Three year retrospective

This blog is three years old and my experiences as a practitioner of quality and as a leader has been driven during this time by narrative writing. Writing gives the space and time to look back, re-live and re-experience, and ultimately reflect upon our work. Writing these blog posts is an effective way of digesting experience on the job. Through
writing this blog I have attempted to understand situations from various viewpoints and perspectives.

I get asked a lot why I do this, and how I make time for writing. Let’s be honest, there are long periods of time where I do not. But when I do make the time it is for these reasons.

Writing as a catalyst for reflective thought

In an era where lifelong professional learning is continuously promoted, professionals need to continuously learn and take the role of practitioner-researcher. The narrative writing I engage in on this blog plays an important role that aids this ongoing development. Through writing I enhance my reflective awareness.

Writing helps reduce the imbalance I feel between theory and practice. Too often we need to make immediate decisions and it is difficult to balance what-must-happen with what-should-happen. Writing this blog allows me to think critically about my past actions and how these together with theory can inform future practice.

Writing this blog is a way of thinking that helps me in understanding myself; my own actions; my thoughts; my emotions; my experiences. Apart from self-understanding, self-reflective narrative also assists professional learning because it aids professional thinking. In short, writing helps me think, reflect, and develop. I write, therefore I think.

First-order narratives: promoting self-understanding

The narratives in this blog are first-order narratives where I write about my own experiences, as opposed to second-order narratives where the author writes about the experiences of others. Everything I write starts as a challenge or an experience I am processing. This blog rarely engages in journalistic reporting, and when it does report on the news it is always part of reflection.

Through writing about my experiences as a quality professional, and reflecting on them, I strive to construct meanings, interpretations, new knowledge and understandings.

By engaging in systematic reflection I am promoting questioning, and questioning encourages me to think of new possibilities. This is where ideas come from, and this drives my professional quality practice forward.

Conversing with oneself

Conversing with someone else offers the possibility of feedback and exposure to different viewpoints. This is why I look to professional societies as one way to enhance my work. I’ll be honest though that is not as easy as I would like it to be.

Unfortunately, I often feel isolated. People are busy and it is difficult to carve out the time for reflection and discussion. It can often feel that collaboration and sharing about non-project deliverables are limited to non-existent at worst. By blogging I am conversing with myself in public. It would be great to engage in dialogue with people, but I feel this public dialogue is a way to engage with the larger body of knowledge.

I think this is one of the reasons I blogged less after starting my current job. All my time was going into collaborative narratives as I strove to determine what came next in this new role.

Looking deeper into issues

Sitting down and writing a blog post offers time for reflective thought. Sure, I talk about these issues all day, but writing journal entries, because I tend to think about it a lot more, allows me to explore additional dimensions of the issue. Narrative writing affords me the space for focused reflective thinking. This blog is my medium for reflection, questioning, critical analysis, thinking, reasoning, and the building of arguments.

Often I write in preparation for some task or project. Or to analyze how it is progressing and to solve problems.

Creating causal links

A narrative should have an evaluative function; offering valuable information about how the author interprets and connects meanings to lived situations and experiences. A narrative must add up to something; it is more than the sum
of its parts. Through writing this blog I am connecting the various parts of quality that are important to me in a wider whole. And by crafting that whole, develop new learnings to apply.

Blogging is tiring but valuable

I have experienced periods of tiredness, frustration, and a lessened motivation to blog, and this resonates with the argument that practitioners are usually so busy that they have little time for their own writing. This has especially been true during the last year of this pandemic.

However, I strongly view this blog as a core part of my learning, and that learning benefits from the longitudinal process of blogging. Writing about my experiences as a quality professional has promoted detailed observations of my work, analysis of that work, imagined solutions, implementation of such imagined solutions, and re-analysis of alterations to practice. Writing this blog has been an ideal way of showing experiential learning and my own development.

What comes next?

