Hitting the Numbers by Holding Your Breath

To commemorate the end of WWII, China held a big military parade in Beijing. You can read about it in any number of news sites.

Beijing, though, (as well as Shanghai) is well known for having a serious problem with air pollution.

Here’s my experience: This is a late afternoon photo I took in Beijing in early October 2006… before the pollution was making the international news. Yes, that is the sun. There were days I could not see three blocks from my 6th floor apartment window.

smog

In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, Chinese officials were determined to present clear skies to the international audience. The same measures were taken again in the run-up to the APEC conference last year. And this article in The Guardian outlines some of the measures taken to present what cynical Beijingers are calling “Parade Blue” skies:

From The Guardian:

Four out of five government vehicles will be taken off the road between now and the parade and private vehicles will be allowed on the roads only on alternate days, based on odd- and even-numbered license plates.

 

Almost all steel mills in Beijing, Heibei and Tianjin are to be shut down in the lead up to the military parade, Xu Xiangchun, chief analyst at Mysteel Research told Bloomberg last month.

What all of this means is they know what causes the smog. This drill, which was first trialed when I was spending time there prior to the Olympics, is now routine.

OK, so what? And what does this have to do with lean thinking?

We can read these articles and shake our heads. But the story here is that many organizations drive the exact same behavior with their metrics driven cultures.

If making the numbers (or the sky) look good is all that matters, the numbers will look good. As my friend Skip puts it so well, this can be done in one of three ways:

  • Distort the numbers.
  • Distort the process.
  • Change the process (to deliver better results).

The third option is a lot harder than the other two. But it is the only one that works in the long haul. The other two are doing what they did in Beijing – holding your breath.

I’ve seen this manifest in a number of ways. Factory managers doubling down producing product that wasn’t selling to “make absorption” and record paper profits for their plants.

A large corporation that needed good 4th quarter numbers.

  • They shut down production in the last month of the fiscal year to get the inventory numbers up.
  • They pulled orders in from 1st quarter to ship early. This booked revenue as soon as the inventory went into “shipped” status, even if it was still in a container at the port.
  • Because they used LIFO inventory cost models, the deeper they dug into their finished goods, the lower the “costs” and the higher the “margins.” (Don’t confuse LIFO physical inventory management with LIFO cost accounting.)

And they put up some pretty good numbers. Here’s the kicker — they actually believed those numbers, confusing their manipulation of the financial models with actual results. Bonuses all around.

1st quarter, though, was a different story. Shortages resulting in missed shipments because they hadn’t made anything for a month. Thin orders because they had already filled all of the orders they had inventory to fill. (It isn’t like new orders magically appear to replace the ones you ship early.) And at the end of Q1, the CEO had to look the analysts in the eye and explain why.

Anyone can make the numbers for a quarter, maybe even for a year, just as Beijing can clean up their skies for a couple of weeks.

But if you want to make those numbers truthfully, then the only alternative is to “change underlying process.”

This is the difference between a “target” and a “target condition.” To most people a “target” is about the numbers, the desired value of whatever is being measured. That “target” can be achieved by any of the three methods: Distorting the numbers, distorting the process, or actually changing the process.

target condition describes not only the goal, but how the process should operate to achieve it. The target condition is set by the improver / learner as a next landing point on the climb toward the overall challenge, but the coach hears it  every iteration of the coaching cycle.

Thus the coach (who should be the boss) is well aware of which of the three approaches is being taken (hopefully “change the process”), as well as the issues and problems which must be overcome to get there. It is no longer just a matter of directing that a number be achieved and “holding people accountable” for hitting it.

This two-way conversation is what strengthens the organization and keeps things from becoming silly exercises that achieve nothing but encouraging people to hide the truth. (Then when someone decides to stop hiding it, we have a “whistleblower.”

Epilogue: As I was working this up, the news has been pouring out about the VW “defeat device” scandal that has now taken out a number of corporate officers, and is going to seriously hurt the company for a long time.

Imagine this conversation in an engineering staff meeting:

Boss: What is the status on reaching the American clean air standards with the TDI engines?

Head Engineer: Don’t worry, we’ve finally got a plan. We are now certain we’ll be able to pass the test.

Boss: Great. Next item.

Contrast that with:

Boss: Where are we on the challenge of reaching the American clean air standards with the TDI engines?

Head Engineer: My current target condition is to pass the test by programming the car to detect when the test is being run, and adjust the engine performance to meet the standards while it is being tested. We’ll met the performance goals by shutting off the emissions controls during normal operation.

