The Weekly Meeting

Monday afternoons at two-thirty. That was the time for our weekly staff meeting. When I joined the company everyone was required to attend it: engineers, technicians and operators. The head of our department, the Director of Quality, led it.

It was a rare week when the meeting started on time. Mondays were also when we had our one-on-one meetings with the Director and he had one of those exchanges going on right before our staff meeting. It always went over. So several of us would gather and wait outside of the meeting room until we were noticed and motioned to come in.

Even with this routine delay I don’t remember a single week when everyone was present before the meeting started. There was frequently at least one person who creeped in late. It wasn’t always the same person either. Some late comers might put on an apologetic face at times, but a few were shamelessly indifferent of their indiscretion.

Just as the meeting never started on time, it didn’t end on time either. I recall a few occasions when I wondered whether the meeting actually ended.

The Director got our meeting going by sharing a subset of the highlights and lowlights of the previous week that he gets in an email from the corporate overlords. We cheered the highlights and bemoaned the lowlights even though none of us could draw a connection to any them with the specific work we did. They did not prompt any actions for our department. They were also divorced from similar points shared in the previous week; presented as stand-alone bits of information. On those occasions when someone did make a tentative connection, it unleashed pent up frustrations with people feeding off of each other to blame some nonpresent “they.” So what purpose did this update serve? I couldn’t tell you.

Following the update, the Director shared his schedule for the current week. It always showed back-to-back meetings, sometimes overlapping, from the start of the workday to its end, for the whole week. So when did he have time to think and plan, to draw up an agenda for his meetings, to follow-up on assignments, to analyze, understand, and guide the performance of the system he was charged to direct? At first I had felt sympathy. What sort of monstrous organization drives its people like this? But it didn’t last long. I recognized much of it was self imposed and not a demand of the organization. It was his way of showing others how busy and engaged he was, how hard he was working, how committed he was to the company. It was all light and no heat. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but I don’t think so.

After he finished his update he would ask each staff member if they had anything to share. Most did not. Some, though, shared information on what they were doing in excruciating detail. Usually it was about “unexpected” hurdles, blocks, or breakdowns. They were the same from week to week. This was another opportunity to vent about those others who didn’t follow procedures, the unreasonable surge in demand for our services, or how the system is broken and needs fixing. Who is going to fix it? How should it be fixed? What resources are needed for the fix? That requires a plan. But when is there time and space for that?

Once a month the Director would remind everyone to calculate and report metrics they were responsible for. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that at least one was delayed. Not always the same one, but it came with all the usual excuses.

That was the ritual.

Hiring the Best and Brightest

Companies have been proudly proclaiming that they hire only the best and brightest. Ignoring the fact that this is a bogus claim – personal experience at a dozen different companies has demonstrated otherwise – a firm would find it all but impossible to function with the best and brightest.

Back in 1994 Dr Russell Ackoff shared an example that elegantly explains why.

I read in the New York Times recently that 457 different automobiles are available in the United States. Let’s buy one of each and bring them into a large garage.

Let’s then hire 200 of the best automotive engineers in the world and ask them to determine which car has the best engine. Suppose they come back and say Rolls Royce has the best engine. Make a note of it.

“Which one has the best transmission?”, we ask them and they go run tests and come back and say the Mercedes does.

“Which one has the best battery?” [They] come back and say the Buick does.

And one by one, for every part required for an automobile, they tell us which is the best one available.

Now we take that list and give it back to them and say “Remove those parts from those cars. Put them together into the best possible automobile,” because now we’ll have an automobile consisting of all the best parts.

What do we get? You don’t even get an automobile, for the obvious reason that the parts don’t fit!

The performance of the system depends on how the parts fit, not how they act taken separately.

A significant portion of organizational excellence depends on how employees interact with one another i.e. how they fit together, not how they act individually.

Dr. Ackoff’s entire talk titled “Beyond Continual Improvement” is worth listening to.

Lessons for Education Reformers from W. Edwards Deming, America’s Leading Management Thinker

Originally posted on Andrea Gabor:

W. Edwards Deming united scientific and humanistic appoachs to management W. Edwards Deming united scientific and humanistic approaches to management

When I returned from speaking at the annual conference of the Deming Institute in Los Angeles last month, the education sites were abuzz about a new Time magazine cover trumpeting “Bad Apples”, the latest example of what has become a new national sport–knee-jerk teacher bashing.

