While I’d be the first to admit that my writing is not perfect and I certainly need a copy editor for my books, I have a bit of a reputation as a “grammar cop” amongst co-workers in previous jobs. I even received a “mock awards” certificate from a team at Dell that said as much in 2000.
As I work coaching teams in various organizations on Kaizen and problem solving, I see a trend where people tend to want to use “passive voice” when describing problems or opportunities for improvement instead of using “active voice.” The difference isn’t just annoying from a grammatical standpoint, I think it interferes a bit with their improvement work.
In English, using a passive voice usually makes it really hard to ascertain responsibility for a situation.
I remember a statistics professor at MIT poking fun at President Bill Clinton for famously saying, in a passive voice, that “mistakes were made” in campaign fundraising.
Taking responsibility as an organization is different than assigning blame to an individual in a punitive way. In a Lean culture, we’re looking at the system and processes, not individuals to fault.
I don’t do any work for them, but let me use an example from a recent Starbucks visit as a customer. There might two different ways (both factually correct) of stating what happened. What follows is not a fully formed problem statement (which would state a quantifiable gap between desired performance and current performance), but it’s the type of statement that’s often used as a starting point in a formal problem solving process:
Passive voice: the spinach and egg white wrap was cold in the middle
Active voice: we undercooked the wrap and served it to a customer
I think the “we” in an active voice statement can refer to a team, a store, or a company.
I think the active voice takes ownership of the problem. It says “that’s something we did” so, therefore, “it’s something we can fix.” The passive voice makes the problem sound like the weather… it just sorta happened to us.
I’ve seen some teams find it difficult to state a negative sounding problem statement. I think it goes along with the idea of not wanting to admit there are problems or not wanting to be negative (instead of having a “no problems is a problem” mindset).
The team might say something like “egg wrap temperature” is the problem statement instead of the more specific “the wraps were served cold” or the active voice “we undercooked the wraps.” Maybe we could call that “vague voice.”
As organizations get more comfortable with problem solving (and, firstly, more comfortable with ADMITTING they have problems), are they more likely to use the active voice?
Examples from various healthcare settings:
Vague voice: billing timeliness
Passive voice: some of our insurance billing goes out late and misses payor timelines
Active voice: we are sending some of our billing out too late
Vague voice: medication quality
Passive voice: some patients are getting the wrong medication
Active voice: we are giving the wrong medication to some patients
What do you think about these different ways of forming a problem statement? Am I being an annoying “grammar cop” or does this make a difference? What do you teach in your organization or with your clients? Do you see any results?
About LeanBlog.org: Mark Graban is a consultant, author, and speaker in the “lean healthcare” methodology. Mark is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as the new Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. Mark is also the Chief Improvement Officer for the technology company KaiNexus.