Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Double-Loop Learning Requirements in Indian Organisations

More than a decade ago, an OD interventionist was asked to look into the possibility of addressing a large industrial organisation’s effectiveness. The call from the scion came in the wake of a successful turnaround the consultant facilitated at one of its sick units with no capital intensive machinery or import of manufacturing process. That was the method of behavioral science applied for sure. However, at the company’s parent unit, profit and relative health hid many a malaise. On first visit to the campus township, the consultant was given a walk through its plant layout and production process. The perceptive consultant brought two symptomatic features among many to do the top management’s attention. Both were to with the concern for quality.
1.       Heaps of foundry sand were lying in the yard. On asking work supervisors as to what purpose the sand served within, there was no ready response. On the orders of the enthused leadership, the sand was ordered to be removed, and lo and behold tons of molten scrap which could be reused in the plant’s foundry were recovered. The work-in-process inventory was actually lying in the yard, covered in sand. Later it turned out, that six months of purchase of foundry material were saved in this ‘surprise detection’.
2.       Going through the machining sections, the consultant observed that go and no-go gauges used to check thickness of the machined part were not at the work-station. On gentle enquiry, the workman conceded that they were stashed away in his work locker. He brought the incomplete set of gauges to demonstrate safe-keeping (albeit incomplete). On checking for thickness with the available ones, the machined part was found to be deviant from productions standard. The workman’s habit went ceremoniously unchecked, and ‘visual’ quality inspection was now the de-facto empowerment when in fact cost of repair and rework went unaccounted, in the demand to fulfillment cycle.
Today, the above can be said to be rationalized as the creeping effects of unchecked work habits. The only difference was that when the phenomenon was investigated deeper, the root cause was traced to a curious syndrome of a dysfunctional social hierarchy that juxtaposed power relations and access to a parallel economy. Influential supervisors made sure that rework jobs were outsourced to small scale units where private wealth of regular managers at the plant was reaping from the inefficiencies of the main plant. An ethical fallout of such a political minefield was waiting to explode. Like the Abilene paradox, the risk of avoiding the obvious truth became greater than the risk of stating the obvious at the workplace.
At another location, again involving a sick-unit, I was myself witness to a socially mind-blind take-over. While the acquirer went about reconditioning the sick-plant for production, the original workforces of the local unit were being re-inducted in staggered manner. Two of them took me aside and said they were accounting the inventory in stock for over two months without being paid despite an appointment order. They attributed this to the absence of a Personnel Officer from the parent company during the take-over phase. On bringing this to the notice of the ‘covenanted’ Plant Manager, he was aghast and ordered immediate payment of the salaries in cash! The staff members lay prostrate at my feet in an unforgettable sight for me. They then invited me over to their personal homes for tea, in what I witnessed as the powerlessness of a community robbed of dignity and honor by an unethical and unscrupulous former management who allegedly milked their company finances and decamped to their havens in a stealth operation of hideous texture. A sheer look at the abandoned air-strip, colonial trappings of the residential colony and the fine crockery that the local cooks and servants preserved, was a sheer undercurrent of exploitative capitalism.
Both of the above stories are true. Masking the identities of these organisations, does not obfuscate the truth. The purpose of narrating them is to drive home the usefulness of understanding how phenomena such as these go unchecked and undetected in organisational routine, before they blow-up with damaging consequences to not only the exploiters, but those who are the survivors of such seemingly incomprehensible ‘dharam-sankats’. Let us assume for a moment, that such dilemmas exist in your own organisations. What can you do about them? Here’s what you could do to make the undiscussables discussable.
1.       Encourage the parties involved to examine the inconsistencies and gaps that underlie the reasoning behind their actions.
2.       Make explicit the rules that ‘must’ be in their reasoning to produce the actions they subscribe to
3.       If any shock or surprise is expressed in this process, use this as observable data to surface the validity of what is being learned by the members
4.       Produce opportunities to practice stating the truth and designing for actions that enhance internal commitment to mutually beneficial goals.
a.       From being systematically unaware of the consequences of their actions, they become aware in a non-threatening way of how they affect the organisational system
b.      Enable them with education in thinking (cognition) and action (behavior) that enhances perceptiveness of unawareness
c.       Develop maps of defensive routines that produce unintended consequences and socialise the nature of single-loop and double-loop learning
5.       Develop a learning case as in the example below from the manufacturing plant that led to deep reflection of how the worker community learnt at the workplace.
In the short example below, I have brought to you episodic illustrations of phenomena you may quickly identify with in your day job. Leaders now confronted with a knowledge workforce cannot use unassailable power and position to ‘drive’ their points of view as though no other views exist.
Leaders who face ongoing patterns of blockages and ‘stuck’ issues need to look at the governing issues of their situation. Leaders are often unaware in India of their theories in use, due to the deep hierarchy that goes unquestioned and untested for its relevance to order and effectiveness. They are slow to get feedback.

