About RIck

Rick Wells is VP of Research and Development for Business Processes Inc. His job is developing better ways to analyze high impact issues and tame complexity. He has a B.S. in Engineering Physics, and M. Educational Psychology. He is ABD (all but dissertation) from University of Michigan. He grew up in Toledo, Ohio. He lives in San Diego. He is married with 4 step kids who he loves as his own. He is grandpa to 6.

GM – Customized project Endorsement

Richard C. Wells (Rick)
Vice President Critical Thinking
Partner / Business Processes Inc.
POB 1456
La Jolla, CA. 92038

Dear Rick,

I am pleased to write this letter of recommendation regarding the work Business Processes Inc. did for us in the GM Service Technology Group. Our objective at the time was to come up with a method of teaching problem-solving skills to GM service technicians. Our project involved finding a way to integrate problem-solving exercises into a technical training course. The results were very successful. My development team provided the automotive information while your team provided the problem-solving expertise. The development process involved several meetings in which you spent learning what our needs were and designing compatible problem-solving exercises.

The result of this project was an eight-day course for Drivability Technicians called Engine Performance Diagnosis. The BPI Systematic-Trouble-Shooting process was incorporated into one-day of lessons and student applications to bugged cars for their final exam in automotive diagnostics. This course is currently being offered at GM Training Centers across the USA. It is also being offered as part of the curriculum for the GM Automotive Services Apprenticeship Program. Feedback from technicians who have attended has been extremely positive.

The success of this project was largely due to your ability to be flexible and to apply problem analysis to many different types of situations. Your approach in working with the development team was very effective. I enjoyed working with you and appreciate what your company was able to do for this project. If I can be of further assistance, please contact me.


Susan D. Christophersen
Regional Service Manager
Great Lakes Region

HR leaders – Do you really care?

After conducting 100’s of critical thinking workshops and facilitating the analysis of thousands of real organizational issues during those workshops, my opinion is that HR does NOT care if the problems brought up within the workshops they sponsor are solved or that the organization is wasting hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars by not following up on what is discovered within these classes.

I have my own opinion as to why, but I want HR professionals to share their thinking.  Please answer two questions: First: “Are you interested in working on this and making a difference for your organization?”  Second,  “If not, why not, what barriers do you see to taking action?”

There are exceptions to the above which unfortunately has become the rule.  But, exceptions are few. The typical HR and HRD professional whether manager or specialist does nothing that we can detect to make sure the gems discovered in the workshops actually benefit the organization.  Perhaps this is because most training classes are not like ours, they don’t have a direct impact on current realities, they work through improving more general attitudes or capabilities whose effects are difficult to measure (e.g. Emotional IQ or Communication Skills or Seven Habits of Successful People)?

How do we know that action is not being taken on high impact problems?  After all it could be that fantastic things are happening when the participants return to their work duties and report to their manager – how would we know?  We are confident that is not happening spontaneously because when we return to conduct the next class, the new participants identify the SAME problems that were already analyzed in previous classes!  The new analysis confirms the old. And this pattern continues for months and even years within some organizations and typically on the bigger, higher impact issues, ones that require management involvement to address.  We have many workable solutions to address this problem, but first HR needs to care and be willing to collaborate with us. We can’t do it alone.  HR is typically our point of entry into the organization.  However, we often find ourselves all dressed up with no where to go.  We are not granted permission to follow-up with stakeholders or problem owners.

Would somebody PLEASE help us to understand what is going on?  It is not unusual for one single problem to be worth more than the whole training budget for the year and participants analyze 3-4 of these problems in every workshop.  Yet, our appeals to our HR contact stir nothing detectable, crickets?

Companies in any country must run better, smoother and effectively in today’s competitive world. They can’t afford to leave “money on the table” while turnover, layoffs, disappearing research funds and rapid change affect every industry.  Step one is caring enough to look into this, communicating the newly discovered root causes of issues that are delaying production or draining organizational resources.  We want an internal champion for this most worthwhile cause.  No matter who we contact with our value proposition at a prospective organization, we get directed to HR or HRD (often called the Talent Development department.) – stuck with someone who has no bottom line incentive to do something, to risk being an advocate.

“Thinking clearly” is a competitive advantage one that can show immediate results.  Let’s work together to leverage what participants are discovering, like clockwork, workshop after workshop!.  Training can have a very large, visible and powerful impact on eliminating some of the most troublesome issues your organization is facing.

Guarantee!  Our training will return every training dollar x10 or our training is free.  Now it is your turn to step up to the plate.  I am asking not to waste the discoveries individuals are making in our workshop!  Together we can do this.

