Don’t Tell Me Your Values. Listen to Them.

In the early morning of March 23, 2022 a leaked email with the subject “Why gas increase is good for hiring” surfaced on Reddit. (Click the hot link to see the actual post.)

The email in question was sent by the Executive Director of Operations of Apple Central LLC, a major franchisee of Applebees restaurants. He was describing the “opportunity” presented by higher gas prices, increasing prices and increased cost pressure on smaller restaurants. Quoting a couple of key lines:

“The advantage [of higher gas prices] has for us is that it will increase application flow and has the potential to lower our average wage”

He continues:

“Any increase in gas price cuts into [our employees] disposable income […] that means more hours employees will need to work to maintain their current level of living.”

Now, to his credit, after saying “besides hiring employees in at lower wages to decrease our labor cost” he closes with the advice to “Do the things to make sure you are the employer of choice” But this means “Get schedules completed early so they can plan their other jobs around yours.” though he does close with “have the culture and environment that will attract people.”

According to reports in the local newspaper, the manager in the Lawrenceville, Kansas Applebee’s was so angered by the content and tone of this message that he made copies of the email, distributed it to the employees, and he and two other managers quit on the spot in protest forcing the store to close for at least a day. One of those copies ended up being scanned and uploaded.

Blowback

Within an hour of the posting on Reddit, the thread was picked up on Twitter by Rob Gill. There were tens of thousands of forwards, retweets, views.

That same day the Lawrence Journal-World, the local paper, picked up the story:

Lawrence Journal-World: An email urging lower wages for new employees due to higher gas prices sparks walkout at Lawrence Applebee’s

CBS News picked up the story on March 25.

On March 26 it was covered by the New York Post.

and by March 28 and 29 was the local and then mainstream press, even internationally:

Springfield News-Leader: Applebee’s franchise executive from Springfield fired after leaked email about workforce

Business Insider: An Applebee’s franchise group fired an executive who said higher gas prices and inflation mean stores can pay less because people are desperate for any money to make ends meet

Forbes: “Applebee’s Tone-Deaf Franchise Executive Giddily Says He Can Pay Lower Wages Because of Inflation and Higher Gas Prices

Inc. : An Applebee’s Exec Just Sent an Email That the Company Was Quick to Disavow

Newsweek: Applebee’s Franchise Executive Fired After Email Justifying Lower Pay

International Business Times (in India!): Who is Wayne Pankratz? Applebee’s Exec Proposes to Take ‘Advantage’ of Gas Hike to Lower Wages in Leaked Memo

There are more. Many more. Just search for “Wayne Pankratz” email and you will turn up lots of hits.

OK – so what can we learn here?

I didn’t write about this just to pile on to the story. The mainstream business press has done more than I can ever do. Rather, I want to explore some of the deeper implications, not just for Applebee’s and Apple Central LLC, but for our own organizations.

First the obvious. This was a potential public relations disaster. There was a lot of damage to be sure. At the same time, the story was quickly buried by the ongoing news about the Ukrainians’ fight for their very existence as a nation, and juicier national political stories coming out of Washington D.C. Had this been a slow news period, this story is the type that can get legs under it and reverberate for weeks. That didn’t happen in this case.

Once the story hit the mainstream press, we had P.R. responses like:

Kevin Carroll, COO of Applebee’s: “This is the opinion of an individual, not Applebee’s. This issue is being addressed internally by the franchisee who employs this individual and who owns and operates the restaurants in this market. Our team members are the lifeblood of our restaurants, and our franchisees are always looking to reward and incentivize team members, new and current, to remain within the Applebee’s family.”

And from Apple Central LLC, the company where the email originated: “The main message here is that this in absolutely no way, shape, or form speaks to our policies or our culture, or anything like that with our brand.”

And ultimately Mr. Pankratz lost his job. End of story, a rogue employee, a bad apple (pardon the pun) if you will. Maybe.

Looking Deeper

Still, I have some questions – and that is all they are, just questions. I know nothing about the culture of Apple Central LLC, the company that owns the franchises where the email originated.

But the email was written on March 9. This story broke two weeks later, and the response was a few days after that – once reporters started calling the company.

What happened in those two weeks?

There is a hint in the email itself. Or more specifically the forwarding chain. Someone in the store in Springfield (Springfield-8289) responds to the original email: “Great message Sir!” and right away we see that maybe this message isn’t so rogue.

It is then forwarded again by a redacted user with the message: “Words of wisdom from wayne!!!”

It was sent to [redacted] Distribution List – that implies a lot of people saw it. It was sent in the evening of March 9. What happened on March 10th? Those are the actions that would tell us if this was a break from the way business is normally done.

The Questions for Everyone

The more subtle story seems to be about the difference between espoused vs. actual values.

Simply, it is the internally triggered response, not the response to outside inquiries, that reflects the actual values of this company.

Was there any effort at all to repair the employee relationships that were damaged? Is there evidence that anyone objected, retracted, or attempted internal damage control with the employees who saw the message before it blew up in online in the press?

Would this story have even happened if someone from Apple Central LLC immediately got in touch with everyone on the distribution list and even visited the Lawrenceville restaurant in person to make amends?

In the face of this kind of blowback, wouldn’t that be something a company would highlight in press releases? None of the press releases or statements said anything about efforts to repair the damaged relationships with employees. None of them said anything about actions being taken immediately. Simply put, there isn’t any evidence of alarms about breaking with the policies, culture or brand until reporters start asking about it two weeks later.

Nor is there any evidence that the individuals who enthusiastically forwarded the message along were acting outside of the cultural bounds of the company.

Quite the opposite.

What Problem Were They Trying to Solve?

Based on all indications it seems this was managed as a public relations problem. It was not managed as a culture problem.

All of the messaging says “Our culture is fine.” Just this guy, who happens to have the title Executive Director of Operations, but we are told he doesn’t make hiring policy.

A Question for You

Let’s even take email out of it. If someone made this case in your company’s leadership meeting, what would the response be from around the table?

Would anyone push back? Would anyone say “Wait, we don’t talk about our people that way.” “We don’t look to trap them in the job here.” “No! That isn’t who we are!”

Maybe there would be an awkward silence until someone changed the subject, but nothing else said.

Or would head nod in tacit agreement, good point, next topic?

Or would there be “Great point!” with nods and smiles?

Or… would there be a discussion about actual ways to take advantage of this so-called opportunity?

Your leadership values are not what is printed on the posters in your hallways. Nor are they what your public relations people tell the reporters when there is an adverse story.

Your leadership values are reflected in what you do, what you say, how you respond day-in and day-out.

If you want to know your values, just listen to what people, especially those in authority, say when they “can talk freely.” Listen to things people say that get no pushback or objection. Those are the values that are driving policy and decisions.

Listen to yourselves. Listen to your values. Own them. If the public face is different from everyday discussions ask yourselves why, especially if the word “integrity” shows up anywhere in your values statement.

Why Are You Asking Questions?

When someone brings a problem to a leader, it is typical for the leader to begin asking questions. The intent of those questions can make a world of difference.

Diagnostic Questions

In what I would contend is the more typical case, the questions are diagnostic. The leader’s intent is to get more information so that he can then propose or direct a solution. I can certainly speak for myself that when I have knowledge in the domain it is really easy to just drop into this mode. Someone is asking for advice, and I naturally reflex to giving it.

Of course there are times when this is wholly appropriate. Think of a physician and a patient or an auto mechanic and a customer. The customer has a problem that they are not capable of fixing and is engaging an expert to fix it for them or at least tell them what they should do.

Development Questions

If the intent is to develop the expertise in people then the questions must be different. This isn’t about finding the answers, it is about teaching the questions. Here the leader is coaching. The questions are about helping the problem-solver find her threshold of knowledge and the next step to learn more.

In other words, rather than asking the diagnostic questions yourself (as the leader), it is about helping the learner determine what diagnostic questions she should be asking herself, and then going about finding the answers.

Click on the image to download a Toyota Kata coaching pocket card.

This is Harder and Takes Longer

In the short term, it is always easier to just give them the answers. We are all hard-wired to seek out affirmations of our competence. Equally, we are hard-wired to avoid situations that might call our competence into question. It is uncomfortable to be expected to know something we do not. This is part of being human. I would contend it is especially hard to resist showing what I know when I actually DO know (or think I do – though often I know a lot less than I assume).

It can also be frustrating for the learner, especially if they are used to just being told the answers. “Just tell me what to do” is a response that should clue you in to this frustration.

But if your intent is to develop the organization, you have to work a little harder.

