Next practice vs. best practice

April 26, 2010 at 9:27 am | Posted in Software Engineering, Systems Improvement | Leave a comment

Last week I came across an interesting article by C.K. Prahalad titled “Best Practices Get You Only So far” at http://hbr.org/2010/04/column-best-practices-get-you-only-so-far/ar/1
 
What I gathered from the article is here,
“Companies identify best practices, particularly those of market leaders, and try to implement them. It may allow enterprises to catch up with competitors, but it won’t turn them into market leaders. Organizations become winners by spotting big opportunities and inventing next practices. Next practices are all about innovation: imagining what the future will look like. If you look for ways to develop next practices, opportunities abound. In fact, executives are constrained not by resources but by their imagination.”
 
Though he was addressing primarily the “C” level, I feel it is equally applicable to all levels of an organization. We should know what has worked well in the past for us & others. But rather than blindly following, we should ask ourselves following questions,

  • Why did it work in the past?
  • Have the conditions changed?
  • Would it continue to work in future?
  • If not, what would work?

If we can inculcate this thought process at all levels of an organization, it will set in motion a culture of sustained improvement and make us ready not just for present but also for future. But it is easier said than done. It requires a different mindset and thought process. It is quite difficult to get out of the comfort zone. Personally I found the book “Power of now” by Eckhart Tolle very useful. When you practice the suggestions about focusing on now, with some practice your attachment to past & future gets reduced and it becomes much easier to get out of your comfort zones.

Another useful thing to do is to capture the context and reasons for a given process or policy when it is being formulated or subsequently updated. It will provide invaluable information to answer the questions given above.

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System maturity and maturity models

April 19, 2010 at 8:22 am | Posted in Out of my mind, Systems Improvement, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment

There is process maturity and there is people maturity. However, system maturity takes a holistic approach covering all the parts of the system and looks at maturity of the system as a whole rather than that of just its parts. Organizations are themselves complex human systems as well as interact with other systems which have processes and humans as essential components. It therefore makes sense to look at what is system maturity in the context of complex human systems. There can be different perspectives and opinions; I am sharing below my view point.

Processes are essentially meant to streamline what is repetitive. They also help to provide a common understanding and a common point of reference. This results in making things predictable and repeatable. They provide momentum to the system. They also help in reducing wastages and avoidable delays. It is fine as long as status quo continues.

But we are talking here of human systems. Human beings are complex and human systems all the more so. By their very nature they cannot be completely predictable and repeatable. There is inherent dynamism and change is a rule rather than an exception. Human systems being complex systems, it is not enough to take care of just the parts; we need to have a holistic approach. Compared to processes, human beings are much better at understanding the whole and act appropriately in response to or in anticipation of a change.

A mature system where humans and processes coexist and work in harmony, is finely balanced when each part is perfectly playing its role. Humans understand benefits & limitations of processes and use them appropriately. They are aware of the benefits of momentum which helps as long as the there is continuity. They also understand how the momentum turns into harmful inertia when faced with changes. They understand the benefit of habits but at the same time are not slaves of the habits. This understanding pervades amongst majority, if not all of the human members of the system. Each member may have to live with the constrains imposed by the processes, but collectively they understand and are able to manage the balance.

How do we achieve and sustain such a balance and the resulting maturity? The maturity models help us do that. The details of such a model would differ from domain to domain but there are certain common characteristics for any maturity model for a system where human beings are an essential part and not just resources. Such a model would deal with a complex system where the whole is not just sum of its parts. It does not help if it tries to make each part more mature; rather it needs to make the system mature. Human members play a critical role since they are the ones who have to effectively manage both the continuity and change. They have to be helped by the model to bring about maturity in the system.

It is often said that each human being is unique; not quite so. They have a unique combination of a few generic characteristics. There are patterns. The maturity model should understand and utilize these patterns. It should help the human part of the system collectively by providing a structure which protects the freedom each member needs and at the same time ensures the purpose for which the system exists.

In the light of the above, replacing subjectivity by objectively may not be good in every case, there has to be a balance. Ad hoc subjectivity may be harmful; mature subjectivity is an asset. Similarly, repeatability is good as long as status quo continues; anticipating and responding to change must go on hand in hand.

