The Physiology of Change

There’s a phrase that you hear often in management circles. It’s also quite common in lean-agile writings. It’s one of those pithy statements that has become elevated to the rarefied status of a truism:

“You can only change what you can measure”

Measurement certainly plays a key role in Personal Kanban. After all, by limiting Work-in-Progress (WIP) we are quantifying our work.  But the metric is just the start, not the goal in itself. Just because you measure something, doesn’t mean it will change.

Change requires action. Action follows understanding.
Understanding is only possible once you can see and interrogate the problem.

Let’s explore this through an area of my life that has seen significant change over the last few years.

The Symptom

About five years ago, I took up running for the first time. I really enjoyed it, and I found that it was very effective exercise that my body responded to well. But six months into it, I picked up a severe hip flexor injury. I had some physiotherapy, I focused more on warming up and stretching after runs, but the injury remained. Sadly, I gave up running, having come to the conclusion that my body was just not geared for it.  I did continue training, though, focusing mainly on karate.

Then late in 2012 a friend introduced me to trail running. I joined her on a few short races, and enjoyed it so much that I decided to start running again more regularly. But I was wary. I figured it wouldn’t be long before the hip flexor issue showed up again. And I was right. But this time, it took almost 18 months before I started feeling it.

And this time, instead of giving up, I went looking for answers. I realized that my body had grown stronger in the intervening years. And that if I could go 18 months without an injury, I could likely go longer. I did some additional research into hip mobility and discovered a few simple things I could do on a daily basis to continue strengthening and opening up the stabilizing muscles around my hip.

It’s working like a charm. I’m doing almost 10 km a week, and although I do sometimes get a twinge in my hip, it’s improving week on week, thanks to the minor changes to my training regime.

The Root Cause

But five years go, I didn’t understand my body and the way it responds to exercise well enough to make this kind of breakthrough. My understanding was limited, because I couldn’t see past the evidence before me. And my actions – giving up – were defined by my level of understanding.

The same thing happens when you’re treating a complex medical condition, e.g. ADHD in adults. It often manifests with symptoms of anxiety and depression, but these are the symptoms, not the root cause. They are co-morbid conditions, and often the result of trying to cope with the underlying condition. But only once you treat the first visible sign, do you start seeing the underlying condition manifesting in a way that you can address.

Like the body and the mind, organizations are complex systems with many interlinked processes and dynamics. And as in the case of the body and the mind, you need to peel away the layers of the dysfunction, one by one, to achieve deep understanding and change.

Measuring is a powerful tool to help you peel away these layers to increase your understanding so that you can act in the right way to trigger change.

Superficially, limiting WIP is about measuring, but more fundamentally it is about identifying ill-health in the system. By placing a constraint on the system, the dysfunction is exposed, enabling you to see it and deal with it, one dysfunction at a time.

So perhaps we should rephrase that truism slightly:

“You can only change what you can see”.

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