Inspection, Abstraction and Shipping Containers

maerskOn my drive home tonight, a giant “Maersk Sealand” branded truck passed me on the highway. It got me thinking about the innovation of the shipping container, and how introducing a standard size and shape revolutionized the shipping industry and enabled a growing global economy. At least that’s the perspective presented by Mark Levinson in The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. A synopsis of the story and a sample chapter are available; Wikipedia’s entry on containerization also presents a narrative describing the development and its impacts.

Here’s how describes it:

Indeed, it is hard to imagine how world trade could have grown so fast—quintupling in the last two decades—without the “intermodal shipping container,” to use the technical term. The invention of a standard-size steel box that can be easily moved from a truck to a ship to a railroad car, without ever passing through human hands, cut down on the work and vastly increased the speed of shipping. It represented an entirely new system, not just a new product. The dark side is that these steel containers are by definition black boxes, invisible to casual inspection, and the more of them authorities open for inspection, the more they undermine the smooth functioning of the system.

Although some people like to debate whether the introduction of the shipping container represented an incremental improvement or a breakthrough innovation, I’d like to point out an entirely different aspect of this story: a process improvement step yielded a plethora of benefits because the inspection step was eliminated. Inspection happened naturally the old way, without planning it explicitly; workers had to unpack all the boxes and crates from one truck and load them onto another truck, or a ship. It would be difficult to overlook a nuclear warhead or a few tons of pot.

To make the system work, the concept of what was being transported was abstracted away from the problem, making the shipping container a black box. If all parties are trustworthy and not using the system for a purpose other than what was intended, this is no problem. But once people start using the system for unintended purposes, everything changes.

This reflects what happens in software development as well: you code an application, abstracting away the complex aspects of the problem and attaching unit tests to those nuggets. You don’t have to inspect the code within the nuggets because either you’ve already fully tested them, or you don’t care – and either way, you don’t expect what’s in the nugget to change. Similarly, the shipping industry did not plan that the containers would be used to ship illegal cargo – that wasn’t one of the expectations of what could be within the black box. The lesson (to me)? Degree of abstraction within a system, and the level of inspection of a system, are related. When your expectations of what constitutes your components changes, you need to revisit whether you need inspection (and how much).

2008 Management Improvement Carnival: Part 4 of 4

This is the fourth and final installment of my collaboration with John Hunter and friends on the Year-End Management Improvement Carnival, where we review the best management improvement blogs and share which posts we found to be the most insightful or helpful. Today I have the privilege of bringing you a few gems from the iSixSigma blogosphere.

PART 4 of 4 – The iSixSigma blogs are written by a cast of columnists who share their experiences with the practice of quality improvement. The favorites I’ve picked out here are only the tip of the iceberg… there are many more on the site.

Innovation and Six Sigma (5/9/2008) – This article aims to answer the question “Does Six Sigma kill innovation?” In addition to being a thought-provoking article, the collection of comments is worth reading as well. I particularly liked this perspective: “I’m reminded of a story I was once told about an author who decided to write an entire novel without using the letter E. You’d think this would be incredibly limiting, but in fact the author ended up learning many, many new words and taking his writing in entirely new directions. The structure forced him to break old habits and think in new ways.”

The iPod Did Not Come From a Focus Group (3/3/2008) – Development of the iPod is an example of customer and market-driven innovation. The author of this article notes that “your company probably knows more about what is possible than most of your customers; but the lesson I take away from the Apple example is this: some of our customers know a lot more than we do, and we ignore them at our peril.” There’s also a pointer to an excellent 2002 article in the Harvard Business Review.

Six Sigma: The Laissez-Faire of Politics (1/28/2008) – In this article, the author explores how to solve a real public policy issue using Six Sigma: reducing the consumption of plastic bags (like the ones you get at the grocery store) on the national level. “If there is one area in society that definitely needs an injection of Six Sigma, it’s politics. Just like the working world of business, people want a silver bullet quick fix that sounds good and will make people feel good. Politicians often open their mouths without performing due diligence and as a result only partially address an issue.”

What You Measure is What You Get (12/22/2008) – This post reflected on the role and meaning of measurement (one of my favorite issues). “Perhaps what you measure is what you get. More likely, what you measure is all you’ll get. What you don’t (or can’t) measure is lost” – H. Thomas Johnson

Six Sigma Project Failure (7/28/2008) – What’s required for a Six Sigma project to fail? Conflicting definitions are explored in these survey results. (This is somewhat related to Eight Reasons Why Projects Fail (4/24/2008), another good post.)

