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.

Using Takt Time to Compute Labor Cost

How can I use takt time in computing labor cost?

Sometimes the searches that lead here give us interesting questions.

While simple on the surface, this question takes us in all kinds of interesting directions.

Actually the simplest answer is this: You can’t. Not from takt time alone.

Takt Time

Takt time is an expression of your customer’s requirement, leveled over the time you are producing the product or service. It says nothing about your ability to meet that requirement, nor does it say anything about the people, space or equipment required to do it.

Cycle Time

Cycle time comes in many flavors, but ultimately it tells you how much time – people time, equipment time, transportation time – is required for one unit of production.

Takt time and cycle time together can help you determine the required capacity to meet the customer’s demand, however they don’t give you the entire story.

In the simplest scenario, we have a leveled production line with nothing but manual operations (or the machine operations are trivially short compared to the takt time).

If I were to measure the time required for each person on the line to perform their work on one unit of the product or service and add them up, then I have the total work required. This should be close to the time it would take one person to do the job from beginning to end.

Let’s say it takes 360 minutes of work to assemble the product.

If the takt time says I need a unit of output every 36 minutes, then I can do some simple math.

How long do I have to complete the next unit?  36 minutes. (the takt time)

How long does it take to complete one full unit?  360 minutes (the total manual cycle time)

(How long does it take) / (How long do I have) = how many people you need

360 minutes of total cycle time / 36 minutes takt time = 10 people.

But this isn’t your labor cost because that assumes the work can be perfectly balanced, and everything goes perfectly smoothly. Show me a factory like that… anywhere. They don’t exist.

So you need a bit more.

Planned Cycle Time (a.k.a. Operational Takt Time and “Actual Takt”)

How much more? That requires really understanding the sources of variation in your process. The more variation there is, the more extra people (and other stuff) you will need to absorb it.

If we don’t know, we can start (for experimental purposes) by planning to run the line about 15% faster than the takt time. Now we get a new calculation.

85% of the takt time = 0.85 x 36 minutes = ~31 minutes.  (I am rounding)

Now we re-calculate the people required with the new number:

360 minutes required / 31 minutes available = 11.6 people which rounds to 12 people.

Those two extra people are the cost of uncontrolled variation. You need them to ensure you actually complete the required number of units every day.

“But that cost is too high.”

Getting to Cost

12 people is the result of math, simple division that any 3rd grader can do. If you don’t like the answer, there are two possible solutions.

  1. Decide that 360 / 30 = something other than 11.6 (12). (or don’t do the math at all and just “decide” how many people are “appropriate” – perhaps based on some kind of load factor. This, in fact, is a pretty common approach. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work very well for some reason.
  2. Work to improve your process and reduce the cycle time or the variation.

Some people suggest slowing down the process, but this doesn’t change your labor cost per unit. It only alters your output. It still requires 360 minutes of work to do one unit of assembly (plus the variation). Actually, unless you slow down by an increment of the cycle time, it will increase your labor cost per unit because you have to round up to get the people you actually need, and/or work overtime to make up the production shortfall that the variation is causing.

So, realistically, we have to look at option #2 above.

This becomes a challenge – a reason to work on improving the process.

Really Getting to Cost

Challenge: We need to get this output with 10 people.

Now we have something we can work with. We can do some more simple math and determine a couple of levers we can pull.

We can reverse the equation and solve for the target cycle time:

10 people x 30 minute planned cycle time-per-unit = 300 minutes total cycle time.

Thus, if we can get the total cycle time down to 300 minutes from 360, then the math suggests we can do this with 10 people:

300 minutes required / 30 minutes planned cycle time = 10 people.

But maybe we can work on the variation as well. Remember, we added a 15% pad by reducing the customer takt time of 36 minutes to a planned cycle time (or operational takt time, same thing, different words) of 30 minutes. Question: What sources of instability can we reduce so we can use a planned cycle time of 33 minutes rather than 30?

Then (after we reduce the variation) we can slow down the process a bit, and we could get by with a smaller reduction in the total cycle time:

330 minutes required / 33 minutes planned cycle time = 10 people.

(See how this is different than just slowing it down? If you don’t do anything about the variation first, all you are doing is kicking in overtime or shorting production.)

So which way to go?

We don’t know.

