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Saturday, March 27, 2010

No Right Way

Over twenty years ago, I was involved in a small group discussion in which my friend and colleague, Tom Lane, proposed three principles for consulting:
There is no right way.
The word is not the thing.
We make it all up.
I have not discussed these ideas with Tom in decades.  I believe that he has changed “the word is not the thing,” to “the concept is not the thing.”  I have recently bought his book, Perceptual Intelligence and started following his blog, Wake Up!
My comments here are not an attempt to present Tom’s ideas.  After that discussion, years ago, I have often reflected on those three principles and how they could be applied to consulting and to the process of changing work to bring out the best.  What follows is my own spin on the three statements.
There is no right way
We often come to the implicit, if not explicit, conclusion that our way is the right way. This is the way it has to be.  You need to “do it right.”  “Do it the right way.” This is a fallacy.  There is no right way.  There are ways that are better or worse than others in a given situation, for a given purpose, at a given time. 
To claim that there is a right way implies, once it has been implemented, that there is no further improvement process.  We have implemented the “right way.” Any further change, being different from the present way, the right way, by definition is a wrong way.
I have run into resistance to change from managers and professionals, on the basis that we already have a plan for that.  The plan is usually the purchase of a computer system or some technology designed to address a need, that will not be implemented for several months. The implication is that we have a plan to do it the right way, making any other approach irrelevant, being less than the right way. 
I learned from my Japanese, Toyota trained teachers that every improvement, especially if it is low-cost/no-cost, is worth doing for it’s incremental value, even if there is a step change improvement coming down the road. Often we learn from such incremental improvements in a way that causes us to modify or even discard the large, expensive improvement.
Reminding ourselves that there is no right way helps us listen to others.  If we have decided what the right way is, we immediately reject other ways that may be proposed.
This is not to say that we cannot apply criteria to evaluating whether a way is better or worse in a given situation.  In lean manufacturing we always seek to eliminate waste and maximize the value-adding operations.  There can still be a variety of ways to organize a work cell and obtain one-piece-flow, or eliminate the need for transportation, or reduce changeover time.  As consultants we can become so enamored with the ways that have worked for us in the past that we begin to act as if they are the only, the right, way to accomplish the results.
The word is not the thing
In kaizen, continuous improvement and lean manufacturing efforts there is a term for the seven types of waste that we seek to eliminate wherever possible.  The word is muda. I have found it useful to use the Japanese term, because it draws attention to waste that is different from what we throw out, put in the waste basket or in the dumpster.  We are talking about the wastes of overproducing, inventory, transportation, movement, waiting, over processing, and reworking or repairing.  (We will explore these types of waste in more detail in future posts.)
Sometimes, insisting on using the term muda when working with a client becomes an obstacle.  In the United States I have had clients who express a dislike for foreign words, insisting that English should be perfectly adequate.  In Spain I found that the term, muda, is understood to mean a change of underwear.  This meaning interfered with the focus we were trying to accomplish.  I generally found it more effective to communicate about waste without using that particular word, in Spain.
Muda is a word.  It is not the thing we are talking about.  The word is not the thing. If the word gets in our way of understanding, discard the word.  Find one that works.  In a broader sense, I try not to get hung up on symbols.  Words, after all, are symbols that stand for something, some thing. I find that communication suffers if we are willing to go to the mat for a particular symbol.
We make it all up
I have worked with a number of managers who like to say that one or another approach is just plain common sense.  The problem with this is that what one person considers common sense may differ a great deal from what another considers common sense. Each of us makes up our own piece of truth about the way things are. This principle helps us remember that we have different truths, different common senses, and different realities.  We make them up. As Robin Williams said in 1979, “Reality.  What a concept!”
This principle is also empowering. Once we realize that we make it all up, we can choose to make things up together.  If we work together we can come to shared ends, to results that we can agree upon.  If together we don’t like things the way they are, we can make them up differently. Paradoxically, we can only come together if we understand that, to at least some extent, our concept of reality is not the same to start with.
I keep these principles in the back of my mind, and have found them useful numerous times, when I am getting stuck because other’s are not understanding my right way; or they are rejecting my words, but not necessarily the thing for which the words stand; or I fail to recognize that we are making up our realities up differently.  Being aware of this, I can redirect or reshape the dialogue.
I checked Tom Lane’s blog as I was editing this post today.  Coincidentally, Tom’s most recent post (March 25, 2010) is on power at the same time as I am touching on empowering. In the post he also addresses the inefficiency and waste of doing battle to have my “right way” prevail over your “right way.”

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