“…humanity’s immune response to resist and heal political disease, economic infection, and ecological corruption …”

Paul Hawken first came to my attention with the publication of The Ecology of Commerce in 1993. In the book, he said (my interpretations) that in The Silent Spring, Rachel Carson was right, but that the situation was worse than she had said. We did not just face imminent danger, but rather the endocrine systems of our planet’s living organisms had already been compromised by the way we were engaging in commerce and industry on the planet. Secondly, he said, we could give up the idea that the situation could be remedied by governments, agreements among governments, or regulation. There was, he said, only one force on the planet up to the challenge we faced: we had to transform the way that we understood and did commerce and business.

In his new book, Blessed Unrest, working from the same concerns, he reflects on something that “is going on in the background.” From the perspective of more than a decade of talking to people around the world about what is going on in the world of the environment, he discovered that there is a huge social movement underway that does not fit anyone’s picture of a movement. He calls it a vast network of organizations that are operating ‘without a white male vertebrate running the show,’ and addressing the questions of human rights, social justice, and environmental restoration in what he understands now as a unified phenomenon.

I recommend the book. In this video, you can hear him talking about the book for a little over 5 minutes. In this video, you can watch his presentation of the book at Google’s offices, and a wonderful conversation after the presentation with Dr. Lawrence (Larry) Brilliant (about an hour long).

I think Paul’s work is important for understanding many things about our modern world, possibilities for transforming cultures, designing businesses, and building new ethical enterprises. I am convinced that he is distinguishing something “new” in a very solid way. As Michael Salveson said to me when I told him about the book, “But of course, de Tocqueville told us that when he wrote Democracy in America: every major change in this country begins in the communities. The big changes are not generated by the institutions.”

What do you think?

Wise Organizations?, Continued …

by Chauncey Bell

With the permission of the publishers of the book, Idea Group, Inc., I’m sharing this chapter in a series of postings, to see what kind of conversation it generates. Idea Group’s copyright prohibits copying the text in any written or electronic form. Please help me protect this copyright by referring people to the blog, but don’t copy the text that is here.

Part 2. What about Wisdom in an Organization?

Now let us turn our attention to wisdom in organizations per se. The first thing that we will do is to introduce several questions and foundations that we will employ for thinking with you about wisdom, mostly without resolving them.

Do you admire the way that your bank handles your questions, your supermarket manages your experience, your auto dealer handles the maintenance of your car, or the way that manufacturers of things you buy handle your questions and suggestions? We may admire the wisdom of someone in dealing with his children, spouse, or even colleagues or employees in his company, but a wise organization? Can you remember a real, sustained experience with an organization that learns from its mistakes, as Churchman dreamed? (The book in which this chapter was published is dedicated to the memory of Professor C. West Churchman of the University of California at Berkeley.)

Even those small community and fraternal organizations over which we might think we have the greatest control are often sources of epic frustration. I listen to my neighbor: “You will not believe what just happened at the neighborhood association meeting.” (Yes, I will.) Does anyone admire the way our governments interact with us? Take a deep breath and prepare yourself to stand patiently in line and wait. When, as does occasionally happen, we have the experience of someone in an organization listening carefully and acting with alacrity in response to our request, this is an occasion for a celebration. “A miracle happened!” my wife will begin a report of that rare event: an organization acting wisely.

Some institutions produce disproportionately large numbers of people adjudged “wise” in their communities. Consider, for example, the histories of the great religious institutions of the East and West, the institution of science itself, and the institution of medicine down through the ages. These are not the only examples by any means. Can you think of other examples of your own? Why does this happen? And why are these histories so uneven? Why great wisdom at some moments and behaviors that we would call stupid, self-serving, or even criminal at others?
Continue reading “Wise Organizations?, Continued …”

Wise Action in Organizations

Three years ago Jim Courtney, Professor of Management Information Systems at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, asked me to write a chapter on the subject of “wisdom in organizations” for a book he was preparing. The book was published in 2005 as Inquiring Organizations: Moving From Knowledge Management To Wisdom, a book dedicated to the memory of Professor C. West Churchman of the University of California at Berkeley, edited by Jim, John Haynes, and David Paradice. It included my chapter, entitled, “Wise Organizations?”

With the permission of the publishers of the book, Idea Group, Inc., I’m going to share the chapter here, in a series of postings (it is quite long), to see what kind of conversation it generates. Idea Group’s copyright prohibits copying the text in any written or electronic form. Please help me protect this copyright by referring people to the blog, but don’t copy the text that is here.

