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6:00 am
January 1, 2008
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Part II: Collaborative Design – Building Cultures of Reliability-In-Action

Based on the use of a learning exercise over almost two decades, the first article in this series (pgs. 32-37, MAINTENANCE TECHNOLOGY, December 2007) described how individuals tend to subtly side-step discussing costly errors and mistakes in their organizations.

Practice makes perfect when it comes to harnessing the “tools” that help optimize equipment and human performance.

In the first installment of this series, the author discussed the underlying assumptions of cultures-in-action and how human reasoning and resulting decisions impact performance and reliability. This month, Dr. Becker discusses how functional Collaborative Design tools contribute to creating a culture-of-reliability.

Not surprisingly, at first blush, many participants have been uncomfortable with what this learning exercise has revealed. Everyone likes to believe that they “walk the talk.” Their experiences illustrate that they believe healthy cultures foster alignment among organizational goals, processes and peoples’ behavior and personal values; very noble goals. However, the learning exercise asks people to dig below what is discussable and to make a distinction between what is espoused and what is actually produced in action. The level of alignment typically highlights compliance to goals rather than commitment, and how that compliance impacts decision-making and costs.

When it comes to equipment and business processes, decisions often are supported by rigorous data collection, including leading and lagging key performance indicators (KPIs) like return on investment (ROI) or schedule compliance. Yet, organizations typically do not apply the same data collection rigor to decision-making-in-action. Instead, as decisions are examined and accountability is invoked, people can fall into subtle defensive patterns in an effort to cope with systemic error and performance interdependencies in hopes of not being seen as incompetent or lacking team skills. The fear of being unfairly judged leads to distrust. These defensive patterns can limit the implementation of changes in equipment and business processes and feed a self-fulfilling fad loop. Based on their own illustrations, participants conclude that the full range of business value is restricted according to the level of discussability and trust.

Collaborative design
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines reliability as “suitable or fit to be relied on: trustworthy.” For anyone working in a process-oriented industry, reliability is a key word in the Holy Grail of performance. Equipment and human decision-making form a complex performance platform that is essential to producing a competitive product. That’s why collaboration is so important.

At the close of the referenced learning exercise, someone (either participant or leader) will ask how to alter the self-fulfilling loop of distrust we have uncovered— and how to do it without continuing the same old pattern of espousing continuous learning, collaboration, accountability etc. It’s a difficult question to answer; if it weren’t, participants would already be implementing the answer in their organizations.

Working over the past 18 years with people’s internal dialogues, (i.e. what they think, but don’t necessarily say), I have collaboratively field-engineered a compact set of communication-based tools that I have come to call “Collaborative Design.” The vision of Collaborative Design is to maximize organizational performance while simultaneously enhancing human dignity. These tools productively expand discussability and measure the business impact of doing so. Their fundamental premise is based on invitation as a way to create psychological safety for discussing issues.

Like any tool, Collaborative Design skill application is learned through practice. Great golfers, musicians, tennis players and executives, for example, understand the importance of repeatable processes for improving one’s swing, sound, ground stroke or decision-making process. Collaborative Design is no different, except with one distinction—the current decision-making culture is unconsciously put in place to prevent the expansion of discussability, which is the very goal of Collaborative Design.

Collaborative design performance criteria
Collaborative Design is driven by a set of functional tools. Functional tools are any set of actionable tools with these performance criteria:

  • Defineable. A clear definition and purpose exists and can be verified in action.
  • Measureable. Any tool or cluster of tools can be assessed for its business impact.
  • Integratable. Any tool or cluster of tools can be taught and applied in the field and used with other applications.
  • Repeatable. Any tool or cluster of tools can be applied over and over with the same end result; skill improves.
  • Sustainable. Any tool or cluster of tools endures over time.
  • Self-correcting. Any tool or cluster of tools will endure because unintended consequences are uncovered.
  • Ethical. Given their self-correcting nature, any tool or cluster of tools is non-manipulative, maintaining business value and human dignity.

0108_collabdesign_fig1As noted in Fig. 1, Collaborative Design’s basic tool set is composed of the following six functional tools:

  1. Continuous Invitation—A tool for balancing decisionmaking control
  2. The Source of Human Action—A tool that productively accesses what people are thinking but not necessarily saying
  3. Private to Public—A tool for stating private thoughts, while minimizing negative reactions
  4. Stating a Bind—A tool for resolving legitimate but competing objectives
  5. Active Inquiry—A tool for understanding how others characterize a problem
  6. Field Testing—A quality assurance tool for measuring the business impact of Collaborative Design or any other change tool

Five of the six tools are composed of two parts: a conceptual framework and an actionable model. Field Testing is the application that measures the business impact and quality of tool application.

