Continuous Improvement or Continuous Control

I am a geek. Moreover, I am a systematic geek. In fact, I am a geek about the very idea of systems. This might make me a sick individual, but at least I’m systematically sick.

One evening while I was geekily reading research articles about systems and productivity, I came across this article about the Seven Myths of Performance Management by Dr. Pietro Micheli of the University of Warwick. His basic observation boils down to this:

Few would challenge the assumption that gathering and analysing data is a value added activity. But actually those few would be right. Value is generated when data is used

As Rev. Alf Halvorson sometimes says, don’t fall prey to stewing without doing.

I was planning a church event one time and was delighted to find a series of debrief files from the last few years. As I read, my keen eye noticed a repeating phrase:

  • T-1 year…have kids bring more than $10
  • T-2 years…have kids bring more than $10
  • T-3 years…have kids bring more than $10
  • T-4 years…have kids bring more than $10

I’ll have you know, I had kids bring more than $10 that year!

The Point of a System

One of the downsides of being systematic is going into auto pilot mode. For example, I use my car keys as the universal reminder system. Before I leave the house, I pat my pockets to double-check that I have my phone, my keys, and my wallet. If I am missing one of these items, I go to their predictable communal living space on my desk. If my keys are not there, however, I must remember that I (for example) placed them on top of the refrigerator to remind me to grab my lunch from the fridge before I leave. Without a disruption to my normal system, I would hum merrily along on autopilot until my stomach complained at lunchtime.

Long story short, I have a system to remind me to bring my essential items with me. I also have a system that disrupts my normal system so that I will bring special items with me. My system needs flexibility on the location of my car keys to reach my desired outcome: bringing everything I need with me today.

So let me ask you: what is the point of your system? Is it to make sure that the TPS reports are filled out and filed correctly? Or is it to improve communication? To use my example, is the point to have the car keys in a predictable location or to bring everything I need with me today?

Dr. Micheli calls this the difference between learning and control. If you create a system to try to control people’s behavior (let alone their emotions), your system will fail. Oh sure, those TPS reports might be tidy and nice, but people just do that because you make them. The main point is lost almost every time.

Leadership Lesson: use systems to learn and improve, not control

1 Timothy 1:5 says:

But the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.

You can instruct and finagle all you want, but be sure you remember the aim of such instruction. Use systems to learn, not control. Use systems to keep you focused on your goal, don’t let the system become the goal.

Putting it into Practice

I’ll let Dr. Micheli speak for himself on this one:

Rather than spending months designing the perfect system that can produce objective, accurate and precise data, efforts should be put in communicating to all employees the reasons and benefits of such systems, and connecting strategy, measurement and decision-making

  • Generate buy-in around the “why” for your system, not just the “what” and “how”
  • Measure the desired outcome (ex: bringing everything with me today, people have the info they need to do their job) instead of the side-effect (ex: my keys are in the right place, the report is filled out)
    NOTE: this means you’ll have to live with some qualitative measures and messy data; life is complicated
  • If you measure something and learn something, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT