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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

Specifically, what change do you want to inspire? In the book, Ms. Norris provides an example of telling the same story but to 4 different audiences. The story is about getting a flat tire in the middle of the night. When telling the story to your boss, your goal might be to show how well you handle obstacles. When telling a friend, your goal might be to amuse them with a little self-deprecating humor. When telling a date, your goal might be to show that you’re capable. And when telling a child, your goal might be to show the importance of being prepared. One story is used in the pursuit of 4 different goals.

These five questions can help you to define your goal:

• Who is the audience?

• What do they already know?

• What results do you want your story to have?

• What do you need to communicate to achieve that result?

• What is the audience’s current mindset?

• How do you change that mindset?

For a management audience, you may need to convince them to provide some funding. They might have a cost-cutting mindset that you hope to change to one of reducing waste by reducing equipment failures.

When communicating with frontline personnel, you may need to convince them to change how they perform certain activities. I have found that they often feel like they are bystanders, just a tiny part of a very big system. So you may need to convince them that they are significant contributors to the overall performance of the site.

Another audience may be the organization as a whole. To sustain an improvement, it’s likely that the organization’s culture will need to change from a reactive one where people respond to problems to a proactive one where people work to avoid problems.

RULE: Use plot to tell your story

“The Storytelling Code” uses this simple plot arc with time on the horizontal axis and

tension on the vertical axis.

The beginning of the story is a description of normal time; it sets the scene. Then there’s a problem. Our brains are wired to notice change, so this is where the story grabs our attention. It’s also important at this point to be very clear about why you personally care about this particular problem. Easy-to-solve problems aren’t very interesting, so the better stories have some trials and tribulations. There are often a few failed attempts to solve the problem, but through it all, the characters keep trying. Then a solution is found. Even though this is where the tension drops quickly and significantly, it’s not the end of the story. According to Dana Norris, the “ending isn’t where the story stops; the ending is what the story means”.

This basic plot arc is a tried-and-true formula that grabs our brain’s attention, makes us care about the outcome and can drive us to take action. Don't believe me? Take a look at any of your favorite movie or tv show; chances are exceptionally high that it follows a plot arc similar to this one.

Now that I’ve covered WHY you should tell stories and provided a couple of tips on HOW to tell good stories, I want to wrap up by telling you a story about one of my first reliability improvement experiences.

My story

I was working with a chemical company using The Manufacturing Game® workshop to kick-start the site’s Defect Elimination improvement effort. The small, cross-functional team I was working with was headed up by a lead operator named Mickey. The team selected a technical equipment issue that required gathering performance data then getting back together to review it. Now you need to understand, this was back in the 90’s, before easy access to computerized data. And before the prevalence of laptops and projectors that hook up to them. Back in these days, to share data with a group, you had to go through the time-consuming process of manually writing on a transparency to be displayed using an overhead projector.

After Mickey had painstakingly handwritten the relevant data onto transparencies, the team gathered in a meeting room near the control room in his area. He put his transparencies on the projector and turned it on, but the information was blurry and unreadable. Mickey fiddled with the knobs, trying to correct the focus but nothing worked. After 15 minutes of utter failure in improving the focus while his teammates stared at him, Mickey gave up.

Completely frustrated, embarrassed, and angry, Mickey threw down the proverbial gauntlet. He said “If they are serious about wanting us to work on improvements then they should give us the tools that we need to do the job! So the new topic for our Defect Elimination project is to get an overhead projector for this room that actually works and when they turn that down, well then I’m done!” At this point, he stormed out, wrote the purchase order for a new overhead projector, and threw it on the desk of his supervisor, Steve.

Steve’s initial reaction was to deny the request. After all, overhead projectors were expensive and there were working ones in other rooms on site that Mickey and his team could use. Fortunately, Steve sensed Mickey’s extreme frustration and decided that approving the request would be the safer option.

The new projector arrived after a few weeks and Mickey reconvened the team to work on the original project. A few weeks later, having eliminated the original defect, the team got back together to review the results. Excited by their success, they decided to pursue a second improvement opportunity. And then there was a third, and a fourth, and a…

Over the course of 15 months, this one small team managed to identify 157 defects and eliminated almost half of them, saving over $1.8 million dollars.

At this point, we’ve reached the climax of the tension in the story. I’ve described the action that became the solution. But the ending requires not just a solution, but a resolution. How do I want my audience to FEEL about the solution? Depending on my audience, here’s how I’d end this story.

For management, my ending would be something like this…

But none of this would have happened if Steve had turned down that original request to purchase an overhead projector in an effort to prevent wasteful spending. So we need to be willing to have confidence in our frontline and give them the freedom to pursue improvements and provide them with the funding that they need.

For frontline personnel, I’d end like this…

What you do matters. These seemingly small victories add up. Not only does it provide return for the company, but more importantly, it makes for a better day at work for each of you.

For organizations, I’d go one step further with my ending by saying…

There are many definitions of organizational culture out there. One that really resonates with me is this: Organizational Culture can be defined as the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Reactive organizations tell disaster stories with traditional firefighting heroes where things go wrong, and someone saves the day. If we want to become a proactive organization, we need to start telling the stories of the proactive heroes like Mickey.

As Mickey’s site continued with implementing Defect Elimination, his story got told over and over again, eventually helping to define an organizational culture that actively supported proactive Defect Elimination efforts from everyone at the site.

When a skeptic would grumble “They say they want us to make improvements, but as soon as it costs them a nickel, you know they’ll find a way to kill it.” invariably, someone would counter with the story of Mickey and his overhead projector to reinforce that the organization really did value and support improvements.

Final thoughts

I want to leave you with this message. Reliability is a team sport. You’re not likely to be successful if you try to go it alone. I highly recommend that you find the proactive heroes at your site and get really good at telling their stories. You need to tell their stories to management to get the resources you need to make the improvements. You need to tell their stories to the other frontline workers so that you get engagement and enthusiastic participation. You need to tell their stories to the organization as a whole so that you create a culture that works at avoiding problems rather than just responding to them.

Don’t bury your audience in facts and figures that are quickly forgotten. Tell them stories that will make them care as much about the opportunity for improvement as you do.

If you want to learn more about our Defect Elimination process, here’s a link to a book that tells the rest of our story. (


Michelle Ledet Henley is President of TMG Frontline Solutions where she has spent the past 25+ years helping hundreds of organizations navigate the difficult waters of organizational change using a game-based simulation.

Her enthusiastic facilitation style along with the innovative workshop design bring the workforce (even the most skeptical among them) energetically onboard with their site's reliability improvement efforts.

Co-authoring various articles and the book Level 5 - Leadership at Work, the sequel to the popular Don't Just Fix It, Improve It, Michelle has become a thought leader on the emerging and often misunderstood topic of defect elimination.


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