A Lean Leadership Pocket Card

I was going through some old files and came across a pocket card we handed out back in 2003 or so. It was used in conjunction with our “how to walk the gemba” coaching sessions that we did with the lean staff, and then taught them to do with leaders.

There is a pretty long backstory, some of it is summarized in Earl’s recollection on this old post: Genchi Genbutsu in a Warehouse as well as here: The Chalk Circle – Continued.

A lot has happened, a lot has been learned since then. Toyota Kata has been published, and that alone has focused my technique considerably (to say the least).

Nevertheless, I think the elements on these little cards are valuable things to keep in mind.

With that being said, a caveat: Lists like this run the risk of becoming dogma. They aren’t. There are lots of lists like this out there, and the vast majority are very good. The key here is something that a leader or team member can refer to as a reminder that may bias a decision in the right direction. It is the direction that matters, not the reminders.

Fundamentals

The fundamentals are based on the “Rules-in-Use” from Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System, a landmark HBR article by Steve Spear and H. Kent Bowen. The article, in turn, summarizes (and slightly updates) Spear’s findings from his PhD work studying Toyota.

A. All work highly specified as to content, sequence, timing, and outcome.

B. Every customer-supplier connection is simple and direct.

C. The path for every product is simple and direct.

D. All improvements are made using PDCA process.

What we left off, though, is that in each of those rules there is a second one: That all of these systems are set up to be “self diagnostic” – meaning there are clear indications that immediately alert the front line people if:

  • The work deviates from what was specified.
  • The connection between a customer and supplying process is anything other than specified.
  • The path a product follows deviates from the route specified.
  • Improvements are made outside of a rigorous PDCA (experimental) process.

In other words, the purpose of the rules is to be able to see when we break them, or cannot follow them, so we trigger action.

To put this into Toyota Kata-speak – every process is set up as a target condition that is being run as an experiment – even the process of improvement itself!

Every time there is a disruption – something that keeps the process from running the way it is supposed to – we have discovered an obstacle. That obstacle must first be contained to protect the team members and community (safety) and to protect the customer (quality). Then goes into the obstacle parking lot, and addressed in turn.

If you think about it, the Improvement Kata simply gives us much more rigor to (D).

This ties to the next sections.

Key Leadership Behaviors

Note that this is behaviors. These are things we want leaders to actually strive to do themselves, not just “support.” It was the job of the continuous improvement people to nudge, coach, assist the leaders to move in these directions. It was our job to teach our continuous improvement people how to do that coaching and assisting – beyond just running kaizen events that implement tools.

A. PDCA Thinking

Today we would use Toyota Kata to teach this. But the same structure drove our questioning back then.

B. Four Rules:

1. Safety First

Even though this should be obvious, it is much more common that people are tacitly, or even directly, asked to overlook safety issues for the sake of production. I remember walking through a facility with a group of managers on the way to the area we were going to see. Paul stopped dead in his tracks in front of a puddle on the floor. He was demonstrating just how easy it was for the leadership to walk right past things that should be attended to. And in doing so, they were sending the message – loud and clear in their silence – that having a puddle on the floor was OK.

2. Make a Rule, Keep a Rule

This is a more general instance of Rule #1. But the it is more subtle than it may seem on the surface. Most people immediately interpret this as enforcing organizational discipline, but in reality it is about managerial discipline.

Nearly every organization has a gap between “the rules” and how things really are day-to-day. Sometimes that gap is small. Sometimes it is huge.

Often “rules” are enforced arbitrarily, such as only cases where a violation led to a bigger problem of some kind. Here’s an example: Say your plant has a set of rules about how fork trucks are to be operated – speed limits, staying out of marked pedestrian lanes, etc. But in general the operators hurry, cut a corner now and then. And these violations are typically overlooked… until there is some kind of incident. Then the operator gets written up for “breaking the rules” that everyone breaks every day – and management tacitly encourages people to break every day by focusing on results rather than process.

When we say “make a rule / keep a rule” what we mean is if you aren’t willing to insist on a rule being followed consistently, then take the rule off the books. And if you are uncomfortable taking the rule off the books, then your only option is to develop something that you can stand behind. It might be simple mistake proofing, like physical barriers between forklift aisles and pedestrian aisles. But if you are going to make the rule, then find a way to keep the rule.

