“What You Could Improve” Isn’t The Answer

In fact, suggestions on what to improve aren’t an appropriate answer when it’s the question.

Sometimes on discussion forums I see a practitioner asking questions like:

  • Who should the learner be?
  • What target should I assign?
  • Which, in turn, implies “Which lean tools should I use?”

I’ll break down the questions in another post. Right now, I want to discuss the common replies.

Replies come from well meaning people who leap to “You could apply SMED” or “It looks like you are trying to put in a pull system.”

In other words “Here are some improvements you could make.” without any grasp of:

  • The actual challenge being faced by the organization.
  • The current process operating patterns that are limiting moving to the next level.

So, the advice has no grounding in what must be done, only what could be done.

If I were to reframe the conversation to a different kind of problem, those replies wouldn’t make any sense at all:

“I am looking for help fixing my 2010 Toyota Tacoma*.”

  • “You could change the sparkplugs.”
  • “How about checking tire inflation?”
  • “This fuel additive works great.”
  • “What kind of fuel mileage are you getting?”

The first question should be “Tell me what about your 2010 Tacoma is currently unacceptable to you?”

“It’s stuck on a trail with a broken axle.” probably requires a different response than “It’s running rough in the morning.”

“Lean” is no different. What are you trying to accomplish here? is a question we don’t ever seem to ask. Why? Do we really think we have a pat set of answers that apply to any situation, or to any situation that seems similar to one we have encountered in the past?

________

*My Toyota truck (it predates the Tacoma) is a 1995 that has been driven the distance to the Moon, and is now on its way back.

The Kata of Leader Development

I’ve been parsing Turn the Ship Around to better understand David Marquet’s message from his experience as captain of the USS Santa Fe (SSN 763), a Los Angeles Class nuclear powered attack submarine.

And I’ve been promising to link his concepts back to Toyota Kata. So now I’m going to try to do that.

You can see part of the back story by reviewing my original post and watching the video here: http://theleanthinker.com/2013/11/06/creating-an-empowered-team/

Here is the rest of the back story.

Capt. Marquet was originally programmed to take command of the USS Olympia (SSN 717) which is also a Los Angeles Class submarine.

Except that the “improved” versions of Los Angeles Class submarines, from SSN 751 onwards, are really a completely different design. In any other navy, those later versions would be a different class of ship.

The Olympia is the earlier version, the Santa Fe is much newer.

The Olympia looks like this:

image

This is the Santa Fe:

image

The obvious difference is the (lack of) dive planes on the sail. The Olympia doesn’t have those forward missile tubes. The sonar is different. The reactor and power plant is different.

Capt Marquet’s problem was that he was ordered to take command of the Santa Fe at the last minute, after studying everything about the Olympia for an entire year.

Traditionally, a (US Navy) submarine captain’s credibility and authority is anchored on him as a technical expert on every aspect of what the machine can, and cannot, do. This is the foundation for him giving good orders to the officers, NCOs and crew. In practice, the command model is that the ship is a machine with one brain and many hands.

A lot of businesses run the same way.

Except that Captain Marquet wasn’t a technical expert. On the first cruise he gave an order to do something that the Santa Fe couldn’t do, the Navigation Officer knew it wasn’t possible, and passed the order along anyway “Because the Captain told him to.” That is where the little video in the previous post picks up.

OK, that’s the back story.

Developing Leaders with the Improvement Kata

Challenge and Direction

Like in the Improvement Kata, Capt Marquet got a clear challenge and direction from his boss, Commodore Kenny. The performance of the Santa Fe was sub-standard. They were doing poorly on inspections, making mistakes, morale was poor, reenlistment (an indicator of morale) was the worst in the fleet. Officers were resigning. Capt Marquet’s task as the new Captain was to get that performance up to where the Navy needed it to be.

Grasp the Current Condition

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 of Turn the Ship Around describe Capt Marquet’s careful and deliberate effort to understand the normal operating patterns of life on the Santa Fe. How did people interact with one another? What mechanisms were inhibiting initiative? What were the sources of fear, hope on board? All in all he found a competent, but dispirited, crew who was not as bad as they allowed themselves to believe they were.

But the process of “making decisions” was paralyzed by mechanisms pulling authority and control to the highest levels of the organization.

