HBR: Managers Think They’re Good At Coaching. They’re Not.

“No… this is coaching. That means I talk, you listen.”

Many years ago, those words began a 20 minute session that I can best describe as an “a** chewing.” The boss systematically went through all of the little notes he had been saving for over a year – like the fact that someone had commented that I had a cow lick in my hair one day many months ago, which was framed as “lack of grooming.”  None of this, of course, had anything to do with what had triggered the tirade. As I recall I had scheduled a meeting with a supplier over something that he had thought was more important. Needless to say, the guy didn’t have a lot of credibility with the group, as this was pretty normal behavior.

What Is Coaching?

While my (real life!) example may have been a somewhat extreme case, a recent HBR article by Julia Milner and Trenton Milner titled Managers Think They’re Good at Coaching. They’re Not offers up some preliminary research that supports the hypothesis in their title.

What they found was that what most managers described as “coaching” was, in fact, offering direction couched in the form of advice.

As an alternative, they offer up a definition of coaching by Sir John Whitmore:

“unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

I can see where it would be easy to argue about whether or not “teaching them” is actually different from “helping them learn” but I tend (these days) to come down on the side of seeing a big difference.

To quote from David Marquet:

“… they have to discover the answers. Otherwise, you’re always the answer man. You can never go home and eat dinner.”

And, indeed, I see the effect of managers trying to always be “the answer man” every day – even this week as I am writing this.

Milner and Milner conclude with this take-away:

coaching is a skill that needs to be learned and honed over time.

This, of course, is consistent with the message that we Kata Geeks are sending with Mike Rother’s Coaching Kata.

The challenge for these managers is the same as that posed by Amy Edmonson in a previous post, It’s Hard to Learn if you Already Know.

Learning to Coach

The HBR article lists nine skills that the authors associate with coaching:

  • listening
  • questioning
  • giving feedback
  • assisting with goal setting
  • showing empathy
  • letting the coachee arrive at their own solution
  • recognizing and pointing out strengths
  • providing structure
  • encouraging a solution-focused approach

Unfortunately just memorizing this list really isn’t going to help much, because there are effective ways to do these things; and there are ways that seem effective but, in reality, are not.

The question I would like to examine here is how practicing the Coaching Kata might help build these skills in an effective way.

I’m going to start with the second from the last: Providing structure.

The very definition of kata implies a structure. Especially for that critical early practice, the Coaching Kata and Improvement Kata provide a mutually supporting structure for both the Coach and the Learner to practice building their skills. The Starter Kata that Mike Rother describes make up the most rigid form of that structure with very specific activities designed to push problem solving and coaching skills.

As the organization matures, of course, that structure can shift. But even very mature organizations tend to have “the way we do things” which provides a safe structure that people can practice and experiment in. Ironically, this is the very purpose of standardization in the Toyota sense.  (This is very different from what most organizations think of as “standards” – where experimentation is forbidden! )Without this baseline structure, sound experimentation is much more difficult.

Continuing to skip around on the list, let’s look at assisting with goal setting.

The very first step of the Improvement Kata is Understand the Challenge or Direction. Right at the start, the coach must assist the learner with developing this understanding. At the third step we have Establish the Next Target Condition. Here, again, the coach practices assisting the learner to develop a target condition that advances toward the challenge; is achievable; and is challenging.

While novice coaches can struggle with this, the structure of the Improvement Kata gives them a framework for comparison. In addition, the learner’s progress itself becomes data for the coach’s experiments of learning.

Of course questioning is the hallmark of the Coaching Kata. We have the “5 Questions” to start with, and they provide structure for not only questioning but listening as well.

There is a critical difference between giving feedback and giving advice, and beginning coaches – especially those who have formal authority – frequently fall into the trap of “leading the witness” – asking questions intended to lead the learner to their preferred answer. Giving feedback, on the other hand, might be more focused on pushing a bit on untested assumptions or gaps in the learner’s logic or understanding of the chain of cause-and-effect.