Return to Part 1 of 4 –>

Return to John Hunter’s Management Improvement Carnival: 2008 Year in Review –>

2008 Management Improvement Carnival: Part 3 of 4

This is the third installment of my collaboration with John Hunter and friends on the Year-End Management Improvement Carnival, where we review the best management improvement blogs and share which posts we found to be the most insightful or helpful.

SpicesPART 3 of 4 – Clarke Ching’s stream-of-consciousness blog covers random musings, cartoons, links to useful articles, recipes, mathematical puzzles and games, and thoughts about quality-related techniques including Theory of Constraints and software development.

Testers – the worst thing that happened to software development? (5/30/2008) – This story describes a first-person view of how software quality can be achieved more easily – by studying the successful approaches used by good maintenance teams. “There’s a huge amount that development managers (i.e. those that work on bigger projects) could learn from the way good maintenance teams work. The first would be to break down their work into smaller chunks.” (Again, this reminds me of “stackless thinking”which really appeals to me.)

Critical Chain Scheduling (8/22/2008)– Clarke wrote an article, published over at, covering how to use the critical chain method to improve scheduling in agile development environments. “Critical Chain, as I’ve described, is a great way of rebuilding trust between managers and their staff. In fact, it is THE best way I’ve found. It’s also sorely needed, judging by some of the comments.”

Lord Kelvin (9/13/2008)Why measure things? On a trip to Scotland, Clarke reflected on this question as he pondered the intro to Douglas Hubbard’s book, How to Measure Anything: “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of science.”

Go to Part 4 of 4 –>

2008 Management Improvement Carnival: Part 2 of 4

This is the next installment of my collaboration with John Hunter and friends on the Year-End Management Improvement Carnival, where we review the best management improvement blogs and share which posts we found to be the most insightful or helpful.

noopPART 2 of 4 – Europe’s ”#1 Blog for Software Development Managers” has posted an excellent review of the most popular 2008 articles from their site, based on the site traffic throughout 2008. Here are my personal favorites.

A Theory of Everything for Software Development (8/7/2008) – Physicists pursue the grand unified theory to explain space, time and everything in between… while attempts to reconcile the myriad of approaches to software development by reminding us of context-dependent approaches. Here’s a sample: “Unix and Windows are both proper solutions, though each in its own limited cultural context. And they cannot both be the best solution at the same time and place. (And might I suggest that, in the case of operating systems, a Theory of Everything has already been found with the invention of virtual machines? Just a wild thought.)”

Simple vs. Complicated vs. Complex vs. Chaotic (8/20/2008) – You can have predictable, complex, and chaotic systems that are simple – or, you can have predictable, complex and chaotic systems that are complicated. This is the best description (and collection of online references) I’ve seen to explaining the differences between these concepts. “My computer is complicated. My software project is complex. My house is complicated. My household is complex. My blog is complicated. My thoughts are complex. Your dinner is complicated. Your dog is complex.”

Thank You, Stupid Americans (4/23/2008) – This is an interesting blend of software development insights and politics! Although I don’t personally equate simplicity with stupidity, and I realize there are plenty of smart Americans too, I found this to be a lighthearted and stimulating read.

How to Handle Many Simultaneous Projects (9/30/2008) is also an excellent commentary. I don’t know any manager who doesn’t have this issue – whether they are a quality manager, a technology manager, a construction manager, or a manager of software development.

Go to Part 3 of 4 –>

2008 Management Improvement Carnival: The Year in Review

I’m privileged to be partnering with John Hunter and friends to produce the Year-End Management Improvement Carnival. Our goal is to review the best management improvement blogs out there, and find out what gems were posted during 2008 – then take you on a guided tour of the past year’s most intriguing management insights.

PART 1 of 4 – The first three favorites on my list come from David Anderson’s, a blog that focuses on effective and productive implementation of agile methods in software development and management.

Providing Value with Lean (3/31/2008) – One of the most important considerations while implementing a quality program or process improvement initiative is that you focus on the right aspects of the problem at the right times. This is much easier said than done, especially since the problem solving environment is socio-technical – and as a result, complex. But David makes the excellent point that “doing lean” means more than just eliminating waste. You have to take a systems perspective, and first consider how value is to be added, then analyze the process for flow, and then work on eliminating waste. Sometimes, to get a better process, you have to add waste before the improvements can be realized in a sustainable fashion.

