Dangerous tools LO26400

From: Bill Harris (bill_harris@facilitatedsystems.com)
Date: 03/20/01

Replying to LO26381 --

Don Dwiggins <d.l.dwiggins@computer.org> wrote:

> Recent messages have discussed measurement and incentives. One thing I
> think these "corporate tools" have in common is that they're what I'd
> classify as "dangerous tools" -- tools that, in unskilled or careless
> hands, can cause serious damage, and yet don't necessarily seem that way
> on casual inspection. It's this combination of potential for damage along
> with apparent innocence that I consider characteristic of the category.
> The analogy I think of is to the wood shop or machine shop, where certain
> tools simply shouldn't be used until one has been educated in their use
> and the need for proper respect toward them.
> Does this seem like a useful concept to a LO? I'd be interested to hear

I think this is an eminently useful concept for an LO. In fact, I
conjecture that's part of why Senge included system dynamics/systems
thinking as one of the five, to give us a tool to remind ourselves that
good intentions can have unintended, unfortunate consequences. Of course,
we can also approach such dangerous tools with safety gear other than (or
in addition to) SD/ST.

Here's a simple but real example. I used to work in an organization that
had an expense management problem. As you might expect, we measured our
expenses monthly, and we devoted a fair amount of attention to that
measurement (accounting). Unfortunately, it didn't seem to help; we'd be
overspent by ~20% for a couple of months, and then we'd be underspent by
about the same amount for a couple of months.

"Pipeline Inventory: The Missing Factor in Organizational Expense
Management" and "Applying System Dynamics to Business: An Expense
Management Example," referenced and available, respectively, at
http://facilitatedsystems.com/pubs.html, describe how a change in the
measurement made our expenditures quite predictable and stable. There's a
model on that page, too, if anyone wants to experiment on their own.
(BTW, I conjecture there are many other companies measuring expenses the
"old" way.)

You may have been thinking of measurement in a different sense--measuring
people or project performance, for example. If there are troubles
measuring such seemingly concrete things such as money, I think it's
reasonable to expect at least as many troubles involved in measuring some
of the less tangible items.

> about other candidates for dangerous corporate tools, and whether this
> could be a useful meme to help create proper caution in the minds of
> workers otherwise prone to wield them boldly. (Well-known saying around
> the hangar: "there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold
> pilots.")

Here's one I've been thinking about recently: accountability. I see that
term bandied about in certain places. If it has an intellectual
underpinning, it would seem to be based on MBO and self-organizing
systems. That is, don't tell the system how to do its work, but establish
goals (based on measures, of course), and hold managers (and others)
accountable for meeting those goals.

One of the side lessons of the model mentioned above was on
accountability. Let me propose that accountability and management
pressure are the same thing. I casually put a "management pressure"
adjustment in that model. When I was playing around with it, I discovered
that increased management pressure applied to a poor system (one with poor
measurements) makes it do worse. Less management pressure actually makes
it do better. If the system has good measurements, then it doesn't matter
much how much or little pressure management adds.

Does this make sense? It does to me. If there is a natural tendency for
(lower) managers to behave one way in order to please (get a good
evaluation from) their (upper) managers and if that natural tendency
causes a certain set of problems, increased pressure (going from the
proverbial "slap on the wrist" to losing one's job) would seem to amplify
those tendencies.

What's the implication? Not that managers should become wimps, but that
managers should focus at least as much effort on ensuring they have
created good organizational structures as on ensuring they hold their
people accountable. If they have good systems and still one manager isn't
performing up to the needs of the organization and the level of the other
managers, then perhaps there is a performance/accountability issue.
Otherwise, the problem probably lies with the system design, and
responsibility for that includes upper management.



Bill Harris                                  3217 102nd Place SE
Facilitated Systems                          Everett, WA 98208 USA
http://facilitatedsystems.com/               phone: +1 425 337-5541

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