Local Government


I still attend meetings of our City Council. How much longer I will attend I don’t know.

These good people are caught in chronic conflict. They are divided into two tribes. Contentious votes usually come out 4 to 3. Being in the minority sucks because you lose every critical vote.  But being in the majority also sucks, as Roberts Rules of Order ensures that each tribe has plenty of time to attack each other verbally.

I found this diagram interesting:

I have a little theory.  I’d welcome your thoughts on it.

Let’s say your a member of the Council.  You go to a meeting one Monday night and for three or four hours, you’re the verbal punching bag for the other tribe.  You try to defend yourself, but everything you say is twisted and distorted into all manner of false claims.  Roberts Rules of Order prevents you from responding to their comments as they are being made.  You have to sit patiently, and smile, while the other guy is painting you as a modern-day Charles Manson.

When it’s finally your turn to talk again, you can’t help but want to get a little payback.  So you respond in kind.  Now, it’s someone else’s turn to sit there and take it.

This goes on, as I said, for three or four hours.  Finally, it’s time to go home.

But wait, you’re not done yet.  You go home and recount the evening’s events to your spouse.  You maybe spend half an hour or more going over what happened, who said what to whom, etc.  Finally, it’s time for bed.

So you climb into bed, and you replay the evening’s events in your mind again and again as you try to fall asleep.  Eventually, you fall asleep, but your hard-working brain is still at it.  It’s busy trying to make sense of all of the events of the day, trying to consolidate them into memories and beliefs that will help you and it to survive.  So while you are sleeping, your brain is writing this kind of stuff in your neurons and neural pathways :  Members of the other tribe are the enemy.  Members of the other tribe cannot be trusted.  I should never collaborate with members of the other tribe.  I should try to kill the members of the other tribe.

In the morning you wake up and try to go about your week.  Fortunately, you have a prefrontal cortex, and so you don’t act on every negative belief you hold.  You might fantasize, briefly, about injuring members of the other tribe, but you don’t act out those thoughts.  But of course, during the week, you’re still thinking about what happened last Monday night.  It still bugs you and you definitely don’t want to have it happen again.  So, you start planning.  As you’re planning, you’re replaying your memories of what happened that night. With each replay, the idea that members of the other tribe are “the enemy” are reinforced.  The connections in your brain change physically.  New neural connections are made and the “sensitivities” neurons are adjusted to reflect your now-more-strident beliefs.

So what happens next Monday?  When you see the members of the other tribe, your ever-faithful brain prepares you for the fight it knows is coming.  Hormones are released.  Your heart-rate and respiration goes up as your body prepares itself for the fight.  Mentally, you’re on guard for the attacks that you just know will be coming.

In this heightened state of guardedness even a neutral statement by a member of the other tribe will be interpreted as hostile.  So even if, by some miracle, a member of the other tribe tries to be polite and respectful, you will misinterpret it.  In fact, it’s going to be almost impossible for the members of the other tribe to say or do anything to “change your mind” about them.  Even if they go out of their way to be polite, your very clever brain is going to say “I think I’m being set-up.”

So how to escape such a situation?

I certainly think competent therapy would help.  Perhaps Council meetings should be moderated by a disinterested third party until the Council members have done the self-work necessary to break free of their addiction (yes, addiction) to seeing the members of the other tribe as the enemy.

It is also the case that using the Thinking Process tools would be helpful in breaking this kind of behavior.  Now that I think about it, when the Thinking Process tools are properly used, they do act as a “moderator” who serves to keep the whole process on track and focused on solving problems versus fighting.

So this is my thinking.  What should I change about it?  What seems wrong or bogus to you?

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I think I delivered some shocking news at the Woodinville City Council meeting last night.
youngwomanamazedinsunglasses

During Public Comment I shared some data provided by Realization on their website.  This data documents some of the successes organizations have had when they implement Critical Chain.  For the record, while I believe it’s fair to consider Realization as the top-tier provider of Critical Chain implementations, other companies and organizations that have implemented Critical Chain have reported similar results.

