Posted by: knightbird | February 26, 2017

Your Mental Management Cave

“We were trapped in a mental cave of our own making and were unable to escape our preconceived notions of military operations and decision making.”

Major Blair S. Williams, U.S. Army

Major Williams wrote an article about a new system of thinking for military leaders to meet the exigencies of today. “Heuristics and Biases in Military Decision Making.” [LINK HERE] I was struck by the analogy of the mental cave, and decided to read the article.

I have worked with a lot of managers, Presidents, CEO’s and political leaders. Most claim great success in their careers, as they define it. I usually have a different view, which does not make me very popular with them. I always believe there is room for improvement, but I am always willing to talk about why. I am also trying to learn that you do need to compliment people about their performance at times, and find a way out of their biases. Still, it has been incredibly hard to get a leader to consider different methods of thinking. Major Williams describes the difficulty for different thinking in the military, and the great need for it. The world of war has changed again. And the military needs to change with it, according to Major Williams. The world of business is no different.

When the world of manufacturing changed because of the challenges Toyota posed with its Toyota Production System, our U.S. auto manufacturers were slow to respond. They lost billions of dollars in future opportunity and actual cash, pursuing conventional thinking. Many of them are now gone. But leadership cares not because they made millions from following conventional thinking. They made money for the company, but should have made more.

In 2007, the Department of Defense followed other service branches and mandated the use of Lean Thinking as their management system. The results, while not well publicized, are there. I frequently use the Red River Army Depot as an example of extraordinary use of Lean Thinking as the improved their rate of rehabilitation of battle damaged vehicles by 6,400%. Yes. That is the number, verified when they won their Shingo Prize. They went from one vehicle rehabbed every 20 hours (2 days of 10 hour shifts) to 32 vehicles rehabbed per day.

Major Williams discusses the need for decision making to occur at lower levels of management, and that is exactly what Lean Thinking does. Problem solving should occur at the lowest level possible, and where the problems occur. The employees at that level have the most knowledge.  Leadership is to coordinate the system and its improvement, and train/assist the employees engaged in improvement. bases his discussion on the findings by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s theories in behavioral economics. He states:

“They (Kahneman and Tversky) proposed that when facing numerous sensory inputs, human beings reduce complexity via the use of heuristics. In the course of these mental processes of simplifying an otherwise overwhelming amount of information, we regularly inject cognitive bias. Cognitive bias comes from the unconscious errors generated by our mental simplification methods.”

Now, I am writing about 2 different groups, leaders and followers. Both utilize Heuristics, but many followers are trained to follow. Leaders are also taught to follow, although what they follow are Heuristics they learned as they climbed their path to leadership. When you make a poor decision, people will follow. And when that poor decision leads you on a destructive path, people suffer. But in the military, followers can die. There is great incentive to revise thinking processes to avoid unnecessary death.

In business, you can lead your organization to an unnecessary death (bankruptcy or going out of business) unless you can change. Major Williams describes 2 steps we need to take. First, we need to recognize bias if we have it. Second, we need to train how to make different decisions based on thinking, reacting and in the case of lean thinking, in a team way.

I have not yet figured out how to change minds. Biases are too strong, especially for those who have very little leadership experience and are basically still followers. They tend to attach themselves to someone who does their thinking for them–someone very conventional, but at a higher level of knowledge and with more leadership experience.

My conclusion is that we need radical change in management in the U.S. It won’t happen because conventional leadership is making far too much income by catering to boards and blaming others. Errors and defects are explained away. We can’t seem to find a way to stop what is happening from happening, but we can sure make life miserable for employees working in the system.

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