A First-Timer’s Guide to KataCon

The 2023 Toyota Kata Summit, aka “KataCon9” is coming up fast – officially 14 and 15 March, with a extra breakout sessions on “Day 0” on Monday March 13th. Also the evening of the 13th is the Kata Geek Meetup, a less formal series of short presentations and discussion.

A Breakout Session at the TWI Summit

Last year (2022) was “Old friends meeting for the first time” as 2021 had been virtual and the online community really came together during 2020 and 2021. And that community remains. I’m not sure what this year’s vibe will be – every one is different.

One thing that is a little different this year is that the TWI Summit is running in parallel in the same venue. This means if you are registered for either you can go back and forth to see the people and presentations that interest you. There is a lot of overlap between the two communities in any case.

And – yes, I will be there. I will be presenting at the TWI conference, and am the closing joint speaker for the two combined audiences. My messaging is nearly always about leadership and the culture we are trying to create within our organizations, and my goal is always to leave you thinking a bit. (Hence the name of this blog *smile*) I am also doing a breakout workshop about how Toyota Kata and TWI integrate into a single system. (Hint – it isn’t about tools.)

The conference is a really cool mix of regulars (for example, I have been to all of them) and people with all levels of experience with Toyota Kata from the curious to the thought leaders.

While the formal part of the conference is always awesome, I want to share some tips about how to get even more out of your experience there.

Simply put, a lot of the opportunity for learning happens in the times before, and especially after, the formal program. Monday evening and Tuesday evening, especially, present huge opportunities.

The Kata Community is one of the most open and sharing communities of practice out there. Even though lots of the “regulars” are consultants, for example, the vast majority of us share information, tips, learning with one another – not just at the conference. This happens year-round.

And you have the same opportunity. Talk to people. Ask questions, Ask questions about who you should ask. Seek out expert experienced opinions. Got a specific issue or question about application? Ask. Get a conversation going. I am far from the only one who has spent hours going into depth with people in the evenings. For me, it is fun, it makes me think, I learn, and the exchange is refreshing.

From a purely value perspective – you can get a conversation from world-class practitioners and consultants for the price of a beer, if that. You’d likely pay a lot more if you engaged them as a client. *smile* The key is – spend time with people.

Likewise, one of the mantras of our community is “Have a coach, be a coach.” This is a great opportunity to connect with someone who wants to practice their coaching skills – or if that’s you, to find a more-than-willing learner. If you want to “be a coach” I suggest you also connect with someone to coach you as you coach – a 2nd coach.

But to get the most out of KataCon you, first, have to actually attend.

What is a “Socio-Technical System?”

Lately the term “socio-technical system has been starting to show up more and I thought this would be an opportunity to weigh in on what I think it means.

Though the concept has been around since at least 1951 (see below), I think I have tended to “bleep over” the term as jargon without giving it a lot of thought. I don’t think I am alone in that.

People who try to describe the meaning tend to describe a system “that integrates the social and technical aspects” or words like that.

I would posit that it goes much deeper, and we “bleep over” the concept at our peril if we want our organizations to function well.

The Origin of Social-Technical Theory

*Up through the 1940s, coal mining in the UK was largely pick and shovel work aided by drills and, sometimes, explosives. A work crew typically consisted of three to half a dozen men (and they were all men) who were task organized to strip the coal off the seam face, shovel it into mining carts, and move those carts to the transport system.

These teams were distributed through the mine, and because the distance and working conditions really precluded a lot of supervision, the teams largely oversaw their own work.

Since each team worked independently, the system as a whole could easily accommodate the simple fact that in some spots the coal is harder to dig out than in others.

(If you want to get more of a feel for the work and working conditions, check out the photos in this Daily Mirror article: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/real-life-stories/britains-last-deep-coal-pit-7000879)

The work also met every definition of “difficult, dirty and dangerous.” That work environment, though, created a social bond among the team members as they worked together to accomplish the task of “mining coal.”

The system was not without its problems, however. The social structure was built around loyalty to the small work team. When “trams” (coal carts) were in short supply, for example, the “trammers” would horde carts to optimize their team’s performance at the expense of other teams being limited by the number of carts available.

