Tag Archives: quality system

The Endowment Effect: The Ultimate Organizational Rose-Colored (Risk-Enhancing) Glasses

Fifteen or so years ago, I was a member of a review team that assessed a major, multi-million dollar software project. We were asked to perform the review because the project had some issues — it cost nearly $2M a year, was not yet delivering value to users, and had been running for 17 years.

Were I the ultimate decision-maker, my plan of action would have been simple: shut down the project, reconstitute a team with some representation from the old team, and use the lessons learned to rearchitect a newer, more robust solution. It would have customer involvement from the start to ensure a short time-to-value (and continuous flow of value). But there was one complication: the subject matter for this software package was highly specialized and required active involvement from people who had deep knowledge of the problem domain… and the team already had about 60% of the world’s experts on it.

Still, I was focused on the sunk costs. I felt that the organization should not choose to keep the project going just because over $20M had been poured into it… the sunk costs should not factor into the decision.

But then something very curious happened two years later, as the project was still hemorrhaging money… I was put in charge of it. So what did I do? Launched a two-month due diligence to reassess the situation, of course.

I was not on the review team this time, but their assessment was not a surprise — can the project, reconstitute the team, use the lessons learned to plan a new approach to delivering value quickly.

So that’s what I did… right? NOOOOO!!! I decided to try a little harder… because of course we could get the current software project to be stable and valuable, if we just gave it a little more time.

Even I was shocked by my transformation. Why was I feeling like this? Why was I ignoring the facts? Why was I, all of a sudden, powerless to make the appropriate and most logical choice?

Turns out, I was just demonstrating human nature via the Endowment Effect — which says, simplistically, that once you own something you value it more than before you own it. This is not just a curiosity though… because it can get in the way of effective decision-making.

Think about it:

  • Before you buy a house, you psychologically devalue it because you want to get a better deal. But once you move in, your psyche inflates the value because you stand to win as the value increases.
  • Why is it that leaders often value the opinions of consultants more than the opinions of full-time staff? Because consultants are more expensive, and once their reports have been submitted, you now own the intellectual property… and value it more.
  • The same effect occurs if you buy a company. You may be sensitive to issues and opportunities for improvement prior to the sale, but once your signature is on the dotted line… the endowment effect kicks in, and the rose-colored glasses are donned.

This has a huge implication for quality and process improvement. Once you own something, you are less able to see the problems that need to be solved. This is why we use external auditors for our ISO 9001 programs, or review panels for our government projects, or a quality award assessment process for evaluating how well we are translating strategy to action.

Other people can see areas for improvement that you can’t, if you’re an owner of the process that has problems. The lesson? Get external eyes on your internal issues, and pay attention to their insights.

Yes, You Do Need to Write Down Procedures. Except…

近代工芸の名品― [特集展示] 

A 棗 from http://www.momat.go.jp/cg/exhibition/masterpiece2018/ — I saw this one in person!!

Several weeks ago we went to an art exhibit about “tea caddies” at the Tokyo Museum of Modern Art. Although it might seem silly, these kitchen containers are a fixture of Japanese culture. In Japan, drinking green tea is a cornerstone of daily life.

It was about 2 in the afternoon, and we had checked out of our hotel at 11. Wandering through the center of the city, we stumbled upon the museum. Since we didn’t have to meet our friends for several more hours, we decided to check it out.

Confession: I’m not a huge fan of art museums. Caveat: I usually enjoy them to some degree or another when I end up in them. But I didn’t think tea caddies could possibly be useful to me. I was wrong!

When to Write SOPs

One of the features of the exhibit was a Book of Standard Operating Procedures. It described how to create a new lacquered tea caddy from paper. (Unfortunately, photography was prohibited for this piece in particular.) The book was open, laying flat, showing a grid of characters on the right hand side. The grid described a particular process step in great detail. On the left page, a picture of a craftsman performing that step was attached. The card describing the book of SOPs explained that each of the 18 process steps was described using exactly the same format. This decision was made to ensure that the book would help accomplish certain things:

  • Improve Production Quality. Even masters sometimes need to follow instructions, or to be reminded about an old lesson learned, especially if the process is one you only do occasionally. SOPs promote consistency over time, and from person to person. 
  • Train New Artists. Even though learning the craft is done under the supervision of a skilled worker, it’s impossible to remember every detail (unless you have an eidetic memory, which most of us don’t have). The SOP serves as a guide during the learning process.
  • Enable Continuous Improvement. The SOP is the base from which adjustments and performance improvements are grown. It provides “version control” so you can monitor progress and examine the evolution of work over time.
  • Make Space for Creativity. It might be surprising, but having guidance for a particular task or process in the form of an SOP reduces cognitive load, making it easier for a person to recognize opportunities for improvement. In addition, deviations aren’t always prohibited (although in high-reliability organizations, or industries that are highly regulated, you might want to check before being too creative). The art is contributed by the person, not the process.

When Not to Write SOPs

Over the past couple decades, when I’ve asked people to write up SOPs for a given process, I’ve often run into pushback. The most common reasons are “But I know how to do this!” and “It’s too complicated to describe!” The first reason suggests that the person is threatened by the prospect of someone else doing (and possibly taking over) that process, and the second is just an excuse. Maybe.

Because sometimes, the pushback can be legitimate. Not all processes need SOPs. For example, I wouldn’t write up an SOP for the creative process of writing a blog post, or for a new research project (that no one has ever done before) culminating in the publication of a new research article. In general, processes that vary significantly each time they’re run, or processes that require doing something that no one has ever done before — don’t lend themselves well to SOPs.

Get on the Same Page

The biggest reason to document SOPs is to literally get everyone on the same page. You’d be surprised how often people think they’re following the same process, but they’re not! An easy test for this is to have each person who participates in a process draw a flow chart showing the process steps and decisions are made on their own, and then compare all the sketches. If they’re different, work together until you’re all in agreement over what’s on one flow chart — and you’ll notice a sharp and immediate improvement in performance and communication.