Do you have “standard work” documents that are rarely followed? Stop pretending you have standards or rules about how the work is done. Throw them away if you aren’t willing to train to them, mistake proof to them and reinforce following them.

3. Simple is Best

Simply, bias heavily toward the simplest solution that works. The fewest, simplest procedures. The simplest process flow. Complexity hides problems. “Telling people” by the way, is usually less simple than a physical change to the work environment that guides behavior. See above.

4. Small Steps

Again, Toyota Kata’s teaching covers this pretty well today. The key is that by taking small steps, verifying that they work, and anchoring them into practice before taking the next ensures that each step we take has a stable foundation under it.

The alternative would be to make many changes at once in the name of going faster.

We emphasized here that “small steps” does not equal “slow steps.” It is possible to take small steps quickly, and we found that in general doing so was faster than making big leaps. Getting big changes dialed in often required backing out and implementing one thing at a time anyway – just to troubleshoot! See “Gall’s Law” which states:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

John Gall, author of Systematics

and sums this up nicely.

C. Ask “Why, what, where, when, who, and how” in that order.

Here we borrowed the sequence from TWI Job Methods. The first two questions challenge whether a process step is even necessary: Why is it necessary? What is its purpose? To paraphrase Elon Musk, the greatest waste of time is improving something that shouldn’t even exist.

Then: Where is the best place? and When is the best time? These questions might nudge thinking about combining steps and further simplifying the process.

And finally we can ask Who is the best person? and “How” is the best method? The key point here is until we have the minimum possible steps in the simplest possible sequence, and understand the cycle times, it doesn’t make sense balance the work cycle or work on improving things.

Come to think about it – perhaps we should ask “How?” before we ask “Who” since improving the method will change the cycle times and may well inform out decisions about the work balance. Hmmm… I’ll have to think about that. Any thoughts from the TWI gurus?

D. Ask Why 5 Times

Honestly, this was a legacy of the times. Unfortunately it suggests that you can arrive at a root cause simply by repeatedly asking “Why?” and writing down the excuses answers that are generated. In reality problem solving involves multiple possible causes at each level, and each must be investigated. I talked about this in a post way back in 2008: Not Just Asking Why – Five Investigations.

E. Go and see.

Go and see for yourself. Taking this into today’s practice, I think it is something that the Toyota Kata community might emphasize a little more. We tend to ask the question “When can we go and see what we have learned…?” but all too often the answer to “What have you learned?” is a discussion at the board rather than actually going and observing. Hopefully the board is close to where the improvement work is being done. Key point for coaches: If the learner can’t show you and explain until you understand, it is likely the learner’s understanding could be deeper.

As You Walk The Workplace:

Check:

perhaps we should have said “Ask…” rather than “Check” but asking and observing are ways to “check.” All of the below are things that the leader walking the workplace must verify by testing the knowledge of the people doing the work.

A. How should the work be done? Content, Sequence, Timing, Outcome

This is another nod to the research of Steven Spear. The key point here is that before you can ask any of the following questions, you have to have a crisp and precise of what “good” looks like. In this paradigm, all processes are target conditions. And as the work is being done, we are actively searching for obstacles so we can work to make the work smoother and more consistent.

In other words, “What should be happening?” and “How do you know?”

Do the people doing the work understand the standard process as it should be done?

A few months ago I went into some depth on this here: Troubleshooting by Defining Standards. That probably isn’t the best title in retrospect, but there are too many links out there that I don’t want to break by changing it.

B. How do you know it is being done correctly?

Today I ask this question differently. I ask some version of “What is actually happening?” followed by “How can you tell?” We want to know if the people doing the work have a way to compare what they are actually doing against the standard.

C. How do you know the outcome is free of defects?

So, question B asks about consistency of the process, and question C asks about the outcome. Does the team member have a way to positively verify that the outcome is defect-free?

D. What do you do if you have a problem?

Again, we are checking if there is a defined process for escalating a problem. And we define “problem” as any deviation from the standard, or any ambiguity in what should be (or is) happening. We want someone to know, and act, on this, and the only way that is going to happen is to escalate the problem.

We want this process to be as rigorous and structured as the value-adding work.

And we want as much care put into designing production process as was put into designing the product itself. All too often great care and a lot of engineering time goes into product design, and only a casual pass is made at designing and testing the process.

Even better if these are done simultaneously where one informs the other.

