This example is drawn from “A Painless Q-Learning Tutorial” at http://mnemstudio.org/path-finding-q-learning-tutorial.htm which explains how to manually calculate iterations using the updating equation for Q-Learning, based on the Bellman Equation (image from
Overview: Reinforcement learning uses “reward” signals to determine how to navigate through a system in the most valuable way. (I’m particularly interested in the variant of reinforcement learning called “Q-Learning”
I am always on the lookout for examples in the news of challenges that people have aligning strategy and tactics, because quality management based on a plan that’s not aligned with the strategy is bound to fail. I found one of these examples this morning in the Washington Post, encouraging the Republican ticket to shift its strategy:
In these last days before the vote, Republicans need to face some strategic realities. Our resources are limited, and our message is failing. We cannot fight on all fronts. We are cannibalizing races that we must win and probably can win in order to help a national campaign that is almost certainly lost. In these final 10 days, our goal should be: senators first.
Whether this is the right way to go or not for McCain and Palin, I was struck by the timeless statement: Our resources are limited, and our message is failing. We cannot fight on all fronts. This battle scenario is not unique to a political campaign – there are people in many companies who might feel the same way, particularly in the midst of a financial crisis. For every person that wants to focus those resources, there will be another whose position is to press forward – just do what we can, don’t adjust the strategy, just stay the course.
[I’ll need to follow up on this topic (tonight maybe) to find some gems from the strategic management literature that provide advice in this situation. There is plenty to choose from.]
I remember a few years ago hearing about a study that claimed using Microsoft PowerPoint makes you dumb. On the basis that effective communication can either enhance or hinder quality improvement efforts, I decided to look back today and see a) where that information came from, and b) if it’s accurate. Given that over 400 million people used PowerPoint in 2003, the number of people who use it today (or other comparable presentation software, like OpenOffice) is probably even larger.
”It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the [NASA] board [reviewing the project] sternly noted.
My advice would be for senior managers preparing these presentations to communicate more deliberately, in words like “THIS IS A LIFE-THREATENING CONDITION!! IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED!!” Unfortunately, that might be perceived as “too easy” or alternatively, the senior managers might not have wanted to admit a problem for fear that they would lose their funding. In any case, respect for human life should come above all, and should certainly be a reason for bare, clear communication – regardless of whether the message is delivered by PowerPoint, in person, or as part of a 40-lb., 500-page treatise.
Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ”an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”
I would think that the burden of communication is on the communicator. There are many times where we only have a few minutes or an hour to convey a complex message, and for this, PowerPoint can be effective. However, if there’s a message that cannot be conveyed in simple terms, it’s up to the communicator to say so, and in really simple language, e.g. “this is a grave concern, and you need to review the complete report, now!” Easier said than done, I know.
But a far more complete review of the Tufte brochure at http://contactsheet.org notes that Tufte specifically argues against this position, noting that communicators are just victims of the product’s lack of user-centered design. Is the criticism of PowerPoint accurate? Possibly – I didn’t read the in-depth study so I don’t have a reason to believe or disbelieve the causal link between PowerPoint and stupidity. However, the recommendation ignores one critical element: that if the material is indeed comprehensively described in a much larger memo, people may or may not read and comprehend it.
However, let’s say you’re a patient in the hospital facing a life or death diagnosis, and a team of physicians is charged with solving your mystery. Do you want them making a decision based on the PowerPoint version of your case, or on all 800 pages of your medical history? Personally, I’d vote for the latter.But I would also insist that the medical team be given appropriate time to review, internalize, and reflect on the information before making a decision. This is a step that unfortunately has become a luxury in many organizations! Bottom line – the burden still remains with the communicator for now.
