Toyota Kata and Culture Change

I am still digesting my experience at the Toyota Kata Summit (KataCon) and the TWI Summit but I wanted to reflect on one of the emerging themes, and some of the reactions.

One of the themes that emerged at both conferences – and to be clear, something I had a hand in influencing as well – was mechanisms for altering the culture of the organization. In other words, what we brand as “change.”

This is what I would call an “advanced topic”

What is Culture?

Books have been written about “organizational culture” and trying to create models that define “it” in some way. In the end, I think they all come down to various ways of saying “how people talk to each other.” This includes who talks to whom, and what structures and rules guide those conversations.

When we study “culture” we are looking at the groups’ default patterns of interaction. If we want to change those patterns, we have to alter people’s habitual behaviors. As I said in my KataCon keynote, This. Is. Hard. It is even harder when you are talking about group behavior vs. simply individuals.

Making Toyota Kata Work is Changing Culture

The point of using Toyota Kata is to practice and learn a scientific mindset. Getting an improvement storyboard set up that is focused on a challenge, and going through the Starter Kata of Grasping the Current Condition; Establishing the Next Target Condition; Identifying Obstacles; and Running Experiments Against Obstacles is a technically straight forward.

It is easier with an experienced coach to help you through it, but can be learned on your own if you are willing to be self-critical and persevere through things not working as well as you thought they would.

But beyond the scientific thinking pattern, we are also working to change the default behavior pattern toward one of working in Coach / Learner pairs on an ongoing daily basis. This is not the default mode of most organizations. (If it were, then Toyota Kata would be redundant.)

This means (to me) that, while actually practicing the Starter Kata is very important, getting people to do so in the first place often requires leading past the technical aspects. It requires altering the way people interact and work together.

Whose Work Is It?

Of course this is ultimately the work of line leadership, represented by the “advance group” or “steering team” or “shepherding group” or whatever you call them. Sometimes those people, too, have to learn a new way to lead and manage.

Leadership

The Kansas Leadership Center, whose programs are based on the “Adaptive Leadership” model from Harvard, defines Leadership as:

“The activity of mobilizing people to do difficult work.”

They further assert (and I agree) that leadership is an activity, not a position.

I am bringing these things up because if we want an organization to begin practicing ways to engage one another differently, it is common to run into resistance. In other words, we must mobilize people to do the difficult work of changing their default thinking and routines of interaction.

In doing so, we will surface clashes of hidden values, senses of loss, anxiety and fear: Things which cause people to find reasons to opt out of participating.

Sometimes it isn’t as simple as saying “Just follow the Starter Kata.”

How to Deploy Toyota Kata

Actually the message of “adaptive leadership” has been present since at least the first KataCon back in 2015. One of the mantras that emerged that year was “Kata your Kata” – in other words, there isn’t a clear-cut path that works every time. You have to learn your way into it as an organization, as a leader.

The difficult part is that this requires going in deeper than the Starter Kata, and applying the underlying pattern of Challenge; Current Condition; Target Condition; Experiments against Obstacles.

The pattern is the same, but this isn’t about cycle time variation, it is about influencing (mobilizing) people, reaching agreements, encouraging them to “just try it” – in a process of discovering what works in that case, with those people, then doing it again.

A New Way of Working vs. Business as Usual

So… if we are going to get Toyota Kata out of the classroom, and past the first challenge or target condition into a sustaining, habitual process, we’ll have to address cultural issues.

The skill set for this is different than a technical process change skill set. We’ll have to learn our way through the grey zone for this part as well.

I’d love to see your thoughts and comments.

The Key to Leadership is Consistency

In this video clip, author and speaker Simon Sinek articulately explains why the things that matter most aren’t measurable, nor can they be created over the short term. Watch the video, then I’d like to extend his thought process into continuous improvement.

The idea of doing the little things consistently over time is a powerful one that we often overlook in our hurry to show a spectacular result this week. We don’t get results from the big action we are taking today. We get results when business-as-usual is getting the little things right the vast majority of the time.

Let’s extend his line of reasoning down a level.

“At what point could we say we were living continuous improvement every day?” How can you measure that? Just like his analogies in the video, there isn’t an answer to that question. You can’t measure it. The idea of putting “culture change” on a project plan makes no more sense than a project plan for “falling in love.” You start to do the right things, and keep doing them, and at some point you realize the conversations are between the right people about the right things.

Decisions Cause Results

The results we are getting today – the success of our organization against any metric you choose; the organizational climate and culture; the initiative people collectively show; the quality of our own life results – are the cumulative outcomes of the decisions we have consistently made.

If we want different outcomes, then we have to work to change what we consistently do. This will take time. Sinek points out that there is space for exceptions, making mistakes here as long as we recognize them, recover, reflect, and continue to make the effort.

A Little Every Day

If this is a change in your default behavior, then this effort requires deliberately and explicitly comparing the conversations, actions and decisions that are actually happening with a baseline for comparison. “On a scale of 1-10, did I make my very best effort to be consistent with these values today?”* Ask that question every single day, and write down the number. Oh – can you articulate the values you are working to adopt? Maybe write those down in language that lets you use them as a test comparison.

Some Questions to Ask

Is what I am about to do or say more likely to:

  • Encourage, or discourage, this person from sharing the truth (especially bad news)?
  • Add, or subtract, fear from the environment or the next conversation?
  • Encourage, or discourage, the sharing of ideas?
  • Encourage, or discourage, a test or challenge of my assumptions?
  • Encourage, or discourage, horizontal coordination across functional boundaries?
  • Have this person look forward to our next conversation?

Fill in your own questions here, but you get the idea – get explicit, and ask Yes or No questions about the expected impact of the actions you are about to take. Use the same questions to reflect on the actions and conversations you had today.

Key to Change: Practice, With Correction

To change the outcomes we are getting we will have to practice new ways of interacting with those around us (and new ways of interacting with our own inner-voice – but that gets into psychotherapy). It does no good to berate ourselves when we make mistakes. That just induces stress and fear. “Avoiding mistakes” is the surest way to try nothing and to learn nothing.

Though the word “coach” is overused to the point of being a meaningless cliche today (much like the word “lean”), having someone to ask the hard reflection questions is much more helpful than trying to do this as an inner conversation in your own head. Unfortunately a lot of work places don’t provide this kind of support and encouragement. If that describes yours, then I’d encourage you to enlist a friend or confidant, or hire someone who isn’t embroiled in your “stuff” every day. That makes them more likely to challenge your excuses and the Basic Story you tell yourself to justify what you do.

Authority vs Leadership

Having formal authority certainly helps get stuff done, but it is not the same as leadership. Nor is formal authority required to exhibit leadership. Many of you (my readers) are expected to exert influence without having formal authority. And I fully understand the frustration that can come with this – been there, done that.

What works? I don’t know. Nobody knows. There isn’t a formula or recipe for effective influence. Rather there is working consistently in ways that build cross-linked networks of trust and mutual accountability between people at the working levels you can reach.

Getting there requires “grasping the current condition” of the organization’s dynamics, developing an interpretative story (or multiple stories), then running deliberate experiments as you seek to learn what works to influence those dynamics. This is what Ron Heifetz and Martin Minsky call “Adaptive Leadership.” The Toyota Kata model adapts very easily into theirs, by the way.

And my self-plug: If you want to go into a little more depth on this topic, come to the Toyota Kata Summit (aka KataCon) in Savannah in February (2019) and attend the “Experiential Workshop” that Craig and I are putting on. Be part of our experiment as we explore together mechanisms that we can practice to apply these concepts in real life.


*The “did I make my very best effort…” questioning is from “Triggers” by Marshal Goldsmith and Mike Reiter.

Creating Resistance As You Go (Don’t)

The role of “change agent” is actually a role of leadership.

Leading change is difficult work that involves changes in the norms, routines, working relationships, behavior within and between groups. It is required when a simple technical change either isn’t going to get the job done, or requires the above changes to work at all. Most (if not all!) of the “lean tools”* fall into the later: The process changes are straight forward, but making them work requires altering the habitual patterns of how people work together.

Before I dive into what works, I want to spend a little time on what doesn’t work.

The Bulldozer: Creating Resistance

Bulldozer climbing a mound of dirt.

A team had a challenge – the result they were striving to achieve – of getting a 2-3 week administrative workflow (that sometimes went longer) down to a consistent three days. Their target condition was a pretty good work flow that, by all accounts so far, could avoid a lot of delays (on the order of days and weeks).

The changes they proposed would eliminate a number of transfers from one department to another (which always means another queue). However it also calls for eliminating some long-standing work-arounds that involve filling out forms and passing them along by email. But now they have a new ERP system, and the intent has been that this work is done within that system.

Those forms are in another department’s process, and involve people who haven’t been involved (so far) with the work to date. (There are valid reasons for this, and yes, some of this could have been avoided by involving everyone from the beginning, but that isn’t the point of the story.)

A functional department manager set off a flurry of pushback through a series of emails that essentially said “This is the future” and exhorting people to get on board with the new process vs. defending the old one.

One of the tenants of an effective change agent is “Don’t work uphill” with the corollary of “Don’t create hills in front of you.” I call the opposite of this the bulldozer approach. Unfortunately, like the picture above, just trying to push things through tends to build up a mound of resistance in front of you.

What did we learn?

