The Chalk Circle – Continued

Yesterday I wrote a little about my own experience with Taiichi Ohno’s “chalk circle” as well as some stories I have gathered from others during the years.

Although the insights I got from Iwata-sensei changed my perspective, it was some years later that a few other things got solidified.

My colleagues and I had been hired as a team of “experts” to help a major household-name company implement “lean manufacturing” into their production and logistics processes.

A couple of years into the effort, it was still a struggle.

Although there were a lot of kaizen events happening, it was a continual battle to sustain the results. We were quickly reaching the point where 100% of our effort would be expended simply re-implementing areas where we had already been. That is the danger point when forward progress stops and the program stalls.

Of course we were busy lamenting about the “lack of management commitment” to support and sustain the great work these teams were doing.

The next week we were around the table trying to figure out a countermeasure.

First we had to understand the problem.

As we talked and shared, we discovered that each of us had one area, a single operation, that was showing better results than the others. Operationally, these areas were actually quite diverse. What did they have in common?

Each of them was the area under our respective responsibility that had the weakest or no internal infrastructure for kaizen events. In fact the most successful implementations were happening in the operations that held the least number of week-long kaizen events.

Needless to say, that realization was interesting. So what else did they have in common?

Because we did not have our internally trained people leading kaizen in those areas, we were coordinating and leading the effort personally. One of us, not someone we had trained, was guiding those areas through their implementation.

Why were our results different than the people we trained? What did we do differently?

As we talked, we found that we all would take the line leaders, the managers, the people responsible, to their shop floors, and teach them how to spot problems and what to do about it.

We would stand with them, observe something happening, and ask “What do you see?” We would continue to ask questions until they saw the things that we did. Then we would begin asking about causes. “Why does this happen?” Our objective was to teach the leaders to be intensely curious about what was going on, to compare what they saw against a picture in their mind of an ideal state, and further be curious about why there was a difference.

We paid attention to progress, focused their attention into areas that needed work, and always, constantly, asked questions.

  • “What is supposed to be happening here?”
  • “What is really happening?”
  • “Is that really what you want?”
  • “Why is there a difference? What is in the way?”
  • “Does the Team Member know what to do? How do you know? How does he learn?”
  • “Is this process on track? How can you tell?”
  • “How many are supposed to be here? Why are there extras?”
  • “Why is no one working here? Where did they go?”

Not because we wanted answers, but we were teaching them the questions.

These are the same questions that Iwata-sensei was asking me years earlier.
It was an insightful and team-building moment when we realized that, in spite of our diverse backgrounds (we had not met prior to working here), we all approached things pretty much the same way. The second insight was that, in spite of our diverse backgrounds, we had all learned pretty much from the same teachers, and those teachers had been taught directly by Ohno.

If a line leader “got” what we were trying to get across, they wouldn’t ever see their operation the same way. They would be constantly comparing what they saw (what is actually happening) against some kind of expectation or standard — explicit or implicit — or against an ideal state (what should be happening).

They would see any gap between what should be happening and what was actually happening as a problem to be addressed and at the minimum, corrected.

They would begin to ask different questions of their people, and manage activities toward identifying these gaps and closing them.

Our question to ourselves was: If this worked so well, what did we have everyone else doing?

When we asked this, Dave stands up and starts through his certification program to teach his kaizen leaders how to

  • Present the various training modules
  • Prepare the various forms and reports
  • Organize kaizen events

Then someone, I don’t remember who, asked “Who is teaching the leaders how to manage the new system?”

A long pause followed.

Then Dave said, “oh shit.”

Maybe Dave said it, but we all thought it.

We had started happily blaming the leaders. Then we realized no one was teaching the leaders. THAT was our fault. We weren’t teaching anyone to teach the leaders. Now the question was “What do we do about it?”

Now we understood the current condition and the gap we needed to close.

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