Only Action Reveals What Must Be Done

I am reading Story by Robert McKee (because the structure of stories interests me). There is a profound passage which totally resonates with everything we discuss here.

Every human being acts, from one moment to the next, knowingly or unknowingly, on his sense of probability, on what he expects, in all likelihood, to happen when he takes an action. We all walk this earth thinking, or at least hoping, that we understand ourselves, our intimates, society, and the world. We behave according to what we believe to be the truth of ourselves, the people around us, and the environment. But this truth we cannot know absolutely. It’s what we believe to be true.

We also believe we’re free to make any decision whatsoever to take any action whatsoever. But every choice and action we make and take, spontaneous or deliberate, is rooted in the sum total of our experience, in what has happened to us in actuality, imagination, or dream to that moment. We then choose to act based on what this gathering of life tells us will be the probable reaction from our world. It is only then, when we take action, that we discover necessity.

Necessity is absolute truth. Necessity is when in fact happens when we act. This truth is known — and can only be known — when we take action into the depth and breadth of our world and have its reaction. This reaction is the truth of our existence at that precise moment, no matter what we believed the moment before. Necessity is what must and does actually happen, as opposed to probability, which is what we hope or expect to happen.

As in life, so in fiction.

In other words, the best we can do is make a prediction. We will not, we cannot, know for certain what will actually happen until it does. The choice we make in that moment to either learn from this experience, or disregard it, is what decides the course from that point.

We are all protagonists in our own lives.

Overproduction vs. Fast Improvement Cycles

A couple of weeks ago ago I posted the question “Are you overproducing improvements?” and compared a typical improvement “blitz” with a large monument machine that produces in large batches.

I’d like to dive a little deeper into some of the paradoxes and implications of 1:1 flow of anything, improvements included.

What is “overproduction” – really?

In the classic “7 wastes” context, overproduction is making something faster than your customer needs it. In practical terms, this means that the cycle time of the producing process is faster than the cycle time of the consuming process, and the producing process keeps making output after a queue has built up above a predetermined “stop point.”

If the cycle times are matched, then as an item is completed by the upstream process, it is consumed by the downstream process.

If the upstream process is cycling faster, then there must be an accumulation of WIP in the middle, and that accumulation must be dealt with. Further, those accumulated items are not yet verified as fit-for-use by the downstream process that uses them.

The way this applies to my “Big Improvement Machine” metaphor is that we are generating “improvement ideas” faster than we can test and incorporate them into the process.

“Small Changes” Doesn’t Mean “Slow Changes”

No matter how good your solution or idea, it is just an academic exercise until it is anchored as the an organizational norm. The rate limit on improvement is established by how quickly people can absorb changes to their daily, habitual routine.

Implementing and testing small changes one-by-one is generally faster than trying to make One Big Change all at once. When we do One Big Change, it is usually actually a lot of small changes.

I hear “we don’t have time to experiment,” but when I ask what really happens if a big change is made, what I hear almost every time is they had to spend considerable time getting things working. Why? Because no matter how well the Big Change was thought through, once you are actually trying it, the REAL problems will come up.

Key Point #1: Don’t waste time trying to develop paper solutions to every problem you can imagine. Instead, “go real” with enough of the new process to start revealing the real issues as quickly as possible.

In other words, the sooner you start actively learning vs. trying to design perfection, the quicker you’ll get something working.

Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast

Your other objective here is to develop the skill within the organization to test and anchor changes quickly, as a matter of routine. This will take time.

When we see a high-performance organization making rapid big changes, what we are typically seeing is making small changes even more rapidly. They have learned, through practice over time, how to do this. It isn’t reasonable to expect any organization to immediately know how to do this.

Key Point #2: If managers, or professional change agents (internal or external consultants, for example) are telling people exactly what to do, this learning is not taking place.

It is critical for the organization to develop this learning skill, and they are only going to do it if they can practice. Learning something new always involves doing it slowly, and poorly at first. If your internal or external consultants are serving you, their primary focus is on developing this basic competence. Their secondary focus is on getting the changes into place. This is the only approach that actually strengthens the organization’s capability.

The same is true for an operational manager who “gets” lean, but tries to just direct people to implement the perfect flow. It will work pretty well for a while. But think about how you (the operational manager) learned this stuff: Likely you learned it by making mistakes and figuring things out. If you don’t give your people a chance learn for themselves, you limit the organization in two ways:

  1. They will never be any better than you.
  2. They will wait to do what they are told, because that is what you are teaching them to do.

Think about what you want your people to be capable of doing without your help, and make sure you are giving them direction that requires them to practice doing those things. It will likely be different than telling them what they layout should look like.

Improve your Cycle Time for Change

Coming back to the original metaphor, if you want fast changes to last, you have to work speeding up the organization’s cycle time for testing improvement ideas. Part of this is going to involve making that activity an inherent and deliberate part of the daily work, not a special exception to daily work.

Part of that is going to be paying attention to how people are working on testing their ideas. The Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata are one way to learn how to deliberately structure this work so that learning takes place. Like any exponential curve, progress seems painfully slow at first. Don’t let that fool you. Be patient, do this right, and the organization will slingshot itself past where you would be with a liner approach.

Small changes, applied smoothly and continuously become big changes very quickly.

Heavy Equipment Overhaul: Flow at Takt in 1938!

This is a great contemporary film from 1938 describing the complete overhaul of a mainline 4-6-0 steam locomotive in the U.K.

What is interesting (to me) is:

  • The overhaul involves stripping the locomotive down to individual parts. Each of the parts, in turn, flows through a process of inspection / repair or replacement, with a strict timing to ensure it is delivered back to re-assembly when required.
  • There are 6 positions with a takt time of 10 hours 44 minutes. Everything is timed to this cadence.
  • I can only speculate, but with that degree of rigor in the timing, they are going to be able to see a delay or problem very quickly, and get out in front of it before it causes a delay in the main-line work.
  • The parts that come off are not necessarily the exact once that are put back on. Everything is flowing – there are multiple locomotives in overhaul.

More thoughts below the video.

(Here is a direct YouTube link for those who don’t get the embed in the email subscription: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktHw1wR9XOU)

Flow in Overhaul and Repair

This is a great working example of a process flow that proves difficult for some organizations: Overhaul and repair. “We don’t know what we will find, so there is no way we can sequence and index it on a timetable.”

I’ve seen a similar operation overhauling helicopters. The intended flow was exactly the same.

  • Like the locomotive flow, they stripped everything down to the airframe. The various components had different flow paths for sheet metal, hydraulic components, power-train (engine / transmission), rotor components, electrical, avionics, and composite parts.
  • The objective was to deliver “good as new” items on time back to the re-assembly process.

Here is where they ran into problems:

  • If an item needed repair, then the repairs were done, and the item flowed back.
  • But if an item could not be repaired (needed to be scrapped and replaced) it was tagged, and returned to the “customer” – the parts bin in main assembly. It arrived just like any other part except this one was tagged as unusable. It was up to the assembly supervisor to notice, and initiate ordering a new one.

Who is your customer? What do they need?

The breakdown was that the repair line(s) saw themselves as providing a repair service. If it couldn’t be repaired, sorry.

What their customer needed was a good part to install on the helicopter. If they can create a good part by repairing the old one, great. But if it isn’t repairable, their customer still needs a good one and they need it on time.

The Importance of Timing and Sequencing

In the locomotive video, they emphasize the precise timing and sequencing to make sure each part arrives in the proper sequence, when it is needed, where it is needed.

Even if it actually worked like they describe, I can be sure it didn’t work like that when they first started.

The timing and sequencing is a hypothesis. Each time they overhaul a locomotive, in fact each individual part flow, is an experiment to test that hypothesis. Over time, it is possible to dial things in very precisely.

Why? So you can quickly identify those truly anomalous conditions that demand your intervention.

Normal vs Abnormal

Just because there are frequent issues does not negate the fact that most of the time things can probably flow pretty well. What we tend to do, however, is focus on the problem cases and give up on all of them. “What about this? What about that?” bringing up the legitimate issues and problems, causes us to lose sight of the fact that underneath it all there is a baseline pattern.

What is important is to define the point at which we need to intervene, and set up the process to detect that point. When we can clearly distinguish between routine work and true exceptions, and not try to treat everything as a special case.

Are You Overproducing Improvements?

