Make Sure Failure = Learning

Take a look at this cool video from Space-X that highlights all of the failures that preceded their successful (and now more or less routine) landing of a recoverable orbital booster rocket. Then let’s discuss it a bit.

(Here is the direct link if you don’t get the embed in your feed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvim4rsNHkQ)

When we see failure, or even failure after failure, it is easy to forget that learning is rarely linear.

A Culture of Learning

Organizations like Space-X (and their counterparts such as Blue Origin) are in the business of learning. They are pushing the edges of what is known and moving into new territory. For organizations that understand that setbacks, mistakes, failures and the like are an inevitable part of learning, these things – while costly and unpleasant – are regarded as part of the process.

We have seen the same mechanisms in play – a process of experimentation toward progressive target conditions toward a visionary challenge – behind pretty much every breakthrough achievement throughout history.

No Mistakes = No Learning

At the opposite end of the spectrum are organizations with no tolerance for mistakes. They expect everything (and every one) to get everything right every time. They dismiss as incompetent any notion of failure, and attack as weakness any admission of “I don’t know” or “I don’t know how.”

A few years ago, as I was teaching Toyota Kata coaching with a client, a middle manager approached me during a break and said – point blank – that it was not his responsibility to develop his people. “Our policy is to hire competent people, and we expect them to be able to do the job.” He wasn’t the only one to say that, so I built the impression that this belief was, indeed, part of their culture. Needless to say they struggle a bit with getting innovation to happen because they try to mechanize the process.

Mistakes = Tuition

Here’s how I look at it. When a mistake happens – especially one that is expensive – you have paid considerable tuition. Your choice now is to either extract as much learning as you can from the event, or to try to ignore it and move on. The later choice is like paying your tuition up-front, then skipping all of your classes and wonder why you aren’t getting it.

Learning = Adapting to Change

Organizations that manage in ways that regard learning as part of their everyday experience are much more adaptive to changes and surprises than those who just execute their routines every day. The paradox here is that organizations who value learning are generally the most disciplined at following their routines. This discipline makes execution a hypothesis test, and they can quickly see when their process isn’t appropriate and adapt and learn quickly as an organization. They strengthen their routines, and through those routines, embed what they have learned in the organization’s DNA for future generations.

Organizations that figure it out as they go, on the other hand, tend to rely on individuals to adapt, but there is no mechanism to capture that learning beyond the individual or small group. Sometimes there is a “lessons learned” document, but that’s it. Those reports rarely result in the changes in organizational behavior that reflect learning. I suppose the most egregious case would be the loss of the space shuttle Columbia upon re-entry for exactly the same organizational failures that resulted in the loss of Challenger.

Technical vs. Cultural Learning

Space-X is solving a technical problem with science and engineering. I hope (and expect) that as they become more successful they will always be striving for something really hard that will drive them to the next level. Based on what I see publicly, I think that is embedded into their culture by Elon Musk. (But I don’t really know. If anyone from Space-X is reading this, how about getting in touch? I’d love to learn more.)

I expect this works for Space-X because they have a culture of learning.

What doesn’t work, though, is to try to apply technical solutions to transition a rote-execution culture into a learning culture. Changing the culture – the default behaviors and responses of people as they interact – isn’t about improving the mechanics of the work process. You certainly can work on the work processes, but the starting condition is what evolved in the context of the organization’s culture. The mechanics of the “improved” process that we try to duplicate evolved in the context of a learning culture. The ecosystems are different. It is difficult for a lean process to survive in a culture that expects everything to run perfectly and doesn’t have robust mechanisms to turn problems into improvements.

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.

Summary

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.  🙂

Learning Starts With “I Don’t Know”

If an organization wants to encourage learning, they have to get comfortable with not having all of the answers. Learning only happens when we discover something we don’t know, and then actively pursue understanding it. Many organizations, though, equate “having the answers” or “already knowing” with “competence.” Thus, if I say “I don’t know” then I am setting myself up for being regarded as incompetent.

What I see in these organizations is people will take great pains to hide problems. They will try very hard to figure things out, but do so in the background always reporting that everything is going fine. They live in the hope that someone else’s problem will emerge as the show-stopper before theirs does, and give them the extra time to sort out their issue.

Meanwhile, the bosses are frustrated because people aren’t being truthful with them. But what should they expect if “truth” attracts accusations of being incompetent?

But… there is hope.

I was talking to a friend last week who works in a huge company that seems to be making an earnest effort to shift their culture. There is nearly unanimous agreement that the existing culture isn’t working for them. On the other hand, actually changing culture is really, really hard because it involves changing people’s immediate, habitual responses to things.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged when my friend recounted a recent meeting where someone admitted two things:

  1. There was an unexpected problem that came out in a recent test.
  2. They, right now, don’t know how to fix it.

Just to be clear, these two things coming out in this meeting is a big deal. This has been a culture where unexpected problems have not been warmly received. Bringing them up without a confident assessment about a prospective solution was inviting the kind of intervention that is rarely helpful.

This time, though, was a little different.

The leaders started going down the expected responses such as “What do you mean we don’t know what to do?” then… stopped short. They paused, and realized this was not in line with their newly stated values of creating trust and accepting failure as an inherent part of learning.

And they changed their tone. They shifted the conversation from trying to assign responsibility blame for the test failure toward asking what we, the organization, needed to learn to better understand what happened.

My thoughts are:

Kudos to the person who was brave enough to test the waters and admit “I don’t know.”

Toyota Kata: Reflection on Coaching Struggling Learners

The “Five Questions” are a very effective way to structure a coaching / learning conversation when all parties are more or less comfortable with the process.

The 5 Questions of the Coaching Kata

Some learners, however, seriously struggle with both the thinking pattern and the process of improvement itself. They can get so focused on answering the 5 questions “correctly” that they lose sight of the objective – to learn.

A coach, in turn, can exacerbate this by focusing too much on the kata and too little on the question: “Is the learner learning?”

I have been on a fairly steep learning curve* in my own journey to discover how modify my style in a way that is effective. I would like to share some of my experience with you.

I think there are a few different factors that could be in play for a learner that is struggling. For sure, they can overlap, but still it has helped me recently to become more mindful and step back and understand what factors I am dealing with vs. just boring in.

None of this has anything to do with the learner as a person. Everyone brings the developed the habits and responses they have developed throughout their life which were necessary for them to survive in their work environment and their lives up to this point.

Sometimes the improvement kata runs totally against the grain of some of these previous experiences. In these cases, the learner is going to struggle because, bluntly, her or his brain is sounding very LOUD warning signals of danger from a very low level. It just feels wrong, and they probably can’t articulate.

Sometimes the idea of a testable outcome runs against a “I can’t reveal what I don’t know” mindset. In the US at least, we start teaching that mindset in elementary school.

What is the Point of Coaching?

Start with why” is advice for me, you, the coach.

“What is the purpose of this conversation?” Losing track of the purpose is the first step into the abyss of a failed coaching cycle.

Coach falling over a cliff.

Overall Direction

The learner is here to learn two things:

  • The mindset of improvement and systematic problem solving.
  • Gain a detailed, thorough understanding of the dynamics of the process being addressed.

I want to dive into this a bit, because “ensure the learner precisely follows the Improvement Kata” is not the purpose.

Let me say that again: The learner is not here to “learn the Improvement Kata.”

The learner is here to learn the mindset and thinking pattern that drives solid problem solving, and by applying that mindset, develop deep learning about the process being addressed.

There are some side-benefits as the learner develops good systems thinking.

Learning and following the Improvement Kata is ONE structured approach for learning this mindset.

The Coaching Kata, especially the “Five Questions” is ONE approach for teaching this mindset.

The Current Condition

Obviously there isn’t a single current condition that applies to all learners. But maybe that insight only follows being clear about the objective.

What we can’t do is assume:

  • Any given learner will pick this up at the same pace.
  • Any given learner will be comfortable with digging into their process.
  • Any given learner will be comfortable sharing what they have discovered, especially if it is “less than ideal.”

