Business


I remember watching “I Love Lucy” when I was a young boy.  I was watching re-runs, but it was the mid-sixties and I have fond memories of watching that show, along with others, like “Andy Griffith” and the “Beverly Hillbillies” with my mom, whenever I was sick and staying home from school.

The video associated with this post is one of Lucy and Ethel working in a candy factory.  It’s a good video and I hope you’ll watch it.  If you do watch it, perhaps you will recognize some parallels to the subject of this post.

I’d like to offer you an alternative view of the City of Woodinville.  That view is of the City of Woodinville as a problem-solving machine (or problem-solving system, if you prefer.)

In my view, the City solves problems on behalf of its citizens. For example, let’s say that you are a citizen, and your neighbor is collecting junk cars and leaving them in his front yard. You may contact the City and ask them to do something about this problem of yours. If they solve it to your satisfaction, then the City acted in this instance essentially as your problem-solving machine. Of course, the City may have created a problem for your neighbor, but you are probably happy to have the issue resolved.

When I attend City Council meetings I see our good and capable Council Members working to solve problems on our behalf. I also see them interacting with a highly capable and involved City Staff.

The problem-solving machine today runs at some rate. Every so often, the machine takes a problem from a pile of problems waiting to be solved, chews on it for some period of time, and ultimately outputs something that we hope is a solution to the original problem.

Adopting this view of the City as a problem-solving machine allows us to ask some good questions:

  1. Is the machine running at a rate that is greater than the rate at which new problems arrive?
  2. How big is the current backlog of problems waiting to be solved?
  3. How good are the solutions that the machine generates for the problems it has solved?
  4. What steps are being taken to improve the performance of the machine?
  5. What’s the most important problem for the machine to work on?

It’s not my objective in this post to answer these questions.  However, I do want to offer the following.

First, there is a kind of “factory physics” that can be applied here.  That is, we already know some things that can be done to improve the performance of the problem-solving machine that is the City of Woodinville.  For example, we can recognize that the machine has only so much problem-solving capacity at any point in time.  By recognizing that we are talking about a finite-capacity system, we can start to think about how to make the best use of that capacity.

For example, consider the City Council as a group that has a large say in what problems the machine works on.  The Council can either direct the machine to work on very important problems, thereby making effective use of the capacity we have today, or they can choose to direct the machine to work on relatively less important problems, thereby wasting much of the available capacity.

I may be wrong but I think I sometimes see the City Council getting bogged down in issues that seem to be a poor use of their time.  For example, arguing over some minute aspect of some rule or regulation, when they could instead be using their available time working on more important questions.

What is a more important question — or problem — that the Council could choose to address?  Well, how about “How can we improve our performance as a ‘problem-solving machine’, as Sambrook calls it?”

It’s kind of like the case where someone gives you a magic lamp.  The genie from the lamp appears in a puff of smoke and tells you that you have three wishes.  What’s the first thing you should wish for?  My suggestion is to ask for an infinite number of additional wishes.

There is a little bit (understatement of the year) of stumbling block here:  Before anyone will ask — really ask — how the machine can be improved, they first have to believe that it’s actually possible to improve it.  I wonder how many Council Members — if any — really believe they can become better problem solvers.

This is also one of the reasons that I find chronic conflict to be such a damaging behavior.  If mutual trust and respect is required in order to be able to improve the machine, and if chronic conflict destroys mutual trust and respect, then how can an organization captured in a state of chronic conflict ever improve?

Is improvement necessary?  Absolutely.  And Dr. Deming (the man who “taught quality to the Japanese”) would certainly have agreed.  Dr. Deming invested much of his life working to improve organizations.  One of my favorite quotes of his is this:

“Change is not necessary.  Survival is not mandatory.”

I think this is a quote worth keeping in mind.  It’s time to stop believing that “Well, somehow, it will all work out.”  Rather, I think it’s time that we realize that 1) we are all in this together, and that 2) it’s time to roll up our sleeves and start fixing government from the bottom up.

Who’s with me?

Dr. Alistair Cockburn

Dr. Alistair Cockburn

Just a short note — and one that is not totally about the City of Woodinville.  I know that I have been on a tear on that score lately.  But I can’t help it — improving local government is important to me.

This note however is about some very good news.  In the latest edition of “Crosstalk” (Crosstalk is the “Journal of Defense Software Engineering”) Dr. Alistair Cockburn has written an article (“Spending Efficiency to Go Faster“) on how Theory of Constraints principles can be exploited to improve software engineering.

