Creative Safety Supply: Kaizen Training and Research Page

Normally when I get an email from a company pointing me to the great lean resource on their web page, I find very little worth discussing. But Creative Safety Supply in Beaverton, Oregon has some interesting material that I think is worth taking a look at.

First, to be absolutely clear, I have not done business with them, nor do I have any business relationship. I can’t speak, one way or the other, about their products, customer service, etc

With that out of the way, I found their Kaizen Training and Research Page interesting enough to go through it here and comment on what I see.

What, exactly, is “PDCA?”

The section titled Kaizen History goes through one of the most thorough discussions of the evolution of what we call “PDCA” I have ever read, tracing back to Walter Shewhart. This is the only summary I have ever seen that addresses the parallel but divergent histories of PDCA through W. Edwards Deming on the one hand and Japanese management on the other. There has been a lot of confusion over the years about what “PDCA” actually is. It may well be that that confusion originates from the same term having similar but different definitions depending on the context. This section is summed up well here:

The Deming Circle VS. PDCA

In August of 1980, Deming was involved in a Roundtable Discussion on Product Quality–Japan vs. the United States. During the roundtable discussion, Deming said the following about his Deming Circle/PDSA and the Japanese PDCA Cycle, “They bear no relation to each other. The Deming circle is a quality control program. It is a plan for management. Four steps: Design it, make it, sell it, then test it in service. Repeat the four steps, over and over, redesign it, make it, etc. Maybe you could say that the Deming circle is for management, and the QC circle is for a group of people that work on faults encountered at the local level.”

So… I learned something! Way cool.

Rapid Change vs. Incremental Improvement

A little further down the page is a section titled Kaizen Philosophy. This section leans heavily on the thoughts / opinions of Masaaki Imai through his books and interviews. Today there is an ongoing debate within the lean community about the relative merits of making rapid, radical change, vs. the traditional Japanese approach of steady incremental improvement over the long-haul.

In my opinion, there is nothing inherently wrong with making quick, rapid changes IF they are treated as an experiment in the weeks following. You are running to an untested target condition. You will likely surface many problems and issues that were previously hidden. If you leave abandon the operators and supervisors to deal with those issues on their own, it is likely they simply don’t have the time, skill or clarity of purpose required to work through those obstacles and stabilize the new process.

You will quickly learn what the knowledge and skill gaps are, and need to be prepared to coach and mentor people through closing those gaps. This brings us to the section that I think should be at the very top of the web page:

Respect for People

Almost every discussion about kaizen and continuous improvement mentions that it is about people, and this page is no different. However in truth, the improvement culture we usually describe is process focused rather than people focused, and other than emphasizing the importance of getting ideas from the team, “employee engagement is often lip-service. There is, I think, a big difference between “employee engagement” and “engaging employees.” One is passive, waiting for people to say something. The other is active development of leaders.

Management and Standards

When we get into the role of management, the discussion turns somewhat traditional. Part of this, I think, is a common western interpretation of the word “standards” as things that are created and enforced by management.

According to Steve Spear (and other researchers), Toyota’s definition of “standard” is quite different. It is a process specification designed as a prediction. It is intended to provide a point of reference for the team so they can quickly see when circumstances force them to diverge from that baseline, revealing a previously unknown problem in the process.

Standards in this world are not something static that “management should make everyone aware of” when they change. Rather, standards are established by the team, for the team, so the team can use them as a target condition to drive their own work toward the next level.

This doesn’t mean that the work team is free to set any standard they like in a vacuum. This is the whole point of the daily interaction between leaders at all levels. The status-quo is always subjected to a challenge to move to a higher level. The process itself is predicted, and tested, to produce the intended quality at the predicted cost, in the predicted time, with the predicted resources. Because actual process and outcomes are continuously compared to the predicted process and outcomes, the whole system is designed to surface “unknowns” very quickly.

This, in turn, provides opportunities to develop people’s skills at dealing with these issues in near-real time. The whole point is to continuously develop the improvement skills at the work team level so we can see who the next generation of leaders are. (Ref: Liker and Convis, “The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership”)

Staging improvement as a special event, “limited time only” during which we ask people for input does not demonstrate respect, nor does it teach them to see and solve those small issues on a daily basis.

There’s more, but I’m going to stop here for now.


Creative Safety Supply clearly “gets it.” I think this page is well worth your time to read, but (and this is important), read it critically. There are actually elements of conflicting information on the page, which is awesome because it gives you (the reader) an opportunity to pause and think.

From that, I think this one-page summary really reflects the state of “lean” today: There IS NO CANONICAL DEFINITION. Anyone who asserts there is has, by definition, closed their mind to the alternatives.

We can look at “What Would Toyota Do?” as somewhat of a baseline, but ultimately we are talking about an organizational culture. Toyota does what they do because of the ways they structure how people interact with one another. Other companies may well achieve the same outcomes with different cultural mechanisms. But the interactions between people will override process mechanics every time.

Hopefully I created a lot of controversy here.  🙂

People to Meet at KataCon

KataCon is a couple of weeks out. If you are considering going you are probably looking at the keynote speakers and KataGeekYellowbreakout workshops.

The other reason to attend KataCon is to meet other people and share experiences with them. I’d like to introduce you to two of those people.

imageHal Frohreich is the Chief Operating Officer of Cascade DAFO in Ferndale, Washington. Their product is custom pediatric foot / ankle orthotics that help kids walk. Yup, custom. Every one is different.

Since taking the position, Hal has been using Toyota Kata as a mechanism to develop the leadership and technical skills of the supervisors and, in doing so, make fundamental shifts to the culture of the organization. For you TWI folks, he has also deployed TWI, especially Job Instruction, along side the Toyota Kata for much more consistency in the way work is performed.



imageHal provides support to his Production Manager, Tim Grigsby. Tim coaches 4-7 kata boards every day and covers diverse areas including people development, I.T. issues, R&D, and production. Tim views his job as seeing that each work team has the time, education, direction, space, tools and help to improve their work. Toyota Kata provides the structure that he uses to help them develop critical thinking and clarity in their target conditions, obstacles, and their PDCA cycles.

Each afternoon the COO and CEO walk the floor and review the target conditions, obstacles and next steps. This helps keep things aligned as well as ensure nobody is “stuck” on a problem that is outside of their scope to fix.


I believe, and teach, that Toyota Kata is a mechanism for driving culture change, and this is the philosophy that Hal and Tim have embraced. While the performance of the organization has dramatically improved by every measure you care to ask about, that is not the real result of this work.

The real outcome has been to create a cadre of front-line leaders that are taking initiative and applying creative solutions vs. just getting through the day doing what they are told.

Come to KataCon and find these guys. They are worth talking to.

David Marquet: Turn Your Ship Around

imageRegular readers (and clients) know I really like David Marquet’s “Leader-Leader” model and believe it has a synergistic close connection to lean thinking, leadership, and Toyota Kata. When I was offered a chance at getting a pre-publication copy of his Turn Your Ship Around! workbook, I jumped at the opportunity.

Lean Leadership

I don’t like the word “lean” but we are stuck with it, so I’ll use it. I believe “Lean” is really about good leadership.

It’s really tough to make “lean” work beyond a superficial level without the rich horizontal and vertical two-way communication that is created in what David Marquet calls “Leader-Leader.”

While the lean process structure directly supports this type of leadership, our typical approach to “lean” has been to focus on the technical aspects and gloss over the change in behaviors.

Why? It is easier to teach how to build a u-shaped layout, or implement a kanban loop than it is to actually shift people’s day-to-day behavior. A fair number of attempts to use Toyota Kata have fallen into this trap as well – teaching it as a rote technical tool rather than a structure to develop deeper thinking and improve organizational clarity and alignment.

Our numbers-driven management culture tends to shy away from “people problems” and tries to lateral those things to Human Resources. Here’s the test: Who chairs the “difficult conversations” in your organization? Leaders? or HR?

Captain Marquet’s experience in the Navy was similar. A submarine Captain’s authority (in the US Navy) largely descended from his technical knowledge and expertise. Take away or diminish that technical expertise, and he has to learn to rely on the team, and build a team that can be relied upon.

So we are really talking about that elusive “culture shift.”


The word “empowerment” got a really bad name back in the late 1980s. There were tons of books written and consultants pushing managers to “empower their workers.”

They painted a picture of the end state: self directed teams that managed their own work in ways that were far better than anything achievable by top-down direction. There was nothing wrong with the picture – I’ve seen a few examples of that process in action and it is always amazing.

The problem was getting there. Companies would have a kickoff, make a huge change, “empower their workers” and let go of control, and sit back to watch the amazing results.


While the intentions were good, when direction was suddenly removed, people didn’t know what to do and they guessed wrong. They had been used to getting the answers from the boss, and suddenly those answers were gone.

The rules and boundaries were not well understood, and frustrated leaders often ended up pulling away even more control than they had held before the experiment.

“Well that didn’t work” became the words attached to “empowerment.”

So why does it work in the places where it does? It is surprising to me how often I hear leaders cite exceptionalism. “They can hire better people.” for example, without thinking about what that means about their own leadership, people development or hiring processes.

David Marquet lays out a few key principles in his Leader-Leader model. He is clear (to me) that this isn’t a switch you can suddenly throw. His journey on the Santa Fe was one of discovery as he navigated unknown territory. There were successes and setbacks, each a point of learning.

The main points of the model are progressively giving control; building competence; and establishing clarity.

In the words of Toyota Kata, establish a next target condition for pushing control and decision making down a level, then identify the obstacles in the way and progressively and systematically address them.

Those obstacles are nearly always something we must teach (competence); or something we must communicate (clarity).

There are some previous posts on the topic that you can click through to review so I don’t cover it all again here:

With all of that background, let’s talk about the book.

Turn Your Ship Around!

The first thing to understand is this book does not stand alone. The reader must be familiar with the original book Turn the Ship Around!, its story and premise, or at least have that book available to provide context for he workbook. I have read the original book three times, and was still flipping back through it as I went through the workbook.

imageThe workbook also refers you to several scenes in the Russell Crowe movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World as examples (actually counter-examples) of the Leader-Leader model.

The format of the original book, Turn The Ship Around is a series of stories and experiences on board the Santa Fe. Each described a challenge or problem and what the crew and leaders leaned about leadership in overcoming it. Then the general principle is described. The chapter ends with a series of bullet point questions for a leader to ask himself.

