Archive | March 2011

Embracing Quantitative AND Qualitative: Free from the bondage of either/or

I liked math; solving equations was kind of fun, not so much the struggle to figure it out but rather the high when I got it.  I am talking about relatively unsophisticated math and statistics.  I enjoyed statistics throughout graduate school courses for my advanced degrees.  But for my PhD dissertation, I went all qualitative.  Not only did I learn the beauty of qualitative methods, I came to respect their nuances and challenges.  If I may brag, my one and only (qualitative) methodology paper won me a prestigious award.

There is a widespread assumption that quantitative descriptions are more rigorous and “hard” than are qualitative descriptions, which are often referred to as “soft.”  Amusingly, qualitative descriptions are seldom referred to as “easy,” and many of us have come to realize that understanding math is much easier than grasping the moving targets of human intentions and behavior.  The bottom line is that understanding life requires both quantitative and qualitative analysis.

But organizations are obsessed with “hard” numbers: quantifiable indices, scales, measurements, volumes, etc.  Organizations pay less attention to the “soft” aspects of organizational behavior: relationships, emotions, nurturing, empathy, sympathy, understanding, non-verbal communication, thinking, reflections, etc.  It is as if the “soft” aspects are dismissed as “easy” by organizations, despite our individual realization that they are not and that managers-at-large keep messing up in these aspects (thereby keeping Dilbert in syndication).

lots of dead trees make interesting pattern

One of the valuable principles of social statistics is that while the aggregate information is useful and important, it can not help us predict an individual behavior.  We can predict that at 5PM on a 5-lane highway in California, there is a very high probability of heavy traffic or a traffic jam, and that most people would be impatient and annoyed.  But we cannot tell how each of them will react to this highly probable event.  Many will simply be resigned to the inevitable, some may be swearing and trying to weave in and out of lanes, some may switch radio stations constantly, and one or two may zen into contemplation of life.  So, numbers can inform but they only paint a limited picture, and it’s a picture of probability.

Of course, organizations do need numbers for guidelines, for aspects such as employees’ performance, promotions, and salaries.  But even here, numbers do not help a manager deal with frustrations over budget shortfalls or when one of her employees can only get a promotion if there is no salary increase.  Similarly frustrating is an institutional cap on promotions to less than 1% of the workforce per year, while at the same time the institution drives its workers to develop themselves according to at least 3 promotions per 30-year career.   (Yes, the math is easy; at this developmental rate 10% of the workforce should be promoted per year.  Every year.)  And if promotion caps weren’t enough to destroy organizational credibility, many institutions go on to adopt the forced curve in evaluating performance, thereby setting up an unhealthy competitive environment and pitting against each other people who should be, and would like to be, colleagues.  (Please refer to my earlier entry, “Acting on Knowledge,” posted on 10/31/10, for a more in-depth analysis of the harm of competitive environments.)  I absolutely detested this practice when I was teaching.  Some semesters, I felt that more than half of my students were performing below average expectations and I had to bump up the grades for some in order to meet the curve requirement.  One semester, I rebelled, as I had an unusually diligent and creative group of students; it would have been unconscionable for me to artificially lower some students’ grades just to meet the idiotic forced-curve requirement.  Fortunately my supervisor was able to back me up.

Numbers alone carry little meaning; not only do we need to learn how to interpret the social meaning attached to the numbers, but more importantly, we need to be mindful about whether the questions behind these numbers are pertinent, relevant, central, and adequate.

i love bare trees…dead or alive

We are easily impressed by big numbers, and especially in money, accounting, or economic growth.  According to the New York Times op-ed columnist, Bob Herbert (3/25/2011), GE pulled in $14.2 billion in profits last year, without having to pay one penny in tax.  Impressive, isn’t it?  Both the profit and the zero tax payment; an enormous distance between the poles.  The reporter in the original article for the Times wrote, “Its extraordinary success is based on an aggressive strategy that mixes fierce lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore.”  Based on what measure is this deemed “success?”  For GE, certainly, but for the whole economy, especially for this country at this juncture?  Aside from politics, what has GE contributed exactly?  This conglomerate is definitely huge, but has it created anything? Especially in innovation and creativity?

