KataCon4–Notes along the way: Part 1

The 2018 Toyota Kata summit (KataCon4) ended several weeks ago. During the first three summits, I posted daily updates. This time I didn’t. Since the conference ended, I started a couple of posts trying to summarize but it’s been difficult. Here’s why – Starting last December when I visited Menlo, I’ve been learning and thinking so fast that by the time I wrote anything down, what I wanted to say had changed.

So KataCon4 was, for me, an event along a timeline, and I haven’t been able to separate those three days from everything else.

As part of my own effort to reflect and consolidate where I am, I am going to do my best to write up where I have been along this little journey and share it with you.

Even now, I am probably going to do the best I can to capture this stream of consciousness, not necessarily a concrete insight (yet).

Raw Notes from Menlo

I’m going back to December. What follows is largely unfiltered from the notes I took on a yellow pad while sitting in Menlo’s work space. Some of this is just my impressions, some of it is thoughts for a message for KataCon. I’m going to format the notes as quotes, to distinguish them from any afterthoughts I am adding as I review them to write this.

Menlo 12/12

  • Wow!
  • I am the only person here not talking to someone.

Possible themes

  • Experiments –> Culture
  • Deliberate, purposeful
  • Innovation follows the IK pattern. Learn it. Use it on everything you do.

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.”

– John Gall

That quote (above) is painted in big letters in one of the two meeting rooms at Menlo. The rooms have glass walls facing the work area.

Thought: Imagine creating a screenplay like this.

What I meant here was I could totally envision a workshop of writers all working on scenes that would assemble into a comprehensive story. The organization seems that robust for coordinating multiple parallel efforts toward a common, integrated goal.

—————–

Quick ( <5min ) stand-up meeting on how to handle communicating a mistake to a client.

image

——————-

Possible application for [client] staff meeting:

  • Staff member has fixed daily time for dealing with “action items”
  • At meeting, estimate time to complete.
  • Create a “story card” put on board.
  • Follow up next day.
  • What was done?
  • What was learned?

——————–

Thought: the structure drives the IK pattern more than the conversations.

The structure has evolved with this purpose – to ask and answer the “5 questions” automatically, unconsciously, as an inherent part of the work.

They don’t ask the 5 questions, but as a part of the daily routine, the answers to them are explicitly, or implicitly, discussed.

——————-

“Structure” = “Routines & Rituals” –

The embedded repeating patterns are deliberately designed into the work.

Designed to: Common understanding of…

Maintain direction and challenge between Menlo and the client.

– Developed iteratively through HTA process.

Get a thorough understanding of the current condition (workflow, personnas, etc)

Establish successive target conditions

– Story cards and deadline = delivered, testable function = change in current condition

Iterate against unknowns toward TC

Verify new TC

This process highly structured but organic and evolving as required to meet needs as we learn.

It is a complex system, anchored, evolved from simple systems that worked.

You can’t copy it, you have to develop it through your own deliberate learning.

Started with “Let’s try it” on a small scale, even though there is tons of literature describing it.

——————

How we feel [values] drives how we think.

How we think drives what we do.

Get crystal clear on your values.

  1. What emotion are you striving to create? (JOY!)
  2. What will you absolutely do?
  3. What will you absolutely never do?

Next Post: Making this relevant for the Kata Geeks.

KataCon People: Skip Steward

imageOne of the main reasons to attend KataCon is to learn from others. While many conferences are an audience listening to keynote presentations, KataCon is more of an annual get-together of a community. Whether you are considering attending for the first time (please do!), or a veteran “Kata Geek,” it is an opportunity to learn how people are applying the core principles of mutual learning to their challenges and problems.

One of the co-hosts this year is Skip Steward. I first met Skip face-to-face at KataCon 1 in Ft. Lauderdale. The work he has facilitated (I think he would push back if I said “led”) within the Baptist Memorial Healthcare system has been remarkable.

I managed to get Skip on the phone, and ask him some open ended questions about what he sees as the value of the Kata Summit, and what he has learned about Toyota Kata along the way. This is what he said:

 

Why Host?

When Jim first asked me to host, I had to think long and hard. It was two weeks before I responded. This was way beyond my own threshold of knowledge. Then I thought, if it makes me uncomfortable, that’s OK, it is something I should do.

 

What value do you get from attending KataCon?

If I can only go to one conference a year, it is KataCon, period.

I go because I want to hear the how people have struggled and how they overcame obstacles. Something every year impacts my thinking. For example – I think it was Beth last year that said “We don’t experiment toward the target condition, we experiment against obstacles.” That was a profound insight for me.

Another was when someone asked about “just go do” items in the Kata Geek meetup, and you and Mike both said “Sometimes a go-do is an experiment.” I realized how important it is to always have an expected outcome and check what actually happened, even for a “just go do it” item.

 

How would you characterize your journey so far?

Mark, you know what we’re trying to do at Baptist – it is never about “implementing lean.” It is about creating a management system, and Kata is the meta-routine behind all good management systems.

When people come to visit us, they always ask about elements. “How do you think about implementing standard work?” or “How do you think about implementing Job Instruction?” I tell them, “I don’t think about implementing anything.” Instead, we have an experimental mindset. We use Kata to learn. That lets us avoid training for its own sake. Instead we experiment our way forward as we learn how to do something.

What About You (the reader)?

Are you a KataCon regular? Or coming for the first time? Either way, I’d love to hear from you. Let me know your experience, or what you expect to learn, and whether or not I can write about it here.

Mike Rother: The Toyota Kata Practice Guide

When I landed in Detroit last week to visit Menlo Innovations, Mike Rother picked me up at the airport. As soon as I settled in to the passenger’s seat, he handed me my long-anticipated copy of his new book The Toyota Kata Practice Guide. That is the first disclaimer here. The second disclaimer is that last winter he asked if I would do him a favor and take a look through the manuscript with a red pencil. Um… YEAH!

