#129 Process Improvement: Is there anything really new?

#129  Process Improvement: Is there anything really new?

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Carol’s topic for discussion: Examine productivity or  project management tools?” Education, Business, Not for profit


As our regular listeners know by now we invite people to send questions or subjects they’re wrestling with and we try to build an episode from it. As a thanks we also started sending them one of our new “GET a Second Opinion” Ceramic Mugs. We have gotten several ideas and decided to build this episode off one of them in particular that we thought might be interesting to our audience. The subject was, “what about  productivity or  project management tools?” 

  • The purpose of most of these systems is to manage a project in order for it to come to fruition with more flexibility, reliability, be on budget, and ensure goals are achieved. Except they don’t do that very well. 70% of projects fall short on one of those pursuits—and that has been the number for four decades even with the advent of newer approaches like Agile.
  • What makes this a significant question is that Agile (the question posed), in business and now education, is one in a long line of programs that each add a smidge of something that inches things forward but falls short in so many ways and eventually die off only to have another raise its head again—with a new name and proprietor. 
    • But it is always announced as though it never existed before. Same thing happens in education improvement. This is symbolic of how we development “new” practices and why they end up so toxic. The premise we are testing on this show is that ‘all processes improvement programs, since Scientific Management and creation of public education, have used a machine world view. Each new one is an Ameliorations of the original disruption. The new additions adds new problems every time they try to improve on the last version. 
      • Like, “ Taylorism, Continuous Production, Kaizen, Proudfoot, Six Sigma, Agile, Toyota Production System (TPS-Kaizen 2)), Malcolm Baldridge, Root Cause Analysis, Total Quality Management (TQM-Zero Defects), Lean, ISO some-thousand,  LEED.
        • And in education it is “no child left behind”, multiple intelligences, and gifted or remedial programs.  There are literally over 100 that can be rattled off quickly that have been tried over the last half century. We recommend to just take on the whole subject of process improvement and why nothing new is really happening most of the time.
          • We call this a ‘parade”. Each new group marches in front of the review stand offering to fix something problematic from an earlier version. E.g. Kaizen has the Scientific Management foundation but humanized it by getting rid of work that overly taxed human abilities. And Howard Gardner created multiple intelligences because it did not account for all the arena a child could have gifts. Each new version works on what was missed on the last one, by usually tacking it on and rarely stopping most of the existing problems. It is not with bad intention but with starting from the wrong place. It is why we say, “don’t start with existence (the problems we have), start with essence.
            • Ask- “What is the essence of great improvement? How do we know when we are there, without starting with a problem- e.g., current existence we don’t lie. What are the criteria for great productivity or achievement? What are the effects you can expect if have the essence of change?
        • If we want to find the Essence of productivity and achievement, then start with what we need to think about in systemic terms. 
          • Like, ‘what are the core effects we should see if we have a great productivity approach and a way to work. Then, we can look at what the core capabilities are that are necessary to achieve those effects repeatedly and at a higher level. And finally, let’s examine whether our ‘current hot practice,” like Agile and Multiple Intelligences are designed to build those capabilities and realize those effects. We need to know what the dream is we are pursuing, or we keep running away from the past, rather than toward a future that makes the right things happen- systemically.

Three Core Effects We Can Consider as Candidates for Essence of Productivity:

  • First, in a business setting is it about Financial Effectiveness will it give us the ability to direct and managing earnings, margins and cash flow? Can everyone see how every action affects those outcomes.
    • This is the definition we use of Regenerative Financial Effectiveness where all stakeholders experience evolving wealth and well-being. In education, it is about providing real, unique value to the student and therefore support them putting something of unique value into the world. 
    • The primary capability driver of Financial Effectiveness is Innovation in every aspect of the business including everything from new industries offerings to daily tasks like scheduling. Innovation in operational Processes for cashflow, innovation in offerings for margins an innovation in value producing return for enduring earnings. Can we tell if a productivity program is fostering innovation, building capability to have everyone innovating and resulting in innovative outcomes? Does agile focus on innovation?
      • The opposite approach is people who are awake. So, yes, we can ask if agile or any other  process improvement program, like six sigma, are designed to put innovation at the helm of the production process. Got it! Some things to figure out, but it makes sense. We can check every principle and practice not for improvement, but for innovation.
  • Second: Internalized Global Imperative– are we living and working in a way, daily that is how Earth and Society become increasingly vital and viable. Internalization is about understanding something in a way it cannot be forgotten or unknow, every again. 
    • As in, “We will not let ourselves act’ out of ignorance or laziness. I don’t think of this a productivity related but that is why we drive for efficiency . It easily let’s  forget about systems effects. 
    • We know we are violating everything we believe because we give excuses, think only about ourselves and take the minimalist way out. How little can I do and feel okay about myself?
    • The capability drive for global imperatives internalization is integrity. It is hard to be in the present moment with what we know and the implication of our actions on what we know about unless we have internalized the meaning and implications of our actions. It is so hard for us, as humans, too ask in our every decision and action, ‘is this  good for the planet and the society of all people?” We easily trade off and put off into a future time the effects we know, or claim we did not do that, or position ourselves as better than most, by comparison, thereby feeling superior. ‘We are not the really bad ones,”  or “it is only this one time”, or offer an excuse for why not today, or this situation is different. 
  • Third, Human Development– Designing human systems that foster evolution of core human capacities. All productivity program need to grow and contribute in all kinds of institutions. They currently foster the opposite of Internal locus of control, external-considering and systems-thinking sourced personal agency.
  • Does the improvement program, like Agile,  increase the overall intelligence of every person affected by their offering. The same is true here for the Human Development Effects. Do people get smarter every time they work, while they produce something.  Do they stop to reflect and integrate new learning. Very few programs do that, so we know most of our productivity and improvement programs are going to fail this test. They may gain a new skill or knowledge. But are they better thinkers, able to manage state of being. That is different.