For Abnormal Conditions:

ACT:

These are actions that the leader must take if she finds something that isn’t “as it should be” in the course of the CHECK questions above. Key Point: These are leadership actions. That doesn’t mean that the leaders personally carry them out, but the leaders are personally responsible for ensuring that these things are done – and checking again.

That is the only way I know of to prevent the process from continuing to erode.

A. Immediately follow up to restore the standard.

If it isn’t possible to get the intended standard into back place, then get a temporary countermeasure into place that ensures safety and quality.

B. Determine the cause of erosion.

We are talking about process erosion here, with the assumption that something knocked the process off its designed standard. Some obstacle has been discovered, we have to better understand what it is – at least enough to get it documented.

C. Develop and apply countermeasure.

Here we may have to run experiments against this newly discovered obstacle and figure out how to make the process more robust.


That is the end of the little card. But I want to point out that we didn’t just hand these out. You got one of these cards after time paired with a coach on the shop floor practicing answering and asking these questions. Only after you demonstrated the skill did you get the card – just as a reminder, not as a detailed reference. This exercise was inspired by a few of us who had experiences “in the chalk circle” especially with Japanese senseis who had been direct reports to Taiichi Ohno.

We piloted and developed this process on a very patient and willing senior executive – but that is another story for another day. (Thank you once again, Charlie. I learned more from you than you will probably ever realize.)

The Perils of Weekly Toyota Kata Coaching

Outside of the actual operation, the default meeting schedule for most organizations is weekly.

This is OK when everyone understands what is expected and the default thinking and behavior is working for you.

With Toyota Kata, though, the intent is to practice a routine that is not default thinking or behavior. Yet many organizations fall into the default of a weekly coaching cycle.

What we have to remember is that the coaching cycle, and the learner’s preparation for the coaching cycle, are practice. The time(s) that you aren’t practicing you are engaging in the default, and if the default isn’t what you want it to be then it will easily overpower what you are trying to learn.

15 minutes a day is practice. 15 minutes a week is dabbling.

It is the same as a supervisor’s area experiencing one or two “kaizen events” a year. It is just dabbling with kaizen, not practicing it every day, and certainly not immersion. They aren’t going to learn to think differently with that kind of cadence.

Time spent on improvement vs. business as usual
Illustration courtesy of Mike Rother

Batch Production of Experiments

One of the reasons we want to drive toward one-by-one flow in production is so we can have one-by-one confirmation of products vs. waiting for a huge batch to be produced only to discover that they all have problems.

Breaking it down even further, we want one-by-one confirmation of operations so that we don’t keep working on something that is already unusable from something earlier.

Likewise, if a learner is running many experiments without checking in with a coach, he can get pretty far off track without realizing it. The coach can provide a valuable outside check to make sure the learner isn’t getting locked on to something that is distracting him from the bigger picture.

Remember: This is about developing people

Before you jump in and say “But I don’t have time…” consider the alternative.

How much time do you, as a manager, spend intervening in problems that you think people should be able to solve on their own? If you keep giving them the answers, they are going to keep brining those issues to you.

With a little bit of thinking, the Coaching Kata cycle can be easily spliced on to David Marquet’s “Ladder of Leadership” and guide your conversations away from intervention and toward creating able problem solvers.

But before you can do that well, you have to practice the Coaching Kata until asking those types of questions becomes second nature to you.

This isn’t all about the learner’s development! If you only practice coaching once a week, whatever your default is today will likely remain so tomorrow. Change requires repetition and practice.

Just some things to think about this week.

More About Mistake-Proofing

After yesterday’s post about trucks crashing into the famous 11foot8 bridge and mistake proofing, I got the feeling I should drive home my key point that the problem isn’t with the driver, it is with the environment.

As of this writing,  Jürgen has recorded 154 crashes of overheight vehicles into the bridge.

And I’ll put even money that if all of the data were known, this process would pass any test for statistical control and we are getting what we should expect from a stable system. It might not be what we want, but it is what we should expect. (All images are copyright  Jürgen Henn, 11foot8.com)

So addressing the individual incidents probably isn’t a solution. In any case, it is unlikely that any driver will repeat the mistake.* For the TWI folks – this isn’t really a Job Relations type of problem. It might feel like it is, but it isn’t.

In the Factory

I was working with a company with a similar problem. Their inspectors kept missing defects. The response was often to say “I don’t see how she could have missed that!” and even write them up for failure to do something that wasn’t particularly well specified.

