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

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

By Elena Yang

Let me try to recap and explain the third law of thermodynamics (maybe I should say regurgitate?): To drive all imperfections out of a system requires an infinite amount of work. 

Scientists can remove thermal energy from a system and lower the temperature to close to zero absolute. However, the process is nonlinear in the sense that as the temperature drops, the effort required to remove the remaining thermal energy from the system increases. 

The amount of effort required to lower the temperature from say, 0.9 to 0.8 degrees absolute is not the same as for lowering the temperature from 0.5 to 0.4 degrees; dropping from 0.5 to 0.4 requires significantly more effort. 

And at some point, the system, for example an ensemble of molecules, just can’t be “improved” any more. By the way, I understand that absolute zero is -459.67F. 

And I also understand that true zero isn’t achievable. Six Sigma has the “good sense” to not aim for 100 percent defect-perfect goal, but only 99.99966 percent!

It’s not unlike losing weight; the first 20 pounds is a lot easier than the final five pounds! Everyone knows about that, right?!

Let’s remember that the Six Sigma was originally intended for manufacturing processes, but has since been used, and I argue misused, in other organizational aspects. 

It too often assumes, or is ordered to assume, that the existing process or pattern is the “right one” and stifles any challenges to the validity of the existing process or pattern. It too often forbids you to step outside the framework to examine the foundation. 

Our local big-organization, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), has an unfortunate history of infamous breaches in safety and security, so now the organization acts as if almost all accidents and incidents were committed by malcontents or even criminally-inclined employees. 

For a few years, it seemed that every month saw more new rules. And of course, few rules, if any, were ever lifted.

LANL has now imposed requirements for vendors, obliging them to provide documents, authorization papers, etc., with the result that several vendors have told the organization that they are no longer interested in doing business there. 

One anecdote: A vendor provided some special equipment, then, later the organization needed additional items to complement this equipment, and yes, only the same vendor could provide the additional items. Except the new requirements so irked this vendor that a form of “blackmail” took place: The vendor indicated that they wouldn’t sell the product – which the organization really needed – if they had to go through all the nonsense! “The beatings will continue until morale improves!”

As another example, LANL installed an unimaginably slow and cumbersome system for approving time and effort. Every Monday morning every manager needs to have approved time and effort for each member in his/her unit. 

If you are a senior manager, you have but a few people’s effort and time to approve. But if you are a middle or junior manager with several dozen people reporting to you, you can spend hours! 

In LANL’s system, each employee’s timecard shows up on a separate page, and when everyone is doing this at the same time on Monday morning, the system gets sluggish; it can take 30 seconds or longer to load each page. 

And if the manager tries to do this from offsite to beat the rush, with maddening frequency the system shuts the manager out. And this system cost how much to purchase and install? And to achieve what level of “safety and security?”

One of the organization’s responses to these systems’ shortcomings was to require managers (except of course senior managers) to undergo multi-day training on “how to use the organization’s systems.”

I just wanted to scream, “Are you mental?!” Think about the amount of time and money wasted in putting together and executing this training; how could it not have been better used in the design and installation of good systems for which no training would be necessary? 

Look at the ease with which people can use Apple computers or order products on I am not pitching for these products (ok, I happen to like most of their features) but use them as some of the great examples out there. And these commercial products need to be vigilant about security as well. 

I sound sarcastic at times in this piece because when I hear these stories, I just want to bang my head against a wall and pull my hair, “oh, why, oh, why, oh why?” 

I don’t think that as individuals we intend to make other people’s lives miserable. So why when we are put together in an organization does the collective just keep adding speed bumps and obstacles? 

For any organization, there is one criterion they should use on a regular basis: Are we more and better as a whole than the sum of our (x) employees? Rumor had it that synergy was one of the major goals of LANL’s new LANS contract. What ever happened to that goal?!

Solutions? There are no pat ones, and there are no easy courses of action. Some of the more positive approaches and principles and theories about which I have written would help, but ultimately, knowing produces only limited outcomes at best (“Acting on Knowledge: Why is it so hard?”)

The problem with many organizations is that they don’t know what they don’t know … but think they know and all too eagerly act upon this pseudo-knowledge. 

How do you begin to correct this? I am still struggling with this one. Till I can find some positive answers, I am going to take some mental health time to travel and ski. In other words, I’ll be absent in this space through the Presidents’ long weekend.

Till Feb. 25,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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