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Tripp Babbitt

Six Sigma

Trends and Flows for 2014 and the ‘Shift Age’

Don't view the future through the lens of the past

Published: Monday, January 6, 2014 - 19:26

W. Edwards Deming is often given as the source for the following quote: “Managing a business on historical data is like driving a car while looking in the rearview mirror.” Deming actually borrowed the quote from Myron Tribus. The idea is that management should be looking ahead and not behind. Many fail to consider what the future of their organizations will look like.

I have been doing a lot of reading lately about the future and came across books from several futurists. One I particularly enjoyed was called Entering the Shift Age by David Houle. Houle has a background in media, an industry that has seen huge upheaval over the past decade.

I have spoken with David several times in the past month about this “Shift Age” (past ages include agricultural, industrial, and information.) He describes this Shift Age as an inflection point that “will change how we live, how we think, how we interact with each other, and what we do.” He uses the metaphor of an earthquake to describe the coming change.

The Shift Age is being molded by three flows:
1. The Flow to Global. We are becoming citizens of a global community and not individual countries.
2. The Flow to the Individual. Power is shifting from large groups (government and institutions) to the individual.
3. Accelerating Electronic Connectedness. Approximately 90 percent of the global population has a cell phone and more than a billion people use the internet.

My thoughts on the coming Shift Age

Most of us have grown up in the 20th century and look at the 21st century with what Houle describes as “legacy thinking,” or the act of seeing the future through the lens of the past. This is an important observation as organizations wrestle with change. Past assumptions that people have grown comfortable with will be continually challenged. The mindset of status quo will need to give way to a growth mindset of dynamic and constant change.

The structures of many large companies and governments today are still built in a functional, hierarchical, and bureaucratic (monolithic) way. They are slow to change because they are steeped in legacy thinking based on old assumptions and beliefs. These beliefs and assumptions are the foundation of organizational work design that is filled with complexity and waste.

The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” thinking of yesteryear will give way to “it has always been broken” thinking—even if it was just improved yesterday. Tomorrow’s organizations will be required to absorb fast-changing tastes, preferences, and demands from customers, and today’s monolithic structures will not be able to move quickly enough to keep up.

The “flow to individual” means that we will need to design organizations that move the power from hierarchy to influence. The days of inspection, distrust, control, and complexity will need to yield a better work design that enables and influences the individual without coercion or over-rationalization.

I believe the real challenge will be to get an organization to work as a system even when the individual wields the power. The organizational design will need to accommodate this phenomenon. I have found it is helpful to have the worker design the work of the future. However, this will require an individual worker to have more than just functional knowledge; he or she will need to understand the end-to-end system.

The role of the manager will need to change, too. Managers will need to become enablers and influencers rather than rule enforcers and controllers. They will need to act on what changes the workers are seeing to continually enable those workers.

The speed of change will transform planning, and planning will not exist as it does today. Strategic planning that spawns large projects will give way to improvements that can be made immediately. There will be no time to sit down and draft detailed project plans; acting on the system will need to be done with expediency and with fresh knowledge from an informed worker.

Information technology will change as well. Organizations will be looking for end-to-end solutions that don’t require multiple applications to complete a customer request. Large IT projects will be too slow and you will see software developers working more closely with front-line workers. IT will not have the luxury of gathering requirements, building project plans, and implementing multiple layers of testing. Front-line workers and developers will need to communicate and change as new requirements are found, just to keep up with the speed of change.

Electronic connectedness is creating a plethora of data, leading to the era of Big Data, will change our knowledge of data itself. Some of what Deming would have called “unknown and unknowable” data will become “unknown, but knowable.” The good news is that we will have increasingly better data to understand customers; the bad news is that privacy will be compromised in getting these data—something that we will be coming to grips with in the decades ahead.

These are some of things I believe are coming. What do you foresee?


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. 


What is coming?

I think you are right Tripp, lots of change at a faster and faster rate.

Which means, I think, a rise in education.

I haven't been formally taught anything for 15 years, which puts me well over the hill.  If we want to keep up (which I suspect we do) we will also want to be educated.



Thanks, James. Excellent point.

In fact, Mr. Houle points out that education is about to undergo huge transformation. The high cost of learning makes it a target for transformation. Do we still need or will we need "brick and mortar" buildings for K-12. And higher education is seeing more classes on-line or MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Courses) which is a trend that will continue.

Teaching yourself?

James - formal education isn't the only want to keep getting educated... there's never been an age with more resources available for educating yourself: books, videos, podcasts... all available to you online.

There's almost no excuse anymore for somebody to not be continually learning.