Indian religion has always felt that since the minds, the temperaments and the intellectual affinities of men are unlimited in their variety, a perfect liberty of thought and of worship must be allowed to the individual in his approach to the Infinite. – Sri Aurobindo
If I were to pick out one book that has affected the way in which I have analysed problems over the last decade or so it would be Understanding Variation by Donald J. Wheeler.
Wheeler is an expert on statistics – especially the bits that tell you how to figure out when something is really happening and when it’s just random – where there’s a signal and where there is just noise.
Having a framework based on understanding variation helps you in two specific areas.
One is when you’re trying to understand whether a particular sequence of numbers is telling you a story or not.
Is it possible to figure out when you should do something and when you should just wait and sit on your hands?
The answer is, arguably, yes.
If you have an understanding of what is sometimes called a mean-variance framework you can make decisions that, over the long term, will probably deliver good results.
The second area where understanding variation helps you is when you make things.
Things like bread and cars and keyboards.
Everything you see, really – all the products that help you live the way you do.
The key thing to understand here is that the people who make products want to minimise variation.
If you go to the supermarket and pick up a loaf of bread you want to know that it’s the same as every other load of bread with that packaging.
For example, a Kingsmill 50/50 loaf needs to look like the love child of white bread and brown bread.
It can’t have seeds in there, or decide that some slices should be longer than others or perhaps triangular.
That sort of variation is not going to make you happy.
This is something that’s so obvious and taken for granted that we don’t really think about the thinking behind this.
Once upon a time you went to a tailor and had clothes made for you.
Now you go to a shop and pick up a size that fits – and you expect that there is an order to things – a waist size of 36 means just that – not 40.
Although that said – it looks like manufacturers have realised that they sell more jeans to men if they label the ones that have a waist of 40 with 36 – but the point about consistency, whatever the measure, still stands.
Now, variation is all very well when you’re dealing with impersonal things like things and numbers but it’s very different for situations that involve people.
It’s just that no one told us that.
If you go into any office there will be someone trying to standardise and writing policies and procedures and insisting that a System be used to record everything.
New managers think that this is their role – to monitor and control and structure and tell.
Administrators and auditors and support services try and make things follow a Process – creating forms and templates and libraries of things.
All of which sounds very sensible when you come from a world where managing variation leads to good things.
Surely, if you all do things the same way then you’ll deliver great service and the customer will be happy?
It will not surprise you to learn that the answer is no.
Which is why in the next few decades I expect to increasingly draw on the work of Professor John Seddon and the books and papers he has authored in which perhaps the most important point is the one he makes on variety – leaving the world of variation behind.
When you’re making things you want everything to be the same – you want to reduce variation.
When you’re serving people what you want is to be able to deal with variety.
Now, this is something that is hard to explain to people who aren’t ready to hear it.
People who want control, who want to install a CRM, who want a sales process or who want to create job roles and descriptions – these people aren’t going to listen to you.
Because they know they’re doing the right thing.
Even though they aren’t.
Now, here’s the extreme version of this argument.
Think of a society that once wanted everyone to confirm to a particular idea of the perfect.
Anyone who didn’t fit was eliminated.
Remember what happened?
The thing about people is that they are different – individual and unique.
If you want to serve them then you need to understand them – deeply.
And that’s difficult to do.
But all the literature has the same underlying message.
If you want to talk to kids, first learn to listen to them.
If you want to help someone going through a tough time listen to them.
But more than that – learn not to judge and correct and direct.
But to see.
What they see.
And it’s probably the hardest thing to do, for some of us anyway.
But if you do it’s like going from seeing films in black and white to colour – it’s not something you’ll ever go back from.
You won’t put people in boxes or processes or structures or roles.
Instead you’ll collaborate with them, work with them and learn more together.
It’s a big shift, moving from selling boxes to understanding your customer in their full technicolour dreamcoat variety.
But if you take the trouble you’ll have no problem delighting them with what you offer.