ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

January 1999

Emergency Quality Management

Mission Impossible: The Ultimate Facilitation Challenge

Do You Believe In Magic?

Remembering Root Cause Analysis

Conversations For A Change

by Peter Block

Fox Shows Employees It Has Heart
by Lynn L. Franzoi

Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Sites Unseen

The Quality Tool I Never Use

Book Review

Views For A Change

Myron Kellner-Rogers answers:
Benchmarking: bane of learning

People who regularly read this column have come to expect my contrary responses, so I won’t disappoint. Ken, to your desire to benchmark, I say-don’t do it! Or, if you must, I hope you’ll consider the different understanding of learning and adaptation offered here. In our In Search of Excellence culture, benchmarking has become the Rosetta Stone of high performance. As brave explorers, we wander into foreign cultures, intently listening to the tales of the natives, who describe how they conquered the forces of sloth and surmounted the pinnacle of success. We return to our own shores, borrowed tools, measures and methods in hand, transplanting them to our own soil. But in our unique climate, they don’t take, wither and die or grow in mutated forms, bearing inconsistent results. Then the blame begins, as we set about determining who did what wrong. “It worked at GE, it must work here!”

Nothing Transfers Unchanged
This is a fundamental rule of living systems. The new tools and techniques any organization invents to change its results arise out of unique conditions. These conditions have much to do with the quality of relationships and information: who has access to whom, and what information is available to people. The conditions also have much to do with the unique identity of the organization: what it values, what’s important, how it determines what is significant. Given any particular problem, the dynamic process of working out the solution has more to do with the results achieved than the tools and techniques used. In fact, the invented methodologies are simply the artifacts of the dynamic process of learning together. When we reduce our story to the artifacts, the messy truth of our learning process becomes hidden behind an exciting but useless myth.

What is the Real Story?
An example might help. Royal Dutch Shell became famous for its scenario planning process. Begun as an internal dialogue in the 70’s, the process of conversation that evolved into shared scenarios of the future is widely credited with enabling Shell to respond faster, better, smarter than its competitors to radically changed industry conditions. Shell excelled in the face of crisis, when everybody else stumbled.

As experts sought to explain the difference, they noted the use of scenarios, and the common wisdom became the myth that said Shell got the scenario right. We only needed to reverse-engineer Shell’s scenario process for all of us to profit from their experience.

Retrospectively debriefing participants led to a step-wise process for scenario building, now widely taught and applied. Now, where are the stories of wildly different results on the basis of this new technique? I think they are few, because the recreated story is not the real story.
I believe the real story is not that Shell excelled because they got the right scenario, but that they created the capacity to respond quickly and intelligently to any reality that appeared. They did this through a messy and experimental conversation about meaning, and all real change is a change in meaning. What did any information mean to Shell? What was important, what was different, what did it imply about how anyone should act? They changed the quality of relationships in the organization, the access to information, the meaning-making possibilities. A value for challenging dogmatic thinking was fostered, and the possibility of radically different response emerged.

We can replicate the tools Shell used, but they are only the artifacts of a profoundly changed culture. If we are unwilling to see the complex truth behind the simplistic myth, we will never be able to learn from one another.

The Real Meaning of Safety
When I look at the success or failure of any organization, I try to understand what were the underlying conditions that led to the results. You mention safety. Why is it that different manufacturing plants in the same corporation with identical safety procedures achieve different results? I’ve worked in a few environments in which safety was an issue-either improving it or sustaining high levels of performance.

In all my experience, performance is transformed when people recognize that safety is about relationships, about our caring for one another. Do I accept responsibility for the safety of myself, as a commitment to my family? Do I accept responsibility for the safety of my colleagues, as a commitment to our friendship?

The more safety becomes a hallmark of our relationships with one another, the more likely we are to seek after new learning, to apply breakthrough procedures, to surpass previous standards. We create an environment in which no accident is acceptable. Because the quality of our relationship improves with each other, the quality of our performance in all areas improves-not just in safety. A new quality of relationship cannot be transferred from another environment. It demands that we commit to one another where we work, right here, right now.

Starting Here, Starting Now
If I were to benchmark, I’d begin “right here, right now.” Start with this belief: The change we are seeking is already occurring somewhere in our organization. We just can’t see it, because it represents something that contradicts our shared myth. To see the change requires a change in meaning. We have to be willing to look at those communities of practice in our midst where people are getting different results and understand they got those results differently. Look inward, and begin the conversation that challenges conventional wisdom, that engages everyone in recognizing and respecting what they are learning. Begin to change the relationship you are in together, and the results you get, by having the courage to know what you really know.

Dave Farrell Responds

January '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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