When is enough, enough?

I was drawn to this post by Simon Guilfoyle called Great Expectations posted only a few days ago. Using his broken Subaru as an example, Simon looks at the delivery of services arguing that any system for delivering a customer service should be designed to handle the peak demand placed upon it.

In one sense I can empathise with Simon’s view. He points to the public services such as Health & Policing,  an area with which he is intimately acquainted if you read his background, and calls for capacity to satisfy peak demand. Were it me stood at any incident waiting for the appropriate blue-light service to come to assist then I, too, would want capacity free to deal with it. To be fair, Simon also points out areas of inefficiency in some service areas, inefficiencies that could be easily resolved to free up capacity for handling the core needs of the service delivery system.

It’s worth pointing out here that there is a significant amount of bias creeping into my interpretation of Simon’s words here, but I can’t help but defend the point that the cost of delivering a level of service has to be offset against the value that is derived. Delivering 95% of desired outcome at a cost of X may be much better than delivering 97% at a much higher cost.

On the same day as Simon’s post, the HBR Blog Network posted this piece entitled The Most Efficient Die Early which presents a view that organisations focused on delivering the most output with the least wasted resource, in other words a lean system, do not have capacity to modify themselves to handle environmental changes. The main argument is that the lean approach is focused on repeated processes followed precisely, and steers away from learning to support modification of purpose. To my eyes, the HBR piece is taking the opposite view to what Simon is advocating.

In all honesty I think both are advocating something closer to the middle ground, and my biased reading is placing them diametrically opposite to each other. But it’s the middle ground that interests me most as a systems thinking approach.

At the time I write this, in my day job I am acting as a Technical Design Authority on a project within the realm of information security. Within that role, I am constantly having to trade off the cost of delivering the 100% solution, designed to meet every eventuality that we can think of, against the levels of service that can reasonably delivered within a budget that the customer wants to allocate.  I suspect that this experience as the TDA probably accounts for my bias in reading Simon’s post,  but I feel that this balance of service level delivered against cost applies equally to delivering a customer service from, say, the car body shop as Simon describes it.

The key for me though is that word: “learning”. The world for us all is changing with increasing rapidity, and we need to change our thinking to allow everyone to learn, and to be empowered to act on what they have learned. As managers in this brave new world, our role will change to become learning assistants, we will provide frameworks to our staff in which they can operate. I’d suggest here that my thinking is consistent with the thrust of the HBR piece by Casey Haksins and Peter Sims.

It’s in that learning environment that we also build flexibility and that goes some, but not necessarily all, of the way to meeting the peak demand as requested by Simon Guilfoyle. There are parallels here with the technical world where my design effort is going to: we can allocate a computer system to performing one purpose as a matter of routine, but we can reallocate it if demand increases beyond a pre-set threshold to meet the purpose being required.

In a similar way we must think about staffing to meet demand peaks, and giving those staff the skills to understand on their own when they need to re-purpose  This calls for new ways of motivating people, for the tools & training to support this, and for ways of measuring the delivery of the overall purpose.

What is interesting is that to meet the needs of chaos, we could end up creating something akin to a complex adaptive system, but one that is managed to be so rather than evolving, and one in which cybernetics becomes a key management element.

So to try & answer the question posed in the title of this post, “enough” becomes a very flexible thing based on the immediate context borne out of our environment. It’s incumbent upon us to develop a way of being able to deliver “enough” through the systems we create to deliver our purpose. Thinking about that, I’m not so sure it is a brave new world, more just a logical next step for this one.

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One response to “When is enough, enough?

  1. Russell,
    I read the article slightly differently. I believe that a Lean process is indeed a good way of maximizing value, however this should not be at the expense of resilience in the system to react to the unexpected.
    My initial experience of change was ‘to be leaned out’ this involved questioning and removing all equipment that was not in consistent use. However in an engineering dept whose sole role was to supply the engineering capacity not existing in general industry this was a task highly likely to make ill informed decisions.
    We did as an organisation learn slowly and moved to a more open system of CI. This does still involve Lean, however now within a wider context. I think its like most things if we ignore the presence of contrasting and competing worldviews we are highly likely to ultimately fail.

    You made a highly insightful comment about prized and hard worked for savings been wiped out in an instant. This prompted thoughts on systems delays. If the implemented systems were viewed and judged over a longer periods rather than the annual dividend to shareholders, could a more sound judgement of business health be made.
    Could this also apply to the wider economy as well.

    Regards Ian

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