This all changed shortly after WWII.

The Long Wall Method

In the late 1940s the industrial engineers turned this craft production system into a factory system with the tasks divided between three shifts.

Long Wall Mining Shift Schedule

The process would begin on the evening shift. They would drill blast holes along the top of the coal seam, then dig an undercut about six inches high at the base to allow the blast to drop the coal. This would be done along a long (up to a couple of hundred meters) face of the coal seam. (Hence the name “long wall mining.”)

Meanwhile another team would break down the conveyor system that ran parallel to the coal face in preparation for moving it forward to position it for removing the loose coal.

Then night shift had two teams. One would extend the “gateway tunnels” at either end of the coal face. This was a crew of 8 men. Simultaneously another team would rebuild the conveyer in the new position.

Once all of this work was done, the shots would be fired, dropping the coal into a pile along the coal seam face.

Day shift would take the loose coal and transfer it to the conveyor system to be taken out of the mine.

Yes, this is an oversimplification, but it suffices for this discussion.

On paper, this process was far more efficient.

In practice, though, things did not go smoothly.

“Isolated Dependence”

A “filler” loads loose coal onto the conveyor.

Looking at this work breakdown, the first two shifts are prep work. Only the day shift, the “fillers,” actually get the coal out of the mine. But their success was entirely dependent on how well the first two shifts did their jobs. If everything was not “by the book” then the fillers would be significantly hampered. Since they were paid by the ton of coal extracted, there was more at stake than just a sense of accomplishment.

If the previous shifts ran into problems – such as a “shot” that failed to separate all of the coal from the roof of the seam, or harder material, etc. these inconsistencies slowed down the “fillers” and made them less successful. If the conveyor was not completely or correctly assembled, they could not begin work until this was corrected.

Because management pressure was on the key performance indicator – the rate of coal extraction, and because the “fillers” were paid by the ton of coal extracted, this created resentment between the “fillers” and crews on the other two shifts, as well as conflicts with management which the working crews began to regard (with ample evidence) as disconnected from the realities of their work.

Then, if the “fillers” were too far behind at the end of their shift, that would delay the start of the next cycle and things spiraled downward from there.

Productivity plummeted. The study I am citing here was commissioned to determine why. Their conclusion, in short, was that the new work organization was built around the paradigm of a factory assembly line without regard for the variation of geology. Success of the three shift cycle depended on each shift meeting a rigid schedule, but that schedule did not account for the simple fact that coal seams are not uniform.

In addition, the work organization destroyed the social structure of the mining crews. Their success was dependent on people they no longer saw or interacted with. The oncoming filler shift, in particular, would be confronted with all of the obstacles left by the previous two shifts. As their resentment for being unsupported built, their willingness to put in any extra effort dropped to zero.

Again – this is an oversimplification. If you want to read the full paper there is a link at the end of this post.

Oversimplification or not, however, the effect was stark. The social structure of the organization was driven to fundamentally change by alternations in the technical structure of the work. Quoting from my source material* :

The effect of the introduction of mechanized methods of face preparation and conveying, along with the retention of manual filling, has been not only to isolate the filler from those with whom he formerly shared the coal-getting task as a whole, but to make him one of a large aggregate serviced by the same small group of preparation workers.

The work design was based on a mechanistic view that ignored the how the social structure impacted the performance of the team.

The Mechanistic View

Installed in the year 1410, the Prague Astronomical Clock is the third-oldest in the world, and the oldest still in operation. (Prague is an awesome city, by the way.) Photo © Steve Collins, used under Creative Commons license via Flickr and Wikimedia

By the turn of the last century we thought we had the ways of the universe pretty well understood. Hundreds of years (thousands of years in some early societies) earlier we had the ability to predict the motion of the stars and planets – to the point that we could build machines that were analogues of their movements.

The prevailing model in psychology was classical conditioning which, in essence, said that behavior is an almost algorithmic learned response based on previous positive and negative reinforcements.

This mechanistic model leads to a belief that we can carefully design the machine and people’s work within the machine can be carefully designed and shaped through rewards and consequences.

And as long as everything, and every one, works as they are supposed to, it’s all good. If a machine malfunctions, we fix it. If people don’t follow procedures, we “motivate them” with incentives.

