Decision Making and Choices
Reality can be harsh, particularly when it shatters imagery we’ve valued. There is imagery and perceptions that are aligned with the beliefs we’ve allowed to become paradigms, and those that are aligned with positive values are really important. This week has had a few of those harsh shattering moments. On this Veterans Day, we reflect on the priceless sacrifices that those in uniform have made on our behalf. I’ve always had the belief and imagery that those that perish in the roles of our guardians against harm are treated with sacred respect and their internments are handled with priority and protection. The US Air Force has apparently thought differently or has forgotten who we are and who they are supposed to be. The desecration and obscene treatment of our fallen is criminal, not just incompetent. This obscenity has been going on for a very long time and covered up in the interest of image preservation.
Coincident with this revelation are the discoveries of the criminality against children committed within the halls of what I believed to be one of the most respected and morally driven football programs in the NCAA, Penn State. This obscenity has been going on for a very long time and covered up in the interest of image preservation.
On Wall Street, there are groups of protesters demonstrating outrage at the abuses of many in the corrupt destruction of our economy and millions of lives. Sadly, this obscenity has been going on for a very long time and covered up in the interest of image preservation.
This pattern should not be a surprise, but its current frequency is important. We’re in an age where transparencies will eventually conquer opacity. This age of social media creates real problems for those accustomed to paying off problems and sweeping them under carpets. If we say something here, it becomes viral before we get to say it there. Political candidates in the last few years of election cycles are living and more frequently dying from convenient and inconvenient memory lapses, gaffes and violating the adage from Confucius of “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.”
This age of transparency is putting lots of light on the bad, but far too much of the good remains in the dark. We savor the salacious and crave for sin and guilt, much like public the hangings that were once a big family event. The despicable deserve the light, much like the roaches or other vermin, hidden, be they church or state, home or work, big or little leagues.
However, these are not who we are as a society, and we can’t get to where we need without the light on the many whom and what that are good and noteworthy. Despite the shameful absence of statesmen and leaders, good and great abound, perhaps right next to us. As this holiday season begins and Thanksgiving nears, let’s identify a good or great each day and give thanks and light to them.
Five years ago this last Monday, Katrina struck along the Gulf Coast. Its aftermath still lives with us, the 9th Ward in New Orleans still devastated with diminishing hope. The Katrina experience was transformative along many dimensions. It graphically illustrated the execution rigidity born of planning and responsiveness that comes from leadership gained through cronyism and political machines. Lives were lost and value was destroyed in an experience that put light on our soft underbelly. In fact, 1836 people died and 135 were missing and financial losses exceeded $108 billion. The aftereffects from looting, violence, and losses to the economies would fill scores of books. It reshaped the local economy, created a diaspora of resources and cast doubts globally about our values.
Elected leadership made bad decisions. “Good decisions come from experience. Experience comes from making bad decisions.” - Mark Twain (1835 – 1910),
On the flip side, Entergy, the electric utility, distinguished itself with an exceptional response and record setting electrical system restoration. They were ready, willing, and able. This last weekend Isabel struck the East Coast, but this time, with very different consequences. We learned and many alive today can give thanks for that. Elected and appointed officials were ready, willing, and able. The final count is not in, but fewer (40+) have perished and early estimates of costs hover around $10 billion. It brought with it the still growing calamities from flooding, yet to be assessed.
While both storms destroyed property and economic value, some irrecoverable, those in charge with preparation and execution during Irene saved scores of lives. Why? While arguably we may have some better elected and appointed officials, the gene pool of the planners and responders did not change. What did change was the process, specifically, the process capability. The game changed from disaster response to disaster prevention. The process learned from the consequences of managing downstream from the storm, to well upstream of the storm. Change comes and storms are unavoidable, and they are both opportunities to be harvested. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity and there is opportunity in every storm.
Our business environment is well into a violent and unstable economic and geopolitical hurricane season. Do our planning and response processes reflect that? Do we hunker down, hold our cash in a safe box and wait for the storms to end, or harvest the opportunities each storm creates? Are managing with “detect and correct” or with “predict and prevent”?
“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” Salt in My Attic by William Shedd
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
So begins the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain signed by the United States Congress on July 4, 1776. We in the US, celebrate July 4th as Independence Day this weekend with festivities, fireworks, picnics and devotionals to those whose lives were dedicated and often taken to secure these unalienable rights. In fact, the words could serve as anthem to peoples all over the world as a never ending objective and pursuit.
The instrument declared states as the independent parties, and in doing so established, “that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.”
