Tough Decisions

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KT pursues rational process for clarity in problem solving

Jane Gray talks to improvement and skills development specialists, Kepner-Tregoe, about the challenges of decision making and problem solving. How can companies gain confidence in these areas in the face of increasing organisational complexity?

Attend any industry conference or trade event and the message from speakers and delegates alike is that the ways we compete and do business are changing. In conversation with TM, Pierfrancesco Manenti, leader for IDC Manufacturing Insights, likened the metamorphosis to a “reset” of the business world.

Many of those becoming aware of these shifting sands point to the recession as the source of change but for Martin Wing, managing partner at Kepner-Tregoe (KT), the root cause is embedded in a far longer term trend which will not disappear with economic recovery: the rise of complexity and specialism.

For many years large enterprises have explored the dynamics of complexity and what it means for business processes. A school of academic thought has sprung up around the area and business leaders like Jeff McGowan, sourcing manager at Johnson and Johnson Lifescan, have dedicated themselves to understanding how complexity theory impacts on the operations, IT infrastructure and logistics of their organisations.

For Wing however, the key to mastering complexity in business lies in developing effective decision makers and problem solvers; refining their capabilities with rationality and regularity and aligning their thinking across business functions and disciplines to bring improved organisational agility and responsiveness to unpredictability. Wing says: “There is a great need at the moment for some discipline, structure and stimulating thought around resolving business problems and making decisions because systems and organisations are more complicated than ever before and the business environment is less forgiving if mistakes are made. There are more specialists as organisations focus on their core activities and fewer generalists. “If you get involved in solving any kind of business problem today you have to deal with half a dozen or more functions, each with their own bias and view on the world. They are all acting with the best of intentions but if they do not think in the same way their activities will not be aligned and they will be continually at loggerheads.”

Seeking ways of aligning thinking in organisations and understanding employee behaviour is what drives KT’s work with companies around the globe. The company’s heritage lies in behavioural research, underpinned by the work that founders Charles Kepner and Ben Tregoe took away from their time with the US military think tank Rand in the early 1950s. They were tasked with a six month project to understand why certain people, with exactly the same knowledge, information and training often made fundamentally different decisions about how to act on that information.

Wing explains how an interest in advancing this research guides KT’s approach to helping businesses and individuals achieve their full potential and build independent competitive capability: “Two basic principles lie behind everything we do: Use rational process with a passion and transfer knowledge to clients.

“Rational process is what we term our thinking methodologies and they are built on the findings of the behavioural research Kepner and Tregoe did back in the 50s. Through their observations they noted that research subjects who made good decisions that stood the test of time followed a demonstrable, repeatable, and structured thinking pattern all the time - so as they were going through making a choice you could recognise what that thought pattern actually was. Those who didn’t tend to make good decisions had a tendency to jump about in their thought patterns.” In addition KTs rational process methodologies are sensitive to Kepner and Tregoe’s differentiation between the mental activities involved in problem solving in comparison to those involved in decision making. Wing says: “Making a choice is fundamentally different in terms of your thought patterns compared to solving a problem. Making this distinction between a problem and a decision was revolutionary at the time” yet KT’s continuing educative work with companies around this topic shows that it is a distinction not yet fully recognised or understood by many.

The success that KT has brought to a broad range of companies through teaching rational process is prolific. From manufacturing and marketing giant Sara Lee and global packaging leader Associated Packaging Technologies to more niche companies like baked goods manufacturer Interbake Foods there are many thriving enterprises willing to attribute a significant part of their success to the use of KT rational processes. Despite this accolade Wing acknowledges that KT often have difficulty selling their approach of “best practice thinking” to CEOs who are generally more inspired by talk of bottom line impact, financial ROI and other business tangibles. “Typically it is only once people have experienced what we mean by rational process and what the power of it can be that people actually buy into it.”

Acknowledging the need to talk in the language of business in 2010 Wing qualifies how KT’s thought processes can lead to these material benefits “The methodology on its own is worthless. You’ve got to have information and experience in place but rational processes will channel that in the right way for the business.” For this reason KT works closely with clients to embed and integrate rational process into relevant continuous improvement and operational excellence frameworks. “Our processes and ways of thinking have stood the test of time and have helped companies over the last fifty years to get the best out of lean, six sigma, continuous improvement, TQM, TPM – all of the improvement philosophies that have been bandied around since the Second World War. At the heart of all of these are good problem solving and decision making and the prevention of future problems.

“Allowing companies to continue getting the best out their improvement philosophies means spending fifty per cent of our time teaching the methodologies but also fifty per cent of our time is about ensuring that individuals can utilise those approaches to best effect in their relevant programmes. We aim to make companies independent of our expertise and very much take a ‘teach a man to fish’ approach to knowledge transfer” says Wing.

In practice this manifests itself in three major implementation steps: process integration, performance system alignment and coaching on the job. In the next issue of TM Kepner-Tregoe’s client, FFEI Ltd, a leading UK supplier of high-tech imagery products and services, will walk readers through what their journey has involved and the potential it has unlocked in their people and processes.

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