But the fact on the ground was, like the bridge, the misses weren’t confined to any particular individuals, any particular shift, any particular anything. People missed things all of the time because the expectations greatly exceeded the limitations of what humans can do for 12 hours (or even one hour). It isn’t an inspection problem. (The reliance on inspection vs. upstream controls is another topic for another day.)

People Work Within a System

It is all too easy to fall into the “bad apple” fallacy and seek out someone who was negligent. It feels good, like we did something about the problem. But the problem will happen again, with someone else. Then I hear frustrated managers start to make disparaging comments about their entire workforce that “doesn’t care” about quality.

I challenged a quality manager to do that inspection job for two hours – not even a complete shift – under the watchful eye of the inspector whose job he was trying to do. Funny – he was a lot slower to assign blame after that experience. He couldn’t keep up.

Deming was pretty clear about the ineffectiveness of exhortation as a way to get better performance. “Be more careful!” might well work for one individual for a short time. “Making an example of someone” might well work for a group for a short time. But there are norms, and the system will return to those norms very quickly. There are simple limits to what humans can focus on and for how long.

The Bridge is a Metaphor

To be clear, the bridge represents a working system, but it is different than what we would find in a company. This is public infrastructure, and the truck drivers that get featured on the videos are not part of a single organization.

This means that you have more control than the city engineers in Durham do. You can establish procedures, ask questions, train people, have them practice, alert them to the Gregson Street Bridge on their route. You can make sure your navigation system routes your trucks around the low bridges. You can support your people so they are less likely to even end up in the situation. All of these are system changes – and that is what it will take to change the outcome.

Change the System: Raising the Bridge

In late 2019 the city of Durham, in coordination with the railroad who owns the bridge, did actually raise the bridge by 8 inches. It is now 11 feet 16 inches (3.76m).

And that is a legitimate approach. Rather than trying to create infallible humans, what can we do to make the system less vulnerable to fallible humans.

While that likely reduced the number of trucks that hit the bridge…


*Caveat: There is one video where a truck seems to avoid the bridge, then circle back around and hit it. And another video where a truck that hit this bridge then proceeded to run into another low bridge with the damaged truck.

Mistake Proofing – Getting People’s Attention

Besides being a great source of schadenfreude, Jürgen Henn’s website, 11foot8.com offers some great insight in the difficulty of effective mistake-proofing.

Background

The clearance between the road and the railroad bridge at 201 Gregson Street in Durham, North Carolina is officially 11 feet 8 inches (3.55 meters).

A typical rental box truck is about 12 feet high (3.65 meters).

The result:

Penske rental truck smashed under low bridge.

The more astute of you may have noticed the “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” sign just above the smashed truck.

Well before the truck approaches the intersection, it passes under a height sensor. If the vehicle is overheight, the OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN sign comes on and starts to flash, and the traffic lights turn red.

While this effort did mitigate the problem, obviously there are drivers who simply do not notice. Lots of them. Jürgen has cameras trained on the intersection and captures over a dozen crashes in a typical year. As a result, his website has attracted international attention. See the short documentary here: http://11foot8.com/about/the-documentary/

Familiar Tasks = “In the Zone”

The human brain is an amazing thing. It also works by deceiving us. It creates the illusion of complete awareness of the things around us when, in reality, we are simply aware of a model our brains have constructed of what we perceive to be there.

It is also an amazing engine at engaging actions based on pattern matching. For example –

In sessions I facilitate, I routinely ask people if they can recall a time when they arrived home after work but realized they didn’t remember driving the route. Nearly every hand in the room goes up. That is pretty amazing because driving is an incredibly complex task. But, assuming you get a license in your mid-teens, by the time you are in your early 20s, most people don’t give it much thought. (There is a reason your insurance rates drop when you turn 25.)

It has become a hard-wired neural pattern, a series of habits, a programmed set of responses that are operating below below the conscious and deliberate thinking part of the brain. This is really good because this process is much faster and more responsive than the alternative. Think about how it felt to be driving when you were just learning – or how it feels to be doing anything new when you are just learning.

The downside to this amazing programming is that things that don’t jar us into consciousness often go unnoticed.

And the more familiar, the more expert, we are with the task at hand, the more likely this will happen.

Levels of Mistake Proofing

I like to talk about three levels of mistake-proofing. Four actually, if you count Zero as a level.

