The Cancer of Fear

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I am sitting in on a daily production status meeting. The site has been in trouble meeting its schedule, and the division president is on the call.

The fact that a shipment of material hadn’t been loaded onto the truck to an outside process is brought up. The actual consequence was a small delay, with no impact on production.

The problem was brought up because bringing up process misses is how we learn what we need to work on.

The division president, taking the problem out of context, snaps and questions the competence of the entire organization. The room goes quiet, a few words are spoken in an attempt to just smooth over the current awkwardness. The call ends.

The conversation among those managers for the rest of that day, and the next, was more around how to carefully phrase what they say in the meeting, and less about how do we surface and solve problems.

This is understandable. The division president clearly didn’t want to hear about problems, failures, or the like. He expected perfect execution, and likely believed that by making that expectation loud and clear that he would get perfect execution.

That approach, in turn, now has an effect on every decision as the managers concern themselves with how things will look to the division president.

Problems are being discussed in hallways, in side conversations, but not written down. All of this is a unconscious but focused effort to present the illusion that things are progressing according to plan.

Asking for help? An admission of failure or incompetence.

This, of course, gets reflected in the conversations throughout the organization. At lower levels, problems are worked around, things are improvised, and things accumulate and fester until they cannot be ignored.

They the bubble up to the next level, and another layer of paint is plastered over the corrosion.

Until something breaks. And everyone is surprised – why didn’t you say anything? Because you didn’t want us to!

In a completely different organization, there were pre-meetings before the meeting with the chief of engineering. The purpose of these pre-meetings was to control what things would be brought up, and how they would be brought up.

The staff was concealing information from the boss because snap reaction decisions were derailing the effort to advance the project.

And in yet another organization they are getting long lists of “initiatives” from multiple senior people at the overseas corporate level. Time is being spent debating about whether a particular improvement should be credited to this-or-that scope. It this a “value improvement,” is it a “quality improvement,” is it a “continuous improvement” project?

Why? Because these senior level executives are competing with one another for how much “savings” they can show.

Result at the working level? People are so overwhelmed that they get much less done… and the site leader is accused of “not being committed” to this-or-that program because he is trying to juggle his list of 204 mandated improvement projects and manage the work of the half-a-dozen site people who are on the hook to get it all done.

And one final case study – an organization where the site leader berates people, directly calls them incompetent, diminishes their value… “I don’t know what you do all day”, one-ups any hint of expert opinion with some version of “I already know all of that better than you possibly could.”

In response? Well, I think it actually is fostering the staff to unite as a tight team, but perhaps not for the reasons he expects. They are working to support each other emotionally as well as running the plant as they know it should be run in spite of this behavior.

He is getting the response he expects – people are not offering thoughts (other than his) for improvements, though they are experimenting in stealth mode in a sort of continuous improvement underground.

And people are sending out resumes and talking to recruiters.

This is all the metastasized result of the cancer of fear.

Five Characteristics of Fear Based Leaders

Back in 2015 Liz Ryan wrote a piece in Forbes online called The Five Characteristics of Fear Based Leaders.

In her intro, Liz Ryan sets out her working hypothesis:

I don’t believe there’s a manager anywhere who would say “I manage my team through fear.”

They have no idea that they are fear-based managers — and no one around them will tell them the truth!

And I think, for the most part, this is true. If I type “how to lead with fear” into Google I get, not surprisingly, no hits that describe the importance of intimidation for a good leader – though there are clearly leaders (as my example above) who overtly say that intimidation is something they do.)

My interpretation of her baseline would be summarized:

People who use fear and intimidation from a position of authority are often tying their own self-esteem to their position within that bureaucratic structure. Their behavior extends from their need to reinforce their externally granted power, as they have very little power that comes from within them.

They are, themselves, afraid of being revealed as unqualified, or making mistakes, or uncertain, or needing help or advice.

I have probably extended a bit of my own feelings into this, but it is my take-away.

She then goes on to outline five characteristic behaviors she sees in these “leaders.” I’ll let you read the article and see if anything resonates.

Liz Ryan’s article is, I think, about how to spot these leaders and avoid taking jobs working for them.

This post is about how the organization responds to fear based leadership.

The Breakdown of Trust

A long time ago, I wrote a post about :The 3 Elements of “Safety First”. Today I would probably do a better and more nuanced job expressing myself, but here is my key point:

If a team member does not feel safe from emotional or professional repercussions, it means they do not trust you.

