Purpose and Etiquette of On-Line Discussions

In the Lean Six Sigma Worldwide discussion group on LinkedIn, Steven Borris asked about the purpose of on-line discussions, whether they should stick precisely to the topic they were started on, and how disagreements between participants should be expressed or handled. As a participant in a variety of professional forums for the past 16 years, I have come to think of an online discussion as a conference that is always in session, in which the posting etiquette should be the same as at conferences.

Contributors should think of readers first. LinkedIn members read discussions for enlightenment, not entertainment. This isn’t Facebook. When readers browse a discussion, it is based on its subject, and that is what they expect to be covered. Like the title of a book, the name of a discussion announces what it is about. Readers are drawn to it by the need for information on that topic and have a legitimate expectation that the posts will be about it. If participants disappoint them, they go away upset at having been misled. For this reason,  discussions should stick to their subject, and group moderators or managers should make sure they do, with interesting digressions spawning new discussions.

Professional readers are also turned off by personal attacks and posts that question other posters’ motives. The participants need to “play nice” with each other, but a discussion where they all express the exact same ideas would not be informative and would be dull. The contributors to the discussions I participate in often have decades of experience that have shaped their perspectives on the topics, differently based on the industries and companies they have worked for. They are not on the same wavelength.

Often, however, apparent disagreements disappear when the context is properly set. For example, in his 1999 book on Six Sigma,  Mikel Harry wrote that the future of all business depends on an understanding of statistics; Shigeo Shingo, on the other hand, had no use for this discipline and wrote in ZQC that it took him 26 years to become free of its spell.

That sounds like a clear-cut disagreement. Mikel Harry developed Six Sigma at Motorola in the 1980s; Shigeo Shingo was a consultant and trainer primarily in the Japanese auto industry from 1945 to the 1980s, too early for discussion groups. Harry and Shingo worked in different industries with different needs at different times.With proper context setting, they can be both right.  Posts that start with “In my experience…” and support topical conclusions with an account of what that experience go a long way towards setting that context.

Improving operations: How far can you go with common sense?

In the Lean Six Sigma discussion group on LinkedIn, Brian P. Sheets argues that ” the alphabet soup of acronyms describing the multitude of process improvement & management methodologies that have come and gone over the last 50 years […]  is just plain, old, common sense.”  The list he targets in this statement is Six Sigma, TQM, BPR, BPM, TOC, MBO, Kaizen, and Gemba Kaizen, and overlap the one I discussed earlier in this blog. To support his argument, he invokes not only the great work done in US manufacturing during World War II without these acronyms, but goes back all the way to Egypt’s pyramids.

I see things differently. The old days were not so great and we have learned a few new tricks in the 68 years since the end of World War II, as a result of which we are not only able to make better products, but we also use fewer people to make them, at a higher quality. There definitely is something to some of the ideas that have been packaged under various brands in that time, and it is definitely more than common sense.

What is common sense anyway? The common sense approach to a problem is the solution that would be chosen by an intelligent person without any specialized knowledge. It is what you resort to when faced with a new situation you are unprepared for, like the businessman played by Anthony Hopkins in The Edge, who is stranded in the Alaskan wilderness by a plane crash and has to kill a grizzly.

Once you have been working on something for a few years, however, you are supposed to have acquired specialized knowledge of it, and apply solutions that are beyond common sense. And these solutions are counter-intuitive to anyone without this experience. Lean manufacturing concepts like one-piece flow or heijunka are bewildering to beginners, because they have nothing to go by beyond their common sense.

Common sense,” Descartes said, “is the most fairly distributed thing in the world, for each one thinks he is so well-endowed with it that even those who are hardest to satisfy in all other matters are not in the habit of desiring more of it than they already have.” After that, he proceeds to explain a method “to seek truth in science” and presents three applications of this method, the best known being analytic geometry. All of this is far beyond common sense.

For all these reasons, I am not too fond of invoking common sense in support of any new concept. What you really need is a rationale, and experimental proof through a small scale implementation.

The Lean Edge

John Hunter asked me to participate this year in his Annual Management Blog Review, and I agreed to review three blogs I follow, starting with The Lean Edge.  It is a blog with multiple authors, including some of the best writers about Lean. I enjoy reading posts from people like Art Smalley, Jeffrey Liker, or Pascal Dennis, to name a few, but I find the site busy and confusing.

On top of the home page is the question of the month: “Why has the Lean movement largely failed to capture the imagination of the sales team?” by Joel Stanwood, and it is followed by 10 answers that are on-topic. But then the next post is a repeat of the question and it is followed by posts that are unrelated to it, such as “Establish a daily pattern production schedule to sequence your presses,” by Peter Handlinger.

To understand the logic behind this, you tab over to the “About” page, according to which “The Lean EDGE is a platform for discussion between management thinkers and lean management writers. Lean authors give their responses to general management questions posed by guest writers. The aim of the discussion is to share different points of view and to collectively build a vision of lean management.”

San Francisco parking signIt is simple as a San Francisco parking sign (see left). It introduces four categories of participants: management thinkers, lean management writers, lean authors, and guest writers. When you go back to the Home page to see who is in these different categories, you find everybody lumped in a list called “Authors” on the left sidebar, alphabetized by first names, and including people who are business executives and not writers. You even find two entries that are not people at all, like “book announcement” and “event announcement.”

I did participate as an author for a while, but resigned in frustration. You are prompted to “Write a comment” on any post but you are not supposed to. If you want to write a comment, you have to submit as a new post, which goes against your conditioned reflex as a blog reader. And then you are supposed to respond only to the original question, not to another contributor’s post. So you put all these great authors together to “share different points of view,” but they may not debate each other.  It was like visiting Switzerland, where I always feel that everybody is watching me for breaking some rule I don’t know but everybody else does.

I think the root of the problem is that The Lean Edge is trying to do with WordPress something that it isn’t intended or well-suited for. To me, a blog is a conversation between one author and the world, and the ones I enjoy most have an unfettered, unique authorial voice. With multiple authors, it is not a blog but a forum. It works by different rules and needs different software platforms, such as LinkedIn Groups.

Still, I occasionally visit The Lean Edge because I am interested in what Peter Handlinger has to say about scheduling a press shop, or Orry Fiume about making field sales reps participate in Kaizen events.