The mysterious principles of process improvement explained

“The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa.”

— Heisenberg, uncertainty paper, 1927

In 1927 Werner Heisenberg realized that when you measure things, you mess them up. He was thinking about objects the size of electrons, but in macroscopic world of human behaviour, the principle holds.

Momentum is mass times velocity. Therefore the bigger the hockey player and the faster he/she/it is moving toward you, the harder it is to deflect the player or get out of the way. But the momentum will change depending on who is watching. The presence of nobody, a crowd, the Vancouver Police or a talent scout will cause uncertainty. Will the other player break your neck or just merge your molecules with the boards? It depends.

Imagine more usual places to interact with humans. I dare you to sit in the lobby of a busy office building and stare at people. I guarantee you their behaviour will change. (Especially if you have a wild look at your face and you stare only at members of the opposite sex.) Uncertainty is not derived from whether you are assaulted or arrested for this behaviour, but how violently.

People also alter their behaviour when machines observe them. This is why the term Reality TV is not just an oxymoron; it’s a joke. The humour painfully continues when the nutters they have on the programs start to act naturally in front of the camera.

Sport hunters are smarter than Reality TV producers. Despite the fact that hunters have infinitely more fire power than water fowl, they take the time to put up duck blinds. Once the animals are used to the presence of the blind, they revert to their normal travel patterns and make for easier targets.

Sport hunters are also smarter than process improvement teams. Whether or not it’s the older Total Quality Management, Service/Quality or Reengineering disciplines or the more current Six Sigma method, all are mad keen to measure things. Often these process teams are keen to point out that they are not from IT. But they usually generate a fair amount of analysis requiring laptops, software, cell phones, Blackberries, hovercraft and so forth.

With the possible exception of the amphibious landing craft, IT is asked to provide this equipment. Most IT managers should run because the answers to budget and approval questions are always answered by “but this is an Amazing Process Improvement™ project,” or “we’re Transforming the Organization

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