First we need to really study the current process and understand why it takes 360 minutes, and where the variation is coming from. Likely some other alternatives will show themselves when we do that.

Then we can take that information, and establish an initial target condition, and get to work.

Summarizing:

  • You can’t use takt time alone to determine your labor cost. Your labor cost per unit is driven by the total manual cycle time and the process variation.
  • With that information, you can determine the total labor you need on the line with the takt time.
  • None of this should be considered an unalterable given. Rather, it should be a starting point for meeting the challenge.

And finally, if you just use this to reduce your total headcount in your operation, you will, at best, only see a fraction of the “savings” show up on your bottom line. You need to take a holistic approach and use these tools to grow your business rather than cut your costs. That is, in reality, the only way they actually reach anywhere near their potential.

 

 

 

Toyota Kata: Don’t Change The Target Condition Date

A target condition has three main elements:

  • An achieve-by date.
  • A level of performance that will be achieved.
  • The operational process that will be in place.

The details of the #2 and #3 can take a number of forms, but today I want to talk about the achieve-by date.

Keep the time horizon fairly short, especially at first. For a typical process that is carried out every day, I usually suggest a two week time horizon. My rationale is this: I don’t want the target condition to seem big or complex. Two weeks is enough time to understand and significantly improve a handful of steps in a complex process. It is a short enough time to keep the improver from trying to fix a complex or global issue all at once.

For example, if a process is carried out in multiple departments, two weeks is enough to try experiments in one of them, but not enough to implement a change across the whole organization. Having that time horizon helps establish the principle of small, quick, steps rather than trying to develop some kind of implementation plan.

It is important to set an actual date, not just “in two weeks” – in two weeks from when?

But here is the most important part: Once the date is set, don’t change it.

If the date comes up, and the target condition hasn’t been reached, it is very tempting to say “Just a few more days.” But once a date is slipped, the date means nothing, because it can be slipped again.

Instead, missing the date is time to step back, reflect, and go back through the steps of the improvement kata.

This is the same thing you should do when you hit your target condition.

If you hit your target way early, or miss the date, it is also time to reflect on what you didn’t understand about your current condition when you established that target. Then:

  • Confirm understanding of the direction and challenge.
  • Grasp the current condition. This is important. Don’t just assume you know what it is. Take the time to do some observations and confirm everything is working the way you think.
  • Establish the next target condition. This means erasing the old target condition, starting with a clean obstacle sheet, looking at the current condition and establishing a new target condition. I would discourage you from simply re-stating the old one. List the obstacles that you think are now preventing you from reaching the new target.
  • Pick one obstacle (an easy one, not the one you were beating your head on for the last two weeks!), and design your next experiment. Start your PDCA iteration.

Coaches: Don’t let your learner just adjust the date. There is a learning opportunity here, be sure to capitalize on it.

 

Toyota Kata in Health Care

I’m about four months into helping a major regional hospital develop a solid foundation for applying the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata to learn “improvement thinking.”

They now have active improvement boards running in pre-op, post-op, surgery, radiology, the lab, the emergency department, the cardio-vascular floor, medical-surgery floor, ICU, cardiac rehab, billing, admissions, case management, and supplies. I think that’s everything going right now.

Several of these departments have more than one board, and a few are beginning to get started spontaneously.

We are starting to see the culture begin to shift in many of these departments. Staff are getting engaged in improving the work flows, administration team members are more engaged with the staff.

Directors and managers are starting to reach across organizational boundaries to deal with obstacles and problems at the departmental interfaces.

And the organizations are starting to shift how they talk. When confronted with a list of problems, leaders are starting to ask “OK, which one are we addressing first?” Leaders are asking “What do you expect to happen?” and “What did we learn?” when talking about actions. They are working to engage thinking in their organizations vs. just giving direction.

Is it all rainbows and unicorns? Of course not. But the effort is clearly being made, and it shows. My overall process coaching is getting much more nuanced, because they are “getting” the fundamentals.

OK, so what did we do?

We started out with two weeks of pretty intense “kick-start.” One week was half-days of training and simulation (with a morning and afternoon group), getting a feel for the rhythm of the improvement kata, and a taste of the coaching kata, and culminating with the first round of improvement boards getting set up with at least a direction, if not a clear challenge.

