Chicken Thinking

Every now and then I go back to the army to give back, well something. And whenever I go I learn something new. This time, it was one week after my talk “It’s not that simple”. If it was the other way around, I’d have a couple more examples for the talk. Since time flows only in one direction, I’ll write the story here.

To protect the innocent, the guilty and future combat missions, I’ll describe what we do as the Chicken Control. For the sake of our story, we make sure all chickens get to the other side. And we manage the process: We identify the chickens, know how many go from one side get to the other side, and how many get lost in the middle. As you understand, this is top national security stuff.

This kind of business is usually done by dozens of people, but this time most of the work was simulated. Instead of actually passing real chickens across the road, professional chicken trainers were typing chicken data into the computer, simulating chicken flow across the system.

I’m mentioning this, since people who are not chicken experts, may think that chickens can just cross the road by themselves. Not so. Maybe in urban myths, but not in real life where chickens cost  a lot, and so is the crossing. Chicken flow simulation saves the country big bucks.

Let’s get back to the drill. Everyone was aware that the data we see on the computer was simulated data. Not only that, we at Chicken Control know the typists type in chicken flow data at their leisure. It was part of the drill.

Yet when our team at Chicken Control looked at the data, they said: “It’s noon, and we’re just at 20%”.

These are smart people. They are aware of everything I told you and they have a lot of experience at Chicken Control. They are aware the 20% is just a simulated number, yet they look at it as “just 20%”. As if it had a meaning in the context of the drill. It didn’t.

It would if we were dealing with real chickens, but that wasn’t the case. When I reminded the team that the numbers they see are fictional and are dependent only on the free time of the typist on the other end, I was told: “Gil, you’re starting to annoy us”. After a couple of times I decided to get less annoying and shut up.

But not for long, since in the daily chicken review, the simulated chicken flow was discussed. The numbers when reviewed, and the team realized it wasn’t “just 20%”. Apparently they got to 20% too soon. They requested the typists type in the chicken data in a life-like chicken flow-rate.

Let me explain: Nobody sees this data outside the team. We’re simulating data for ourselves, observe it, and regulate the data, so we can review it again. Just us.

For the agile readers – this is a good thing. It’s a regular PDCA (plan, do, check, act) loop. Every system should have a closed-loop feedback like that.

For the lean readers – this is waste. Since the numbers don’t go outside, smart people are wasting time on the rate of typing numbers, which doesn’t have any real value to anyone, since nobody else gets exposed to these numbers.

And they call me annoying.

There are a couple of lessons here:

  • Deming was right: “Put a good person in a bad system and the bad system wins, no contest.” It was amazing how quickly people, whose day job is to control actual important business numbers, lose focus of the same numbers (chicken-related, but important all the same) and their meaning.
  • Put a mirror in front of them, and they’ll break it. People were really pissed at me for breaking the illusion of the game. There was no point in the game, but with a couple of remarks, I was labeled a trouble maker. In a  matter of hours. By people who know me for more than a few years.
  • A person can be told “you’re annoying” a very low number of times before he shuts up. Even if he’s right.
  • System thinking is like prescription glasses. Once you’ve got them on, you see things differently. But you can’t really pass them around and let people use them. They just won’t fit, and people will not look at the system funny, they look at you funny.
  • If your system is not producing value, every control mechanism you put into it, is waste.

Next time we’re going to deal with real chickens. I’m sure things will make more sense then.

After all, wars are won by the people who know exactly how many chickens crossed the road.

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