In addition:

  • Many learners are totally unused to writing down precisely what they are thinking. They may, indeed, have a lot of problems doing this.
  • Many learners are not used to describing things in detail.
  • Many learners are not used to thinking in terms of logical cause-effect.
  • The idea of actually predicting the result in a tangible / measurable way can be very scary, especially if there is a history of being “made wrong” for being wrong.

Key Point: It doesn’t matter whether you (or me), the coach, has the most noble of intentions. If the learner is uncomfortable with the idea of “being wrong” this is going to be a lot harder.

Summary: The Improvement Kata is a proven, effective mechanism for helping a learner gain these understandings, but it isn’t the only way.

The Coaching Kata is a proven, effective mechanism for helping a coach learn the skills to guide a learner through learning these things.

For the Improvement Kata / Coaching Kata to work effectively, the learner must also learn how to apply the precise structure that is built into them. For a few people learning that can be more difficult than the process improvement itself.

Sometimes We Have To Choose

A quote from a class I took a long time ago is appropriate here:

“Sometimes you have to choose between ‘being right’ or ‘getting what you want.’”

I can “be right” about insisting that the 5 Questions are being answered correctly and precisely.

Sometimes, though, that will prevent my learner from learning.

Countermeasure

When I first read Toyota Kata, my overall impression was “Cool! This codifies what I’ve been doing, but had a hard time explaining.” … meaning I was a decent coach, but couldn’t explain how I thought, or why I said what I did. It was just a conversation.

What the Coaching Kata did was give me a more formal structure for doing the same thing.

But I have also found that sometimes it doesn’t work to insist on following that formal structure. I have been guilty of losing sight of my objective, and pushing on “correctly following the Improvement Kata” rather than ensuring my learner was learning.

Recently I was set up in the situation again. I was asked to coach a learner who has had a hard time with the structure. Rather than trying to double down on the structure, I experimented and took a different approach. I let go of the structure, and reverted to my previous, more conversational, style.

The difference, though, is that now I am holding a mental checklist in my mind. While I am not asking the “Five Question” explicitly, I am still making sure I have answers to all of them before I am done. I am just not concerned about the way I get the answers.

“What are you working on?” While I am asking “What is your target condition?,” that question has locked up this learner in the past. What I got in reply was mostly a mix of the problems (obstacles) that had been encountered, where things are now, (the current condition), some things that had been tried (the last step), what happened, etc.

The response didn’t exactly give a “Target Condition” but it did give me a decent insight into the learner’s thinking which is the whole point! (don’t forget that)

I asked for some clarifications, and helped him focus his attention back onto the one thing he was trying to work out (his actual target condition), and encouraged him to write it down so he didn’t get distracted with the bigger picture.

Then we went back into what he was working on right now. It turned out that, yes, he was working to solve a specific issue that was in the way of making things work the way he wanted to. There were other problems that came up as well.

We agreed that he needed to keep those other things form hurting output, but he didn’t need to fix them right now. (Which *one* obstacle are you addressing now?). Then I turned my attention back to what he was trying right now, and worked through what he expected to happen as an outcome, and why, and when he would like me to come by so he could show me how it went.

This was an experiment. By removing the pressure of “doing the kata right” my intent is to let the learner focus on learning about his process. I believe I will get the same outcome, with the learner learning at his own pace.

If that works, then we will work, step by step, to improve the documentation process as he becomes comfortable with it.

Weakness to this Approach

By departing from the Coaching Kata, I am reverting to the way I was originally taught, and the way I learned to do this. It is a lot less structured, and for some, more difficult to learn. Some practitioners get stuck on correct application of the lean tools, and don’t transition to coaching at all. I know I was there for a long time (probably through 2002 or so), and found it frustrating. It was during my time as a Lean Director at Kodak that my style fundamentally shifted from “tools” to “coaching leaders.” (To say that my subsequent transition back into a “tools driven” environment was difficult is an understatement.)

Today, as an outsider being brought into these organizations, my job is to help them establish a level of coaching that is working well enough that they can practice and learn through self-reflection.

We ran into a learner who had a hard time adapting to the highly structured approach of the Improvement Kata / Coaching Kata, so we had to adapt. This required a somewhat more flexible and sophisticated approach to the coaching which, in turn, requires a more experienced coach who can keep “the board” in his head for a while.

Now my challenge is to work with the internal coaches to get them to the next level.

What I Learned

Maybe I should put this at the top.

  • If a learner is struggling with the structured approach, sometimes continuing to emphasize the structure doesn’t work.
  • The level of coaching required in these cases cannot be applied in a few minutes. It takes patience and a fair amount of 1:1 conversation.
  • If the learner is afraid of “getting it wrong,” no learning is going to happen, period.
  • Sometimes I have to have my face slammed into things to see them. (See below.)
  • Learning never stops. The minute you think you’re an expert, you aren’t.

__________________

image* “Steep learning curve” in this case means “sometimes learning the hard way” which, in turn means, “I’ve really screwed it up a couple of times.”

They say “experience” is something you gain right after you needed it.

Team Member Saves

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Now and then one of your team members makes a great save. They catch something that could have caused a defect, an accident, or done harm in some way.

Often we celebrate these saves, sometimes informally, sometimes formally. And that is well and appropriate.

But let’s make sure we are celebrating for the right reasons.

The save isn’t what should be celebrated.

Rather, the celebration should be a big THANK YOU for finding a gap in your process.

Somehow the process is capable of producing a defect, resulting in an accident, or doing harm. Your team member noticed that.

We usually just celebrate correcting the immediate problem.

But What is preventing exactly the same thing from happening tomorrow?*

image

That front-line customer-facing team member is your last line of defense.

They only get an opportunity to make a “save” when every other point in the process has failed to detect the  problem.

Given enough “shots” at this front line team-member, sooner or later, one is going to get through.

What happens then? Is the inverse logic applied? “You should have caught that.”

Perhaps, but where in the process was the problem actually created?

Somewhere, long before this diving catch, there is an instant when the process went from operating safely and defect free to creating an opportunity, an opening, for a problem to pass undetected.

Where and when was that moment?

Or is that how the process normally operates, and we are just lucky most of the time?

Dig in, think about it.

And thank that team member for saving you, but don’t count on it every time.

———-

*Thanks to Craig for this great way to sum up the question.

The Lean Plateau

Many organizations trying to deploy lean get great results for the first couple of years, then things tend to stall or plateau. This is in spite of continued effort from the “lean team.”

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We Still Don’t Have a Lean Culture

This was the comment by the Continuous Improvement director of a pretty large corporation. They had been running improvement events for several years, everyone had pretty much been through one.

Each of the events had made pretty good strides during the week, but the behavior wasn’t changing. Things were eroding behind the events, even though everyone agreed things were better.

It was getting harder and harder to make more progress. They had hit the plateau.

What Causes the Lean Plateau?

While it might not be universal, what I have seen happen is this:

The implementation is led by a small group of dedicated technical experts. They are the ones who are looking for opportunities, organizing the kaizen event teams, leading workshops, and overseeing the implementation of lean techniques.

While this works in the short term, often the last implemented results begin to erode as soon as the lean experts shift their attention elsewhere.

At first, this isn’t noticed because the implementation is proceeding faster than the erosion.

However the more areas that are implemented, the faster the erosion becomes. There is simply more “surface area” of implemented areas.

At some point, the rate of erosion = the rate of implementation, and the lean team’s efforts start to shift from implementing new areas to going back and re-implementing areas that have eroded.

The lean team’s capacity becomes consumed re-implementing, and they spend less and less time going over new ground. They are spending all of their time “spinning the plates” and no time starting new ones.

Key Point: The lean plateau occurs when the level of implementation effort and the rate of erosion reach an equilibrium.

In the worst scenario, sooner or later financial pressures come into play. Management begins to question the expense of maintaining an improvement office if things aren’t getting significantly better on the bottom line. What they don’t see is that the office is keeping things from getting worse, but they aren’t called the “maintain what we have office” for a reason.

Breaking the Lean Plateau

When I was a lean director in a large company, we were confronting this very question. We had a meeting to talk about it, and quickly started blaming “lack of management commitment.”

Leaders Weren’t Stepping Up

In any given area, after education and planning, our last step was always to have a major effort to put flow production into place. Since the performance of the area would be substantially better, we expected the leaders to work hard to continue that performance.

What actually happened in an area was “implemented,” was the line leaders in that area – supervisors, managers, senior managers – weren’t working to look for erosion and correct it.

Instead, when a problem was encountered, they were making some kind of accommodation that compromised flow. The effect of the problem went away, but things had eroded a bit.

What we thought we learned: The weren’t “supporting the changes.”

What we really learned – though it was only realized in hindsight: This is the mechanism of “erosion.”

Flow production is specifically designed to surface small problems quickly. If there is no mechanism to detect those problems, respond, correct, and learn, then the only thing leaders can do is add a little inventory, add a little time, add an extra operation.

As Hirano put it so well decades ago:

All waste is cleverly disguised as useful work.

But Our Current Condition was Incomplete

There were outliers where it was working.

As we talked, we realized that each of us had experience with an outlier – one or two areas that were actually improving pretty steadily. Trying to understand what was different about these bright spots, we looked for what they all had in common. Surprisingly:

  • They were areas with no dedicated improvement teams.
  • They ran few, if any, 5-day kaizen events.
  • They were geographically close to one of us (senior “Directors”).
  • One of us had decent rapport with the area management team.
  • We each had an informal routine with them: We would drop by when we had time, and walk the work area with the area leader. We could discuss the challenges they were facing, how things were operating, go together to the operations concerned, and look at what was happening. We could ask questions designed to “sharpen the vision” of the leader. Sometimes they were leading questions. Most of the time they were from genuine curiosity.
  • By the time we left, there was generally some action or short term goal that the leader had set for himself.

Even though we “lean directors” had never worked together before, our stories were surprisingly consistent.

The Current Condition (Everywhere Else)

aka Dave’s Insight

The next logical question was “If that is what we do, what happens everywhere else? What do the lean staff people do?”

Now we were trying to understand the normal pattern of work, not simply the outcome of “the area erodes because the leaders don’t support the changes.”

Dave confidently stood up and grabbed the marker. He started outlining how he trained and certified his kaizen leaders. He worked through the list of skills he worked to develop:

  • Proficiently deliver the various topical training modules – Waste vs. Value Add; Standard Work; Jidoka; Kanban and Pull;
  • “Scan” an area to find improvement opportunities.
  • Establish the lean tools to be deployed.
  • Organize the workshop team.
  • Facilitate the “Vision”
  • Manage the “Kaizen Newspaper” items
  • etc

and at some point through this detailed explanation he stopped in mid sentence and said something that brought all of us to reality (Please avert your eyes if you are offended by a language you won’t hear on network TV):

“Aw… shit.”

What we realized more or less simultaneously was this:

Management wasn’t engaged because our process wasn’t engaging them.

Instead, our experts were essentially pushing them aside and “fixing” things, then turning the newly “leaned” area over to the supervisors and first line managers who, at most, might have participated in the workshop and helped move things around.

Those critical front line leaders were, at best left with a to-do list of ideas (kaizen newspaper items) that hadn’t been implemented during the 5 days.

There was nothing in the structure to challenge them to meet a serious business objective beyond “Look at how much better everything runs now.” The amount of improvement was an after-the-fact measurement (or estimate) rather than a before-we-begin imperative.

So it really should be no surprise that come Monday morning, when the inevitable forces of entropy showed up, that things started to erode. The whole system couldn’t have been better designed for that outcome.

Why the Difference in Approach?

In retrospect, I don’t know. Each of us senior “lean directors” had been taught, or heavily influenced by, Toyota-experienced Japanese mentors, teachers, consultants.

When we engaged the “outlier” areas, we were following a kinder, gentler version of what they had taught us.

On the other hand, what we were teaching our own people was modeled more on what western consultants were doing. Perhaps it is because it is easier to use forms and PowerPoint for structure than to teach the skills of the conversations we were having.

Implement by Experts or Coached by Leaders

That really is your choice. The expert implementation seems a lot easier.

Unfortunately the “rapid improvement event” (or whatever you call them) system has a really poor record of sustaining.

Perhaps our little group figured out why.

There are no guarantees. No approach will work every time. But a difficult approach that works some of the time is probably better than an easy path that almost never works.

Toyota Kata: What is the Learner Learning?

In the language of Toyota Kata we have a “coach” and a “learner.” Some organizations use the word “improver” instead of “learner.” I have used those terms more or less interchangeably. Now I am getting more insight into what the “learner” is learning.

The obvious answer is that, by practicing the Improvement Kata, the learner is learning the thinking pattern that is behind solid problem solving and continuous improvement.

But now I am reading more into the role. The “learner” is also the one who is learning about the process, the problems, and the solutions.

Steve Spear has a mantra of “See a problem, solve a problem, teach somebody.” This is, I think, the role of the learner.

What about the coach?

The coach is using the Coaching Kata to learn how to ask questions that drive learning. He may also be un-learning how to just have all of the answers.

As the coach develops skill, I advise sticking to the Coaching Kata structure for the benefit of beginner learners. It is easier for them to be prepared if they understand the questions and how to answer them. That, in turn, teaches them the thinking required to develop those answers.

Everybody is a Learner

The final question in the “5 Questions” is “When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?” It isn’t when can I see what You have learned. It is a “we” question because nobody knows the answers yet.

The Destructiveness of “What Can You Improve?”

“What Can You Improve?”

Leaders often ask “What can you improve?” as an empowerment question. In reality, it may have the opposite effect.

I am coming to the belief that “What can you improve?” (about your job, about your process) is possibly one of the most demotivating, disempowering, destructive questions that can be asked.

What can you work on?” is another one of many forms this question takes. “How could you improve this process?” is another. What they all have in common is the psychological trap they set.

Now this really isn’t that much of a problem in a company that has a history of transparency in leadership, comfort with discussing the truth, and no need for excuses or justifications. Then again, those companies tend not to ask these questions straight-on.

But the vast majority of organizations aren’t like that. That doesn’t mean they are unkind. Rather, they operate in an environment where truthfully answering this question is difficult at best.

The Psychological Trap

To answer that question with anything other than trying to guess what you want, implies I have:

  • Thoroughly examined my results and the underlying processes.
  • Identified gaps in performance.
  • Know what to do about those gaps.
  • And haven’t done anything about it until you asked.

This puts me in the position of either defending the status-quo, or saying that I need to improve something that is out of my control – someone else’s process needs improvement so I can do better.

Hint: If you are a leader, and you ask a “What can you improve?” question and get an answer like the above – defending the status-quo or pointing to an outside problem –, there is fear in your organization. Justified or not, the person answering is struggling to maintain the impression that everything they can do is being done. Why do they feel the need to do this? Think about it.

This is especially pervasive in support / staff departments with a charter of influencing how other organizations perform, or in those who must work together with line organizations to succeed in their tasks. In industry this might be maintenance, HR, industrial engineering, or even the “improvement office” (who are often not a  beacon of internal efficiency or effectiveness).

A Bit of Background

When I start working with an organization, we usually start with practicing the basic mechanics of the Improvement Kata in a classroom setting. We then follow up immediately with kick-starting some live improvement cycles so we can begin practical application. Classroom learning really doesn’t do much good unless it is applied immediately.

Applying the Improvement Kata is a lot harder in the real world than it is in the classroom. I could go into a tangential rant on why I think our primary and secondary education system makes it harder, but I’ll save that for another day.

Even though I am as adamant as I can be on the importance of the organization identifying challenges for the new improvers / learners, the reality is that most organizations don’t know how to do this, or at least aren’t comfortable with it.*

As a result, the new improvers often struggle to define a “challenge” for themselves.

