Buck The System

Sense-making and Acting Into Complexity at the United States Department of Labor

Bruce Waltuck, Master of Arts in Complexity, Chaos, and Creativity

Catalyzing Stories Project 

Author’s Note:  acting into uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity requires continuous rational cognition, discernment, action, reflection, and adaptation.  This is a personal story of acting to create change without the awareness of the optimal patterns and methods for acting into complexity, and the consequences that followed.  Each of you reading this will bring your own experiences, knowledge, understanding, and insights.  As is the case with truly complex situations, we are compelled to look back at what we have done, and what we think happened.  We hopefully learn in retrospect, and with new knowledge and understanding, consider what we might have done differently- and will do differently in the future. Text highlighted in green indicates key inflection and reflection points in this learning journey.

Plexus Website Publication Note: the following story was written as part of the Catalyzing Stories Project, for the Plexus Institute’s Complexity In Action series here on the web, author and Plexus Catalyst Bruce Waltuck has made it possible for you to read through a shortened narrative below, and to get the full text by clicking on the “to read the rest of the story about…” links as you may choose.  As always, our Plexus Catalysts are available to talk with you about your own journey through complexity.

The WHAT and the WHY

In the Summer of 1976, I was hired by the United States Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.  My title was Compliance Specialist, and my job was to enforce approximately 80 different employee rights statutes.  These ranged from the minimum wage and overtime laws, to the rights of migrant farmworkers.  From child labor protections to the protection of disabled workers.  At the time, the agency had around 1,200 people like me around the country.

LINK 1: To read the rest of the story about being new to the work of a Wage and Hour Compliance Specialist, click below.  

We went to the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, one of the leading programs in the field.  There, our designees learned about psycho-linguistics, verbal and non-verbal communication and more.  In the case of one participating agency, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union designee was an entry-level employee paired with her own Regional Administrator.  These two people were being given oversight responsibility for the work of many people nationwide, and for approving actions that could (and hopefully would) result in significant changes throughout the agency.]

Back then, the technology we had to do our jobs mainly consisted of desktop telephones, and manual typewriters.  Transcripts of employer records were made by hand, and might take many hundreds of pages to write.  Calculations were still being done manually with pen and paper.  It was a great step forward when we got a photocopier, and telefax machine.

My boss was a forward-thinking manager and former Compliance Specialist.  Bernie Shain’s background was in economics and law.  He was adept at math, and the logic of law and negotiation.

In 1976, it was not a cliché to speak of working “smarter, not harder.”  As an investigator, Bernie was the first person in the country to apply the mathematics of multiple factor regression analysis to the data of an employer’s hiring and promotion patterns, to prove age discrimination.  He was the first to invest in a large digital calculator for his desktop, and greatly speed up his calculations of underpaid work hours and back wages.  As a manager, Bernie encouraged us to seek “smarter” whenever we could find a way.

Around 1978, we received an agency report on our compliance efforts nationwide.  The data was clear.  In an average year, we only contacted and investigated around 5% of the U.S. businesses subject to the laws we enforced.  A typical business without any complaint against it, might be checked once in 20 years.  Our mission was to both help employers comply with the law, and to correct violations that had occurred.  The question nagged at us: what could we do to improve our performance given the limited resources we had?

In 1978, Bernie and I began noticing the trends in manufacturing that were then emerging and changing the global marketplace.  These were the ascendence of Japanese firms, whose approaches to quality and productivity (among other notable differences from American firms at the time), gave them significant competitive advantages.  As we scanned the business press of the day, we discovered that these Japanese firms were all following the teachings of American statistician W. Edwards Deming, who had gone to Japan after World War Two, to help revitalize their industries.

Link 2: To read the rest about Deming, and his rise to great influence in America, click below.

AFGE was the largest and most powerful government employee union in the country.  John had been elected the year before, and both the NCFLL collectively, and I (Bruce) personally, had supported and voted for John.  It was coincidental that John was at that NCFLL leadership meeting.  John was known as a dynamic, progressive, and charismatic leader.  That day, from the back of the room, John interrupted the heated debate about EIQI, and said: “brothers and sisters. . . I have seen the future of our Union… and it is in EIQI and this partnership.”

Deming’s methods and relentless focus on quality improvement were well-suited to manufacturing businesses.  As we sat in our office in New Jersey, we thought about how these ideas might be helpful to us in improving outcomes at the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division.  Could we learn something from Deming, so that we could work “smarter, not harder?”

The answer was in Deming’s own teachings.  Over time, as he observed many businesses, leaders, and workers, Deming developed both a fundamental practice for all improvement, and a set of 14 principles – things to do, and not do- for the managers and leaders of all businesses.  Deming taught what he called his theory of “Profound Knowledge” – that everyone in an organization must be continuously seeking the knowledge and understanding of the systems used by, and affecting the business. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._Edwards_Deming   Additionally, Deming famously told managers and leaders to “eliminate fear from the workplace;” to “restore pride of workmanship;” and maintain “constancy of purpose.” (ibid).  As a means to these ends, organizations following Deming’s teachings began to organize self-managing teams.  That is, workers- the people who not only knew the processes of work better than anyone else, and who then knew best how to improve those processes- were empowered to think and act together.  (Ibid).

This was the key we were looking for in the Wage and Hour Division.  Through the late 1970s, we began using the only means of communication we had in those pre-internet days.  Bernie and I telephoned as many U.S. businesses as we could find, who were implementing these ideas and methods from Deming.  We found that there were a very few government organizations who were trying these methods and ideas at the time.  One that was making some headlines in the government news was the Norfolk Naval Shipyard  (And for an interesting look back at their efforts, the shortcomings, and what were complexity-related better steps, see https://www.slideshare.net/mobile/NNSY/i024-writing-commentary ).

In 1988, following in part from the 1982 Grace Commission report, and in part from the rising impact of Deming’s teachings in non-manufacturing and public-sector organizations, President Reagan issued an Executive Order mandating a five-year plan to improve government “quality and productivity.”  (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=35743 ).  In Wage and Hour my regional administrator had no choice but to comply, and a team was convened to study current  practice, and seek ways to improve.  Based on my years of learning about Deming and quality improvement, I was selected to serve on our regional team.

Link 3: To read the rest of the story about the Grace Commission; its false foundational presumptions, and my ongoing efforts to try Deming’s ideas in Wage and Hour, click below.

In 1982, following his (in)famous statement that “government IS the problem,” President Reagan authorized the Grace commission to conduct a detailed study of what was cast as “waste and inefficiency” in government. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Grace_Commission  While the Grace report was being cited as a reason to cut spending and staffing in regulatory compliance agencies, I continued proposing pilot programs based on Deming’s concepts of profound knowledge, continuous improvement, and employee input into strategy.  In each case, my proposals were rejected out of hand by our agency’s regional administrator, who was regarded by employees and managers alike as an authoritarian leader uninterested in collaboration.

The idea of “quality and productivity” is fairly straightforward in manufacturing.  If a company is making left-handed wingnuts, they know in advance what the specifications are for a good wingnut.  Slight variations in measurement could be defined as an acceptable range.  The quantity and cost of manufacturing the wingnuts is easily measured.  But the question of the “quality” of a Wage and Hour investigation was different in some significant ways.  While we could (and did) measure the number of hours an investigation took, and the numbers of employees for whom illegally unpaid wages were now due (and repaid), that did not seem to define the “quality” of an investigation.  We generated questions that we all wondered about as we ourselves had done hundreds, and even thousands of these investigations.  “How effective was your opening conference with the employer?”  “How good was your questioning as you selected employees and conducted interviews to determine compliance?”  “How effective was your negotiation with a reluctant or angry employer when you informed them they owed money too their employees?”  “How clear was your final report in communicating the issues to our attorneys when litigation was being considered?”  From management’s perspective, there were other questions without clear and easy answers.  One was the process of strategic planning and the utilization of our scarce resources.

Link 4: To read the rest of the story about the challenges in Wage and Hour about strategic planning and the allocation of scarce resources, click below.

At the time, and for many years, Wage-And-Hour took phone calls and complaints from the public.  A large percentage of staff time was assigned in each office’s annual plan, to investigating complaints.  In certain areas of compliance, such as child labor, the employment of persons with handicapping conditions, and migrant and seasonal farm work, offices would direct a certain amount of investigative effort each year.  There was no formal process to determine the levels of need in these and other areas of legal compliance.  Neither was there any formal process to decide on revisiting and rechecking past violators to assure continuing compliance after an investigation.  There was little specific guidance from above at the time, and local managers and staff worked under fairly loose constraints to allocate staff resources and compliance activity.

In short, we had no easy answers to these questions.  As we worked through the later part of 1988, the team gravitated towards outcome goals that most thought were easy to define and easy to measure.  As I learned years later through my studies of complex systems and leading in uncertainty, this is a common pattern of behavior that managers rely on.  Unfortunately, as both Albert Einstein and W. Edwards Deming said, “there are important things that can not be measured.  There are things that can be measured that are not important.” (Deming spoke specifically to “figures that are unknown or unknowable” – a key concept in complex systems.  https://blog.deming.org/2013/08/unknown-and-unknowable-data/ ).   The ideas that had been generated by our team were being shared with managers across our region into late 1988, as George H. W. Bush was elected President.  As we would learn in the coming months, President Bush was eager to promote the ideas of quality and productivity improvement in Federal government.

Sometimes, as Deming and Einstein famously noted, the most important things are truly unknown and unknowable.   In the Spring of 1989, the same authoritarian regional administrator who had rejected my quality improvement pilot project proposals for years, called me one day.  “How would you like to attend a conference on Federal Government quality improvement?”  Attending the conference greatly improved my knowledge about Deming, and the other leading advocates of quality and process improvement.  It especially helped me learn about those who were applying these concepts to the work of Federal agencies.  I returned to my office, and Bernie and I wondered if our efforts of the past ten years might finally give us a chance to act.

It took a combination of known and knowable circumstances to truly give me the chance to make a difference in Wage and Hour and the Department of Labor.  Advisors to President Bush had recommended that he act to purposefully spread the knowledge and practice of quality and process improvement in Federal government.   To that end, President Bush formed the President’s Council on Management Improvement; the Federal Quality Institute [see https://www.smartsheet.com/total-quality-management] and mandated that each cabinet agency implement some program for these improvements.  In the Fall of 1989, the USDOL’s principal union, the National Council of Field Labor Locals (AFGE/AFL-CIO), was celebrating its 25th anniversary.  The Union leadership wanted to have a dinner in Washington, D.C., and hoped that DOL senior leaders would attend.    What if, I suggested, the NCFLL and DOL agree to meet together at a one-day workshop on quality improvement that would coincidentally be on the day and in the hotel where the NCFLL wanted to have its anniversary dinner?

The plan worked.  Following from the successful workshop, Secretary Dole approached the NCFLL about a joint union-management collaboration to develop and implement a DOL quality improvement initiative.  The NCFLL agreed, and appointed me to co-lead this effort.

In early 1990, I sat for the first time in the office of the Secretary of Labor.  I was assigned to work together with a DOL personnel manager, Jim Armshaw.  Though we had seen each other at meetings, we had never talked before that day.  We sat with Secretary Dole, who gave us instructions for our work that one rarely hears from any chief executive:

  • Take your time. I don’t want you to rush this.  I want it done as well as you possibly can do it.
  • Here is an office, a support staff person, and a budget. I want you to have a place in the building where you can think and work together.
  • Use the budget to meet and talk with other people. Learn what you can from those who are already doing this in Federal government.
  • I want you two to report directly to me. You do not have to go through any other managers here. My door is open to you anytime.

We were astonished.  These explicit instructions were contrary to virtually every initiative either of us had ever worked on.  Although I lived 185 miles from Washington, D.C., my new budget and office made it possible for me to commute to Washington several days a week and work with Jim.  We quickly began to meet with people in and out of DOL, and to learn about the ways that quality and process improvement were being implemented throughout the Federal government.  Perhaps the most significant and valuable guide that we found was the late Ed Cohen-Rosenthal.  Ed and his partner Cynthia Burton had developed successful joint union-management partnerships, and written the book “Mutual Gains.”  We engaged them to help us learn about the possibilities as well as the pitfalls in pursuing our Employee Involvement and Quality Improvement initiative (EIQI) at the Department of Labor.

As we developed our understanding of both union-management collaboration, and business process improvement, we also developed our understanding of the multiple systems and constraints in which we were working:

  • The Federal Labor-Management Relations laws at the time, which were reflected in the contract between the USDOL and NCFLL, explicitly reserved certain rights to both management and the union. Under the law and contract, the union could only negotiate over the “impact and implementation” of changes in working conditions.
  • Under the applicable statutes and regulatory framework at the time, the notion of Federal management permitting unions to collaborate in decision-making and actual management of business processes, was technically outside the scope of the law.

Link 5: To read the rest of the story about the multiple systems and constraints that were part of the environment impacting the USDOL and the NCFLL as they considered a collaboration for quality and process improvement, click below.

  • The DOL principal unions were affiliates of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). In 1989 and into early 1990, AFGE did not have any policy or guidance regarding collaborative decision-making between union and management.
  • Senior management in Federal government was politically appointed (Cabinet Secretaries and agency heads). The Union’s leadership was elected by membership every few years.  In short, both top management and the union were dependent on their voting constituencies for support- and power.
  • Teamwork in agencies, as in most private-sector firms, was essentially appointed by, and controlled by management. Teams were very project-oriented, and outcomes were almost always concrete and specific countable metrics.
  • Six DOL field agencies accounted for roughly 90% of the Department’s employment and activities. These included the Bureau of Labor Statistics; Employment and Training Administration; Occupational Safety and Health Administration; Mine Safety and Health Administration; Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs; and Wage and Hour Division.

