How to Turn a Defect Into a Treasure

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Leadership starts with what the leader must be; the values and attributes that shape the leader's character. Leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do.

-- Be, Know, Do: The Army Leadership Manual

The best way to do is to be.

-- Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu's advice is still valid 2,500 years later. Stephen Covey agrees, "To have, it's first necessary to do; and to do it's first necessary to be."

Although this sounds reasonable, it goes against our instincts. Our attention is normally drawn to that which we can see (the effects), which in turn obscures the importance of what remains hidden (the causes). We focus on results (the having) and forget the process (the doing) necessary to achieve those results. We are even less aware of the platform (the being) that underlies the processes and provides the necessary capabilities.

Achieving specific results requires behaving in the way that produces such results, and behaving in such way requires being the type of person capable of such behavior. Thus, the highest leverage comes from becoming the person (or team, or organization) capable of behaving in the way that produces the desired results.

Total Quality gurus affirm that, "A defect is a treasure." The defect is precious because it alerts us that something is not working in the underlying process. Problems in the product are always symptoms of deeper problems in the process. When we "ask five times why," the defect opens a window onto the functioning of the system. If we can find and address the root cause of the defect, we will improve the system at a fundamental level. We will not only solve one specific problem, but many others that an out-of-control process could produce.

For example, suppose that you manage an assembly line and that some of your products come out defective. Your temptation may be to fix them and keep running the line. That may minimize disruptions in the short term, but is only addressing the symptom. The total quality way would be to identify the source of the defect in the product (Have) to find the fault in the process (Do). Then to attempt to improve the process (Do), checking that the platform (Be) provides the appropriate capabilities to run the optimized process.

Let's define defect more generally, as a gap, between a desired and an actual result, or between a vision and a current reality. Gaps don't need to be problems; they are simply aspirations that go beyond current achievements. For example, I would like to play the piano. I don't currently know how to play the piano. This is a gap. Going back on the three realms I described here, we see that we can have personal, interpersonal and impersonal gaps. I may be feeling well, but aspire to feel better, we might be working well together as a team but we want to work great, our organization is producing good results, but we aspire to achieve great results. These are not necessarily problems, but opportunities for greatness. As Jim Collins says, "Good is the enemy of great."

As we saw, gaps do not exist only in the material world; they arise in our personal world as well. Just like there are defective products out there, there are "defective" experiences in here: unhappiness, alienation, resignation, depression, hopelessness, resentment, shame, remorse, loneliness, dread and others. When we experience any of these negative states, it would behoove us to ask five times why. Initially, we may attribute our suffering to external factors such as other people or the world. But if we keep looking we'll find deeper reasons. It is us who don't know how to cope effectively with the situations brought about by the world, other people -- or ourselves. Our inability to cope comes from two sources: we lack practical skills, which means that we don't know what to do when certain things happen, or we lack psychological base, which means that know what to do but we can't bring ourselves to do it. (That is, we don't have a personal platform with sufficient process capabilities to put our skills into practice.)

Finally, there are also defects in the interpersonal world. The members of a group can feel separated, at cross purposes, unable to cooperate, feeling no solidarity, respect and care for each other. The lack of some essential interpersonal skills such as the ability to communicate, to negotiate differences and to maintain commitments to each other than can generate these defects. The lack of a supportive culture, with shared vision, values, behavioral norms, beliefs, myths and practices can be a determining factor in the interpersonal problems -- even when everybody has the necessary process skills. The social infrastructure of the group is the glue that binds people together, and when it is missing, the group falls apart.

In this video you will learn how to trace back a defect to its root cause, and take this as an opportunity to fundamentally improve the process and the platform.

Readers: What's the most significant "defect" that's inspiring you to grow as a professional? And what's the most significant "defect" you detect in your organization?


Fred Kofman, Ph.D. in Economics, is Vice President at Linkedin. This post is part 1.5. of Linkedin's Conscious Business Program. You can find the introduction and structure of this program here