Matt's Articles

“It’s just common sense!”

“It’s just common sense!” Have you heard that one before? I remember my first boss was really sad to see me leave because in his words, “I had common sense.” It felt good to hear, but what did it really mean? Did other employees not have common sense? Was it a comment on my intelligence? What action did I take that displayed this “common sense.” He made the statement in a positive way, so I assumed this is a positive thing. When I search the phrase I see words like “good judgement” or “sensible.” That sounds nice; though, I find in the workplace when this phrase is used it is in done in a derogatory tone. For example, “Why didn’t they just write that information on the form?” “Why didn’t they just ask before doing this or trying that?” “Jeez, it’s just common sense!” Now I am certain that none of my readers have ever been guilty of a “common sense” mistake. However, I am going to ask you to imagine a situation where this may have happened so we can talk through this mindset and think about why it might be a problem.

For the purpose of illustration, I will create a fictitious example. Let’s say we are in a business where sales people send orders to a central office. Those orders are entered into a system that notifies a fulfillment organization that they need to deliver a product to a specific customer location. This is pretty simple and there are countless businesses that perform this sort of activity hundreds of times, if not, thousands of times every day. Now pause of a second and think about all the activities that must occur for this very “common” and seemingly simple activity to occur. The salesperson captures the product and shipping information from the customer. The salesperson communicates the information to an order entry person. The order entry person enters this into the system. Then, the operations team fulfills the order. No problem! This is all common sense, right.

Although, what if the customer can only take deliveries between 10am and 3pm? Was the salesperson supposed to ask the customer that kind of detail? Was the order entry person supposed to enter that detail into the delivery notes? Who actually has the time to stop and read those delivery notes?! I can just hear the frustrated delivery driver as she pulls her rig into the customer dock and they turn her away telling her they can’t receive her deliver. “Those …sales people… they have no Common Sense!!” Or flip the script, how about when the delivery driver leaves the package outside the customer’s receiving dock overnight and the customer then calls the sales person screaming at them and the sales person thinks “Those …delivery drivers… they have no Common Sense!!”

Now think deeper, is this example limited to distribution? manufacturing? customer service? Does it happen when a product manager asks a software designer for a “simple” functionality change? Does it happen when a supervisor explains responsibilities to a new employee? Does it happen when my wife asks me to go grocery shopping or your spouse asks you to clean the bathroom? I remember back in college living at my fraternity house and the girlfriend of one of my brothers was doing her laundry. Her wash was finished and I wanted to use the machines. I was polite and put her stuff in the dryer. Whoops! Apparently, delicate undergarments are not supposed to be placed in the dryer. She was mad. I was accused of lacking common sense. As you can see, in one situation with a boss, I was complimented for having common sense. Yet, given another situation I completely lacked common sense.

For the mind readers in my audience, none of what I have described are sources of problems. For everyone else, I hope you are enjoying the sarcasm. So what is the root problem? I would argue the problem is one of perspective. The things that are common sense to me are the result of my education and experience. Folks, it’s a big world; if you assume that the person sitting opposite of you has the same “common sense” that you do, you will be disappointed.

As a child, I worked at my father’s lawn care business. By the time I was 16 and working for his foreman I had already been working lawncare in one way or another for years. It was all common sense to me. Unfortunately, the folks that the foreman hired came from all kinds of different jobs or for many, this was their first work experience. They needed a lot of job training and a lot more oversight. In the foreman’s eyes, this represented a lack of common sense. He was a great guy, but this was narrow and biased thinking on his part. It led to many challenging days. Likewise, I know very little about washing delicate undergarments.

If we go back to the earliest example, here is what happens all too often… The customer is upset because the delivery isn’t made on time or the product is left outside of the building. Inside our fictitious company the “blame game” begins. We utilize the tried and true method of the “Five Who’s Analysis” to locate the person for our boss to yell at. The company loses money having to deliver the product again, moral declines, and growth slows. It’s the spiral of death. Okay, that might be a bit dramatic.

So, what do we want to happen and how can we achieve this? The long answer is a bit out of scope for this newsletter. The short answer is that this should become a trigger phrase for you. “What exactly in the series of activities that led to the error was “common sense?” Why was it not common sense for the individual or individuals that were involved? Let’s assume that everyone wanted to do the “right thing” from their perspective. What could we change in their role to get it right the next time? What could we change in the training that was delivered to this person? What could we change in the systems that we use to control the process to avoid this mistake? Please start by accepting the fact that it was not “Common Sense,” not for this person or not in this situation. Hiring smarter people isn’t a scalable winning solution. People are smart. If there is a problem, then simplify the job. Great companies figure out how to make the desired outcome easy to attain for all of their employees. Just look around; there are examples of this everywhere. Additionally, it’s related to the article on “Stop doing other people’s jobs.” When the work is poorly defined and people are asked to make too many complex decisions during the day, they fatigue and mistakes are made. It actually has little to nothing to do with common sense. Next time you find yourself making this statement change your mindset. Good luck with your improvements!