Against this backdrop of law, regulation, organizational structure and management controls, we also learned about a recent effort to implement a quality and process improvement initiative at the Internal Revenue Service.  Initially, then-Commissioner Lawrence Gibbs had decided that management could implement their response to the President’s Quality Improvement mandate unilaterally.  Gibbs did not consult or collaborate with the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which represented the majority of IRS employees.  In less than a year, Gibbs’ initial effort failed.  Union resistance had led to limited employee participation and cooperation.  Needing to establish this effort at IRS, Gibbs then went to Robert Tobias, who was then the President of the NTEU.  To Tobias’ credit, he openly welcomed Gibbs’ second effort, and the two sides then negotiated and implemented a joint quality improvement initiative (see Rosenthal, ed. Citation).

The success of the IRS-NTEU partnership served as a powerful narrative of how we could proceed at the Department of Labor.  As Jim Armshaw and I continued to talk with and learn from others, we found more stories of successful Federal quality improvement initiatives.

The How and the Who

In a briefing to DOL managers and Union officials in the Spring of 1990, I reported on what we had learned:

  • Success leaves clues. As we talked with and read about people at NASA, the Army and Air Force, the IRS, and more, we noticed the patterns of structure and behavior that both supported and hindered success.
  • Any initiative in a unionized workplace like the USDOL, needed to be done in collaboration between the union and management. The IRS had initially tried to force change through unilateral management action, and union resistance killed the program in a year.  But the IRS commissioner went to the union leader, and asked for a second chance.  The union agreed, and in partnership, the two sides built an award-winning improvement effort.
  • The Mutual Gains approach to unionmanagement relationships was essential. Mutual Gains were possible when both union and management clearly understood and acknowledged that while they would never agree on every issue, there was almost always opportunity for collaboration and an integrative, rather than adversarial approach to decision-making. (See Cohen-Rosenthal and Burton.  See also Fisher and Ury, “Getting to Yes”).
  • The most successful improvement initiatives followed Deming’s teachings about deep knowledge of the business processes, and the inclusion of truly experienced and knowledgeable front-line employees on the teams deciding what changes to implement.
  • Methods to craft process improvement should be simply structured. A sequence of steps to agree on a problem; generate ideas; implement the ideas; and assess the results (following the well-known Deming cycle of Plan-Do-Check-Act).  Just enough structure to clearly guide the work of improvement teams.
  • Decision-making authority on improvement teams and on whatever governing body oversaw the improvement efforts needed to be equal among employees, managers, and union officials without regard to title or presumed power.

As Jim Armshaw and I continued to work with Ed Cohen-Rosenthal, and talk with Bob Tobias at NTEU, we understood we had to address several specific structural issues.  Three questions reflected the challenge and opportunity:

  • What would be the structure of the governing body overseeing the entire Employee Involvement and Quality Improvement initiative?
  • What would be the structure of the governing body at the agency level, for each of the six principal DOL agencies?
  • How would the process improvement teams at the local office level function?

Constraints and Enablers: Knowns and Knowables

For each of the three key system design questions noted above, Jim Armshaw and I considered both known and knowable factors.

For the overall governing body, we wanted union and management to have equal voice and authority.  We wanted each of the six principal DOL agencies represented, as well as having representation from the Department’s senior leadership, and the NCFLL’s senior leadership.  As described below, we decided on having one management appointee and one union appointee from each of the six participating agencies This EIQI Executive Committee would be co-chaired by the President of the NCFLL, and the Deputy Secretary of Labor.  All decisions at this level would be by consensus, not majority vote.

For the steering committees overseeing each participating DOL agency, we faced a significant constraint.  The NCFLL had 23 constituent local unions, each with its own elected leadership.  These local unions were not exclusive to a particular DOL agency, but were organized geographically.  Leadership within the union nationally, was not distributed equally across agencies.  The NCFLL had an elected council of 11 officers, again, voted nationally, and not having equal representation across the six agencies.  The union in particular, could not staff even six traditionally sized (5 to 7) steering committees in each of the six agencies.  When Jim Armshaw talked about this in our office one morning, we literally said aloud “what would the smallest possible steering committee look like?”  We quickly realized that our experience and the “traditional wisdom” of organization practice, did not recognize the obvious answer to our question.  The smallest possible steering committee was a committee of just two people- one from the union and one from management.  As a matter of practical consideration, we agreed on these Union-Management Pairs as the oversight and governing team managing improvement efforts in each participating agency. It would be years later that we learned our born-of-necessity minimalist structure had not been done before.

For the local process improvement teams, we needed maximum empowerment and minimal but effective tools.  We understood that not only did each of the principal DOL agencies have its own unique mission, each had its own unique organizational history and culture.  The white-collar economists of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who might spend their work days at the offices of leading corporations, had little in common with underground coal mine safety inspectors, who spent their days in 30-inch-high tunnels of coal, partly filled with water and methane gas.  The process improvement teams would have to self-organize at the local agency office level.  This followed our learning from the work of Deming and others in the quality improvement field.  The key lesson was that no one understands the processes of work, or how to improve them, more and better than the people actually doing the work.  This was a critical insight of the quality improvement movement, and contrary to the common organizational practice of senior leadership mandating various change and improvement efforts without input from the front-line employees doing the work.  Our EIQI improvement teams would be self-organizing.  They would make decisions by consensus, not majority vote.

Deming proscribed a simple yet powerful iterated cycle for continuous improvement.  Teams would PLAN their approach to a particular problem or need.  Then they would DO what they had stated in their plan.  Next, the team would CHECK the results of what they had done.  After that, the team would ACT to standardize any improvements that had been obtained (and conversely- act to stop doing things that led to worse outcomes).

For our EIQI teams, we gave the agency Union-Management Pairs some flexibility.  At the time (Summer of 1990) there were a number of structured problem-solving methods that were in common use for process improvement.  The teams that self-organized in each of the six participating DOL agencies used methods that were variations on the STRIDE, or STRIDES model:

Link 6: To read the rest of the story about the STRIDES framework for group problem-solving, click below.

S – Situation: “Where are we now?”

T – Target: “Where do we want to be?”

R – Research: “What research do we need?”

I – Implementation Plan: “What is our plan?”

D – Do it!: “Let’s do it!”

E – Evaluate: “What’s working? What’s not?”

S – Standardize: “How will we standardize successful improvements?”

(See http://www.1000ventures.com/business_guide/cs_problem_solving.html inter alia)

At the time, we wanted some basic structural similarity in team approaches to quality and process improvement.  This came from our understanding of the Shewhart/Deming improvement cycle of Plan-Do-Check-Act.

To select representatives from each participating agency to oversee EIQI activities, Jim Armshaw and I talked about the people we wanted- and didn’t want.  We understood from our respective experiences in union-management relations, that people on both sides rooted in holding and exercising control or power, were not a good fit for this change initiative.  Such people would not likely be as open to new thinking, new practice, or the making of decisions through dialogue and consensus.  We also understood that the union appointees were in some cases entry-level employees.  People with far less rank and no supervisory influence, compared to the senior managers that management was selecting.  We talked with Ed Cohen-Rosenthal about these power and experience differentials in the context of his and Cynthia Burton’s work developing “Mutual Gains.”  We decided to take the union Executive Committee appointees to a week of training on communication skills.

