The Importance of Prediction for Learning

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

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

Why Is It Important to Make a Prediction?

Explicit learning is driven by prediction.

Explicit Learning

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

— Isaac Asimov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Building 214

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

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

What is that? It’s a prediction.

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

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

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

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

 

The Improvement Kata

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

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

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

 

You are Always Making a Prediction Anyway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About Implicit Learning?

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

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

 

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

The Neuroscience of Learning (As I understand it.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What does this have to do with prediction?

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

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

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

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

Moving from Implicit to Explicit

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

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

… Until conditions or requirements change.

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

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

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

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

People to Meet at KataCon

KataCon is a couple of weeks out. If you are considering going you are probably looking at the keynote speakers and KataGeekYellowbreakout workshops.

The other reason to attend KataCon is to meet other people and share experiences with them. I’d like to introduce you to two of those people.

imageHal Frohreich is the Chief Operating Officer of Cascade DAFO in Ferndale, Washington. Their product is custom pediatric foot / ankle orthotics that help kids walk. Yup, custom. Every one is different.

Since taking the position, Hal has been using Toyota Kata as a mechanism to develop the leadership and technical skills of the supervisors and, in doing so, make fundamental shifts to the culture of the organization. For you TWI folks, he has also deployed TWI, especially Job Instruction, along side the Toyota Kata for much more consistency in the way work is performed.

 

 

imageHal provides support to his Production Manager, Tim Grigsby. Tim coaches 4-7 kata boards every day and covers diverse areas including people development, I.T. issues, R&D, and production. Tim views his job as seeing that each work team has the time, education, direction, space, tools and help to improve their work. Toyota Kata provides the structure that he uses to help them develop critical thinking and clarity in their target conditions, obstacles, and their PDCA cycles.

Each afternoon the COO and CEO walk the floor and review the target conditions, obstacles and next steps. This helps keep things aligned as well as ensure nobody is “stuck” on a problem that is outside of their scope to fix.

 

I believe, and teach, that Toyota Kata is a mechanism for driving culture change, and this is the philosophy that Hal and Tim have embraced. While the performance of the organization has dramatically improved by every measure you care to ask about, that is not the real result of this work.

The real outcome has been to create a cadre of front-line leaders that are taking initiative and applying creative solutions vs. just getting through the day doing what they are told.

Come to KataCon and find these guys. They are worth talking to.

Learning = Extending the Threshold of Knowledge

“My computer won’t boot.”

Mrs. TheLeanThinker’s computer was hanging on the logo screen, keyboard unresponsive.

I know already that if the CPU were bad it wouldn’t get this far.

I also knew that the system hasn’t even tried to boot the OS from the hard drive yet, so that likely isn’t the problem.

Working hypothesis: It’s something on the motherboard.

Start with the simple stuff that challenges the working hypothesis:

  • Hang test a different, known good, power supply. No change.
  • Pull memory cards and reinstall them one by one. No change.
  • Pull the motherboard battery, unplug, wait a few minutes to possibly reset the BIOS. No change.
  • Try holding down the DEL key on power-up to get into BIOS settings. Nope, system still hangs, though it does read that one keystroke, the keyboard is dead after that.
  • Try Ctrl-Home to reach the BIOS flash process. Nope.

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There is no evidence that the motherboard is not dead. Final test:

Get the numbers off the motherboard, find the same model on Amazon, order it for $37.50 to the door. (Intel hasn’t made this processor type since 2011).

New motherboard arrived today. Switch it out, takes about 30 minutes.

Boot up the machine, works OK, set the time in the BIOS, and pretty much good to go.

Convince Windows 10 that I haven’t made a bootleg copy.

Done.

The Threshold of Knowledge

I learned to code in 1973 on PDP-8 driving teletypes. Although my programming skills are largely obsolete these days, I am comfortable poking around inside the box of a PC, and I generally know how they work. Thus, the troubleshooting and component replacement I described above was not a learning experience. Yes, I learned what was wrong with this computer. (The “bad motherboard” was a hypothesis I tested by installing a new one.) But I didn’t learn anything about computers in general.