  • Level 0 – the task must be performed correctly from memory.
  • Level 1 – there is a discrete task of checking build into the job.
  • Level 2 – there is an active indication when a mistake is about to be made (or has just been made and there is still time to correct without consequences).
  • Level 3 – there is active prevention that gets in the way of making the mistake.

The OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN sign is a Level 2. The driver has already passed signs informing him of the bridge clearance about 100m before the bridge.

The height sensors are on the poles just past the speed limit signs.

Low clearance signs about 100m before the bridge. (Google Street View)

Then in the next block, there is another sign telling the driver to turn:

Approaching the last intersection (Google Street View)

And finally the light changes and the OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN sign illuminates.

And still they miss it.

(Direct YouTube link for the email readers: https://youtu.be/I0BJmC6u7MU)

To be clear, the vast majority of truck drivers don’t hit the bridge. But over a dozen a year do. (There were more before the flashing sign was put in.)

“Pay Attention!” = Fundamental Attribution Error

As we watch Jürgen’s videos it is easy to assign character attributes to the drivers who hit the bridge. If only they were better drivers. (The vast majority people who are asked to rate their driving skill will say they are “above average” by the way. Think about that.)

But it is human nature to get lulled into a bit of complacency when engaging a routine task- and driving is a routine task in spite of the complexity.

Now – think about the people in your organization. How many opportunities to they have to make a mistake every day… every hour… in the course of their work? How many of those possible mistakes have serious or expensive consequences?

They are experts at what they do. And they don’t make many mistakes. And they usually catch themselves before there is a problem. But the Law of Large Numbers says “Given enough opportunities, the unlikely is inevitable.”

Can anyone reading this honestly say they have never inadvertently run a stop sign? Yet accidents rarely occur. Now and then there is some panic braking, and rarely there is a collision.

Yet it is really easy to single out the person who:

Performs the work the same way, in the same conditions as everyone else.

Makes the same mistakes, just as often, as everyone else.

Just like everyone else, usually they are caught in time, or other conditions aren’t present for a bad outcome.

But this time everything lined up and BANG – the defective product got missed, or the leak wasn’t noticed before the sump went dry.

Then that person gets singled out for “not following procedure” when nobody follows procedure.

Job Instruction “Key Points” = Opportunity

In a Job Breakdown for TWI Job Instruction we assign a “Key Point” as something the learner must remember specifically because it:

  • Might result in a hazard – injure the worker or someone else.
  • “Make or break the job” – if something isn’t done a specific way, the task fails.
  • Is a “knack” or technique that makes it easier to do.

Those first two are red flags. You are asking your team member to memorize critical to safety and critical to quality tasks. My challenge: How many of those key points can you “mistake proof” out of the job breakdown?

Finally – rather than the sensors and flashing lit signs, there is this approach from “somewhere on the Internet.”

Warning Sign: If you hit this sign, you will hit that bridge.

That is awesome because even if the driver doesn’t see the sign, the BANG! may get his attention in time for it to register and stop. In the Durham, NC example above, apparently this wouldn’t work because there are legitimate reasons for trucks to come down the street up to the intersection just before the bridge. After that, it is really too late unless the driver is already aware that he has to turn.

Oh – and by the way – you can get souvenirs from the Gregson Street Bridge at  Jürgen’s store here:  https://squareup.com/store/11foot8-dot-com/ 🙂

There is a follow-up to this post here: http://theleanthinker.com/2020/05/28/more-about-mistake-proofing/

Meta-Patterns: Thoughts for Discussion

I’ll be sending out the Zoom meeting link this (Wednesday) afternoon (May 6, 2020) for the Thursday (11 am Pacific) open discussion on the Meta-Patterns of Innovation.

1901 Wright Glider
Wright Brothers’ Experiments with the 1901 Glider

For those who only got email on the original post, this is a direct link to the video I was referencing: https://videopress.com/v/geNgzN4e

There are still lots of spots for anyone who is interested. Click Here to open the Contact Page, and let me know your email address and I’ll add you to the list.

Hugh asked a really good question in his email that relates to how to put these concepts (that are somewhat abstract and philosophical) into practical application in an organization.

I think that is a really good starting off point for a discussion, especially among change agents.

