Do Your People Solve the Problem or Work The System?

This article by Anita Tucker and Amy Edmondson at Harvard highlights a problem that is as common on the manufacturing floor as it is in the hospitals they studied:

When people encounter a problem that stops their work, they work the system, get what they need, and continue their work.

A lot of people call this initiative, and most organizations reward this behavior. Many of those organizations have actual or implied negative consequences for bringing up an issue that “you could have solved yourself.” Unfortunately this behavior only accomplishes one thing: It guarantees that the problem will occur again.

What is the big deal? Simple. Small problems accumulate. They do not go away, and more come into play every day. Eventually the Team Members are overwhelmed by “too much to do.” Supervisors press for “more people,” the organization grows in size, and the cycle continues. In health care all you have to do is spend an hour talking to harried nurse to know all of the things that keep them from providing patient care.

Go stand in the chalk circle on your own shop floor. What things keep your Team Members from doing their jobs?

Is Your Lean Implementation Sticky or Slick?

My posts about “Made to Stick” and visual controls created some interesting responses on Jon Miller’s Gemba Panta Rei blog, so I want to continue the great dialog. Jon asks the great question “Is your lean deployment made to stick?” and extends the context from just visual controls to the entire concept.

Of course this level of thinking is the author’s intent in the book. I’d like to ask you, the reader and change agent, some questions that might help you see if you are obscuring your own message.

What is core message of your implementation?

The words “vision” and “mission” are so worn out today that people are cynical. And with good reason. By the time the board rooms are done with wordsmithing, there is no content left.

When I was growing up, current events in the USA were dominated by two stories:

  • The war in Vietnam.
  • Sending people to the moon.

Both were major undertakings and consumed a lot of talent and resources. Consider the core message for each.

Vietnam: Bad things will happen if we leave.

The Moon: “…achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon, and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Which is those is “sticky?” Which one captures the essence of True North so that everyone just knows not only what we are trying to do, but how they can contribute?

Take JFK’s commitment and put it in the language of a typical corporate mission statement: “We will be a world leader in space exploration.” Yawn. How will we know when we get there? Exactly. It is a very safe goal since it allows redefining success at any point.

Kennedy’s commitment is simple, concrete, credible, emotionally appealing, and made a hell of a story. How does yours stand up?

But we so-called “lean professionals” are by no means off the hook.

What is the core message of the TPS?

That is a little tougher to get to. Why? My theory is that we “professionals” are all cursed with what Heath and Heath call “the curse of knowledge.” We understand the nuances and details of how all of the pieces fit together. The question is: How much of that wealth of knowledge passes the “So What?” test. What is the lead story?

When you start talking about takt time, work sequences, cycle times, kanban loops, andon signals, painting lines on the floor, all of the so-called “tools” of the TPS, do people’s eyes glaze over? What ties it all together? What is the central theme, the core message?

I’ve re-written this paragraph about a dozen times. How can we get it down to Herb Kelleher’s “Southwest is the low-fare airline” (p 29 in the book) and not lose anything?

I think, at its fundamental core, the Toyota Production System is “A structured work environment which captures people’s creativity and focuses it solving problems every day.”

The next line in the story: “All of the tools, techniques, principles that people associate with the Toyota Production System are simply the best currently known mechanisms to surface problems, or they are the best currently known countermeasures to common problems.”

Nope, that is still to complicated.

The Toyota Production System structures the organization and the work so that people can solve problems to save time.

That comes closer. I think a test question: “Does that save time?” (without compromising safety, quality or the customer in any way) would usually discriminate between a good idea and a bad one.

Readers – there is no way on Earth (or the moon) that I have got this right, or even close, sitting here in a Beijing apartment at 11pm on a muggy Saturday night. My challenge is: in one sentence, as direct as “The low-fare airline,” capture the core message of the TPS in a way that guides decisions toward True North.

Next – your training.

Most of us use some kind of training materials. Question: Does each topic have a lead? Does it build the story? Does it tie to the top story? As you go into more depth, are the interconnections more and more apparent? Do you tie everything back to the TPS Lead Story? Failure to do these things decomposes the system. It gives people the impression they can pick and choose the tools vs. understanding that they all are doing the same thing in different contexts. It implies there is some kind of set-piece sequence of implementation.

Are your examples concrete? Are they things people can go do?

Do you build a shared experience base by telling stories? Or do you deliver abstract, cold, analytical bullet lists of “the three elements of standard work?” Who cares? Obviously they are important, but how well do you communicate exactly why balance to the takt time contributes to the effort of surfacing and solving problems?

OK – it is late, and I am rambling. I hope I have provoked a little thought.

I originally titled this piece “Is Your Lean Implementation Velcro or Teflon?” But Velcro Industries has enough challenges protecting their trademark without me making it worse.

Made To Stick

Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath have addressed head-on one of the biggest problems with implementing change in people’s thinking and behavior — crafting the concept in a way that makes it compelling.. “sticky” in their words.

The book is an extension of the concept described in Gladwell’s The Tipping Point which outlines “stickiness” as one of the things required for an idea to catch on and spread.

Read this book, then take a look at your presentations and training materials, and compare the messages with the examples in the book. Make an honest assessment:

Is your message:

Simple? Is the core concept immediately apparent?

Unexpected? Does it come across in a way that compels retention?

Concrete? Do analogies and examples make the concept something people can see, touch, feel in their minds (or even better, physically)?

Credible? Does it just make sense?

Emotional? Does it appeal to people’s feelings, or is it “just the facts” with cold analytical presentation.

Have stories? Does the presentation include experiences people can visualize?

Other books on organizational transformation, like John Kotter’s Leading Change talk about the critical importance of creating a sense of urgency, creating a vision, communicating that vision, but Made to Stick goes further and gives you tools to actually make sure your message gets across in a way that compels people to act differently.

Be Sure: What Are You Trying To Accomplish?

And how will you know you have accomplished it?

This article on Tech Republic is about defense against a hacker strategy called “Social Engineering” wherein the hacker uses a ruse to gain someone’s trust. The goal (for the hacker) is to leverage human nature and get information or access.

So what does this have to do with lean thinking?

It emphasizes the nature of policies with unintended consequences. I have seen all kinds of environments where a Team Member would suffer negative consequences for doing the very thing required to assure safety, quality, delivery or reduce costs. Never happens in your company, right? The examples in the article are mainly in items (2), (3), and (4).

I especially like (4) where the hacker poses as a person in power and simply intimidates the Team Member into giving him the information he wants. What is the countermeasure?

Strict policies and procedures created to discourage this kind of bullying. If it’s allowed from management, someone engaging in social engineering will be able to employ it.

Think about it. If someone abusing his authority is normal behavior, then your Team Member will not be able to detect this condition something out of the ordinary.

In another context, if a Team Member is routinely told “We’ll fix it in inspection” or to otherwise ignore a defect and allow it to pass on, then he will quickly stop reporting them.

Think through the behavior you want people to exhibit. Then, study (stand in the chalk circle again) and see for yourself what the actual behavior is. If it is different than what you expect or what you want, start asking the 5 Why’s. What people do every day is the norm of your organization. It is the path of least resistance. If you want people to do something different, then you must make the right way the easiest way.

This accomplished by a combination of mistake-proofing, policies and procedures that support people who do the right thing, and continuous two-level checking by leaders to reinforce and encourage.

In Item (2) in the article, the author talks about the “I don’t want to get in trouble” excuse. In his example, there is a negative consequence for reporting a lost or misplaced ID badge, so everyone works to avoid reporting the problem. Perhaps the intent was to have people pay more attention. As Deming said, you must drive out fear, and this isn’t the way to do it.

Remember: The right process will produce the right results. Think:

What results are you trying to accomplish? How will you know you have accomplished them? (How will you check or verify your results?)

The more clear you are on the target condition, the better equipped you are to think through how you will achieve it. When dealing with people, it is easier than you think to build negative consequences for the very thing you want them to do.

Lean Dilemma: System Principles vs. Management Accounting Controls

Today I came across an article called Lean Dilemma:Choose System Principles or Management Accounting Controls, Not Both by H. Thomas Johnson.

It is, or it should be a thought-provoking read, especially for a CEO or other senior manager.

The author also wrote “Profit Beyond Measure” which I have not read, but based on this article, I will.

My personal challenge question is: What is the ROI on an environment where people work so well together that no detail is overlooked? It is, of course, impossible to calculate. Nevertheless, no one would argue that such a company would be a formidable competitor in any market.

Perhaps what you measure is what you get.
More likely, what you measure is all you get. What you don’t (or can’t) measure is lost.

Today the mantra of “Sarbanes-Oxley” is being used as justification to plant, fertilize and cultivate a garden of chokeweed that will embrace and strangle any attempt to streamline processes. I have run into the same “regulations won’t allow it” excuse in the aerospace industry (“the FAA won’t allow that”), in health care products (“the FDA requires this”), and, believe it or not, in ISO-9000 registrations. (“That violates ISO”) Of course, in every case, it was a smoke screen.

Once the assumptions are challenged, and the actual requirements are studied and understood, there is always a way to comply with the letter and spirit of the requirements with minimal (or no) waste. The problem comes in when people confuse the requirements themselves with the policies of the company to implement them. Those policies can be changed with the stroke of a pen, sometimes followed by convincing an auditor that the new way is better.

But I digress. Toyota operates in the USA and is subject to exactly the same regulations and financial securities laws as everyone else – yet, somehow, they manage to operate without these things as justifications for the status quo.

Read the article – tell me what you think.

Edit – 9 August – Someone pointed out to me that there are people who are turned off by Johnson’s environmental stewardship message toward the end of the article. My view is that intelligent people should be able to read the article and agree or disagree with that message, while still “getting” the core message: Traditional management accounting controls damage shareholder value.

Is The MRP Algorithm Fatally Flawed?

(Links updated Feb 24, 2010)

Robert Johnston, now at the University of Melbourne   holding the John Skarkey Chair of Information Systems and Organisation at the UCD School of Business in Ireland, did his PhD work at Monash University in Australia. His dissertation, “The Problem With Planning” presents a thought provoking thesis.

– Early robotics and computational intelligence models were built on a model which research at MIT debunked as unworkable in the 1980’s.

– The MRP algorithm uses the same model.

– Therefore, MRP is also unworkable.

Further, his dissertation goes on to postulate that the successful models currently being exploited by the latest research at MIT (which, by the way, are commercially exploited by the Roomba) share many similar characteristics with kanban systems.

I will extrapolate a bit and comment that kanban systems are a subset of a general shop floor information management model that is outlined in “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System” by Spear and Bowen. Johnston’s work pre-dates Spear’s publication, so it is not referenced, but if you actually read Spear’s dissertation you can see the similarities in the details.

And yes, when I wrote to Dr. Johnston his first comment back was surprise that someone had actually read his dissertation. Take a look. Chapters 1-5 are mostly theoretical background and history. The interesting part starts at Chapter 6.

The Essence of Just-In-Time

The Essence of Just-In-Time

This is a working paper by Steven Spear of Harvard Business School. Spear’s PhD work was summarized in a landmark and well-circulated Harvard Business Review article titled “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System.” I will leave it to the reader’s Google savvy to turn up the DNA article for yourself.

This working paper is much more raw than a finely edited HBR article. But it gets to the core research and conclusions without any fluff.

As you read it, compare what is described here with the focus of your own implementation.

Do you find any gaps?

I’ll comment more myself when I am not totally jet-lagged… I just got back from China. 😉

The Essence of Jidoka

SME: The Essence of Jidoka – dead link

You can download it here.

This link is to an article I wrote for the SME online “Lean Directions” site back in 2002. I am including it on this site for the sake of completeness. I noticed that the Wikipedia article on the same subject is largely derived from this, which I simply consider flattery.