Rather than working through experiments into new territory, I was troubleshooting. Something that had worked was not working now. My experiments were an effort to confirm the point of failure.

Therefore, as interesting as the diversion was, aside from a little research on some of the more arcane troubleshooting, it was not a learning exercise for me. It was all within my Threshold of Knowledge.

In the Improvement Kata, “threshold of knowledge” refers to the boundary between “We know for sure” and “We don’t know.” Strictly speaking, we only say “We know” when there is specific and relevant evidence to back it up.

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In this case, my challenge (fix the wife’s computer) was well inside the red circle.

But this wouldn’t be the case for everyone.

The Threshold of Knowledge is Subjective

Someone else with the same challenge may not see this as a routine troubleshoot-and-repair task. Rather, he has to learn.

I had to learn it at some point as well. The difference is that I had already learned it. I had already made mistakes, taken a week to build a PC and get it working many years ago. I learned by experimenting and being surprised when something didn’t work, then digging in and understanding why. On occasion, especially in the early days, I consulted experts who coached me, or at least taught me what to do and why.

Coaching To Extend the Threshold of Knowledge

Learning is the whole point of the Improvement Kata. That is why we call the “improver” the “learner.” If someone encounters a problem like my example and I am responsible for developing their skills, I am not serving them if I do something like:

  • Sit down at their machine and troubleshoot it.
  • Tell them what step to take, and asking what happened so I can interpret the outcome.

That second case is deceptive. The question is “Who is doing the thinking?” If the coach is doing the thinking, then the coach isn’t coaching, and the learner isn’t learning.

In this case I would also have to recognize this is going to take longer than it would if I did it myself. That is a trap many leaders fall into. They got where they are because they can arrive at a solution quickly. But the only reason they can do that is because, at some point in the past, they had time to learn.

“My computer doesn’t boot.” If my objective is for this person to learn, then I need to go back to the steps of learning. Given that the challenge is likely “My computer operates normally,” what would be my next question to help this person learn how to troubleshoot a problem like this?

I need to know what they know. “Do you know where in the boot sequence it is hanging up?” If the answer is “No,” or just a repeat of the symptom, then my next target condition is for them to understand the high-level sequence of steps that happens between “ON” and the login screen. That would be easy to depict in a block diagram. It’s just another process. But my learner might have to do a little research, and I can certainly point him in the right direction.

I’m not going to get into the details here, because this post isn’t about troubleshooting cranky computers.

General Application

“If somebody comes to me with a problem, I have two problems.”

  • The original issue.
  • The fact that this person didn’t know how to handle it.

You can easily translate my computer example into a production quality example. A defect is produced by a process that normally does not produce them. What is different between “Defect” and “Defect-Free?” Something is. We just don’t know what.

Is it something we need to learn? Something we need to teach? Or something we need to communicate?

If my working challenge for my organization is something like “Everyone knows everything they need to do their jobs perfectly.” then I am confronted every day with evidence that this is not as true as I would like.

If I look at those interventions as “the boss just doing his job” then I lose the opportunity to teach and to grow the organization. I am showing how much I know, and by doing so just extending the dependency. That might feel good in the short term, but it doesn’t do much for the future.

Think about this… in your organization, if the boss were promoted or hired out of the job tomorrow, would you look outside the immediate organization for a replacement? If so, you are not developing your people. When I see senior leaders being hired from outside, all I can do is wonder why they have so little faith in the people they already have.

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*I remember when Gateway built their own machines, which I guess shows how long I’ve been playing with PCs. Then again, I remember when the premium brand was Northgate. Of course, I also remember programming on punch cards.

Toyota Kata: Reflection on Coaching Struggling Learners

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

The 5 Questions of the Coaching Kata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Point of Coaching?

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

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

Coach falling over a cliff.

Overall Direction

The learner is here to learn two things:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Current Condition

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

What we can’t do is assume:

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

In addition:

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes We Have To Choose

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

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

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

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

Countermeasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weakness to this Approach

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

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

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

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

What I Learned

Maybe I should put this at the top.

