From Vague to Passive to Active in Your Voice and Improvement Work
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?
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I think it definitely makes a difference. Now I realize how people end up blaming others… passive voice may indicate that somewhere in our mind we do not want to take responsibility for the problem.
May be asking people to use active voice help change their mindset, that is an experiment worth trying.
My sense is that it is not a grammar cop issue, but more of a responsibility issue. Especially in Health Care, if someone (we, I, team, CEO, etc.) does not take responsibility, then the ‘someone’ is not able to be response -ABLE. There may be an inherent aversion to pointing a finger and in Health Care, any time there is a mention of we, I, etc… they think that is blaming their colleague. They better get this issue figured out. Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me if it is grammar or responsibility. Fix it.
Thanks for sharing.
P.S. – I found myself editing what I typed thinking the grammar cop might get me for a dangling participle, or mis-placed preposition. Oh well…Probably lots of grammar errors.
I agree with the posters above – it’s more of a responsibility/accountability issue. I try to teach and lead by taking full accountability for my mistakes, and encourage others to do so as well. There’s little more powerful than realizing something isn’t going right and taking full accountability for it.
Greetings from North Texas Mark,
Good stuff here, and passive voice is like fingernails on the chalkboard (I don’t think my kids know what a chalkboard is… time for a new simile).
I think there’s latent risk in the transition from passive to active voice. For example, when replacing “the spinach and egg white wrap was cold in the middle” with “we undercooked the wrap and served it to a customer”, we introduced causation that may or may not be valid. The wrap was cold in the middle, not necessarily undercooked (runny).
You clearly stipulated that it wasn’t a fully formed problem statement; my point is that our nature readily facilitates the introduction of assumed causation.
Why does it matter? I think we need to be cautious in our problem statement so that we don’t say, “we’re misreading labels on some patients’ medications” in your last example.
Great point, Steve. I agree a problem statement should stick to “just the facts.” I made a comment in a class about Dragnet and I got blank stares. I need a new cultural reference (sorry, Sgt. Joe Friday). I’m not that old.
“We served a wrap that was cold in the middle” is more fact-based than “We undercooked it,” which ascribes causation a bit.
Thanks for pointing that out.
Great post, Mark! I don’t like to be the grammar police either but, like you, believe that language can get in the way of improvement. I help clients see how they habitually use what I call “fuzzy words” – words that feign measurement but are too non-specific to be of any use – long, short, fast, heavy, soon, etc. In researching The Outstanding Organization, I found that, much of the time, using fuzzy words was due to the fear of committing to a position. But it’s a habit that definitely needs to be broken. So much psychology is at play when leading improvement activities. Thanks again – great post!
I agree entirely. I see this regularly in my root cause analysis training sessions. There is a tendency for people to use neutral language to describe a problem and to use general expressions. I see this as what you mention above, it creates a dis-association for the individuals to the problem. I also see another side however, if I use a general term or a neutral term it keeps things at a sterile level where I am not required to dig into details which can be an uncomfortable experience and can expose weaknesses and deficiencies. Unfortunately, mostly it is done to try and deflect attention and throw the issue over to another silo. I see may “possible causes” or worse people calling them “root causes” worded as “bad quality” “supplier used wrong material”. These would generally indicate a lack of rigour in root cause analysis and willingness to (in this case) throw the problem over to supply chain.
PS: Apologies for my bad grammar! :)
It’s about mind set and not grammar. I think it is important to lead such culture change by example and be open and clear about owning my mistakes. That way I help ensure that everyone understands that it is okay to make mistakes and own them.
I agree with you generally that the passive voice is used to avoid responsibility. Sometimes, however, it helps, for example as a means of dodging a gender-specific reference. And, sometimes, you actually are prevented from doing what you promised to by external events, as in “I was delayed by an overturned truck on Hwy X.”
What you call “vague voice” is the use of noun phrases. They work well as titles and don’t have to be vague. “Medicine quality” is too broad, but “Wrong medicine” is a good short name for the problem you are describing.
As a non-native speaker of English, I am always worried about getting it right. What bothers me most is mistakes of logic, as when I hear people talk about a “slow speed.” A moving object is slow or fast, and then its speed is low or high, but the speed itself is not slow or fast.
With “slow speeds,” the meaning remains clear, so I keep my mouth shut. But not when a journalist confuses a quantity with its derivative, saying “inflation was up 1%” to mean that prices went up 1%.
We just have to be careful that teams don’t get the wrong idea, go too far and move from:
Active voice: we undercooked the wrap and served it to a customer
Blaming voice: Sally undercooked the wrap and served it to a customer
And sometimes it wasn’t “we”, the solution requires changes to the system, and perhaps parts of the system that “we” need help to change.
Right, taking ownership of a problem (as an organization) is not meant to be an exercise in blaming or naming names.
The “we” can rightfully mean our organization, our team – the system in which we work (and the system we are responsible for).
There are some problems that can probably be ascribed to an outsider, like a supplier or a customer. Even then, we should think about what WE have ownership of instead of just blaming.
We can blame a supplier all we want for delivering bad supplies, but maybe “we chose the lowest cost supplier” is an active voice statement we can take responsibility for?
We can say “Patients arrive late” but maybe “We send confusing instructions to patients” is part of the situation?
Dear Officer Graban,
I hadn’t given this thought before your blog, but I couldn’t agree more.
Lore has it that Toyota executives were amazed, when they came to the US, to learn that leaders and managers tended to only emphasize what went right. Everyone tried to avoid discussion of problems, as the US formula for dealing with problems was to ask Why until they got a Who. That sense of “someONE’s got to be at fault” leads to subordinates sweeping fixable problems under the rug, where they can’t be found or repaired.
Lean, by contrast, expects things to be right and wants to focus on the problems. In essence, a problem well defined is a problem half solved.
As John Gallagher states above, Healthcare is often viewed as a “culture of blame.” Until we can blamelessly face into our mistakes, we are unlikely to get a true resolution.
Interesting thought on “expecting things to be right.”
In healthcare, many quality experts say that a big problem in healthcare is that people expect things to go right… so they aren’t real diligent in thinking about what could go wrong (in order to prevent it). Pharmacists are taught FMEA thinking, but it’s not real common in healthcare. It’s almost superstitious sometimes… as if talking about what could go wrong jinxes you.
Engineers are taught to think about what could go wrong — that’s how we design systems and preventative measures to prevent it.
I’d like to see healthcare not only blamelessly face mistakes (“we gave that patient the wrong medication”), we also need to openly say “we MIGHT give that patient the wrong medication” so we can work to prevent. Hope and sticking your head in the sand is not a quality strategy.