Over the past few weeks I’ve been conversing online with Dibyendu De, a reliability management consultant in Kolkatta, India. For 23 years of his career he has applied his extensive background as a mechanical design engineer toward helping 50 organizations achieve sustainable growth. Our conversation utilized social media channels like Twitter, Google+, and blog posts, written in response to some of the questions I raised for my assignment in “Management Issues for Information Professionals”, a class I’m taking at QUT. Eventually we caught up for a brief Hangout using Google+, where we discussed his views on management, strategy, and innovation.
Dibyendu declares that “observation is the most important part of anything” and that it serves as the starting point for understanding and communicating “reality”. He suggests that “observation” is the foundation on which we would build further (De, D. Personal Correspondence, 13, March 2013). He then tweets, “Science Engineering & Management are like bikinis, what can be seen is interesting; what’s hidden is vital.” He’s being humorous, but entirely serious.
Without observation, the strategies can end up being based on “dreams and wishes”, he tells me. Dibyendu adds another tweet, “Business reality is complex. So it can’t be dealt by rules, fixed plans, policies or idealistic wishes.” He goes on to explain that the starting point of understanding “complex business reality is by viewing failures & their undesirable effects.”
I’m reminded of Peter Drucker’s suggestion that organisations should seek “windows of opportunity” not just in successes, but in “unexpected failures” (Druker, 2007). It has also been said that “failure is more instructional than success” according to Tim Ogilvie, CEO of Peer Insight, an innovation consultancy based in Washington, D.C.. He argues that failure can be inspiration for startups to fill a void in a particular marketplace. He’s quoted by Entrepreneur.com, “I don’t think about failure … I use the word experiment. I think, I’ve got a hypothesis about a business, and I’m going to do an experiment to test the hypothesis. Just that language alone makes you less prone to self-delusion” (Hann, 2013).
Dibyendu shares a similar view as Drucker and Ogilvie; additionally, he emphasizes the failures resulting from overlooking the perceptions of customers, a serious marketing failure. In an email, Dibyendu tells me that the customer is “the only profit center any organisation has” and that while management may look at ‘market research’ to find out needs “they don’t have systems in place to capture how the customer actually ‘notices’ the organisation.” He continues, “Since they overlook this, they are at a loss to find ways and means to engage them till exchange” (De, D. Personal Correspondence, 21, March 2013).
A story on Dibyendu’s blog about a hospital in Kolkata provides an example of how strategy can be skewed by management’s failure to include their customer’s perceptions. The hospital he visited was named after the famous poet: Rabindranath Tagore Heart Research Institute. The formidable reputation of the hospital began in 2000 when it was founded, but more recently it’s business had slumped from what the chief administrator told Dibyendu was the “ever-increasing stress of handling the ‘swelling crowd’” (De, 2013).
Dibyendu shares a brief history of the hospital, founded by a famous heart surgeon, Dr. Devi Shetty and his top grade specialists, who were highly trusted. A well-known national daily interviewed Dr. Shetty about his dedicated application of a service replica based on Ford’s Model T, a point of pride for the hospital because of the large number of successful operations and other procedures that had been carried out by his team who applied his system.
The chief administrator was worried by how many of their patients had switched to their competitors and how good doctors were leaving; he inquired how the hospital could keep their profits up so that they might open similar facilities in other towns and nearby states. Dibyendu asked, “Where are your research facilities?” It turns out, the Rabindranath Tagore Heart Research Institute, didn’t have any. Dibyendu then asks the readers of his blog what the hospital’s strategy should be moving forward. In response, I pointed out that a service replica of Ford’s Model T is a poor fit for a hospital because “relating human beings to manufacturing cars is a mismatched metaphor.” I then suggest that the strategy would need to re-align with the perceptions that the name of the hospital suggests and “the fact that no research was being done and the spirit of Tagore was not alive and well in the hospital, is the key issue to be addressed.”
Dibyendu replies in agreement, “Yes, perceptions of customers rule strategy. A kind of inverted image to start thinking on strategy.” One of his tweets also speaks to this point: “Strategy is [about] Questions. But before that comes, viewing or notice. … [Without] that, nothing.”
Tied up in the issue of failed perceptions is manager’s tendency to “label” and seek plans with “magic bullets”. In a conversation, Dibyendu explains, “Once you have labelled something, you have siloed it.” When management begins to label problems their minds go in a prescribed direction and they rely on what he calls “traditional medicines”. The tools and methods of experts can be useful, but very often they are “applied forcefully”, which is the issue. Again, he stresses that interactions are the important part and that what needs to be done doesn’t require “gurus”. His suggestion is to “innovate your own cure” (De, D. Personal Correspondence, 21, March 2013).
When asked if manufacturing companies take up innovation as their first choice? Dibyendu replies, “No. In fact it is usually the last choice.” He detailed why on his blog:
… companies first try out tried, tested and proven methods to achieve their aspiration. In that process they do achieve quite a bit. The focus is generally on operational efficiency and cut costs. When they don’t achieve what they set out for then only they take up innovation to achieve their goal. They generally take up innovation when they find their ‘magic bullets’ not providing them the needed relief or results. (De, 2012)
His description of the issue reminds me of an often overlooked distinction between strategic planning and strategic thinking described by Fiona Graetz. She explains how strategic planning deals with the step-by-step, rational, systematic, logical process. While on the other hand strategic thinking views patterns, which Graetz says are “unplanned, emergent strategy patterns or consistencies that are realized despite, or in the absence, of intentions” (Graetz, 2002). My understanding is that strategic planning tends to involve proven methods, while strategic thinking supports more innovative outcomes.
I asked Dibyendu, “Why do you think innovation is needed in an organization?” He responded during our hangout, and then later typed out his answer on his blog:
Two things. First, while strategy gives direction to an organization innovation drives it. Strategy and innovation go together. Second, all organisations are unique in their own individual ways. This is because design of all organizations differ. These small differences create the uniqueness for each company. Hence there seems to be no common magic formula or bullets to bite. Each organization has its own story and those stories can only be improved by people within the organization through their innovative efforts. (De, 2013)
I wanted to hear more of his approach and wondered if it had to do with his brand of “Rapidinnovation”. I inquired into its meaning and if it signifies that innovations can be done rapidly. He explains that “RAPID is an acronym which stands for Reliability, Availability and Performance Improvement through Design Innovation.” He adds how RAPID can also include innovations achieved “quickly and effectively” (De, 2013).
Dibyendu has found that people are generally afraid of innovation due to the risks involved. He writes about the importance of “decision making criteria to achieve a balance between risks and rewards.” Rewards such as “improved reliability, availability and performance” must be clear in the minds of management, he tells me. He goes on about the value of earning more with less effort and how innovation needn’t involve the cheap production of things by cutting costs. He clarifies that innovation should “reduce risks to the minimum while maximizing the benefits” (De, 2013).
I inquired into how these benefits are achieved. Dibyendu tells me it has to do with “design innovation, which is a type of minimal intervention that maximizes return on the assets.” In manufacturing organisations, design is everywhere, from the layout of machines, their maintenance systems, product designs, management systems, strategies, and the organisation itself. The issue is that each is designed and managed separately, yet the interactions between them fall out of balance, due to “small imperfections” which produce “failures, problems, or issues that prevent any organization from achieving what they want to achieve” (De, 2013). He then puts this in context of Rapidinnovation:
The job in Rapidinnovation is to find or identify these hidden imperfections and then eliminate them through innovation thereby releasing the trapped or clogged energy within the organization to flow again smoothly and more productively. Thereby you achieve more with less. However, such innovations must be minimally invasive so that it not only uses the least amount of effort, resources and time to execute but also minimizes risk to the minimum possible extent. It must however ensure long term benefits to the company in terms of ROA (return on assets). Else innovations are meaningless. (De, 2013)
I asked how to go about discovering these imperfections? He tells me, “Start from failures an organization experiences. Start anywhere and soon one gets to see the whole symphony” (De, 2013).
Much of Dibyendu’s work focuses on the people of the organisation, helping them find balance in life and work, as well as in the strategic decisions they make. He explains to me that strategic planning often fails to recognize and explain complexity. He believes that strategy and design “go hand in hand” and that people’s development and their lives needs to be a part of the equation if there is to be “social upliftment”. In a blog post he writes:
… it is indeed stupid to have any fixed plan in the mind and exert our will to achieve the ‘desired mental model’ we have in mind. That of course does not tell us not to have any ‘intention‘ whatsoever. Nor does it ask us to submit to ‘fatality’ of reality. Our path clearly lies in balancing between the two wheels of ‘reality’ and ‘desire’ forged by our will emanating from intention. Such balancing act is fueled by the heady mix of courage to pay attention to our thought process and the deeply felt intention to balance.
During our hangout, Dibyendu explained how his approach to diagnosing problems involves “the mind of the people”. He adds, “Innovation comes from their sufferings, their memories, and thinking.” This is done through extensive meetings and dialogues with all involved. He said that very little data is gathered, but rather, attention is paid to stories and the underlying narrative which all parties involved have yet to perceive: “By linking stories, little data is needed. The diagnosis is in the narrative.” He further describes his process on his blog:
It is mainly through dialogues with people. They tell about their pains, shortcomings, challenges, problems and you soon get to see the patterns within those stories and narratives. You then help them see or notice the underlying patterns that are affecting them and off they go on their own creating their own cures. Seeing the affected patterns is the important thing. Once seen the rest follows. However, there is one problem. If you don’t get to see the pattern in a blink you possibly miss the pattern for a long time. Whatever it might be — at the end of the day, there is really no magic formula to apply. People must innovate their own cure to get rid of organizational diseases and keep them at bay.
