First, I am not an expert in sensemaking in the academic sense. As a practitioner/consultant in the knowledge work arena, I am writing this. Nothing in this article is intended to attend to domains outside of knowledge work, although I am sure some of it does.

Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld state that “Sensemaking involves turning circumstances into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action.” There are several schools of sensemaking present. Each provides useful insights.

Since knowledge work is done in a complex adaptive system, sensemaking is useful to better understand what often appears to be a chaotic, impenetrable situation. Systems thinking tells us that systems are more about the relationships between the systems than the components of the system. For example, Russ Ackoff points out that a collection of the best parts of the best cars is just a pile of junk. One way of thinking about this is not that we exist in different states but that there is an integration of simple, complicated, and complex relationships in knowledge work.

These relationships have simple, complicated, and complex (meaning not understandable or even visible). Understanding how the parts of a system interact is consistent with what Dr. Eli Goldratt (creator of Theory of Constraints) describes in The Choice. He calls the essence of his approach ‘Inherent Simplicity’. This is expressed in the quotes from the book in the attached picture. Please read those now before continuing.

The question, of course, is what are these “very few elements at the base.” Observations of both successful and failed attempts to improve an organization’s ability to deliver value to stakeholders have led me to conclude that there are nine of these. I call these “vectors for effectiveness.” They are, in a sense, dimensions to observe how to improve an organization. They are consistent with the natural laws of knowledge work. They are:

– Value stream management
– Working on small items of high value
– Managing queues and work in process
– Quality of workflow
– making work and workflow visible
– Getting feedback quickly
– Efficient value creation Structure
– Independence of value streams
– Good product quality and architecture

Effective organizations tend to do these well, and ineffective ones can improve by attending to them.

Because complexity (both inside and outside our organization) is ever-present in knowledge work, we can never see exactly what is happening, nor can we make accurate predictions.¬†However, if we don’t attend to the complicated causal relationships known via Flow, Lean, and Theory of Constraints, we can be assured our methods will be out of control.

Then, the approach I espouse is to understand what we are predictably doing wrong. We look for the results of actions based on these factors and validate (or invalidate) them. This results in moving forward or learning by exposing relationships we either see or don’t understand due to their complexity. This enables us to move forward. It also suggests we take a skeptical view of these factors themselves. We are always looking to refine our model for understanding.

It is also essential to recognize that in knowledge work, there is a particular type of waste that complexity enables. These are when a small error results in a significant cost. These are called non-linear events. Non-linear events due to a combination of three things: 1) a small error, 2) lack of visibility to see what’s going on (often due to complexity), 3) coupling that results in a cascade of errors, resulting in a significant error. A great example of this knowledge work is when a minor misunderstanding of a stated requirement causes creating the wrong functionality in an extensive program that makes it useless. Or a “one-off” error in code causes a catastrophic error.

The bottom line is that sensemaking should be used to take effective action. By using inherent simplicity and the factors for effectiveness I’ve identified, you can better see what’s going on and have these observations be directly related to actions you can take to improve the situation.