Thursday, September 5, 2013

It's not what they think; it's what they believe

"It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. 
It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."

~ Mark Twain

Sometimes people refuse to be persuaded. Deeply held beliefs trump argument and evidence. Brian Klapper, a management consultant, tells the story of a company like this.
The CEO of a large U.S. furniture manufacturer asked me to help him reduce customer fulfillment time from 12 weeks to four weeks. The company was using an automated conveyor belt assembly line, and when the workers were unable to keep up with the pace, they hurriedly removed the pieces from the line and put them on the floor — reminiscent of the candy factory scene from "I Love Lucy." Beside each operator was a large pile of partially assembled furniture. 
I suggested to the CEO that unplugging the line and allowing the workers to set the pace would not only result in faster turnaround, but also significantly higher quality furniture, given that the furniture incurred tremendous damage when moved from the belt to the floor. However, management was not convinced. To demonstrate the effectiveness of our suggestion, we set up a pilot line in an abandoned factory, which we ran for a month. Thru-put was 30% higher, quality reached record levels, and morale was way up. Still, management remained unconvinced, believing that workers must be directed, tightly managed, and never allowed to set their own pace.
This is not uncommon. It's a form of confirmation bias. Psychologists Lee Ross and Craig Anderson write:
Beliefs can survive potent logical or empirical challenges. They can survive and even be bolstered by evidence that most uncommitted observers would agree logically demands some weakening of such beliefs. They can even survive the total destruction of their original evidential bases.
For one who wishes to persuade, then, the first task is to understand what the other person believes. Those beliefs will even determine what the person chooses to read. Don't expect a liberal to read a conservative magazine. Don't expect an executive who is skeptical of management consultants to be eagerly anticipating the next issue of McKinsey Quarterly.

In another post I'll explore how we might deal with confirmation bias.

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