Think Like a Black Belt, Act Like a Ninja. Part II – The Mind Trick

ninja3A few years ago we worked on a project for a company that operated a group of call centers. The company was paid based on the number of folks they could reach on the phone and enroll into a program, so improving the percentage of people who would pick up the phone on the first or second try was a critical factor in improving profit margins. We had some pretty nice successes in this area and came up with a low cost, elegant solution for this client. We tested the premise using simulation and a small pilot and it looked like we would improve revenue by well over a million dollars a year. When it was time to implement the initiative the project came to a standstill. The business owner decided not to pull the trigger and the client went dark.

As a consultant it can be difficult to understand the “whys” behind some business decisions. Did the business model change? Did a new senior hire want to assess things for themselves before making changes on their new watch? For a few weeks I allowed my mind to come up with more and more creative reasons but I knew that I would never really know the answer unless I had a candid discussion with the business owner.

As luck would have it I did get a chance to speak the business owner a few weeks later. Let’s call him “Steve”.  I asked Steve why he decided not to move on with the project even though the pilot showed some fantastic results. Steve looked at me and said “Quite frankly, I didn’t pursue it because I didn’t come up with the idea”. Steve then disengaged himself from the conversation and walked away. This is an absolutely true story.

I originally took the easy route and chalked this up to both working for a jerk and the life of a consultant.  I kept validating my efforts with the question “As long as the check cleared, right?”. This wasn’t enough for me, though.  I asked myself what else I could have done to allow Steve to embrace my solution. It wasn’t soon after that I did a face palm and realized that I didn’t appreciate the simple premise that regardless of a project’s expected outcome there will always be resistance to change.  It’s human nature. While a Black Belt says to themselves “Boy, only a fool would not buy in to a project with such a great upside”, the Ninja says “Boy, I sure will look like a fool if I can’t sell this project with such a great upside”. That’s the difference.

There are scores and scores of change management papers and books and such on the internet and a whole bunch are indeed insightful. A Six Sigma Ninja however condenses all the theory and rules into one simple mind trick:

“If you want project buy-in, be sure your stakeholders understand the whys and own the hows –and in that order.”

First off, you can never expect someone to get behind a solution they can’t understand. Would you? It could be pretty embarrassing if you were asked a question by your boss about a solution you implemented but didn’t truly understand. What about when the solution’s author has ridden into the sunset, you are now in charge of maintaining the course and you still don’t understand what is really going on? The ninja knows that  most folks don’t feel the need to be the smartest person in the  room, but they don’t want to be the dumbest. Make sure that your stakeholders understand every nuance of the problem and the solution. Even if it involves using sock puppets. When the business owner says “That’s such a good idea it would be silly NOT to do it!” You are halfway home.

Everyone wants to fell empowered. Continuous improvement in the truest sense is all about empowerment. Make sure that at every step of the way, from concept to implementation, that your business owner is empowered to make the decisions they want to make. If you don’t agree with some of them, then pick your battles wisely. If you truly have them understanding the “whys”,  there shouldn’t be too many major issues. You know what happens when as you implement your business owner’s decisions? They become more and more invested into the solution. They have put their time into it, their thought into it and themselves into it.  The more you involve them in the day-to-day decisions, no matter how trivial they are, the stronger of an alliance you are forging.

It’s a simple mantra – make them understand the whys and own the hows. Ninjas keep it simple. That’s why they can get away with wearing only one outfit.

Have you ever eaten a tuna hoagie at six in the morning? I have and I vowed afterwards to never do it again. We’ll talk about that more in the next posting.


About Russ Sacks

Russ is the current Managing Director of Exceptional Outcomes. He has over twenty years of experience in the areas of operations research, process excellence and software development. Russ has worked with organizations such as United Technologies, Allied Signal, GM and NASA in implementing computer aided optimization and continuous improvement methods. Russ is a certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, and has worked in the area of process excellence in both the healthcare and information technology industries. Russ holds a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Union College, a Master of Science in Management from University of Maryland University College and a Master of Science in Civil Engineering from the University of Vermont.
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