Here are some of the examples I shared last night, with results before and after Critical Chain implementation:

  1. Medtronic USA
    Before: 1 software release every 6 – 9 months.
    After:  1 software release every 2 months.
  2. Medtronic Europe
    Before: Average cycle time 18 months.
    After:  Average cycle time 9 months.
  3. Valley Cabinet Works
    Before: 200 projects / year
    After:  334 projects / nine months
  4. BHP Biliton
    Before: 25,800 man-hours to be completed in 8 months.  2 weeks late.
    After: 19,500 man-hours used.  Projects finished 3 weeks early.  25% productivity increase.
  5. HP Digital Camera Group
    Before: 6 cameras launched per year; only 1 on time
    After: 15 cameras launched per year; all were on time; R&D 25% lower

When you’re inside an organization like the City of Woodinville and enmeshed in the day to day affairs of the City, it’s easy to believe that big jumps in the performance of the organization are not possible.   And so perhaps it’s a bit shocking when reality proves that other organizations, far more complex than yours, have made big jumps in their performance.

Please note that Realization provides many customer testimonials in video format on their website.  If you want to see some of the full presentations you can contact me.  For a period of time, Realization was giving away DVD sets from their yearly conference.  I have some of those for recent years.

On a related note, the Japanese Government’s Public Works reform, for example, has mandated that all contractors working for the Ministry of Land Infrastructure and Transportation must use Critical Chain.

You can also find references to Critical Chain in the Project Management Institute’s “Project Management Body of Knowledge,” also known as the “PMBOK.”  It’s important to understand, however, that because Critical Chain’s “new rules” for managing projects sometimes clash with what PMI has been preaching for many, many years, PMI is not yet embracing Critical Chain as vigorously as (in my opinion) they should.

Finally, I can give you a personal data point.  When I have used Critical Chain to manage projects it has always worked “as advertised.”  It’s hard to put into words the level of focus that Critical Chain (and Buffer Management, which is a critical-but-sometimes-overlooked aspect of Critical Chain) brings to project planning and execution.

I shared this data with the Council last night.  I asked them to look in to Critical Chain.  My hope is that some of them will do this.  If they do, I think they will find that the City of Woodinville could complete projects in about 2/3rd’s the time that those projects would take if managed as projects are managed today within the City.

Finding success stories on Critical Chain is not difficult.   Any City Council member that can use Google can find such results.

Understanding how Critical Chain delivers its improved performance is more challenging.  Council Members that want to understand how Critical Chain really works will have to invest a little “mental sweat equity” to do it.  However, once this investment is made, I think they will understand why I consider Critical Chain to be an integral part of the “pot of gold” that I believe is waiting to be claimed by any City Council Member (current or future) that is willing to do the hard work required to claim it.

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.

The big news in Woodinville for the past week or so has been snow.cimg0522

Woodinville is not a city that gets a lot of snow.  We have a few snowstorms a year.  But even small amounts of snow create a lot of chaos and confusion.  There are many steep hills in Woodinville (the Cascade mountain range is not too far away) and many of our citizens do not have a lot of experience driving on snow.

I think it’s correct to say that the City has been struggling to deal with the relatively heavy snow we have experienced.  They have done (in my view) an excellent job of keeping the main roads open.  I have no doubt that everyone employed by the City has been working long, difficult hours to achieve this.

I suspect that people will complain about the side-streets.  Many side-streets, including the ones leading into my development (Woodinville Heights) have been very difficult to navigate.  People with two-wheel drive cars have been more-or-less stuck in their homes.  When they did venture out they found the roads very difficult and often became stuck.  People with four-wheel drive vehicles had it better during the early part of the storm, but when the snow became deep and slushy, even they could become stuck.

A serious concern — in my  view — is emergency vehicle access to people’s homes.  I used to work as a part-paid firefighter with the old King County Fire District #36 and served as a driver-operator and a senior firefighter.  This meant that I drove almost all of the apparatus, except for the ladder truck.  (The ladder truck required “special training” and part-paid firefighters were not allowed to operate it.  If you have read the book “Great Boss, Dead Boss”, you’ll know what I mean when I say this was just an example of “tribal” behavior.)

I can tell you there were times during this emergency when I doubt whether an aid car / medic rig could have made it to my home.  I think the heavier engines / trucks (like the old LaFrance I drove, which weighed 36,600lbs) could have made it, assuming they were chained up.  But even then, parking around the bottom of my street was tight due to abandoned vehicles.

