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

HBR: Managers Think They’re Good At Coaching. They’re Not.

“No… this is coaching. That means I talk, you listen.”

Many years ago, those words began a 20 minute session that I can best describe as an “a** chewing.” The boss systematically went through all of the little notes he had been saving for over a year – like the fact that someone had commented that I had a cow lick in my hair one day many months ago, which was framed as “lack of grooming.”  None of this, of course, had anything to do with what had triggered the tirade. As I recall I had scheduled a meeting with a supplier over something that he had thought was more important. Needless to say, the guy didn’t have a lot of credibility with the group, as this was pretty normal behavior.

What Is Coaching?

While my (real life!) example may have been a somewhat extreme case, a recent HBR article by Julia Milner and Trenton Milner titled Managers Think They’re Good at Coaching. They’re Not offers up some preliminary research that supports the hypothesis in their title.

What they found was that what most managers described as “coaching” was, in fact, offering direction couched in the form of advice.

As an alternative, they offer up a definition of coaching by Sir John Whitmore:

“unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

I can see where it would be easy to argue about whether or not “teaching them” is actually different from “helping them learn” but I tend (these days) to come down on the side of seeing a big difference.

To quote from David Marquet:

“… they have to discover the answers. Otherwise, you’re always the answer man. You can never go home and eat dinner.”

And, indeed, I see the effect of managers trying to always be “the answer man” every day – even this week as I am writing this.

Milner and Milner conclude with this take-away:

coaching is a skill that needs to be learned and honed over time.

This, of course, is consistent with the message that we Kata Geeks are sending with Mike Rother’s Coaching Kata.

The challenge for these managers is the same as that posed by Amy Edmonson in a previous post, It’s Hard to Learn if you Already Know.

Learning to Coach

The HBR article lists nine skills that the authors associate with coaching:

  • listening
  • questioning
  • giving feedback
  • assisting with goal setting
  • showing empathy
  • letting the coachee arrive at their own solution
  • recognizing and pointing out strengths
  • providing structure
  • encouraging a solution-focused approach

Unfortunately just memorizing this list really isn’t going to help much, because there are effective ways to do these things; and there are ways that seem effective but, in reality, are not.

The question I would like to examine here is how practicing the Coaching Kata might help build these skills in an effective way.

I’m going to start with the second from the last: Providing structure.

The very definition of kata implies a structure. Especially for that critical early practice, the Coaching Kata and Improvement Kata provide a mutually supporting structure for both the Coach and the Learner to practice building their skills. The Starter Kata that Mike Rother describes make up the most rigid form of that structure with very specific activities designed to push problem solving and coaching skills.

As the organization matures, of course, that structure can shift. But even very mature organizations tend to have “the way we do things” which provides a safe structure that people can practice and experiment in. Ironically, this is the very purpose of standardization in the Toyota sense.  (This is very different from what most organizations think of as “standards” – where experimentation is forbidden! )Without this baseline structure, sound experimentation is much more difficult.

Continuing to skip around on the list, let’s look at assisting with goal setting.

The very first step of the Improvement Kata is Understand the Challenge or Direction. Right at the start, the coach must assist the learner with developing this understanding. At the third step we have Establish the Next Target Condition. Here, again, the coach practices assisting the learner to develop a target condition that advances toward the challenge; is achievable; and is challenging.

While novice coaches can struggle with this, the structure of the Improvement Kata gives them a framework for comparison. In addition, the learner’s progress itself becomes data for the coach’s experiments of learning.

Of course questioning is the hallmark of the Coaching Kata. We have the “5 Questions” to start with, and they provide structure for not only questioning but listening as well.

There is a critical difference between giving feedback and giving advice, and beginning coaches – especially those who have formal authority – frequently fall into the trap of “leading the witness” – asking questions intended to lead the learner to their preferred answer. Giving feedback, on the other hand, might be more focused on pushing a bit on untested assumptions or gaps in the learner’s logic or understanding of the chain of cause-and-effect.

Thus, someone practicing the Coaching Kata is learning to let the learner arrive at their own solution vs. leading them to one that the coach has in mind. These are all instances where a seasoned 2nd Coach can help by giving feedback to the coach about her process – working hard to avoid “giving advice” in the form of exactly what follow-up questions to ask. (Believe me, this is more difficult than it sounds, and at least for me, doesn’t get any easier.)

I am going to make an interpretation of encouraging a solution based approach and assume this means exploring the space of possible solutions with experiments vs. “jumping to solution” and just implementing it. I could be wrong, but that is the only interpretation I can think of that fits with the context of the other items on the list.

And finally are the softer skills of showing empathy and recognizing and pointing out strengths. I think it is unfortunate that these skills are typically associated with exceptional leaders – meaning they are rare. These are things I have had to learn through experimentation and continue to work on. But I think I can say that my own practice of the Coaching Kata has given me a much better framework for doing this work.

The Coaching Kata framework is certainly not the only way to develop coaching skills. We have been training effective coaches long before 2009 when the original book was published. And there are very effective training and mentoring programs out there that do not explicitly follow the Coaching Kata / Improvement Kata framework.

BUT I will challenge you to take a look at those other frameworks and see if you don’t find that their underlying framework is so similar that the difference is more one of semantics than anything else.

In my next few posts, I am going to be parsing a course I recently took that is just that.

 

 

 

 

 

KataCon4–Notes along the way: Part 3

I’m going to break a rule of blogging and acknowledge I’ve been pretty much offline for quite a while since the last post. But I also want to push through what I started because this all leads to more.

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My next pages of notes I took at Menlo were about crafting a message for a Kata Geek audience – what is it about Menlo’s process and culture that is relevant to them (you?).

