“Let’s reach a consensus on what we should do next.”
All of us have heard this phrase – or something similar – from a group or team leader. And what’s not to like about this approach? After all, collaboration and cooperation are essential for a team to be effective. Unfortunately, there are times when a group can have an apparent consensus view and later regret the outcome of their collective decision. In 1974, Dr. Jerry Harvey, a professor of management science at George Washington University, introduced the term Abilene Paradox to explain this group behavior.
The Abilene Paradox involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group’s. As a result, no objections are raised. Some common phrases linked to the Abilene Paradox are to not “rock the boat” or to “go along to get along.”
This phenomenon is explained by theories of social conformity and influence, which suggest people are often very averse to acting contrary to the trend of a group. According to Harvey, the phenomenon may occur when people experience action-anxiety. People are concerned that the group could express negative attitudes towards them if they do not go along.
The name of this group behavior is derived from an incident that Harvey recounts in his article published in Organizational Dynamics. A summary of the story is given below.
A common view is that the work required to shift the mindset of any large organization is largely the responsibility of leadership. To be sure, the senior leaders of the organization are accountable for setting the vision and supporting it by what they say and do. Unfortunately, many leaders approach this challenge by delivering a message via well-written power point slides to the masses. The assumption is that all they need to do is explain what the company is about and how everyone should be aligned to be successful. And perhaps for a short while this strategy results in an uptick in the “hoped-for” behaviors.
But it does not last. Soon enough, most of the employees slip back into their comfort zone. They see no reason to change anything. “After all,” they think, “This too shall pass. If I wait long enough, someone else will come along with a different flavor-of-the month. Maybe that one will taste better.”
There are many reasons for failing to get an entire organization aligned and to accept a new way of thinking and acting. I will focus on a single consideration.
We accept change at different rates
Everett Rogers published his theory on the Diffusion of Innovations in 1962. It is a theory that seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread through cultures. The book (now in its fifth edition) says that diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. The innovation or idea must be widely adopted in order to self-sustain. Within the rate of adoption, there is a point at which an innovation or idea reaches critical mass. The people in any social system who are exposed to the new idea can be placed in segments, depending upon their willingness to adopt the new idea or accept change. Rogers named five categories of “adopters” : Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, and Laggards. These categories are depicted in this graphic.
Imagine that someone makes a business proposal that would significantly improve your company’s cost productivity. The sales pitch is appealing. This approach is claimed to have the following potential benefits:
It will yield over 4 times your investment in bottom-line results within 24 months, with a long-term ROI exceeding 7x.
It does not require any capital.
It will enable the development of a broad range of skills for key employees.
It will be the basis for culture change to a continuous improvement mindset.
Sounds great! Where do I sign up? But this is what you will not hear…
It only has a 20% chance of succeeding!
Given this success metric, would you make this investment? It’s not likely.
Lean Six Sigma (LSS) has the potential to produce all the positive benefits itemized above. However, the success rate of deployments is abysmal. In a Bain & Company management survey of 184 companies, 80 percent say their Lean Six Sigma deployment efforts are failing to drive the anticipated value, and 74 percent say they are not gaining the expected competitive edge because they haven’t achieved their savings targets. Other surveys reveal similar disappointment or disillusionment in LSS by executives and senior leaders.
The bad news is that 8 out of 10 LSS deployments are not meeting expectations. The good news? Some organizations are “getting it right” and reaping the benefits of a strong Lean Six Sigma deployment.
An improvement project has just been completed at one of your sites. As the team provides their final report out to the sponsor, they highlight a number of ways the project was successful:
The process improvements have resulted in work that is faster and easier.
It takes fewer resources and adds more value.
The hard savings are significant.
The new work methods reduce the risk of injury.
At the end of the presentation, the sponsor turns to you and says, “Let’s replicate this same project at the other five sites. There’s no reason we can’t garner the same benefits by simply implementing these same changes, right?”
Why there is no such thing as identical processes
If only we could copy the project and create a blueprint, then another team could put these identical changes in place. All we need to do is determine the process steps that were followed and provide detailed documentation to the implementation team. With this road map, it should be a straightforward task.
Unfortunately, true project copying or replication is uncommon. Why?
One of the primary tenets of Lean is the concept of value added activities. These can be defined as actions which transform raw materials and information into products and services which the customer is willing to pay for. Anything that does not add value can be considered “waste”. These are activities which consume time, space, or other resources, but don’t contribute to making value.
Classic Sources of Waste
Lean practitioners are familiar with the eight sources of waste. They form the basis for lean thinking and are often used to offer a framework for removing waste (and cost) from any process.
Observing the queue of people being checked out at a large grocery or retail store can be fascinating. You can see the shoppers deciding on which line to enter – based on the number of people, how many things are in their cart, how quickly the cashier is ringing up each sale, whether someone is assisting with bagging process, etc. Although most people don’t realize it, they are making an estimate on how long it will take for them to get through the checkout line by using a theory called “Little’s Law”.
This fundamental concept was developed over 50 years ago. It enables us to predict a specific process behavior and is named after John Little, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.