The Declaration of Independence was a consequence of a people rebelling against abuses with no responsiveness to appeals or due recourse for resolution. It is interesting to recognize that the only activity specified that is specific to an individual is the right to establish commerce. The document enumerates abuses by the Crown and intolerable and unendurable behaviors and, not surprisingly, many can be traced to actions to serve commercial objectives, those of the Crown and to the detriment of the colonists. (It took a subsequent Constitution and Bill of Rights to establish governance.) But, to continue the thread, business strategies are in fact conquest strategies and occupation strategies, and governments align to these to different degrees. Political colonies have typically as occupation entities to be harvested.
The consequences of the boldness of the Declaration of Independence and subsequent execution have enabled many of us to pursue happiness, enjoy liberty, and create life with hope. Three important dimensions are forever present in my mind:
1. Declaration was followed by sacrifice and vigilance to earn the liberties and the responsibilities to sustain them. Declaring that we are or we will be better or great can warm the tummy for a bit, but it is execution and on-going management that makes it real. Projects exist to create processes and processes must manage to the objectives of the entities. This applies to governance of individuals, organizations, enterprises, societies, religious orders, groups, and nations.
2. As the world changes and our prosperities grow, our opportunities are a powerful magnet for others seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Although many believe that these rights come as a consequence of national versus global birth, perhaps through education or lack thereof, it is the right to earn them that effectively determines what we do and whether life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is achieved.
3. The first two create obligations and responsibilities, societal and commercial. Recognizing the unalienable rights do not come as a geographical or political birthright … not because of where we were born, but rather, because you were born is important, particularly if we are to be civil in our behaviors among our global community. We must not act in a way that denies the right to the pursuit of opportunity to earn happiness, personal or commercial, simply because we can at this point in time.
I cherish the opportunities life in the United States brings every day, and am grateful that my loved ones can pursue their own dreams. I honor and respect those that live and die daily to protect these opportunities and am ashamed of those that deny them to others, here or abroad.
Today, independence is more complex, perhaps because prosperity has redefined for many what the pursuit of happiness is or ought to be. Somehow, I find it is easier to find clarity in challenging times, and rewarding to reflect on the earned independence we enjoy and the responsibility to continue to earn and never deny.
The 9.0 earthquake that devastated northern Japan continues to have severe aftershocks. They are shocks in what clever physicist would ascribe to a type of space-time. It’s not about Star Trek stuff, or the time travel that fantasies love to use, but rather how one type of event starts a whole series of other events along a different type of path, affecting a different space at a different time, but connected. These types of other events are very real “butterfly effects” where a small change in one place can cause a whole bunch of changes downstream. Believe it or not, that earthquake has changed our lives, our businesses, and our collective futures. Toyota, the world’s largest automaker is expecting a 35% drop in profits, primarily from supply chain disruptions. Maybe that’s a no brainer, but it’s also driving severe supply chain effects globally and very real adverse economic and employment pain here in the US. From automakers and their suppliers, to many of the stuff we buy including our beloved electro-gadgetry … it’s still hurting.
How many of our business plans had “the earthquake” included as a scenario? Not very likely … Our nuclear industry was in the early days of a beautiful renaissance, one with a promise that would be a large driver of untethering us from our OPEC masters … but it too has been severely damaged by an aftershock … but one with no Richter scale. Disruptive events aren’t what they used to be. Historically, disruptive events were contained to the extent of our technological and logistical isolation …. We weren’t all networked. Globalization has changed that … we’re one big interdependent and interconnected family. The apparent and marketed successes of globalized supply chains and very sensitive “just in time” systems had a big Black Swan lurking … behind our chosen lines of sight.
Today, complexity has become a global behemoth, creating new rules of business and generating many more choices and opportunities for innovation and value creation. I certainly love my Android phone more than the beeper I had 30 years ago. For businesses, that complexity requires a severe filtering of what is included in planning and consequently what we chose to be blind to. Planning in business love the optimists and sometimes ostracize the pessimists … the ones who ask the unnerving questions.
Given Japan’s location, how likely are earthquakes? I heard an unfortunate comment from a nuclear industry spokesperson … unfortunate because it is an industry I love and believe in … that “the damage at the Fukishima plant was not from earthquake damage … but rather from the tsunami, it performed as designed.” Aren’t earthquakes and tsunamis connected?