Now, that second conversation may well have occurred. But I can see the first case as far more likely.

The question for your organization is which of those conversations do you have? Or is the air too polluted to see clearly?

 

“We Need To…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They need to…”

“Somebody needs to…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never give up.

_________

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

A Tale of Two Sites

With apologies to Charles Dickens, but the opening line is just too good to resist…

The Best of Times

In this plant, the advance team is chaired and actively led by the most senior manager on the site. He is actively coaching, he is actively being coached. He is questioning his own learning, seeking council, and acting on it.

They are clear that, while there may be general guidelines, they must learn by trying and experimenting. They cannot simply deploy a roadmap because they can only see the next mile on a 1000 mile journey.

They see it as a method to shift their culture away from its “tell me what to do” legacy and toward one of an empowered workforce that takes initiative and works on the right things, the right way.

There is no doubt among the leadership team that this is the path forward.

They are starting to apply the language of the Improvement Kata informally in their meetings and discussions.

Overall, it seems a bit messy. But learning is like that.

The Other Site

The “implementation of Toyota Kata” is a directive from the corporate Continuous Improvement team.

The corporate team spends much of their energy developing and deploying templates, PowerPoint presentations, setting standards for the forms and the layout, lettering and colors on the improvement boards, and setting milestones.

They have published a step-by-step procedure for a site to implement Toyota Kata, based on their assumptions of what ought to work. None of them has actually led a change like this.

They are, in turn, working through the site continuous improvement team who is expected to execute to these standards.

The site leader receives weekly reports on progress. Training the managers and “implementing Toyota Kata” is the responsibility of one of the site’s continuous improvement staffers. The site leader questions him using the 5 Questions each week, and issues direction in response to the answers.

It is the continuous improvement practitioner who is responsible for motivating the members of the management team to challenge their own processes and develop their improvement boards. A significant number of them are questioning the need or purpose of this exercise.

Thoughts

Unfortunately I run into the second case far more often than I see the first. But the story is decades old. That is how we did Six Sigma, kaizen events, Theory of Constraints, Total Quality Management. In each case we have separated the deployment of a core change in the way we manage operations from the responsibility for actually managing.

It

doesn’t

work.

This TED talk by Tim Harford actually sums up the difference pretty well:

But beyond what works, and what doesn’t, we also have to ask “Which approach is respectful of people?”

What are the underlying assumptions about the people at the gemba when “standards” are established thousands of miles away, published, and then audited into place?

Why do they feel they must tell people exactly what to do?

What do they feel is lacking on the site?  Competence? or Clarity?

David Marquet: Turn Your Ship Around

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

Lean Leadership

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empowerment

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

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

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

train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turn Your Ship Around!

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll get more into that on another post.

Using Turn Your Ship Around!

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

Other Material

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

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

The Caveat

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

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

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

More to Come

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

“What Is Lean” – 2015

Mike Rother and Jeff Liker have refined the “What is Lean?” slideshare from earlier this year. I think they have filled things in pretty well. Take a look, then I’ll add my thoughts.

Responsibility of Leaders

The Jim Womack quote on Slide 4 is telling in a number at a number of levels:

“Most management decided they could outsource lean…

‘ Please go do it, here’s your budget, and please get some results, we won’t be too precise about that, and now I will be on to the next issue.’ And of course that is unlikely to produce much a result… It produces something, but it doesn’t produce what we had intended, which was that this would become the core way that managers think.”

I had a friend in the Army who (with a smile) would say “An action passed is an action completed.” These managers believe that as long as they have assigned someone to work on the problem, their responsibility is to getting updates on progress and authorize or question budget requests, then moving on to the next agenda item.

Even today I see very real “We have to do this to survive as a company” levels of urgency behind initiatives, but they are still assigned to mid-level staff people as though engineering a fundamental shift in the organization’s ways of working can be done with mere oversight of the top level leaders.

Actual Customers

While we (the lean teachers, community) have done pretty well over the years is talk about establishing flow. What we haven’t done as well is with the words “toward a customer.”

Never Ending Struggle

The problem with “lean implantation plans” is they, by their very nature, have a point when they are “done.”

Human cultures throughout history have their legends built on what Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey, and our implementation plans are built around the same pattern.

  1. The need for change. (often first met with refusal or denial)
  2. Commitment / crossing the threshold.
  3. The Mentor Figure (“find a sensei”)
  4. Assembling the team.
  5. The Quest / Journey of Adventure
  6. Final Confrontation
  7. Returning with “the elixir” / the journey home
  8. A changed life and/or a changed world.

While there are lots of variations on how this is described, this is the pattern of just about every business novel, every script in Hollywood, and our most compelling stories.

But these stories always have an end – where things are “changed” and a new stability. And our “implementation plans” imply the same expectation – that there is a “new normal” where everyone can relax because we’ve gotten there.

The Problem as I See It

The model outlined in this slideshare runs against the grain of everything business executives are taught. I think it is great that we are starting to realize what is really behind truly great organizational performance, but it’s still too easy to dismiss as an outlier when it happens. The “Lean Community” has a lot of momentum behind the “implement the tools” paradigm, and the idea that establishing and enforcing standards for the improvement boards and forms is somehow the key to success.

Let’s challenge the paradigm. Right now the biggest “change” we need to make is us.

 

Smart People Making Good Decisions and Killing Growth

Probably without realizing it, Clayton Christensen takes us (the “lean community”) to task in this talk about investment and growth.

We have been “selling” continuous improvement – in all of its forms whether we call it “lean” or Six Sigma, or Theory of Constraints, or Total Quality Management as a cost reduction tool for so long that most managers out there believe that is all it is for.

In this talk, which I got from Mike Rother’s YouTube channel, Christensen makes the distinction between market creating innovations, which create demand where none existed; sustaining innovations, which improve the product, but don’t create new customers; and efficiency innovations which allow us to do more with less.

In Christensen’s view (which I happen to support), the only one of these which creates growth in the economy is a market creating innovation.

Growth stagnates because efficiency innovations show much better short-term return on key metrics.

Take a look at the video, then let’s discuss where we need to go with this.

In a market where there are two or three stable players, without breakthrough market creating innovations, they can only “grow” by taking market share from one another. This dictates a strategy of becoming very good at sustaining innovation (making your product better) and efficiency innovation (so you can sell it at a competitive price).  These are important, because they are required for survival which is, in turn, required to fund market-creating innovation.

Because the vast majority (not all, but most) of continuous improvement effort is focused inward, it tends to work in these areas – improving existing products, improving operations.

We do have the “Lean Startup” movement that is hacking out space for true market creating or disrupting innovation. The question (and I don’t know the answer) is how do established companies get past their completely rational financial decision making and pull that “seek new customers” thinking into their portfolios? The only companies I know who are doing this are privately held, and actually run by the owners (vs. private equity owners)… and I’ve seen a couple of privately held companies turn away game changing ideas as well for fear of cannibalizing their other products.

Apple has been the exception. It’s too early to tell if that exception was actually Apple or just Steve.

Maybe that’s the normal business cycle. What are your thoughts?

Shifting Perspective from Getting Results to Developing People

Note: This post has been in my “Draft” queue for a few months, so actually pre-dates the previous one. But I’m seeing a theme developing in what I am paying attention to lately.

Taken from an actual conversation.

“What is your target condition?”

“To get [this productivity metric] from 60% to 85%.”

(thinking) – he is only talking about the performance metric.

“How would the process have to work to achieve that level of performance?”

(pointing to process flow diagram) “We have two work flows. One for routine project work, the other is high-priority emergent work. Whenever a worker has an opportunity to take on routine project work, I want him to be able to take the next most important job from the prioritized work queue.”

“This would eliminate the need for the worker waste time trying to find me to get an assignment or investigate or guess what he should do next, and let him get started right away. It would also stop cherry picking the easier jobs”

“My goal is for the Team Leader to establish those priorities, and keep track of how work is progressing.”

(thinking) – OK, I see where he is trying to go. I’m not sure I would have taken this exact approach, but it looks good enough right now to let him run with it and see what he learns.

“What was the last step or experiment you completed?” (Note: I am trying asking this question with ‘you completed’ so emphasize I want results from the last one, not information about what is ongoing or next.)

“Before I went on vacation, I looked at the incoming work queue, and established priorities for that work. As the workers needed their next job, it was clear to them what they needed to do.”

“What result did you expect?”

“I expected my productivity metric to hit my 85% target.”

“What actually happened?”

“The metric did hit the 85% target, when I prioritized the work. Then I went on vacation, and as you can see here (pointing at the graph), the productivity dropped back to its baseline level.”

“What did you learn?”

“I learned that when I set the priorities, and track the productivity, it improves as I expected it to. I also learned that when I don’t do it myself, then things go back to the way they were.”

“What obstacles do you think are preventing you from achieving your target condition?”

“People don’t know what the most important job is.”

“You said your target condition is for your team leader to make those assignments. How does that obstacle relate back to your target?”

“My team leader doesn’t know what the most important jobs are.”

“How about writing that down on the obstacle list.”

(he adds it to the list)

“Any other obstacles?”

“Um… I don’t think so.”

(thinking) I’m pretty sure there are other issues, but he seems focused on this one. Let’s see where he is going with it.

“OK, so that (the team leader) is the obstacle you’re addressing now?”

“Yes.”

“OK, what is your next step?”

“I am going to assign the priorities myself.”

“What result do you expect?”

“I expect the performance to go back to its target value.”

“How is that addressing the fact that your team leader doesn’t know how to assign priorities?”

pause…

(thinking) He isn’t connecting the dots here.

“Let’s come back to your target condition. You said you want the team leader to do all of this, rather than you, right?”

“Yes.”

“What is keeping you from just giving him the work and having him do it?”

“If I did that the productivity would go down again.”

”How come?” (Yes, I am leading the witness here. My thinking is that if I can get the right words to come out of him, he’ll “get it.”)

“My team leader doesn’t know how to set the priorities.”

“Right, so that’s the real obstacle in the way of reaching your target of having him do it, right?”

“Yes, but if I have him do it, then my productivity will go down. Isn’t the idea to hit the goal?”

“Yes, but you said in your target condition you wanted to hit the goal by having your team leader set the priorities, not just do it yourself.”

pause… (he’s probably feeling a little trapped now.)

(continuing) “So, if your team leader did know how to set the priorities, you think you’d hit your productivity goal with him doing it, right?”

pause…

“What else might be in the way?”

“He (the team leader) doesn’t like to go and talk to managers in other [customer]departments about their work priorities.”

“Write that down. Anything else?”

“He sometimes is reluctant to give assignments to people who would rather be working on something easier [but less important].”

“Write that down. Anything else?”

“I don’t think so. It sounds like the team leader is the problem.”

“You remember the session we did about David Marquet, the submarine captain, right?”

pause… “yeah.”

“So is this an issue with his (the team leader’s) competence – something you need to teach – or clarity – something you need to communicate?”

“I guess I need to teach him how to set the priorities.”

“So that is still the obstacle you are addressing now?”

“Yes.”

“OK, so what step are you going to take first?”

and from here, the conversation took a 90 degree turn into how this manager was going to develop his team leader.

The target condition got clarified into the capabilities and information the Team Leader needed to be able to perform the job competently.

The obstacles turned into things which must be taught, and things which must be communicated.

In retrospect, the obstacle I was addressing was reluctance on the Manager’s part to accept that developing the team leader was nobody’s job but his. But I’m finding that to be a common theme in a few places.

“Why Don’t You Just…”

Most leaders will at least superficially agree that organizations with an aligned, empowered workforce are more effective; that decisions are faster when made at lower levels that are closer to the actual facts; and that work teams are the ones in the best position to improve their own processes.

Most would agree that they would prefer their people to take initiative to come up with the best way to solve a problem.

Here’s a quiz.

Take a look at this old photo (it’s real, not staged!), and try to imagine what you think day-to-day interactions with this commander would be like.

Now… answer this question:

How much day-to-day initiative do you think the four officers in this photograph would show when the boss isn’t right there?

What does he teach them to do when he is talking to them?

Why would we expect they would learn to do anything else other than what they are being taught in the course of those day-to-day interactions?

This is, of course, an extreme case, meant to make a point.

But listen to your day to day interactions with your own people.

Do you give them directions they are expected to follow? Those directions, by the way, can take very innocuous forms. They can be disguised as suggestions, “Why don’t you just…” or “Have you considered…?” as well as just being orders.

You can think you are “correcting” or “teaching” people when your language actually is communicating something quite different.

You are teaching your people every time you talk to them. They will answer the questions you ask. If you make a habit of overriding their ideas, they will learn to not bother to work very hard to develop those ideas. If you argue with them, they will quickly learn to give in, or even just wait until you make up your mind. Any time you are making declarative statements about what should be done you are eroding initiative a little.

Frankly, from their perspective, it is a lot easier to just wait for the boss to give direction and follow it than it is to take initiative. There is much less psychological risk and energy involved. And if the organization has a history of risk-aversion you have an uphill battle to begin with.

It only takes a few negative experiences to stamp out initiative.

A thought experiment:

You wish people would take more initiative, self-organize the right people to work on problems in your organization.

Someone is working on understanding a problem or improvement. They come to you with a fairly decent picture of the current condition, but their next step isn’t the one you think they should take.