It was a sad reminder of how much our quick-fix, here-today-gone-tomorrow society has forgotten about what our leading institutions learned, less than four decades ago, about the best approach to improving quality—whether at companies, schools or other institutions. These were hard fought lessons learned during a period of deep economic malaise—during the late 1970s and early 1980s—from the man who may have been the most important, and most misunderstood, management thinker of the 20th century.

As I pondered the Time magazine cover and the national narrative of education failure, which scapegoats classroom teachers as the…

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Book Review: “The Bonobo and the Atheist”

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
— Socrates asks Euthyphro in Plato’s “Euthyphro”
TheBonoboAndTheAtheist In “The Bonobo and the Atheist“, Frans de Waal argues that the source of our morality is not religion. Morality is much older. It arose with life. It has been built into it. So much so that it is seen in apes, monkeys, canids (dogs), whales, and dolphins. Morality isn’t an exclusively human trait.I found de Waal’s explanation compelling and uplifting. At this time when there is such confused, often heated, disagreements over what religion is and what role it should play, it is reassuring to know that nature has built in several backstops to prevent us from complete devolution into anarchy. de Waal’s style in making his points is warm, not confrontational. That made them more compelling than the abrasive condescending approach of neo-atheists like Dawkins or Hitchens.

To be clear, I am not a believer, but I do want to understand the role religion has played in our history. Why does it have such a strong grip on so many of us regardless of culture? I don’t want to displace religion without having something else to take its place and serve the needs it has done up to now. The good news is many civic institutions are rising up to the task. I expect that trend to continue into the future freeing us from the need to believe in something supernatural.

I enjoyed the book. I agree with de Waal’s message. But, I didn’t think it was as fun to read as Robert Wright’s “The Moral Animal“. Still, I would recommend it for you to check out. I would love to hear what you think :)

Targets Deconstructed

“Eliminate numerical goals, posters, and slogans for the work force, asking for new levels of productivity without providing methods.”

— Point No. 10 in Dr. W. E. Deming’s 14 points for management as written in “Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position.”

A few weeks ago I had an excellent exchange on Twitter with UK Police Inspector Simon Guilfoyle on the topic of setting numerical targets. He asked “How do you set a numerical target without it being arbitrary? By what method?” Unfortunately, Twitter’s 140 character limit isn’t sufficient for adequately answering his question. I promised him I would write a post that explained my thinking.

When I was working for Samsung Austin Semiconductor (SAS) as a quality assurance engineer, one of my assigned responsibilities was to manage the factory’s overall nonconforming material rate. Over the course of my second year, the factory averaged a four percent* nonconforming material rate. The run chart for the monthly nonconforming material rate showed a stable system of variation.

As the year drew to a close, I began thinking about my goals for the following year. I knew I would continue to be responsible for managing the factory’s overall nonconforming material rate. What should I set as my target for it? Not knowing any better, I set it to be the rate we achieved for the current year: four percent. If nothing else, it was based on data. But my manager at the time, a Korean professional on assignment to the factory, mockingly asked me if I wasn’t motivated to do better. He set my target at two percent*; a fifty percent reduction.

What was the two percent number based on? How did he come about it? I had no insight and he didn’t bother to explain it either. From my perspective, it was an arbitrary numerical target; plucked out of thin air. I remember how incredibly nervous I felt about it. How was I going to achieve it? I had no clue nor guidance. I also remember how anxiety filled and frustrating the following year turned out for me. I watched the rate with a hawk eye. I hounded process engineers to do something whenever their process created a nonconforming lot. It was not a pleasant time for anyone.

Since then I’ve worked at several other companies in different industries. Nevertheless, my experience at SAS seems to be the norm when it comes to setting targets. This is regardless of the role, the industry or the culture. And, as far as I’ve been able to figure out, this approach to setting targets is driven more by tradition and arrogance than any objective thoughtful method. “Improve performance by 50% over last year!”, so the mantra goes. Worse still, no method is provided for achieving such arbitrary improvement targets. I’ve been told “You’re smart. You’ll figure out how to do it.”

So it’s not a surprise for me that folks like the good Inspector have become convinced all numerical targets are inherently arbitrary; that there is no objective and justifiable way to set them. Having been on the receiving end of such targets many times, I used to think the same, too. But just because people don’t know of a different way to set a target, one that is objective and can be justified, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. I believe numerical targets can be set in an objective fashion. It, however, requires thoughtfulness, great effort and understanding on the part of the person setting the target.