Recipe for Success (9/5/2008) – David says: “This is the mechanism I use to achieve sustainable pace and to implement a pull system which provides a nice mechanism for simple prioritization. Prioritizing becomes easier when you have demand balanced against throughput of work items.” In addition to the two variants on the recipe he presents, another reason I like this post is that it reminds me of how the concept of “stackless” programming languages can inform efficient workflow.

Personal Hedgehog (11/2/2008) – What are you uniquely good at? What are you passionate about? What motivates you economically? The most productive people are in roles that fit them well, and the Personal Hedgehog concept can help you find your niche. (Might also be good for managers who want to help their team members find a good fit.)

(I’m also intrigued by David’s concept of an unconference.)

Go to Part 2 of 4 –>

Management Improvement Carnival #48

I’m pleased to be hosting this edition of John Hunter’s Management Improvement Carnival. This concept aims to bring together some of the most intriguing blog articles from the past couple of weeks on topics relevant to quality, continuous improvement, and effective management. You can also submit your favorite management posts to John to be included in a future carnival.

Here are my picks for today:

  • With so much focus on Mumbai this week, Joe Munte’s post on the dabbawallas of Mumbai focuses on a illuminating and positive aspect of the dynamic city that provides lessons for effective management. This is a fascinating story about how a low-tech business built its brand reputation while simultaneously becoming exceedingly efficient. “What started as a service during the British colonial rule has evolved into a brand that symbolizes low cost innovation, teamwork, and brilliance in operational efficiency.” (11-30-2008)
  • In So What is Lean Six Sigma? Recruiting Lean provides an overview of the LSS approach to problem solving: “LSS is not just for manufacturing. It can be applied to any controlled business process, even complex processes, used regularly and systematically to achieve outcomes.” (11-30-2008)
  • What do you get when you cross Eric Schmidt (Google) with Gary Hamel (Management Guru)? A blog post by John Hunter reflecting on Management at Google, and featuring a video of Schmidt and Hamel chatting. I am a big fan of Google because they skillfully implement effective, agile quality systems in an environment highly conducive to innovation. I am also a big fan of Gary Hamel because he promotes the need to reinvent our fundamental concepts of management. Seeing both of them together was a treat.
  • Moritz Gagern at the Climate Policy Library presents Green Investments in Times of Financial Crisis. This is a long post, but definitely worth the reading if you’d like a policy-oriented view of what managers need to start contemplating for the future. Here’s a sample: “Environmental Policy must become the motor for innovations, because in this century ecology will become economy.”
  • Have you ever been frustrated by all those definitions for quality (e.g. the transcendent “you know it when you see it”, Crosby’s “zero defects”, Juran’s “fitness for use”, or the ISO 8402 definition)? Do you want to make sense of them, and understand how they relate to one another – and what that means for your business? If so, check out my 11-28-2008 description of Mitra’s model at A Dynamic Model of Quality Improvement. This really helped me make sense of all the facets of achieving and improving quality.
  • Keep it simple! Checklists and Change Programs by Crossderry is a couple months old – but I still like it. It provides a “useful reminder to avoid a common error made when PMOs first implement processes and controls – over-engineering” (10-11-2008)

A Dynamic Model of Quality Improvement

Debanjan Mitra, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Marketing at the University of Florida, is a quality guru – whether quality professionals know it or not. Here’s why: have you ever been frustrated by all those definitions for quality (e.g. the transcendent “you know it when you see it”, Crosby’s “zero defects”, Juran’s “fitness for use”, or the ISO 8402 definition)? I’ve been frustrated too, but Mitra’s work has really helped me make sense of all these different perspectives on what quality is all about.

Mitra noticed that across many disciplines, there were different perspectives on what quality was all about. To understand the meaning of quality from the marketing perspective, which is his interest, he investigated over 300 journal articles in different fields. He found that there were five stages of the dynamic process of achieving and improving quality:

  • Organizational antecedents – creating an organization whose capabilities can support achieving world-class quality in products and services
  • Operational antecedents – designing quality into products, managing processes to achieve quality
  • Production quality – meeting specifications for features, reliability and performance; adequately addressing aesthetics and customer taste preferences to create demand
  • Customer consequences of quality – whether and how customers perceive quality, and how this impacts retention
  • Market consequences of quality – in terms of market share, as well as the impact of quality and quality improvement on its contribution to profitability and global competitiveness

Here’s my rendition of Mitra’s original charts, showing the relationships between these areas:


“Zero defects” is an aspect of production quality. “Fitness for use” is part of the customer consequences of quality. Strategy, competitiveness and innovation can be related to any of these five categories, but particularly the market consequences of quality. The ISO 8402 definition is the only one that spans all five stages of the dynamic process.

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