We deliberately did not use industrial examples. And now that I’ve done it a few times, I can incorporate more health care language and examples into the sessions, which just makes it easier.

Week two was pairs of learners/coaches being coached through grasping the current condition, establishing a target condition, and the first couple of PDCA cycles / experiments.

But what made it work is they kept at it.

The next month, we did it again. We coached the established boards to tighten up their game, while establishing a series of new ones.

Because they had kept at it, the first round of boards now had a routine for their improvement cycles and coaching. And once there is a pattern, then we can work on improving it.

What I am learning.

Just get them going, then leave them alone for a while to keep at it. That lets the team establish a baseline routine for how they are practicing. Then I can come back periodically and propose adjustments on one or two items that let them step it up to the next level.

I am finding this much more effective than demanding they get it perfectly from day one. There is just too much to think about.

Establish a target condition, have them practice to that pattern, grasp the current condition, establish a new target… for the team’s practice. Get the improvement engine running, even if roughly, then work on tuning it for performance.

To be clear, this is my normal approach (and it is different, I am told, from what a lot of others try to do), but I am getting a lot of validation for it here.

Results

A member of the administration (leadership team) who is actively coaching shared this chart with me today. I have “sanitized” it a bit. Suffice it to say these three lines represent the percentage of deliveries of three separate (but related) processes within or before the target turn-around time of 30 minutes. Their challenge is to turn 95% of them around in 30 minutes or less.

The vertical red line represents when they started applying the Improvement Kata to this process.

Otherwise, the picture speaks for itself.

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They have recognized that there is no silver bullet here. Rather, there have been dozens (or more) of changes that each save a little bit of time that is adding up.

As one of my early Japanese teachers said “To save a minute, you must find sixty ways to save a second.” and that is exactly what they are doing here. They are finding a minute here, a few seconds there, and anchoring them in changes to the way they organize the work flow.

Lab Team: “Way to go!”

Prediction Doesn’t Equal Understanding

Lunar Eclipse over Everett, WA. Photo by Mark Rosenthal, © 2015Sometimes people fall into a trap of believing they understand a process if they can successfully predict it’s outcome. We see this in meetings. A problem or performance gap will be discussed, and an action item will be assigned to implement a solution.
Tonight those of us in the western USA saw the moon rise in partial eclipse.

We knew this would happen because our understanding of orbital mechanics allows us to predict these events… right?

Well, sort of. Except we have been predicting astronomical events like this for thousands of years, long before Newton, or even Copernicus.

The photo below is of a sophisticated computer that predicted lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, and other astronomical events in 1600BC (and earlier). Click through the photo for an explanation of how Stonehenge works:

Photo of Stonehenge
Creative Commons flickr user garethwiscombe

Stonehenge represented a powerful descriptive theory. That is, a sufficient level of understanding to describe the phenomena the builders were observing. But they didn’t know why those phenomena occurred.

Let’s go to our understanding of processes.

The ability to predict the level of quality fallout does not indicate understanding of why it occurs. All it tells you is that you have made enough observations that you can conclude the process is stable, and will likely keep operating that way unless something materially changes. That is all statistical process control tells you.

Likewise, the ability to predict how long something takes does not indicate understanding of why. Obviously I could continue on this theme.

A lot of management processes, though, are quite content with the ability to predict. We create workforce plans based on past experience, without ever challenging the baseline. We create financial models and develop “required” levels of inventory based on past experience. And all of these models are useful for their intended purpose: Creating estimates of the future based on the past.

But they are inadequate for improvement or problem solving.

Let’s say your car has traditionally gotten 26 miles-per-gallon of fuel. That’s not bad. (For my non-US readers, that’s about 9 liters / 100 km.) You can use that information to predict how far a tank of fuel will get you, even if you have no idea how the car works.

If your tank holds 15 gallons of fuel, you’ll be looking to fill after driving about 300 miles.

But what if you need to get 30 miles-per-gallon?

Or what if all of a sudden you are only getting 20 miles-per-gallon?

If you are measuring, you will know the gap you need to close. In one case you will need to improve the operation of the vehicle in some way. In the other case, you will need to determine what has changed and restore the operation to the prior conditions.

In both of those cases, if you don’t know how the car operated to deliver 26 miles-per-gallon, it is going to be pretty tough. (It is a lot harder to figure out how something is supposed to work if it is broken before you start troubleshooting it.)