Link 7:To read the rest of the story about the communication skills training that the union’s key leadership committee appointees undertook, click below. 

We went to the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, one of the leading programs in the field.  There, our designees learned about psycho-linguistics, verbal and non-verbal communication and more.  In the case of one participating agency, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the union designee was an entry-level employee paired with her own Regional Administrator.  These two people were being given oversight responsibility for the work of many people nationwide, and for approving actions that could (and hopefully would) result in significant changes throughout the agency.

Could two people who otherwise worked as top-ranking leader, and entry-level staff, now come together as equals, making important decisions together?

As Jim Armshaw and I continued the development of the EIQI framework, we met first with senior management, to brief them on our intentions.  One significant concern came out of that meeting in May 1990.  Both Federal law and the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the DOL and the NCFLL established specific rights and processes for negotiating changes in working conditions.  Decision-making was fundamentally a right reserved to management.  Grievances and concerns could be raised on either side, and would then be adjudicated according to specific and even legal processes.  The DOL leaders in charge of labor-management relations rightly asked how the collaborative processes of EIQI would relate to, and work with the existing law and contract.

This was a question we had anticipated.  At that time, there was no regulatory or statutory authority to implement a union-management collaborative partnership.  Such joint decision-making was literally outside the scope of the law.  Yet we understood quite clearly that such a system was exactly what the DOL and NCFLL intended.  To gain union input and approval, Jim and I attended the NCFLL’s national leadership meeting in the Spring of 1990.  Of the ten other officers of the union who were present, two presented strong arguments opposing EIQI as a collaborative partnership.  Both opponents were long-time union leaders, and the presidents of their respective local unions, in Denver and Philadelphia.  Both had grown in the experience and practice of adversarial negotiation and decision-making.  Their concerns and fears were centered around the possibility- probability, in their views- that an EIQI collaboration would diminish the perceived value and power of the NCFLL’s leadership.  Why, they wondered, would employees need the union, if they could get their needs and wants addressed through the collaborative partners of EIQI?

Even as Jim and I persistently made the case for EIQI, and explained how the system would work in parallel to, and not opposition of the existing contract and its rights, we felt our opportunity slipping away.  Before the NCFLL leaders could put the matter to a vote, another outsider and guest stood in the back of the room to speak.  John Sturdivant was then the President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).  In that moment, I saw John Sturdivant urging the NCFLL leaders to think beyond the limits of their past experience and beliefs.  John wanted us to see a possible future as he saw it.  Not just as a dream, but as a very real possibility that we could make real.

Link 8: To read the rest of the story on John Sturdivant’s fateful message that day, click below.

AFGE was the largest and most powerful government employee union in the country.  John had been elected the year before, and both the NCFLL collectively, and I (Bruce) personally, had supported and voted for John.  It was coincidental that John was at that NCFLL leadership meeting.  John was known as a dynamic, progressive, and charismatic leader.  That day, from the back of the room, John interrupted the heated debate about EIQI, and said: “brothers and sisters. . . I have seen the future of our Union… and it is in EIQI and this partnership.”

After John spoke, the NCFLL voted to approve the implementation of our EIQI framework.  The agency pairs would be jointly approved by union and management.  These pairs would form a National Executive Committee that would be co-chaired by the Deputy Secretary of Labor, and the President of the NCFLL. I was to draft a map of how the EIQI and existing Collective Bargaining Agreement would connect, relate, and interact.

The WHEN and the AND THEN…

We completed work on the structure of EIQI, and reviewed the designees of both union and management in the six participating DOL agencies.  In a couple of cases, initial designees were rejected.  There was a sense that particular choices had a history of very aggressive and adversarial negotiation.  These people were rejected for not being open to the dialogue and collaboration that was fundamental to EIQI.  With the leadership, and process improvement methods in place, we prepared for the signing of a national DOL-NCFLL Memorandum of Understanding.  On August 6th 1990, the union and DOL leadership gathered at the Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.  We had DOL videotape the signing ceremony, so the message of partnership and collaboration could be distributed to every DOL office around the country.  With enthusiasm and sincerity, Jesse Rios talked about his pride and confidence in the NCFLL for undertaking this new partnership.  He spoke of the benefits to all DOL employees from having a voice in decisions affecting them, and in the gains of quality and productivity that would follow.  Secretary Dole powerfully and emotionally underscored this message, as she emphatically stated the words we had written for her: “we believe our employees are our greatest asset.”

Within six months, there were over 220 self-organized EIQI process improvement teams meeting regularly and crafting improvements.  We were keeping track of the local teams, and the issues they were addressing.  We noticed that in certain agencies, a number of teams had formed around the country to address the same issues.  As we kept checking in with the Union-Management Pairs overseeing each agency’s EIQI efforts, we saw that different teams were coming up with different ideas about how to address the same challenges.  Under the overall design and intentions of EIQI, we encouraged and supported this diversity of thought and action.  Our only guiding principles were that the teams follow a structured approach to problem-solving, and rely on data and information both in problem research, and assessing results.

As we observed the ongoing emergence and work of the EIQI teams, we also held regular meetings of the National Executive Committee.  The feedback of the Union-Management Pairs (or “UMP’s” as we began to call them) indicated a particular pattern of communication challenges nationwide.  What was to happen if someone on a particular improvement team became too dominant, or if a participating manager tried to exert their traditional power within the defined collaborative and partnership context of EIQI.  To address these issues, we took two steps:  1) I had seen Peter Scholtes, co-author of the internationally-known “TEAM Handbook” at a Federal Quality Conference.  This book was literally the global standard at the time on team dynamics and optimal conduct.  We got a copy of this book for each participating DOL office as a standard reference.  2) I crafted a simple rubric for the way that union and management team participants in EIQI should interact.  Called “The 4 C’s,” this described the opportunities and obligations to COMMUNICATE, CONSULT, CONSIDER, AND COMMIT with regard to the ideas of each participant and constituency.

Just two years later, the hundreds of EIQI teams had achieved remarkable and measurable results.  Many hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost-savings.  Savings in time and effort by regulatory compliance staff in each of the participating agencies.  The relationships and collaborations at the local team level had an equally powerful impact at the overall personnel level in DOL as well.  The filing of employee grievances and arbitrated complaints had dropped dramatically.  Employee and manager attitudes showed positive increases in national government surveys.

In the Spring of 1993, the EIQI efforts of the DOL Wage and Hour Division’s Western Region had been so good, that the agency decided to apply for a national recognition award.  At that year’s Federal Quality Conference, the agency won a Quality Improvement Prototype (QIP) award.  This was the second-highest quality improvement award in Federal government at the time.  These awards were then being won by agencies including NASA, The Army and Air Force, and the Internal Revenue Service (for customer service!) among others (see https://ia800308.us.archive.org/8/items/catalogoffederal00fede/catalogoffederal00fede.pdf et al).