Wise Organizations?
Chauncey Bell

In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence; the second, listening; the third, remembering; the fourth, practicing; the fifth teaching others.
Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Jewish Poet and Philosopher (c. 1021-1058)

“There is no use trying,” said Alice; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


In this chapter, I want to help put a richer background in place to support the work of IT designers. I hope that an examination of wisdom may inform those who have the ambition to, or are charged with designing and building software systems and networks, and lead to the development of systems that do a better job of supporting people in the wise exercise of their responsibilities in all kinds of organizations. The subject is too big for a chapter in a book, but perhaps with the following I can inspire, suggest some foundations, suggest directions for exploration, and at the same time point out some goofy interpretations that may be adjusted or altered.

In his exploration of the idea of ‘designing inquiring systems,’ C. West Churchman challenged himself to invent a basis for building systems that support human action more effectively:

“Instead of just asking the traditional questions of how human minds come to learn from experience, [I] asked how one could design a system that would learn from its experience in some ‘optimal’ fashion. My plan was to translate some of the historical texts in the theory of knowledge into modern systems terminology, by assuming that the authors were discussing the components of a system design. … I was struck again [while studying Leibniz] by the fact that in his approach to the inquiring system he was insisting that a concept of the whole system was essential in understanding how each ‘part’ worked. … Now in these days of rather intense study of systems and their management, few seem in the least concerned about … the characteristics of the whole system in any but a very narrow sense. If Leibniz was right, then modern theories of system design and managerial control are sadly lacking in their reasoning.” (C. West Churchman, (1968). Challenge to Reason, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, p. v.-vi.)

I am a designer of business habits. I design ways that human beings – in explicit or tacit collaboration with others – do things to shape their futures by adjusting or changing their habits. Mostly I work in large institutions. In the process of building new working habits in a number of industries over the years, I have designed and led the development of several complex software systems.

We human beings are creatures of habit, and habits are deeply relevant to the question of wisdom.
Continue reading “Wise Action in Organizations”

My Problem with Design

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

I was reminded today of the things I find troubling about our modern notions of “design” and “designing.” Hundreds of years ago, if one wanted to become a designer, one would first have become a master craftsperson. We learned how to construct distinctive artifacts (and worlds of artifacts) and then we began to innovate in that tradition. To say one was a “designer” without that background would have been Harry Potteresque: ridiculous.

Neil Gershenfeld shows us how, starting a long time ago, we began to separate the “manual” work of craftsmanship and the “intellectual” work of design into two threads, and we began, moreover, to ascribe classist differences to the “types” of work. This distinction, I think, is a poor one, and today gives us no end of messes in our world. The following is a reflection I started writing several years ago, about why that is the case.

When someone says they have designed something, what do we understand? In the world at large, after all, “design” is something pretty simple and universal. To design is an activity – to devise, contrive, intend, indicate, plan, arrange, strategize, scheme, sketch, or the like. Further, we understand designing as relevant in an enormous range of life’s events, usually in combination with two other activities: actions to implement “the design,” and results or effects produced by the implemented design. Put in its simplest form, ideas are translated into actions that in turn produce results. When our actions lead us awry – or don’t give the results we want – we have the option of concluding that the flaw was in “the design.”

So why do I say I have a problem here? I have a problem because this way of understanding design decomposes an important unity into arrangements of trivial components. Imagine that we are observing a competent chef preparing a meal. We have our standard understanding of the activities of cooking, mixing ingredients, and tasting. If we attempt to understand the chef’s design of a meal as a collection of activities, we will miss the essence of the chef and the meal.
Continue reading “My Problem with Design”

Five Great Wastes

Following a conversation with my friend Jim Selman, I decided to dust off my story about the kinds of things that I think are going to be the most important “wastes” of the time that is coming. Taiichi Ohno of Toyota fame was my original inspiration for this line of thinking.