Here’s an even more frustrating scenario: On the last tank of fuel, you measured 30 miles per gallon, but have no idea why things improved! This kind of thing actually happens all of the time. We have a record month or quarter, it is clearly beyond random fluctuation, but we don’t know what happened.

The Message for Management:

If you are managing to KPIs only, and can’t explain the process mechanics behind the measurements you are getting, you are operating in the same neolithic process used by the builders of Stonehenge. No matter how thoroughly they understood what would happen, they did not understand why.

If your shipments are late, if your design process takes too long, if your quality or customer service is marginal, if the product doesn’t meet customer’s expectations, and you can’t explain the mechanisms that are causing these things (or the mechanisms of a process that operates reliably and acceptably) then you aren’t managing, you are simply directing people to make the eclipse happen on a different day.

“Seek first to understand.”

Dig in, go see for yourself. Let yourself be surprised by just how hard it is to get stuff done.

 

 

Another Homework Question

Another interesting homework question has shown up in the search terms. Let’s break it down:

23. if the slowest effective machine cycle time in a cell is 55 seconds and the total work content is 180 seconds, how many operator(s) should operate the cell so that labor utilization is at 100%?

I find this interesting on a couple of levels.

At a social level, the idea of cutting and pasting a homework question into Google hoping to find the answer is… interesting. Where is the thinking?

What are we teaching?

The question is asking “How many people do we need to run as fast as we can?” (as fast as the slowest machine). But how fast do they need to run? Maybe they only need a part every 95 seconds. If that is true, then I need fewer people, but I am going to run the slowest machine even slower.

In other words, “What is the takt time?” What does the customer need? How often must we provide it?

Then there is the “labor utilization” metric, with a target of 100%. Assuming the planned cycle time is actually 55 seconds (which it shouldn’t be!), we need 3.3 people in this work cell. (180 seconds of labor cycle time / 55 seconds planned cycle time: “How long does it take?” / “How long do you have?” = Minimum Required Capacity)

How about improvement? What do we need to do to get from 3.3 people to 3 people? We can solve for the labor cycle time.  55 seconds of planned cycle time * 3(people) = 165 seconds of total labor. So we need to get that 180 seconds down to a little less than 165 seconds.

Now we have a challenge. We need to save a bit over 15 seconds of cycle time. That might seem daunting. But we don’t have enough information (the current condition) to know where to begin. Then we can establish the next target condition and get started making things better.

These types of questions bother me because they imply all of these things are fixed, and they imply we run “as fast as we can” rather than “as fast as we must.”

Edit: Today I saw two more searches for:

total work content divided by slowest machine cycle time

so it looks like at least two others are working on the same assignment.  🙂

Thoughts?

Toyota Kata, Kaizen Events and A3

I’ve been asked to explain the relationship between “Toyota Kata” and Kaizen Events, and I am guessing that the person asking the question isn’t the only one who has the question, so I thought I’d take a crack at it here.

To answer this question, I need to define what I mean when I say “kaizen event.”

Kaizen Events

In a typical western company, a kaizen event is geared toward implementing lean tools. There are exceptions, but I think they are different enough to warrant addressing them separately. (If you don’t read this, I changed my mind as I was writing it.)

At this point, I am going to borrow from an earlier post How Does Kaizen Differ From a Kaizen Event:

The kaizen event leader is usually a specialist whose job is to plan and lead these things, identifies an improvement opportunity. He might be tasked by shop floor management to tackle a chronic or painful problem, or might be executing the “lean plan” that calls for a series of implementation events.

It is his job to plan and execute the event and to bring the expertise of “how to make improvements” to the work force and their leaders.

Here’s the Problem

The full-time kaizen event leaders typically get really good at seeing improvement opportunities, organizing groups for improvement, and quickly getting things done. They get good at it because they do it all of the time.

The area supervisors might be involved in a kaizen event in their area a few times a year if that. Some companies target having each employee in one kaizen event a year.

That’s 40 hours of improvement. All at once. The question is: What do they do (and learn) the other 1900 hours that year?

What do they do when something unexpected happens that disrupts the flow of work? Usually kaizen events don’t deal with how to manage on a day-to-day basis other than leaving an expectation for “standard work” in their wake.