Many of my friends and clients are involved in the software engineering of complex systems.  They are recognizing, more and more, that the Theory of Constraints is a powerful tool for systems improvement.

Our ability to improve is unlimited.

A dilemma diagram (without injections) related to the sports field project in Woodinville

A dilemma diagram (without injections) related to the sports field project in Woodinville

Let’s say that you are a member of the City of Woodinville’s leadership team.  You’re either on the City Council or you hold a position of significant responsibility and authority within the City.

You also want to improve the City’s performance.  You want to see the City succeed.  You also want to make your own life more pleasant and satisfying.  Maybe you even want to improve the work environment for the many wonderful people employed by the City.  In short, you’re looking for a win-win-win:  A win for the citizens, a win for the staff and a win for yourself.

Is there an “open channel” to doing this?  Is it possible?

I believe it is possible and that the key to doing it is beginning to adopt more advanced problem-solving tools than are currently used.  This adoption — if it happens at all — would require a willingness on the part of the City Council to no longer accept the status quo as good enough.  Will that ever happen?  Beats me.

But do you know — really know — how much opportunity exists to improve the performance of the City?

In saying this I am not intending to criticize what is done today.  We have excellent people, at all levels, and they are doing all that they know how to do to generate good results.  I have no doubt of this.

That being said, it’s sometimes the case that new knowledge and new ways of doing things allows the performance of a system (the City of Woodinville is a system) to be dramatically increased in a very short amount of time.

Now, to get to the point of this post.  I’m starting to identify some of the dilemmas that I have claimed exist surrounding the sports field project that the City has had in-work (along with improvements to the Carol Edwards Center) since 1999 or so.  I am posting these dilemma diagrams on flickr.  Note that you want to look at the photos (diagrams) in their “large” size or download them in their large size to your computer.

I haven’t described dilemma diagrams in detail.  However, if you’re interested, you can find more information on them here and here.  And of course, if you want the in-depth how-to-do-it book, you can find that too on Amazon.

I will be making movies (probably somewhat like this one) explaining these dilemma diagrams and some of the other artifacts I create as I work on this issue.

In the meantime, people who want to do so can follow my work on flickr.

In a previous article I claimed that “Value delayed is value denied.”  This article continues this theme.

In this article I show how multitasking causes the delivery of significant value to citizens to be delayed and thus, ultimately, denied to the citizens.

Value delayed is value denied.

Second, the belief that “The sooner we start, the sooner we finish” is clearly wrong when we are talking about projects being completed by a finite set of resources.  Why does this matter?  It matters because operating on this assumption causes people to drive the system (the City) into greater and greater levels of multitasking.  Today, the release of work to the system is not done properly and as a result, the system is choked with work.

Systems that are choked with work give the illusion of being highly efficient.  But this is only because we are making the assumption that “If everyone is busy all the time, then the system must be operating in a highly efficient manner.”  This is not valid.  The people in a system can be fully utilized and still not be doing anything productive.

Figure one shows an simple, idealized case from the world of projects.  We have three projects (red, green and blue.)  Each project requires two years of focused effort to complete:

womtWhen these projects are executed without multitasking, the red project finishes two years after starting, the green project two years after that, and the blue project finishes at the end of the sixth year.

Of course, no real projects fit into such nice, neat packages, but let’s stick with this idealized case for now.  We can always make things more complex later.

Now, look at figure two:

wmtIn this case, we have the same three projects, and each project still requires two years of focused effort to complete.  However, in this case, we are showing the effect of multitasking, where the resources work on one project for three months, then switch to another project for the next three months, and then to the next project, and so on until all projects are completed.

Notice that the total time to complete all three projects is still six years.  Note that there was no loss of efficiency in this idealized case, although in the real world it’s unlikely that we would be so fortunate.  In the real world, multitasking does cause a loss of efficiency, and the loss is not small.  But still, it’s a secondary effect to what I’m writing about here.

So multitasking didn’t cause a loss of efficiency.  But wait a second — do what want the City to be efficient, or is being efficient really just a requirement (a necessary condition) to achieving something else?

In my view the goal of the City is “To deliver more value to citizens, now and in the future.”  I don’t care if the City has to be efficient to achieve this or not.  If they can achieve it without being efficient, fine.  If they need to be efficient to achieve it, then again, fine.  Either way, the standard that I hold them to is whether they have achieved the goal.  That is what matters.

So when we consider these two very different modes of operation (multitasking vs. non-multitasking) is there any difference in value delivered to citizen?

Well, in the non-multitasking case (figure one), the citizens started to receive the benefits of the red project at the end of year two.  At the end of year four, they started to receive the benefits of the green project, and at the end of year six, they started to receive the benefits of the blue project.

But look at what happened in the multitasking case (figure two)!  Even though there was no loss of efficiency, the citizens were denied the benefits of the red project until the end of June in the sixth year.  They were also denied the benefits of the green project until October of the sixth year.  There was no change in when they began to receive the benefits of the blue project.

It is equally clear that the assumption “The sooner we start, the sooner we finish” is not valid when multitasking is in effect.  Look at the green project.  When we allowed multitasking, that project started sooner, but finished later.  The blue project also started sooner, but still finished no earlier than before.

Our concern should not be when projects start, but instead, when they finish.  The City Council should be concerned as to whether citizens are getting all of the value they are paying for, as soon as it can be delivered to them.  Members of the Council should know whether the City is working projects in a manner that guarantees that the projects that will generate the greatest value to citizens are the ones which will be completed 1) first and 2) as quickly as possible.

(As an aside, let me say that in a future article I will write about small, localized tweaks to various policies, and why such tweaks will be utterly insufficient in terms of bringing the City to the point where it is consistently achieving it’s goal.)

Let’s say that in this example (which is again, an idealized case), all projects are equally costly in terms of the investment that must be made, and in terms of the benefit that each will begin to bring when it is completed.  Let’s assume that each project costs $6M to complete, and that over a useful life of 30 years, the project will create $18M in value to the citizens of Woodinville.

If the project costs $6M to complete and ultimately brings $18M in value, then the project creates +$12M in benefits (value to citizens.)  If the useful life of the project is 30 years, then the project generates value to citizens at the rate of $12M / 30 years = $400K per year.  Again, this is an assumption.  Every project will have a payback curve that we can only really guess at.

Now, in the case of the red project, the delivery of value to citizens is delayed by three years and six months, due to multitasking.  This amounts to $1.4M in value that is totally wasted.

Completion of the green project under multitasking is also delayed, in this case by one year and nine months.  This amounts to another $700K of value to citizens that is totally wasted due to multitasking.

Adding the two losses results in about $2.1M in value to citizens that is wasted and cannot (for all practical purposes) ever be delivered to them:

Value delayed is value denied.

Now, you can and almost certainly will object to this informal analysis.  You can attack it on many different fronts and in all cases I’d love to read your reasoned comments.

My bottom line conclusion, however, is unlikely to be changed.  That bottom line is this:

There is a world of difference between being efficient and being effective.  There is much that the City could do to operate in a manner that is far more effective than is the current mode of operation.  But the quest for efficiency leads good managers to do the wrong things.

The real solution to the problem outlined here is to recognize that the City is a multi-project environment.  It should therefore be using a multi-project management method that has been shown to be effective in representative environments.  If this was done, the City would deliver more value to citizens sooner, and, as a pleasant side-effect, the level of chaos present in the City’s operations would drop by 2/3rds or more.  The City Manager and the City Council would also (routinely) have the information they needed to manage well.

Finally, it’s important to understand that the people managing the system today are genuinely trying to do the best possible job for the citizens.  In fact, in a perverse way, we would likely be better off if they were not quite as fastidious as they are today.  If you know the problems inherent with the so-called “Waterfall” model of software development, you can get a sense of what I mean by this.

The future isn’t written yet.  I believe that Woodinville could be a model for every other city in the United States.  To become such a model we have to change quite a few things about how the City is managed.  Such change won’t come easily.  But it is possible and it is utterly worth the fight and the struggle that will be required to achieve it.

Council Members sometimes end up on opposite sides of an issue

Is this really the best we can do?

At a City Council meeting back in February our Council Members found themselves on opposite sides of an issue. No surprise in that, right?  Council Members routinely find themselves on opposite sides of complex issues.

What irks me is the stubborn insistence that this is the best we can do.  That’s bullshit, pure and simple.

So I took this dispute as an opportunity to develop an Evaporating Cloud diagram of the problem.  I also developed a short video that explained the cloud and, by side effect, showed much of the process I follow when I use the EC in my daily work.

I suppose I’m tilting at windmills, but I think the City Staff should be to preparing dilemma diagrams (clouds) like this one when they bring issues before the Council.  This would be a much better way of framing the problems they are bringing before the Council and would help the Council to be better able to understand and discuss the Staff’s thinking.

p1000749.jpgDoes your organization seem to wander from crisis to crisis?

Does it often seem as if you are playing “Whack A Mole” with the problems in your organization?

