Starting from the wrong place

It’s very short Friday evening post time 🙂

So, you want to transform your organisation? Here’s the conventional recipe:

Step 1: Lay out some beautiful ‘sunlit uplands’ statement that everyone but an anarchist would find obviously desirable!

Step 2: Break down the output from step 1 into some pleasing themes (‘strategic shifts’) to focus on

Step 3: …erm, now what? I’m stuck!


Not many organisations actually understand ‘where they truly are’…and so, no matter how much brilliant imagining of perfection is done, and the subsequent strategic planning, they will likely be working in the wrong way on the wrong stuff.


The place to start is to really understand your system, from the perspective of how well it meets its purpose (as defined by its customers, not you), and then critically reflect on what this tells you, and why it is like this.

Then…think about what really needs to change.

This will be different to what you are currently thinking. If not, you probably haven’t seen what you needed to see.

Talk-back radio

talkback-radio-2So I’m driving home from work in my car and I turn the radio on.

Damn, it’s one of those talk-back radio shows. You know the ones: the radio presenter seeds the show with a couple of emotive topics that are bound to wind up some sections of the population (those ‘for’ and those ‘against’) such that they are goaded into ringing in to robustly ‘tell us their view’.

I’m just about to change radio station when my subconscious tells me “no Steve, you should try to listen for a while.” And so my hand drops away from the controls and I settle in.

Things start okay. The presenter puts forward a clear articulation of a topic that we would obviously care about and invites people to call in to ‘assist him with the (supposedly) important task of unravelling the greyness within’. He waits a bit for the phone lines to warm up and then, yee-haw, we are off!

He takes call after call. I’m starting to get wound up by them…I’m not totally sure why, but I persevere.

Until, finally, one of the callers opens up with the following revealing words…and yes, this is the very first thing that came out of the caller’s mouth:

“I don’t know much about it but what I think is….”

Wow, I thought, that phrase just about says it all: “I don’t know much about it, but what I think is…” If you don’t know much about it then what makes your thinking credible, let alone relevant?

A common talk-back topic is on some current and major court case, often involving a horrendous crime. People love to ring in to tell the host whether the accused is guilty and whether they should be hung, drawn and quartered…and I always want to stop the radio show, get on the phone and ask the caller:

Q: “Were you in court?” A: “Erm, no.”

Q: “Have you seen the evidence?” A: “No. I haven’t”

Q: “Have you read the full set of court transcripts?” A: “That’s also a no.”

Q: “Do you understand the necessary law/ science/ statistics? Or have you had this suitably explained to you?” A: “Mmm, not really…well actually, not at all.”

“…but I have listened to lots of opinions!”

There’s a reason for a court case taking time, with huge files of documents and a jury who have to take time out from their daily lives to listen for days on end. The victim, society and the accused need a proper decision based on the facts, not on opinions.

Unfortunately, a clamour of ill informed opinions cause people (like politicians) to take knee-jerk actions that may very well do more harm than good.

Spot the link:

“Okay, Steve, interesting (sort of)…but what’s this got to do with our organisation and improving it?”

Well, there are two aspects to this…and both come back to getting knowledge and avoiding opinions. That’s the link. So here goes:


If you want to understand a system (let’s say a process) you have to study it – in detail and over time. If you are asked a question about it, you should only answer if you know….and if you don’t (which is absolutely fine), well you had better get back to the Gemba* and look some more….but please don’t guess, or rely on what you think might be the answer based on hearsay.

(* Japanese word meaning the place where the work is done)

And, to be clear, this ‘getting knowledge’ thing is a very natural iterative process. You think you know – you find out that you don’t – so you learn more…meaning that, again, you think you know…and on and on. This means that you continually understand your system at a deeper and deeper level and are more able to meaningfully and continuously improve it.

Ask yourselves this: How many times have you been in a meeting/ workshop, a question has been asked and either you or someone else has replied “I believe/ think the answer is…” and the meeting carries on under the assumption that this is correct?

Well, in my experience, this ‘answering with an opinion’ happens all the time.

But, stop, what damage could this be doing? This is a classic case of ‘going fast to go slow’ rather than ‘going slow to go fast’.

Example coaching conversation:

Improver:     “…so then the agent does [xyz] with it”

Coach:     “How do you know this?”

Improver:     “I’m pretty sure that this is what happens, based on talking to a few people about it.”

Coach:     “Have you seen the agent doing this?”

Improver:     “Well, no, but it makes sense that this is what they do with it.

Coach:    “This could be what happens but it would a good idea if you observed this yourself. Then, you can understand if this is correct, can see if there is actually more to it, and can gain an understanding of ‘why’ it’s like this.”

.….next meeting:

Improver:    “I watched what they actually do and I talked to them about it…and, erm, in fact they throw it in the bin because….”

As you can see from this example it was far more important to stop the conversation and go to the Gemba to truly learn than it was to ‘use a plausible answer’ to complete the conversation.

What would be even better than stopping a workshop to go and find out? Don’t start with a workshop! Start at the Gemba and ask questions whilst you are there…and when you come away and think about it and have some more questions…well, go back.

Taiichi Ohno was renowned for his method of developing managers. He would have them regularly stand at the production line (you may have heard of his ‘chalk circles’) and observe it. He would then come along and ask them what they had learned…and he would likely walk away if they simply came up with opinions.


Okay, on to the 2nd and highly related point.

So you are in a workshop; a discussion has been had; there isn’t a clear way forward but there appear to be options on the table…so the meeting chair says “let’s vote on it.”

Now, there are quite a few voting ‘tools’ out there that help you carry out the desired task of voting* and therefore this becomes a very easy (and even, dare I say, rousing) activity to perform. Some of you might be familiar with them (such as ‘fist to five’ or ‘multi-voting’).

But if the question requires knowledge to be answered, voting is NOT appropriate.

“If the [necessary] knowledge is not common, it is very hard to do the right thing, especially as, in any consensus-building exercise, knowledge has no greater weight than opinion.” (John Seddon)

i.e. the trouble with voting is that knowledge and opinion appear to be equal. This is clearly madness. Imagine one person has knowledge and nine merely have their opinions – what chance has the knowledge got? Rather than voting, the need is to take the time to find out who (if anyone) has knowledge and listen to them.

Note: Voting can also work against variety, aiming at ‘an answer’ rather than realising that, perhaps, there should be many (see A Service Revolution).

Right, voting warning given…so when is voting okay? Well, if you want a group to democratically decide something and such democracy is relevant (“should we stop for a break now or later” or “is the room temperature okay”) then, great, use a voting tool.

(* Voting is a great example of where a tool can be easily misused. You should understand what a tool is for and whether it is applicable for your situation before you pick it up. Should you use a saw to hammer in a nail? And if you do, what damage might you do and what might the quality of the outcome be?)

In summary:

I suppose that it would be pretty rare for you to hear someone at work actually say “I don’t know much about it but what I think is….” but is this often the underlying truth?


  • Try not to rely on opinions yourself: Always go (back) to the Gemba and find out the facts;
  • If you hear others doing it: Politely ask them some pertinent questions about how they arrived at their opinion…you can skilfully move them to want to find out the actual facts for themselves.

And finally:

  • By all means vote on whether the group is going to, say, have a toilet break but, for anything more than this, please seek out, recognise and suitably respect the difference between knowledge and opinion.

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.” (Daniel J. Boorstin)

Does anyone else get wound up by Talk-back radio….or is this what it’s actually for 🙂