This model prevails even today and even colors our teaching of continuous improvement. One of the places we need tend to inherently adopt a mechanistic view is when we use the word “system.”

The Mechanistic View of “System”

In today’s world, when people talk about “the system” they are often referring to an information system of some type. Common examples are an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, or an Electronic Health Records (EHR) system. And these information processing systems do tend to shape how the organization functions, for better or for worse.

So when people talk about a “system” I think the reflex is to think of the system as a machine that is carefully designed, built, and tuned to perform a particular function or behave in a particular way.

And people tend to assume that once it is working, it will continue to work so long as it is maintained to be kept in the same condition.

This thinking often extends to the people as well. They are often viewed as servicing “the system” – providing it with information, and following the instructions it gives. (this is particularly true in ERP / MRP environments.) Everything is part of a machine, and as long as everyone does their jobs, and the equipment functions as intended, then it all works.

In practice, though, these systems tend to isolate people from one another, or into small single task groups in much the same way as happened in the coal mine.

The Mechanistic Paradigm at Work

The reason I explained all of this is so we can look at our own workplaces through this lens. The crucial question is: Do the work structures and systems support or hamper the social structure of effective teamwork?

Let’s take another look at those ERP or EHR systems. Without the interaction with and the interaction between the people who use them, those “systems” are inert. They do nothing. The mechanistic paradigm, though, tends to look at people as performing a task to serve or enable the system. Instead, we should look at the information system as a tool that should enable people do to a job they otherwise could not.

On the Shop Floor

The sign says “Hearing Protection Required.” The reality is that it is impossible for more than 3 or 4 people to have a conversation on the shop floor, as they are shouting to be heard. The final operation is highly automated, each machine has two people working in isolation, even from one another for the most part. In addition, the machine crews are isolated from one another, both by distance and by the noise level.

The machine operator is measured on his hourly rate of production vs. a standard expectation.

Meanwhile at the opposite end of the building, the production scheduling team works to carefully orchestrate the availability of packaging materials, purchased components, as well as scheduling each phase of production so work is available for the next step.

They do all of this with their ERP system and every day they create orders to issue components, production orders to the various areas in the shop, and purchase orders to their suppliers. They adjust priorities at least daily, based not only on lead times and changing customer requirements, but also on the reality of what has actually been produced, or not, up to this point. Items are early, they are late, production runs ahead, though mostly behind, the scheduled intent.

Everyone is frustrated. The planner / schedulers because production never seems to make what they planned. And production because scheduling never seems to schedule things that can be made with the available materials, etc. Shortages are discovered, an ad-hoc plan is created to keep things moving – but that may well consume components that were earmarked for something later in the week, and the cycle continues.

To make things even more interesting, the planner / schedulers are using production capacity numbers that they know are higher than reality. They are under pressure to put in unrealistic numbers because the real numbers would make the site’s cost estimates too high and attract scrutiny from corporate.

This means “the system” produces schedules that cannot be met by actual production even if everything else works, which, in turn, means continuously over-promising, under-delivering, and adjusting priorities.

Though the work is very different, we have a social structure not unlike the British coal mine.

This is what “isolated dependence” looks like in today’s work environments. If you are seeing blame casting and conflict between groups who are dependent on one another you likely have a similar situation in your organization.

Counter-Productive Response

Unfortunately the typical management response is to increase monitoring, control, incentives, “accountability” on individual parts of the process rather than looking at the entire system.

These things tend to increase the sense of isolation and frustration as they can create a sense of victimhood between the separate groups. For example, in the above situation everyone there told me that they used to have pull system on the factory floor, and it had worked really well, operated predictably, and gave them a lot more insight into what was actually happening. But some time ago a new management team wanted to track everything in the computer “for control” so the current system was installed.

Ironically, that management team had turned over, but for whatever reason people were very reluctant to return to what they knew had worked in the past. But I digress.

The Implications

Human beings are innately social. In any organization, or casual group trying to get something done, people develop webs of social networks. The more they can interact, the more everyone stays on the same page.

There are a few things we can do to reinforce this.

