deming



Eleven minutes to spare?  Check out this cartoon version of a talk about motivation given by Dan Pink to the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) in London.  It’s one of a great series of similar videos RSAanimates produces.

My 30 second version?

Pay people enough money to take the issue of money off the table.  Then, three factors lead to better performance (and personal satisfaction)

  • autonomy – our desire to be self-directed
  • mastery – our urge to get better at doing things
  • purpose – the way for organisations to get better talent.

How many of the micro-managed performance management systems strangling the public sector understand that?  How many annual appraisals use it as a starting point for discussion about how people are doing?

He doesn’t know it but Deming fan Gordon Hall alerted me to this through one of his e-mails to the various networks he encourages and sustains.

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When I wrote about Russ Ackoff as one of my lesser known heroes of improvement I contrasted his relative obscurity with that of W Edwards Deming.

Interesting that the Top 10 searches leading people to this blog include Ackoff but not Deming.  In fact not one of all the many searches mentioned Deming.  Perhaps those interested in systems thinking – because that’s what they’re both about – already know what they need to about Deming but somehow, somewhere are having their interest in Ackoff stimulated and are looking to learn more about him.

Like all these Top 10 hits people searched for a number of related terms including, in this case, girlslink + ackoff; youtube + russell ackoff on health care; russell ackoff right thing; there’s no bigger waste than doing well that shouldn’t be done at all ackoff; and russell ackoff justice talk.

Some of those search terms look a bit off the wall (“girlslink”?) but a quick read of my earlier post on Ackoff will explain.  And they hint quite nicely at some of the big issues that concerned him (he died in 2009 aged 90).

The earlier post includes a YouTube video of an Ackoff interview which I think is just great in both content and style.  Search for him further on YouTube and you’ll find other talks by and about him.

If you haven’t heard much about Ackoff before here are just a few quotes from that interview.  All well worth thinking about in the context of public services.

Information knowledge and understanding are all concerned with improving efficiency…wisdom is concerned with effectiveness

Doing the right thing is wisdom, effectiveness.  Doing things right is efficiency

The righter you do the wrong thing the wronger you become

It’s better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right

Almost every major social problem confronting us today is a consequence of trying to do the wrong things righter

We never learn by doing something right…you only learn from mistakes

There are two kinds of mistakes…[errors of commission and errors of omission]  Errors of omission are much more important than errors of commission

Now you’re in an organisation that says making a mistake is a bad thing…if you’re a manager [somewhere like that] you minimise the chance of doing something you shouldn’t have done by doing nothing.

I mentioned Deming above.  I have huge admiration for both him and Ackoff.  But Ackoff addresses wider social issues than Deming and for that I especially value him.


“Reality” TV is not always necessarily that real.  Even a casual viewer can spot how reality is squeezed into a formula. 

The objectionable teenagers sent to stay with the “strictest parents in the world” who always find redemption after a week having travelled a remarkably similar journey as the stroppy pair the week before, and the week before that and so on.  

The ritual humiliation of Alan Sugar’s would-be apprentices as he barks “You’re fired!” at the week’s victim (“It wasn’t me that did it, Sir Alan, honest”) across the board room table.

But sometimes a sort of truth shines through.

Undercover Boss on the UK’s Channel 4 is one of those series.  A few weeks ago the chief executive of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets learned (I’m sure he knew already) that there’s virtually nothing a local authority does that someone does not want, and will often fight hard to retain. 

You can be cynical about the motivation of the CEOs and the companies concerned, although they sometimes seem to be genuinely surprised and even moved by what they see at the sharp end of their business.

The aspect as enlightening as the bosses and their reactions is what their workers are like.

This week’s edition featured Colin Drummond of Viridor, a company big in the glamorous world of waste recycling.   Their people collect overflowing bins of rubbish, direct a reluctant public to the right skip at recycling centres, and sort noxious recycled materials by hand on never-ending conveyor belts.

In short, pretty basic work.

But in all that – literally – rubbish there are some great people doing great work.

The manager at a recycling centre constantly innovating to encourage customers to recycle more.

 The cheerful efficient agency worker with no job tenure on a sorting line.

 The depot hand who through his own choice took leave every time he had to go up to London for his cancer treatment.