Fear based leadership systematically breaks down trust, which chokes off the truth from every conversation.

Here is my question: Do you want people to hide the truth?

If the answer is “No,” then the next question is “What forces in your organization encourage them to do so?” because:

Your organization is PERFECTLY designed to produce the BEHAVIORS you are currently experiencing.

– VitalSmarts via Rich Sheridan

LEI Book: Getting Home

“Are you ahead or behind?” seems an innocent enough question.

But when asked by a Toyota advisor, the simple process of becoming able to answer it launched Liz McCartney and Jack Rosenburg on a journey of finding consistency in things that were “never the same” and stability in things that “always changed.”

Getting Home is, first and foremost, a story. And, with the “business novel” being an almost worn-out genre, seeing a non-fiction story was refreshing. So when Chet Marchwinski from the LEI offered a review copy to me, I accepted.

For the story background, I’ll leave it to you to read the blurb on Amazon.* Better yet – read the book – and it is worth reading. I’ll say that right up front.

Yet with stories like this it is all too easy to dismiss them because they have different circumstances from “my” specific case and say “Yeah, it worked there, but won’t work here.”

I would contend, however, that in this case “it worked” in situations that are far more difficult than anything we are likely to encounter in most organizations.

What I want to do here is help pull their specific achievements into more general application – what lessons are here that anyone can take away and apply directly.

What They Achieved

I can’t think of a lot (any?) business circumstances that would have more built-in variability and sources of chaos than the process of rebuilding communities after a disaster such as a hurricane or flood.

Every client has different circumstances. The make, mix and skill levels of the volunteer workforce changes continuously. Every community has different bureaucratic processes – not to mention the various U.S. government agencies which can be, well, unpredictable in how and when they respond.

Yet they have to mobilize quickly, and build houses. This means securing funding, getting permits, mobilizing unskilled and skilled labor, and orchestrating everything to meet the specific needs of specific clients on a massive scale… fast.

How They Achieved It

When they first connected with their Toyota advisor, the simple question, “Are you ahead or behind?” prompted the response that drives all improvement, all scientific advancement, all innovation:

“We don’t actually know.”

Actually they did, kind of, but it was in very general, high-level terms.

And that is what I encounter everywhere. People have a sense of ahead or behind (usually behind), but they don’t have a firm grasp on the cause and effect relationship – what specific event triggered the first delay?

This little book drives home the cascading effect of ever deepening understanding that emerges from that vital shift from accepting things as they are to a mindset of incessant curiosity.

Being able to answer “Are you ahead or behind?” means you have to have a point of reference – what is supposed to happen, in what order, with what timing, with what result. If you don’t know those things, you can only get a general sense of “on track” or not.

They had to develop standards for training – what to train, how to train – volunteers! – , which meant challenging assumptions about what could, and could not, be “standardized.” (A lot more than you think.)

A standard, in turn, provides a point of reference – are we following it, or are we being pushed off it. That point of reference comes back to being able to know “Are we ahead or behind?”

 

It Isn’t About the Specific Tools

Yet it is. While it isn’t that important about whether this-or-that specific tool or approach is put into place, it is critical to understand what the tools you use are there to achieve.

As you read the book, look for some common underlying themes:

Information as a Social Lever

The project started revolving around the ahead/behind board.

In the “lean” world, we talk about “visual controls” a lot, and are generally fans of status boards on the wall. We see the same thing in agile project management (when it is done well).

These information radiators work to create conversations between people. If they aren’t creating those conversations, then they aren’t working. In Getting Home it was those conversations that resulted in challenging their assumptions.

Beyond Rote Implementation

Each tool surfaced more detail, which in turn, challenged the next level. This goes far beyond a checklist of tools to implement. Each technical change you make – each tool you try to put into place – is going to surface something that invites you to be curious.

It is the “Huh… what is happening here?” – the curiosity response – that actually makes continuous improvement happen. It isn’t the tools, it is the process of responding to what they reveal that is important.

Summary

Like the tools it describes, Getting Home is an invitation, and that is all, to think a little deeper than the surface telling of the story.

My challenge to you: If you choose to read this book (and I hope you do), go deeper. Parse it. Ask “What did they learn?” ask “What did this tool or question reveal to them, about them?” And then ask “What signals did they see that am I missing in my own organization?”

