January 23, 2022

Developing More Effective Critical Thinking Skills

If we face a complex issue that has been difficult to solve, it might mean a robust critical thinking process is not being followed. Additionally, we might not be asking “great questions.”
A Deeper Dive Into Critical Thinking

Last week, we explored critical thinking as an essential element of the Humanist Manufacturing framework.  The definition of critical thinking was: “The ability to reason, detaching yourself from personal bias, emotional responses, and subjective opinions.  It involves using the data at hand to make a reasoned choice.”  That blog post ended with evidence that most of us are likely not as skilled at critical thinking as we give ourselves credit for being.  Regardless of our capability, we can benefit from further knowledge about developing this essential skill.

“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” – Albert Einstein.
A Critical Thinking Process

Last week, a study shared in the blog post found that people surveyed said that they practiced critical thinking, but the evidence showed a wide reality gap between perception and actual practice.  We have the opportunity to do as Einstein suggests: to educate ourselves to train our minds to think better.  A first example is that when making a complex decision, using a multi-step process can help us overcome what has been previously identified as potential barriers.  The following are a seven-step process that can be utilized:

1. Identify the problem – The use of the 5 Whys where the question “why” a problem exists continues to be asked until it does not generate another question.  Usually, by that point, the actual root cause has been identified.  It is also advisable to follow the Toyota Production System “Go and see” philosophy to witness in person what is happening on the actual shop floor.

2. Research – Continuing to dig deeper allows for the opportunity to collect additional information to understand all relevant information better.  This can include gathering other data, historical background information, and interviewing production team members.

3. Determine data relevance – Evaluate the data's reliability, significance, and recency to determine if it is appropriate for use.

4. Ask questions – Step back from the process and challenge the assumptions being made to lessen the potential for bias.  Determine if there are additional variables that should be considered.  Evaluate the information from multiple perspectives.  Consider the need to bring in different viewpoints.

5. Identify the best solution – Use the facts gathered to draw connections to the best solution to determine the best approach to solving the problem.  Consider both the short and long-term impacts of the chosen option.  Look at it from the triple-bottom-line of environmental, financial, and social effects.

6. Present your solution – Run the identified approach to solving the problem by all relevant organization members, including representation from all levels.  Develop an environment where everyone is comfortable sharing honest feedback

7. Analyze the decision – After the solution has been implemented, do a follow-up with all relevant parties, review the data, the triple-bottom-line impact, and any other relevant information used to determine the approach to see if there is an opportunity for continuous improvement to occur in future decision-making.

Adopting a solid critical thinking process will allow for improved plant operations if adopted across and at all levels of the organization.

"Remember that your goal is to find the best answer, not to give the best one you have." - Ray Dalio.  
Image Credit: Ann H from Pexels
Ask Great Questions

An essential element of critical thinking is to develop a company nurtured on becoming a Socratic culture with seven ingredients:

1. Quest for the best answers - The founder of Bridgewater, Ray Dalio, has led the hedge fund to a top-performing level by asking great questions.  The approach they have developed for problem-solving is a culture that embraces questions with the intent to thrive.

2. Be humble and admit what you do not know – All individuals asked to participate in critical thinking need to check their egos.  If something is unknown, it is essential to search out the necessary information from the best source.    

3. Build stamina with a brain workout - Cognitive overload may occur after a few questions initially.  Our brain can be trained through an Engage – Rest – Recover cycle that, over time, will allow for additional capacity to ask more questions and work to provide the best answers.

4. Empower everyone - The individuals involved in the process all need to be given equal opportunity to participate with rank checked at the door.  A culture needs to be developed where everyone is encouraged to ask questions and be curious while finding the best answers to the problem-solving work.

5. Concentrate – We work as multi-taskers where our brains are pulled in multiple directions.  While engaged in critical thinking, we need to be deliberate, logical, and slow while working to shut down our subconscious default settings, which tend to be rapid and automatic.

6. Questions for the 3Ps – Sequential linking of possibilities, probabilities, and priorities.  Each of the 3Ps likely requires different questions to advance the critical thinking process.

7. Know thyself – This is a crucial aspect of humanist manufacturing that we will explore deeply in subsequent chapters.  As we work through problem-solving, we should first ask ourselves questions.  These allow us to develop quality questions that we will ask of the team members.  We create a stronger team bond when each member puts in the energy, input, and time into preparing ourselves to engage in the critical thinking process with the others on the quest to find the best answer.

The work is not for the meek as Socratic cultures are driven, engaging, and intense as the group works to achieve the most robust outcome.  Each member must embrace digging deep, making initial decisions, and going through additional iterations until the best answer emerges.

The Cadillac Power Recliner Critical Thinking Failure

I worked as a plant manager for a company that produced a power recliner for a Cadillac vehicle.  The product came off a manufacturing process that had been in production for a few years when I arrived.  The recliner mechanism would oscillate from light to heavy load as it moved through the entire range.  Several parts would be rejected for making too much noise in a quality check at the end of the line.  Furthermore, it just did not operate in a manner one would expect in a Cadillac.  After far too long, the root cause was that the teeth in the primary gear mechanism were slightly egg-shaped.  An example of a failure to work through problem-solving using a critical thinking process where something this obvious was never a question that was asked.  I contributed to the issue continuing as the product operated as if it was running out of round to me.  It seemed so obvious to me that I failed to ask if that had been investigated at some point before I joined the organization.  

Key Takeaway

If we face a complex issue that has been difficult to solve, it might mean a robust critical thinking process is not being followed.  Additionally, we might not be asking “great questions.”  Furthermore, I got burnt by assuming others have already done the same thing, as happened to me in the Cadillac power recliner critical thinking failure.

First Step

I encourage anyone frustrated by a seemingly unresolvable problem to consider what has been shared in this post.  Was an effective critical thinking process utilized to resolve the issue?  Were “great questions” asked of the right people?  If not, revisit the concern with a fresh perspective using the insight in this article or the many other resources available on this critical topic.

My Gratitude

I am grateful to Albert Einstein, who, while a genius himself, shared the simple wisdom that “the important thing is not to stop questioning.”  While some may see it as rude or daunting, it is essential to continue to ask questions in an environment where we empower everyone to feel safe in providing answers.  When we are crashing and burning with a problem down the road, we do not want to hear someone say, “I could have told you that would happen if you would have asked.”

Sneak Peek

Next week's blog will shift to the essential humanist commitment to environmentalism in our work as humanist manufacturers.

To learn more about our work or read more blog posts, visit emmanuelstrategicsustainability.com.

Cover Image Credit: Christina Morillo from Pexels

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