Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations – Part 5

Continuing the set of six tiny essays inviting reflection about the construction of the conditions and situations in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings.

“Inventing” Waste

Historic inventions are often built from historic difficulties, and they always involve the invention of new distinctions. We have posted about the “Five Great Wastes” before, here.

Let us give two examples in which critical new distinctions of historic inventions have to do with what people at the time thought of as “wastes.”

Henry Ford, Mass Production, and the Model T

At the turn of the 20th century automobiles were expensive toys available only to the very rich. Henry Ford invented practices that we summarize as “mass production” and the “Model T.” He succeeded thereby in making automobiles less expensive and more accessible to the average American worker. At the same time, he produced a way of doubling the income of American Workers, thereby giving them the income to purchase the Model T. Ford’s new system produced cars quickly and so efficiently that it considerably lowered the cost of assembling the cars. He decided to pass this savings along to his customers, and in 1915 dropped the price of the Model T from $850 to $290. That year, he sold 1 million cars. (Parts of the story from http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventors/ford.htm.)

Taiichi Ohno and the Toyota Production System

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. For example, Ford incorporated everything into one plant; Ohno designed for operation in a network. The operational heart of Ford’s designs was the way the engineers designed the coordination of the work on the assembly line (the employees found the repetition boring and only stayed because of what Ford called the ‘wage motive.’) Ohno centered his design in processes that built the capacity of each person on the production floor to take responsibility for the quality and coordination of their work. His invention became the foundation of the quality movement that swept the world starting in the 1970s and 80s.

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Concerned about Healthcare? Watch this!

Last week I had my first meeting with my new primary care doctor. He works with Qliance Medical Group here in Seattle. I cannot tell you how pleased I am with their services. I have already recommended here looking at what they do.

On March 26th, Dr. Garrison Bliss, who founded Qliance Medical, spoke to the Washington Association of Health Underwriters about the situation of healthcare in the US, and what to do about it. If you are concerned about healthcare, for yourself or for the nation, or for both, I strongly recommend listening to this talk. Listen here.

Below I have paraphrased a little of what he said, as a teaser. The talk is really excellent.

Bliss asks, Why do we have the healthcare system we have? His answer: we designed the system to work this way, albeit not with the intention of producing the results we have produced.

He asks, with the current system, who wins?

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Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

I offer homage to Waylon Jennings, for his song which echoes in my head as I think about what I want to say here, to Joe Alberti, the acting and drama coach whose comment I have been interacting with, and which inspired this posting, to Fernando Flores, teacher and mentor, and to Greg and Margaret and Shirah, faithful partners for reflection.

This posting has a moral: Be bloody careful about the language in which you make important interpretations, or your language will “invent you” as something you may not be happy with. Winston Churchill, in a speech in the House of Commons on October 28, 1944, said, “We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us.” (http://drmardy.com tells us that Churchill made the speech during the rebuilding of the House of Commons, after it sustained heavy bombing damage during the Battle of Britain.)

  • Paraphrasing his words and idea, we say,

    We shape our language (our interpretations of the world, and the moods and distinctions in which we listen and speak), and afterwards our language shapes us.

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  • Wise Organizations? Continued …

    To see the earlier parts of this long posting which reflects on the conditions and situations in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings, click on the links below. To get back to this page, click on the title of the blog in the upper left.

    Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

    We are continuing the set of six tiny essays inviting reflection about the construction of the conditions and situations in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings.

    Preparing for Ethical Action

    The concern for action is central to the question of wisdom, and there is a direct relationship between the exercise of wisdom and ethics. Let’s take these one at a time. Wisdom has more to do with action and less to do with dry abstraction than a casual look at many traditions would have us believe. Even the extraordinarily rigorous contemplative activities frequently found in the practices of some wisdom traditions, when carefully examined, will be found to have to do with getting prepared for taking or being involved in action. We meditate, contemplate, and the like in order to be prepared to take action, or to support others taking action when the moment for action arrives.

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    Wise Organizations? Continued…

    Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations – Part 2c

    We have been talking about language-action and the constitution of organizations. To see the earlier parts of this long posting which reflects on the conditions and situations in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings, click on the links below. To get back to this page, click on the title of the blog in the upper left.

    Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

    Next we turn to the implications of language-action for the design of systems. In their book Understanding Computers and Cognition, Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd outlined a three point theory of management and conversation in their that shows well many of the features of how software designs could embody the insights we are exploring here:

    1. “Organizations exist as networks of directives and commissives.” Directives include orders, requests, consultations, and offers; commissives include promises, acceptances, and rejections. (These names for performative verbs are from a different taxonomy than I use and present here, but the reader will see the relationships.)
    2. “Breakdowns will inevitably occur, and the organization needs to be prepared. In coping with breakdowns, further networks of directives and commissives are generated.”
    3. “People in an organization (including, but not limited to managers) issue utterances, by speaking or writing, to develop the conversations required in the organizational network. They participate in the creation and maintenance of a process of communication. At the core of this process is the performance of linguistic acts that bring forth different kinds of commitments.” (Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. p. 157.)

    Flores and Winograd claim (and I am convinced that their claim is a good one) that the classical idea of decision-making is not well supported phenomenologically. (In ordinary language, this fancy expression means “bad theory” or “the evidence doesn’t fit the claims,” or, “that dog won’t hunt.” The problem is that when people are talking about decision making it appears to all concerned that they know what they are talking about, and, in fact, normally they do not.) Flores and Winograd recommended substituting the notion of ‘dealing with irresolution’ and supporting people in coming to resolution. (Ibid, p 144ff.)

    Stay tuned. More to come.

    © Copyright Chauncey Bell, 2003-4. All rights reserved worldwide.
    Copyright © 2005, Idea Group Inc. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of Idea Group Inc. is prohibited.

    The Challenge of Changing Behaviors

    [We revised this posting on Wednesday 26 March.]

    This posting is inspired by the questions Joe Alberti asked here. Joe teaches theatre and acting, and is working on a PhD. Some time ago he began studying wierd stuff – the writings of Fernando Flores and Humberto Maturana in particular. I like the heart of Joe’s question: the central challenge he faces is changing the orientations, ways of thinking and acting – the behaviors – of the people with whom he works. That is the central challenge that a lot of us face.

    Frequently people speak of “those not under our control” as emblematic of this challenge. The way we talk about work in modern organizations produces the illusion that we have some people under our control, and others not. This is an illusion. We don’t control cats, we don’t control goats, we don’t control dogs, we don’t control horses, and we don’t control human beings. We dance with them in consensual spaces. (Yes, I agree that there are places and situations in the world where, effectively, people move with guns held at their heads. That is not the common situation in the developed world today.)

    The overall challenge is to design reliable structures in which the right kinds of actions can happen when people are working together.

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    Wise Organizations?, continued …

    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.

    Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations – Part 2b

    We have been talking about language-action and the constitution of organizations. To see the earlier parts of this long posting which reflects on the conditions and situations in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings, click on the links. To get back to this page, refresh the blog.


    Part 1

    Part 2
    Part 3
    Part 4

    Each language action has standard elements which, when recognized, can help guide designers as they specify elements of an organization: strategies, configurations, practices, systems, etc. The standard elements of a language action? Speakers, listeners, conditions of satisfaction, time of speaking, time of expected response, time of committed action, and so forth.

    John Austin discovered performative verbs (language-actions) some 60 years ago. The implications of his discovery are vast and still mostly unrecognized. Dr. Fernando Flores Labra, currently a Senator in the Chilean government, was the first to point out the importance of performatives for understanding and guiding the behaviors of people in modern organizations, and as a potential underpinning for design in organizations. (Flores brought together many of the thinkers and the traditions of thinking on which I rely in this paper.)

    Ask yourself the question, ‘What makes something be an organization?’ Within every culture there are a variety of standard modes of business operation that can be observed (sales, manufacturing, invoicing, shipping, and so forth.) Underneath all of the variety is a more fundamental set of practices. Whether a business is as simple as an individual sitting on the ground with a pile of fruit for sale or a multinational conglomerate, and whether it produces tangible goods in factories, provides janitorial services, or operates entirely “on paper,” as in the case of many financial businesses, …


    A business is created when a person or group of people declares that they will recurrently make certain classes of offers to some population of customers, and that they will satisfy the conditions of those offers (deliver what they promised) in exchange for some offer the customer makes in return, or the fulfillment of some request they make to the customer.

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