Control, generally.

In one sense of the word, control is an illusion: control does not exist. In another sense of the word, we owe our existence to our ability to control our environment. The difference between the two is the difference between control of people, directly or indirectly, and the control of processes, even if those processes are controlled by people. People cannot be controlled. Processes can be controlled.

In a sufficiently large organization, all control is illusory. This is a key concept for anyone aspiring to management: ultimately, you will never have control. Do not become a manager if you cannot compromise or do not know how to negotiate with others. A system of checks and balances at the corporate level will rob you of the last word in every argument and insist you dedicate (or waste, depending on your point of view) resources to satisfy the needs of others.

Everyone reports to someone. You report to your supervisor. He report to the manager of your department. The manager reports to some director you'll never meet. The director reports to a vice president. The vice presidents collectively report to the president and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the company. The president and CEO reports to various regulatory bodies (routinely), the board of executives, and the shareholders (if any).

Ultimately the path of governance leads back to the governed, or, in the case of a company doing business in the United States, the people who benefit from the company's activities, including the people who purchase the manufactured goods or services the business produces or who benefit, directly or indirectly, from employment or the taxes the business pays.

The concept of control is therefore key to understanding effective management. A firm understanding of its limits is essential, because control of a process is essential to ensure the reproducibility of results, whether those results are manufactured goods or services, increased market share or stock value, or good governance.

Problems arise when management attempts to control people as processes, and effective management does not attempt to control people as processes because people cannot be controlled. Of course, the obvious objection to this statement is incorrect. The perspective of control of a person is not: I employ this person therefore I control their activities when they work for me, but:

In short, human beings are not machines. They make mistakes. They have feelings. They want to be useful and productive. They understand "fairness" and "loyalty". They have bad days. They let their mind wander.

As a result, management cannot control people as processes.

Various frameworks and standards exist to ensure processes are controlled even as the people controlling those processes themselves cannot be controlled, such as COBIT and ISO 9001. In general, this is accomplished by a system of checks and balances which ensures processes are controlled. It is fundamental to the role of an auditor to be part of this system of checks and balances.

Processes that are out of control inevitably result in problems such as products that do not meet specifications, ineffective services, failure to meet operating margin, reduced market cap, and increased regulatory oversight.

Why does that matter? I can answer that question with an example.

Where does meat come from?

I'll tell you, and the discussion will focus on meat as a manufactured product.

In general, meat comes from an animal whose sole reason for existence is to provide food for humans1. Animals are butchered in such a manner that their meat, which is the portioned carcass of a slaughtered animal, is fit for human consumption2.

The animal was slaughtered and butchered in accordance with a "best practice" (as you will) that has been developed over thousands of years to ensure the meat will be fit for human consumption. The best practice:

Meat is therefore a manufactured product, like the computer delivering this page to your home or the automobile you drive to work.

We control the production of meat because the consequences of not controlling the production of meat are plague, famine, pestilence, and death. The consequences of not controlling the production of meat long enough are the total destruction of human society as we know it.

However, not every example of process control is as dramatic, and most people have no idea how many "best practices" exist to ensure their continued health, safety, and well-being. For example, we control:

the treatment of water

the removal of lead from the environment

the quality of the air we breathe

the diameter of the pipes that deliver water to your house

availability of lead-based paint

the height of a smokestack

the chemical composition of the material the pipes are made of to ensure they will withstand the pressure of the water being delivered to your house

the lead content of paint

the construction of a smokestack to ensure it will be able to withstand the wind load it will be subjected to

development of analytical techniques to determine the chemical composition of the material the pipes are made of

development of analytical techniques to determine the lead content of paint on the walls of your home

the development of test methods to measure the sheer force exerted by wind on a tall, vertical structure

We control the the funding of public schools and universities to ensure we have literate and educated scientists and engineers to:

perform analytical chemistry and discover new analytical techniques

investigate the long-term health effects of lead exposure

design factories which produce less pollutants

And so on...

And so on...

And so on.

So you should care what processes control the delivery of meat to your table, or any other manufactured good or service, and about the concept of control, generally. Our society exists only as long as such processes are controlled.


The obvious objection to this statement is incorrect. There would be no need for humans to directly involve themselves in raising large herds of cattle, building coops for thousands of chickens, or farming fish if humans did not eat the meat of these animals.
Somewhat ironically, we describe meat as "fresh food". If meat were not a manufactured product, humans eating meat would be carrion eaters.

Last updated: Thursday, 28 July, 2011