Monday, October 31, 2011

Q.A. as a living process

There's a good chance that the car sitting in your driveway owes a lot to W. Edwards Deming. Deming was an American statistician largely responsible for the overhaul of Japanese industry from 1950 onwards. He helped to shift the perception that the Japanese were only capable of producing rubbish to the realisation of American car manufacturers that Japan had stolen the limelight from Detroit.

I've travelled in several American / Australian cars in recent times, and while it is probably inflammatory and a broad generalisation, my experiences lead me to the perception that Americans and Aussies are very capable of producing crap. Once I got onto Japanese cars, I never looked back.

Deming came to represent a whole philosophy of manufacturing. One element I note today is his belief that Q.A. is best offered as a living process. That is, instead of pouring resources into paying for exhaustive inspections at the end of a production process (with a range of acceptable tolerances), build in continuous improvement ('kaizen') into each process and verify quality improvements through statistical sampling.

Deming believed that while cost of manufacturing went down, quality and production could go up. How? Very simple: careful observation of what happens in planning and production, coupled with a culture of 'every participant is a designer', allows the sources of problems to be identified and corrected early in the process. When your only means of catching non-performance is the factory loading dock, then correcting mistakes becomes costly.

Most processes surrounding quality could be put right if people were given the space to resolve them. Deming saw the biggest problem here as management, not the people doing the actual work of manufacturing. These were cultural problems that needed to be resolved through a fresh approach to managing people, their willingness to work well, and their ability to do so. If you got the question of 'people' sorted out, then the 'quality' question had the space it needed to resolve.

Companies like Toyota have inculturated Deming's whole approach. (He was emphatic that for his thinking to work, his whole system had to be adopted, as it is a package.) And as a result we have better cars, microwaves, televisions.

While Deming was widely known and respected in Japan, he did not come into prominence in his home country until he was in his 80's. Once Americans realised what he had done for Japan, he quickly became flavour of the month, and began running 4-day workshops all over America and the world. He wrote books, he consulted to large companies, he supervised post-graduate students.

He continued to do this until his death at age 93. Interestingly, he never felt that his philosophy was embraced in his home country to the extent it had been in Japan. People wanted to 'cherry pick' his methods.

And that is why I can tell within 20 seconds of the driving experience that a car is a Chrysler and not a Subaru. When a door lining falls off (true story) then it is confirmed.

For an overview of Deming's life and his thinking, you'll probably enjoy this paper.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Life's a beach

David Jones, thank you for sending across the wonderful gift that is this video of Theo Jansen discussing his Strandbeeste.

There is something both elegant and clumsy about Theo's creatures -- on his home site he has a short clip involving one teetering and then falling over -- but there is such drive behind the inventions.

We like the notion of 'living on' after we're gone. We have discovered many different ways of achieving this. What is nice about Theo's creations is that they will continue to scuttle about through the sand dunes of Dutch beaches after he is gone.

They will not simply follow predictable patterns of motion. Theo, through his 'living' designs, will continue to playfully (and surprisingly) impact the lives of others.

Monday, October 17, 2011


You'd like to think it's not every other day that you find yourself an unwilling disciple of children's play equipment.

But twice in this last week I have been humbled by kids' stuff -- first, by a bicycle and then by a scooter. And I am contrite.

I used to work with someone who would say, "Experience is a tough teacher: she gives you the test first, and then she gives you the lesson." So damn true.

Test one: The handlebars on my eldest son's bike were loose. I decided to tighten up the headset, but then realised I didn't have a spanner large enough to tighten up the large nut on the collar.

This is embarrassing to admit, but I dug around through what I had and came up with a pair of multi-grips and ... a whopping big set of Stilsons.

You probably think it is impressive that I have Stilsons in my toolshed. You probably think it is less-than-impressive that I chose to use them to loosen off the locking collar. But I was desperate. It wasn't pretty.

It only took a few weeks for us to realise that the handlebars were still loose. This time I knew better: I asked my boss if he had a large shifter in his workshop. He did.

I tackled the headset with a combination of large shifter and multi-grips. The shifter held. The multi-grips slipped under pressure. I bent back a thumbnail and swore. Finally, I got it all loosened up, and then tightened it to a tension I was happy with.

The handlebars still moved. More swearing. Then I noticed the little nut on top of the stem at the base of the handlebars. I grabbed a little socket out of my box. Ten seconds of tightening, and the problem was fixed.

I felt like an idiot. The fix was there right under my nose all along. All the fooling about, and big tools and damaged paint was needless. A small socket was the answer.

Test two: I noticed that our scooter had two plastic screw covers that weren't sitting down properly. A quick inspection caused me to believe that the person who fitted the nuts-and-bolts had put them in the wrong way.

I pulled them out (fiddly), turned them around, and retightened. And the covers still did not fit. Then I realised that the fix was a lot simpler than I assumed: the covers simply needed to be spun around (hard to explain, even with a photo). The nuts-and-bolts were right the first time around. So I had to undo them and turn them back around again.

In both cases my poor diagnostic work forced me to rush to a solution that was no solution at all. In both cases a lot more time and energy was wasted than was necessary.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A taxing read

"We have long had death and taxes as the two standards of inevitability. But there are those who believe that death is the preferable of the two. 'At least,' as one man said, 'there's one advantage about death: it doesn't get worse every time Congress meets. -- Erwin N. Griswold, 34th United States Solicitor General

I have just finished reading a paper delivered by some of the crew at Second Road on how they worked with the ATO to help the organisation rethink its relationship to law, politics, and its clientele: Aussie taxpayers.

It makes for an interesting read, and is a fascinating test case for what can happen in the most analysis-driven of organisations when a design approach to problem-solving and future-casting is adopted not for a one-off workshop, but as the persistent model of thinking.

If accountants and taxation lawyers can work this way (in a culture of co-design), anyone can. It fits with what Lietdka and Ogilvie have posited about the 'discipline of design'. Quoting Larry Keeley of Doblin: "Creating new concepts depends a lot more on discipline than on creativity. You take the ten most creative people you can find anywhere. Give me a squad of ten marines and the right protocols, and I promise we'll out-innovate you."

If you live in Australia and pay taxes (the two seem to be mutually exclusive for some people), then the paper is well worth the read -- if nothing else, it builds your empathy for those on the other end of the tax form / BAS.

If you work in an organisation where you think, "There is no way a design thinking approach could have anything to offer us or our clients", the paper is worth a read.

The story offers a nice interplay between the role of individuals (both outside and inside the ATO), the value of persistence, and the importance of good ethnographic work mated to a strong design process.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Edges of Opportunity

"If design were simply a matter of solving problems, much of design activity could be eliminated and along with it would go much of the value of design.

David Pye has brilliantly debunked the notion of 'purely functional' design. He illustrates the presence of the human touch in all design including that which is supposed to be very objective such as structural design.

We also observe that design problems are not static; they change with time and are changed by the way we perceive them; a client may come to an architect with the problem of adding a room to the back of his house but the architect may expand the client's understanding of the problem to include energy consumption in the entire house or the impact of an addition upon the use of backyard space.

The designer looks for opportunities while working with problems; he seeks not only the application of known solutions but the invention of new solutions which extend human experience and delight.

One of the keys to inventing is the ability to see analogies between design problems and design solutions."

-- Norman Crowe & Paul Laseau, Visual Notes for Architects and Designers, (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1984), p.32

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A personality but no name

We have just returned from 4 days of hangin' with friends in the northern Victorian town on Wangaratta.

Monday provided an opportunity (what fantastic weather!) to make our way over to Beechworth, a half-hour drive away.

We spent the best part of the day lugging around strollers and provisions for 5 kids (it looked like a sort of amateur Andean caravan, without the llamas).

Beechworth wears its history loud and proud. From Lake Sambell's nod to the town's history in gold (this spot is a true picture of beauty from ashes), to the remaining lock-up in the Police Paddock and the old courthouse (where Ned Kelly was committed to stand trial for the murder of Thomas Lonigan), its present-day 'face to the world' is distinctive because of its history.

There are things that can be said about Beechworth that cannot be said of any old town. The town's history (well-researched, recorded and published by the local people) have become a foundation for its positioning into the future.

If you have ever spent any time looking at the mission and vision statements of companies or public entities (local councils come to mind for me), you will notice how many of these statements about 'Who we are' / 'What we do' are generic and abstract. You could engineer a simple template with a series of positive assertions, and 'Just add your organisation's name in place of X'.

The following comes randomly from a particular local government website:

"Council is committed to overseeing the continued growth of the City and ensuring high quality of life for residents and visitors. This role is guided by Council's Vision and Mission Statements.

OUR VISION: A vibrant city of lifestyle and opportunity.

OUR MISSION: To manage and promote X’s diversity, lifestyle and opportunity through innovation and excellence."

Such statements tell us next-to-nothing. It's when you start to dig around in the organisation's policy and strategy documents -- particularly those that have been formulated well around good demographic work, and not simply focus groups -- that you begin to uncover the unique personality of the organisation and its challenges and hopes ... and how it would measure 'success'.

But many organisations struggle to express this in any meaningful way in their most public statements. It seems instead that many of us resort to picking up The Big Book of Mission and Vision Statements and labour hard and long (often with extended argumentation and consultation) to develop a series of statements that sounds like ... everyone else's.

We find it hard to say what is uniquely 'us' and what this offers the world. But we do know that if a vision statement is going to pass muster it should contain words like 'excellence', 'hard-working', 'innovative', 'honesty', 'integrity', 'world leader'.

I wonder what would happen if you got a group of politicians and business people together and asked them to craft a vision statement for Beechworth? Would the story of the place (its personality) come through, or would 'Vision Statement' mode kick in? I wonder ...