In September 1993, I was invited by the State Department to do a lecture tour in Brazil.  At one stop on the tour, I was interviewed by a reporter from Gazeta Mercantil, Brazil’s leading daily business newspaper.  It was Brazil’s equivalent to the Wall Street Journal.  During the interview, I was asked if there were people at DOL who actively resisted, or worked against the mandate for collaboration and partnership.  I responded that yes, we had observed a few managers in particular, who “resisted the initiative and the directive of the Secretary, and worked to sabotage” what was happening.

On the inside of EIQI, the resistors that I had described to the reporter in Brazil, were really damaging the initiative.  As it happened, the two principal resistors were regional managers in the same DOL agency.  These people had career status, and very independent power in actual practice.  Jim Armshaw and I realized that as much as we had built structures and systems into EIQI to incentivize collaboration, we had failed to implement any clear and strong forms of accountability and correction.  The resistant managers were likely to continue with their power and actions unchecked.  This was discussed with the National Executive Committee, and the agency’s Union-Management Pair.  We would have had to seek- and get- action from the agency head and Secretary, to try and change these behaviors.

The System Bucked Back

The EIQI initiative continued to gain attention and praise.  It was the subject of a chapter in the book “Unions, Management, and Quality” (Cohen-Rosenthal, Editor.  ASQ/Irwin, 1994).  Jim and I also wrote a journal article that has been re-published in a book collection, remaining in print to today.   ( see https://books.google.com/books?id=R-YlkUIAbTEC&pg=PA366&lpg=PA366&dq=armshaw+waltuck+carnevale&source=bl&ots=iGjgil-IVy&sig=ACfU3U2In8yYtDHEon2pLEpAIowfhHy81Q&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwixvZC9lvbhAhWlmOAKHbouAysQ6AEwAXoECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=armshaw%20waltuck%20carnevale&f=false )


Two major events occurred that greatly impacted the work we were doing with the EIQI initiative.  The first was the Presidential election of 1992.  Bill Clinton’s election brought Robert Reich in as Secretary of Labor.  I met Secretary Reich the day after he was sworn in, to brief him on EIQI.  He was welcoming and supportive.  Secretary Reich had worked with Ed Deming, the pioneer of quality improvement.  Jim and I were hopeful that Secretary Reich would enable us to continue our work as it had been for several years.

In the Spring of 1993, at the same Federal Quality Conference where DOL won the Quality Improvement Prototype Award, Robert Reich was the closing keynote speaker.  Jim Armshaw and I had written a carefully-crafted speech for Secretary Reich, about the great work the many quality improvement professionals nationwide had achieved.

But. . . on the first day of that conference, a guy I knew from NASA, came running up to me in the corridor outside the conference room.  “Have you seen this‽” he said, excitedly waving a piece of paper in his hand.  He handed it to me, and as I read it, my heart sank.  It was a letter from the well-known Washington quality improvement consultant, Robert W. Mason.  Mason’s wife was Clare Crawford-Mason.  Clare was the person who produced the NBC 1980 special “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” which introduced TQM and Deming to America.  Clare had produced a subsequent video series featuring Deming.

Bob Mason’s letter was from early 1993, and addressed to Vice-President-elect Al Gore.  At that point, the government had been under Republican administration for 12 years.  The election of Clinton and Gore marked the first shift to a Democratic administration in that time.  My NASA friend, like Jim Armshaw and I, and the 1,200 Federal quality improvement leaders inside the conference ballroom, had never seen our work as partisan. Yet in reading Bob Mason’s letter, I saw what had so upset my friend.  Mr. Mason had written a series of recommendations about how the Clinton-Gore administration could- and should, in Bob Mason’s view- remake the Federal quality movement to make it their own.

Among the things Bob Mason recommended, were:

  • Closing down the influential and successful Federal Quality Institute. This had been created by President G. H. W. Bush, at the start of the Federal Quality movement.  The Institute was housed near DOL headquarters.  They oversaw the Federal Quality Conference, and the administration of the President’s Award- the Federal equivalent if the Baldrige Award.
  • Completely restructuring and renaming the President’s Council on Management Improvement. Another Bush group, consisting of representatives from each cabinet agency.

Those following the newly-elected Clinton-Gore administration knew that a key friend of the new President was author David Osborne.  Osborne’s book, “Reinventing Government” would become the cornerstone of Al Gore’s new improvement initiative.

Handing Bob Mason’s letter back to my friend from NASA, we agreed that everything we had worked for over the past five years was now in danger.  Where every person in that conference was committed to quality improvement as a non-partisan effort, no one could deny this work had its origins and its backing in the first Bush administration.  No one could deny the powerful pull of Bob Mason’s ideas, that the new Democratic administration should remake this work to put their own brand and ownership on it.

Against this backdrop, Jim Armshaw and I talked, and re-wrote the speech that Secretary Reich was to deliver at the end of the conference.  We learned that rumors about the Mason letter and the possible (likely) changes ahead for all of us, had spread through the entire group of 1,200 at the conference.  As Secretary Reich took the stage a few days later, we expected him to use our prepared remarks.

But. . .

He didn’t use our speech at all.  He did better.  Speaking with a clear awareness of the concerns, and the uneasiness throughout the room, Secretary Reich delivered a message of recognition, appreciation, and hopefulness.  He expressed the great work that so many had done in improving government quality and productivity.  He closed with a knowing nod to the Mason letter, saying that “the work of Reinventing Government can and must be built on the foundation of the Federal Quality Movement.”  Twelve hundred gasps and sighs of relief.  Twelve hundred people traveling home to continue tomorrow, what they had been doing for years.

But. . .

The powerful pull to rebrand the initiative to improve government was too much for the new Clinton-Gore Administration to resist.  Somewhere in the administration, people decided that the Deming-based approach and self-managing teams were no longer worth continuing.  The observation Bob Mason had made in his letter to Vice President Gore proved too compelling to be ignored.

Link 9: To read the rest of the story on the power of the idea to rebrand the Federal Quality Improvement movement, and how it outweighed all of the good that had been achieved, click below.

It did not matter that the Air Force’s Quality Institute at Maxwell AFB was among the nation’s most admired improvement centers.  Or that the Army had won literally the “triple crown” of quality improvement awards at the Picatinny Arsenal (winning the Baldrige, President’s, and Governor’s awards for quality and business process improvement).  It did not matter that there was an extensive network of thousands of champions of quality improvement, many more thousands engaged in the work of pursuing government excellence, or that this was being done in unprecedented collaborations between management and the principal employee unions.

The hopeful advice of Robert Reich to “build reinventing Government on the Foundation of the Quality movement” was quickly dismissed. In very short order the President’s Council on Management Improvement was replaced by the President’s Management Council.  In fact, these were functionally almost identical groups.  One day, and without notice, trucks and staff dispatched by the General Services Administration- the government’s landlords and property managers – showed up to shut down the Federal Quality Institute.  As my friend and colleagues later told me, computers were unplugged and shrink-wrapped; desks and file cabinets emptied and hauled away.  The employees- mainly managers on loan from other Federal agencies- were told to go home.  In a day, more than six years of positive work, good will, and proven results, was ended.

