“If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed.” ― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to work with a group of four supervisors at a manufacturing site. I spent a week with each supervisor, with the objective of getting to know each person better. After a month rotating among the supervisors, it was clear that there were stark differences in how each of them related to their respective crews. The contrast in styles was greatest when comparing Mitch with Harold.
Mitch considered himself to be “old-school” and was proud of it. He had spent nearly twenty years in various line positions at the plant, eventually working his way into a senior operator role before being promoted to supervisor. He was a no-nonsense guy who ruled with an iron fist and a commanding voice. His philosophy was to set the rules and hold people accountable when they were violated. Mitch believed his primary responsibilities were to “keep the line running” and to “make sure that no one does anything stupid.” During the shift, he could often be found in the supervisor’s office area, unless the line was down for some reason. His crew tended to have the least senior people, mainly because there was a lot of bidding to move to another supervisor’s crew.
Harold also spent many years as an operator in the same facility before accepting a supervisor position. He had a calm demeanor and spent most of his time on the floor, listening to his crew members. He frequently answered any questions with a question of his own, “What do you think we should do?” Harold challenged his crew to come up with solutions, not just to identify the problems. I would overhear him privately praising each person, telling them that they were among the best operators he had ever been around. When someone made a mistake, he would make it a point to ask the individual what lesson was learned and what we could do differently the next time. Harold’s crew had the most senior people. It was clear that they respected Harold and valued the opportunity to work on his crew.
“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.