Rather than trying to engage the new idea as an experiment – “Let’s try this and see what we learn,” the change agent tried to use position power to push the idea through. He took an action, and had an (implied) expected result – that people would see the light and adopt the new process.. The actual result, though, was quite different than what was expected – they doubled down on their resistance.**

A scientific-thinking change agent (a.k.a “a leader”) is going to step back and assess. Why did I get the reaction I did? What triggered it? What are the values of this constituency that are being challenged? Most pushback comes from a perceived threat to something that is regarded as valuable.

Perhaps the current workflow solves a very real problem. Perhaps it is otherwise very useful for something I am not aware of. Or maybe there is some emotional stake attached to the status quo. There is likely a combination of all three, or other factors I haven’t mentioned.

When proposing a new idea there is an opportunity to become curious about what previously hidden (to us at least) obstacles have just been uncovered, step back and work on the next one.

Leadership is a series of experiments. Not everything will work. But everything is an opportunity for learning and adjusting or adapting the next step appropriately.

People who expect their position-power to carry them through often tend to assign blame to individuals as “resisting the change.” But if we carry a different assumption – that everyone is doing the best they can to do the best job they can – then we can reframe and possibly reinterpret the reaction we are getting.

What other interpretations could we assign to this pushback other than “They don’t want to?” How many of those interpretations can we think of?

What is your next step or experiment?

Each of those possible interpretations is a testable assumption. Now I can frame my next action, conversation, or intervention to test one or more of those assumptions. This requires me to go into curiosity mode, because I really don’t know if they are true or not.

Now I have a different conversation because I am seeking first to understand. I can test assumptions without threatening anyone. Listen. Don’t defend. Paraphrase back until you hear “That’s right” signaling agreement that you heard what they were saying. That doesn’t mean you agree, but that you heard. Until someone feels heard they aren’t going to be soaking in what you are trying to tell them, they are going to be setting up the next defense of their position.

There is VERY rarely a need to directly confront someone over a different interpretation of the facts.

Don’t be a bulldozer – it doesn’t work.

———–

*And Six Sigma tools, and Theory of Constraints tools, and TQM Tools, and the tools associated with pretty much any other “program” that falls under the umbrella of continuous improvement.

**Though, Dr. Phil’s coaching would probably be something along the lines of “What did you THINK would happen??” (Semi-apology to my non-US readers who may not have context for this attempt at cultural humor.)

A Period of Reflection and Learning

Some of you have commented in back-channels that I have been pretty quiet for a while – both here as well as in regular correspondence. I’ve been in pretty heavy reflective mode for quite a while. I described it to someone as “I am learning faster than I can write it down right now – by the time I write something, I understand it in a different way and start over.”

A lot of that reflection has been around consolidating what I learned at from Rich Sheridan, James Goebel and all of the other Menlonians that I have the privilege to know now.

That work was punctuated, though not completed, by my keynote at KataCon last February (2018) where I followed Rich Sheridan and described my interpretation of the underlying meta-patterns that exist in pretty much any organization that we would call exceptionally good at what they do.

At the same time, another client (Thank you, Tomas!) introduced me to Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky’s body of work under the umbrella of “Adaptive Leadership.” From their model I think I picked out a fundamental failure mode of what we like to call “change initiatives” regardless of what tool set of operational models we are trying to deploy.

To learn more about this, I read (Note – these are Amazon affiliate links. If you choose to buy the book, I get a (very) small kickback at no cost to you.)

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

Leadership on the Line

Leadership Can Be Taught

Teaching Leadership

Your Leadership Edge

and every paper and article I could find on the topic or about people’s experience. While doing this, I have tried out many of the teaching and coaching processes as well as applying the observation, interpretation and intervention skills in the course of my work. Those of you who participated in the Experiential Workshop that Craig Stritar and I put on at KataCon early this year were seeing the outcomes of this work up to that point.

My latest step was taking a three day seminar Your Leadership Edge from the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita the 2nd week of August. The KLC’s model and methods are built on the Adaptive Leadership model. My intended outcome was to consolidate some of my understanding by getting the external perspective and participating within their structure.

The number one frustration of “change agents” out there is some form of “How to I get buy-in?” I know I have experienced that myself. It is easy when all of the constituencies and factions within the organization are well aligned on purpose and values. Not so easy when there are conflicts. I think the Adaptive Leadership model gives us an approach we can learn by practicing. It also mirrors the steps of problem solving / continuous improvement that are outlined in Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata. The context for action is different, but the process is the same: Learning what works through experimentation. That is the “adaptive” part of Adaptive Leadership.

This post is just some background around why I am pursuing this line of thought. As always, I write about things like this to force myself to improve my own understanding by having to explain them in the simplest possible terms. I am happy to have any of you along the journey with me, so subscribe or check-in or whatever and let’s see what we can learn.

Mark