Imagine a factory with a large monument machine. It takes several days to set up. When it does run, it runs very fast, much faster than you can actually use its output. Therefore, you take the excess output and store it to use later. Actually, you don’t know how many items you need to make, so you make as many as you can while the machine is available to you.

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Some of that excess output may prove to be less useful than you thought, but there is pressure to use it all anyway since it was so expensive to produce.

After a run making items for one process, you change it over to make items for a different process, and build up a queue of output there.

When all of the output is used, it all may or may not work the way you expected it to.

Most of us would see this as a classic case of “overproduction” – overwhelming the system with excess output that hasn’t been checked for quality, that isn’t needed right now, and might or might not be useful in the future. But it seemed like good efficiency to make it while we could.

Our lean thinking tells us we want to do a few things here. Ultimately, we want to work hard to break up the batches, and make the value flow more evenly to each of the customer processes, and ultimately to the end customers. The work we must do to keep things moving smoothly and evenly will pay off in both tangible and intangible ways.

One of the primary reasons we push hard for 1:1 flow in the lean world is to enable one-by-one confirmation.

We want to test each item of output to confirm that it actually performs as expected rather than making lots of them without knowing if they are any good.

How Do You Produce Improvements?

Now, imagine doing improvements this way. What would it look like?

A process would be scheduled to receive the rapid output of the Improvement Machine.

The Improvement Machine would be set up over a period of several days to produce improvements for the target process.

Once it was running, we would run the Improvement Machine very fast for a week or so. It would produce improvements faster than the target process can really absorb them.

At the end of the run, we might test the improvements as a batch. We might not test them at all, but rather report that they have been implemented with the assumption that they will work. We would also have excess improvements stored on a to-do list for future use.

Those excess improvements might, or might not, prove to be useful, but we would have huge pressure to implement them because they are on the list.

Once the machine was done producing improvements for one process, it would be set up to produce improvements the same way for another.

We would measure how many times we were able to run the improvement machine in a year, not so much the actual sustained impact we were making.

Improvements that were made without the machine might not be measured or credited at all. Or worse, these rogue improvements might actually be discouraged since they are made by people who aren’t certified to run the machine.

Now… substitute “kaizen event” for “improvement machine” and see if it makes any sense.

Why Are Big Batches Necessary?

The reason the Large Monument Machine has to cycle batches of output to different customers is because those customer processes don’t have the internal capability to do what it does. We need an outside resource to do it.

The countermeasure we strive to apply in these cases is to identify the capability that the customer process does need. We then work hard to develop it on a scale they can incorporate into their daily work. This is typically smaller, more specialized, and scoped to their needs.

My purpose here, though, is to apply a metaphor, not to discuss the economics of large capital equipment.

When we “batch improvements” it is often for the same reason: The area that is being improved can’t do it themselves, so we have to dedicate a scarce outside resource – an improvement expert – to lead them through it. Since that improvement leader can’t be there 100% of the time, he has to work as hard and fast as he can when he IS there.

Making Improvements vs. Teaching How to Make Improvements

The countermeasure in both scenarios is the same: Develop the capability within the process. In the case of making improvements, this means asking ourselves “Why can’t they do it?”

All of these are harder than just doing it for them. But if we want improvement to flow, this is the work that must be done.

The Ecosystem of Culture

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An organization’s culture and mindset evolve over time. When confronted with a problem or challenge, the organization (or more accurately, the people in the organization) view it through a filter of their experiences. Ideas that they believe have worked for them under past similar conditions are more likely to be applied again. Ideas that have seemed less successful, or more difficult, in the past are less likely to be applied again.

Over time, this collective experience determines how they respond to the day to day rough spots as well as more serious challenges. Those unconscious biases drive the responses, and in turn, shape how their processes are structured.

Different Cultures = Different Ecosystems

The process mechanics in a company like Toyota evolved over decades in a very specific organizational culture ecosystem, with specific values and beliefs shaped by their historic experiences.

When we are looking at the current processes in a different company, we are seeing the process mechanics that evolved in their management culture. Those process mechanics are optimized by the pressures that are exerted by the way THAT company is managed. Since Toyota is managed differently, its processes are optimized by different pressures, so will look different.

If we take Toyota’s process mechanics and shift them into a different ecosystem, they will have the different pressures exerted upon them. Different default decisions will be made. These alien process mechanics will likely begin to resemble the legacy processes rather quickly, if they survive at all.

This is why the promise of a rapid and dramatic change in operational results is frequently unfulfilled. The process mechanics are imported from a tropical rain forest, and installed in an alpine meadow. As beautiful as it looks in one environment, it won’t stand for long in the other.

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Adjusting the Culture vs. Adjusting the Process Mechanics

If we want this transplant to work, we have to pay careful attention to those evolutionary pressures. In practical terms, this means we try the new mechanics, we must watch carefully to learn what problems they reveal. We also need to observe the decisions that are made when these problems come up.

What adjustments need to be made in the way people interact, and to the immediate response to problems or surprises if this new process is to thrive?

Having a formal structure for this deliberate self-reflection is critical.

The Improvement Kata is engineered to specifically drive this kind of reflection by making changes as experiments, then deliberately reflecting with the question “What have we learned?”

For this to work, of course, we must be honest with ourselves and not just issue a flip answer like “It doesn’t work.”

Because we are asking people to adjust their responses, we are asking them to do things which are unfamiliar and may well run opposite from what they have experienced as successful for them in the past. If we try to move too fast, we are asking them to trust an alien process which is, in their experience, unproven in their environment. We might be asking them to reveal their own limits of knowledge – which is very scary for most of us.

That, in turn, asks for reflection on why “I don’t know…” is so scary to admit in the organization’s culture.

We have sold “lean” as a deceptively simple set of common-sense process mechanics with the idea that if we just implement them, we’ll get incredibly great results. As true as that is, “just implement them” is a lot harder than most of the “rapid improvement” models imply.

There is a lot going on behind what appears to be well understood and simple on the surface.

Executive Rounding: Taking the Organization’s Vitals

Background:

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I wrote an article appearing in the current (October 2017) issue of AME Target Magazine (page 20) that profiles two very different organizations that have both seen really positive shifts in their culture. (And yes, my wife pointed out the misspelling “continous” on the magazine cover.)

The second case study was about Meritus Health in Hagerstown, Maryland, and I want to go into a little more depth here about an element that has, so far, been a keystone to the positive changes they are seeing.

Sara Abshari and Eileen Jaskuta are presenting the Meritus story at the AME conference next week (October 9, 2017).

Sara is a manager (and excellent kata coach) in the Meritus CI office. Eileen is now at Main Line Health System, but was the Chief Quality Officer at Meritus at the time Joe was presenting at KataCon.

Their presentation is titled Death From Kaizen to Daily Improvement and outlines the journey at Meritus, including the development of executive rounding. If you are attending the conference, I encourage you to seek them out – as well as Craig Stritar – and talk to them about their experiences.

Mark’s Word Quibble

In addition, honestly, the Target Magazine editors made a single-word change in the article that I feel substantially changed the contextual meaning of the paragraph, and I am using this forum to explain the significance.

Here is paragraph from the draft as originally submitted. (Highlighting added to point out the difference):

[…][Meritus][…] executives follow a similar structure as they round several times a week to check-in with the front line and ensure there are no obstacles to making progress. Like the Managing Daily improvement meetings at Idex, the executive rounding at Meritus has evolved as they have learned how to connect the front-line improvements to the strategic priorities.

This is what appears in print in the magazine:

[…][Meritus][…] executives follow a similar structure as they visit several times a week to check in with the frontline and ensure there are no obstacles to making progress. Like the MDI meetings at Idex, the executive visiting at Meritus has evolved as they have learned how to connect the front-line improvements to the strategic priorities.

While this editing quibble can easily be dismissed as a pedantic author (me), the positive here is it gives me an opportunity to highlight different meanings in context, go into more depth on the back-story than I could in the magazine article, and invite those of you who will be attending the upcoming AME conference to talk to some of the key people who will be presenting their story there.

Rounding vs. Visiting

In the world of healthcare, “rounding” is the standard work performed by nurses and physicians as they check on the status of each patient. During rounds, they should be deliberately comparing key metrics and indicators of the patient’s health (vital signs, etc.) against what is expected. If something is out of the expected range, that becomes a signal for further investigation or intervention.

“Visiting” is what the patient’s family and friends do. They stop by, and engage socially.

In industry, we talk about “gemba walks,” and if they are done well, they serve the same purpose as “rounding” on patients in healthcare. A gemba walk should be standard work that determines if things are operating normally, and if they are not, investigating further or intervening in some way.

I am speculating that if I had used the term “structured leader standard work” rather than “rounding” it would not have been changed to “visiting.”

Executive Rounding

Joe Ross, the CEO at Meritus Health, presented a keynote at the Kata Summit last February (2017). You can actually download a copy of his presentation here: http://katasummit.com/2017presentations/. The title of his presentation was “Creating Healthy Disruption with Kata.” More about that in a bit.

The keystone of his presentation was about the executives doing structured rounding on various departments several times a week. These are the C-Level executives, and senior Vice Presidents. They round in teams, and change the routes they are rounding on every couple of weeks. Thus, the entire executive team is getting a sense of what is going on in the entire hospital, not just in their departments.

Rather than just “visiting,” they have a formal structure of questions, built from the Coaching Kata questions + some additional information. Since everyone is asking the same basic questions, the teams can be well prepared and the actual time spent in a particular department is programmed to be about 5 minutes. The schedule is tight, so there isn’t time to linger. This is deliberate.

After the teams round, the executives meet to share what they have learned, identify system-wide issues that need their attention, and reflect on what they have learned.

In this case, rather than rounding on patients, the executives are rounding to check the operational health of the hospital. They are checking the vital signs and making sure nothing is impeding people from doing the right thing – do people know the right thing to do? If not, then the executives know they need to provide clarity. Do people know how to do the right thing? If not, then the executives need to work on building capability and competence.

In both cases, executives are getting information they need so they can ensure that routine things happen routinely, and the right people are working to improve the right things, the right way. In the long-term, spending this time building those capabilities and mechanisms for alignment deep into the operational hierarchy gives those executives more time to deal with real strategic issues. Simply put, they are investing time now to build a far more robust organization that can take on bigger and bigger challenges with less and less drama.

Results

Though they were only a little more than a year in when Joe presented at KataCon, he reported some pretty interesting results. I’ll let you look at the presentation to see the statistically significant positive changes in employee surveys, patient safety and patient satisfaction scores. What I want to bring attention to are the cultural changes that he reported:

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Leadership Development

Actually points 1. and 2. above are both about leadership development. The executives are far more in touch with what is happening, not only in their own departments, but in others. Even if they don’t round on their own departments, they hear from executives who did, and get valuable perspectives and questions from outsiders. This helps break down silo walls, build more robust horizontal linkages, and gives their people a stage to show what they are working on.

Since executives can’t be the ones with all of the solutions, they are (or should be) mostly concerned with developing the problem solving capabilities in their departments. At the same time, rounding gives them perspective on problems that only executive action can fix. In a many organizations mid-manager facing these systemic obstacles would try to work around them, ignore them, or just accept “that’s the way it is” and nothing gets done about these things. That breeds helplessness rather than empowerment.

On the other hand, if a manager should be able to solve the problem, then there is a leader development opportunity. That is the point when the executive should double down on ensuring the directors and upper managers are coaching well, have target conditions for developing their staff, and are aware of who is struggling and who is not. You can’t delegate knowing what is actually going on. Replying on reports from subordinates without ever checking in a couple of levels down invites well-meaning people to gloss over issues they don’t want to bother anyone about.

Breaking Down Silos by Providing Transparency

The side-benefit of this type of process is that the old cultures of “stay out of my area” silos get broken down. It becomes OK to raise problems. The opposite is a culture where executives consider it betrayal if someone mentions a problem to anyone outside of the department. That control of information and deliberate isolation in the name of maintaining power doesn’t work here. Nobody likes to work in a place like that. Once an organization has started down the road toward openness and no-blame problem solving, it’s hard to turn back without creating backlash of some kind within the ranks.

Creating Disruption

Joe used the term “Disruption” in the title of his presentation. Disruption is really more about emotions than process. There is a crucial period of transition because this new transparency makes people uncomfortable if they come from a long history of trying hard to make sure everything looks great in the eyes of the boss. Even if the top executive wants transparency and getting things out in the open, that often doesn’t play well with leaders who have been steeped in the opposite.