He was looking for the mechanisms of the process, of the way work was organized, of the way decisions were made, that were casting the shadow of poor performance and poor morale. He knew he could not address those things directly. He had to deal with the underlying process mechanics, and ultimately learn which ones impacted his key performance metrics.

Establish the Next Target Condition

Capt Marquet was…well… the Captain. His target conditions became challenges for his next levels in the organization. Though he didn’t follow the Improvement Kata precisely, we can see from the actions he took that the mental structure was there.

If we zoom in a level, and look at Capt Marquet’s initial meeting with the Chiefs as outlined in Chapter 8, we actually see the entire pattern.

If you have served in the military, you can bleep over the next section on the role of the Chiefs.

The Role of Non-Commissioned Officers

imageIn the Navy*, “Chiefs” are Chief Petty Officers, senior non-commissioned officers. They are (very) roughly equivalent to supervisors in industry. The saying is that the Officers are responsible for doing the right things, the Chiefs are responsible for doing things right.

The sailors’ day-to-day interactions are mostly with the Chiefs and more junior Petty Officers, which might be thought of as leads or team leaders.

Thus, it is really the Chiefs that set the tone for the experience of the rest of the crew. If they aren’t “into” the job, aren’t working as a team, it is unlikely the organization below (or above!) them is as effective as it could be, and morale is likely mediocre at best.

The same goes for your supervisors.

Where a military organization differs from industry is that there is a senior non-commissioned-officer paired with an officer at every level of the hierarchy. The most senior noncom on the ship is the “Chief of the Boat” who reports directly to the Captain.

This structure is very beneficial in making sure the Enlisted perspective is brought into every level of decision making.

Although it can, and does, happen, it is relatively rare that an enlisted non-commissioned-officer would become a commissioned officer during his or her career. This is a significant shift in the career path.

Pushing Authority to Create Responsibility

Capt Marquet’s initial experiment to shift the crew dynamics on board the submarine involved the Chief Petty Officers. He meets with them and works with them in an exchange: They get authority. They take responsibility.

A few key points that emerge here are:

  • Lecturing people about “taking initiative” and “stepping up” doesn’t work. If it did, our organizations would be operating at phenomenal levels already.
  • Capt Marquet talks about the Chiefs as individuals, each with his own strengths, level of commitment, etc.
  • There was a clear challenge for them in Capt Marquet’s mind. He knew what he needed from them.
Coaching Through Grasping the Current Condition

Capt Marquet met with the Chiefs, and facilitated a conversation that first sought to arrive at a common understanding of the level of authority the Chiefs really had on the submarine. (almost none, decision making for anything of significance had been pulled up above their level).

Key Point: Capt Marquet likely already knew that the Chiefs had very little authority. But it wouldn’t work to act on that assumption without validating it in the minds of the Chiefs themselves. Further, the Chiefs had to arrive at their own truth, and they had to want to change it.

Based on his assessment, Capt Marquet guided the chiefs through a discussion about their current condition. At this point, they are the learners, the improvers, and he is taking the role of the coach. This is the bullet list he cites in the book:

  • Below-average advancement (promotion) rates for their men.
  • A lengthy qualification program that yielded few qualified watch standers.
  • Poor performance on evaluations for the ship.
  • A lean watch bill, with many watch stations port and starboard under way, and three-section in port (the objective was to have three-section at sea and at least four-section in port; this meant that each member would stand watch every third watch rotation— typically six hours on watch and twelve hours off— at sea, and every fourth day in port)
  • An inability to schedule, control, and commence work on time.
  • An inability to control the schedules of their division and men.

While this is really just a laundry list describing the general working environment that is summarized in the book, my impression is that the group had developed a good common grasp of the processes behind most of these issues. It really came down to the Chief’s authority to decide who needs to do what, and when, had been usurped by various other mechanisms in the chain of command.

If the Chiefs have no real authority to act, then the commissioned officers must make every decision and provide every direction. Those orders are often separated in time and space from the events they are trying to influence. The officers simply can’t be everywhere at once.

The dynamics can easily trigger a downward, reinforcing spiral of more and more control being pulled higher and higher, which makes the orders even more detached from reality.

image

And, again, the same is true for your supervisors and team leaders in their relationship with management.

The Chiefs Establish their Target Condition

You can’t direct someone to accept responsibility.

My next question built on what we had all agreed on, namely, the chiefs did not run Santa Fe.

I asked, “Do you want to?”

