Column: A Sensible Organization Is Not A Perfect Organization – Part I

A Sensible Organization Is Not A Perfect Organization: Drawing Boundary, Yes; Generating Unlimited Rules, Not So Much – Part I

Column by Elena Yang

Plenty of organizations are not sensible but work very hard trying to generate perfect rules to make them look sensible.

The more rules they make, the more innovation they choke off, but the safer they feel within the comfort of all the known rules.

As usual, when dealing with complicated topics, I try to break them into two or more entries, as in today’s topic. 

One way of understanding the third law of thermodynamics: To drive all imperfections out of a system requires an infinite amount of work. 

And once having achieved such perfection (assuming you could), you have to freeze it.  Put it differently, to achieve perfection, you have to freeze the system. 

A bone fide scientist described this law to me in the context of organizational safety and security. It is impossible to achieve 100% perfection for either; the question is where and how we draw the boundary.

Many things in our experience require precision, such as buildings, airplane engines, timepieces, etc. 

But even precision for these vital elements in our lives does not have the same absolute meaning scientists ascribe to, say, thermodynamics laws. And if absolutes cannot be achieved for these mechanical things, why should we expect them for human behavior? 

But that expectation is exactly what we encounter, with more frequency, in our lives, in organizations, and in our societies as well.

Like the last entry on conflicts, I will start with an example in society that touches a good portion of us. Travel by air. 

When the latest terrorist plot was revealed, we were told that a new scanning device at airports would be installed, along with the “option” of being patted down, which prompted objections and outcries. 

Of course, everyone wants to feel safe, and of course, everyone also knows that intrinsically there is no way we can be guaranteed 100 percent safe air travel. 

Yet, because we can’t seem to get consensus on where to draw the boundary of checking for safety and security, the decision rests with the politicians. It isn’t that we object to better safety and security measures, it’s the notion of “where do we stop?” that gets to people. 

These measures seem to keep piling up and none are ever lifted, not even when it seems sensible to do so. 

For instance, if the new scanning is so powerful that it can reveal everything on us (or in us), then why can’t the older measures, such as taking off shoes and belts and removing what’s inside pockets, be lifted? I think the public would understand, accept and maybe even embrace such “intelligent” rules. 

But the implicit contradiction –scanners can view our bodies with disturbingly precise images of our most intimate tissues so why can’t they be trusted to see the weapon hidden in a terrorist’s belt? – erodes people’s confidence and patience. It’s the fact that rules only grow and yet even the newest and most onerous rule doesn’t displace any of the previous rules, that eventually pushes people over the edge.

I guess this shouldn’t be too surprising.  Organizations all over have been searching for the holy grail of the “perfect” safety/security record, so any infractions, be they small or large, be they crimes, accidents, or negligence, become another cause for re-examining procedures to create more “rules and regulations” (a kind of R&R that seems to aim to stress and depress people.)

One major technical organization, of Fortune 100 fame, at one time bragged about its “perfect” month with no accidents, and its scientists and engineers wondered if innovation proportionally dropped to zero as well. 

Organizations’ inability to make a distinction between truly random accidents and systemic negligence or genuine criminal acts has been a major driving force for this country’s steady decline in technological and product innovation. 

An accidental cut while using scissors, or a statistically inevitable trip-and-fall, shouldn’t be viewed with the same severity as a spill of poorly contained hazardous materials. Mess and hazard are not the same and to not distinguish them is dangerous. 

Six Sigma ( was developed by Motorola; it is a rigorous methodology that aims to reduce and eventually eliminate product defects. 

Originally it was used in manufacturing processes, but has since been widely embraced by organizations to apply to other areas as well. As a consumer, I am totally for excellence for products, but “excellence” need not mean “perfect.” 

The problem with Six Sigma is its goal of eliminating 99.99966 percent of product defects (about 3.4 defects per million.) There are at least three aspects that are troubling: one is the erosion of distinction, the next is the third law of thermodynamics, and the third is the diversion of resources

A slight defect in an automobile’s engine or suspension could lead to horrible accidents; a slight defect in an automobile’s paint job or trunk leads to different consumer reactions. 

More insidious is what the third law of thermodynamics implies, that the workforce will be dragged down by observing ever-increasing R&R and procedures aimed at eliminating the remaining fraction of defects at the expense of time and effort to actually do the work, let alone “play to create and innovate.” (“Play & Reason” of my earlier entry.)

And perhaps even more insidious is the tendency of organizations to divert resources from maintenance and repair activities to fund their futile pursuit of zero-defect manufacture, leaving customers and stakeholders furious with these organizations for failing or refusing to fix the flaws they couldn’t eliminate. 

Both LANL employees and outside contractors should find strong resonance with what I have described, yes?

Next week, I will highlight some of the LANL stories I have learned to further illustrate my argument. Till then, 

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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