One way to set a target is to use the performance of a reference for comparison. In my case, the SAS factory I worked at had a sister facility in Korea. It would have been reasonable, albeit crude, to set my target for the nonconforming material rate to that achieved by the sister facility (if it was better.**) An argument could have been made that the target was achieved elsewhere, so it can be reached.

As part of our Twitter exchange, the Inspector made the point that regardless of whether these factories were defined to be sisters, there would still be differences between them. Therefore, they will generate a nonconforming material rate that is a function of their present system architecture. He is absolutely right! Setting a target for my factory based on the performance achieved by its sister facility alone will do nothing to improve the performance of my factory. It’s already doing the best it can.

But that’s not the point of setting the target: to operate the same system and expect an improved performance. The point of setting the target is to trigger a change in the system, a redesign in such a way as to achieve a level of performance that, in this case, has been achieved elsewhere. The sister system can be treated as a reference and studied. Differences between systems may be identified and eliminated. Along the way we may find out that some differences cannot be eliminated. Nevertheless, by eliminating the differences where possible the two systems are made more similar to one another and we will have improved the performance.

In the absence of a reference, simulations may be used to objectively define a target. The factory’s overall nonconforming material rate is the combined result of the nonconforming material rates of its individual processes. Investigating the performance of these inputs can help identify opportunities for improvement for each: stabilizing unstable processes, running stable processes on target, reducing the variability of stable on-target processes. All of this can be simulated to determine what is ideally possible. A justifiable target for the nonconforming material rate can then be set with the results. Best of all, the method by which it can be achieved gets defined as part of the exercise.

Finally, targets may be set by the state of the greater environment within which a system operates. All systems operate in a greater environment (e.g. national or global economy); one that is continuously changing in unpredictable ways. City populations grow or shrink. Markets grow or shrink. Polities combine or fragment. What we once produced to meet a demand will in a new environment prove to be too little or too much. A change in state of the external environment should trigger a change in the target of the system. A change in the target of the system should trigger a redesign of the system to achieve it. In Systems lingo, this is a tracking problem.

Targets are essential. They help guide the design or redesign of the system. They can be defined objectively in several different ways. I’ve outlined three above. They do not have to be set in the arbitrary way they currently are. But setting targets isn’t enough. Methods by which to achieve them must be defined. Targets, even objective ones, are meaningless and destructive without the means of achieving them. Failure to achieve targets should trigger an analysis into why the system failed. They should not be used to judge and blame workers within the system.

Sadly, people are like water, finding and using the path of least resistance. Setting arbitrary improvement targets is easier than doing all the work required to set objective ones. They have been successfully justified on the grounds of mindless ambition. No one questions the approach out of fear or ignorance. Positional authority is often used to mock or belittle the worker for not being motivated enough when the truth is something else: managerial ignorance and laziness to do their job.

* I’ve changed the numbers for obvious reasons. However, the message remains the same.

** As it turned out, the nonconforming material rate achieved at my factory was the best ever in all of Samsung!



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Book Review: “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist”

ConfessionOfABuddhistAtheistEvery religion I’ve been exposed to is steeped in rituals and traditions that reach deep into history. I have no doubt that the various beliefs came to be with purpose. They solved a particular problem of the time. They were useful and brought tangible benefits. We carry them on now because we believe they worked in the past and that they will continue to work now and into the future.

What we fail to recognize is that the world is not static. The context for a given ritual or tradition has changed. Reality is like a slow boiling cauldron. Looking in, you think you have identified the surface of the liquid. It looks about the same from moment to moment but it is perpetually bubbling, always shifting. You need to be aware of its shifts and match them to stay on top. The Buddha had this insight 2500+ years ago: all things are conditionally arisen. Our actions need to meet the present reality.

The irony is that while the Buddha’s teachings questioned the validity of rituals and traditions of other religions of his time, Buddhism itself has became steeped in rituals and traditions over the ages. In “Confession of a Buddhist AtheistStephen Batchelor shares his experience of them with Tibetan and Zen Buddhism; his disillusionment with both, and his personal journey to find the historical man that came to be called the Buddha. Along the way he identifies what he believes were the Buddha’s core teachings.

I found the book very readable. I was sympathetic to Batchelor’s story and I gained from his insights.

