Everything is a Theory

We have issues that require resolution. We have investigators looking into these issues. They conduct research. They conduct research into what has been discovered by other researchers. They conduct original research, examining novel perspectives and data. They develop hypotheses, conduct experiments, and evaluate newly acquired information. While new processes and technology make their way from the laboratory to practice, they are not universally accepted or enthusiastically implemented. Our naive model is that we acquire knowledge, apply it, improve, and ultimately become more effective and efficient. The reality, however, is quite different from our naive model. Rather than a seamless transition from concept to implementation, rejection is an inescapable part of the process. If no outright denial is visible, subtle subversion is almost certain. Psychological and neurological research elucidates why people resist obvious improvements. It demonstrates why people work so diligently to maintain the status quo.

Our information transfer model begins with knowledge generated by research, progresses to the development of usable technology, incorporates new technology into university and secondary school curricula, graduates bring their new technology to the workplace, and finally, methods and processes face rejection in the workplace. What contributes to the difficulty of adjusting to a new work situation? For instance, why did Dr. Walter Shewhart’s statistical process control, developed in May 1924, have such a difficult time gaining acceptance in modern American work? Even in 2007! It has a high rate of rejection! The majority of us have the naive belief that we can acquire new ideas that are perfectly sound and then put them into practice. All we need to do is present the concepts, demonstrate their value, and reap the benefits. The reality is that there is a significant barrier between good ideas and successful implementation. Human nature will resist productive transformation. Individuals and groups discard significant advancements. Understanding rejection behavior is critical to successfully negotiating implementation roadblocks. Understanding the behavior of individuals and groups is necessary for Dr. Shewhart’s deceptively simple ideas to be widely implemented.

Each individual has their own “theory of everything.” We live in a world in which reality is purely subjective. From our birth, we collect data and attempt to make sense of it in relation to previously collected data. Alison Gopnik and colleagues document how this process begins at birth in The Scientist in the Crib. Eventually, we will integrate all of this information into a grand mosaic of the universe, our own personal “theory of everything.”

As long as we live, we are surrounded by a meteor shower of new data. We have an abundance of receptors that enable us to recognize new information. When we discover a new concept, we have three choices: accept the new data as accurate; examine the new data for relevance and applicability; or reject the new data.

If we accept new data at face value, we will be unable to form an understanding of the universe around us. New data would simply replace existing data. As an illustration, consider a large jigsaw puzzle. We would never arrive at a starting point if we accepted new data blindly. The jigsaw puzzle pieces could never be connected. Even if all the pieces were on the card table, we would never be able to tell the difference between the edge and interior pieces. We could not group pieces if they shared a relationship with an adjacent piece. We would not even be able to tell if we had previously seen this piece.

The prudent course of action is to compare the new data to our existing data bank. Using the puzzle analogy once more, we attempt to establish a connection to the previously examined portion of the image. Is it the precipice? Is there a color connection between it and the photographic theme? Is there a shape relationship between it and the other pieces? Perhaps we are unaware of the true significance of its various characteristics. Perhaps we will put the entire puzzle together only to discover this in an errant piece. Perhaps it originated with a puzzle on a nearby table. Perhaps it is an aberration with a malformed shape. Perhaps we should rethink our “theory of everything” and make necessary adjustments to account for new information.

The far more prevalent option is to dismiss the new data as inconsistent with our “theory of everything.” The new information cannot possibly be correct, as it would contradict our personal theory, “You must be wrong, or we would not be arguing!” A fundamental truth is that reorganizing our personal “theory of everything” generates significant anxiety. For a sizable portion of the population, having a complete picture of the universe that accounts for all observed data is far less important than peace. Rejection of new data is a much preferred course of action to the intellectual rigor of developing a new “theory of everything” and enduring the emotional distress associated with reformulation. Psychological experiments support the notion that the majority of people prefer to be on the firmness of the ship’s deck, despite the fact that the Titanic will sink in just a few hours.

Technology is a relatively simple concept to grasp. Each field has its own body of knowledge. Significant research, experimentation, and refinement have advanced every field of expertise significantly. The twentieth century was an enlightening period. Nonetheless, this appears to be the age of the greatest superstition. The resistance to productive improvement merits its own investigation, experimentation, and refinement. Persistent research into the process of resistance sheds some light.

At the heart of the acceptance and integration of new work methods is Leon Festinger’s 1957 theory of dissonance. He demonstrates through experimentation in his Theory of Cognitive Dissonance that new information and new ideas cause cognitive dissonance in individual minds. Consonance is the serene state in which all is tranquil, when all data fits the individual’s “theory of everything.” Cognitive dissonance contributes to the development of anxiety and other distressing emotions. Individuals will work tirelessly to alleviate dissonance and restore consonance. Perhaps a person’s tolerance for dissonance has something to do with McGregor’s X and Y theories.

The naive belief is that if management implements all of the Lean Six Sigma concepts, the workforce will rise and cheer in unison, as the French did when the Allies liberated Paris. Measure Define Analyze Improve and Control (DMAIC); Visual Factory; Kaizen; Kanban; Poke Yoke; and Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) all introduce significant dissonance in the real world. Management has shattered each employee’s “theory of everything.” Substantial rebellion will result from the dissonance; some overt, some covert, but all genuine. This uprising will have a significant impact on team effectiveness and Kaizen. To make Lean Six Sigma effective, we must all understand the Festinger Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. By comprehending this psychological phenomenon, we can develop strategies for successfully overcoming the rebellion.

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