff’s words;

The first step of synthesis is to determine the larger system of which the system to be explained is a part. The second step is to try to understand the larger system as a whole. The third step is to disaggregate the understanding of the whole into an understanding of the part by identifying its role or function in the containing system.

If Analysis leads to Knowledge, Synthesis leads to Understanding! However, this also meant that we may never be able to understand the whole universe. The concept of Synthesis forces us to look at the impact of the environment and each factor and how they interact with each other. This was missing in Analysis. This idea led to the understanding that an organization is not a simple mechanistic clockwork where people are mere forms of “living machinery”. An organization in the light of Systems Thinking becomes a Social Technical system. Ackoff advises us;

Most managers are still acting as though the corporation is a mechanism or an organism, not a social system. Although we don’t normally treat machines as organisms, one legacy from the Machine Age is that we have a tendency to treat organisms as machines, and even social systems as machines. That has a very limited usefulness, but it is not nearly as useful as looking at a social system as a social system.

This provides further insight into the concept of Respect for People in my opinion. Respect for People is not thinking in terms of the Machine Age. It is about looking at the social system and seeing workers as people who can think and come up with better ways of doing things, and where the system gains from their input.

Final Words:

I encourage the readers to read or watch anything that is available from Russell Ackoff. I will finish off with a “Zen” story from Japan that talks about the harmony of the whole;

There’s a story about the famous rock garden at Ryōanji temple. The story goes that when the garden was finished, the designer showed it to the priest and asked him what he thought.

The priest was delighted. “It’s magnificent!” he said. “Especially that rock there!”

The garden designer immediately removed the rock. For him, the harmony of the whole was paramount.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Value of Silence.