It was a lovely example of the intrinsic motivation which comes from within ourselves that psychologists like Alfie Kohn talk about (see my earlier post on Time to sack public sector employees? – the answer’s No by the way).

Or as W Edwards Deming put it in a slightly old-fashioned way in his 14 points for management:

Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship.

It’s not spoken about often enough.  Even less is it implemented by managers.  Undercover Boss at its best reminds us why it is so powerful.


This one’ll upset some folks since Russell Ackoff will be very well known to them.

But I justify my inclusion of him as a lesser known hero on the basis of that modern litmus test (forget academic citations) of the number of Google hits on his name.

A search today threw up:

  • Deming – 2,780,000 hits
  • Ackoff – 121,000.

So on that facile basis he’s about 4% as well known as W Edwards Deming.

I suppose my other – entirely subjective – criterion is that Ackoff was unknown to me until a year or so ago.  When I discovered him I was bowled over by the sheer humanity of the man.

I first came across Ackoff through an archived webcast of a talk he’d given back in 2000 on systems thinking and youth justice to a workshop associated with the improbably-named Girls Link group at the Kent College of Law in Chicago.  The video’s not brilliant technically.  But it’s worth viewing.  It covers many of the ideas he developed over a lifetime (he sadly passed away in 2009 aged 90).

Ackoff began his working life as an architect and said that architects were – had to be – systems thinkers.  They don’t design, say, houses by starting with individual rooms, designing each perfectly and then finding a way to join them together.  They start with the building and then find out how to fit the rooms into the overall space and shape.  They use (my words) an iterative process to get the best fit of the different elements.

That’s systems thinking – and systems design. 

He was interesting on the difference between errors of commission and omission – how the former were easy to know (and assign causes to or, too often, blame for) whereas the latter were unknowable and therefore unmeasurable.  In typical organisations managers avoid being blamed by avoiding errors of commission.

 And the easiest way not to make errors?  Do nothing.  Yet we only learn by our mistakes.  So how can such organisations learn?

He also said there are five types of “content” – data, information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.  The first four are all concerned with increasing efficiency, only the last is concerned with effectiveness.

Efficiency is about doing things right.  Wisdom is about doing the right thing.  “The righter you do the wrong thing the wronger it becomes.  It’s better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right.”

One of Ackoff’s major insights for me was his use of systems thinking to throw light on social issues wider than how any single organisation works. 

He said that almost every major social problem is the consequence of doing the wrong things righter, in his own country (the USA) citing the health (sickness) care system and education – “teaching is a major obstruction to learning”.  These are major social systems “pursuing objectives contrary to their intention”.

He wrote extensively about his idea of idealised design – that in improving a system you should start from first principles, work out what your idealised design would be and then take steps towards it.

Much of this, plus a sense of what the man was like can also be seen in a brief video on YouTube (you can find many more talks by or about him on the web)

Video by PhyllisHaynes on YouTube

As always with these pen portraits, there’s a lot more that could be written and I’d love those who understand Ackoff better than me to add their own thoughts.

The other thing I’ve discovered is the love and affection Russell (“Russ”) Ackoff inspired amongst his many colleagues, students and clients.  That doesn’t happen by chance.  I wish I’d had an opportunity to know him.

My thanks to Susan Ciccantelli for commenting on a draft of this post.  Her kindness reflects that of Dr Ackoff.  The conclusions are of course mine.


This is about shoes (sort of) – but fashionistas needn’t get excited.

Tomas Bata

It’s about a man born in 1876 in Zlin in what was Austro-Hungary at the time whose family were shoemakers – Tomas Bata.

In 1894 he started a company to produce shoes on a more modern basis than the old craft of the traditional cobbler. The company still exists as the Bata Shoe Organization, headquartered in Toronto, and does business in five continents.

I first became aware of Bata Shoes when I lived in pre-independence Singapore.  Strange that a mere lad should remember that but they had very clean, modern (for their time) shops and my parents were certainly aware of them from their earlier lives in the UK.

Fast forward many years and it’s only a relatively short time ago that I became conscious of Tomas Bata for another reason.  In an earlier blog on Some Random Quotes I listed one of his sayings:

Do not pursue money. He who pursues money will never achieve it. Serve! If you serve as best you can, you will not be able to escape money

It was an intriguing quote to stumble across at random and led me to hunt around to find out more.

