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Davis Balestracci


Resolution for 2016: Simplify

Some questions to ask in the age of excess everything

Published: Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - 11:21

As I was preparing this column, one of my resources referred to chapter 48 of the 2,500-year-old Tao te Ching (quoted below), which, as some of you know, is one of my favorite sources of wisdom. It really tied today’s message together, and I hope you can apply its wisdom to your improvement efforts.

“To obtain a diploma requires the storage of trivia.
To obtain the Great Integrity [Tao] requires their abandonment.

“The more we are released from vested fragments of knowledge,
the less we are compelled to take vested actions,
until all is done without doing.

“When the ego interferes in the rhythms of process,
there is so much doing!
But nothing is done.”

Matthew E. May has published a thought-provoking article whose points I’d like to share as you settle into your post-holiday work rhythm.

The world is more overwhelming than ever before. Our work is deeper and more demanding than ever. Our businesses are more complicated and difficult to manage than ever. Our economy is more uncertain than ever. Our resources are scarcer than ever. There is endless choice and feature overkill in all but the best experiences. Everybody knows everything about us. The simple life is a thing of the past. Everywhere, there's too much of the wrong stuff and not enough of the right. The noise is deafening, the signal weak. Everything is too complicated and time-sucking.”

May came up with his Law of Subtraction: The art of removing (or the discipline to refrain from adding) anything excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly. From this, he further developed six laws using John Meada’s 10th law: “Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful.”

• Law No. 1: What isn’t there can often trump what is
• Law No. 2: The simplest rules create the most effective experience
• Law No. 3: Limiting information engages the imagination
• Law No. 4: Creativity thrives under intelligent constraints
• Law No. 5: ‘Break’ is the important part of breakthrough
• Law No. 6: Doing something isn't always better than doing nothing

These are briefly summarized in this wonderful graphic, which you can download.

Coincidentally, exactly one year ago, I addressed all of this in a different context in a column titled: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Quality Improvement.”

Bob Emiliani’s excellent post, “Lean Overproduction,” also makes these points and addresses the current problem of too much information.

May’s 10 ‘brutal, even ruthless’ questions

May says to take a break from a natural human bias for action. He gives what he calls 10 “brutal, even ruthless” questions that must be considered en masse to refrain from a typical beginning-of-year, blind gung-ho charge to change one’s world. Answer honestly:

1. What’s really driving your need for change?
2. What new aspirations guide your goals?
3. What truth is not being addressed?
4. What do you need to understand better?
5. What new ways of thinking and acting are needed to support this change?
6. How will you facilitate the development of these new behaviors?
7. To what degree do you truly understand and own the change process?
8. What are major learning objectives that support your change effort?
9. What new perceptions, values, and experiences will be critical to your success?
10. What is the most positive way in which you can proceed?

Also take a look at this outstanding checklist of 40 questions on change by Torben Rick and maybe even print it out. These might be even more brutal than May’s questions!

Need a guide to get started in all this? Chapters three and four of Data Sanity (MGMA, second edition 2015) address all of this.

You are indeed a leader

John Heider’s book The Tao of Leadership (Green Dragon Books, second edition 2015) takes each chapter of the original Tao te Ching and brilliantly adapts it to a context of becoming a truly great leader. Here is Heider’s version of chapter 48:

Unclutter Your Mind

Beginners acquire new theories and techniques until their minds are cluttered with options.
Advanced students forget their many options.
They allow the theories and techniques that they have learned to recede into the background.

Learn to unclutter your mind.
Learn to simplify your work.

As you rely less and less on knowing just what to do, your work will become more direct and more powerful.
You will discover that the quality of your consciousness is more potent than any technique or theory or interpretation.

Learn how fruitful the blocked group or individual suddenly becomes when you give up trying to do just the right thing.

Training programs, completion certificates, or professional credentials are important only to the extent that they contribute to real quality on the ground, as experienced by your customers on a sustained basis.

My increasing passion for improvement comes from the realization that I’m seeing my past 25 years of hard work evolving to and manifesting the philosophy above: My advice is simpler, I use far fewer tools, and I've never been more effective... or understood by my clients.

So, as I encouraged you a year ago when I wrote “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Quality Improvement,” resolve to stop confusing activity with impact—i.e., less “doing,” more “standing there.” Simply “plot some dots” to change some conversations, and then enjoy the reactions to your eye-popping results—and increased respect.

Best wishes to you for a fulfilling 2016.


About The Author

Davis Balestracci’s picture

Davis Balestracci

Davis Balestracci is a past chair of ASQ’s statistics division. He has synthesized W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy as Deming intended—as an approach to leadership—in the second edition of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2015), with a foreword by Donald Berwick, M.D. Shipped free or as an ebook, Data Sanity offers a new way of thinking using a common organizational language based in process and understanding variation (data sanity), applied to everyday data and management. It also integrates Balestracci’s 20 years of studying organizational psychology into an “improvement as built in” approach as opposed to most current “quality as bolt-on” programs. Balestracci would love to wake up your conferences with his dynamic style and entertaining insights into the places where process, statistics, organizational culture, and quality meet.


Making the Complex Simple

I couldn't agree with you more.

I have spent the last 25 years simplifying the methods and tools of Six Sigma to make them more accessible to the masses.

Like you, I have found that improvement practitioners don't need to know everything to do anything. Just a handful of tools.

Like the Tao, I fear that we fill beginner's minds with unnecessary information that confuses them creating roadblocks to improvement.

Tom DeMarco once said that "Making the complex simple is a huge intellectual feat."

People often accuse me of trying to "dumb down" Six Sigma, but I believe I'm trying to "simple it up."

What are the "vital few" methods and tools you use most of the time to solve most problems? Teach those.