Thus, someone practicing the Coaching Kata is learning to let the learner arrive at their own solution vs. leading them to one that the coach has in mind. These are all instances where a seasoned 2nd Coach can help by giving feedback to the coach about her process – working hard to avoid “giving advice” in the form of exactly what follow-up questions to ask. (Believe me, this is more difficult than it sounds, and at least for me, doesn’t get any easier.)

I am going to make an interpretation of encouraging a solution based approach and assume this means exploring the space of possible solutions with experiments vs. “jumping to solution” and just implementing it. I could be wrong, but that is the only interpretation I can think of that fits with the context of the other items on the list.

And finally are the softer skills of showing empathy and recognizing and pointing out strengths. I think it is unfortunate that these skills are typically associated with exceptional leaders – meaning they are rare. These are things I have had to learn through experimentation and continue to work on. But I think I can say that my own practice of the Coaching Kata has given me a much better framework for doing this work.

The Coaching Kata framework is certainly not the only way to develop coaching skills. We have been training effective coaches long before 2009 when the original book was published. And there are very effective training and mentoring programs out there that do not explicitly follow the Coaching Kata / Improvement Kata framework.

BUT I will challenge you to take a look at those other frameworks and see if you don’t find that their underlying framework is so similar that the difference is more one of semantics than anything else.

In my next few posts, I am going to be parsing a course I recently took that is just that.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Hard to Learn if you Already Know

In this TED Talk, Amy Edmondson of the Harvard Business School talks about “How to turn a group of strangers into a team.” Although long-standing teams are able to perform, our workplaces today require ad-hoc collaboration between diverse groups. The question is: What kind of leadership, and what kind of structure, contributes to working together on the problem?

For those of you unfamiliar with her work, I’ll add that I have found anything that she writes or speaks about is worth reading or listening to.

The key message starts around the 10:00 minute point:

“When teaming works, you can be sure that leaders, leaders at all levels, have been crystal clear that they don’t have the answers. Let’s call this ‘situational humility.’ It’s appropriate humility. We don’t know how to do it.”

[…]

“It’s hard to offer up an idea that might be a stupid idea if you don’t know people very well. You need psychological safety to do that. They overcame what I like to call this basic human challenge: it’s hard to learn if you already know. And unfortunately, we’re hardwired to think we know. And so we’ve got to remind ourselves – and we can do it – to be curious; to be curious about what others bring.”

Here is the entire TED talk. If the embed isn’t working for you, this is the direct link: How to turn a group of strangers into a team.

 

 

 

Which brings me to the quote I pulled for the title of this post: It’s Hard to Learn if you Already Know. As Amy Edmondson points out, “we’re hard wired to think we know.”

To counteract this we need to construct different artifacts that focus our attention on our shared understanding vs. trying to advocate a particular position.

Creating The Structures of Teamwork

As obvious as this is when we say it, if we want to create a culture or social structure of teamwork this must be done deliberately. This is especially important in environments where ad-hoc groups must collaborate very quickly. So… what works? I don’t know. But we do have the tools to figure it out.

Structure to Focus on The Problem

When two people are talking about a problem while looking at each other, they tend to equate “the problem” with “the other person.” Rather than trying to reach a shared, common understanding, the tendency is to try to convince the other person to adopt their point of view.

But if we introduce some kind of artifact – an A3, a Learner’s Storyboard, a shared keyboard and monitor – that physically turns people to look at the problem rather than at each other, the dialog changes.

Collaboration at a shared keyboard and monitor

Collaboration at a learner storyboard.

“What we’ve got here is a reason to communicate.”

Think about the key difference between people looking together at the information versus someone at the front of the room, facing everyone else. The tone shifts from “tell me” to “work with me.”

Think of the key difference in a meeting between everyone sitting at the table talking about the problem vs. what happens if someone stands up and starts to draw it out on a whiteboard.

