How You Perceive PDSA Will Dicate How You Succeed With It

The Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle lies at the heart of lean thinking. It arose from a need to systematically solve problems and make sure that once solved they would not arise again. I.e. PDSA is a way to make a system wide improvement.

Rooted in the scientific method, PDSA acknowledges that adults learn best by doing, and thus it encourages experimentation. The cycle is simple enough: we plan some work (which is actually a hypothesis); we do some work (run the experiment); we study the results (where we learn about the system we are experimenting against); and finally we take actions, making sure, for example, that if we’ve improved the system, we do not regress to a previous, dysfunctional state. Continue reading

Rational Ideas from Irrational Systems

In Man for Himself, Fromm says that psychoanalysis’s main function:

has been that of “debunking,” of demonstrating that value judgements and ethical norms are the rationalized expressions of irrational – and often unconscious – desires and fears […].

In the workplace there are processes that seem rational, but they are often born of someone’s rationalised expression of a deep fear. For example, in finance, many companies have to report to the central bank (or other regulatory bodies). The central bank is scary. One person – or maybe a collective – may create a ‘central bank coordination team’. This team uses processes to deal with requests from the central bank. Maybe the team and the processes grow but they will never add any value. The only purpose they serve is to relieve the anxiety that surrounds interacting with the central bank.

As time goes on, and as everyone gets used to the idea, the wholly irrational idea of a ‘central bank coordination team’ becomes a norm. It is never questioned. Suggest dismantling the coordination team and you will be met with hostility. (This is why lean transformations are always met with hostility – would you like to tell the central bank coordination team that their work is waste and based on a hidden fear?)

Rational Responses in Irrational Systems
There is another feature of irrationality at work. If the system is utterly irrational then an irrational response actually makes sense. For example, it’s not normal (really it’s not) to CC your boss in every email. But this is a rational response to an angry, blaming culture.

In last week’s newspaper I saw that some children in Colorado now have bullet proof backpacks. One father said of his daughter, ‘If you put it on her back, it almost covers her whole body.’ The father went onto say, ‘It was a very hard conversation to have but she knows that it's something that will keep her safe’. This is a rational response to an irrational system.

Organisational Design
It seems to me that anyone capable of understanding their own fears and desires is more likely to design a functional organisation. They say that organisational change is dependent on personal change - if a person needs to first uncover their hidden fears before going on to design their organisation, then this cliché holds.

Further Reading
'US schools weigh bulletproof uniforms: 'It's no different than a seatbelt in a car'', Roberts, The Guardian, 26th of April, 2013. Accessed on 27th of April, 2013. Available from:

Fromm (1947), Man For Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics. My edition 1990,  Holt Paperbacks.

Summary of and Some Thoughts on 'Manage your energy not your time'

There is an ever increasing demand on employees to perform at a higher level. Traditionally it was accepted that this demand could be met by employees spending an ever increasing amount of time in the office. The longer hours inevitably lead to exhaustion, more stress, illness and ironically a less productive work force. Organisations need to change the way they view the relationship between themselves and employees in order to create a mutually beneficial and sustainable association. An environment needs to be created that energises employees and unleashes their creativity. Continue reading

The Importance of Coding

I learnt at school, on a BBC, a computer, not surprisingly, commissioned by the BBC as part of their computer literacy drive. I was 10 at the time and, it's fair to say, that computer changed my life because 10 years later, when I enrolled on my computer science course, I had a feel for programming and that feel was enough to get me started.

In the video, the thing I most agree with is that coding teaches tenacity. For me, years of programming, at least a decade, taught me how not to give up. Now, no disrespect intended, but when I started organising, managing, etc, I found it very easy because re-jigging a team or even a helping with a cultural change is nowhere near as intellectually hard as programming a computer. I was also lucky because sharing a computer with my brother, and later a super-computer with my peers at Edinburgh University, also taught me about resource allocation. (And OSs taught me about queueing; and Boehm taught me the iteration; and parsers and compilers introduced me to Chomsky; and my second year under-grad project introduced me to Tuckman; etc.)
Enjoy the vid.

Contextual Ambidexterity

I am reading a paper entitled ‘Building Ambidexterity Into an Organization’. The paper was written by Julian Birkinshaw and Cristina Gibson and is available on-line here: In the paper the authors describe ambidexterity as the ability to ‘master both adaptability and alignment’. I.e. the ability to grab new business opportunities whilst exploiting current capabilities.

