Stop Spending Money on Problem-Solving Training

Published: Tuesday, September 12, 2023 – 12:03


Stop Spending Money on Problem-Solving Training

Focus on psychological safety instead

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…all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.

Social scientist and writer Timothy R. Clark succinctly defines psychological safety as “a culture of rewarded vulnerability.”

These frustrated leaders often try to force employees to participate through incentives and quotas. A better strategy for leaders is taking responsibility and working to reduce two key cultural factors that keep employees from speaking up: fear and futility.

I’d predict that if you hire an experienced Toyota team member into a factory without this culture, they might start off pointing out problems out of habit. But they might quickly learn not to speak up—either because they get punished for doing so, or they learn it’s a waste of time in that setting. Again, our feeling of psychological safety is both individual and situational.

Stop blaming the employees

A “vulnerable act” exposes a person to the risk of harm or loss. Basically, any interaction between two or more human beings can be vulnerable, some interactions more than others. A specific act might make a person vulnerable, to some degree, in a specific situation, such as disagreeing with a particular leader, admitting a mistake, or making a process improvement suggestion.

If we don’t combine psychological safety with effective problem-solving, we’ll end up replacing fear with futility, where people start saying, “It’s safe enough to speak up, but it’s not worth the effort because nothing happens.”

Clark also says psychological safety is a social condition in which you feel:
• Included
• Safe to learn
• Safe to contribute
• Safe to challenge the status quo

Instead of investing more to train the frontline team members on problem-solving methods, spend more time educating and coaching leaders on the behaviors that are proven to build psychological safety. Starting at the top, leaders must model and reward vulnerable acts related to continuous improvement. Instead of blaming workers, change the management behaviors that change the culture. Participation and continuous improvement will be far more likely to materialize, and everybody wins.


With psychological safety, the perceived level of risk for acts, such as admitting we don’t know how to do something, is situational and individual.

What is psychological safety?

Leaders can ask employees to speak up, but more importantly they must actively and continually reward employees for doing so. I don’t mean financial rewards. It often starts with simply saying thank you when others point out a mistake or an opportunity for improvement. Leaders must then ensure that scientific improvement cycles follow.

Don’t replace fear with futility

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In the book Toyota Culture (McGraw Hill, 2008), Jeff Liker (who has studied Toyota for decades) and Michael Hoseus (a former Toyota leader) write, “(Toyota believes) people must be treated fairly; they must feel psychologically and physically safe….” Learning from mistakes and continuous improvement more broadly requires mutual trust; as Liker and Hoseus write, “Without trust in their employers, employees are reluctant to admit to the existence of problems and learn that it is safest to hide them.”  

At Toyota, what’s required for somebody to pull the Andon Cord—something that happens hundreds of times a day in each of their plants? A feeling of psychological safety means that team members expect they won’t be punished for pointing out problems and potentially stopping the line.

If your organization struggles to engage everybody in continuous improvement, stop blaming the employees. Instead, take a look at your culture and leadership behaviors and the current state of psychological safety. Ironically, many employees might feel it’s unsafe to discuss how unsafe they feel. Using validated, anonymous surveys can gauge the level of psychological safety and the variation across teams, which establishes a starting point for measurable and meaningful improvement.

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For example, leaders must model the key behaviors they want to see, such as admitting that things aren’t perfect. Leaders can also model helpful behaviors by sharing an idea along with the words, “I might not be completely right, so let’s test our idea on a small scale and see.” When leaders model these vulnerable acts, some employees might choose to follow their lead.

In an environment of fear and punishment, employees understandably protect themselves by staying quiet about opportunities for improvement, which comes at a great cost to the organization. How do we address this? Don’t just tell employees they should feel safe or be brave in the face of fear. Eliminating fear is crucial, as W. Edwards Deming said decades ago. We need to replace fear with psychological safety.

Unlike physical safety, where we might say a particular act is inherently risky for all (such as working up high without a safety harness), the perceived level of risk for acts, such as admitting we don’t know how to do something, is situational and individual.

When a person chooses to speak up, it isn’t a matter of courage or character; it’s a function of culture. The level of safety that’s felt by an employee is the end result of all of the interactions they’ve had with leaders and colleagues, past and present.

• Plan: We feel safe identifying and speaking up about problems or opportunities for improvement.
• Do: We feel safe to candidly debate possible countermeasures, focusing on what ideas seem best rather than the position of who had them.
• Study: We feel safe to honestly evaluate the effect of the countermeasure without fear of being punished for failing or falling short.
• Adjust: We feel safe to admit the need to change course, if needed, instead of feeling pressured to justify and rationalize what had been done.

Psychological safety plus problem solving equals improvement

I can’t count how many times during the past 20 years I’ve heard executives complain that their people aren’t enthusiastically participating in their lean program. Leaders lament that while the company has spent a small fortune to put everybody through continuous improvement training, hardly anybody submits ideas. The problem isn’t their employees; it’s a cultural problem and, therefore, a leadership problem.

He dubs these four bullet points The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety. I highly recommend Clark’s book (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2020). As we progress to the fourth stage of psychological safety, everybody feels safe to challenge the status quo, which leads to a culture of continuous improvement. Reaching this pinnacle requires a foundation, in Stage 1, of feeling included, accepted, and respected.

How do leaders boost the feeling of psychological safety?

When it’s safer and easier to use one’s voice, and when doing so leads to action and improvement, people are more likely to continue speaking up and participating in continuous improvement. Leaders replace fear and punishment with encouragement and positive reinforcement.