Tag Archives: Psychology

The Importance of Critical Thinking and Challenging Assumptions

There are many factors that are important to effectively practice the management improvement ideas I have discussed in this blog for over a decade. One of the most important is a culture that encourages critical thinking as well as challenging claims, decisions and assumptions.

I discussed this idea some in: Customers Are Often Irrational. There is a difference between saying people wish to have their desires met and people act in the manner to maximize the benefits they wish to receive.

It is important to study customer’s choice and learn from them. But being deceived by what their choice mean is easier than is usually appreciated. Often the decision made is contrary to the ideal choice based on their beliefs. It is often poor decision making not an indication that really they want a different result than they express (as revealed versus stated preference can show). People that ignore the evidence behind climate change and condemn coastal areas to severe consequences don’t necessarily prefer the consequences that their decision leads to. It may well be that decision to ignore the evidence is not based on a desire to suffer long term consequences in order to get short term benefits. It may well be just an inability to evaluate evidence in an effective way (fear of challenging ourselves to learn about matters we find difficult often provides a strong incentive to avoid doing so).

Knowing the difference between choosing short term benefits over long term consequences and a failure to comprehend the long term consequences is important. Just as in this example, many business decisions have at the root a desire to pretend we can ignore the consequences of our decisions and a desire to accept falsehoods that let us avoid trying to cope with the difficult problems.

photo of me with a blackboard in my father's office

Photo of me and my artwork in my father’s office by Bill Hunter

It is important to clearly articulate the details of the decision making process. We need to note the actual criticism (faulty logic, incorrect beliefs/assumptions…) that results in what some feel is a poor conclusion. But we seem to find shy away from questioning faulty claims (beliefs that are factually incorrect – that vaccines don’t save people from harm, for example) or lack of evidence (no data) or poor reasoning (drawing unsupported conclusions from a well defined set of facts).

Critical thinking is important to applying management improvement methods effectively. It is important to know when decisions are based on evidence and when decisions are not based on evidence. It can be fine to base some decisions on principles that are not subject to rational criticism. But it is important to understand the thought process that is taken to make each decision. If we are not clear on the basis (evidence or opinion regardless of evidence) we cannot be as effective in targeting our efforts to evaluate the results and continually improve the processes in our organizations.

Describing the decision as “irrational” is so imprecise that it isn’t easy to evaluate how much merit the criticism has. If specific facts are called into question or logical fallacies within the decision making process are explained it is much more effective at providing specific items to explore to evaluate whether the criticism has merit.

When specific criticisms are made clear then those supporting such a decision can respond to the specific issues raised. And in cases where the merits of one course of action cannot be agreed to then such critical thought can often be used to create measures to be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the decision based on the results. Far too often the results are not examined to determine if they actually achieved what was intended. And even less often is care taken to examine the unintended consequences of the actions that were taken.

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Why Do People Fail to Adopt Better Management Methods?

It is confusing to know that better methods exist but to see those better methods being ignored. It seems that if there were better ways to manage, people would adopt those methods. But this just isn’t the case; sometimes better methods will be adopted but often they won’t. People can be very attached to the way things have always been done. Or they can just be uncomfortable with the prospect of trying something new.

In this post I will look at a very visible example of free throw shooting. A few details in this post might be a bit confusing if you are not familiar with basketball but I think the underlying idea can still be understood.

For shooting free throws the evidence seems pretty clear that results can be improved by using an underhand style of shooting. I won’t go into it here, the data is sparse so conclusion are perhaps not absolutely conclusive yet. In addition to the data, there are good explanations on the physics of why the underhand shot is more likely to be successful.

Personally, I just wish the Wisconsin Badgers would adopt the better method and everyone else can keep ignoring it. Rick Barry’s son can continue using the style (he plays for Florida Gators now and uses that style successfully – see video). His father was one of all time most accurate free throw shooters (using the underhand style). I believe, Chinanu Onuaku, a little used player, is the only current NBA player using the underhand style (he is 2 for 2 this year).

Sadly if Wisconsin did use this improved method, then others may copy them. But that isn’t certain, as you can see this better method has been known for decades without most people taking it up.

