(This is the fifth in a series of articles looking at the impact of how managers talk to and coach employees and the impact their approach can have on employees’ engagement and development as problem solvers. The focus is on what I have learned personally about the power of prompting reflection as opposed to telling or directing as a way of coaching for development.)
We have a plan, or an intention, or at least an idea. We go to work trying to follow our plan or act on our idea to change what we think needs to be changed. We run into problems when things don’t go as we expected, so we try fixes and adjustments. At some point, we step back long enough to check what we’ve got to show for our effort. We may keep trying but often we decide we’ve got what we want (or the best we can get) and move on to the next thing. Or we decide it was a bad idea or lack of support was too much of a barrier and we give up.
That’s a pretty unflattering description of the typical implementation process, but I’ve seen (and done it) enough to say it’s a pattern. Why does it matter if most implementation efforts end with a quick check and a decision to keep trying, declare victory, or give up? It matters because we are missing the most important part of continuous improvement applying the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) problem-solving method – learning from our experiment. Learning is the function of the check phase – which really means check/reflect. It’s what makes continuous improvement a continuous (some say, endless) process. And it’s reflection based on checking that makes the difference. In fact, as I experienced continuous improvement at Toyota, the check/reflect phase put the “continuous” in continuous improvement. Unfortunately, for many managers and leaders, check/reflect is the loneliest part of the PDCA cycle.
We are missing the most important part of continuous improvement applying the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) problem-solving method – learning from our experiment.
Why Humans Are Averse to Reflection
A good source for a better understanding of our underuse of reflection is Daniel Kahneman’s 2015 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. It reviews 30 years of research he and other behavioral and cognitive science researchers have done into how we reach judgments, make decisions, and solve problems. He integrates and summarizes these findings to suggest that we have two thinking systems. The Fast Thinking system is the more reactive. It uses the information immediately available to respond instinctively to situations and decides instantly what to do. This reaction is below the conscious level and happens before the more deliberative Slow Thinking system starts processing the situation. Slow Thinking is where we think consciously, solve problems systematically, and make reasoned judgments.
Kahneman’s description of our two thinking systems has strong implications for the desire to be reflective. First, the Slow system has to put the brake on the immediate response of the Fast system for reflection to happen. Second, where the Fast system acts based on whatever information it has, the Slow system looks for additional information and tries to better grasp the situation before reaching a conclusion. Then the Slow system works systematically through that information to reach a reasoned decision. This takes time and we are usually faced with pressure to do something immediately. It is not that the Fast thinking system is bad. In fact, in emergency situations, its intuitive or instinctive reactions can save us. But the Fast system is our default thinking system and it takes conscious effort to manage and assess its responses.
There is an additional factor from neuroscience research that makes the challenge of being reflective even more of a challenge. The conscious thinking part of our brains, the pre-frontal cortex, is relatively small but consumes 20% of the body’s energy. In other words, conscious thought, as opposed to instinctive response, takes a lot of effort and that brain power takes a lot of energy. The body is always trying to conserve energy and tends to be stingy with how much it lets us use. Its first reaction to our effort at Slow thinking is to resist using the energy to do it. Summing up these indications from cognitive, behavioral, and neuroscience research: systematic checking and reflecting do not seem to be natural acts for us humans.
Force Reflection and 4 Keys to Coaching
Fujio Cho, (former chairman and CEO, Toyota Motor Corporation) from whom I learned much of what I practice as a coach when I worked with him, was certainly not a cognitive science researcher, but he had deep insight into how our minds work and how we learn. After a couple of years observing him asking managers and executives to think about something or go see something and questioning them about what they thought or saw later, I asked if he would describe what he was doing. He shared four things he tries to do when he is coaching or helping develop someone:
- “Give the person the responsibility as his or her own.” Simply put, in a work setting we generally learn to help solve problems. No skin in the game, no need to learn.
- “Let them think, let them try.” We learn primarily from our experience. We can read or be told how things are or what to do but until we have experience working with an idea or a practice (experiment with it), it is generally not real in a way we can see or judge how it can help us solve problems.