If so, here is what is causing it: In improving one necessary condition you or your staff are allowing other necessary conditions to be damaged.

Let me start by explaining what is meant by the term “necessary condition.”

One of the core concepts of TOC is that a system only reaches its goal when all of its necessary conditions are met.

You can think of necessary conditions as the requirements for the success of your organization: What you simply must have in order to reach your goal.

If you are managing a dry cleaning business, one of your necessary conditions is “We are in compliance with local environmental laws.” That is, you can’t just dump your dry-cleaning chemicals in the nearest stream or down the toilet and expect to have a successful business in the long run. (Note that this assertion, like all assertions, rests on other assumptions. Here, I am assuming that the dry cleaning business is located in a city where there is environmental monitoring and laws against dumping harmful chemicals into the envirnonment. If one or both of these assumptions is wrong, then what I have claimed to be a necessary condition for success may in fact not be necessary at all.)

Every organization that I have encountered has many necessary conditions for its success. For example, “We bring value to our owners.”, “We have a highly satisfied workforce.”, “We operate in a cost-effective manner.”, “We are effective in responding to competitors.”, etc.

Sadly, not every organization I have encountered has done the hard work required to identify its necessary conditions for success and how they are related (in terms of cause-and-effect) to the goal of the organization.

Not doing this is dangerous to the health of the organization. Here is why.

An organization that has not yet reached its goal has one or more necessary conditions that are not met, or at least, are not fully met.

When the people in that organization recognize that that necessary condition is not being met it is very likely that they will try to take some kind of action to cause it to be met. More succinctly, they will try to “fix the problem.”

This is all well and good. It is good that the people in the organization have recognized that something important to the success of the business is not being achieved and that they are taking action.

However, what they must do in order to really improve the organization is to improve the satisfaction of that necessary condition WITHOUT DAMAGING ANY OTHERS.

Said differently, if you improve one necessary condition while damaging another all you have done is to trade one problem for another. And in so doing your organization will appear to wander from crisis to crisis.

Let me give an example.

Let’s say that the organization in question has recognized that one of its necessary conditions for success is “We provide excellent customer service.” It is also recognized that they aren’t actually achieving this condition. In fact, customer complaints have been going up and up over the last year and now management is determined to fix the problem once and for all.

In an attempt to fix the problem the management team determines that the problem is “Not enough sales staff on the floor.” and so they increase floor sales staff headcount significantly.

While this may have the desired effect of improving customer service it also increases operating expense. And in many organizations payroll is far and away the dominant operating expense.

If the increased customer service results in sufficiently increased and profitable sales then this may be exactly the right action to take.

On the other hand, what if the problem wasn’t really caused by too few sales staff on the floor, but rather, by a lack of proper sales training?

In that situation, the organization has not improved. Operating expense has gone up while customer satisfaction (and, presumably, profitable sales) has not.

This example is, of course, a very simple one. In reality the situation is not usually so clear-cut.

But that brings me to the point of this post. Why are such decisions not clear-cut? What can we really do to be better able to improve one necessary condition without compromising any others?

At first blush it might seem as if this is a thorny problem where nothing can really be done. I don’t think that is the case at all. In fact, I see the situation as one where so much can be done that it’s hard to know where to start.

So let me keep it simple and offer just three suggestions.

First, do the hard work to define the goal of your organization and then from it derive your set of necessary conditions and how they are related (in terms of cause and effect) to each other and ultimately to your organization’s goal.

I recommend doing this in a tree-structured manner (building what is called a “future reality tree” in the language of TOC). If you have not done this before feel free to contact me and I’ll help you get started.

Second, when you and your staff have determined your necessary conditions, publish your work in a highly visible manner. You really want every member of your staff to know what conditions they should be working to achieve. And, if they disagree with some of the conditions, you really want to know that too.

Finally, when people seek to make changes to improve the organization, ensure that they know how to do so without damaging the satisfaction of any other necessary conditions. An invaluable tool for doing this is the evaporating cloud (a.k.a. the dilemma diagram, a.k.a. the conflict resolution diagram) as is the “negative branch reservation” (NBR) in the TOC Thinking Process toolbox.

The qualitative difference between the Red Curve and the Green Curve is that the Red Curve shows ongoing, exponential improvement. The Green Curve shows continuous improvement towards some limit value.

I suspect that many folks do not realize the degree to which we are living in an exponential (and highly non-linear) world. My brother-in-law recently sent my wife a link to a video on You Tube that illustrates this point far better than I can.

The Red Curve is real folks. But hey, as W. Edwards Deming is said to have said:

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.

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