Counting Mushy Peas

In the movie East is East there is a great line


But great…

And what d’you think I do in there morning till night?

Counting mushy fuckin’ peas?

Can you think of anything more futile than counting mushy peas?

In his book The Tiger That Isn’t (which is also great) Andrew Dilnot picks up on the idea.

N.B. If you aren’t from the UK and don’t know what a mushy pea is, then you are gastronomically bereft and should watch this video.  Be warned they are so good we have non left to export.

When is a mushy pea a mushy pea?

How on earth would you define one?

  • Is it a certain size?
  • Does it have to be a particular shade of green?
  • What proportion of a whole pea should it be?
  • What about the shape?
  • Or sloppiness?
  • Or texture?

When is a mushy pea a mushy pea?

It isn’t just mushy peas that are hard to define

Our operations are full of ambiguity, and that gives us a problem. Can you manage what you can’t define or measure?

  • When is a patient a patient?
  • When is a fraud a fraud?
  • When does a customer start to wait?
  • When does a query become a complaint?
  • And when does an issue become an emergency?

Here is the little secret

It doesn’t matter that much so long as you broadly right…

  1. Create an operational definition, an all-encompassing one (don’t exclude things)
  2. Stick with it and don’t change it

You can spend your life arguing about definitions and measuring and remeasuring until you get an answer you like, or you can do something to improve the situation.

How do you want to spend your time?

It is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong ~ Anon

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Mushy Peas

Read another opinion

Image by Leach84


  1. James,

    I love the title… and the analogy! (And the video was quite educational. :-)) The only thing I would add is that, once it’s defined, make sure it’s communicated so that everyone is on the same page.

    Annette :-)

  2. James,
    I’m completely with you on advocating less talk about stuff on the margin and more coordinated action about improving a given and agreed situation.


  3. Hello James

    I’d add that all definitions arise out of our desire for clarity-predictability-order-control. Whereas life, including organisational life, is messy-fuzzy-squiggly rather like the mushy peas. So the phenomena itself is squiggly and we make it a square. That is ok as long as we keep in existence the awareness that we have performed magic, an illusion, in converting a squiggle into a square. The issue is that we rapidly forget the sorcery that we have done. And we go about the world, especially organisational life, convinced that ‘that which is’ is really a square.

    Which is my way of saying, no matter how square you make reality remember that reality is and always be a squiggle: mushy pea like.

    All the best

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