Looking at some old notes…

I am cleaning out some old notepads. One page has the notes I took during a 4pm production status meeting during my first “get to know you” visit to this company.

In a box on my notes page it says:

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“More information is not going to help until you begin to define how you expect things to run.”

What I had observed is their focus on the previous 24 hours metrics, with lots of speculation about “what happened” to account for the lost production. They were focused on incidents and, honestly, assigning those incidents as causes. Where they came up short, they were seeking more information about lost production incidents.

But everything I have written is just to give you a little context for the scribbled box on my notes a few years ago.

Today? They fixed it. This was one of the most dramatic culture shifts – from “find who to blame” to “let’s solve the problem” I have ever witnessed.

Reflection:

What are your daily meetings like? Are they focused on the stuff that went wrong yesterday? Or are they focused on where you are trying to go in the near future?

It’s “What must we learn?” not “What should we do?”

Darren left a great question in the Takt Time-Cycle Time post:

Question… Which system is more efficient, a fixed rigid Takt based production line or a flexible One Piece Flow?

In terms of designing a manual based production line to meet a theoretical forecasted ‘takt time’, (10 fixed workstations needs 10 operators), how do you fluctuate in a seasonal business (+/-25%/month) to ensure you don’t end up over stocking your internal customer?

Would One Piece Flow be more efficient on the whole value chain in this instance due to its flexibility?

That was a few weeks ago. Through its evolution, this post has had four titles, and I don’t think there is a single sentence of the original draft that survived the rewrites.

I started this post with a confident analysis of the problem, and the likely solution. Then I realized something. I don’t know.

My brain, just like every other brain on the planet (human and others) is an incredibly efficient pattern matching machine. I got a little bit of information, and immediately filled in a picture of Darren’s factory and proceeded to work out a course of actions to take, as well as alternatives based on other sets of assumptions.

NO, No, no!

Our Reflex: Jumping to Solution

This graphic is copied from Mike Rother’s presentation material. It is awesome.

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It is likely that at this point you know that it doesn’t say “JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS” under the little blue square, and of course you are right.

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But in spite of the fact that you know the truth, it is likely you still read “JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS” when you look at the first graphic. I know I do, and I present this all of the time.

Our brains are all wired to do this, it is basic survival. It happens very fast. Think about a time when you have been startled by something you thought you saw, that a few seconds later you realized it was nothing.

That pattern recognition triggered the startle. It was seconds later that your logical brain took over and analyzed what was really going on. This is good. We don’t have time to figure out if that movement in the grass was really a leopard or not. We’ll sort that out after we get away.

Our modern brains work the same way with learned patterns imagebut we are usually very poor at distinguishing between “what we really know” and “what we have filled in with assumptions.”

This is the trap that we “lean experts” (whatever that means) fall into all of the time. We take limited information, extrapolate it into a false full understanding, and deliver a diagnosis and treatment.

Boom. Done. Next?

What’s even worse is we often don’t hang around to see if the solution worked exactly the way we expected, or if anomalies came up.

In other words, everything comes down to takt, flow and pull, right? Kinda, but kinda not.

Some Technical Background

All of the above notwithstanding, it really helps to understand how the mechanics of “lean” tie together to create the physical part of an organic/technical process.

What I mean by “really helps” is this understanding gives you a broad sense of how the mechanics help people learn. Someone who only understands the mechanics as “a set of tools” is committing the gravest sin: Leaving out the people.

One Piece Flow

One piece flow is not inherently efficient. It is easy to have lots of excess capacity, which translates to either overproduction or waiting, and still have one piece flow.

This is the people part: One piece flow makes those imbalances very obvious to the people doing the work so you can do something about them, if you choose to. Many people think the goal is one piece flow. The goal is making sure the people doing the work can see if the flow is going smoothly or not; and give them an opportunity to fix the things that make flow less than smooth.

A pull system is designed to throw overproduction (or under-production) right into your face by stopping your line rather than allowing excess stuff to just pile up. Again, it is a tool to give the people doing the work immediate visibility of something unexpected rather than the delayed reporting of inventory levels in a computer somewhere.

Flexibility

Any given level of capacity has a sweet spot for efficiency. Even “inefficient” systems are most efficient when their capacity (usually defined by a bottleneck somewhere) is at 100% utilization (which rarely happens).

If other process steps are capable of running faster (which is the very definition of a bottleneck), they will, they must either be underutilized or build up work-in-process. This is part of the problem Darren is asking about – flooding his downstream operation with excess WIP to keep his line running efficiently.

