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Tripp Babbitt

Six Sigma

Prying Management Away from Old Assumptions

Why rational approaches sometimes backfire

Published: Wednesday, September 29, 2010 - 05:30

Systems thinking requires a massive change in the way organizations design and manage work. Old thinking must be flushed out so that new and better thinking can replace it. The outdated functional design of organizations according to the type of work performed needs an overhaul. Frederick Taylor, Henry Ford, and a slew of other early management thinkers designed a great system for their day. But that day has long passed, and the theory that won World War II is now keeping countries like the United States from competitiveness and advancement.

Behind the need to redesign how we work are a set of assumptions. These assumptions manifest themselves in management thinking, and they ultimately get passed on to customers in the form of sales, operations, human resources, and IT departments. Although as customers we logically expect this organizational setup will help serve us, more often we get the runaround through these organizational functions.

However, customers and managers don’t see the system’s design flaws; they see a person who doesn’t deliver a service, and they wind up blaming the worker on the front line. Managers can claim ignorance—because they are rarely involved in the work, they are ignorant of it. They assume the problem is a person rather than the system, and the customer can only blame those with whom they come in contact during the provisioning of service.

A systems thinker understands that organizational design flaws are rooted in management thinking and the assumptions on which the design are based. Too often, management is seen heading into strategic planning or other meetings with a new list of assumptions. These turn into prioritized projects, project managers and resources are identified, and off to the Milky Way the organization goes. Lean and Six Sigma projects or events reinforce this thinking, making them both dangerous in the perpetuation of bad management thinking and damaging for any hope that management will see a different way.

Many lean Six Sigma professionals hope that these projects will convince managers that improvement can be a good thing and that management thinking will change. They have applied a rational approach to management’s current paradigm, and managers in turn rationalize away the change in thinking needed. Improvement is left to the front line and improvement professionals who are, after all, the experts in these things. Managers are then free to perpetuate the same bad thinking that created the problems in the first place.

What to do instead

What lean Six Sigma and many other approaches lack are intervention methods to change management thinking. (I find systems thinking is much more comprehensive than either approach, the reason I consider myself a “reformed” lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt). The tactics and techniques of systems thinking take experience to learn but when used effectively, they trigger broader thinking change through a series of informed choices. This is a more normative approach than the rational and coercive approaches embraced by lean Six Sigma.

Taking management through a normative approach to change thinking is powerful. Managers with whom I work have become curious enough to want to challenge their thinking. Everything that happens is part of the intervention to begin to change thinking.

Long ago I learned from W. Edwards Deming that to improve performance, the system has to change. I also learned that 95 percent of performance is attributable to the system and 5 percent to the individual, which means that most management approaches that try to get more out of the individual are counterproductive.

Looking at the diagram below, we see the well-known relationship between performance and changing the system. But thinking must change, too, particularly management thinking. If thinking doesn’t change, the system can’t change or, if it does, it is temporary. Why? Because the same old assumptions that were used to design the old system are still alive and well in the new system. Management, with thinking unchanged, will undo whatever good may have been accomplished.

Management that believe things are going well are the hardest to change. They are either in denial over their current situation (as there is always room to improve) or economic conditions have put them in a good place (not seeing much of this in current economic climate). So now more than ever is there opportunity for those influenced by good economic conditions… let’s not squander a good crisis to change management thinking.


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 LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/trippbabbitt

Tripp also has a podcast and YouTube channel called, The Effective Executive.