I set myself a goal of writing at least one post a day in March, and I found that amazingly rewarding. Not sure if I can keep that pace up but I am committed to continuing to use this blog space for reflection and development. I hope folks find some use out of that, and I look forward to the various communities this space engenders.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Levels of Uncertainty

Walker et al. (2010) developed a taxonomy of “levels of uncertainty”, ranging from Level 1 to Level 4,
which is useful in problem-solving:

  • Level 1 uncertainties are defined as relatively minor – as representing “a clear enough future” set within a “single system model” whereby outcomes can be estimated with reasonable accuracy;
  • Level 2 uncertainties display “alternative futures” but, again, within a single system in which probability estimates can be applied with confidence.

Levels 3 and 4 uncertainties are described as representing “deep uncertainty”.

  • Level 3 uncertainties are described as “a multiplicity of plausible futures”, in which multiple systems interact, but in which we can identify “a known range of outcomes”
  • Level 4 uncertainties lead us to an “unknown future” in which we don’t understand the system: we know only that there is something, or are some things, that we know we don’t know.

This hierarchy can be useful to help us think carefully about whether the uncertainty behind a problem can be defined in terms of a Level 1 prediction, with parameters for variation. Or, can it be resolved as group of Level 2 possibilities with probability estimates for each? Can the issue only be understood as a set of different Level 3 futures, each with a clear set of defined outcomes, or only by means of a Level 4 statement to the effect that we know only that there is something crucial that we don’t yet know?

There is often no clear or unanimous view of whether a particular uncertainty is set at a specific level. Uncertainty should always be considered at the deepest proposed level, unless or until those that propose this level can be convinced by an evidence-based argument that it should be otherwise.

Sources

  • Walker, W.E., Marchau, V.A.W.J. and Swanson, D. (2010) “Addressing Deep Uncertainty using Adaptive Policies: Introduction to Section 2”, Technological Forecasting & Social Change, 77: 917–23.

Seven elements of good problem-solving

Logic

Perhaps more than anything else, we want our people to be able to think and then act rationally in decision making and problem-solving. The basic structure and technique embodied in problem solving is a combination of discipline when executing PDCA mixed with a heavy dose of the scientific method of investigation.

Logical thinking is tremendously powerful because it creates consistent, socially constructed approaches to problems, so that members within the organization spend less time spinning their wheels or trying to figure out how another person is approaching a given situation. This is an important dynamic necessary for quality culture.

The right processes and tools reinforce this as the underlying thinking pattern, helping to promote and reinforce logical thought processes that are thorough and address all important details, consider numerous potential avenues, take into account the effects of implementation, anticipate possible stumbling blocks, and incorporate contingencies. The processes apply to issues of goal setting, policymaking, and daily decision making just as much as they do to problem-solving.

Objectivity

Because human observation is inherently subjective, every person sees the world a little bit differently. The mental representations of the reality people experience can be quite different, and each tends to believe their representation is the “right” one. Individuals within an organization usually have enough common understanding that they can communicate and work together to get things done. But quite often, when they get into the details of the situation, the common understanding starts to break down, and the differences in how we see reality become apparent.

Problem-solving involves reconciling those multiple viewpoints – a view of the situation that includes multiple perspectives tends to be more objective than any single viewpoint. We start with one picture of the situation and make it explicit so that we can better share it with others and test it. Collecting quantitative (that is, objective) facts and discussing this picture with others is a key way in verifying that the picture is accurate. If it is not, appropriate adjustments are made until it is an accurate representation of a co-constructed reality. In other words, it is a co-constructed representation of a co-constructed reality.

Objectivity is a central component to the problem solving mindset. Effective problem-solvers continually test their understanding of a situation for assumptions, biases, and misconceptions. The process begins by framing the problem with relevant facts and details, as objectively as possible. Furthermore, suggested remedies or recommended courses of action should promote the organizational good, not (even if subconsciously) personal agendas.

Results and Process

Results are not favored over the process used to achieve them, nor is process elevated above results. Both are necessary and critical to an effective organization.

Synthesis, Distillation and and Visualization

We want to drive synthesis of the learning acquired in the course of understanding a problem or opportunity and discussing it with others. Through this multiple pieces of information from different sources are integrated into a coherent picture of the situation and recommended future action.