If your system is designed to max out at 100 units / day, and you make less than, that your efficiency is reduced. If the next operation can’t run at 100 units / day and absorb your output, then it is the bottleneck. See above.

Now, let’s break down your costs of capacity. In the broadest sense, your costs come down to two things:

  • Capital equipment. (And let’s include the costs of the facility here.)
  • Labor – paying the people.

The capital equipment cost is largely fixed. At any rate of production less than what the equipment is capable of holding, you are using it “less efficiently” than you could. Since machines usually operate at different rates, it is you aren’t going fully utilize anything but the slowest one. It doesn’t make sense to even try.

People is more complicated. In the short term, your labor costs are fixed as well. You are paying the people to be there whether they are productive or not.

When the people are operating machines, your flexibility depends on how well the automation is designed. The technical application of “lean tools” to build flow cells pushes hard against this constraint. We strive to decouple people from individual machines, so the rate can flex up and down by varying the work cycles rather than just having people wait around or over produce.

At the other end of the labor spectrum is pure manual work, like assembly. We are striving for that same flexibility by moving typically separated operations together so people can divide the labor into zones that match the desired rate of production.

All of these approaches strive for a system that allows incrementally adjusting the capacity by adding people as needed. However this adds costs as well, often hidden ones. Where do these people come from, and frankly, “what are they doing when they aren’t working for you?” are a couple of questions you need to confront. The people are not parts of the machine. The system is there to help the people, not the other way around. This is people using tools to build something, not tools being run by people.

Handling Seasonal Production Efficiently

“Our demand is seasonal” is something I hear quite a bit. It is usually stated as though it is a unique condition (to them) that precludes level production. In my nearly 30 years in industry, I haven’t encountered a product (with the possible exception of OEM aircraft production and major suppliers) that didn’t have a seasonal shift of some kind.

Depending on the fluctuations and predictability of future demand, using a combination of managing backlog and building up finished goods is a pretty common way to at least partly level things out for planning purposes.

That being said, I know of at least one company whose product is (1) custom ordered for every single unit and (2) highly seasonal (in fact, they are in their peak season as I write this). They don’t have as many options.

Solving the Problem

With all of that, we get to Darren’s specific question.

The short answer is “I don’t know, but we can figure it out.”

There isn’t a fixed answer, there is a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome.

Challenge

I am interpreting the challenge here as “Have the ability to flex production +/- 25% / month without sacrificing efficiency.”

Just to ensure understanding of the challenge, I would ask to translate the production capacity targets into takt times. What is the fastest takt time you would need to hit? What is the slowest?

In other words, the +/-25% makes me do math, even if I know the baseline, before I really know what you need to be able to do. Let’s get some hard numbers on it so we will all agree when we see it, or don’t.

Remember, takt time is simply a normalization of your demand over your production time. It is a technique for short-term smoothing of your demand. It doesn’t mean you are operating that way.

Current Condition

We need to learn more, so the next questions have to do with the current condition.

While this post is too short to get down to the details, there are some additional questions I would really need to understand here.

Known: There are 10 fixed workstations with 10 operators.

Assumed to be known: The high and low target takt times (from the challenge).

How are the workstations laid out?

What are the cycle times of each operation?

What is actually happening at each of the workstations?

What are they currently capable of producing in relation to the takt times we want to cover in our +/- 25% range?

A good way to start would be to get exit cycles from each of the positions, and from the whole line. What is the current cadence of the operation? What are the lowest repeatable cycle times? How consistently is it able to run? What is driving variation?

Since we are looking for rate flexibility, I am particularly concerned with understanding points of inflexibility.

I would be looking at individual steps, at distance between the workstations, and how easily it is to shift work from one to another. Remember, to be as efficient as possible, each work cycle needs to be as close as possible to the takt time we are striving to achieve this season. Since that varies, we are going to need to create a work space that gives us the smoothest transitions possible.

What is the Next Target Condition?

I don’t know.

Until we have a good grasp of the current condition, we really can’t move beyond that point. While I am sure Darren knows much more, I am at my threshold of knowledge: 10 workstations, 10 operators. That’s all I know.

However I do know that it is unlikely I would try to get to the full challenge capability all at once. Even if I did have a good grasp of the current condition, I probably can’t see the full answer, just a step that would do two key things:

  • Move in the direction I am trying to go.
  • Give me more information that, today, is hidden by the nature of the work.

For an operation this size, (if I were the learner / person doing the improvement here) I would probably set that target condition for myself at no more than a week or two. (This also depends on how much time I can focus on this operation, and how easy it is to experiment. The more experiments I can run, the faster I will learn, and the quicker I can get to a target.)