They guess – because they haven’t yet studied their process (which is the next step once context is established, they haven’t yet established a target condition (which is the step after that), and therefore, they haven’t identified what improvements they must make to get to the challenge state.

And if that guess is something in someone else’s domain, or worse if the “coach” has something else in mind, they are told “That’s not it,” they guess again, and eventually get defensive or give up.

Now – to be clear, this doesn’t happen every time. But I have seen it enough, across multiple organizations in very different domains that it’s a problem. And it is frustrating for everyone when it happens.

I indirectly addressed this topic a long time ago in “How the Sensei Sees.” Now, though I am talking about my own direct observation of the effect. And I am still learning how to deal with the fallout without becoming part of the problem.

It’s not the learner’s problem. It is a leadership problem.

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*Dave Kilgore at Continental Automotive had the additional insight that it is important for beginners that this challenge should be something important but not urgent so they don’t feel pressured to jump to an immediate solution. This is a good example of “constancy of purpose” – his priority is developing the skill level for improvement first.

Prediction Doesn’t Equal Understanding

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

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

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

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

Photo of Stonehenge
Creative Commons flickr user garethwiscombe

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

Let’s go to our understanding of processes.

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

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

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

But they are inadequate for improvement or problem solving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Message for Management:

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

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

“Seek first to understand.”

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

 

 

“We Need To…”

When working with large organizations, I frequently hear a surprising level of consensus about what must be done to deal with whatever challenge they are facing.

Everyone, at all levels, will agree on what must be done. They will say “We need to…” followed by statements about exactly the right things, yet nobody actually does it. They just all agree that “we need to.”

I even hear “We need to…” from very senior leaders.

It’s a great car, I wish we made more of them.

– Attributed to Roger Smith, CEO of GM, following a presentation on the Pontiac Fiero.

I can’t come up with a clever name for this, but it is really the opposite of Jerry Harvey’s “Abilene Paradox” where a group embarks on an activity that no one actually wants to carry out. In this case, a group doesn’t take action toward something they all agree must be done.

I would contend that “We need to” spoken to no one in particular is an artificial substitution of the word “we” that does not actually include “I.” Substitute “they” for “we” and you hear what is really being said.

“They need to…”

“Somebody needs to…”

This isn’t clarity. It isn’t accountably. It is a wish.

In Turn the Ship Around, David Marquet challenged (actually ordered) his crew to never use the word “they” to refer to any crewmate on the submarine. This shift in language was an early step toward shifting the teamwork dynamic on the USS Santa Fe. Marquet comments “We don’t have teamwork. We have a rule. You can’t say ‘they’.” but the truth was that the linguistic shift precipitated a shift in the behavior and then the underlying thinking.

This week we asked the question: What small change to their language could we challenge a leadership team to make that would shift the dynamic of “We need to” from general, ambiguous statement toward taking a step to fix it.

What should follow “We need to…” to turn it into accountable language?

One suggestion that came up would be to follow “We need to…” with “…therefore I…

By making that thinking explicit, we might tacitly flush out “We need to, therefore I intend to wait for someone to tell me to do something.” or “We need to, therefore I am going to hope it happens.” or “We need to, but there’s nothing I can do.”

Realistically, no one would say those complete sentences on purpose, but a struggle to come up with something more concrete might trigger some reflection on the underlying thinking.

Maybe we can turn “We need to, therefore I…” into describing one step the speaker can take in his or her organization without seeking permission*. There is always something that can be done.

This doesn’t need to be scripted or literal. It might just take a self-empowered voice to ask “We all seem to agree on what must be done. What step are we going to take, today, to move in that direction?”

Action Step: Challenge your team when you hear “We need to.” Are you talking about an anonymous “they” or taking a concrete action step? Who, exactly, is “we” if doesn’t include “me”?

Never give up.

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*Keeping in mind that “without permission” does not always mean “I have the authority to do it.” It just means “It is the right thing to do, so I’m going to do it.”