Building Cultures of Reliability-In-Action

Kathy | June 1, 2008

It’s time to talk. Getting where you want to be requires stepping away from traditional methodologies.

In the first article of this series (December 2007), the author covered the underlying assumptions of cultures-in-action and how human reasoning and resulting decisions impact performance and reliability. In the second installment (January 2008), he addressed how functional Collaborative Design tools contribute to creating a culture of reliability. This month, he discusses the implementation process of Collaborative Design and how it sustains a culture of reliability-in-action.

The ability to sustain a culture of reliability-inaction rests in the ability to create informed choice in decision making based on balancing control through expanded discussability. The result is the co-creation of psychological safety for all involved. To surpass current levels of performance requires uncovering hidden performance bottlenecks. Many teams sincerely believe they are open and honest, yet remain blind to the deeper assumptions and issues inhibiting performance.

Collaborative Design is most effective when the stakes, either in substance or perception, are high. Implementation of such a high-performance system calls for going beyond traditional change and training methods. Requirements are:

  • Collecting cultural action data (not survey data) to document decision-making patterns-in-action. [Ref. 1]
  • Using functional tools to reflect on personal contributions to effective and ineffective decision making and the resulting team co-creation.
  • Determining the business impact of daily decisions.
  • Designing psychological safety checks and balances to assure the productive expansion of discussability and the uncovering of hidden assumptions. For example, the underlying fear of letting the vice president down can be as costly as fearing career implications for a failed project.
  • Continually monitoring human decision-making patterns by institutionalizing reflection time. Examining what is happening in the human decision- making context is as important as examining the equipment and process performance data— perhaps even more important.

These criteria reflect the same plan as do the check cycles we have come to know. Where Collaborative Design differs, however, is in using functional tools to validate the productive expansion of discussability, while examining underlying assumptions and their associated costs from the get-go.

Participants learn how to work from their internal dialogues (what is thought or felt but not typically verbalized, including tacit knowledge). This approach fosters more accurate hearing of inference, resulting in a shifting of understanding about how decisions-in-action are created. The result is coming to understand the distinction between advocating a strategy (an espoused theory of what needs to done) and what it takes to produce the strategy. This sets the table for profound change and increased performance.

More precise data is available including: untested theories, standards and emotions resting in peoples’ heads (about leadership style, personal effectiveness, what is motivating others, etc.). These belief systems are safely revealed and the underlying assumptions informing them are extractable and manageable. Without uncovering the underlying reasoning, it is highly likely that the culture and its fear patterns will define what change is acceptable, rather than root-cause change of the culture. Instead of learning about performance bottlenecks six months or a year down the implementation path, teams uncover and manage issues early. This is preventive maintenance at its best, but applied to the human decisionmaking system.

Scary and exciting
The examining of decision-making-in-action is both scary and exciting for those first exposed to Collaborative Design. Many theorists, managers and teams believe they are honest and open—nothing is undiscussable, they typically relate. What a humbling experience it is when Collaborative Design reveals that what they say and what they do are different and that this misalignment impacts performance.

Outage lessons-learned sessions or root-cause analyses (see “Why Some Root-Cause Investigations Don’t Prevent Recurrence,” by Randall Noon, Maintenance Technology, December 2007) for example, often can fall short. That’s because many of the most important topics are not discussed in a public forum, but rather in hallways, private offices or parking lots, thus fragmenting concerns and issues and hindering learning. When carefully examining human reasoning and decision making-in-action, users of Collaborative Design quickly come to realize cultures can vary, but underlying human reasoning and assumptions vary little.

Collaborative Design integrates management development and business applications into one compact business system. Team-building, leadership, continuous learning, self-assessment, etc. are not fragmented out into separate subject matter in the hopes that some skills will transfer to the job. Work management processes, defect elimination, RCM, improved outage and turnaround efficiencies, better sales calls, enhanced managerial leadership and coaching competence are fertile ground for Collaborative Design because all of these business applications rest on human reasoning and the decisions that result from it (Fig. 1).