Dibyendu suggests that people become aware of their feelings and stories, thus self regulating potentially destructive impulses that may compound into an organisational disease. His views remind me of Daniel Goldman’s work on emotions, popularized in his work on “What Makes a Leader”. Goldman suggests that “many of the bad things that happen in companies are a function of impulsive behavior ” Goldman describes how organisational integrity is maintained by people who actively self regulate their emotions during changes by thoughtfully reflecting during times of ambiguity (Goldman, 2004).
Dibyendu’s approach could also be compared to the kind of “organizational conversations” that Groysberg and Slind describe in “Leadership is a Conversation”. The casual conversations they describe are less about “issuing and taking orders than about asking and answering questions.” They found in their research that smart leaders “engage with employees in a way that resembles an ordinary person-to-person conversation more than it does a series of commands from on high” (Slind & Groysberg, 2012).
Dibyendu’s method involves a unique line of questioning that at times may involve inquiring into the perceptions of individuals and then gauging their willingness to “see things differently”. He plays an active role as a facilitator and by witnessing interactions between all parties involved, he discovers overlooked relations between processes and people in the organisation. He tells me that oftentimes there are debates, but eventually a new way of doing things becomes apparent. In other words, the solutions to their problems emerge from their own stories and interactions.
The scope of management issues is vast and complex, crossing multiple domains. Dibyendu’s emphasis on looking beyond the labels and seeing the relations is a capacity that I intend to cultivate within myself. Organisational distress is often caused by the failures of prescriptive thinking which fails at observing the emerging patterns that matter most. These patterns arise from interactions and perceptions that are engaged through a “whole symphony” of stories. Designs that are derived from these stories can balance “reality and desire”, while accelerating innovation throughout the organization.
Innovation, strategy, design, marketing, and leadership are not separate, but enacted by the entire “symphony” of an organisation. All actors in the organisation can notice what underpins their interactions and choose to engage in conversations more mindfully. Time can be taken to mull over the stories and patterns of exchange that shape perceived realities. When the whole organisation is given the chance to observe their own stories and emotions, balance can steadily be restored and innovation becomes attainable.
My dialogue with Dibyendu has helped me clarify the value of our collaborative learning relationship. This engagement has revealed and continues to present ‘emergent patterns’ that are informing our own strategic thinking. Indeed, it seems these patterns relate to a broader context, a narrative beyond the scope of this particular report, which I must now conclude.
De, D. (2012, February 21). Nemetics – Some Questions and Answers. Retrieved from http://dibyendu.tumblr.com/post/18006947480/nemetics-some-questions-and-answers
De, D. (2012, August 10). Problems, Landscapes, Habits; Leadership in the 21st Century. Retrieved from http://rgbwaves.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/problems-landscapes-habits-leadership-in-the-21st-century/
De, D. (2012, July 23). 1 of 100 Suchness of Wicked Problems through Nemetic Lenses. Retrieved from http://chaosysdesign.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/1-of-100-suchness-of-wicked-problems.html
De, D. (2013, March 16). Model T in a Famous Hospital. Retrieved from http://rgbwaves.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/model-t-in-a-famous-hospital/
De, D. (2013, March 28). Innovate Your Own Cure. Retrieved from http://rgbwaves.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/innovate-your-own-cure/
De, D. (rapidinnovator). “Science Engineering & Management are like bikinis, what can be seen is interesting; what’s hidden is vital.” 12 May 2013, 6:59 p.m. Tweet.
De, D. (rapidinnovator). ” Business reality is complex. So it cant be dealt by rules, fixed plans, policies or idealistic wishes.” 12 May 2013, 7:14 p.m. Tweet.
De, D. (rapidinnovator). “Starting pt of understanding complex business reality is by viewing failures & their undesirable effects.” 12 May 2013, 7:23 p.m. Tweet.
De, D. (rapidinnovator). ” Strategy is abt Questions. But before that comes viewing or notice. Most imp. [Without] that nothing.” 12 May 2013, 9:14 p.m. Tweet.
Drucker, P. (2007). Chapter 3: The change leader. In Peter Drucker (2007) Management challenges in the 21 st century. Oxford, UK: Butterworth – Heinemann, pp. 62-81.
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Hann, C. (2013, January 23). How Your Failures Can Help You Succeed. Retrieved from http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/225199
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Slind, M., & Groysberg, B. (2012, June). Leadership Is a Conversation. Retrieved from http://hbr.org/2012/06/leadership-is-a-conversation/