Ken Robinson recently delivered yet another great talk on the state of American education. He pointed out that countries that take a more organic approach (e.g. Finland) perform much better overall than those who take a mechanistic, standardized approach (e.g. The United States with “No Child Left Behind”, emphasis on testing). Remarkably, the organic approach, one using diverse strategies based on circumstances, comes at a lower cost for improved results.
More and more leading edge thinkers are starting to focus on this dichotomy of approaches – organic vs mechanical. Each rightly has it’s place in any practitioner’s toolkit. As Ken Robinson points out, you don’t want your doctor administering a medical check he dreamed up on the drive to the office. “If I go for a medical examination, I want some standardized tests. I don’t want to be told on some scale my doctor invented in the car.”
Washing machine or cat?
The quandary is, as Nassim Taleb shows, understanding if you are dealing with a washing machine or a cat.
The organic-mechanical dichotomy is a good starter distinction… Many things such as society, economic activities and markets, and cultural behavior are apparently man made, but grow on their own… They may not be strictly biological, but they resemble the biological in that, in a way, they multiply and replicate – think of rumors, ideas, technologies, and businesses. They are closer to the cat than to the washing machine, but tend to be mistaken for the washing machine.
Process, like education, fits very well into the organic camp; simply trying to apply a mechanical approach will not work with high consistency. Just like education (which is a process), process management must be a framework. As Sir Ken points out, there are parts of things where I do want a mechanical/standardized approach. We don’t want a culture of compliance…we want a culture of innovation. Human beings are inherently creative, making our species diverse and dynamic.
People as lowest common denominators
This is process’ challenge. Common sense approaches often end up yielding so little – in many ways like education – that spending a lot of money and approaching it as a mechanical problem and treating workers as lowest common denominator inputs and outputs is bound to yield poor results.
When you capture and manage your processes, do you think you’re dealing with a cat or a washing machine?