Is human nature undermining your Six Sigma project? It is quite possible.

For instance, research shows that people make decisions up to seven seconds before they are even aware they have made them. Once they make a decision, humans are prone to confirmation bias, which leads them to seek out information that backs up that decision and to ignore other data that may contradict their assumptions. Finally, cognitive dissonance may kick in, leading people to rationalize any doubts in order to feel comfortable with their decision.

Basically, when Belts are personally wrapped up in a project, they might fall prey to decision-making errors. Despite these tendencies, a little awareness and solid strategies can keep human nature in check, ensuring that projects are completed and results are sustained.

The Red Flags

Sometimes defying human nature is a simple matter of knowing better to do better. By learning the warning signs, Belts can become aware of situations when their human nature can get in the way.

Red flags for situations in which project leaders are personally involved are identified in Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions and How to Keep It From Happening to You (Harvard Business School Press, 2009):

  1. Inappropriate self-interest
  2. Misleading prejudgements
  3. Misleading experiences
  4. Inappropriate attachments

Following are a few simple ways to keep these dangers in check.

Tip #1: Enter New Territory

When Belts are assigned to projects to which they have no previous exposure, the risk for personal involvement is minimized. Curiosity replaces prejudgement, empathy replaces self-interest and acceptance replaces experience. However, in situations where Belts do find themselves involved in projects with which they have a connection, surrounding themselves with a strong team can help fight bias.

Tip #2: Invite Trusted Naysayers to the Team

A diverse team is crucial to managing human nature. While humans tend to share some irrational tendencies, they usually differ greatly when it comes to experiences, motivations and perceptions. It is human nature for people to want to surround themselves with others who validate their views of the world. It also is a common tendency for people to avoid conflict and to seek out information that confirms their ideas while sternly holding onto a skewed perspective. These are habits that Belts must break.

Abraham Lincoln famously surrounded himself with people willing to disagree with him – an act that is contrary to human nature. Belts can benefit from following Lincoln’s example. Instead of creating project teams that are like echo chambers, where team members share similar backgrounds and perspectives, Belts must branch out. They need a few trusted naysayers to yank them back to reality when they get trapped by their own biases.

Tip #3: Take Advice from a Greenhorn

Just as a child was the one to point out the lack of clothes on the Emperor in the famous Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes, a greenhorn, or novice, on a project team can be the key to sparking new ideas and unlocking innovation.

Greenhorns offer up possibilities. These team members might be new to the situation at hand, unfamiliar with the department, a new hire within the organization or foreign to the industry. Inviting members from different parts of the organization to participate in project brainstorming sessions can help bring new insights to light.

Greenhorns are free to ask any question, where experts may not experience the same freedom. In this way, greenhorns can be the catalyst for change, driving the expert to explain and prove, and thus growing more knowledgeable. As George Bernard Shaw has been quoted, “No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious.” These questions are the domain of the greenhorn, who can point out shared beliefs that create fake boundaries or render it difficult to see opportunities.

Greenhorns also are not bound by the precedence or prejudice that defines the expert. Expertise is the accumulation of what has already been tried, thought of, discarded or tested. This formation of precedence and prejudice is a function of time. That is, something may have been true when the expert learned it, but is perhaps no longer relevant now. Further, what about conclusions that were mistaken in the first place? Knowledge itself is fluid. Consider that knowledge once included such “facts” that women were unfit to vote, the earth was flat and six computers should be enough to service the world. Now we know differently.

As brothers Dan and Chip Heath aptly describe in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Random House, 2007), experts know their subject matter so well that they cannot remember what it was like not to know it. This inability hampers their ability to communicate ideas. The greenhorn can help draw out and hone the communication from the expert. Thoughts and ideas are forced into simple, everyday language and terms. Simplification clarifies ideas, and helps solidify the understanding of the entire team.

Admittedly, the voice of an expert saying that something is impossible is hard to ignore, especially with time, money and effort at stake. This is where scientific experimentation, risk management and design of experiments come into play.

Tip #4: Fight Cognitive Dissonance, Be Open to Feedback

When Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “I played him a dirty trick, and ever since I have hated him,” he accurately conveyed cognitive dissonance theory in a simple way. When a person holds two conflicting beliefs, the mind seeks to reconcile the two, producing a justification. In this instance, the character thought: “I did something dirty” and “I am a good person.” To reconcile these two beliefs, the character comes to the conclusion that the other person deserved to be tricked.

Belts may encounter this dilemma when receiving feedback about a project. For example, the project leader may be confident in their decision. But when a naysayer or greenhorn disagrees, that feedback may not jibe with the Belts’ belief that they did a good job. Although it may be tempting to come up with a justification to resolve the conflicting thoughts and dismiss the feedback, Belts must recognize that that instinct comes from this dissonance. Belts must not only be masters at providing feedback, they must also master accepting and responding to feedback, no matter the form.

Staying In Check

Natural tendencies are best held in check by developing the right project team and using conscious strategies to encourage openness. Human nature can invisibly derail any Six Sigma project, but awareness of these potential pitfalls can help Belts increase the benefits of their projects and raise the likelihood of their success.

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