02. Jul. 2014

A Problem is a Fact

by Jon Miller

How does your organization use language to affect how we think, act and shape the world for worse or for better?

General Motors has recalled more cars in 2014 than it sold all of last year. They have received a record penalty from the U.S. government for failing to report their defects. Their culture of extreme avoidance of addressing problems has been blamed for these problems in the news. I wish only the best for CEO Mary Barra and everyone at GM in their quest to transform their culture of problem avoidance into a KAIZEN™ culture.

Where to start? As authors and founders of creative firm Ideo, Tom Kelley and David Kelley have spoken and written about how they use language to shape a creative culture. Here is an excerpt:

Language is the crystallization of thought. But the words we choose do more than just reflect our thought patterns--they shape them. What we say--and how we say it--can deeply affect a company's culture. To change attitudes and behaviors, it helps to first change the vernacular. To spark innovation, it helps to influence the dialogue around new ideas.

How did GM choose to shape thought patterns through language? They banned certain words in discussion and documentation of their quality problems. From a GM document:

Documents used for reports and representations should contain only engineering results, facts, and judgments. These documents should not contain speculations, opinions, vague non descriptive words, or words with emotional connotations.

...and then goes on to list 60+ banned words. Some of the words and phrases are hyperbolic and possibly not fit for a sober document about motor vehicle product quality. The problem is that words such as "bad, dangerous, defect, defective, failed, failure, flawed, life-threatening, problem, safety, terrifying, unstable" are also part of this list. GM documents should contain only engineering results, facts, and judgments. But a problem is a fact. In the world that I live, in a problem is a deviation from a standard or target. If a problem is not a fact, and cannot be discussed by quality engineers, that is a big problem. But at GM we can't talk about that either.

GM needs to start by telling the truth to themselves, or at the very least not hiding their problems. They have changed the language they use in a way that has made the world more dangerous. How do the words we use actually change reality? I can remember learning about and being fascinated by the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in university. The principle is called linguistic relativity. There is both a strong version of Sapir-Whorf which states that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories. The weak version says that linguistic categories and usage influence thought and certain kinds of non-linguistic behavior.

This hypothesis claims that the structure of a language affects the ways in which its users conceptualize their world and influences their cognitive processes. What we say affects how we think, and by extension how we act. Our actions change the world. How we use language does in fact shape reality in ways that have real consequences. The 13 deaths and $200 million in penalties resulting from the language and behavior to replace the term "problem" with various ambiguities is a stark reminder. How does your organization use language to affect how we think, act and shape the world for worse or for better?

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