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Davis Balestracci

Quality Insider

The ‘Teach Once’ Fallacy of Cultural Change

It’s all your fault!

Published: Tuesday, December 16, 2014 - 12:52

For those of you who are improvement practitioners, are you satisfied with the organizational results of your efforts?  I have a feeling most of you would answer, “Far from it,” and would almost unanimously feel that you could be  more effective.  

There is justification for this. A recent Quality Digest Daily  article suggests that only 2 percent of senior executives get daily quality reports, more than half get them quarterly or less, with maybe 25 percent getting them annually.  And the rest? None at all.

Cognitive therapist Albert Ellis tried to help his clients see that, in a given situation, any consequences were a result of the client’s beliefs in how they “filtered” a situation and responded to it—not necessarily the situation itself.

Unfortunately, improvement practitioners’ jobs rely heavily on volunteerism to motivate improvement efforts—the results of which, if you think about it, are dependent on the actions of executives, management, and all employees. Looking solely at results and using Ellis’s premise, have you considered that “disappointing quality results” come from actions that are filtered through:
• Organizational beliefs (culture)
• Individual employees’ beliefs (which could include not rocking the boat to keep their jobs), 
• Your beliefs in how you approach your job
• The beliefs that allow the continued implicit tolerance of all of these beliefs (once again: culture)

Are you a bit confused about what these “beliefs” are and how you go about discovering them?  Actually, they are screaming at you—once you have the startling realization that everyday patterns of behavior can be read to intuit what a belief system is.

Don’t believe me?  What do schedules, meeting agendas, budgets, promotions, hirings, firings (or lack of firings), and dealing with conflict or poor performance say about what your organizational culture “believes?”  Are the results of all these current actions helping you attain the quality results for which you work so hard?  Think about it: How do the beliefs driving these everyday actions shape the cultural beliefs about improvement?

Another case of ‘perfectly designed’

So, applying Ellis’s model to one of my favorite statements, “Your current processes are perfectly designed to get the results they are already getting,” new results will require new beliefs!

Examine your work behavior. Is it driven partially by these two beliefs?
• Logical explanation produces changed behavior
• People will enthusiastically read encouraging follow-up emails explaining it again (with five-page attachments)

We’ve all fallen into the trap of believing that it will take just the logical action of “describe and teach” methods—delivered once—to change behavior. Think about it:  Logical presentation allows people to comfortably filter material through their current belief system to somehow justify their current behavior, as humans are wont to do.  And this behavior is perfectly designed to produce... current results.

Judging from observed behaviors during seminars and follow-up, could you assume the audience has the following beliefs during any logical education on quality:
• “I’m already producing quality results because I’m working very hard!”
• “I don’t need to change, but everybody else needs to change.  I have good reasons why this doesn’t apply to me.”
• “Here we go again. This, too, shall pass. We can get away with stonewalling.”

If the resulting actions motivated by these beliefs continue to be tolerated by the culture, do you think there is any reason to act on what you’re saying—or that your desired results will be attained?

Let me now turn the tables for a moment and make you uncomfortable. Does an inspiring quality conference ever truly change your behavior once you get back to the office?  Might the beliefs above apply? After all, you’re just as human as the people in your organization.

Remember Ellis’ assertion that desired behaviors do not necessarily result directly from any such event—unless the action of presenting information can create a new, changed belief to drive the needed actions to produce the desired result. Delivery methods of new material must somehow address a person’s underlying belief system—which tolerates and drives the status quo—to motivate the alternative belief, “The current way of doing things is and will no longer be an option.”

Until that belief is ingrained and all the attempts to continue the old belief are dealt with noticeably—which reinforces the new belief—there is danger that even the best material, presented well, with an open-and-shut case for necessity, will still fall on deaf ears.

New beliefs for improvement practitioners

One possible new belief for improvement practitioners to drive better results is: “Continuing to present even exciting new information logically once and expecting it to change current beliefs to drive needed actions and results is wasted time and effort.”  Since logical explanation doesn’t work (don’t argue with me about this; look at your results), what might motivate people to begin to even think about changing their behaviors? 

How about these as a start for a new belief system about improvement:
• “We will need to experiment with various delivery methods to test which are ultimately successful.” (Hint: It isn’t necessarily inspirational speeches or videos, discussion groups, role playing, or simulation exercises. At least that's my belief—and Jim Clemmer’s belief. Go ahead if you wish but, rather than argue with me, test the result. Good reviews of the education don’t count!)
• “Any education needs follow-up in a manner that creates the new cultural belief, ‘This is important. Stonewalling is no longer an option, and I will quickly get called out on that.’”
• “Activity isn’t necessarily impact. We call ourselves successful only if we begin to attain better results from our quality improvement efforts—and that includes moving ‘big dots’ in the executive suite and board room.”

How about applying rapid-cycle PDSA to something as important as this?

Whether it’s motivating employees’ individual behaviors to exhibit the desired beliefs or attaining needed organizational results, a new reality of becoming effective improvement professionals is to learn how to recognize and become skillful at dealing with belief systems—including their own.

And guess what? This lack of desired quality results is all your fault! (Said somewhat tongue in cheek, but nevertheless true.)  More about this in a future column. 


About The Author

Davis Balestracci’s picture

Davis Balestracci

Davis Balestracci is a past chair of ASQ’s statistics division. He has synthesized W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy as Deming intended—as an approach to leadership—in the second edition of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2015), with a foreword by Donald Berwick, M.D. Shipped free or as an ebook, Data Sanity offers a new way of thinking using a common organizational language based in process and understanding variation (data sanity), applied to everyday data and management. It also integrates Balestracci’s 20 years of studying organizational psychology into an “improvement as built in” approach as opposed to most current “quality as bolt-on” programs. Balestracci would love to wake up your conferences with his dynamic style and entertaining insights into the places where process, statistics, organizational culture, and quality meet.