The Law of Conservation of Frustration

A few years ago I invented a law of process improvement, which I called The Law of Conservation of Frustration:

Whenever we improve a process in order to reduce frustration, we increase our demands on the process until we are exactly as frustrated as before.

Lately I've come to realize that this formulation is analogous to Thomas Malthus's famous argument, sometimes called "The Dismal Theorem of Economics," that human populations will grow exponentially, checked only by widespread misery and starvation. We might call my law The Dismal Theorem of Process Improvement.

Recently I've been reading Kenneth Boulding's brilliant book Principles of Economic Policy. Boulding expresses Malthus's Dismal Theorem this way:

If nothing can check the growth of population but starvation and misery, then population will grow until it is miserable and starves.

Okay, Boulding's version isn't much cheerier than Malthus's. But Boulding introduces an important qualification, and that qualification offers a glimmer of hope: What if something else could check the growth of population?

I like this glimmer of hope, faint though it may be. So I've added a similarly hopeful qualification to my law, yielding an improved version of The Law of Conservation of Frustration:

If nothing but frustration can check the growth of our demands, then whenever we improve a process, we will increase our demands on the process until we are exactly as frustrated as before.

The qualification encourages us to ask: What factors other than frustration might check the growth of our demands?

I can think of several candidate factors, all interrelated. The first is measurement. What if, in addition to our frustration, we also had data to tell us that we're twice as fast as we were two years ago, and we ship one less than half of the defects? Then our improvements would be more visible. We would know that we are making gains.

Another candidate factor is relationships. If we can improve our relationships with our customers, if we can increase our trust in each other's abilities and intentions, we may be able to replace demands with conversations and negotiations.

A third factor is commitments. If we steadfastly commit only to what we can reasonably deliver, we will more often deliver on our commitments. This will create better working relationships with at least some of our customers.

Measurement, trusting relationships, and reasonable commitments. What other possibilities are there? What other things can we do to keep demands from overwhelming our awareness of our improvements?

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