Coaching: Getting Specific, Finding the Knowledge Threshold

When coaching, I often find improvers / learners who tend to be superficial or vague about target conditions, current conditions, the experiments they intend to run, the results they expect, what they learned.  Huh… I guess I should have said “vague about everything.”

As several of my clients would tell you, one of my themes is “drive out ambiguity.”

Recently I’ve been trying a simple follow-up question that seems to be working to help people dig a little deeper without pushing them back as much as other questions might.

“Could you be more specific?”

I will plead completely guilty to stealing this from an unlikely source.

In his book “The Cuckoo’s Egg“, Clifford Stoll describes a line of questioning during his oral defense of his PhD thesis in astronomy:

I remember it vividly. Across a table, five profs. I’m frightened, trying to look casual as sweat drips down my face. But I’m keeping afloat; I’ve managed to babble superficially, giving the illusion that I know something. Just a few more questions, I think, and they’ll set me free. Then the examiner over at the end of the table – the guy with the twisted little smile – starts sharpening his pencil with a penknife.

“I’ve got just one question, Cliff,” he says, carving his way through the Eberhard-Faber. “Why is the sky blue?

My mind is absolutely, profoundly blank. I have no idea. I look out the window at the sky with the primitive, uncomprehending wonder of a Neanderthal contemplating fire. I force myself to say something—anything. “Scattered light,” I reply. “Uh, yeah, scattered sunlight.”

“Could you be more specific?”

Well, words came from somewhere, out of some deep instinct of self-preservation. I babbled about the spectrum of sunlight, the upper atmosphere, and how light interacts with molecules of air.

“Could you be more specific?”

I’m describing how air molecules have dipole moments, the wave-particle duality of light, scribbling equations on the blackboard, and . . .

“Could you be more specific?”

An hour later, I’m sweating hard. His simple question—a five-year-old’s question—has drawn together oscillator theory, electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics, even quantum mechanics. Even in my miserable writhing, I admired the guy…

[Emphasis added]

As you can see from Stoll’s experience, his professor was seeking to find his knowledge threshold – something a kata coach should be doing as well.

Now, I’m not going to push the “5 Whys” quite as deep as quantum effects (except, perhaps, at one client who DOES deal with things at that level…), but I find this is a far more effective question than “Why?” or asking leading questions. It, obviously isn’t universal, but it has been working reasonably well with a client whose corporate culture drives indirect assertions and vague predictions.

Try it… leave a comment if it works for you (or bombs). But please… be specific.  :)

P.S. – In this video, Cliff Stoll tells the same story, likely more accurately, and makes another valuable point:  “It’s obvious” is a statement which often hides limited understanding of what is being discussed. It might be “obvious,” but… let’s go see.

Where Toyota Kata Doesn’t Work


I’ll admit right up front that the headline is worded to attract search engines.

If that’s how you got here, be prepared to think.

Can You Prove That This Works

This is something I hear a lot:

“I can see where _____ applies to your example. But my process is __(different somehow) ___.

Fill in the blanks.

Other versions are:

  • “I can see how that works in manufacturing, but ____.
  • “How does this apply to _____?”
  • “Can you show me examples in (something that is an exact match to what I do)?

Anyone in the business of process improvement has heard versions of this excuse for years. It always comes up. “I can see how that works for cars, but we make ____.” is an older version.

One of my favorites came via a friend working with a Japanese supplier to Boeing. They told him “We can see how this would work in American culture, but we don’t think it works in Japan.” Yes, we were teaching Japanese management techniques to the Japanese, and they were telling us it doesn’t work in Japan.

So… this style of “Prove to me that this applies to my specific situation” is something we’ve all heard again and again.


If you manage to read all the way to the bottom, you will see that I readily concede that I cannot prove that “Toyota Kata” or learning problem solving based on scientific thinking works to improve any process out there.

To be able to prove that, I would need knowledge of all processes, past, present and future, and have to make the case that, in each and every one of them, I have indeed established that it works.

What I do have is personal knowledge of application in a very diverse circumstances, which adds to the collective experience of thousands of people who are working to apply these methods and principles. So far, we haven’t found that case where it can’t work. We might someday, but haven’t yet.

The assertion that this thinking is universal is a refutable hypothesis. You can, with some effort, establish rigorous proof, through repeatable experimentation or direct observation of a counter-case that my theory needs modification.

But before we get to that part (at the end), let’s go through some more common instances of this line of thinking.

The Instance of Product Development

Here are a couple of things to think about.

Let me ask, “How do you do product development?”

Typically (HOPEFULLY!) I’ll get some version of:

  • Understand what we are trying to achieve – performance specifications, customer needs, etc. that today’s product cannot provide.
  • Assess the baseline capability and identify gaps between what we need to do, and what we can do with technology, manufacturing capability, etc.
  • Based on that, establish the first, or next, of what are likely a series of intermediate goals converging on the requirement.
  • Iterate through cycles of trials, tests, experiments, learning, etc. to converge on a design that meets the requirements.

Now, to be clear, there are LOTS of variations on this, and lots of ways to manage the execution of this thought process. Some are dramatically more effective than others, but at the core there is a rigorous application of the scientific method.

What is the alternative? Guess at something, build it, and hope it works? Even that approach is going to (hopefully) have you going back and assessing what you learned when it doesn’t work.

So what, exactly, is it about the methodology we are teaching with Toyota Kata that is any different from the above?

  • Understand the challenge and direction.
  • Grasp the current condition.
  • Establish the next target condition.
  • Iterate from the current condition toward the target condition using a rigorous scientific approach that drives learning.

Why wouldn’t you want to apply that method to R&D? What do you do, if you don’t do this?

And, to be even more clear, I think I can make the case that all of the exotic product development methodologies – “Production Preparation Process (3P),” “Agile” and it’s cousins, “Lean Start Up,” “Design for Six Sigma,” “Set Based Concurrent Engineering,” all of them, are simply methods to cycle through the this learning process faster, cheaper, and more robustly.

Toyota Kata is nothing more than a tool to teach the thought pattern. Don’t lose sight of that.

Here’s the kicker. What we are doing, in reality, is working hard to figure out how to apply robust product development thinking to production processes, not the other way around. This stuff started in R&D. The Wright brothers used this process between 1899 and 1903 and beyond to the first practical airplane in 1908. Wilbur’s diaries and letters are essentially a PDCA cycles record.

Scientific Process Engineering

In spite of the little rant above, most engineers take a lot of care to design the product. They study and understand the details of its function, and carefully make modifications in a controlled way so they can test the effects of what they are doing.

On the other hand, it is relatively rare to see the same rigor applied to designing the production process. Many times it is allowed to come together ad-hoc. There is often deep understanding of the core value-adding process steps – how to do machining, welding, painting, etc. But the design and management of the movement of material and information from one process step to the next? Not so much.

Why wouldn’t you want to learn how to apply the same rigor in designing the production system that you apply to designing the product itself?

What is the alternative? Actually I know what the alternative is. Set financially derived metrics, and a high-stakes rewards system for hitting them. Then leave it to managers to figure out on their own. While you’re at it, divide the system into functional areas and set those managers up to compete with each other’s performance. It is a robust system with a reliable, repeatable outcome. Maybe not the outcome you would seek intentionally, but reliably predictable nonetheless.

So how about giving a thought to applying scientific design principles to your production flows? It can’t make them any worse.

Back to Engineering

In a large engineering department, most of the activity isn’t research and design work that I discussed above. It is production work. The products are drawing changes, bills of material, quotes and estimates, CNC programs, engineering change notices, resolution of production problems. This is all vital engineering work, but it is production.

Each of those products is assembled from components. The “material” might be information, but if you decompose outputs into their constituent components, you see sub-assemblies coming together from smaller bits, and in turn, assembling into the bigger “thing” whatever it is.

This is a factory. It just makes useful information rather than hardware.

