“95 Thesis” on Kaizen Events and TPS

Once again I am going through old files. These are some notes I wrote back in 2005 that I thought might be interesting here. Looking back at what I was writing at the time, I think I was thinking about nailing these points to a church door somewhere in the company. That actually isn’t a bad analogy as I was advocating a pretty dramatic shift in the role of the kaizen workshop leaders.

All Saint’s Church – Wittenberg, Germany

This was written four years before I first encountered Toyota Kata, and reflected my experience as a lean director operating within a $2billion slice of a global manufacturing company. What reading Toyota Kata did for me was (1) solidify what I wrote below, and (2) provided a structure for actually doing it.

Perhaps this will create some discussion. If you are interested in getting a Zoom session together around it, feel free to hit the Contact Mark in the right sidebar (or just click it here) and drop me a note. If there is interest, I’ll put something together.

Kaizen Events

Kaizen events (or whatever we want to call the traditional week-long activity):

  • Can be a useful tool when used in the context of an overall plan.
  • Are neither necessary nor sufficient to implement [our operating system].1
  • There are times when any specific tool is appropriate, and there are no universal tools. Kaizen tools included.
  • (Our operating system) is, by our own model, the “Operational Excellence” pillar of (our business system). This is keyed in leadership behavior, not implementation of tools. The tools serve only to provide context for leaders to rapidly see what is happening and the means to immediately respond to problems.
  • Thus, focusing on implementing the tools of TPS (takt time, flow, pull, etc) outside of the immediate response and problem solving context is an exercise which expends energy and gains very little sustainable change. This is independent of whether it is done in a week-long intense event or not.
  • However, in my experience, organizations which take a deliberate and steady approach implementing have had more success putting the sustaining mechanisms into place. While it is sometimes necessary to bring teams together for a few days at times to solve a specific problem, or to develop a radically different approach, these efforts tend to be more focused than a typical kaizen week I see.
  • When the kaizen week is scheduled first, and then the organization looks for what needs improving, this is a symptom of ineffective use of the tool.
  • In general, a kaizen, whether it is a week, a month, or even just a few minutes, must be focused on solving specific problems which are impeding flow or are barriers2 to the next level of performance. Without this focus, there is no association with the necessities of the business, and no context for the gains.
  • There are a few simple countermeasures which can be applied to a kaizen week activity that focus the participants much more tightly on learning the critical thinking.

Improvement can, and must, take many forms. A week-long kaizen activity is but one. It is expensive, time consuming, disruptive, and should be used deliberately only when simpler approaches have failed to solve the problem.

Classes and Courses ≠ Teaching and Learning

Bluntly, even though we preach PDCA and say we understand it, we are not applying PDCA in our education approach.

Some fundamental tenets:

  • All of our teaching should be contextual and focused on what skill or knowledge is required to clear the next barrier to flow or performance.
  • The above does not rule out teaching fundamental theory, but fundamental theory must be immediately translated into actions and put into practice or it will never be more than a nice discussion.
  • The vast majority of our teaching should be experiential, and based in real-world situations, solving actual problems vs. examples and contrived exercises.
  • We want to move our teaching toward an ideal state (a True North in our approach) where it is:
    • Socratic – focusing people on the key questions.
    • Experiential – learn by application to solve real problems and thus gain experience and confidence that the concepts translate to the real world.
  • Thus, education and training is but one tool used by leadership to help people clear the barriers and problems that block progress toward higher levels of performance.
  • As far as I can determine, the “Toyota Way” of teaching is similar to this model.

Content

The content of training is as critical as the way it is delivered.

Our objective is to shift people’s thinking, and in doing so, shift their day-to-day behavior as they make operational decisions. The target audience for all of our efforts are the people who make decisions which impact our direction and performance. This is anyone in any position of leadership, at any level of the company – from a Team Leader on the shop floor to the CEO.

The key is to embed the structure of applying PDCA into all of our content. For example:

  • The “rules-in-use” in Steven Spear’s research (Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System and other related publications).
  • Every tool, technique, etc. we teach, or should teach, is some application of the above. (The rules-in-use include problem detection, response, and problem solving.) I have yet to encounter an improvement tool or technique that does not fit this model.
  • This approach fundamentally re-frames the concept of “problem” and what should be done about it.
  • The Toyota Production System (in its pure state) is a process which delivers a continuous stream of problems to be solved to the only component of the system that can think – the people. This is how people are engaged, and this is what makes it a “people based system.” Leave this out, and “people based system” is just hollow words. Nearly every discussion talks about how important people are, but then dives right into technical topics without covering how people are actually engaged — outside the context of a week-long kaizen.

The Role of “Workshop Leaders” in the (Continuous Improvement Office)

No one has disputed the critical make-or-break role played by the line leadership, not only in implementation, but even more so in sustaining.

Workshop leaders are generally taught to plan and lead workshops. The emphasis is on the week-long workshop logistics; on presenting modules in classroom instruction; and on the skills to facilitate a team through the process of making rather dramatic shop floor improvements.

In a typical (not saying it happens here) implementation scenario, it is the workshop leaders who go to the work area, do the observations (usually without a lot of skilled mentoring, and usually just to collect cycle times); build the balance charts and combination sheets; plan what will be changed; how it will be changed, set objectives, targets and boundaries.

They are the most visible leadership of the teams during the week, and they are the ones tracking and pushing follow-up and completion of open kaizen newspaper items.