ADDENDUM: Here’s a theory that helps make some sense of this phenomenon of no action!  At www.infed.org/thinkers/argyris.htm the article: Chris Argyris: Theories of Action, Double-Loop Learning and Organizational Learning (key aspects of his thinking) seems to apply directly.  Argyris also has a book: Overcoming Organizational Defenses.

In brief:  Most organizations, especially unexceptional and poor performing ones, are Model I learners.  These are characterized by defensiveness, self-fueling processes, and escalating error.  Feedback loops inhibit detection and correction of errors.  The model one learning organization itself can begin to function in ways that act against its long-term interests.

[As I understand, Model I is based upon single-loop learning where the governing Values (objectives) are used to limit action to safely protect self and others unilaterally against change, to control the environment and the task unilaterally.  This so the organization can carry on its present policies and procedures.  Learning that threatens any of this is kept in individual memory and not organizational memory.]

Double-Loop learning occurs when error is detected and corrected in ways that modify an organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives (culture?).  Model II learning organizations use double-loop learning.

[It appears to me that the leaders of such organizations have Theories-In-Use updated to be compatible with the evolving current reality as revealed by the experience of people solving problem, defining root causes, taking corrective actions and observing consequences.  Organizational memory is complete and accurate as reflected in the organization’s policies and procedures.]

I hope this helps!



Tip For Project Creators

There is a need for project creators to learn how to better delegate projects to project teams. Part of the current difficulty is that what are being called projects are actually problems to analyze or decisions to be made. Problem Solving and Decision Making are not amenable to the standard project management tools. Projects, to put it simply, are decisions that have been approved and now must be implemented. Tools for defining action steps, scheduling, tracking and managing projects are what Project Management Professionals (PMPs) learn.

Another issue plaguing project teams is shifting or conflicting priorities or worse the “everything is top priority” disaster. Multi-tasking kills timeliness.  At any given time there can be only one top priority project, although that honor can change to adapt to evolving contingencies.  But, there should be no confusion on what the priority is now.

In SUM: Organizational leaders – don’t send people to get their PMP certificate unless you are able and intend to define projects for them to do.  Application of critical thinking skills to make high quality decisions and uncover root causes of problems is a prerequisite to launching any project.  Don’t abdicate that role and launch a series of vague initiatives requiring other skills.  The tool sets are distinct having different purposes.

College Texts on Critical Thinking?

The college texts I’ve reviewed are filled with logical syllogisms and examples of rhetorical manipulation techniques- but mostly about what NOT to do or what to look out for.  Nothing on how to think better to understand the world and how to gain understanding to find root causes and make better decisions.  They offer a deep education in labels but do not offer a useful process to guide thinking.
The evaluation of argument content is not about creating valid understanding or a good argument.  It’s focus is on how to criticize other people’s arguments.  So, students would become great at criticism of others but weak in creation themselves.  It is really difficult to be creative if you are worried about what not to do.  Like Bob Dylan wrote in one of his songs/poems,  “Some people don’t have much food on their table.  But they got a lotta knives and forks and – they gotta cut something.”



Chosen because they succeed at teaching powerful concepts while entertaining the reader.  Read ALL is my recommendation.

  1. The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt
  2. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.
  3. The GO-GIVER by Bob Burg and John David Mann.
  4. The PROJECT MANIFESTO by Rob Newbold and Bill Lynch.
  5. Leadership Simple by Steve Morris and Jill Morris.

Buffers one or all?

(This POST was submitted by Michael McGinty an expert consultant on Critical Thinking and Project Management.)

Eliyahu Goldratt is credited as the author of the Theory of Constraints – a powerful concept which created something of a revolution in process improvement.  He applied these insights to project management in his book Critical Chain.  Here at BPI, we share some of his key insights with project leaders when they attend our one-day workshop in Systematic Project Management.

Goldratt teaches us that one of the best ways to ensure projects don’t violate their deadlines is to re-think our treatment of buffers.  What people typically do, unconsciously, is they build in a buffer for every action step in their project.  For example, let’s say that based on our previous experience, we know that a particular task usually takes about 3 hours to complete.  However, when we create our project plan, most of us will allocate more time to complete that task – you know, just to cover our bases.  So, the task that usually only takes us three hours to complete might instead be scheduled to take five hours.  And we do this for every action step in our plan, which stretches out the project timeline.  We unconsciously set our project deadlines based on a ‘worst-case scenario’ with these frozen buffers.

Goldratt teaches there’s a way to guard against this but without putting your plan at risk.  He says to schedule the average time it takes for each action step, and then build your buffer into the back end of the project.  So, a task that typically takes three hours is scheduled for exactly three hours.  The additional two-hour buffer is built into the tail-end of the project.

You might ask, “Why is that any better?  You’re still allotting five hours for that step!”  That’s true, but the location of the buffer is crucial.  When buffers are built into each step, the time is not available to help other steps.  And, if something actually does get done on time, other people/resources are not ready because they didn’t plan for it to get done “early.”  By scheduling the average time for each action step and collecting the buffers in one place, other people can be prepared for a quick hand-off to the next task plus they can dip into the common project buffer when needed – that’s what it’s there for!

In this way, Goldratt’s techniques are helping companies complete projects in what seems like ‘record-time’, 50% less time or better is not unusual!  But for those of us in-the-know, it’s just ‘average time’!

Critical Thinking about Health!

Corrective action is focused on the cause of problems. Interim action attends to the effects of a problem. And muddled action does neither.

Question 1: What type of action is it when your doctor prescribes medicine to block production of cholesterol (in your liver) and lower your total cholesterol number? Or when the doctor prescribes a medicine to drop your blood pressure?

Question 2: Is there a risk involved in only dealing with the effects a doctor can measure (cholesterol, BP) but NOT taking corrective action against the underlying disease process causing those numbers?

Freedom – options = Tyranny

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Michael McGinty teaches critical thinking for us and decision making is his passion. Please read what Michael has to say about Tyranny and Decision Making. Warning!!! Libertarian rant ahead.

How is Freedom lost? How do we lose our liberty? How do people descend into oppression? How does tyranny happen? Do dictators suddenly just jump out from behind a rock and go “ha ha ha ha!!! Now I’ve got you!!!!”

As most of you know, I’m a libertarian and so I think about questions such as this quite a bit. I listen to talk radio and the other day I was listening to Michael Medved and he was challenging one of his callers to stop talking in the abstract. He was accusing his caller of speaking in the hypothetical, the conceptual. He was accusing this caller of projecting his fear about some possible future tyranny and instead, put him on the spot. He challenged him to name the specific tyranny that was being visited upon him personally, right now, in present time. His assertion seemed to be that very few, if any, singular individuals have lost any actual, specific freedoms.

My question is, how else is a freedom lost? A freedom is not lost only in some theoretical or philosophical sense. Freedoms are lost in an actual way when a person, a single individual, tries to take action but is faced with limited choices, because that’s all freedom really is: choices. Opportunities. Alternatives. Options.

And when those options are slowly taken away, they become invisible to us. Sometimes to the point that we forget that they ever existed.

Let me give you an example, a day in the life of an average American. We’ll call him Lysander Spooner. He gets up in the morning, eats breakfast with his wife and kids, takes a shower, goes to work, comes home, watches a bit of TV, and goes to bed. In your eyes, there’s no problem; his freedom hasn’t been threatened, impinged, or lost in any way. But a closer look will show you many places where his freedom was lost.

The breakfast cereal he enjoys is made with high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar because the government subsidizes corn and imposes high import tariffs on imported sugar – so cereal companies no longer offer him a choice because it’s not cost effective. He bought the milk from Vons. He couldn’t buy it from his local dairy farmer because that guy was thrown in jail for not pastuerizing his milk. Lysander then kisses his kids goodbye and sends them off to private school. He feels good about his decision to send them to private school vs. public school, but what did he forget? He forgot his zip-code limited him to just 2 schools competing for his business instead of 10, and that neither of those 2 are very spectacular. But he forgot about that a long time ago, if he ever knew it at all. Forgetting this also allows him to forget that he’s actually paying for both schools – even though his kids can only go to one. And to forget that he’s been paying for that school since he got his first job at 15. Oh, and that he’ll still be paying for that school until he retires at 65. Oh, and that the money he paid into Social Security for 50 years will be long gone by then…. But, I digress, Lysander, back to your life…

He goes to take his 20-minute shower. It used to take 10 minutes but his government-mandated low-phosphate shampoo takes longer to rinse out of his hair, especially now that he’s using a government-mandated, low-flow, water-saving shower head. He also had to flush the toilet twice, which is now, of course, standard practice every morning.

When Lysander gets dressed, his cotton shirt costs twice as much because, once again, cotton subsidies and high import tariffs have prevented cotton farmers from Afghanistan from selling him an equally fabulous shirt at half the cost and have instead encouraged Afghan farmer to export him other products and services that are much more profitable, such as heroin and terrorism.