Today’s world is much less dominated by trends and easy predictions … how many surprises have we had to respond to in our enterprises? My bet is that we’ve had more of them more frequently … in some multiple of our increasing interconnected interdependency. Take a look back and count them … what would we have done if we had known or prepared ahead of time? As we look ahead and build our planning and business models for the coming year … are we asking the right questions? How many levels of “what if” along our interconnectivity are we exploring? Have the aftershocks created more timidity in decision making? How much time do we invest in complexity driven failure modes versus “win” and “capture” plans. Do our business continuity plans address the really scary stuff?
There is opportunity in every storm, after all, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” Seneca, Roman philosopher, mid first century AD.
For many years we’ve been helping our clients sort out how to create and sustain value for their customers. Few would argue that the Voice of the Customer is essential. We all too often find that the Voice of the Customer collected and reported is more about the organization, how well they are liked, or opinions on performance (not real performance), rather than those that focus on the customer’s world. Hearing and understanding the actual Voice of the Customer has too often been interpreted from gathering data that feed survey instruments, reports, dashboards or scorecards. By searching for and producing data that can be rolled up, opportunities for critical insight are lost. Feeding the tool or report can become the goal and by the time the report comes, the customer might be gone. Are we missing something? “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina. Count Leo has a point.
Let’s consider firms in the business of making money. The public sector has lots of added complexity in sorting out voices and timeframes. The Voice of the Customer is or should be The Voice of Revenues. Understand why we make money and who has it. What we’ve found often are a great deal of questions that deal with how we make money, and opinions on how well we do the basics, not why. Consequently, we spend lots of money on questions we should be answering with our performance capability data. Customer satisfaction scores are not performance capability data.
Here are some questions to consider:
• How do we know whether we are capturing what we need to know from our customers?
• What do we do with this customer survey data? How and when is it useful?
• We are measuring service and product satisfaction, and yet why are complaints rising and customers leaving?
• There are so many “voices” to deal with, how do I cope?
• How much change are our customers facing?
• How does our service impact their ability to succeed?
•How is time spent in our organization:
1. In a stable repetitive work stream (The process world)?
2. Building and implementing new solutions (The less stable project world)?
3. Responding or reacting to changing requirements (The unstable world)?
• How and when do we find out about customer facing issues?
• Is that good or bad?
• How dependent are we on suppliers?
• How much do our suppliers impact our customers?
• Does our current Voice of the Customer process and information keep up with the “drumbeat” of the marketplace?
The Macedonian Phalanx was a battlefield formation developed by King Philip, father of Alexander the Great. It was the most effective military ground weapon to meet enemy forces head on, enabling attack by cavalry and other forces along the flanks. It utilized collapsible long spears and was virtually undefeatable for over 300 years. It combined the interlocking and cohesion of shields and the long reach of the spear. The units were well trained. It was a marvelous combination of strategy, technology, resources, process and, execution. Sounds like a phrase of a business book. The phalanx had worked so well, that it changed very little strategically until the Battle of Pydna in 186 BC when Roman Legions massacred the Macedonians. The Romans also combined strategy, technology, resources, process, and execution. There is one contrasting difference, the phalanx was a weapon built on rigidity, and these Roman legions applied agility against their enemy. The phalanx was vulnerable on uneven ground, the flanks and rear and was next to useless close up. The Roman gladius was the epitome of a close battle weapon, a breakthrough technology, one that moved from bronze and iron to forged steel.
The Macedonians experienced a disruption in their capability; they did not decay battle by battle. Content with the phalanx, they continued to make it better, each day, and becoming less likely to win against the Romans. They suddenly discovered and dearly paid the Cost of Unreadiness. Over the last few years evidence of the Cost of Unreadiness has been unavoidable. We saw it in the recession triggered by the meltdown, to the ravages of earthquakes and tsunamis, lagging or no capability in response to Katrina, incompetence with the oil spill; there are plenty to consider.
So, there is such a category of cost and it can be so high that it can be terminal, life ending, for humans or businesses. This cost is part of a family of costs we don’t measure, but we experience. We budget for them, but not explicitly, rather they are buried in our standards and estimates, processes, and plans. Traditionally, Lean has sought to reduce the costs of imbedded waste, Six Sigma attacking the costs from unwanted variation. In our current environment, full of complex systems, interdependencies, changing requirements, these other costs are likely to grow, perhaps with emphasis on the costs of unreadiness and rigidity.
Looking back at the last few years, how did your enterprise fare with:
• Reduced capability?
• Consequences from unplanned events?
• Costs from rigidity?
• Costs from unreadiness?
• Lessons learned?
• Changes in strategy, technology, resources, process and, execution?
Are we ready for the next surprise? Any thoughts?