The irony is (1) There typically even less attention paid to how things are done, what struggles people have to get the information they should have gotten, but didn’t, etc. then there is in even the worst manufacturing floors. And (2) There is often little realization that even people sharing the same cubicle often are working to different interpretations of the requirement, much less methods of doing the work.

So here’s a question:

Are you (as a manager) expected to improve the lead time, quality of output, productivity… any of those things… in your department?

If the answer is “No” then great. I’m glad to hear that things are working perfectly for you… though you might want to spend more time understanding what people are really dealing with, because “No Problem” is often a BIG problem.

For most, though, the answer is “Yes.” They are expected to deliver some improvement in throughput, quality, productivity, etc. Note that these are all production system measurements. That makes perfect sense, because, as I said, these processes are production.

OK… you’re on the hook to deliver improvement of some kind.

How are you going about improvement in your process?

Indulge me a bit, and let me ask a couple of questions.

  1. What you are trying to achieve with your improvement?
  2. How is your process performing today in comparison to that? Do you know what it is about the process that is driving that current performance?
  3. What are you working toward, right now, as the next step to reach your goal?
  4. What kinds of things are you going to have to fix or change to get there?
  5. Which of them are you working on now?
  6. Can you share a bit about what kind of things you are trying in your improvement effort? How are they working for you?

I realize that Toyota Kata might not apply, but if you are actively working to improve anything, you likely have answers to some form of those questions (hopefully).

Of course, those are a variation on the Toyota Kata coaching questions, aren’t they?

It’s just that we usually don’t ask and answer questions like this explicitly. Maybe the effort would be a little more focused and clear if we did. Because all we are trying to do with Toyota Kata is make the scientific thought process more explicit so it is easier to teach. The idea is to get more people learning and understanding how to think that way, which I believe is generally a good thing. Most people would agree, at least with that last part.

I Still Need A Specific Example

Here’s where I sometimes scratch my head, especially when I get this question from someone with a technical education, and often a graduate degree on top of it.

When you went to those universities, did they teach you with examples that exactly matched the job you are doing today? Likely not. Yet you have figured out how to apply those principles to what you are doing.

In those classes, seminars, case studies, they used problems and examples to help you understand the principles.

Then they expected you to take the specific instance of those principles from the examples they used, turn them into a general case, then figure out how to apply those general principles to a different problem, case, or set of circumstances.

In the end, that is really all they were teaching you: How to figure out how to apply a general principle or theory to a specific case or problem. They likely didn’t accept an exam answer that said “You didn’t show me an exact example of this problem.”

It’s Still Science

I will totally concede that there may well be specific instances where the general principles of scientific thinking wouldn’t work to improve a particular type of process. And in those cases, there is certainly no benefit to working to learn how to apply, and teach, scientific thinking.

I say that because I believe in the scientific method, therefore my assertion that “These principles are universally applicable” is a refutable hypothesis.

I welcome the discovery of a specific case where they don’t apply. But the other side of the scientific method is I cannot prove the non-existence of that case.

If, on the other hand, you can establish that you indeed have the proverbial “Black Swan” on your hands, let’s take a look. The burden, though, is on the person suggesting to refute the hypothesis to provide compelling evidence.

Can you please explain what it is about your specific process that defies application of scientific thinking to understand it better, and improve it? What specific characteristics would a process have that makes it so unique that you are stymied in any attempt to apply what you have been educated and trained to do as a scientist or engineer?

I am really curious, and welcome exploring that together, and perhaps modifying my theory to adapt to any true anomalous situation.

That’s science.

Coaching with Intent

As I continue to explore the concepts in David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around, I am finding increasing resonance with the concept of intent. I’d like to explore some of that in relationship to lean, “Toyota Kata” and organizational alignment.

For a quick review, take a look at the sketchcast video, below, and focus on the part where he talks about “we replaced it with intent.”

I think the critical words are “You give intent to them, and they give intent to you.”

Think about that phrase, then think about how we normally talk about “intent.”

OK, are you back?

In my experience, “intent” has traditionally been a one-way communication. “This is what we need to get done.”

A few months ago I was in a plant, discussing this principle. One of the managers expressed frustration saying “I think I was very clear about what I expected…” (And he was) “but then when I checked he had done something totally different. How does this work for that situation?”

What was left out of that conversation?

…and they give intent to you.

Let’s put this in Toyota Kata terms.

What is the relationship between the “Challenge” and the “Target Condition?”

Think about how the target condition is developed.

Start with the challenge – this is the level of performance we are trying to achieve – the “mission” in military terms, the overall intent of what we are trying to get done.

Once the direction and challenge (the intent) are understood, the improver / learner’s next task is to get a thorough understanding of the current condition. How does the process operate today? What is the normal pattern? Why does it perform the way it does? This should be focused in context of the direction / challenge / intent.

Then the learner (NOT the coach!) proposes the next target condition.

Depending on the level of skill in the learner, the coach may well be assisting in developing all of this, but it is the learner’s responsibility to do it.

Imagine this conversation: as the learner / improver is discussing the target condition, he relates it back to the challenge as a verification for context.

“The overall challenge we have is to _______. As my first (next) target condition, I intend to _____ (as the learner relates his next level of performance, and what the process will have to look like to get there).

Adding the words “I intend to…” to that exchange has (for me) proven to be a powerful tool when learners are struggling to embrace / own their target conditions. Those words establish psychological ownership vs. seeking permission.

The same structure can be applied to the next step or experiment.

“What is your next step or experiment?”

I intend to (fill in your experiment here).”

Going back to the sketchcast video, remember the part where he says:

“Captain, I intend to submerge the ship.”

“What do you think I’m thinking right now?”

“Uh…. hard to tell… I’m guessing you want to know if it’s safe.”

“BINGO! Convince me it’s safe.”

“Captain, I intend to submerge the ship. All men are below. All hatches are shut. The ship’s rigged for diving. We’ve checked the bottom depth. We’re in the water that’s assigned to us.”

In not only stating intent, but going through the checklist, the “learner” demonstrates that the intent will be carried out competently, or not.

We are asking the same questions when we ask about the next experiment, what outcome is expected. Logical follow-on questions could include seeking assurance that the experiment actually addresses the stated “one obstacle” being addressed (this is the right thing to do) and that learner has a plan to carry out the experiment that makes sense, knows what information he intends to collect, what observations he needs to make, and how he intends to do these things (that it is being done competently).

At an advanced level, a good answer to “What is your next step or experiment?” could (should!) include all of these elements – enough information to convince the coach that it is a good experiment, seeking the right information, in the right way.

It becomes  “to address that obstacle, I next I intend to (take these steps, in this way, with these people) so that (fill in expected outcome). I intend to measure here and here, and verify my results by…”

Of course as a coach, if you have a learner who is unsure how to proceed, or looking to be told what to do (which is quite common in organizations that have to overcome a command structure where the boss is the problem solver), how do you need to phrase your coaching questions to get the next level of responsible language out of your learner’s mouth?

If they are waiting to be told what to do, how do you get them to offer an opinion?

If they are offering an opinion, how do you get them to offer a recommendation? Is it well thought out? “What result do you expect?” “How do you expect to achieve that result?”

If they are offering a well thought out recommendation, how do you get them to express an intent? What do you have to hear to be convinced that intent is well though out?

I want to be clear: This is advanced stuff, but it goes hand-in-glove with the coaching kata.

And, to give credit where credit is due, it is all the work of David Marquet. I am just adapting it to the kata here.

What is your expected result?

I share this often enough at client sites, so here it is for everyone – a little geek / kata-related humor from Randall Munroe of Title: “The Difference” (between ‘scientists’ and ‘everyone else’)

Often Skipped: Understand the Challenge and Direction

I’ve been practicing, teaching (and learning) the Toyota Kata for about four years now, and I’m seeing some pervasive patterns that are getting in people’s way of making it work.

The one I’d like to address today is skipping over “Understand the Direction.”

As designed by Mike Rother, the Improvement Kata has four basic steps:


Graphic © Mike Rother  (click on the graphic to download the Improvement Kata Handbook)

This fact (that there are four steps) is often lost on beginning practitioners. They tend to associate “Toyota Kata” only with the “Five Questions” of the Coaching Kata, which guide Step 4 (above). On the surface, that is understandable, because we hear the coaching cycles a lot more frequently, and they are a hallmark of the kata principle.

But we (hopefully) wouldn’t think of jumping right into the Five Questions until the answer to “What is your target condition?” is something more definitive than “To improve this process.”  (We only used to do that, right? hmmm.)

One of the reasons to set a clear target condition is to get away from general “waste safari” improvement efforts, and focus the improver’s attention on what must be done to get to the next level.

Without a sense of direction, it is easy for the improver to see every improvement opportunity (or none of them), and get locked up trying to find a way to fix them all.

It’s frustrating for everyone, because little progress is made, and those improvements that are made have a tough time finding their way to any higher level meaning.

Someone, long ago, pointed out to me that the geometric figure “frustum” seems to have the same Latin root as “frustration.” This is the graphic that comes to mind:


Though the concept of a clear target condition is fairly easy to get across, organizations seem to get locked into a cycle of Steps 2, 3 and 4 without ever going back to Step 1, except in the most general terms.

Here’s what I think happens:

When an organization is just getting started, we’ve commonly told them to pick an area to practice, based on quick cycles and other practice criteria, and get to learning the improvement kata, striving toward a general challenge like one-by-one flow.

That pattern of seeking improvement opportunities gets engrained, and it is hard to shift off it and start to set clear direction and challenges. Further, it is very similar to the “old way” of planning kaizen events where the goal is to “implement lean tools” … like one-by-one flow.

Setting that direction also seems to run counter to the idea of empowered workers are in the best position to know what to work on. (It doesn’t, in fact direction is required for this to really take hold.)

In another sense, though, the Challenge for one level is, in reality, the Target Condition (or at least a major obstacle) for the level above. If I am asking the VP-Operations what his target condition is, I am going to hear things that sound a whole lot like a Challenge for the next level down.

And if the senior leaders don’t have a clear sense of where they are trying to take the organization next… what is their scope of their responsibility?

What to do differently?

(It might help if the leadership team themselves got a coach.)

1) Be clear that your initial sessions are practice drills. You are not yet playing the game, or even a scrimmage. You are flipping tires. Be conscious that this is a transitory learning stage.

2) Establish a target condition for proficiency you are striving for in your practice. Check it weekly against your current condition. This is the job of the advance / steering team.

Challenge Light

For the first pass, it isn’t necessary to dig headlong into hoshin planning, and in many cases, you can issue a compelling challenge with a theme.

Look at what is bugging your customers about your current operation, and challenge yourself to fix it.

For example, one client had lead times and response times that were getting longer and longer, so the challenges issued by the leadership team revolved around lead time and removing “sources of delay.”

Another company had rework and quality escapes going out of control. Their first step was to “grasp the current condition” and identify where these problems were happening.


Each dot represents the origin of a defect or rework. (The colors don’t mean anything, they ran out of red, then orange, then yellow dots.) (You can see exit cycle run charts taped up there as well.)

This gave them a quick picture of where to focus their attention, and which leaders they needed to challenge, and then coach, through the process of improving their quality.

Note that for these guys, integrating the flow of material and information though the plant isn’t a target condition, or even a challenge yet. It is in the vision, but the first priority is simply to ship what the customer ordered, and then to only make the product once to do so.

By the way, profit is measurably up, rework instances have been cut by about 3/4 from the starting point, and they are well on their way.

Oh No! Toyota is “Cutting the andon cord!”


I’ve had three or four people forward various links to a story from Automotive News titled “Toyota Cutting the Fabled Andon Cord, Symbol of Toyota Way.”

Most of those people didn’t read past the headline.

I’ll quote from one paragraph into the article:

“In its place are yellow call buttons perched waist-high within easy reach along the line for workers to hit when a problem pops up requiring help or the line to be stopped.

Toyota switched to the buttons last year at its flagship Tsutsumi assembly plant in Toyota City, during a factory renovation. In Japan, the buttons were first used by a vehicle-assembling subsidiary, Toyota Motor East Japan Inc., at a Miyagi plant.”

The implication?

They got tired of the overhead rope getting in the way of flexibility in how they arranged the line, material, work flows. They improved their system. It is easier for a worker to initiate a help call (which leads to a line stop if the issue isn’t resolved quickly).

They first saw an obstacle (rope in the way) to another improvement (flexibility). They ran an experiment (at the Miyagi plant), wrung out the details, then put it into place in Tsutsumi for a larger scale trial.

What is totally consistent here is the approach to improvement.

We, once again, have confused the artifacts (overhead ropes, work documented a certain way, a method for distributing parts, an approach to tracking quality issues) with the purpose: Making gaps between “what should be” and “what actual is” every more clear so the can work on getting to the next level.

I suppose a headline that read “Toyota Replaces Overhead Rope With Buttons for Improved Flexibility” wouldn’t garner the same number of hits, nor would it trigger blog posts across the lean community, so I guess that headline worked for its intended purpose.

Here is what the andon is all about:

If anyone is looking for evidence that Toyota is somehow abandoning the principle of “Stop the line before passing along bad quality… this isn’t it.”

Move along…

Competence and Clarity: Toyota Kata at Sea

A friend, and reader, Craig sent a really interesting email:

As I was practicing the coaching Kata with one of the First Mates on the factory trawler, whenever an issue arose (usually with the leader blaming an employee) he began asking factory and engineering leadership “what needed to be communicated?” or “what needed to be taught?” He found it encompassed every problem on the vessel and I loved that he made it his own and communicated in manner to which lifetime fishermen could relate.

What I found really cool about this is how it is exactly the same conclusion reached by David Marquet, both in the sketchcast video I posted earlier, and the titles of two chapters in his book. The reasons leaders feel they must withhold authority, remain “in control” ultimately come down to competence – what must people be taught, or clarity – what have we failed to adequately communicate. Maybe it’s being at sea.

In other words, if people know whGiveControl.pngat to do (clarity), and know how to do it (competence), then leaders generally have no issues trusting that the right people will do the right things the right way.

The Improvement Kata  is a great structure for creating and carrying out development plans for leaders (or future leaders) in your organization.

The Coaching Kata is a great way to structure your next conversation to (1) ensure clarity of intent: Does their target condition align with the direction and challenge? and (2) develop their competence, both in improving / problem solving, but also in their understanding of the domain of work at hand.




Cruise Ship Cabins on an Assembly Line

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines released a cool P.R. video showing the production of cruise ship cabins on an assembly line with a 14 minute(!) takt time.

The key point, for me at least, is that even “big one-off things” can often be broken down into sub-assemblies that have a meaningful takt time of some kind. We have to look for the opportunities for what can be set up to flow vs. reasons why we can’t.

Click Here for the direct link to the page on Royal Caribbean’s press page.


Discussing Challenge and Direction

A manager and his direct report were discussing the challenge and direction for the next round of improvement. The conversation was going around in circles.

The manager was concerned about the excessive overtime, and wanted to establish a challenge to reduce it significantly.

The improver was skipping directly to talking about the things he would have to change in the process – mainly trying to level his demand signal somehow… long before “current condition” had been established… this conversation was just about context.

The manager was frustrated because he knows people habitually jump to solutions instead of first digging into the problem, and he was getting that right now.

The manager was repeating his question “But how can we reduce the overtime.”

Each time the manager asked about the process performance, the improver was offering improvement solutions.

Then I realized… The manager was asking for an improvement solution.

“How can we reduce the overtime?”

I asked him to just ask what he wanted the process to achieve. He still reiterated the same question.

Finally I said “Don’t say ‘how can we.’

Start with “I want…”

“I want the overtime to be 10% or less.”

The tone of the conversation changed immediately, because we really didn’t know what factors were driving the overtime. NOW it is time for the improver to go grasp the current condition (with help from his coach) and establish the next target condition (with help from his coach).