Again, I am going to pretty much transcribe my notes, though I am going to edit a bit as I wrote them in first person as though I was Rich, and I am not going to do that here. In the end, these became a foundation for the keynote I ended up giving following his.

Key Point: These words are mine, and no one else’s. I do not pretend to speak for Rich or anyone else, I was simply consolidating my own thoughts by using a possible talk as a vehicle for myself.

Theme: The Improvement Kata: Experimenting to create a deliberate culture.

(Scene 1: Exposition)

We are probably all after the same thing: To create a workplace where people are excited to come to work every day.

That experience has little to do with the work itself. It emerges when we can create a culture where:

  • Fear has been extracted.
  • Ambiguity (that causes fear) has been eliminated.
  • Relationships are strengthened every day.

I believe Menlo has created that culture. What I want to do today is discuss how you can use what you are learning with Toyota Kata to create these things in your own organization… Even (especially!) if you are not in charge

(Note – this part may be a little confrontational)

If you are in charge, there is nothing and no one stopping you. It is a matter of knowing what you really want, and being accountable to yourself and your team to create it.

Joy is very different from happiness. Joy is what we experience with the release of creative tension (figuring it out).

  • Success vs a challenge
  • Winning a game against a tough opponent.
  • That feeling we get when “it works!”

We can also experience joy with relief or resolution from psychological or physical danger – the same brain chemicals are at work – but this is DRAMA, not creative attention. We don’t want this, because it is relief from FEAR, not a sense of accomplishment.

(Scene II – “The Call”)

To create joy in others, you must fist look at yourself.

  • Cross the bridge
  • Be fearless
  • Take a step
  • Self-empowerment
  • Give yourself permission to NOT get everything right the first time – EXPERIMENT

“The most dangerous thing you can do is try to pretend you know when you don’t” – leads to paralysis by fear of discovery.

Until you can comfortably say “I don’t know” to yourself, you will be unable to learn.

“Find a a coach / be a coach” with whom you can create a bubble of safety to explore your own threshold of knowledge as a change agent. Arm yourself with allies.

(Scene III – “Walk into Mordor”)

In a large organization, middle management sets the tone.

This is the end of the notes I was taking, but these themes get explored more deeply as I continued this journey.

KataCon4–Notes along the way: Part 2

One of the things Menlo does (and I am sure they are not the only ones in their business who do) is create user personas – a biographical profile of a fictional person who represents a category of potential user for the software they are developing.

In Joy, Inc, Rich Sheridan describes the often contentious process of then forcing the customer to pick a single persona as the primary user – the persona whose needs will drive all decisions about optimization. That person goes in the center of their three rings.

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They allow two personas in the 2nd ring, and three in the 3rd ring.

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As they make design decisions about their code and user interface, they always defer to the innermost rings. That doesn’t mean that someone in a ring further out won’t have their needs met, but they will meet those needs in ways that don’t compromise the process for personas closer to the center.

Persona Mapping for KataCon

In the spirit of being a temporary Menlonian, I worked paired with Craig (over the phone, and in a shared Google Doc) and we developed a persona map for KataCon. Of course, had we done this correctly we would have gone back in time to the previous KataCon, gotten the profiles from the attendees lists, interviewed people, and put together profiles for “typical” people who attend.

Since we couldn’t do that, we pushed past our threshold of knowledge and combined experience with a bit of speculation. I did confirm some of our assumptions via a phone call to Dwayne at Lean Frontiers who graciously answered my questions as he was driving across Indiana.

This process forced us to actually think about who was in the audience, and why they were there – what they were seeking from their participation in the conference. As Rich and I talked about his message, and later on as Craig and I worked on our “Experiential Workshop” we used the names of these “people” rather than generic terms like “participant” or “audience.” I found that really focused our conversations.

Who Do You Optimize Your Process For?

This really begs the general question: Who is your process optimized for?

Is it optimized for the person doing the work?

For the customer’s specific experience? And if so, who is the “customer persona” you are optimizing THAT for? For example, for an ideal retail experience, a mom with two kids in tow would be a different customer than a single guy. You likely get both, but if you have do something that slightly compromises one in order to optimize the other… who is in the center ring?

Next up: Target Conditions as User Stories

Only Action Reveals What Must Be Done

I am reading Story by Robert McKee (because the structure of stories interests me). There is a profound passage which totally resonates with everything we discuss here.

Every human being acts, from one moment to the next, knowingly or unknowingly, on his sense of probability, on what he expects, in all likelihood, to happen when he takes an action. We all walk this earth thinking, or at least hoping, that we understand ourselves, our intimates, society, and the world. We behave according to what we believe to be the truth of ourselves, the people around us, and the environment. But this truth we cannot know absolutely. It’s what we believe to be true.

We also believe we’re free to make any decision whatsoever to take any action whatsoever. But every choice and action we make and take, spontaneous or deliberate, is rooted in the sum total of our experience, in what has happened to us in actuality, imagination, or dream to that moment. We then choose to act based on what this gathering of life tells us will be the probable reaction from our world. It is only then, when we take action, that we discover necessity.

Necessity is absolute truth. Necessity is what in fact happens when we act. This truth is known — and can only be known — when we take action into the depth and breadth of our world and have its reaction. This reaction is the truth of our existence at that precise moment, no matter what we believed the moment before. Necessity is what must and does actually happen, as opposed to probability, which is what we hope or expect to happen.

As in life, so in fiction.

In other words, the best we can do is make a prediction. We will not, we cannot, know for certain what will actually happen until it does. The choice we make in that moment to either learn from this experience, or disregard it, is what decides the course from that point.

We are all protagonists in our own lives.

Overproduction vs. Fast Improvement Cycles

A couple of weeks ago ago I posted the question “Are you overproducing improvements?” and compared a typical improvement “blitz” with a large monument machine that produces in large batches.

I’d like to dive a little deeper into some of the paradoxes and implications of 1:1 flow of anything, improvements included.

What is “overproduction” – really?

In the classic “7 wastes” context, overproduction is making something faster than your customer needs it. In practical terms, this means that the cycle time of the producing process is faster than the cycle time of the consuming process, and the producing process keeps making output after a queue has built up above a predetermined “stop point.”

If the cycle times are matched, then as an item is completed by the upstream process, it is consumed by the downstream process.

If the upstream process is cycling faster, then there must be an accumulation of WIP in the middle, and that accumulation must be dealt with. Further, those accumulated items are not yet verified as fit-for-use by the downstream process that uses them.

The way this applies to my “Big Improvement Machine” metaphor is that we are generating “improvement ideas” faster than we can test and incorporate them into the process.

“Small Changes” Doesn’t Mean “Slow Changes”

No matter how good your solution or idea, it is just an academic exercise until it is anchored as the an organizational norm. The rate limit on improvement is established by how quickly people can absorb changes to their daily, habitual routine.

Implementing and testing small changes one-by-one is generally faster than trying to make One Big Change all at once. When we do One Big Change, it is usually actually a lot of small changes.

I hear “we don’t have time to experiment,” but when I ask what really happens if a big change is made, what I hear almost every time is they had to spend considerable time getting things working. Why? Because no matter how well the Big Change was thought through, once you are actually trying it, the REAL problems will come up.

Key Point #1: Don’t waste time trying to develop paper solutions to every problem you can imagine. Instead, “go real” with enough of the new process to start revealing the real issues as quickly as possible.

In other words, the sooner you start actively learning vs. trying to design perfection, the quicker you’ll get something working.

Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast

Your other objective here is to develop the skill within the organization to test and anchor changes quickly, as a matter of routine. This will take time.

When we see a high-performance organization making rapid big changes, what we are typically seeing is making small changes even more rapidly. They have learned, through practice over time, how to do this. It isn’t reasonable to expect any organization to immediately know how to do this.

Key Point #2: If managers, or professional change agents (internal or external consultants, for example) are telling people exactly what to do, this learning is not taking place.

It is critical for the organization to develop this learning skill, and they are only going to do it if they can practice. Learning something new always involves doing it slowly, and poorly at first. If your internal or external consultants are serving you, their primary focus is on developing this basic competence. Their secondary focus is on getting the changes into place. This is the only approach that actually strengthens the organization’s capability.

The same is true for an operational manager who “gets” lean, but tries to just direct people to implement the perfect flow. It will work pretty well for a while. But think about how you (the operational manager) learned this stuff: Likely you learned it by making mistakes and figuring things out. If you don’t give your people a chance learn for themselves, you limit the organization in two ways:

  1. They will never be any better than you.
  2. They will wait to do what they are told, because that is what you are teaching them to do.

Think about what you want your people to be capable of doing without your help, and make sure you are giving them direction that requires them to practice doing those things. It will likely be different than telling them what they layout should look like.

Improve your Cycle Time for Change

Coming back to the original metaphor, if you want fast changes to last, you have to work speeding up the organization’s cycle time for testing improvement ideas. Part of this is going to involve making that activity an inherent and deliberate part of the daily work, not a special exception to daily work.

Part of that is going to be paying attention to how people are working on testing their ideas. The Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata are one way to learn how to deliberately structure this work so that learning takes place. Like any exponential curve, progress seems painfully slow at first. Don’t let that fool you. Be patient, do this right, and the organization will slingshot itself past where you would be with a liner approach.

Small changes, applied smoothly and continuously become big changes very quickly.

Are You Overproducing Improvements?

Imagine a factory with a large monument machine. It takes several days to set up. When it does run, it runs very fast, much faster than you can actually use its output. Therefore, you take the excess output and store it to use later. Actually, you don’t know how many items you need to make, so you make as many as you can while the machine is available to you.

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Some of that excess output may prove to be less useful than you thought, but there is pressure to use it all anyway since it was so expensive to produce.

After a run making items for one process, you change it over to make items for a different process, and build up a queue of output there.

When all of the output is used, it all may or may not work the way you expected it to.

Most of us would see this as a classic case of “overproduction” – overwhelming the system with excess output that hasn’t been checked for quality, that isn’t needed right now, and might or might not be useful in the future. But it seemed like good efficiency to make it while we could.

Our lean thinking tells us we want to do a few things here. Ultimately, we want to work hard to break up the batches, and make the value flow more evenly to each of the customer processes, and ultimately to the end customers. The work we must do to keep things moving smoothly and evenly will pay off in both tangible and intangible ways.

One of the primary reasons we push hard for 1:1 flow in the lean world is to enable one-by-one confirmation.

We want to test each item of output to confirm that it actually performs as expected rather than making lots of them without knowing if they are any good.

How Do You Produce Improvements?

Now, imagine doing improvements this way. What would it look like?

A process would be scheduled to receive the rapid output of the Improvement Machine.

The Improvement Machine would be set up over a period of several days to produce improvements for the target process.

Once it was running, we would run the Improvement Machine very fast for a week or so. It would produce improvements faster than the target process can really absorb them.

At the end of the run, we might test the improvements as a batch. We might not test them at all, but rather report that they have been implemented with the assumption that they will work. We would also have excess improvements stored on a to-do list for future use.

Those excess improvements might, or might not, prove to be useful, but we would have huge pressure to implement them because they are on the list.

Once the machine was done producing improvements for one process, it would be set up to produce improvements the same way for another.

We would measure how many times we were able to run the improvement machine in a year, not so much the actual sustained impact we were making.

Improvements that were made without the machine might not be measured or credited at all. Or worse, these rogue improvements might actually be discouraged since they are made by people who aren’t certified to run the machine.

Now… substitute “kaizen event” for “improvement machine” and see if it makes any sense.

Why Are Big Batches Necessary?

The reason the Large Monument Machine has to cycle batches of output to different customers is because those customer processes don’t have the internal capability to do what it does. We need an outside resource to do it.

The countermeasure we strive to apply in these cases is to identify the capability that the customer process does need. We then work hard to develop it on a scale they can incorporate into their daily work. This is typically smaller, more specialized, and scoped to their needs.

My purpose here, though, is to apply a metaphor, not to discuss the economics of large capital equipment.

When we “batch improvements” it is often for the same reason: The area that is being improved can’t do it themselves, so we have to dedicate a scarce outside resource – an improvement expert – to lead them through it. Since that improvement leader can’t be there 100% of the time, he has to work as hard and fast as he can when he IS there.

Making Improvements vs. Teaching How to Make Improvements

The countermeasure in both scenarios is the same: Develop the capability within the process. In the case of making improvements, this means asking ourselves “Why can’t they do it?”

All of these are harder than just doing it for them. But if we want improvement to flow, this is the work that must be done.

Executive Rounding: Taking the Organization’s Vitals

Background:

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I wrote an article appearing in the current (October 2017) issue of AME Target Magazine (page 20) that profiles two very different organizations that have both seen really positive shifts in their culture. (And yes, my wife pointed out the misspelling “continous” on the magazine cover.)

The second case study was about Meritus Health in Hagerstown, Maryland, and I want to go into a little more depth here about an element that has, so far, been a keystone to the positive changes they are seeing.

Sara Abshari and Eileen Jaskuta are presenting the Meritus story at the AME conference next week (October 9, 2017).

Sara is a manager (and excellent kata coach) in the Meritus CI office. Eileen is now at Main Line Health System, but was the Chief Quality Officer at Meritus at the time Joe was presenting at KataCon.

Their presentation is titled Death From Kaizen to Daily Improvement and outlines the journey at Meritus, including the development of executive rounding. If you are attending the conference, I encourage you to seek them out – as well as Craig Stritar – and talk to them about their experiences.

Mark’s Word Quibble

In addition, honestly, the Target Magazine editors made a single-word change in the article that I feel substantially changed the contextual meaning of the paragraph, and I am using this forum to explain the significance.

Here is paragraph from the draft as originally submitted. (Highlighting added to point out the difference):

[…][Meritus][…] executives follow a similar structure as they round several times a week to check-in with the front line and ensure there are no obstacles to making progress. Like the Managing Daily improvement meetings at Idex, the executive rounding at Meritus has evolved as they have learned how to connect the front-line improvements to the strategic priorities.

This is what appears in print in the magazine:

[…][Meritus][…] executives follow a similar structure as they visit several times a week to check in with the frontline and ensure there are no obstacles to making progress. Like the MDI meetings at Idex, the executive visiting at Meritus has evolved as they have learned how to connect the front-line improvements to the strategic priorities.

While this editing quibble can easily be dismissed as a pedantic author (me), the positive here is it gives me an opportunity to highlight different meanings in context, go into more depth on the back-story than I could in the magazine article, and invite those of you who will be attending the upcoming AME conference to talk to some of the key people who will be presenting their story there.

Rounding vs. Visiting

In the world of healthcare, “rounding” is the standard work performed by nurses and physicians as they check on the status of each patient. During rounds, they should be deliberately comparing key metrics and indicators of the patient’s health (vital signs, etc.) against what is expected. If something is out of the expected range, that becomes a signal for further investigation or intervention.

“Visiting” is what the patient’s family and friends do. They stop by, and engage socially.

In industry, we talk about “gemba walks,” and if they are done well, they serve the same purpose as “rounding” on patients in healthcare. A gemba walk should be standard work that determines if things are operating normally, and if they are not, investigating further or intervening in some way.

I am speculating that if I had used the term “structured leader standard work” rather than “rounding” it would not have been changed to “visiting.”

Executive Rounding

Joe Ross, the CEO at Meritus Health, presented a keynote at the Kata Summit last February (2017). You can actually download a copy of his presentation here: http://katasummit.com/2017presentations/. The title of his presentation was “Creating Healthy Disruption with Kata.” More about that in a bit.

The keystone of his presentation was about the executives doing structured rounding on various departments several times a week. These are the C-Level executives, and senior Vice Presidents. They round in teams, and change the routes they are rounding on every couple of weeks. Thus, the entire executive team is getting a sense of what is going on in the entire hospital, not just in their departments.

Rather than just “visiting,” they have a formal structure of questions, built from the Coaching Kata questions + some additional information. Since everyone is asking the same basic questions, the teams can be well prepared and the actual time spent in a particular department is programmed to be about 5 minutes. The schedule is tight, so there isn’t time to linger. This is deliberate.

After the teams round, the executives meet to share what they have learned, identify system-wide issues that need their attention, and reflect on what they have learned.

In this case, rather than rounding on patients, the executives are rounding to check the operational health of the hospital. They are checking the vital signs and making sure nothing is impeding people from doing the right thing – do people know the right thing to do? If not, then the executives know they need to provide clarity. Do people know how to do the right thing? If not, then the executives need to work on building capability and competence.

In both cases, executives are getting information they need so they can ensure that routine things happen routinely, and the right people are working to improve the right things, the right way. In the long-term, spending this time building those capabilities and mechanisms for alignment deep into the operational hierarchy gives those executives more time to deal with real strategic issues. Simply put, they are investing time now to build a far more robust organization that can take on bigger and bigger challenges with less and less drama.

Results

Though they were only a little more than a year in when Joe presented at KataCon, he reported some pretty interesting results. I’ll let you look at the presentation to see the statistically significant positive changes in employee surveys, patient safety and patient satisfaction scores. What I want to bring attention to are the cultural changes that he reported:

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Leadership Development

Actually points 1. and 2. above are both about leadership development. The executives are far more in touch with what is happening, not only in their own departments, but in others. Even if they don’t round on their own departments, they hear from executives who did, and get valuable perspectives and questions from outsiders. This helps break down silo walls, build more robust horizontal linkages, and gives their people a stage to show what they are working on.

Since executives can’t be the ones with all of the solutions, they are (or should be) mostly concerned with developing the problem solving capabilities in their departments. At the same time, rounding gives them perspective on problems that only executive action can fix. In a many organizations mid-manager facing these systemic obstacles would try to work around them, ignore them, or just accept “that’s the way it is” and nothing gets done about these things. That breeds helplessness rather than empowerment.

On the other hand, if a manager should be able to solve the problem, then there is a leader development opportunity. That is the point when the executive should double down on ensuring the directors and upper managers are coaching well, have target conditions for developing their staff, and are aware of who is struggling and who is not. You can’t delegate knowing what is actually going on. Replying on reports from subordinates without ever checking in a couple of levels down invites well-meaning people to gloss over issues they don’t want to bother anyone about.

Breaking Down Silos by Providing Transparency

The side-benefit of this type of process is that the old cultures of “stay out of my area” silos get broken down. It becomes OK to raise problems. The opposite is a culture where executives consider it betrayal if someone mentions a problem to anyone outside of the department. That control of information and deliberate isolation in the name of maintaining power doesn’t work here. Nobody likes to work in a place like that. Once an organization has started down the road toward openness and no-blame problem solving, it’s hard to turn back without creating backlash of some kind within the ranks.

Creating Disruption

Joe used the term “Disruption” in the title of his presentation. Disruption is really more about emotions than process. There is a crucial period of transition because this new transparency makes people uncomfortable if they come from a long history of trying hard to make sure everything looks great in the eyes of the boss. Even if the top executive wants transparency and getting things out in the open, that often doesn’t play well with leaders who have been steeped in the opposite.

Thus, this process also gives a CEO and top leaders an opportunity to check, not only the responses of others, but their own responses, to the openness. If there are tensions, that is an opportunity to address them and seek to understand what is driving the fear.

In reality, that is very difficult. In our world of “just the facts, ma’am” we don’t like to talk about emotions, feelings, things that make us uncomfortable. Those things can be perceived as weakness, and in the Old World, weakness could never be shown. Being open about the issues can be a level of vulnerability that many executives haven’t been previously conditioned to handle. Inoculation happens by sticking with the process structure, even in the face of pushback, until people become comfortable with talking to each other openly and honestly. The cross-functional rounding into other departments is a vital part of this process. Backing off is like stopping taking your antibiotics because you feel better. It only emboldens the fear.

These kinds of changes can challenge people’s tacit assumptions about what is right or wrong. Emotions can run high – often without people even being aware of why.

Think Big, Change Small

Anton, my Dutch friend, had a study mission group of Healthcare MBA students from the University of Amsterdam visiting Seattle last week.

Friday morning I spent about four hours with them going through the background and basics of the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata, and worked to tie that in to what they observed in their visits to local companies. They were a great, engaging group that was fun to work with.

One thing I do to close out every session I do with a group is ask “What did we learn?” and write down their replies on a flip chart. I find that helps foster some additional discussion and consolidate learning. It also gives me feedback on what “stuck” with them.

Sometimes I get a gem that would make a good title for a blog post. The title of this post is one of those.

Think Big

Alice and the Cat

Alice went on, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where…“ said Alice, “…so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added in explanation.

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if only you walk long enough.”

The question, of course, is whether or not where Alice ends up is where she intends to go. A lot of continuous improvement activity takes this approach –  Look for waste. Brainstorm ideas. Implement them. Just take steps. And, like Alice, you will surely end up somewhere if you do this enough.

I had a former boss (back in the late 90’s) advocate this approach. “We are painting the wall with tennis balls dipped in paint.” The idea, I think, was that sooner or later all of the splotches would start to connect into a coherent color. Maybe. But, at the same time, he was also very impatient for tangible results. Actually that isn’t true. He was impatient for tangible activity which is not the same thing at all.

Direction and Challenge Establish Meaning

In her journeys through Wonderland, Alice learns that objective truth has no meaning in a world of random nonsense. The story, of course, is a parody of the culture and times of Victorian England. It does, however, reflect the frustrations many practitioners can feel when they are just trying to “make improvements.”

As one thing is “fixed,” another pops up for any number of reasons:

  • The “new” problem may well have been hidden by the “fixed” one.
  • Leadership may be chasing short-term symptoms and constantly redirecting the effort.

Day to day it just seems like random stuff, and can get pretty demoralizing.

The point of “Think Big” is that being clear about where WE (not just you) are trying to go helps everyone understand the meaning of what they are doing. That is the whole point of “Understand the Direction and Challenge” as the first step of the Improvement Kata. “What is the meaning behind what you are working on?” It is really a verification check by the coach that the coach has adequately communicated meaning to the learning.

Establish “Why” not “What”

At the same time, it is important for the organization to be clear on why improvement is necessary. I have discussed this a number of times, but keep referring back to Learning to See in 2013 where I ask “Why are you doing this at all?” as the question everyone skips past.

“Where we are going” should not simply be your model of your [Fill Company Name In Here] Production System.

No matter how well explained or understood, a model does not directly address the “Why are we doing this at all?” question that provides meaning to the effort.

It may well establish a good representation of what you would like your process structure to look like, but it does not give people any skill in actually putting these systems into practice, nor a reason to put in the effort required to learn something completely new.

Change Small

Small changes = fast progress as long as there is a coherent direction.

The classic 5 day kaizen event is often an attempt to make a radical improvement in a short period of time. Things usually look really impressive at the end of the week, and even into the next few weeks. What happens, though, is that the follow-up is usually more about finishing up implementation action items than it is working to stabilize the new process.

The problem comes from the baseline assumption that we already understand all of the problems, and our changes will solve them. We line things up, get 1:1 flow running, and yes, there is a dramatic reduction in the nominal throughput time simply because we have eliminated all of the inventory queues.

There is tons of research that backs up the assertion we can’t expect people to be creative when they are under pressure to perform. They are going to revert to their existing habits. During the event itself,  the short time period and high expectations put pressure on people to just implement stuff. People are likely to defer to the suggestions and lead of the workshop leader and install the standard “lean tools” without full understanding of how they work or what effect they will have on the process and people dynamics.

Come Monday morning, we put all of those changes to the test… at once. The people are working in a different way. The problems that will be surfaced are different. The tighter the flow, the more sensitive the system will be to small problems. It is pretty easy to overwhelm people, especially the supervisors who have to decide right now what to do when things don’t seem to be working.

That same pressure to perform exists, only now it is pressure to produce, and possibly even catch up production from what was lost during the previous week. Once again, we can’t expect people to think creatively when these new issues come up, they are going to revert to what they know.

When we do see successful “big change” it is usually the result of many small changes that have each been tested and anchored.

So why is the “blitz” approach so appealing? I think I got some insight into the reason in a conversation with a continuous improvement director in a large corporation. He had so little opportunity to actually engage and break things loose that, when he did, he felt the need to push in everything he could.

My interpretation of this goes back to the first line above: Small changes = fast progress as long as there is a coherent direction. In his case, there wasn’t coherent direction. He had a week, maybe two, to push as hard as he could in the direction he felt things should go. The rest of the time, things were business as usual.

This is why “think big” is important. It provides organizational alignment, and reduces the pressure to seize a limited opportunity and, frankly, inject chaos.

Small, Quick Changes

Because we often don’t see just how long it takes to stabilize a “quick, big change,” we tend to think that quick small changes are slower. I disagree. In my experience the opposite is true.

When there is a clear Challenge and Direction, and frequent check-ins via coaching cycles (or less formal means) on what changes are being made, no time is wasted working on the wrong things.

When small changes are made and tested as part of experiments vs. just being implemented, then there is less chance of erosion later. Rather than overwhelming people with all of the problems at once from a bunch of changes, one-by-one lets them learn what problems must be dealt with. They have an opportunity to always take the next step from a working process rather than struggling to get something that is totally unfamiliar to work at all.

That, in turn, builds confidence and capability.

In a mature organization that has practiced this for years, an outside observer might well see “big changes” being made. But that organization is operating from a base of learning and experience, and what might look big to you might not be big to them. It is all a matter of perspective.

What Do You Think?

I’m throwing this out there, hoping to hear from practitioners. What have you struggled with getting changes made that actually shift people’s behavior (vs. just implementing tools and techniques). What has worked? What hasn’t worked? I’d love to hear in the comments.

Push Improvement vs. Pull Improvement

I’m writing up a proposal for a benchmarking and study week, and just typed the term “push improvement” as a contrast to a true “continuous improvement culture.” I wanted to explore that a bit here, with you, and perhaps I’ll fill in the idea in my own mind.

Push Improvement

A few years ago I was working with a few sites of a multi-national corporation. In one of their divisions, their corporate lean office was pushing various programs into place. Each site was required to implement, and was graded on:

  • 5S
  • Jidoka
  • Heijunka
  • Toyota Kata

plus a few other things. Those are the ones I really remember. Each of these programs was separate and distinct, they had been deployed on some kind of phased time-table over a few years. They also had requirements to maintain some number of Six-Sigma Black Belts and Green Belts in their facilities, with the requirement to report on a number of projects.

They brought me in to teach the Toyota Kata stuff.

In reality, while people taking the class generally thought it was worthwhile, the leadership teams were also a little resentful that all of this stuff was being, in the words of one plant manager, “pushed down our throats.”

Even the Toyota Kata “implementation” had a specific sequence of steps that the site was expected to check off and report their progress on. In addition, there were requirements for how the improvement boards would look, including the position of the corporate logo and the colors used – all in the name of “standardization.”

At the same time, of course, the plants were also measured on their performance – financial, delivery, quality, etc. These metrics were separate and distinct from their audit scores on all of the lean stuff.

On the shop floor, they had the artifacts in place – the boards, the charts, the lines on the floor, but were struggling with making it all work. There was no integration into the management system. Each of these was a program.

I should also point out that, ironically, the plant that was getting the most traction with continuous improvement at the time was the one that was pushing back the hardest against this rote, “standard” approach.

A few years before that, I had been working (as an employee) in another multi-national company. There was a big push from the executives at the very top to develop a set of metrics they could use to determine if a site was “doing lean correctly.” They wanted a set of measurements they could monitor from corporate headquarters that would ensure that any business performance improvement was the result of “doing lean” rather than something else.

Both of these organizations were looking at this as an issue with compliance rather than developing their leaders.

Implementations like these typically involve things like:

  • Developing some kind of “curriculum” and rolling it out.
  • Requiring sites to have a “value stream map” and a “lean plan.”
  • Audits and “lean assessments” against some kind of checklist.
  • Monitoring the level of activity, such as how many kaizen events sites are running.

I have also seen cases of an underlying assumption that “if only we can explain it well enough, then managers will understand and do it.” This assumption drives building models and diagrams that try to explain how everything works, or the relationships between the tools. I’ve seen “pillar models,” puzzles, gears, notional value stream maps, and lots of other diagrams.

In summary, “push improvement” is present when implementing an improvement program is the goal. Symptoms are things such as a project plan with milestones for specific “lean tools” to be in place.

The underlying thinking is that you are doing improvement because you can, not because you must.

This is, I believe, what Jeff Liker and Karyn Ross refer to as mechanistic lean in their book The Toyota Way to Service Excellence.

Relationship to the Status Quo

One of the obstacles that organizations face with this approach is the traditional relationship to the status quo. Most business leaders are trained to evaluate any change against a financial return based on the cost. In other words, we look at the current level of performance as a baseline; evaluate the likely improvement; look at what it would cost to get to that new level and ask “Is it worth doing this?”

If the answer comes up short of some threshold of return, then the answer is “no,” and the status-quo remains as a rational optimum.

Implication: The status-quo is OK unless there is a compelling reason to change it.

For the lean practitioner, this presents a problem. We have to convince management that there is a short-term return on what we are proposing to do in order to justify the effort, time and expense. Six Sigma black belt projects are intently focused on demonstrating very high cost benefit, for example. And, honestly, if you are spending the money to bring in a consultant from Japan and an interpreter, I can see wanting some assurance there is a payback.1

If the discussions are around “What improvements can we make?” and then working up the benefit, you are in this trap. Those benefits, by the way, rarely find their way to the actual P&L unless there is already a business plan to take advantage of them.

The root cause of this thinking may well be disconnection of continuous improvement from whatever challenges the organization is facing; coupled with assumptions that a “continuous improvement program” can be implemented as a project plan on a predictable timeline.

Pull Improvement

Solving Problems

The purpose of any improvement activity is to solve problems. Real problems. In my classes, I often ask for a show of hands from people who have a shortage of problems on a daily basis. I never get any takers. Since there are usually lots of problems – too many to deal with all of them – we need to be careful to work on the right ones. The ROI approach I talked about above is a common way to sort through which ones are worth it. We can also get locked into “Pareto Paralysis”

So which ones should we work on?

Inverting this question, when someone wants to make a change, put in a “lean tool,” etc., my question is “What problem are you trying to solve?” And “we don’t have standard work” is not a problem, it is lack of a proposed solution. In these cases I might ask “…. and therefore?” to try to understand the consequence of this “lack of…” The problem might be buried in there somewhere. But if the issue at hand is trying to raise an audit score for its own sake, we are pack to “Push Improvement.”

A meeting gets derailed pretty fast when people are debating which solution should be applied without first agreeing on the problem they are solving. The Coaching Kata question “Which one [obstacle] are you addressing now?” is intended to get help the learner stay clear and focused on this.

But long before we are talking about problems, we need to know where we are trying to end up. This is why the idea of a clear and compelling challenge is critical.

Challenge First

Organizations that are driven by continuous improvement have a different relationship with the status-quo. Those organizations always have a concrete challenge in front of them. In other words, the status-quo is unacceptable. “Today is the worst we will ever be.”

Cost enters into the discussion when looking at possible ways to reach that destination. But it does not drive the decision about whether or not to try. That decision has already been made. The debate is on how to do it.

The Challenge with Challenges

“Wait a minute… we have objectives to reach too!” Yes, lots of organizations set out objectives for the year or longer. Here are some of the scenarios I have seen, and why I think they are different.

The goal setting is bottom-up. The question “What can we improve?” cascades down the organization, and individual managers set their goals for the year and roll them back up. There may be a little back-and-forth, and discussion of “stretch goals,” but the commitment comes from below. In most of the cases I have seen these goals are carefully worded, the measurements delicately negotiated, with bonuses riding on the level of attainment of these objectives. I have used the word “goal” here because these are rarely challenges or even challenging.

The goal is based strictly on hitting metrics. I have discussed the dangers of “management by measurement” a few times in the past.

A pass is given if there is a strong enough justification made for missing the goal. Thus the incentive to carefully define the metrics, and include caveats and loopholes.

There are measurements but not objectives. Any improvement is OK.

Any true challenge is labeled as a “stretch goal” meaning “I don’t really expect you to be able to reach it.”

And, sometimes the end of the year is an exercise in re-negotiating the definition of “success” to meet whatever has been achieved.

None of this is going to drive continuous improvement, nor align the effort toward achieving something remarkable or “insanely great.”

But here is the biggest difference: FEAR.

Fear of failure. Fear of committing to something I don’t already know how to achieve. Fear of admitting “I don’t know.”

And fear breeds excuses and other victim language that makes sure success or failure was beyond my control.

Fearless Challenges

So maybe that’s it. The key difference is fearless challenge. So what would that look like?

Here I defer to Jeff Liker and Gary Convis’s great book The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership. But I have seen this in action elsewhere as well.

Some key differences here:

  • The challenge comes from above. It isn’t a bottom-up “what can we improve?” It is a top-down “This is what we need to be able to do.”
  • It is an operational need, not a process specification. In other words, it isn’t the “lean plan.” The process specification is what is created to meet the challenge.
  • The challenge is an integral part of developing people’s capability. Perhaps this is the key difference.
  • There is no fear because the challenge comes with active support to meet it. That support, if done well, is both technical and emotional. We’re in this together – because we are.

Improvement = Meeting the Challenge

Given that there is a business or operational imperative established, we are no longer trying to push improvement for its own sake. We have an answer to “Why are we doing this?” beyond “to get a higher 5S score.”

Now there is a pull.

In my Toyota Kata class, I give the teams a challenge that, in the moment, is seemingly impossible. That is intentional. I hear air getting sucked in through teeth. “No way!” is usually the reply when I ask how it feels.

Then, for the next few hours, the teams are methodically guided through:

  • Grasping the current condition – understanding their process as a much deeper level.
  • Breaking down the problem into pieces, taking on one at a time. First a target condition, then specific obstacles.

Depending on how much time they have, 1/4 to 1/3 of the teams crack the problem, a few excel and go beyond, and those that don’t usually acknowledge they are close.

The teams that get there fastest are the ones who get into a quick cadence of documented experiments and learning. They see the problems they must solve much quicker, and figure out what they need to do. I tell them at the start, as I hold up my blank Experiment Records, “The teams that get it are the ones who burn through these the quickest.”

In the process of tackling the challenge, they learn what continuous improvement is really about. I don’t specify their solution. Any hints I give are about what to pay attention to, not what the solution looks like. I don’t deploy tools or give them a template for the solution. At the same time, most teams converge on something similar, which isn’t surprising.

Taking this to the real world – I see similar things. Teams taking on similar challenges on similar processes often arrive at similar looking solutions. But each got there themselves, for their own reasons, often following quite different paths.

While it seems more efficient to just tell them the answers, it is far more effective to teach them how to solve the problem. That is something they can take beyond the immediate issue and into other domains.

Pull Improvement = Meeting a Need

In my post Learning to See in 2013, I posed the question nobody asks: Why are you doing this at all? I point out that, in many cases, value-stream mapping is used as a “what could we improve?” tool, which is backwards from the original intent.

If there is a clear answer to “Why are we doing this?” or, put another way, “What do we need to be able to do that, today, we can’t?” or even “What experience do we aspire to deliver to our customers that, today, we cannot?” then everything else follows. Continuous Improvement becomes a daily discussion about what steps are we taking to get there, how are we doing, what are we learning, what do we need to do next (based on what we learned)?

This is pull. The people responsible for getting a higher level of performance are pulling the effort to get things to flow more smoothly. The mantra here is “not good enough,” but that must be the form of a challenge that inspires people to step up, not punitive.

Then it’s easy because “they” want to do it.

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Epilogue: For the Practitioner

If you are reading this, you are likely a practitioner – someone on staff who is responsible for “continuous improvement” in some form, but not directly responsible for day-to-day operations. I say that because I know, in general, who my subscribers are.

This concept presents a dilemma because while you are challenged with influencing how the organization goes about improving things, the challenge of what improvements must be made (if it exists at all) is disconnected from your efforts.

That leaves you with trying to “drive improvement into the organization” and “be a change agent” and all of those other buzzwords that are probably in your job description.

Here are some things to at least think about that might help.

Let go of dogma. If you think continuous improvement is only valid if a specific set of tools or jargon are used, then you are already creating resistance for your efforts.

Focus on learning rather than doing. You don’t have all of the answers. And even if you did, you aren’t helping anyone else by just telling them what to do. No matter how much sense it makes to you, logical arguments are rarely persuasive, and generally create a false “yes.”

Seek first to understand. Listen. Paraphrase back. Try to get the words “Yeah, that’s right.” to come out of that resistant manager you are dealing with. Remember your purpose here is to help line leadership meet their challenges. Often those challenges are vague, are negative – as in trying to avoid some consequence – or even expressed as implied threats. You don’t have to agree, but you do need to “get it.”

That’s the first step to rapport, which in turn, is necessary to any kind of agreement or real cooperation. As a friend of mine said a long time ago: “You can always get someone’s attention by punching them in the nose, but they likely aren’t going to listen to what you have to say.” Making someone wrong is rarely going to increase their cooperation.

All of this, by the way, is harder than it sounds. I’m still learning these lessons, sometimes multiple times. I’ve been on my own journey of explicit / deliberate learning here for a couple of years.

We have a couple of generations now of improvement practitioners who have been trained with the idea that “lean is good” (or Six Sigma is good, or Theory of Constraints is good, or…). Therefore, it follows, that these things need to be put into place for their own sake – because all of the best companies do them.

This approach, though, reflects (to me) a shallow understanding of what continuous improvement is all about. It skips the “Why?” and goes straight to “How” and “What.” My experience has also been that relatively few of the practitioners steeped in this can actually articulate how the mechanics of these systems actually drive improvement on a daily basis after all of the mechanics are in place beyond a superficial statement like “people would see and remove waste.”

It seems that implementing the mechanics is equated with improvement, when in reality, those mechanics are simply an engine for starting improvement.

Yes, the mechanics are important, but the mechanics are not the reason. We are leaving out the people when we have these discussions. What are they doing every day (other than “following their standard work”)? How do these mechanics actually help them move, as a team, toward a goal they cannot otherwise attain?

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1In its worst manifestation, this thinking can be a cancer on the integrity of the company, for example, GM has had a couple of scandals where it has been revealed that they calculated the ROI of fixing a safety defect vs. the cost of paying off wrongful dealt lawsuits. Don’t even go there!