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Kevin Meyer

Quality Insider

The Cure for Confirmation Bias Abroad or at Work

Observe, ask questions, and challenge the single point of view

Published: Monday, May 18, 2015 - 14:34

I recently came across the TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie where she discusses the “danger of a single story.” From growing up as a kid in Nigeria to studying in the United States into adulthood, she describes how she and others, having only heard a single story about a certain situation, critically misunderstand the person or circumstance.

We all experience the power of the single story, often without realizing the danger. How many of us get our news of the world, and thereby form opinions, from just a single news source? Or even worse, from news sources that we believe already reflect our opinions, thereby denying us the need to have to think about other perspectives, resulting in an increasingly polarizing form of confirmation bias?

How many of us as leaders simply listen to the single story told to us by our staffs, or perhaps by our computer systems—both of which may be predispositioned or programmed to conform to our existing perspective?

The single story may be an incomplete picture of the situation—or even dead wrong.

This is the power of genchi genbutsu—go and see. Go to the real place to truly understand.

My wife and I both lived overseas as kids, and experienced the danger of the single story when interacting with friends and family back home. Perspectives and opinions were sometimes just plain wrong. This is why we love to travel and have visited more than 60 countries. With each new place we try to discover and understand the overlapping tapestry of stories to get a true sense of the people and place, which is almost always very different from what we expected from the single story we’d read or heard about before visiting.

In Laos, one of the few remaining hard-core communist countries, we learned about the vibrant undercurrent of capitalism that has put a TV in the middle of many Hmong grass huts—often showing western shows such as (shudder) The Real Housewives of Orange County. In Tanzania we ventured outside the game parks that most tourists stick to in order to see how a group of dedicated people are fighting an incredible infant mortality problem—which was documented in a Gemba Academy video series. In Panama last Christmas we left the relaxing beaches and spent a day at a women’s shelter in the very dangerous city of Colon. We’ve been to the slums of India, animal rescue organizations in Nepal, broke bread with villagers in a small hill town in Italy, witnessed the social impact of an entire generation of men murdered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and walked through the vibrant township of Soweto outside the nearly abandoned and squatter-filled inner city of Johannesburg in South Africa. Every place has many stories.

That tapestry of multiple stories is the real picture, not the single story that you read about in the paper or hear about on CNN, let alone entertainment like Fox News or The Daily Show.

As leaders we must do the same. We can’t rely on a memo from our staff or a report from a manufacturing resource planning system. Those are single stories, and will invariably be an incomplete picture—or just wrong. A single story can give us a potentially dangerous misunderstanding about situations within our organizations just as much as geopolitical events.

Go and see. Observe, ask questions, challenge, and reflect. Learn the many stories to understand the true situation.


About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.


Cure for Confirmation Bias

Really? Fox New is only entertainment? You have spent far too much time in politically isolated sequestration listening to your own ideologically friendly progressive liberal sources, and likely educated by Marxist professors. I too have traveled the world. I listen to and absorb as much news and information as I can find. Truth matters to me, so I take the best of all of them and throw out the rubbish. CNN has good talent, and often accurate stories, but how accurate is a new agency that knowingly ignores critical issues and potentially self-incriminating facts that would help us to arrive at the cumulative collection of knowledge that would lead to a truthful conclusion?