Bring People Together

And I mean bring them together literally, physically. Rather than just confronting one another in the morning meeting, have them literally work side-by-side with the common goal of a smooth process.

Have a Shared, Objective, Truth

Eliminate the need to ask or query “status.” Eliminate the one person who knows the big picture. Get the truth out there in the open– literally, physically. (See a trend here?)

In a well managed operation I nearly always find rich “information radiators” that are an inherent part of the process itself (rather than being a display of information that was input just so it can be displayed). This information is not simply a passive display. It is actively used by the people doing the work to they know where they stand, what comes next, and when they need to raise a concern.

A classic example of this is a heijunka or load-leveling box. The cards, or work orders, or pick tickets, are placed in slots that are based on the time that work is expected to start if everything is working normally. Thus it is insanely easy to spot if something is getting behind, long before it would show up in the daily production report. Menlo Innovations’ Work Authorization Board does the same thing.

The goal is for conversations to be about “How do respond” rather than discussions about “what is happening.”

This is really the purpose of nearly every “lean tool” — to ask, and answer, two key questions:

  • What should be happening?
  • What is actually happening?

and then invite a conversation about any difference between the two.

The fact that “we have made 234 widgets” is meaningless without a point of comparison of “how many widgets should we have made up to this point?” The goal is to invite curiosity and foster actual conversations, and eliminate debates about what should be and what actually is.

But more often, this is what I most find lacking. People well tell me they can easily query status, look up individual orders, but even then there is rarely a timely comparison between “nominal” and “actual” in that information. Even if status can be queried, there is often a lack a “compared to what?” Or worse, the status is abstracted from reality, for example, measured in “earned hours” or some other financial metric. Often “ahead or behind” is not known until the end of the day… or the week, or sometimes even the month. The greater the lag, the bigger is the scramble to make up production with overtime.

So here is question #1 for you: If I were to ask you, right now, “Is this operation ahead or behind?” could you tell me? Can the people who are actually doing the work tell me? And by “tell me” I mean immediately, without having to go research or launch some kind of query.

Another version of this question is, “How far behind do you allow yourself to get before you actually know there is a problem?”

Social-Technical

So what we have is a technical aspect of a process that is deliberately designed to support meaningful social interactions between the people responsible for carrying out the work and accomplishing the overall task… as a team. We bring people together rather than isolating them from one another.

This is hard – Yup.

And these principles run against management “best practices” that have been taught since the 1920s.

Where to start? If any of this seems impossible, work on trust. Think about this – Why would people be reluctant to display an objective truth without the ability to first qualify it?

Why would people be reluctant to create a true dependent relationship with another department?

All of these things come down to a culture of self-defense because people feel a need to protect themselves from something or someone. Even if that force is long gone, the effects of leadership-by-fear linger, sometimes for many years, unless you take proactive and direct steps to eliminate that fear.

So… if this seems hard, work on that first.


* The original study of the interplay between social structure and work organization and technology looks to be the 1951 paper “Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Longwall Method of Coal-Getting: An Examination of the Psychological Situation and Technological Content of the Work System” by E.L. Trist and K.W. Bamforth

“95 Thesis” on Kaizen Events and TPS

Once again I am going through old files. These are some notes I wrote back in 2005 that I thought might be interesting here. Looking back at what I was writing at the time, I think I was thinking about nailing these points to a church door somewhere in the company. That actually isn’t a bad analogy as I was advocating a pretty dramatic shift in the role of the kaizen workshop leaders.

All Saint’s Church – Wittenberg, Germany

This was written four years before I first encountered Toyota Kata, and reflected my experience as a lean director operating within a $2billion slice of a global manufacturing company. What reading Toyota Kata did for me was (1) solidify what I wrote below, and (2) provided a structure for actually doing it.

Perhaps this will create some discussion. If you are interested in getting a Zoom session together around it, feel free to hit the Contact Mark in the right sidebar (or just click it here) and drop me a note. If there is interest, I’ll put something together.