Reflexively they answered, Yes! Uh-huh. Of course!

“Really?”

And that’s when we began to talk honestly about what the chiefs’ running the submarine would mean.

- David Marquet in Turn the Ship Around

I wanted to make sure they deliberately decided to take charge. It wouldn’t be any good if I directed them.

- David Marquet in Turn the Ship Around

Something that is often lost on managers learning to be coaches is that the coach can’t impose a target condition. Certainly the coach can (and should) structure the challenge in a way that ensures the learner is working on the right things. And the coach must provide guidance to ensure the learner is working on those things the right way.

But it is up to the learner to figure out how to get there, and up to the coach to ensure the learner has the skill and persistence to succeed. It is a mutually dependent relationship.

Many managers are uncomfortable with this because it means giving up control even if they know the right answer (or think they do). It means giving up control especially if they know the right answer! This is actually a lot easier for a coach who doesn’t know exactly what to do!

As the discussion continues in the book, some of the Chiefs begin to realize that with control comes accountability for the results. They won’t be able to hide behind “well, they told me to do it” because “they” is now the face in the mirror.

That is actually harder than just waiting to be told what to do. It is also a lot more rewarding if the work environment is supportive of growth vs. punishing mistakes.

The shape of a target condition

At the end, we were agreed: the sole output would be concrete mechanisms.

While it feels good to describe a future vision with words like “The supervisors will be empowered” that doesn’t address the adjustments and changes that must be made to the mechanisms that are driving the current situation.

If you want your supervisors to have more authority, but aren’t willing to dismantle the mechanisms that are withholding it from them… that isn’t going to work.

I put this question to Santa Fe’s chiefs: “What can we do so that you actually run the ship?”

The target condition they established was to have the Chiefs responsible for authorizing leave (vacation time) for the sailors in their organizations.

(In the military, you can’t just go on vacation whenever you feel like it. They have a mission to accomplish, with or without you there, so there is always a process to ensure too many people aren’t gone at the same time.)

What obstacles are keeping us from reaching the target?

There were a number of things that had to be dealt with to make this work. One of them was that Naval regulations required the Executive Officer (2nd in command) to approve the leaves of Enlisted Men.

This meant that even after the Chief of the Boat reviewed the leave plan, at least three additional officers had to approve as well. This added time and bureaucracy which, in turn, hurt morale because it might be weeks before a sailor knows if he can go home for Christmas, for example.

Related to that was the fact that, because of those additional checks, the Chiefs were inclined to approve leave requests without really thinking about the consequences. They knew someone else would be on the hook to say “no.”

They could be the White Hats, and shift the responsibility elsewhere. This was a consequence of the mechanism. The mechanics are part of the “death spiral” I illustrated above.

Which obstacle are we addressing now?

Here is the dilemma. Capt Marquet could ask the Chiefs to prove they could act responsibility, then give them the authority.

Or he could give them the authority, and trust that to drive responsibility.

In reality, I think only one of those choices actually works: Creating responsibility by pushing authority. The obstacle they addressed was the Navy regulations.

What is your next step or experiment?

The experiment was to actually break Navy regulations. On the Santa Fe, the non-commissioned officers would be solely responsible for approving the leave requests of Enlisted Men.

What result do you expect?

They expected that the Chiefs would start thinking through the consequences of these decisions.

This one-word administrative change put the chiefs squarely in charge of all aspects of managing their men, including their watch bills, qualification schedules, and training school enrollments.

The only way the chiefs could own the leave planning was if they owned the watch bill. The only way they could own the watch bill was if they owned the qualification process.

It turned out that managing leave was only the tip of the iceberg and that it rested on a large supporting base of other work.

- David Marquet in Turn the Ship Around

(I added the line breaks for readability online.)

This, in turn, set off multiple cycles of learning as the crew of the Santa Fe gelled into a true mutually supporting team.

In other parts of the book, Capt Marquet talks about the exchange of intent. These decisions are delegated, but they are not made independently. Rather, they worked to progressively create a working climate where people were saying out loud, both formally and informally, what they intended to do and why.

This created an environment were people could hear, and add to, the collective wisdom being shared around them. Knowledge was out in the open and spread quickly thorough the organization with these mechanisms.

But that was all a future consequence of what they learned by making this single change: To actually break the Navy Regulation, and turn 100% of the leave authority over to the non-commissioned officers.