Buss (2006) doesn’t argue with the premise, and just writes about ways to use PowerPoint effectively. His article provides five tips from a professor in the Graduate School of Business at SUNY Albany. Starting with the premise that PowerPoint is ubiquitous in training sessions and presentations, the author first recommends that we subvert the linear “title and text” format that everyone is accustomed to because it does not capture peoples’ attention. Though this point is a sweeping generalization that is not substantiated, one opinion of the author is to remedy the situation by “switch[ing] the display order of the presentation. Present supporting data with points on the first slide and show the data and draw the conclusions on the next.” He also suggests that PowerPoint first be used to outline a message, and then a report should be written to expound upon the details, rather than the other way around. Buss also recommends to keep the information per slide short (though he does not suggest a “good” length for training slides), and provides the clichéd guidance that one should not merely read out his or her slides. The best advice is given in the author’s fifth point, where he recognizes that the presentation begins well before you start talking, and ends until your meeting is over. He suggests that the presenter mix with the audience to get a sense of their needs, and target those needs in the spoken presentation.
Core values are statements describing a clear and compelling direction for motivating and inspiring people around common beliefs. Individuals and organizations can each have core values. In the organizations, the core values provide a common basis for problem-solving and dispute resolution. This is an integral part of building the organizational or corporate culture, especially if one of the goals of the organization is for its constituents to collectively value quality.
Even if there are no written statements of values, it is nonetheless possible for an organization to understand and adhere to a value system. For example, the U.S. constitution formally outlines many values including liberty, equality, individual rights, freedom of speech, and equal opportunities for justice. However, since its inception the country has operated on a much richer foundation of values, including the appreciation of and commitment to hard work, personal responsibility, integrity, self-reliance and democracy. Through constant reiteration of these values, and a punishment/reward system that encourages actions that embody the values, the ideals are effectively promoted. For example, someone who wants to open their own business and is willing to put in the time, responsibility, and hard work can benefit by reaping both financial rewards and personal benefits (e.g. flexible work week, more time to spend with family).
According to Collins (2006), “we spend too much time drafting and redrafting statements of mission, vision, values and purpose, and too little time aligning with the values and visions in place.” He says that an organization should be a) identifying where the intended core values and the existing environment are misaligned, and b) taking action to create new alignments. To do this effectively, the values must be reinforced at all levels of the organization. For example, if a core value is to encourage employee creativity and problem solving, a suggestion box will be less effective without reinforcements, e.g. rewards and recognition for the best, most creative ideas.
Collins, J. (2006). Aligning with vision and values: correct misalignment. Leadership Excellence.
One of the commonly applied definitions of quality is that a delivered product (or project) conforms to the specifications originally used to define it. If conformance to specifications does not occur, or if the product fails to satisfy its intended use, then a defect is present.
There’s no better way to drive this point home that to take a look at some humorous situations where a) a defect occurred because the final product did not conform to specifications, or b) where the final product did not align with the context of use! Can you pick out which of these examples from http://failblog.org falls into each category?
There are quality-related posts almost every day at this site – I’ll include the quality fails here every so often.
Finding “work-life balance” has become a theme in modern life. According to WebMD, there are five steps to achieve work-life balance: 1) set good priorities (this requires knowing what you value), 2) eliminate unnecessary distractions, 3) set boundaries, 4) accept help, and 5) plan times for fun and reflection. The Mayo Clinic provides even more ideas for how to achieve the balance. Some people have even observed that perhaps work-life balance is the wrong problem – and achieving a sense of inner peace and purpose boils down to prioritizing effectively.
But finding joy in work can be equally important, and sometime even more important. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the “unsung heroes of quality” in my opinion, has spent his career researching the psychological characteristics and impacts of this feeling. In a September 1996 interview with Wired, he defined flow as “Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Flow has three defining characteristics:
Merging of action and awareness – “You’re so involved in what you’re doing you aren’t thinking about yourself as separate from the immediate activity. You’re no longer a participant observer, only a participant. You’re moving in harmony with something else you’re part of.”
A sense of control – You’re comfortable with the level of ambiguity of the problem you’re solving, it has been sufficiently constrained so that you’re empowered to make progress, and you’re not worried about your ability to perform – you know you can do it.
An altered sense of time – You’re so immersed in your task that there is no room for boredom, and time flies by.
