Six Sigma and more: Results, processes, and systems

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn offers insights about drilling deeper into elements that make up systems and expanding understanding of “process.”

I recently ran across a great quote in Quality Progress by Govind Ramu of SunPower Corp. He wrote, “Processes without results are useless, and results without processes are unsustainable.” (“Experts and Answers,” Quality Progress, December, 2012). Ramu is correct, of course, but his quote prompted me to think about the rest of the story.

One of the contributions Dr. Deming made to quality and to western style management was his focus on process. Before then, we thought a little about process, but mostly did things such as repairing the damage, tightening specs, changing job descriptions, taking people out of their jobs, and changing specific activities with little regard to the larger system whenever we ran into a problem. Dr. Deming’s insight that rework is wasteful, frequently accepted as a given, and part of a larger system that needs to be changed, was and still is profound.

My wife, Carole, and I helped many, many people understand and profitably apply that simple concept for many years beginning in the early 1980s. We could help people, organizations, and communities use those concepts to improve the results they were getting in nearly any aspect of their work life. By the late 1980s, however, we were finding situations where improving the results was not enough. We found systems that were so dysfunctional that they needed to be reinvented. While Dr. Deming stressed the importance of innovation, he offered little guidance regarding how to achieve it. We went on a search for expertise in system design and redesign.

After more than a year of serious searching we were guided to the work of Russell Ackoff and Jamshid Gharagedaghi. While Dr. Deming and many others talked much about systems, it was the work of Ackoff and Gharajedaghi that put some meat on the bones. They identified four elements of a system as:

  • Purpose/context, including context, culture, mission, and vision
  • Function, including external and internal products and services and what the system does
  • Process, including throughput, decision-making, and learning processes
  • Structure, including reporting roles, responsibilities, authority, and physical infrastructure

As you can see, they explicitly expanded the common understanding of process. Within that framework, results are the measured indicators for the effectiveness of processes. They further defined five categories of indicators to be function, cost, delivery, safety, and morale.

Beyond the elements of a system, they also defined the five dimensions of a system as the robust generation and distribution of:

  • Power
  • Knowledge
  • Wealth
  • Beauty
  • Values

Many of us think that results mean function only. Many of us think of process as throughput process only. This one robust model shows us that there is much, much more going on in our systems. As we already know, whenever we change one part of a system, we are likely, perhaps, inadvertently, to change other parts. This 20-cell matrix below gives us one way to examine the implications of our actions.

For example, in changing a production process to reduce variation, we may want to also:

  • Make sure that those in control of all affected processes are supportive of the change and have the power and intention to assure that the change sticks (Power/Structure);
  • Make sure that everyone touched by the proposed change has a voice in its design and implementation and has the skills necessary to operate in the new way (Knowledge);
  • Track not only the proposed economic benefits and costs, but the actual benefits and costs that will improve future interventions (Wealth/Learning Process);
  • Make sure that the process used and results pursued are consistent with the stated culture and values of the organization/community (Values/ Purpose).

Processes without results and results without processes are inadequate, but this larger model begins to show us the other things such as mission, vision, culture, and structure that need to be considered whenever we attempt to make change. As you can see, I’ve only hit the high points of this approach to systems thinking here. If you want to know more, read some of the work of Ackoff and Gharagedaghi such as Systems Thinking (Jamshid Gharagedaghi, Boston, MA.: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999).

As always, I treasure your comments and questions. You can reach me by commenting below.

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