Historic inventions are often built from historic difficulties, and they are always accompanied by new distinctions. At the end of the Second World War, the people of Japan were in terrible trouble, their morale, productive capacity, and international relations demolished. An engineer named Taiichi Ohno, in the enterprise today known as Toyota, began the task of building a new capacity for Japanese production, on top of Henry Ford’s designs, with some important additions. Ford incorporated everything into one plant; Ohno designed for operation in a network. Ford went all out for volume, and minimized variety, in the interpretation that this was the most efficient way to support the US market, and make the money that he needed to support enormous investments and pay his workers enough to buy his cars (roughly doubling the historic pay for that kind of employment). Ohno built a production system that would optimize scarce capital and raw materials, allowing efficient operation with small production runs. The operational heart of Ford’s designs were the way the engineers designed the coordination of the work; Ohno’s design was centered in processes that built the capacity of each person on the production floor to take responsibility for the quality and coordination of their work. Ohno’s inventions became the foundation of the quality movement that swept the world starting in the 1970s and 80s. Continue reading “Five Great Wastes”

William McDonough: His Design Vision

I have long been an admirer of the work of William McDonough. In February of 2005 he spoke before TED, and his talk was posted in April of this year (2007). I recommend the 20 minutes that it takes to listen to it.

TED’s introduction to McDonough runs like this: “Architect and designer William McDonough asks what our buildings and products would look like if designers took into account “All children, all species, for all time.” A tireless proponent of absolute sustainability (with a deadpan sense of humor), he explains his philosophy of “cradle to cradle” design, which bridge the needs of ecology and economics. He also shares some of his most inspiring work, including the world’s largest green roof (at the Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan), and the entire sustainable cities he’s designing in China.”

A New Conversation: Service Design Series of Papers

Over the last year I have begun the construction of a series of short papers bearing on the question of how we invent futures and enterprises in language, and conduct and manage our business in networks of commitments. My idea is that the papers will serve as provocations, inspirations, and foundations for a literature useful to practitioners seeking to build more resilient, adaptable, responsive enterprises. The plan is to publish them as part of a Wiki. There, people with experience in thinking about the design of enterprises as something centered in language will be able to adjust, add, repair, and contribute to the development of a useful literature. This literature, I hope, will be something taht we construct together, in the style of “open source” programming.

So here we announce and preview this series of papers, publishing a few initial chicken scratches to invite conversation and consideration of the idea. The initial set of papers I have drafted cover topics relevant to the questions, how do we bring action in enterprises, and what is language action? I have, in addition, sketched papers on topics such as listening, coming to resolution, preparing and leading meetings, speculating and innovating, and others. Without further ado,

Introduction to the Service Design Series
Chauncey Bell 20070418

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence; the second, listening;
the third, remembering; the fourth, practicing; the fifth teaching others.

Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Jewish Poet and Philosopher (c. 1021-1058)

In this series of short papers we begin to lay stepping-stones for a new interpretation of the way that organizations deliver services that will let us vastly improve how services are designed and delivered. We are doing this in “wiki” format, which will allow people who have studied what we are discussing, and who have experience in applying it, to add to it, and to incorporate it (with attribution) in their own work, as long as they share back what they have contributed.

Our intention is to begin to build a rich, shared literature about a new way of observing and talking about the design of services.
Continue reading “A New Conversation: Service Design Series of Papers”

“Bold Moves” at Ford

I just ran into Ford’s “Bold Moves” initiative, which imitates the “Reality Television” style of working out problems in front of an audience. 20 “Episodes” have been published already at http://www.fordboldmoves.com/default.aspx. In the episodes, Ford spokespeople where they say things like “We have to change or die.” and “Ford doesn’t have a PR prooblem; we have a product problem.” Meanwhile, the initiative is subtitled “Documenting the Future of Ford” – my suspicion is that this will turn out to be an attempt to do a new kind of PR.

Turns out Ford is a sponsor of “American Idol.” I suppose this is a very fancy case of life imitating (art).   

I will be reviewing the 20 “Episodes” shortly, and seeing what is there. Perhaps the designers of the program have begun to address some of the questions we have been bringing over the last postings. We shall see, and make assessments.

I attempted and failed to put the “Bold Moves” feed into my blog. If someone out there knows how to do that, the code is <script language=’javascript’ src=’http://www.fordboldmoves.com/clientscripts/externalflash.aspx?episode=20′></script&gt;, but I can’t figure out what to do with it.

More later; I am getting ready for a trip to Europe right now.

Give me your reactions and comments!


Chauncey Bell

The Toyota Dilemma

Over the past weeks we have been following threads that come from several questions that Greg and I have been asking. Our questions are like this:

  1. How come people keep trying and failing to copy what Toyota has done?
  2. Is Toyota really that good? Or does the spotty record of wanna-be copiers indicative of a half-baked theory? Does it work in Japan, but not here?
  3. How disastrously bad is their competition in the automobile industry? Is that why they are taking over the #1 spot globally, and winning so handily?
  4. What are people in the automobile industry watching that they keep (apparently) missing the beef? We think that they are not stupid people; then then they must be trapped in a really bad story about how the world works, and must be misunderstanding what Toyota has been doing.

