Are Principles a “Cabin Word”

A while back at Catalysis we did an ice-breaker before a value stream mapping event that demonstrated how the meaning of words can differ from person to person.

First, the facilitator tells the story of a man who was found dead inside a cabin and nobody else was around. The team takes turns asking questions to try to figure out what happened to the man. People guess things like: “he fell,” or “there was an avalanche.” The team is taking the word cabin to mean a log building out in the woods or the mountains. But in this case, the man died from a plane crash; he was found in an airplane cabin.

Now when we talk with our team members we remind each other that there are “cabin words” and we need to ask clarifying questions to make sure we are all on the same page.

While teaching the workshop Principles and Behaviors of Operational Excellence I have concluded that “principles” is a “cabin word.” In the English language, the word is used in a variety of ways, so I would like to define what principles are and how they are different from values.

What is a principle?

I read in the Shingo Model Basics that Stephen R. Covey defines a principle as a natural law that is universally understood, timeless in its meaning and self-evident. He also added that “principles govern the consequence of our actions.”

The interesting thing about principles is you don’t have to believe in them, but the consequence remains the same. One example is Newton’s first law of motion. My husband tried to teach my daughter how to push a shopping cart and then jump on for a ride.  Once the cart was in motion, it stayed in motion.  His ability to jump on was another story.  They did not need to believe in the principle or even be aware of the principle but it did govern a consequence of the cart staying in motion until it hit something and stopped.

What is a value?

Values, on the other hand, are not objective, they are subjective. What people value varies by where they live or how they were raised. In some parts of the world bribery is a normal part of business and therefore valued, but in the United States it is not.

To illustrate how values govern behavior I like to consider the incident back in 2017 when a man was dragged off of a United Airlines flight. In this situation, the airline’s staff showed that they valued teamwork, as they were all working together toward a common goal. They also seemed to value discipline because they were all following the airline policy to the letter. The airline staff was also loyal to each other and the organization they worked for.

I would guess that most people do not have a positive opinion of the actions that the airline staff took, but they were following some very common values that organizations set (you know the kind that are printed on name badges and wall art in hopes of magically changing culture).

Why Does It Matter?

Put simply, it matters because the consequences of ignoring the Principles of Operational Excellence will result in dissatisfied customers and could put your organization out of business. Or even worse in healthcare, this could cause harm to patients and staff.

What might have been different if United Airlines built their culture around the Principles of Operational Excellence? The airline staff would have been focused on things like creating value for the customer being displaced, correcting upfront processes that result in over-booking (creating quality at the source), and putting processes in place that allow the staff and customers to feel respected.

An organization’s culture is really the behaviors that are displayed by staff when no one is looking. To create real and sustainable cultural transformation an organization must build the foundation on the Principles of Operational Excellence and let these principles drive the desired behaviors.

Theresa Moore, Senior Manager - Delivery


Related Items

Principles and Behaviors of Operational Excellence workshop

Principle-Based Executive Coaching

Catalysis Healthcare Value Network 


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