Puzzle Pieces
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Puzzle Pieces by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine March 2003

As Industrial Engineers, managers, and supervisors, we are required to work with people on a regular basis to help make improvements. Unfortunately, these people do not always do what we ask of them without hesitation. Instead, they often come up with reasons why they can't change or why the improvement won't work. While we often attribute such behaviors to plain old human nature, it is more often the case that we are forming opinions of these people without really knowing the source of their perspectives.

Each person in the workforce brings a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences to the workplace each day. We would like to think that these people leave those ‘undesirable' or ‘unnecessary' aspects of their personality at the door, but in reality, these perspectives are both brought to work each day and play a key role in shaping the culture and performance of the organization. Unfortunately, we often miss out on the added value of these diverse views simply because we think we know where a person is coming from instead of investing the time to learn more about them.

A key component of team building involves getting to know each of our team members better. If we think we have someone figured out, we will shut off our minds to learning more about that person. How well do you actually know the people you work with each day? Is it possible that you have formed opinions about your co-workers that could be very erroneous or otherwise off-base?

When I work with groups to help them learn about themselves and each other, I like to start with a simple exercise. I begin by pulling three puzzle pieces out of my pocket and showing them to a couple of people in the room. After giving them a few seconds to look over the pieces I have given out, I then ask them to tell me what the puzzle is a picture of. Of course, this is an essentially impossible task, as I have only given them three pieces out of a 500-piece puzzle. I then make the connection between this challenge and those we face each day when we try to ‘figure out' our team members by using only limited information.

In life, we are not given the picture of the puzzle we are attempting to solve as we assemble the puzzle. Additionally, we are only given a small percentage of the puzzle pieces that are to be used – it is our challenge to find other pieces in order to get a better picture of that person. Unfortunately, when we think we have someone figured out, we quit looking for more pieces, even though it is more often than not the case that there are some key pieces out there that really need to be identified.

I continue the exercise by asking each person to identify ten things that have played critical roles in their personal development and in the shaping of the beliefs and perspectives that they have today. In other words, I ask them to identify those ten puzzle pieces that provide the most telling picture of who they really are. After doing so, I have each participant share their work with the others in the room. You can almost see the light bulbs going on as people begin to realize the actual roots of their teammates' beliefs and behaviors.

For example, one of my ten puzzle pieces is labeled “Boy Scout.” My involvement in Scouting has played a major role in my life – many of the behaviors and beliefs that I possess today were formed through the experiences and practices that I had and learned as a Boy Scout. Without scouting, I would be a very different person. I can't say if I would be a better person, but I can say that I would be a very different person. The same can be said for the other key puzzle pieces. They have helped shape who I am, what I think, and how I act.

I feel safe in admitting that I have not even turned over all of my own puzzle pieces, let alone seen enough of those of my team members to accurately describe the picture that is on each of their puzzle boxes. In a similar sense, I have seen more puzzle pieces for each of those people that are close to me than I have for those I don't know as well. The puzzle piece analogy helps me realize that I will never have a complete and accurate picture of who my team members really are. Instead of being frustrated by it however, I use this fact to help motivate me to learn more and more over time about each person I work with on a regular basis.

How much self-exploration have you done to help discover those factors that help shape who you are? If you have not spent the time to uncover a greater percentage of your own puzzle pieces, how can you form opinions about others whom you know even less about? It is likely that we only know a small percentage about what really makes our co-workers do what they do each day, and yet we often act as if we know exactly why someone does not want to change, what motivates them each day, or what they consider to be important at work.

The goal of the ‘puzzle pieces' exercise is not to uncover all of the puzzle pieces. Instead, it is designed to help us learn more about those key pieces that affect our personal beliefs and behaviors, along with the people that we work the most closely with. The most important learning to take from the exercise however is that we don't have ourselves figured out yet, let alone those people that we have already formed opinions about at work.

In a similar vein, the same can be said for any problem we are trying to troubleshoot. We do have a greater chance of uncovering more pieces when we work on a non-human puzzle, but we still do not, and cannot, have the ability to uncover all of the pieces. It is for this reason that Socrates said “The only thing I know is that I do not know it all” and Dr. Deming stated “The most important things are both unknown and unknowable.” The goal should be to learn as much as we can about the systems and people we work with each day, not to categorize or otherwise label them.

Remember, we will never get to see the box cover of any puzzle that we are trying to work in life. We can only hope to uncover as many pieces as possible of a given puzzle, with a special emphasis being placed on finding those pieces that best represent the true picture that the puzzle was created from.

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