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

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

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

Coaching Kata: Walking Through an Improvement Board

Improver's Storyboard

The Coaching Kata is much more than just asking the 5 questions. The coach needs to pay attention to the answers and make sure the thinking flows.

Although I have alluded to pieces in prior posts, today I want to go over how I try to connect the dots during a coaching cycle.

Does the learner understand the challenge she is striving for?

The “5 Questions” of the Coaching Kata do not explicitly ask about the challenge the learner is striving for. This makes sense because the challenge generally doesn’t change over the course of a week or two.

But I often see challenges that are vague, defined only by a general direction like “reduce.” The question I ask at that point is “How will you know when you have achieved the challenge?

If there isn’t a measurable outcome (and sometimes there isn’t), I am probing to see if the learner really understands what he must achieve to meet the challenge.

This usually comes up when I am 2nd coaching and the learner and regular coach haven’t really reached a meeting of the minds on what the challenge is.

Is the target condition a logical step in the direction of the challenge?

And is the target condition based on a thorough grasp of the current condition?

I’m going to start with this secondary question since I run into this issue more often, especially in organizations with novice coaches. (And, by definition, that is most of the organizations where I spend time.)

It is quite common for the learner to first try to establish a target condition, and then grasp the current condition. Not surprisingly, they struggle with that approach. It sometimes helps to have the four steps of the Improvement Kata up near the board, and even go as far as to have a “You are here” arrow.

Four steps of the Improvement Kata
(c) Mike Rother

Another question I ask myself is Can I directly compare the target condition and the current condition? Can I see the gap, can I see the same indicators and measurements used for each so I can compare “apples vs apples”?

Along with this is the same question I ask for the challenge, only more so for the target condition:

How will the learner be able to tell when the target is met? Since this has a short-term deadline, I am really looking for a crisp, black-and-white line here. The target condition is either met or not met on the date.

Is there a short-term date that is in the future?

It is pretty common for a novice learner to set a target condition equal to the challenge. If they are over-reaching, I’ll impose a date, usually no more than two weeks out. “Where will you be in two weeks?” Another way to ask is “What will the current condition be in two weeks?”

Sometimes the learner has slid up to the date and past it. Watch for this! If the date comes up without hitting the target, then it is time to reflect and establish a new target condition in the future.

Is the target condition a step in the direction of the challenge?

Usually the link between the target condition and the overall challenge is pretty obvious. Sometimes, though, it isn’t clear to the coach, even if it is clear in the mind of the learner. In these cases, it is important for the coach to ask.

Key Point: The coach isn’t rigidly locked into the script of the 5 questions. The purpose of follow-up questions is to (1) actually get an answer to the Coaching Kata questions and (2) make sure the coach understands how the learner is thinking. Remember coach: It is the learner’s thinking that you are working to improve, so you have to understand it!

(And occasionally the learner will try to establish a target condition that really isn’t related to the challenge.)

Does the “obstacle being addressed” actually relate to the target condition?

(Always keep your marshmallow on top!)

The question is “What obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target condition?” That question should be answered with a reading of all of the obstacles. (Again, the coach is trying to understand what the learner is thinking.) Then “Which one (obstacle) are you addressing now?”

Generally I give a pretty broad (though not infinitely broad) pass to the obstacles on the list. They are, after all, the learner’s opinion (“…do you think are…”). But when it comes to the “obstacle being addressed now” I apply a little more scrutiny.

I have addressed this with a tip in a previous post: TOYOTA KATA: IS THAT REALLY AN OBSTACLE?

It is perfectly legitimate, especially early on, for an obstacle to be something we need to learn more about. The boundary between “Grasp the current condition” and “Establish the next target condition” can be blurry. As the focus is narrowed, the learner may well have to go back and dig into some more detail about the current condition. If that is impeding getting to the target, then just write it down, and be clear what information is needed. Then establish a step that will get that information.