Perhaps most importantly, Collaborative Design points out that misalignment-in-action is not due to some character flaw or innate human badness. Rather, the power of Collaborative Design rests in its promise to productively reveal assumptions that typically aren’t questioned.


Implementation of the basic Collaborative Design process is as follows. While there are important nuances, not all can be explored within the scope of this month’s article.

Role of the Invitationalist…
To start, you can’t do it alone. A knowledgeable, external “Invitationalist” (part teacher, facilitator, consultant and mutual learner) who can quickly verify his or her competence in functional tool application. Can the teacher ethically walk the talk? The role of the Invitationalist is to:

  • collectively establish a common dictionary of terms.
  • collectively establish a definition of valid data.
  • support the introduction of data-collection-in-action.
  • help build action cases revealing decision-making-inaction.
  • assure a reasonable test of the functional tools and learn while validating skill transfer to a core internal group. This is especially important early on because learning a tool for the first time requires making mistakes and learners can quickly blame the tool, rather than their inability to use it. This is like blaming a tennis racket or golf club for limits in our game.

Without an Invitationalist modeling tool application, productively uncovering limiting, underlying assumptions and undiscussabililty is unlikely.

Steps in the process…
Initial introduction of Collaborative Design starts at the executive level. The speed and precision of the installation are directly proportional to the level of executive involvement. No big surprise. The process begins with the steps in “Phase 1: Individual Development” (refer to Fig. 2 below).

0608_culturechange3STEP 1
As a starting point, conducting the Learning Exercise is essential. This unique activity creates an invitation by setting up an informed choice to learn. It is a fact finding and definitional process, combined with a peek under the blanket, revealing the vision and potential of Collaborative Design and its functional tools. The Exercise uses learner data, introduces the notion of internal dialogue and private reasoning, establishes effective and ineffective decision making patterns, and drives down the anxiety associated with mistakes and costs out the impact of private reasoning and undiscussability.



0608_culturechange5STEP 2
Based on the Learning Exercise experience, the Invitationalist and the group begin to practice Collaborative Design from the start by designing the project plan and assuring a reasonable project timeline for learning functional tools. The objective of Phase 1 is to validate tool application in daily business. This application prepares the first contingent of participants to learn how to learn from direct experience— something that is crucial for skill transfer and future sustainability, since functional tool users actually experience the value of application and its dilemmas.


0608_culturechange6STEP 3
Applying Collaborative Design, participants learn how to use audio taped data to collect cultural decision-making datain- action. Taped data, when properly introduced and managed will meet confidentiality and legal requirements. Participants audio tape record selected meetings in which they participate; just like monitoring equipment in action. Action data is important and fosters the quickest learning because it doesn’t rely on someone’s singular interpretation of a crucial meeting. Instead, it provides a directly observable record that can be publicly examined, leading to more than one interpretation. Participants can determine the root cause of their decision-making and behavioral gaps, and can begin to hear their application of the functional tools as they seek to close gaps and measure the value. This is critical for validation.



0608_culturechange8STEP 4
With Collaborative Design Case Analysis Tools, each participant creates a compact action case [Ref. 2] based on a selected decision making point deemed important by the participant. Using the action data, participants meet one-on-one with the Invitationalist and seek to uncover their root-cause assumptions, personal issues, patterns and the business costs of their decisionmaking- in-action while practicing functional tools. This is the heart of personal reflection.

Each participant designs personal solutions to identified gaps, preparing and practicing before trying to apply. It is here that data drives theory about root cause; is the problem linked to conflict resolution, leadership or a lack of common definitions, etc.? Hence, behavior is changed by altering reasoning patterns based on action data first, rather than, as traditional applications do, by focusing solely on manipulating behavior or forcing patterns into preconceived, theoretical models.

An important role for the Invitationalist during this early phase is pointing out that skill application varies by individual. Some will quickly migrate to use, others more slowly. Skill expansion is directly proportional to the willingness to take risks, make mistakes, build a pool of experience and engage in continuous practice. The Invitationist helps participants stretch their risk-taking and supports when failures occur.