Thus, this process also gives a CEO and top leaders an opportunity to check, not only the responses of others, but their own responses, to the openness. If there are tensions, that is an opportunity to address them and seek to understand what is driving the fear.

In reality, that is very difficult. In our world of “just the facts, ma’am” we don’t like to talk about emotions, feelings, things that make us uncomfortable. Those things can be perceived as weakness, and in the Old World, weakness could never be shown. Being open about the issues can be a level of vulnerability that many executives haven’t been previously conditioned to handle. Inoculation happens by sticking with the process structure, even in the face of pushback, until people become comfortable with talking to each other openly and honestly. The cross-functional rounding into other departments is a vital part of this process. Backing off is like stopping taking your antibiotics because you feel better. It only emboldens the fear.

These kinds of changes can challenge people’s tacit assumptions about what is right or wrong. Emotions can run high – often without people even being aware of why.

Make Sure Failure = Learning

Take a look at this cool video from Space-X that highlights all of the failures that preceded their successful (and now more or less routine) landing of a recoverable orbital booster rocket. Then let’s discuss it a bit.

(Here is the direct link if you don’t get the embed in your feed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvim4rsNHkQ)

When we see failure, or even failure after failure, it is easy to forget that learning is rarely linear.

A Culture of Learning

Organizations like Space-X (and their counterparts such as Blue Origin) are in the business of learning. They are pushing the edges of what is known and moving into new territory. For organizations that understand that setbacks, mistakes, failures and the like are an inevitable part of learning, these things – while costly and unpleasant – are regarded as part of the process.

We have seen the same mechanisms in play – a process of experimentation toward progressive target conditions toward a visionary challenge – behind pretty much every breakthrough achievement throughout history.

No Mistakes = No Learning

At the opposite end of the spectrum are organizations with no tolerance for mistakes. They expect everything (and every one) to get everything right every time. They dismiss as incompetent any notion of failure, and attack as weakness any admission of “I don’t know” or “I don’t know how.”

A few years ago, as I was teaching Toyota Kata coaching with a client, a middle manager approached me during a break and said – point blank – that it was not his responsibility to develop his people. “Our policy is to hire competent people, and we expect them to be able to do the job.” He wasn’t the only one to say that, so I built the impression that this belief was, indeed, part of their culture. Needless to say they struggle a bit with getting innovation to happen because they try to mechanize the process.

Mistakes = Tuition

Here’s how I look at it. When a mistake happens – especially one that is expensive – you have paid considerable tuition. Your choice now is to either extract as much learning as you can from the event, or to try to ignore it and move on. The later choice is like paying your tuition up-front, then skipping all of your classes and wonder why you aren’t getting it.

Learning = Adapting to Change

Organizations that manage in ways that regard learning as part of their everyday experience are much more adaptive to changes and surprises than those who just execute their routines every day. The paradox here is that organizations who value learning are generally the most disciplined at following their routines. This discipline makes execution a hypothesis test, and they can quickly see when their process isn’t appropriate and adapt and learn quickly as an organization. They strengthen their routines, and through those routines, embed what they have learned in the organization’s DNA for future generations.

Organizations that figure it out as they go, on the other hand, tend to rely on individuals to adapt, but there is no mechanism to capture that learning beyond the individual or small group. Sometimes there is a “lessons learned” document, but that’s it. Those reports rarely result in the changes in organizational behavior that reflect learning. I suppose the most egregious case would be the loss of the space shuttle Columbia upon re-entry for exactly the same organizational failures that resulted in the loss of Challenger.

Technical vs. Cultural Learning

Space-X is solving a technical problem with science and engineering. I hope (and expect) that as they become more successful they will always be striving for something really hard that will drive them to the next level. Based on what I see publicly, I think that is embedded into their culture by Elon Musk. (But I don’t really know. If anyone from Space-X is reading this, how about getting in touch? I’d love to learn more.)

I expect this works for Space-X because they have a culture of learning.