The Overall Theme

This is just one example. The book is full of learning cycles.

People made mistakes. People acted without understanding the consequences. People acted without thinking.

But each time something happened that was contrary to the vision of the right people making the right decisions with the right information at the right time, instead of engaging in the death spiral, they sought to break it.

The crew (with the Captain as their coach) took the first opportunity to pause, reflect, digest what they had learned, and apply a mechanism into their interaction rules that applied a countermeasure.

Capt Marquet didn’t have a concrete step-by-step plan to get there. He just knew where he wanted to to go, had a clear idea of where he was starting, and took the next logical step.

As each step was taken, the next step was revealed. And so there was a little improvement every day. There was a big improvement on some days. But every day they were paying attention to see what they could learn.

And that is what continuous improvement is all about.

What You Can Do

Read the book. Study the book. Parse the book. Each chapter is a parable with a lesson. Don’t get hung up on the Naval environment, that is just a container for the higher-level story.

Study the lessons that were learned. Ask yourself what analog situations you might have, then go and study them. What mechanisms in your organization are driving people to do the things that they do?

What single change can you make that will have a high leverage impact on the level of authority?

That establishes a target condition.

What would “keep you up at night” (as David Marquet says) if you made that change?

Make that list. Those are your obstacles. Which one are you addressing now?

 

______

*Just to be clear, I did not serve in the Navy, and my interactions with the Navy were only occasional and brief during my time in the military. I was a commissioned officer in the Army, and the non-commissioned officers are just as important there.

An irrational post today.

Posted 3.14.15 9:26 am

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Performance is the Shadow of Process

“Time is the shadow of motion” is an observation usually attributed to Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, pioneers of modern industrial engineering.

What they realized was this: You want to save time. But you cannot directly affect how long something takes. You have to look at the motions, at the process structure that is casting the shadow of time. To change how long the shadow is, you have to change the structure of what is casting it.

image

As you start your improvement effort, your challenge is often to change the size or shape of the shadow.

Grasping the current condition is looking at the process structure so you can see what patterns and characteristics of the process are shaping the shadow.

It is important to understand how the process patterns and characteristics are affecting the shadow before you just go changing stuff.

You might think “Oh, this part of the process ought to look like this…” and change it. There might be a lot of effort involved. But if you don’t have a sense of cause and effect, then you might end up with something like this:

image

Change have been made, but we really haven’t changed anything on the outside.

Your target condition has three components, and it is good to develop them in this sequence:

1. The “achieve by” date.

2. The target process pattern and characteristics, and the internal process metrics that will tell you if you are working to that pattern.

3. The expected change in performance if the target working pattern becomes the norm. Then check your expected performance change against the challenge. Is it moving you in the right direction? Is it moving you enough in the right direction? If not, then go back to #2.

Edited to add: In the purest sense, you should start with the performance change you require, then determine the pattern you need to achieve it. That is what it says in Toyota Kata, and in the Improvement Kata HandbookI don’t disagree with that sequence. However beginning improvers, when asked to first decide the performance target tend to just make a guess and can struggle if they over-reach.  I find that this is more of an iterative process than a fixed sequence.

Key Point: The target process pattern has to be what you must do to get to a specified level of performance. It isn’t “Well… we can make these improvements, and therefore might be able to deliver this improvement.” It’s “We have to make these changes in order to reach the goal we have set.”

The pattern of work is what should be emphasized. The performance level is an outcome, the shadow, of the work pattern. Your target condition is really a hypothesis: “If I create a process that follows this pattern, then I will get this level of performance.”

image

Why am I emphasizing this?

Because a lot of managers have been taught, by pretty much every MBA program out there, to manage to results.

They believe that by measuring and asking about results that those results will be achieved.

That may well happen, but often the changes made are (1) not sustainable and/or (2) people are creative at finding solutions that are destructive to the long (and intermediate) term interests of the organization.

The exchange of intent that is inherent in the Improvement Kata is a way to open up this communication channel.

The person making the improvement clearly has a result based challenge, and the boss ought to be asking the questions to confirm he hears it spoken back to him in the same way he understood it.

Then the boss should become intently curious. “What is it about the way we do things now that is creating (this result we want to change)?” In other words, ‘What is the actual condition now?”

“What process changes are you proposing as your initial step? What result to you expect? When can we see what we’ve learned? These questions are summarized in “What is your target condition?”

Be Ready for Empowered Employees

“I want my employees to feel empowered.”

“You realize empowerment means your employees start making decisions, right?”

“Oh… I want them to feel empowered. I didn’t say wanted them to be empowered.”

(from a presentation by Mardig Sheridan)

This is a further exploration of one of my notes from the Kata Summit a few weeks ago.

Think back to your own organizational history. When people were “empowered” how often did management struggle to retain control of everything?

These same managers complain about having to make every little decision themselves, and not taking initiative.

When organizations try to take on Toyota Kata there are a couple of common patterns that frequently emerge.

One is where most of the actual coaching is done by staff practitioners, with the higher level managers pretty much staying out of the mix. Previous posts not withstanding, that actually works pretty well up to a point.

The limit is reached when the next obstacle is a limiting policy or organizational boundary that can’t be crossed.

So… while this process does build the skill of individual managers at the middle and lower levels, it doesn’t do so well building a management team. Those enlightened middle managers can be in a tough spot if their bosses are expecting them to just be a conduit for direction from above. The coaches are working to engender independent thinking in the middle level of an organization that, by the actions of its leaders, doesn’t actually want it. (Yes, that is a bit black and white, the truth is more nuanced.)

The other common approach, and the one we encourage, is one where the coach is the responsible manager – usually the learner’s boss, or at least in the chain.

Novice coaches, especially if they are actually in the chain of responsibility, often struggle with the boundary between “coaching” and “telling the learner what to do.”

He often knows the answer. Or at least he knows an answer. Or, perhaps, he knows the conclusion he has jumped to with the limited information he has.

So, creating some rationale for why, the coach gives direction rather than coaching. This can be very subtle, and is often disguised as coaching or teaching. For this, I remind coaches to “Check your intent.” If it is to “Show what you know” then step back.

The learner may well have better information. Now this puts the learner in a tough spot. He is being encouraged to explore, yet also being told what to do.

Leaders who want to create initiative, leadership, and decentralized action in their organization have to be ready to give up on the idea that they know the best answers.

A Tale of Two Sites

With apologies to Charles Dickens, but the opening line is just too good to resist…

The Best of Times

In this plant, the advance team is chaired and actively led by the most senior manager on the site. He is actively coaching, he is actively being coached. He is questioning his own learning, seeking council, and acting on it.

They are clear that, while there may be general guidelines, they must learn by trying and experimenting. They cannot simply deploy a roadmap because they can only see the next mile on a 1000 mile journey.

They see it as a method to shift their culture away from its “tell me what to do” legacy and toward one of an empowered workforce that takes initiative and works on the right things, the right way.

There is no doubt among the leadership team that this is the path forward.

They are starting to apply the language of the Improvement Kata informally in their meetings and discussions.

Overall, it seems a bit messy. But learning is like that.

The Other Site

The “implementation of Toyota Kata” is a directive from the corporate Continuous Improvement team.

The corporate team spends much of their energy developing and deploying templates, PowerPoint presentations, setting standards for the forms and the layout, lettering and colors on the improvement boards, and setting milestones.

They have published a step-by-step procedure for a site to implement Toyota Kata, based on their assumptions of what ought to work. None of them has actually led a change like this.

They are, in turn, working through the site continuous improvement team who is expected to execute to these standards.

The site leader receives weekly reports on progress. Training the managers and “implementing Toyota Kata” is the responsibility of one of the site’s continuous improvement staffers. The site leader questions him using the 5 Questions each week, and issues direction in response to the answers.

It is the continuous improvement practitioner who is responsible for motivating the members of the management team to challenge their own processes and develop their improvement boards. A significant number of them are questioning the need or purpose of this exercise.

Thoughts

Unfortunately I run into the second case far more often than I see the first. But the story is decades old. That is how we did Six Sigma, kaizen events, Theory of Constraints, Total Quality Management. In each case we have separated the deployment of a core change in the way we manage operations from the responsibility for actually managing.

It

doesn’t

work.

This TED talk by Tim Harford actually sums up the difference pretty well:

But beyond what works, and what doesn’t, we also have to ask “Which approach is respectful of people?”

What are the underlying assumptions about the people at the gemba when “standards” are established thousands of miles away, published, and then audited into place?

Why do they feel they must tell people exactly what to do?

What do they feel is lacking on the site?  Competence? or Clarity?

Notes From Day 2 of Kata-Con

Perfection is the enemy of progress.

  • The longer it takes, the higher the expectation.
  • The higher the expectation, the longer it takes.

My thoughts: I’ve seen this a lot. It is magnified when the leaders are detached from the process.

Process improvement is messy, and if the leaders aren’t comfortable with that messy process, they develop unrealistic expectations of what “progress” looks like.

The people getting the work done, meanwhile, end up working hard to manage those expectations. They actually conceal problems from the boss, for fear of him misinterpreting problems-that-must-be-solved with my-people-don’t-know-what-to-do.*

Trying to layer Toyota Kata over the wrong organizational structure will overwhelm people.

The organizational structure follows necessity. This lines up with Steven Spear’s research.

The organizational structure must match the needs of the process, and the target condition for learning.

If your supervisor has 20 direct reports, it is unlikely he will have the time to work on improvement in a productive way. Toyota’s team leader structure is specifically engineered for improvement, development, and getting a car off the line every 58 seconds.

 

Improvement takes time and people.

The End.

This isn’t free, nor can you calculate an ROI ahead of time. Get over it.

Start with what you MUST accomplish and look at what is required to get there. It doesn’t work the other way around.

If you don’t continually strive, you die.

If you aren’t striving to go forward, you are going backward.

My thoughts: I make the following analogy: Continuous improvement is like a freezer. There is never a time when you can say “OK, it’s cold enough, I can unplug it now.” You must keep striving to improve. Without the continuous addition of intellectual energy, entropy takes over, and you won’t like the equilibrium point.

All of our failures have come to good things.

My thoughts: By deliberately reflecting and deliberately asking “What did we learn?” you can extract value from any experience. The way I put it is “You have already paid the tuition. You might as well get the education.”

We had sponsorship challenges as the leaders caught up with the people.

My thoughts: Yet another instance of the leaders falling behind the capability of their people. When the people become clear about what must be done, and just start doing it, the only thing an uninformed leader can do is either get out of the way or destructively interfere.

People don’t like uncertainty. Kata deliberately creates uncertainty to drive learning. You have to be OK with that.

My thoughts: Another expression of the same point from yesterday.

“Learning only” has a short shelf life.

“Cool and Interesting” is not equal to Relevant.

Those are the words I wrote down, rather than the words I heard. The key point is that you can, for a very short time, select processes to improve based on the learning opportunities alone. But this is extra work for people. The sooner you can make the results important the quicker people get on board.

A business crisis should not stop improvement or coaching. Does it?

My thoughts: This is a good acid test of how well you have embedded. When a crisis comes up, do people use PDCA to solve the problem, or do they drop “this improvement stuff” because they “don’t have time for it.” ?

Inexperienced 2nd coaches coaching inexperienced coaches coaching inexperienced learners… doesn’t work.

A lot of companies try to do this in the interest of going faster. Don’t outrun your headlights. You can only go as fast as you can. Get help from someone experienced.

Just because you have gone a long way doesn’t mean you can’t slip back. You must continue to strive.

The “unplug the freezer” analogy applies here as well.

You don’t have to start doing this. But if you choose to start, you may not stop. You have to do it every day.

Don’t take this on as a casual commitment, and don’t think you can delegate getting your people “fixed.” (they aren’t broken)

Everybody gets it at the same level. Senior managers tend to lose it faster because there is no commitment to practice it every day at their level.

Awareness is a starting point, but not good enough. A 4 hour orientation, however, is not enough to make you an expert… any more than you can skim “Calculus and Analytic Geometry” and learn the subject.

Results do get attention.

“I’ll have what she’s having”

But don’t confuse results with method.

My challenges to the plant managers weren’t about P&L or service levels. They were about moving closer to 1:1 flow, immediate delivery, on demand.

Challenges must be in operational terms, not financial terms.

Move from “These are the measures, and oh by the way, here is the operational pattern” – to –> “This is the operational pattern I am striving for. and I predict it will deliver the performance we need.”

Gotta catch a plane. More later.

 

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*When I was in the Army, we got a new Battalion Commander who listened to the logistics radio net, where the staff officers discussed all of the issues and problems that had to be solved. He would jump to a conclusion, and issue orders that, if carried out, would interfere with getting those problems solved.

