Towards a Culture Free of Fear, Embrace Surprise

By Jon Miller Updated on April 5th, 2015

surpriseAs a founding father of lean management, Taiichi Ohno believed that the enlightened leader is quick to admit being wrong. He said, “If you are wrong, admit it!” and further went on to speculate that even the wisest of us are wrong half of the time. A article from January of this year titled Surprise! reminded me of this quote and caused me to reflect on just how insightful Taiichi Ohno was in regard to the human condition. It still remains very difficult for many people, especially leaders and people with power within a group, to admit being wrong. Yet it is critically important that all of us constantly admit to our mistakes, learn from them and progress on to better things, because when we don’t, small problems grow larger become more intractable.

Perhaps the most important skill in science, problem solving or self-improvement is the ability to notice the unexpected. At a minimum, it is critical that we are not blind to evidence that contradicts our beliefs and assumptions. Humans have a tendency to not only overlook our mistakes, but to actively confirm that we are right. This is called confirmation bias, and involves selectively seeing evidence that confirms our prior expectations rather than evidence that refutes it. Scientists are just as prone to this as those of us not formally trained in the rigors of the scientific method. Therefore, we need to actively check for signs that our assumptions are wrong, because not only will humans not do this naturally,  we will subconsciously lie to ourselves in order to be right. The article reveals that one of the ways scientists have identified for people to realize that they are harboring wrong assumptions is to capture the feeling of surprise.

Our brains are constantly making predictions about the causes and effects of the world around us. However, we don’t become aware of many of these predictions until we are surprised because they turn out to be wrong. Surprise is a sign that we were expecting something other than what actually happened, and possible reasons for this gap include our misconceptions, biases blinding us to reality, misinterpretation of data and so forth. The article’s author shared an interesting countermeasure to this problem of unintentional blindness. She kept a “surprise journal” to record events that didn’t turn out how she expected. One of the examples is very straightforward:

Moment of surprise: When we thought we were early to the airport, but we were late.
Why it was surprising
: Because we planned ahead before the night of the flight, but we had the time wrong.
What this tells me
: that before planning ahead make sure the information you have is correct.

In lean terms, this “surprise journal” process is A3 problem solving in micro: problem statement, root cause analysis, countermeasure.

If recognizing surprise can accomplish the same end as facing up to or even admitting that we are wrong, this could potentially make it a lot easier to change organizational cultures of fear of speaking. This realization humbled me and reminded me one of the least successful client coaching conversations of my career. At the project kick off, the steering committee thoroughly reviewed my agenda and talking points for the leadership awareness and education portion. This in itself is never a problem, but they insisted it was necessary because their senior executive and chief sponsor, whom we will call Mr. A, “doesn’t like surprises”. At first I took this to mean that he simply wanted to be well-informed about the topic, and be sure that what I delivered met his needs. As the engagement with this client advanced, management remained vocally concerned that Mr. A “doesn’t like surprises”. At one point, a team ran into difficulties requiring some adjustments to their project, which is quite a normal thing on the lean journey. The management team became upset and directed the team to put in extra hours to meet the original plan, because as we all knew by now, the senior executive “didn’t like surprises.” When this wasn’t possible, the management made sure the progress summary presentation was written and presented in a way to minimize surprises.

Mr. A wanted everything to go as planned. But this was not and is not reality. After several good progress reviews, in spite of some minor surprises, he invited me to give him some coaching and advice. I pointed out that his management team was causing the team to spend excessive time in non value-added preparation for the progress reviews. I said that he could better understand the reality, gaps between his expectations and reality, and the causes for these gaps by visiting the gemba. I suggested that some of his behaviors which were meant to bolster his results-driven reputation would have the opposite effect in the long-term, creating a culture of fear. Although I presented evidence, I was not effective in persuading him to see things my way. The lean project was yielding results after all, as they tend to do, and this confirmed his bias that his style was working. Mr. A had granted me permission to give him feedback, but I failed to take into account that he didn’t like surprises. With the benefit of hindsight, I would focus the coaching to a single behavior change around how he told people, “I don’t like surprises.” Had Mr. A said, “I don’t like surprises, so it is important that you raise any issues requiring my assistance as soon as you face them,” the culture would have shifted in a positive direction much sooner.

One of the simple yet significant differences that separate the traditional leader from the lean leader is whether they create a culture of “don’t bring me bad news” or “please bring me the bad news”. By bringing the bad news, which is often a surprise and always a gap between expectation and reality, people can acknowledge them for what they are, reflect on why they are surprising and agree on what can be learned from them. A traditional management culture is built on power, control and the illusion of certainty. A kaizen culture gains its power from engaging everyone from the front lines up, removing illusions and revealing wrong assumptions. Using a “surprise journal” may be a more accessible approach to many leadership teams than the equivalent lean process known in Japanese as hansei. Perhaps it will be easier for leaders to cause a positive shift in the culture by accepting a half-step towards Taiichi Ohno’s admonition, if we phrased it as, “If you are surprised, admit it!”

  1. Mark Graban

    April 7, 2015 - 6:41 am

    Great post. I’ve also heard it said that the job of a leader is to make sure that everybody accurately understands reality. Too many bad leaders create an environment where people distort reality… they hide problems, they distort the system (“make the numbers look good”) and changing that environment probably makes 10x more of a difference than somebody implementing a few Lean tools here and there. Changing those mindsets (and having permission to coach an executive) is really important.

  2. Bob Emiliani

    April 7, 2015 - 9:28 am

    The boss who says “I don’t like surprises” is also communicating anti-Lean messages such as “failure is not an option,” “flawless execution,” and the like. These result in leadership errors that can easily be identified and corrected. This approach takes the problem past the long-standing focus on leadership behaviors to that which is far more specific and actionable.

  3. Danie Vermeulen

    April 8, 2015 - 3:06 am

    Another great post. I like the “surprise journal” connection with A3’s and will be more aware of “surprises” when we do A3’s from now on.
    Leaders who prefer the sugar-coated version of the truth are not only living a lie – they also rob their team members of the opportunity to come up with improvements.

  4. soulier

    April 14, 2015 - 2:17 am

    Great Post. I’like your blog.
    Do you think that “surprise journal” process – A3 problem solving- could be shown to every CEO ? Of course not, your great article answer of this question. 4 years ago, I tried to do it with my boss. He wasn’t prepared to that. He didn’t like this view of his organization for one little issue on this A3.
    He told me ‘I want improvment’ show me in quality meeting with all directors but your A3 sheet I don’t want to see it again…

  5. Noor Ashani

    May 5, 2015 - 1:40 am

    Well said!

    We always hear the saying, “The only thing constant in life is CHANGE” and yet not many are prepared to adjust to the unplanned changes that occurs during the “planned” changes are being executed. Let’s ask the leaders to face the fact, during their previous experience in executing projects, how many % of their plan have actually went 100% as planned without failures or improvements?

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