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Divergence, Iteration & Operational Excellence

Divergence, Iteration & Operational Excellence

| On 22, May 2018

Darrell Mann

The Operational Excellence world abhors waste. Consequently, everyone working within such an environment is trained to sniff it out and eliminate it. When people have their waste-radars switched-on they can be pretty relentless when it comes to finding waste. Especially if it is ‘waste’ that looks like it would save them from unnecessary hard work personally.

For the most part, ‘waste elimination’ is a good thing inside organisations. Per previous discussions in the SI ezine, there are three basic kinds of waste:

  • ‘low-hanging fruit’ waste – genuine waste which, when we eliminate it, has no adverse consequences on anything else
  •  ‘waste with consequences’ – genuine waste that, unfortunately, when attempting to eliminate it, we find it causes a further problem somewhere else in the system
  • ‘Dodo waste’ – things that we inadvertently and mistakenly thought was waste, but when we eliminated it, some time downstream we realize it wasn’t actually waste at all, but rather an essential part of the healthy functioning of the system.

When people from the Operational Excellence world find themselves dropped into the special world of the Learning & Innovation functions of their enterprise, their well-trained waste-radars typically start to light up like Christmas trees. Learning & Innovation is full of ‘waste’. Some of it might even actually be waste of the low hanging fruit variety. But, I propose, the vast majority falls into the second and, particularly, the third categories of waste. This article is about these two types of ‘waste’, how to spot them, and how to try and convince the skeptical OpEx-inculcated people that they’re an essential part of the way things happen in Innovation World.

Take problem solving. When waste is spotted within OpEx, it usually triggers a problem solving process. The process generally looks something like this:

The process is linear, repeatable, and designed for people to follow it and get the system ‘back to normal’ as soon as possible.

Here’s how people in Innovation World will see the exact same waste elimination situation and how they might seek to deal with it:

The Operational Excellence often look at this kind of picture with a mixture of horror and disbelief. If pushed to try and reconcile the differences between the two pictures, they will typically overlay the two ‘processes’ something like this:

There is no recognition of even the concept of ‘divergence’ in OpeX world. The very word signifies waste. Divergence means deviating from the focus. Consequently, they tend to make some kind of correlation between the area of each of the boxes in the respective processes and assume that the ‘focused’ OpEx problem solving procedure will conclude much faster, because it is ‘much more efficient’.

During the first ‘problem definition’ Divergent-Convergent cycle, OpEx people will typically come out with statements like, ‘but we already know what the problem is, why would we waste time looking for more?’

Unfortunately, what the Innovation World people know is that what this question actually means is ‘but we already know what the symptoms are, why would we waste time looking for more?’

The primary motivation in OpEx world is to get rid of the symptom so things can return to normal as quickly as possible. The primary motivation in Innovation World is to make sure we don’t waste any precious time working on the wrong problem, and that ‘symptoms’ are frequently a mask to disguise the real problem.

A similar misconception occurs when we look at the Divergent-Convergent solution generation process.

OpEx people look at the wall of seemingly random Post-It notes, filled with a combination of useless and obvious ideas and conclude, ‘why would anyone waste their time generating ideas that are never going to get used?’

(As an aside, even the Classical-TRIZ community gets drawn into this ‘idea-efficiency’ argument. One of the reasons I’m convinced – empirical evidence! – that the higher Levels of (MA)TRIZ Mastery a person holds, the worse a problem solver they actually are, is because ARIZ teaches them a similar idea that generating lots of ‘random’ ideas is not efficient, and that if ARIZ has been used correctly, the one golden answer should magically pop out at the end of the process. This is not just a dumb notion, it is also 180 degrees wrong, as we shall shortly see…)

Innovation World people know that it is useful to generate many solution ideas (‘clues’) because of a couple of important effects:

  • The ideas that sound the wildest and weirdest at the beginning are often the ones that carry the best opportunity to break psychological inertia and jump the solution to a valuable new perspective…
  • …albeit, not by itself: the actual final answer is most likely to come about through a combination of partial answers. The ‘weird’ idea by itself is probably no good, but the ‘weird’ idea combined with solution clues #27, #74 and #127 makes for a really compelling solution possibility.

Unfortunately, bad as it already appears to the OpEx-oriented viewer, that’s not the end of the Innovation World story, because the next thing they’re going to want to do is introduce some kind of iteration. Something like this:

If the OpEx people were unhappy about the previous picture, they’re likely to go into cardiac arrest when they see this one. Not only does this picture go all the way back to the beginning again, it never ends. The loop goes on forever. (This is why Innovation World rarely draw their modus operandi in this way, and also why, when they work according to the looping principle, they are frequently perceived as ‘procrastinators that never deliver’.)

What the Innovation World people know – at least the ‘good ones’ do – is that the reason for this iterative loop is because when you’re making step-changes, you’re fundamentally operating in a Complex world (usually at the edge of Chaos), and that the only sensible way to operate when in this kind of emergent, cause-and-effect-loosely-coupled world, is to learn faster than everyone else around you. And that the way to learn the fastest is to do your iterations faster and more effectively than anyone else. i.e. use TRIZ/SI to guide and help manage the Divergent-Convergent cycles at each stage.

So much for the differences in opinion. The important question is who’s right? Which is faster, the OpEx no-divergence-all-convergence strategy or the multi-divergent, multi-iterative Innovation World way of doing things? Is Divergence waste? Is iteration waste?

As ever with these kinds of either/or question, the answer is ‘it depends’. What it depends on is the following:

  1. Is the system complex?
  2. Is the system beyond the ‘low-hanging fruit’ waste elimination stage of its s-curve (i.e. usually a point just after the Tipping Point)

Sounds like time for a 2×2 Matrix to show the fastest and ‘right’ strategy in each scenario:

The good news for the OpEx people is that there is a scenario where there way of doing things is the right way to go: the non-complex world of ‘low-hanging fruit’ waste elimination opportunities.

The bad news is that the real world is always in the top-right hand corner of the picture. That plus the fact that multiple years of erroneously assuming it was in the bottom or top left has left most ‘Operationally Excellent’ operations at the wrong end of a very long cul-de-sac. More often than not, somewhere just outside Dodoville.