You have an overwhelming urge to say “Why don’t you just…” and get to a workable solution fast.

If you do so, what have they just learned?

You cannot simultaneously maintain full control and develop initiative.

Where Toyota Kata Doesn’t Work

image

I’ll admit right up front that the headline is worded to attract search engines.

If that’s how you got here, be prepared to think.

Can You Prove That This Works

This is something I hear a lot:

“I can see where _____ applies to your example. But my process is __(different somehow) ___.

Fill in the blanks.

Other versions are:

  • “I can see how that works in manufacturing, but ____.
  • “How does this apply to _____?”
  • “Can you show me examples in (something that is an exact match to what I do)?

Anyone in the business of process improvement has heard versions of this excuse for years. It always comes up. “I can see how that works for cars, but we make ____.” is an older version.

One of my favorites came via a friend working with a Japanese supplier to Boeing. They told him “We can see how this would work in American culture, but we don’t think it works in Japan.” Yes, we were teaching Japanese management techniques to the Japanese, and they were telling us it doesn’t work in Japan.

So… this style of “Prove to me that this applies to my specific situation” is something we’ve all heard again and again.

Science

If you manage to read all the way to the bottom, you will see that I readily concede that I cannot prove that “Toyota Kata” or learning problem solving based on scientific thinking works to improve any process out there.

To be able to prove that, I would need knowledge of all processes, past, present and future, and have to make the case that, in each and every one of them, I have indeed established that it works.

What I do have is personal knowledge of application in a very diverse circumstances, which adds to the collective experience of thousands of people who are working to apply these methods and principles. So far, we haven’t found that case where it can’t work. We might someday, but haven’t yet.

The assertion that this thinking is universal is a refutable hypothesis. You can, with some effort, establish rigorous proof, through repeatable experimentation or direct observation of a counter-case that my theory needs modification.

But before we get to that part (at the end), let’s go through some more common instances of this line of thinking.

The Instance of Product Development

Here are a couple of things to think about.

Let me ask, “How do you do product development?”

Typically (HOPEFULLY!) I’ll get some version of:

  • Understand what we are trying to achieve – performance specifications, customer needs, etc. that today’s product cannot provide.
  • Assess the baseline capability and identify gaps between what we need to do, and what we can do with technology, manufacturing capability, etc.
  • Based on that, establish the first, or next, of what are likely a series of intermediate goals converging on the requirement.
  • Iterate through cycles of trials, tests, experiments, learning, etc. to converge on a design that meets the requirements.

Now, to be clear, there are LOTS of variations on this, and lots of ways to manage the execution of this thought process. Some are dramatically more effective than others, but at the core there is a rigorous application of the scientific method.

What is the alternative? Guess at something, build it, and hope it works? Even that approach is going to (hopefully) have you going back and assessing what you learned when it doesn’t work.

So what, exactly, is it about the methodology we are teaching with Toyota Kata that is any different from the above?

  • Understand the challenge and direction.
  • Grasp the current condition.
  • Establish the next target condition.
  • Iterate from the current condition toward the target condition using a rigorous scientific approach that drives learning.

Why wouldn’t you want to apply that method to R&D? What do you do, if you don’t do this?

And, to be even more clear, I think I can make the case that all of the exotic product development methodologies – “Production Preparation Process (3P),” “Agile” and it’s cousins, “Lean Start Up,” “Design for Six Sigma,” “Set Based Concurrent Engineering,” all of them, are simply methods to cycle through the this learning process faster, cheaper, and more robustly.

Toyota Kata is nothing more than a tool to teach the thought pattern. Don’t lose sight of that.

Here’s the kicker. What we are doing, in reality, is working hard to figure out how to apply robust product development thinking to production processes, not the other way around. This stuff started in R&D. The Wright brothers used this process between 1899 and 1903 and beyond to the first practical airplane in 1908. Wilbur’s diaries and letters are essentially a PDCA cycles record.

Scientific Process Engineering

In spite of the little rant above, most engineers take a lot of care to design the product. They study and understand the details of its function, and carefully make modifications in a controlled way so they can test the effects of what they are doing.

On the other hand, it is relatively rare to see the same rigor applied to designing the production process. Many times it is allowed to come together ad-hoc. There is often deep understanding of the core value-adding process steps – how to do machining, welding, painting, etc. But the design and management of the movement of material and information from one process step to the next? Not so much.

Why wouldn’t you want to learn how to apply the same rigor in designing the production system that you apply to designing the product itself?