Let’s Go See – and learn together

Even if I am asking diagnostic questions, I am likely to get to a point where I start hearing speculative answers or even a hard “I don’t know.” This is a great opportunity to shift gears from diagnostic to coaching with “Let’s go see so we can both understand what is going on.”

Now you can work together to help someone get deeper understanding of the current condition and the nature of the obstacles and problems being encountered. It is also a good opportunity to ask them to document what they are seeing in ways that help them explain it better.

This can take the form of a Toyota Kata storyboard, or an A3, or whatever other structure you are trying to teach and use for problem solving and improvement.

If done well, you will turn “What should I do?” into a learning and growth opportunity for everyone.

Leading to Learn: Ask More, Tell Less

A few years ago I was working with a company that was ramping up a complex highly-automated production process.

A group of technicians had an idea for an improvement. The nature of what they were trying to improve, or their idea is irrelevant here.

They brought their idea to the plant manager, carefully explained it, and then a bit of awesomeness happened.

Instead of being critical or asking a lot of leading “What about…?” questions, he borrowed and paraphrased a question from David Marquet:

“What things do you think might concern me about this?”

The technicians were stumped. So the plant manager then said “That’s OK, how about getting back to me tomorrow with what you think?”

The next day the technicians had revised their idea to deal with potential problems the plant manager hadn’t even thought of. Which makes sense because they knew a lot more about how things worked than he did.

By asking that question he pushed them to think of the higher level systems implications, to think like the plant manager who has customers and constituents he has to please above and beyond the scope of the shop floor itself.

How do you respond when someone presents an idea? Do you critique it? Do you try to come up with scenarios that break it? Or do you challenge people to go back and think a little more deeply about the what if’s?

One is telling. The other is teaching.

Takt Time: How Slow Can You Go?

A long, long time ago – in the days when computer programs were coded as holes in punch cards – I was in ROTC* in college. Twice a year we had a “PT” (Physical Training, I think) test that consisted of measured performance on five “events.” One of those events was a 2 mile run. To get a maximum score of 100 points, the participant had to complete the 2 mile run in 14 minutes and 9 seconds. Why? I have no idea. But that was the way it was.

Yes – this old school stopwatch reads exactly 42 seconds.

My buddy John and I enjoyed running, and would often work out together. Our school was in Potsdam, New York, a place known for rather brutal winters, so we ran on a 1/10 mile indoor track.

We practiced the PT test. John would track our total time for 2 miles (20 laps around the 1/10 mile track). I would measure lap times. Since 14 minutes is 840 seconds, we knew that if we could consistently make 42 second laps, we would complete two miles in 14 minutes, and get the maximum score with 9 seconds to spare.

The track had hash marks at each quarter point, so we knew we had to hit quarter 1 between 10 and 11 seconds, half way at 21, the 3/4 mark between 31 and 32, and the lap at 42. We would check and adjust our pace accordingly, striving to hit exact 42 second laps every time.

To be clear, we could hold that pace many times further than 2 miles. It wasn’t a matter of conditioning. We weren’t going all out. We were going fast enough. And that was the point.

When we took the test, other cadets were going all out, passing us, and turning in much faster times. Others would try to “pace themselves” and then sprint as fast as they could for that last lap. As a general rule, although the instructors were calling out elapsed times as people went by, these cadets weren’t all that aware of the speed they had to hold. They were just going as fast as they could.

Meanwhile, John and I, running together, and tracking our cycle times (lap times) vs the takt time (42 seconds / lap) would come in at pretty much exactly 14 minutes and get the same score as everyone who had finished ahead of us: 100 points.

After our timed run was done, we would keep running, offering encouragement and pacing for those cadets who were struggling a bit. Everyone finishes, nobody left behind.

A couple of the instructors were curious why we didn’t go for a faster time. And many times we did when we were just working out. We were capable of breaking 12 minutes – not competitive times in a track meet, but respectable. The simple fact was that going faster wasn’t necessary to accomplish the goal.

Takt Time and Cycle Time

This is the whole point of having a takt time. It answers the question, “How fast must we go?” It doesn’t answer “How fast can we go?” nor does it answer “How fast should we go?” I fact, John and I could have run those laps almost (but not quite) half a second slower than we did – which would have eaten into the 9 second buffer we established. Aside from making the math easier, that buffer also gave us a small margin for even something as bad as taking a stumble and standing back up. Also, of course, we could make up 5-10 seconds a lap if we really had to. But we never did. Time: 14:00. We were very consistent.

Rate vs. Output

I encounter a lot of production managers who are so conditioned to focus on the daily output that they don’t even think about the critical factor: How fast are you running vs. how fast do you need to run? In other words what is your rate of output vs. your takt time?

Instead they tend to, at best, count units of output without really paying attention to the time interval between one and the next. In the worst case many units are started at once, and people swarm from one operation to the next during the day – the equivalent of that mad sprint trying to make up as much time as possible. They don’t really know if they will succeed or not until the end of the day (or month!).

It Isn’t a Race

The “just” in “just-in-time” is “just enough resources” to “just make the output you need” in any given time interval. As the operation is streamlined, the same effort is able to accomplish more. Where to put that additional capacity (which costs nothing additional since it has been there all along) to create more value should be the challenge the organization is trying to meet.

My experience has been that managers and leaders often struggle to adopt this “rate” mindset and let go of chasing an inventory number. In the words of the late great philosopher Kenny Rogers – “There’ll be plenty of time for counting when the dealings done.”


*ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) is a U.S. program where college students can earn a commission in the U.S. Armed Forces while earning their degree.

Applying the Improvement Kata to the Process of Leadership

Whether you are a line leader or an internal or external consultant, if you are reading this you are likely working to shift the culture of your organization.

The technical “tools” alone are pretty useless unless you are already operating in the kind of culture that embeds the mechanisms of learning and collaboration deep into the structure of day-to-day work. If that kind of culture isn’t present, the “lean tools” will reveal those issues just as quickly (more quickly, in fact) as they reveal shortages, work balance mismatches and quality problems.

Making these kinds of changes is a lot harder than teaching people about how the “lean tools” work, and a lot of change agents are frustrated by the perception that the changes are not sustaining or being supported.

Back in February 2019 I gave a talk at KataCon5 in Savannah on some of the challenges change agents face when trying to influence how people respond to challenges and interact with one another. Here is the direct link in case the embed doesn’t work for you: https://youtu.be/NnvwOF4J3g8

As you watch the video (assuming you are *smile*) give some thought to how well you can paint a picture of how your efforts are influencing the patterns of interaction within the organization. Do you have something in mind for what you are trying to achieve there? What patterns are you actually observing?

And what is your role in those dynamics? How do you influence the patterns of who talks to whom, how, when, and about what? Are you acting as an intermediator between groups that don’t communicate or who are antagonistic toward one another? If so, what would happen if you stopped?

What happens when a production team member, or a nurse doing rounds on the med-surg floor, or your front-line customer service agent encounters something that is different than it should be? What is the threshold of starting action?

All of these things are cultural norms. And the “lean tools” all impact those norms in ways that people often are not prepared for.

None of these questions are on a checklist. Rather, they are the kinds of things to think about.

Respect, Standards and Jidoka

Many years ago I wrote an article for SME called The Essence of Jidoka. In that article I described a four step process designed to improve productivity and drive continuous improvement. Since then these four steps have been picked up and incorporated into the training materials of many consultants, used to write the Wikipedia article on jidoka (which I most assuredly did not author), and even found their way into some academic papers. Sometimes with attribution back to my article, may times without.

In that article, “jidoka” was described as a four step process:

  1. Detect a problem.
  2. Stop.
  3. Fix or correct the problem.
  4. Find the root cause and implement a permanent countermeasure.

But I would like to take a hard look at the first step: Detect the problem. This is where, I believe, most organizations actually fall down. And in doing so, they also fall down on respect for people.

The key question is: “What do you consider a problem?”

Most organizations do not see a problem until the symptoms are bad enough that they are compelled to do something about it. This means people have been struggling with issues for some time already. The machine isn’t reliably producing good parts. Or someone is having to rework material. Or the supplies cabinet is always short, and the nurses have to launch a safari to find what they need.

Contrast this with a company like Toyota. Every Toyota-trained leader I have ever dealt with is very consistent. A problem is any deviation from the standard. More importantly, a deviation from the standard (1) forces people to improvise and (2) is an opportunity to learn.

This definition, of course, leads to a question: “What is a standard?”

Probably the best explanation to date is in the research done by Steven Spear at Harvard. His work was summarized in the landmark article Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System.

