Hi, how are you, thank you for reading the Coaching Letter, and thank you to those of you who responded to the last CL, on street data. This letter is about psychological safety, which is the condition of knowing that your thoughts and ideas are welcome, won’t be judged or dismissed, and that you will be given the benefit of the doubt and assumed to have positive intent. I talk to a lot of educators who do not believe that they are free to share their thinking – that they are at some risk, somewhere along the continuum of ignored, dismissed, seen as resistant or difficult, or even of losing their job. My hunch is that in almost all cases, their supervisors would be surprised and shocked that these people feel this way.
You’ve probably heard or read about Toyota’s procedures for building quality into the car manufacturing production process, rather than relying on quality control measures after the fact to fix flaws. If not, there are a few thousand books on the subject – I haven’t read many of them, but I can vouch for The Machine that Changed the World (Jones, Roos & Womack, 2007), and Toyota Kata (Rother, 2009 – and you should check out Mike’s Toyota Kata’s website ). And although this article doesn’t cover all of the practices that have made Toyota famous (like quality circles and the andon cord), it does describe one that is near and dear to me: the power of being able to report/map/problem-solve on a single sheet of 11×17 paper.
I’m going to come back to Toyota in another CL about improvement science, but right now, this is a set-up for thoughts about psychological safety. Psychological safety is not a new term; it goes back to the mid-sixties, in a book by Schein and Bennis, Personal & Organizational Change Through Group Methods. But it became more popular recently through the work of Amy Edmondson – you really need to read her books Teaming and The Fearless Organization – and in particular via this article in the New York Times Magazine: “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team”. You can also watch this TED Talk by Professor Edmondson, Building a Psychologically Safe Workplace, which is really excellent. And Professor Edmondson is also featured in The Culture Code by Dan Coyle, in which she is quoted as saying:
“You know the phrase ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’?” Edmondson says. “In fact, it’s not enough to not shoot them. You have to hug the messenger and let them know how much you need that feedback. That way you can be sure that they feel safe enough to tell you the truth next time.”
(If, by the way, all this seems familiar, this CL is really an elaboration of CL #58; CL #60, which is a little strident in insisting that leaders need to make it safe for people to tell them bad news, and they need to listen; and CL #29 was about a lack of psychological safety in commercial airplanes, and what the FAA did to correct it.)
The problem with all this is that the people who most need to hear that they need to make their teams and/or organizations psychologically safe places are the people least likely to understand that there is an issue. In other words, leaders who do not create psychological safety are not going to receive feedback that there is a lack of psychological safety, because they do not make it safe for people to offer such feedback, and therefore they don’t know that there is a problem. It can be very difficult to explain to leaders that the reason that they are not hearing about problems is not because there are no problems.
I was part of an online confab about psychological safety last week, hosted by Tom Geraghty. Here is his blog, which is great, his Twitter account is full of useful stuff, and he curates the extraordinary Psychological Safety Newsletter, which I highly, highly recommend that you sign up for. As part of his presentation, he talked about the major architect of the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ono, visiting a US factory and asking about pulls of the andon cord. The andon cord is one of the key features of Toyota’s production system. If there is any kind of issue on the production floor, the worker who notices the problem pulls the andon cord, which lights up a light at their station (andon in Japanese means lantern), and a supervisor goes over to see what’s up, to problem solve, and to stop the production line if necessary.
According to this story, the managers of the plant Ono was visiting were very proud that the andon cord was pulled so little. To them, this was an indicator that there were very few problems. Ono wanted to go see, so they went onto the factory floor, and sure enough, they came across a worker struggling to fit a part. Ono told them to pull the cord, but they didn’t want to do that, and finally Ono pulled the cord for them. Who knows what was actually going through the worker’s mind, but the point of the story is that if workers get the message that a small number of pulls is associated with success, then pulling the cord is a fly in the ointment, so to speak, and not to be done unless absolutely unavoidable. For Ono, on the other hand, it was the obligation of the worker to point out whenever there is an inefficiency in the process. In other words, the fundamental assumption is that, whatever the metrics say, the process can always be improved, and therefore the number of pulls on the andon cord should remain fairly constant. Ono saw the drop in cord-pulls as evidence that the factory had settled.
At Toyota, all kinds of routines are in place to support and reinforce this way of thinking. The supervisor or team leader who shows up to the work station where the cord has been pulled first of all thanks the worker for pulling the cord, for their commitment to quality. There is never any retribution for pulling the cord in error. There is no report to be filed that would create friction and disincentive pulling the cord. Managers will intervene if the number of cord pulls goes below a certain ratio, to problem-solve the lack of identified problems.
I remember when I first read about this system in Toyota Kata, because it is so stunningly different from the way that education operates. It is hard to conceive of anyone thinking that reporting fewer problems would be a bad thing. But when I was listening to Tom last week, it occurred to me that maybe telling the andon cord story would be a back door into talking about psychological safety. Maybe this is a way to talk about the idea that if you are not hearing about problems then there are two possibilities: people aren’t looking hard enough for ways to improve the system, or they don’t think you want to know about them. Either way, it’s a problem.
It is the job of the leader to create the expectation that problems should be identified and shared. And in order for that sharing to happen, psychological safety has to be in place.
Some additional links:
This blog post on the US Army website, How Psychological Safety Creates Cohesion: A Leader’s Guide.
If you want to see the andon system in action, take this virtual tour of the Toyota factory in Mississippi.
And this podcast is next on my playlist: Tom Geraghty being interviewed about psychological safety.
From the Psychological Safety website, Simple Exercises to Build Psychological Safety at Work. Although, to be honest, I would start more simply. Here are some practices you can lean into immediately:
- Talk about your own failures and mistakes and what you learned from them – and if your listeners start to make placatory statements, make it clear that’s not why you’re telling the story. If you’ve been in a workshop with me or a coaching conversation, you’ve probably heard me talk about my own failures. Of which there have been many and various, which is why I now know as much as I do; see Coaching Letter #36. My esteemed colleague Rydell wears a t-shirt with a quotation from Nelson Mandela: I never lose, I either win or I learn.
- Ask at the end of every conversation, “do you have any feedback for me?” This changes up the mental model that feedback flows from the more powerful to the less powerful in the organization, and makes it more likely that you will learn something actionable.
- When people do give you feedback, don’t react. Your reaction, no matter how reasonable, is too easily seen as dismissal of the feedback, and/or as a defensive response. The only response needed is “thank you for the feedback.” Likewise for compliments – just say thank you.
- Build in feedback-gathering to your daily routines, but make it low-friction – collect a lot of street data in as low-key way as possible about a current area of concern: “hey, I’m working on X right now and I’m wondering if you have any advice.”
- Conduct pre-mortems and do something with them. See:
- Write/speak publicly about feedback you have received and how it has helped you.
In the spirit of practicing what I preach, here again is the link to the feedback survey on the Coaching Letter. It will only take you two minutes, I promise. Thank you to the respondent who said I should publicize that the Coaching Letter can be shared (see the addition to the signature box, below); the multiple people who said the most useful thing is all the links; and the person who said it is too long – working on it, but it’s not easy. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
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The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders:Principles and Practices