I continue to be amazed by the number of lean lessons I can learn from relatives, especially those that have never been part of a business environment. First there was the six months worth of cereal, bought in bulk because it was cheap, but now no one likes that brand anymore. Then there were the buckets and buckets of spare nuts and bolts, "just in case." And last month we even gave you a lean lesson thanks to watching Dr. Phil and Oprah.
Lately I’ve been puzzled by one particular relative who believes her life is incredibly complicated, when it should be fairly simple. She’s retired with the usual health-related effects of aging, and she lives comfortably and has a couple kids she can rely on. But even the smallest issue is a huge ordeal.
Then it hit me: it’s decisionmaking. Call it "the waste of decision paralysis" although more appropriately it is probably a corollary to Taiichi Ohno’s waste of waiting. She simply cannot make a decision. We’ll help her gather all the required information, down to a point where it is pretty much a no-brainer, but in the end her answer will almost always be "I’ll have to give it some more thought."
What will change? There will be no additional information found. The preponderance of evidence points in one direction. More than one of the siblings, many of whom are adept at decisionmaking, usually agree on the course of action. And the consequences of an incorrect decision are miniscule in the grand scheme of things. I’m not talking about major life decisions… these are decisions like who should she hire to rake the leaves, what cell phone plan should she choose, and what day to make a hair appointment on.
I’m sure it feels a bit like juggling a hive of bees. When a decision isn’t made, then that decision is simply tossed up in the air with the other decisions to be made. The four or five options surrounding each decisions begin to intertwine, and before long you have this hornets nest of decisions and options swarming around your head. Tossing it up in the air doesn’t mean that the requirement for an eventual decision goes away. Deadlines thereby create extreme stress.
How effective is your organization at making decisions? I know of one company that up until recently was lead by an owner/leader with a very strong personality who insisted that he make basically all decisions. Even a couple years after he passed away and was replaced by another leader who embraced delegation, the organization still suffers from decision paralysis. They aren’t used to knowing what information is required and what appropriate risks can be taken to make even simple decisions. Simple decisions become cascading emails with more and more people added, probably with an aim to ensure every possible option and opinion is considered. Finally out of frustration a meeting is called, which usually leads to more meetings. Almost invariably near the end of the process someone will change his or her mind, dropping a bomb into the middle of the consensus-building, bringing the whole process back to square one. This makes decisionmaking time extremely long and convoluted, if the decision happens at all.
At the AME conference last October, one of the companies made a presentation that gave us some rather unique insights into their decisionmaking process. They measure decisionmaking time, for all types of decisions, and have worked the average time down to six minutes. To do this they banned decisions by email and memo. Discussions have to be real-time, preferably directly at the gemba instead of by phone or in a conference room. Conference room decisions generally require someone to "recreate the gemba," thereby enabling potential misinterpretation. Rapid and effective decisionmaking became a core aspect of their lean transformation.
Last year John Brandt wrote an article in Industry Week on EDD… no, not that EDD, but just as debilitating. Executive Decision Dysfunction. He suggests several potential causes of the affliction:
- A misguided understanding of empowerment strategies, in which executives confuse employee engagement with employee democracy. These "Nice Guy" managers don’t so much delegate as abdicate, announcing in every meeting that "the group should decide.
- Other experts believe that the EDD pandemic correlates with recent waves of downsizing, in which people who had been seen to make wrong decisions — or any decisions at all — find themselves not only visible but vulnerable.
- Still others believe the explanation for widespread EDD is simpler yet: Our permissive, politically correct culture has somehow fostered an entire generation of namby-pambies scared of having opinions or making mistakes that might displease someone.
Of course he is being a little light-hearted, especially with his solution:
The only drug approved for the syndrome — indecisionafil, trade name Deagra — works well but causes unpleasant side effects including rapid-fire decision-making that can last for up to four hours, making the executive seem like an auctioneer on cocaine.
The Mutual Improvement blog has a post on information bias – the tendency to seek more information about a problem even when it is not helpful in making a decision. The author, Erik Benson, details some of the harmful effects, such as paralysis, the ability of statistics and data to sometimes support both sides of an argument, and false confidence. Michael Useem has some pointers on "finding your Go point." One is the "70 percent solution" that the military teaches… if you have 70% of the information, have done 70% of the analysis, and feel 70% confident, then move. Later he talks about how organizations like HP, GE, and the Jet Propulsion Labs teach quick decisionmaking, although I’ll save my comments on using HP and GE as role models for another day. Greg Thomas at Leading Today discusses how the "locus of control" of a management team influences decisionmaking. Does the team or decisionmaker believe that most events are inside or outside of their control? Those with an internal style, that believe they can control events, are more flexible, innovative, and take initiative to solve problems.
And our friend Eric at Grim Reader has a fascinating post on Utilitarian Blindness, and the fallacies of making decisions based purely on a cost-benefit analysis. When we live in an environment of finite resources but infinite needs, decisions need to be made. Certain types of decisions are easy… high reward and low cost is pretty much a definite go, while low reward and high cost isn’t… usually. Then there is the gray area in the middle, especially when rewards and costs can’t be adequately calculated. A cost-benefit analysis causes problems in this case as you get paralyzed by not being able to truly calculate cost and benefit, and secondly because the calculation problem can then be used as an excuse for inaction.
At a time when information and choices are increasingly abundant, the ability to recognize when sufficient data and evidence is available to make the best decision becomes a critical leadership attribute. Decision paralysis adds to the waste of waiting, wastes human potential by involving unnecessary people in the decision, and reduces value to the customer through longer lead times.
As General George C. Marshall said, "Don’t fight the problem; decide it.”