The effect of this (which is fairly consistent across companies) is:

  • The standard work tools are something workshop leaders use during improvement events.
  • Cycle times, observations, and looking for improvement opportunities is something that is the domain of the workshop leaders.
  • Actually guiding the team members through the problem solving process is the job of the workshop leaders.
  • The supervisors and managers are there as team members, in order to learn by participation, from this outside expert.

The question is: Who is responsible to coach the line leaders through the process of handling the problems that the TPS is designed to surface in operation?

Once the basic flows are in place, there will be a stream of problems revealed. Those problems will either be seen or not seen. IF problems are seen, they will either be dealt with quickly, following good thinking, or they will be accommodated so they go back to being unseen. This is a critical crossroad for the organization…. and it is the behavior of the first and second line leaders, and the support they get from their leaders, that most influences whether the system backslides or continues to get better and better.

IF problems are seen, they will either be dealt with quickly, following good thinking, or they will be accommodated so they go back to being unseen.

Note: There is not middle ground. One-piece-flow really can’t sustain in a stable state. It is either improving or getting worse. It isn’t designed to stay still, and it won’t. Continuous intervention is required for stability, and that intervention is what improves it.

Who is teaching the leaders to do this?

Each leader must have a coach, by name, who can, and will, always challenge his thinking and his solutions to problems against a specific thinking structure.

My view is this is the primary role for the Kaizen Promotion Office.

The way to do this is through application of a few core skills, and skills can be taught.

We should:

  • Include this vital role into the expectations of a “workshop leader” – to take them closer to being “coordinators” in the Toyota factory start-up model.
  • Provide these “coordinators” with a specific support process so they know that they can quickly get assistance if they feel they are in over their heads.
  • The role of that assistance is not to step in and solve the problem. It is to take the opportunity to teach both the workshop leader and the area manager by guiding them through solving the problem.

My experience with this concept is that teaching these skills to someone is not as difficult as most people assume. The basics of observing and seeing flows can be taught over a few days to someone who is motivated to learn. The skill of teaching by asking questions can be accelerated from the “pure” method by telling them what is being done in why. “This isn’t about the answers, it is about learning the questions.”

Application and good teaching can easily be verified by checking the leader’s (the student’s) level of skill and behavior. (The senior teacher checks the teacher by checking the student… just as the area supervisor checks the Team Leader’s teaching by verifying the standard work on the shop floor.

None of this is an advanced topic. These are the basics. Once a good context is established in people’s minds, my experience suggests that the Toyota system is no longer counter-intuitive. The tools and techniques that, at first, seem alien now make sense.

——–

1 By this I meant to shift the operating culture to one that inherently supports continuous improvement.

2 In Toyota Kata language, we would say “obstacles.” I had used the term “barriers” up to that point.

Don’t Tell Me Your Values. Listen to Them.

In the early morning of March 23, 2022 a leaked email with the subject “Why gas increase is good for hiring” surfaced on Reddit. (Click the hot link to see the actual post.)

The email in question was sent by the Executive Director of Operations of Apple Central LLC, a major franchisee of Applebees restaurants. He was describing the “opportunity” presented by higher gas prices, increasing prices and increased cost pressure on smaller restaurants. Quoting a couple of key lines:

“The advantage [of higher gas prices] has for us is that it will increase application flow and has the potential to lower our average wage”

He continues:

“Any increase in gas price cuts into [our employees] disposable income […] that means more hours employees will need to work to maintain their current level of living.”

Now, to his credit, after saying “besides hiring employees in at lower wages to decrease our labor cost” he closes with the advice to “Do the things to make sure you are the employer of choice” But this means “Get schedules completed early so they can plan their other jobs around yours.” though he does close with “have the culture and environment that will attract people.”

According to reports in the local newspaper, the manager in the Lawrenceville, Kansas Applebee’s was so angered by the content and tone of this message that he made copies of the email, distributed it to the employees, and he and two other managers quit on the spot in protest forcing the store to close for at least a day. One of those copies ended up being scanned and uploaded.

Blowback

Within an hour of the posting on Reddit, the thread was picked up on Twitter by Rob Gill. There were tens of thousands of forwards, retweets, views.

That same day the Lawrence Journal-World, the local paper, picked up the story:

Lawrence Journal-World: An email urging lower wages for new employees due to higher gas prices sparks walkout at Lawrence Applebee’s

CBS News picked up the story on March 25.

On March 26 it was covered by the New York Post.

and by March 28 and 29 was the local and then mainstream press, even internationally:

Springfield News-Leader: Applebee’s franchise executive from Springfield fired after leaked email about workforce

Business Insider: An Applebee’s franchise group fired an executive who said higher gas prices and inflation mean stores can pay less because people are desperate for any money to make ends meet

Forbes: “Applebee’s Tone-Deaf Franchise Executive Giddily Says He Can Pay Lower Wages Because of Inflation and Higher Gas Prices

Inc. : An Applebee’s Exec Just Sent an Email That the Company Was Quick to Disavow

Newsweek: Applebee’s Franchise Executive Fired After Email Justifying Lower Pay

International Business Times (in India!): Who is Wayne Pankratz? Applebee’s Exec Proposes to Take ‘Advantage’ of Gas Hike to Lower Wages in Leaked Memo

There are more. Many more. Just search for “Wayne Pankratz” email and you will turn up lots of hits.

OK – so what can we learn here?

I didn’t write about this just to pile on to the story. The mainstream business press has done more than I can ever do. Rather, I want to explore some of the deeper implications, not just for Applebee’s and Apple Central LLC, but for our own organizations.