Thus, I can’t say this post is an unbiased book review. Quite the opposite.

What I am going to do here is go through the book and alternately share two things:

  1. Why I think this is a great read for anyone, no matter your skill level or experience with Toyota Kata.
  2. Reflections on my own experience that may have been amplified as I went through it.

The other caveat I really have to offer is this: I have the hard copy of the book. I am absolutely referring to it for the content I am citing. That being said, I drew a lot of the deeper insights I am reporting when I was parsing the manuscript. That was much more than “reading” as I had to really think about what the author is trying to say rather than just read it. If you are serious about learning, I suggest you take your time as you, too, go through the book. Don’t just read. Parse.

And a final disclosure: if you click on the links mentioning the books, it will take you to the Amazon.com page. If you choose to buy the book, I get small affiliate kickback that doesn’t affect the price you pay.

A Bit of History: Toyota Kata has Evolved

From my perspective, I think Toyota Kata as a topic has evolved quite a bit since the original book was published in 2009. The Practice Guide reflects what we, as a community, have learned since then.

As I see it, that evolution has taken two tracks.

1. More Sophistication

imageOn the one hand, the practice has become more sophisticated as people explore and learn application in contexts other than the original industrial examples. Mike Rother and Gerd Aulinger published Toyota Kata Culture early this year. That book provides working examples of vertical linkage between organizational strategy and shop floor improvement efforts. Most of the presenters at Lean Frontier’s recent online Kata Practitioner Day were describing their experiences applying what was outlined in that book. Last year’s KataCon featured a number of presenters who have adapted the routines to their specific situations, and we have seen the Kata morph as they are used “in the wild.” This is all OK so long as the fundamentals are practiced and well understood prior to making alterations – which brings us to the second point.

2. Better Focus on Kata as Fundamentals

The other evolution has been a better insight that the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata are, in Mike Rother’s words, Starter Kata. They aren’t something you implement. They are routines to practice as you develop the underlying skill.

If you go to a Toyota, or a Menlo Innovations, you won’t see them using Toyota Kata. They don’t have to because the routines that the Kata are designed to teach are already embedded in “the way we do things” in organizations like that.

We use the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata to learn so that, at some point in the future, we too can create a culture where the underlying thinking is embedded in “the way we do things.” You don’t have to think about it, because it is a habit.

Rather than being a fairly high-level summary of the research findings (as the original book was), the Practice Guide is what the title suggests: A step-by-step guide of how to practice and what to practice.

The Toyota Kata Practice Guide

With all of that as background, let’s dig into the book.

The book is divided into three discrete sections. I’m going to go through the book pretty much in order, with the section and chapter titles as headers.

Part 1: Bringing Together Scientific Thinking and Practice

The first part of the book is really an executive summary of sorts. It is an excellent read for a manager or executive who wants better understanding of what this “Toyota Kata” thing you (my reader here) might be advocating. It sets out the fundamental “Why, what and how” without bogging down in tons of detail.

Scientific Thinking for Everyone

This is the “Why”  and “What.”

In the first chapter Mike Rother makes the case that “scientific thinking” is the meta-skill or habit that found in most (if not all) learning and high-performance organizations. I agree with him. I believe organizations with an innate ability to reflexively apply good scientific thinking are the ones who can readily adapt to changes in their environment. Those who cannot are the ones who keep doing the same things in the face of evidence that screams “Change!”

The next key point is that “scientific thinking” is not the default habit of the vast majority of adult humans – for lots of good reasons leading to our survival as a species. It is a learned skill.

Learning a skill requires practice, plus knowing what and how to practice. The Improvement Kata provides a pattern for practice as well as initial routines to follow in order to get the fundamentals.

And that point is what separates the Practice Guide from the vast majority of business books. Most business books speak in general terms about principles to apply, and ways you should think differently. They are saying that “you need to develop different habits,” and even telling you what those habits should be, but come up short on telling you how to change your existing habits to those new habits.

Thus if you, the reader of the book, are willing to say “I want to learn this thinking pattern,” as well as say “… and I am willing to work at it and make mistakes in order to learn,” then this book is for you. Otherwise, it probably isn’t. That’s OK.

For the rest of you, read on.

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 go into increasing depth on the process of “deliberate practice” how the structure of the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata supports it.

Part 2: Practice Routines for the Learner (The Improvement Kata)

At a high level the “Improvement Kata” is expressed as a four step process that maps to pretty much any process of learning, discovery or problem solving that works.

image

In this section, there is a chapter for each of the steps above that sets out, in detail:

  • The higher level purpose of the step – the “why?”
  • The discrete steps you should practice, including detailed “How to” instructions as step-by-step Starter Kata that a learner should follow precisely while he is grounding on the basics.

I believe it is equally important for new coaches to work hard to keep their learners focused on the Starter Kata as well – you are both in learning mode. (More about coaches in the next section.)

I do, though, want to discuss the one step where I can see people having the biggest struggle mapping the explicit Starter Kata to their own situation: Grasp the current condition.

The Starter Kata steps for Grasping the Current Condition are explicit and detailed. At a high level they are:

1. Graph the Process Outcome Performance

2. Calculate the Customer Demand Rate and Planned Cycle Time

3. Study the Process’s Operating Patterns

4. Check Equipment Capacity

5. Calculate the Core Work Content

The book devotes several pages to how to carry out each of these steps. However, the examples given in the book, and the way it is usually taught, use the context of industrial production processes. This makes sense. Industry is (1) the origin of the entire body of thought and (2) the world the vast majority of practitioners live in.

But we legitimately get push-back from people who live in a world outside of industry. What I have found, though, is when we work hard to figure it out, we can usually find solid analogies where the Starter Kata do apply to practically any non-industrial process where people are trying to get something done.

