How structured is your thinking? No less a figure than W Edwards Deming made the theory of knowledge one of four pillars in his System of Profound Knowledge. And yet, in my experience, very little structured thinking goes on in our modern workplaces.
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
Without a doubt, there is an enormous and ever-increasing amount of analytics performed in our digitising business environments. But how do we come to know what questions to ask of our immense sets of data? And, even if we knew all the powerful questions, not all knowledge is reducible to bits and bytes. For that knowledge which we cannot contain in a computer program, how do we construct our arguments, test them for logical coherence and then communicate the results?
Having a means of thinking in a logical and structured way is not to say that all decisions can be made based on reason alone. Difficult choices often don’t lend themselves to binary answers derived from cause and effect logic. We cannot possibly know everything about a given situation. Additionally, we all have our prejudices, often based on an emotional response to a given situation. Further, it is not always clear that parties to an argument share the same goal. Therefore, what appears to me to be sound reasoning may be intolerable to you.
Notwithstanding these caveats, neglecting to develop a substantial capability in critical thinking seems to me to be one of the root causes of the difficulty we all encounter when advocating for change. Imagine for a moment that you or one of your team was well versed in the available means of persuasion. How much more could you accomplish? How many more rounds of innovation could you achieve while your competitors get lost in incoherent argument? How much more glide and how reduced the friction if you take the science and art of critical thinking seriously?
The Logical Thinking Process from the Theory of Constraints (TOC) provides a logically structured means of developing rhetorical muscle. It endeavours to do for TOC what Hoshin planning does for the Toyota Production System (Lean). The logic trees from the Thinking Process were designed initially to comprehensively answer the three critical questions of any change initiative: What to change? What to change to? How to change? There is a suite of five logic trees used to examine each of those questions: the goal tree, current reality tree, evaporating cloud, future reality tree and transition tree. But, before diving into the use of the trees, we would be better served by first studying Goldratt’s rules of rhetoric, which he calls The Categories of Legitimate Reservation, but which I prefer to simplify and call ‘logic checks’.
“Is what’s being said true, and what data
backs up the truth of its existence?”
Goldratt’s rhetorical test kit provides six logic checks: clarity, causality existence, additional cause, concurrent cause, missing intermediate effect and predicted effect. Getting to know these checks well is a little like learning a new language, but it can pay big dividends once mastered. With practice, you can start to pick out the logic flaws in your colleagues’ arguments as they speak. When constructing an argument of your own, you can ensure you have covered all that is necessary and sufficient to make it watertight. Let’s take each in their turn, with an example.
Clarity. Are the logical statements about reality clear in what they are saying? Can anyone involved in the system understand and readily share what is being said?
Example: ‘Johnny is upset because of sales’. We don’t know if Johnny is upset because sales are up and he has no more inventory, market prices are down, along with profits, and he thus won’t get his bonus, or logistics has screwed up and failed to get the product to the customer on time and in full, meaning the revenue can’t be brought to book.
Entity existence. Is what’s being said true, and what data backs up the truth of its existence?
Example: ‘The pump is broken’. If we incorrectly connected the wiring for the motor that drives the pump, it might be that the pump is in good working order, but it is unable to perform its function of circulating fluids because of the faulty wiring of the motor.
Causality existence. When connecting a chain of cause and effect, what are the assumptions underpinning the linkage? Can these assumptions be altered without the logic breaking down?
Example: ‘The project failed because we were over budget and behind schedule’. Being over budget and behind schedule were the effects of poor project management and not the actual cause of project failure. Improve project management and the cost and schedule outcomes will improve.
Additional cause. Is there another entity, which on its own would have the same effect and which, when combined with other causes, may have an amplifying effect. Alternatively, if we remove the original cause, the additional cause will still play its part in keeping the undesirable effect in place.
Example: ‘I can’t believe I failed to qualify as a coded welder when I got such a good grade for the exam’. To qualify, there were two necessary conditions: complete a supervised workplace assessment and pass the exam. A failure to satisfactorily do either, even when the other is done exceptionally well, results in an inability to qualify.
Concurrent cause. Is there a cause that needs to combine with another before it’s sufficient to create the observed effect?
Example: ‘We wouldn’t have been so late if the supervisor had given us a better estimate of how long his tasks would take’. To get a better estimate, you would need input from the supervisor, the specialist and the tradie performing the work. Leave out any of the three of them, and it becomes more likely that estimates miss their mark.
Missing intermediate cause. The proverbial ‘long arrow’ statement in which the distance between cause and effect is so great that one can intuit a connection, but to provide clarity, must be articulated as a full chain of cause and effect.
Example: ‘We failed to deliver on time and budget because we had a poor plan’. What had to happen after we developed the plan for us to succeed in achieving our goal? For example, how was the plan communicated? How was that communication connected to the organisational goal? What measures were put in place to help everyone know how they were travelling relative to the goal? How did we go about making any needed course corrections?
Predicted effect. This check is the tool of the diagnostician, who says if we deem the cause to be something in particular, then it could have multiple effects. The absence of any predicted effect eliminates the possibility of the hypothesised cause.
Example: ‘Because of the tight control we had on our contract labour, production costs for the month ran at a record low’. For the claim to be valid, we would predict that the variable costs of material inputs and all other operating expense beside contract labour remained the same.
I have found that one of the most significant benefits of using a structured approach to critical thinking is how it creates a possibility to avoid either ad hominem attacks or a singular claim for all the credit. It demands that the person who develops the logic has a degree of empathy for the subjects who are part of the analysis and understands the difference between blame, credit and cause. Having a grammar for the application of logic allows the team to share a safe way of examining assumptions and exploring, through dialogue, better ways to do better work.
Given these essential building blocks for the development of compelling logical argument, how can they be used? In my next article, I will start with some tips on how to develop the Goal Tree.
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