What is Uncertainty Paralysis and how to overcome it?

Uncertainty Paralysis is similar to Analysis Paralysis, but it is the result of a different root cause. Analysis paralysis results from a lack of analytic skills or a lack of confidence. There is generally a lack of progress stemming from incorrectly gathered and/or cleaned data, guessing at the statistical tests to run, a lack of understanding in the test results, running a test with far too much data, lack of data context, or a failure to truly understand statistical analysis. Uncertainty Paralysis is something completely different.
Uncertainty Paralysis stems from a lack of understanding, confidence, or ability to explain probability. This can be observed in any statistical analysis including any phase of the DMAIC process. The value in a Lean Six Sigma project comes from the ability to influence future events, and this requires an understanding of probability. A DMAIC project can get bogged down by a Belt that struggles with probabilities, a champion that doesn’t understand probability, a combination of the two, or with other stakeholders that wield significant influence.

Tip 1: A Belt needs to understand probability well to do their job, but many Lean Six Sigma training programs fail to properly teach probability. Many programs simply introduce the statistical tools and explain how to use them with little guidance regarding the underlying probabilistic theory. This is a shortcoming in the training programs that is often left to the Master Black Belt to resolve. The good news is that these skills can be taught if the MBB has the patience and knowledge to do so. Moving the project forward in this instance will require the MBB to teach the Belt the missing skills.

Tip 2: A Belt must be capable of explaining the meaning of statistical tests and the underlying probabilities with a high degree of confidence. It is very important that the Belt can convince a c-level executive of the validity and meaning of probabilistic tests. Many Belts seem to have been born with this skill. The good news for those that struggle is that it can be acquired. This is best accomplished over time and by observing an MBB that has this capability. Moving the project forward here may require the MBB to take the lead while allowing the Belt to observe. Over time, and with mentoring, the belt should acquire this skill.

Tip 3: Some Champions truly understand probability; unfortunately most do not. Nearly all Champions crave certainty even if they do understand probability. Even an MBB with high confidence and understanding of the statistical methods and underlying probability theory can struggle to convince the most stubborn Champions, but if they lack the skills in tip 1 and tip 2 then they will surely fail. One method for overcoming this challenge would be to develop a trust relationship with the Champion. Start with projects that require less probability and gain leverage based on those results.

Tip 4: Use a thought experiment to prove that we live in a world of probabilities. We don’t need to get into things like quantum mechanics or string theory to prove this. We can use simple thought experiments to prove it. Use something like the likelihood of still being in business in the next 12 months. Have the Champion think of 10 or more reasons that the business could fail in the next 12 months. Help them along if you need to…think stock market crashes, asteroid impact, hostile takeover, nuclear Armageddon, etc. All of these have varying degrees of unlikeliness, but each is possible. This means that we are never certain of a future outcome; rather everything in the future is based on probability. Use that to teach the concept of confidence intervals to move the project forward.

Tip 5: Champions that prefer something more tactile can be moved by using a die. Roll the die six times and record the resulting score. Then ask the champion to guess the next score. Repeat this as necessary, but ultimately you will want to explain that you can guarantee that the next roll will be between 1 and 6. Furthermore you can give a probability that the score will between 2 and 5 (67%), but you cannot be certain. This simple experiment may be enough to overcome Uncertainty Paralysis and move the project forward.

Tip 6: Establish a standard level of confidence within the organization. Assuming the Program Sponsor (hopefully the CEO) has a firm grasp of and accepts probabilities then work with them to establish a level of confidence to use as the standard in the organization. In most organizations this will be 95%, but the number is a bit arbitrary and will depend on the risks they are willing to take. Setting this standard in the organization can help overcome resistance to using statistical tests and probabilities thus avoiding Uncertainty Paralysis altogether.

Tip 7: Address cultural issues within the organization. Some organizations, especially older commodities types of businesses, do not deal much with probabilities. They lack a culture of risk taking or future uncertainty. Overcoming these cultural issues is beyond the scope of the MBB and should be addressed by the CEO if she wants to establish a culture of continuous improvement. Organizations that embrace and benefit from continuous improvement are less likely to observe Uncertainty Paralysis.

Uncertainty Paralysis is a potential road block for a project, but it is one that can be solved. It is important to differentiate between Uncertainty Paralysis and Analysis Paralysis as well as understanding the root cause. These seven tips are but a sampling of the methods that could be used. What methods have you used in the past?

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