Recently I was called a pessimist.
This took me by surprise as I’ve always been known as someone with a noticeably optimistic outlook on life. Upon reflection, I have been noticing myself saying a lot of “well, that’s just reality.” My excuse is that I’ve been spending more time doing development work.
My grandfather would often say the French phrase — “C’est la vie” — That’s life.
This brings up an interesting debate — Pessimism vs Optimism. How do we look at life and its accompanying problems? Are we burning ourselves by seeing the glass half full when we figure that the water can get dumped out at any moment anyway?
Optimism means, “Hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.”
If we make the choice to be optimistic and believe that the outcome of any situation will be successful, then how do we build this confidence and sense of hope?
Abe Lincoln was quoted as once saying, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
I hate to think of all the times I’ve been guilty of chopping with a dull blade.
In my study of the Toyota Production System, a foundational concept is based around the acronym — PDCA, or, Plan, Do, Check, Act. This thinking is based around the scientific method. Before we make any conclusions or take any remedial action, we must first make our hypothesis and gather the supporting data to help us either confirm or deny.
I love one former Toyota senior vice president’s story of their approach to implementing a new project. The VP explained that, given a project with a 12-month timeframe, Toyota competitors would probably spend about 3 months on planning and then rush off and start doing things. They would predictably encounter all sorts of problems and go through numerous corrective loops to get the job done. The project may be completed in the end, he says, but Toyota would differ in their approach. With the same 12-month timeframe, the Toyota way would be to spend the first 9–10 months in deliberate planning. The implementation phase would take place in the last portion, and they would encounter virtually no remaining problems as they had taken the time to ensure it was the most effective solution.
How much of a project timeframe should be spent on the “plan”? Expert opinion says about 70%.
It seems that our human instincts are fighting against us. It is true that we all have formed the sub-optimal habit of wanting to solve a problem as soon as we are presented with it. Unfortunately, this is a habit that requires breaking. The alternative is to spend time deeply understanding the cause of the problem to identify the true root cause.
In the back of my mind, I can often hear the words of a respected colleague — “I can see the future”. This proclamation used to frustrate me to no end, however, I have learned that he meant that he could foresee an avoidable consequence if only more time were spent planning and formulating the proper solution before we acted.
I love how Stephen Covey explains this point in The 7 Habits. Habit 3, “Put first things first”
Covey illustrated a matrix which differentiates the tasks which are urgent from the tasks which are important. This diagram has also been labelled the Eisenhower Matrix. Covey describes how we often can become comfortable with doing the tasks that are urgent, yet not important, such as administrative work or “fighting fires”. So often, myself especially, we can feel a sense of accomplishment that come from fighting fires, but we need to realize that oftentimes these battles are not actually leading us to sustainable progress.
The challenge — focusing on the tasks which are urgent and important and are in line with our goals and principles. This, he says, is how we achieve progress by getting the important things done.
Another quip from Abe Lincoln, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”
How about that for optimism?
I remember the root cause of why I was called a pessimist. During an exchange of text messages, I used the phrase, — “Yesterday’s solutions are today’s problems.”
While I can’t deny the negative undertone, I also should’ve taken the time to elaborate.
Toyota has risen to be one of the globe’s largest automakers through the actualization of the phrase — “Good thinking. Good products. This thinking is specific for how the organization uses problems. I believe that “good thinking” not only has to do with the focus on getting to the root cause of a problem, but also with how to look at one.
Problems can often be viewed negatively. They are painful and sometimes difficult to address. Despite the fact that they may have been yesterday’s solutions, with problems there is always the potential for progress.
Taking a long-term view may seem slow and menial at times, however, you won’t regret it when today’s tomorrow is yesterday.