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Davis Balestracci

Quality Insider

Improvement: As Simple as ABC... D?

Avoiding the unconscious business mindset

Published: Monday, January 20, 2014 - 11:18

Twenty-five years ago, I learned a wonderfully simple model summarizing the four stages of a change process, whether personal or organizational.

Breakthrough in knowledge
Choosing a breakthrough in thinking
Demonstrating a consistent breakthrough in behavior

Here’s the point: Unless thinking changes, behavior will not change—long term.

Changing behavior, as most of us know deep down, is hard work. In my research on personal and cultural behavior change, it takes a visceral, very uncomfortable wrestling with one’s current belief systemingrained, unconscious axioms developed in reaction to life experiences up to age 20. It then takes the stark realization (awareness) that these beliefs are perfectly designed to produce the results one is currently experiencing, both personally and professionally, and that have probably served one well... up until now.

A logical description of needed behaviors and desired results (breakthrough in knowledge) just won’t do it. How about all those conferences you have attended over the years? Everyone always knows what they need to do. At the end, they’re all fired up and resolved to change. The next day back at work, the phone rings, which pretty much unconsciously triggers auto-pilot work behaviors. As if that isn’t bad enough, work cultures are also ready to eat any funny-sounding new ideas for lunch!

It’s so easy for improvement professionals to see themselves as victims due to the prevalent (and somewhat justifiable) belief, “We quality professionals are so misunderstood.” And many find themselves stuck in an ongoing quagmire of missed opportunity, which—jolt!—that belief must be perfectly designed to produce.

I had a huge aha! when I realized that a lack of desired personal and organizational results is usually due to self-defeating beliefs. It’s so easy to become stuck in what could be called the “unconscious business” mindset. This is true for organizations as well and include:
• Repeating the same patterns and problems over and over again
• Not identifying yourself as the source of those patterns and problems
• Spending a lot of time ignoring or recycling the patterns
• Getting defensive when encountering resistance when enlightenment could be sought
• Thinking of yourself as a victim, resulting in:
—Expending considerable energy trying to prove it’s not your fault
—Going back and forth between thinking of others as perpetrators or fellow victims
—Arguing from the “victim” position, casting others as perpetrators
—Resolving arguments by often joining others in being fellow victims
—Not expressing your full creativity and having a variety of excellent reasons why you’re not doing so.

“Not me,” you say?

What does all this trigger in you? Why not 1) stop producing reports with bar graphs, trend lines, and traffic lights, and 2) start demonstrating more productive displays by taking a current situation and quietly solving it?

We all know, logically, that 1) is a good thing. But at this instant, I can hear the hundreds of reasons circulating in your heads, especially: “Doing this would be political suicide!” Perhaps. But if you allow that belief to continue, what will change? Nothing.

Of course, doing 1) overnight would indeed be political suicide, but (dusting off those techniques you learned at that trendy innovation conference way back when) how could you go about accomplishing 1) creatively without being tainted by that self-defeating belief? Perhaps by considering the alternative belief: “If I can get unprecedented results by quietly demonstrating the destructiveness of useless displays and showing simpler alternatives that make people’s lives easier and cut down on wasted meeting time, that will begin to generate respect and trust for my role.”

Regarding 2): I can already hear, “But I’m too busy to find the time to do that.” Whenever I hear the excuse that boils down to lack of time, I ask the person to substitute the word “priority” for “time.” If you continue to stay busy doing what you do, what will change? Nothing!

What if you had the alternative belief, “Doing 2) is not only a priority; it’s also a necessity to stop so much unproductive activity?” Could you somehow innovatively do this while simultaneously working on changing your belief about 1)? It is only when you realize that a current (unconscious) belief, now made conscious, isn’t working that you have begun the difficult but necessary breakthrough in thinking. Challenge yourself: “What is a more productive alternative belief, and can I choose to ingrain it into my belief system?”

By framing things as I did above, I am challenging many current beliefs about your job. Did you feel uncomfortably warm? Good. Now you are aware that you do have a choice—I can’t make it for you. It’s only when you refuse to tolerate your current results and resolve to have the wherewithal to change that you will begin the process of changing. It will take time and a lot of patience with yourself.

Unless a belief system changes, it’s doomed to stay perfectly designed to get the results it’s already getting. Jack Kornfield, from his book, Buddha's Little Instruction Book (Bantam, 1994) couldn’t put it any more simply:
• Through our senses the world appears.
• Through our reactions we create delusions.
• Without reactions, the world becomes clear.
• It is not our preferences that cause problems but our attachment to them.


And this “attachment” is what makes it so difficult to change—and makes people fiercely resist change. As Alan Watts says, “We see what we believe rather than believe what we see.”

What will it take to go from tolerating bolt-on quality to motivating built-in improvement? Begin by looking at your current results, examining the implicit underlying belief system about your job, and beginning some breakthroughs in thinking and behavior (especially with data displays). With that experience, you can maybe begin a transition from “unconscious”—i.e., bolt-on quality—to “conscious”—i.e., built-in improvement. (Here’s what it could be like for those of you involved in lean efforts).


About The Author

Davis Balestracci’s picture

Davis Balestracci

Davis Balestracci is a past chair of ASQ’s statistics division. He has synthesized W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy as Deming intended—as an approach to leadership—in the second edition of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2015), with a foreword by Donald Berwick, M.D. Shipped free or as an ebook, Data Sanity offers a new way of thinking using a common organizational language based in process and understanding variation (data sanity), applied to everyday data and management. It also integrates Balestracci’s 20 years of studying organizational psychology into an “improvement as built in” approach as opposed to most current “quality as bolt-on” programs. Balestracci would love to wake up your conferences with his dynamic style and entertaining insights into the places where process, statistics, organizational culture, and quality meet.