Be Vewy, Vewy, Quiet…

As a young man my father would take me deer hunting from time to time. Both of us tend to be walkers. We cover a lot of ground when we are hunting. It means walking for miles and miles every day in hopes of catching a glimpse of a deer. Usually it’s a glimpse of the animal’s hind end as it was running away. The funny thing is, my dad used to share an observation, “Some of the best hunters I ever met would find a stump, sit down next to it, and take a nap.”

To an energetic young man like myself, while I could understand the point of this observation intellectually, it did nothing to dissuade me from walking every hill, valley and river in a 10 mile radius. Call it a restless personality, or perhaps a compelling drive, but regardless I was out there walking.

Of course as I traipsed along, gun on one shoulder, I couldn’t help but notice that I made quite a racket as I crashed through the brush. It’s hard to be sneaky when you are wearing a big fat pair of vibram-soled hiking boots. Add to that the many layers of clothing to protect from the winter weather, and I loudly swished my way through forest like an industrial street sweeper.

In hindsight, it was no wonder that as I moved through the forest, everything around me would cry out in alarm and go silent. I really should have been wearing a sandwich board that read, “Predator” as I blundered haplessly through the undergrowth. It would have been honest, if not helping me any.

So it should come as no surprise at this point in the story if I reveal that I didn’t see deer very often while on these long hikes. I was telegraphing my presence five miles out, so any deer that might have been around were long gone by the time that I got there. I was scaring them off a long time before I ever had a chance to see them.

To put it in the terms of my friend Willem Larsen, my zone of disruption was much larger than my zone of perception. As I stumbled, tripped, crunched and sometimes stank my way across the outdoor landscape I was creating a zone of disruption that was traveling around me in a bubble. The diameter of that bubble was probably the distance that a typical sound would carry in the woods – perhaps a couple hundred yards or more. Unfortunately, my zone of perception is quite a bit smaller. In the woods, and depending on the cover, I’m likely to only be able to see things that are 25 to 50 yards away – on a good day. And let’s forget about other perceptions like hearing, because I’m already making such a racket myself that I can’t hear a damn thing.

Now I’m making fun of myself a little bit. But try tiptoeing through that fall pile of leaves in the front yard and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. It’s nearly impossible to do quietly – at least for most of us. So there is some real wisdom in that idea of sitting down next to a stump for a little snooze.

Now if you spend some time outdoors violating the personal space of animals like I do, then you might begin to see some patterns. There is the solo town crier who announces your appearance on the scene (Usually a Blue Jay in my case – they hate me). There might be a whole family of quail that starts to chatter off to one side in a semi-circle, peering at me like gophers from the brush. I think I’ve seen them all. They’ve certainly seen me – that much is for certain.

It may surprise you to learn that I’ve seen many of the same patterns in the office as a consultant. When I show up at the office for the first time, the flock often starts tweeting. As the new guy, the agile consultant, I initially cast quite a large zone of disruption. I also tend to walk a lot when consulting – meeting new people and getting the lay of the land. I see many of the predatory patterns that you might find in the wild, also present in the corporate office.

Just watch what happens when an executive travels through the cubicle farm. Often there is a noticeable tunnel of silence that surrounds them as they move through the cubes. The manager is the predator, and the subordinates are the prey – trying to avoid notice.

Have you ever been in a meeting where someone you are talking to suddenly goes silent and looks over your shoulder in alarm? Unfortunately I have (I really should have shut up). That’s the collective group reacting to the zone of disruption that is cast by a significant stakeholder. The CEO is in the building. The alerts have been raised. Cover up that ESPN hi-light reel, quick!

If I were just mocking executives and managers, this would be fun, but the implications are broader than that. Far broader. One of the founding principles of the lean movement has been to “Go to the Gemba” or “Go and See.” All too often managers end up being relatively isolated in their offices and lose sight of the actual work going on the shop floor (where ever that may be). The cure for that problem is to get them out of their offices and take them to see the action on the shop floor. The problem of course is that pesky zone of disruption.

You see, we would like to observe the worker in their native environment as if we weren’t there. We are looking for an honest view of how the work is going. Unfortunately, as soon as they perceive you, the gig is up and their behavior will change. Call it the zone of disruption, or observation bias, the end result is the same – your presence distorts the work being done.

The key is to find constructive ways for us to extend the zone of our perception beyond the zone of our disturbance. This is where I go back to what my father suggested, “Some of the best hunters I ever met would find a stump and sit down next to it and take a nap.”

I’ve noticed a phenomenon that happens to me when whenever I go on a hunting trip (or anyplace in the wild). When I leave my home in suburbia and adventure out into the wilderness, I have a hard time seeing animals. That’s probably because at least initially, I’m finely attuned to the threats and elements in my environment. In my “city boy” case, I recognize cars, pedestrians, and stop signs quite adeptly. I’m highly tuned to see such things every day. It’s part of surviving in my city environment. So I guess it should come as no surprise that I struggle to see new patterns (animals on a hillside) during my first few days on a trip into the wilderness. The good news is that I adapt very quickly. I’ve noticed by about the third day out, it’s like the animals suddenly pop out of the landscape. They were always there of course, I just needed to adjust my patterns to see them. I don’t really do anything, but my brain adapts in way or another.

This pattern matching that I’m describing is a means of effectively expanding my zone of perception. As I adapt, I can see and hear more. One important conclusion here is that we may have to allow some time to elapse when we go into a new environment. We need to give ourselves the time to begin seeing the new patterns. Once again, my father’s wisdom comes into play. A couple of days sitting next to a stump does remarkable things to improve my perspicacity.

If we take this back to the office, what we find is a similar set of patterns at play. Whenever I come into a new office environment as a consultant I’m often bombarded with unfamiliar acronyms and phrases. Initially, most of them go right over my head. Until I become familiar with the language I’m lost in a sea of unfamiliar terminology. Movement patterns are alien to me because I don’t know where people are coming from or going to. I don’t know the terrain. I’m operating with a set of patterns that don’t fit in my new environment.

So how do I adapt to this new environment. First, as I mentioned before, it takes time. I can’t rush it. I need to learn the acronyms and start to get the “lay of the land.” I also have to focus on fostering a lot of curiosity within myself. What is that word? What did they just say? Did what that person just said make any sense? It takes a strong sense of peripheral awareness to absorb all of these inputs and filter through them. I find it exhausting.

Did I mention naps? Maybe I’m getting old, but I think I’m serious. Worst case, you get a little much needed rest. Best case, they forget you are there and continue with their work. Truly worst case scenario: you wake up with a sharpie mustache painted on your face. The point is, you minimize your zone of disruption so that your zone of perception can extend beyond it. So just sit there and don’t move. Relax, it’s going to take a while. And wait for something to happen. This is how you can see how things really work on the floor.

Show up for your nap a couple of days in a row and you really might start to get a real sense for how things work. This is a rich source of information about how things really work in your organization, and it can serve as the starting point for meaningful improvement based on how things really are. The Japanese have a phrase for it: they call it going to the Gemba.

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