That was an example on a colossal scale.  A much smaller scale personal experience: This week I had a major quarrel with a rental DVD disc, an experience I am sure shared by many of you.  (By the way, do people skate on them? or use them as Frisbees?)  So, finally I talked to a Netflix agent.  He was pleasant enough, but of course, there weren’t any long-term solutions.  (Sidebar:  To the potential competitors out there: if you can figure out how to solve this problem, you may get a lion’s share of the DVD rental market.)  But we got an “extra” DVD allotment, whoopee!  I then consented to take a short survey after our conversation; it was a one-question survey asking me if I was satisfied with the service.  Seriously?  I was absolutely flummoxed by how to choose the number on a scale of 1 to 3.  And what can Netflix do with this data?  I do like the concept behind Netflix; they are very good with the distribution system, and the occasions that I have talked to real agents, they were pleasant and decent.  BUT…  I think Netflix would be much better informed if they spend a little more time (quantitative) actually talking to a fewer customers (quantitative) for in-depth understanding (qualitative) than this 3-point-one-question-survey (quantitative) that’s essentially useless.

“Communications problem” is a lovely catch-all label for all kinds of organizational ills.  Most of the time, the so-called communications “problem” is just a surface manifestation of deeper and knottier problems.  An organization survey asks employees if they understand certain policies, without (probably deliberately) giving the employees opportunity to assess the quality of these policies.  It is fairly typical of top management to assume that policy making is strictly their purview; they then convey these policies downward.  When encountering some resistance, their first reaction is usually “we need to better communicate these policies,” and usually by reiterating these same policies, LOUDER and more slowly.  A colleague of mine once asked some engineers “what do these specifications mean?”  To which the lead engineer literally read back the specifications, very s-l-o-w-l-y!  My exasperated colleague responded, “I know what they say, but what do they mean?”  Only then could the real conversation begin.

a funny name “poor knight’s lilly”

Organizations frequently use employee surveys for feedback, but the wording of the survey questions is usually about conveying the what, not the why or how.   And it rarely allows employees to respond to the validity and quality of the specific policies.  This is a colossally screwed-up logic.  It’s as if organizations are saying, “I am going to hire only people who don’t want to think for themselves.”  ALL organizations claim to want to hire the brightest.  So, why when the management encounters push-back on new decisions, rules, or policies, they assume it’s because employees haven’t understood the policies or rules?  And then, they’ll “explain” these offending new rules with new training that repeats them, slowly and loudly.  It’s maddening; it’s insulting; it’s stupid.

I can be very patient with people who genuinely don’t understand or can’t quickly grasp certain lessons.  It’s willful ignorance and stupidity, compounded by arrogance, that drive me batty.  Our organizations, and their senior managers, seem to have confused authority for authenticity.   The playwright, Robert Bolt, wrote eloquently in “A Man For All Seasons,” in the voice of Sir Thomas More (formerly the Lord Chancellor of England for Henry VIII),

Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question.  But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round?  And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it?”

Numbers can be useful and powerful, but without a sense of context, or sensible judgment, we can easily get mislead by authorities who may speak loudly but with little authenticity and no credibility.

Finally, zero data or the absence of data can carry considerable meaning.  Zero tax paid by a giant conglomerate speaks volumes about our system.  Sherlock Holmes famously drew great significance from the observation that the dog didn’t bark at night.  Context, context.  Lewis Thomas said in “The Lives of a Cell,

…a good way to tell how the [scientific] work is going is to listen in the corridors.  If you hear the word, ‘impossible!’ spoken as an expletive, followed by laughter, you will know that someone’s orderly research plan is coming along nicely.”

Challenge to senior managers of R&D organizations:  Quantify this!   And think of the potential calamity if the same word “impossible” was uttered on the stock exchange floor or in the courtroom.

fascinating…i just threw these carrots in…why did some of them stand on their narrow ends?

Until we realize and materialize more possibilities,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead

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Confession of an Organizational Blogger (2): Does revelation of identity matter?

From the beginning, I felt ambivalent about whether to reveal my identity or not.  I am still not resolved.  What is my blog for but for me to make the best use of it?  So, I am taking a detour from organizational issues to contemplate the issue of blogger identity, and as always, I welcome your input.

