When intelligent people turn out to be really stupid: Chapter 65,535 – Six Sigma and critical thinking

Knowing better, but actually being struck across the forehead with evidence of astonishing stupidity in academic and business practices is probably more painful than that initial moment of clarity when the futility of determinist reductionism first comes into sharp focus.

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The latter occurred for me decades ago, and echoes the late Christopher Hitchens’ ruminations on people who have power:

… I began to discern one of the elements of an education: get as near to the supposed masters and commanders as you can and see what stuff they are really made of. As I watched famous scholars and professors flounder here and there, I also, in my career as a speaker at the Oxford Union, had a chance to meet senior ministers and parliamentarians “up close” and dine with them before as well as drink with them afterward, and be amazed once again at how ignorant and sometimes plain stupid were the people who claimed to run the country.

— Christopher Hitchens (2010). Hitch 22: A Memoir. New York: Twelve/Hachette Book Group, p 98.

Hitchens was talking about politicians, but I suspect his observation applies equally well to tenured academics and business executives, particularly in an era in which they have hardly covered themselves with glory, even if they have managed to submerge themselves in vaults of money, like earnestly pursued realisations of Scrooge McDuck cartoons.

Bleed … repeat …

The repeat realisation I mentioned above occurred some weeks ago, when I reviewed an academic paper as part of my business process management (BPM) studies. It was Amin Ayad’s 2010 essay ‘Critical thinking and business process improvement’ (Journal of Management Development, 29(6), 2010, 556-564). The thesis of the paper? That the statistical tyranny of Six Sigma and the potential for deterministic bias in the Five Whys method for root cause analysis were flawed … if not tempered by critical thinking! (I offer a brief explanation of both some paragraphs below.)

Just take a moment to let that sink in.

Methodology and technique is flawed without critical thinking.

And it takes an academic paper to tell us that.

Amused as I was when I first read this paper, the full import of the clobbering I described in the first paragraph took some time to register. I was busy with final assignments and exam prep. But yesterday I had an experience in which notionally intelligent and informed people behaved in inexplicably silly ways, insisting on a robotic adherence to an unspecified agreement on method and technique that reminded me of the paper, and why it is probably necessary to write such things. These people, probably best described as lay technocrats with crypto-literary pretensions (dare I call them ‘technocrati’?), enforced a determinist reductionism reducing the elements of a discussion to an imposed set of values and ideologies without ever specifying the ideology, or even being aware of what they were doing, let alone the consequences. How can notionally smart people not see that an astigmatic imposition of rules about what is to be considered permissible, reality, or truth can only lead to ludicrous conclusions?

Worse still, this has actually been an outcome of university training in the professions for some time. People are given method and technique, but not the skill of thinking critically about what these imply in various specific circumstances. They become professionals who unthinkingly apply models that are inherently limited, and in ways that completely ignore the need for adapting formulaic prescriptions to match context and expected outcomes. There are no better exemplars of this kind of blinkered luddism than STEM graduates, and BPM is a crossover discipline between that area and business practices, effectively resurrecting Taylorism as a profession.

BPM, Six Sigma, Five Whys

BPM probably means very little to people not affected by it. For me it is a misnomer that tries to encapsulate the disciplined and methodological identification of strategic capabilities and how they are expressed in organisational activities. I say misnomer because the word ‘business’ is intractably intertwined with meanings about post-industrial political economy, and ‘process management’ is similarly linked to an engineering paradigm rooted in manufacturing practices that are misaligned when applied to non-manufacturing activities.

The goal of BPM as a professional discipline is ‘improvement’, and traditionally that has been mostly about cutting costs (automating tasks and sacking people) or decreasing failure rates (more automation and regulating personnel activities with prescriptive rules). The literature is replete with lofty rhetoric about employee empowerment, knowledge management, competitive advantage, flexibility, agility, ambidexterity, and a whole bunch of other jargon that rarely sees the light of day as a successful outcome from a BPM initiative. The sort of stuff that idealistic and enthusiastic graduates are supposed to use as a tool-set for changing the world into a better place.

In a BPM context, Six Sigma and root cause analysis are tools for analysing and addressing process shortcomings. Six Sigma, or 6σ, references a statistical scorecard based on standard deviations measuring process outcomes across six indicators (which six isn’t really important) to create highlight reporting on failure or non-conformance rates. Six Sigma became popular in the 1980s as part of the Japanese manufacturing TQM methodology, and is today often known as Lean Six Sigma to emphasise a focus on eliminating waste. Root cause analysis, expressed in the Five Whys technique, asks questions about causes of failures or non-conformance five layers deep. Six Sigma is notionally quantitative while Five Whys is qualitative.

