Once upon a time I was interviewed for a job, and I had to give a presentation on what I would do to help managers improve their service.
I described a thing called “variation”, and how it is inherent in every thing. That when you measure ANY thing over time you’re also measuring how much variation is in it. And that if you don’t know about this thing called variation, you’ll not know it’s there and you’ll think that any change in the measurement is an actual change in real life.
I showed them some dead simple tools you could use to spot the variation, so you could then measure any REAL change.
Knowing when to act, and how to act was vital to any manager, I concluded, and this was an important part of that.
They seemed to like it, cos I got the job.
I spent the following years trying to do the thing that they employed me to do, but whenever I asked to it was never the right time. I suggested all sorts of things to kick it off, gimmicky fun things, boring official things, but every time I was told that it was never the right time. This went on for years.
There were many things that stopped now from being the right time, and these things came and went and other things took their place.
The only constant was that now wasn’t the right time.
What was odd was that now ALWAYS was the right time for all sorts of crap like new performance frameworks, audit commission value for money reviews, the sort of thing that makes things worse.
There’s always time to make things worse in any normal ordinary command and control organisation. That time is very much now.
Turns out this is entirely predictable, so I should have predicted it.
It is entirely predictable that there are buckets of time to continue to do things that you’ve always done, oodles of it, it never runs out.
I learnt that “now” never would be the answer if the criteria used to answer the question “when is it the right time?” are the usual criteria of “what is important to senior managers?“.
Variation, control charts, systemsy measures used in the work to link learning and data, these are currently unknown concepts in the mind of a normal ordinary command and control manager. So there can never be time for them, cos they aren’t important. They’re invisible. What is also invisible is that for decades, if managers have been making decisions based on measures, then they’ve probably been making the wrong decisions. If you don’t know variation is there, if youre comparing a slice of monthly action against an entirely arbitrary target/benchmark/last year’s performance, then yes, you’ve been making the wrong decisions.
Like the thing above says, “the timing isn’t right” is the all-purpose excuse for maintaining the status quo, it is used by people in organisations who style themselves as skilled bureaucrats who are practiced and privy to the ways of senior management.
The right time is the wrong answer cos it’s the wrong question.
This is cos “time” is irrelevant. “Is it the right time?” is a command and control question, it comes from an assumption that change is driven by leaders making decisions, that it happens rationally, in a linear manner according to a plan. In this mental model time is a factor to be considered coolly along with other strategic considerations.
In systemsy thinking it’s not about time, it is about people and psychology. About the curiosity and dissatisfaction of individuals, specific people. Not anonymous bands of hierarchy. Named people. Because when change happens it happens in actual people’s heads. It can’t happen by decree.
The first step is transformation of the individual. This transformation is discontinuous.
The individual, transformed, will perceive new meaning to his life, to events, to numbers, to interactions between people […]He will have a basis for judgment of his own decisions and for transformation of the organizations that he belongs to.
The level of change is the individual first, then the organisation. And people change in funny ways, often not at all, but if they do it’s discontinuous like Deming says.
This is not a calendar driven change. It’s not driven by a free space on the agenda becoming available. It’s dependant on the capricously unpredictable human psyche, on where somebody is at and what they’re thinking and feeling. My hopelessly tool-driven approach was looking for a 15min gap on the agenda that would never exist, because it’s not about time because the right time is never now, and it’s always now.
Which is way too Zen to end a post on, so here’s a picture of Bill Gates looking simply dreamy.