First the obvious. This was a potential public relations disaster. There was a lot of damage to be sure. At the same time, the story was quickly buried by the ongoing news about the Ukrainians’ fight for their very existence as a nation, and juicier national political stories coming out of Washington D.C. Had this been a slow news period, this story is the type that can get legs under it and reverberate for weeks. That didn’t happen in this case.

Once the story hit the mainstream press, we had P.R. responses like:

Kevin Carroll, COO of Applebee’s: “This is the opinion of an individual, not Applebee’s. This issue is being addressed internally by the franchisee who employs this individual and who owns and operates the restaurants in this market. Our team members are the lifeblood of our restaurants, and our franchisees are always looking to reward and incentivize team members, new and current, to remain within the Applebee’s family.”

And from Apple Central LLC, the company where the email originated: “The main message here is that this in absolutely no way, shape, or form speaks to our policies or our culture, or anything like that with our brand.”

And ultimately Mr. Pankratz lost his job. End of story, a rogue employee, a bad apple (pardon the pun) if you will. Maybe.

Looking Deeper

Still, I have some questions – and that is all they are, just questions. I know nothing about the culture of Apple Central LLC, the company that owns the franchises where the email originated.

But the email was written on March 9. This story broke two weeks later, and the response was a few days after that – once reporters started calling the company.

What happened in those two weeks?

There is a hint in the email itself. Or more specifically the forwarding chain. Someone in the store in Springfield (Springfield-8289) responds to the original email: “Great message Sir!” and right away we see that maybe this message isn’t so rogue.

It is then forwarded again by a redacted user with the message: “Words of wisdom from wayne!!!”

It was sent to [redacted] Distribution List – that implies a lot of people saw it. It was sent in the evening of March 9. What happened on March 10th? Those are the actions that would tell us if this was a break from the way business is normally done.

The Questions for Everyone

The more subtle story seems to be about the difference between espoused vs. actual values.

Simply, it is the internally triggered response, not the response to outside inquiries, that reflects the actual values of this company.

Was there any effort at all to repair the employee relationships that were damaged? Is there evidence that anyone objected, retracted, or attempted internal damage control with the employees who saw the message before it blew up in online in the press?

Would this story have even happened if someone from Apple Central LLC immediately got in touch with everyone on the distribution list and even visited the Lawrenceville restaurant in person to make amends?

In the face of this kind of blowback, wouldn’t that be something a company would highlight in press releases? None of the press releases or statements said anything about efforts to repair the damaged relationships with employees. None of them said anything about actions being taken immediately. Simply put, there isn’t any evidence of alarms about breaking with the policies, culture or brand until reporters start asking about it two weeks later.

Nor is there any evidence that the individuals who enthusiastically forwarded the message along were acting outside of the cultural bounds of the company.

Quite the opposite.

What Problem Were They Trying to Solve?

Based on all indications it seems this was managed as a public relations problem. It was not managed as a culture problem.

All of the messaging says “Our culture is fine.” Just this guy, who happens to have the title Executive Director of Operations, but we are told he doesn’t make hiring policy.

A Question for You

Let’s even take email out of it. If someone made this case in your company’s leadership meeting, what would the response be from around the table?

Would anyone push back? Would anyone say “Wait, we don’t talk about our people that way.” “We don’t look to trap them in the job here.” “No! That isn’t who we are!”

Maybe there would be an awkward silence until someone changed the subject, but nothing else said.

Or would head nod in tacit agreement, good point, next topic?

Or would there be “Great point!” with nods and smiles?

Or… would there be a discussion about actual ways to take advantage of this so-called opportunity?

Your leadership values are not what is printed on the posters in your hallways. Nor are they what your public relations people tell the reporters when there is an adverse story.

Your leadership values are reflected in what you do, what you say, how you respond day-in and day-out.

If you want to know your values, just listen to what people, especially those in authority, say when they “can talk freely.” Listen to things people say that get no pushback or objection. Those are the values that are driving policy and decisions.

Listen to yourselves. Listen to your values. Own them. If the public face is different from everyday discussions ask yourselves why, especially if the word “integrity” shows up anywhere in your values statement.

Leading to Learn: Ask More, Tell Less

A few years ago I was working with a company that was ramping up a complex highly-automated production process.

A group of technicians had an idea for an improvement. The nature of what they were trying to improve, or their idea is irrelevant here.

They brought their idea to the plant manager, carefully explained it, and then a bit of awesomeness happened.

Instead of being critical or asking a lot of leading “What about…?” questions, he borrowed and paraphrased a question from David Marquet:

“What things do you think might concern me about this?”

The technicians were stumped. So the plant manager then said “That’s OK, how about getting back to me tomorrow with what you think?”

The next day the technicians had revised their idea to deal with potential problems the plant manager hadn’t even thought of. Which makes sense because they knew a lot more about how things worked than he did.

By asking that question he pushed them to think of the higher level systems implications, to think like the plant manager who has customers and constituents he has to please above and beyond the scope of the shop floor itself.

How do you respond when someone presents an idea? Do you critique it? Do you try to come up with scenarios that break it? Or do you challenge people to go back and think a little more deeply about the what if’s?

One is telling. The other is teaching.

Applying the Improvement Kata to the Process of Leadership

Whether you are a line leader or an internal or external consultant, if you are reading this you are likely working to shift the culture of your organization.

The technical “tools” alone are pretty useless unless you are already operating in the kind of culture that embeds the mechanisms of learning and collaboration deep into the structure of day-to-day work. If that kind of culture isn’t present, the “lean tools” will reveal those issues just as quickly (more quickly, in fact) as they reveal shortages, work balance mismatches and quality problems.