Now… I will re-state the target condition to answer this question:

“We can’t… [whatever the target condition is]… “because ________.” as many times as I can. That is one way to flush out obstacles.

Another way is just to tell the skeptics we are going to start operating like this right away, then write down all of the reasons they think it won’t work. Smile

Then the question is “OK, which of these obstacles are we going to address first?”

Iterate Experiments / PDCA to learn.

Once I know which obstacle I am choosing to address first, I need to know more about it. What do I want to learn, or what effect do I want to have on the process? Those things are my expected result.

Now… what do I need to do to cause that to happen? That is my next experiment.

And we are off to the races. As each learning cycle is completed, your current condition, your current level of understanding, changes. As you learn more, you better understand the obstacles and problems.

When you reach a target condition (or realize you are at the deadline and haven’t reached it), then go back to the top, review the challenge, make sure you understand the current condition, and establish a new target. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This Isn’t About “The Answers.”

imageA long time ago, when I first started this blog, I wrote a post called “The Chalk Circle.” I told the story of one of my more insightful learning experiences in the shadow of one of the original true masters, the late Yoshiki Iwata. My “ah ha” moment finally came several years later, and a year after his death. He wasn’t interested in the answers, he was teaching me the questions.

We don’t know the answers to a problem like “How do I get maximum efficiency through seasonal demand changes.” The answer for one process might give you something to think about, but copying it to another is unlikely to work well. What would work for Darren’s operation is unlikely to work in Hal’s. Even small differences mean there is more learning required.

When confronted with a problem, the first question should never be “What should we do?” Rather, we need to ask “What do we need to learn?”  What do we know? What do we not understand? What do we need to learn, then what step should we take to learn it? Taking actions without a learning objective is just trying stuff and hoping it works without understanding why.

What works is learning, by applying, the thinking behind sound problem solving, and being relentlessly curious about what is keeping you from moving to the next level.

I have come a long way since my time with Mr. Iwata, I continue to learn (lots), sometimes by making mistakes, sometimes with unlikely teachers, at times and in ways I least expect it. Sometimes it isn’t fun in the moment. Sometimes I have to confront something I have hidden from myself.

One thing I have learned is that the people who have all of the answers have stopped learning.

Darren – if you want to discuss your specific situation, click on “Contact Mark” and drop me an email.

The Lean Plateau

Many organizations trying to deploy lean get great results for the first couple of years, then things tend to stall or plateau. This is in spite of continued effort from the “lean team.”

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We Still Don’t Have a Lean Culture

This was the comment by the Continuous Improvement director of a pretty large corporation. They had been running improvement events for several years, everyone had pretty much been through one.

Each of the events had made pretty good strides during the week, but the behavior wasn’t changing. Things were eroding behind the events, even though everyone agreed things were better.

It was getting harder and harder to make more progress. They had hit the plateau.

What Causes the Lean Plateau?

While it might not be universal, what I have seen happen is this:

The implementation is led by a small group of dedicated technical experts. They are the ones who are looking for opportunities, organizing the kaizen event teams, leading workshops, and overseeing the implementation of lean techniques.

While this works in the short term, often the last implemented results begin to erode as soon as the lean experts shift their attention elsewhere.

At first, this isn’t noticed because the implementation is proceeding faster than the erosion.

However the more areas that are implemented, the faster the erosion becomes. There is simply more “surface area” of implemented areas.

At some point, the rate of erosion = the rate of implementation, and the lean team’s efforts start to shift from implementing new areas to going back and re-implementing areas that have eroded.

The lean team’s capacity becomes consumed re-implementing, and they spend less and less time going over new ground. They are spending all of their time “spinning the plates” and no time starting new ones.

Key Point: The lean plateau occurs when the level of implementation effort and the rate of erosion reach an equilibrium.

In the worst scenario, sooner or later financial pressures come into play. Management begins to question the expense of maintaining an improvement office if things aren’t getting significantly better on the bottom line. What they don’t see is that the office is keeping things from getting worse, but they aren’t called the “maintain what we have office” for a reason.

Breaking the Lean Plateau

When I was a lean director in a large company, we were confronting this very question. We had a meeting to talk about it, and quickly started blaming “lack of management commitment.”

Leaders Weren’t Stepping Up

In any given area, after education and planning, our last step was always to have a major effort to put flow production into place. Since the performance of the area would be substantially better, we expected the leaders to work hard to continue that performance.

What actually happened in an area was “implemented,” was the line leaders in that area – supervisors, managers, senior managers – weren’t working to look for erosion and correct it.

Instead, when a problem was encountered, they were making some kind of accommodation that compromised flow. The effect of the problem went away, but things had eroded a bit.

What we thought we learned: The weren’t “supporting the changes.”

What we really learned – though it was only realized in hindsight: This is the mechanism of “erosion.”

Flow production is specifically designed to surface small problems quickly. If there is no mechanism to detect those problems, respond, correct, and learn, then the only thing leaders can do is add a little inventory, add a little time, add an extra operation.

As Hirano put it so well decades ago:

All waste is cleverly disguised as useful work.

But Our Current Condition was Incomplete

There were outliers where it was working.

As we talked, we realized that each of us had experience with an outlier – one or two areas that were actually improving pretty steadily. Trying to understand what was different about these bright spots, we looked for what they all had in common. Surprisingly:

  • They were areas with no dedicated improvement teams.
  • They ran few, if any, 5-day kaizen events.
  • They were geographically close to one of us (senior “Directors”).
  • One of us had decent rapport with the area management team.
  • We each had an informal routine with them: We would drop by when we had time, and walk the work area with the area leader. We could discuss the challenges they were facing, how things were operating, go together to the operations concerned, and look at what was happening. We could ask questions designed to “sharpen the vision” of the leader. Sometimes they were leading questions. Most of the time they were from genuine curiosity.
  • By the time we left, there was generally some action or short term goal that the leader had set for himself.

Even though we “lean directors” had never worked together before, our stories were surprisingly consistent.

The Current Condition (Everywhere Else)

aka Dave’s Insight

The next logical question was “If that is what we do, what happens everywhere else? What do the lean staff people do?”

Now we were trying to understand the normal pattern of work, not simply the outcome of “the area erodes because the leaders don’t support the changes.”

Dave confidently stood up and grabbed the marker. He started outlining how he trained and certified his kaizen leaders. He worked through the list of skills he worked to develop:

  • Proficiently deliver the various topical training modules – Waste vs. Value Add; Standard Work; Jidoka; Kanban and Pull;
  • “Scan” an area to find improvement opportunities.
  • Establish the lean tools to be deployed.
  • Organize the workshop team.
  • Facilitate the “Vision”
  • Manage the “Kaizen Newspaper” items
  • etc

and at some point through this detailed explanation he stopped in mid sentence and said something that brought all of us to reality (Please avert your eyes if you are offended by a language you won’t hear on network TV):

“Aw… shit.”

What we realized more or less simultaneously was this:

Management wasn’t engaged because our process wasn’t engaging them.

Instead, our experts were essentially pushing them aside and “fixing” things, then turning the newly “leaned” area over to the supervisors and first line managers who, at most, might have participated in the workshop and helped move things around.

Those critical front line leaders were, at best left with a to-do list of ideas (kaizen newspaper items) that hadn’t been implemented during the 5 days.

There was nothing in the structure to challenge them to meet a serious business objective beyond “Look at how much better everything runs now.” The amount of improvement was an after-the-fact measurement (or estimate) rather than a before-we-begin imperative.

So it really should be no surprise that come Monday morning, when the inevitable forces of entropy showed up, that things started to erode. The whole system couldn’t have been better designed for that outcome.

Why the Difference in Approach?

In retrospect, I don’t know. Each of us senior “lean directors” had been taught, or heavily influenced by, Toyota-experienced Japanese mentors, teachers, consultants.

When we engaged the “outlier” areas, we were following a kinder, gentler version of what they had taught us.

On the other hand, what we were teaching our own people was modeled more on what western consultants were doing. Perhaps it is because it is easier to use forms and PowerPoint for structure than to teach the skills of the conversations we were having.

Implement by Experts or Coached by Leaders

That really is your choice. The expert implementation seems a lot easier.

Unfortunately the “rapid improvement event” (or whatever you call them) system has a really poor record of sustaining.

Perhaps our little group figured out why.

There are no guarantees. No approach will work every time. But a difficult approach that works some of the time is probably better than an easy path that almost never works.

Output vs. Takt Time

The team’s challenge is to reach steady output of 180 units per hour.

Their starting condition was about 150 per hour. Their equipment and process is theoretically capable of making the 180 per hour with no problem.

They calculated their takt time (20 seconds) and established a planned cycle time of 17 seconds.

Some time later, they are stuck. Their output has improved to the high 160s, but those last 10-12 units per hour are proving elusive.

This is the point when I saw their coaching cycle.

Looking at their history, they had set a series of target conditions based on output per hour. Their experiments and countermeasures had been focused on reducing stoppages, usually on the order of several minutes.

“Does anybody have a calculator?”

“Divide 3600 seconds by 180, what do you get?”

“20 seconds.”

“Do you agree that if your line could reliably produce one module every 20 seconds that you would have no trouble reaching 180 modules per hour?”

Yes, they agreed.

“So what is stopping you from doing that?”

They showed me the average cycle times for each piece step in the process, and most were at or under 15 seconds. But averages only tell a small part of the story. They don’t show the cumulative effect of short stoppages and delays that can cascade through the entire line.

The team had done a lot of very good work eliminating the longer delays. But now their target condition had to shift to stability around their planned cycle time.

Performance vs Process Metrics

This little exercise shows the difference between a process metric and the performance metric.

Units-per-hour is a performance metric. It is measured after the fact, and tells the cumulative effect of everything going on in the process. In this case, they were able to make a lot of progress just looking at major stoppages..

Stability around the planned cycle time or takt time (you may use different words, that’s OK) is a process metric.

It shows you what is happening right now. THIS unit was just held up for 7 seconds. The next three were OK, then a 10 second delay. It’s those small issues that add up to missing the targeted output.

The team’s next target condition is now to stabilize around their planned cycle time.

Since they averaged their measurements, their next step is to (1) take the base data they used to calculate the averages and pull the individual points back out into a run chart and (2) to get out their stopwatches and go down and actually observe and time what is really going on.

I expect that information to help them clarify their target condition, pick off a source of intermittent delay, and start closing the remaining gap.

Interesting Question about Cycle Time

An interesting search landed someone on the site recently. Here it is:

a machine is producing 55 parts in one hour. what is the cycle time for each part.

Likely this is someone Googling his homework question, but I’d like to take apart the question and discuss it. If this is a homework question, I would contend that the likely “correct” answer is wrong.

Take a pause and think about it for a second. How would you reflexively answer this question?

 

 

Someone encountering this question is likely to simply divide the 55 parts of output into the 60 minutes of elapsed time. Doing that, we get something just over 65 seconds per part.

Which is interesting, but it isn’t the cycle time per part. It is the average rate of production, but it isn’t the cycle time.

I contend you don’t have enough information to answer the question. To really do that, you need to get your safety glasses and hearing protection, go down to the machine with a stopwatch (I’d suggest one with a lap function) and click off the elapsed time interval between each and every part as it come off the machine.

Why?

Well… let’s say that the machine is actually running at a cycle of 55 seconds / part when it is actually operating, but there are frequent jam-ups that the operator has to clear.

Isn’t that a completely different story than running smoothly with one part coming off every 65.45 seconds?

Think about it.

A Tale of Two Sites

With apologies to Charles Dickens, but the opening line is just too good to resist…

The Best of Times

In this plant, the advance team is chaired and actively led by the most senior manager on the site. He is actively coaching, he is actively being coached. He is questioning his own learning, seeking council, and acting on it.

They are clear that, while there may be general guidelines, they must learn by trying and experimenting. They cannot simply deploy a roadmap because they can only see the next mile on a 1000 mile journey.

They see it as a method to shift their culture away from its “tell me what to do” legacy and toward one of an empowered workforce that takes initiative and works on the right things, the right way.

There is no doubt among the leadership team that this is the path forward.

They are starting to apply the language of the Improvement Kata informally in their meetings and discussions.

Overall, it seems a bit messy. But learning is like that.

The Other Site

The “implementation of Toyota Kata” is a directive from the corporate Continuous Improvement team.

The corporate team spends much of their energy developing and deploying templates, PowerPoint presentations, setting standards for the forms and the layout, lettering and colors on the improvement boards, and setting milestones.

They have published a step-by-step procedure for a site to implement Toyota Kata, based on their assumptions of what ought to work. None of them has actually led a change like this.

They are, in turn, working through the site continuous improvement team who is expected to execute to these standards.

The site leader receives weekly reports on progress. Training the managers and “implementing Toyota Kata” is the responsibility of one of the site’s continuous improvement staffers. The site leader questions him using the 5 Questions each week, and issues direction in response to the answers.

It is the continuous improvement practitioner who is responsible for motivating the members of the management team to challenge their own processes and develop their improvement boards. A significant number of them are questioning the need or purpose of this exercise.

Thoughts

Unfortunately I run into the second case far more often than I see the first. But the story is decades old. That is how we did Six Sigma, kaizen events, Theory of Constraints, Total Quality Management. In each case we have separated the deployment of a core change in the way we manage operations from the responsibility for actually managing.

It

doesn’t

work.

This TED talk by Tim Harford actually sums up the difference pretty well:

But beyond what works, and what doesn’t, we also have to ask “Which approach is respectful of people?”

What are the underlying assumptions about the people at the gemba when “standards” are established thousands of miles away, published, and then audited into place?

Why do they feel they must tell people exactly what to do?

What do they feel is lacking on the site?  Competence? or Clarity?

“Why Don’t You Just…”

Most leaders will at least superficially agree that organizations with an aligned, empowered workforce are more effective; that decisions are faster when made at lower levels that are closer to the actual facts; and that work teams are the ones in the best position to improve their own processes.

Most would agree that they would prefer their people to take initiative to come up with the best way to solve a problem.

Here’s a quiz.

Take a look at this old photo (it’s real, not staged!), and try to imagine what you think day-to-day interactions with this commander would be like.

Now… answer this question:

How much day-to-day initiative do you think the four officers in this photograph would show when the boss isn’t right there?

What does he teach them to do when he is talking to them?

Why would we expect they would learn to do anything else other than what they are being taught in the course of those day-to-day interactions?

This is, of course, an extreme case, meant to make a point.

But listen to your day to day interactions with your own people.

Do you give them directions they are expected to follow? Those directions, by the way, can take very innocuous forms. They can be disguised as suggestions, “Why don’t you just…” or “Have you considered…?” as well as just being orders.

You can think you are “correcting” or “teaching” people when your language actually is communicating something quite different.

You are teaching your people every time you talk to them. They will answer the questions you ask. If you make a habit of overriding their ideas, they will learn to not bother to work very hard to develop those ideas. If you argue with them, they will quickly learn to give in, or even just wait until you make up your mind. Any time you are making declarative statements about what should be done you are eroding initiative a little.

Frankly, from their perspective, it is a lot easier to just wait for the boss to give direction and follow it than it is to take initiative. There is much less psychological risk and energy involved. And if the organization has a history of risk-aversion you have an uphill battle to begin with.

It only takes a few negative experiences to stamp out initiative.

A thought experiment:

You wish people would take more initiative, self-organize the right people to work on problems in your organization.

Someone is working on understanding a problem or improvement. They come to you with a fairly decent picture of the current condition, but their next step isn’t the one you think they should take.

You have an overwhelming urge to say “Why don’t you just…” and get to a workable solution fast.

If you do so, what have they just learned?

You cannot simultaneously maintain full control and develop initiative.

Creating an Empowered Team

EDIT: There is a follow-on post here: David Marquet: Turn the Ship Around

In the past couple of decades, we went through an “empower your people” fad. We saw work teams in world class companies that were largely self directing, surprisingly well aligned with the overall goals of the organization, and getting things done.

“Well,” we thought, “since empowered teams are obviously more effective, we’ll empower our teams.”

harry potter wandThey brandished their wand uttered some wizard’s chant, and bing! empowered their teams.

“What did you expect to happen?”

“We expected our newly empowered teams to self-organize, get the work done, plan all of their own vacations and breaks, and continuously improve their operations on their own.”

“What actually happened?”

“Work ground to a halt, people argued and squabbled, quality went to hell, and labor hours went up 20%”

“What did you learn?”

“That empowerment doesn’t work.”

Which is obviously not true, because there are plenty of examples where it does. Perhaps “Empowerment doesn’t work the way we went about it” might be a better answer. That at least opens the door to a bit more curiosity.

The last place I would expect an experiment in true empowerment would be onboard a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine.

Take a look at this video that Mike Rother sent around a couple of days ago, then come back.

A U.S. Navy submarine skipper isn’t generally inclined to swear off ever giving another order. It runs against everything he has been taught and trained to do since he was a Midshipman.

I’d like to cue in on a couple of things here and dissect what happened.

First is the general conditions. I think he could do this just a bit faster than normal because everyone involved was sealed inside a steel can for six months. Just a thought – groups in those conditions tend to have a lot of team cohesion.

But the mechanics are also critical. He didn’t just say “You are empowered.” Rather, this was a process of deliberate learning and practice.

What is key, and what most companies miss, are the crucial elements that Capt. Marquet points out must be built as the pillars of an empowered team.

GiveControl

Let’s put this in Lean Thinker’s terms.

As the Toyota Kata wave begins to sweep over everyone, there is a rush to transition managers into coaches.

“What obstacles do you think are now in the way of reaching the target?”

See the illustration above.

Competence and clarity.

I am going to start with the second one.

Clarity

Or… where the hell are we trying to go?

Capt. Marquet points out the critical element of commander’s intent. I learned this during my decade or so as a military officer (U.S. Army). When preparing operations orders, I had to clarify the overall commander’s intent. Why? So that when everything went to hell in a handcart, everyone knew what we were trying to get done even if the how to do it entirely broke down.

What that means in the lean thinking world is “What is the business imperative” or “What is the challenge we are trying to achieve?” If nobody knows “why,” then all they can know is “what” and that comes down to “implement the tools,” which, in turn, comes down to “because I said so” or “Because we need a 3 on the lean audit.”

Doesn’t work. Never has.

But I’m beating that topic to death right now, so I want to move the pillar on the left.

Competence

In my book, that means “The leader has a good idea how to do it.”

What does that mean in practical terms? In Capt. Marquet’s world, it means that, fundamentally, the crew knows how to operate a nuclear submarine. Additionally, it means they understand the ramifications of the actions they are taking on the overall system, and therefore, the contribution they are making to achieving the intent.

It doesn’t matter how clearly anyone understands what they are trying to get done if they have no idea how to do it.

In Lean Thinking world, competence means a few things.

  • The leader knows how to “do the math.” She understands the overall flow, the impact of her decisions on the system and the overall system.
  • The leader / coach has a good understanding of at least the fundamentals of flow production, and why we are striving to move in that direction.

While these things can be taught through skillful coaching, that implies that the coach has enough competence to do that teaching.

But if the coach doesn’t fundamentally grasp the True North, or doesn’t consistently bias every single conversation and decision in that direction, then Clarity is lost, and Competence is never built.

We end up with pokes and tweaks on the current condition, but no real breakthrough progress.

Day to day, this means you are on the shop floor interacting with supervisors and front line managers. You are asking the questions, and guiding their thinking until they grok that one-by-one flow @ takt is where they are striving to go.

In my Lean Director role in a previous company, I recall three distinct stages I went through with people calling me for “what to do” advice.

First, I gave them answers and explanations.

Then I transitioned to first asking them what they thought I would give as an answer.

Then they transitioned to “This is the situation, this is the target, this is what we propose, this is why we think it will work, what do you think?”

“Captain, I propose we submerge the boat.”

“What do you think I am thinking?”

“Um… you would want to know if it is safe?”

“How would you know it is safe?”

In other words…

What are you trying to achieve here? How will you know?

So here is a challenge.

If you are a line leader, especially a plant manager, take one week and utterly refuse to issue direction to anyone. Ask questions. Force them to learn the answers. Test their knowledge. Have them teach you so they must learn.

You will learn a lot about the competence of your team. You will learn a lot about your own clarity of intent. Try it on. No matter what, you will learn a lot.

Curiosity

The tenor of what “lean” is about is shifting, at least in some places, toward the line leader as improver, teacher and coach. Successfully adopting that role requires a qualification that I wish I saw more of as I work with industrial clients – curiosity.

To succeed in this role, a supervisor must be intently curious about, not only the minute-by-minute performance, but what things are affecting it, or could affect it.

Even if he is just walking by, his eyes must be checking – is there excess inventory piling up? Are all of the standard WIP spots filled? Is anyone struggling with the job? Are the carts in the right places? Pressures and temperatures OK? Kanbans circulating correctly? Workers all wearing PPE? Safety glasses? Ear plugs? Does the fork truck driver have his seatbelt fastened?

Though there should also be deliberate checks as part of his standard work, a leader needs to be intently curious about what is happening all of the time.

To improve things requires even more curiosity. “What obstacles do you think are now keeping you from reaching the target?” is not a question that should be answered casually. Rather, the preparation to answer it properly requires careful study – being curious – about what operational conditions must be changed to reach the target.

Sadly, though, my experience is that true curiosity is a pretty rare commodity. A plant manager that can spout off a barrage of facts and figures about how things have to be, but is surprised every time the math doesn’t reflect his view of reality doesn’t impress me much.

Niwa-sensai said once (probably many times) “A visual control that doesn’t trigger action is just a decoration.”

You have to be curious about what those visual controls are telling you. What good is a gage if it is supposed to read between 4 and 6, but drops to 0 and nobody notices?

That supervisor walking through the area needs to be visually sweeping those gages, looking for leaks, anything unusual or abnormal, and taking action.

“How did that stain get here?” Run the trap line. The process, as designed, shouldn’t let anything leak. Why did it? What is really happening?

All we practitioners can do is patiently, again and again, walk the line with them, ask what they see, stand in the chalk circle with them, and do our best to teach them to see what we do.

Show them the system, show them the future consequences of letting this little thing slide – how second shift is going to be brought to their knees because the work isn’t being processed according to the FIFO rules.

I suspect, though, that at least a few leaders get promoted and somehow believe they reach a level where they are exempt from checking and teaching. That’s someone else’s job.

But if not them, who? And how do they know it is getting done?

Active Control

Imagine you are driving an automobile with a high-performance suspension. You are on a perfectly straight stretch of road, with smooth pavement. Get yourself up to, say, 65 miles per hour (100 km/h). Got it pointed down the middle of the road?

OK, close your eyes, let go of the steering wheel and wait. (Actually closing your eyes is optional.)

Can you predict what will happen, more likely sooner than later?

It doesn’t matter how “stable” your car is.

There are small, random things that are eventually going to cause your car to drift away from the centerline and off the road, into the ditch on one side, or over the cliff on the other. (Didn’t I mention those?)

I often see people set up a well performing process and treat it the same way – as though it will continue to work the same way forever, without any intervention.

But your process is going to encounter random chatter, and when it does, what typically happens?

In most cases, the team members can find a way to work around the issue, and likely continue to get things done, though they will have added a bit of friction, requiring a bit more effort, to do so. They will add a redundant check to make sure no mistake got made. They will add some inventory under the work bench, in case something runs out. They will carry the product over to the other machine because the one they are supposed to use isn’t working as it should be.

They will clean up the spilled coolant, catch the leaking oil.

They will head up-line to borrow a team member’s grease bucket.

They’ll tap out paint clogged or unthreaded holes, cut wires that are delivered too long to length, even drill new holes to mount the part that doesn’t fit.

In the office, they get one more signature, send an email to back-up the “unreliable” ERP messages, and make screen prints so they can enter the data into another system.

“Waste is often disguised as useful work.”

All of this easily goes unnoticed, and eventually (maybe) the process becomes cumbersome enough that someone decides to address it with an improvement activity. And the cycle starts again.

How do we stop the cycle?

The point of intervention is in the last paragraph… “All of this goes unnoticed.”

It isn’t a matter of standing and watching for problems. Sakichi Toyoda figured that out almost 100 years ago. It is about designing your process to detect anomalies in either execution (how it is done, how long it takes) or results immediately, signal, and trigger some kind of response.

Here are some fundamental questions to ask yourself:

Before the process even begins, does the team member have everything he needs to succeed? How does he know? I’m talking about parts, information, tools, air pressure, assistance… whatever you know is needed to get the job done.

If the team member doesn’t have everything needed exactly what do you want him to do?

Is the team member carrying out the process in a way that gets the desired result? How does she know? Is there a sequence of steps that you know will give her the result you want? What alerts her if one of them is skipped?

If the team member, for whatever reason, isn’t able to carry out those steps in sequence, exactly what do you want her to do? Go find a grease bucket? Or let you know?

How long do you want to allow your team member to try to fix something or make it work before letting you know there is a problem? Related to this – how far behind can you allow him to get before he can’t catch up, even with help?

Once the team member has completed the process, how does he know the result is what was expected? If the team member doesn’t have a way to positively verify a good outcome, who does detect the problem, when, where and how? It might be your customer!

An Active Control System

Even if you have all of those checks in place, however, you still need to answer a few more questions starting with “Once the team member detects a problem, what do you what exactly do you want them to do?”

I alluded a little to this above, but let’s go a bit deeper.andon-pull

On a production line, a typical way for a team member to signal a problem is with some kind of andon. This might, for example, take the form of a rope along the line that the team member can pull in order to trigger a signal of some kind.

But that is the easy part. Lots of factories have copied the mechanics of Toyota’s andon only to see them fall into disuse following a period of cynicism.

The hard part is what is supposed to happen next?

Now we are back to the original questions because the andon is nothing more than a trigger for another process.

Who is the designated first responder? (Remember, if it is everybody’s problem, it is nobody’s problem.) Does that person know who he is?

What is the standard for the response? What is the first responder supposed to do, and how long does she have to do it?

When we had takt times on the order of dozens of minutes, our standard for the first response making face-to-face contact with the team member who signaled was 30 seconds.

How much intervention can the first responder make before being required to escalate the problem to the next level?

As a minimum

As a minimum, the first responder’s primary goal is to restore the normal pattern of work. This might be as simple as pitching in and helping because something minor tripped up the team member’s timing.

This is active control – a system or process that detects something going outside the established parameters, and applying an adjustment to get it back. Active control requires a process to detect abnormalities, a trigger, and a response that restores things. It is no different than maintaining thickness in a rolling operation – the machine measures the output, and adjusts the pressure accordingly – or an autopilot that keeps an airplane on course.

Without some kind of active control system, your process will erode over time as the team members do the only things they can do in an effort to keep things moving: They can overproduce and build inventory to compensate, they can add extra process steps, they can add just about any of the things we call “waste.”

The only question is what do you want them to do?