Kaizen Events

Kaizen events (or whatever we want to call the traditional week-long activity):

  • Can be a useful tool when used in the context of an overall plan.
  • Are neither necessary nor sufficient to implement [our operating system].1
  • There are times when any specific tool is appropriate, and there are no universal tools. Kaizen tools included.
  • (Our operating system) is, by our own model, the “Operational Excellence” pillar of (our business system). This is keyed in leadership behavior, not implementation of tools. The tools serve only to provide context for leaders to rapidly see what is happening and the means to immediately respond to problems.
  • Thus, focusing on implementing the tools of TPS (takt time, flow, pull, etc) outside of the immediate response and problem solving context is an exercise which expends energy and gains very little sustainable change. This is independent of whether it is done in a week-long intense event or not.
  • However, in my experience, organizations which take a deliberate and steady approach implementing have had more success putting the sustaining mechanisms into place. While it is sometimes necessary to bring teams together for a few days at times to solve a specific problem, or to develop a radically different approach, these efforts tend to be more focused than a typical kaizen week I see.
  • When the kaizen week is scheduled first, and then the organization looks for what needs improving, this is a symptom of ineffective use of the tool.
  • In general, a kaizen, whether it is a week, a month, or even just a few minutes, must be focused on solving specific problems which are impeding flow or are barriers2 to the next level of performance. Without this focus, there is no association with the necessities of the business, and no context for the gains.
  • There are a few simple countermeasures which can be applied to a kaizen week activity that focus the participants much more tightly on learning the critical thinking.

Improvement can, and must, take many forms. A week-long kaizen activity is but one. It is expensive, time consuming, disruptive, and should be used deliberately only when simpler approaches have failed to solve the problem.

Classes and Courses ≠ Teaching and Learning

Bluntly, even though we preach PDCA and say we understand it, we are not applying PDCA in our education approach.

Some fundamental tenets:

  • All of our teaching should be contextual and focused on what skill or knowledge is required to clear the next barrier to flow or performance.
  • The above does not rule out teaching fundamental theory, but fundamental theory must be immediately translated into actions and put into practice or it will never be more than a nice discussion.
  • The vast majority of our teaching should be experiential, and based in real-world situations, solving actual problems vs. examples and contrived exercises.
  • We want to move our teaching toward an ideal state (a True North in our approach) where it is:
    • Socratic – focusing people on the key questions.
    • Experiential – learn by application to solve real problems and thus gain experience and confidence that the concepts translate to the real world.
  • Thus, education and training is but one tool used by leadership to help people clear the barriers and problems that block progress toward higher levels of performance.
  • As far as I can determine, the “Toyota Way” of teaching is similar to this model.

Content

The content of training is as critical as the way it is delivered.

Our objective is to shift people’s thinking, and in doing so, shift their day-to-day behavior as they make operational decisions. The target audience for all of our efforts are the people who make decisions which impact our direction and performance. This is anyone in any position of leadership, at any level of the company – from a Team Leader on the shop floor to the CEO.

The key is to embed the structure of applying PDCA into all of our content. For example:

  • The “rules-in-use” in Steven Spear’s research (Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System and other related publications).
  • Every tool, technique, etc. we teach, or should teach, is some application of the above. (The rules-in-use include problem detection, response, and problem solving.) I have yet to encounter an improvement tool or technique that does not fit this model.
  • This approach fundamentally re-frames the concept of “problem” and what should be done about it.
  • The Toyota Production System (in its pure state) is a process which delivers a continuous stream of problems to be solved to the only component of the system that can think – the people. This is how people are engaged, and this is what makes it a “people based system.” Leave this out, and “people based system” is just hollow words. Nearly every discussion talks about how important people are, but then dives right into technical topics without covering how people are actually engaged — outside the context of a week-long kaizen.

The Role of “Workshop Leaders” in the (Continuous Improvement Office)

No one has disputed the critical make-or-break role played by the line leadership, not only in implementation, but even more so in sustaining.

Workshop leaders are generally taught to plan and lead workshops. The emphasis is on the week-long workshop logistics; on presenting modules in classroom instruction; and on the skills to facilitate a team through the process of making rather dramatic shop floor improvements.

In a typical (not saying it happens here) implementation scenario, it is the workshop leaders who go to the work area, do the observations (usually without a lot of skilled mentoring, and usually just to collect cycle times); build the balance charts and combination sheets; plan what will be changed; how it will be changed, set objectives, targets and boundaries.

