Leslie glanced at the sender. It was from Bob. That was a surprise. Bob had never emailed out-of-the-blue before. Leslie was too impatient to wait until later to read the email.
<Dear Leslie, could I trouble you to ask your advice on something. It is not urgent. A ten minute chat on the phone would be all I need. If that is OK please let me know a good time is and I will ring you. Bob>
Leslie was consumed with curiosity. What could Bob possibly want advice on? It was Leslie who sought advice from Bob – not the other way around.
Leslie could not wait and emailed back immediately that it was OK to talk now.
Hello Bob, what a pleasant surprise! I am very curious to know what you need my advice about.
? Thank you Leslie. What I would like your counsel on is how to engage in learning the science of improvement.
Wow! That is a surprising question. I am really confused now. You helped me to learn this new thinking and now you are asking me to teach you?
? Yes. On the surface it seems counter-intuitive. It is a genuine request though. I need to learn and understand what works for you and what does not.
OK. I think I am getting an idea of what you are asking. But I am only just getting grips with the basics. I do not know how to engage others yet and I certainly would not be able to teach anyone!
? I must apologise. I was not clear in my request. I need to understand how you engaged yourself in learning. I only provided the germ of the idea – it was you who added what was needed for it to develop into something tangible and valuable for you. I need to understand how that happened.
Ahhhh! I see what you mean. Yes. Let me think. Would it help if I describe my current mental metaphor?
? That sounds like an excellent plan.
OK. Well your phrase ‘germ of an idea’ was a trigger. I see the science of improvement as a seed of information that grows into a sturdy tree of understanding. Just like the ‘tiny acorn into the mighty oak’ concept. Using that seed-to-tree metaphor helped me to appreciate that the seed is necessary but it is not sufficient. There are other things that are needed too. Soil, water, air, sunlight, and protection from hazards and predators.
I then realised that the seed-to-tree metaphor goes deeper. One insight that I had was when I realised that the first few leaves are critical to success – because they provide the ongoing energy and food to support the growth of more leaves, and the twigs, branches, trunk, and roots that support the leaves and supply them with water and nutrients. I see the tree as synergistic system that has a common purpose: to become big enough and stable enough to be able to survive the inevitable ups-and-downs of reality. To weather the winter storms and survive the summer droughts.
It seemed to me that the first leaf needed to be labelled ‘safety’ because in our industry if we damage our customers or our staff we do not get a second chance! The next leaf to grow is labelled ‘quality’ and that means quality-by-design. Doing the right thing and doing it right first time without needing inspection-and-correction. The safety and quality leaves provide the resources needed to grow the next leaf which I labelled ‘delivery’. Getting the work done in time, on time, every time. Together these three leaves support the growth of the fourth – ‘economy’ which means using only what is necessaryand also having just enough reserve to ride over the inevitable rocks and ruts in the road of reality.
I then reflected on what the water and the sunshine would represent when applying improvement science in the real world.
It occurred to me that the water in the tree is like money in a real system. It is required for both growth and health; it must flow to where it is needed, when it is needed and as much as needed. Too little will prevent growth, and too much water at the wrong time and wrong place is just as unhealthy. I did some reading about the biology of trees and I learned that the water is pulled up the tree! The ‘suck’ is created by the water evaporating from the leaves. The plant does not have a committee that decides where the available water should go! It is a simple self-adjusting system.
The sunshine for the tree is like feedback for people. In a plant the suns energy provides the motive force for the whole system. In our organisations we call it motivation and the feedback loop is critical to success. Keeping people in the dark about what is required and how they are doing is demotivating. Healthy organisations are feedback-fuelled!
? Yes. I see the picture in my mind clearly. That is a powerful metaphor. How did it help overcome the natural resistance to change?
Well using the 6M Design method and taking the ‘sturdy tree of understanding’ as the objective of the seed-to-tree process I then considered what the possible ways it could fail – the failure modes and effects analysis method that you taught me.
? OK. Yes I see how that approach would help – approaching the problem from the far side of the invisible barrier. What insights did that lead to?
Well it highlighted that just having enough water and enough sunshine was not sufficient – it had to be clean water and the right sort of sunshine. The quality is as critical as the quantity. A toxic environment will kill tender new shoots of improvement long before they can get established. Cynicism is like cyanide! Non-specific cost cutting is like blindly wielding a pair of sharp secateurs. Ignoring the competition from wasteful weeds and political predators is a guaranteed recipe-for-failure too.
This metaphor really helped because it allowed me to draw up a checklist of necessary conditions for successful growth of knowledge and understanding. Rather like the shopping list that a gardener might have. Viable seeds, fertile soil, clean water, enough sunlight, and protection from threats and hazards, especially in the early stages. And patience. Growing from seed takes time. Not all seeds will germinate. Not all seeds can thrive in the context our gardener is able to create. And the harsher the elements the fewer the types of seed that have any chance of survival. The conditions select the successful seeds. Deserts select plants that hoard water so the desert remains a desert. If money is too tight the miserly will thrive at the expense of the charitable – and money remains hoarded and fought over as the organisation withers. And the timing is crucial – the seeds need to be planted at the right time in the cycle of change. Too early and they cannot germinateg, too late and they do not have time to become strong enough to survive in the real world.
? Yes. I see. The deeper you dig into your seeds-to-trees metaphor the more insightful it becomes.
Bob, you just said something really profound then that has unlocked something for me.
? Did I? What was it?
You said ‘seeds-to-trees’. Up until you said that I was unconsciously limiting myself to one-seed-to-one-tree. Of course! If it works for the individual it can work for the collective. Woods and forests are collectives. The best example I can think of is a tropical rainforest. With ample water and sunshine the plant-collective creates a synergistic system that has endured millions of years of global climate change. And one of the striking features of the tropical rain forest is the diversity of species. It is as if that diversity is an important part of the design. Competition is ever present though – all the trees compete for sunlight – but it is healthy competition. Trees do not succeed individually by hunting each other down. And the diversity seems to be an important component of healthy competition too. It is as if they are in a shared race to the sun and their differences are an asset rather than a liability. If all the trees were the same the forest would be at greater risk of all making the same biological blunder and suddenly becoming extinct if their environment changes unpredictably. Uniformity only seems to work in harsh conditions.
? That is a profound observation Leslie. I had not consciously made that distinction.
So have I answered your question? Have I helped you? It has certainly helped me by being asked to putting my thoughts into words. I see it clearer too now.
? Yes. You are a good teacher. I believe others will resonate with your seeds-to-trees metaphor just as I have.
Thank you Bob. I believe I am beginning to understand something you said in a previous conversation – “the teacher is the person who learns the most”. I am going to test our seeds-to-trees metaphor on the real world! And I will feedback what I learn – because in doing that I will amplify and clarify my own learning.
? Thank you Leslie. I look forward to learning with you.