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Practice makes perfect

When we do something, we frequently think about it on two levels: accomplishing the task at hand and observing how well the method for the task works. Is it efficient? Does it achieve the desired result? Cooking provides an easy example: I put the ingredients together as the recipe says, and I likewise reflect on whether my recipe efficiently enables a tasty dish. We shift our thoughts fluidly from task to method, using feedback to meet the goal. It's an obvious point, perhaps. Less obvious, however, is just how vital it is to separate reflection from method from the efficiency of task execution, giving each its place both individually and in teams.

What is a method?

Without a standard there is no logical basis for 
making a decision or taking action.” —Joseph Juran

Thus, Juran emphasizes need for a mental model or norm to serve as a guideline and a measuring stick. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be acting rationally; success would just be a matter of chance. Fortunately, our brains can accomplish this purpose, even if we may well be better at rationalizing than actually behaving rationally./1/

A standard is a measure, norm, or model for comparing or evaluating. A method is a standardize way of doing something, usually with defined steps and defined result. They help us by
  • enabling us to validate results,
  • making success repeatable,
  • reducing errors, and
  • providing a baseline for improvement.
All of this is usual fare in our modern working world, especially for anyone acquainted with lean, total quality management, Shewhart, Deming etc. We know that we need quality control and improvement. My emphasis here is cultivating habits of mind for thinking explicitly about methods, while also maintaining discipline in the execution of tasks according to the agreed method.

Musicians provide an excellent example. A trained musician has methods for learning and practicing a piece of music. She breaks it down into individual measures or phrases. She uses tools such as a metronome or pencil marks on the score. She first plays it slowly, only speeding up after success at that tempo, and only later still working on nuances of phrasing etc. Non-musicians may be astonished at how quickly a trained musician can learn a complex piece of music. Talent plays a role, but great musicians all accredit their success to a lot of methodical, disciplined practice./2/ Our sports heroes also all have highly refined training methods. Winning the race comes from executing what was worked out in practice.

Despite these role models and despite the obviousness, our work environments are plagued with problems stemming from lack of defined methods or failures to follow them. So, let’s explore some of the implications of thinking methodically.

Methods and teamwork

In a team environment, a method or a standard is nothing more than an agreed way of working or agreed measure of success. As a corollary, team players follow the agreed methods. It also lies with the team to enforce those agreements, assisted perhaps by a scrum master.

In a team, we have more than one brain to think about a problem. In this regard, methods and standards reflect team thinking. As I joined a new team this year, I was delighted to find that our team had a standard of eliciting feedback from other team members. We perform modeling sessions together in a pair programming style. It is fruitful and provides a platform for improving the standards.

In an agile environment, the boss coaches the team in understanding the goals and creating good methods. In a classical working environment, teams expect the boss to develop and enforce the standards. Regardless of which environment, the boss has a responsibility to ensure that methods and standards exist and that impediments to following them are removed. (Without that, how can he claim to his boss that the team’s resources are being employed well?)

Where's the creativity?

One complaint heard frequently in work environments with defined standards is that they hamper creativity. This attitude is, however, a fallacy. Imagine a musician reworking his phrasing in the middle of a major recital. That won’t go well, especially if the player is part of an orchestra. Execution is no time for creativity. Execution is about getting it right as efficiently as possible, i.e. for doing exactly as worked out in practice. Furthermore, there is a natural feedback loop from performance to method. With more experience, we can think more deeply about the method.

Creativity is, of course, important. It’s the bread and butter of improvement. But, it should be separate from execution. The Deming Cycle explicitly separates “do” from “plan”, “check” and “act” (i.e. improve). Scrum provides, for example, the “Retrospective" as a moment explicitly dedicated for teams to reflect on improving their work. And, there are many other methods such as Juran's quality trio “5 rights”, “ESSA – Eliminate, Standardize, Simplify, Automate” and more that can be used to channel the creativity toward higher quality and better efficiency.

I expect that complaints about hampered creativity are actually expressions of disagreement about the agreed methods, disgruntlement at not being included in their creation or failing to understand the larger context of dependencies that led to the chosen method. Teams and coaches should be sensitive to those underlying needs wherever they see excessive creativity during execution.

Ad hoc pragmatism kills efficiency

The trouble is that creativity or other variances during execution hurts productivity and quality. It also hinders improvement, since we won’t have good records of what went wrong and why. Nevertheless, many organizations (especially their management) unwittingly encourage such behavior, both by failing to insist on standards and methods and by promoting ad hoc pragmatism./3/

In particular, time pressure is counterproductive if it leads to hasty actions or if the goals can only be achieved by violating the agreed methods./4/ If time is critical, the process should be put through a rigorous (and creative) optimization program to root out the causes of delay, especially any waiting times, errors and re-work. It may require, just like our musician, going slow first in order to go fast when it really matters.

I am not suggesting that an organization should try to engineer every work aspect./5/ Nor do I wish to admonish flexibility of mind and action where variance is a natural part of the process. Rather, I hope to encourage a mindset that sees the difference between practice and performance, i.e. between improvement and execution. That means we to develop the following habits:
  • Reflecting constantly about improving the method
  • Executing the agreed method with discipline, especially in a team context
  • Finding objective ways to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of the method.
  • Explicitly agreeing our methods within a team and holding each other to those agreements
With that, practice makes perfect.


/1/ It’s a poor blog article indeed that doesn’t contain the usual citation to Daniel Kahneman: See, Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2011); Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein, Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2021).

/2/ Wolfgang Erharter, Kreativität gibt es nicht: wie Sie geniale Ideen erarbeiten (München: Redline, 2012). Erharter, himself a musician, argues that creativity is best achieved through diligent, repetitive practice of a craft. He points out that so-called creative people—artists, musicians, scientists etc.—never talk of cultivating their creativity. Rather, the only talk about increasing their productivity through disciplined work.

/3/ Ad hoc pragmatism can be translated as “quick and dirty”. Reflected pragmatism focuses on value creation with simple, straightforward processes.

/4/ These productivity killers are simply not seen. To see them, an organization needs first to define its standards and methods and it needs to computer its costs of variance, errors and re-work. And, it needs to evaluate those costs in the context of needs for

/5/ It is an illusion to think that organizations (outside of manufacturing) can engineer six-sigma levels of quality. Humans are not capable of more than about 2 sigma (approx 94% right).


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