Making these kinds of changes is a lot harder than teaching people about how the “lean tools” work, and a lot of change agents are frustrated by the perception that the changes are not sustaining or being supported.

Back in February 2019 I gave a talk at KataCon5 in Savannah on some of the challenges change agents face when trying to influence how people respond to challenges and interact with one another. Here is the direct link in case the embed doesn’t work for you: https://youtu.be/NnvwOF4J3g8

As you watch the video (assuming you are *smile*) give some thought to how well you can paint a picture of how your efforts are influencing the patterns of interaction within the organization. Do you have something in mind for what you are trying to achieve there? What patterns are you actually observing?

And what is your role in those dynamics? How do you influence the patterns of who talks to whom, how, when, and about what? Are you acting as an intermediator between groups that don’t communicate or who are antagonistic toward one another? If so, what would happen if you stopped?

What happens when a production team member, or a nurse doing rounds on the med-surg floor, or your front-line customer service agent encounters something that is different than it should be? What is the threshold of starting action?

All of these things are cultural norms. And the “lean tools” all impact those norms in ways that people often are not prepared for.

None of these questions are on a checklist. Rather, they are the kinds of things to think about.

Kaas Tailored – Truth, Bit, Pull

Jeff Kaas talks about Leader Standard Work
https://kaastailored.com/blog/what-is-leader-standard-work/

The people at Kaas Tailored in Mukilteo, Washington are friends, neighbors, and colleagues of mine. They have been a tour stop for people from all over the planet who want to learn more about their people-centric culture of continuous improvement.

Last year when the tsunami of COVID washed over all of us, their business faced an existential threat and they made a dramatic pivot to making medical PPE – masks and face shields. Their main motivation was “This is what our community needs right now.” In fact, you might have seen a bit of their story as part of the PBS Frontline Coronavirus Pandemic episode.

Dramatic change reveals obstacles that may have been buried under the Old Normal, and this was certainly the case for Jeff Kaas and his team. The awesome part is that they doubled down on their effort to learn and practice Toyota Kata as a response. They needed better organizational alignment, tying their organization’s philosophy and direction down to their day-to-day processes, and they used Toyota Kata to do that. I think they are emerging as a stronger organization as a result.

I mentioned in the opening that they have been a tour stop for many years. To further that end, they have worked hard to make that experience available online. What is cool about it is now it isn’t necessary to travel to Mukilteo, Washington (about 20 miles north of Seattle) to see them. They can come to you.

So when they asked me if I would like to participate with them in a series of online events they will be presenting starting on March 24, 2021 my response was an immediate Yes. To be clear, my role is chiming in with color commentary, and perhaps being a little more in front when they start talking about Toyota Kata.

If you would like to participate, here is their registration page:

Reflections and Lessons From 1997

MONDAY: 2 PERS 1 MACHINE. TODAY: 1 PERSON 2 MACHINES

On a Thursday afternoon in the summer of 1997 I sent that pager message (remember pagers?) to Rick from the factory where I had spent a week working with Mr. Shimura of Shingijutsu and Reiko, his interpreter.

I knew that Rick would be wrapping up a class teaching the basics of kaizen events to a group of suppliers and if I were lucky, he would see the pager message and use it as a reinforcement to the participants. Rick and I usually alternated teaching that class, sometimes we taught it together. We were good work partners, finishing each others’ sentences and the mutual respect was very high.

I was on-site at another supplier. We were there to help them take some first steps toward “lean production.” Our goal, at least the idea, was that we would work through the process of making significant improvements with the thought that they would learn enough to try it themselves.

This was not my first visit – the episode with Mr. Iwata that I relate in my third post to this blog had happened there a couple of months earlier, and that visit had resulted in my company offering up Mr. Shimura’s time on our dime.

This may well have been “an offer they couldn’t refuse” and I’m not sure everyone there saw it as help. We were from their 800 pound gorilla customer, they had trouble making on-time deliveries, and sometimes that isn’t the kind of help that you want. From their perspective their biggest customer had people who knew their way around a factory spending days on their shop floor and, most certainly, ascertaining how much more productivity was possible if only, well, the buyers squeezed them hard enough. It didn’t really work that way, but it had worked that way in the past, so who could blame the suppliers for thinking this was a more sophisticated way to audit them?

Anyway, we had worked through the week to carefully look at the tasks involved to unload, load, and machine a single part on a large linear milling machine. Mr. Shimura was there asking questions, not so much from curiosity but to direct my eyes. I’m sure he already knew the answers. As we dug into the timing, it became clear that there was enough operator waiting time as the part was being milled that a single operator could, theoretically, unload and load an adjacent machine – operating two of them at once.

So we carefully worked out the chorography required to make it work, and on Thursday mid-day it all came together. The work was flowing, the parts were flowing. It was really a thing of beauty.

Friday morning we would report out the week to management, and Friday afternoon I would head to the airport to go home to Seattle.

But I had some worries as well. Although the company President, and the VP of Operations were supportive, their support was along the lines of welcoming everyone into the plant, making it clear they were happy to see us, attending the final report-out and endorsing our efforts.

I was still pretty knew at this. I was making the transition from teaching classes and running simulations to making real change in real factories (that weren’t mine!). I was really fortunate to have a lot of 1:1 time with Mr. Shimura and Reiko. I asked questions, he patiently taught me how to use the standard work combination sheet, and other nuances of kaizen and flow production. I got a lot more out of that week than the supplier did simply because I was there spending time with Mr. Shimura and taking advantage of every second I could. I had 1:1 time because none of the supplier’s managers were seeking him out to learn from his vast experience.

