TOC Doctor aims to bring the benefits of Theory of Constraints to enable rapid improvement in medicine and wellness. Please join me for the journey. 

The Comfort Zone

The Comfort Zone

If we understand the workings of the human midbrain, we can see that people are uncomfortable when their predictions about reality are not right. They are discomforted when things go worse than planned, and they are momentarily delighted when things go better. The delight is fleeting as they realize the outcome means that they don't understand what is happening and rapidly become afraid of the other shoe dropping. In either case, what makes us comfortable is when we have a good model of reality, that is, we know why things do what they do.

Companies have comfort zones as well, and they don't like being uncomfortable any more than people do. Both people and organizations, when faced with something that rocks the paradigm they depend on for comfort, will react with a set of defensive responses. These range from unconscious denial to outright sabotage. Here's an example.

There was a large production company, a leader in their industry, that had a normal but highly efficient mode of operation. They had every chance of remaining a leader in their field, as long as the general mode of operation of the industry remained the same. They found a small company that had developed a new mode of operation that they thought might be disruptive. They had no internal mechanism to copy the new mode of operation, so, as a test, they bought the smaller company. Testing a new mode of operation made good sense. When we derive or discover a new mode of operation, even if we have ultimate confidence in our discovery, it's best to test rather than dive in face first.

The smaller company's new mode of operation was based on very different assumptions than the larger company had. Essentially the two modes of operation had different models of how the world and the industry worked. That different model was exactly what attracted the leadership of the larger company to the smaller company, however, it's exactly what would discomfort most working in the larger company.

Organizations are just groups of people focused on a common goal. People who work for a living like to think they are working for more than money; they want their work to have meaning. When people working a job are faced with a new mode of operation that is so different as to potentially threaten the meaning of their current work, they will become uncomfortable. They will be outside their comfort zone. 

The leadership of the larger company could have seen this potential effect. One proper action would have been to make the acquisition and then maintain a wall between the two entities while the test was going on. Then, if the test was successful, a logical transition tree could be derived to aid in the movement of the new mode to the larger company. But this company prided itself on its efficient management, and a good wall between parent and test would necessitate situations in which two people were doing the work that could be done by one person. As in most situations where local optima come first, the larger company immediately started to integrate the smaller company in the name of cost savings.

The result was conflict at every level. Employees of the larger company felt threatened by the new mode of operation and derided it. The employees of the smaller company felt unwanted and left. The leadership that had bought the smaller company as a test of a disruptive mode of operation now didn't have the data they sought, had spent money on an acquisition that didn't fit, and sought to sell the smaller company for what they paid for it. There were no buyers at that price because the small company's leaders had left by then. It was no longer a valuable potential disruption. 

It's important for us, for all of us, to question our assumptions and models at every turn. When an individual is buying a stock because "Elon Musk is a genius," he needs to question his model of how the stock market works. When a patient returns to a physician to say that the treatment didn't work, the physician needs to check their assumptions about the diagnosis. When an organization finds itself in a good position, but short of a breakthrough, it should logically examine its model of operations. The thinking processes of TOC are a good start for anyone who wishes to check their assumptions.

The Logic of Consequences

The Logic of Consequences

A Patient, a Project, and TOC