Initially, given that I wasn’t familiar with the blogosphere culture (assuming there is such a coherent set of values), and that I felt (and still feel) the professional obligation to voice only data-and-reference-driven assertions, I felt timid about voicing what were “only” my opinions and reflections.  By and large, I still restrict my observations to those supported by facts and data, but for the first time in this public space, I allow myself to opine about something based only on what I have heard or observed.  While it’s been liberating, I have to say that I use this space still with some trepidation.  I do often wonder how those talking heads in the media live with themselves, blasting and bombasting away with impunity and utter disregard for inconvenient facts.  Of course, my blog comes nowhere near 24/7 media exposure to hundreds of thousands of viewers.  I am responsible for my words, but one does have to ask the question, how to hold someone accountable if that person’s identity is hidden?

what’s hidden in this cave?

Equally important, if not more so, is my need to observe absolute confidentiality of my sources of stories that I use.  Where I have named names, either organizations or individuals, they are used in the original context for public eyes.  I am not a journalist who might have thousands of sources; mine are rather limited and therefore have higher probability of being identified.  That ultimately decided me to remain anonymous…for now.

Some friends have urged me to stand up in the public, with pride.  That does make me pause:  Am I not proud of what I do and say here?  Everything I have written here has been done with integrity; I mean what I write.  My professional colleagues may quarrel with certain points, but I doubt that they’d bother with something so far removed from academic pursuit.  Besides, there are always quarrels in the academic world, from which I have been removed for quite some time.

Some other friends urge caution; there are nut-jobs out there.  True enough.  I can’t imagine my words would attract any attention from such a quarter, and my topics are not controversial by nature.  But that’s based on my logic and limited imagination.  If someone is inclined to stalk me, while I laugh at the very idea and image, by definition, I cannot predict his/her behavior nor the reasons behind it.  And I don’t know if one can protect against such improbability.  If I want to feel 100% safe, I should live in a cave and not interact with people.

big caves, small caves

And other friends suggest that if I use Facebook to promote my blog, I’d get more connections and boost my readership.  That’s very inviting, and I could easily take out a Facebook page to do just that. When people know you, they’d want to connect, and the ever-expanding connections would increasingly legitimize my blog and reach more people who might not have otherwise come upon my words.

And it is this notion, that somehow my true identity together with an ever-expanding network of connections would give more credence to my words, that’s been troubling me.  Does anyone – should anyone — really need to know who I am to give credence to my words? and do the same words somehow acquire more substance if more people read them?

It is true that in the academic setting, we more or less know who’s researching what and what are their publication records.  It is granted that we have a sense of so-and-so’s reputation through various grapevines, and when she/he does voice an opinion, her/his track record does play a role in our estimation.  But if we don’t ever meet at conferences, it should not lessen by one iota the importance of people’s work. In social settings, we usually but not always take our friends’ opinions more seriously than we do strangers’.  When it comes to something that’s particularly important to us, we may consider a stranger’s feedback more objectively precisely because the stranger’s words aren’t likely to be mixed with emotions (e.g. “therapist”).  Transcending therapy, when we want to gather information for new adventures or to consider something outside our usual paths, we seek input from beyond our circle of friends.

A sociologist, Mark Granovetter, wrote a seminal article, titled The Strength of Weak Ties in which he precisely illustrates the above point.  Our strong ties, friends and relatives (not all relatives are strong ties), tend to be similar to us, especially in our ways of thinking.  So, if one wants to push one’s horizon, one is likely to find sources of innovative ideas from friends’ friends’ friends, weak ties who otherwise have not been readily available to the person.

scene through an arch

That was a bit of a digression.  My question remains the same:  Does it matter whether you know my identity to read and reflect on what’s in my blog?  If so, why?  If not, why not?  Please comment.  Remember, your identity is protected in this blog.  But if you feel more comfortable, you are welcome to shoot me an email directly.  Till I hear from you,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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A Sensible Organization Is Not A Perfect Organization: Drawing boundary, yes; generating unlimited rules, not so much

Plenty of organizations are not sensible but work very hard to generate perfect rules to make them look sensible.  The more rules they make, the more innovation they choke off, but now they feel safe within the comfort of all the known rules.

