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Jon Miller

Quality Insider

The Meta-Conversation We Aren’t Having

Thoughts on Craig Weber’s Conversational Capacity

Published: Monday, July 15, 2013 - 08:51

My latest recommended reading for people who care about getting things done is Craig Weber’s Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure Is On (McGraw-Hill, 2013). The awareness and ability to improve our conversational capacity is essential, especially for those of us engaged in kaizen, problem solving, and continuous improvement.

This book made me realize that the way in which most of lean thinking is taught leaves out a large and important element. Too often we fail to talk about our failure to talk about our problems. It’s a meta-conversation we aren’t having, and we must. True, there is a fair amount of this type of discussion that goes on within leadership development, executive coaching, and culture-shaping circles, but that is another silo that struggles to smoothly integrate with lean. Conversational capacity is an excellent bridge between the two.

Capable conversation is often a missing piece within transformational change efforts. We undervalue talk, even belittle it as something people of action should minimize. We want to move straight to action. When actions fail to meet our expectations, we move on to the next action rather than talk about why. And so forth. Perhaps this is one reason why the world is so full of solvable yet unresolved problems.

Put into the kaizen context, conversational capacity is a foundational skill that can be represented in what I call the “change capability railroad” (see figure 1). The engine and two carriages represent how most kaizen, lean, and operational excellence efforts approach problem solving—through a combination of awareness, exposure, or visualizations of problems, and various problem-solving tools, methods and skills. Critically, this book about conversational capacity reminds us that change must ride on the steady rails of problem dialogue.

Figure 1: The change capability railroad

The components of the change capability railroad are:
Problem awareness. This includes sense of urgency, long-term purpose, customer alignment, understanding of value and waste, proper hierarchy of safety, quality, delivery, and cost (SQDC) metrics, nemawashi, consensus-building, and so forth.
Problem exposure. In a phrase, this is visual management, but should include escalation systems that surround the andon lamps, as well as leader standard work, kamishibai, structured gemba walks, 5S, kanban, one-piece flow, and any practice that brings problems to the surface.
Problem dialogue. This is conversational capacity and various communication skills required to listen, understand, and convey ideas in ways that cause them to be understood by listeners.
Problem solving. This includes defining problem statements, root cause analysis, experimentation, the scientific method, persistence, lessons learned, documenting succinctly (A3), and a host of techniques.
Change capability. This represents the person or organization’s overall capability to change, strengthen, and improve all of the above. When we are able to recognize our faults, expose rather than hide them, talk about them, and apply logical problem-solving methods, we are able to continuously improve.

Note that it is problem awareness that drives problem solving, pulling the process along. When we push from the back with problem-solving tools and methods without having adequate problem awareness and problem exposure within the organization or wider problem environment, we have a figurative train wreck. When the conversational capacity is weak, the problem-solving effort goes off the figurative rails.

We call it “solution jumping” when we go from problem awareness to problem solving without exposing and agreeing on the problem within its context; having mature, honest, and professional conversations; and developing fact-based countermeasures to root causes after agreeing that fact-based problem solving will be the approach followed—as opposed to decision making by the leader’s dogma. Perhaps we should just call it “jumping the rails.”

It doesn’t matter how smart we are. If we can’t communicate, it doesn’t matter. Great communicators aren’t always mental intellectual giants. They don’t need to be because they can take a simple good idea and be understood. Listening, understanding the audience, and adapting the problem-solving discussion to a compatible style are essential. At the same time, if people on both sides of an issue don’t engage in problem-solving conversation, it’s best to realize that a solution is not going to happen. As I read this book, following its stories and examples, it became frighteningly clear to me how thoroughly we are surrounded by leaders with low conversational capacity.

Thanks to this book, I will be able to spend a lot less time in the future attempting to engage people with low conversational capacity in problem-solving dialogue without first either calibrating the discussion to their capacity or helping them to raise it. This is hugely important because it is not an issue of motivation, intellect, vocabulary or language skill; it is a deeper emotional, psychological one.

I recommend you read the book, both to improve your personal effectiveness and to recognize where productive talk with others is breaking down due to their lack of conversational capacity. This book will surely add another dimension to your awareness of problem solving and continuous improvement.


About The Author

Jon Miller’s picture

Jon Miller

Jon Miller is co-founder of Gemba Research LLC where he leads development efforts including consulting solutions, training materials, and establishing internal consulting standards. Miller was born in Japan and lived there for 18 years. In 1993 Miller was fortunate to start his career working with consultants who were students of Taiichi Ohno. Since 1998 he has led dozens of lean transformation projects in a wide range of industries. Miller has taught kaizen in 15 countries for more than 15 years. He is a frequent contributor of articles to a variety of publications and written more than 800 articles on lean manufacturing, kaizen, and the Toyota Production System on Gemba’s blog.