James Lawther writes a great blog on process improvement. We’ve been commenting back and forth about some of his ideas and have decided to provide some guest blogs on each other’s sites. Here is the first. I’m delighted to be working with him.
I’d like you to imagine that you are sitting in Starbucks drinking your favorite coffee, idly flicking through the pages of your local newspaper.
You stumble across an advert for a “Memory Study” at the psychology department of the local university. They are running hour-long experiments and want paid volunteers.
As you have nothing particular to do that day you decide to sign up.
When you get to the University you are greeted by two men, a scientist in a white coat and another paid volunteer, just like you. The scientist explains that the experiment he is running is into memory, looking to see if pain has an impact on our ability to remember things.
The other volunteer is the “student”, he has already been given a series of words to remember. Your job is to be “teacher”, if the student gets the sequence wrong you are to give him an electric shock. The more he gets wrong the more severe the electric shock becomes.
The test starts
After a while the student gets one of his sequences wrong. So you press a red button and the student receives a mild shock, it makes him wince.
As the experiment goes on the voltage gets higher.
- When it reaches 100 volts it makes the student grunt
- He says it is hurting at 120 volts
- He asks to stop the experiment at 150 volts
The scientist isn’t concerned though, he says, ”It won’t cause any long term physical damage.”
- The student screams out loud at 200 volts
- He refuses to continue at 300 volts — the scientist tells you to take silence as a wrong answer
- The student sweats, kicks, screams, convulses and begs for mercy all the way up to 450 volts
Finally the researcher tells you to stop and thanks you for your help.
It is a nasty little story.
It would, of course, never have happened
But it did. Stanley Milgram ran exactly this set of experiments at Yale University in the 1960’s but with a slight twist.
The experiment wasn’t into the effects of pain on memory; it was a psychological experiment to understand how we respond to people in authority, in this case a scientist in a white coat. The “student” was an actor and there were no electric shocks, just a red button to push.
The study showed that without the scientist the “teachers” stopped administering the shocks very quickly. But when the scientist urged them on two thirds of “teachers” carried out the experiment right to the very end.
In 2002 the study was re-run. The results were the same.
The point of the story is simple
Your staff will do exactly what their supervisors tell them to do, they will strive to hit foolish targets, they will follow ridiculous processes and they will complete the most inane tasks. Your staff will do precisely what they are asked to do, no matter how ridiculous, incomprehensible or dumb.
Your supervisors have immense authority over your teams. Which is why it is really, really important to ensure they know what they are doing. Maybe a little training would be a good thing.
James Lawther writes about process improvement. You can read more at www.squawkpoint.com