Sometimes the learner will write down every obstacle they perceive to reaching the challenge. The whole point of establishing a Target Condition is to narrow the scope of what needs to be worked on down to something easier to deal with. When I focus them on only the obstacles that relate directly to their Target Condition, many are understandably reluctant to simply cross other (legitimate, just not “right now”) issues off the list.

In this case it can be helpful to establish a second Obstacle Parking Lot off to the side that has these longer-term obstacles and problems on it. That does a couple of things. It can remind the coach (who is often the boss) that, yes, we know those are issues, but we aren’t working on those right now. Other team members who contribute their thinking can also know they were heard, and those issues will be addressed when they are actually impeding progress.

Does the “Next step or experiment” lead to learning about the obstacle being addressed?

Sometimes it helps to have the learner first list what they need to learn, and then fill in what they are going to do. See this previous post for the details: IMPROVEMENT KATA: NEXT STEP AND EXPECTED RESULT.

In any case, I am looking to see an “Expected result” that at least implies learning.

In “When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?” I am also looking for a fast turn-around. It is common for the next step to be bigger than it needs to be. “What can you do today that will help you learn?” can sometimes help clarify that the learner doesn’t always need to try a full-up fix. It may be more productive to test the idea in a limited way just to make sure it will work the way she thinks it will. That is faster than a big project that ends up not working.

Notes and Thoughts from KataCon 2

The 2016 Toyota Kata Summit developed some interesting themes.

Even though the keynote addresses were not coordinated, one message emerged across them all.

This is about leadership development.

And by that, I don’t mean it is about further developing those in leadership positions. I mean it is about developing good thinking and leadership skills in everyone who chooses to deliberately learn. The “kata” are a structure for that learning, but learning the kata themselves is not the goal. It is a means to the end.

I know I have said this before, but now I see the beginning of a shift in the larger community, away from “kata as a problem solving tool” and toward “kata as a practice routine” for something bigger than the kata themselves.

Some Quotes and Themes

Improvement cannot be separate from management.

– Amy Mervak

This may well seem obvious. But in the vast majority of organizations, improvement is the job of the Continuous Improvement Department, or the Quality Department, or some other staff department.

If they are working on developing the improvement skills of line management, then all well and good. But if they are working directly on making improvements, then that is the problem at the root of “lack of leadership engagement.”

Intentional practice results in intentional learning.

– Amy Mervak

Put another way, without intentional practice, learning is a matter of luck. If you want your organization to actually learn a new behavior, then people and teams have to deliberately practice it until it is a habit.

What differentiates excellent organizations from their competitors is effective execution of strategy.

– Mike Rother

There is no shortage of effective models. But those models all require shifts in how people respond, especially under stress, to the unexpected.

Even in the best of times,

We want to learn something new, but we habitually follow our [existing] routines.

– Mike Rother

Our brains, and therefore we, are hard-wired to do this. And “under stress” is not the time to try to learn a new response. It has to be practiced in a space where it is safe to screw it up and learn.

This actually goes pretty deep. I have worked with a few organizations, and one in particular, where everyone adamantly agrees what changes must be made. But they don’t take active steps to get there.

Which brings us to:

40 priorities = No priorities.

Strategic priorities must be focused and formally expressed.

– Amy Mervak

It doesn’t do any good to have a Grand Vision if it is vague, or so diluted that Everything Is Important. Your job (management) is to be clear so people don’t waste their time working hard on something that doesn’t make a difference.

Although he was not present, Bill Costantino was quoted:

A long discussion is a symptom of lack of clarity on the current condition or the challenge.

– Bill Costantino

In other words, “What are we trying to accomplish here, and where are we now?” never get asked or clarified.

On Culture Change Modification

An interesting point was made about culture. Yes, we are working to shift the culture of the organization. But “change” may imply that we are changing everything. In reality, we have to consider:

  • What are we choosing to keep, maintain, enhance?
  • What are we choosing to alter?
  • What are we choosing to let go?

If these are deliberate decisions made by the team, then there is an opportunity to make purposeful adjustments, and frame them in the context of “What are we striving for?”

