I'm Not with Stupid

March 27, 2007

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Our society seems to be dumbing down, and this lack of critical thinking skills results in serious business mistakes. When you convert a half-witted workforce into power thinkers, you retain your best talent and increase both customer satisfaction and product quality goals.

Last May, in a speech that marked the launch of the North American Occupational Safety and Health Week, OSHA Assistant Secretary of Labor Edwin Foulke displayed pictures showing how careless adults can be when it comes to safety. Blunt and perhaps insensitive, nevertheless the pictures illustrated some downright stupid people in the workplace. We even have awards for such people.

Also last year, and perhaps the mother of scary employee goofs, German utility EnBW admitted that its employees lost the keys to the most highly secure areas of its nuclear plant in Philippsburg. Failing to find the keys after months of searching, the company announced plans to change the locks.

Blame poorer education, blame lack of training, blame reality television; it seems society has been dumbing down for years — and its effect on the bottom line in business should have us worried. The most common reason/excuse heard today when anything goes wrong is that someone didn't think.

As a recent white paper entitled "Creating Smart Organizations" from Ascendant Consulting, recently noted:

A lack of critical thinking skills results in product recalls, bumbled sourcing decisions, new product failures in the marketplace, plant implementations gone awry and the general torpedoing of sound strategies by flawed execution.

Consider just a handful from last year:

1) In May, Bausch & Lomb issued a global recall of its ReNu with MoistureLoc contact-lens solution after tests showed it could leave users susceptible to a potentially blinding infection.

2) Defects in batteries made by Sony for portable computing caused a handful of notebooks to burst into spectacularly photogenic flames. The result was the biggest computer-related recall ever, as Dell replaced the batteries in more than millions of laptops, as did Apple, Lenovo/IBM and others.

3) In August, Natural Selection Foods, a grower whose produce is sold nationwide under well-known brand names such as Dole and Ready Pac, distributed bagged spinach contaminated with E. coli. After hundreds fell sick, Natural Selection announced it would lay off 164 workers in the face of a 70 percent drop in revenue.

4) Ham by British food processor H.R. Hargreaves & Son included "dog sh*t" on the packages' complete list of ingredients. Hargreaves fired the employee responsible for the prank and began a recall of the mislabeled packages.

5) Owner's manuals in more than a million Honda vehicles listed a toll-free number to help drivers reach the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; however, Honda incorrectly printed the area code as 800 rather than 888, leading callers to a recorded message in which a woman's sultry voice encourages them to "call 1-800-918-TALK for just 99 cents per minute."

(It is worth asking why the auto industry, which may be the most "process-happy" manufacturing sector in existence, very well may top the list in product recalls.)

Personnel at all levels of the organization — from shop floor workers through senior managers — are not thinking at the level necessary to out-pace competition, according to David Fields, managing director at Ascendant Consulting.

Experience shows what makes some people the best in their field is power thinking, notes Fields. They may not be more experienced or even better trained in technical skills. Rather, according to Fields, "It is what they do with the three pounds of gray matter between their ears.

"Create a company of power thinkers, not just a cadre at the top, to exceed your growth expectations."

Companies staffed top to bottom with power thinkers make fewer costly mistakes, develop solutions that are more creative, spend less time and money creating detailed processes, experience less inter-departmental antipathy and enjoy higher sales, Fields says.

Consider the following:

1) Develop thinking skills — Strive to develop these six key traits in personnel at every organizational level: perspective, curiosity, flexibility, courage, tenacity and, of course, creativity.

2) Create a learning environment — In order to look beyond the obvious and challenge the status quo, the company must adopt two cultural commitments: a belief that "mistakes are distinct from demerits"; and open, problem-focused communication across departments and levels. Do not embrace failure; learn from it.

3) Organizational alignment — The single, overarching objective for the entire organization should be to increase sales efficiently. "When everyone in your company is focused against the same ultimate goal, then every mistake can be discussed in terms of its impact on sales," says Fields. Production line workers sometimes feel removed from the company's singular goal, but, in fact, they are not.

4) Consistency over time — Critical thinking skills are not created overnight or at a weekend seminar. "Plan on at least six months of consistent coaching before the new habits take root," writes Fields.

Likewise, William Taylor, the founding editor of Fast Company and author of Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win, recently told Workforce Management that "good managers in today's world must enlist everyone in the business to drive change and move things ahead." Ideas aren't the province of CEOs or top managers only; they can come from anywhere and anybody. That kind of thinking must be fostered, and everyone must be pushed "to think of how to do things better."

"You can't always outspend the competition," Taylor said, "but you can out-think them."

Of course, no matter how much employees and employers think, no matter how smart, mistakes will happen. Even fostering critical thinking skills across the entire organization and drawing on the brainpower of the entire workforce will not eliminate goofs 100 percent — but perhaps, at the very least, we wouldn't have to second-guess the location of the keys to the nearest nuclear plant.

Resources

Creating Smart Organizations by David A. Fields Ascendant Consulting, 2006

How To Stop The Dumbing Down Of Your Company by David A. Fields IndustryWeek, March 7, 2007

Best Brains Win by John Hollon Workforce Management blog, March 23, 2007

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