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.

Lean Thinking in 10 Words

Pascal Dennis, in his book Getting the Right Things Done sums up lean thinking in 10 words:

“What should be happening?”

“What is actually happening?”

“Please explain.”

I would contend that everything else we do is digging out answers to those questions. (yes, there is a bit of hyperbole here, but I want to get you to think about how true this is vs. how false it might be.)

I think “lean thinking” is really a structured curiosity. Let’s take a look at how these questions push us toward improvement.

“What should be happening?” is another form of Toyota Kata’s “What is your target condition?” In our conversations, we often jump straight to “We need to…” language, a solution, without being clear what the problem is.

I’ll set that back by asking questions like “What would be happening if the problem is solved?” “Can you describe that?”

When Toyota trained people ask “What is the standard?” this is what they want to know, because, to them, a “problem” = “a deviation from the standard.”

“What is actually happening?” or “What is the actual condition now?”– Once we are clear where we are trying to go, it is important to grasp where we are now in the same terms as the target.

Something I see quite a bit is a target condition expressed with different terms, measures, and variables than the current condition. You must be able to relate between the two in a way that defines and quantifies the gap that must be closed.

“Please Explain” cuts across the current condition and the obstacles (in kata terms). What do you understand about the gap between what should be happening and what is actually happening?

If the process has deteriorated, what has changed? Why is it that we cannot hit the standard today when, last week, we could? When did it change? What do we know about that? Why did it change?

If you tried to run to the new level, what would keep you from doing it that way? (what obstacles do you think are now preventing you from reaching your target?)

Depending on which of these conditions we are dealing with will fundamentally change the path toward a solution, so it is critical we understand “What should be happening?” or “What is the target condition?” as a first step, then look at the history of the actual condition.

If the process has eroded, what do we know about what has changed in the environment?

All of this is the foundational baseline… the minimum understanding I want to hear before we entertain any discussion about what actions to take, what to change, what to do.

DMAIC and Toyota Kata

A lot of the organizations I deal with have a legacy with Six Sigma, or some x-Sigma variant. If they are now trying to incorporate Toyota Kata as a way to shift their daily behavior, questions arise about how it fits (or might fit, or whether it fits) with DMAIC.

This sometimes comes about when the impetus to embrace Toyota Kata comes from outside the organization, such as an initiative from the corporate Continuous Improvement office. In this case, unless integration with legacy approaches is carefully thought through, Toyota Kata (or whatever else is coming down the pipeline) can easily be perceived as “yet another corporate initiative” or “something else to do” rather than “a new (and hopefully better) way to do what we are already doing.”

My Background

First a disclaimer. My deepest exposure to Six Sigma was during my time as a Quality Director in a large company that had a long history with TQM and then Six Sigma. Thus, I dealt with the Black Belts and Green Belts in the organization, and paid a lot of attention to the projects they were working on.

In addition, every certification project for a new Black Belt came across my desk. Unlike a lot of managers in the chain (apparently), I actually read them, parsed them, and asked questions when I couldn’t follow the story line of the project. (Apparently nobody expected that, but it’s another story.)

I worked with the corporate Master Black Belt, made input into their programs, and did what I could to create a degree of cooperation, if not harmony, between the Six Sigma community and the lean guys.

Thus I am not claiming this is anything new or profound. Rather, this is sharing my own sense of connection between these two approaches in a world where I often find them competing for people’s mindspace.

The Improvement Process Flow

As I observed it, a Six Sigma project was typically organized and conducted as follows:

An area manager, usually a Green Belt, identifies something that needs improving. He assembles a team of stakeholders. He is coached by a Black Belt through*:

Defining the problem and establishing a charter for the team.

Establishing a Measurement that will define progress.

Conducting a thorough Analysis of the process, with a primary focus on sources of variation, especially those which are intertwined with quality issues.

Developing a list or set of Improvements and putting them into place, again focusing primarily on variation in methods, etc. that drive defects.

Establishing a standard to Control the process and keeping it running the new way.

Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control. DMAIC.

In actual practice, it is very similar to the large single-loop “six step problem solving” process I was taught as “the problem solving process that came out of TQM.” That is probably not a coincidence.

DMAIC projects are typically targeted at measurable significant financial payback. Black Belts are trained to find and spend their time on high-payback projects. At least in the company I worked for, there was a minimum payback they had to achieve to get their certification. They also had to demonstrate knowledge of the various high-powered statistical tools.

It makes sense for people steeped in this methodology to ask how it fits in with “short cycles of experiments and improvements” that are the anchor for not only Toyota Kata, but kaizen in general (if you are doing it right).

And, put another way, if the organization is trying to establish a coaching culture using Toyota Kata, is Toyota Kata something different from DMAIC, or do they fit together? (I have actually been asked exactly the same question about Toyota Kata and kaizen(!), but that, too, is another story.)

To give credit where credit is due, this was the topic over lunch last week at a client site whose Six Sigma projects also follow the general structure I outlined above. Jazmin, the continuous improvement leader, was already working through this in her mind, and recognized the linkage right away.

