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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Visible Problems and Best Practice

Following my post on Visible Problems, @jchyip commented that some organisations are good at making problems, especially important ones, visible. When I asked for some examples, he replied, "Toyota has to be the easiest one. I'd expect Lean, Agile, Kanban shops to be good at this as well".

I agree that if you have a prevailing doctrine like Lean, Agile or Kanban, then this will shine a light on some class of otherwise invisible problems. Furthermore, adherents to these doctrines (we might call then "best practices") will generally regard these problems as the most important ones.

When a doctrine first appears in an organization, it may generate a string of insights that are typically regarded with excitement by a small number of champions, and with resistance (scepticism, incomprehension) from most of their colleagues. If the doctrine eventually takes hold within the organization, the resistance will gradually dwindle, and the doctrine will become more efficient at identifying and dealing with this class of problem within this organization. However, the more the organization adapts itself to a doctrine, the more attention is drawn towards the particular class of problems in which the doctrine specializes. This is a form of cognitive closure, as described by Maturana and Varela. Which raises the obvious question - what about all the other invisible problems?

The efficient operation of a doctrine within an organization contributes positively to the intelligence of the organization under the following conditions.
  • The doctrine helps to identify problems that are strongly relevant to the viability of the organization.
  • The doctrine provides a shared narrative that allows efficient communication  and collaboration about these problems and their solution.
However, the overall effect of a doctrine on the intelligence of an organization can turn negative under the following conditions.
  • The major problems identified by the doctrine have largely been dealt with, or have been embedded in normal operations, and the doctrine is increasingly being used for more minor or marginal problems.
  • The doctrine interferes with the identification of a completely different class of problems that are equally or more relevant to the viability of the organization.
  • All problems are framed according to the chosen doctrine, leaving no space for alternative narratives to emerge. 
This can get worse over time. From this point of view, maturity doesn't necessarily mean ever-increasing excellence but might mean slowly declining power.

The implications of this argument are not to abandon all doctrine (which can turn into an equally dogmatic doctrine of no-doctrine), but to encourage a degree of doctrinal pluralism that is appropriate for the scale and complexity of the organization. Instead of a single lens, an array of different lenses.

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