We all know humans are inherently lazy – we tend to take the path of least resistance. This makes sense; both mental and physical activity takes a lot of energy, something that was scarce at the time when we had to hunt and gather for our next meal. For a more recent example, if you put more bins out in the street, people are less likely to litter.
The Shingo Model© reinforces this thinking. The second Shingo insight states that system design influences the behaviour of individuals operating within a system. The model also states:
“Cultural transformation requires a shift in behaviours and systems drive behaviour. In the end, an organization will most likely need to adjust old systems, create new systems, and eliminate systems that no longer drive desired behaviour or are misaligned.”
Harvard Business Review suggests culture “guides activity through shared assumptions and group norms.” (Groysberg, Lee, Price and Cheng, 2018).
Shingo would say that these group norms are heavily influenced by the systems of work that exist within organisations.
However, a neuroscience study published on eLife online suggests that theory could go one step further. It suggests our decision-making abilities can be swayed by the level of difficulty involved in reaching the result. That doesn’t mean we knowingly settle for less because it’s easier – we see the easier result as being more desirable in the first place.
The study explains:
“Imagine you are in an orchard, trying to decide which of the many apples to pick. On what do you base your decision? Most research into this type of decision-making has focused on how the brain uses visual information – about features such as colour, size and shape – to make a choice. But what about the effort required to obtain the apple? Does an apple at the top of the tree look more or less tempting than the low-hanging fruit?” (Hagura, Haggard and Diedrichsen, 2017).
So, what on earth does this have to do with your IT department?
Most IT departments will play a central role in selecting and configuring digital systems deployed in organisations. These systems are having increasingly wide-reaching impacts on businesses, creating rigid frameworks and workflows that inform how teams can work. However, these digital systems can also contain loopholes.
Say, for example, that you have a system through which you manage the procurement of parts. The ideal employee should log the purchase by entering information such as part number, part name, and quantity, which then becomes a purchase record in a database, over time this builds a history of purchasing patterns. This part number should in theory be the individual part number, but the part number isn’t always easy to identify, there’s no system to look-up the part number, and their manager is currently pushing to minimise the time to place the order.
This leads someone to create an umbrella code for miscellaneous parts. There’s no control against this and no guidance in the system to advise against it. Now, despite a fixed system, you have a workaround that allows the purchasers to place the order in half the time. Only problem is, three years down the line, you have no record of what was purchased, severely restricting your ability to make informed decisions.
There are two things happening here.
Firstly, the lack of available solution for easily and rapidly identifying the part number is creating a challenge for the end-user to overcome – it’s making the standard process hard to execute. Secondly, the lack of control within the digital system is providing the option for the end-user to bypass the standard. The human mind is generally not capable of consistently selecting the harder option when an easier option exists, particularly in the face of pressure, stress and other challenges. You have now created an implicit behaviour where the team is favouring efficiency over data integrity.
Now, imagine this is happening in other processes. In other systems. There are implicit behaviours being created in all corners of the business, influenced by challenges and loopholes in digital systems. We are now building a set of behavioural responses and group norms, which brings us neatly back to our definition of culture. The cherry on top of this cake is that all those difficult processes might actually be impairing our ability to make accurate judgements about what our customer values most.
So, what can we do about this?
Leaders and managers should communicate priorities, take time to understand challenges and have open conversations with teams to truly understand the way work is working in their areas. These are opportunities to surface problems and opportunities to improve. By asking genuinely curious questions about ‘how work works’ they should encourage an environment where it is safe for team members to surface frustrations and corner cutting. It’s also important to map and understand the workflows that flow through digital systems. Once standard processes and expectations are in place, governance and improvement meetings should be wrapped around these workflows, enabling teams to provide feedback where there are challenges.
It’s important to engage the IT department – and any other teams that are responsible for maintaining and controlling digital systems in the business – in the improvement meetings and related activities that work teams use to act on problems and opportunities. This should create a healthy tension, connecting IT service providers with the reality of work, and work teams with the potential and constraints or unintended consequences of IT based changes.
These challenges can then be addressed by optimising, removing waste and simplifying those processes. Automation and specific digital solutions can be applied to remove work from teams or solve complex challenges.
Continuous improvement should be a continuous and open conversation, which delivers results when leaders mobilise teams to identify and address challenges as they are encountered. It’s more important than ever that the IT department is onboard and engaged with these efforts as they now hold the keys to more doors than ever before. It might be time to take your CIO for a coffee…
Nobuhiro Hagura, Patrick Haggard, Jörn Diedrichsen (2017) Perceptual decisions are biased by the cost to act eLife 6:e18422 https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.18422
Harvard Business Review 2018, The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture, accessed 26th April 2023, < https://hbr.org/2018/01/the-leaders-guide-to-corporate-culture>
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