- “Help them see.” When people (including me) reported back to Mr. Cho after a “go-see” assignment, he asked them questions. What he generally got was a summary statement or a claim about what was going on, or what was needed. And he would reply, “What did you see that makes you think that’s what is happening? What else did you see or hear? How do you know that’s what is going on? What makes you think that’s what we should do?” He was trying to counter our very human tendency to default to Fast Thinking by rushing to a conclusion, judgment, and solution. He wanted to develop us as people who recognized that Toyota expects thinking and problem-solving that is based on a grasp of the actual conditions of situations before deciding how to act.
- “Force reflection.” The reflection part I understood. I was aware that in Toyota a planned activity or project was not completed until there was a reflection on plan versus actual. I knew about the Japanese practice of hansei, self-reflection. I was aware of American educator John Dewey’s insistence that reflective thinking on experience was how we learned best. It was the “force” part I didn’t understand. Now I understand why he used such a strong term as “force.” Reflecting on the outcome of our intentions and the impact of efforts and why things turned out as they did is not something we do naturally unless we have to. Unless we are “forced” by something or someone on the outside.
Forcing Teams to Reflect
My first experience coaching PDCA problem solving was with supervisors and team members on the plant floor in Toyota. They had a tendency to name a problem then jump to a solution This was especially the case with many skilled maintenance people. “I’ve seen this before,” they’d say. “I know what needs to be done; let’s just do it.” There was little point asking them to describe what they knew about what was happening or to explain why they thought their solutions were the right ones. So I shifted to asking them to help me understand what was happening and how they knew what to do. “Let’s go see. Show me what you think is happening,” I’d ask. Sometimes we saw what they expected. More often, we saw things they did not expect that called their solutions into question.
Whatever occurred in this “go see” process gave me an opportunity to coach using reflection. If the problem condition was what they expected, I could prompt recall by asking how what we saw this time was like what they had seen before. And what did they see this time that gave them confidence their solution would work this time also. If we did not see what they expected, I asked how exactly what they saw was different from what they had seen before or expected and why they thought it was different. I also asked what change in their solution would be necessary this time and why. And I usually asked what they might have learned about problem-solving from what we found.
Next, I learned to use reflection proactively rather than reactively. Frequently those who had an instant solution in mind either did not see anything at the problem situation that caused them to question their assumption or they simply could not let go of their solution regardless of what questions were raised. Cognitive neuroscience research has shown that arguing with someone who has a “fixed” belief generally makes them more committed to the idea. Eventually recognizing this intuitively, I tried a different tack.
I would say, “Okay, you believe it will work. Let’s see if we can’t learn more than whether it worked or didn’t work by trying it. What does work – or didn’t work – mean? Let’s be explicit going into execution about exactly what we are changing, why, and what we expect to see different that will make performance better.” In other words, I was asking them to do a simple design of experiment. Many soon recognized that I was asking them to explain their ideas for changes and improvements in a simple form of A3 thinking.
It was after these experiments that I really began to understand why Mr. Cho said, “force reflection.” The tendency of most people I was coaching was to say, “Okay, that worked, what do we do next?” Or, “Okay, that didn’t work, what do we try next?” Without someone insisting that we stop and look at what did happen and what didn’t happen in these experiments, they would have been just trial and error. My role as coach was to ask one of two questions.
- If the change worked, I asked, “What do we know about exactly why the change worked and made performance better, so we can keep doing it.”
- If the change did not produce the expected outcome, I asked, “The idea for the change made sense, what did we miss? What did we miss in what we saw and thought was going on? What did we miss in what we did to execute the change? Or what did we miss in what we expected would happen?”
Through this kind of “forced” reflection, we gradually built a foundation of learning about the problem situations we were trying to improve and our problem solving and execution processes. Again many soon picked up that as a coach I wasn’t going to accept that it worked or it didn’t work. I was going to expect them to have thought about why or why not and what they would do differently next time.
Read Part 2: Forcing Managers and Execs to Reflect
Also in this series:
Managing to Learn
An Introduction to A3 Leadership and Problem-Solving.