Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Fifth Discipline:Beware of Your Mental Models

This is a "lean" blog. I also understand that Peter Senge's revolutionary book "The Fifth Discipline" isn't a "lean" book. First published in 1990, the book talks about how to use "systems thinking" to transform your company into a "learning organization".  

Interestingly enough, it was this book that helped me understand that my lean journey just might be a lifetime trip unless I figured out how to not only learn from our mistakes and problems, but how to incorporate these new insights immediately into our behaviors and daily routines. Kaizen goes from being an event to how we did business!

Graduation season is upon us. As parents, how happy are we when we have to pay tuition twice for the same course? Yet, for some reason, in our businesses, we seem to be OK with paying tuition over and over. Ever find yourself waist deep in deja vu while answering a customer complaint or approving a customer credit. I tell people that one of the best parts of my lean strategy was I the fact that once we understood this learning organization thing, we weren't solving the same problems over and over.....we were working with new ones!

It is said that the only sustainable competitive advantage is our ability to learn as an organization and apply that learning quickly to our advantage. How steep is out company learning curve? 

One of Senge's 5 disciplines we must master is to be aware of how our knee jerk reactions to problems inhibits our ability to learn and change. Here are a few examples of mental models (knee jerks) that get in our way:
  1. If I'm a manager, I'm expected to have all the answers! After all, the ability to know everything is why I was promoted in the first place. In a lean world, we know that sometimes the very best answer is "I don't know, why don't we go and see?" One of the most difficult skills to master is "humble inquiry", which is about never answering questions with answers. Instead, the idea is to answer questions with open ended questions (not yes/no questions) so as a leader, I can learn what the person asking the question already knows about the problem. Life gets much more fun when I no longer need to be the smartest guy in the room!
  2. The 5 WHOs vs. 5 WHY. Maybe you have worked in organizations where the root cause ends up being finger pointing. In a lean world, one of the critical assumptions we always need to make is the fact that people are SMART and people CARE. Our knee jerk cannot be the opposite of that! Managers have one job.....develop people. As managers, if we think that our employees don't get it, or don't care, we're not doing a very good job of developing them, are we? If the student hasn't learned, the teacher hasn't taught! This 5 WHO mental model kills creativity and a willingness to experiment in people!
  3. Firefighting. This mental model goes hand-in-hand with #1. Organizations tend to reward people who always seem to save the day in the nick of time. As lean thinkers, we work to eliminate the 8 wastes in our processes to get to a condition called FLOW. Processes that are stable don't need to be firefaught! I believe our tendency to firefight and be the hero is a mental model that inhibits our march toward flow. As a one time firefighter, I realized this when I went on vacation, wasn't around to firefight for a week or more, and the building didn't cave in. The mark of a good leader is when things go smoothly when you're gone!
  4. Pronoun problems. Good leaders don't use pronouns as the root cause for failure or problems. "I tried to tell THEM that 3 years ago, but THEY wouldn't listen." Blaming the computer system, the people on 3rd shift, or our suppliers won't help us move toward flow. Lean requires a bit of a defiant attitude, not a feeling of helplessness. Lean requires "us" and "we" not "they" and "them".

Peter Senge defines "mental models" as the "conceptual frameworks consisting of generalizations and assumptions from which we understand the world and take actions in it."  Sounds like "knee jerk" to me!!

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