The Variance

During our annual Sales Summit meetings in San Antonio this past week, one of our team members said something profound. “Our customers feel the variance, not the mean.” He was referencing the statistical analysis we do on our processes. We tend to be happy when most of our actions fall within a certain range. The average, or mean, hides outliers that we may rather ignore, but the impact on our customers is tangible.

Genichi Taguchi was involved in statistical process and design control methods from the 1950’s on. It is his methods and innovations that led to current thinking about variance control and reduction. Simply put, Taguchi believed that effort to reduce variation produced greater reduction in loss than only focusing on the mean. The variation was where the greatest loss occurred.

While Taguchi was mostly focused on manufacturing and product design, this idea made me think about my behavior as a leader. Most days, I feel I’m doing a good job as a leader. I try to be empathetic, grateful, encouraging, and inclusive. I genuinely care for and respect everyone, so I hope my true intentions are evident in most of my actions. However, I am still a very imperfect human being. I make mistakes. Sometimes, I make big ones.

My overall performance as a leader may very well be great. My “mean” can be solidly respectful and caring. On occasion however, I can be difficult. I’m not always careful about what I say. I get distracted and then fail to be attentive to people. I can be demanding and hard to please. I can be forgetful because I’m not making people’s needs a priority. I could keep going, but I think that makes the point.

When someone’s interaction with me includes my “outlier” behaviors, it is no consolation to them that my “mean” is good. All they feel is the variance. When the variance is close to my mean, they may not notice or may not be significantly impacted. However, when the variance is large, I hurt the people I care about and am supposed to be serving.

Whatever role we play, the people we serve and interact with will feel the variance. Unless we can achieve perfection, we must find a way to mitigate this reality. Like so many of life’s problems, the solution is not complex; it is just hard.

First, we must acknowledge the “variance” as a failure and ask the person (or people) to forgive us. Statistical process analysis is a wonderful tool, but it reduces mistakes to mathematical anomalies. When those mistakes are our behavior and they impact other people, they are failures, not just variances. Everyone fails, but surprisingly, not everyone acknowledges their failure and the pain and disruption it causes others.

Leaders who are unwilling or unable to admit they made a mistake and ask others to forgive them cannot be trusted by their team. Excuses are even worse. When we fail to deliver a product on time and correctly, our customer has no interest in our excuses. They want a clear acknowledgement that we failed to meet their expectations, and they want to know how we are going to fix it.

Which leads to the second thing—improvement. The point of statistical analysis is to identify areas that need work. Similarly, once we identify a failure, we need to change our “process” to reduce that variance. Often the solution is exposed in the excuse. “I was tired, and I reacted poorly…” Solution: make the necessary changes in your habits and schedule to get adequate rest. “I have so much going on right now, it simply slipped my mind…” Solution: reduce the number of things on your plate to a level where you can serve your people well.

If you are reading this and thinking, “He has no idea how complex and busy my life is,” maybe you’re right (I said maybe…). However, we have the exact same problem in manufacturing. There are only two solutions: fix it yourself or someone else will fix it for you by taking their business (or relationship) elsewhere.

I want people to feel what is true about me—that I care about them and their success. Variations in my behavior and responses make it difficult for that to come through. When I fail to treat people with respect, they only feel the variance. Being part of a community that encourages and supports me is a significant part of the process of change and growth. A community that is based on equal respect and care is a safe place to admit I failed, ask for forgiveness, and get support to improve. Reducing the variation so people can feel what is real is the Bison Way.