Vol. 12, No. 1
January 2010
PQ Systems
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Six Sigma and more:
Celebrating Russell Ackoff

In late October, we lost a titan in the world of Six Sigma of whom many of you may not have heard—Russell L. Ackoff, known first as the "Father of Operations Research," and then for his ideas related to systems thinking.

In the 1970s, Ackoff became one of the most important critics of "technique-dominated operations research." His move from operations research to systems thinking prompted Peter Drucker to comment to him, at the 2004 Conference on Systems Thinking in Management, that... "Your work in those faraway days thus saved me--as it saved countless others—from either descending into mindless ‘model building’—the disease that all but destroyed so many of the business schools in the last decades—or from sloppiness parading as ‘insight’." It is Ackoff’s work in systems thinking that so powerfully undergirds the Six Sigma movement.

I first came across Russ Ackoff, interestingly, not for his work in operations research, but in The Art of Problem Solving: Accompanied by Ackoff’s Fables (John Wiley & Sons, New York: 1978) and in Management in Small Doses (John Wiley & Sons, New York: 1986). In those books, I found profound insight into management, served up as witty, common sense observations. Although reading those would be enough to enhance your Six Sigma effort, I want to tell you the rest of the story.

By the late 1980s, my wife Carole and I had helped others apply continual improvement (substitute Six Sigma...the differences are inconsequential here) to virtually every kind of organization, system, and community we could think of and were convinced of its power. As I’ve said here before, we also found some systems that were such a mess that improvement was not enough. Redesign was required. (Think of the U.S. healthcare system or, perhaps, the U.S. K-12 education system.) W. Edwards Deming, too, was speaking about the need for innovation, but he offered little specific help in the area.

Searching for help, we learned from and worked with Peter Senge, a brilliant systems thinker, but we could find no help in the details of system redesign. We also learned from Gerald Nadler, another brilliant teacher, writer, and consultant. Here we found the details, but found them a little awkward to apply. We were discussing our frustration with an old friend from Ford, Vic Leo, at a systems thinking conference. He agreed with our assessment of Peter and said we should contact Russ Ackoff. We did. Russ said he was trying to focus more on writing and speaking in those days, so he asked us to connect with his primary partner at Interact, Jamshid Gharajedaghi. Jamshid taught us systems thinking and redesign.

As I’ve said here before, system improvement using Six Sigma or whatever other continual improvement system you use is essential. But, in the financial collapse that we are experiencing, innovation is also needed.

The work of the Interact partners in innovation is the best I know of. Let me give you a sample of their approach. Interactive design has assumptions, principles, dimensions, and a process among other elements. It starts by assuming the involvement of everyone both inside and outside the system we want to redesign. It reminds us that we can best approximate understanding and designing a complex system by looking at it in many ways, and it provides several different ways to do that. It points out that decisions are not only made rationally. They are made also by emotional and ethical considerations. It suggests that teamwork is far superior to all-star showmanship. It encourages us to design a single solution that solves many problems, rather than designing many interventions to solve a single problem. It tells us to consider the whole system when we redesign, including stakeholder needs, values, mission, functions, products, services, processes, and structure.

The Interactive design process has three steps that seem fairly straightforward and consistent with other, more traditional, design processes. The steps are:

  1. Figure out what’s going on
  2. Design the new system
  3. Implement the new system

That’s where another departure from tradition occurs. Step one is one of the most comprehensive and slightly negatively skewed assessment processes I have seen. Despite its comprehensive nature, one can spend as much or as little time on it as desired. The design step focuses not on a constrained future vision but on an idealized design of what we want today given the pretended destruction of the current system.

The implementation step does not outline a detailed, resource rich process for design execution. It requires dividing the implementation process into three steps: what we can do by simply changing our minds; what will take a little time, additional thought, and resources; and what we don’t know how to do.

We begin by doing the steps in the first category and trusting that the other two steps will come along. They do. I hope I’ve whetted your appetite to learn more. Russell Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi have both written it all down. Check them out. I think this kind of innovative approach is becoming more and more essential if we are to flourish or even maintain the standard of living to which we have become accustomed.

My final memory of Russ was in a small circle of folks interested in our work in applying interactive design to Jackson County, Michigan. We decided to use a coloring book to describe the work and invited the participants to color as we talked. Russ was the only one who chose to do so. He lived his work.

As always, I treasure your thoughts, comments, and questions. I’m at support@pqsystems.com.


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