The reluctance to use better methods can be very strong. Just as the USA auto companies didn’t use known better methods until Japanese automakers were dominating them in the marketplace my guess is other teams will ignore adopting better free throw methods until a team, or even several teams, have most of their players using the better method. Often the reluctance is very similar to adopting the free throw improvement. It isn’t done just because it feels uncomfortable to do something in a new way (whether it is a different way to shoot a free throw or a different way to manage).

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Cater to Customers Desires to Achieve Customer Delight

Customer delight requires understanding your customers needs and desires. Often even your customers don’t understand these well. Businesses that have a deep appreciation for what their customers, and potential customers, desire and that create systems to deliver solutions that delight those customers benefit greatly from that effort.

To build a sustainable enterprise you must provide value customers will appreciate.

Your customers do not have one unified set of desires. Some customers may want as good an experience as is possible and if that costs substantially more they are happy to pay. Others want to pay the least possible while having an acceptable experience.

Singapore Airlines can cater to creating a great experience. And even within that system they can segment the offering a bit and create coach class, business class and first class. They seek to provide a great experience for everyone but have extra space and amenities offered for higher classes of service for those wanting that given the cost.

Southwest Airlines can cater to providing a friendly and inexpensive experience while passing on providing certain amenities. Southwest understands that they are creating a system to deliver value to customers that appreciate a no frills environment that still treats them with respect. treat customers honestly and with respect.

Aligning what is delivered with what is marketed is also important and something Southwest does well. Other airlines market as if they will provide what Singapore Airlines does and provides a miserable experience instead. I think it helps provide Southwest focus in marketing and operations seeing how badly many of their competitors frustrate customers continually in very visible ways.

To delight customers determine what they desire based on a deep understanding of them. Make sure you understand what they act on not just what they say.

Even if you determine what they want is to spend as little as possible don’t try to trick them with false claims about low prices. The most despised companies all seem to do this (cable TV companies, airlines, mobile phone plans, some contractors…). Essentially they play bait and switch except they don’t even offer the choice to decline once they provide the real price. They just slap on extra fees after they sold you with promises of the cheaper cost.

Instead cater to meet the importance of low price but still treat customers with respect. Yes, you might cut some corners a bit so customers have to wait longer for support or don’t have as much hand holding as they could get for a higher price. But there are many things that can be done with well designed systems to provide very good service while keeping costs low. In fact often better service can be provided at lower costs because systems designed well include less waste and create fewer problems. Those problems are costly to solve and damaging to customers.

Your customers will not have monolithic desires. A big factor in the success of providing solutions that delight customers. Sometimes that means creating product and services that delight people with a wide range of expectations. Other times it means delivering different solutions to delight the different audiences.

My mechanic is trustworthy and less expensive than my other options. He also lacks many of the amenities others might desire. But for me I am delighted with his service. I am happy to drive 30 minutes to get service from him, passing by many other options. I trust him to know what to do and act in my best interest while charging a fair price.

My dentist is very good and expensive. He doesn’t accept insurance (if you have insurance you can submit the bills yourself but his office doesn’t get involved). He does all the dental work himself, including cleaning (which is rare in my experience – often the simple tasks are assigned to others). Assistants deal with scheduling and billing. His market is to provide great service to those customers willing to pay. This is not a strategy that would work for most dentists I don’t think, but it works very well for him and his delighted customers (like me). The customers willing to pay for this level of service is limited but if you delight enough people who are willing to pay you create a sustainable business.

Knowing what your customers want and creating systems to deliver that to them is how to build a great business. It sounds easy but few businesses really do know what their customers want. And even fewer focus on delighting them by continually improving the value they offer.

Related: The Customer is the Purpose of Our Work (2012)
Customer Focus with a Deming Perspective (2013)the most important customer focus is on the end users (2012)What Job Does Your Product Do? (2007)What one thing could we do better? (2006)

Unpacking the Components of Hard Work to Design Better Work Conditions

Effort is grossly underrated by Jamie Flinchbaugh:

There is a common phrase of “work smarter, not harder.” I get the appeal of that. Effort without clarity, efficiency, and effectiveness, has severe limits. Working smart is essential. But does that mean working hard has no value? No, effort is grossly underrated.