Visual thinking plays a vital role in conveying information and the act of creating the visualization aids the synthesis and distillation process.

Alignment

Effective implementation of a change often hinges on obtaining prior consensus among the parties involved. With consensus, everyone pulls together to overcome obstacles and make the change happen. Problem-solving teams communicates horizontally with other groups in the organization possibly affected by the proposed change and incorporates their concerns into the solution. The team also communicates vertically with individuals who are on the front lines to see how they may be affected, and with managers up the hierarchy to determine whether any broader issues have not been addressed. Finally, it is important that the history of the situation be taken into account, including past remedies, and that recommendations for action consider possible exigencies that may occur in the future. Taking all these into consideration will result in mutually agreeable, innovative solutions.

Coherency and Consistency

Problem-solving efforts are sometimes ineffective simply because the problem-solvers do not maintain coherency. They tackle problems that are not important to the organization’s goals, propose solutions that do not address the root causes, or even outline implementation plans that leave out key pieces of the proposed solution. So coherency within the problem-solving approach is paramount to effective problem resolution.

Consistent approaches to problem-solving speed up communication and aid in establishing shared understanding. Organizational members understand the implicit logic of the approach, so they can anticipate and offer information that will be helpful to the problem-solvers as they move through the process.

Systems Thinking

Good system thinking means good problem-solving.

Levels of Problems in Culture

When thinking about root cause analysis it is useful to think of whether the problem is stemming from a cultural level or when it may be coming from an operational. We can think of these problems as hazards stemming from three areas:

  • Culture/philosophy is the over-arching view of how the organization conducts business from top-level decision-makers on through the corporate culture of an organization.
  • Policies are the broad specifications of the manner in which operations are performed. This includes the end-to-end processes.
  • Policies lead to the development of process and procedures, which are specifications for a task or series of tasks to accomplish a predetermined goal leading to a high degree of consistency and uniformity in performance.
Hazards unrecognized (risks not known or correctly appraised)Hazards forseen (risks anticipated but response not adequate)
Culture/Philosophy
Quality not source of corporate pride
Regulatory standards seen as maxima
Culture/Philosophy
Quality seen as source of corporate pride
Regulatory standards seen as minima
Policy
Internal monitoring schemes inadequate (e.g. employee concerns not communicated upwards)
Insufficient resources allocated to quality
Managers insufficiently trained or equipped
Reliance on other organization’s criteria (e.g. equipment manufacturer)
Policy
Known deficiencies (e.g. equipment, maintenance) not addressed
Defenses not adequately monitored
Defenses compromised by other policies (e.g. adversarial employee relations, incentive systems, performance monitoring)
Procedures
No written procedures
Procedures
Documentation inadequate
Inadequate, or Loop-hole in, controls
Procedures conflict with one another or with organizational policy

This approach on problems avoids a focus on the individuals involved and avoids a blame culture, which will optimize learning culture. Blaming the individuals risks creating an unsafe culture and creates difficulties for speaking up which should be an espoused quality value. Focus on deficiencies in the system to truly address the problem.

Complex Problems, a rant

Inevitably you will sit in on a meeting and hear someone say “We need to find the root cause of this complex problem.”

If you are me, you possibly think one of two things:

  1. Complex problems don’t have root causes. In fact, they don’t even have clear cause-effect paths
  2. That’s not complex. It’s complicated.

Occasionally, I think both.

In my post “The difference between complex and complicated” I went into detail on the differences between the two.

Does it matter? Mostly not, but sometimes very much so. The approach you bring to the two can be very different, and if you think you are tackling the wrong type of problem you could spend some time banging against a wall.

For an example:

  • Wanting to reduce cycle time for release of product is a complicated problem. You can reduce the problems and solve for them (e.g. tackle deviation cycle time, specific areas of deviations, processing in the lab, capacity in the value stream, etc)
  • Ensuring a robust and resilient supply chain is a complex problem. This problem is multifunctional and the system is open.

It is for this reason I continue to use Art Smalley’s Four Types of Problems. This gives a nice setup of language for talking about problems in the organization.

We definitely need a School-House-Rock style song for this, or good rap.