The Role of Discretion

One area I have struggled with in my work life is the role of discretion. In some work environments, we are expected to follow instructions repeatedly. Individual discretion and variation is frowned upon. In other work environments, repetition is precisely what is frowned upon.

In manufacturing environments, as Deming elucidated, discretion and variation should be eliminated. The more repeatable a process is, the more likely it is to scale. Individual discretion results in variation. As the process scales, variation admits error, meaning the quality of the product goes down as more are produced. A survey of business history will yield multiple examples of professionals who were richly rewarded for sustaining businesses without variation.

In research environments, repetition is considered, for good reason, utterly wasteful. Professionals are expected to discover new things always. Indeed, it is considered an advancement of science to prove that what appears new is actually something old in disguise. Careers are made or destroyed when efforts thought novel are proven derivative.

In software development, the slightest suspicion that a repeated activity might be wasteful is immediately rewarded. The activity is automated and the waste eliminated. Strict adherence to process was considered a counterproductive restriction of personal freedom.

Yet, even large-scale manufacturing systems cannot last forever. Historically, R&D departments were organized to create innovations that were then implemented in manufacturing organizations. The implicit rationale was that manufacturing required a mindset focused on strict repetition, while research required a mindset focused on purposeful variation, and those two mindsets could not exist in a single individual.  Yet this model failed so many times that its failure acquired a name: The Ivory Tower. In some cases, the  research department lost touch with the real needs of manufacturing. In other cases, manufacturing stubbornly insisted that what worked in the past would continue to work in the future.

Recently, a new model has been adopted which accepts the possibility that both mindsets can exist in the same individual. Quality Circles bring together teams from across manufacturing departments to formulate process changes---purposeful variations, innovations, and improvements. But these are separate from the execution of the processes themselves, which are expected to be invariant.

Agile software development teams are beginning to adopt this model. During the iteration, adherence to plan and process is strict, but between iterations, variations and innovations are adopted or considered. Strict adherence to process actually frees the software developer from being distracted by unimportant aspects of the work, and allows him or her to formulate innovations with greater business impact for implementation on a larger scale.

Tags: Business, Philosophy

Updated at: 2 December 2009 8:12 AM