From Davis Balestracci -- Conscious Improvement Isn't for the Faint of Heart

Published: Mon, 02/12/18

From Davis Balestracci --
Conscious Improvement Isn't for the Faint of Heart
"Sadly I tend to find [requested resources on quality improvement] already lurking on the top shelves of offices I visit with a thick layer of dust. Those were, on reflection, an example of a resource produced by people with too much time [qualicrats] for people with too little time." 
-- an improvement practitioner

To read on-line:  View as Web Page

For those of you who don't know what a qualicrat is:  qualicrat 

[Lest you think I am too hard on qualicrats, I was once a very good a (thankfully) long past professional life]


Do your quality successes truly get "hardwired"?

The organization is already a Learning Organization – continually learning every single minute of every single day how to continue being itself.

Hi, Folks,

Today’s newsletter is a condensation of John Atkinson’s words and ideas from his thought provoking paper, “The Myth of the Learning Organization.”
Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline captured the story of The Learning Organization and described how it might come about...I worked with global organizations building their capacity for learning. I saw local successes, plenty of them in fact. I saw the energy and enthusiasm you release when you set people free to learn about their work, change it and improve it. I thought that here, working at this level, might be found an answer to the negativity and organizational melancholy that sets in when people are faced by a slow and suffocating bureaucracy.

This never happened. The local highs that arose from success came and went as part of the rhythm and ritual of organizational life. The practices got subsumed into the bureaucracy and turned back into parodies of what they were meant to be.

An embedded sense of organizational identity is more powerful than any branding or carefully crafted vision. The resulting culture and its many sub-cultures (including "quality") have been created over the life of the organization, many times spanning decades. Each and every interaction is filtered through these established norms, especially when making sense of and responding to changing environments. The unplanned informal dialogues of daily conversations – by water coolers, notice boards, photocopiers; as shifts come on or off or people leave formal briefings – are where a culture makes sense of what it is, shapes itself and decides its responses to somehow create an identity.

Everything the organization learns daily to achieve its tasks acts to consolidate, perpetuate or preserve this identity – and the energy to do this consumes 100 percent of its time.

Improvement will always be needed because most organizations continually react to default to their current designs

(Does the following apply to your organization's current quality process as well?)

Sub-optimal workplaces are not intentionally designed that way. Usually, they result from small adaptations with each iteration of the company’s progress and past events, inevitably defaulting to bureaucracies of process and procedure.

Such environments limit and constrain every individual’s capacity for creativity and humanity. Such precious energy is instead diverted to learning ways to get past the limitations and relentless daily minor challenges of their processes and working conditions to somehow get their job done.

Any proposed change to this status quo is perceived as a threat:  the organization will take any new information, filter it against what it knows itself to be, and try its best to perpetuate its identity in the face of the change. It can't recognize information that doesn’t perpetuate the organizational identity.

The challenge for ‘The Already Learning Organization’ is not ‘can you learn?’, but ‘can you learn something new?’ Can you learn something that goes against the internal dialogue, formed and reinforced over all those years and decades? Can you learn how to change your identity?

Like the networks of cells in our own nervous systems, internal networks of people have formed organizational identity over time. Networks are reservoirs of knowledge and know-how. They contain what people know about their work and how they can use what they know to get stuff done. The filter of current identity decides what is appropriate in any instance among all the stored knowledge and know-how.

Re-branding, re-visioning, and launching a new five year strategy will simply be consumed by default in perpetuation of the existing identity. Blunt ‘cut and paste’ attempts at organizational restructures may break down the existing networks;  but, like the phoenix, they will do their best to “rise from the ashes” and re-form slowly and clumsily in the only way they know how: in defense of their identity. New processes and procedures will be filtered through a network’s sense of who they already are and, as I’ve seen so often, justifiably bastardized into a slightly newer version of what went before – which usually bears no resemblance to the intended change.

As I like to say, “Those darn humans…God bless ‘em! They're acting just like people.”

Learning Organizations must build the capacity to change the actual internal dialogues, not merely the topics of conversation. Networks will decide their topics of conversation based on their sense of identity. Anything new will be pretty much either ignored or "chewed up and spit out," then slowly disappear.

Changed dialogues will require a qualitative change in how people are in relationship with each other, how they decide what matters, and how they respond to new information and new people. This kind of change affects relationships within and between networks, across silos and across the organizational boundary. It allow the creation of fertile ground for an adapting identity.

You never really understand a system until you try to change it.     – Kurt Lewin

Change provokes a reaction from people’s sense of organizational identity. This is neither short work
nor is it for the faint of heart. If an initial attempt at change goes smoothly, it is naïve to step away feeling the job is done – especially if outside consulting resources were heavily involved. To be truly successful, it should initially “fail” and point you towards where you really need to do your work. This vital complementary work is the ongoing vehicle for changing the internal dialogues, and improvement tools are powerless to deal with it.

Logic + humans = change?  Think again!

What might all this mean for you and your role?

More about that next time...

Kind regards,
Chapters 3 and 4 of Data Sanity give a framework for addressing the inherent frustrating issue of cultural resistance.

The 10 examples of Chapter 2 will be your guide to getting results that will JOLT! your culture's belief system about your role to get the respect you deserve. 

  • I can work with you and mentor you to demonstrate this to your organization – with the focus being on your success.

  • My belief system about consulting:  "I'm the statistician, I know nothing.  You know too much. That makes us a great team. We are colleagues, and I can teach you (and your colleagues) the 20 percent of what it takes to solve 80 to 90 percent of your problems."

Data Sanity: A Quantum Leap to Unprecedented Results is a unique synthesis of the sane use of data, culture change, and leadership principles to create a road map for excellence.
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Learn to create a common organizational language for healthier dialogue about reducing ongoing confusion, conflict, complexity, and chaos. ​​​​​​​

  • e-book format for all e-readers, including iBook, Nook and Kindle (available only through publisher MGMA, includes downloadable PDF)

  • UK readers: available on Amazon UK for  £69 with free shipping.

  • Europe, Canada, and Australia:  contact Craig Wiberg [] about the option to print on demand.

Click here to obtain a copy of its Preface and chapter summaries.

Please know that I always have time for you and am never too answer a question, discuss opportunities for a leadership or staff retreat, webinar, individual or group mentoring, or public speaking --  or just about any other reason!  Don't ever hesitate to e-mail or phone me. I like what I do "just a little bit."

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