None-the-less, Lysander dresses, goes out to the garage and gets in his car. But the moment he does so, he loses his 4th Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, which he “voluntarily” waived by signing for his driver’s license because he agreed if a police officer even suspects him of being under the influence he is legally obligated to perform roadside-circus tricks and/or relinquish his precious bodily fluids to the authorities, lest he face heinous punishments even without being found guilty of an actual crime. That’s OK, Lysander tells himself, I’m not drunk. He puts his car in gear, backs into the street, and is immediately in violation of eight sections of the State penal code for a variety of random infractions like tinted windows, low tire tread, and a Student of the Month bumper sticker that’s obstructing a portion of his rear window.

Because the United States Department of Transportation has deliberately set all speed limits at 10 – 15 mph slower than the average speed of traffic, he speeds all the way to work. He’s got an unpaid parking ticket in his glovebox which the Supreme Court recently ruled (5 – 4) is grounds for imprisonment and a cavity search. Lysander flicks on his satellite radio. He used to listen to Howard Stern but now he can’t because the Federal Communications Commission chased Howard Stern out of New York, then out of the United States, and eventually, out of Earth’s orbit. He wonders, for a moment, where they think their jurisdiction actually ends. The radio plays “Dirty Work” by the Rolling Stones. They beep out the word “ass.”

When he arrives at his office complex, he passes ten double-wide handicapped spaces right in front of his building and parks 300 yards away because city planners concerned with the obesity epidemic want him to walk that far. As he walks into his office, he is greeted with the energy-efficient flourescent lightbulbs that illuminate everything in “bright-blue-migrane” because the soft-white incandescent light bulb is now illegal.

And on and on it goes…all day long. I could tell you this story in a million different ways. Because that’s how it happens. In a million different ways, in a million different directions, the path which our good friend Lysander seems to be choosing of his own volition, is in fact, one that has been pre-determined for him. It’s an artifice. A ploy. A bold new promise of false hope. We are facing an ever-diminishing horizon of actual choices, and an ever-expanding vista of illusion. the illusion of choice. Our bold, new promise, is in reality, the promise of a false hope.

Tyranny doesn’t always come down and strike an individual like a bolt of lightning. It doesn’t always leave massive wreckage, scars, and piles of corpses. We’ve all watched the History Channel. We’ve all seen the black and white films. We all know how it ends. But what I want to know is; are we paying enough attention to how it starts? Because it starts out small, at the periphery, gradually hemming us in at every turn. Like a giant picture-window being painted black, starting with the edges and moving closer and closer to the center. The person trying to see through the window is looking through an ever-shrinking window of opportunity. The free man, the man who was born truly free – and by that I mean each and every one of us – we once stood before a wide-open vista of infinite possibilities. But every so subtly, one brush-stroke at a time, we slowly lose more and more of our freedom. Some of them we miss. We bite our tongue and bear the injustice. But the worst part is, most of them we don’t even notice. Most of them, we forget. The choices we once faced became the opportunities we can no longer have. And it’s easier to forget than to remember.

But I remember what freedom tastes like. And I miss it.

Do you?

Chain of Causation

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This post challenges the contention of Barry Schwartz that too many choices lead to depression and even suicide.  What do you think?

I recently watched a TED presentation by Barry Schwartz. The following is from an internet summary: “ Barry Schwartz tackles one of the great mysteries of modern life: Why is it that societies of great abundance — where individuals are offered more freedom and choice (personal, professional, material) than ever before — are now witnessing a near-epidemic of depression? Conventional wisdom tells us that greater choice is for the greater good, but Schwartz argues the opposite: He makes a .. case that the abundance of choice in today’s western world is actually making us miserable. Infinite choice is paralyzing, Schwartz argues, and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves. His relatable examples, from consumer products (jeans, TVs, salad dressings) to lifestyle choices (where to live, what job to take, who and when to marry), underscore this central point: Too much choice undermines happiness.”


I agree that having more choices does not necessarily lead to happiness. But, I think that is not the cause of unhappiness. Feeling befuddled by all the choices is easily remedied, if that really is the cause. The underlying mechanism is likely the inability to think clearly in the face of important choices. Some choices require more sophisticated analysis than people are able to do “naturally”, that is without learning how to make choices. To explore the relationship between critical thinking and happiness read our article about the book Stumbling Upon Happiness (by Dan Gilbert), “Thinking Critically & Happiness” in the articles section of our website.

Imagine this internal dialogue (sarcasm ahead)

Oh NO!  I really regret choosing that red sweater – I simply must kill myself.  Yes, that would work.  Bye, bye!” 

