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July 27, 2006

Perplexed by Principles for Process Improvement

In a July 20 letter to "all employees" (file code: 1020), Forest Service Chief Bosworth identified National Forest System Deputy Chief Joel Holtrop as the "lead" for process improvement, and Jim Caplan as the new Process Predicament Coordinator. Then continued,

... To help us achieve desired cultural change, I have established some principles for process improvement and streamlining. They are enclosed with this letter. I want employees and leadership teams throughout the Forest Service to consider how they should be applied to any and all processes we currently use or plan to use in the future, no matter how large or small their scope.
Enclosed was:

2002 Chief's Vision for Process Improvement

"…[T]he WO, regional offices, stations, and areas require significantly less process … new process [are] integrated across program areas. At the same time, the WO, regional offices, stations, and areas provide field units with a variety of ... examples, tools, and other resources that reduce project-planning costs and timeframes. At the field level, the costs and time to complete project planning are monitored and responsible officials are accountable for their performance. Most importantly, we reach project implementation faster and at a lower cost, enhancing our public participation, collaboration, and environmental analysis."


  1. Eliminate processes whenever and wherever possible.
  2. If process elimination is not possible, improve existing processes by simplifying, eliminating delays, by shortening start-to-finish or process cycle times, and by shortening and clarifying directions and documentation or reporting requirements.
  3. Don’t start new processes unless they conform to the vision and reflect the capacity of the people expected to do the work.
  4. Produce all goods and services to standard, on time, and within budget, conforming to law and Congressional intent.
I was two ways perplexed when I saw the …PRINCIPLED APPROACH. First I wondered, To what end? What is this missive expected to do? I thought of Chris Argyris' book Flawed Advice and the Management Trap, and his earlier book Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning. Argyris stresses the pervasiveness and persistence organizational defense mechanisms, and offers advice on the difficult task of working toward process betterment and organizational culture change by facing defense mechanisms directly. Good stuff!

Argyris also warns against "unactionable advice," advice that looks good but will not lead to organizational behavioral change, or will lead to unwanted change. Touchy stuff! (I thought too of my own advice re: Process Predicament (attached below)). Then I thought, Oh well, we'll just wait and see what pops up next, as the FS continues it's journey that began as "analysis paralysis," moved to "process gridlock," then on to "process predicament."

Second, I wondered as to the "principles" themselves, and took liberty to reframe them:

Process Betterment Principles (Feedback appreciated)
  1. Continually monitor processes with an eye toward improvement.
  2. Always design processes with/by the people who do the work. (following Breakthrough Thinking People Design Principle (scroll toward end).)
  3. Eliminate processes when they are no longer needed.
  4. Design and build process (and directives) as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Here is my 6/2003 "process predicament" recommendation:

Process Gridlock Suggestion
Dave Iverson

Do we continue to operate our organization in an antiquated "parent/child" organizational framework? Do we continue to operate from a belief that running an organization always or most frequently requires use of power-over instead of power-with?

If we can answer yes, as I believe we can, why not undertake a comprehensive rethinking of our organization. We might begin with workshops or "inquiry sessions" for Line Officers, WO Directors, and Regional and Forest Staff Officers? The workshops would focus on how organizations function based on a premise of working with adults, rather than overseeing children?

Sure we have rules and regulations dictated by law and policy that emanate from domains "above" the agency in the US government that require certain things from us. Sure we have encumbrances (also opportunities) on "personnel management" different from private sector organizations. And so on. But that ought not to stop us from reevaluating our organization functions in light of emerging organizational theory/practice.

As I’ve done before, I recommend that you bring in Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Margaret Wheatley and/or Peter Senge. You may want to include Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot as well. Let this group suggest recommendations, on how to structure such inquiry sessions.

As the team is assembled, let them know that they are free to work independently or interdependently on recommendations to help you help the Forest Service begin a journey toward becoming better at adaptive management and civic discovery, in short toward becoming a better learning organization.

Alternatively, just go with Weick and Sutcliffe or Kegan and Laskow Lahey and see what they might come up with.