Later in the paper they describe a phenomena called contextual ambidexterity. Although they identify four characteristics of ambidextrous individuals, they do say that ‘an individual’s ability to exhibit ambidexterity is facilitated (or constrained) by the organizational context in which he or she operates, so contextual ambidexterity can also be diagnosed and understood as a higher-order organizational capability’. Continue reading

The Bedroom Tax and the Counter Intuitive Truth that Cost-Cutting Increases Costs

I wanted to talk today about the bedroom tax. The bedroom tax is a new policy idea from the British Government. It goes something like this: The Government provide housing benefit to lower income families. If such families have an extra bedroom, i.e. if their house is under occupied, they will lose 14% of their benefit. If they have 2 or more bedrooms they will lose 25% of their benefit. The reason for this change in rules is to save £480 million. I.e. it’s a cost cutting exercise. Ministers say those who can’t afford the reduction in benefit will be encouraged to ‘move to smaller properties’. (‘Bedroom tax will be costly disaster, says housing chief’, The Guardian, available from: Accessed on 31st of March, 2012.)

Many people who claim this benefit will live in what in England we call council houses. These are houses provided by the government via the local council. The rents on these properties are quite low. Many of these houses have two or three bedrooms. Those who live alone in a two bedroom house but who cannot afford the 14% reduction in their housing benefit can, for example, request from the council a one bedroom flat (apartment) or house. But there aren’t that many of those. What that means, then, is that those who cannot afford the 14% reduction will move into privately owned houses, whose rents are higher than the houses provided by the council. Continue reading

Why Do Any Of That Stuff?

On Thursday, at work, we watched a video that highlighted three important facets of motivation. They are:

  • Purpose.
  • Mastery.
  • Autonomy.

We get asked to help customer with motivation. But, we can’t (and don’t) start with the above three. The first thing we usually do is work with our clients to surface, and then challenge, their assumptions. We do this using dialoguing, visual modelling, and the like. The question we are trying so answer in this period is simple: do you believe that people want to be autonomous? And thereafter, do you believe that their autonomy will lead to high levels of motivation? And thereafter, do you think a highly motivated staff will help you to succeed?

This sounds easy, written down like this, but it’s the hardest part of the process and the most likely time of failure. Imagine the conflict that is created by learning that the things you knew - about control, about hierarchy, about financial rewards - was basically wrong. Surfacing, and then overcoming this conflict is the key to organisational change.

It’s only after old assumptions have been surfaced that we can start to think about purpose. Thereafter, we think about autonomy, which we often achieve using self-organising teams. Finally, the system of work needs supporting with a system of coaching. This has numerous benefits, including helping our colleagues with their personal mastery, and therefore their motivation.

Purpose, autonomy and mastery are the foundations of motivation. In order to build a business around them, you have to first believe them. Once the belief is there, you need to work out your greater purpose. From beliefs and purpose, we design structures that allow for mastery and autonomy (and later innovation).

In Other News

In this morning’s newspaper, an interview with Noam Chomsky was published. Chomsky said,

I don't think any individual changes anything alone. Martin Luther King was an important figure but he couldn't have said: ‘This is what I changed.’ He came to prominence on a groundswell that was created by mostly young people acting on the ground.

Edemariam, “Noam Chomsky: ‘No individual changes anything alone’”, The Guardian, accessed on 23/03/2013. Available from:

This is another key to organisational change. No one person changes anything; no one person comes in and says, ‘hey, what are your thoughts on this autonomy and mastery and what-not’. The change agent, if he or she is lucky, simply tap into, and maybe help channel, existing thoughts and ideas. (Often thoughts and ideas that, with a moment’s thought, seem rooted in common sense.)

What, then, does one change agent ever really achieve? I would say, not much. The best we can hope for is to be a part of something wonderful, something bigger than ourselves. Helping as many organisations as possible, starting with our own, tap into the things that make us happy, productive and joyous, is maybe the best any of us can do.

I Don't Want That

Communications are quite difficult. Only the other week my friend’s wife told him that she wanted him to spend less time at work. Touched by her deep compassion and desire for him to be well, the following week my friend went to the golf course three times and played squash on the Friday. His wife was not amused.

I have to confess, this example actually came out of a book, Nonviolent Communication, but it sprang to my mind because I have a number of friends who are golf mad. I am also sure that if my mates are anything like me, they recognise such miscommunications – but I do wonder if any of us can diagnose them.

So what is really happening? The request from the wife was phrased in the negative. This masqueraded her real need, which was for the husband to spend more time at home. I can relate to this. An ex of mine worked really hard. I used to say things like this: I really don’t like you working there; or I wish you could be less tired. In hindsight, I realise that what I really meant to say was that I’d like to see more of you.

In summary, the key lessons with requests in the negative are:

  • They are likely to lead to miscommunications, like the one above.
  • They are likely to be met with resistance – it’s more powerful to say to your colleague, “I need you support this week” than it is to say, “I wish you’d spend less time working on that DevOps conference”.

I have come to believe that negative requests are a source of great confusion in the workplace. Training ourselves to actually state what we actually need would save us - and all of our wives - a great deal of hassle.