Table 1  : Excerpt from Conversation between the Stores supervisor and the Plant Manager
Thoughts and Feelings Not Communicated
Actual Conversation
He is not going to like this topic and he will take offence to my bringing it up as part of my work
SS : Sir, I have checked to valve components in stock. We have two dozen in stock for the sluices on the effluent pipes, but most of them have rusted and not likely to be effective.
Plant Manager : I am glad you made this list. When can we have the complete list?
I had better go slow. Let me slow down the pace of my disclosures.
SS : In the past the valves in stock were ineffective because of poor quality. The chances are that even these in stock will be rejected by the Maintenance department. My fear is that the Materials Department will have a difficult time sourcing the right valves from the local market.
Plant Manager : I don’t understand. Tell me more
Like hell you don’t understand. You are exploiting me like our previous management. How can I be more gentle with you?
SS : sir, I’m sure you are aware of the reasons ( and explains a bit…)
Plant Manager : No, I do not see it that way. It is my production and engineers who are key to the future…
There he goes again, thinking as a ‘corporate’ officer, just because he is in charge
SS : Sir, let us wait and see when production begins..

Models of theories-in-use
The construction Argyris developed in order to explain theories-in-use is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1.  Model explaining the process of developing theories-in use.

Governing variables are values which the person is trying to keep within some acceptable range.  We have many governing variables.  Any action will likely impact upon a number of these variables.  Therefore any situation may trigger a trade-off among governing variables.
Action strategies are strategies used by the person to keep their governing values within the acceptable range.
These strategies will have consequences which are both intended -- those the actor believes will result -- and unintended.
An example may help to illustrate this process.  A person may have a governing variable of suppressing conflict, and one of being competent.  In any given situation he or she will design action strategies to keep both these governing variables within acceptable limits.  For instance, in a conflict situation he or she might avoid the discussion of the conflict situation and say as little as possible.  This avoidance may (he or she hopes) suppress the conflict, yet allow her or him to appear competent because he or she at least hasn't said anything wrong.  This strategy will have various consequences both for her or him and the others involved.  An intended consequence might be that the other parties will eventually give up the discussion, thereby successfully suppressing the conflict.  As he or she has said little, he or she may feel he or she has not left herself open to being seen as incompetent.  An unintended consequence might be that the he or she thinks the situation has been left unresolved and therefore likely to recur, and feels dissatisfied. To sum up, we can see that there are a number of elements to Argyris’  model which help explain how we link our thoughts and actions.  These elements are:
1.       Governing Variables (or values)
2.       Action Strategies
3.       Intended and unintended Consequences for self
4.       Intended and unintended Consequences for others
5.       Action strategy effectiveness.
Another possible response would be to examine and change the governing values themselves.  For example, the person might choose to critically examine the governing value of suppressing conflict.  This may lead to discarding this value and substituting a new value such as open inquiry.  The associated action strategy might be to discuss the issue openly.  Therefore in this case both the governing variable and the action strategy have changed.  This would constitute double-loop learning.  See Figure 2.

Figure 2.  Single and double-loop learning

Conclusion : Human Resource Leaders have reached a point of heightened strategic relevance. Their rising up to this occasion would imply mastering the art of facilitating outcomes in productive learning environments, which may run counter to exigent conditions of productive performance climates at first instance. Large organisations, are especially prone to experience the dysfunctions and defensive routines that creep through the untested climates of status quo aided by time and deceptive comfort in face-saving behaviors. Debate and challenge to status quo are paradoxical attributes of effective organisations. Else blow-ups and scandals will permeate the timescapes of our skilled slumber while unconsciously learning incompetent modes of organisational response.

Argyris C (1990) Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning, Allyn and Bacon.