Tag Archives: knowledge

Fast Quality via Dynamic Capabilities

(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

In his November post, ASQ CEO Paul Borawski comments on the rapid pace of change and asks to:

“…share with us some of the ways the practice of quality is changing to meet the needs of faster, faster, faster. “

Fortunately, there has been a ton of research on this over the past decade or so, on the topics of dynamic capabilities and environmental dynamism. The notion of environmental dynamism just means things are changing pretty fast out there, and we have to respond to it. So I’ll focus on what dynamic capabilities are, one way to get them, and some resources and references where you can find out more.

Dynamic capabilities are defined as the skills, attitudes, and capacities within an organization to adapt existing operations to new conditions in the (competitive) environment.  An organization that has developed its dynamic capabilities is agile and adaptive, and it knows how to quickly and effectively adjust its operations to meet the needs of the market. For an overview, you might want to read Eisenhardt & Martin’s (2000) article in the Strategic Management Journal, titled “Dynamic capabilities: what are they?” or check out Teece’s new (2011) book, “Dynamic Capabilities”.

The cornerstone for developing dynamic capabilities seems to be a culture of intentional learning with a dual focus on gaining tacit knowledge (learning by doing) as well as explicit knowledge (learning by reading, conceptualizing, categorizing information) – just like what was recommended by Nonaka & Takeuchi (1995). Using system dynamics modeling, however, Romme et al. (2010) figured out that “there is no linear relationship between tacit knowledge, deliberate learning and dynamic capability” so really understanding how to leverage your learning capabilities to become more agile needs a few more years of research, it seems.

What this means is – don’t just rush out and start a giant initiative involving deliberate learning in your organization. Although this research uncovered a relationship between a learning orientation and dynamic capabilities, the investigators also found that positive outcomes are very sensitive to the level of environmental dynamism and the initial conditions of the organization (ie. its culture).

However, we have several models for quality systems that honor deliberate learning as a core value, such as the Baldrige Criteria! To keep up with the changing pace of the external environment, the best course of action is to commit to a proven system for continuous improvement There are also resources like Senge’s classic (1995) book The Fifth Discipline that illuminate the characteristics of a learning organization. While researchers are exploring these links to help us understand how to meet the pace of change more effectively, tried and true systems for continuous improvement with learning as a key component can provide a useful foundation for dealing with these challenges.

Continuous Improvement Begins With Standards

apple-21Software is the executable representation of knowledge. [1] As a result, I find that software development provides a fruitful basis for exploring how problem solving is done by diverse team members in a cooperative (or even combative!) context.

Here is one example. In June 1997, Tom Gilb wrote an article for Crosstalk on “Requirements-Driven Management”. He noted that his purpose was intended to discuss, among other things, “some of the current major problems in systems engineering.” I stumbled upon this article again over the weekend, and it’s still as relevant now as it was a decade ago.

Standards are a prerequisite for systematic continuous improvement; the means to achieve an improvement process, not the ends, according to Glib. Furthermore, he remarks that Deming’s perspective on continuous improvement establishes, in part, that the reason we should adopt standards is to normalize our project to other projects . Once we do that, we’ve opened the doors to be able to use industry best practices, derived from other projects who also applied the standards – so that we can “clearly see the effect of any changes experimentally introduced into a process and not have to worry too much about other potential factors that impact the results.”

Learning, learning, learning. It’s all about continuous improvement through continuous learning, and in presenting this, Gilb is essentially promoting the same philosophy as Alistair Cockburn’s Cooperative Game Manifesto for Software Development. Both see the learning process as the key to successful software development. (So why do we not focus on this aspect of development more?) Glib addresses the issue of learning directly:

“The time has come to recognize that projects are so large, so complex, so unpredictable, and so state-of-the-art new that we have no practical alternative except to maximize our learning process during the project and as early as possible in the project life.

In this article, Gilb also presents “Evo” – short for “Evolutionary Project Management” – which has been used at IBM since 1970. It’s an implementation of Deming’s PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) approach, and the author likens it to Humphrey’s Personal Software Process (PSP).

[1] This definition is credited to Eric Sessoms, who I consider a true artisan of software development. See some of his work at libraryh3lp.com. He likes the elegance of simplicity in his software.