Flow emerges from a intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the feeling of wanting to do something. Extrinsic motivation describes the situation of having to do something. Csikzentmihalyi says we need both – we need the personal stimulus that comes from wanting to perform a task, and the environmental stimulus that comes from other people caring about what we contribute. Many obstacles prevent can people from feeling flow: job burnout, having too many tasks (when you are “stretched too thin” and feel like you’re on autopilot), having too many competing priorities, and lack of boundaries (either work and life blend into one another, or there are “too many chiefs and not enough Indians” working on a problem).
“Understanding how flow works is essential for social scientists interested in improving the quality of life at either the subjective or objective level. Transforming this knowledge into effective action is not easy.”
Finding flow – even occasionally – is one key to achieving organizational effectiveness. Flow is also critical for increasing innovation. No flow, no grow.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., Abuhamdeh, S., & Nakamura, J. (2005). Flow. In Elliot, A.J. & Dweck, C.S. (Eds.), Handbook of Competence and Motivation, Guilford Press.
Did you know that sometimes, a simple solution can be orders of magnitude more effective than an advanced, modern one?
The term for this is “appropriate technology” – and the concept of appropriate technology is particularly relevant when you want to innovate in a developing economy. But it can also provide a blueprint for innovation under any economic circumstances.
The World Bank, an assistance agency of the United Nations, provides funds to developing countries for projects that are not eligible for lending from institutions in other world markets. Although it was originally instituted to fund reconstruction projects after World War II, its projects to date include building power dams, improving sanitation, stimulating agricultural technology transfer (particularly for independent farmers), and stimulating technology transfer for all aspects of industrial technology in developing countries. Citing E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 book as the source of the “appropriate technology” movement, World Bank research economists collected and gathered empirical evidence to test the notion that “intermediate” technologies adapted to local conditions that include lesser education and more widespread unemployment would be more effective in achieving local economic goals. (Weiss 2006)
They found that indeed, you could pick technologies to implement in under-developed countries that had excellent cost/benefit profiles – but those technologies would still not be adopted by the people (or they might adopt them, but the effect would be detrimental). Weiss traced the progress of four initiatives that considered this paradox using the principle of appropriate technology. The latest, greatest equipment to move earth and build villages faster looked like it had great innovative potential – on paper. But what really happened as a result of this study?
The researchers came up with some pretty enlightening examples of efficient appropriate technology in the field. For example, did you know that head baskets can be one of the most efficient solutions for moving earth over short distances on level ground? Did you know that donkeys provide a more effective solution for transporting materials short distances up steep slopes than heavy machines?
Adopting the perspective of “appropriate technology” is an excellent way to promote and increase innovation. Your solutions don’t have to be high tech, they just have to provide wide benefits – and taking this sometimes counterintuitive approach can be enlightening.
The concept of appropriate technology reflects both the ISO 8402 definition of quality, and the ISO 9241-11 definition of usability, each of which requires four elements: specified users (or people who benefit), specified goals, systems that are intended to meet those goals for those users, and a specified context of use. Too often we might neglect that final element, which really represents what we are trying to achieve when we consider the appropriateness of technology. If we strive to always take into account systems thinking, however, we should naturally account for many of these considerations as we accommodate a myriad of international and cultural differences.
Weiss, C. (2006). Science and technology at the World Bank, 1968-83. History and Technology, 22(1), March 2006, p. 81-104.
The DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) methodology is one of the cornerstones of a Six Sigma project. It provides a useful heuristic that can remind you how to structure your project when you apply Six Sigma. This is important for two reasons. First, by reminding you to DEFINE your project’s goals, its deliverables to external customers, its deliverables to internal customers, and most important – your definition of a defect – you establish the solid foundation for actually delivering process improvements that meet tangible goals. Second, DMAIC provides a common language for Six Sigma practitioners so that new teams can spend time solving problems instead of searching for their own standard operating procedures.
If you’re familiar with Deming’s PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle, DMAIC is essentially equivalent, but with a very important addition at the end:
Planning = Defining
Doing = Measuring
Checking = Analyzing
Acting = Improving
(Sustaining/Continually Learning) = Controlling
There’s nothing magical about DMAIC – it’s just a helpful reminder to guide you as you structure a Six Sigma project. And remember that a Six Sigma project is hopefully not the end of the improvement – ideally, a process team will leave behind a new foundation for identifying more efficiencies in the future.