Sour grapes vs PDCA

When someone leaves (your company, your church, your circle of friends, a relationship, whatever), there’s always a temptation to say “Oh yeah, we’re better off without him/her”.

I mean, this is a sort of very human way to deal with loss. It’s almost a glass half full approach, but only almost. It’s more loss mitigation than anything else, a way to build a mental framework of the world where things you can’t control end up being not just okay, but good for you.

We just had someone quit at work. It was a huge loss, frankly. We’re still trying to figure out how to replace them. There are thousand little actions we’re trying to reproduce, but we don’t quite know how. It’s really hard to take those thousand little actions and figure out how to do them all over again. Even with cross-training and other ways to deal with people taking vacations or getting sick or whatever, there’s still a ton of work to replacing them.

That said, as we work through this stuff we’re finding a bunch of stuff that’s frankly a little… off. Processes that are inefficient, time wasted, etc. Nobody’s perfect. Everyone does some stupid things. But we’re talking about 10% or so. A small fraction of stuff that could be improved.

What I’ve seen happen before is people seize on these things, magnify them into a gigantic showstopper, and then act like it’s a huge blessing that person left.

I get that reaction. I do.

But it’s fundamentally dishonest. And it gets in the way of improvement.

There’s a feedback loop you should apply to everything. And I do mean everything; if you can send me an example of something that can’t be improved, I’ll buy a hat and eat it. Won’t be the first hat I’ve eaten. Probably won’t be the last. But I think I’m on pretty solid ground here. As a bit of an aside, anytime someone exempts themselves or their profession from feedback and improvement, I guarantee you they’re resting on laurels, and often not very impressive laurels. I’ve sat under a bunch of preachers who were obviously not terribly interested in doing a better job, ostensibly because being “called” to a position and going to some barnyard seminary means you’re instantly equipped for a lifetime of preaching. But that’s my baggage and largely neither here nor there.

The feedback loop has many different names but almost everyone has one. Consciously or not, you take a look at things and try to make them better. I may be being too charitable here, but it’s what I choose to believe.

The particular feedback loop I have in mind is called Plan/Do/Check/Act. You make a plan, you do the plan, you check the results, you adjust what you’re doing and then (and this is the critical part) you start back at the beginning again. This is why it’s called a feedback loop. You take the outputs of Check/Act and apply them do Plan/Do. Something isn’t going right, because nothing ever goes right the first time, right? You figure that out in the check phase with analysis, then you act upon that analysis to figure out what wrong, then you revise your plan and start again.

This is not some kind of stunningly original capital-I Idea I just came up with. I shamelessly stole this from Toyota and every management book ever. It’s also not hard to do, assuming you’re not used to doing something else.

I think just about everyone is used to doing something else. I said earlier that most people do PDCA unconsciously in their personal lives, and the important word is unconsciously. We start doing something big and all that stuff falls out of our heads. Haven’t you seen something like this before? Someone comes up with an idea. And critically this is an idea. Is an idea the same thing as a plan? Well, maybe. But most of the time probably not. An idea is “I want ice cream”. A plan is “I’m going to get my wallet, walk to McDonald’s, and get some soft serve”. I trust the difference is obvious. An idea is the core of a thing, a plan includes implementation details and processes ([1] get wallet, [2], walk to McDonald’s, [3] soft serve, where [1] and [2] are processes and [3] is a detail).

My ice cream idea evolves from a very vague sort of feeling into a set of instructions. Now, my plan is not the only plan, and this is important. I could have driven there, I could have walked to a different store, I could have decided on a different kind of ice cream. Critically, all plan implementations in some way dictate their results. Does McDonald’s have anything other than soft serve? No, right (at least where I’m from)? So choosing to walk to McDonald’s limits the outcome. On the other hand driving to the grocery store also limits the outcome, as they don’t have soft serve.

Let’s say you decide to carry out your plan. You get your wallet, you walk over to McDonald’s, you go to pay… and you’ve left all your cash at home. You’ve accidentally and unfortunately stumbled into “check”. You then act in some way, depending who you are (try to run up a tab, beg for free ice cream, go back home and get money, use a credit card instead etc). If this all seems a bit to concrete and a little too life-like, yes, that did happen to me, and yes, I felt like an idiot.

Now, critically, this isn’t a feedback loop. Not yet. What’s missing? What incredibly important feature of a cycle hasn’t happened here?

Let’s say the next time I’m going out to buy something I just pick up my wallet and assume there’s a wad of cash in there and leave the house. You’d ask me if I’m an idiot, did I not just yesterday learn that lesson?

This is where revising the plan comes in. I’m using this on a sort of very high meta-level, but you see what I mean. My plan should have been generalised to something like: [1] get wallet, [2] CHECK WALLET, [3] go somewhere, [4] buy something. If you’re wondering if this still seems too lifelike, yes, I’m still trying to remember to actually look in my wallet. I’m considering putting up a sign at the front door. Look in your wallet DUMMY.

But you see how this applies in a management scenario. Your plan is to [1] figure out the personnel you need, [2] hire them, [3] train them, [4] keep them if they’re working out.

If they leave in a huff, completely fed up with their working environment, so pissed off from top to bottom that they can’t see any other possibility than quitting, you have 2 choices. You can figure out what went wrong and try to fix the problem, or you can just throw up your hands and say, “Oh well, they sucked anyways.”

One of those is extremely counterproductive and near rage-inducing.

Anyways. This is not the post I meant to post. This is a eulogy of sorts for a relationship with a coworker I will very much miss. I think I’ll come back to PDCA soon, as I feel like a lot of creative types have difficulty with forcing their creative actions into a feedback cycle. I have some thoughts on what it means to be professional about something, and what genius really looks like. This all ties together somehow, I promise. Cross your fingers.