The workbook, Turn Your Ship Around! parallels the structure of the main book. Each chapter in the workbook emphasizes a key leadership principle, references specific pages in the original book for the reader to review, then asks a series of questions or (in some cases) proposes an activity, exercise, or “to do” with your organization.

The questions are improved versions of the end-of-chapter questions in the original book.

There is also some additional material that Marquet has developed since writing the original book, for example, his “Ladder of Leadership” model that focuses you on the language in the conversation as leaders are developed.

I’ll get more into that on another post.

Using Turn Your Ship Around!

As I mentioned above, this is a companion work for the original book. Many management teams conduct book study sessions, and this workbook would provide a great structure: Study a chapter and go though the pertinent section in the workbook individually, then come together and share your impressions and answers to the questions.

Other Material

My review copy also came with a deck of cards intended for structuring a role playing session. A scenario is drawn, and individuals representing the leader and the subordinate draw cards which lay out the language they should use.

Sometimes the leader might be trying to get a reluctant team member to step up and take more responsibility. Another scenario might have the team member showing more initiative than the leader is comfortable with. The idea is for the participants to experience how these various dynamics feel. I haven’t tried it with a group (yet), but it seems like it would be worth doing… with the caveat below.

The Caveat

There’s an old joke out there that goes “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “Just one, but the light bulb has to want to change.”

Trying to Change the cultural dynamic of your organization is going to challenge deeply hidden assumptions about people that are firmly entrenched in the mechanics and artifacts the organization uses to get things done. These are things like reports, the way meetings are run, how assignments are given and tracked. If you choose to go down this road, all of those things will be challenged, and you will need to be open to that.

Capt Marquet talks specifically about blowing up the reports, tracking files, chains of signatures during his journey on the Santa Fe. No matter what you say your values and beliefs are, the mechanisms of control define what your culture really believes about who can be trusted with what. This won’t work if you pay lip service to it.

More to Come

Though I’ve been talking this up to clients for the better part of a year (and probably “sold” a hundred or so copies of the book in the process), I haven’t gone into a lot of depth here. I’ll likely be digging into the concepts more in the future. This post is about the new book, so I want to try to constrain myself somewhat to that topic today.

Learning To See in 2013

With the publication of Learning to See in 1999, Mike Rother and John Shook introduced a new genre of book to us – a mix of theory, example, and practical application. The story invites the readers to follow along and actually do for themselves.

This is one of those books that gives a bit more every time I read it. The more thorough my baseline understanding of TPS, the more I get from some of the nuances of Rother and Shook’s intent.

At the same time, I am beginning to formulate an idea that perhaps this book is often used out of its intended context – maybe a context that was assumed, but left unsaid.

I’d like to share some of the things I have learned over the years, especially as I have worked to integrate the concepts in Learning to See into other facets of the TPS – especially research by Steven Spear, Jeff Liker, and of course, Mike Rother’s follow-on work Toyota Kata with my own experience.

Value Streams

Learning to See introduced the term “value stream” to our everyday vernacular.

Although the term is mentioned in Lean Thinking by Womack and Jones, the concept of “map your value streams” was not rigorously explained until LTS was published.

To be clear, we had been mapping out process flows for a long time before Learning to See. But the book provided our community with a standard symbolic language and framework that enabled all of us to communicate and share our maps with others.

That, alone, made the book a breakthrough work because it enabled a shorthand for peer review and support within the community.

It also provided a simple and robust pattern to follow that breaks down and analyzes a large scale process. This enabled a much larger population to grasp these concepts and put them to practical use.

Learning to See and “Getting Lean”

In Chapter 11 of Lean Thinking, Womack and Jones set out a sequence of steps they postulate will transform a traditional business to a “lean one.”

The steps are summarized and paraphrased in the Forward (also by Womack and Jones) of Learning to See:

  1. Find a change agent (how about you?).
  2. Find a sensei (a teacher whose learning curve you can borrow)
  3. Seize (or create) a crisis to motivate action across your firm.
  4. Map the entire value stream for all of your product families.
  5. Pick something important and get started removing waste quickly, to surprise yourself with how much you can accomplish in a very short period.

Learning to See focuses on Step 4, which implies establishing a future-state to guide you.

In the Forward, Womack and Jones commented that people skipped Step 4 (map your value streams). Today, I see people skipping straight to that step.

Let’s continue the context discussion from the Forward, then dig into common use of the value stream mapping tool..

“Find a change agent (how about you?)” is a really interesting statement. “How about you?” implies that the reader is the change agent. I suspect (based on the “change agents” discussed in Lean Thinking that the assumption was that the “change agent” is a responsible line leader. Pat Lancaster, Art Byrne, George Koenigsaecker were some of the early change agents, and were (along with their common thread of Shingijutsu) very influential in the tone and direction set in Lean Thinking.

Today, though, I see job postings like this one (real, but edited for – believe it or not- brevity):

Job Title: Lean Manager

Reports To: Vice President & General Manager of Operations


Lead highly collaborative action-based team efforts to clean out, simplify and mistake-proof our processes and our strategic suppliers’ processes.

This includes using proven methodological approaches, applying our culture and providing our team with technology, best cross-industry practices and all other resources needed to attain ever higher levels of productivity and customer delight.

Essential Duties and Responsibilities:

Endlessly define, prioritize and present opportunities for applying AWO’s, GB/BB projects and other LEAN principles to our supply chain and customer deliverables.

Develop, plan and execute the plans as selected by the business leaders.

Train all team members (and other selected individuals) in LEAN principles and mechanisms to be LEAN and preferred by customers.

Document procedures/routines, training, team results/best practices and the like.

Coaches business team members in the practical application of the Lean tools to drive significant business impact.

Leads and manages the current state value stream process.

Develops and implements future state value stream processes.


Responsible for planning and assisting in the execution of various Lean transformation events targeted towards improving the business’s performance on safety, quality, delivery, and cost.

Focuses on business performance that constantly strives to eliminate waste, improve customer satisfaction, on-time delivery, reduce operating costs and inventory via the use of Lean tools and continuous improvement methodologies.


Acts as change agent in challenging existing approaches and performance.

Whew. With all of that, here is my question: What is the line leadership expected to do? In other words, what is left for them to do? And what, exactly, are they supposed to be doing (and how) during all of this flurry of activity?

While all of the “change agent” examples outlined in Lean Thinking (which, in turn, provides context for Learning to See), are line leaders, all too often the role of “change agent” is delegated to a staff member such as the above.

I believe it is entirely possible for a line-leader change agent to also be the “sensei” – Michael Balle’s The Lean Manager shows a fictional scenario that does just that.

But if your “sensei” is a staff technical professional, or an external consultant, the “change agent” function is separate and distinct, or should be.

Which leads me to the first question that is never asked:

Why Are You Doing This At All?

That question can be a pretty confrontational. But it is a question that often goes unasked. 

This is especially true where “getting lean” is an initiative delegated to staff specialists, and not directly connected to achieving the strategic objectives of the business. In these cases, “Lean” is expressed as a “set of tools” for reducing costs.

I do not believe that “creating a crisis” is constructive, simply because when motivated by fear people tend to (1) panic and lose perspective and (2) tend to apply habitual responses, not creative ones. If there are high stakes at risk, creativity is not what you should expect.

On the other hand, a narrow and specific challenge that is set as Step Zero helps focus people’s attention and gives them permission not to address every problem all at once (which avoids paralysis and gridlock).

So, if I were to edit that list of steps, I’d change “Create a crisis” to “Issue a challenge to focus the effort” and move it to #1 or maybe #2 on the list. The “Find a sensei” then becomes a countermeasure for the obstacle of “We need AND WANT to do this, but don’t have enough experience.” (That assumption, in turn, implies a driving need to learn doesn’t it?)

These are appropriate roles for the “change agent” – and they are things that can only be effectively done from a position of authority.

Which brings us to back to Learning to See.

Beyond “Value-Added”

Someone, a long time ago, proposed that we categorize activities as “value-added” or “non-value-added.”

We say that a “value-added step” is “something the customer is willing to pay for.” A “non-value-added step” is anything else. Some non-value-added steps are necessary to advance the work or support the business structure.

While this analysis is fundamentally correct at the operational level, and works to get a general sense of what it possible, this approach can start us off on a journey to “identify and eliminate waste” from the process. (Not to mention non-productive debates about whether a particular activity is “value added” or not.)

Right away we are limited. The only way to grow the business using this approach is to use the newly freed up capacity to do something you aren’t doing now. But what?

If that decision hasn’t been made as a core part of the challenge, the leaders are often left wondering when the “lean initiative” will actually begin to pay – because they didn’t answer the “Why must we do this?” question from the beginning.

Without that challenging business imperative, the way people typically try to justify the effort is to:

  • Analyze the process.
  • Try to quantify the waste that is seen. This would be things like inventory, walking distance, scrap, etc. that are easily measurable. More sophisticated models would try to assign value to things like floor space.
  • Add up the “proposed savings”
  • Determine a return on the investment, and proceed if it is worth it.

The idea, then, would be to deliver those savings quickly with some kind of rapid improvement process.

This fundamental approach can be (and is) taken at all levels of the organization. I have seen large-scale efforts run by a team of consultants doing a rapid implementation of an entire factory over a timespan of a few weeks.

I have also seen that same factory six months later, and aside from the lines that were painted on the floor and the general layout changes, there was no other sign the effort had ever been undertaken. In this case, no matter how compelling the ROI, they didn’t get anywhere near it.

One of the tools commonly (ab)used for this process is value stream mapping.

This approach is SO common that if you search for presentations and training materials for value stream mapping on the web, you will find that nearly all of them show describe this process:

  • Map your current state map.
  • Identify sources of waste and other opportunities on the current state map.
  • Depict those opportunities with “kaizen bursts” to show the effort you are going to make.
  • Based on what opportunities you have identified, and your proposed kaizen bursts, develop the future state map to show what it will look like.
  • Develop the new performance metrics for the future state.
  • Viola – make the case to go for it.

Now – to my readers – think for a minute. Where are the “kaizen bursts” in Learning to See? They are on the current state map, right?


Here is the current state map on page 32:



If, on the other hand, I were to ask “What value do we wish we could create for our customers that, today, we cannot?” I open myself up to a host of possibilities, including creating a new value stream that currently doesn’t exist at all – using freed up resources, at essentially zero net cost (or at least heavily subsidizing the new effort).

Now I ask “What must I do to make these resources available to me?”

In the “find and eliminate waste” model, the staff-change agents are often responsible for the “lean plan.” Like the job description above, they are charged with convincing the leaders (who hired them!) that this all makes business sense.

A Manual for How to Meet a Challenge

In “Part III: What Makes a Value Stream Lean” (the green tab) there is a strong hint of the original intent in the second paragraph:

To reduce that overly long lead time from raw material to finished goods, you need to do more than just try to eliminate obvious waste.

This statement implies that the value stream mapper is dissatisfied with the current lead time, and has a compelling need to change it.

What you are looking for in the Future State is how must the process operate to get to the lead time reduction you must achieve.

For example, given a target lead time and a takt time, I can calculate the maximum amount of work-in-process inventory I can have and still be able to hit that objective.

I can look at where I must put my pacemaker process to meet the customer’s expectations for delivery.

Based on that, I can look at the turns I must create in the pull system that feeds it.

Based on that, I can calculate the maximum lot sizes I can have; which in turn, drives my targets for changeovers.

As I iterate through future state designs, I am evaluating the performance I am achieving vs. the performance I must achieve.

What is stopping me from making it work?

What must I change?

If something is too hard to change, what can I adjust elsewhere to get the same effect?

In the end, I have a value stream architecture that, if I can solve a set of specific problems, will meet the business need I started with.

This is my view on the fundamental difference between creating a generic “crisis” vs. stating a compelling performance requirement.

The process outlined in the book is to develop the future state, and then identify what is stopping you from getting there.

Of the eight KEY QUESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE STATE that are outlined in page 58, What process improvements will be necessary for the value stream to flow as your future state design specifies?” is question #8.

It is the last thing you consider.

The kaizen bursts are not “What can we do?”

They are “What must we do?”

The first thing you consider is “What is the requirement?”

“What is the takt time?”

In other words, how must this process perform?

Here is a clip of the future state map from page 78:


The “bursts” are not “opportunities” but rather, they represent the things we have to fix in order to achieve the future state.

In Toyota Kata terms, they represent the obstacles in the way of achieving the target condition, just at a higher level.

What this is saying is “To achieve the future state we need to rearrange the work flow AND:

  • Get the stamping changeovers down to 10 minutes or better.
  • Get the weld changeovers to where we can do them within the takt.
  • Get the welder uptime to 100%.
  • Get the work content for weld + assembly down to under 168 seconds.”

These are the obstacles to achieving the performance we want from the future state value steam.

Notice that the stamping press only has an uptime of 85% on the current state map. There isn’t a corresponding kaizen burst for that – because, right now, it isn’t in the way of getting where we need to go. It might be an issue in the future, but it isn’t right now.

But if we were just “looking for waste” we might not see it that way, and spend a ton of time and resources fixing a problem that is actually not a problem at the moment.

Putting This Together

Thus, I suspect that Learning to See, like many books in the continuous improvement category, was intended for value stream leaders – managers who are responsible for delivering business results.

In my experience, however, most of the actual users have been staff practitioners. Perhaps I should use the 2nd person here, because I suspect the vast majority of the people reading this are members of that group.

You are a staff practitioner if you are responsible for “driving improvement” (or a similar term) in processes you are not actually responsible for executing on a daily basis. You are “internal consultants” to line management.

Staff practitioners are members of kaizen promotion offices. They are “workshop leaders.” They are “continuous improvement managers.” The more senior ones operate at the VP and Director level of medium and large size companies.

No matter what level of the organization, you are kindred spirits, for most of my post-military / pre-consulting career has been in this role.

The people who actually read and study books like Learning to See are staff practitioners.

This creates a bit of a problem, because Learning to See is very clear that the responsible manager should be the one actually building the value stream map. But often, that task is delegated to the staff practitioner.

“Map this value stream, and please present your findings and recommendations.” If you have gotten a request or direction like that, you know what I am talking about. Been there, done that.

In my personal experience, although it gave me valuable experience studying process flows, I can honestly say that relatively few of those proposed “Future States” were actually put into practice.

The one that I vividly remember that was put into practice happened because, though I was a kaizen promotion office staffer, I had start-up direct responsibility for getting the process working, including de-facto direct reports. (That is a different story titled “How I got really good at operating a fork lift”)

Into 2013

Today we see Toyota Kata quickly gaining popularity. The Lean Bazaar is responding, and “coaching” topics are quickly being added to conference topics and consulting portfolios.

I welcome this because it is calling attention to the critical people development aspect that distinguishes the Toyota Management System from the vast majority of interpretations of “lean” out there.

But make no mistake, it is easy to fall into the tools trap, and the Lean Bazaar is making it easier by the way it positions its products.

Just as value stream mapping isn’t about the maps, establishing an improvement culture isn’t about the improvement boards, or the Kata Kwestions.

It is about establishing a pervasive drive to learn. In that “lean culture,” we use the actual process as a laboratory to develop people’s improvement skills. We know that if we do the right job teaching and practicing those skills, the right people will do the right things for the process to get better every day. Which is exactly what the title of Learning to See says.

Creating an Empowered Team

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

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

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

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

“What did you expect to happen?”

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

“What actually happened?”

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

“What did you learn?”

“That empowerment doesn’t work.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

See the illustration above.

Competence and clarity.

I am going to start with the second one.


Or… where the hell are we trying to go?

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

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

Doesn’t work. Never has.

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


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

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

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

In Lean Thinking world, competence means a few things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, I gave them answers and explanations.

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

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

“Captain, I propose we submerge the boat.”

“What do you think I am thinking?”

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

“How would you know it is safe?”

In other words…

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

So here is a challenge.

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

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

Policy Deployment and the Coaching Chain

Gosh, I guess it is a couple of weeks ago now (I’ve been up to my eyeballs in work), Gerd Aulinger posted this presentation up on the Lean Enterprise Institute’s “Kata” page:

I’m obviously interested in your comments as I had some amount of input into the final product.

For that, I would ask that you actually download the SlideShare, print it out, parse it, discuss it with others, and really pick apart what it means.

There is a lot in here, more than you find in a typical LEI workbook.

But I’d also like to discuss what I think are important points made here.

Continuous Improvement is a Line Leader Job

Though it isn’t stated explicitly, the very structure of this example only shows the roles of line leaders. You don’t see anything about kaizen events or rapid improvement workshops led by staff specialists here. Each leader is directly responsible for getting the process to the next required level of performance.

Improvement isn’t “What Can We Do?” It is “What Must We Do?”

There is a business imperative underlying this entire effort. They didn’t just make a value stream map and ask “Hmmm… how much better could we make this by taking out some waste?” Nope, this is driven by a need to get a level of performance that, today, they cannot achieve.

As a sidebar, please note that the “kaizen bursts” are on the FUTURE state map (slide 28) … they represent the OBSTACLES in the way of getting there, not “opportunities” on the current state map.

If you look at the target condition for the changeover, it is 14 minutes. There is nothing sacrosanct about a 10 minute changeover, that is just from the name of a book. They need to get changeovers to 14 minutes to get the process performance they want. It’s math.

Added, thanks to a comment from Kris:

“Catchball” is More About “How” than “What”

You will notice there is some back and forth – what is commonly called “catchball” in the dialog between the various levels of coaching. But they are not discussing the overall business imperative. They are discussing the obstacles, targets, and approach that will be taken to get there.

This is an important point because, in the early days, “catchball” was taught by many consultants as a negotiation of the objectives.

But Nancy’s objective isn’t negotiable. What might be negotiable is how much of her lead time objective gets carried by gear machining vs. the unseen conversation with assembly, a cap-and-trade of sorts, but in the end, her group is on the hook to hit her target.

The Entire Chain is Fractal

When Nancy asks Steve “Which obstacle are you addressing now?” he responds with the long changeover… while that changeover is the target condition between Steve and Roger.

Steve is working with Roger to break that obstacle, to hit the 14 minute changeover, thus this is what he tells Nancy he is working on now. The presentation doesn’t go into the further details of their discussion (heck, it is already up to 80 slides…), but I’d venture to say that conversation is going to be as much about how well Roger is doing figuring it out and his learning conditions as it is the process itself. Why? If Steve did it himself, Roger wouldn’t learn anything.

Continuous improvement is about continuously improving people.

At the next level down, Roger is addressing obstacles one by one.

Roger’s target condition of a 14 minute changeover breaks down to obstacles that he thinks are in the way of getting there. Each of them has an unknown solution, and so must be broken down systematically. The terms change, but the process is just getting finer grained. We finally get down to individual experiments to test an idea and learn more about the process.

Improvement is a Team Sport

There are a lot of sports analogies, heck, “kata” itself is a sports analogy of sorts. But the key is that this isn’t just giving someone an objective and having them report progress. Though the “coaching kata” seems ritualized, there is a lot of nuance.

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of novice coaches, especially those whose normal work patterns are to delegate the details, fall into the trap of thinking they can just recite the coaching questions and they are coaching. It actually takes a lot of practice reading how far you can push your learner today, what he is struggling with, knowing when to give direction, vs. give a hint, vs. let her try something that the coach is pretty sure won’t work but will be a learning opportunity.

That means the coach has to be able to see things the learner or improver might miss. Sometimes those things can only be seen from an outside perspective. That is why expert Olympic-class athletes have coaches. There are some details that cannot be seen from inside.

Being with people in a supportive but challenging way so they can learn and develop is one of the key elements of respect for people.



Mike Rother Overview of Toyota Kata

This is a 5 minute edit of the presentation Mike Rother made at the UK Lean summit.

It is a succinct summary of interaction between a coach (leader) and learner (someone working on improving a process).

My thoughts are below the video…

OK – here are some things I have learned with these methods “in the wild.”

Most organizations I have been working with can’t take on 1-3 year challenges and stay the course for that duration. The horizons are too far for them to see what is possible within that kind of time frame and stay the course.

I have been trying 3-4 month time horizons for initial challenges in organizations where everyone is learning the basics at all levels. That gives them an opportunity to practice with a horizon that is less likely to be derailed by a sudden change in direction during that time. Eventually, as they develop capability, they can extend the time horizon and morph these practice challenges into something more formal, linked to the business plan.

Middle managers like to leap onto the coaching questions much too early – before they are capable of actually coaching. The coaching questions are seductive because they are written down and structured.

The PDCA process is much more nuanced, but it must be mastered before attempting to coach. Why? Because the coaching process is application of PDCA toward the learner’s development.

While it is OK to round-robin coaching and actual process improvement, everyone has to work together to reflect and learn.

In addition, those middle managers tend to try to leap into coaching before they have an internally set non-negotiable sense of “True North” – driving toward better and better flow.

When a middle manager is taking on the role of the “learner” there is a great temptation for him to delegate tasks to others, and get reports. This is status quo, and does nothing at all to develop capability.

Like everything else we do in the West, or at least in the USA, we try to get there fast by skipping the basics.

Make no mistake – you don’t “implement Toyota Kata.”

You use it as a structure to build foundational capability and new thinking patterns.

Those patterns are only developed through practice, and deliberate reflection on the management process itself.

I have also seen an organization that is “getting it” pretty quickly. The difference is that they are all overtly in “we are just learning this” mode, and willing to make mistakes and learn from them vs. trying to appear to be competent from the get-go.

Mike Rother has other videos on YouTube as 734Mike.

“No Question…Sketch!”

One of the more famous tools taught by Chihiro Nakao of Shingijutsu fame is to direct the learner to observe an operation and “sketch the flows.”

Another Time Ideas article by Anne Murphy Paul, How to Increase Your Powers of Observation, validates Nakao’s instinct.

She makes the distinction between casual observation that we all do, and scientific observation.

[…]scientists train their attention, learning to focus on relevant features and disregard those that are less salient. One of the best ways to do this is through the old-fashioned practice of taking field notes: writing descriptions and drawing pictures of what you see. “When you’re sketching something, you have to choose which marks to make on the page,” says Michael Canfield, a Harvard University entomologist[…]  (bold emphasis added)

The common factor here is that, like scientists, we don’t want to simply watch a process, we want to observe it. We want to predict what we think will happen, and then observe to confirm or refute our predictions.

While casual observers simply sit back and watch what unfolds, scientific observers come up with hypotheses that they can test. What happens if a salesperson invites a potential customer to try out a product for herself? How does the tone of the weekly meeting change when it’s held in a different room?

The next time you are in your work area, rather than simply watching, bring a bad and pencil, and sketch out what is happening.

How does the material actually flow through the process? Where does it pause, stop, get diverted?

How to people flow, move into, and out of, the process?

Where does the information come from?

Does the layout support, or get in the way of, smooth flow?

How about the tools, equipment, machines? Do they help the worker get the job done, or make it awkward?

And finally, what actually happens when there is a problem of some kind? How does the team member indicate this? What is the response?

By sketching, you force your eye to see the details that you might have missed. You force yourself to actually see, and might be surprised when that is different from what you assumed was happening.

Sharpen your eye – learn to observe like a scientist.

No question… sketch!

Learning vs. Knowing (or not)

PC once again left a provocative post in the Lean Thinker’s Community, and gave us a link to this Tim Harford TED talk that drives home the point that learning and improvement is more about rapidly discovering things that don’t work than about designing things that do.

Trial and Error

Tom Wujec makes the same point in the Marshmallow Challenge. In that video, Tom talks about how 5 year old kids out perform most adult groups in a problem solving / learning game. While the adults engage in a single cycle of “know-build-fail” the kids engage in multiple cycles of “try-fail-learn-try again.” In the improvement world, we call this process PDCA.

Harford’s key point is that learning only happens through a process of trial of large numbers of ideas, followed by the selection and further trials on the best ones.

Hmmm… that sounds a lot like the 3P process of “Seven Ideas” as well as “Set Based Design.”

From The Toyota Kata Seminar

I am taking the Toyota Kata seminar this week in Ann Arbor. There are two programs offered:

  • A one-day classroom overview of the concepts in Toyota Kata.
  • The one-day classroom overview followed by two days of practice on a shop floor, for a total of three days.

I am taking the three day version.

Impressions of Day 1

There are about (quick count) 36 participants, a big bigger group than I expected considering the premise. I don’t know how many are not going to be attending the shop floor part, but most people are.

I suppose the ultimate irony is the slide that makes the point that classroom training doesn’t work very well for this.

Realistically, I can see it as necessary to level-up everyone on the concepts. The audience runs the gamut of people who have read, studied, written about, made training material from, and applied the concepts in the book; to people who seem to have gone to the class with quite a bit less initial information.

That being said, everyone had some kind of exposure to lean principles, though there was a lot of “look for waste” and “apply the tools” mindset present. Since one of the purposes of the class is to challenge that mindset, this is to be expected.

You can get a good feel for the flow and content of the material itself on Mike Rother’s web site. He has a lot of presentations up there (via Slide Share).

Like any course like this, the more you know when you arrive, the more nuance you can pull out of the discussion.

Since I have been trying to apply the concepts already, my personal struggles really helped me to get a couple of “ah-ha” moments from the instruction.I arrived with a clear idea of what I wanted to learn, and what I thought I already knew. Both pre-disposed me to get insight, affirmation, and surprise learning from the material.

I would not suggest this for anyone who was looking to be convinced. Classroom training in any case doesn’t do that very well, and this material isn’t going to win over a skeptic. You have to be disposed to want to learn to do it.

At the end of the day, the overall quality, etc. of the presentation was pretty typical of “corporate training” stuff – not especially riveting, but certainly interesting. But we don’t do this for the entertainment value, and the learner has a responsibility to pull out what they need in any case.

Insights from Day 2

Day 1 is intended, and sold, as a stand-alone. The next two days are available as follow-on, but not separately.

The intended purpose was to practice the “improvement kata” cycle in a live shop floor environment. Today was spent:

  • Developing our “grasp of the current condition.” There is actually a quite well structured process for doing this fairly quickly, while still getting the information absolutely necessary to decide what the next appropriate target is.
  • Developing a target condition. Based on what we learned, where can this process be in terms its key characteristics and how it performs, in a short-term time frame. (A week in this case)

Key Points that are becoming more tangible for me:

The “Threshold of Knowledge” concept.

I elaborated on Bill Costantino’s (spelled it right this time) presentation on this concept a while ago. In the seminar, I am “groking” the concept of threshold of knowledge a bit better. Here is my current interpretation.

There are really three thresholds of knowledge in play, maybe more. First is the overall organization. I would define the organizations’ threshold of knowledge as the things they “just do” without giving it any thought at all.

For example – one company I know well has embedded 3P into their product design process to deeply that the two are indistinguishable from one another. It is just how they do it.

They still push the boundaries of what they accomplish with the process, but the process itself is familiar territory to them.

Likewise, this company has a signature way to lay out an assembly line, and that way is increasingly reflected in their product designs as 3P drives both.

It wasn’t always like that. It started with a handful of people who had experience with the process. They guided teams through applying it, in small steps, on successively more complex applications until they hijacked a design project and essentially redid it, and came out with something much better.

Another level of knowledge threshold is that held by the experienced practitioner.

Today I walked into a work cell in the host company for the first time, and within a few minutes of observation had a very clear picture in my own mind of what the next step was, and how to get there. My personal struggle today was not in understanding this, but in methodically applying the process being taught to get there. I knew what the answer would be, but I wasn’t here to learn that.

An extended threshold of knowledge in one person, or even in a handful of people, is not that useful to the company.

But that is exactly the model most kaizen leaders apply. They use their expert knowledge to see the target themselves, and then direct the team to apply the “lean tools” to get there.

They tell the team to “look for waste” but, in reality, they are pushing the mechanics. You can see this in their targets when they describe the mechanics as the target condition.

The team learns the mechanics of the tools, but the knowledge of why that target was set remains locked up in the head of the staff person who created it.

So his job is to set another target condition: Expanding the threshold of knowledge of the team.

He succeeds when the team develops a viable target themselves. It might be the same one he had, but it might not. If he framed the challenge correctly, and coached them correctly, they will arrive at something he believes is a good solution. If they don’t he needs to look in the mirror.

So the next level of knowledge threshold is that held by the team itself.

If enough teams develop the same depth, then they start to interconnect and work together, and we begin to advance the organization’s threshold. Now what was previously required a major “improvement event” to develop is just the starting baseline, and the ratchet goes up a bit.

None of the above was explicitly covered today, but it is what I learned. I am sure I’ll get an email from a certain .edu domain if I am off base here. Smile

There is no Dogma in Tools

This is the third explicit approach I have been taught to do this.

The first was called a “Scan and Plan” that I learned back in the mid/late 1990’s. It was more of a consultant’s tool for selecting a high-potential area for that first “Look what this can do” improvement event.

Though I don’t use any of those forms and tools explicitly, I do carry some of the concepts along and apply them when appropriate.

Then I was exposed to Shingijutsu’s approach. This is heavily focused on the standard work forms and tools. Within the culture of Shingijutsu clients, it would be heresy not to use these forms.

The “Kata” approach targets pretty much the same information, but collects and organizes it differently. I can see, for myself, a of better focus on the structure of establishing a good target. I can also see a hybrid between this method and what I have used in the past. Each form or analytical tool has a place where it provides insight for the team.

One thing I do like about the “Kata” data collection is the emphasis on (and therefore acknowledgement of) variation in work cycles. (All of this is in the book by the way. Read it, then get in touch with me if you want some explanation.)

Now, I want to be clear – in spite of the title of this section, when I am coaching beginners, I will be dogmatic about the tools they use. In fact, I plan to be a lot more dogmatic than I have been.

I am seeing the benefit of providing structure so that is off the table. They don’t have to think about how to collect and organize the data, just getting it and understanding it.

What I can do, as someone with a bit more experience, is give them a specific tool that will give them the insight they need. That is where I say “no dogma.” That only applies when the principles are well within your threshold of knowledge.

The real ah-ha is that, unlike the Shingijutsu approach, we weren’t collecting cycle times at the detailed work breakdown level. Why not? Because, at this stage of improvement, at this stage of knowledge threshold for the team, the work cell, that level of detail is not yet necessary to see the next step.

I will become necessary, it just isn’t necessary now.

Target Conditions and PDCA Cycles

One place where my work team bogged down a bit this afternoon was mixing up the target condition that we are setting for a week from now, and what we are going to try first thing in the morning.

The target condition ultimately requires setting up a fairly rigid standard-work-in-process (SWIP) (sometimes called “standard in-process stock) level in the work cell.

There was some concern that trying that would break things. And it will. For sure. We have to stabilize the downstream operation first, get it working to one-by-one, and make sure it is capable of doing so.

The last thing we want to do while messing with them is to starve them of material.

So – key learning point – be explicitly clear, more than once, that the Target Condition is not what you are trying right away. It is the predicted, attainable, result of a series of PDCA steps – single factor experiments. You don’t have the answers of how to do it yet. So don’t worry about the SWIP level right now. That will become easier… when it is easier.

More tomorrow…