Spear’s research concluded there were four tacit rules for how activities, information connections, flow paths, and improvements were designed and executed in Toyota operations. Each of those rules describes:

Any deviation from the standard triggers some kind of alert that gets someone’s attention. And whose attention is explicitly defined – That is a standard as well.

As I look at a work area, I often see a lot of 5S type of activity. Things and their intended locations are marked and labeled. These are standards. They establish what should be where. But the question to ask is “What happens if something is out of place?”

That is a deviation from the standard. It is a problem.

Stop

Fix or Correct (put it back – restore the standard condition)

Investigate the root cause

“What’s going on with the air wrench today?”

“Actually it is an extra one.”

“Really? Where did it come from?”

“I borrowed it from the Team Member in work zone 3.”

“Ah, OK. Why did you need his?”

“The regular one isn’t working.”

“Hey – thanks for letting me know. I’ll get it to maintenance.”

“Thanks”

“Did you tell anyone about the problem before now?”

“No, I just borrowed the wrench. I just needed to get this job done, then forgot. It’s no big deal, it’s easier to just borrow Scott’s wrench.”

And in that exchange, what have you discovered about your daily management system by simply being curious about a trivial deviation from a 5S standard?

Is this the Team Member’s fault?

Probably not. What is your standard? What is he supposed to do if the wrench stops working? Is there an escalation process and a response for this kind of small stoppage? Or are your Team Members just expected to find a way to work through the issue? Which of those responses is more respectful of the Team Member who spends her time trying to create value for you?

Often times there is no standard.

But without a standard you have no way to tell if there is a problem (other than a feeling that something isn’t right). And if you are sure there is a problem, without a standard you can’t really define what “fixed” is.

So start with defining the standard. First, go back to Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System. You can get an idea of the kinds of things you should standardize.

As you think of standards, consider a standard for your standard:

  • Express it from the viewpoint of the process customer.
  • Define it in a way that can be verified as “met” or “not met.” No gray zones. You can quantify the magnitude of a problem, but not whether you have one.
  • There is a visual or other control tells the appropriate person, right away, if there is a deviation from your standard?
  • Is there a standard that triggers a response to clear the problem?

5S is nothing more than the first step of setting standards. Many people say to start there, but don’t say why. The point is to practice setting standards and holding them. Taiichi Ohno is quoted as saying:

“If there is no standard, there can be no kaizen.”

Any deviation from the standard is a problem.

Your choice, as a leader, is how to handle that problem.

Kaas Tailored – Truth, Bit, Pull

Jeff Kaas talks about Leader Standard Work
https://kaastailored.com/blog/what-is-leader-standard-work/

The people at Kaas Tailored in Mukilteo, Washington are friends, neighbors, and colleagues of mine. They have been a tour stop for people from all over the planet who want to learn more about their people-centric culture of continuous improvement.

Last year when the tsunami of COVID washed over all of us, their business faced an existential threat and they made a dramatic pivot to making medical PPE – masks and face shields. Their main motivation was “This is what our community needs right now.” In fact, you might have seen a bit of their story as part of the PBS Frontline Coronavirus Pandemic episode.

Dramatic change reveals obstacles that may have been buried under the Old Normal, and this was certainly the case for Jeff Kaas and his team. The awesome part is that they doubled down on their effort to learn and practice Toyota Kata as a response. They needed better organizational alignment, tying their organization’s philosophy and direction down to their day-to-day processes, and they used Toyota Kata to do that. I think they are emerging as a stronger organization as a result.

I mentioned in the opening that they have been a tour stop for many years. To further that end, they have worked hard to make that experience available online. What is cool about it is now it isn’t necessary to travel to Mukilteo, Washington (about 20 miles north of Seattle) to see them. They can come to you.

So when they asked me if I would like to participate with them in a series of online events they will be presenting starting on March 24, 2021 my response was an immediate Yes. To be clear, my role is chiming in with color commentary, and perhaps being a little more in front when they start talking about Toyota Kata.

If you would like to participate, here is their registration page:

Reflections and Lessons From 1997

MONDAY: 2 PERS 1 MACHINE. TODAY: 1 PERSON 2 MACHINES

On a Thursday afternoon in the summer of 1997 I sent that pager message (remember pagers?) to Rick from the factory where I had spent a week working with Mr. Shimura of Shingijutsu and Reiko, his interpreter.

