The 4th Sigma: Analysis Paralysis… More Options Don’t Always Help


Any good management book or management system provides you with more than a few tools or the steps for a process. The best books remind that you are applying these systems to people, people with preferences and limitations. Some people have more talent, or more focus, or training and have fewer limitations (at work, at least), but they still have limits. One of our limits is that we can only process so much information without causing problems. Over the last couple of decades we have tried to escape these limits by modeling ourselves on computers; we tried to “multi-task” our way out of confusion and overload. However, we are now learning that human multi-tasking is an illusion. When we do several things at the same time, we either don’t get it done on time or we just do it very poorly (see my Blog earlier this month, “The Mind Muddle Of Multi-Tasking ”). As human beings we can fail in a variety of ways when we have more information than we can deal with. When we try to process too much information we can become victims of “Analysis Paralysis”… and get stuck in the analysis phase, failing to move projects into action. Why is this?

When we’re overwhelmed, we freeze. Fear of making the wrong decision holds us back. We keep looking for an option that will solve all of our problems without an excessive cost or negative results. When we have many different ways of looking at the problem… many tools or many competing measurement systems… we “churn” the options hoping that a perfect solution can be found. When we enter  this churning process, we see that there are two variations: static paralysis and dynamic paralysis:

  • Static paralysis: You feel you don’t have enough data, you question the data collection methodology or perhaps the analysis doesn’t ring true. If you have specific concerns that perfectly legitimate, but this is usually just unsupported anxiety. The data is pointing (or could point) towards taking actions that are very undesirable or very risky. This isn’t an intentional attempt to put off a decision; it is an uncertain manager seeking more assurances. However, with so many available tools, you can churn the data forever. Fewer options would limit the churning process and move you more quickly towards taking action.  
  • Dynamic paralysis: You trust your data and your processes, but in the time it takes to complete your analysis, the data changes. You start again, and once again the data has changed. If you work in a rapidly changing environment (company changing size, budgets changing, new offices opening or closing, mergers or departments being sold) or if technology is involved (new products, new models, rapidly changing benchmarks) there is always a need to gather and process data again, because the results probably will be different.  With new data constantly arriving, the analysis process can be repeated endlessly and a superior process of analysis could arrive tomorrow.    

Whether your paralysis is static or a dynamic, it all comes down to too much information, too many processes, and too much fear.  Complexity directly relates to uncertainty. The FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) sales technique was supposedly developed by IBM to stall clients which were considering competing products. “No one ever got fired for recommending IBM” was a primary selling point for IBM, and a not so subtle reminder that unknown details could have negative consequences. It certainly delayed decision making when competitors brought out new products. You face the same FUD when you need to rely on a complex system like Six Sigma. If you had a less complex and more understandable system, a system that was more specific to Corporate Services, the greater understanding would lead to more confidence. You and your team would encounter less fear, less confusion, and improvement programs would move forward more quickly. That’s why we need a “4th Sigma” program.  

How will we create this program? Primarily, we need to reduce the size of our toolkit, and focus on a few tools that address most of your issues. Will fewer tools give us a less useful system? Not at all. When you go to a restaurant, you are generally given a couple of forks, a couple of knives and a spoon or two. At a very formal affair you may be given a more extensive set of cutlery. At the turn of the last century, when formal dining was at its height, cutlery manufacturers had as many as 150 eating implements per setting. I rarely find the need for a demitasse spoon, let alone an ice cream fork or a pickle knife. The reduced set is usually more functional, and certainly takes less time to lay out and learn. An old joke has the artist Andy Warhol at his first formal dinner with his patron, he was so worried about using the wrong fork or spoon that he passed on every course. Eventually his patron asked him if there was something wrong with the food and he replied, “I’m sorry, I only eat candy.”        

We’re going to have our cake and eat it too (but we’ll share just one fork). Over the coming months we will go through some exercises together to use a simple but reliable tool kit for improving quality. Nothing will prevent you from using Six Sigma or other more complex processes, but you will be able to do most of what you need with very little fuss and bother. If anything gets missed or any of you see a need to develop a missing process… just say so (I read every comment you send!), and I will see what I can do! So, for today, that’s my Niccolls worth!

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This entry was posted in 4th Sigma, Best Practices, Decision Making, Improvement, Continuous or Not, Learning and Development, Unique Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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