Common Sense: Is It Common?

Introduction

The phrase “It’s just common sense” is used quite often to describe conclusions or circumstances that are obvious to most people, at least those within earshot.  However, W. Edwards Deming, a well-respected management guru and quality expert, famously said ‘There’s no such thing as common sense.  If there were, it would be common.’  So, I suppose we have our answer to the title question, at least from Deming’s perspective.  Moreover, I’ve seen any number of instances wherein common sense just doesn’t seem to have been applied, each instance lending credibility to Deming’s opinion.  That said, let’s explore this further, and perhaps try to begin to understand why he said this, and why so often we see instances where “common sense” is not applied. Maybe it’s just not as common as it should b

I’ve spent much of my life trying to codify common sense, at least as it relates to manufacturing and other industrial operations.  Many of you may be familiar with my book, Making Common Sense Common Practice: Models for Operational Excellence, now in its 5th edition.  The book describes what I have learned from hundreds of people over decades of working with manufacturing, mining, and other industrial operations.  I have literally spent decades trying to understand and describe in a common sense manner what best practices are, and how best to apply them, and I’m still working hard at it.  Most of what’s in the book is just common sense, but it has taken decades to compile.  Is it really that simple? Articulate a set of practices that would seem to be common sense, and then have everyone follow those practices, and voila, world class performance!  If only it were that simple.  So, why isn’t it?

People

As you know, each of us is unique.  Each individual brings a certain set of values, a unique personality, a set of goals, an educational and personal background, a set of experiences, personal and work responsibilities, and so on.  All these are blended into an amalgam of who we are, and they are blended into our judgment, including what each of us considers common sense to be.  What’s common sense to you, given your background, might be a total mystery to me; or worse, we might be polar opposites. 

Further, consider a large organization, where there might be 500, 5,000, or even 50,000 employees or more.  Further consider the number of communication links among the various departments and individuals.  Mathematically, the number of potential communication links grows geometrically with the number of employees.  Consider the opportunity for error when each individual has a different view of what common sense is, not to mention the opportunity for error during those communications.  How often have we heard that communication is a major problem within any given organization? 

One only need observe the current political situation in the United States to see what happens when people apply different values to common sense.  One example might center on immigration, wherein many think it’s just common sense to allow the DACA children to remain in the US with a path to citizenship; others take a harder line, and think since they’re here illegally, it’s only common sense that they have no right to be here.  We could give other examples around the national debt and tax policy, or gun control, or policing, or public education, or the environment, or any number of issues.  On each of these issues, we each apply what we believe to be common sense, only to have others think that those who hold opposing opinions are, at best, ill informed, or at worst, just plain stupid.  Compromise, as our forefathers learned through incredibly difficult times, can be a very difficult, but very good thing. If only…

Let’s take this thinking to the operational level. Each employee has a set of work objectives and standards, along with his or her background and personality.  Likewise, along with this, each manager has certain goals and objectives, and measures.  Each individual applies what they consider to be common sense in doing their job.  What happens when these objectives conflict?  For example, the purchasing manager has an objective to minimize purchasing costs and inventory, both in raw material and spare parts.  The maintenance manager has an objective to minimize the risk of not having a spare part when it is needed, for example, for an unexpected equipment failure.  The production manager has an objective to maximize the yield and efficiency of production.  So, what happens if the purchasing manager reduces spare parts to reduce inventory, but to the point where parts are frequently not available when equipment fails, or the parts are of inferior quality; or when the purchasing manager buys cheap raw material to save money, but this material is much more difficult to process through manufacturing, reducing yields and efficiency.  In each event, the purchasing manager is trying to do what makes sense to achieve his or her objectives.  And the other managers are doing what makes sense for them.  But it only makes sense for the business if it’s good for the business overall, and therein lies the problem. 

Another common example is when the production manager ignores the maintenance schedule in order to meet the production schedule.  After all, it only makes sense to delay maintenance when an urgent production requirement is needed to satisfy a major customer.  Until of course the equipment fails because of a lack of adequate maintenance, at which time, it only makes sense to do the maintenance quickly to get the system back on line.  Of course, when this happens frequently the equipment soon falls into disrepair, making production demands difficult to meet.  At that point it only makes sense to blame maintenance for not keeping the equipment in good order.  All this makes sense doesn’t it? 

There are many more examples to offer, for example, between capital projects and operations and maintenance, or between purchasing and capital projects, or between HR and the various departments, but this should be sufficient to illustrate the fallacy of trying to apply common sense when organizations are not aligned and working as a team to achieve a higher business purpose.  Each one has its goals and measures and its view of common sense, and they are often at odds, and often change with the arrival of a new manager in any given department. 

So, with these examples, common sense may not be so common, particularly if we don’t think at a systems level, taking various influences into account, and trying to optimize system results. Clearly, there is a need for alignment of any given organization, with commensurate standards, practices, and performance measures that reinforce that alignment for the greater good of the organization. 