0608_culturechange9STEP 5
With the agreed upon solution in place, the participant, with the required help of the Invitationalist, applies the solution in action and validates the effectiveness. If needed, the Invitationalist may conduct follow-up quality-assurance interviews with staff who were involved in the Collaborative Design application. “Phase 2: Team Co-Creation” (refer to Fig. 3) now can begin.


0608_culturechange10STEP 6
After working on their personal cases, the executive group reconvenes, shares cases, builds its theory of decision making-in-action, validates costs and the value of investing in change and begins to expand the application by digging deeper into the executive teams’ co-created decision making and its associated costs in the moment. With the individual learning under their belts, team members are now ready to expand the application and examine other team co-created decisions. The value is ratcheted up and the functional tools mitigate any risk, so no one is “making a career decision” by pointing out undiscussable or “spin” issues.

0608_culturechange11STEP 7
The executive team validates its collective ability to produce Collaborative Design and the enhanced business value. For example, a vice president and his team discovered they could do strategy building in three hours instead of three days because they came to understand how they confused, argued and spun future scenarios that were only empirically testable, but acted as if their definitions and scenarios were accurate and true. The result had been little or no decisions and/or compromise at best.

0608_culturechange12STEP 8
With gap detected and value confirmed, the executive group identifies and invites the next group of stakeholders to participate in the learning, usually a group or mix of groups that have high potential competitive impact.

Now, it’s on to the final step…

0608_culturechange13STEP 9
The process repeats itself.



Importance of practice
I once observed a seasoned mechanic working on a motor. The first things I noticed were how quickly and assuredly his hands moved; how quickly he used his tools and removed the motor from its mounting brackets; how quickly he broke the bolts, disassembled the motor, diagnosed, found and fixed the problem. He then reassembled the unit just as quickly.

When I marveled at his skill, he looked at me incredulously and remarked, “Good grief, I’ve been practicing for 30 years. Of course, when I started, I always busted my knuckles just like everyone else.”

Learning functional tools is no different, although each individual’s rate of skill acquisition can vary. In addition, as mistakes are made and knuckles are busted, issues of error avoidance, mistakes and looking incompetent will raise their heads over and over again. It never goes away—and there will be substantial pressure to return to the status quo from all quarters. There are some rather predictable stages of learning through which teams typically pass (see Fig. 4). They are:

  • Awareness: Through the Learning Exercise, the team comes to understand how private reasoning shapes the culture and impacts performance.
  • Acceptance: Once identified, the team has to accept the costs to organizational performance and human suffering. Acceptance is an important step in stepping up to a new performance level.
  • Decision: Once the patterns of private reasoning, side-stepping, spin etc. are identified and accepted, the team must make a decision and commit to change.
  • Tool Practice:Measurable change in decision-making is marked by working from internal dialogues and practicing active inquiry through functional tool application. It is not unusual for teams to fail at first; old habits must be let go and replaced by new. This is normal when learning any new skill. The taped data will verify tool application. But, when new skills replace old, the level of performance can increase exponentially.

In summary
Collaborative Design is a new generation of change application. Its vision is to maximize performance while maintaining human dignity. Not surprisingly, there are some predictable stages that learners must go through to achieve a culture-of-reliability and the promise of high performance.

Collaborative Design can be used in any business application, but it is at its best when the stakes are high, either in substance or perception. Like any application built on continuous learning, its results have been encouraging and, as should be, new frontiers are always revealed. Given the fact that it engages human reasoning and the resulting decision-making process, Collaborative Design can be applied in any business setting. MT

Brian Becker is a senior project manager with Reliability Management Group (RMG), a Minneapolis-based consulting firm. With 27 years of business experience, he has been both a consultant and a manager. Becker holds a Harvard doctorate with a management focus. For more information, e-mail: bbecker@rmgmpls.com


  1. Survey data is valuable for picking up routine issues, but is unlikely to pick up undiscussable issues because acceptance is tacitly held.
  2. There are various ways to create an action case study.




Sign up for insights, trends, & developments in
  • Machinery Solutions
  • Maintenance & Reliability Solutions
  • Energy Efficiency
Return to top