Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

Beware the Magicians who wave High Technology Wands and promise Miraculous Improvements if you buy their Black Magic Boxes!

If a Magician is not willing to open the box and show you the inner workings then run away – quickly.  Their story may be true, the Miracle may indeed be possible, but if they cannot or will not explain HOW the magic trick is done then you will be caught in their spell and will become their slave forever.

Not all Magicians have honourable intentions – those who have been seduced by the Dark Side will ensnare you and will bleed you dry like greedy leeches!

In the early 1980’s a brilliant innovator called Eli Goldratt created a Black Box called OPT that was the tangible manifestation of his intellectual brainchild called ToC – Theory of Constraints. OPT was a piece of complex computer software that was intended to rescue manufacturing from their ignorance and to miraculously deliver dramatic increases in profit. It didn’t.

Eli Goldratt was a physicist and his Black Box was built on strong foundations of Process Physics – it was not Snake Oil – it did work.  The problem was that it did not sell: Not enough people believed his claims and those who did discovered that the Black Box was not as easy to use as the Magician suggested.  So Eli Goldratt wrote a book called The Goal in which he explained, in parable form, the Principles of ToC and the theoretical foundations on which his Black Box was built.  The book was a big success but his Black Box still did not sell; just an explanation of how his Black Box worked was enough for people to apply the Principles of ToC and to get dramatic results. So, Eli abandoned his plan of making a fortune selling Black Boxes and set up the Goldratt Institute to disseminate the Principles of ToC – which he did with considerably more success. Eli Goldratt died in June 2011 after a short battle with cancer and the World has lost a great innovator and a founding father of Improvement Science. His legacy lives on in the books he wrote that chart his personal journey of discovery.

The Principles of ToC are central both to process improvement and to process design.  As Eli unintentionally demonstrated, it is more effective and much quicker to learn the Principles of ToC pragmatically and with low technology – such as a book – than with a complex, expensive, high technology Black Box.  As many people have discovered – adding complex technology to a complex problem does not create a simple solution! Many processes are relatively uncomplicated and do not require high technology solutions. An example is the challenge of designing a high productivity schedule when there is variation in both the content and the volume of the work.

If our required goal is to improve productivity (or profit) then we want to improve the throughput and/or to reduce the resources required. That is relatively easy when there is no variation in content and no variation in volume – such as when we are making just one product at a constant rate – like a Model-T Ford in Black! Add some content and volume variation and the challenge becomes a lot trickier! From the 1950’s the move from mass production to mass customisation in the automobile industry created this new challenge and spawned a series of  innovative approaches such as the Toyota Production System (Lean), Six Sigma and Theory of Constraints.  TPS focussed on small batches, fast changeovers and low technology (kanbans or cards) to keep inventory low and flow high; Six Sigma focussed on scientifically identifying and eliminating all sources of variation so that work flows smoothly and in “statistical control”; ToC focussed on identifying the “constraint steps” in the system and then on scheduling tasks so that the constraints never run out of work.

When applied to a complex system of interlinked and interdependent processes the ToC method requires a complicated Black Box to do the scheduling because we cannot do it in our heads. However, when applied to a simpler system or to a part of a complex system it can be done using a low technology method called “paper and pen”. The technique is called Template Scheduling and there is a real example in the “Three Wins” book where the template schedule design was tested using a computer simulation to measure the resilience of the design to natural variation – and the computer was not used to do the actual scheduling. There was no Black Box doiung the scheduling. The outcome of the design was a piece of paper that defined the designed-and-tested template schedule: and the design testing predicted a 40% increase in throughput using the same resources. This dramatic jump in productivity might be regarded as  “miraculous” or even “impossible” but only to someone who was not aware of the template scheduling method. The reality is that that the designed schedule worked just as predicted – there was no miracle, no magic, no Magician and no Black Box.

Africa is a fascinating place.  According to a documentary that I saw last year we are ALL descended from a small tribe who escaped from North East Africa about 90,000 years ago. Our DNA carries clues to the story of our journey and it shows that modern man (Africans, Europeans, Asians, Chinese, Japanese, Australians, Americans, Russians etc) – all come from a common stock. It is salutory to reflect how short this time scale is, how successful this tribe has been in replacing all the other branches of the human evolutionary tree, and how the genetic differences between colours and creeds are almost insignificant.  All the evolution that has happened in the last 90,000 years that has transformed the world and the way we live is learned behaviour. This means that, unlike our genes, it is possible to turn the clock backwards 90,000 years in just one generation. To avoid this we need to observe how the descendents of the original tribe learned to do many new things – forced by their new surroundings to adapt or perish.  This is essence of Improvement Science – changing context continuously creates new challenges – from which we can learn, adapt and flourish.

To someone born in rural England a mobile phone appears to be a relatively small step on a relentless technological evolution – to someone born in rural Africa it is a radical and world-changing paradigm shift – one that has already changed their lives.  In some parts of Africa money is now managed using mobile phones and this holds the promise of bypassing the endemic bureaucratic and corrupt practices that so often strangle the greens shoots of innovation and improvement. Information and communication is the lifeblood of improvement and to introduce a communication technology that is reliable, effective, and affordable into a vast potential for cultural innovation is rather like introducing a match to the touchpaper of a firework. Once the fuse has started to fizz there is no going back. The name given to this destabilising phenomenon is “disruptive innovation” and fortunately it can work for the good of all – so long as we steer it in a win-win-win direction. And that is a big challenge because our history suggests that we find exploitation easier than evolution and exploitation always leads to lose-lose-lose outcomes.

So while our global tribe may have learned enough to create a global phone system we still have much to learn about how to create a global social system.