Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Value of Thinking

"Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it." - Henry Ford

Do we consider the ability to think critical to business success?  If so, why do companies place such a low value on thinking?  How many organizations today would truly appreciate an employee who takes time regularly to sit in his or her office to think?

I believe if we started to value thinking and took the time to teach our organizations how to think, we could revolutionize the world of business, leading to greatly improved performance, as well as employee satisfaction and quality of life.

Thinking in Business

When I led an organization, I encouraged team members to make decisions. I also encouraged people to think - individually and as a group - before making a decision.  What I found in many cases was that a vast majority of poor decisions were the result of jumping to a solution without thinking.  On the other hand, I have observed that the most creative solutions and innovative idea result from deep reflection and thought before acting.

The U.S. culture is heavily rooted in the Puritan ethic that greatly appreciates doing.  This contributes to the tendency of businesses to value the person who acts quickly much more than the one to takes time to think before acting.  Our organizations are fjull of people who stay very busy doing things, but rarely think about what they are doing.  As a result, we face the same problems day-in and day-out and fail to achieve or sustain significant levels of improvement in productivity or quality.

This general disregard for thinking creates friction that continually pulls even those organizations that value thinking toward a culture of doing.  I believe this is the reason that companies respected for creativity and innovation tend to lose their edge as they become larger and more successful.  Think about how many internet startups have changed from high growth companies with imaginative offerings to stagnant, poor performing organizations.  Companies like Apple
, Toyota and LG, on the other hand, are among the very few that have been able to maintain their creative edge in products, processes, and services.

Thinking Required

Organizations are very complex systems that make it difficult to clearly understand the effects that result from actions taken.  To truly comprehend how a change in one part of the organization will affect another requires thought and reflection.  On many occasions, I have seen a change implemented by one area of the company result in increased costs and headaches for another.

I also believe that the lack of thinking is one of the reasons lean initiatives fail.  Lean requires a level of creativity and systems thinking that are nonexistent in many companies.  solving a problem requires a clear understanding of the underlying causes and the creativity to develop effective solutions.  Without the ability to think and reflect, improvements will tend to be short-lived.

What to Do

Because of the cultural resistance to thinking, encouraging people to reflect on issues before acting is not easy.  Everybody is so busy doing things that it very difficult to get them to take time to think.  Orders need to be entered, reports need to be written, customers need to be called, and deliveries need to be made.  Asking people to stop and think will be seen as adding more to an already full plate of things to do.

The key is to start small.  Leaders can encourage thinking as part of the coaching process to help
team members deal with problems and issues.  In one company, I initiated a policy requiring people to sit and think about their jobs for ten minutes each day.  Some did it and, I'm sure, others just said they did, but eventually the organization began to change because it became clear that I valued thinking.

However it is done, transforming the culture toward thinking before doing will help release the dammed up potential within the company.  Eventually, the change will become evident in productivity improves, more innovative products and services are introduced, and ultimately, the performance of the organization improves.

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