KataCon4 Keynote: The Meta-Patterns of Innovation

Yes – the title isn’t a typo. This goes back to KataCon 4 in Atlanta. Though I had attended all of them, this was the first time I actually spoke at one. My task was to follow Rich Sheridan and share why I thought his message was a powerful one for an audience of Kata Geeks even if he wasn’t specifically talking about Toyota Kata in his company.

As an experiment, I took the sound recording from my talk and synchronized it with the slide deck. (That is harder that it sounds, by the way.) As another experiment I am sharing it via hosting on WordPress (the back-end of this site) rather than YouTube or a similar host. It is a little over 13 minutes long, and there is another experiment below it.

An Invitation for a Deeper Dive

My last experiment in this post is an invitation to talk about these Meta-Patterns or any other questions that this talk might bring up for you. I’ll be available on Zoom at 11am Pacific Time on Thursday, May 7, 2020.

If you would like an invitation, click on the “Contact Mark” link in the right sidebar and send your thoughts or at least something coherent enough that I know you aren’t a spam bot and I will email a link back to you. This is going to be limited to 50 invitees if it gets to that, so first-come first-serve.

Toyota Kata: What If There Is No Takt Time?

The default Starter Kata for “Grasp the Current Condition” places heavy emphasis on takt time and variation in timing of a regular process. However a lot of processes, both within manufacturing as well as in other domains such as health care, don’t seem to have any kind of regular heartbeat.

As Steve Medland pointed out at KataCon, this can present a struggle for a novice learner, as well as for a lot of coaches.

Before we get into ways to deal with this, I want to level set on what takt time is, and what it does for us.

Why Takt Time?

From an industrial engineering standpoint, takt time is an expression of how much capacity you need.

The traditional way to calculate takt time is to divide the total time available by the output required in that time. This gives us a “time per unit of output” that we have to achieve if we are going to get everything done. In other words, takt time is the required rate of production.

The whole goal of an ideal “Just-in-Time” system is that we have only the capacity required to meet the demand. If the system is even able to run faster than the takt time, we have excess capacity. Excess capacity = extra cost, and “overproduction” is a symptom of having excess capacity. Note that this is the “ideal” – it isn’t anything we can realistically achieve. The concept gives us a direction to strive toward.

Also Note: Determining how much capacity you need has absolutely nothing to do with how much capacity you have.

OK, that answered the question “What is takt time?” but not the question I posed: “Why takt time?” After all, I could just as easily say I need the capacity to product 96 units per day. But that doesn’t answer the question, “How fast do I need to go?” And that is what takt time gives us.

Think of it this way. If I need to make 96 units during the course of an 8 hour day, then I need to have made 48 units in four hours.

To make 48 units in four hours, I need to make 24 units in 2 hours. Which means 12 units in 1 hour. 6 units in 30 minutes. 3 units in 15 minutes. One unit every 5 minutes. And that is my takt time. (This is an oversimplification since I did not subtract break times to make the math easier to make the point.)

Thinking of it this way gives the people doing the work a quick way to know, very quickly, if they are ahead or behind. They can ask, “How long did this unit take?” and compare that with, “How long did we have?”

A Point of Comparison

Which brings us to the “Why.”

If I measure the time between units output at the end of the line, I can compare the actual time interval (the cycle time) with the required time interval (the takt time).

  • If we need to complete a unit every five minutes (takt time), AND
  • We know that our process can do that when there are NO problems, THEN
  • We can see very quickly if there IS a problem. We have to attack a source of variation and work on stability.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Heartbeat.png

On the other hand,

  • If we need to complete a unit every five minutes (takt time), and
  • We know that our process is not capable of doing so even when running smoothly, then
  • We know we have to change the entire system to make rate.

Distinguishing between these two conditions is the main benefit of building a cycle time run chart (step 3 in the Starter Kata of Grasp the Current Condition.) That is a topic for another post, or just get a copy of the Toyota Kata Practice Guide ;).

The issue comes when people don’t see a steady rate of demand.

Sometimes they generally know how much time is in the day, but they see demand fluctuating all over the place.

This is true in manufacturing work as well as other cases, such as engineering work, software development, and a lot of cases in health care. The time to complete one “unit of work” varies, so it is hard to see any kind of cadence to the output even if the work is steady.

Key Question: Are you ahead or behind?

And how can you tell?

Regardless of all of the variation, though, we still want to know the answer to questions such as “Are we on track to get everything done today?” or “Has my load exceeded my capacity?” or “Is the backlog increasing, decreasing, or holding steady?” unless we are simply relying on luck. Asking and answering these questions is the purpose of many of the “lean tools” – including takt time.

When to Bring it Up

Everything above, though, is information for the coach to keep in mind. What a lot of us (myself included) do all too often is take beginners into advanced application way too fast. We forget what it is like to be overwhelmed with just getting through the day, and the limits that places on anyone for taking in new concepts.

I bring it up for the coach because I think the chances of the learner discovering it on their own are significantly lower (perhaps close to zero) if the coach is starting in the same place.

If you are getting pushback on the concept, it might be time to back off a bit and give your learner some space.

Steve Medland had a mini (5 minute) presentation at KataCon 2020 that briefly addressed some of his experience with this situation.

He pointed out that the default worksheet templates for Grasp the Current Condition and Establishing a Target Condition emphasize process timing and cadence pretty heavily.

From Steve Medlin’s KataCon presentation
From Steve Medlin’s KataCon presentation

And the alternative is a blank template:

From Steve Medland’s KataCon presentation

Steve makes a good case that there ought to be something that provides a more general structure without removing all structure. I agree – as a coach, structure is one of the things you are bringing to the table. Any learner, at any level of expertise, is more deeply embroiled in the process itself than in the process of improving the process. Having some structure really helps.

The key is to adjust the structure to fit the situation.

From Steve Medland’s KataCon presentation

With beginners, the concept of takt time can be distracting, even paralyzing. Even more so if we use alien jargon like “takt time.”*

Using a hybrid structure like Steve proposes can get the learner moving into process analysis without getting wrapped up on terminology, or struggling with something she sincerely believes has nothing resembling a cadence.

Then, when the opportunity arises, the coach can still gently, but persistently, ask “How often does this need to be done?” and “How do we know if we are ahead or behind?”

Often the resistance is less about knowing there is some kind of schedule, and more about just being overwhelmed by all of the chaos that prevents any kind of stability.

Steve and I agree that timing is important. And I agree that it is important enough that it might be best to hold off on introducing it as a concept so we don’t create resistance unnecessarily.

But please don’t completely throw away measuring time just because it is hard. In fact, the harder it is, the more important it likely is. When it is easy to determine takt time, we likely already have an idea how long things are taking. The less appropriate takt time seems, the more critical it becomes to dig deep into where the time is going.


*Believe it or not, Godwin’s Law can even be applied to “takt time” if you research your history enough.

Simon Sinek – Remote Teaming Tips

How Remote Teams Can Connect Meaningfully – Simon Sinek – March 20, 2020

We are all being pushed into the zone beyond our knowledge base right now – having to rapidly adapt and adjust to different ways of working together.

This morning Craig Stritar forwarded a cool little video to me from Simon Sinek’s YouTube channel. In it Steve Shedletzky, a member of Simon’s team, introduces their weekly huddle – a way that this team, which has been working remotely for years, maintains their connection to one another.

One of the keys here is that this meeting is not a conversation about the business at hand. There are other meetings for that. This one is intended to strengthen the social bonds of the group.

They dedicate 75 minutes a week to this task. The video is a condensed version to give us a taste of their structure.

And it is structure that makes it work. It is structure that makes sure no individual dominates the conversation, and structure that keeps it from becoming the kind of wide-ranging conversation that happens over beer and pizza.

It is structure that gives them the freedom to hear and be heard.

With that – here is the video.

For those who can’t see the embedded video, here is the YouTube link: https://youtu.be/tKEtm3HCrsw

The Key to Innovation is Iterate and Test

Key points from this great TED talk by Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab.

You can’t plan the path, you can only set the direction. He talks about the “compass” guiding a project that followed a route which was totally unpredictable. There was no way to plan out the path to success from the beginning.

Instead, at each step, they asked “Where are we now?”

“What do we need to do next?”

“What’s in the way of doing that?”

“How do we deal with that?”

I’m paraphrasing here, of course, but the key is that once again we have an instance the Improvement Kata pattern in the wild.

Ghost Victories – an excerpt from Upstream by Dan Heath

Amazon affiliate link to book listing for Upstream by Dan Heath
The link to the image takes you to the Amazon listing for the book. If you happen to order it, I get a small kickback, no cost to you, Just FYI.

Dan Heath has just published a new book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen.

