Tag Archives: decision making

Intuition revisited – implications for process improvement and Lean Six Sigma (Part 2 of 3 blogs)


Intuition has an important role in process improvement

In a previous blog “The problem with relying on intuition for process improvement and decision making” I emphasized the problems with, rather than the opportunities for intuition.

However, as Gary Klein(1) points out, the analytical techniques practiced in Lean Six Sigma also have their shortcomings.  A point also often highlighted to me by participants in process improvement workshops or Kaizen events.

Some of the infrastructure created in Lean Six Sigma and other process improvement based programmes can also create some real barriers for intuition.

This blog follows on from part 1: “Intuition revisited – or how it could be important to a business environment”, to explore the implications of intuition to these aspects of process improvement.

The limits and strengths of intuition and analytical techniques

The potential for using intuition is limited for example where people do not yet have sufficient expertise in an area, or the area is too complex, or where people may have become ‘blinkered’ and so unable to spot important or subtle cues or patterns.

Conversely, people sometimes try to force-fit analytical techniques in situations where others have the expertise to make judgements.  The use of decision matrices, with weighted criteria can be an example of this(2).  And so some alternatives, suggested by Klein are:

  1. Use intuition first when comparing options e.g. ask people for an initial indication of their preferences – so that this can be used as a ‘sanity’ check on outcomes from an analytical approach
  2. Try a strengths vs. weaknesses approach as an alternative to weighted decision criteria
  3. Use mental simulation of how the options might play out to understand them better
  4. Look for ways to simplify the comparisons: there might be some factors that are really not important
  5. Recognise situations where the difference between options is really too small to make a difference and where it would be better to just pick one rather than continue the evaluation

Barriers to intuition created by process improvement programmes

Process improvement programmes encourage the documentation of procedures (standardized ways of working), using metrics to monitor performance, and automating routine or complex analytical tasks.

These can be extremely effective ways to streamline work, ensure that good practices are re-used, identify when timelines, quality or safety and budgets are at risk, and release people to get on with more creative activities.

However, as Klein points out, they can also not only create barriers to people using their intuition, but they can also gradually undermine what intuitive powers people have.

How to use procedures and intuition

Standardized procedures are essential in regulated environments, and invaluable in helping new staff get up to speed quickly, or as a reminder to those who carry out certain tasks infrequently.  They can also help an organisation ensure that everyone benefits from good practices in how to perform processes effectively and efficiently.  However, as Klein points out, people need to use standardized procedures in a way that keeps them alert to what they are doing, so that they can spot unexpected problems, or opportunities to do things differently i.e. fostering their intuition rather than in effect ‘turning it off’.  Such an attitude will foster continuous improvement and this is also how, as I’ve written elsewhere(3), people can maintain a dynamic between standardization and creativity.  Understanding why the procedures are as they are: the context around them, will help with this, so that this should be an integral part of teaching people about procedures.

How to use metrics and intuition

The same is true for metrics: they have a vital role to play in monitoring performance and in alerting people to risk, but too often metrics are collected for their own sake, and without people having a proper understanding of their purpose or of how to interpret them.  Again, if used intelligently and with awareness, people can foster their intuition and not only derive real value from the metrics, but spot situations when the metrics alone are not enough.

Automation and intuition

With some skill in mental mathematics, our intuition will alert us if calculations done on a calculator or in an excel spreadsheet are tens or hundreds of units out from what we would expect.  However there is a risk when routine analytical tasks, or even more complex ones have been relegated to computers that we will be under-rehearsed or have insufficient expertise to spot problems that might arise.  So where processes or parts of processes are selected for automation as a result of process improvement, we need to find ways to continue to maintain expertise and foster intuition, so that automation does indeed continue to act as a support tool rather than the master of our work!

The third blog of this series will be addressing intuition and knowledge management, and ways in which people can actively enhance their intuitive skills.

Notes

  1. The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work, by Gary Klein, Crown Business, 2004. ISBN 978-0385502894
  2. There’s more to decision making than meets the eye or…. Why we shouldn’t dismiss gut feelings.
  3. Elisabeth Goodman (2010) How Lean can bring real benefits to innovation in Pharmaceutical Research Six Sigma & Process Excellence IQ, 8th January 2010, http://www.sixsigmaiq.com/article.cfm?externalID=1720
  4. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, enhancing team effectiveness through process improvement, knowledge and change management. Follow the links to find out about how Elisabeth Goodman and RiverRhee Consulting can help your team to work more effectively for greater productivity and improved team morale.  Read Elisabeth Goodman’s blog for more discussions on topics covered by this blog.

Intuition revisited: how it could be important to a business environment (Part 1 of 3 blogs)


Intuition does have an important role in business

In a previous blog “The problem with relying on intuition for process improvement and decision making” I emphasized the problems with, rather than the opportunities for intuition.