Often the mapping isn’t obvious because people in non-linear work are less aware of the repeating patterns they have. Or they live in worlds where the disruptions are continuous, and though a cadence is intended, it seems to be impossible to achieve. However, if you are legitimately making an effort, and having trouble figuring out how to apply the Starter Kata outlined in the book to your own experience, here is an offer: Get in touch. Let’s talk and see if we can figure it out together.

A Little More about Starter Kata

The concept of “Starter Kata” is new since the publication of the original book. Actually it isn’t really new, just much more explicit now.

When we see working examples, such as in books about A3 Problem Solving, we are often looking at the work of people who are unconsciously competent, if not masters, of doing this.

To someone trying to learn it, though, all of these “different approaches” can be confusing if they are trying to just understand what they should do. A coach trying to help by giving them a lot of general guidelines as decision criteria often isn’t helping much to clarify the confusion. (And may well be adding to the frustration.)

The point of a “Starter Kata” is to provide a high level of structure that can guide the learner until she “gets” the higher level purpose. In traditional east-Asian martial arts, this higher purpose is often left unspoken, with the intent that the learner will reflect and come to deeper understanding.*

In the Practice Guide Mike is much more clear about the underlying “why” of the emphasis on initial rote practice. We, the readers, are in Stage 1 in this illustration:

image

 

If you are trying to understand what Toyota Kata is about, or you are trying to up your own skills for process improvement or problem solving, then read the steps that are set out in the book and follow them exactly as they are written to the best of your ability. Do this even (especially!) if they don’t seem 100% appropriate to the problem you are trying to solve.

“But I’m not a beginner” you might say.

Let me issue this personal challenge: Pretend you are a beginner. All of us can learn from going back and applying the basics. You may well discover:

  • Additional insights about things you are already doing. (Which I did.)
  • Some approaches that are simpler and more effective than what you have evolved over the years. (Which I did.)
  • More comfort with using these Starter Kata as a teaching guide for others. (Which I have.)

Although this material on the Improvement Kata has been “out in the wild” for some time, I think I can honestly say that The Toyota Kata Practice Guide is a vastly better expression than I have seen anywhere else – including earlier material from Mike Rother – and my own previous material for that matter. (I started making changes to my own materials based on my early look at the manuscript.)

Part 3: Practice Routines for the Coach (The Coaching Kata)

This is the new and exciting part.

While there has been a fair amount about the Improvement Kata out there for a while, the only things we have had about coaching have been the “5 Questions,” a few YouTube videos and some general principles. I’ve tried on this site to relate my own experiences as I learned, but The Toyota Kata Practice Guide is, in my view, the first truly comprehensive reference that wraps up everything we knew up to this point in a single reference.

Tangent: Learn to Play Before You Coach

Though this is part of the message in the book, what follows are my own experiences and interpretations.

Nearly all managers want to jump right into coaching. They see the “5 Questions” and some of them think that is all there is to it – just ask those questions and we’re good. Actually, that’s kind of OK so long as you realize that you are probably making mistakes, and are consciously and deliberately reflecting on what those mistakes might be. But that reflection is often what doesn’t happen – people tend to presume competence, and don’t challenge their own role if they see learners struggling. It is a lot easier for me to blame the learner, or to say “this kata thing doesn’t work” than it is to question my own competence.

Until you have struggled as a learner to apply the Improvement Kata (using the Starter Kata) on a real problem (not just a classroom exercise) that affects the work of real people and the outcomes to real customers, please don’t just pick up the 5 Questions card and think you are a coach.

Coaching Starter Kata

If you truly understand the Improvement Kata, and then go to a Toyota, or other company that has a solid practice for continuous improvement, you will readily see the underlying patterns for problem solving and improvement. Coaching, though, is a bit more abstract – harder to pin down into discrete steps.

Read John Shook’s excellent book Managing to Learn (and I highly recommended it as a complement to The Toyota Kata Practice Guide), and you will get a good feel for the Toyota-style coaching dialog. You won’t read “the 5 Questions” in that book, nor will you see the repetitive nature of the coaching cycles that are the signature hallmark of Toyota Kata.

Here’s why:

There are a couple of ways to learn that master-level coaching. One is to work your entire career in an organization that inherently thinks and talks this way. If you do, you will pick it up naturally “as the way we do things” and won’t give it another thought. Human beings are good at that – its social integration into a group.

Imagine, if you would, growing up in a community where everyone was a musician. Thinking in the structure of music would be innate, you wouldn’t even be aware you were doing it. Growing up, you would learn to play instruments, to sing, to compose, to arrange music because that is what everyone around you was doing. That is also how we learn the nuance of language. We can see throughout history how mastery in arts tends to run in families. This is why.

And that is how the coaching character in Managing to Learn gained his skill.

But if you want to learn music, or another language, or some other skill, when you aren’t immersed in it all day, then you have to learn it differently. You have to deliberately practice, and ideally practice with the guidance of someone who not only has the skill you are trying to learn but also has the skill to teach others. (Which is different.)

The question Mike Rother was trying to answer with his original research was “How can the rest of us learn to think and coach like that?” – when we don’t live in that environment every day. In those cases we have to be overt and deliberate.

The real contribution that Mike has made to this community is to turn “coaching” from a “you know it when you see it” innate skill into a routine we can practice to learn how to do it. I can’t emphasize that enough.

And, although the Coaching Kata is taught within a specific domain of process improvement, the underlying questions are the basis for anything people are working to achieve. Cognitive Based Therapy, for example, is structured exactly the same way.**

OK – with all of those rambling thoughts aside, let’s dig back into the book.

As in the previous section, we begin with an introduction section that gives an overview of what coaching is actually all about.

Then the following chapters successively break down the coaching cycle into finer and finer detail.

Coaching Cycles: Concept Overview

This chapter emphasizes the cadence of coaching cycles, the importance of frequent practice (for both the coach and the learner), and the purpose and structure of the “5 Questions.”

A key point that bears emphasizing here is that the purpose of coaching is to advance the learner’s knowledge, both of the process being addressed and the “art of scientific thinking.” Thus, the reason the coach asks the questions is to learn where the boundary is between what the learner knows, and what the learner doesn’t know.

Often the learner himself isn’t aware of that boundary. Again, it is human nature to fill in the narrative, complete the story, and create meaning – jump to conclusions even with limited evidence. By asking for specifics, and by gently asking for evidence – “How do you know?” types of questions, the coach learns that point where the learner moves beyond objective facts and into speculating. (Or, ideally, says “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know” about something that needs to be understood or known.) The “next step or experiment” should be a step that pushes that threshold of knowledge boundary out a little further.

In the book, we get an example coaching dialog, and some warnings and cautions about commonly ingrained habits we probably all have to “give the answers” rather than “ask the questions.”

This chapter wraps up with some advice about when (and why) you (as a coach) might need to let go of the formal structure if a learner is struggling with it.

How To Do a Coaching Cycle: Practice Routines

After the overview, Mike gets down to what to do, how do give good corrective feedback, and keep the learner in the game psychologically.

He then gives us a detailed example coaching dialog, and afterwards, puts us into the role of the 2nd Coach, challenging the reader to predict what feedback the 2nd coach should give before reading what actually happens.

The dialog is followed by what I think is the most powerful part of the book as he guides us through each of the “5 Questions.” For each one, we get a description of why that question is important, its purpose, followed by:

  • Key Points – Advice that reflects feedback and helpful tips gained over the years from the entire community.
  • Clarifying Questions – Possible follow-on questions that can help the coach clarify what the learner is intending and thinking.
  • Potential Weak Points – Things to specifically look for that can help the learner construct better logical connections and experiments.

This chapter, in my view, is alone worth the price of the book. Everything else is bonus material.

Conclusion

This post took me quite a bit longer to write than I predicted it would, and I’ll judge that it is still rougher than I would like. But I am going to suppress my inner perfectionist and put it out there.

Anyone who knows me is aware that, even before it was published, I have made no secret about touting this book to anyone who is interested in continuous improvement.

In the end, though, this book is asking you to actually do some work. People who are looking for easy answers aren’t going to find them here. But then, I really don’t think easy answers can be found anywhere if we are honest with ourselves.

As I said about the original book back in 2010, I would really like to find copies of The Toyota Kata Practice Guide on the desk of every line leader I encounter. I want to see the books with sticky notes all over them, annotated, highlighted. The likely reality is that the primary readers will be the tens of thousands of staff practitioners who make up the bulk of the people who are reading this (you aren’t alone).

If you are one of those practitioners, YOUR challenge is to learn to teach by the methods outlined here, and then learn to apply them as you coach upward and laterally to the leaders of your respective organizations. Those conversations may have different words, but the basis is still the same: to help leaders break down the challenges they face into manageable chunks and tackle the problems and obstacles one-by-one.

One Final Note:

The overall theme for the 2018 KataCon is practice – keying off of the release of this book. Come join us, share your experiences, and meet Mike Rother, Rich Sheridan, and other leaders in this awesome community.

——–

*Those of us who were taught by Japanese sensei, such as Shingijutsu (especially the first generation such as Iwata, Nakao, Niwa) were expected to follow their instructions (“Don’t ask Why?… Say “Hai!”). It was implied, but never stated, that we should reflect on the higher-level meaning. Over the years, I have seen a fair number of practitioners get better and better at knowing what instructions would be appropriate in a specific case, but never really understand the higher-level meanings or purpose behind those tools. Thus, they end up as competent, but mechanistic, practitioners.

**Note: Mastering the Coaching Kata will not make you a therapist, though it may help you empathetically help a friend in need.

Toyota Kata and The Menlo Way

I have been telling everyone who will listen to read Rich Sheridan’s book Joy, Inc. ever since I came across and read it in the fall of 2015.

Fast forward to earlier this year when Lean Frontiers sent out their request for suggested keynote speakers for KataCon. I wrote to Mike Rother and asked him “Do you think we could get Rich Sheridan?”

Skip ahead a bit more, and I spent four days last week at Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor – two days “in the chalk circle” paying close attention to the actual day-to-day work there, and two days working (pairing) with Rich Sheridan to work out the key beats for his KataCon keynote.

 

The “So What?” Test

Menlo is well known as a benchmark for a great working culture. But the question you may be asking (and, honestly I hope you ARE asking it) is “What does Menlo Innovations and agile software development have to do with Toyota Kata?”

If you visit Menlo (and I really hope you do!) here is what you won’t see:

  • Learner storyboards.
  • “5 Questions” coaching cycles.
  • Obstacle parking lots.
  • Experiment Records (PDCA Records)

In other words, you won’t see the explicit artifacts that characterize an organization using Toyota Kata to learn how to think about improvement scientifically. In that sense, Menlo isn’t a “Toyota Kata” benchmark.

OK… and?

You don’t see those things at Toyota either. You don’t go to Toyota to see “Toyota Kata.”

The Underlying Thinking Pattern

What you will see (and hear… if you pay attention) at Menlo Innovations is an underlying pattern of scientific thinking and safe problem solving in everything they do.

Let’s review what Toyota Kata is really all about.

Rather than re-writing something elegant here, I am going to quote from my part of an email exchange between Mike Rother, Rich Sheridan and me:

Going back to Mike’s original research premise, we knew that Toyota has this pretty awesome culture thing, but didn’t really understand the “secret sauce” of the exact structure of their interactions. Put another way, we saw and understood all of the artifacts, but copying the artifacts doesn’t copy the culture.

Mike’s research was really the first that dug deeper into the interactions that the artifacts support.

Once he extracted that “secret sauce” he then boiled off all of the other stuff, and what remained at the bottom of the pot was the Improvement Kata steps and the Coaching Kata steps.

In practice at Toyota, those things are deeply embedded in the artifacts. Sometimes they aren’t even spoken.

My informal hypothesis was that if I spent time paying attention to, not just the artifacts, but the way those artifacts guided interactions at Menlo, and then boiled off the other stuff, what would remain at the bottom of the Menlo pot would also be the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata steps. And, though I didn’t do this formally, and yes, I had confirmation bias working here, I believe I can safely say “I have no evidence to contradict this hypothesis.”

For example:

In our conversation on Friday, Mike pushed back a bit on “just run the experiment,” [context clarification: Experiments to randomly try stuff, without a clear target condition rarely get you anywhere] but the reality I observed and heard was that “purpose” (challenge and direction) and “current condition” are deeply embedded in the day-to-day interactions, and “just run the experiment” is, indeed, working on a specific obstacle in the way of a target condition of some kind.

[…]

“What problem are you trying to solve?” is Menlo jargon that I overheard many times just listening to people talk.

Within Menlo, that term is contextual. Sometimes it is about the higher-level direction and challenge.

Sometimes it is about an intermediate target condition.

Sometimes it is about an immediate problem or obstacle.

As we say in Kata world, it is fractal. It is truly fractal at Menlo as well, to the point where the words don’t change at various levels.

The words DO change at various levels in Toyota Kata’s jargon, but we can’t get hung up on the terms, we have to look at the structure of problem solving.

Menlo’s co-founders already had this thinking pattern, and deliberately sought to embed it into the culture of the company they were starting. There wasn’t really any need to explicitly teach it because they weren’t trying to change the default behavior of an organization. New Menlonians learn the culture through the interviewing and on-boarding process and adopt very quickly because the very structure of the work environment drives the culture there.

In fact, spend any time there even just hanging out, and it is very difficult NOT to get pulled into The Menlo Way. Like everyone else, Rich and I were in the daily stand-up as pair-partners, reporting our work progress on his keynote.

image

What About Toyota Kata?

Menlo has had hundreds (thousands, actually) of visitors, and those who are “lean savvy” all ask if Menlo is “using lean” as their guideline. The answer is “no, we are just trying to solve problems.” While they have certainly incorporated most of the artifacts of “agile software production,” the purists push back that they aren’t “really doing it” because they didn’t copy those artifacts exactly. Nope. They used them as a baseline to solve Menlo’s problems.

When we see an awesome problem-solving culture, it is tempting to try to reverse engineer it by copying the physical mechanics, such as heijunka boxes (work authorization boards), kanban, “standard work” and the like.

But we have to dig down and look at the routines, the behavior that those artifacts and rituals support. When we do, we see the same patterns that Toyota Kata is intended to teach.

You need to begin with the thinking pattern. Use Toyota Kata to learn that.

As you do, take a look at your artifacts – the procedures, the policies, the control mechanics of your work. Reinforce the ones that are working to create the kind of culture you want. Challenge the ones that are getting in your way. Do both of those things as deliberate experiments toward a clear vision of the culture you want to create.

That is the benefit of studying companies like Menlo.

I hope to see you all at KataCon, hear what Rich has to say to our community, and establish a link between these two communities that have, up to now, been separate.

katasummit.com

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.

The Ecosystem of Culture

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An organization’s culture and mindset evolve over time. When confronted with a problem or challenge, the organization (or more accurately, the people in the organization) view it through a filter of their experiences. Ideas that they believe have worked for them under past similar conditions are more likely to be applied again. Ideas that have seemed less successful, or more difficult, in the past are less likely to be applied again.

Over time, this collective experience determines how they respond to the day to day rough spots as well as more serious challenges. Those unconscious biases drive the responses, and in turn, shape how their processes are structured.

Different Cultures = Different Ecosystems

The process mechanics in a company like Toyota evolved over decades in a very specific organizational culture ecosystem, with specific values and beliefs shaped by their historic experiences.

When we are looking at the current processes in a different company, we are seeing the process mechanics that evolved in their management culture. Those process mechanics are optimized by the pressures that are exerted by the way THAT company is managed. Since Toyota is managed differently, its processes are optimized by different pressures, so will look different.

If we take Toyota’s process mechanics and shift them into a different ecosystem, they will have the different pressures exerted upon them. Different default decisions will be made. These alien process mechanics will likely begin to resemble the legacy processes rather quickly, if they survive at all.

This is why the promise of a rapid and dramatic change in operational results is frequently unfulfilled. The process mechanics are imported from a tropical rain forest, and installed in an alpine meadow. As beautiful as it looks in one environment, it won’t stand for long in the other.

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Adjusting the Culture vs. Adjusting the Process Mechanics

If we want this transplant to work, we have to pay careful attention to those evolutionary pressures. In practical terms, this means we try the new mechanics, we must watch carefully to learn what problems they reveal. We also need to observe the decisions that are made when these problems come up.

What adjustments need to be made in the way people interact, and to the immediate response to problems or surprises if this new process is to thrive?

Having a formal structure for this deliberate self-reflection is critical.

The Improvement Kata is engineered to specifically drive this kind of reflection by making changes as experiments, then deliberately reflecting with the question “What have we learned?”

For this to work, of course, we must be honest with ourselves and not just issue a flip answer like “It doesn’t work.”

Because we are asking people to adjust their responses, we are asking them to do things which are unfamiliar and may well run opposite from what they have experienced as successful for them in the past. If we try to move too fast, we are asking them to trust an alien process which is, in their experience, unproven in their environment. We might be asking them to reveal their own limits of knowledge – which is very scary for most of us.

That, in turn, asks for reflection on why “I don’t know…” is so scary to admit in the organization’s culture.

We have sold “lean” as a deceptively simple set of common-sense process mechanics with the idea that if we just implement them, we’ll get incredibly great results. As true as that is, “just implement them” is a lot harder than most of the “rapid improvement” models imply.

There is a lot going on behind what appears to be well understood and simple on the surface.

Obstacles: Right Now vs. Longer Term

A couple of weeks ago Gemba Academy filmed my Toyota Kata class and some shop floor work with a live audience at one of their customer’s sites. One of the participants asked a really good question. Upon reflection, I think I can answer it better here than I did “live,” so I’m going to take a do-over.

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Background

The team had analyzed their current condition, had established a pretty good target condition, and was working through obstacles.

One of the obstacles was around the fact that the written procedures had not kept up with the way the work was really being performed. This is actually pretty common in industry. The people doing the work know how to do it, and get it done in ways that are better than what is in the documents.

Nevertheless, they needed to update those procedures. If they did not, then new people, or workers that might be rotated into the area temporarily for some reason, would struggle to perform the work in the best way.

The Question

This obstacle was not in the way of reaching their target condition process. However they knew the target process would not be stable in the face of people rotation or turnover. The question was along the lines of:

Is it an obstacle if we can’t sustain the target condition unless we address it?

Answer: It Depends

At the risk of bringing up some really old U.S. political humor, “It depends on what your definition of ‘target condition’ is.”

Here is what I am thinking now.

The first step is to get the target process, as they defined it, to work at all. To do this, I would work to control variables, including trying hard to avoid rotating people through there while I am getting it dialed in.

Once we have established that the target process can work with experienced people, then the next target condition might well be to get this process anchored well enough that it will sustain over time without tons of intervention.

Maybe my next target condition is to be able to sustain the target process no matter who is doing it (assuming they have the basic qualification to do that kind of work).

One of the obstacles in the way of that target condition could well be “Our documentation is obsolete.”

Most documentation I have encountered in any industry is actually pretty poor. So this represents an opportunity to experiment your way into developing process documentation that (1) can actually be followed as written and (2) might even be useful for training someone. I’ve never seen that work without a process of iterative trials.

So in this case, I would say “Get it to work the way you intend it to first.” Make that your target condition. THEN start looking at what erodes it if new people step in. In this case, especially, that is going to involve much more than simply updating documentation. How can you set up the work area so that anyone knows what must be done next? What do you need to teach? What do you need to communicate?

I’m Still Thinking About This

Finally, I think this is one of those real-world cases where there isn’t a hard right or wrong answer. There wouldn’t be any harm in updating the process documentation early – except that I expect they will have to do it over once they learn more.

And – not all “obstacles” are actually problems to solve. Sometimes (though less often than we think), there is just something that has to be done that we already know how to do – we just haven’t done it. In those cases, just do it and move on – EXCEPT: Make sure you predict the result of your “just do it,” and CHECK to make sure it worked the way you thought it would. I’ll lay even money it doesn’t, but you won’t know unless you construct it as an experiment. “Just do it-s” usually turn in to “Oh… that didn’t work quite like we thought it would.”

Just make sure you are deliberately learning rather than doing things by rote.

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.

Experimenting at the Threshold of Knowledge

The title of this post was a repeating theme from KataCon 3. It is also heavily emphasized in Mike Rother’s forthcoming book The Toyota Kata Practitioner’s Guide (Due for publication in October 2017).

What is the Threshold of Knowledge?

“The root cause of all problems is ignorance.”

– Steven Spear

September 1901, Dayton, Ohio: Wilbur was frustrated. The previous year, 1900, he, with his brother’s help1, had built and tested their first full-size glider. It was designed using the most up-to-date information about wing design available. His plan had been to “kite” the glider with him as a pilot. He wanted to test his roll-control mechanism, and build practice hours “flying” and maintaining control of an aircraft.

But things had not gone as he expected. The Wrights were the first ones to actually measure the lift and drag2 forces generated by their wings, and in 1900 they were seeing only about 1/3 of the lift predicted by the equations they were using.

The picture below shows the 1900 glider being “kited.”. Notice the angle of the line and the steep angle of attack required to fly, even in a stiff 20 knot breeze.  Although they could get some basic tests done, it was clear that this glider would not suit their purpose.

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In 1901 they had returned with a new glider, essentially the same design only about 50% bigger. They predicted they would get enough lift to sustain flight with a human pilot. They did succeed in making glides and testing the principle of turning the aircraft by rolling the wing. But although it could lift more weight, the lift / drag ratio was no better.

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What They Thought They Knew

Wilbur’s original assumptions are well summarized in a talk he gave later that month at the invitation of his mentor and coach, Octave Chanute.

Excerpted from the published transcript of Some Aeronautical Experiments presented by Wilbur Wright on Sept 18, 1901 to the Western Society of Engineers in Chicago (Please give Wilbur a pass for using the word “Men.” He is living in a different era):

The difficulties which obstruct the pathway to success in flying-machine construction are of three general classes:

  1. Those which relate to the construction of the sustaining wings;
  2. those which relate to the generation and application of the power required to drive the machine through the air;
  3. those relating to the balancing and steering of the machine after it is actually in flight.

Of these difficulties two are already to a certain extent solved. Men already know how to construct wings or aeroplanes which, when driven through the air at sufficient speed, will not only sustain the weight of the wings themselves, but also that of the engine and of the engineer as well. Men also know how to build engines and screws of sufficient lightness and power to drive these planes at sustaining speed. As long ago as 1884 a machine3 weighing 8,000 pounds demonstrated its power both to lift itself from the ground and to maintain a speed of from 30 to 40 miles per hour, but failed of success owing to the inability to balance and steer it properly. This inability to balance and steer still confronts students of the flying problem, although nearly eight years have passed. When this one feature has been worked out, the age of flying machines will have arrived, for all other difficulties are of minor importance.

What we have here is Wilbur’s high-level assessment of the current condition – what is known, and what is not known, about the problem of “powered, controlled flight.”

Summarized, he believed there were three problems to solve for powered, controlled flight:

  1. Building a wing that can lift the weight of the aircraft and a pilot.
  2. Building a propulsion system to move it through the air.
  3. Controlling the flight – going where you want to.

Based on their research, and the published experience of other experimenters, Wilbur had every reason to believe that problems (1) and (2) were solved, or easy to solve. He perceived that the gap was control and focused his attention there.

His first target condition had been to validate his concept of roll control based on “warping” (bending) the wings. In 1899 he built a kite and was able to roll, and thus turn, it at will.

At this point, he believed the current condition was that lift was understood, and that the basic concept of changing the direction by rolling the wing was valid. Thus, his next target condition was to scale his concept to full size and test it.

What Happened

Wilbur had predicted that their wing would perform with the calculated amount of lift.

When they first tested it at Kitty Hawk in 1900, it didn’t.

However, at this point, Wilbur was not willing to challenge what was “known” about flight.

Instead the 1901 glider was a larger version of the 1900 one with one major exception: It was built so they could reconfigure the airfoil easily.

Impatient, Wilbur insisted on just trying it. But, to quote from Harry Combs’ excellent history, Kill Devil Hill:

“The Wrights in their new design had also committed what to modern engineers would be an unforgivable sin. […] they made two wing design changes simultaneously and without test.4

Without going into the details (get the book if you are interested) they did manage to get some glides, but were really no closer to understanding lift than they had been the previous year.

They had run past their threshold of knowledge and had assumed (with good reason) that they understood something that, in fact, they did not (nobody did).

They almost gave up.

Deliberate Learning

Being invited to speak in September actually gave Wilbur a chance to reflect, and renewed his spirits. That fall and winter, he and his brother conducted empirical wind tunnel experiments on 200 airfoil designs to learn what made a difference and what did not. In the process, as an “oh by the way,” they invented the “Wright Balance” which was the gold standard for measuring lift and drag in wind tunnel testing until electronics took over.

They went back to what was known, and experimented from there. They made no assumptions. Everything was tested so they could see for themselves and better understand.

The result of their experiments was the 1902 Wright Glider. You can see a full size replica in the ticketing area of the Charlotte, NC airport.

I’ll skip to the results:

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Notice that the line is now nearly vertical, and the wing pointed nearly straight forward rather than steeply tipped back.

What Do We Need to Learn?

Making process improvements is a process of research and development, just like Wilbur and Orville were going through. In 1901 they fell into the trap of “What do we need to do?” After they got back to Dayton, they recovered and asked “What do we need to learn?” “What do we not understand?”

The Coaching Kata

What I have come to understand is the main purpose of coaching is to help the learner (and the coach) find that boundary between what we know (and can confirm) and what we need to learn. Once that boundary is clear, then the next experiment is equally clear: What are we going to do in order to learn? Learning is the objective of any task, experiment, or action item, because they are all built on a prediction even if you don’t think they are.

By helping the learner make the learning task explicit, rather than implicit, the coach advances learning and understanding – not only for the learner, but for the entire organization.

Where is your threshold of knowledge? How do you know?

 

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1We refer to “the Wright Brothers” when talking about this team. It was Wilbur who, in 1899, became interested in flight. Through 1900 it was largely Wilbur with his brother helping him. After 1901, though, his letters and diary entries start referring to “we” rather than “I” as the project moved into being a full partnership with Orville.

2The Wright Brothers used the term “drift” to refer to what, today, we call “drag.”

3Wilbur is referring to a “flying machine” built by Hiram Maxim.

4I’m not so sure that this is regarded as an “unforgivable sin” in a lot of the engineering environments I have seen, though the outcomes are similar.

The Importance of Prediction for Learning

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One of the things, perhaps the thing, that distinguishes “scientific thinking” from “just doing stuff” is the idea of prediction: When we take some kind of action, and deliberately and consciously predict the outcome we create an opportunity to override the default narrative in our brain and deliberately examine our results.

The Toyota Kata “Experiment Record” (which also goes by the name “PDCA Cycles Record”) is a simple form that provides structure for turning an “action item” into an experiment.

Why Is It Important to Make a Prediction?

Explicit learning is driven by prediction.

Explicit Learning

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny …’ “

— Isaac Asimov

Curiosity is sparked by the unexpected. “I wonder what that is…”

The only way to have “unexpected” is to have “expected.”

When we consciously and deliberately make a prediction, we are setting ourselves up to learn. Why? Because rather than relying on happening to notice things are a little unusual, we are deliberately looking for them.

Deliberate Prediction: The Key to a “Learning Organization?”

Steve Spear, in his book The High Velocity Edge, makes the case that what all high-performance organizations have in common is a culture of explicitly defining their expected result from virtually everything they do.

He studied Toyota extensively for his PhD work, and discovered that rather than exploiting a “lean tool set,” what distinguished Toyota’s culture was deliberately designing prediction mechanisms into all of their processes and activities. This was followed up by an immediate response to investigate anything that doesn’t align with the prediction.

This is the purpose behind standard work, kanban, takt time / cycle time, 1:1 flow, etc. All of those “tools” are mechanisms for driving anomalous outcomes into immediate visibility so they can say… “Huh… that’s funny. I wonder what just happened?”

The High Velocity Edge extends the theory into a more general one, and we see a common mechanism in other high-performance organizations.

OK… that’s one data point on the higher-level continuum.

 

Building 214

Back in 2009 I wrote about a culture change in a post titled A Morning Market. That story actually took place around 2002-2004, and I have just re-verified (Spring 2017) that it still holds.

But it really wasn’t until this afternoon as I was discussing that story with Craig that it finally hit me. The last step in their problem-solving process was “Verification.” To summarize a key point that is actually buried in that post, they could not say a problem was cleared until they had a countermeasure, and had verified that it works.

What is that? It’s a prediction.

Rather than simply putting in a solution and moving on, their process forced them to construct a hypothesis (this countermeasure will make the problem go away), and then experimentally test that hypothesis.

If it worked, great. If it didn’t work then… “Huh, that’s funny. I wonder what just happened?”

This, in turn, not only made them better deliberate problem solvers, it engaged deliberate learning.