At DOL, as at other Federal departments and agencies, the new staff and infrastructure of Reinventing Government quickly emerged.  New political appointees were named.  These were people from outside the Department.  People who did not know EIQI, Jim Armshaw, me, or anyone else already doing the work of improving the USDOL.  Despite the fact that neither Jim nor I were in any way partisan during our work on EIQI, we (like virtually everyone we talked to at other Federal agencies), were presumed tainted by having worked in the G. H. W. Bush Administration.  Establishing relationships of trust with the new leadership team was not likely.  We were simply not given the full opportunity to prove our commitment to the new direction of Reinventing Government.  Though the culture that had emerged through EIQI persisted in some places, the demands and constraints of Reinventing Government soon prevailed.  The handful of EIQI leaders who got involved with Reinventing Government, gave in to the new dominant culture.

To his credit, Secretary Reich tried to be true to the message he delivered at the Federal Quality Conference.

The Liminal Zone

Just as the Department of Labor was impacted by the perceptions of the new Administration’s leaders, so too was the NCFLL.  Several local union leaders had apparently felt their own power diminished by the success of EIQI and its shift to a collaborative decision-making model.  Just as DOL had a few managers who were the “sabotadors” working to resist and oppose the mandated changes of EIQI, so too did the NCFLL.  But where the management resisters were open and clear about their intentions, the union’s EIQI opponents worked quietly from the shadows.  The sense was that by working so closely with management, I was somehow “too much of both, and not enough of either” to still be a strong Union leader.

Link 10: To read the rest of the story on the consequences (to me) of people acting on initial perceptions, without inquiring to get available understanding, click below.

When the NCFLL held its next election, I found myself off the majority slate without warning, and in a losing position.  The Council President, and a few friends, told me that there had been a small but strong backlash against me remaining on the Council Board.  In fact, I had personally handled around 1,000 employee grievances, and led many precedent-setting tough negotiations.  In the wake of the EIQI initial agreement in late 1989, the NCFLL had agreed to negotiate its next contract using the methods of collaborative, or “win-win” bargaining.  The result, which I helped negotiate in 1990, was a 242-page agreement, every word of which was agreed to by the consensus of all 22 negotiators.  This was literally the first such agreement of its kind in the Federal sector.

But none of my past achievements with EIQI and the union’s historic “win-win” collective bargaining agreement mattered to the few loud voices seeking to restore their own power and influence.  They had not been able to adapt to the collaborative approach and self-organizing methods of EIQI.  From their perspective, I had crossed some invisible line into a liminal zone.  No longer one of them, not yet one of the other.  From the shadows, they had built a coalition to vote me off the Council.

In return for my long service, I was allowed to remain as the Council’s designee for EIQI for one more year.  This was the time of EIQI ending, and Reinventing Government emerging.

Into The Next

In the Spring of 1994, I attended what was my final Federal Quality Conference.  By this time, the attention and focus had moved away from TQM, and towards David Osborne’s Reinventing Government.  One of the speakers at the conference that year was Clare Crawford-Mason.  After her talk, I approached her.  I politely said there was a question I wanted to ask her, but that it was somewhat sensitive, and I would appreciate it if we could talk alone out in the hallway.  She agreed.  I told Clare that I wanted to ask about her husband’s letter to Al Gore.  Her face turned bright red.  Without a word, she turned her back to me and walked away.

What If. . . ?

To paraphrase the iconic radio and television series Dragnet, “the story you have just read is true.”  In each case, and at each moment, the ways that Jim Armshaw and I both understood the context of our work, and decided on what to do next, were shaped by our lived experience.  Everything that each of us had lived through, learned from, and learned about, shaped our view of each next moment.  This, in turn, shaped the decisions we made and the actions we took as we acted into the probable and possible future.

The dominant knowledge and understanding that permeated our work in developing and leading the EIQI initiative was from W. Edwards Deming.  As advanced as Deming’s ideas were, the practice of TQM and our adoption of Deming’s approach, were firmly rooted in a particular view of. . . everything.  Implicit in this approach to change and improvement, is what I have come to call the Persistent Pernicious Presumption.  The Presumption is that the cause-and-effect relationships between actions an organization may take, and the results they will get – even in the most complex of challenges and situations- are knowable and predictable prospectively.  Again and again, managers and leaders look to presumed experts for solutions to the most difficult challenges.

To quote the words often attributed to Will Rogers, “it ain’t what ya don’t know that gets you in trouble.   It’s what ya know for certain, that just ain’t so.”  We humans have achieved so much in so many remarkable ways acting on the presumptions of what is known and knowable.  Yet at the same time, we often treat what we know to be the unknowable systemic responses of the future, AS IF these too were stable, predictable, and controllable situations.

In 1994, as I was in my final year leading EIQI, a DOL colleague came into my office in Washington one morning.  In their hand was a book that they wanted me to see.  The book was by an academic from Utah, and it had apparently had very favorable reviews in business and organizational change forums.  I looked at the cover, and read the title: “Leadership and the New Science,” by Margaret Wheatley.  The cover had a strange sort of three-winged shape on it.  Flipping through the book, I saw more unusual graphs, and sections about Isaac Newton, Physics, and. . . Leadership.  At that moment in my life, this book made no sense to me.  I saw no connection between my studies of Deming’s ideas, and the “weird stuff” that seemed to be in this new book.  I handed it back and thanked my friend.  It was not until 1998 that I had a literally life-changing experience as my mind was opened to the science of Complex Adaptive Systems, and I came to see the value of the book I was shown in 1994.

One slightly rainy day in 1998, in San Francisco, my family and I went to the well-known Exploratorium hands-on science museum.  The featured exhibits that day were called “Turbulent Landscapes.”  They were collaborations between scientists and artists, that demonstrated the dynamics and behaviors of complex and chaotic systems.  I saw and played with one of the exhibits, which featured a long pendulum with a magnet at the tip.  On the table below were magnets you could move, and stack to either attract or repel the magnet on the pendulum.

Link 12: To read the rest of the story about my literally life-changing metaphorical insight as I played with the Oscillating Magnetic Pendulum, click below.

When we let go of a pendulum, we typically expect it to oscillate back and forth in stable, predictable arcs.  But letting go of this magnetic pendulum, and watching it move through the fields of the magnets on the table, was unlike anything I had ever seen.  After one or two typical swings, the pendulum would suddenly veer off, and gyrate briefly around one of the other magnets on the table.  If there was just one magnet and it was set to attract the pendulum, the pendulum’s momentum might swing it onwards.  If the magnet on the table was flipped to repel the pendulum, the pendulum might veer quickly away and take another wild and unpredictable path.  Stacking a few magnets to attract the pendulum would result in its momentum quickly being overcome by the strong pull on the table, and the pendulum would stop abruptly over the powerful magnets.  Spreading the table magnets to all repel the pendulum, might cause the pendulum, as its initial energy and momentum dissipated, to find an uncomfortable resting place in the midst of the others.

