Curious times call for curious leaders

You are on a train/in a meeting/drinking coffee and you hear the Breaking News alert on your phone. “What now?” you wonder. And you would be forgiven for including an expletive or two in your musing. Uncertain economic growth, unpredictable exchange rates, the future of the Eurozone … we live in ‘interesting’ times.

In the day to day, there are many other “what now?” moments. Problems might include: too many enquiries that can’t be resolved first time; long processing times; delays; scrap; too much rework. Clouds indeed are floating above.

“The problem is not that there are problems”, wrote American psychiatrist and author Theodore Rubin. “The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem”.

If having a problem isn’t a problem then, can we start to see that the clouds are not bringing rain, but instead, adding colour to our sunset sky?

Having a problem that we don’t have a certain answer to is the perfect starting point for a DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve, Control) improvement activity. But this can be anxious ground for Leaders, who are used to people in the organisation looking to them for quick decisions and solutions. Saying “I don’t yet know the solution” can be perceived to be, or felt to be, admitting defeat.

This can be a sticking point for some Lean Six Sigma deployments. We encourage people to bring forward problems but not solutions, and we ask Leaders and Champions of improvement activities to provide strategic direction for an improvement team, but without directing them towards a solution until the root causes of the issue are understood. This differs from the ‘don’t bring me problems – bring me solutions’ ethos upheld by many Leaders and Managers. The intention may be to motivate people and inspire action, but if the action is not focussed on the cause of the problem, this could result in waste, failure and frustration.

Increasing tolerance for uncertainty, appetite for problems, and being more comfortable with what Donald Rumsfeld described as “Known unknowns…things that we know we don’t know” is necessary. It goes deeper than using DMAIC as a roadmap, it is about opening a door, about welcoming in some mystery and being curious. Saying “I don’t know the solution” is not an embarrassing admission of defeat, but a fantastic opportunity to find out.

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