Living Systems Principles and Improvement Programs

Using living systems principles to see how any improvement program fairs because when any of the principles are not used to design the work, then our three effects cannot happen, except intermittently and always less often and less well, than desired.  

    • Scientific Manufacturing  or Taylorism broke up all work into small pieces with each person having a dedicated job, and specified how each task should happen, how fast and evaluated each person against these standards. They added overseers and supervisors for good measure to see where improvement was needed.


  • What of all that is still with us in these work systems?
  • A flow of work that has specialists who are doing narrowly specified jobs with supervisors is all still there.
  • But, Kaizen took out some of the cruelty of Taylorism where work was very hard on humans’ health and well-being, and even at times, demeaning.  But kept the flow of work as pieces or tasks with supervisors and specialists. Kaizen was arising in the time of Governing oversight for Health and Safety of Workers (OSHA) so were pushed a bit. Human life was noted as worth taking care of. 
  • Rather than being standardized and job protocol defined, there was this idea of “improvement, as differentiated from innovation which was radical at the time. Improvement spoke to being continuous. But also, teamwork was introduced with Kaizen. 
  • The idea of individual personal agency or discipline was introduced , itself being a very Japanese idea. There were attempts to improve morale with behavioral interventions which had emerged as a result of behaviorism and some limited understanding of human motivation. It also moved into the realm of education although schools are still mostly organized on the Taylorist factory model. Schools under this model are seen as student factories that can be improved, but mostly for efficiency. This idea of man, and children, as machines dies hard. 
  • So, we are ameliorating some of the worst effects of Taylorism  as a “process improvement approach,” but left the fragmentation of work and learning, specialization that is generic across industries and subjects and with a Supervisor. But Kaizen and relate process improvement take people and their lives into account which Taylorism did not do. Plus added getting them involved with suggestions and decisions that are close to them. Those seem important.
  • Total Quality Management was introduced by W. Edwards Demming and Walter Shewhart. It changed the focus a bit beyond just production to paying attention to the quality of the outputs to meet the rising expectations of customers. More computer tools made it possible to know how customers felt; surveys told manufacturers what they thought they wanted, and computer tracking let efficiency improvements become trackable.
  • What was the same and what changed?
  • It is not much different than what Kaizen did except a bit of a step up in human involvement. The Toyota version gave line workers independent authority to shut down a line which has rarely been adopted in the rest of  production improvement processes. But I should point out that in Schools, this was for teachers and did not change anything for students on any large scale.
  • Six Sigma built a gradation of expertise into the consulting team and those people left to lead it. They were the experts – which we just talked about the trappings of this idea in our last episode. It also added a new level of hierarchy to the mix.
  • Agile, brought in more of the impact on humans in a work setting. Like, how they are affected by schedules, for example. They explicitly moved supervisors to being trainers and coaches to help get decisions made and the jobs done. They explicitly speak to the paradigm of command and control and the need for it to be replaced. They broke down some of the standardization process left over from Taylorism. Although many other things are left untouched – making innovation and the building of intelligence and attention to integrity difficult. 
  • Looking at what has always been missing whether in business or education. The connection to financial effectiveness, global imperatives and development of core human capacities that make life rich and meaningful. But mostly what it takes to get those to happen.
  • To be effective at any of those three aspects we have to have a capability to see the work as nested. And unless you listen to Business Second Opinion regularly, that is unlikely to be a familiar idea. It means that the design of the performance program should be able to be explained via three lines of work that have a relatedness to them. It is how living systems work. On a human level, we are nested in a place like a city or watershed, which is nested on a continent on a particular planet named Earth. And there is nothing that happens with each of those that does not affect the others. 
  • Some with more power to help or hurt, but all affecting the other.  This is something you are familiar with Zac from your own experience as a financial manager, an organizational development practitioner and now as a business owner. An owner is nested in a business nested in a market and industry nested in a national governing process. Whether you like it or not.
  • Let’s take an example to show what these three lines are and how they are nested. Then use them to check out Scientific Method,  Kaizen and Agile. 
  • Think of a farm, we have to grow the soil and the farmer, the  produce and consider those who benefit from our output like distributors and markets. But we also have to care about the industry and its integrity and the social system where we live. The farmer is first line. They have to get better at farming, innovate in their place and time. So then the suppliers and distributors in the larger market are the second line. We, as a farmer, need to work with them to innovate for their benefit, as well as for the restaurants and people who eat there.  The third line is the entire food web and the Place where we are farming and making these offerings.
  • How often is all of that in the mind of the farmer, the distributor or supplier. The customer/consumer is barely taken into account. The place is seen as generic with if we are lucky some standardized sustainability practices. Because the watershed is not human we don’t see as alive and being affected. 
  • We see suppliers as a cost center that we have to manager. And the industry is mostly something we don’t see as having any part of our responsibility. Most farmers don’t have a direct connection with their effect on healthy and regenerating soil, potent water and the role of biota in healthy guts for all of life. There is only one level that matters. The farmer may work on some sustainability practices, but not from seeing this dynamic nested system at work but from some proscribed best practices. 
  • Now when we look at Taylorism, Kaizen and Agile, they are all working on only one line of work. The nest in a factory or school is individual workers working in second line teams delivering to third line markets. The work design in all of them is based on improving second line. 
  • How people in the creation and production process can improve how they go about working. The issue is neither the individual, nor teams in any of these model programs is connected directly to the market. All their connection comes through data collected by others, translated to them and then they can then figure out how to meet the goals. 
  • In Taylorism, no one even bothered to tell them what the customer or consumer wanted. They were just told what to do. But in Agile the hierarchy is a kinder and gentler transmission system with more freedom to decide how to respond efficiently and effectively. 
  • And if you compare to the previous iterations over the generations, this seems pretty good. But if we compare it to what we know is possible it seems like a slow crawl to what would get us to the jumps possible with a work design with three lines of work. 
  • With a design that produces 10X evolution in earnings margins and cash flow over short periods of time. On top of all this, the Agile system has no global imperatives imbedded because they are often not corporate wide initiatives. Like with sustainability initiatives, these systems live in separate departs from the Agile teams which are fragmented across the org.
  • The same paradigm that created Taylorism is still at work even in the most recent process improvement programs. That is the idea that: humans are machines but can be incentivized to gain improvement. Laws required keeping them safe and the incremental improvements of Agile have added their hearts and motivation being engaged. It is all ameliorations
  • Paradigm Consciousness is a core practice if we want improvement and especially innovation.
  • Second, you cannot get to real meaningful criteria without testing with higher order criteria like Financial Effectiveness. I think we can all agree that everyone needs this to keep their household together and financial effectiveness is core to doing just that. Global Imperatives are key because Mother Earth and democracy needs this and so do we to have any place to live and engage. 
  • And are we really developing humans according to their full capacity? Or are we just aiming at making people happier for productivity of the business with a focus on past plans. We can’t measure how good something is based on how much better it is than the stuff that was worse and problem filled. 
  • And third, if we don’t design process improvement with three lines of work involved, and instead just think about the workers – we cannot pursue, much less achieve our three criteria. We have to connect workers and everyone in the business to the external world directly and not have intermediate information digested and passed on. It does not provide the will, creativity or even sufficient understanding



