When systems(thinkers) collide

When I come across a great thinker that opens my eyes to new ideas I always try to look for errors in their reasoning. The obvious reason to do this is as a safeguard against being carried away by new ideas that are intuitively right but actually wrong. A second reason for this scrutiny is a guiding principle of mine. If I am unable to find anything wrong in someone’s thinking it is a sure sign that I am becoming dogmatic. So when two people I greatly respect started arguing, I saw this as a good thing. Simple logic told me that at least one of them would be wrong in some sense…

There are some great videos on Vimeo from the Lean & Kanban 2011 Benelux conference. Donald Reinertsen’s talk: Is it time to rethink Deming? is a great talk only marred by that fact that he makes frequent references to slides that you cannot see. Reinertsen pours some cold water on the relevance of Deming’s thinking to software development. One of the reasons I like the talk so much is probably confirmation bias. One of the things Reinertsen “attacks” in the talk is Deming’s 94% rule which is something I have also been sceptical of.

John Seddon’s talk It’s the system stupid is as always both entertaining and thought provoking. He has his trademark style which is weirdly self-contradicting: he spreads scorn over people that do not understand his message, that problems in an organization are caused by the system and not the people. About halfway through his talk, Seddon takes on the 94% issue and dismisses Reinertsen’s arguments as typical of an unenlightened manager.

Where do they go wrong?

So who is right? In my view both Reinertsen and Seddon are partly right and partly wrong. The trap both fall into is in not being precise in the context of their arguments.

I think Reinertsen is right when he argues that Deming’s famous 94% is not a precise estimate. It is simply Deming’s way – as a statistician – of saying that the system is a lot more important than the people. But then Reinertsen backs this up by comparing the variation in ability of individual programmers. The problem with this example is that it is largely irrelevant to the discussion of what affects the way a system works. As most people know, a bad system can beat a good person.

After his disparaging remarks about Reinertsen, Seddon embarks on an example that is meant to prove how misguided the notion of people over system is. He shows how a sales manager is amazed when she discovers the the performance of sales representatives in a call center is mostly due to the system. Seddon seems to imply that this example proves that even in sales, the most important factor is the system. I hope Seddon knows more about sales that to think that sitting in a call centre answering calls is all there is to sales. I have worked with some great salesmen in my life and the last thing they would do is to sit and wait for a telephone to ring. They work with multi year strategies where they gather information about a target customer and slowly convince this customer to buy. Taken to its logical extreme Seddon’s view seems to imply that Picasso was just lucky in the canvasses he got.

So, to sum it up: Reinertsen is right in that some programmers are better that others but wrong in believing that this demonstrates much about the importance of individuals over a system. Seddon is right about how important the system is, but wrong in implying that this is true of all human endeavour. There are a lot of things people do that are not constrained by a system.

Niklas Björnerstedt

Posted on 2011.10.22 at 20:38

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About Niklas

Born in Sweden, grew up in New York, lives in Norway. Yes, I have problems with identity, but I do think that my background helps me see things from a different perspective.

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