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Jurgen Appelo calls himself a creative networker. But sometimes he's a writer, speaker, trainer, entrepreneur, illustrator, manager, blogger, reader, dreamer, leader, freethinker, or… Dutch guy. Since 2008 Jurgen writes a popular blog at, covering the creative economy, agile management, and personal development. He is the author of the book Management 3.0, which describes the role of the manager in agile organizations. And he wrote the little book How to Change the World, which describes a supermodel for change management. Jurgen is CEO of the business network Happy Melly, and co-founder of the Agile Lean Europe network and the Stoos Network. He is also a speaker who is regularly invited to talk at business seminars and conferences around the world. After studying Software Engineering at the Delft University of Technology, and earning his Master’s degree in 1994, Jurgen Appelo has busied himself starting up and leading a variety of Dutch businesses, always in the position of team leader, manager, or executive. Jurgen has experience in leading a horde of 100 software developers, development managers, project managers, business consultants, service managers, and kangaroos, some of which he hired accidentally. Nowadays he works full-time managing the Happy Melly ecosystem, developing innovative courseware, books, and other types of original content. But sometimes Jurgen puts it all aside to spend time on his ever-growing collection of science fiction and fantasy literature, which he stacks in a self-designed book case. It is 4 meters high. Jurgen lives in Rotterdam (The Netherlands) -- and in Brussels (Belgium) -- with his partner Raoul. He has two kids, and an imaginary hamster called George. Jurgen has posted 145 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

The "Optimal" Fallacy

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You cannot “optimize the whole”. The best you can do is sub-optimize, cooperate, and iterate.

Stakeholders Allow me to share with you the trouble of speaking at conferences and organizing courses. When conference organizers invite speakers, the optimal thing for them to do is to make speakers commit to their conference as early as possible, while the organizers themselves try to defer their own decisions for as long as possible. At the same time speakers who organize courses want to commit to conferences as late as possible, while trying to get participants for courses to commit as early as possible.

As a speaker and trainer my daily life is a neverending stream of decisions that all tend to be compromises between customers, partners, suppliers, and other stakeholders. People ask me for decisions about speaking engagements, while I’m waiting for courses to be finalized. I attempt to have partners commit to courses, while they defer decisions waiting for participants. We are all selfish bastards, optimizing for ourselves. And therefore we are all sub-optimizing.

There is no other way.

Optimize the Whole

There exists a Lean principle called “Optimize the Whole”, which is too often interpreted as an instruction to only optimize “the whole of the system” and to refrain from optimizing subsystems in an organization. Again and again I come across suggestions to “consider the whole value stream”, to “measure results end-to-end”, and to “focus on customer value”. The assumption is that the customer’s view on a business is one that includes the whole system and therefore a relentless focus on customer value delivery will “optimize the whole”.

This is not true.

A business is a complex system involving customers, employees, shareholders, suppliers, partners, local communities, and natural resources. (And a number of very confused managers.) They all try to optimize for themselves. No observer of a system can claim to have an objective view on the whole, wrote Jerry Weinberg in An Introduction to General Systems Thinking. And therefore, the customer’s view differs from the shareholder’ view. The shareholder’s view differs from the view of the local community, and so on, and so on. Movements like stakeholder management and sustainable development attempt to address the need for reconciliation of multiple views on businesses, from different perspectives.

The Optimizing Whole

We cannot “optimize the whole” by focusing only on the customer. The best we can do is sub-optimize, negotiate, cooperate, and re-optimize, in a neverending stream of compromises. All the parts try to optimize for themselves, and through interdependencies between the parts the whole system tends to evolve to an optimal situation, wrote Stuart Kauffman in At Home in the Universe. That’s how complex systems optimize a whole. Not as a principle to be followed, but as the outcome of interdependent parts, cooperation, and iteration.

The optimizing whole is emergent, not directed.

I call this kind of reasoning complexity thinking, which is slightly different from systems thinking. Some systems thinkers and Lean gurus seem to optimize their own consultancy firms instead of teaching people the nature of complex adaptive systems. But I get paid for helping people think, instead of selling solutions. Lean tools are nice, but counterproductive when applied without proper thinking, wrote John Seddon in Freedom from Command & Control.

Feel free to contact me and add an invitation to my very sub-optimal calendar.

Published at DZone with permission of its author, Jurgen Appelo. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)



Mathias Holmgren replied on Wed, 2011/03/23 - 6:28am


Shumona Kapil replied on Sun, 2012/02/19 - 9:40am

Since there is no way to fairly aggregate multiple stakeholder preferences into a single ranked list of performance preferences (ie PR0), there is no way to agree on an "optimal" system across all stakeholders. QED.

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