Some quotes I will never forget: “If I see something is hand written, then I know at least one person has read it.”

“If parts that are in tolerance don’t fit, it is a problem with the tolerances.”

(Walking through the shop) “Does this company lose a lot of money?” Reply: “No, they are very profitable.” “Then their prices are too high.”

In the end, though, I am equally certain that come Monday morning the work sequence we had so carefully worked out – at great expense to my company for my time, my travel, Mr. Shimura, his interpreter, and others – was never repeated again.

Why not?

Well, we can all blame “management commitment” because that is really easy to do. But I put equal weight on our paradigm of improvement at the time. The idea that, in 4 working days we could institute a change that flew straight against the operational and cultural norms of the company and expect it to last any longer than until we were out the door was, well, ludicrous.

Why should we expect anything different?

It is ludicrous in any company, whether this work is being brought in from outside or internally generated.

The people who have to manage the daily work, whether they were involved in this exercise or not, have no paradigm for dealing with the myriad of issues that are bound to be surfaced after we pulled all of the buffers out of the material and the time. Yes, it can work, IF we understand the conditions required for success, and IF we pick up right away when those conditions aren’t there and IF we respond to fix it very fast. Then, yes, it can work.

It will be more time and trouble than it was before, though, unless the next things are also done.

For at least some of those issues – maybe not all of them, but always working against a couple of them – seeking out why those issues happened and dealing with the causes.

Just to keep this tiny two-machine “work cell” operating in this large factory would have eventually engaged every support system they had.

That’s the whole point, actually, of a model line. It isn’t building the model line. It is what you have to fix in your systems to keep it going.

Many years later I spent a week on another company’s shop floor with their internal kaizen team and getting an andon / escalation process up and running was the only thing we were working on that week. That process is just as important, if not more, than the baseline work of flow. Because without it, your flow will fall apart.

This is the part of the process that engages people. Putting in the baseline process is the easy part. Fielding the problems that flow surfaces – that takes changing the day-to-day routine in the workplace, and is a lot harder. That is where the culture change comes into play. Actually it is more than engaging people. It engages specific people: This is the part that must engage the leaders. They must lead, guide and coach process of working through all of the issues so stability can be reestablished. Then challenge the team to get to the next level.

But all of that is what I know now. I had the knowledge back then, but not the deep understanding.

So – I am thankful for that week because my understanding of what I had been teaching for months easily doubled… twice in those few days.

I was back there a few more times, they even gave me a badge (which I still have somewhere) so I could let myself in. One time I spent two straight weeks there. They were good people.

But we were applying work to the technical systems, and never really dealing with their default responses to problems, their culture, the way they went managing their daily work.

I know so much more today it is actually humbling to write this. And I still have a lot to learn. We all do.

The company I was working in? They were sold, and sold again. I think they are still in business, but I wouldn’t know anyone there.

Daily Management for Improvement

I’m digging through old archives again, and came across this graphic I put together around 2006 or so. It depicts more detailed version of “Organize, Standardize, Stabilize, Optimize” showing the continuous comparison between “what should be happening” and “what is actually happening.” It is the gap between these two that drives improvement forward.

Like the pocket card in the last post, this is built on a foundation established by the work of Steven Spear, especially his PhD dissertation that is summarized in Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System. By the way, if you are in the business of continuous improvement, reading (and understanding) this breakthrough work is critical for you.

Other than generally sharing this, my other reason for putting this up is that in the Toyota Kata community there has been discussion for about a decade about whether or not the right hand loop – pushing for stability – is an appropriate use of the Improvement Kata.

I think that is an unfortunate result of some very early conversations about the difference between “troubleshooting” and “improving” a process. We get into semantic arguments about “problem solving” as somehow different from “root cause analysis” and how the Improvement Kata is somehow distinct, again, from those activities.

This makes no sense to me for a couple of reasons.

Scientific Thinking is the Foundation

Toyota Kata is not a problem solving tool. It is a teaching method for teaching scientific thinking, and it is a teaching method for learning to teach scientific thinking. In the books and most literature, it uses organizational processes as working examples for the “starter kata,” but exactly the same thinking structure works for such diverse things as working through quality issues, developing entirely new products and processes, working through leadership and people issues. The underlying sub-structures may change, but the basic steps are the same.

When I encounter an organization that already has a “standard problem solving approach” I do not attempt to tell them they are wrong or confuse them by introducing a different structure. Rather, I adapt the Improvement and Coaching Kata to align with their existing jargon and language, and help them learn to go deeper and more thoroughly into their existing process.

Stability is a Target Condition

I see a lot of pushback about working to “return a process to standard.” In reality, that is the bulk of the activity in day-to-day improvement. The whole point of having a standard in the first place is to be able to see when the actual process or result is somehow different.

Think about it: If there isn’t an active means of comparing “actual” vs. “standard” what is the point of having a standard in the first place?

Think of the standard as a target condtion.

What obstacles are preventing you from [operating to that standard]? You can guess, but the best way is to diligently try to operate to the target condition and see what gets in your way. That might not happen immediately. Maybe some time will go by, then BAM! You get a surprise.

This is good. You have learned. Something you didn’t expect has interfered with getting things done the way you wanted to. Time to dig in and learn what happened.

Maybe there was some condition that you could have detected earlier and gotten out in front of. Who knows?

This is all part of the continuum of Troubleshooting by Defining Standards.

You Cannot Meet a Challenge Without Working on Stability

As you are working to reach new level of performance – working toward a new challenge – there will be a point when the process works sometimes, so you know it is possible. But it doesn’t work every time because there are still intermittent obstacles that get in the way.

Nevertheless, you have to work diligently to see problems as they occur, respond to them, dig into causes (root cause analysis anyone?) and systematically protect your process from those issues.

The only real difference between covering this territory for the first time vs. trying to recover a previously stable process is that in the later case you can ask “What has changed?”

But, in the end, in both cases – stabilizing a new process vs. re-stabilizing an old one – you are dealing with conditions that are changing from one run to the next. That is why it works sometimes and not others. You don’t know what is changing. You are trying to figure it out by experimenting and learning.

What About Root Cause Analysis?

My challenge is still a stable process.

My current condition is my level of understanding of how the process works today, and the exact mechanism that results in a defect. Even defects are produced by a process – just not the process we want.

That understanding will be incomplete by definition – because if we truly understood what was going on we wouldn’t have the problem. So… what do I know (and can prove with evidence) and what do I not know.

What do I suspect? What evidence do I need to gather to rule out this possible cause, or keep it in play? Next experiment. What do I expect to learn?

I’ll write a more detailed post about this at some point. I think it is a topic worth digging into. Suffice it to say that I have absolutely used the Improvement Kata structure to coach people through finding the root cause of wicked quality problems.

It really helped that they were able to see the same underlying pattern that I had already been teaching them. It made things simpler.

Don’t Complicate a Simple Concept

It’s all “solving problems” (the term “problem solving” apparently has some specific form it needs to take for some people).

The underlying structure for all of it is scientific thinking. Some say it’s PDCA / PDSA. Same thing.

Splitting semantic hairs and saying “this is different” makes simple things complicated. Yes, there are advanced tools that you use when things get tough. But… addition and subtraction; basic algebra; advanced polynomials; basic differential calculus; advanced multivariate calculus – IT IS ALL MATH. You apply the math you must to model and solve the problem at hand.

DON’T apply more math than you need just because you can. That serves no purpose except, perhaps, to prove how smart you are… to nobody in particular.

Solving problems is the same. There are some cases where I need to develop a designed experiment to better understand the current condition – the interactions between variables. There are cases where other statistical tools are needed. Use them when you must, but not just because you can.

Use the simplest method that works.

A Lean Leadership Pocket Card

I was going through some old files and came across a pocket card we handed out back in 2003 or so. It was used in conjunction with our “how to walk the gemba” coaching sessions that we did with the lean staff, and then taught them to do with leaders.

There is a pretty long backstory, some of it is summarized in Earl’s recollection on this old post: Genchi Genbutsu in a Warehouse as well as here: The Chalk Circle – Continued.

A lot has happened, a lot has been learned since then. Toyota Kata has been published, and that alone has focused my technique considerably (to say the least).

Nevertheless, I think the elements on these little cards are valuable things to keep in mind.

With that being said, a caveat: Lists like this run the risk of becoming dogma. They aren’t. There are lots of lists like this out there, and the vast majority are very good. The key here is something that a leader or team member can refer to as a reminder that may bias a decision in the right direction. It is the direction that matters, not the reminders.

Fundamentals

The fundamentals are based on the “Rules-in-Use” from Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System, a landmark HBR article by Steve Spear and H. Kent Bowen. The article, in turn, summarizes (and slightly updates) Spear’s findings from his PhD work studying Toyota.

A. All work highly specified as to content, sequence, timing, and outcome.

B. Every customer-supplier connection is simple and direct.

C. The path for every product is simple and direct.

D. All improvements are made using PDCA process.

What we left off, though, is that in each of those rules there is a second one: That all of these systems are set up to be “self diagnostic” – meaning there are clear indications that immediately alert the front line people if:

  • The work deviates from what was specified.
  • The connection between a customer and supplying process is anything other than specified.
  • The path a product follows deviates from the route specified.
  • Improvements are made outside of a rigorous PDCA (experimental) process.

In other words, the purpose of the rules is to be able to see when we break them, or cannot follow them, so we trigger action.

To put this into Toyota Kata-speak – every process is set up as a target condition that is being run as an experiment – even the process of improvement itself!

Every time there is a disruption – something that keeps the process from running the way it is supposed to – we have discovered an obstacle. That obstacle must first be contained to protect the team members and community (safety) and to protect the customer (quality). Then goes into the obstacle parking lot, and addressed in turn.

If you think about it, the Improvement Kata simply gives us much more rigor to (D).

This ties to the next sections.

Key Leadership Behaviors

Note that this is behaviors. These are things we want leaders to actually strive to do themselves, not just “support.” It was the job of the continuous improvement people to nudge, coach, assist the leaders to move in these directions. It was our job to teach our continuous improvement people how to do that coaching and assisting – beyond just running kaizen events that implement tools.

A. PDCA Thinking

Today we would use Toyota Kata to teach this. But the same structure drove our questioning back then.

B. Four Rules:

1. Safety First

Even though this should be obvious, it is much more common that people are tacitly, or even directly, asked to overlook safety issues for the sake of production. I remember walking through a facility with a group of managers on the way to the area we were going to see. Paul stopped dead in his tracks in front of a puddle on the floor. He was demonstrating just how easy it was for the leadership to walk right past things that should be attended to. And in doing so, they were sending the message – loud and clear in their silence – that having a puddle on the floor was OK.

2. Make a Rule, Keep a Rule

This is a more general instance of Rule #1. But the it is more subtle than it may seem on the surface. Most people immediately interpret this as enforcing organizational discipline, but in reality it is about managerial discipline.

Nearly every organization has a gap between “the rules” and how things really are day-to-day. Sometimes that gap is small. Sometimes it is huge.

Often “rules” are enforced arbitrarily, such as only cases where a violation led to a bigger problem of some kind. Here’s an example: Say your plant has a set of rules about how fork trucks are to be operated – speed limits, staying out of marked pedestrian lanes, etc. But in general the operators hurry, cut a corner now and then. And these violations are typically overlooked… until there is some kind of incident. Then the operator gets written up for “breaking the rules” that everyone breaks every day – and management tacitly encourages people to break every day by focusing on results rather than process.

When we say “make a rule / keep a rule” what we mean is if you aren’t willing to insist on a rule being followed consistently, then take the rule off the books. And if you are uncomfortable taking the rule off the books, then your only option is to develop something that you can stand behind. It might be simple mistake proofing, like physical barriers between forklift aisles and pedestrian aisles. But if you are going to make the rule, then find a way to keep the rule.

Do you have “standard work” documents that are rarely followed? Stop pretending you have standards or rules about how the work is done. Throw them away if you aren’t willing to train to them, mistake proof to them and reinforce following them.

3. Simple is Best

Simply, bias heavily toward the simplest solution that works. The fewest, simplest procedures. The simplest process flow. Complexity hides problems. “Telling people” by the way, is usually less simple than a physical change to the work environment that guides behavior. See above.

4. Small Steps

Again, Toyota Kata’s teaching covers this pretty well today. The key is that by taking small steps, verifying that they work, and anchoring them into practice before taking the next ensures that each step we take has a stable foundation under it.

The alternative would be to make many changes at once in the name of going faster.

We emphasized here that “small steps” does not equal “slow steps.” It is possible to take small steps quickly, and we found that in general doing so was faster than making big leaps. Getting big changes dialed in often required backing out and implementing one thing at a time anyway – just to troubleshoot! See “Gall’s Law” which states:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

John Gall, author of Systematics

and sums this up nicely.

C. Ask “Why, what, where, when, who, and how” in that order.

Here we borrowed the sequence from TWI Job Methods. The first two questions challenge whether a process step is even necessary: Why is it necessary? What is its purpose? To paraphrase Elon Musk, the greatest waste of time is improving something that shouldn’t even exist.

Then: Where is the best place? and When is the best time? These questions might nudge thinking about combining steps and further simplifying the process.

And finally we can ask Who is the best person? and “How” is the best method? The key point here is until we have the minimum possible steps in the simplest possible sequence, and understand the cycle times, it doesn’t make sense balance the work cycle or work on improving things.

Come to think about it – perhaps we should ask “How?” before we ask “Who” since improving the method will change the cycle times and may well inform out decisions about the work balance. Hmmm… I’ll have to think about that. Any thoughts from the TWI gurus?

D. Ask Why 5 Times

Honestly, this was a legacy of the times. Unfortunately it suggests that you can arrive at a root cause simply by repeatedly asking “Why?” and writing down the excuses answers that are generated. In reality problem solving involves multiple possible causes at each level, and each must be investigated. I talked about this in a post way back in 2008: Not Just Asking Why – Five Investigations.

E. Go and see.

Go and see for yourself. Taking this into today’s practice, I think it is something that the Toyota Kata community might emphasize a little more. We tend to ask the question “When can we go and see what we have learned…?” but all too often the answer to “What have you learned?” is a discussion at the board rather than actually going and observing. Hopefully the board is close to where the improvement work is being done. Key point for coaches: If the learner can’t show you and explain until you understand, it is likely the learner’s understanding could be deeper.

As You Walk The Workplace:

Check:

perhaps we should have said “Ask…” rather than “Check” but asking and observing are ways to “check.” All of the below are things that the leader walking the workplace must verify by testing the knowledge of the people doing the work.

A. How should the work be done? Content, Sequence, Timing, Outcome

This is another nod to the research of Steven Spear. The key point here is that before you can ask any of the following questions, you have to have a crisp and precise of what “good” looks like. In this paradigm, all processes are target conditions. And as the work is being done, we are actively searching for obstacles so we can work to make the work smoother and more consistent.

In other words, “What should be happening?” and “How do you know?”

Do the people doing the work understand the standard process as it should be done?

A few months ago I went into some depth on this here: Troubleshooting by Defining Standards. That probably isn’t the best title in retrospect, but there are too many links out there that I don’t want to break by changing it.

B. How do you know it is being done correctly?

Today I ask this question differently. I ask some version of “What is actually happening?” followed by “How can you tell?” We want to know if the people doing the work have a way to compare what they are actually doing against the standard.

C. How do you know the outcome is free of defects?

So, question B asks about consistency of the process, and question C asks about the outcome. Does the team member have a way to positively verify that the outcome is defect-free?

D. What do you do if you have a problem?

Again, we are checking if there is a defined process for escalating a problem. And we define “problem” as any deviation from the standard, or any ambiguity in what should be (or is) happening. We want someone to know, and act, on this, and the only way that is going to happen is to escalate the problem.

We want this process to be as rigorous and structured as the value-adding work.

And we want as much care put into designing production process as was put into designing the product itself. All too often great care and a lot of engineering time goes into product design, and only a casual pass is made at designing and testing the process.

Even better if these are done simultaneously where one informs the other.