While you are mulling that over, consider the agency in light of what I’ll call:

5 Habits of Highly Defective Organizations

  1. Pretending that leadership is about authoritarian, "Follow me" or "Do as I say" behavior.
  2. Pretending that quality follows from checks and balances in a patriarchal or parental organization, with overseers at all levels and functions. Pretending that individual and therefore organizational behavior will self-correct to desired form if parent supervisors correctly tend children employees.
  3. Pretending that all can be reduced to rules and regulation. Pretending that the world is a simple place where order derives from rules and procedures where all can be structured and ruled accordingly.
  4. Pretending that general goals, etc. are always someone else’s responsibility—someone higher-up in the mythical organizational pyramid—ignoring shared responsibility in such, with different roles played by various actors. In federal government organizations someone else’s responsibility usually points upward – e.g. "The Administration" and/or "The Congress."
  5. Pretending that decision making is the stuff of rational players working together in a non-gamed environment, where rules can and will be sequentially improved and policy will flow, and be made better from those who oversee government organizations.
In resolving these five bad habits, consider 5 Leadership/Management Needs, recognizing that anybody who might think that any list of 5 or 7 is going to solve much of anything is certifiably nuts! Still, the list might prompt thought and maybe even some action.

5 Leadership/Management Needs

  1. We need to learn rites and responsibilities of leadership, situationally defined with much more attention paid to uses and needs for servant leadership to compliment other leadership forms applied situationally.
  2. We need to learn the deep meanings and uses of the word quality. We need to better understand the interrelationships among quality, quantity, and measurement of performance in meeting quality missions and objectives. Particularly we need to understand the role played by instilling a passion for excellence in all members of an organization and ceasing reliance on mass inspection, performance reviews, and so on.

    Instead of performance reviews we need to learn to focus on and organize around the stories we tell ourselves, and the metaphors behind the story lines. As we focus on “stories we tell ourselves” we need to keep a constant eye on improving both the stories we tell and our roles, rights, and responsibilities in acting-out our parts in the process of living through stories.

  3. We need to learn to distinguish between "managing the expected" and "managing the unexpected." We need to recognize that usually both are at work at the same time: While managing the expected, expect to be surprised! We need to learn to embrace a world filled with surprise and quit trying to force the unexpected into organizational frames (rules, regulations, etc.) suited for "the expected." (See: Managing the Unexpected, Karl E. Weick and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe.)

    We need to quit trying to tame politically wicked problems. Instead we should recognize them for what they are and deal with them in all their wildness.

  4. We need to learn that talk often precedes action and that in order to change our behavior we have change the way we talk. In particular we might start with seven changes:
    1. From the language of complaint to the language of commitment
    2. From the language of blame to the language of personal responsibility
    3. From the language of “New Year’s Resolutions” to the language of competing commitments
    4. From the Language of big assumptions that hold us to the language of assumptions that we hold
    5. From the language of prizes and praising to the language of ongoing regard
    6. From the language of rules and policies to the language of public agreement
    7. From the language of constructive criticism to the language of deconstructive criticism
      (Drawn from How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey.)
  5. We need to learn to distinguish between thought and action, between wishful thinking and realistic action in human organizations filled with all that it means to be human—rationality, irrationality, logic, emotion, games, trickery, honesty, dishonesty, loyalty, disloyalty, etc.
Undergirding our 5 Leadership/Management Needs is a need to learn to frame issues and problems in ways much different than we do, recognizing the interrelated, emergent nature of complex social, physical, and biological systems that enfold us. Also undergirding all five is a need to learn different decision-making processes better suited to the social-political decisions that we constantly face. We can no longer pretend that a "rational planning" decision-making framework will serve us well in today’s environment.

We need to better distinguish between "strategic" versus "tactical" versus "reactive" in both thought and action. We need to better understand the terms, and when and how they relate to our fields of thought and action. We need to reflect on how very much of our organizational behavior is reactive, even when cloaked in words like "strategic planning" or "strategic plan." We need to better understand how to employ the "w" questions into our thought and planning: Why? What? Who? When? Where? How? AND perhaps especially What if? A "What if?" focus allows us to explore domains untested and often unknown to us. It nudges us to think "outside the box."

Posted by Dave on July 27, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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