Quality Is The Problem

Last month I asked “How are you, as a Quality professional, perceived?” in several LinkedIn discussion groups. I hoped to understand what we thought others thought of us. I wanted a qualitative measure of our awareness.

I parsed 108 comments from 55 people. Of them, 30 felt they were perceived poorly, 17 were ambivalent, and 8 felt that others viewed them favorably. The comments fell into one of the following categories:

(+) Consultant/Improvers
(-) Fear/Loathe
(-) Cops/Surveillance
(-) Barriers/Bottlenecks
(-) Necessary Evil/Imposed Cost
(-) Hard to Understand

It appears we, Quality professionals, are very aware. We are sensitive to what others think of us. That is the good news. The bad news, however, and it is really bad news, is that we seem to think others consider us a serious drag on business.

I wondered if such harsh self-criticism was just an issue of poor self-esteem, but I don’t think it is. Based on my observations and experience, I find it to be a fair assessment of how others view us. Even we hold such views of other fellow Quality professionals.

But hold on second. That is not what our profession is about. We are not supposed to be drags on business. We are supposed to be the people that help the makers make things better, faster, stronger.

So where are we going wrong?

If the definition of quality has to do with meeting or exceeding the expectations of the consumer, first we need to understand who is the consumer of the services that Quality professionals offer. Isn’t it our employer? The end user isn’t paying for what we do. Next we need to understand what are the consumer’s expectations. How many of us really understand our employer’s wants? (Try not to substitute in what you think the employer should want with what the employer actually wants. Also, let’s get real, most companies’ Quality Policy is just a set of platitudes.) Finally, we need to evaluate our efforts in the context of what our employer wants.

In this light, do the results our actions as Quality professionals conform to the requirements of our employer? If not, aren’t we imposing a loss on our employer, to use Taguchi’s term? And, from the looks of the categories above, it is not an insignificant loss. Contrary to our purpose, we are generating suffering through our actions!

It is not the role of the Quality professional to set the objectives for the company. It is our role in the service of our employer to provide options on how best to meet those objectives. It is not the role of the Quality professional to choose the ‘best’ option. It is our role to help execute our employer’s choice in the most effective way. I think it would serve us well to get off of our high horses and stop thinking of ourselves as saviors. The sooner we start cooperating with others – being of service to them instead of demanding actions from them – the better we will all be.


How We Look For A New Law

In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we…Now don’t laugh. That’s really true.

Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what…if this is right…if this law that we guessed is right we see what it would imply.

And then we compare those computation results to Nature. Or we say compare to experiment or experience; compared directly with observation to see if it works.

If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to Science. It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is; it doesn’t make a difference how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.

— Richard Feynman


rippleDrop a pebble into a pond. Its effects ripple out. But the ripples don’t radiate infinitely across the surface. Nor do they last forever. At sufficient distance from their center they are hardly distinguishable from the surrounding water. A point beyond the reach of the ripples wouldn’t know that a pebble was ever dropped into the pond.

Drop two pebbles into a pond. Each generates ripples that radiate out. If the pebbles were dropped far from each other, their ripples die out before reaching one another. Each unaware the other happened just as before. But if the pebbles were dropped close to each other, their ripples interfere with one another. Some reach through to the centers themselves. Thus making their presence known. “Here I am! I exist!”

We are sources of ripples in this expanse of existence. I cause ripples at every point and instant I am. So do you. But until our ripples interact with one another we cannot know of each other. In ancestral times we were separated far enough from one another for our ripples to ever interact. We were independent. Alone. That space has shrunk to almost nothing in our time. Our ripples constantly collide with one another. Sometimes constructively, sometimes destructively. We are painfully aware of each other without announcement.

We absorb some of the energy from the ripples that bombard us. Not enough to damp them completely. They reflect off of us. We react to counteract their impact on us. And so no ripple ever settles out. Each seems to get an invisible kick and be periodically rejuvenated. By what and from when seems shrouded in mystery. The water’s surface is forever unsettled. This is the chaos that is life. No peace. No quiet.

As we grow in number, as the space between us continues to shrink, the closer we get to one another, the more we are bombarded with original ripples and ripples from interacting ripples. They come at us from all directions. They come at us faster. There is no way to predict and prepare for the next collision with the here and now. There isn’t time to process what it means. There is no thing to thank or to blame. We only experience it. Rich. Momentary. Unique.


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