What companies like Menlo Innovations, Kaas Tailored, Toyota, and others do is construct physical artifacts to focus people’s attention away from the person and toward the information. The information becomes neutral, vs. being attached to someone. If something isn’t working, we can work together to fix the issue vs. fix blame.

The “Lean Tools”

Let’s take something as simple as standard work. What is it for?

One interpretation could be that I watch you perform the work, and if you violate the procedure, you fail the audit for not following the standard.

But the other interpretation is that we have a neutral point of comparison for how we think the work should proceed if it is problem-free. Seeing, or detecting any difference reveals a problem of some kind. We are invited by this information to look at the problem and seek to gain more understanding.

Of course, just sending an invitation doesn’t mean people come to the party. Shaping that conversation in constructive directions is what leadership is about.

And, as always, I write these posts mostly to clarify my own thinking by trying to explain it to someone else (you). I’d love to know what you think, so post comments!

 

 

Toyota Kata and The Menlo Way

I have been telling everyone who will listen to read Rich Sheridan’s book Joy, Inc. ever since I came across and read it in the fall of 2015.

Fast forward to earlier this year when Lean Frontiers sent out their request for suggested keynote speakers for KataCon. I wrote to Mike Rother and asked him “Do you think we could get Rich Sheridan?”

Skip ahead a bit more, and I spent four days last week at Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor – two days “in the chalk circle” paying close attention to the actual day-to-day work there, and two days working (pairing) with Rich Sheridan to work out the key beats for his KataCon keynote.

 

The “So What?” Test

Menlo is well known as a benchmark for a great working culture. But the question you may be asking (and, honestly I hope you ARE asking it) is “What does Menlo Innovations and agile software development have to do with Toyota Kata?”

If you visit Menlo (and I really hope you do!) here is what you won’t see:

  • Learner storyboards.
  • “5 Questions” coaching cycles.
  • Obstacle parking lots.
  • Experiment Records (PDCA Records)

In other words, you won’t see the explicit artifacts that characterize an organization using Toyota Kata to learn how to think about improvement scientifically. In that sense, Menlo isn’t a “Toyota Kata” benchmark.

OK… and?

You don’t see those things at Toyota either. You don’t go to Toyota to see “Toyota Kata.”

The Underlying Thinking Pattern

What you will see (and hear… if you pay attention) at Menlo Innovations is an underlying pattern of scientific thinking and safe problem solving in everything they do.

Let’s review what Toyota Kata is really all about.

Rather than re-writing something elegant here, I am going to quote from my part of an email exchange between Mike Rother, Rich Sheridan and me:

Going back to Mike’s original research premise, we knew that Toyota has this pretty awesome culture thing, but didn’t really understand the “secret sauce” of the exact structure of their interactions. Put another way, we saw and understood all of the artifacts, but copying the artifacts doesn’t copy the culture.

Mike’s research was really the first that dug deeper into the interactions that the artifacts support.

Once he extracted that “secret sauce” he then boiled off all of the other stuff, and what remained at the bottom of the pot was the Improvement Kata steps and the Coaching Kata steps.

In practice at Toyota, those things are deeply embedded in the artifacts. Sometimes they aren’t even spoken.

My informal hypothesis was that if I spent time paying attention to, not just the artifacts, but the way those artifacts guided interactions at Menlo, and then boiled off the other stuff, what would remain at the bottom of the Menlo pot would also be the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata steps. And, though I didn’t do this formally, and yes, I had confirmation bias working here, I believe I can safely say “I have no evidence to contradict this hypothesis.”

For example:

In our conversation on Friday, Mike pushed back a bit on “just run the experiment,” [context clarification: Experiments to randomly try stuff, without a clear target condition rarely get you anywhere] but the reality I observed and heard was that “purpose” (challenge and direction) and “current condition” are deeply embedded in the day-to-day interactions, and “just run the experiment” is, indeed, working on a specific obstacle in the way of a target condition of some kind.

[…]

“What problem are you trying to solve?” is Menlo jargon that I overheard many times just listening to people talk.

Within Menlo, that term is contextual. Sometimes it is about the higher-level direction and challenge.

Sometimes it is about an intermediate target condition.

Sometimes it is about an immediate problem or obstacle.

As we say in Kata world, it is fractal. It is truly fractal at Menlo as well, to the point where the words don’t change at various levels.

The words DO change at various levels in Toyota Kata’s jargon, but we can’t get hung up on the terms, we have to look at the structure of problem solving.

Menlo’s co-founders already had this thinking pattern, and deliberately sought to embed it into the culture of the company they were starting. There wasn’t really any need to explicitly teach it because they weren’t trying to change the default behavior of an organization. New Menlonians learn the culture through the interviewing and on-boarding process and adopt very quickly because the very structure of the work environment drives the culture there.

In fact, spend any time there even just hanging out, and it is very difficult NOT to get pulled into The Menlo Way. Like everyone else, Rich and I were in the daily stand-up as pair-partners, reporting our work progress on his keynote.

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What About Toyota Kata?

Menlo has had hundreds (thousands, actually) of visitors, and those who are “lean savvy” all ask if Menlo is “using lean” as their guideline. The answer is “no, we are just trying to solve problems.” While they have certainly incorporated most of the artifacts of “agile software production,” the purists push back that they aren’t “really doing it” because they didn’t copy those artifacts exactly. Nope. They used them as a baseline to solve Menlo’s problems.

When we see an awesome problem-solving culture, it is tempting to try to reverse engineer it by copying the physical mechanics, such as heijunka boxes (work authorization boards), kanban, “standard work” and the like.

But we have to dig down and look at the routines, the behavior that those artifacts and rituals support. When we do, we see the same patterns that Toyota Kata is intended to teach.

You need to begin with the thinking pattern. Use Toyota Kata to learn that.

As you do, take a look at your artifacts – the procedures, the policies, the control mechanics of your work. Reinforce the ones that are working to create the kind of culture you want. Challenge the ones that are getting in your way. Do both of those things as deliberate experiments toward a clear vision of the culture you want to create.

That is the benefit of studying companies like Menlo.

I hope to see you all at KataCon, hear what Rich has to say to our community, and establish a link between these two communities that have, up to now, been separate.

katasummit.com

The Ecosystem of Culture

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An organization’s culture and mindset evolve over time. When confronted with a problem or challenge, the organization (or more accurately, the people in the organization) view it through a filter of their experiences. Ideas that they believe have worked for them under past similar conditions are more likely to be applied again. Ideas that have seemed less successful, or more difficult, in the past are less likely to be applied again.

Over time, this collective experience determines how they respond to the day to day rough spots as well as more serious challenges. Those unconscious biases drive the responses, and in turn, shape how their processes are structured.

Different Cultures = Different Ecosystems

The process mechanics in a company like Toyota evolved over decades in a very specific organizational culture ecosystem, with specific values and beliefs shaped by their historic experiences.

When we are looking at the current processes in a different company, we are seeing the process mechanics that evolved in their management culture. Those process mechanics are optimized by the pressures that are exerted by the way THAT company is managed. Since Toyota is managed differently, its processes are optimized by different pressures, so will look different.

If we take Toyota’s process mechanics and shift them into a different ecosystem, they will have the different pressures exerted upon them. Different default decisions will be made. These alien process mechanics will likely begin to resemble the legacy processes rather quickly, if they survive at all.

This is why the promise of a rapid and dramatic change in operational results is frequently unfulfilled. The process mechanics are imported from a tropical rain forest, and installed in an alpine meadow. As beautiful as it looks in one environment, it won’t stand for long in the other.

