Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Master of the Obvious

Getting your Masters Degree in Business? Going after a Master Black Belt Certification? Masters in Lean Six Sigma? Do you secretly wish to be a Jedi Master? (Just for fun). Perhaps some other level of mastery in a specific body of knowledge is what you seek?

All are worthy pursuits in the quest for self improvement or development on the lean journey, except maybe for the Jedi Master one. However, I suggest that becoming a Master of the Obvious is a far greater challenge and one that we should consider utmost on our lean journey.

I am not talking about repeating what has already just been said therefore adding no value to a discussion. What I mean by Master of the Obvious is seeing what is right before us that most of us do not see. It’s about not missing the details. It’s about mastering the art of listening. It is about the ability to grasp the real situation objectively. It is the ability to make some complex things simple. It is about seeing through all the noise and getting to the essence of the matter. It is about making the connections. It is about having common sense that is sometimes not all too common. It is about being open minded to a better way regardless of our past beliefs.

Face it; most of us are oblivious to the obvious. With so much noise, clutter and stimulus coming at us at a faster and faster pace, it is understandable that we have difficulty making sense of it all. It is an amazing characteristic of human nature to overlook things depending solely on what we decide to focus on. It is also amazing that despite all the facts that may be known, we refuse to face reality because of ingrained thinking or habits.

Try this short awarness test of your powers of observation.

Awareness Test-Amazing - video powered by Metacafe

Here is a great example. As reported by the CDC, “Hand washing is the single most important means of preventing the spread of infection”. And every year, almost 100,000 Americans die from infections they catch in health care settings. One of the most obvious ideas (plain old common sense) would have doctors and other health care providers wash their hands as often as they should, right? But some research suggests that less then 50% of the doctors wash their hands as much as they should. Why?

What a waste!

The same can be said of each of us as we leave a public restroom. Some observational studies conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health reveal that at three separate public events, the percentage of females that washed their hands after using the public restroom were 64%, 65% and 75% whereas only 30%, 39% and 51% of the males bothered to wash their hands. And we wonder why we have so many colds going around?

Maybe I’ll ask for only female doctors in the future?

It is a difficult path to be a true Master of the Obvious because many times we are fighting our own human nature and irrational behavior but it is not impossible. The first step is self awareness that we need to improve our skill and then devoting time to practice our skills on a daily basis. Learn by doing.

Learn to Stop, Look and Listen more often. Work in small teams to help each other see what the other misses. Be a teacher and a student.

Make it your mission to develop people.

Be curious.

Open your mind. Have a beginner’s mind. As taught by Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”.

Go and see for yourself.

Ask why? Ask why 5 times.

Instead of running after ambiguous or poorly defined problems, look at what is right in front of you. Fix it. Now prevent it.

Ask the people closest to the problem for their thoughts and ideas. Ask people the farthest away for their thoughts and ideas. This is not a discussion to share your ideas with them. To many times we are only listening for the pause when others speak as a signal for us to jump in with our thoughts and ideas. We are not focusing on what they are telling us. Keep silent except to ask questions and really concentrate on listening.

Fight the forces of the dark side that cause us to immediately think of the reasons why we can’t do something instead of focusing on how it could be done.

And in the profound words of Yogi Berra, sports legend and true Master of the Obvious, “You can observe a lot just by watching”.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Are you Chasing the Rabbit?

One of the keynote presentations at the 2008 AME Conference was Steve Spear, author of Chasing the Rabbit. Steve’s presentation was a brief highlight of his new book which I have just finished reading. The main topic was stepping up to the challenge of complexity and examining the rabbits within our industry which is reference to high velocity, market leading organizations to learn how they always seem to lead the pack.

Several interesting points were mentioned like identifying the four capabilities of high velocity organizations.

Capability 1: Specifying design to capture existing knowledge and building in tests to reveal problems.
Capability 2: Swarming and solving problems to build new knowledge.
Capability 3: Sharing new knowledge throughout the organization.
Capability 4: Leading by developing capabilities 1, 2, and 3.

Another key insight is step by step training. Instead of dumping tons of information and tasks to learn in unison on a person to learn, it is suggested that teaching in smaller bits is a better approach. For instance, if you have an assembly line job with a takt time of 57 seconds, let the associate learn only the first element and the teacher perform the others tasks each cycle. Once the employee has mastered this task element, then and only then do you add the second task element while the teacher performs the remaining tasks. After the employee masters the second task, you add the next task. This step by step approach is repeated until all tasks are mastered.

In my opinion, the best part of the book discusses problem solving. The key learning for me is using the problem solving process to learn to become better problem solvers, not just to fix things. The act of problem solving gives us the practice in observing, analyzing and piloting change. So problem solving becomes a means to an end, improve the process to improve the people. WOW!

In Chasing the Rabbit, Steve details some great examples to illustrate from his viewpoint what makes companies a high velocity organization. A great book that I highly recommend.