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.

goalsThis is the goal statement given on my home city’s website:

“As the elected representatives of Woodinville, the City Council understands that the purpose of the City is to fairly and equitably represent the interests of the citizens of Woodinville, and to carry out its lawful duties on behalf of citizens of Woodinville.”

Stripping out the prologue, we are left with:

“… to fairly and equitably represent the interests of the citizens of Woodinville, and to carry out its lawful duties on behalf of citizens of Woodinville.”

This statement is pretty good as far as ordinary goal statements.  But I think we can improve on it a bit.

First, I don’t sense a demand for continuous improvement in the statement itself.  Such a demand could be buried in the strategy and tactics necessary to achieve the goal.  I am not aware of any City documents that demand for continuous improvement on the part of the City.  Seems like a serious oversight to me.  If I’m wrong, and such demands do exist in City documents, I’d be grateful for a reference to them.

A second problem is the clause “and to carry out it’s lawful duties on behalf of the citizens of Woodinville.”

My objection to having this in the goal statement is that it’s really just one of many requirements that has to be met in order to achieve the condition promised by the first half of the goal statement: “to fairly and equitably represent the interests of the citizens of Woodinville.”

If I was writing the goal statement for the City, I’d write something like this:

“To produce more value for its citizens, now, and in the future.”

This says exactly what I want the City to do for me:  Starting today, I want the City to find a way to produce more value for me.  And then, on every following day, I want even more value produced for me.

I also want this for my fellow citizens:  I want the City, on each succeeding day, to be of greater value to my fellow citizens then it was on the day before.

Yes, I know, this is not easy. That’s the point. I need the City to do for me the things that are difficult for me to do. The easy things I can do myself.

My goal statement is demanding that the City follow a real process of ongoing improvement.  Why should we citizens insist on such a thing?

We should insist on this because there is no standing still in life. You are either improving, or you’re getting worse.  We live in a very competitive world.  New problems are recognized all the time.  Therefore, the City must be constantly striving to — and succeeding at — improving its ability to bring value to its citizens.

As citizens I believe we must do two things.

First, we must demand that our City constantly improve so that it can resolve these problems effectively, and without foisting them back on us in the form of higher taxes or wasted opportunities.

Second, we must offer ideas for improvement.  Anyone can go down to City Hall and offer comments during Public Comment.  Haranguing people is easy.  But can you do something constructive?  Can you do it in a way that avoids creating even bigger problems for the City?  Doing this is not a triviality.  As citizens, we can and should join in the hard work of identifying real solutions to the difficult problems faced by the people who run local government.  But we have to do it responsibly and we have to have a significant and net-positive impact.

Now our City today is pretty good, so none of this is meant to criticize the good work that is already being done. We are making progress and I’m grateful for that progress. Making progress is very difficult and the City Council and the City Staff deserve our respect and support. It pains me when I sometimes see citizens resorting to ad hominem attacks on our elected officials and/or members of the Staff.  Yes, I know you’re frustrated.  But creating walls of distrust is not the solution.

What I am trying to do on this blog and elsewhere is to point to the “open channel” — the many directions in which we can move to greatly increase the ability of our City to produce value for its citizens.

I’ll have more to say about goal statements in the future.  Specifically, I will write about the value of having a concise, 10 – 15 page plan that describes the strategies and tactics to be followed in order to achieve the goal.  I don’t believe we have such a plan today.  Please correct me if this is wrong.

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.