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Why Storytelling Might Be the Most Important Reliability Tool You Never Knew You Needed

The normal reaction is usually, "I’m an engineer/in a technical field/a “serious person”! Why would I need to tell stories?!?!?" Michelle Henley explains why storytelling is important for technical professionals.

When implementing performance-improving change, a lot of attention is paid to strategy and tactics. But there is a third essential element to large-scale sustainable change that rarely gets addressed: culture. As defined by Merriam-Webster, an organization's culture is "the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization". These attitudes, values, goals, and practices may be an explicit part of the organization's mission and vision statement, but what matters is what ACTUALLY HAPPENS out in the field, not what’s printed on the poster.

To move from the reactive domain of performance to a proactive one, an organization needs to change their culture to support the new way of working. A key to creating a culture that supports highly reliable performance is to create stories of the desired behaviors that become legendary.

When improvement enthusiasts break out their spreadsheets and rely solely on supplying data, numbers, and analytics, they miss the opportunity to connect with their audience, whether that's the senior leadership who will provide executive support for the effort or frontline workers who will make the necessary operational changes. Storytelling is a powerful way to share more than just ideas. Through stories, we can express values, elicit emotions, and evoke strong neurological responses that make our message more memorable and our audience more receptive.

But you don't have to be the next William Shakespeare to take advantage of the power of storytelling. In fact, we already tell stories on a daily basis. When was the last time you came home and broke out a spreadsheet complete with a pie chart to answer the question "How was your day?". So, we don't need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, we put our existing yarn-spinning skills to work sharing our reliability stories.

What gives story its power?

The research is clear, humans are not as driven by logic in our decision-making process as we like to think we are. Emotions, memories, opinions, and life experiences all play a significant role in decision making. And storytelling is a tried-and-true method for taping into that. There’s a reason that advertising is a $138 billion industry.

It turns out that our brains are wired for story. It's how the human brain copes with and makes sense of the barrage of inputs that it is constantly receiving from our senses. Even with the limitations of our senses (we don’t smell as well as dogs, hear as well as dolphins or see as well as eagles), we still have about 11 million bits of data per second coming into our brains. The problem is that the input rate exceeds our brain’s processing speed. To make sense of all of that data and quickly turn it into actionable information, our brains create stories as a type of shortcut. Because we are biologically wired for story, if a story isn’t presented to us, our brains will create one. (Check out this fascinating experiment:

When should storytelling be used to support reliability?

In our community, I’ve found three specific scenarios where storytelling can be extremely helpful:

  • Secure financial and moral support from MANAGEMENT

  • Gain enthusiastic participation from the FRONTLINE workforce

  • Build a proactive culture to improve sustainability at an ORGANIZATIONAL level

How to tell reliability stories?

There are lots of books available to help you refine your natural storytelling skills. One of my favorites is "The Storytelling Code” by Dana Norris. ( I like it because it’s practical and has lots of concrete examples. It probably has more than you’ll need for our purposes, but it’s very skimmable. In this article, I’ll cover just 2 of the 10 rules that Ms. Norris shares in the book.

RULE: Know your goal