Alignment

Edgar Schein in his seminal book, Organizational Psychology, observed that as task interdependence increases, teamwork and collaboration become increasingly critical for organizational effectiveness. For example, there is huge task inter-dependence between production and maintenance, between shifts, between marketing and manufacturing, between purchasing and production/maintenance.  The list is large. 

So, how do we manage this task interdependence and create a greater sense of alignment and teamwork toward common goals?  How do we make common sense more common by creating this shared sense of purpose? 

First, I believe every organization needs a set of what Schein called “superordinate” goals that take priority over individual or group interests.  While simple in concept, it is more difficult in practice, but you can begin by:

  1. Asking managers, when they are making decisions, and setting standards and measures, to consider and articulate the right thing to do for the business in light of overall goals. 
  2. Constantly reminding people to focus on the higher level goals. 
  3. Encouraging people to think at a systems level – don’t optimize at the suboptimal level, in your little silo.  Rather, ask ‘what effect will this (decision, measure, action, etc.) have on the business?
  4. Developing shared measures between various groups and partnership agreements, so as to facilitate systems level thinking, collaboration, and doing what’s right for the business. This is discussed below.

Shared Measures for Fostering Alignment and Teamwork

It is often the case that maintenance is held accountable for maintenance and repair costs, and PM/maintenance schedule compliance.  However, it is also the case that maintenance does not have adequate control of these measures, through no fault of their own.  For example, production often delays maintenance and PM’s in the interest of production.  While this is understandable, it puts maintenance in a position of being held accountable for schedule compliance when they don’t really control the schedule.  Moreover, it is often the case that poor operating practices related to startup and shutdown, normal operation, and basic operator care will result in lost production, and equipment downtime.  Again, maintenance has little control over these poor practices, but does bear the burden of the cost of these through maintenance cost overruns, or delayed maintenance, or poor schedule compliance.  Alternatively, it may be the case that maintenance will insist on doing certain PM or other maintenance when this has a detrimental effect on delivery of the product.  So, how can we better manage these competing interests?  My suggestion would be to hold production and maintenance both accountable for maintenance and repair costs, maintenance/PM schedule compliance, and on-time delivery.  If both are held accountable, then they must work together to balance competing interests and are much more likely to do the right thing for the  business, as opposed to the right thing for their department. 

Another example would be the situation that often arises between purchasing and maintenance.  One of purchasing’s goals is to minimize working capital in the form of spare parts holdings, stores.  This is working capital that is not working.  It represents cash tied up that could be made available for other business needs.  Maintenance, on the other hand, wants to maximize spare parts to minimize the risk of not having the spare when equipment breaks down, so they will be able to quickly support production in getting the plant back on line.  The two objectives are contrary to one another.  To manage this, hold both functions accountable for stores inventory turns, a measure of spare parts inventory relative to its use rate, and for stock-out rate, a measure of the service level of the stores function.  Getting the balance right, so that the greater business purpose is served is the right thing to do. 

Other examples could be provided, but this should serve the purpose of providing examples that will allow you to develop measures that facilitate collaboration among the various groups so that you think at a systems level and do the right thing for the business.  Common sense becomes more common.

Culture and Leadership

All this begs the question of whether any given organization has fostered a culture of teamwork, collaboration, and system level thinking, or one of individual and departmental achievement.  The latter is more often than not the case in mediocre and under-performing organizations.  The former is typically one of better performing, even superior organizations.  It’s up to the leadership of the organization to create that culture in which individuals and departments are expected to function with the greater good of the organization in mind. 

Good leaders provide the overarching strategy and goals, the superordinate goals, and repeatedly communicate these.  They then put systems and measures in place to assure that the various business units and departments work toward those goals in a collaborative manner.  If the leadership believes that we merely need to set departmental goals and measures without considering the interactive effect these will have on the business, then it is not likely that success will be achieved. 

Summary

Given the complexity of any given organization, the individual and departmental differences, the frequent lack of an overarching strategy or common measures to facilitate collaboration, then it’s fair to say that common sense isn’t all that common.  Common sense is only common when the leadership of the organization takes the steps described above, among others, to assure the entire organization is aligned and working as a team to support organizational goals.  For those organizations that fail to do this, Deming was right – there’s no such thing as common sense.  If there were, it would be common. 

Ron Moore

Ron Moore is the Managing Partner of The RM Group, Inc., Knoxville, TN.  He is the author of Making Common Sense Common Practice – Models for Operational Excellence, 5th edition; of What Tool? When? – A Management Guide for Selecting the Right Improvement Tools, 2nd edition; of Where Do We Start Our Improvement Program?; of Business Fables & Foibles; of A Common Sense Approach to Defect Elimination, and of Our Transplant Journey: A Caregiver’s Story; as well as some 75 journal articles.  He can be reached at 865-675-7647, or by email at [email protected]

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