One of the factors common to organizations that maintain a continuous improvement culture is leadership alignment on an overall direction for improvement – a “True North” – that defines the perfection you are striving for.
Steve Spear describes Toyota’s “Ideal” as:
An activity or a system of activities is IDEAL if it always produces and delivers:
(a) defect-free responses (those that meet the customer’s expectations),
(b) on-demand (only when triggered by the customer’s request),
(c) in batches of one,
(d) with immediate response times,
(e) without waste, and
(f) with physical, emotional, and professional safety for the supplier.
(From The Toyota Production System: An Example of Managing Complex Social / Technical Systems, Steven Spear’s PhD dissertation, 1999, Harvard University)
You (and I) can quibble about some of the semantics, but overall, this is a pretty good list.
Mike Rother (not coincidently, I am sure) puts up something quite similar in Toyota Kata:
…Toyota has for several decades been pursuing a long-term vision that consists of:
- Zero defects
- 100% value added
- One-piece-flow, in sequence, on demand
- Security for people
Toyota sees this particular ideal-state condition – if it were achieved through an entire value stream – as the way of manufacturing with the highest quality, at the lowest cost, with the shortest lead time. In recent years, Toyota began referring to this as its “true north” for production.
As I have tried to emphasize the importance of a leadership team having a clear sense of “True North” I have noticed that many of them get bogged down in trying to develop and articulate a concrete statement. (This is partly my fault, and I am revising my training materials to reflect what I am writing here.)
What I am realizing is that this is more of an “attractor” than a rule set. Let me explain through a bit of digression.
When we see something, we have an immediate emotional response. Generally it is attraction toward something we see as good (or are curious about); or avoidance of something we see as fearful or dangerous.
We construct a logical reason for that emotional reaction several tenths of a second after that emotional reaction is firmly anchored. Thus, our logic follows, rather than driving, our responses to things. This happens so fast that we are not usually aware, but two people seeing the same thing can respond very differently based on their individual background and experience. I don’t want to dive too deeply into psychology here, so I’ll pull back out of this.
“True North” sets the direction of process improvement because there is high alignment on what kinds of process changes are attractive vs. those which should be avoided. When I say “attractive” I mean “we want to actively move toward them” meaning the organization will expend energy, ingenuity, and resources to do so. This is how continuous improvement is driven.
If I am right, then “True North” is more of an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing than it is a carefully articulated statement.
If I look at other businesses who are (or have been) pretty well aligned with their efforts, I can see the same kind of thing.
For example, though I doubt that it is articulated internally in this way, it has been pretty clear to me “Windows Everywhere” has been something that sets (or set) overall direction within Microsoft. (I’ll admit I don’t have as strong a sense of this as I did in the late 1990’s when my social circles included a number of people who worked there.)
A local hospital does articulate theirs, but it also makes sense: “No wait, no harm.”
Most organizations I have dealt with, though, don’t have a good sense of long-range perfection. They are mired in the details of today, tomorrow, this quarter.
They might have some kind of “vision” or “mission” statement, but often those are paragraphs that are carefully constructed to address constituencies (“Satisfying our customers while delivering maximum shareholder value and being a great place to work, blah, blah”)
Those “visions” though are rarely actively used to guide conversations or decisions, much less continuous improvement.
Since I believe this is a gap these teams need to close if they are to shift toward a continuous improvement culture, I need to improve how I am getting this across to them.
So… the next thing I am going to try is to rework my “True North” instruction and do a better job of framing it as something to actively move toward rather than something to try to logically articulate.
“True North” may be more of a feeling rather than a logical test.
This means that the job of the teacher / practitioner / change agent is to hold on to that “True North” during your coaching until the leaner “gets it” and starts actively seeking solutions that move in that direction.