 

 

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*This is an affiliate link that give me a very small kickback if you happen to purchase the book – no cost to you.

That Broken Bolt is Speaking to You

The factory is running complex automated equipment. At the morning meeting today we heard “machine x was down for broken bolts.” Actually “again.”

Background – the bolts in question resist pressure in molding equipment. The details of how the equipment works aren’t relevant here. This isn’t the first time I have heard of “broken bolts” being the source of downtime.

After the meeting, I saw the production manager on the shop floor. “So, tell me about the broken bolts.” We know each other, he is happy to.

We went to the machine in question. “How do bolts break?” (These days I ask “how?” rather than “why?” because I am interested in the mechanism of failure rather than whatever mistake is being made.

I am asking that question for a simple reason: Grade 8 bolts don’t “just break” in equipment that is properly engineered and assembled as designed. Something, somewhere, is stressing things beyond their limits.

Normalized Deviance

By accepting that “bolts break” and “shafts get stripped” and “hoses fail” we move into the realm of “normalized deviance” where we accept as OK something that actually is a sign of a serious problem.

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This is no different than accepting that “o-rings burn through sometimes but it hasn’t caused a problem so it must be OK.”

How do Bolts Break?

A few possibilities came up.

  • The bolts might be just a bit too long allowing movement.
  • The might be loose.

“Why is a ‘too long’ bolt even needed in the plant?” – that is still an open question.

“What is the torque spec?”

“… I don’t know.”

Now we are getting somewhere.

Once we hit the threshold of knowledge, we know the next step.

If You Think “We Can’t Please Our Customers” You’ll Be Right

The center of the B Concourse at O’Hare Airport in Chicago is dominated by a Brachiosaur skeleton, part of the Field Museum exhibit for their store there.

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As a reminder for those of you over the age of 14, the Brachiosaurus was 70 feet long, 30 feet tall, weighed in at around 60 tons.* It had a brain the size of an avocado. It wasn’t smart. It wasn’t fast. Its main defense against predators was that it was simply too big to catch and eat.

In the shadow of the Brachiosaurus is United Airlines’ main customer service desk for their headquarters hub.

Back in June, Chris Matyszczyk published some really interesting commentary on Inc. Magazine’s site: The CEO of United Airlines Says He Can’t Really Make Passengers Happy

In his article, he quotes from an interview Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, gave to ABC. From the interview:

“It’s become so stressful,” he said, “from when you leave, wherever you live, to get into traffic, to find a parking spot, to get through security.”

“Frankly,” Munoz added, “by the time you sit on one of our aircraft … you’re just pissed at the world,” and improving the flying experience won’t ultimately depend on “what coffee or cookie I give you.”

My interpretation? “We have given up trying to please our customers.”

That was the interpretation of Ed Bastian, Munoz’s counterpart at Delta Airlines:

…when Munoz’s views were put to Delta CEO Ed Bastian by Marketplace.

His response was, well, quite direct:

“I disagree. Those certainly aren’t Delta customers he is speaking to.”

My Perspective as a Frequent Flyer

Just so you know my perspective: In the course of my work, I typically purchase between 10 and 20 thousand dollars worth of airfare a year. While this isn’t anywhere near the highest, I think I am the kind of customer an airline wants to get and retain.

Further, I know the system. I know what to expect, can quickly distinguish “abnormal” from “normal” and know how to maneuver to get out in front of issues I see developing. I pay attention to weather and other events that might disrupt the system, and contingency plan accordingly. I know, generally, how to arrange my stuff to get through TSA smoothly (though they can be arbitrary).

And I have the perks of a heavy frequent flier, which buffers me from a lot of the “stuff” that casual travelers have to contend with.

Munoz used some words that really identify the problem: …by the time you sit in one of our aircraft…”

This casual statement, which correlates with my experience as a former United Airlines customer** implies a belief that the customer service experience begins once you are on the plane. This isn’t where United’s reputation is created. Once you are on the plane, the customer experience of all of the major airlines is pretty similar.

My experience reflects that it is what happens on the ground that differentiates one airline from another.

Assumptions About Customers Come True

The assumption that customers are just “pissed off at the world” and there is nothing we can do about it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If that is the attitude from the top, then it lets the entire system off the hook for making any effort at all to understand the things that might take some of the sharp edges off the experience.