For Abnormal Conditions:

ACT:

These are actions that the leader must take if she finds something that isn’t “as it should be” in the course of the CHECK questions above. Key Point: These are leadership actions. That doesn’t mean that the leaders personally carry them out, but the leaders are personally responsible for ensuring that these things are done – and checking again.

That is the only way I know of to prevent the process from continuing to erode.

A. Immediately follow up to restore the standard.

If it isn’t possible to get the intended standard into back place, then get a temporary countermeasure into place that ensures safety and quality.

B. Determine the cause of erosion.

We are talking about process erosion here, with the assumption that something knocked the process off its designed standard. Some obstacle has been discovered, we have to better understand what it is – at least enough to get it documented.

C. Develop and apply countermeasure.

Here we may have to run experiments against this newly discovered obstacle and figure out how to make the process more robust.


That is the end of the little card. But I want to point out that we didn’t just hand these out. You got one of these cards after time paired with a coach on the shop floor practicing answering and asking these questions. Only after you demonstrated the skill did you get the card – just as a reminder, not as a detailed reference. This exercise was inspired by a few of us who had experiences “in the chalk circle” especially with Japanese senseis who had been direct reports to Taiichi Ohno.

We piloted and developed this process on a very patient and willing senior executive – but that is another story for another day. (Thank you once again, Charlie. I learned more from you than you will probably ever realize.)

KataCon 2020: Billy Taylor on Key Actions

Key Actions vs. Key (Performance) Indicators

Billy Taylor – Photo by Michele Butcher / Lean Frontiers

Another concept Billy brought out in his presentation was the difference between what he calls “Key Actions” (KA) and “Key Indicators” (KI) – often called Key Performance Indicators (KPI).

He actually introduced me (and a couple of other attendees) to the concept the previous evening. (Did I mention that a lot of the rich discussion took place in the lobby bar?)

We use the concept in Toyota Kata, we call them the “process metric” and the “performance metric” but I think Billy’s explanation offers more clarity than I have been able to pull off in the past.

He also ties it back into “what we must practice” to get the outcome we want.

In short, I look at the outcomes (the performance) I want, then ask “What actions, if they were carried out consistently, would give me this performance?” Those are the things that must be tracked, improved, and practiced.

I kind of addressed this concept a few years ago in Delivering the Patient Satisfaction Experience. But I’d like to focus in a little better.

Continuing on the health care theme, a key performance indicator is “hospital acquired infections” – getting sick in the hospital. Everyone agrees that this metric should be as low as possible, ideally zero.

But just tracking the “hospital acquired infections” isn’t going to nudge the needle much. There may be periods when there are improvements if there is emphasis, but year on year these things tend to be frustratingly steady over the long run.

If I ask “What behaviors, what actions, should we take to diminish opportunities for these infections?” then one thing pops right up on top: Anyone interacting with a patient must wash (or sanitize) their hands before doing so. Every. Single. Time. That action alone would have a dramatic and measurable impact.

It is so important that some systems have automated tracking to ensure compliance with this simple rule. (It is amazing to me that, in general, some of the worst offenders are physicians, but that is a rant for another day.)

Key Action: Wash your hands. Key Indicator: Hospital Acquired Infections.

OK – what about industry?

“Our machine downtime is too high. We need to improve our availability.” Key Indicator, but not directly actionable. What actions, if we take them consistently, do we believe are critical to reliable equipment?

Now we can track those. What are the critical-to-reliability things that must be checked every shift? Are they checked? How do you know? Do you track misses?

How about your preventative maintenance schedule?

Is the machine in configuration? Or are there improvised repairs in place? Why?

These are behaviors, actions, that relate directly to the availability of the equipment.

Together, they form a hypothesis: “If we carry out these actions (and know we did), then we predict this KPI will improve.” For this to work, though, we have to test whether or not the actions were carried out AND test whether or not the KPI needle moves over time.

One thing I would add: Focus on what people should do. Not so much on things they should not do. It is a lot easier to get a new habit into place than it is to stamp out an existing one. Working to replace an undesired action with a desired action is a lot easier as well.

The things that keep people from carrying out the Key Actions are obstacles. Now we can engage the Improvement Kata process and get to work.

TWI comes into play as well. “Are we carrying out the actions as we should?” It is all to easy to tell someone to do something and assume they know how, or assume that the way they do it is the way you have in mind. Trust, then verify.

KataCon 2020: Billy Taylor on Leadership

Photo by Michele Bucher / Lean Frontiers

Continuing my breakdown of Billy Taylor’s opening keynote at KataCon…

Key Bullet Points

  • People follow what you do before they follow what you say.
  • If you (as a leader) think you are above the process…
  • Deliberate practice on your practice of leadership. Focus on one thing.
  • Break down your leadership style [into elements]. Practice deliberately on one thing you want to reinforce or improve.

That second bullet is a real challenge for those of us who are in leadership positions (or even positions of influence). “If you think you are above the process…” – do you follow the standards and expectations you ask of others?

I think a good test would be “If a production worker corrected you, how would you respond?” If your internal emotional response (that initial feeling you have, not how you show yourself) is anything other than “Thank you for reminding me” then you are exempting yourself from the rules.

The other take-away:

Throughout his presentation, Billy was tying together the idea of “deliberate practice” and “developing leadership skills.” Leadership is a process, and processes can be broken down into their constituent elements and practiced.

This ties back perfectly to a broad spectrum of leadership development models. In the end, what we can control are:

  • What we say.
  • How we say it.
  • Who we say it to.
  • The structure of the environment that either inhibits or encourages the behaviors we want.

All of these things can be developed through experimentation, and then practiced. This is what Toyota Kata is about.