They are the most visible leadership of the teams during the week, and they are the ones tracking and pushing follow-up and completion of open kaizen newspaper items.

The effect of this (which is fairly consistent across companies) is:

  • The standard work tools are something workshop leaders use during improvement events.
  • Cycle times, observations, and looking for improvement opportunities is something that is the domain of the workshop leaders.
  • Actually guiding the team members through the problem solving process is the job of the workshop leaders.
  • The supervisors and managers are there as team members, in order to learn by participation, from this outside expert.

The question is: Who is responsible to coach the line leaders through the process of handling the problems that the TPS is designed to surface in operation?

Once the basic flows are in place, there will be a stream of problems revealed. Those problems will either be seen or not seen. IF problems are seen, they will either be dealt with quickly, following good thinking, or they will be accommodated so they go back to being unseen. This is a critical crossroad for the organization…. and it is the behavior of the first and second line leaders, and the support they get from their leaders, that most influences whether the system backslides or continues to get better and better.

IF problems are seen, they will either be dealt with quickly, following good thinking, or they will be accommodated so they go back to being unseen.

Note: There is not middle ground. One-piece-flow really can’t sustain in a stable state. It is either improving or getting worse. It isn’t designed to stay still, and it won’t. Continuous intervention is required for stability, and that intervention is what improves it.

Who is teaching the leaders to do this?

Each leader must have a coach, by name, who can, and will, always challenge his thinking and his solutions to problems against a specific thinking structure.

My view is this is the primary role for the Kaizen Promotion Office.

The way to do this is through application of a few core skills, and skills can be taught.

We should:

  • Include this vital role into the expectations of a “workshop leader” – to take them closer to being “coordinators” in the Toyota factory start-up model.
  • Provide these “coordinators” with a specific support process so they know that they can quickly get assistance if they feel they are in over their heads.
  • The role of that assistance is not to step in and solve the problem. It is to take the opportunity to teach both the workshop leader and the area manager by guiding them through solving the problem.

My experience with this concept is that teaching these skills to someone is not as difficult as most people assume. The basics of observing and seeing flows can be taught over a few days to someone who is motivated to learn. The skill of teaching by asking questions can be accelerated from the “pure” method by telling them what is being done in why. “This isn’t about the answers, it is about learning the questions.”

Application and good teaching can easily be verified by checking the leader’s (the student’s) level of skill and behavior. (The senior teacher checks the teacher by checking the student… just as the area supervisor checks the Team Leader’s teaching by verifying the standard work on the shop floor.

None of this is an advanced topic. These are the basics. Once a good context is established in people’s minds, my experience suggests that the Toyota system is no longer counter-intuitive. The tools and techniques that, at first, seem alien now make sense.

——–

1 By this I meant to shift the operating culture to one that inherently supports continuous improvement.

2 In Toyota Kata language, we would say “obstacles.” I had used the term “barriers” up to that point.

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

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

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

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

He continues:

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

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

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

Blowback

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

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

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

CBS News picked up the story on March 25.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK – so what can we learn here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Deeper

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

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

What happened in those two weeks?

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

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

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

The Questions for Everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quite the opposite.

What Problem Were They Trying to Solve?

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

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

A Question for You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Are You Asking Questions?

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

Diagnostic Questions

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

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

Development Questions

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

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

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

This is Harder and Takes Longer

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

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

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

Let’s Go See – and learn together

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

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

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

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

Leading to Learn: Ask More, Tell Less

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One is telling. The other is teaching.

Takt Time: How Slow Can You Go?

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

Yes – this old school stopwatch reads exactly 42 seconds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Takt Time and Cycle Time

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

Rate vs. Output

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

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

It Isn’t a Race

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

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


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

Applying the Improvement Kata to the Process of Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Respect, Standards and Jidoka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop

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

Investigate the root cause

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

“Actually it is an extra one.”

“Really? Where did it come from?”

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

“Ah, OK. Why did you need his?”

“The regular one isn’t working.”

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

“Thanks”

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

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

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

Is this the Team Member’s fault?

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

Often times there is no standard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any deviation from the standard is a problem.

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

Kaas Tailored – Truth, Bit, Pull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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