I believe we should aspire to work smarter and harder. Neither is sufficient, both are required…

My father used to convince himself working smarter should be the main focus and then he would return from Japan and say yes working smarter is important but they also just work harder. Then he would revert to moving to a primary focus to working smarter, then return of Japan and repeat. It took maybe 3 trips to have it sink into his consciousness that it really was both.

I am slower than my father to accept the necessity of hard work 🙂 I still think we could reduce the hours of work if we worked smarter and the processes were improved to eliminate wasted time and we worked hard for fewer hours. To some extent some agile software development efforts have shown this by changing the system of work and including as part of that a commitment to long term sustainable pace of work (no overwork).

I think if people define work as hard as a large number of hours then that can be reduced. If they define hard as putting forth their best efforts (in a smart and effective way) continually for the hours they put in then I can’t see reducing hard work as a goal. The hard work of doing the challenging things when they are important cannot be abdicated. If anything that is one of the most important methods to reduce the hours of work needed – doing the things that often people avoid because it will be difficult, upset people, make people uncomfortable, upset the way things are done…

farmers tilling a rice field with a machete and a tractor

Tilling a rice field in Bali. See more of my photos from Indonesia.

“Hard work” is often code for “work I despise doing.” If you create a system where people take pride and joy in their work the same time spent working is not nearly as “hard.” If they are proud of what they accomplish a difficult task is often rewarding, and not seen as working “harder.” As is so often the case “hard work” is really packing together numerous ideas in one phrase.

  • long hours
  • difficult tasks (physically, emotionally or intellectually)
  • unrewarding work
  • unpleasant tasks
  • inflexible work (It is a “hard job” if it prevents you from for example, seeing your child’s basketball game. If you were able to see the game and finish up 2 hours of work after they went to bed that is less hard.)
  • difficult work environment (whether that is due to the stress level, physical demands, or other things – like a boss that is difficult to work for)

I think you can reduce many of these parts of hard work by creating a better system of work in the organization. But to do so you increase the need for focused effort on what is important. The key to me is designing a management system in which the effort required by work is the effort you want to give and the amount of unproductive, unrewarding and unpleasant work is reduced. Creating such a management system is not easy; it requires hard work, and it requires working smarter.

Related: Dream More, Work LessSigns You Have a Great Job … or NotRespect People by Creating a Climate for Joy in Work

Podcast: Building Organizational Capability

The Software Process and Measurement Cast 420 features an interview with me, by Thomas Cagley, on Building Organizational Capability (download podcast).

John Hunter in the podcast:

Changing how organizations are managed makes a huge difference in people’s lives, not all the time and I understand most of the time it doesn’t. But when this is done well people can go from dreading going to work to enjoying going to work, not every single day – but most days, and it can change our lives so that most of the time we are doing things that we find valuable and we enjoy instead of just going to work to get a paycheck so we can enjoy the hours that we have away from work.

photo of John Hunter

John Hunter, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

Here are some links where I go into more detail on some of the topics I discuss in the podcast:

Thomas Cagley: If you have the power to change any 2 things that affect decision making what would they be and why?

John Hunter:

First that results are evaluated. Make decisions then evaluate what actually happens based upon what you do. Learn from that, improve how you make future decisions and keep iterating.

That idea of evaluating what actually happens is extremely powerful and will reinforce going in the right direction because if you evaluate most decisions many organizations make nothing got any better. And after doing that many times you can learn this isn’t working, we need to do something better.

And the second would be more prioritization. Make fewer decisions but take more time to make those decisions, implement those decisions, evaluate those decisions, learn from those results and iterate again.

I hope you enjoy the podcast.

Related: Software Process and Measurement Podcast With John Hunter on my book Management MattersDeming and Software Development

Integrating Technical and Human Management Systems

ASQ has asked the Influential Voices on quality management to look at the question of integrating technical quality and human management systems. How do different systems—technical or human—work together? How should they work together?

My view is that the management system must integrate these facets together. A common problem that companies face is that they bring in technical tools (such as control charts, PDSA improvement cycle, design of experiments, kanban, etc.) without an appreciation for the organization as a system. Part of understanding the organization as a system is understanding psychology within this context (as W. Edwards Deming discussed frequently and emphasized in his management system).