What doesn’t work, though, is to try to apply technical solutions to transition a rote-execution culture into a learning culture. Changing the culture – the default behaviors and responses of people as they interact – isn’t about improving the mechanics of the work process. You certainly can work on the work processes, but the starting condition is what evolved in the context of the organization’s culture. The mechanics of the “improved” process that we try to duplicate evolved in the context of a learning culture. The ecosystems are different. It is difficult for a lean process to survive in a culture that expects everything to run perfectly and doesn’t have robust mechanisms to turn problems into improvements.

Creative Safety Supply: Kaizen Training and Research Page

Normally when I get an email from a company pointing me to the great lean resource on their web page, I find very little worth discussing. But Creative Safety Supply in Beaverton, Oregon has some interesting material that I think is worth taking a look at.

First, to be absolutely clear, I have not done business with them, nor do I have any business relationship. I can’t speak, one way or the other, about their products, customer service, etc

With that out of the way, I found their Kaizen Training and Research Page interesting enough to go through it here and comment on what I see.

What, exactly, is “PDCA?”

The section titled Kaizen History goes through one of the most thorough discussions of the evolution of what we call “PDCA” I have ever read, tracing back to Walter Shewhart. This is the only summary I have ever seen that addresses the parallel but divergent histories of PDCA through W. Edwards Deming on the one hand and Japanese management on the other. There has been a lot of confusion over the years about what “PDCA” actually is. It may well be that that confusion originates from the same term having similar but different definitions depending on the context. This section is summed up well here:

The Deming Circle VS. PDCA

In August of 1980, Deming was involved in a Roundtable Discussion on Product Quality–Japan vs. the United States. During the roundtable discussion, Deming said the following about his Deming Circle/PDSA and the Japanese PDCA Cycle, “They bear no relation to each other. The Deming circle is a quality control program. It is a plan for management. Four steps: Design it, make it, sell it, then test it in service. Repeat the four steps, over and over, redesign it, make it, etc. Maybe you could say that the Deming circle is for management, and the QC circle is for a group of people that work on faults encountered at the local level.”

So… I learned something! Way cool.

Rapid Change vs. Incremental Improvement

A little further down the page is a section titled Kaizen Philosophy. This section leans heavily on the thoughts / opinions of Masaaki Imai through his books and interviews. Today there is an ongoing debate within the lean community about the relative merits of making rapid, radical change, vs. the traditional Japanese approach of steady incremental improvement over the long-haul.

In my opinion, there is nothing inherently wrong with making quick, rapid changes IF they are treated as an experiment in the weeks following. You are running to an untested target condition. You will likely surface many problems and issues that were previously hidden. If you leave abandon the operators and supervisors to deal with those issues on their own, it is likely they simply don’t have the time, skill or clarity of purpose required to work through those obstacles and stabilize the new process.

You will quickly learn what the knowledge and skill gaps are, and need to be prepared to coach and mentor people through closing those gaps. This brings us to the section that I think should be at the very top of the web page:

Respect for People

Almost every discussion about kaizen and continuous improvement mentions that it is about people, and this page is no different. However in truth, the improvement culture we usually describe is process focused rather than people focused, and other than emphasizing the importance of getting ideas from the team, “employee engagement is often lip-service. There is, I think, a big difference between “employee engagement” and “engaging employees.” One is passive, waiting for people to say something. The other is active development of leaders.

Management and Standards

When we get into the role of management, the discussion turns somewhat traditional. Part of this, I think, is a common western interpretation of the word “standards” as things that are created and enforced by management.

According to Steve Spear (and other researchers), Toyota’s definition of “standard” is quite different. It is a process specification designed as a prediction. It is intended to provide a point of reference for the team so they can quickly see when circumstances force them to diverge from that baseline, revealing a previously unknown problem in the process.

Standards in this world are not something static that “management should make everyone aware of” when they change. Rather, standards are established by the team, for the team, so the team can use them as a target condition to drive their own work toward the next level.

This doesn’t mean that the work team is free to set any standard they like in a vacuum. This is the whole point of the daily interaction between leaders at all levels. The status-quo is always subjected to a challenge to move to a higher level. The process itself is predicted, and tested, to produce the intended quality at the predicted cost, in the predicted time, with the predicted resources. Because actual process and outcomes are continuously compared to the predicted process and outcomes, the whole system is designed to surface “unknowns” very quickly.

This, in turn, provides opportunities to develop people’s skills at dealing with these issues in near-real time. The whole point is to continuously develop the improvement skills at the work team level so we can see who the next generation of leaders are. (Ref: Liker and Convis, “The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership”)

Staging improvement as a special event, “limited time only” during which we ask people for input does not demonstrate respect, nor does it teach them to see and solve those small issues on a daily basis.

There’s more, but I’m going to stop here for now.

Summary

Creative Safety Supply clearly “gets it.” I think this page is well worth your time to read, but (and this is important), read it critically. There are actually elements of conflicting information on the page, which is awesome because it gives you (the reader) an opportunity to pause and think.

From that, I think this one-page summary really reflects the state of “lean” today: There IS NO CANONICAL DEFINITION. Anyone who asserts there is has, by definition, closed their mind to the alternatives.

We can look at “What Would Toyota Do?” as somewhat of a baseline, but ultimately we are talking about an organizational culture. Toyota does what they do because of the ways they structure how people interact with one another. Other companies may well achieve the same outcomes with different cultural mechanisms. But the interactions between people will override process mechanics every time.

Hopefully I created a lot of controversy here.  🙂

There Are No Silver Bullets

There are no quick, simple solutions

Occasionally I get an email from someone who asks a question like “How can I improve cycle time in the [fill in the blank here] industry?” Generally my reply is along the lines of “I don’t know, but I can help you figure it out.” I’ll give them some homework, often pointing them at Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata Practice Guide online, and asking them to do the Process Analysis step and get back to me with what they have seen and learned.

Lone Ranger with Silver Bullet
Who was that masked man?

This is usually followed by silence (cue the crickets here). Perhaps they think there is an easy answer and a single email can just tell them what to do to get that 20% performance improvement.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Process improvement involves work. There aren’t easy fixes (that last). There isn’t any solution anyone can give you that can just be implemented, nor can anyone learn it for you.

The real work is adjusting your culture

Digging a little deeper, if you want that productivity improvement to reach even a fraction of your full potential or sustain for any length of time, you have to go beyond technical solutions. When I said process improvement involves work, the technical mechanics are the easy part. The real work is understanding what social and cultural norms in your organization are holding you back and dealing with those.

Fortunately we have learned a lot more about the influence of the organization’s culture and how to influence the culture. But influencing the culture doesn’t happen by accident. And you can’t outsource your own thinking, reflection and learning.

 

Learning Starts With “I Don’t Know”

If an organization wants to encourage learning, they have to get comfortable with not having all of the answers. Learning only happens when we discover something we don’t know, and then actively pursue understanding it. Many organizations, though, equate “having the answers” or “already knowing” with “competence.” Thus, if I say “I don’t know” then I am setting myself up for being regarded as incompetent.

What I see in these organizations is people will take great pains to hide problems. They will try very hard to figure things out, but do so in the background always reporting that everything is going fine. They live in the hope that someone else’s problem will emerge as the show-stopper before theirs does, and give them the extra time to sort out their issue.

Meanwhile, the bosses are frustrated because people aren’t being truthful with them. But what should they expect if “truth” attracts accusations of being incompetent?

But… there is hope.

I was talking to a friend last week who works in a huge company that seems to be making an earnest effort to shift their culture. There is nearly unanimous agreement that the existing culture isn’t working for them. On the other hand, actually changing culture is really, really hard because it involves changing people’s immediate, habitual responses to things.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged when my friend recounted a recent meeting where someone admitted two things:

  1. There was an unexpected problem that came out in a recent test.
  2. They, right now, don’t know how to fix it.

Just to be clear, these two things coming out in this meeting is a big deal. This has been a culture where unexpected problems have not been warmly received. Bringing them up without a confident assessment about a prospective solution was inviting the kind of intervention that is rarely helpful.

This time, though, was a little different.

The leaders started going down the expected responses such as “What do you mean we don’t know what to do?” then… stopped short. They paused, and realized this was not in line with their newly stated values of creating trust and accepting failure as an inherent part of learning.

And they changed their tone. They shifted the conversation from trying to assign responsibility blame for the test failure toward asking what we, the organization, needed to learn to better understand what happened.

My thoughts are:

Kudos to the person who was brave enough to test the waters and admit “I don’t know.”