On the other hand, if the attitude is “We are responsible for the experience of our customers – even if we aren’t” then the effort can get focused on understanding exactly what kind of experience we want our customers to have, and engineering a system that delivers it to the best of our ability. That, in turn, allows reflection when we miss, and improvement for the next time.

One is a victim attitude. “We’ll get better customer satisfaction when our customers are better at understanding how hard it is.”

The other is empowering – “Even if our customers *are* pissed off at the world, we will own it and work to understand what we can do.

How Does Your System Respond to Stress?

This in my mind, is what really differentiates a good system from a broken one. Like I said, it’s easy when everything is flowing smoothly. But what happens when the system is disrupted?

Is there a mad scramble of figuring out what to do – like it is the very first time a maintenance issue has caused a flight to be cancelled? What are we going to do with all of these passengers? Process them through two people? (See the line in my photo above!)

Or is there a clear process that gets engaged to get people rebooked – leaving the true difficult cases for the in-person agents?

Ironically, the major airline with one of the very best on-time schedule records also has one of the best recovery processes. Go figure.

Then there are little gestures, like snacks or even pizza for those suffering through a long delay.

“It’s not our fault” easily leads to “you’re on your own.”

“We’re going to own it, even if we don’t” leads to “let’s see if we can help.”

Now… to be clear, the entire airline industry has a long way to go on this stuff. But my point is that some are making the effort, while others have given up.

What Experience Have You Designed for YOUR Customers?

That, ultimately, is the question I am posing here. If you start with the experience you want your customer to have – a standard – then you have a point of comparison.

Did we deliver that experience? If so, then could we do it more efficiently?

If not, what got in our way, how do we close the gap?

Without a standard to strive for, there can be no improvement – and I think this is what Taiichi Ohno actually meant.

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* Estimates of the weight vary quite a bit.

Rough metric equivalents would be around 20 meters long, 9 meters high,  50 tons. About the weight of mid-cold war era tank.

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** With one exception that was booked for me, I haven’t flown on United since mid 2014 after an experience that could not have been better designed to tell the customer “We don’t work as a team or talk to each other.”

I cashed in my frequent flier miles for a camera about a year later.

Ambitious Growth Plans? Your Customers Will Right-Size You

I’ll call the title of this post “Dave’s Observation.”

He is reflecting his experience in varied industries that if a company grows beyond its ability to deliver quality product, on time, then order volume will drop until it reaches a point that performance returns.

The business literature is full of examples of this – companies who could not keep up with their own success, their performance deteriorates and, well, many of them go out of business.

I have seen more than a few companies with aggressive growth plans that outrun their ability to actually execute, and they get into trouble.

This also happens in mergers and acquisitions where one company is merged into another with the assumption that the combined company can execute and perform in ways neither company has ever done. Starry-eyed executives often look only at the financial models, maybe equipment capacity, and skip over the operational aspects of their due diligence.

In the end, though, if the operational capability is not there, then none of the plans actually matter. Your “synergy” or “economy of scale” will evaporate like an ice cube on the Moon until equilibrium is restored.

Bottom line: If you are engaged in an ambitious growth plan, then list everything that has to be different for your model to work.

By “different” I mean you are asking for or expecting some task execution or level of performance that does not exist today as a matter of mundane routine.

Then ask “What is our plan to close this gap?” – and run the same exercise on executing that plan. “Change” is really hard, and just telling people what needs to be different, no matter how pretty the PowerPoint slides are, no matter how slick the presentation is, won’t make anything change. (If anything, it often breeds cynicism because it is read as unrealistic.)

Change requires step-by-step, methodical, practice to anchor each small change into the system, then the next, then the next.

Toyota Kata offers a good pattern for this. Just don’t confuse the underlying pattern with the methods used to teach it.

If the student hasn’t learned…

… the teacher hasn’t taught.

Do you regard the structure of problem solving as dogma, or as an experiment with a predicted outcome?

If the learner struggles to master the structure, sometimes it is more valuable to find a different structure than to double down on what clearly isn’t giving the predicted result.

The Problem

Early this year I started work with a new client. They were trying to “implement A3,” and as I began to work with them, especially the new-in-the-position C.I. manager, I found they were struggling with what to write in the blocks of the “form.”

Of course there isn’t an A3 “form.” The A3 takes many configurations as the problem solver sets out to share the narrative with her coach. Nevertheless, beginners tend to find a format online, and work to put the right information in the various blocks.

In this case, my impression was that the blocks were getting in the way. “What should go in here?”  “What goes in the next block?” I didn’t really make a deliberate decision here, but I’ll tell you what I ended up doing:

What I Tried

First I tried the Toyota Kata format. He really liked that approach, but ultimately in this case we ran into the same kind of struggle. “Getting the structure right” seemed to be obscuring the bigger picture of the underlying thinking.

So I tried something more drastic: I let go of the format and the structure. Instead, let’s work on solving problems.

Like all organizations, there was no shortage of problems to practice on. So we just picked one.

Without the form, I had him map out the basic process steps. Then what happens, then what happens. What, exactly, is happening here. “The part is dropping off the conveyor.”

“OK, that’s the outcome, but what, exactly, is the mechanism that causes it to drop?” Describe what is happening. Draw it. Write it down. Show me.

After working to see process steps, we took on some pervasive quality issues.

“How is it even possible to produce this defect?” What are the steps involved to make a defective product? Yes – making defective product is a process, just like making a good product is a process. It is just a different process. What is actually happening here?

There were trials, experiments, measurements all with the goal of learning more, digging deeper, until the mechanism of the failure could be described. “This is what is happening.”

OK – how could that happen? Always forcing the discussion toward what is actually happening vs. what is not happening. If there was more than one possible mechanism to cause the problem, then “Based on the evidence we have, which of those can we rule out, and why?” Look at what’s left as a possible cause.

Of those, what trial can we run to see if we can rule that one out, or keep it in play.

At the end of a few of these, his language started to shift. He started speaking to others differently. He was learning to coach in different ways. He started asking different questions, boring in on the details with the intent of inquiry and dialog vs. “showing what I know.”

Oh – and he cracked a couple of chronic problems.

Then when the Corporate C.I. guy started insisting on “using A3” it was a pretty simple transition – it is just a way to describe what you know, what you do not know, and what steps you are taking to deepen your understanding because…

“The root cause of all problems is ignorance.”

– Steven Spear

What I Learned:

A core prerequisite to continuous improvement is good daily management of problem solving that applies solid scientific thinking to find the answers.

Once that thinking structure is in place, it can be expressed many ways, and A3 is but one of them. It isn’t the only one. As the level of scientific thinking deepens, the more the various tools and structures simply become fluid extensions to make it easier to express.

Sometimes I have found that if I try to force a particular format into place, I can end up having a container without any content.

Now… to be clear, there are many instances where the structure facilitates learning. It is just that in this particular case, the structure got in the way.

Asking whether learning is actually taking place, rather than trying to force a specific structure into place, may well be the difference between trying to teach by rote vs. staying focused on what the student is actually learning.

A Period of Reflection and Learning

Some of you have commented in back-channels that I have been pretty quiet for a while – both here as well as in regular correspondence. I’ve been in pretty heavy reflective mode for quite a while. I described it to someone as “I am learning faster than I can write it down right now – by the time I write something, I understand it in a different way and start over.”

A lot of that reflection has been around consolidating what I learned at from Rich Sheridan, James Goebel and all of the other Menlonians that I have the privilege to know now.

That work was punctuated, though not completed, by my keynote at KataCon last February (2018) where I followed Rich Sheridan and described my interpretation of the underlying meta-patterns that exist in pretty much any organization that we would call exceptionally good at what they do.

At the same time, another client (Thank you, Tomas!) introduced me to Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky’s body of work under the umbrella of “Adaptive Leadership.” From their model I think I picked out a fundamental failure mode of what we like to call “change initiatives” regardless of what tool set of operational models we are trying to deploy.

To learn more about this, I read (Note – these are Amazon affiliate links. If you choose to buy the book, I get a (very) small kickback at no cost to you.)

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

Leadership on the Line

Leadership Can Be Taught

Teaching Leadership

Your Leadership Edge

and every paper and article I could find on the topic or about people’s experience. While doing this, I have tried out many of the teaching and coaching processes as well as applying the observation, interpretation and intervention skills in the course of my work. Those of you who participated in the Experiential Workshop that Craig Stritar and I put on at KataCon early this year were seeing the outcomes of this work up to that point.

My latest step was taking a three day seminar Your Leadership Edge from the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita the 2nd week of August. The KLC’s model and methods are built on the Adaptive Leadership model. My intended outcome was to consolidate some of my understanding by getting the external perspective and participating within their structure.