To try and implement quality tools without addressing the systemic barriers (due to the management system and specifically the human component of that system) is a path to very limited success. The failure to address how the organization’s existing management system drives behaviors that are often counter to the professed aims of the organization greatly reduces the ability to use technical tools to improve.

If the organization rewards those in one silo (say purchasing) based on savings they make in cutting the cost of supplies it will be very difficult for the organization to optimize the system as a whole. If the purchasing department gets bonuses and promotions by cutting costs that is where they will focus and the total costs to the organization are not going to be their focus. Attempts to create ever more complex extrinsic incentives to make sure the incentives don’t leave to sub-optimization are rarely effective. They can avoid the most obvious sub-optimization but rarely lead to anything close to actually optimizing the overall system.

image of the cover of Managmenet Matters by John Hunter

Management Matters by John Hunter

It is critical to create an integrated system that focuses on letting people use their brains to continually improve the organization. This process doesn’t lend itself to easy recipes for success. It requires thoughtful application of good management improvement ideas based on the current capabilities of the organization and the short, medium and long term priorities the organization is willing to commit to.

There are principles that must be present:

  • a commitment to treating everyone in the organization as a valuable partner
  • allowing those closest to issues to figure out how to deal with them (and to provide them the tools, training and management system necessary to do so effectively) – see the last point
  • a commitment to continual improvement, learning and experimentation
  • providing everyone the tools (often, this means mental tools as much as physical tools or even quality tools such as a control chart). By mental tools, I mean the ability to use the quality tools and concepts. This often requires training and coaching in addition to a management system that allows it. Each of these is often a problem that is not adequately addressed in most organizations.
  • an understanding of what data is and is not telling us.

An integrated management system with an appreciation for the importance of people centered management is the only way to get the true benefit of the technical tools available.

I have discussed the various offshoots of the ideas discussed here and delved into more details in many previous posts and in my book – Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability. An article, by my father, also addresses this area very well, while explaining how to capture and improve using two resources, largely untapped in American organizations, are potential information and employee creativity. It is only by engaging the minds of everyone that the tools of “technical” quality will result in even a decent fraction of the benefit they potentially can provide if used well.

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Acting Without Theory Often Results in Wasted Effort

When you act without theory you can find yourself beating your head against the wall, in ways similar to this woodpecker bangs its head against this sign.

This bird may have copied the pecking behavior without understanding the theory. Pecking steel won’t lead to it uncovering insects to eat. Alternatively, it may be pecking to make noise and attract a mate or tell other woodpeckers this territory is claimed. If mates and others acknowledge the metal pecking noises then the behavior may be rewarded (the noise is louder than pecking wood so it may even be an innovation with improved results), if not, the beating its bill against the sign is wasted effort.

If you don’t understand why you take action you will find yourself wasting effort. You must have a theory that you can test in order to test what is working, what changes actually lead to improvement and to learn. If this bird wants to find food it will discover this method isn’t effective.

I wrote about a similar example before: Experience Teaches Nothing Without Theory.

Related: We are Being Ruined by the Best Efforts of People Who are Doing the Wrong ThingEffort Without the Right Knowledge and Strategy is Often WastedThe Illusion of Knowledge

Seek to Improve How You Learn, Don’t Just Accept That You Can’t Do Better

photo of several people around a table smiling with red plastic pieces on the table.

Red Squares exercize at the 2 1/2 Deming Seminar in Hong Kong (2014).

As a speaker or coach or teacher it is wise to learn what impacts how people absorb information and learn. Factoring those ideas into how you communicate (one on one, coaching, training, presenting…) is wise.

Learning about how people learn and remember is important to allow you to communite well. And most people seem to understand this. But they also seem to have no shame in not improving their performance in relation to these common weaknesses.

I have never understood why so many people talk about weaknesses in how people learn (people only remember “10% of what they hear, 20% of what they read, and 80% of what they see and do”; you must repeat something 7,9,12… times before most people will remember it; people will retain more if they are given concrete examples relevant to them; people will remember more if they speak or write than if they just passively listen; a good visual will make an idea presented much more likely to be remembered…) but never seem to seek to improve their weaknesses in these areas.