But “standard work” is how you want the work to go when there aren’t any problems. When (not if) there are problems, what’s supposed to happen?

This is why many shop floor leaders think “kaizen” is disconnected from reality. Reality is that parts are late, machines break, things don’t fit, Sally calls in sick, and the assembler has to tap out threads now and then. In the hospital, the meds are late, supply drawers have run out, and there is a safari mounted to find linens.

These things are in the way of running to the standard work. They are obstacles that weren’t discovered (or were glossed over as “resistance to change”) during the workshop.

The supervisor has to get the job done, has to get the stuff out the door, has to make sure the patients’ rooms are turned over, whatever the work is. And nobody is carving out time, or providing technical and organizational support (coaching) to build his skills at using these problems as opportunities for developing his improvement skills, and smoothing out the work.

OK – that is my paradigm for kaizen events. And even if they work really well, the only people who actually get good at breaking down problems, running PDCA cycles, etc. are the professional facilitators or workshop leaders. Many of these practitioners become the “go-to” people for just about everything, and improvement becomes something that management delegates.

What are they good for? Obviously it isn’t all negative, because we keep doing them.

A kaizen event is a good mechanism for bringing together a cross functional team to take on a difficult problem. When “improvement” is regarded as an exception rather than “part of the daily work,” sometimes we have to stake out a week simply to get calendars aligned and make the right people available at the same time.

BUT… consider if you would an organization that put in a formal daily structure to address these things, and talked about what was (or was not) getting done on a daily basis with the boss.

No, it wasn’t “Toyota Kata” like it is described in the book, but if that book had been available at the time, it would have been. But they had a mechanism that drove learning, and shifted their conversations into the language of learning and problem solving, and that is the objective of ALL of this.

Instead of forcing themselves to carve out a week or two a year, they instead focused on making improvement and problem-solving a daily habit. And because it is a daily habit, it is now (as of my last contact with them a couple of months ago), deeply embedded into “the way we do things” and I doubt they’re that conscious of it anymore.

This organization still ran “event” like activities, especially in new product introduction.

In another company, a dedicated team ran the layout and machinery concepts of a new product line through countless PDCA cycles by using mockups. These type of events have been kind of branded “3P” but because changes and experiments can be run very rapidly, the improvement kata just naturally flows with it.

Kaizen Events as Toyota Kata Kickstarts

If you take a deeper look into the structure of a kaizen event, they generally follow the improvement kata. The team gets a goal (the challenge), they spend a day or so grasping the current condition – process mapping, taking cycle times, etc; they develop some kind of target end state, often called a vision, sometimes called the target and mapped on a “target sheet.” Then they start applying “ideas” to get to the goal.

At the end of the week, they report-out on what they have accomplished, and what they have left to do.

If we were to take that fundamental structure, and be more rigorous about application of Toyota Kata, and engage the area’s leader as the “learner” who is ensuring all of the “ideas” are structured as experiments, and applied the coaching kata on top of it all… we would have a pretty decent way to kickstart Toyota Kata into an area of the organization.

Now, on Monday morning, it isn’t what is left to do. It is the next target condition or the next obstacle or the next PDCA cycle.

Toyota Kata

If we are applying Toyota Kata the correct way, we are building the improvement skills of line leadership, and hopefully they are making a shift and taking on improvement is a core part of their daily job, versus something they ensure others are doing.

One thing to keep in mind: The improvement kata is a practice routine for developing a pattern of thinking. It is not intended to be a new “improvement technique,” because it uses the same improvement techniques we have been using for decades.

The coaching kata is a practice routine to learn how to verify the line-of-reasoning of someone working on improvements, and keep them on a thinking pattern that works.

By practicing these things on a daily basis, these thought patterns can become habits and the idea of needing a special event with a professional facilitator becomes redundant. We need the special event and professional facilitator today because a lot of very competent people don’t know how to do it. When everybody does it habitually, you end up hearing regular meetings being conducted with this language.

We can be more clear about what skills we are trying to develop, and more easily assess whether we are following sound thinking to arrive at a solution. (Luck is another way that can look the same unless the line of reasoning is explained.)

What About A3?

When used as originally intended, the A3 is also a mechanism for coaching someone through the improvement pattern. There are likely variations from the formal improvement kata the way that Mike Rother defines it.

