Call to Order

Useful technique for removing emotion from the equation

By R. Dale Smith

In summer 2001, I was working as a quality engineering manager in New Hampshire. While living there, I became involved in local government—much to the chagrin of my patient wife.

Among other positions, I was serving as a member of the town’s budget committee, when the budget committee chairs and school board members asked me to serve on a new high school site-selection committee as the budget committee representative. I had not been active on this subject and thus was viewed as impartial. I accepted after much arm-twisting and ego-stroking.

This was a highly controversial topic in the town. High-school students from an adjoining town attended our high school, resulting in overcrowding. The cost of building the new school would be funded by both towns.

In addition, the current high school was a bit outdated and needed capital improvements if it was going to continue to be used. An apparent slight majority in town thought we should build a new school. A vocal minority felt students from the adjoining town should simply go somewhere else. The town had been through a couple of years of failed efforts to build a new school due to the need for a super-majority for passage of the capital improvement.

A meeting of foes

The time came for our first meeting. The committee was made up of five of the most vocal opponents and supporters of the need for a new school—and me.

The first order of business was to select a committee chair. The group of opponents nominated a member from the supporter groups to act as chair, and visa versa. Each time, nominees turned down the opportunity, stating they had been so vocal in the past that it was unlikely the committee’s work would be viewed as impartial if they were selected chair.

After going back and forth, I was the only one who had not directly turned down the offer. I accepted the nomination on the condition we would strictly follow Robert’s Rules of Order1 and use a data-driven method of my choosing for determining our recommendation for the site. The members unanimously (minus me) agreed, and I reluctantly became the chair. We selected a secretary for the committee and reviewed our charter from the school board.

Our next meeting was on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001. We wanted to get to work to respect those who fell that day. The meeting started solemnly with prayer, and it moved forward from there.

I proposed we develop and use the Kepner-Tregoe decision analysis technique. I had used the technique in the past, and it had proven extremely effective in significantly reducing the emotional aspects of a decision by determining quantifiable musts and wants in advance and then using data to populate the matrix.

Our musts were specific lot size, transportation access and an owner who was willing to sell.

Making a recommendation

Our meetings were cordial and productive despite it being a gathering of foes. We identified three land plots as meeting our musts. As a committee, we walked each lot and ranked them against our wants. In the end, the committee voted unanimously to select one of the three as the recommendation from the committee.

In the end, the purchase failed at election time, but this was a great experience for me. It proved once again that the Kepner-Tregoe decision analysis tool is an excellent method for getting a group of foes to agree on a solution without creating anger and resentment. In the end, it was a positive experience for all.


  1. Henry M. Robert III et al., Robert’s Rules of Order, 10th edition, Da Capo Press, 2000.

R. Dale Smith is a quality and process improvement manager at Armstrong World Industries in Macon, GA. He earned his bachelor’s degree in ceramic engineering from Ohio State University. He is a senior member of ASQ and a certified manager of quality/organizational excellence.

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