Yes, it is harder for us to retain new information when we just hear about it or if good information is presented poorly. But if you do a much better job of learning and succeed in retaining what you hear or see (even if often people fail to do this well) you will be better off.

Yet what I see is people spouting these statistics, not as a way of learning what they need to improve themselves but as a way of explaining that it is inevitable and they won’t do any better (or even bother to attempt to do so). It just isn’t true that you can’t do better. You can train yourself to learn more than most people when the material is presented in a less than perfect manner by learning how we commonly fail to learn and making efforts to do better yourself.

Sure, learn these common traits to know how you need to take them into account when communicating with others. But also examine yourself and see if you have the same weaknesses and improve in those areas you are weak. Also you can learn from them how to be more successful in retaining good ideas (write them down, think about applying them in your context, make a note to actually apply them at work tomorrow or next week…). You can blame whoever was communicating the ideas to you for failing to present it as well as they should but that won’t help you learn more.

Also companies would be wise to put more effort into helping people learn better. I see lots of focus on how presenters should do better, but very little on how people can improve their capacity to listen and learn. Yes, those presenting should continually seek to improve and be aware of their customers (those they are communicating with). Those that are learning should also seek to improve their ability to learn, even if the way material is presented isn’t optimal.

By the way, you might also want to question much of the claims of what people remember: Mythical Retention Data & The Corrupted Cone.

Related: Effective Communication is ExplicitCommunicating ChangeHow Could They Know? They could learn about the job they were paid to do.
A Powerful Tool for Learning: The Capacity Matrix

Change Management: Create a Culture Seeking Continual Improvement or Use Band-Aids?

Successfully shepherding change within an organization is often a challenge. Often change management strategies are mainly about how to cope with a toxic culture but exclude the option of fixing the toxic culture. Why not address the root causes instead of trying band-aids?

The most effective strategy is to build an organizational culture into one that promotes continual improvement. A continual improvement culture is one that is constantly changing to improve (grounded in long term principles: respect for people, experiment, iterate quickly, etc.).

You can try to push change in an ad hoc basis by adopting some strategies to create a similar feeling about the individual change effort. But that isn’t as effective as establishing them in the culture are. Strategies such as: going the gemba, pdsa, build trust via respect for people…

These tools and concepts build trust within the organization. The do that by showing people are respected and that the change effort isn’t just another in the long line of wasted effort for ineffectual change. The first part can be addressed, normally the second part can’t be addressed effectively. Often that is at the core of the issue with why the change effort isn’t working. It is a bad solutions. It hasn’t been tested on a small scale. It hasn’t been iterated numerous times to take a seed of an idea and grow it into a proven and effective change that will be successful. If it had been, many people would be clamoring for the improvement (not everyone, true, but enough people).

But still you can use strategies to cope with lack of trust in your intentions with the change and lack of trust in the effectiveness and fear of change. Some of those are included in the links below. But mainly my strategy is based on focusing on building the proper culture for long term excellence and the change management strategies are just short term coping mechanisms to help deal with the initial challenges. Using those strategies as a long term solution for dealing with change in a toxic culture isn’t a very sensible way to manage.

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The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Wonderful advice and so poignant. But actually, if you read the whole poem, what we take from the quote isn’t what the poem was saying. Earlier in the poem it says

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same

view out windows of a temple

photo from a temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia by John Hunter

Robert Frost was poking fun at his friend who would obsess over what fork to take in the path as they walked when in reality the choice made no difference.

And “that has made all the difference” is poking fun at self justifications of our actions; congratulating ourselves for doing something not really worthy of accolades.

Still the top three lines do seem like insightful advice. Of course what is really needed is insight into when choosing the road less traveled is wise (or at least a sensible gamble) and when it is less traveled for very good reasons.

I do believe we far too easily slip into habits encouraged by the well worn path most people take. And therefore think balancing that tendency with at least considering the road less traveled more often is wise. But I actually like that when you read the full poem it really isn’t saying that.

Related: Chomphet Hike, Luang Prabang, LaosOlympic National Park PhotosThe Aim Should be the Best Life – Not Work v. Life BalanceMaking Better DecisionsRhinoceros Hornbills on Mount Santubong

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