One statement of the third law of thermodynamics is:  To drive all imperfections out of a system requires an infinite amount of work.  And once achieving such perfection (assuming you could), you have to freeze it; or, to achieve perfection, you have to freeze the system.

A bona fide scientist described this law to me, first in the context of organizational safety and security.  It is impossible to achieve 100% perfection for either; the question is where and how we draw the boundary.

I am not saying that 100% accuracy is not possible; many things in life require precision, such as buildings, airplane engines, timepieces, etc.  But even precision for these vital elements in our lives does not have the same absolute meaning scientists ascribe to, say, thermodynamics laws.  And if absolutes cannot be achieved in the mechanical world, why should we expect them for human behavior?  But that expectation is exactly what we encounter, with more frequency, in our lives, in organizations, and in our societies as well.

my son constantly worked on this downhill mountain bike to improve it…there were always some issues, big or small…a terrifying sport (to parents) but he’s always “in armor”

Like the last entry on conflicts, I will start with an example in society that touches a good portion of us.  Travel by air.

When the latest terrorist plot was revealed, we were told that a new scanning device at airports would be installed, along with the “option” of being padded down, which prompted objections and outcries.  Of course, everyone wants to feel safe, and of course, everyone also knows that intrinsically there is no way we can be guaranteed 100% safe air travel.  Yet, because we can’t seem to get consensus on where to draw the boundary of checking for safety and security, the decision rests with the politicians.  It isn’t that we object to better safety and security measures, it’s the notion of “where do we stop?” that gets to people.  These measures seem to keep piling up and none is ever lifted, not even when it seems sensible to do so.  For instance, if the new scanning is so powerful that it can reveal everything on us (or in us), then why can’t the older measures, such as taking off shoes and belts and removing what’s inside pockets, be lifted? I think the public would understand, accept and maybe even embrace such “intelligent” rules.  But the implicit contradiction –scanners can view our bodies with disturbingly precise images of our most intimate tissues so why can’t they be trusted to see the weapon hidden in a terrorist’s belt? – erodes people’s confidence and patience.  It’s the fact that rules only grow and yet even the newest and most onerous rule doesn’t displace any of the previous rules that eventually pushes people over the edge.

a pretty orange alert!

I guess this shouldn’t be too surprising.  Organizations all over have been searching for the holy grail of the “perfect” safety/security record, so any infractions, be they small or large, be they crimes, accidents, or negligence, become another cause for re-examining procedures to create more “rules and regulations” (a kind of R&R that seems to aim to stress and depress people).  One major technical organization at one time bragged about its “perfect” month of no accidents, and its scientists and engineers wondered if innovation proportionally dropped to zero as well.

Organizations’ inability to make a distinction between truly random accidents and systemic negligence or genuine criminal acts has been a major driving force for this country’s steady decline in technological and product innovation.  An accidental cut while using scissors, a statistically inevitable trip-and-fall, shouldn’t be viewed with the same severity as a spill of poorly contained hazardous materials.  Mess and hazard are not the same.  But to not distinguish them is dangerous.

Six Sigma was developed by Motorola; it is a rigorous methodology that aims to reduce and eventually eliminate product defects.  Originally it was used in manufacturing processes, but has since been widely embraced by organizations to apply to other areas as well.  As a consumer, I am totally for excellence for products, but excellence need not mean “perfect.”  The problem with Six Sigma is its goal of eliminating 99.99966% of product defects (about 3.4 defects per million).  There are at least three aspects that are troubling:  one is the issue of distinction, the next is the third law of thermodynamics, and the third is the diversion of resources.

nature is never perfect, but sure can be soothing

A slight defect in an automobile’s engine could lead to horrible accidents; a slight defect in an automobile’s paint job or trunk leads to different consumer reactions.  More insidious is what the third law of thermodynamics implies, that the workforce will be dragged down by observing ever-increasing R&R and procedures aimed at eliminating the remaining fraction of defects at the expense of time and effort to actually do the work, let alone “play to create and innovate.” (11/14/2010 entry, “Play & Reason”) And perhaps even more insidious is the tendency of organizations to divert resources from maintenance and repair activities to fund their futile pursuit of zero-defect manufacture, leaving customers and stakeholders furious with these organizations for failing or refusing to fix the flaws they couldn’t eliminate.