Thanks to  Gary Henricksen Of Five Maples Development Communications in  Vermont  for suggesting our topic. We are sending you a Get a Second Opinion Mug, holds 20 oz of your favorite beverage. If you want one of our Get a Second Opinion Mugs, send us your ideas. You can email carol@businessSecondOpinion.com or find us on Twitter @Biz_Second_Opinion . If we use it to develop an episode. Also your ratings and reviews on any platform help people find us and spread the word. Sign up for our newsletter so you get connections to the show notes and much more. 


Email us tell us about Your organization and business practices. carol@businesssecondopinion.com. Remember  to ask yourself What worldview do you see yourself continuing to fall into? What aspirations do you have to think and work differently? Leave us a question to speak to on an upcoming Podcasts. Let us know what you think of our show and it focus and content.

Harvard Business Review Articles: Used for this episode

Do you own analysis using our guidelines on each show

  • Building the Agile Workforce for the Future AUGUST 20, 2018,
  • Building the Agile Workforce  DECEMBER 04, 2018,
  • Bureaucracy Can Drain Your Company’s Energy. Agile Can Restore It. by Darrell K. Rigby MAY 22, 2018
  • Why Agile Goes Awry —and How to Fix It by Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi OCTOBER 01, 2018
  • Planning Doesn’t Have to Be the Enemy of Agile by Alessandro Di Fiore SEPTEMBER 13, 2018
  • Understanding Agile Management APRIL 15, 2016 by Darrell Rigby of Bain and Jeff Sutherland


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