I suspect that some of my fellow citizens will be upset with the City over this snow event.  If I could speak to them I would ask them to “hold their fire.”  Here is why.

I am confident that if we were to look carefully into this event we would find people making decisions (some decisions having been made years ago) that, at the time, appeared to be the best possible decision.  That doesn’t mean it was the best possible decision, only that at the time, the people making the decisions were doing the best they could (given the information available to them and their experience and skills) to do what they believed was in the best interests of the citizens of Woodinville.

I recognize that what I have just written will sound weak to many of you.  Believe me, I know how good it can feel to take someone to task over some problem and really kick their ass for a while.

But you know something?  That good feeling only lasts about five or ten seconds (at least for me.)  After that rush, I come back to my senses and realize just how much damage I have just created for myself.  I realize how I have just perfectly sabotaged all of my previous work and acted in a way that was completely against what I really believe is the correct and most effective way to deal with serious problems.

We can and should learn a great deal from this snow emergency.  When the dust has settled and people have had time to recover, we should take a very careful look at what happened and why it happened.  What we will find is that there were some underlying dilemmas that set us up for this event.

This whole event could be explained to the citizens of Woodinville in a way that would show the following point very clearly:  The damage that citizens suffered in the emergency was not the result of bad or incompetent people, but rather, the result of good and capable people who were blindsided by a set of dilemmas that they did not recognize (they have not been trained to recognize dilemmas) and that even if they had recognized the dilemmas could not have resolved in a manner that did not demand that the City compromise on one or more of the conditions necessary for its success.

It’s time to stop responding to events like this as we have in the past.  I am no longer willing to accept the usual song and dance, where people talk about “lessons they have learned from this event.”  In my experience, whenever I dig into something like this, I find that they have not learned the most important lesson and as a result it’s just a matter of time until the next disaster strikes.  I call this “Wandering from Crisis to Crisis.”

ss-7853536-potofgoldWe have an issue in Woodinville that has been unresolved for many years.  The issue is whether improvements should be made to a sports field located in downtown Woodinville.

Some folks think the fields should be improved.  Others do not.

The issue has been “in work” for a number of years — I don’t know how many, but I’d guess that it’s no less than five years, if you include the time invested in planning the improvements.

This issue has caused dissension among the members of the City Council and among citizens.  That isn’t good.  The degree to which dissension on the Council creates problems for all of us is also not generally understood.  But that’s a big topic and this post is going to be mercifully short.

The dissension over the sports fields is caused by a set of unresolved dilemmas.  These dilemmas are partially, and poorly, verbalized from time to time, and never in a form that enables a win-win resolution.

This should be no surprise — there is no one on the Council, or on the City Staff (to my knowledge) that really understands the process for generating win-win solutions to serious problems.

Don’t fault them for this.  It’s a rare skill.  The techniques for doing it have to be studied and then practiced.  And the years of strife on the Council have created walls of distrust that make the work even harder.

But here’s the deal.  Even if the sports field project is put to a vote and therefore, seemingly “resolved”, the issue won’t be truly resolved unless these underlying dilemmas are dealt with in a win-win manner.

Voting does not resolve dilemmas in a win-win way.  It creates winners and losers.  That is the problem with it.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a role for voting.  But there is also a role for better problem solving in local government.

Perhaps someday the City will be interested in learning more about a systems approach to complex problem solving or about people like John Boyd, who inspired the book Certain to Win by Chet Richards.  Alas, none of this has happened yet.

I’m still hopeful, however.  Here is why.

There is a pot of election year gold available to any candidate considering running for a seat on the Woodinville City Council.  Today, no one sees the pot of gold, because no one has done the work required to be able to see it.  So people see a bunch of disconnected puzzle pieces and not the beautiful picture that is waiting to be revealed when they are properly put together.

The first candidate to understand — really understand — how the pieces of the puzzle fit together would have an unbelievable advantage in the upcoming election.

What would it mean if, for the first time in a long time, a candidate could explain why our City struggles as it does and, more importantly, could offer a road map to a much brighter future?

And what if that candidate had an answer — a valid, compelling answer — to each and every criticism raised by his opponents?

This is the pot of election year gold I’m talking about.  It’s available now to anyone willing and able to do the hard work that will be required to claim it.

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