Then he can come back with:

“To keep overtime under 10% , we will need the process to operate like this.”

“Today, it is working like this, and we are running overtime as high as 30% in the worst weeks.”

“As my first step, I intend to…”

And how we’re moving in the right direction.

When the manager was asking “How can we…?” he was asking for a proposed solution right now, even if he didn’t mean to. The answer to a “how can we?” question is “Well, we could…” and we are immediately grasping at possible changes.

Listen to the words you use.

Be clear about what you are actually asking people to do, because that is what you are going to get.

More about Knowing How

A couple of posts down, I reiterated the importance of understanding of how your product is made. If you are in the business of “making things” your ability to improve your product reaches its limit at your level of understanding how to make it. Lean Process and Product Development (below) addresses this same topic.

Now let’s apply this to the management  of production.

In the west, it seems that one of the perks of success is increasing isolation from where the work is done. This may be because western management systems separate the role of “administration” as a generic process from the specialty roles that actually get stuff done. The assumption is that a skilled administrator can successfully administrate just about anything.

As a result, perhaps some managers strive to detach themselves from the details of “getting stuff done” as an unconscious effort to increase their status. They shift to administration type tasks.

These tasks tend to relate to driving financial results. The focus and discussions tend to be around “earned hours” and which shipments to pull ahead to invoice for revenue. They involve skills like expediting (meaning queue jumping) the “hot” jobs, or the ones most likely to make an immediate impact on a financial metric.

The problem comes about when production alone tries to resolve revenue shortfalls with these actions. Pulling more work onto the shop floor – starting jobs earlier – might “keep people busy” but the overproduction just hides the fact that sales volume is below production capacity. Now sales not only has to close the initial shortfall (if you want REAL revenue to keep up), but they also have to double up their efforts to re-fill the pipeline. Otherwise, the “earned hours” or “absorption variance” shortfall is just postponed (and made worse) by this kind of action.

Back on the shop floor, there isn’t anyone looking after the system. It is generally assumed to require this continuous intervention to operate at all, the intervention in turn disrupts stability, which escalates the problem.

But even more, I am troubled, frankly, by how many times I have seen production managers have very poor production management skills.

First and foremost is simple systems thinking. By this I mean understanding the consequences of your decision on the overall stability of the process. In other words, if you break it, you are responsible for ensuring it gets fixed. And to be sure, jumping queues, telling workers to break the flow is breaking it. Note that mastery of how the accounting system keeps score is not systems thinking for the production process. And breaking the process to manipulate the cost accounting is… ?

Of course, if these things are “business as usual” then we are teaching people to do these things as a matter of routine, not exception. Chaos ensues, and there is no attempt at all to worry about the consequences. We’ll deal with that the same way tomorrow.

After understand how the system works, there are some very basic things that any manufacturing manager needs to know. Most of these things also apply to non-production processes, but that does take a little more thinking.

Though it is (hopefully) intuitively obvious that level production is more efficient than ramping things up and down every day (hour!), very few production managers make any effort to establish any kind of level pace.

The single most popular post on this site is “Takt Time – Cycle Time.” I initially wrote it to make the point that the term “cycle time” is ambiguous and we need to be clear about which definition we mean when we use the term, and that we need to understand the “Why?” behind takt time vs. taking a blind, rote approch. Take a look at the comments chain. It isn’t about the questions being asked so much as who is asking them. Whose job is it to understand production management in these organizations?

You may not have a “takt time” in the literal sense, but you do have a rate that things must be done in order to succeed by the end of the day.

Unless you have infinite flexibility, every process was designed around some level of capacity (which means a rate!), even if by accident. But, all too often, I see managers making decisions about hiring more people, buying more equipment, even putting on extra shifts, without doing the underlying math of what capacity is required, what capacity they have, defining the gap, identifying the obstacles, and then deciding on countermeasures. (with “more stuff” as an absolute last resort)

It isn’t about “how many we have to make.”

It is about “how fast should we be making them?”

This, I guess, is the nuance that gets lost.

Keep Calm and Learn to Think

%d bloggers like this: