"It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change!" - Charles Darwin

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Psychology of continuous improvement

Abanico en el mar by Ollui Samall Zeld / CC BY 2.0
I am an engineer! We engineers love well-crafted solutions.

Most of us studied Operations Research: we are excited by finding the optimal solution to problems and we like to fix all at once and even design future-proof solutions.

Sounds great to feel so powerful, doesn´t it?

But why is it so difficult to solve problems when they involve human beings?
Why can’t we make things happen even when the solution and the benefits appear so obvious even without analysis?

For instance:
Why can’t people simply quit smoking?
Why don’t most of us parents manage to get their teen-ager son to clean up his room?
Or why don’t we simply manage to increase the test automation level in our team?

Don´t they look like much simpler problems than many technical issues we face every day?

When it comes to challenges involving people, the issue is that human beings are not as nice creatures or as beautiful systems as the ones addressable by mathematical sciences, such as mathematical modeling, statistical analysis, or mathematical optimization.

God could have done a much better engineering work! Too many bugs J
  • We are the least rational creature on earth: we are driven by emotions and gut feelings at least as much as by rationality, but feelings take the lead many times
  • When the rational parts takes the lead instead, we usually got stuck in analysis paralysis
  • We are reluctant to change: we like our current way of doing things
  • We are programmed to save as much energy as possible: changing our routines  requires effort
  • We are blinded by cognitive biases: we interpret the reality not for what it is, but by comparing it with the maps we have been creating in our brain since we were born
  • We are addicted to the now and not very much used to accept delayed gratifications

So how can we ever achieve anything with such a flawed baseline system?

Imagine when you have multiple individuals together forming a team or even a bigger constellation: an organization!
Still surprised that up to 70% of all change initiatives fails? Can we ever succeed?

The good news is that human beings have also great properties and very effective strengths to use as leverages.
People are able to go straight to the point if they feel that the goal is clear and within reach and can be moved by incredibly powerful intrinsic motivators if they perceive the goal as meaningful and desirable.

All successful football coaches, for instance, know the trick very well.
How many times have you heard a journalist asking about possibilities of a team to win the championship?
And what was the answer from the coach every time?  “We want to play one match at a time”.

Good coaches do not ask their team to focus on the ultimate goal, but establish goals which are within immediate reach and clear criteria for their players to know when they have fulfilled those goals: by playing and possibly winning one match at a time, they get into the habit of winning and eventually win the championship.

Cheap and Dan Heath report in their book “Switch” that psychologist Karl Weick, in a paper called "Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems," said: A small win reduces importance ('this is no big deal') , reduces demands ('that's all that needs to be done'), and raises perceived skill levels ('I can do at least that')." All three of these factors will tend to make change easier and more self-sustaining.

That´s why the Lean concept of Continuous Improvement (or Kaizen) is so effective and resonates so much with the way we as humans are wired: consistently taking baby steps in the right directions makes big goals appear more feasible to achieve.

However, being social systems classified as Complex Adaptive Systems, usually it´s not a smooth path of small wins.  More probably it will be about taking one step forward and two steps back, then three more steps forward and then five steps to the side. 
Nevertheless, by taking the vision of what we ultimately want to achieve well defined and in sight and, by coupling Hansei with Kaizen, meaning practicing Continuous Reflection at every step, we are much more well equipped  to achieve anything.

Instead, when a task is too big, the effect on human brain is overwhelmingly scary.
The book “Switch” reports also that Alcoholics Anonymous challenges recovering alcoholics to get through "one day at a time". To an alcoholic, going a lifetime without another drink sounds impossible, but going 24 hours sounds doable.

Small targets lead to small victories, and small victories can trigger a positive spiral of behavior.

Human brain has no trouble achieving baby steps, and as it does, something else happens. 
With each step, you feel less scared and less reluctant, because things are working. 
With each step, your brain starts feeling the change. 
A journey that probably started with anxiety and skepticism evolves slowly, toward a feeling of confidence and pride. 

And at the same time the change is happening, you as a person grow.

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