I just got the book, and am reading it now. I think there is going to be a lot of good material to discuss here.

But this post is about a marketing email with an excerpt really resonated with me, and I want to discuss that. I wrote to Dan Heath, and got his permission to use pieces of the excerpt here. (Thank you, Dan)

Management By Measurement = “Ghost Victories”

I have talked about what I call “management by measurement” in the past. In that post I told a true story of a company that placed very heavy emphasis on reducing inventory levels without digging into how that performance was achieved. The net result was a an embarrassed CEO during a quarterly analyst’s call. Not good.

Dan Heath talks about the same thing in Upstream. He calls it “ghost victories.”

[when] there is a separation between (a) the way we’re measuring success and (b) the actual results we want to see in the world, we run the risk of a “ghost victory”: a superficial success that cloaks failure.

The most destructive form of ghost victory is when your measures become the mission. Because, in those situations, it’s possible to ace your measures while undermining your mission.

He goes on to describe a case in the U.K. where the Department of Health established penalties for wait times longer than four hours in the Emergency Departments. And it worked. Wait times were reduced – at least on paper. Then the facts began to emerge:

 In some hospitals, patients had been left in ambulances parked outside the hospital—up until the point when the staffers believed they could be seen within the prescribed four-hour window. Then they wheeled the patients inside.

In the old post I referenced above, I said:

If making the numbers (or the sky) look good is all that matters, the numbers will look good. As my friend Skip puts it so well, this can be done in one of three ways:

  • Distort the numbers.
  • Distort the process.
  • Change the process (to deliver better results).

The third option is a lot harder than the other two. But it is the only one that works in the long haul.

All of this ties very well to Billy Taylor’s keynote at KataCon6 where he talked about the difference between “Key Activities” and “Key Indicators.” It is only when we can get down to the observable actions and understand the cause-and-effect relationship between those actions and the needle we are trying to move that we will have any effect.

To avoid the “Ghost Victory” trap, Dan recommends “pre-gaming” your metrics and thinking of all of the ways it would be possible to hit the numbers while simultaneously damaging the organization. In other words, get ahead of the problem and solve it before it happens.

He proposes three tests which force us to apply different assumptions to our thinking.

The lazy bureaucrat test

Imagine the easiest possible way to hit the numbers – with the least amount of change to the status quo. The story I cited above about inventory levels is a great example.

I can make my defect rates improve by altering the definition of “defect.”

There are lots of accounting games that can be played.

This is one to borrow from Skip’s list – How can the underlying numbers be distorted to make this one look good when it really isn’t?

The “rising tides” test

What external factors would have a significant impact on this metric? For example, I was working at a large company where a significant part of their product cost was a commodity raw material. As the market price went down, “costs” went down, and bonuses all around. But when the market price went up, “costs” went up and careers were threatened and bad reviews issued.

Those shifts in commodity prices had nothing to do with how those managers were doing their jobs, the tide rose and fell, and their fortunes with it.

The question in my mind is “What things would make this number look good, or bad, without any effort or change in the process we are trying to measure?”

The defiling-the-mission test

Hmmm. This is a tough one. (not really)

And it is a really common problem in our world of quarterly and annual expectations. In what ways could meeting these numbers in the short term ultimately hurt our reputation, our business, in the long term?

For example, I can think of an ongoing story of a product development project that hit its cost and schedule milestones (what was being measured). But they did so at the cost of destroying their reputation with customers, their Federal regulators and the public (and, to a large extent, their employees). They now have a new CEO, but the deeper problem has origins in the late 1990s.

How long will it take them to recover? That story is still playing out.

In another case I was in a meeting with a team that was discussing a customer complaint. The ultimate cause was a decision to substitute a cheaper material to reduce production costs. But this is a premium brand. There was a great question asked there: “Which of our values did we violate here?” – so the introspection was awesome.

Next step? Ask that question before the decision is made: “Is this decision consistent with our values?” If that makes you uncomfortable, then time to look in the mirror.

Then there is this little incident from 2010:

Picture of burning Deepwater Horizon oil platform
BP Deepwater Horizon fire – Photo by USCG

The metric was cost and schedule. Which makes sense. But the behavior that was driven was cutting corners on safety.

Getting Ahead of Problems

The book’s subtitle says it is about getting ahead of problems. I am looking forward to reading it and writing something more comprehensive.