I knew that Rick would be wrapping up a class teaching the basics of kaizen events to a group of suppliers and if I were lucky, he would see the pager message and use it as a reinforcement to the participants. Rick and I usually alternated teaching that class, sometimes we taught it together. We were good work partners, finishing each others’ sentences and the mutual respect was very high.

I was on-site at another supplier. We were there to help them take some first steps toward “lean production.” Our goal, at least the idea, was that we would work through the process of making significant improvements with the thought that they would learn enough to try it themselves.

This was not my first visit – the episode with Mr. Iwata that I relate in my third post to this blog had happened there a couple of months earlier, and that visit had resulted in my company offering up Mr. Shimura’s time on our dime.

This may well have been “an offer they couldn’t refuse” and I’m not sure everyone there saw it as help. We were from their 800 pound gorilla customer, they had trouble making on-time deliveries, and sometimes that isn’t the kind of help that you want. From their perspective their biggest customer had people who knew their way around a factory spending days on their shop floor and, most certainly, ascertaining how much more productivity was possible if only, well, the buyers squeezed them hard enough. It didn’t really work that way, but it had worked that way in the past, so who could blame the suppliers for thinking this was a more sophisticated way to audit them?

Anyway, we had worked through the week to carefully look at the tasks involved to unload, load, and machine a single part on a large linear milling machine. Mr. Shimura was there asking questions, not so much from curiosity but to direct my eyes. I’m sure he already knew the answers. As we dug into the timing, it became clear that there was enough operator waiting time as the part was being milled that a single operator could, theoretically, unload and load an adjacent machine – operating two of them at once.

So we carefully worked out the chorography required to make it work, and on Thursday mid-day it all came together. The work was flowing, the parts were flowing. It was really a thing of beauty.

Friday morning we would report out the week to management, and Friday afternoon I would head to the airport to go home to Seattle.

But I had some worries as well. Although the company President, and the VP of Operations were supportive, their support was along the lines of welcoming everyone into the plant, making it clear they were happy to see us, attending the final report-out and endorsing our efforts.

I was still pretty knew at this. I was making the transition from teaching classes and running simulations to making real change in real factories (that weren’t mine!). I was really fortunate to have a lot of 1:1 time with Mr. Shimura and Reiko. I asked questions, he patiently taught me how to use the standard work combination sheet, and other nuances of kaizen and flow production. I got a lot more out of that week than the supplier did simply because I was there spending time with Mr. Shimura and taking advantage of every second I could. I had 1:1 time because none of the supplier’s managers were seeking him out to learn from his vast experience.

Some quotes I will never forget: “If I see something is hand written, then I know at least one person has read it.”

“If parts that are in tolerance don’t fit, it is a problem with the tolerances.”

(Walking through the shop) “Does this company lose a lot of money?” Reply: “No, they are very profitable.” “Then their prices are too high.”

In the end, though, I am equally certain that come Monday morning the work sequence we had so carefully worked out – at great expense to my company for my time, my travel, Mr. Shimura, his interpreter, and others – was never repeated again.

Why not?

Well, we can all blame “management commitment” because that is really easy to do. But I put equal weight on our paradigm of improvement at the time. The idea that, in 4 working days we could institute a change that flew straight against the operational and cultural norms of the company and expect it to last any longer than until we were out the door was, well, ludicrous.

Why should we expect anything different?

It is ludicrous in any company, whether this work is being brought in from outside or internally generated.

The people who have to manage the daily work, whether they were involved in this exercise or not, have no paradigm for dealing with the myriad of issues that are bound to be surfaced after we pulled all of the buffers out of the material and the time. Yes, it can work, IF we understand the conditions required for success, and IF we pick up right away when those conditions aren’t there and IF we respond to fix it very fast. Then, yes, it can work.

It will be more time and trouble than it was before, though, unless the next things are also done.

For at least some of those issues – maybe not all of them, but always working against a couple of them – seeking out why those issues happened and dealing with the causes.

Just to keep this tiny two-machine “work cell” operating in this large factory would have eventually engaged every support system they had.

That’s the whole point, actually, of a model line. It isn’t building the model line. It is what you have to fix in your systems to keep it going.

Many years later I spent a week on another company’s shop floor with their internal kaizen team and getting an andon / escalation process up and running was the only thing we were working on that week. That process is just as important, if not more, than the baseline work of flow. Because without it, your flow will fall apart.

This is the part of the process that engages people. Putting in the baseline process is the easy part. Fielding the problems that flow surfaces – that takes changing the day-to-day routine in the workplace, and is a lot harder. That is where the culture change comes into play. Actually it is more than engaging people. It engages specific people: This is the part that must engage the leaders. They must lead, guide and coach process of working through all of the issues so stability can be reestablished. Then challenge the team to get to the next level.

But all of that is what I know now. I had the knowledge back then, but not the deep understanding.

So – I am thankful for that week because my understanding of what I had been teaching for months easily doubled… twice in those few days.

I was back there a few more times, they even gave me a badge (which I still have somewhere) so I could let myself in. One time I spent two straight weeks there. They were good people.

But we were applying work to the technical systems, and never really dealing with their default responses to problems, their culture, the way they went managing their daily work.

I know so much more today it is actually humbling to write this. And I still have a lot to learn. We all do.

The company I was working in? They were sold, and sold again. I think they are still in business, but I wouldn’t know anyone there.

Toyota Kata: When to Switch Obstacles

Sometimes the situation arises where the learner has been beating her head against an obstacle with little or no luck overcoming it. The question comes up: When is it OK to give up and switch to something else.

The answer is, of course, a little situational. (Consultant speak: It depends…)

The natural progression of the Improvement Kata will provide an opportunity.

Improvement Kata steps by Mike Rother

As the learner is iterating against obstacles toward the Target Condition the clock is ticking because the Target Condition is always associated with an “achieve by” date. If the Target Condition is achieved OR we hit the “achieve by” date without achieving it, the learner should cycle back to the beginning and:

  • Verify understand of the direction and challenge. (The learner may well have gotten more clarity along the way.)
  • Get a complete grasp of the Current Condition. This is important because often while working toward a Target Condition the learner is only updating specific process and performance metrics, and may not be looking for collateral changes elsewhere. This is a time to take a step back, put up the periscope, and get a grasp of the complete picture.
  • Based on that new Current Condition, establish a new Target Condition, with a new “achieve by” date.
  • Now… identify the obstacles in the way of achieving that new Target Condition. Ideally they should wipe the obstacle parking lot clean and take a fresh look.

This process often helps clear the learner’s mind and see another way to get there, or see easier obstacles that were overlooked before.

This is also why it is important for the “achieve by” date to be relatively close (a couple of weeks) – because that date is a safety valve that forces a reset of the process if the learner is stuck.

If the learner asks if it is OK to work on a different obstacle, then the coach should become curious about the learner’s rationale.

Specifically, I want to understand why the learner thinks there might be an easier way vs. just saying this one is too hard. This may well require some more information gathering – a mini version of the reset I talked about above.

The key point here is to maintain the learner’s motivation. There is a fine line between struggling to solve a problem and getting frustrated. This might be a good time for the coach to engage in some empathetic questioning.

For example, name the feeling you are picking up to test your hypothesis: “It seems you are really frustrated by this…” Then listen. The learner will likely either agree, “yeah, I am.” or refute and give you more information, “No, I’m just trying to…” Then you might learn more about their threshold of knowledge with the process of problem solving.

That can open up a discussion for why the learner thinks it would be a good idea to try something else. Then use your judgement.

But as a coach, I don’t want to make switching obstacles too easy because there is a high risk of it becoming a whack-a-mole game. Some obstacles actually require digging and perseverance to overcome. Your job, coach, is to keep the learner in the game.

Sometimes, though, the learner gets fixated on a problem and doesn’t see another way. Even in this case, if the time to the “achieve by” date is short, I’d let it ride. But if that isn’t practical…

The coach may well have a broader perspective – in fact, this is part of the coach’s job.

If the learner is making progress on something I (the coach) consider a red herring, I generally let it go. There is always learning involved – so long as the effort doesn’t bog down progress.

Sometimes, though, the learner is getting frustrated and so focused that he just doesn’t see any other way.

This is time for gentle intervention with whatever questions might help the learner pause, step back, and see the bigger picture.

For example, perhaps something like “If this obstacle were cleared, how would the process operate?” This might not be the full target condition. I’m just trying to learn what “solved” looks like to the learner. Maybe just thinking about it will help them see the where they are trying to go and possibly another path to get there.

An interesting follow-up might be, “Hmmm, what’s stopping it from working that way now?”

“What would you need to learn to better understand what is going on?” might be another avenue to get the learner to look at his threshold of knowledge vs. the big ugly obstacle in front of him

It all depends on what you think will help the learner raise her head and take a different look at things.

But in the end, if you have a learner that is truly stuck, and after a few tries isn’t going to get unstuck, then, honestly, it’s time to go shoulder-to-shoulder with them and dig into things together.

What I would work very hard to avoid is direct intervention – “Why don’t you work on…” because this undermines the entire process by giving them the answers and can easily create a “what do you think I should work on?” expectation next time.

“A3” is an Obligation for the Coach

In Western business it is pretty typical for someone to be assigned to come up with a proposed solution to a problem, and then seek approval for that solution. In some companies that consider themselves more forward thinking, they might even say something like “bring me an A3.”

As a result I have seen a number of organizations that produce some kind of guideline for “how to fill out and A3.” They teach “problem solving” courses so people can learn to do this properly. I have developed, and delivered, a couple of those back when I was working in internal continuous improvement offices. We had case studies, exercises, all in an effort to teach people to be better problem solvers.

Similarly, a (very) long time ago, I recall an exchange on an online “lean” forum where someone had asked about Toyota’s “problem solving class.” The thought was that because Toyota has good problem solvers, that their course must be really good.

My response was that I have a copy of Toyota teaching materials for a problem solving course. It is good, but nothing magical. Because that isn’t how Toyota develops good problem solvers.

They do it with coaching.

What makes the “A3” process work isn’t the A3, or even the structure. It isn’t the instructions, guidelines, or the quality of the problem solving classes.

It is the almost continuous interaction between the problem solver and the coach.

The problem solver’s thinking is challenged. “What evidence do you have?” “Have you tested that assumption?” “How is that happening?” “Why do you think that is the problem?” “What are you planning for your next step?” “What do you expect to learn?”

And it is the coach’s stubborn refusal to give the problem solver the answer. Rather, they insist on following the rigor of the problem solving process using scientific thinking.*

The process is an application of the principle of “Challenge” followed by support to enable the problem solver / learner to meet the challenge. They have to bring perseverance to to the table, but the coach is there to make sure they actually learn to be better problem solvers in the process.

Likely (if you are reading this) you already know that. We knew that when we worked so hard to make those A3 guidelines and problem solving courses. But we did those things anyway.

Why? Because it is easier to develop and deliver those general class materials than it is to develop managers into coaches and leaders.

But the fact remains:

If you want to develop better problem solvers, what you need are better coaches.

The implications here are really profound for most organizations.

If you assign someone to solve a problem, to “do an A3” (or whatever structure you use), you are obligating yourself to coach them through the process.

This is far more than getting status updates. And it is far more work. Because you are teaching, not just supervising. If they fail, it’s on you, not them. “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”

In Toyota Kata world we have reduced those questions down to the critical few in the Coaching Kata. That, of course, is a start. Your job as a leader is to practice until the flow of the logic is second nature to you, until you can go beyond the script. Until your first-nature, reflexive response to anyone proposing to do something is “What problem are you trying to solve?” or “What are you trying to learn?” and then carefully listening to their logic and pushing them to the edge of their ability with the next step.

When you can take your own coaching training wheels off, you can then (and only then) ask someone else to ride a bicycle for you, because you will know how to teach them to ride – and that involves more than sending them to a PowerPoint lecture on “Riding a Bicycle.”

“Because knowledge is not understanding” – Destin Sandlin.

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*Some years ago I worked briefly with a manager who had been one of the key players in Toyota’s initial startup of their plant in Kentucky (TMMK). He told me an interesting story. In the beginning, he noted, the U.S. managers would go to their coordinators (Japanese Toyota senior leaders there to advise the new team) and ask for advice.

Then one week all of the U.S. team went through the problem solving / A3 course. The following Monday, he went to his coordinator with a question, and the response was “Doug-san, where is your A3?” After that day, the coordinators would not engage unless there was an A3 that outlined, in writing, what the manager already understood about the problem, what he was seeking to learn, and how he proposed to go about learning it.

Think about that story vs. sending people to “problem solving class” or even a “Toyota Kata” class. When they return, do you insist that they apply what they have learned whenever it is appropriate from that day forward? If you don’t then you are wasting their time and your money sending them to that class. They will never develop the skill without practice, and it is always easier not to practice something we are not comfortable doing.