The Importance of Precise and Accurate Definitions

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Faulty definitions are the root cause of numerous issues that manifest themselves as significant business problems.  In other words, a lot of businesses fail to achieve what they want to achieve because they fail to properly define what they want to achieve.  Most business processes are operated by people—people who are subjective and prone to interpretation and assumption when complete information is lacking.  I have witnessed this in almost every process improvement project that I have led.  The problem, in most cases, is not that the people controlling the business processes are incapable, but that far too much information within the operational definitions of things is left to interpretation and assumption.  The multitude of disparate interpretations and assumptions developed by different people lead to a great deal of the variation within business processes that is so detrimental (read my blog dated March 22, 2012, entitled “Variation:  Process Enemy Number One”).

The following is an exercise called The White Shirt Exercise that anyone can conduct at work or in any other environment that will demonstrate the importance of precise and accurate operational definitions: 

  1. Select 10 – 20 individuals at random and ask them to participate in a 5-minute exercise.
  2. Seat the group of individuals in a room and ask them to each survey the room and privately write down the number of white shirts present in the room.
  3. Do not answer any questions, but instead, tell your group that you can answer their questions once the exercise is completed.
  4. Collect the responses and observe the results. 

I have conducted this exercise on well over one hundred occasions and, without fail, there has been a wide variety in the responses that I have received back from the group and not on one singe occasion was there ever a consensus.  

Imagine for a minute that the team assembled for this exercise was the staff of a small company that was in the business of eradicating white shirts in the workplace and somehow derived its income that way.  The company certainly would have some major problems, wouldn’t it?  Some of non-white shirts would be eliminated while some white shirts would remain and the company’s profitability would suffer as a result. 

These disconnects occur daily in all types of companies.  No industry is exempt.  It occurs when one department in a company has the responsibility to deliver critical information to another department within the company and the format for the delivery of the information is not specified.  It occurs when one associate within a company has a requirement that is due by COB (close of business) and the actual time associated with COB is unclear or ambiguous.  In some cases, these dysfunctional definitions can even be the sole reason why a company fails to deliver upon its value proposition to its external customers.   

So how do we fix this?  We can do so by incorporating more specificity within our operational definitions.  Generally, more verbose definitions are better than terse definitions in this case since the wordier a definition is, the more dimensions or modes it can address and the less likely the definition is to be misconstrued.  We can also bring the cross functional departments together to iron out differences and synchronize definitions.  When questioned about their responses, for example, the members of The White Shirt Company all had justifying rationale for the number they wrote down and each rationale provided the group with an avenue to further refine and make more specific the operational definition of a “white shirt” so that the group could ultimately achieve consensus.  Then and only then was the White Shirt Company postured for success.

There is a reason why Define is the first phase of the Six Sigma methodology and, by far, the most important.  If the Define phase is saved until later, all of the other phases will have limited significance at best because definitions that lack precision and accuracy lead to problems that no company or industry is immune to.  Simple exercises like The White Shirt Exercise can not only demonstrate this point, but also reveal ways that business leaders can quickly resolve seemingly complex problems.

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One response to “The Importance of Precise and Accurate Definitions”

  1. Tony Lucca

    This issue is extremely important and I totally agree with your perspective. I found this to be one of the largest challenges to successfully facilitating performance models in Europe, particularly with multi nationals that all have their own native language. As you know, in building performance models, you must have clear strategic objectives documented. This became a difficult task with different cultures and language nuances. We found that brevity was a must and it enabled us to document brief, crisp meaningful definitions. In my opinion,
    documenting and gaining consensus on consistent definitions is the key to successful balanced scorecards.

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