Since the company has an active Six Sigma program, with dozens of projects ongoing, we wanted to find a way to integrate Toyota Kata thinking into what they were already doing vs. introducing yet another separate initiative. (It is easier to “embrace and extend” something you are already doing than bring something brand new into the domain.)

Relating DMAIC to the Improvement Kata

Here is how I relate DMAIC to the Improvement Kata.

Define the Problem =(more or less) Challenge and Direction. This is what we are working on, and why it is important.

Measure and Analyze = Grasp the Current Condition. Six Sigma has a host of powerful tools (which are often used just because they are there … so be careful not to make easy things complicated).

I would point out that if you follow the process in the Improvement Kata Handbook, you are also initially focused on variation in the process. Lean people tend to reduce all variation down to units of time, but in that noise are all sources of variation of the process. Defects, for example, don’t count as a delivery, and so introduce noise into the exit cycles. Machine slowdowns and stoppages, likewise, disturb the rhythm of the process. Like DMIAC, the Improvement Kata, as outlined in the handbook, steers you toward sources of variation very quickly.

Thus, a Six Sigma project team, and an improver following the Improvement Kata are both going to initially look for sources of instability. (Quality First, Safety Always).

At this point, the two diverge a little, but only a little.

Perhaps because DMAIC sounds like a single cycle, a fair number of teams tend to try to Implement a Single Grand Solution. They spend a fair amount of time brainstorming what it should look like, and designing it. Then, once they think they have a solution, they put it into place by establishing new “standards” (in this context, that usually means procedures), training people, and validating that it all works.

Again – a lot of kaizen events do pretty much the same thing, they just might do it faster if it is a classic five-day event.

A few years ago I was on a discussion panel at a conference in Chicago that was very Six Sigma centric. In the various breakout sessions, the Black Belts (who are mostly staff practitioners) universally complained about “management embracing the changes” and not enforcing the new processes. They were frustrated that once they were done, things slipped back.

In other words, once the energy input of the project itself stopped, entropy took over, and things regressed back to the original equilibrium.

And (once again) traditional kaizen events often have the same problem.

Blending Toyota Kata and Six-Sigma Coaching

Think of this conversation between the Black Belt coach and the Green Belt project leader in their daily meeting and check-in:

[preliminary social rituals]

“Just to review, what is the problem you are working on?”

[Green Belt reviews the charter and objective]

“Great, so what is the target condition you are striving for right now?”

[Green belt describes the next intermediate step toward the chartered defined state. He describes how the process will operate when key parts of it are stabilized, for example.]

The Black Belt is listening carefully, and may ask follow-up questions to make sure the target condition is clearly on the path toward solving the defined problem vs. chasing something interesting-but-irrelevant to the issue at hand.

“Good. Can you tell me the last step you took?”

[Green Belt describes a change they made, or some additional data they needed to collect and analyze, or a control measure they have experimented with, etc]

“What did you expect from that step?”

[Green Belt reviews the intent of the action, and what he expected to happen.]

“And what actually happened?”

[Green Belt describes what his data collection and observation revealed about the process, or how well his control measure worked to contain a source of variation, etc…. or didn’t.]

“And what did you learn?”

[Green Belt describes insights that have been gained, especially insights into sources of variation, or the effect of controlling them. He also describes what he might have learned about the tools, or struggled with in applying them.]

“Very good. So what sources of variation or obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target right now?”

[Green Belt describes the current suspects for causes and sources of variation in the process, as well as other issues that may be impeding progress.]

“Which one of those are you addressing now?”

[The Green Belt may well still be working on the last one, or might have it effectively controlled and is now addressing a new one. If he has moved on to a new one, the Black Belt is going to be especially interested in the control mechanism for the sources of variation that has been “eliminated” so it stays that way.]

For example, a follow-up question might be “Can you tell me how you are controlling that? What countermeasures do you have to detect if that variation comes back into play?”

We aren’t limited to SPC of course, and actually would rather have a binary yes/no  need-to-act/don’t-need-to-act signal of some kind.

What we are going here is iterating through sources of variation, and establishing a positive Control on each of them before moving on rather than trying to stabilize everything in one step at the end.

Once he is satisfied that the project team hasn’t “left fire behind them,” then the Black Belt can move on.

“Great. Can you tell me the next step you plan to take, or experiment you’re going to run?”

[Green Belt reviews the next action to either learn more about a source of variation or attempt to keep it controlled.]

“And what result do you expect?”

[If the Green Belt is proposing using a specific Six Sigma statistical cool, the Black Belt is going to be carefully listening, and asking follow-on questions to confirm that the Green Belt understands the tool’s function and limitations, how he plans to use it, what he expects to learn as a result, and why he thinks that specific tool will give him the answers he is looking for.]

“OK, when do you think we can review what you have learned from taking that step”

This interaction is using the Coaching Kata script to develop the Six Sigma skills of the Green Belt project leader. We already have a coaching relationship, so all we are doing here is practicing a technique to make it more effective and more structured.

DMAIC is now more like:

DM [repeat AIC as necessary]

as the team works methodically through the sources of variation as they are uncovered.

