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Managing Assumptions

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One of the biggest problems in business is that the future is not certain, although when we are planning we often treat it as such. One way that we act to mitigate against the future is to manage risks alongside plans. Yet one category of risk often slips past this: that of assumptions.

When things are uncertain, typically when they are being faced for the first time, it is natural to make assumptions. In this, we may well make many assumptions about how others will behave, despite the clear fact that one of the biggest sources of variation in business is people. They make promises and work in jobs with clear job descriptions, yet what they actually do often depends on workload, whim or the limitations of their memory.

Some of the typical assumptions we make in business include:

  • That materials, parts and tools will perform to specification.
  • That customers will (and will not) use products in certain ways
  • That people in the company will and will not do certain things, including the commitments they are presumed to have made.
  • That certain things will be done by given dates, including receiving deliveries from suppliers.

The Assumption Loop

A pattern of problems that can appear when assumptions are made is illustrated in the diagram below.


In short, when we are faced with new or uncertain situations, we naturally make assumptions. But then we make the second assumptive mistake of assuming that the assumptions are true and will remain true. Naturally, some will prove not to be true, leading to confusion and coping behaviours, which includes making further assumptions. And so things spiral into chaos.

Managing assumptions

Using the assumption loop, the first things is to recognise situations when you are doing something new or where you are working in an uncertain situation. When this is identified, the next activity is to be deliberately vigilant for assumptions from then onwards. A typical sign of assumptions is where people are making bold assertions but without supporting facts. Always ask: ‘How do you know?’

An assumption-listing activity when building plans is always a good practice. Look over the plans and ask, ‘What are we assuming here?’ Then record the assumptions, typically in an Assumption Register (which may look something like a Risk Register). Things you may want include in this are:

  • Date assumption is recorded.
  • Who is the source of the assumption (person or group).
  • The basis for the assumption (eg. best guess, supplier promise, etc.).
  • The probability that the assumption will prove true (which acts a confidence figure).
  • Impact, should the assumption prove false (eg. shipment delay).
  • Actions that may be needed, depending on the confidence and impact, and when these need to be done.
  • The owner of the actions.
  • Subsequent notes about completion of actions.

Even with this action in place, you should also continue to be vigilant for signs of confusion and coping (excuses and blaming others for problems is a clear sign). Rather than just address these symptoms, a good question is ‘What are the assumptions that led to this?’ You may already have the assumptions in your Assumptions Log. You may also find that you have discovered new assumptions, which may be added and managed in an organised manner.


Next time: Issue Management


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Chartered Quality Institute


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