“But oh wait!!  There are so many ways to kill myself, what if I fail to pick the very best way?  Life is cruel! Now I’m too depressed to kill myself.” 

And we are really supposed to think the cause of the higher suicide rates in the more developed countries is too many choices?  Wouldn’t it be more depressing to feel trapped with little or no choice?

Well, Barry lays out a chain of causation in his argument.  So, let’s subject it to the “therefore test“.

“Freedom and abundance” therefore
“many, many choices” therefore
“paralysis” therefore
“more regret” therefore
“more depression and suicide “.

The first weak link for me is the jump from “many choices” therefore “paralysis.” There are millions of people who face a large number of choices everyday and are carefree and happy.  What is the real cause of paralysis?  One potential cause is conflicting objectives – like Charley Brown doing the “On the one hand … and on the other hand” routine in the comic strips.  Or, consider the challenge of a monkey with a hand grasping a treat, caught in a coconut.  Letting go is one choice but that means giving up the treat.  Not letting go keeps the hand stuck in the coconut.  The old saying is, “You can have anything you want.  You just can’t have everything you want.”  The good news is there are simple strategies for dealing with a large number of alternatives and conflicting objectives.  For example, critical thinking decision tools.

Another weak link is the jump from “regret” therefore “depression/suicide.” Surely regret does NOT itself result in “suicide” or even “depression”!

Maybe the author might look into whether some suicide candidates lack a solid sense of purpose in their lives, a clear elevating goal, beyond the search for the next consumer item or selfie?  Maybe some people feel depressed having lost their purpose, their family, their career?  Of course there are bio-chemical issues mixed into this and psychology can affect biology.  The social pressure to be outraged at others vs. adopting the attitude of live and let live, can’t help psychologically, I suspect.  In any case, the real cause of the depression needs to be identified and addressed for each victim and I suspect it is never related to a very long list of choices. Perhaps they are searching for fulfillment in the wrong places.  There is no cheese there, as they say. Or they have a core distress pattern from their childhood creating an unmet emotional need.

It might be instructive to know that one best selling book by Pastor Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life) sold 30 million copies by 2007,  It begins with this sentence, “It’s not about you!” not exactly a Facebook mantra!  It was simultaneously on four major best-seller lists (incl. 114 weeks on the NY Times’ list).  I don’t trivialize depression, and I certainly do not think depression is caused by too many consumer choices!

I’d like to know how different generations compare about this and whether different causes fit different generations?  For example, just maybe the current generation’s fondness for self-promotion on social media (i.e. Facebook) is the wrong place to fill the hole or find that missing piece Shel Silverstein wrote about. I suspect that seeking to be thought of as being cool puts pressure on choices.  Picking the jeans others will think are the coolest, is more challenging than picking a pair of jeans you personally like.  So, instead of seeking to be part of the in-crowd, maybe the cheese we all hunger for can be found in helping others – admittedly a more spiritual than materialistic approach? Maybe we seek a life of meaning beyond merely satisfying our own ego fetishes?

Thought experiment.  As critical thinking practitioners, we develop potential causes by finding differences between problem and non-problem areas.  I am sure there are other differences between developed vs. less developed countries besides number of consumer choices.  What are they and could one or more help explain the phenomenon?

If we wished to evaluate spiritual causes of increasing suicide rates in the developed world here’s what would be good to know to begin that analysis:  Are there differences in suicides between so-called Cultural Jews and Religious Jews on this problem?  This is a good comparison because it may hold the fellowship aspect within closely-knit groups relatively constant.   Are there differences between deeply religious people of any faith and comparable secular people? Continuing in this vain, we ask are countries with higher percentages of secular people more or less prone to depression and suicide?  Are suicides more or less common among those that work for charitable or community causes?   Are suicides associated with traumatic events vs. just living same ole same ole?  Has secularization kept pace with the explosion of consumer choices?  Does depression cause bio-chemical changes or vice-versa?  The timing of this phenomenon would be of particular interest if we could do some mapping of trends.  What trend mirrors the suicide rate increases?

We are not experts in any of this except in knowing how to perform a proper evaluation by setting up comparisons for developing  likely causes. On the face of it the “too many consumer options” is not a likely cause, in our opinion.  If it were, one fix might be to limit choices in all areas to just government approved options.  Now that IS depressing.

What is critical thinking

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Definition:  Critical thinking is the conscious, logical and systematic application of judgment to issues you care about.   <end>

We have found when it is done well, it looks like just plain common sense.  But, done poorly, it can look like a word game promoting negativity, confusion and indecision.