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Tripp Babbitt

Quality Insider

The Fundamental Thinking Problems that Prevent Improvement

Using “check” prevents tunnel vision… and tunnel thinking

Published: Thursday, November 4, 2010 - 05:30

In my previous article, “Prying Management Away from Old Assumptions,” we talked about the relationship between thinking, system, and performance. W. Edwards Deming told us that to improve performance, the system has to change and that the system represents 95 percent of any organization’s performance. But Deming’s message fell on deaf ears and what didn’t change was the thinking. Thinking must change for the system to change.

So, where do we begin? We begin with understanding our organization as a system by getting knowledge to perform using “check.”

The Vanguard Model for “check” is a six-step process:

1. What is the purpose from a customer’s point of view?
2. What are the type and frequencies of demand?
3. How well does the system respond to demand in achieving purpose?
4. Study the flow.
5. Understand system conditions.
6. Thinking… more important, management thinking


Getting knowledge into the work is a must for all managers. It provides evidence to those that rely only on reports or anecdotal information where knowledge is needed.

System conditions are those things that can help or hinder the work. Measures, roles, work design, procedures, information technology, hierarchy, contracts, rules, standardization, etc., all form service delivery. Often, process improvement misses too many of the elements that comprise a system. System conditions that suboptimize and create waste and that are left unaddressed will compromise improvements and the ability to sustain the improvements.

Performing "check" allows us to establish purpose and measures, which enables us to evaluate performance. More important, managers learn that improvement is not just about process, but that management actions and assumptions can make the system worse. “Check” becomes a touchstone for taking action on the system.

Let’s go back to the thinking-system performance relationship.

In many organizations, we find that when thinking is focused only on revenue, the system focuses on productivity, output, and rewards. The outcome is increased complaints from customers, higher costs, and poor morale.

When thinking focuses on meeting the budget, there is an organizational preoccupation with costs. In the system, this drives a focus on the functional separation of work to manage costs, all based on an assumption that by breaking work down into functional areas, reduced cost can be achieved. Performance is affected by hand-offs, customers have a hard time finding someone to answer their demands, and the impact is long end-to-end times.

Sometimes we see organizations hide the expert to save costs. The thought is that the "expert" (e.g., software developer, hardware engineer) is too expensive a resource to have fielding questions from customers. So they use lower cost, less knowledgeable people to answer questions. We see this especially in contact centers, software development, or any time the prevailing management thinking is to reduce costs. This leads to failure demand (a demand for action or resources in order to fix a problem) and increased costs. Which leads us to say that “a focus on costs increases costs… always.”

Each system has different thinking problems, as no system is exactly the same. Management just needs to decide whether they want to do something about it. The reward is happier customers, decreased costs, better culture, and dramatically improved profit. What is there not to like?


About The Author

Tripp Babbitt’s picture

Tripp Babbitt

Tripp Babbitt the managing partner for The 95 Method - Executive Education and Advisors. The 95 Method is about giving organizations a method to use new theories to grow business.  Babbitt can be reached at tripp@the95method.com. Reach him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TriBabbitt or LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/trippbabbitt

Tripp also does two podcasts: The Deming Institute Podcast and The Effective Executive podcast. 


Thinking. A definition, please.

It is interesting to see that so much of the inefficiencies and problems which we experience in our business processes can be laid at the feet of our 'thinking'.

Is our thinking corrupted by the improper application of our thoughts to the process under consideration or by poorly defined, or undefined expectations?

At any rate, the word 'thinking' in this context seems to draw the discussion into nebulous and inexact areas.

I would appreciate seeing something more concrete about this subject- perhaps a model.