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Adjusting the Culture vs. Adjusting the Process Mechanics

If we want this transplant to work, we have to pay careful attention to those evolutionary pressures. In practical terms, this means we try the new mechanics, we must watch carefully to learn what problems they reveal. We also need to observe the decisions that are made when these problems come up.

What adjustments need to be made in the way people interact, and to the immediate response to problems or surprises if this new process is to thrive?

Having a formal structure for this deliberate self-reflection is critical.

The Improvement Kata is engineered to specifically drive this kind of reflection by making changes as experiments, then deliberately reflecting with the question “What have we learned?”

For this to work, of course, we must be honest with ourselves and not just issue a flip answer like “It doesn’t work.”

Because we are asking people to adjust their responses, we are asking them to do things which are unfamiliar and may well run opposite from what they have experienced as successful for them in the past. If we try to move too fast, we are asking them to trust an alien process which is, in their experience, unproven in their environment. We might be asking them to reveal their own limits of knowledge – which is very scary for most of us.

That, in turn, asks for reflection on why “I don’t know…” is so scary to admit in the organization’s culture.

We have sold “lean” as a deceptively simple set of common-sense process mechanics with the idea that if we just implement them, we’ll get incredibly great results. As true as that is, “just implement them” is a lot harder than most of the “rapid improvement” models imply.

There is a lot going on behind what appears to be well understood and simple on the surface.

Executive Rounding: Taking the Organization’s Vitals

Background:

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I wrote an article appearing in the current (October 2017) issue of AME Target Magazine (page 20) that profiles two very different organizations that have both seen really positive shifts in their culture. (And yes, my wife pointed out the misspelling “continous” on the magazine cover.)

The second case study was about Meritus Health in Hagerstown, Maryland, and I want to go into a little more depth here about an element that has, so far, been a keystone to the positive changes they are seeing.

Sara Abshari and Eileen Jaskuta are presenting the Meritus story at the AME conference next week (October 9, 2017).

Sara is a manager (and excellent kata coach) in the Meritus CI office. Eileen is now at Main Line Health System, but was the Chief Quality Officer at Meritus at the time Joe was presenting at KataCon.

Their presentation is titled Death From Kaizen to Daily Improvement and outlines the journey at Meritus, including the development of executive rounding. If you are attending the conference, I encourage you to seek them out – as well as Craig Stritar – and talk to them about their experiences.

Mark’s Word Quibble

In addition, honestly, the Target Magazine editors made a single-word change in the article that I feel substantially changed the contextual meaning of the paragraph, and I am using this forum to explain the significance.

Here is paragraph from the draft as originally submitted. (Highlighting added to point out the difference):

[…][Meritus][…] executives follow a similar structure as they round several times a week to check-in with the front line and ensure there are no obstacles to making progress. Like the Managing Daily improvement meetings at Idex, the executive rounding at Meritus has evolved as they have learned how to connect the front-line improvements to the strategic priorities.

This is what appears in print in the magazine:

[…][Meritus][…] executives follow a similar structure as they visit several times a week to check in with the frontline and ensure there are no obstacles to making progress. Like the MDI meetings at Idex, the executive visiting at Meritus has evolved as they have learned how to connect the front-line improvements to the strategic priorities.

While this editing quibble can easily be dismissed as a pedantic author (me), the positive here is it gives me an opportunity to highlight different meanings in context, go into more depth on the back-story than I could in the magazine article, and invite those of you who will be attending the upcoming AME conference to talk to some of the key people who will be presenting their story there.

Rounding vs. Visiting

In the world of healthcare, “rounding” is the standard work performed by nurses and physicians as they check on the status of each patient. During rounds, they should be deliberately comparing key metrics and indicators of the patient’s health (vital signs, etc.) against what is expected. If something is out of the expected range, that becomes a signal for further investigation or intervention.

“Visiting” is what the patient’s family and friends do. They stop by, and engage socially.

In industry, we talk about “gemba walks,” and if they are done well, they serve the same purpose as “rounding” on patients in healthcare. A gemba walk should be standard work that determines if things are operating normally, and if they are not, investigating further or intervening in some way.

I am speculating that if I had used the term “structured leader standard work” rather than “rounding” it would not have been changed to “visiting.”

Executive Rounding

Joe Ross, the CEO at Meritus Health, presented a keynote at the Kata Summit last February (2017). You can actually download a copy of his presentation here: http://katasummit.com/2017presentations/. The title of his presentation was “Creating Healthy Disruption with Kata.” More about that in a bit.

The keystone of his presentation was about the executives doing structured rounding on various departments several times a week. These are the C-Level executives, and senior Vice Presidents. They round in teams, and change the routes they are rounding on every couple of weeks. Thus, the entire executive team is getting a sense of what is going on in the entire hospital, not just in their departments.

Rather than just “visiting,” they have a formal structure of questions, built from the Coaching Kata questions + some additional information. Since everyone is asking the same basic questions, the teams can be well prepared and the actual time spent in a particular department is programmed to be about 5 minutes. The schedule is tight, so there isn’t time to linger. This is deliberate.

After the teams round, the executives meet to share what they have learned, identify system-wide issues that need their attention, and reflect on what they have learned.

In this case, rather than rounding on patients, the executives are rounding to check the operational health of the hospital. They are checking the vital signs and making sure nothing is impeding people from doing the right thing – do people know the right thing to do? If not, then the executives know they need to provide clarity. Do people know how to do the right thing? If not, then the executives need to work on building capability and competence.

In both cases, executives are getting information they need so they can ensure that routine things happen routinely, and the right people are working to improve the right things, the right way. In the long-term, spending this time building those capabilities and mechanisms for alignment deep into the operational hierarchy gives those executives more time to deal with real strategic issues. Simply put, they are investing time now to build a far more robust organization that can take on bigger and bigger challenges with less and less drama.

Results

Though they were only a little more than a year in when Joe presented at KataCon, he reported some pretty interesting results. I’ll let you look at the presentation to see the statistically significant positive changes in employee surveys, patient safety and patient satisfaction scores. What I want to bring attention to are the cultural changes that he reported:

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Leadership Development

Actually points 1. and 2. above are both about leadership development. The executives are far more in touch with what is happening, not only in their own departments, but in others. Even if they don’t round on their own departments, they hear from executives who did, and get valuable perspectives and questions from outsiders. This helps break down silo walls, build more robust horizontal linkages, and gives their people a stage to show what they are working on.

Since executives can’t be the ones with all of the solutions, they are (or should be) mostly concerned with developing the problem solving capabilities in their departments. At the same time, rounding gives them perspective on problems that only executive action can fix. In a many organizations mid-manager facing these systemic obstacles would try to work around them, ignore them, or just accept “that’s the way it is” and nothing gets done about these things. That breeds helplessness rather than empowerment.

On the other hand, if a manager should be able to solve the problem, then there is a leader development opportunity. That is the point when the executive should double down on ensuring the directors and upper managers are coaching well, have target conditions for developing their staff, and are aware of who is struggling and who is not. You can’t delegate knowing what is actually going on. Replying on reports from subordinates without ever checking in a couple of levels down invites well-meaning people to gloss over issues they don’t want to bother anyone about.

Breaking Down Silos by Providing Transparency

The side-benefit of this type of process is that the old cultures of “stay out of my area” silos get broken down. It becomes OK to raise problems. The opposite is a culture where executives consider it betrayal if someone mentions a problem to anyone outside of the department. That control of information and deliberate isolation in the name of maintaining power doesn’t work here. Nobody likes to work in a place like that. Once an organization has started down the road toward openness and no-blame problem solving, it’s hard to turn back without creating backlash of some kind within the ranks.

Creating Disruption

Joe used the term “Disruption” in the title of his presentation. Disruption is really more about emotions than process. There is a crucial period of transition because this new transparency makes people uncomfortable if they come from a long history of trying hard to make sure everything looks great in the eyes of the boss. Even if the top executive wants transparency and getting things out in the open, that often doesn’t play well with leaders who have been steeped in the opposite.

Thus, this process also gives a CEO and top leaders an opportunity to check, not only the responses of others, but their own responses, to the openness. If there are tensions, that is an opportunity to address them and seek to understand what is driving the fear.

In reality, that is very difficult. In our world of “just the facts, ma’am” we don’t like to talk about emotions, feelings, things that make us uncomfortable. Those things can be perceived as weakness, and in the Old World, weakness could never be shown. Being open about the issues can be a level of vulnerability that many executives haven’t been previously conditioned to handle. Inoculation happens by sticking with the process structure, even in the face of pushback, until people become comfortable with talking to each other openly and honestly. The cross-functional rounding into other departments is a vital part of this process. Backing off is like stopping taking your antibiotics because you feel better. It only emboldens the fear.

These kinds of changes can challenge people’s tacit assumptions about what is right or wrong. Emotions can run high – often without people even being aware of why.

Make Sure Failure = Learning

Take a look at this cool video from Space-X that highlights all of the failures that preceded their successful (and now more or less routine) landing of a recoverable orbital booster rocket. Then let’s discuss it a bit.

(Here is the direct link if you don’t get the embed in your feed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvim4rsNHkQ)

When we see failure, or even failure after failure, it is easy to forget that learning is rarely linear.

A Culture of Learning

Organizations like Space-X (and their counterparts such as Blue Origin) are in the business of learning. They are pushing the edges of what is known and moving into new territory. For organizations that understand that setbacks, mistakes, failures and the like are an inevitable part of learning, these things – while costly and unpleasant – are regarded as part of the process.

We have seen the same mechanisms in play – a process of experimentation toward progressive target conditions toward a visionary challenge – behind pretty much every breakthrough achievement throughout history.

No Mistakes = No Learning

At the opposite end of the spectrum are organizations with no tolerance for mistakes. They expect everything (and every one) to get everything right every time. They dismiss as incompetent any notion of failure, and attack as weakness any admission of “I don’t know” or “I don’t know how.”

A few years ago, as I was teaching Toyota Kata coaching with a client, a middle manager approached me during a break and said – point blank – that it was not his responsibility to develop his people. “Our policy is to hire competent people, and we expect them to be able to do the job.” He wasn’t the only one to say that, so I built the impression that this belief was, indeed, part of their culture. Needless to say they struggle a bit with getting innovation to happen because they try to mechanize the process.

Mistakes = Tuition

Here’s how I look at it. When a mistake happens – especially one that is expensive – you have paid considerable tuition. Your choice now is to either extract as much learning as you can from the event, or to try to ignore it and move on. The later choice is like paying your tuition up-front, then skipping all of your classes and wonder why you aren’t getting it.

Learning = Adapting to Change

Organizations that manage in ways that regard learning as part of their everyday experience are much more adaptive to changes and surprises than those who just execute their routines every day. The paradox here is that organizations who value learning are generally the most disciplined at following their routines. This discipline makes execution a hypothesis test, and they can quickly see when their process isn’t appropriate and adapt and learn quickly as an organization. They strengthen their routines, and through those routines, embed what they have learned in the organization’s DNA for future generations.

Organizations that figure it out as they go, on the other hand, tend to rely on individuals to adapt, but there is no mechanism to capture that learning beyond the individual or small group. Sometimes there is a “lessons learned” document, but that’s it. Those reports rarely result in the changes in organizational behavior that reflect learning. I suppose the most egregious case would be the loss of the space shuttle Columbia upon re-entry for exactly the same organizational failures that resulted in the loss of Challenger.

Technical vs. Cultural Learning

Space-X is solving a technical problem with science and engineering. I hope (and expect) that as they become more successful they will always be striving for something really hard that will drive them to the next level. Based on what I see publicly, I think that is embedded into their culture by Elon Musk. (But I don’t really know. If anyone from Space-X is reading this, how about getting in touch? I’d love to learn more.)

I expect this works for Space-X because they have a culture of learning.

What doesn’t work, though, is to try to apply technical solutions to transition a rote-execution culture into a learning culture. Changing the culture – the default behaviors and responses of people as they interact – isn’t about improving the mechanics of the work process. You certainly can work on the work processes, but the starting condition is what evolved in the context of the organization’s culture. The mechanics of the “improved” process that we try to duplicate evolved in the context of a learning culture. The ecosystems are different. It is difficult for a lean process to survive in a culture that expects everything to run perfectly and doesn’t have robust mechanisms to turn problems into improvements.

There Are No Silver Bullets

There are no quick, simple solutions

Occasionally I get an email from someone who asks a question like “How can I improve cycle time in the [fill in the blank here] industry?” Generally my reply is along the lines of “I don’t know, but I can help you figure it out.” I’ll give them some homework, often pointing them at Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata Practice Guide online, and asking them to do the Process Analysis step and get back to me with what they have seen and learned.

Lone Ranger with Silver Bullet
Who was that masked man?

This is usually followed by silence (cue the crickets here). Perhaps they think there is an easy answer and a single email can just tell them what to do to get that 20% performance improvement.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. Process improvement involves work. There aren’t easy fixes (that last). There isn’t any solution anyone can give you that can just be implemented, nor can anyone learn it for you.

The real work is adjusting your culture

Digging a little deeper, if you want that productivity improvement to reach even a fraction of your full potential or sustain for any length of time, you have to go beyond technical solutions. When I said process improvement involves work, the technical mechanics are the easy part. The real work is understanding what social and cultural norms in your organization are holding you back and dealing with those.

Fortunately we have learned a lot more about the influence of the organization’s culture and how to influence the culture. But influencing the culture doesn’t happen by accident. And you can’t outsource your own thinking, reflection and learning.

 

Learning Starts With “I Don’t Know”

If an organization wants to encourage learning, they have to get comfortable with not having all of the answers. Learning only happens when we discover something we don’t know, and then actively pursue understanding it. Many organizations, though, equate “having the answers” or “already knowing” with “competence.” Thus, if I say “I don’t know” then I am setting myself up for being regarded as incompetent.

What I see in these organizations is people will take great pains to hide problems. They will try very hard to figure things out, but do so in the background always reporting that everything is going fine. They live in the hope that someone else’s problem will emerge as the show-stopper before theirs does, and give them the extra time to sort out their issue.

Meanwhile, the bosses are frustrated because people aren’t being truthful with them. But what should they expect if “truth” attracts accusations of being incompetent?

But… there is hope.

I was talking to a friend last week who works in a huge company that seems to be making an earnest effort to shift their culture. There is nearly unanimous agreement that the existing culture isn’t working for them. On the other hand, actually changing culture is really, really hard because it involves changing people’s immediate, habitual responses to things.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged when my friend recounted a recent meeting where someone admitted two things:

  1. There was an unexpected problem that came out in a recent test.
  2. They, right now, don’t know how to fix it.

Just to be clear, these two things coming out in this meeting is a big deal. This has been a culture where unexpected problems have not been warmly received. Bringing them up without a confident assessment about a prospective solution was inviting the kind of intervention that is rarely helpful.

This time, though, was a little different.

The leaders started going down the expected responses such as “What do you mean we don’t know what to do?” then… stopped short. They paused, and realized this was not in line with their newly stated values of creating trust and accepting failure as an inherent part of learning.

And they changed their tone. They shifted the conversation from trying to assign responsibility blame for the test failure toward asking what we, the organization, needed to learn to better understand what happened.

My thoughts are:

Kudos to the person who was brave enough to test the waters and admit “I don’t know.”