Chatter as Signal

As I promised, I am going to continue to over-play the afternoon my team spent with Steven Spear.

In his forthcoming book “Chasing the Rabbit” (to be published in the fall), he profiles what is different about those companies which seem to easily be increasing their lead against competitors when there is no apparent external advantage.

One of the core concepts he discussed was the nature of complexity in organizations, processes and products. It is the way this complexity is managed and handled that distinguishes the leaders from the pack of competitors that are fighting and jostling for second place.

In a complex system, there are invariably things people miss. Something is not defined, is ambiguous, or just plain wrong. These little things cause imperfection in the way people do things. They encounter these unexpected issues, and have to resolve them to get the job done.

This is “chatter” in Spear’s words. The sound made when imperfect parts try to mesh together.

Most organizations accept that they cannot possibly think of everything, that some degree of chatter is going to occur, and that people on the spot are paid to deal with it. That is, after all, their job. And the ones that are good at dealing with it are usually the ones who are spotlighted as the star performers.

The underlying assumptions here are:

  • Our processes and systems are complex.
  • We can’t possibly think of and plan for anything that might go wrong.
  • It is not realistic to expect perfection.
  • “Chatter is noise” and an inevitable part of the way things are in our business.

On the other hand, the organizations that are pulling further and further ahead take a different view.
Their underlying assumptions start out the same, then take a significant turn.

  • Our processes and systems are complex.
  • We can’t possibly think of and plan for anything that might go wrong.
  • But we believe perfection is possible.
  • Chatter is signal” and it tells us where we need to address something we missed.

We have all heard about Toyota’s jidoka and andon processes, so let me bring out another example, again, that was used by Spear.

The U.S. Navy has been operating nuclear reactors with a 100% (reactor) safety record for nearly (over?) 50 years. And they operate a lot of nuclear reactors. When they started, they were in totally new and unfamiliar territory – they were doing things that had never been done before. In fact, no one was even sure if it was possible.

They asked the question: How should this nuclear reactor be operated? They answered it with a set of incredibly specific procedures which everyone was expected to follow – exactly, without deviation in any way. These procedures represent the body of experience and knowledge of the U.S. Navy for operating nuclear reactors.

Here is the key point: ANYONE who departs from the procedure, in any way, no matter how trivial or minor, must report “an incident” which rockets up the chain of command. The reasons for the departure are understood. If there was something outside the scope of the procedure, the new procedure covers it. If something was unclear, it is clarified.

This may not be the Toyota Production System at work, but it is a version of something that makes it work: Jidoka.

If the process is not working, can not work, or conditions are not exactly as specified for the process to succeed, then STOP the process, understand the condition, correct it, restore the system to safe, quality operation, and address the reason it was necessary to do this.

Chatter is signal.

So – at a Toyota assembly line in Japan some years ago, I observed a Team Member drop a bolt. He pulled the andon cord and signaled a problem.

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