In 333 B.C., Alexander the Great’s army was marching through Asia. In one city a chariot was lashed down with an extremely intricate tether now known as a Gordian knot. It was said that only one person would ever untie the knot and that person would be the future conqueror of the continent.
Alexander studied the knot, drew his sword, and slashed the binding, freeing the chariot. He then went on to conquer the continent as the legend had foretold.
Over 2250 years later, at a plant owned by the Western Electric Company, a young statistician named Walter Shewhart worked together with W. Edwards Deming, another mathematician, to create a model for improving productivity. The end result of their effort was called the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. They applied what they learned at a factory known as the Hawthorne Plant, whose major function was assembling telephone relays. It’s difficult not to digress about all that went on during that research, but suffice it to say it was groundbreaking stuff, at many levels. My guess is that readers of this blog probably have a good feel for all that.
The rest is history.
The Challenge of Doing
In most organizations, the Do portion of the Plan-Do-Check-Act model is the biggest challenge. Instead of trying out an idea in a relatively small way and then drawing conclusions regarding how well it is working, most people end up studying an issue ad nauseum, delaying action that could shed light on the problem. Meetings lead to discussion, research, and requests for more information, but action is always delayed. After a while the whole project begins to take on the complexity of a self-created Gordian knot.
Don’t let this happen to you. Instead, just try out the idea. Pilot it with a small group of people, then look at the results and make decisions around how you can improve them. In other words, experiment your way into improvement.
Four Things to Consider
You’ve got to get inside your own brain to be sure you can handle this kind of progress. Here are a few things to consider:
- Be prepared for scrutiny and expect to look a little goofy when you’re going through the initial trials. It’s going to seem weird to colleagues and bosses. It’s likely to save everybody a lot of money, but … it’s still different, isn’t it? That makes it subject to much tighter observation.
- Expect naysayers to find things that are wrong during the pilot. It’s easy to point fingers when someone is trying something new. Don’t let early criticism keep you from completing your initial pilots. Remember Seward’s Folly during the U.S. purchase of Alaska? I wonder what those critics would say now.
- Be willing to change your mind during the pilot. A good mantra is No decision is final. That’s one of the reasons we call this a pilot. You can tinker with it.
- When in doubt, err in the direction of taking bold action. Talk is cheap. The world expects and rewards action. As Albert Einstein said, “Nothing happens until something moves.”
Act as though it is impossible for you to fail. Don’t try to persuade the organization into making change. Simply pilot the idea, and then explain what happened. It’s better, cheaper, and much faster.
About the author
Dr. Dick Ruhe is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies.