It will feel worse because it’s getting better.

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The line is starting to flow, or at least there is more time flowing than not flowing. The places where it isn’t flowing well are now much more evident.

Things are speeding up. That is placing more stress on the engineering and materials supply processes where, before, they were shielded by a rough start-up that was always behind schedule.

They are catching up on the backlog, closing in on “on schedule shipment.”

“John” forgot to send a batch of parts to an outside processor. Before that would have been no big deal, it would be a day or so before those things were actually needed. But this time it briefly stopped the line and forced a work-around.

When everything was a work-around, nobody noticed. This time it got on the radar. It feels worse because the system is sensitive to smaller problems now, and there are plenty of those.

It isn’t “John’s” fault. He is flooded with a constant flow of things he needs to react to. There isn’t a structure for him to work within. That is the next opportunity.

Thus, it is critically important to remember a Toyota mantra:

‘No problem’ is a big problem.

If problems are not coming up, then your system is hiding them, plain and simple. You have stopped learning, stopped improving, stopped growing.

It is an easy groove to get into because we get all kinds of feel-good brain chemicals when things are going smoothly. We want more of those, less of the ones that call us to action.

But it is those “call to action” things that drive us to get better.

That Broken Bolt is Speaking to You

The factory is running complex automated equipment. At the morning meeting today we heard “machine x was down for broken bolts.” Actually “again.”

Background – the bolts in question resist pressure in molding equipment. The details of how the equipment works aren’t relevant here. This isn’t the first time I have heard of “broken bolts” being the source of downtime.

After the meeting, I saw the production manager on the shop floor. “So, tell me about the broken bolts.” We know each other, he is happy to.

We went to the machine in question. “How do bolts break?” (These days I ask “how?” rather than “why?” because I am interested in the mechanism of failure rather than whatever mistake is being made.

I am asking that question for a simple reason: Grade 8 bolts don’t “just break” in equipment that is properly engineered and assembled as designed. Something, somewhere, is stressing things beyond their limits.

Normalized Deviance

By accepting that “bolts break” and “shafts get stripped” and “hoses fail” we move into the realm of “normalized deviance” where we accept as OK something that actually is a sign of a serious problem.

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This is no different than accepting that “o-rings burn through sometimes but it hasn’t caused a problem so it must be OK.”

How do Bolts Break?

A few possibilities came up.

  • The bolts might be just a bit too long allowing movement.
  • The might be loose.

“Why is a ‘too long’ bolt even needed in the plant?” – that is still an open question.

“What is the torque spec?”

“… I don’t know.”

Now we are getting somewhere.

Once we hit the threshold of knowledge, we know the next step.

How Do You Know They Know?

TWI Job Instruction is built around a four step process titled “How to Instruct.”

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Steps 2 and 3 are the core of the process.

  • Present the Operation
  • Try Out Performance

I want to discuss Step 3: Try Out Performance

Teaching Back as Learning

All too often I see “training” that looks like this:

  • Bring the team members into a room.
  • Read through the new procedure – or maybe even show some PowerPoints of the procedure.
  • Have them sign something that says they acknowledge they have been “trained.”

This places the burden of understanding upon the listener.

The TWI model reverses this paradigm with the mantra at the bottom of the pocket card which, though they vary from version to version, is some form of: If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.

Having the learner teach back to the instructor does two things:

  1. The learner has to understand it better to be able to explain it.
  2. It provides a verification check that the instruction has been effective.

Point two is important here. Instruction is a hypothesis: “If I teach these steps, in this way, my learner will be able to perform the process.”

Having them teach back is the testable outcome of this hypothesis. If the the learner struggles, then the instructor must re-instruct. But not simply by rewinding the script and playing it again… we know that didn’t work. Instead the instructor now has to get curious about which points are confusing the learner and why, and correct his instruction.

But that’s not what I came here to discuss. TWI is just a lead-in.

Learning to See – by Practicing

An operations manager who is learning fast was challenging my insistence on having a visual status board that showed the real-time location of product on the line.

In the same breath, he was saying that he wanted the leads and the supervisor to be able to “walk the trapline” and do better seeing issues coming before a train wreck. (Empty positions, overproduction, etc.)

My response was “Having them update the magnets on that board every time something moves forces them to practice seeing what is where.”

In other words, by making them teach you where things are, and demonstrate their knowledge, they have to learn how to see that bigger picture.

“That’s the best explanation I have ever heard.”

The operations manager can walk the line and see the status himself. He doesn’t need the board. In fact, he could see even better if he went up the mezzanine overlooking the line. It’s all there.

But the board isn’t for his benefit. It is a learning tool. It is structure for the leads and supervisors to have a joint conversation, facing the board instead of each other, and reach agreement about what is where.

It gives them a clear indication if they need to escalate a problem, and a way to be able to converse about when and how they might recover (or not).

In other words, it is “Grasp the Current Condition” continuously, in real time. This lets them compare the current condition with the target condition – the standard depicted on the board.

By seeing gaps quickly, they have a better chance at seeing what obstacle or problem prevented them from operating to the target.

That, in turn, gives the manager an opportunity – in invitation – to shape the conversation into one about improvement.

Back to Job Instruction

This is exactly the same process structure as having the learner demonstrate performance. It is a check, right after the operation (present the operation) was performed to see how well it worked.

Fine Grained Observation

All of this is about moving observations, evaluations, checks, verifications away from batching them at the end of a huge block of work and embedding them into one-by-one flow. It builds Ohno’s “chalk circle” into the work itself.

If You Think “We Can’t Please Our Customers” You’ll Be Right

The center of the B Concourse at O’Hare Airport in Chicago is dominated by a Brachiosaur skeleton, part of the Field Museum exhibit for their store there.

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As a reminder for those of you over the age of 14, the Brachiosaurus was 70 feet long, 30 feet tall, weighed in at around 60 tons.* It had a brain the size of an avocado. It wasn’t smart. It wasn’t fast. Its main defense against predators was that it was simply too big to catch and eat.

In the shadow of the Brachiosaurus is United Airlines’ main customer service desk for their headquarters hub.

Back in June, Chris Matyszczyk published some really interesting commentary on Inc. Magazine’s site: The CEO of United Airlines Says He Can’t Really Make Passengers Happy

In his article, he quotes from an interview Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, gave to ABC. From the interview:

“It’s become so stressful,” he said, “from when you leave, wherever you live, to get into traffic, to find a parking spot, to get through security.”

“Frankly,” Munoz added, “by the time you sit on one of our aircraft … you’re just pissed at the world,” and improving the flying experience won’t ultimately depend on “what coffee or cookie I give you.”

My interpretation? “We have given up trying to please our customers.”

That was the interpretation of Ed Bastian, Munoz’s counterpart at Delta Airlines:

…when Munoz’s views were put to Delta CEO Ed Bastian by Marketplace.

His response was, well, quite direct:

“I disagree. Those certainly aren’t Delta customers he is speaking to.”

My Perspective as a Frequent Flyer

Just so you know my perspective: In the course of my work, I typically purchase between 10 and 20 thousand dollars worth of airfare a year. While this isn’t anywhere near the highest, I think I am the kind of customer an airline wants to get and retain.

Further, I know the system. I know what to expect, can quickly distinguish “abnormal” from “normal” and know how to maneuver to get out in front of issues I see developing. I pay attention to weather and other events that might disrupt the system, and contingency plan accordingly. I know, generally, how to arrange my stuff to get through TSA smoothly (though they can be arbitrary).

And I have the perks of a heavy frequent flier, which buffers me from a lot of the “stuff” that casual travelers have to contend with.

Munoz used some words that really identify the problem: …by the time you sit in one of our aircraft…”

This casual statement, which correlates with my experience as a former United Airlines customer** implies a belief that the customer service experience begins once you are on the plane. This isn’t where United’s reputation is created. Once you are on the plane, the customer experience of all of the major airlines is pretty similar.

My experience reflects that it is what happens on the ground that differentiates one airline from another.

Assumptions About Customers Come True

The assumption that customers are just “pissed off at the world” and there is nothing we can do about it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If that is the attitude from the top, then it lets the entire system off the hook for making any effort at all to understand the things that might take some of the sharp edges off the experience.

On the other hand, if the attitude is “We are responsible for the experience of our customers – even if we aren’t” then the effort can get focused on understanding exactly what kind of experience we want our customers to have, and engineering a system that delivers it to the best of our ability. That, in turn, allows reflection when we miss, and improvement for the next time.

One is a victim attitude. “We’ll get better customer satisfaction when our customers are better at understanding how hard it is.”

The other is empowering – “Even if our customers *are* pissed off at the world, we will own it and work to understand what we can do.

How Does Your System Respond to Stress?

This in my mind, is what really differentiates a good system from a broken one. Like I said, it’s easy when everything is flowing smoothly. But what happens when the system is disrupted?

Is there a mad scramble of figuring out what to do – like it is the very first time a maintenance issue has caused a flight to be cancelled? What are we going to do with all of these passengers? Process them through two people? (See the line in my photo above!)

Or is there a clear process that gets engaged to get people rebooked – leaving the true difficult cases for the in-person agents?

Ironically, the major airline with one of the very best on-time schedule records also has one of the best recovery processes. Go figure.

Then there are little gestures, like snacks or even pizza for those suffering through a long delay.

“It’s not our fault” easily leads to “you’re on your own.”

“We’re going to own it, even if we don’t” leads to “let’s see if we can help.”

Now… to be clear, the entire airline industry has a long way to go on this stuff. But my point is that some are making the effort, while others have given up.

What Experience Have You Designed for YOUR Customers?

That, ultimately, is the question I am posing here. If you start with the experience you want your customer to have – a standard – then you have a point of comparison.

Did we deliver that experience? If so, then could we do it more efficiently?

If not, what got in our way, how do we close the gap?

Without a standard to strive for, there can be no improvement – and I think this is what Taiichi Ohno actually meant.

——

* Estimates of the weight vary quite a bit.

Rough metric equivalents would be around 20 meters long, 9 meters high,  50 tons. About the weight of mid-cold war era tank.

——

** With one exception that was booked for me, I haven’t flown on United since mid 2014 after an experience that could not have been better designed to tell the customer “We don’t work as a team or talk to each other.”

I cashed in my frequent flier miles for a camera about a year later.

Ambitious Growth Plans? Your Customers Will Right-Size You

I’ll call the title of this post “Dave’s Observation.”

He is reflecting his experience in varied industries that if a company grows beyond its ability to deliver quality product, on time, then order volume will drop until it reaches a point that performance returns.

The business literature is full of examples of this – companies who could not keep up with their own success, their performance deteriorates and, well, many of them go out of business.

I have seen more than a few companies with aggressive growth plans that outrun their ability to actually execute, and they get into trouble.

This also happens in mergers and acquisitions where one company is merged into another with the assumption that the combined company can execute and perform in ways neither company has ever done. Starry-eyed executives often look only at the financial models, maybe equipment capacity, and skip over the operational aspects of their due diligence.

In the end, though, if the operational capability is not there, then none of the plans actually matter. Your “synergy” or “economy of scale” will evaporate like an ice cube on the Moon until equilibrium is restored.

Bottom line: If you are engaged in an ambitious growth plan, then list everything that has to be different for your model to work.

By “different” I mean you are asking for or expecting some task execution or level of performance that does not exist today as a matter of mundane routine.

Then ask “What is our plan to close this gap?” – and run the same exercise on executing that plan. “Change” is really hard, and just telling people what needs to be different, no matter how pretty the PowerPoint slides are, no matter how slick the presentation is, won’t make anything change. (If anything, it often breeds cynicism because it is read as unrealistic.)

Change requires step-by-step, methodical, practice to anchor each small change into the system, then the next, then the next.

Toyota Kata offers a good pattern for this. Just don’t confuse the underlying pattern with the methods used to teach it.

If You Aren’t Being Heard, Then Listen

I was sitting in on a conversation between a Continuous Improvement Manager and the Operations Manager the other day.

The Operations Manager was asking for help developing good leader standard work.

The C.I. manager was responding that she had already developed it for the Value Stream Manager, the Supervisor.

The Operations Manager said he thought right now, they needed to focus on the Team Leads, the first line of leadership.

The C.I. manager reiterated that she had already prepared standard work for the Value Stream Manager and the Supervisor.

The Operations Manager reiterated that he wanted, right now, to focus on the Team Leads.

This went back and forth three or four times, and the Operations Manager moved on to something else.

The C.I. Manager seemed frustrated and even a little angry.

My Working Hypothesis

The C.I. manager was frustrated because the work she had already done had not been implemented or acknowledged.

The Operations Manager was frustrated because his immediate need was not being acknowledged.

So they were each reiterating, again, what they had said before, neither of them acknowledging what the other was trying to say.

Being Heard as a Change Agent

When you say something, and the other person responds by reiterating what they have already said, this is a Big Red Flag for you. They are not going to hear anything you say until they feel you have heard them.

The cool part is that either of these parties can break the cycle of repetition by shifting into listening mode. I am going to take this from the perspective of the C.I. Manager / change agent since most of you reading this are more likely to be in that position.

Book cover: Never Split the DifferenceThere are lots of classes and materials out there about “active listening” but I really like a simple techniques that Chris Voss shares in his awesome book Never Split the Difference.*

At least they seem simple. But they require a lot of deliberate practice to master as they require breaking long standing unconscious habits. At least I know I’m still working on it.

The Goal: Hear “That’s Right”

The first step to listening is to listen!

Is the other person simply reiterating what they have said before in response to your message? Are you even aware of that? (or are you waiting them to stop talking so you can reiterate your message?) Take responsibility for breaking the cycle. Pay attention to their body language. Try to read how they are feeling right now.

Then test your hypothesis.

Instead of reiterating your message, repeat theirs back to them. Even better if you acknowledge the emotions behind their message.

“It sounds like you are really concerned that the leads don’t know what to do.”

Critical: In the words of Chris Voss, this requires that “late night FM DJ voice.”

NO sarcasm. NO implied judgement. You must come from a position of being curious about what they are trying to communicate, and what they are feeling.

You are trying to learn. You are not trying to make them wrong. You are not trying to make a point. You are not trying to be right.

If you are trying to do any of those things, you are not listening. You are, instead, trying to collect ammunition for your next salvo.

You will get one of two responses:

  • The other person will correct you.
  • The other person will give you some version of “Yeah, that’s right.” Those are the magic words you are trying to hear.

Let’s parse that sentence.

“It sounds like…”  (or “It seems like…”). You are not telling them what they are saying. You are telling them what you are hearing and sensing.

This invites correction. “No, that’s not it.” or “No, that’s not what I’m saying.”

They may be frustrated. That is why you must remain the calming influence.

(By the way – this is MUCH easier if you don’t have a stake in the conversation, and the process of being listened to really helps the other person clarify their own position. That is a good place to practice before you are in a high-stakes situation.)

“… you are really concerned…”

Acknowledge how you sense they are feeling. Again, this is inviting correction, clarification or agreement. In either case, you are getting more information.

“… that the leads don’t know what to do.”

This part of the sentence communicates your understanding of what you think is causing the emotion in the other person. Again, this is just an acknowledgment. It doesn’t mean that you agree that this issue should trigger this emotion, you are just acknowledging that it does.

If you don’t get “that’s right” then it is time to humbly and sincerely ask for correction. You have to do so in a way that makes it clear you really care about understanding. (“Seek first to understand.”)

Ideally the other person will attempt to clarify what they are trying to say. Cycle through this until they agree that what you are saying back is what they are trying to convey to you.

Trap: “You’re Right”

Voss points out a trap in this process: The critical difference between “that’s right” and “you’re right.”

First, if you hear “you’re right” that is an indication that the other person perceives you are trying to make your case vs. hearing them. Were you adding to the information? Were you passing judgement?

Next – In this context, “You’re right” often translates as “I’m tired of trying to talk about this.” There isn’t agreement yet. “You’re right” is about you. “That’s right” is about what you were saying. Very different things.

Which leads us to:

Don’t let “being right” about something get in the way of getting what you want or need.

The C.I. manager was right that she had prepared leader standard work for the value stream manager and the supervisor. And she was right that it hadn’t been acted upon.

But by sticking to her guns about that, the Operations Manager was left with the impression that she was refusing to help develop standard work for the team leaders, so he gave up on the conversation.

Here is what happens. Her frustration comes through. His brain (all of our brains) contains “mirror neurons” that invoke in him the emotions he is seeing across the table, which elevates his frustration without him even knowing it.

This is why that calming demeanor is so critical. If the other person picks up sarcasm, negativity, dismissiveness in your voice or body language, that will be reflected right back at you, and amplify everything the wrong way.

After (AFTER!!) getting an acknowledgment that he felt the main priority right now was the Team Leads, the C.I. manager might have created an opening –

State your facts: “I worked really hard on standard work for the value stream leader and supervisor.”

Own your own feelings: “I am feeling frustrated that none of that work was acted upon.” (Avoid victim language like “that makes me feel” or “you make me feel” statements.)

State what you need right now: “I’ll work on the standard work for the leads, but I would like to review the work I have already done and what happened with it so I can avoid the same situation with the leads. Can we do that?”

Finally…

There is no guarantee this works every time. But it works more often than escalating the emotion which probably never works.

_________________

*Why am I touting a book about negotiating? Because change agents must be able to reach agreements with others. And negotiating is a process of agreement creation. Chris Voss is a former FBI hostage negotiator. His job was to create agreements with terrorists, kidnappers, bank robbers. If his techniques work there, they probably work for a change agent in a company.

 

 

Target Condition vs. Target

This search question landed someone on my site yesterday, and I thought it would be a good one to try to answer specifically:

why is lean manufacturing preferred to implement target condition as compared to target?

In other words, what is the difference between a “target” and a “target condition?”

Where this gets sticky is that there isn’t any canonical definition of either term. There are people who use “target” to describe what I mean when I say “target condition.” So I think it is probably best to focus on that term: “Target Condition.”

“Target Condition” = “Target Process”

A team I am working with is bringing up a new (to them) product line. Their short-term target is to complete 8 units / day. But just saying that doesn’t describe the way they want the process itself to operate.

The Target Condition for the line is unit-by-unit flow in critical parts; with order-by-order flow in others (where we can’t overcome batching at the moment). To that end, we have created some guidelines for the layout and movement of work; limits on work-in-progress inventory, etc.

Block diagram of flow line

We know that this can’t be achieved right away, but aren’t sure what problems will surface as we try. Thus, the effort is focused on trying to operate to the target process in order to surface those obstacles so they can be systematically addressed.

So – to answer the question “Why [does] lean manufacturing prefer to implement a target condition as compared to a target?” – Unless we know how we want the process to operate, we have no point of comparison for how it is actually operating.

Without the ability to compare “What should be?” with “What actually is?” we cannot identify the gaps we need to close, the problems we need to work on to get there.

Thoughts on Failure Modes of Kaizen Events

The common frustration in the weeks following a classic 5 day “kaizen event” (which go by many names) is that the follow-on actions are not completed, and the changes that were made erode quickly.

Recently I have asked myself why it works so well during the actual workshop, and then fades so quickly afterwards.

Mike Rother has a great graphic that starts this conversation:

The question I am exploring today (and bringing you along as I reflect on it) is “Why do the ‘lean tools’ work so much better during an event than during “business as usual?”

Hanging this on my current working theory, I think it comes down to different patterns of interaction.

What Happens During the Event

Look at how the structure of these events drives how people interact with one another.

The workshop preparation usually involves establishing a clear bigger-picture sense of the problem to be solved. Even if it isn’t specific, the team education establishes a sense of direction, typically toward 1:1 flow at takt, and a pull process that limits lead times.

The structure of the workshop itself has the team working together studying the current flows, seeing the problems for themselves, and working in pairs or small groups on proposed solutions.

Those proposed solutions are usually structured as experiments – “let’s try this.” At the end of a typical day there is some kind of structured reflection on what we tried, what we learned, what we are going to try tomorrow, and what we expect to achieve.

So – we have small groups of people, collaborating to solve a specific problem, running experiments and learning what will work.

Unfortunately the team usually comes up with more ideas than they can actually try out. Those end up on a to-do list for follow-up.

After the Workshop Week

There is a fundamental shift in the dynamics after the pizza party on Friday.

The team members go back to their regular jobs. The problems they are focused on are different. The leftover items from the workshop are added to the “stuff I need to do” list that nearly everyone in every workplace has.

Rather than continuous collaboration, there might be periodic meetings to talk about the status of these “action items.” But there isn’t specific time carved out to work on them.

If this is what happens then “Business as Usual” couldn’t be more different than the working structure that created all of these improvement ideas. Business-as-Usual is not creative, does not allow for experimentation, and is optimized for repeating what we already know vs. learning something new.

I’d like to point out here that I have seen exactly the same situation in companies that many others consider “lean” benchmarks. What I saw in those companies was a much heavier infrastructure of dedicated lean specialists who were doing the heavy lifting. It still wasn’t embedded in “business as usual.” Instead it is a parallel process that is running improvement events about as fast as the day-to-day processes erode the improvements.

In fact, to this day, after being after this for two decades, one of those companies still has to hire “lean experts” from outside. Why? What is the business-as-usual day of a supervisor that they never learn this stuff?

In summary: During the kaizen even week, we organize and interact in a way that works for creative problem solving and making improvements. Then, the next week, we stop.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the dynamics shift from “experiment to solve the problem” to “get this stuff done.” Business-as-usual is represented by “get this stuff done.”

 

 

Toyota Kata and Culture Change

I am still digesting my experience at the Toyota Kata Summit (KataCon) and the TWI Summit but I wanted to reflect on one of the emerging themes, and some of the reactions.

One of the themes that emerged at both conferences – and to be clear, something I had a hand in influencing as well – was mechanisms for altering the culture of the organization. In other words, what we brand as “change.”

This is what I would call an “advanced topic”

What is Culture?

Books have been written about “organizational culture” and trying to create models that define “it” in some way. In the end, I think they all come down to various ways of saying “how people talk to each other.” This includes who talks to whom, and what structures and rules guide those conversations.

When we study “culture” we are looking at the groups’ default patterns of interaction. If we want to change those patterns, we have to alter people’s habitual behaviors. As I said in my KataCon keynote, This. Is. Hard. It is even harder when you are talking about group behavior vs. simply individuals.

Making Toyota Kata Work is Changing Culture

The point of using Toyota Kata is to practice and learn a scientific mindset. Getting an improvement storyboard set up that is focused on a challenge, and going through the Starter Kata of Grasping the Current Condition; Establishing the Next Target Condition; Identifying Obstacles; and Running Experiments Against Obstacles is a technically straight forward.

It is easier with an experienced coach to help you through it, but can be learned on your own if you are willing to be self-critical and persevere through things not working as well as you thought they would.

But beyond the scientific thinking pattern, we are also working to change the default behavior pattern toward one of working in Coach / Learner pairs on an ongoing daily basis. This is not the default mode of most organizations. (If it were, then Toyota Kata would be redundant.)

This means (to me) that, while actually practicing the Starter Kata is very important, getting people to do so in the first place often requires leading past the technical aspects. It requires altering the way people interact and work together.

Whose Work Is It?

Of course this is ultimately the work of line leadership, represented by the “advance group” or “steering team” or “shepherding group” or whatever you call them. Sometimes those people, too, have to learn a new way to lead and manage.

Leadership

The Kansas Leadership Center, whose programs are based on the “Adaptive Leadership” model from Harvard, defines Leadership as:

“The activity of mobilizing people to do difficult work.”

They further assert (and I agree) that leadership is an activity, not a position.

I am bringing these things up because if we want an organization to begin practicing ways to engage one another differently, it is common to run into resistance. In other words, we must mobilize people to do the difficult work of changing their default thinking and routines of interaction.

In doing so, we will surface clashes of hidden values, senses of loss, anxiety and fear: Things which cause people to find reasons to opt out of participating.

Sometimes it isn’t as simple as saying “Just follow the Starter Kata.”

How to Deploy Toyota Kata

Actually the message of “adaptive leadership” has been present since at least the first KataCon back in 2015. One of the mantras that emerged that year was “Kata your Kata” – in other words, there isn’t a clear-cut path that works every time. You have to learn your way into it as an organization, as a leader.

The difficult part is that this requires going in deeper than the Starter Kata, and applying the underlying pattern of Challenge; Current Condition; Target Condition; Experiments against Obstacles.

The pattern is the same, but this isn’t about cycle time variation, it is about influencing (mobilizing) people, reaching agreements, encouraging them to “just try it” – in a process of discovering what works in that case, with those people, then doing it again.

A New Way of Working vs. Business as Usual

So… if we are going to get Toyota Kata out of the classroom, and past the first challenge or target condition into a sustaining, habitual process, we’ll have to address cultural issues.

The skill set for this is different than a technical process change skill set. We’ll have to learn our way through the grey zone for this part as well.

I’d love to see your thoughts and comments.

The Key to Leadership is Consistency

In this video clip, author and speaker Simon Sinek articulately explains why the things that matter most aren’t measurable, nor can they be created over the short term. Watch the video, then I’d like to extend his thought process into continuous improvement.

The idea of doing the little things consistently over time is a powerful one that we often overlook in our hurry to show a spectacular result this week. We don’t get results from the big action we are taking today. We get results when business-as-usual is getting the little things right the vast majority of the time.

Let’s extend his line of reasoning down a level.

“At what point could we say we were living continuous improvement every day?” How can you measure that? Just like his analogies in the video, there isn’t an answer to that question. You can’t measure it. The idea of putting “culture change” on a project plan makes no more sense than a project plan for “falling in love.” You start to do the right things, and keep doing them, and at some point you realize the conversations are between the right people about the right things.

Decisions Cause Results

The results we are getting today – the success of our organization against any metric you choose; the organizational climate and culture; the initiative people collectively show; the quality of our own life results – are the cumulative outcomes of the decisions we have consistently made.

If we want different outcomes, then we have to work to change what we consistently do. This will take time. Sinek points out that there is space for exceptions, making mistakes here as long as we recognize them, recover, reflect, and continue to make the effort.

A Little Every Day

If this is a change in your default behavior, then this effort requires deliberately and explicitly comparing the conversations, actions and decisions that are actually happening with a baseline for comparison. “On a scale of 1-10, did I make my very best effort to be consistent with these values today?”* Ask that question every single day, and write down the number. Oh – can you articulate the values you are working to adopt? Maybe write those down in language that lets you use them as a test comparison.

Some Questions to Ask

Is what I am about to do or say more likely to:

  • Encourage, or discourage, this person from sharing the truth (especially bad news)?
  • Add, or subtract, fear from the environment or the next conversation?
  • Encourage, or discourage, the sharing of ideas?
  • Encourage, or discourage, a test or challenge of my assumptions?
  • Encourage, or discourage, horizontal coordination across functional boundaries?
  • Have this person look forward to our next conversation?

Fill in your own questions here, but you get the idea – get explicit, and ask Yes or No questions about the expected impact of the actions you are about to take. Use the same questions to reflect on the actions and conversations you had today.

Key to Change: Practice, With Correction

To change the outcomes we are getting we will have to practice new ways of interacting with those around us (and new ways of interacting with our own inner-voice – but that gets into psychotherapy). It does no good to berate ourselves when we make mistakes. That just induces stress and fear. “Avoiding mistakes” is the surest way to try nothing and to learn nothing.

Though the word “coach” is overused to the point of being a meaningless cliche today (much like the word “lean”), having someone to ask the hard reflection questions is much more helpful than trying to do this as an inner conversation in your own head. Unfortunately a lot of work places don’t provide this kind of support and encouragement. If that describes yours, then I’d encourage you to enlist a friend or confidant, or hire someone who isn’t embroiled in your “stuff” every day. That makes them more likely to challenge your excuses and the Basic Story you tell yourself to justify what you do.

Authority vs Leadership

Having formal authority certainly helps get stuff done, but it is not the same as leadership. Nor is formal authority required to exhibit leadership. Many of you (my readers) are expected to exert influence without having formal authority. And I fully understand the frustration that can come with this – been there, done that.

What works? I don’t know. Nobody knows. There isn’t a formula or recipe for effective influence. Rather there is working consistently in ways that build cross-linked networks of trust and mutual accountability between people at the working levels you can reach.

Getting there requires “grasping the current condition” of the organization’s dynamics, developing an interpretative story (or multiple stories), then running deliberate experiments as you seek to learn what works to influence those dynamics. This is what Ron Heifetz and Martin Minsky call “Adaptive Leadership.” The Toyota Kata model adapts very easily into theirs, by the way.

And my self-plug: If you want to go into a little more depth on this topic, come to the Toyota Kata Summit (aka KataCon) in Savannah in February (2019) and attend the “Experiential Workshop” that Craig and I are putting on. Be part of our experiment as we explore together mechanisms that we can practice to apply these concepts in real life.


*The “did I make my very best effort…” questioning is from “Triggers” by Marshal Goldsmith and Mike Reiter.