Last fall I experienced a nuclear stress test. It had nothing to do with power plants or the stress that the operators in Japan are undergoing. Mine was conducted by my cardiologist and the isotope was a means to gain transparency into my system under different conditions, conditions that evaluated my behavior in a dynamic environment. Happily, it rendered good news that rewarded the hundreds of miles and several of my treasured New Balance athletic shoes.
Over that last couple of years, we’ve highlighted the evidence and perspectives that our business world is increasingly more dynamic, interdependent, highly networked, dangerously complex, and managed by tools and traditions built on much more stable process experience. Business models and algorithms, control systems, enterprise tools and performance improvement technologies derived significant power from the likelihood that behavior repeat sufficiently to enable the power of statistics to improve decision making. I many cases, that stability and value remains and I expect that that will go on beyond any horizon I can conjure. In fact, Dr. Deming encouraged us to look at the world through the lens of Plan, Do, Check, and Act, and his truism remains eternal.
• When and how do we subject our enterprises to that PDCA?
• What is the nature of our Check activities?
• Do we get beyond “according to plan or budget”?
• What type of stress tests are we employing? How would our business continuity plans hold up?
• Are we evaluating what we operate against the assumptions we made when we developed our plans, processes, and systems?
• Are the experiences of the last three years is sufficient to justify a fresh look at our Check phase?
• What causes and effects do we think about today that were insignificant a few years back?
• Have we learned anything new about assumptions, risks, and opportunities? Do our enterprise systems, business processes, strategies and objectives reflect that learning?
• Who is asking the discomforting questions within our enterprises? What questions do our trusted advisors ask of us? What answers do they provide to our questions?
• Are yesterday’s data building today’s processes to deal with tomorrow’s problems? What change do we anticipate?
• How well do we currently change our capability in the face of adversity or new requirements? How far upstream do we analyze?
• Where do we sit on the fragility to agility scale?
• Do our metrics come from an odometer or a telescope?
“Events will take their course, it is no good of being angry at them; he is happiest who wisely turns them to the best account.” Bellerophon by Euripides 480-406 BC
Best in Class! How often do we run into the term? I believe it’s a term that has lost much meaning. I suspect that overuse, or selective playing around with what “class” we pick, or the unreliability of rating organizations render it useless too often. In the world or process improvement it is applied to a goal setting step for evaluating how large a gap there is to close and subsequently chartering projects and resources to close that gap. There are some pitfalls to the approach:
• If the “class” we are selecting as a benchmark is a poorly performing one, we may be aiming at becoming the “best of the worst” or “the cream of the crap”.
• If becoming best in class for a unit within an organization does nothing to positively impact the performance of the total organization, we may be investing in meaningless improvement.
• The goal may become obsessive, a powerful distraction, directing attention and resources away from value adding opportunities.
• The customer, shareholder, or taxpayer does not benefit.
The last bullet is very important. Most organizations are not created with a primary purpose to have functions, departments, employees, IT systems, training centers, enterprise applications, procurement groups, or resources of any kind. That’s not why enterprises exist.
• If they are commercial organizations, they exist to deliver goods and services that financially profit so that they can earn the trust of their investors through returns. Yep, they are around to make money. The best ones do it legally, ethically, with respect to all stakeholders, no adverse externalities, and with a vision to create new value. They deliver value to customers and returns to investors.
• If they are a public service organization, they exist to fulfill a mission to deliver beneficial outcomes to their stakeholders (taxpayers and public at large). The best ones are effective, efficient, ethical, agile, focused on delivering benefits and positive societal outcomes, responsive to their public, and transparent. They spend public funds and deliver positive and beneficial outcomes.
• Purpose is fulfilled when value is delivered. There is a value stream that threads what delivers value and it provides the ruler with which to measure what is appropriate or lacking.
So, resources, systems, functions, departments, assets …, within the organization should exist and operate in order for the organization to thrive. That means that goals for units or entities within the organization have real value and legitimacy to the extent that they can verifiably contribute to the organization’s value proposition. Of course, this is unlikely since significant waste abounds and gaps in performance are forever with us.
The issue is not whether to improve or not. The question is how much, by whom, and to what ends. Where should we set the bar? How good is the good we should be? In a relay race, how would we decide where to focus our efforts? How do we create the appropriate focus, discipline and follow-through? Of course, most groups aspire to be the best at what they do, but unfortunately, it is overly focused on only what they do. It would be tragic, if not ridiculous, to claim success within a unit where the organization or enterprise is tanking. Our operation was successful, but the patient died.
