Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Xanpan, ToC, Guilt, plagiarism and sorry

When I was doing my Masters degree I had it hammered into me: credit your sources, don’t plagiarise. To this day I take pride in trying to credit the source of my thoughts, back-up my ideas with research and apportion credit. I won’t always succeed but I think I do a reasonable job. Heck, I’ll go further, I think I do a better job than most.

So image how I felt after my last blog post, about Xanpan, when Benjamin Mitchell tweeted:

“@allankellynet I'm unclear why you don't mention Theory of Constraints 5 Focussing Steps. What's your thinking on this?”

I was mortified because, well, he was right. My blog post discussing how to improve throughput on a Xanpan board was pretty much a Theory of Constraints description.

I had plagiarised. I had failed to credit. And I had written something that other people have written before - probably better than me.

I apologise, I give due credit: these ideas are inspired by the Theory of Constraints - or ToC for short.

So how did I come to make this mistake?

Well, I think the answer is in two parts:

First, I have ToC thinking to heart and it now seems so obvious I’d forgotten it needed crediting

Second, the blog entry was written a day after I’d had a similar conversation with a client. ToC hadn’t been mentioned in that conversation so it wasn’t mentioned here.

So maybe the plagiarism occurred in my conversation with the client. Well yes, but.... my first point still applied and second I tend to avoid crediting with clients. Now I’d better explain that second point some more.

In conversation with clients I tend to avoid saying things like “This comes from....” or “I suggest you go and read....”. Yes I do say those things but every time I say it I believe there are two ways for a client to take it: they may take it as “good, Allan is giving me the original source” or they may take it as “Hmmm, this consultant is name dropping, doesn’t have ideas himself and is very academic.” (Plus, they are paying for my time so perhaps I should just explain things to them.)

In short I don’t think it always helps.

I also remember all those Professors at Business School who uttered “Smith Smith & Smith, 1904” (or whatever) at the end of every sentence. And those turgid academic journal articles where every paragraph was credited and thus become very very boring to read.

I could go on but you get the message.

Now, one more thing, this blog entry is really really defensive. I feel a little attacked by Benjamin - I’m sure he didn’t mean to attack me, its just in 140 characters people come to the point. Maybe he feels attacked by this, don’t know we could get deeper and deeper.

For anyone still reading, I’m sorry for droning on. However I think this does raise an interesting point: in trying to explain things, in writing and in conversation making things accessible and easy to understand is - in my humble opinion - at odds with academic integrity and full disclosure.

As someone who makes a living doing this I need to be more aware of it than most.


  1. Hi Allan,

    I think your response demonstrates your commitment to being an effective and reflective practitioner.

    My twitter response was a genuine one to your initial tweet - "Two more blog entries elaborating on Xanpan & board design - - let me know what you think" that I interpreted as a request to hear my thinking on your post.

    I read it and thought to myself "hmm, that seems close to some (but not all) of Theory of Constraints' 5 Focussing steps but I don't see Allan mention it. Maybe he's got a reason for that that might help me learn more about his view or TOC".

    I realise now that I could have been clearer if I'd expressed my intent in asking the question. Perhaps something like "The reason I'm asking is to check if it was deliberate, due to unawareness (unlikely) or if you've found improvements to TOC, or some other reason? I'm interested in learning more"?

    It was not my intent to attack you. I think the brevity of my tweet (bad twitter!) may have contributed to your feeling. If you had other thoughts on what I've said or done that lead you your feelings of being attacked I'd be interested in hearing more.

    I didn't make the inference that you were plagiarising in your blog post.

    I think using, building and referring to others work in ways that avoid plagiarism is an interesting topic and you've raised some interesting parts of a dilemma - how do we build models to help others with, using language that our clients understand, with appropriate attribution but without trying to plagiarise or pass their work off as our own?

    From my point of view it's natural that we all want to make models to explain the world (my 'constructivism bias') and that these models borrow and blend ideas from others' and our own experience. I could see how we inadvertently do this without meaning to.

    I also think it's useful to provide links to sources especially in writing (which I see you as doing) as it let's interested people go to those sources to find out more. I've been impressed that John Seddon mentions W. Edwards Deming and Chris Argyris. And David J Anderson put me onto Theory of Constraints to begin with. And Don Reinertsen's bibliographies are worth at least as much as his books in my opinion.

    I also struggle with an academic background that makes me want to reference everything in conversations, but also having feedback from clients and others that constantly mentioning other authors is seen as name dropping, academic and takes the focus on helping the client directly.

    I think the approach of using natural language to communicate complex theoretical ideas when talking with clients is a good one.

    In the spirit of practising what I preach, I wonder what you think of one possible approach to surfacing this in conversations that I've thought about?

    My aim would be to surface the dilemma with clients, advocating my view and inquiring into how they wanted to jointly move forward:

    "In helping you, I have models which draw on various theories. I've found that constantly referencing them can slow down the conversation and move the focus away from helping you be productive. My preference is to use natural language when talking with you. If you'd like to know more about the ideas behind my work, or get some book recommendations, I'd be happy to talk about it more. How does that work for you?"

    What are your thoughts?

    Thanks for the feedback, for surfacing the dilemma and giving me an opportunity to practice and reflect.

  2. Yes I think this is a topic worth exploring some more - specifically: what is the right level to talk to clients at.

    Probably the a face-to-face conversation - as we have demonstrated, Blogs & Tweets are not the best medium

    BTW No offence taken, more offended by myself really


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