Review of Conversational Capacity by Craig Weber

My latest recommended reading for people who care about getting things done is Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure Is On (McGraw-Hill, 2013) by Craig Weber. Pressure being off or on, in teams or in one-on-one relationships, awareness and ability to improve our conversational capacity is essential, especially for those of us engaged in kaizen, problem solving and continuous improvement.

This book made me realize that the way in which most of Lean thinking is taught leaves out a large and important element. Too often we fail to talk about our failure to talk about our problems. It’s a meta-conversation we aren’t having, and we must. True, there is a good amount of this type of discussion that goes on within leadership development, executive coaching, culture shaping circles, etc. but that is another silo that struggles to smoothly integrate with Lean. Conversational capacity is an excellent bridge between the two.

Capable conversation is often a missing piece within transformational change efforts. We undervalue talk, even belittle it as something men of action should minimize. We want to move straight to action. When actions fail to meet our expectations, we move on to the next action rather than talk about why. And so forth. Perhaps this is one reason why the world rule by men is so full of solvable yet unresolved problems.

Put into the kaizen context, conversational capacity is a foundational skill that can be represented in what I will call the “change capability railroad” (see figure). The engine and two carriages represent how most kaizen, Lean and Operational Excellence efforts approach problem solving, through a combination of awareness, exposure or visualizations of problems, and various problem solving tools, methods and skills. Critically, this book about conversational capacity reminds us that this train must ride one the steady rails of problem dialogue.

The components of the change capability railroad are:
Problem awareness. This includes sense of urgency, long-term purpose, customer alignment, understanding of value and waste, proper hierarchy of SQDC metrics, nemawashi and consensus-building and so forth.
Problem exposure. In a phrase, this is visual management, but should include escalation systems that surround the andon lamps, as well as leader standard work, kamishibai, structured gemba walks, 5S, kanban, one piece flow and any practice that brings problems to the surface.
Problem dialogue. This is conversational capacity and various communication skills required to listen, understand and convey ideas in ways that cause them to be understood by listeners.
Problem solving. This includes defining problem statements, root cause analysis, experimentation, the scientific method, persistence, lessons learned, documenting succinctly (A3) and a host of techniques.
Change capability. This represents the person or organization’s overall capability to change, strengthen and improve all of the above. When we are able to recognize our faults, expose rather than hide them, talk about them and apply logical problem solving methods, we are able to continuously improve.

Note that it is problem awareness that drives problem solving, pulling the process along. When we push from the back with problem solving tools and methods without having adequate problem awareness and problem exposure within the organization or wider problem environment, we have a figurative train wreck. When the conversational capacity is weak, the problem solving effort goes off the figurative rails.

We call it “solution jumping” when one goes from problem awareness to problem solving, without exposing and agreeing on the problem within context, having mature, honest and professional conversations and developing fact-based countermeasures to root causes AFTER agreeing that fact-based problem solving will be the approach followed, as opposed to decision making by leader’s dogma. Perhaps we should just call it “jumping the rails”.

It doesn’t matter how smart one is, if we can’t communicate it doesn’t matter. Great communicators aren’t always mental giants. They don’t need to be because they can take a simple good idea and be understood. Listening, understanding the audience and adapting the problem solving discussion to a compatible style is essential. At the same time, if both sides of an issue don’t engage in problem solving conversation, it’s best to realize that it’s not going to happen. Reading this book, following its stories and examples, it becomes frighteningly clear how thoroughly we are surrounded by leaders with low conversational capacity.

Thanks to this book I will be able to spend a lot less time in the future attempting to engage people with low conversational capacity in problem solving dialogue without first either calibrating the discussion to their capacity or helping them to raise it. This is hugely important because it is not an issue of motivation, intellect, vocabulary or language skill, it is a deeper emotional / psychological one.

I recommend you read the book, both to improve your personal effectiveness and to recognize where productive talk with others is breaking down due to their lack of conversational capacity. This book will surely add another dimension to your awareness of problem solving and continuous improvement.

1 Comment

  1. John Hunter

    June 24, 2013 - 6:42 pm

    I agree that when we are uncomfortable discussing things we often just avoid doing so (even if what is needed is to address the underlying issues). Low effectiveness in communicating with others makes us uncomfortable and we often seek to deal with this by avoiding issues rather than improving our ability to communicate effectively.

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