Let me try to explain the third law (maybe I should say regurgitate?):  Scientists can remove thermal energy from water molecules and bring down the water (by now, ice) temperature to close to zero.  However, the process is nonlinear in the sense that as the temperature drops, the efforts to remove the remaining thermal energy from the ensemble of molecules become more strenuous.  In other words, the amount of effort required to lower the temperature from say, 0.9 to 0.8 degrees is not the same as for lowering the temperature from 0.5 to 0.4 degrees; this second requires a LOT more effort.  And at some point, the ensemble of molecules just can’t be manipulated any more.  By the way, I understand that true zero is -459.67F.  And I also understand that true absolute zero isn’t achievable.  Six Sigma has the “good sense” to not aim for the 100% defect-perfect goal, but only 99.99966%!

It’s not unlike losing weight; the first 20 pounds is a lot easier than the final five pounds!  Everyone knows about that, right?!

pretty image for some antidote for the words

Let’s remember that the Six Sigma was originally intended for manufacturing processes, but has since been used, and I argue misused, in other organizational aspects.  It too often assumes, or is ordered to assume, that the existing process is the “right one” and stifles any challenges to the validity of the existing process.  It too often forbids you to step outside the framework to examine the foundation.

Organization Z has the unfortunate history of some infamous cases of breaches in safety and security, so now the organization treats almost all accidents and incidents as if they were committed by malcontents or even criminally inclined employees.  For a few years, it seemed that every month saw more new rules. And of course, few rules, if ever, were taken off.  Z recently devised requirements for vendors, obliging them to provide documents, authorization papers, etc., so that several vendors have told the organization that they would no longer do business there.  An interesting unintended consequence occurred a little while ago.  A vendor provided some special equipment, then, later the organization needed additional items to complement this equipment, and yes, only the same vendor could provide them.  Except the new requirements so irked this vendor that a form of “blackmail” took place:  The vendor indicated that they wouldn’t sell the product – which the organization really needed – if they had to go through all the nonsense!  You would think that the management might learn from this incident but alas, “the beatings must continue until morale improves!”

As another example, this supposedly brilliant organization managed to design the slowest and most cumbersome system imaginable for approving time and effort.  Every Monday morning every manager needs to approve time and effort for each member in his/her unit.  If you are a senior manager, you have but a few people’s effort and time to approve.  But if you are a middle or junior manager with 60 or more people reporting to you, you can spend more than two hours!  In this organization’s system, each employee’s timecard shows up on a separate page, and because everyone is doing this at the same time on Monday morning, the system gets sluggish; it can take an average of 15 seconds to load each page.  And with maddening frequency the system shuts you, the manager, out and you have to log in again.  And this system cost many thousands, possibly millions, of dollars to purchase and install.

And recently, the top managers decreed that all managers (except, of course, themselves) are required to undergo multi-day training on “how to use the organization’s systems.”  Think about the amount of time and money wasted in putting together and executing this training.  Could it really never have occurred to the top management that if they designed and installed good systems, then, no training would be necessary?  Look at the ease with which people can use Apple computers or order products on  I am not pitching for these products (ok, I happen to like most of their features), but there are some great examples out there.

I sound sarcastic at times in this piece because when I hear these stories, I just want to bang my head against wall and pull my hair, “oh, why, oh, why, oh why?”  I don’t think that as individuals we intend to make other people’s lives miserable.  So why when we are put together in an organization does the collective just keep adding speed bumps and all those obstacles?  For any organizations, there is one criterion they should use on a regular basis:  Are we greater as a whole than the sum of our (#) employees?

my tulips…now sitting in someone else’s house

Solutions?  There are no pat ones, and there are no easy courses of action.  Some of the more positive approaches and principles and theories about which I have written would help, but ultimately, knowing produces only limited outcomes at best (10/31/2010 entry, “Acting on Knowledge:  Why is it so hard?”).  The problem with many organizations is that they don’t know what they don’t know… but think they know and all too eagerly act upon this pseudo-knowledge.  How do you begin to correct this?  I am still struggling with this one.  Till I can find some positive answers, I am going to take some mental health time for travel; I will resume 3/20.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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