It turned out that Bata was a pioneer in many things, for example

  • customer focus – he said “the customer is our master”
  • control of the supply chain to ensure quality and efficiency (at one stage Bata not only owned its shoe shops but controlled the source of its raw materials, and made and distributed the shoes – and much more)
  • he understood what is still for many the perverse relationship between improving conditions and pay for workers in order to lower costs, and even
  • town planning – through the development of modern company towns to house his workers as well as locate his factories (there is an interesting example in East Tilbury in the UK).

Something he said to his workers is worth quoting in full:

…the chances to multiply wealth are unlimited. All people can become rich. There is an error in our understandings – that all people cannot become equally rich. Wealth can not exist where the people are busy with mutual cheating, have no time for creating values and wealth. It is remarkable that we can find the greatest number of wealthy tradesmen and a population on a high standard of living in countries with a high level of business morality. On the other hand, we can find poor tradesmen and entrepreneurs and an impoverished population in countries with a low standard of business morality. This is natural because these people concentrate on cheating one another instead of trying to create value.

We are granting you the profit share not because we feel a need to give money to the people just out of the goodness of the heart. No, we are aiming at other goals by this step. By this measure we want to reach a further decrease of production costs. We want to reach the situation that the shoes are cheaper and workers earn even more. We think that our products are still too expensive and worker’s salary too low (Zdenek Rybka: Principles of the Bata Management System)

Well, the rhetoric may seem grandiloquent now and the run of the mill shoe is an un-glamorous item we take for granted. But when Bata began his business, even in Europe many children went bare-footed.

I can think of no single UK business person who combines the qualities of the man – perhaps the 19th century Quaker confectioners, or John Spedan Lewis the founder of the eponymous John Lewis Partnership (another lesser known hero of improvement? – we shall see). But it was the combination of beliefs and actions that seem to me to make Bata unique for his era.

If I revert to my interest in lean or systems thinking for work it sometimes feels that there is a single great river where tributaries join to form one approach. Certainly there are zealots who will claim there is only one way and it is the philosophy of guru x or teacher y. Yet as Bata shows there are other separate rivers that never seem to join the mainstream.

Bata died tragically in an air crash in 1932 when he was 56.

Interestingly, one of the great modern thinkers in this whole area, Myron Tribus, who is often associated with the Deming approach, wrote a fascinating paper about Bata almost 70 years later in 2001 – Tribus on Bata. Well worth study and explains Bata’s significance much better than I can convey.


It’s sometimes difficult to get people working in the public sector to relate to the philosophy of business improvement variously known as systems or lean thinking.  The answer to the question “Where did this come from then?” involves, amongst many other things, reference back to the Second World War, the occupation of Japan, American teachers like W Edwards Deming, and the Toyota Corporation.

It can seem like a million miles away from, say, being a social worker in rural Scotland or a police officer in Bristol.

Throw in one of my lesser known heroes of improvement – the US Piggly Wiggly Corporation – and the disbelief can be complete.

Piggly Wiggly (let’s call them PWC) was founded in 1916 and has been through a number of ownerships and transformations.  Today it is a US grocery chain with 600+ franchise stores across 17 states.  But tucked away in its history are a number of innovations, for example (although disputed by some) the concept of the self-service grocery store.

The “improvement” link comes from the fact that by the 1950s they had developed an inventory system in their stores where stock was only reordered once it had been bought by customers.

The story goes that a Toyota delegation led by Taiichi Ohno, largely responsible for developing the Toyota Production System, was visiting the States in the 1950s to learn from the Ford Motor Company.  Alas, the waste they saw there did not impress.  But they also visited PWC and realised their inventory system could make their own car manufacture more efficient.  From that evolved the just-in-time manufacturing system, with components arriving on the production line as they were needed, no or minimal stock held, and the whole pace driven by customer orders.

I’d love to know how they came across PWC and the translations of Piggly Wiggly provided for them.  The possibilities remind me of a Spanish friend keen to improve his English who said to me “You say pussy cat? Can you also say pussy dog in English?”

PS – just-in-time applies to public services as well as retailing and manufacturing…

My thanks to Alan V for enlightening me about PWC and to Wikipedia whose article on Piggly Wiggly filled in some of the details