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Understand before judging
posted by admin on 17/10/06

Sharp thinkers concentrate on keeping their minds open long enough to gather all the relevant information needed for making sound judgments.

While accepting full responsibility upfront opens the doorway to sound decisions, snap judgments can slam it shut prematurely. Never one to blame others for his failures, Hendry Ford’s original thinking radically altered how Americans lived, worked, produced, and did business. But this thinking gradually narrowed to the point where he judged everything according to his own preconceived notions, however erroneous.

Henry Ford dreamed of making cars available to every American. While competitors remained interested only in building expensive custom cars for the rich, Henry produced affordable standardized cars for working people. His brilliant design, the Model T, was simple, easy to repair, road worthy, light, and highly reliable_the perfect product for its purpose.

In the beginning, teams of craftsmen assembled Model T’s one-by-one, one car every twelve and a half hours. Borrowing ideas from other industries such as a Chicago meat factory, where beef moved on overhead trolleys, Ford pioneered moving assembly lines.

He froze the Model T design, refused to allow even minor changes, and concentrated fully on mass-production efficiencies, enthusiastically considering almost any conceivable innovation. As he was fond of saying, “Everything can always be done better than it is being done.”

Ford eventually produced one car every ten seconds, with costs dropping dramatically, much like technology products today, Henry passed the savings on to his customers, strategically cutting prices to maximize sales and market penetration. Model T’s that originally sold for $780 each ultimately went for a rock-bottom $290. Sales exceeded 15 million cars, all the same color black and all with identical features.

Unfortunately, while Henry Ford’s manufacturing judgment remained first rate, his understanding of consumer demand faltered. When the Model T first hit the market, Ford faced no competition, and consumers purchased Henry’s cars faster than he could produce them. Then Alfred P. Sloan Jr. entered the market with inexpensive Chevrolets. In contrast to Ford, Sloan concentrated on understanding consumer demand, which inspired him to replace hand cranks with electric starters, add smoother transmissions, and produce cars in a variety of colors and styles. All the while, Henry clung unflinchingly to his outdated judgment that price alone drives consumer demand. Even when consumers abandoned Ford in droves, Henry refused to redesign the Model T. Rather than seeking a better understanding of the marketplace, he stuck to his guns, considering himself a better judge of consumer needs than consumers themselves.

Ford’s car dealers pleaded with Henry to upgrade the Model T. He refused. When they asked for just one or two color variations, Henry answered, “You can have them in any color you want, boys, as long as they’re black.” Once, when Ford’s engineers secretly built a modestly changed version of the Model T and presented it to Henry on his return from a European vacation, he circled the car several times, ripped one door off its hinges, then the other, kicked in the windshield, and used his shoe to beat large dents into the roof.

Henry’s judgment eventually got the best of him and, with no news models in mind, competition forced him to shut down all his manufacturing plants in despair. Fortunately, Henry’s son Edsel had collected design materials behind his father’s back, and eventually the Ford Motor company back to life with the Model A, but not before Henry’s closed mind had needlessly forfeited the company’s once dominant position in the American automobile market.

The human mind contains a door, not one carved of wood, but an invisible door, one that either opens to new ideas or closes them out. The door swings on hinges like any other, opening as it searches for understanding and closing as it makes judgments. Herein lies a crucial truth. Sharp thinkers do not take open minds for granted. They concentrate on keeping their minds open long enough to gather all the relevant information needed for making sound judgments. Mediocre thinking begins judging at the outset, and often confuses preconceptions with real understanding. As the old saying goes, “Some people never learn anything because they understand everything too soon.”

The mind’s door, even those of the greatest thinkers, can open and close seemingly on its own without the slightest conscious nudge. Sharp thinking thus requires intentional effort at keeping the door open, especially in trying circumstances where tough problems arise.

The poet William Wordsworth called open mindedness “the harvest of a quiet eye.” The mind’s eye responds instantly to mental commands, and forms the gateway through which all understanding must flow. A sharp mind’s eye forms no judgments about what it sees. Rather, it is simply gathers and transmits information accurately to the brain, which, once possessing all the relevant facts about a situation, makes the best possible judgment.

Judges in the first century Celtic legal system received this charge before taking the bench to hear cases: “Listen with each ear, then render judgment.” The Celtic charge contains two separate, yet complementary imperatives. First, use all your faculties when gathering and absorbing information. Do not close down any senses; keep them all open. Second, judge only after listening, not during or before. Stephen Covey correctly observes in his insightful book The 7 habits of Highly Effective People that successful individuals, like wise judges, “seek first to understand.”

Allowing judgment to follow understanding requires patience and no one ever achieves perfect patience or flawless understanding. Yet, we can come close if we resist the temptation to judge too quickly. Learned Hand, one of America’s most respected jurists, called suspending judgment a “painful effort of the will.” While withholding judgment, even for an instant, runs counter to human instinct, sharp thinkers strive to consciously override that instinct.

Prior to taking the oath as a judicial officer, I lunched with Bill Masterson, one of California’s most highly regarded jurists, hoping to gain his advice about my new duties. He remembered doing the same with one of his favorite judges, who admonished him, “There are only three things a wise judge must do. Be patient. Be patient. And be patient.” Ben Franklin, one of the sharpest thinkers of all time, put it this way:”Genius is nothing but a greater aptitude for patience.” Patiently delaying judgment generally leads to more fully informed thinking and, over time earns a reputation for real genius, not the genius measured by IQ, but an intelligence gained through strenuous mental effort.

A potential for impatience accompanies all difficult thinking tasks. Tough situations come with built in pressures, and a sense of urgency often intensifies the ever present temptation to jump to conclusions. Why endure the tedium of listening to everything a person has to say when, from the outset, you believe he is mistaken or not telling the truth? Why interview all five persons who saw an incident when the first two agree precisely on what happened? Why waste time listening to opposing points of view when the first argument sounds highly convincing? Why probe deeper when the first idea coming to mind solvers the problem?

Mature judgment, like maturity in life, needs time to develop fully. With thinking, the proper growth and development springs from concentration applied in sustained deliberation, which enables and enhances full understanding. Judging too soon, on the other hand, short circuits thinking, leaving us wondering when things go wrong, “Why didn’t I concentrate on that?”

By Charles W. Mc Coy, Jr.  author of the book : "Why didn't I think of That?"

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