One of my blog readers, Deborah Peluso, kindly pointed me to Gary Klein’s 30+ years of work on intuition with the US marines, firefighters, pilots, software trouble-shooters and business leaders.  I have now read his book, ‘The Power of Intuition”1 which is an impressively substantial reference work, and very enlightening.

As Deb said in her comment to my blog: “I realized that intuition is not magical or mystical. What we call intuition is a label for our observed phenomena that is really just a function of expertise, and expertise is something that we can study, elicit, and use in our knowledge management and change work. And decision analysis has its place in helping to check our gut instincts, provided we have the time and resources to use the tools appropriately.”

This blog, together with my next two, will highlight what I have learnt from Gary Klein’s book about the role of intuition in business in general, and in process improvement and knowledge management specifically.

What is intuition and when can it be useful?

Intuition is the result of our experience (Klein refers to ‘meaningful experience’).  It enables us to spot cues, recognize patterns and build mental models of potential outcomes.

Intuition supports us in spotting problems, being creative and innovative, adapting and improvising plans, and making decisions.

Taking each of these in turn:

  • Our ability to spot problems depends on the nature of the problem (how quickly it develops, the level of associated risk), our level of alertness to potential problems, what might be going on around us to affect our alertness, and our level of expertise (or intuition).  As with all applications of intuition, it also depends on how much attention we pay to our ‘gut feelings’: our subconscious alerting us to something being wrong before we consciously recognize it.
  • As Klein points out: intuition is tied to past experience, whereas creativity is not.  He suggests that an intuitive approach to creativity ‘transcends’ past experience!  He suggests that teams look for opportunities in difficult situations and how to build on those as a route to creativity.  So: if the goals or needs to be addressed are clear, potential opportunities (or leverage points) identified, and then connections made between the goals and the opportunities that will work with them – then this will be lead to effective innovation.  Klein calls this ‘directed creativity’, and this does sound like the solution identification exercises that we conduct in Kaizen workshops.
  • Whist Klein accepts the conventional use of plans (for example in project management) to coordinate the work of teams, shape our thinking, work out what’s needed, he emphasizes the importance of being able to improvise and adapt, especially when the unpredictable happens, which it invariably will!

I’ll be discussing the relevance of intuition to decision making in my next blog.

Intuition and process improvement (Lean and Six Sigma)

As I’ve discussed in my other blogs, analytical approaches are still absolutely important. But there will be limits and strengths to these approaches, just as there are barriers to and enablers for intuition.

As I’ve suggested before, there are implications for the tools taught in Lean and Six Sigma (or process improvement generally); for example in using decision matrices, or documenting procedures (and process mapping), in using metrics.

I’ll be discussing this more fully in the second blog of this series of three.

Intuition and knowledge management

What we may under-estimate is that intuition is not something that you either have or don’t have.  We all have it.  The key is in how we develop and use it.  Gary Klein’s book contains some fascinating implications for knowledge management techniques for example ‘learning before’, ‘peer assists’, the use of experts and discussions about ‘tacit’ knowledge.

I’ll be discussing this in the third blog of this series.

Notes

  1. The Power of Intuition: How to Use Your Gut Feelings to Make Better Decisions at Work, by Gary Klein, Crown Business, 2004. ISBN 978-0385502894
  2. Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, enhancing team effectiveness through process improvement, knowledge and change management. Follow the links to find out about how Elisabeth Goodman and RiverRhee Consulting can help your team to work more effectively for greater productivity and improved team morale.  Read Elisabeth Goodman’s blog for more discussions on topics covered by this blog.

 

The problem with relying on intuition for process improvement and decision making.


In a previous blog “There’s more to decision making than meets the eye… or why we shouldn’t dismiss gut feelings“, inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’1, I made a case for the discretionary use of intuition in decision making.  I argued that:

  1. There seems to be a particular role for intuition when: a) encountering very new or different options for which known criteria are just not valid; b) where decisions based on intuition just cannot be explained in a logical way
  2. There are circumstances where it would be quite risky to rely on one’s intuition: a) when under tremendous stress; b) when there is just too much information to be digested; c) where our subconscious ‘houses’ prejudices that we are not conscious of.

Comments from my readers suggested that other practitioners of Lean and Six Sigma also see a role for intuition alongside factual based analysis of problems and root causes, in the evaluation of potential solutions, and in decision making.

Having now read Ben Goldacre’s book ‘Bad Science’2, I have some new reflections to add to this discussion.  Goldacre cites three main problems with intuition.

1. Our brains are conditioned to look for and ‘see’ patterns, and causal relationships where there may be only random noise.

Goldacre gives examples of random sequences of numbers that, when presented to people, ‘reveal’ clusters and patterns when statistical analyses would show that none exist.

