Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Review: Enterprise Thinking Class

In connection with my job, I've been asked to attend a class on "Enterprise Thinking." It's two half-day sessions; I just finished day one, and I'm trying to understand the material. The facilitator is using mostly a Socratic method of teaching, asking us questions about how businesses should or should not operate. He is an advocate of W. Edwards Deming, author of, among other things, The New Economics. Deming's business philosophy seems to focus on quality without the emphasis on piece-part quality, like Six Sigma.

Deming's "big message" is a concentration a "System of Profound Knowledge," which he defines as follows:
  1. Appreciation of a system: understanding the overall processes involving suppliers, producers, and customers (or recipients) of goods and services (explained below);
  2. Knowledge of variation: the range and causes of variation in quality, and use of statistical sampling in measurements;
  3. Theory of knowledge: the concepts explaining knowledge and the limits of what can be known (see also: epistemology);
  4. Knowledge of psychology: concepts of human nature.
My narrative so far has included a lot of "seems" and quotation marks. There are problems with using the Socratic method to teaching Deming's methods. If you come from organizations that do not think the way Deming would have them act, it is nearly impossible to arrive at Deming's answers by questioning the audience, even when using leading questions. Thus I'm having to do a little more after-work reading to get the straight talk on what we were supposed to get out of this method of business philosophy.

Wikipedia offers the following regarding Deming's four points:

"The various segments of the system of profound knowledge proposed here cannot be separated. They interact with each other. Thus, knowledge of psychology is incomplete without knowledge of variation.

"A manager of people needs to understand that all people are different. This is not ranking people. He needs to understand that the performance of anyone is governed largely by the system that he works in, the responsibility of management. A psychologist that possesses even a crude understanding of variation...could no longer participate in refinement of a plan for ranking people."

The Appreciation of a system involves understanding how interactions (i.e. feedback) between the elements of a system can result in internal restrictions that force the system to behave as a single organism that automatically seeks a steady state. It is this steady state that determines the output of the system rather than the individual elements. Thus it is the structure of the organization rather than the employees, alone, which holds the key to improving the quality of output.

The Knowledge of variation involves understanding that everything measured consists of both "normal" variation due to the flexibility of the system and of "special causes" that create defects. Quality involves recognizing the difference in order to eliminate "special causes" while controlling normal variation. Deming taught that making changes in response to "normal" variation would only make the system perform worse.

Understanding variation includes the mathematical certainty that variation will normally occur within six standard deviations (thus six sigma: the symbol for standard deviation) of the mean.

This is all still Adminispeak to me, so I will probably have to break down and buy one of Deming's books to see how his thinking operates in practice. The points the facilitator kept harping upon were:
  • Organizations need to be team-focused, and that "team" needs to include the entire organization, not just localized areas or departments.
  • Organizations often react badly to normal variations of output.
  • Organizations should not just focus on what's broken, but look for ways to improve what's good.
  • There are times when "black and white" (good or bad) judgments are acceptable measures of outputs, but there are also times when it would be better for organizations to use a continuum of "gray" (levels of quality) to measure results.
  • "Instead of paying attention to how good the parts are, focus on how good the relationships (between the parts and the people who make them) are."

The facilitator began the session with the same question he hit me with when I first talked to him about signing up for this class: "How would it feel to work in an organization where it was always the last straw that broke the camel's back?" This was such an incongruous analogy that it took me awhile to understand what he meant. My rewording of the question could be summed up this way: "How would it feel to work in an organization where the recognition for a success or blame for a failure was always leveled upon the last group or individual to handle a product?"

One problem I'm having with this content is that the facilitator is not coming right out and saying what Deming means: that an organization focused on quality instead of cost is more likely to succeed. I would even go one level deeper than that: an organization that understands its mission and concentrates on performing that mission well is more likely to succeed than one focused on bare survival. Another challenge I'm having with the class is the lack of structure. Again, you can ask questions until you're plaid in the face, and if people don't get it, they don't get it. You might hit all of Deming's points eventually, but you might not get how they all hang together. Thus you end up (like me) doing more research until you DO get what the teacher expects, or you walk away in disgust because you didn't see the value of the class.

We closed the class by watching the opening of a movie called Mindwalk, a 1991 movie starring Sam Waterston (one of my favorite actors) and William Heard. The movie is pure dialogue, set at Mont St. Michel in France. Waterston, an American senator who has become burned out by Washington, calls his poet friend, played by Heard, to ask if he can fly in for a visit and get some perspective. As the two men talk through Waterston's ennui, they encounter a retired physicist, who is at Mont St. Michel with her daughter who walks off because all the physicist wants to do is sit and read. The physicist joints the conversation as the two men are discussing the alienation modern man feels compared to people in the Middle Ages. We had to end at that point, but the dialogue was sufficiently interesting to me that I put the movie on my ever-growing wish list. The poet and the physicist were trying to shake the politician out of his apathy, and so I could kind of get where the movie clip fit in with the class.

However, again, the facilitator did not debrief the clip by explicitly tying the message of the movie to the message of the class. Some of us need the obvious stated for us, or maybe just reinforced by having it repeated aloud. I think the facilitator expects too much of his audience sometimes. He just assumes that we'll all walk away with the same message, and so far, the pieces aren't fitting together for this audience member so well. I'm hoping he'll be more direct when it comes to wrapping up the class, but I don't have high hopes. The homework consists of coming up with anecdotes for discussion and a self-directed list of suggestions for what we can/will/should do with this content when the class is over. Well, I will probably try to read a little more Deming directly to see if I can grasp his entire system of thought in a linear fashion, since the hop, skip, and jump method of education obviously doesn't work with me. And if I find that Deming himself is this disjointed, I'll give up and move on to more rigorous, methodical, and straightforward business systems.

Additional Thought(s):

I just realized that I do, in fact, use the questioning method in my job. However, that is my primary problem-solving method. I ask questions to accomplish work. If I'm trying to learn knew knowledge, I want to ask questions, not have questions asked of me. I already know I'm ignorant of a particular topic. That's why I'm in a class--to learn from the instructor--not to have someone verbally prod me into a corner until I say any old thing in the hopes of guessing the right answer. My other reaction to this type of "teaching" is to just shut up and let other people guess what the instructor is getting at. After awhile, I get discouraged by being told too often that I'm getting the wrong answers. To which I say, again, "Of course I'm getting the wrong answers! I don't know what you're trying to teach here!" Good lord, if this is how the Greeks got educated, it's a wonder they made as much progress as they did.

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