Any inputs from the readers would greatly help to shape this thought process in the right direction. In a future post, I will try to look at how the above thoughts can be applied to the domain of software development.

Three ‘A’s of change management

April 12, 2010 at 9:41 am | Posted in Out of my mind, Systems Improvement | Leave a comment

Everything that we do has change in it in some form or the other.

At the lowest level, even when we are repeating the same thing over and over again, still it is changing something for those with whom we interact. For example, we come to office every day. But the fact that we have come to office enables us to change certain things which otherwise would not have been possible. Another example, software developed by us may keep repeating same steps but the persons who are using it may be different and their lives are changing because of it.

At the next level, we may do things differently. We start new actions, drop old actions or do the existing actions in different ways. All this involves some change for us as well as others.

At a still higher level, we may change the way we think. Our assumptions & beliefs change, either as a result of external factors or out of our own volition.Depending on the nature of this change, there may be profound changes, both now and in a long run.

Whatever the nature of change it always follows a three step process; Awareness -> Acceptance -> Action. Understanding this process helps us to manage change better for ourselves. It will also help us to put right efforts while bringing about the desired change in others by being aware of which stage of the process the person concerned is currently in. It will be waste of time & efforts if we keep trying assuming that he is at a given stage whereas he is at a different stage.

Lets give this a thought as well as try it out in practice. It may make us into master of change management.

Newton’s laws and systems improvement

March 29, 2010 at 4:13 am | Posted in Systems Improvement | 1 Comment

We all studied Newton’s laws of motion at school. Though the systems are far more complex than physical bodies, revisiting the laws may throw light on some of the challenges we face during systems improvement.

First law: A physical body will remain at rest, or continue to move at a constant velocity, unless an outside net force acts upon it.

Systems improvement does not happen by itself. If we want to change something for better, we need to make an effort. The good part is, once the new way of doing things settles down, it will continue on its own.

Second law:  Rate of change of momentum is proportional to the resultant force producing it and takes place in the direction of that force.

Amount of effort required will vary from situation to situation. If we make less effort it will not suffice. Too much also is a waste and sometimes even harmful. We need to judge right kind and amount of effort in each case.

Third law: To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

We should not be discouraged by initial problems. It is natural. Persistence will pay. Jim Collins in his famous book “Good to great” has talked of the flywheel effect. You need effort to start turning the flywheel, but once it picks up momentum it helps to keep moving. Rather than dramatic results, we need sustained efforts to keep improving.

Systems improvement can happen at two levels. Each of us as individuals can try and improve upon various actions we take during the course of our work. Similarly, the teams can work on improving interactions within the team as well as with others. Two rich sources of improvement ideas are,

Unsolved problems:  When faced with a new problem our normal reaction is to find a shortcut or a workaround and move ahead. Under pressure of work, it is the most practical thing to do. However, once the problem is taken care, we forget about it and miss a great opportunity for improvement.

Unexplored opportunities:  During our day to day work we come across opportunities to go to the next level. But we don’t have time to explore and flesh them out.  Here again, we just move on and forget about them.

Put the Monkey where it belongs

March 1, 2010 at 6:45 am | Posted in Systems Improvement | Leave a comment

In response to my last blog, a collegue of mine made a comment that Open items are like monkeys on your shoulder. So the best way forward is to get them off your back – finish a task that must be done.

This Monkey business has other connotations too. We should be careful about allowing a Monkey to get on our shoulder. Quite often we commit to do something without giving it a due thought. Result is that we may or may not be able to fulfill the commitment. If we are lucky we may. Otherwise we fill guilty about it. Even if we don’t enough to feel bad about it, still our reputation takes a beating.

While interacting with others, it is quite easy to accept to help somebody with his problem. But unless we are careful, it soon becomes our problem. The person who quite innocently came to us asking for help has tactfully transfered the Monkey from his shoulder to ours without us being even aware of it. In such cases it is important to make it clear that you would only help him to solve his problem but it is still his problem.

There is a nice article “Monkey management” at http://workstar.net/library/monkey.htm It covers various aspects of effectively dealing with people who work with us. You may like to have a look.

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