The ability to rapidly and intuitively spot patterns of activity, and causal relationships between them, may, in the past, have been an important survival mechanism for humans, but could today be very misleading in process improvement where, for example, we want to make sure that we focus our efforts on addressing the truly significant problems.

Approaches such as Pareto analysis, quantification of issues (or Undesirable Effects – UDEs) and matrix diagrams can help us to review data more objectively and thereby focus on the right things.

2. We have a bias towards positive evidence.

In the words of Francis Bacon, quoted by Goldacre: “It is the peculiar and perpetual error of human understanding to be more moved and excited by affirmatives than negatives.”

We are much more likely to pay attention to findings that prove our theories, than to those that do not. That is why, in another quote in Goldacre’s book, Darwin made a point of noting every piece of negative evidence that he came across.

Goldacre expands on this bias further by saying that we:

  1. Overvalue information that confirms our hypotheses
  2. Seek out information that will confirm our hypotheses

Our natural bias towards positive evidence is also why process improvement and change management exercises such as force-field analysis, SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, FMEA (Failure Mode Effect Analysis) and Six Thinking Hats can be so powerful.  Knowledge Management practitioners also make a point of capturing ‘deltas’ or ‘what could be improved’ in learning reviews, retrospects or ‘After Action Reviews’

These tools, when applied to process improvement and decision making, encourage us to think about what might prevent our solutions from succeeding rather than getting carried away by how wonderful they are!  They also help us to present this understanding more clearly in our communication activities or dialogues with our stakeholders (sponsors, colleagues and customers).

3. Our assessment of the quality of new evidence is biased by what we believe.

If we are aware of this potential pitfall we can aim to be more receptive to opposing views.  In a team of people that have been working together for some time, common beliefs may be more predominant than instances of opposing views.

An effective team leader could look out for and encourage differences of opinion as a potential way of overcoming the team’s bias in assessing new evidence.  Discussions with customers, suppliers and other stakeholders could also be very powerful for this.

Conclusion

Now that we know that we can be additionally blinded by our need to see patterns, causal relationships, and confirmatory evidence of what we believe, we need to be doubly cautious in applying intuition for process improvement and decision making.

As change practitioners know, we value resistance from stakeholders as this highlights potential areas for consideration that those implementing the change may be blind to.  We know now that we should also value resistance from stakeholders as a counter-balance to the risks of intuition.

However, we should continue to bear in mind that there is a role for intuition in certain circumstances.

Notes

(1) “Blink.  The power of thinking without thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell, Back Bay Books, 2007

(2) “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre, Harper Perennial, 2009

(3) Elisabeth Goodman is Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that uses process improvement and knowledge management to enhance team effectiveness.

Follow the links to find out more about RiverRhee Consulting, and about Elisabeth Goodman.

There’s more to decision making than meets the eye or.. why we shouldn’t dismiss gut feelings


I like a book that challenges my assumptions and ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell is one of them.  Each time I read such a book, I discover how much more I need to learn.  Apologies if what I’m about to write about is already obvious to readers.

Whenever I run workshops using Lean and Six Sigma, there are people in the room who are frustrated by its highly structured, sequential and logical approach.  In my earlier blog: Creativity and problem solving (http://wp.me/pAUbH-8), I reflected on the aspects of this relating to creativity and use of the right hand side of the brain.  ‘Blink’ also discusses the importance of the right hand brain, this time for making decisions.

Many management techniques, Lean and Six Sigma included, put a lot of emphasis on taking a structured approach to decision making as in:

  • Identify the criteria against which some options are to be evaluated
  • Prioritise or weight the criteria
  • Score the options to be evaluated against each criterion
  • Add up the scores and whichever option has the top score is the option of choice

Each step allows for a certain amount of subjectivity but because this kind of exercise is often done in a group, there is some apparent objectivity in the outcome.  However someone will invariably speak up and either say: “Why did we bother doing that, I could have said which option we were going to choose?”, or “I just can’t agree with the outcome”.  So that sometimes a group will end up going with ‘gut instinct’ anyway.

The following points form ‘Blink’ are I think particularly worth considering:

  1. There seems to be a particular role for intuition when: a) encountering very new or different options for which known criteria are just not valid; b) where decisions based on intuition just cannot be explained in a logical way (although Malcolm Gladwell gives some very poignant examples of how experts can learn to interpret their intuition).
  2. There are circumstances where it would be quite risky to rely on one’s intuition: a) when under tremendous stress (to a certain extent it could sharpen our decision making, but there is a point beyond which we would make very bad decisions); b) when there is just too much information to be digested and we would do better to go back and identify just the critical few criteria; c) where our subconscious ‘houses’ prejudices that we are not conscious of, or we are otherwise adversely affected by external factors.  This last is the most difficult to deal with, just because we are not conscious of what is affecting our decisions!

So, my conclusion: we should be cautious about adopting an absolutely logical left hand brain approach in our decision making, and allow for more balance with some right hand thinking.

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