Performance by Kevin McManus
Industrial Engineer's monthly column about performance improvement (September 2010)
Finding different eyes
Several phrases in the process improvement vernacular set me off quickly – including “We need to bring in a new set of eyes.” I developed this distaste after I left a participative, open-minded culture where we did it ourselves. My next organization wanted change, but believed outside help was the way to get there. At that time I began to execute my own strategies to counter the need for outside help.
Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline introduced the notions of mental models and learning organizations, which speak to developing a team’s ability to see things differently, primarily driven through enhancing team members’ capacity for true dialogue. This was the way to avoid having to use outside help.
In a fast-paced, front-line production or service environment, fancy concepts like double loop learning and the right-hand column exercise don’t seem to fit. Simultaneously, consistently asking the question “How do we know what we know?” as we solve a problem or anticipate a customer’s requirements can help a person, team or organization stand out from its competition. Covey’s fifth habit – seek first to understand, then to be understood – speaks to the need for consistent mental model examination, just as Deming’s third profound knowledge tenet – the theory of knowledge – does.
Feedback is needed to help you develop higher levels of self-awareness. Someone, and ideally many people, have to be willing to challenge your thinking, along with their own, in an explorative manner and be willing to say what they think to understand how their perspectives enhance and limit their potential for further creative thinking and learning. It’s pretty tough to find a group like this. Online networking meets some of this need, but it fails to address the added value and challenges that face-to-face group interaction involves.
It is not easy to be creative and learn to see things differently. After all, I am a left-brained, IE type. I have made progress moving toward my more creative, but still comfortingly analytical, center. But I count heavily on my peers, team members and customers to help me explore how my assumptions could be wrong.
We need to recognize what constrains our efforts to find different eyes. The chief culprit, ego, gets in the way when we rely on opinions, not facts, to make decisions. Being fact-based sounds contrary to being a right-brained, creative type, but when we think we are right and lack the facts to support our claims, we usually don’t have the facts to shoot down the opinions of others. The loudest, highest-ranking opinion typically wins. Think about it.
The different eyes we need may have been in organizations for years in the form of our employees. Too many organizations rely on managers to drive idea generation and innovation. But when it comes to creativity and producing improvement options, any mix of properly facilitated people can give you results. Creativity potential may increase as you get closer to the front lines because these people likely haven’t been brainwashed that a certain approach or logic is correct.
From Senge, I learned that “There is more power in a good question than in any answer.” I ask myself this question daily: In what way could my assumptions be wrong?
Change – rapid, multifaceted change – is here to stay. As we become more of a “make to order” world, we must develop the internal capacity to seek alternate and creative perspectives, or we will need to become good at sourcing this type of talent. Where will you find your different eyes?
Kevin McManus is a performance improvement coach based in Rainer, Ore., and a 28-year member of IIE. He has written workbooks about personal and team effectiveness. McManus is an alumni examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Reach him at email@example.com.