Although he spoke of initiative and taking action, his actions revealed he wasn’t willing to trust us to let him know if there was a problem we couldn’t handle, and expected perfection in execution in situations that were chaotic and ambiguous.

We ended up finding an unused frequency, and encrypting our traffic with a key that only we shared, so the commander couldn’t hear us. Yup… we were using crypto gear, designed to keep the Soviets from hearing us, to keep our boss from hearing us.

As the information channels to him slowly choked off, he was less and less informed about what was actually happening, and his orders became more and more counter-productive, which in turn drove people to hide even more from him.

This, I think, is a working example of “getting bucked off the horse.”

Notes From Day 1 of Kata-Con

I’m attending the Toyota Kata Summit in Fort Lauderdale. We’ve completed Day 1. Here are some notes I took. I plan to expand on some of them later.

Experiment your way forward vs. decide your way forward.

My thoughts: We like certainty. We like a plan we know will work. Unfortunately a plan we know will work is usually just a plan we have convinced ourselves should work. But we have a hard time distinguishing the difference. Such is our desire for certainty – a strongly held opinion or feeling becomes a fact.

We don’t know how it will go. We have to get comfortable with ambiguity if we want to move beyond what we already know.

Until you understand the mindset of uncertainty, you can’t teach anyone else.

My thoughts: This is probably the most foundational qualification for a manager who aspires to become an improvement coach. The improver / learner won’t know the answers.. and neither will you. You have to be very OK with that. If you aren’t, then you’re just telling people what to do, and nobody is learning anything.

Until you try, there is no baseline for learning or coaching.

My thoughts: At the start of a ski lesson, the instructor had each of us ski 50 yards or so down the hill while she watched from below. She asked us to just ski down to her. Of course, she observed.

Then each of us was individually coached on something to practice… a drill or technique that would correct one deficiency in our form.

She skied down another 50 yards, and observed us again. If we were not performing the drill correctly, she corrected until we were performing it correctly. Then our task was to practice.

Asking “What is your target condition?” is asking the learner to demonstrate his technique and understanding. For the coach, the idea is to get them to try so you have a baseline for coaching.

Warning! Be ready for empowered employees!

If a manager with only an “awareness” level of understanding enters this space, he’ll either deflate the team with inept coaching, or will get bucked off the horse he isn’t good enough to ride. The leaders can’t do this from behind. You can’t simultaneously have empowered, creative team members and maintain control. (Sounds a bit like something Heisenberg came up with…)

I am coaching (by giving direction).

No you aren’t.

My thoughts: Actually this note was my thought triggered by something someone said. But I’ve seen senior managers who want to be “coaches” and then redefine “coaching” to mean “tell people what to do.” Doesn’t work like that.

The 5 questions are a jig. The questions on the card allow you (the coach) to listen because you don’t have to think about what question to ask next.

Some days big up. Every day little up. Please try. Do your best. Until you take first step, you cannot see next step. – Toyota coordinator (master coach).

Scientific Improvement Beyond The Experiment

“How do we deploy this improvement to other areas in the company?” is a very common question out there. A fair number of formal improvement structures include a final step of “standardize” and imply the improvement is laterally copied or deployed into other, similar, situations.

Yet this seems to fly in the face of the idea that the work groups are in the best position to improve their own processes.

I believe this becomes much less of a paradox if we understand a core concept of improvement: We are using the scientific method.

How I Think Science Works

In science, there is no central authority deciding which ideas are good and worth including into some kind of standard documentation. Rather, we have the concept of peer review and scientific consensus.

Someone makes what she believes is a discovery. She publishes not only the discovery itself, but also the theoretical base and the experimental method and evidence.

Other scientists attempt to replicate the results. Those attempts to replicate are often expanded or extended in order to understand more.

As pieces of the puzzle come together, others might have what seems to be an isolated piece of knowledge. But as other pieces come into place around them, perhaps they can see where their contributions and their expertise might fit in to add yet another piece or fill in a gap.

If the results cannot be replicated at all, the discovery is called into serious question.

Thus, science is a self-organized collaborative effort rather than a centrally managed process. All of this works because there is a free and open exchange among scientists.

It doesn’t work if everyone is working in isolation… even if they have the same information, because they cannot key in on the insights of others.

What we have is a continuous chatter of scientists who are “thinking out loud” others are hearing them, and ideas are kicked back and forth until there is a measure of stability.

This stability lasts until someone discovers something that doesn’t fit the model, and the cycle starts again.