However, if you check out John Shook’s book Managing to Learn, you will see the coaching process as primary in how the A3 is used. Managing to Learn doesn’t describe a practice routine for beginners. Rather, it showcases a mature organization practicing what they use the Improvement Kata and the Coaching Kata to learn how to do.

The A3 itself is just a portable version of an improvement board. It facilitates a sit-down conversation across a table for a problem that is perhaps slightly more complex.

An added afterthought – the A3 is a sophisticated tool. It is powerful, flexible, but requires a skilled coach to bring out the best from it. It can function as a solo thing, but that misses the entire point.

For a coach that is just learning, who is coaching an improver who is just learning, all of the flexibility means the coach must spend extra time creating structure and imposing it. I’ve seen attempts at that – creating standard A3 “templates” and handing them out as if filling out the blocks will cause the process to execute.

The improvement kata is a routine for beginners to practice.

The coaching kata is a routine for beginners to practice.

Although you might want to end up flying one of these (notice this aircraft is a flight trainer by the way):

T-38

They usually start you off in something like this:

image

The high-performance aircraft requires a much higher level of instructor skill to teach an experienced pilot to fly it.

And finally, though others may differ, I have not seen much good come from throwing them up on a big screen and using them as a briefing format. That is still “seeking approval” behavior vs. “being coaching on the thinking process.” As I said, your mileage may vary here. It really depends on the intent of the boss – is he there to develop people, or there to grant approval or pick apart proposals?

So How Do They All Relate?

The improvement kata is (or absolutely should be) the underlying structure of any improvement activity, be it daily improvement, a staff meeting discussing changes in policy, a conversation about desired outcomes for customers (or patients!).

The open “think out loud” conversation flushes out the thinking behind the proposal, the action item, the adjustment to the process. It slows people down a bit so they aren’t jumping to a solution before being able to articulate the problem.

Using the improvement kata on a daily basis, across the gamut of conversations about problems, changes, adjustments and improvements strengthens the analytical thinking skills of a much wider swath of the organization than participating in one or two kaizen events a year. There is also no possible way to successfully just “attend” an improvement activity if you are the learner being coached.

Notes From Day 2 of Kata-Con

Perfection is the enemy of progress.

  • The longer it takes, the higher the expectation.
  • The higher the expectation, the longer it takes.

My thoughts: I’ve seen this a lot. It is magnified when the leaders are detached from the process.

Process improvement is messy, and if the leaders aren’t comfortable with that messy process, they develop unrealistic expectations of what “progress” looks like.

The people getting the work done, meanwhile, end up working hard to manage those expectations. They actually conceal problems from the boss, for fear of him misinterpreting problems-that-must-be-solved with my-people-don’t-know-what-to-do.*

Trying to layer Toyota Kata over the wrong organizational structure will overwhelm people.

The organizational structure follows necessity. This lines up with Steven Spear’s research.

The organizational structure must match the needs of the process, and the target condition for learning.

If your supervisor has 20 direct reports, it is unlikely he will have the time to work on improvement in a productive way. Toyota’s team leader structure is specifically engineered for improvement, development, and getting a car off the line every 58 seconds.

 

Improvement takes time and people.

The End.

This isn’t free, nor can you calculate an ROI ahead of time. Get over it.

Start with what you MUST accomplish and look at what is required to get there. It doesn’t work the other way around.

If you don’t continually strive, you die.

If you aren’t striving to go forward, you are going backward.

My thoughts: I make the following analogy: Continuous improvement is like a freezer. There is never a time when you can say “OK, it’s cold enough, I can unplug it now.” You must keep striving to improve. Without the continuous addition of intellectual energy, entropy takes over, and you won’t like the equilibrium point.

All of our failures have come to good things.

My thoughts: By deliberately reflecting and deliberately asking “What did we learn?” you can extract value from any experience. The way I put it is “You have already paid the tuition. You might as well get the education.”

We had sponsorship challenges as the leaders caught up with the people.

My thoughts: Yet another instance of the leaders falling behind the capability of their people. When the people become clear about what must be done, and just start doing it, the only thing an uninformed leader can do is either get out of the way or destructively interfere.

People don’t like uncertainty. Kata deliberately creates uncertainty to drive learning. You have to be OK with that.

My thoughts: Another expression of the same point from yesterday.