But in Ayad’s paper the opening proposition is that interpretation biases make quantitative measures just as subjective as the qualitative ones, which are openly acknowledged as relying on subjectivity. No problem there. Data and statistical analysis rarely tell us anything until someone comes along to clarify why specific datasets have been collected (purpose), and what they mean in a specific context (utility). Even then, though, the meaningfulness of statistics is subject to close scrutiny about samples and what they can be accurately said to resemble. This is where I think the technocrati I encountered yesterday hit a dead end. They simply cannot conceive of the limitations to their numbers-driven thinking, nor of the self-contradictory nature of seeking insights while constraining inputs in a kind of self-perpetuating groupthink.

Sadly, the numbers of failed BPM and/or change projects in public and private sector organisations reflects a similar myopia in BPM practices.

Ayad focused specifically only on two BPM techniques, but made the harrowing observation that found zero literature when conducting searches in several academic databases for results that included both ‘Six Sigma’ and ‘critical thinking’. Apparently numbers-based techniques require no thought beyond the application of formulae.

Critical thinking

The most astonishing part of Ayad’s paper lay in his description of critical thinking. He referred to an American academic initiative, the Delphi Project, which was to establish ‘a systematic inquiry into research on critical thinking’. Ayad quotes the head of this initiative, Peter Facione:

We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. CT is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one’s personal and civic life. While not synonymous with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society.

Fabulous stuff … until you get to the sentence that begins with ‘The ideal critical thinker …’. Hang on a moment. Didn’t he just spell out that critical thinking is self-regulatory judgement? How can you then qualify this by embarking on a series of deterministic pre-requisites? What could possibly be self-regulating about that? What if a critical thinker disagrees with a majority? Is that to be ruled out of bounds because it offends against the majority’s definition of fair-mindedness, honesty, or willingness to reconsider? By those rules you could validate all manner of nonsense so long as a majority group demands it. Shades of evolutionary theory being banned in classrooms, murder by cop for the crime of being black, and many much larger crimes.

And herein lies my insight into the failures of both the technocrati and many contemporary BPM practitioners: they seek to reduce even critical thinking to a formula, which actually obliterates it instead. What is left deserves to be called no more than computation, and the more limited the pre-programmed routines are, the less useful it becomes.

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Why is it so hard for people to accept that judgement must be personal and based on a set of experiences and conclusions about them that cannot be reduced to numbers? It is of course because contemplating such infinitely diverse reasons for coming to conclusions would require a great deal of concentrated effort, and sufficient education, experience, and actual thinking to consider the options for reconciling multiple apparently contradictory perspectives. That is critical thinking. Not some repeatable formula, but the awe inspiring facility of humans to be infinitely variable, and infinitely creative.

This variability and creativity is under constant attack in our era by the limited, limiting computing model I referenced in the title of this reflection. Sixteen bit thinking when circumstances actually demand eight bit thinking, 128 bit thinking, or another modulus entirely, determines its own limits and outcomes before there can be any consideration of the ends of thinking in the first place. Before we can identify the nature of the issue to be addressed, let alone the development of some path to desired outcomes.

Sixteen bit thinking is seductive precisely because it avoids the hard work of thinking altogether. It begins when the technocrati first become aware that a bit of numbers wizardry ‘works’. Say the math underlying the physics, metallurgy, and chemistry that makes flying possible. So if those numbers unarguably underpin real working things, why not the same with more audacious ones? And if those prove to be true too, why not just save time and accept all numbers as significant and unchallengeable? Soon economics calls itself a science, algorithms are regarded as superior to human reasoning, and all that was once the legitimate domain of humanism is banished to the category of irrationality and superstition. All without any need to do any critical thinking. And so the technocrati find their own religion, defined as exactly the thing they say they oppose: unquestioning, irrational faith.

Humanity lost

There is not even a temporary sadness among the technocrati that in this process we lose human ethics, aesthetics, art, creativity (which is not an analogue of the faux ‘innovation’ so often cited), and even the legitimacy of determining our own ends. It is almost as if they longingly aspire to be assimilated into some fantasy Borg fascism. What would make such a nightmare so appealing for such a large number of people? Sociopathy? Neuroticism? Masochism? Malice? All of these rolled into fear?

A compelling, if somewhat clichéd conclusion is that very few people actually dare to think for themselves because they are too scared of having to explain their reasoning, without deference to some formula or orthodoxy, and to stand against private, professional, or public approbation when they are in a minority. Safety in numbers, and all that.

For the technocrati this may be merely a limiting factor in their own personal and professional development, and possibly in the absence of satisfying social relations outside a fixed group (or any social relations at all). But for BPM practitioners, this limitation also translates into human consequences for others, like the ones who get fired for being thought surplus or wasteful as salary and wage costs, or entire societies stripped of valuable choices and services by an unthinking focus on only the tyranny of numbers about cost, profit, and who should have what others don’t. It is the age-old question re-written for modern consumption: do we serve the logics of our organisational systems, or should our organisational systems serve our human ends? Somewhere in between, I think, but preferably in the company of thinkers, not technocrati drones.

As for BPM and Six Sigma, these are fine tools when handled by someone who understands that using a hammer to drive a screw is mostly counterproductive. I sometimes wonder, though, how many professionals not only know this, but understand it too.