One of the major causes of unsatisfactory results in operations and dissatisfied employees in organizations is that we are unable to give clear instructions. We don’t know how to adequately communicate the knowledge required to carry out the task given. (This is answer number two to the question from our previous posts on Empowerment: “Why can’t people do their work on their own?“)
Say What You Mean
Dr. W. Edwards Deming, to whom we owe everything we know about Quality, was particularly adamant about this point. He outlined the way an operational definition should be. This way it provides the system with the knowledge it needs to function consistently with the goal.
“An operational definition puts communicable meaning into a concept. An operational definition is one that people can do business with. An operational definition of safe, round, reliable, or any other characteristic must be communicable, with the same meaning to vendors, purchasers and the production workers. Same meaning, yesterday and today.”
Why are operational definitions so important for empowering people? Because strong interactions require a more precise and effective way of communicating. What makes communication effective? Precise words? Not at all! A simple example will show how limited the power of words is when trying to convey an instruction. Let’s consider a simple, natural, action: drinking from a glass.
Playing with Martians
To play the following game (thanks to Oded Cohen for this exercise) two people are needed (plus a group wanting to have good time). The first one is a Martian. Yes, a Martian. He/she understands our language and he/she will do whatever we want him/her to. The other is a willing teacher. He/she will instruct the Martian on how to drink from the glass. The instructor can draw from the richest vocabulary, the Martian will understand. However, while talking, the instructor will have to turn his/her back to the Martian. Everybody except the teacher can see what is happening.
Normally the result is water all over the place and people laughing. The more the instructor specifies what to do and how to do it, the funnier the Martian’s reactions. As a matter of fact, the Martian does only what he is told to do.
Why is it so?
When we communicate, we choose words and expressions that have a precise meaning for us. US, unfortunately, is not THEM. When we tell the Martian to take the glass, we implicitly assume that he/she will do it with the open end up – what the heck, he/she should know that!
This is a good indication of how we should modify our current way of communicating instructions.
We believe that a much more empowering way of communicating should be based on conveying the logic, the “why”, rather than the detailed instructions, the “how”. Why do we claim that ?
Empowering someone means giving him/her the “power” to operate. Giving someone a detailed list of things to do is the exact opposite because:
- It takes away the ownership of the action, i.e. it prevents the person from “inventing” the way of doing it;
- Almost invariably, a detailed list triggers the production of negative reservations which run the risk of remaining unresolved;
- Very likely, the person will “interpret” the list, investing effort in an unwanted direction, causing frustration and lack of results.
There is a powerful Thinking Process Tool that builds clear instructions with clear logic step by step. It’s from the Theory of Constraints and it’s called the Transition Tree. We’ll take a detailed look at that tool in our next post.
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About the Author
Angela Montgomery Ph.D. is Partner and Co-founder of Intelligent Management, founded by Dr. Domenico Lepore. Angela’s new business novel+ website The Human Constraint looks at how Deming and the Theory of Constraints can create the organization of the future, based on collaboration, network and social innovation.