The Self Aware Organization


(Picture by Spencer Tunick)

This is yet another topic that has been running in the background of #hypertextual for a while now. Three events have contributed to promote it to the foreground.

First is the insightful essay by Freddy and Michael Ballé : Lead With Respect, and the subsequent conversation we had with Michael, Luis, Claude [FR] and Céline. The latter made an enlightening point.

“Leading with respect is not just a matter of personal ethics. It has to show, in actual behaviors and practices. It requires a constant effort of self-awareness, self-demanding mindset, and empathy with the diversity of team members.”

Second is the title of talk of Mary Poppendieck at the next edition of Lean IT Summit on 16th and 17th October : The Aware Organization. Last is this talk by Mike Rother, at Lean Summit 2012 where the author of #hypertextual favorite Toyota Kata establishes some interesting connections between neuro-sciences and our ability to learn.

The proposition of this post is that self-awareness is critically important for an organization to succeed, that it has to be deployed throughout the whole organization and, this deployment is the job of managers (and coaches).

Taiichi Ohno intuition

Taiichi Ohno, the great man behind the concepts of Kanban and Pull Flow in the Toyota Production System had this wonderful intuition : our misconceptions make us think a certain way and whenever we bump into a problem, we jump to solutions we know, as a habit, without thinking the problem through. And this creates huge wastes in the workplace, wastes costing tons of money to the company and making people life miserable.

Interestingly enough both psychology-sciences and neuro-sciences have lately confirm this human tendancy. The former with economic Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman and the System 1 / System 2 concept :

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attentions to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations.

Neuro-sciences on their hand measured the cognitive effort required for our brain to think things through as opposed to do things in auto-pilot : we are talking about a ratio of 1000/1.

Francis Bacon and Hansei

Through Deming influence, Ohno found a weapon to fight our misconceptions : the scientific method, i.e PDCA. Formulate the problem as a gap, find the root cause, test counter-measures (note that we are not talking about solutions, a term Ohno disliked because of its direct relationship with misconceptions). This is the method that has helped developed science in the 17th century with Francis Bacon. It took 2 centuries to adopt it in some of our organizations. And we think business is going fast.

PDCA questions our beliefs and develop meta-cognition (why am I thinking the way I think). Besides, while encouraging the Hansei practice (read the wonderful piece by Jim Womack in Gemba Walks about this introspection habit), it fosters self-awareness : what have I achieved ? why has this happened ? how could I have done better ? what is there to learn ? what do I need to be cautious about ?

Scott Berkun also has a weapon to fight misconceptions : it is to always ask How do you know what you know whenever introduced to some silver bullet solution. Brutal yet simple but not as a thorough thinking approach as PDCA.

“It’s not that simple”

A standard pattern I’ve noticed when I kick off a lean project is people saying : well if that was so simple (making problems visible, have everybody deal with one of them on the spot, pull the flow) how come everybody is not doing it ? It can’t be that simple. It is not that simple.

Here is the deceptive answer : simple is different from easy.

The complexity misconception

There is this great explanation in The Knowing Doing gap by Pfeiffer and Sutton. Our misconception is that complexity will be a competitive advantage because complexity can hardly be copied. So we design very complicated organizations system. Boy, lord knows we are good at that. Complicated processes, complicated IT systems, managers enforcing those and spending week-ends writing hundred pages reports that no-one bothers reading anyway.

Not to mention the complicated set of hundreds of indicators to ensure we haven’t forgotten any. And strangely enough, the performance of the organization is hardly ever better. What Sutton and Pfeiffer oppose to this misconception is that it is not complex systems that will give you competitive advantage, it is difficult ones.

Quitting smoking is dead simple : you just stop buying cigarettes and putting any to your mouth. Any smoker knows how difficult it is. Same with doing exercise everyday. Anyone can become fit practicing this small 7 mns daily routine. But then who does it ?

Simple Vs Easy

Simple is not easy. Aligning behaviors with the talk is simple but is not easy. Allowing time to listen and challenge your people is simple but not easy. Fighting misconceptions in the work place is simple but not easy. Allowing people the space to solve their own problems is simple but not easy. Leading with respect is simple but not easy. Making your own or your team problems visible is not easy : it exposes your vulnerability (hence the Spencer Tunick illustration) and requires courage.

As Jim Womack notices in Gemba Walks : people will try anything that is easy (especially if it’s complex should I add) before trying something difficult.

Managers as coaches

There are different perspectives on the role of coaches. For one I believe it is to help people implementing things that are simple, yet difficult, while developing their self-awareness. Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground sang this awesome song : “I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don’t know”. This, in my view, is coaches roadmap.

By helping people in defining a clear vision (I want to be a non smoker in 1 months, I want to be fit in 3, I want to double my company income in one year, I want to have a new position in one), by questioning their beliefs, by making their misconceptions and their consequences visible. And by being on their side on a regular basis to help them practice, again and again until it becomes a habit. Until in becomes part of their System 1, the one that does not require that much effort.

If you manage to turn your managers into coaches, you will give your organization the opportunity to question misconceptions throughout the whole enterprise and develop self-awareness. Your organization will learn everyday, much faster than your competitor. This is a genuine competitive advantage.

How self-aware is your organization ?


  1. The Knowing Doing gap is a very important book and I’m glad you mentioned it. The business world, or the world at large, presumes that simply obtaining knowledge solves problems. This is the basis for most training and consulting in organizations. But as you point out there is far more to solving problems than simply acquiring information.

    btw: you have a small typo. It’s Francis Bacon, not Fancis Bacon.

  2. Hi Scott, thank for the comment. Fully agree, learning is different from accumulating stocks of knowledge.

    Thanks for the typo. Fixed.

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