Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 24, Issue 5;   January 31, 2024: Improvement Bias

Improvement Bias


When we set about improving how our organizations do things, we expose ourselves to the risk of finding opportunities for improvement that offer very little improvement, while we overlook others that could make a real difference. Cognitive biases play a role.
An example of erosion of a mountain in Death Valley

Erosion of a mountain in Death Valley, California. From the perspective of the water that erodes the mountains, erosion is an improvement, in that it smoothes the path of the water to the valley. From the perspective of the mountains, the erosion is a threat to their existence. So it is with organizational improvement. Different people have different perspectives. Some "improvements" are unwelcome in parts of the organization.

When we undertake assessment efforts to find opportunities for improvement, we risk biasing our results because we're subject to a variety of cognitive biases. A cognitive bias is the tendency to make systematic errors of judgment based on thought-related factors rather than evidence. For example, a bias known as self-serving bias causes us to tend to attribute our successes to our own capabilities, and our failures to someone else's shortcomings, or, more generally, to situational disorder.

I mention self-serving bias in this context not only because it is an example of a cognitive bias, but also because it's one of the several cognitive biases that have direct effects on organizational searches for opportunities for improvement in processes, procedures, training, and strategies. In what follows, I refer to the elements of the set of processes, procedures, trainings, and strategies as artifacts.

Cognitive biases Cognitive biases that affect searches for
opportunities for improvement are especially
insidious because they ought to be among
the results such searches should uncover
are effective, in part, because they operate outside our awareness. But the biases that affect searches for opportunities for improvement are especially insidious because they ought to be among the results such searches should uncover. In effect, then, a search for opportunities for improvement in artifacts is subject to the very phenomena that limit our ability to improve them. Below are some examples of cognitive biases that can affect searches for opportunities for improvement.

Self-serving bias
This bias causes us to misidentify the causes of successes and failures. As noted above, we tend to attribute our successes to our own capabilities, and our failures to someone else's shortcomings, or, more generally, to situational disorder. So if we're looking for ways to improve, this bias tends to steer us away from actual causes of failure.
Priming effects
Surveying the users of an artifact is a common approach to identifying opportunities for improvement. Typically the user population is asked to identify so-called "pain points." This approach might be effective for identifying sources of waste, but because the request specifically focuses on pain points, it tends not to find new opportunities for generating business value.
Moreover, when people do identify issues, they tend to focus on those that have arisen more recently, rather than issues that have the greatest impact. This happens because of a set of cognitive biases known as priming effects.
Another source of priming effects arises when Management suggests places to search for opportunities for improvement. Such suggestions cause the seekers of opportunities to focus on the areas Management has suggested, which might not be the areas most likely to produce improvements.
Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias distorts our decision making in three ways. It limits our access to information that contradicts our preconceived notions, it causes us to undervalue information that contradicts prevailing beliefs, and it causes us to overvalue information that confirms prevailing beliefs.
When we begin our search for opportunities for improvement, some of us might have beliefs about where the juiciest opportunities might lie. Confirmation bias then makes us more likely to find them there, and less likely to find them anywhere else.
Myside Bias
While confirmation bias appears in the gathering and weighing of evidence, myside bias appears in the way we use evidence in reasoned arguments. Myside bias is our tendency to overlook or even dismiss flaws in our own rational arguments that we easily notice in the arguments of others.
The effect of myside bias is to cause us to be less likely to notice an opportunity for improvement in an artifact if we participated personally in the design, development, or deployment of that artifact.
Choice-Supportive Bias
Among the effects of choice-supportive bias is distortion of our assessments of the quality of our past choices, which compounds the difficulty of improving upon our past efforts. [Mather 2000] [Lind 2017] [Brenner 2021.3]
This bias tends to make us believe that the Status Quo is already perfect. That's why mitigating the effects of choice-supportive bias is of special interest to organizations that are seeking opportunities for improvement.

Last words

One of the results of these effects is that, over time, we make "improvements" to the same artifacts again and again. This happens because our selection process for opportunities is biased. It repeatedly produces the same targets. Evidence of this is the festooning of these targets with improvements accumulated from multiple improvement efforts. Look around your organization. The most complicated artifacts are possible victims of festooning. Go to top Top  Next issue: Responses to Outrageous Demands  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Mather 2000]
Mara Mather and Marcia K. Johnson. "Choice-supportive source monitoring: Do our decisions seem better to us as we age?," Psychology and Aging 15:4 (2000): 596-606. Available here. Retrieved 6 April 2021. Back
[Lind 2017]
Martina Lind, Mimì Visentini, Timo Mäntylä, and Fabio Del Missier. "Choice-supportive misremembering: A new taxonomy and review," Frontiers in Psychology 8 (2017), 2062. Available here. Retrieved 6 April 2021. Back
[Brenner 2021.3]
Richard Brenner. "Choice-Supportive Bias," Point Lookout blog, April 21, 2021. Available here. Back

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