The Master Black Belt

At the next level up is typically a Master Black Belt who is generally responsible for mentoring and developing the Black Belts. They typically meet weekly or monthly and review and share progress on projects.

Only now, let’s shift the discussion to reviewing and sharing progress on developing the problem analysis and solving skills of the Green Belts. Remember, the Green Belts are line management, and we want to get them thinking this way about everything.

“Lets review your learning objective for your Green Belt last week.”

“What did he do? What did you expect him to learn?”

“What did he actually learn? Did he make any mistakes?”

“Is he stuck anywhere? What is your plan to give him additional coaching or instruction?”

In other words, they are following DMAIC as well. Except that the “problem” is the skill of the Green Belt and how effectively he is applying that skill to solve his chartered problem.

 

I am really interested in hearing from Six Sigma folks out there about how this resonates, or doesn’t, with you.

————

*Sometimes I observed a Black Belt doing the same thing on his own initiative, leading the project himself. Occasionally I saw a Black Belt acting solo. I am not discussing either of those approaches here, however.

Coaching with Intent

As I continue to explore the concepts in David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around, I am finding increasing resonance with the concept of intent. I’d like to explore some of that in relationship to lean, “Toyota Kata” and organizational alignment.

For a quick review, take a look at the sketchcast video, below, and focus on the part where he talks about “we replaced it with intent.”

I think the critical words are “You give intent to them, and they give intent to you.”

Think about that phrase, then think about how we normally talk about “intent.”

OK, are you back?

In my experience, “intent” has traditionally been a one-way communication. “This is what we need to get done.”

A few months ago I was in a plant, discussing this principle. One of the managers expressed frustration saying “I think I was very clear about what I expected…” (And he was) “but then when I checked he had done something totally different. How does this work for that situation?”

What was left out of that conversation?

…and they give intent to you.

Let’s put this in Toyota Kata terms.

What is the relationship between the “Challenge” and the “Target Condition?”

Think about how the target condition is developed.

Start with the challenge – this is the level of performance we are trying to achieve – the “mission” in military terms, the overall intent of what we are trying to get done.

Once the direction and challenge (the intent) are understood, the improver / learner’s next task is to get a thorough understanding of the current condition. How does the process operate today? What is the normal pattern? Why does it perform the way it does? This should be focused in context of the direction / challenge / intent.

Then the learner (NOT the coach!) proposes the next target condition.

Depending on the level of skill in the learner, the coach may well be assisting in developing all of this, but it is the learner’s responsibility to do it.

Imagine this conversation: as the learner / improver is discussing the target condition, he relates it back to the challenge as a verification for context.

“The overall challenge we have is to _______. As my first (next) target condition, I intend to _____ (as the learner relates his next level of performance, and what the process will have to look like to get there).

Adding the words “I intend to…” to that exchange has (for me) proven to be a powerful tool when learners are struggling to embrace / own their target conditions. Those words establish psychological ownership vs. seeking permission.

The same structure can be applied to the next step or experiment.

“What is your next step or experiment?”

I intend to (fill in your experiment here).”

Going back to the sketchcast video, remember the part where he says:

“Captain, I intend to submerge the ship.”

“What do you think I’m thinking right now?”

“Uh…. hard to tell… I’m guessing you want to know if it’s safe.”

“BINGO! Convince me it’s safe.”

“Captain, I intend to submerge the ship. All men are below. All hatches are shut. The ship’s rigged for diving. We’ve checked the bottom depth. We’re in the water that’s assigned to us.”

In not only stating intent, but going through the checklist, the “learner” demonstrates that the intent will be carried out competently, or not.

We are asking the same questions when we ask about the next experiment, what outcome is expected. Logical follow-on questions could include seeking assurance that the experiment actually addresses the stated “one obstacle” being addressed (this is the right thing to do) and that learner has a plan to carry out the experiment that makes sense, knows what information he intends to collect, what observations he needs to make, and how he intends to do these things (that it is being done competently).

At an advanced level, a good answer to “What is your next step or experiment?” could (should!) include all of these elements – enough information to convince the coach that it is a good experiment, seeking the right information, in the right way.

It becomes  “to address that obstacle, I next I intend to (take these steps, in this way, with these people) so that (fill in expected outcome). I intend to measure here and here, and verify my results by…”

Of course as a coach, if you have a learner who is unsure how to proceed, or looking to be told what to do (which is quite common in organizations that have to overcome a command structure where the boss is the problem solver), how do you need to phrase your coaching questions to get the next level of responsible language out of your learner’s mouth?

If they are waiting to be told what to do, how do you get them to offer an opinion?

If they are offering an opinion, how do you get them to offer a recommendation? Is it well thought out? “What result do you expect?” “How do you expect to achieve that result?”

If they are offering a well thought out recommendation, how do you get them to express an intent? What do you have to hear to be convinced that intent is well though out?

I want to be clear: This is advanced stuff, but it goes hand-in-glove with the coaching kata.

And, to give credit where credit is due, it is all the work of David Marquet. I am just adapting it to the kata here.