2010 was a year where much of our attention and anxiety were held captive by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It was a sobering reminder of our dependence on fuels that support our lifestyle, commerce, defense, and essentials to life today. Moratoriums on deep water drilling ensued followed by hearings and probes into why it happened and who we need to blame and subsequently seek a means of exacting some comforting justice. It’s been months since the topic has had front page coverage, almost forgotten much like the devastation and impacts of Katrina, the earthquakes in Haiti, China, and Chile.
Currently, the horrors precipitated by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan coupled with the political sea changes in the Middle East fill our front pages. In each of these cases, the parallel story on their impacts on our energy supply shares the spotlight. Events and actions that precipitate unpredictable instability are universally disturbing. We are not a species well wired for the unpredictable, much less so for the unthinkable. Our education is much about real or conjured patterns that explain the world and how it came to be as it is currently. The damage in Japan to the nuclear facilities is frightening and the consequences still very uncertain. They are not the result of irresponsible entities, commercial or governmental, but rather of our shared capacity to evaluate the unthinkable. Consequently, hordes of post mortem experts and pundits are ready to quickly make on the fly strategies about our energy future. The nuclear industry is at risk, sadly with a broad brush, and the media is all too happy to stoke the fires of panic.
I believe the fundamental issue remains unchanged. It is not about energy, or earthquakes, tsunamis, or accidents, or financial meltdowns. It is about our inadequate capacity to evaluate the unthinkable. Poor decisions are likely to follow, those borne in the heat of fear and politics. Some will want all the answers to questions that respond to the thinkable and consume valuable time and minds needed for the exploring of the unthinkable.
It’s time to reread “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (http://www.amazon.com/Black-Swan-Impact-Highly-Improbable/dp/1400063515).
While these frightening events are globe rattling and cascade to us all, similar issues may well be alive within our organizations, enterprises, and businesses.
• What is the process through which we evaluate important decisions?
• Do our plans follow well established patterns of business rules that we believe to be stable and reliable?
• Who addresses the unthinkable?
• How many high impact surprises have we observed in the last three years?
It’s something to think about. Thoughts?
The term robber baron is said to have originated as a medieval name attributed to those that controlled passage on the Rhine River and charged exorbitant tolls. They recognized the power they held, as constrainers or enablers of commerce. The term lived on and thereafter was attached in 19th century America to the magnates that built and operated the railroads. Their power, the same as their predecessors, came as they became the harvesters of the power that came to gatekeepers to commercial traffic. The big and exciting commercial wars in the mid to late 1800’s were about control of the rails. The magnates who built the rails, steamship lines, and the routes of commerce did much to shape the course of history and how we operate today. We may not recognize names like Gould, Crocker, Flagler (outside of Florida), Harriman or Vanderbilt, but their tribe of visionaries and shapers continues on.
Modern technology has changed the methods of how commerce traffics, but little has changed insofar as the value and leverage these channels have. Getting from “here to there” matters much to commerce, buyers or sellers. Giants such as FedEx and UPS understood this well and filled the vacuums that public postal systems created. Be ye pirate or magnate, control over the lanes is real leverage.
Commercial choice is a function of degrees of freedom. The fewer degrees of freedom one party has, the lesser commercial power they can exercise. Loss of degrees of freedom in commerce fuels a range of responses as brutal as wars and as exciting as innovation, the best kind, the kind that solves problems, and the kind that is pulled by a sense of urgency. Often, history teaches that imbalanced growth of innovation creates the commercial imbalances that visionaries can see and leverage while we bask in the fun of the new solutions.
The current commercial wars are even more fascinating. These wars are about the virtual electronic waterways, invisible, infinitely networked, changing daily and ever more far reaching. The sea lanes and railways run on the net. The magnates who reshape winning and losing, acquire, rise, and fall can’t be measured by fleet size, or number of gates at physical hubs, or the endless trappings of game makers. They are creatures of our making. They are measured by our democratic behaviors, our choices, and have grown sufficiently to determine how democratic the future roadways will remain.
In our enterprises, we make daily choices about enterprise systems, business channels, email systems, network configurations, CRM applications and innovations to give us more transparency, build capabilities, and achieve leverage of resources and investments.
• How will our choices give up degrees of freedom that construct future system constraints?
• Do our strategic decisions create more choices and preserve flexibility?
• Do we “hard wire” ourselves onto roadways with visionary gatekeepers that will shape our futures?
• Have yesterday’s solutions become today’s constraints?
• How do we currently preserve or give away degrees of freedom in our strategic choices?
“Concentrated power has always been the enemy of liberty.” Ronald Reagan
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