What is the alternative? Actually I know what the alternative is. Set financially derived metrics, and a high-stakes rewards system for hitting them. Then leave it to managers to figure out on their own. While you’re at it, divide the system into functional areas and set those managers up to compete with each other’s performance. It is a robust system with a reliable, repeatable outcome. Maybe not the outcome you would seek intentionally, but reliably predictable nonetheless.

So how about giving a thought to applying scientific design principles to your production flows? It can’t make them any worse.

Back to Engineering

In a large engineering department, most of the activity isn’t research and design work that I discussed above. It is production work. The products are drawing changes, bills of material, quotes and estimates, CNC programs, engineering change notices, resolution of production problems. This is all vital engineering work, but it is production.

Each of those products is assembled from components. The “material” might be information, but if you decompose outputs into their constituent components, you see sub-assemblies coming together from smaller bits, and in turn, assembling into the bigger “thing” whatever it is.

This is a factory. It just makes useful information rather than hardware.

The irony is (1) There typically even less attention paid to how things are done, what struggles people have to get the information they should have gotten, but didn’t, etc. then there is in even the worst manufacturing floors. And (2) There is often little realization that even people sharing the same cubicle often are working to different interpretations of the requirement, much less methods of doing the work.

So here’s a question:

Are you (as a manager) expected to improve the lead time, quality of output, productivity… any of those things… in your department?

If the answer is “No” then great. I’m glad to hear that things are working perfectly for you… though you might want to spend more time understanding what people are really dealing with, because “No Problem” is often a BIG problem.

For most, though, the answer is “Yes.” They are expected to deliver some improvement in throughput, quality, productivity, etc. Note that these are all production system measurements. That makes perfect sense, because, as I said, these processes are production.

OK… you’re on the hook to deliver improvement of some kind.

How are you going about improvement in your process?

Indulge me a bit, and let me ask a couple of questions.

  1. What you are trying to achieve with your improvement?
  2. How is your process performing today in comparison to that? Do you know what it is about the process that is driving that current performance?
  3. What are you working toward, right now, as the next step to reach your goal?
  4. What kinds of things are you going to have to fix or change to get there?
  5. Which of them are you working on now?
  6. Can you share a bit about what kind of things you are trying in your improvement effort? How are they working for you?

I realize that Toyota Kata might not apply, but if you are actively working to improve anything, you likely have answers to some form of those questions (hopefully).

Of course, those are a variation on the Toyota Kata coaching questions, aren’t they?

It’s just that we usually don’t ask and answer questions like this explicitly. Maybe the effort would be a little more focused and clear if we did. Because all we are trying to do with Toyota Kata is make the scientific thought process more explicit so it is easier to teach. The idea is to get more people learning and understanding how to think that way, which I believe is generally a good thing. Most people would agree, at least with that last part.

I Still Need A Specific Example

Here’s where I sometimes scratch my head, especially when I get this question from someone with a technical education, and often a graduate degree on top of it.

When you went to those universities, did they teach you with examples that exactly matched the job you are doing today? Likely not. Yet you have figured out how to apply those principles to what you are doing.

In those classes, seminars, case studies, they used problems and examples to help you understand the principles.

Then they expected you to take the specific instance of those principles from the examples they used, turn them into a general case, then figure out how to apply those general principles to a different problem, case, or set of circumstances.

In the end, that is really all they were teaching you: How to figure out how to apply a general principle or theory to a specific case or problem. They likely didn’t accept an exam answer that said “You didn’t show me an exact example of this problem.”

It’s Still Science

I will totally concede that there may well be specific instances where the general principles of scientific thinking wouldn’t work to improve a particular type of process. And in those cases, there is certainly no benefit to working to learn how to apply, and teach, scientific thinking.

I say that because I believe in the scientific method, therefore my assertion that “These principles are universally applicable” is a refutable hypothesis.

I welcome the discovery of a specific case where they don’t apply. But the other side of the scientific method is I cannot prove the non-existence of that case.

If, on the other hand, you can establish that you indeed have the proverbial “Black Swan” on your hands, let’s take a look. The burden, though, is on the person suggesting to refute the hypothesis to provide compelling evidence.

Can you please explain what it is about your specific process that defies application of scientific thinking to understand it better, and improve it? What specific characteristics would a process have that makes it so unique that you are stymied in any attempt to apply what you have been educated and trained to do as a scientist or engineer?

I am really curious, and welcome exploring that together, and perhaps modifying my theory to adapt to any true anomalous situation.

That’s science.

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.