The number one frustration of “change agents” out there is some form of “How to I get buy-in?” I know I have experienced that myself. It is easy when all of the constituencies and factions within the organization are well aligned on purpose and values. Not so easy when there are conflicts. I think the Adaptive Leadership model gives us an approach we can learn by practicing. It also mirrors the steps of problem solving / continuous improvement that are outlined in Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata. The context for action is different, but the process is the same: Learning what works through experimentation. That is the “adaptive” part of Adaptive Leadership.

This post is just some background around why I am pursuing this line of thought. As always, I write about things like this to force myself to improve my own understanding by having to explain them in the simplest possible terms. I am happy to have any of you along the journey with me, so subscribe or check-in or whatever and let’s see what we can learn.

Mark

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.

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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:

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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.

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*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.

Heavy Equipment Overhaul: Flow at Takt in 1938!

This is a great contemporary film from 1938 describing the complete overhaul of a mainline 4-6-0 steam locomotive in the U.K.

What is interesting (to me) is:

  • The overhaul involves stripping the locomotive down to individual parts. Each of the parts, in turn, flows through a process of inspection / repair or replacement, with a strict timing to ensure it is delivered back to re-assembly when required.
  • There are 6 positions with a takt time of 10 hours 44 minutes. Everything is timed to this cadence.
  • I can only speculate, but with that degree of rigor in the timing, they are going to be able to see a delay or problem very quickly, and get out in front of it before it causes a delay in the main-line work.
  • The parts that come off are not necessarily the exact once that are put back on. Everything is flowing – there are multiple locomotives in overhaul.

More thoughts below the video.

(Here is a direct YouTube link for those who don’t get the embed in the email subscription: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktHw1wR9XOU)

Flow in Overhaul and Repair

This is a great working example of a process flow that proves difficult for some organizations: Overhaul and repair. “We don’t know what we will find, so there is no way we can sequence and index it on a timetable.”

I’ve seen a similar operation overhauling helicopters. The intended flow was exactly the same.

  • Like the locomotive flow, they stripped everything down to the airframe. The various components had different flow paths for sheet metal, hydraulic components, power-train (engine / transmission), rotor components, electrical, avionics, and composite parts.
  • The objective was to deliver “good as new” items on time back to the re-assembly process.

Here is where they ran into problems:

  • If an item needed repair, then the repairs were done, and the item flowed back.
  • But if an item could not be repaired (needed to be scrapped and replaced) it was tagged, and returned to the “customer” – the parts bin in main assembly. It arrived just like any other part except this one was tagged as unusable. It was up to the assembly supervisor to notice, and initiate ordering a new one.

Who is your customer? What do they need?

The breakdown was that the repair line(s) saw themselves as providing a repair service. If it couldn’t be repaired, sorry.

What their customer needed was a good part to install on the helicopter. If they can create a good part by repairing the old one, great. But if it isn’t repairable, their customer still needs a good one and they need it on time.

The Importance of Timing and Sequencing

In the locomotive video, they emphasize the precise timing and sequencing to make sure each part arrives in the proper sequence, when it is needed, where it is needed.

Even if it actually worked like they describe, I can be sure it didn’t work like that when they first started.

The timing and sequencing is a hypothesis. Each time they overhaul a locomotive, in fact each individual part flow, is an experiment to test that hypothesis. Over time, it is possible to dial things in very precisely.

Why? So you can quickly identify those truly anomalous conditions that demand your intervention.

Normal vs Abnormal

Just because there are frequent issues does not negate the fact that most of the time things can probably flow pretty well. What we tend to do, however, is focus on the problem cases and give up on all of them. “What about this? What about that?” bringing up the legitimate issues and problems, causes us to lose sight of the fact that underneath it all there is a baseline pattern.

What is important is to define the point at which we need to intervene, and set up the process to detect that point. When we can clearly distinguish between routine work and true exceptions, and not try to treat everything as a special case.

Executive Rounding: Taking the Organization’s Vitals

Background:

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

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

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

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

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

Mark’s Word Quibble

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

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

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

This is what appears in print in the magazine:

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

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

Rounding vs. Visiting

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

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

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

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

Executive Rounding

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

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

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

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

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

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

Results

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

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Leadership Development

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

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

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

Breaking Down Silos by Providing Transparency

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

Creating Disruption

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

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

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

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