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.
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.
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.
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?!
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 Amazon.com. 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?
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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