“Learning only” has a short shelf life.

“Cool and Interesting” is not equal to Relevant.

Those are the words I wrote down, rather than the words I heard. The key point is that you can, for a very short time, select processes to improve based on the learning opportunities alone. But this is extra work for people. The sooner you can make the results important the quicker people get on board.

A business crisis should not stop improvement or coaching. Does it?

My thoughts: This is a good acid test of how well you have embedded. When a crisis comes up, do people use PDCA to solve the problem, or do they drop “this improvement stuff” because they “don’t have time for it.” ?

Inexperienced 2nd coaches coaching inexperienced coaches coaching inexperienced learners… doesn’t work.

A lot of companies try to do this in the interest of going faster. Don’t outrun your headlights. You can only go as fast as you can. Get help from someone experienced.

Just because you have gone a long way doesn’t mean you can’t slip back. You must continue to strive.

The “unplug the freezer” analogy applies here as well.

You don’t have to start doing this. But if you choose to start, you may not stop. You have to do it every day.

Don’t take this on as a casual commitment, and don’t think you can delegate getting your people “fixed.” (they aren’t broken)

Everybody gets it at the same level. Senior managers tend to lose it faster because there is no commitment to practice it every day at their level.

Awareness is a starting point, but not good enough. A 4 hour orientation, however, is not enough to make you an expert… any more than you can skim “Calculus and Analytic Geometry” and learn the subject.

Results do get attention.

“I’ll have what she’s having”

But don’t confuse results with method.

My challenges to the plant managers weren’t about P&L or service levels. They were about moving closer to 1:1 flow, immediate delivery, on demand.

Challenges must be in operational terms, not financial terms.

Move from “These are the measures, and oh by the way, here is the operational pattern” – to –> “This is the operational pattern I am striving for. and I predict it will deliver the performance we need.”

Gotta catch a plane. More later.

 

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*When I was in the Army, we got a new Battalion Commander who listened to the logistics radio net, where the staff officers discussed all of the issues and problems that had to be solved. He would jump to a conclusion, and issue orders that, if carried out, would interfere with getting those problems solved.

Although he spoke of initiative and taking action, his actions revealed he wasn’t willing to trust us to let him know if there was a problem we couldn’t handle, and expected perfection in execution in situations that were chaotic and ambiguous.

We ended up finding an unused frequency, and encrypting our traffic with a key that only we shared, so the commander couldn’t hear us. Yup… we were using crypto gear, designed to keep the Soviets from hearing us, to keep our boss from hearing us.

As the information channels to him slowly choked off, he was less and less informed about what was actually happening, and his orders became more and more counter-productive, which in turn drove people to hide even more from him.

This, I think, is a working example of “getting bucked off the horse.”

Scientific Improvement Beyond The Experiment

“How do we deploy this improvement to other areas in the company?” is a very common question out there. A fair number of formal improvement structures include a final step of “standardize” and imply the improvement is laterally copied or deployed into other, similar, situations.

Yet this seems to fly in the face of the idea that the work groups are in the best position to improve their own processes.

I believe this becomes much less of a paradox if we understand a core concept of improvement: We are using the scientific method.

How I Think Science Works

In science, there is no central authority deciding which ideas are good and worth including into some kind of standard documentation. Rather, we have the concept of peer review and scientific consensus.

Someone makes what she believes is a discovery. She publishes not only the discovery itself, but also the theoretical base and the experimental method and evidence.

Other scientists attempt to replicate the results. Those attempts to replicate are often expanded or extended in order to understand more.

As pieces of the puzzle come together, others might have what seems to be an isolated piece of knowledge. But as other pieces come into place around them, perhaps they can see where their contributions and their expertise might fit in to add yet another piece or fill in a gap.

If the results cannot be replicated at all, the discovery is called into serious question.

Thus, science is a self-organized collaborative effort rather than a centrally managed process. All of this works because there is a free and open exchange among scientists.

It doesn’t work if everyone is working in isolation… even if they have the same information, because they cannot key in on the insights of others.

What we have is a continuous chatter of scientists who are “thinking out loud” others are hearing them, and ideas are kicked back and forth until there is a measure of stability.

This stability lasts until someone discovers something that doesn’t fit the model, and the cycle starts again.

How I Think Most Companies Try To Work

On the other hand, what a lot of people in the continuous improvement world seem to try to do is this:

Somebody has a good idea and “proves it out.”

That idea is published in the form of “Hey… this is better. Do it like this from now on.” image

We continue to see “standardization” as something that is static and audited into place. (That trick never works.)

What About yokoten. Doesn’t that mean “lateral deployment” or “standardize?”

According to my Japanese speaking friends (thanks Jon and Zane), well, yes, sort of.  When these Japanese jargon terms take on a meaning in our English-speaking vernacular, I like to go back to the source and really understand the intent.

In daily usage, yokoten has pretty much the same meaning [as it does in kaizen] just a bit more mundane scope…along the lines of sharing a lesson learned.

Yokogawa ni tenkai suru (literally: to transmit/develop/convey sideways) is the longer expression of which Yokoten is the abbreviation.

Yoko means “side; sideways; lateral. Ten is just the first half of “tenkai” to develop or transmit. Yokotenkai..

If you take a good look at the Toyota internal context, it is much more than just telling someone to follow the new standard. It is much more like science.

How the Scientific Approach Would Work

A work team has a great idea. They try it out experimentally. Now, rather than trying to enforce standardization, the organization publishes what has been learned: How the threshold of knowledge about the process, about a tricky quality problem, whatever, has been extended.

We used to know ‘x’, now we know x+y.

They also publish how that knowledge was gained. Here are the experiments we ran, the conditions, and what we learned at each step.

Another team can now take that baseline of knowledge and use it to (1) validate via experimentation if their conditions are similar. Rather than blindly applying a procedure, they are repeating the experiment to validate the original data and increase their own understanding.

And (2) to apply that knowledge as a higher platform from which to extend their own.

But Sometimes there is just a good idea.

I am not advocating running experiments to validate that “the wheel” is a workable concept. We know that.

Likewise, if an improvement is something like a clever mistake proofing device or jig (or something along those lines), of course you make more of them and distribute them.

On the other hand, there might be a process that the new mistake-proofing fixture won’t work for. But… if they applied the method used to create it, they might come up with something that works for them, or something that works better.

“That works but…” is a launching point to eliminate the next obstacle, and pass the information around again.

oh… and this is how rocket science is done.

Edit to add:

I believe Brian’s comment, and my response, are a valid extension of this post, so be sure to read the comments to get “the rest of the story.” (and add your own!)

Lean Thinking in 10 Words

Pascal Dennis, in his book Getting the Right Things Done sums up lean thinking in 10 words:

“What should be happening?”

“What is actually happening?”

“Please explain.”

I would contend that everything else we do is digging out answers to those questions. (yes, there is a bit of hyperbole here, but I want to get you to think about how true this is vs. how false it might be.)

I think “lean thinking” is really a structured curiosity. Let’s take a look at how these questions push us toward improvement.

“What should be happening?” is another form of Toyota Kata’s “What is your target condition?” In our conversations, we often jump straight to “We need to…” language, a solution, without being clear what the problem is.

I’ll set that back by asking questions like “What would be happening if the problem is solved?” “Can you describe that?”

When Toyota trained people ask “What is the standard?” this is what they want to know, because, to them, a “problem” = “a deviation from the standard.”

“What is actually happening?” or “What is the actual condition now?”– Once we are clear where we are trying to go, it is important to grasp where we are now in the same terms as the target.

Something I see quite a bit is a target condition expressed with different terms, measures, and variables than the current condition. You must be able to relate between the two in a way that defines and quantifies the gap that must be closed.

“Please Explain” cuts across the current condition and the obstacles (in kata terms). What do you understand about the gap between what should be happening and what is actually happening?

If the process has deteriorated, what has changed? Why is it that we cannot hit the standard today when, last week, we could? When did it change? What do we know about that? Why did it change?

If you tried to run to the new level, what would keep you from doing it that way? (what obstacles do you think are now preventing you from reaching your target?)

Depending on which of these conditions we are dealing with will fundamentally change the path toward a solution, so it is critical we understand “What should be happening?” or “What is the target condition?” as a first step, then look at the history of the actual condition.

If the process has eroded, what do we know about what has changed in the environment?

All of this is the foundational baseline… the minimum understanding I want to hear before we entertain any discussion about what actions to take, what to change, what to do.