My life-changing experience in that moment, was to see MYSELF as the thing swinging on the end of the pendulum.  The journey as it swung and gyrated and finally stopped, was my journey through the people and power and ideas I encountered every day in my work with EIQI.  One stack attracting- EIQI.  Another stack attracting- Reinventing Government.  Most magnets individually attracting, but two stacked high to repel- my “resisters” working to resist me and my efforts.  All stacked to repel- my inability to find a welcoming place to continue in productive working relationships, as the dominant agenda and context changed.

The Exploratorium had a few handouts on the Complex Systems science that these exhibits were all about.  I quickly devoured the literature about “self-organizing systems,” “attractors of meaning,” “coupling and constraints” and “self-organized criticality.” (See: http://www.exploratorium.edu/turbulent/CompLexicon/exhibition.html ).  Over the next two years, I read every book I could find on Complexity, particularly as it applied to the work of change in organizations.

And so. . .

 Over the past 35+ years, scientists have made many discoveries about systems that are not merely complicated, but are in fact complex.  Both systems in nature- as were expressed at the Exploratorium’s exhibition that changed my life- and human systems, may exhibit patterns and dynamics that are not necessarily stable, predictable and controllable.  In organizations, as in other human social contexts, we might wish that the situations we are acting into did have those predictable and controllable capacities.  Again and again, leaders in organizations hire consultants who tout their expertise, or their experience addressing similar challenges in other organizations.  Again and again, the initiatives and actions undertaken by these professed “experts,” fail in the face of what is complex, and not just complicated.

Everyone I know, would immediately understand what to do if the point on their pencil broke.  Find sharpener; use sharpener; solve problem.  Only a very few people I know personally would know how to fix a broken car transmission.  But those who know, could reliably use their knowledge and make it work again.  Fewer still- trained medical professionals with experience- might know how to address a severely clogged artery, or brain tumor.  In each of these types of cases, the probability of success varies, and typically diminishes with the increased complications and complexity.  What were the odds that people trapped inside the World Trade Center Tower on 9/11, had both the sufficient knowledge, and understanding of what was happening to them and around them, to decide on a workable response for survival?

The story above, about the creation, growth success, and eventual demise of the EIQI change initiative at the U.S. Department of Labor, is not unlike the brief examples in the paragraph above.  Just as the examples of pencils, transmissions, and tumors, reflect fundamentally different types of challenges, they also call us to different optimal patterns of response.  These optimal patterns have been documented and described most effectively in the work of Dave Snowden first with Cynthia Kurtz and later with Mary Boone (See Kurtz and Snowden, 2003, “The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-Making in a Complex and Complicated World”  http://alumni.media.mit.edu/~brooks/storybiz/kurtz.pdf  and Snowden and Boone, “A Leader’s Framework For Decision-Making” HBR 2007 at https://hbr.org/2007/11/a-leaders-framework-for-decision-making ).  When our best understanding of the situation tells us we are facing a simple, obvious problem, we should “sense-categorize-respond” (ibid.).  When the situation is more complicated, but a good expert can reliably solve the problem, we should “sense-analyze-respond” (ibid.).  When the situation is truly complex, the full dynamics of cause-and-effect are not known prospectively, and we may know more about what works best after the fact, we should “probe-sense-respond.” (ibid.).  If things are in chaos, and we hardly know what is going on, let alone how to stabilize the situation and act towards some desired objective, we should “act-sense-respond” (ibid.).

Organizational change literature is filled with process theories, analyses, and recommendations about using “best practices.”  But in practice, these “best” practices are really only useable in the most obvious and pretty stable complicated situations (ibid.).

There are a number of key concepts learned from the study of human complex systems- typically described as complex ADAPTIVE systems, for the ways that the systems respond and evolve – that can better inform us in situations like leading EIQI at the Department of Labor.  In some cases, Jim Armshaw and I either by instinct or accident, stumbled into these optimal ways of response.  In other cases, as we will see, a complex adaptive system’s understanding could have made a significant positive impact on the outcome of the work.

The paragraphs below reflect on some key developments in the evolution and life of the EIQI initiative.  In each case, consider the potential impact of the complexity perspective:

  • The basic motivation for change at the USDOL, and indeed, in the Federal government under President G. H. W. Bush, was a response to the Grace Commission report. The conclusion then was that government could, and should, adopt the methods of process improvement pioneered by Deming and his peers.  The objectives for DOL and other Federal agencies were the common “better, faster, cheaper” outputs and outcomes seen particularly in the manufacturing sector.  BUT WHAT IF. . . The systems, challenges and desired outcomes of DOL agencies were not just about productivity?  The Mine Safety and Health Administration certainly worked to assure fewer accidents and injuries in surface and underground mines.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics certainly worked to gather accurate data for the Consumer Price Index.  The Wage And Hour Division worked to assure that employees were paid in accordance with Federal laws.  It is fairly easy to count the numbers of investigations conducted per person, per year.  It is easy to count the number of hours that each investigation takes, and calculate averages, even by type of statute and case.  Yet the questions of the QUALITY of an investigation were far more elusive and complex.  So too were the questions about the impact of education and outreach activities by DOL agencies, on current and future compliance behaviors.  DOL data made clear that not only would the Wage and Hour Division only investigate around 5% of employers subject to the law in the late 1970s, but that rates of recidivism- did a past violator who got caught, violate the law again in the future- were flat over a period of many years.  How could front-line employees and agency change leaders in the EIQI initiative have worked differently, to address these truly complex questions?
  • The process improvement teams in EIQI were required by us to use a structured approach to problem-solving. This implied that the solutions to various improvement challenges were known or knowable.  It also implied that the assessment of results was rather easily achievable.  If we understood then that some of the challenges being addressed were complex and not just complicated, how could EIQI teams have worked differently to both explore possible improvements, and assess results?
  • EIQI teams emerged through self-organization. We did not question the intention of any new improvement team, or direct them with regard to the challenges they chose to address.  It is true that over the years EIQI was in place, these teams produced great results.  If we had understood then the power of ideas and narratives to influence thought and action – the social patterns and dynamics I had seen in the oscillating magnetic pendulum at the Exploratorium- what might we have done differently to guide the employees forming these teams as they considered their decisions and actions?
  • Both the managers in DOL, and the leaders in the NCFLL, acted on some fears of losing power, to resist the changes of EIQI. Complex Adaptive Systems science tells us that the individuals acting in these situations simultaneously affect and are affected by, the communication and actions of everyone else.  The EIQI system had regular communications from Jim and I through the agency Union-Management Pairs, and in turn, from the Pairs through to the managers and teams in each agency.  While we had designed EIQI explicitly to empower front-line employees and managers throughout DOL to act in creating process improvement, we did not initially consider, or build systems for accountability.  How might we have designed the EIQI system differently, if we had understood at the time, that sets of core operating principles and loops of communication and feedback simultaneously influenced, enabled, and constrained behaviors? (see also Alicia Juarrero, “Dynamics In Action,” https://aliciajuarrerodotcom1.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/dynamics-in-action-pdf1.pdf ).
  • Scientist Ross Ashby posited what he called the “Law of Requisite Variety” for complex systems. According to Ashby’s Law a system needed a certain level of variety, in order to maintain its stability.  Vladimir Dimitrov, a professor at the University of Western Sydney who taught in their unique Complexity Masters degree program, posited a corollary to Ashby’s law.  Vlad Dimitrov said that there is also a “Law of Requisite Vorticity.”  Dimitrov was referring to the rate and types of communicated exchanges between and among the people in the situation or system.  Dimitrov used a swirling vortex-  like the twisting of a tornado – as a metaphor for the dynamics and levels of human communication necessary to generate the level of communication required to have adaptive capacity in a group, organization, or system (for Ashby’s Law of Requisite Vorticity, see https://www.edge.org/response-detail/27150 and for Dimitrov’s Law of requisite Vorticity, see http://www.zulenet.com/vladimirdimitrov/pages/vorticity.html ).  If we had understood these concepts at the time, how might we have designed EIQI to influence both the variety of approaches teams were taking to solve the same complex challenges?  How might we have worked to better facilitate the exchanges of communication between and among the EIQI teams?
  • Complexity-inspired researcher and teacher Shawn Callahan, has co-written an article about the journey of Lewis and Clark as they explored the American West. When Lewis and Clark set out, they had a map lacking many details, and wrong in some details.  They had a compass to guide them towards what they believed to be their destination.  Each step of the way, Lewis and Clark had to add detail and correction to their map.  They acquired both knowledge and understanding of the many complex cultural, and geographic situations they were acting into.  At times they had to change both their fundamental understanding of what they were acting into, and of the best choices to act for a better outcome.  If we had understood this at the time, how might we have designed EIQI differently to help improvement teams better expand their maps, and navigate through the unexpected obstacles and opportunities they encountered?
  • In both government and the private sector, organizations want to know the results of their actions. This is true for basic processes of production and service, and it is also true for initiatives bought and undertaken with the intention of positive change.  With EIQI, we asked for, and got, basic “better-faster-cheaper” data.  In every case, actions in EIQI were predicated on the presumption that a team’s theory of what was happening and how to make it better, could be correct.  Yet, as is the case with many organizational managers and leaders, people throughout the USDOL explicitly understood that some of the stuff people wanted to know, was not measurable in these traditional ways.  When I returned to Federal service in 2008 to lead the process improvement efforts at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, I quickly learned that the grantees of the agency’s $3billion annual budget were expected to use “Evidence Based Practices” to create better outcomes.  Yet the challenges of substance abuse and mental illness were not fixable, or measurable, in these ways.  Researcher Michael Quinn Patton is an expert in the field of evaluating the outcomes of people’s actions in organizations.  As Mr. Patton became aware of, and familiar with the concepts of Complex Adaptive Systems, he formed an alternative approach.  Patton’s Developmental Evaluation is related both to the Kurtz and Snowden optimal patterns for acting into complexity, and to the continuous observation, learning, and adapting of Lewis and Clark.  Michael Quinn Patton turned the traditional methods of assessment and evaluation in change efforts around.  His methods of “Developmental Evaluation” call for acting into a system, then getting data about what happened, and only then using the data to inform the theory about what is happening and the ways it might best be changed.  (See Michael Quinn Patton, “Developmental Evaluation” as quoted in part at https://www.betterevaluation.org/en/plan/approach/developmental_evaluation ).  If we had understood this at the time, how might we have worked to better evaluate the approaches and impacts of EIQI?  How would the use of Developmental Evaluation have positively impacted EIQI over time?  What might we have measured, if we could not count the “how many?” And “how much?” as the EIQI teams acted into the unknown territory of complex challenges?

Through the New Lens

My experience with creating and leading the EIQI initiative at the U.S. Department of Labor was truly the opportunity of a lifetime.  Jim Armshaw and I, by intention and by coincidence, created a unique and wonderfully productive system for positive change through union-management collaboration.  I will never know what we might have done differently, or what might have happened, if we had known and understood the dynamics and methods of acting in Complex Adaptive Systems in 1990.

With the benefit of this understanding today, and years of both teaching and applying these methods, I can offer the following as key learnings to help you in your own journey into complexity:

  • The foundations of positive change are the capacities for rational sense-making; continuous (re)learning; the negotiation of meaning and coordination of action. 
  • Sense-making is a collective and continuous activity. 
  • There are always multiple interacting systems of understanding, action, and response, that create various boundaries and constraints as they continuously evolve. These simultaneously constrain and enable the exploration of Possibility Space. 
  • A short set of agreed-upon core values and operating principles will serve both as a lens for assessing ideas, actions, and results, and for holding people accountable. 
  • Creating and communicating a powerful Attractor of Meaning- a coherent, resonant narrative – can serve as the catalyst to spark and inspire individual and collective self-organizing action. 
  • The biggest obstacle to change is FEAR. FEAR is born of NOT-KNOWING and NOT-UNDERSTANDING.  The dynamics of POWER and CONTROL are directly related to the levels of NOT-KNOWING and NOT-UNDERSTANDING. 
  • A Key Objective for every leader and individual in any dynamical human system is to increase personal and collective ARC- your Adaptive Response Capacity. 
  • With the knowledge and understanding of the systems we are working in, our increased ARC gives us increased COURAGE and CURIOSITY, to act well into the complex FLUX of our change efforts in organizations- and in life. 
  • Rather than have a small number of leaders with presumed knowledge and claimed authority making the decisions for change, support multiple simultaneous groups to be in equally empowered dialogue, trying multiple simultaneous explorations of the Possible. Act without fear, and learn equally from both success and failure.
  • Sharing information and knowledge is essential to improved ARC, and to greater collective success.


Ed Cohen-Rosenthal and Cynthia Burton, “Mutual Gains” Cornell University Press 1993

Richard Knowles “The Leadership Dance” Center for Self-Organizing Leadership, 2002

Cynthia Kurtz, “Working With Stories In Your Community or Organization: Participatory Narrative Inquiry”

Kurtz and Snowden, 2003 article, “the New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-making in a Complex and Complicated World” IBM Systems Journal Vol 42, #3 2003

Michael Q. Patton, “Developmental Evaluation” The Guilford Press; 2010

Patricia Shaw, “Changing Conversations in Organizations” Routledge, 2002

Peter Scholtes, Brian Joiner, Barbara Streibel, “The TEAM Handbook” GoalQPC, 2003

Patrick Townsend, “Commit to Quality” Wiley, 1990

Snowden and Boone, HBR November 2007 “A Leader’s Framework For Change”

Mary Walton, “The Deming Management Method” Perigee, 1988

Bruce Waltuck and Denise Easton, Journal For Quality and Participation, “The World According to FLUX” July, 2013

Bruce Waltuck, ASQ Human Development and Leadership Division, “Complexity and Quality Primer” 2010

Margaret Wheatley, “Leadership and the New Science” 3d Ed. Berrett-Koehler, 2006

Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, “A Simpler Way” Berrett-Koehler, 1999