So perhaps the term “culture modification” is more appropriate.

Dave Kilgore’s presentation (full disclosure: I nominated Dave as a keynote) highlighted an organizational culture as the challenge for his advance team.

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And because they are focused on creating this culture, they are making tangible progress.

Brad Frank asked the audience an interesting question.

If someone brings you a problem, there are two problems. What is the second one?

-Brad Frank

I have alluded to this in previous posts. As a leader, you have to ask “Why was my organization unable to make the correct decision without coming to me?”

Every time someone has to come and ask you something, it means you are an obstacle to their success.

– Brad Frank

Dave Kilgore emphasized the same thing and uses David Marquet’s “Ladder of Leadership” model both as a way to advance the culture, as well as a way to assess the current condition by listening to people.

I wanted to get these notes up there. I’ll cover Day 2 in another post.

How Do We Deal With Multiple Shifts?

This is a pretty common question.

Today I was talking to a department director in a major regional hospital that is learning Toyota Kata. She picked it up very quickly, and wants to take the learning to the off-shifts.

She (rightly) doesn’t want the night shift to just be deploying what day shift develops, she wants night shift totally involved in making improvements as well. Awesome.

Her question was along the lines of “How do I maintain continuity of the effort across both shifts?” She was jumping into asking how to provide good coaching support, whether there were separate boards, or a single board etc. and playing out the problems with each scenario.

My reply was pretty simple. “I don’t know.”

“What do you want to see your learners doing if they are working the way you envision?”

In other words, “What is your target condition?”

But… how do we coach them, and so on?

I don’t know. But until we understand what we want the improvement process to look like, especially across the shift boundaries, we can’t say. Different target conditions will have different obstacles.

And what worked at Boeing, or Genie, or Kodak, or even another hospital I’ve worked with likely won’t work here in your hospital. The conditions are different. The conditions are different in different departments in the same hospital!

She admitted that she was having a hard time thinking about a target without dealing with all of the potential obstacles first. My suggestion was that this challenge is her improvement board, and the best way to work out a solution was to actually follow the Improvement Kata (that she has been doing such a great job at coaching for the last month).

Trust the process. Once there is a clear target condition for the people doing the work (in this case, the learners / improvers), then we’ll better understand the obstacles we actually have to deal with. That will likely be fewer than every possible problem we can think of right now.

Establish your target condition, then list your obstacles, then start working on them one by one.

The Improvement Kata is exactly the tool to apply when you know you want to do something, but can’t figure out exactly how to do it.

Step by step.

Keep it up, Susan.  Smile

Developing Cross Functional Responsibility

The Challenge

It’s a typical staff meeting. The function heads are around the table with the boss. One of them describes a hiccup or problem he is encountering that is outside of his control – it originates in another department for example.

An action item gets assigned in the meeting, and we move on to the next topic.

Good to go, right? Isn’t that the boss’s job?

Let’s expand the role of the boss a bit. Rather than being the conduit of all information, isn’t the role really to “Ensure cross-functional coordination is happening?”

If these meetings are weekly, there is weekly cadence to this kind of coordination, meaning if the issue comes up immediately after a meeting, it is a week before a decision is made. On average, it is a few days.

Let’s look at the nature of the language being used. The implied (but often unstated) question being asked by the function heads is “What do you want me to do?” The even worse implication is “I’ll work on cross functional issues when I get an action item to do it.” Not exactly teamwork.

Here’s another example.

Three functional managers all work in the same building… actually in the same open room. The building isn’t even that big. You can find anyone who is anywhere in the building in less than 5 minutes, just by standing up and walking around.

Their common boss is a in another city, a couple of hours away.

As he talks to these functional managers, they tell him of issues. But they haven’t talked to their counterpart who is 20 feet away. They are expecting the boss to do that. To say this exasperates the boss (who “gets it”) is an understatement.

In yet another organization, we are talking to various department directors about process improvement. Nearly every one of them cited problems in other departments as disruptions to their processes.

These Directors are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) expecting the CEO and Executive Team to issue directives to the other departments to fix these problems. The problem comes in when the Executive Team accepts the “assignment” and facilitates the communication. Now it’s their job.

Here is the question that surfaced in this organization: The managers were responsible for organizing and managing the processes that are internal to the department. If the Directors aren’t the ones responsible for that cross-departmental coordination… whose job is it? And if it is someone else’s job, what value are the Directors actually adding by managing the managers’ management of the internal processes, and commiserating about the problems from other departments?

All of these cases are the consequence of a management process that sends reports up, and sends decisions down. This develops a deeply rooted unconscious set of habits that are hard to change even when all agree it should be changed.

What Doesn’t Work

Saying “We need to do a better job talking to each other” isn’t going to work. Even saying “You need to talk directly to Dave about that” really doesn’t work because:

  • It is still telling him what to do.
  • The behavior repeats for every instance because “Jim” is still habitually coming to the boss for direction.

What We Are Trying

The objective (challenge) is to get the boss out of job being the sole conduit for cross functional communication. We want these guys working as a team.

In one of these cases, the boss and I took a page from David Marquet’s book, and thought it might help if he (the boss) made it clear that he is going to refuse to be the intermediary in these conversations. Now… how does he create the environment where this cross-coordination is happening as a matter of routine?

David Marquet’s “Ladder of Leadership” model may be useful here.

Grasp the Current Condition

“Start with Awareness, and Just Listen”

         – David Marquet, author “Turn the Ship Around”

imageTake a week and just listen to the words people use when talking about cross-functional problems. Are they simply stating the problem and hoping the boss will pick up doing something about it – and tell someone what to do?

Make a tick-mark on the ladder diagram for the level of each conversation.

Are they implicitly or explicitly looking to be told what to do? (Telling Jim to “Talk to Dave” or even asking “Have you talked to Dave?” is telling them what to do.)

Where is your center of mass?

“Tell me what to do” is the bottom rung. Your own current condition may well be different, but if you have read this far and this still feels relevant to you, it likely isn’t much different.

Establish the Next Target Condition

What words does the boss want to hear when one of those managers is letting him know what is going on? Not in the ideal situation, but at the next level – up one or two rungs.

For example, instead of saying “We’ve got this problem from Dave’s department.” and waiting to be told “Have you talked to Dave?” what does the boss want to hear from this department head?

Maybe “We’ve got this problem from Dave’s department, and I intend to talk to Dave to confirm that he understands what we need from him.”

Apply Rapid Iterations of PDCA

OK, now that the boss knows what words he wants to hear, how does the boss change his response so when he hears “We’ve got this problem from Dave’s department” the boss’s response drives thinking and initiative back down the chain.

Stealing another line from Marquet, maybe the boss says “OK, what do you think I’m thinking right now?”

“ummm… I’m thinking you want me to go talk to Dave about this.”

“Great. What do you expect to happen?” and then “OK, when can you let me know how it actually went, and what you learned?”

Ideally the boss wants to continue this process, setting successive targets until he hears “We had this problem, but Dave and I worked out a solution, and this is what we’ve done.”

or they only come to the boss with a problem that requires the boss to cross-coordinate with one of his peers, but they come with a solid recommendation.

Step by step.

Never give up on your people.

“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.”

The Improvement Kata PDCA Cycles Record

The improvement kata has four major steps:

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Those steps provide a structured pattern to enable consistent practice until they are unconscious and natural.

In the fourth step, “Iterate Toward the Target Condition” we have a form, called the PDCA Cycles Record that provides an additional level of structure for the improver / learner and the coach.

This is the PDCA Record form from Mike Rother’s Improvement Kata Handbook (click the link to go to his download page):

image

The columns in the form correspond with the “5 Questions” that are part of the Coaching Kata.

The intent is that as the coach asks the questions, the learner points to and reads his answers. In the 5 Questions, it is the “Reflection” (on the back of the coaching card) and question #4 that address the PDCA Cycles Record.

Let’s look at how this form structures the learner’s process.