How I Think Most Companies Try To Work

On the other hand, what a lot of people in the continuous improvement world seem to try to do is this:

Somebody has a good idea and “proves it out.”

That idea is published in the form of “Hey… this is better. Do it like this from now on.” image

We continue to see “standardization” as something that is static and audited into place. (That trick never works.)

What About yokoten. Doesn’t that mean “lateral deployment” or “standardize?”

According to my Japanese speaking friends (thanks Jon and Zane), well, yes, sort of.  When these Japanese jargon terms take on a meaning in our English-speaking vernacular, I like to go back to the source and really understand the intent.

In daily usage, yokoten has pretty much the same meaning [as it does in kaizen] just a bit more mundane scope…along the lines of sharing a lesson learned.

Yokogawa ni tenkai suru (literally: to transmit/develop/convey sideways) is the longer expression of which Yokoten is the abbreviation.

Yoko means “side; sideways; lateral. Ten is just the first half of “tenkai” to develop or transmit. Yokotenkai..

If you take a good look at the Toyota internal context, it is much more than just telling someone to follow the new standard. It is much more like science.

How the Scientific Approach Would Work

A work team has a great idea. They try it out experimentally. Now, rather than trying to enforce standardization, the organization publishes what has been learned: How the threshold of knowledge about the process, about a tricky quality problem, whatever, has been extended.

We used to know ‘x’, now we know x+y.

They also publish how that knowledge was gained. Here are the experiments we ran, the conditions, and what we learned at each step.

Another team can now take that baseline of knowledge and use it to (1) validate via experimentation if their conditions are similar. Rather than blindly applying a procedure, they are repeating the experiment to validate the original data and increase their own understanding.

And (2) to apply that knowledge as a higher platform from which to extend their own.

But Sometimes there is just a good idea.

I am not advocating running experiments to validate that “the wheel” is a workable concept. We know that.

Likewise, if an improvement is something like a clever mistake proofing device or jig (or something along those lines), of course you make more of them and distribute them.

On the other hand, there might be a process that the new mistake-proofing fixture won’t work for. But… if they applied the method used to create it, they might come up with something that works for them, or something that works better.

“That works but…” is a launching point to eliminate the next obstacle, and pass the information around again.

oh… and this is how rocket science is done.

Edit to add:

I believe Brian’s comment, and my response, are a valid extension of this post, so be sure to read the comments to get “the rest of the story.” (and add your own!)

Lean Thinking in 10 Words

Pascal Dennis, in his book Getting the Right Things Done sums up lean thinking in 10 words:

“What should be happening?”

“What is actually happening?”

“Please explain.”

I would contend that everything else we do is digging out answers to those questions. (yes, there is a bit of hyperbole here, but I want to get you to think about how true this is vs. how false it might be.)

I think “lean thinking” is really a structured curiosity. Let’s take a look at how these questions push us toward improvement.

“What should be happening?” is another form of Toyota Kata’s “What is your target condition?” In our conversations, we often jump straight to “We need to…” language, a solution, without being clear what the problem is.

I’ll set that back by asking questions like “What would be happening if the problem is solved?” “Can you describe that?”

When Toyota trained people ask “What is the standard?” this is what they want to know, because, to them, a “problem” = “a deviation from the standard.”

“What is actually happening?” or “What is the actual condition now?”– Once we are clear where we are trying to go, it is important to grasp where we are now in the same terms as the target.

Something I see quite a bit is a target condition expressed with different terms, measures, and variables than the current condition. You must be able to relate between the two in a way that defines and quantifies the gap that must be closed.

“Please Explain” cuts across the current condition and the obstacles (in kata terms). What do you understand about the gap between what should be happening and what is actually happening?

If the process has deteriorated, what has changed? Why is it that we cannot hit the standard today when, last week, we could? When did it change? What do we know about that? Why did it change?

If you tried to run to the new level, what would keep you from doing it that way? (what obstacles do you think are now preventing you from reaching your target?)

Depending on which of these conditions we are dealing with will fundamentally change the path toward a solution, so it is critical we understand “What should be happening?” or “What is the target condition?” as a first step, then look at the history of the actual condition.

If the process has eroded, what do we know about what has changed in the environment?

All of this is the foundational baseline… the minimum understanding I want to hear before we entertain any discussion about what actions to take, what to change, what to do.

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