“Improvement must be focused on what you want, not on what you don’t want.” Russell Ackoff

February 18, 2008

Another sin I often see in companies, is that executives focus improvements on what they don’t want, rather than what they do want. There are two reasons why this is wrong. First, if you eliminate what you don’t want, you don’t necessarily get what you do want. Second, by focusing on what you don’t want, your solution space is much smaller compared to when you focus on what you do want.

Many companies that are engaged in formal improvement initiatives like lean six sigma or operational excellence, are focused on elimination of defects and waste. Their executives mistakenly believe that if they remove defects and waste they improve the performance of their company. Not true. A case in point is Motorola who tried to apply six sigma to improving customer satisfaction by focusing on reducing defects in the late 1980s. While they succeeded in improving their manufacturing through six sigma, a much more ordered and stable environment than the market place for products – they failed when they tried to apply six sigma to improving customer satisfaction. Their assumption was that as long as you would reduce defects (“something we don’t want”) it would improve customer satisfaction. However, no matter how hard they tried, their own customer research proved them wrong. We can explain their failure using the Cynefin framework.

The environment of the customer is a complex environment. It is dynamic because customer preferences are always changing, competitors are introducing new products and customer satisfaction is always relative towards what others are doing in the industry – something over which you have no control – unless you have a monopoly. So Motorola introduced pagers or mobile phones that with technically superior mean-time-between-failures, but customers bought products from competitors because they had a much more attractive design or a more attractive feature set.

In my story about the company with the safety issue, they were measuring the lost-time-injury rate. The focus is therefore on what they did not want. The assumption is that measuring and reviewing this performance indicator will create more safe behaviors. This assumption is false. What does happen in many companies – and in fact did happen in the company I discussed – is that employees did not want to be responsible for reporting an injury and increase the lost-time-injury rate. So accidents happened but went unreported and this reduced the lost-time-injury rate. However, because the injuries were not reported, they also were not analyzed and the safety environment did not improve – and improvement of the safety environment is what they wanted!

All of this goes back to the basic axiom that Russel Ackoff presents: “Improvement must be focused on what you want, and not on what you don’t want! This can be easily proven,” he says. And this example draws on one of his lectures. “What are the chances if you switch on the TV that you get a program you like?” Ackoff figured out it is about 1 percent. “So if you switch the TV on and you have a program you don’t like – a defect – you can get rid of it by switching to another station. What is the chance you get a program you like? Again, it is only 1 percent. Focusing on what you don’t want and eliminating it, does not necessarily give you what you do want!”

So if you want to improve, you need to focus on what you do want. The second reason why this is sensible is that your solution space is much bigger than when you focus on what you don’t want. To go back to Russell Ackoff’s TV example, if what you want is to have an evening of good entertainment, you could get a subscription to Netflix and play a DVD or download a movie from Apple iTunes or decide to go to a concert etc.. If you want to improve safety in your company, you could focus on creating a safety culture and review how this culture is evolving. Using the Cynefin framework and recognizing that a culture is a complex system, you might decide to get an impression of the current culture, for example, through the use of narratives. You would dialogue with workers on what their ideas are to make improvements – because they are after all the actors who create and re-create the safety culture etc. and together with them design interventions.

The solution space quickly explodes if you begin to formulate and focus on what you truly want. Almost by definition you will find that the solution domain is a complex domain with many possibilities and nonlinearity rather than a complicated or more structured domain which is the world of the defect. Therefore, a much more facilitative and dialogic intervention is necessary. Hence, the use of interactive tools such as designed by Cognitive-Edge that open up the communication are necessary.

My provocation is that if executives agree that improvement initiatives must be focused on what they want, they must also be willing to adopt the complexity paradigm. From this follows that they should be willing to engage in a much more facilitative leadership style and that they need to become comfortable with facilitative tools and approaches.

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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