What is critically important to understand here is this: That verification step was not included in the problem solving process they trained on. We added it internally as part of our (then kind of rote) understanding of “What would Toyota do?” But it worked, and I believe added a level of nuance that was instrumental in keeping it going.

 

The Improvement Kata

Mike Rother’s work extends what we learned about Toyota. Going beyond “How do they structure their processes?” he went into “How do they structure their conversations?” (And “How can we learn to structure ours the same way?”)

A hallmark of the Improvement Kata, especially (but not exclusively) the “Starter Kata” around experiments, is a deliberate step to make a prediction, test it, and compare the actual outcome with the prediction.

This, in turn, is backed up in Steve Spear’s HBR articles, especially Learning to Lead at Toyota and Fixing Health Care From the Inside, Today,”  both of which should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in learning about continuous improvement.

 

You are Always Making a Prediction Anyway

Any action you take, anything you do, is actually a hypothesis. You are intending or expecting some kind of outcome.

What time do you leave for work? Why? Likely because you predict that if you leave at a particular time, and follow a particular route, you will arrive by a specified time. You might not think about it, but you have made a prediction.

If you are running to any kind of plan, the plan itself is a prediction. It is saying that “If these people work on these tasks, starting at this time, they will complete them at this later time.” It is predicting that the assigned tasks are the tasks that are required to get the bigger job done.

A work sequence is a prediction. If these people carry out these tasks in this order, we will get this outcome in this amount of time at this quality level.

A Six Sigma project is a prediction. If we control these variables in this way, we will see this aspect of the variation stay within these limits.

An “action item” is a prediction. If we take this action then that will happen, or this problem will be solved.

In all of these cases you don’t know, for sure if it will work until you try it and look for anomalies that don’t fit the model.

But in the difference in day-to-day life is we aren’t explicit about what we expect. We don’t really think it through and aren’t particularly aware when an outcome or result differs from what we expected. We just deal with the immediate condition and move on, or worse, assign blame.

What About Implicit Learning?

The human brain (and all brains, really) is a learning engine. Our experience of learning typically comes from what we perceive as feelings.

Take a look at Destlin Sandlin’s classic “Backwards Bicycle” video here, then let’s talk about what was happening.

 

There is nothing special about a “backwards bicycle.” If Destin (or his son) had no prior experience with a regular bicycle, this would simply be “learning to ride a bicycle.” What makes it hard is that, in addition to building new neural pathways for riding a backwards bicycle, he must also extinguish the existing pathways for “riding a bicycle.”

The Neuroscience of Learning (As I understand it.)

Destin has a clear (very clear) objective (Challenge) in his mind: Ride the bicycle without falling down.

As he tries to ride, he knows if he feels like he is losing his balance then he is about to fall.

He (his brain) doesn’t know how to control the wheel to keep the bike upright as he tries to ride. His arms initially make more or less random movements in an attempt to stay upright. This is instinctive, he isn’t thinking about how to move his arms. (This is what he calls the difference between “knowledge” and “understanding.”)

Whatever neurons were firing to move his arms when he loses his balance are a little less likely to fire again the next time he attempts to ride.

Whatever neurons were firing to move his arms when he stays upright for a little while are a little more likely to fire again the next time he attempts to ride.

This actually starts with increased levels of excitatory or inhibitory neurotransmitters in those neural synapses. No physical change to the brain takes place. But this requires a lot of energy. IF HE PERSISTS, over time (often a long time), the brain grows physical connections in those circuits, making those new pathways more permanent. (It also breaks the connections in the pathways that are being extinguished.)

Destin’s six year old son’s brain is optimized for this kind of learning. He creates those new physical neural connections much faster than an adult does. His brain is set up to learn how to ride a bicycle. His father’s brain is set up to ride a bicycle without thinking too much about it. Thus, Destin has a harder time shifting his performance-optimized brain back into learning mode.

All of this is implicit learning. You have something you want to learn, and you are essentially trying stuff. Initially it is random. But over time, the things that work eventually overpower the things that do not. This is also how machine learning algorithms work (not surprisingly).

 

What does this have to do with prediction?

Destin’s brain is running a series of initially random trials and comparing the result of each with the desired result. The line between a “desired result” and a “predicted result” can be kind of blurry in this type of learning. But what is critical here is to understand that learning cannot take place without some baseline to compare the actual result against. There must be a gap of some kind between the outcome we want and what we got. Without that gap, we are simply reinforcing the status-quo.

The weakness with implicit learning is it can reinforce behaviors and beliefs that correlate with a result without actually causing it. We aren’t actually testing whether our actions caused the outcome. We are just repeating those actions that have been followed by the outcome we wanted whether that is by causation or coincidence.

In the case of something like learning to ride a bicycle, that is generally OK. We may learn things that are unnecessary to stay upright on the bicycle1, but we will learn the things that are required.

In athletics, once the basics are in place, coaches can help shift this learning from implicit to explicit by having you practice specific things with specific objectives.

Moving from Implicit to Explicit

Bluntly, the vast majority of organizations are engaged in implicit, not explicit, learning. They repeat whatever has worked in the past without necessary examining why it worked, or if “now” even is similar to “the past.”

These are organizations that operate on “instinct” and “feel.” That actually more-or-less works as long as conditions are relatively stable. They may do things that are unnecessary but are also doing things that are required.

… Until conditions or requirements change.

When the organization has to accomplish something that is outside of their current domain of knowledge – beyond their knowledge threshold – those anecdotes break down. The narrative of cause-and-effect in our minds is no longer accurate.

That is when it is critical to step back, become deliberate, and ask “Where, exactly, are we tying to go?” and “What do we need to learn to get there?”

The alternative is “just trying stuff” and hoping, somewhere along the way, you get the outcome you want. The problem with that? You’re right back where you were – it works, but you don’t know why.

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1Sometimes we develop beliefs that things we do can influence events that, in reality, we have no control over whatsoever. Once we develop those beliefs, we bias heavily to see evidence they are true, and exclude evidence that they are not true.