The very first experiment or trial that the learner sets up is based on his understanding of the current condition and the obstacles he is facing. He selects an obstacle, decides what he should do first, and fills that step in Column 1 “Date, step & metric.”

He must think a bit and also fill in “What do you expect?” and describe what effect he expects to have on the process (or what he expects to learn) as a result of taking that step.

Then he hits the yellow bar in the middle of the form. It says “Do a Coaching Cycle.” Do not pass this point without checking in with your coach.

The coach, this time around, is going to ask the 5 Questions, but skip the reflection step, because there is no previous step to reflect on. The coach is (or should be) looking for things like (these are by no means inclusive, rather they just came to mind as I’m writing this):

  • Is the obstacle actually something which must be worked out, or something which must be learned to reach the target? Or is it just a “to do” item? He may ask some follow-on questions to clarify the connection.
  • Is the “Next Step” actually something which addresses the obstacle? Does it reflect a step into “unknown territory” that includes learning?
  • Is the expected outcome a logical consequence of taking the step being proposed? Does it have something to do with the obstacle?

By having the learner write down his intent prior to the coaching cycle, the coach can see how the learner is thinking without biasing that process. He can see if the learner is off track. If so, it’s pretty simple to erase, or even scratch out, the planned experiment and revise during the coaching session.

But either way, as  coach, I want to see the learner’s best effort before I influence or correct it. That is MY process for “grasping the current condition” and even checking the result of a previous experiment on my part by emphasizing something specific during the last coaching cycle.

Once the learner is good-to-go, the NEXT yellow bar says “Conduct the Experiment.” This is the “DO” of PDCA.

Once he is done, the learner is expected to write down his observations in the “What Happened” column, then reflect, and write down what he learned in the “What We Learned” column.

THEN, based on what he learned, plan the next step. So, move down a row, and fill in block #1 with the next step, and block #2 with the expected result.

Then he hits that yellow STOP bar again. This time the coach is going to ask the reflection questions on the back of the card – reviewing the last step and expectation, and then covering the new information: What actually happened; What did you learn; Based on that, what is your next step; and what result do you expect from taking that step?

My job as the coach is to make sure the learner can connect the dots. I want him to write all of that down before I talk to him.

I have to see the learner’s “actual condition now” before I can effectively coach him.

Why Am I Talking About This?

I have run into a few cases now where I have gone into an organization with some prior training or experience with Toyota Kata. They have asked me in to do some additional training, or coach them to the next level because they think they are “stuck.”

In a couple of those cases, I have observed a deliberate* practice of filling out the blocks on the PDCA record during the coaching cycle. Their intent seems to be for the learner to be guided by the coach as he fleshes out what actually happened; what was learned; the next step or experiment; and what is expected and writes those things on the form.

This is very effective if the intent is for the learner to “get it right.”

But from a coaching standpoint, I feel (and this is my opinion) that this practice deprives me of information I need to ascertain how the learner would do it on his own.

I also believe it runs the risk of building a dependency on the coach, and shift the psychological responsibility off the learner – it is easy to fall into the “tell me what to do” trap unless the coach is experienced enough to avoiding “leading the witness” during the coaching cycle.

In most organizations, the hierarchy that likely exists between the coach and the learner has a deeply seated habit of the boss having the answers. I want to avoid reinforcing this dynamic.

A Caveat for Brand New Beginners

When the learner is going through the Toyota Kata steps the first few times, he won’t know what to do. It is completely appropriate for the coach to demonstrate, and guide, the learner through his steps. But the organization should not confuse this effort with the intended pattern of the improvement kata.

As soon as the learner has shown that he understands the intent of the process steps, it is time for the coach to step back and let the learner try it on his own. “Take a few swings” to use a spots metaphor.

That gives the coach the best opportunity to see where he needs to focus his effort. And the PDCA record may well be scratched out, revised, or rewritten in the process. It’s OK for it to be messy. That’s what learning looks like.

_______

*This is different from a case where the learner simply isn’t prepared for the coaching cycle and hasn’t filled in the forms or even thought about what to put on them.