There are three fundamental assumptions of Collaborative Design. Individuals seek to deepen their personal reflection skills by: 1) expanding their acceptance of their own and others’ mistakes; 2) committing to practice-inaction; and 3) maximizing performance.

Although it would go beyond the scope of this article to discuss all of the tools, a basic introduction into Invitation will help the reader begin to understand Collaborative Design and the premises upon which it rests.

Continuous invitation
Invitation is the threshold by which all the other tools are accessed. It sets up informed choice, mutual control and trust. The features of Continuous Invitation are as follows:

  • Its business impact is felt when the tool is competently applied in daily business.
  • It is most powerful when used with the other Collaborative Design tools.
  • It productively helps uncover what is difficult to discuss or undiscussable.
  • It builds true commitment to business objectives, not compliance.
  • Like any tool, competence is built through practice.
  • Although counter-intuitive, the right to decline exists. This provides mutual control, hence balancing power

0108_collabdesign_tab1Field testing has consistently revealed that even when invitations were partly created, invitees were more likely to sincerely commit to the decision at hand because they experienced mutual control deep into their bones. When invitation was practiced, management found it could make collaborative decisions quickly and build trust rapidly. Furthermore, once trust was established, management found it could make command and control decisions as well, with few unintended consequences. Because discussability was expanded, team members better understood managerial time and performance pressures.

As noted in Table I, invitation is composed of four domains:

The production script shown in Table II was developed by field testing different configurations in action. Ultimately, the configuration reporting the fewest negative consequences was crafted into an action tool. Like any tool, by using it, practitioners develop their own style through artful application.

Invitation matched with active inquiry doesn’t exclude other decision-making models. For example, command and control models are appropriate in times of crisis. However, without inquiry tools for checking decision, command and control can create unintended consequences. For example, in the worst case, one engineer described being ordered to stand by during a startup and before he could explain that the pump had no oil in it, he was ordered to do as he was told. “I was so angry they would not listen,” he remembered. “I didn’t say a word; the turbine rolled and the pump fried.” Cost of the repair? About $250k.

0108_collabdesign_tab2Early users of the tool often confuse invitation with giving up their rights as a manager. “What if they decline my invitation,” they ask. If an invitation is declined, it means the tool is working. You know where you stand on an issue. Declining often means that the invitee is not in a position, typically emotionally, to discuss a topic. Invitation provides a platform for exploring options, even when someone declines. The inability to discuss an issue does not prevent the manager from ultimately taking unilateral action. The first explicit effort, however, is to make decisions collaboratively.

A simple rule (and important rule) is to NOT use invitation if you are NOT extending a true invitation. If acting unilaterally, explain why. In addition, be ready for the unintended consequences of unilateral control—public acceptance, private resistance and decision-making dependence on the manager; little true accountability.

Making it work
A culture-of-reliability is defined as the collective ability to detect and correct performance gaps at ever-increasing rates of speed and precision across the organization’s industrial and business processes, as well as the human decision-making system in which the industrial and business processes are embedded. If any one of these three interdependent performance systems is diminished, the ability to maintain reliable, sustainable performance is at risk.

It is not uncommon for organizations to focus change efforts on their industrial and business processes, product innovation etc. and overlook the human decision-making process that rests under all of them. Taking a team-building class or understanding your leadership style is not enough. At its deepest level, human reasoning and its resulting decision- making is the root cause of equipment and process reliability. Collaborative Design optimizes equipment and human performance by productively uncovering hidden bottlenecks to performance and building true commitment to increasing the detection and correction of mistakes and errors at ever-increasing rates of speed and precision.

Coming in Part III
In the final segment of this article series, a non-traditional process for implementing Collaborative Design will be discussed. To productively change and sustain a cultureof- reliability requires not letting the old culture unilaterally define what changes are acceptable and, at the same time, not using the same old set of values to invoke the change. MT


Brian Becker is a senior project manager with Reliability Management Group (RMG), a Minneapolis-based consulting firm. With 27 years of business experience, he has been both a consultant and a manager. Becker holds a Harvard doctorate with a management focus. For more information, e-mail: bbecker@rmgmpls.com


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