One of the conversations that Greg and I have says that we are playing out different stories. We fell in love with cars in different ways than did the Japanese. Their national story about extraordinary human beings has in its background the Samurai tradition – in which, among other things, people surrender to disciplines and traditions, and build excellence out of time and practice. In the US, we fell in love with cars as part of our exploration of the dimensions of freedom. It is still a rite of initiation in this country for a young person to reach the age of 16, be licensed, and move towards owning a car. This is a nation of people who escaped from other tribes and refused to be dominated. Kind of the opposite of Toyota. We think, however, that it is possible to build a version of the Toyota Production System that fits with our impatient, freedom-loving, entrepreneurial and strongly independent way of being.

What do you think?

What do our questions provoke for you?

Payment for What?

According to the San Francisco Chronicle of September 9th, in the Daily Digest, Alan Mulally, the incoming new CEO of Ford, will be paid:

  • An annual salary of $2 million.
  • A signing bonus of $7.5 million.
  • $11 million to offset the compensation he is giving up by leaving Boeing.
  • $10.5 million in stock options.
  • $11 million if Ford changes control or lets him go for any reason other than “cause” before 2011.

What promises do you suppose this man is really making to the stockholders, to the customers, to the citizens of Detroit, Michigan, and the United States? That he will “try harder”? That he will turn around the situation that has been brewing at Ford for 40 or 50 years? Impossible. No single human being, from outside the company, can fulfill such a promise. If no promise of that sort is being made, then what crazy habits have we arrived at for compensating senior executives in this country? What kind of a world are we making in which business executives are paid like rock stars and world-class athletes, to “play” in games where the play of the game is private, and success is measured the way it is in a modern business like Ford.

What is the board of Ford doing? Cutting 30,000 jobs, closing 14 plants, and investing $30 million in the dream that Mr. Mulally will leap tall buildings in a single bound?

© Copyright 2006, Chauncey Bell and BABDI, LLC. All rights reserved worldwide.

What Were They Thinking???

Greg asks,

“How do people who are suffering in the middle of work that is horrifically organized and conducted tolerate that?”

“Does anyone really notice that they are not happy, or are we so used to the pain and convinced that it is inevitable that we go along? Do modern people just have a high pain threshold?”

“Is the cultural orientation of people in business so oriented to “producing” that people do not notice the way that things are being done?”

“What are managers and others listening to when, in the middle of observing and managing actions, they keep doing the same things and don’t stop to ask what’s happening and why people are doing things the way they are?”

The questions, he proposes, bring to the fore just how difficult it is to pay attention to our current, habitual ways of doing things, to break up old habits, and build new ones.

Heidegger might have said, in reply, that the people in question were, in fact, not thinking. In these circumstances, we might recognize that people are involved in transparent, recurrent coping with situations and circumstances in which what is happening, and the actions that are possible for dealing with what is happening are completely pre-programmed and automatic. The fact that we say we are thinking under these circumstances is, itself, only another part of our automaticity.

How do you break that up? We speak of pain as a goad to changing behavior. In training designers, I caution against the notion of people liking or being ‘comfortable’ with situtations and proposals. Normally, when everyone is comfortable, nothing important is happening. An effective designer must develop the skill of bringing the right discomfort to the right people in the right moments.

© Copyright 2006, Chauncey Bell and BABDI, LLC. All rights reserved worldwide.

You Can Waste a Lot of Money Eliminating Waste

Here is one reason that we think so many people have put so much effort into imitating the Toyota Production System and still we find Detroit in such a mess.

One of the cornerstones of the Toyota Production System is the commitment to eliminate waste. But “waste” in this context doesn’t mean what most people think it does.

Value and waste are interpretations, shaped by the concerns of the cultures and enterprises in which they appear. The most important wastes (and values) of the last 100+ years were shaped by industrial era concerns for conserving physical and economic resources, financial capital, and production capacity.

The most important values and wastes for the era we have entered are not the same.

Many of those hell-bent on eliminating waste are “looking for love in all the wrong places.”

The central wastes of the new era will be shaped by our concerns for building effective relationships to deal with the challenge of coordinating in this continuously changing, globally connected world.

Have you got examples? Can you see what we are pointing at?

 © Copyright 2006, Chauncey Bell and BABDI, LLC. All rights reserved worldwide.

Maybe the Great US Auto Industry is a Goner.

Greg Neil speculates that maybe the construction industry will be first to invent a 21st century version of what Toyota did, and the US will pass out of contention in the manufacture of automobiles over the coming decades. (Ps: Toyota is a major player in the housing industry in Japan ….)

In the 1950s, Japan was really listening. Life itself was at stake. For fifty years now, our executives in Detroit have had the opportunity to listen, and have not been listening. We have been copying Voltaire’s idiot, Candide, spouting “It’s all for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” I remember when my friend George Kuper returned from an early visit to a Toyota plant in Japan with a covey of US executives, who were puzzled, “What possessed those Japanese businessmen to try and convince us that they were running automobile plants without inventories and warehouses?”

Are essential qualities that have made this a great country disappearing? … no longer relevant? What were those of earlier eras in this country listening to? What are those running the automotive companies today listening to?

© Copyright 2006, Chauncey Bell and BABDI, LLC. All rights reserved worldwide.

Why Haven’t US Automakers Caught On?

While we are at it, let’s follow some other threads as well.

Why have GM and Ford, (and Daimler-Chrysler, and a host of others) not simply copied the successful practices of Toyota? Is what they are doing so unusual, mysterious, or hidden? Since the 1950’s Toyota has invited people to come and tour their plants. Later they sent some of their most senior engineers to Detroit to teach for a number of years in US schools. They said they were doing that to give honor to Henry Ford and others from whom they had learned.

For decades US automakers have picked up popular jargon that originated with the Toyota Production System – just-in-time, continuous improvement, eliminating waste, five why’s, root causes, and so forth – and used it in improvement programs and in describing to the press the things they were doing to improve their companies.

(Is this all marketing hype? Are the companies actually trying to do anything there? From a good deal of work inside the auto industry, I have the interpretation that a large number of people inside the companies are actually trying to improve what they are doing.)

Some claim that Japanese culture lends itself to the kind of operation that Toyota has, and the US culture does not lend itself to this. Taiichi Ohno, Continue reading “Why Haven’t US Automakers Caught On?”

Nicolas asks, “What about Wal-Mart….?”

Nicolas asks:

How do you see business enterprises that have historically done much harm to people and the environment as fitting into your claims about enterprises? For example, sugar and cotton production on the backs of African slaves in the New World, or the fossil fuel industry and its accompanying environmental degradation and military interventions in the Mid-East, or Wal-Mart-style corporations and the extinction of small businesses, or sweatshop commodity production? Are these enterprises just incredibly misguided?

Thank you for the great question(s)! Let’s explore:

  1. All of the examples fit. Each of the institutions you mention was constituted as a collection of historical communities to take care of particular concerns, constituted itself in networks of commitments, and accumulated capital (power is a good synonym) of various sorts – financial, pragmatic, symbolic or political. Continue reading “Nicolas asks, “What about Wal-Mart….?””

What IS a Business Enterprise?

Last night I attended Caryl Churchill’s play, A Number, at ACT in San Francisco. I found it valuable, challenging, sometimes funny, pithy, and short. A father confronts, one by one, several sons, all but one of them clones. So, they are the same, and different. The father attempts to figure out what mess he created by allowing the cloning, in his incautious desire to have more of “his son.” The sons are working out emotions ranging from a desperate ambition to discover “who they are,” to curiosity and enjoyment of the situation life is presenting.

Continue reading “What IS a Business Enterprise?”

Designing Conversations

So, Greg asks me, what do you mean by “design” and “designing” here?

In the first chapter of their book Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design, Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores bring the question of design.

… the interaction between understanding and creation. In speaking here of
design, we are not restricting our concern to the methodology of conscious
design. we address the broader question of how a society engenders inventions whose existence in turn alters that society.

Continue reading “Designing Conversations”

Questions about Human Practices

Ever since I began to wonder about what my father was talking about when he spoke of why he was going to work, I have found myself asking about practices – the things we do over and over again. Over time, we forget how our practices began. They become habits, obligations, things we have to do. After a while, the inspirations, intentions, and commitments in which they were born are forgotten. Why do we have this meeting or that report? Where did this activity that we keep doing come from? Often, we suffer with the “mindless” repetitions of our activities. TGIF?

Continue reading “Questions about Human Practices”