4th August 2016

Pavlov’s Dog

Pavlov’s dog learnt to salivate at the sound of a bell and it is the usual and probably the first example of classical conditioning that students learn.

I am going to suggest a Pavlovian response that all leaders and managers should  learn. Whenever something goes wrong in the organisation, or doesn’t work as it should it would be really useful if the manager or leader would react with the following, “OK. So what is the process for…..?”

Look, I understand that when something goes wrong, we need to fix it; when something goes wrong, we need to sort it out; when something goes wrong we need to make reparations. Of course we do, but there is also an obligation to make sure that it doesn’t go wrong again.

I will wager that for many of us the Pavlovian response goes something like, “Who’s fault is that”’ or “who screwed up” or any of the many permutations on the “who is to blame” theme.

The fact is that systems run our business, and people follow our systems so lets look at the system first. For the majority of businesses I have personally encountered, the first port of call is to find out “who” to blame rather than look at the process or the system.

To give you a few examples “We didn’t ship X on time” should be met with “OK. So what is the process for ensuring all shipments go out on time?”.

“We didn’t do the whole job!” should be met with “OK. So what is the process for making sure everything is completed, in full and on time?”

“Doris was late for the meeting” should be met with “OK. So what is the process to make sure that everyone knows when and where the meeting is and that attendance is not for debate?” and so it goes.

When you start routinely and regularly asking this question you will get one answer more than any other and that will be a sudden and blank silence. The chances are that you don’t have a process. That is great! It allows you to ask someone to take ownership of creating, documenting, communicating and then regularly auditing a process that is both simple and robust. When that happens you will have some degree of certainty that that particular issue should never happen again. You see the problem itself is a symptom, however the cause is a lack of a known process.

Yes of course the problem has to be fixed and reparations made. That is the obvious requirement, but the savvy manager will understand that the really smart thing to do is not just to fix the problem but make sure that the problem stays fixed and doesn’t occur again. So take a lesson from Pavlov’s Dog and when you encounter a problem, ask what the process is.