Toyota Kata: When to Switch Obstacles

Sometimes the situation arises where the learner has been beating her head against an obstacle with little or no luck overcoming it. The question comes up: When is it OK to give up and switch to something else.

The answer is, of course, a little situational. (Consultant speak: It depends…)

The natural progression of the Improvement Kata will provide an opportunity.

Improvement Kata steps by Mike Rother

As the learner is iterating against obstacles toward the Target Condition the clock is ticking because the Target Condition is always associated with an “achieve by” date. If the Target Condition is achieved OR we hit the “achieve by” date without achieving it, the learner should cycle back to the beginning and:

  • Verify understand of the direction and challenge. (The learner may well have gotten more clarity along the way.)
  • Get a complete grasp of the Current Condition. This is important because often while working toward a Target Condition the learner is only updating specific process and performance metrics, and may not be looking for collateral changes elsewhere. This is a time to take a step back, put up the periscope, and get a grasp of the complete picture.
  • Based on that new Current Condition, establish a new Target Condition, with a new “achieve by” date.
  • Now… identify the obstacles in the way of achieving that new Target Condition. Ideally they should wipe the obstacle parking lot clean and take a fresh look.

This process often helps clear the learner’s mind and see another way to get there, or see easier obstacles that were overlooked before.

This is also why it is important for the “achieve by” date to be relatively close (a couple of weeks) – because that date is a safety valve that forces a reset of the process if the learner is stuck.

If the learner asks if it is OK to work on a different obstacle, then the coach should become curious about the learner’s rationale.

Specifically, I want to understand why the learner thinks there might be an easier way vs. just saying this one is too hard. This may well require some more information gathering – a mini version of the reset I talked about above.

The key point here is to maintain the learner’s motivation. There is a fine line between struggling to solve a problem and getting frustrated. This might be a good time for the coach to engage in some empathetic questioning.

For example, name the feeling you are picking up to test your hypothesis: “It seems you are really frustrated by this…” Then listen. The learner will likely either agree, “yeah, I am.” or refute and give you more information, “No, I’m just trying to…” Then you might learn more about their threshold of knowledge with the process of problem solving.

That can open up a discussion for why the learner thinks it would be a good idea to try something else. Then use your judgement.

But as a coach, I don’t want to make switching obstacles too easy because there is a high risk of it becoming a whack-a-mole game. Some obstacles actually require digging and perseverance to overcome. Your job, coach, is to keep the learner in the game.

Sometimes, though, the learner gets fixated on a problem and doesn’t see another way. Even in this case, if the time to the “achieve by” date is short, I’d let it ride. But if that isn’t practical…

The coach may well have a broader perspective – in fact, this is part of the coach’s job.

If the learner is making progress on something I (the coach) consider a red herring, I generally let it go. There is always learning involved – so long as the effort doesn’t bog down progress.

Sometimes, though, the learner is getting frustrated and so focused that he just doesn’t see any other way.

This is time for gentle intervention with whatever questions might help the learner pause, step back, and see the bigger picture.

For example, perhaps something like “If this obstacle were cleared, how would the process operate?” This might not be the full target condition. I’m just trying to learn what “solved” looks like to the learner. Maybe just thinking about it will help them see the where they are trying to go and possibly another path to get there.

An interesting follow-up might be, “Hmmm, what’s stopping it from working that way now?”

“What would you need to learn to better understand what is going on?” might be another avenue to get the learner to look at his threshold of knowledge vs. the big ugly obstacle in front of him

It all depends on what you think will help the learner raise her head and take a different look at things.

But in the end, if you have a learner that is truly stuck, and after a few tries isn’t going to get unstuck, then, honestly, it’s time to go shoulder-to-shoulder with them and dig into things together.

What I would work very hard to avoid is direct intervention – “Why don’t you work on…” because this undermines the entire process by giving them the answers and can easily create a “what do you think I should work on?” expectation next time.

“A3” is an Obligation for the Coach

In Western business it is pretty typical for someone to be assigned to come up with a proposed solution to a problem, and then seek approval for that solution. In some companies that consider themselves more forward thinking, they might even say something like “bring me an A3.”

As a result I have seen a number of organizations that produce some kind of guideline for “how to fill out and A3.” They teach “problem solving” courses so people can learn to do this properly. I have developed, and delivered, a couple of those back when I was working in internal continuous improvement offices. We had case studies, exercises, all in an effort to teach people to be better problem solvers.

Similarly, a (very) long time ago, I recall an exchange on an online “lean” forum where someone had asked about Toyota’s “problem solving class.” The thought was that because Toyota has good problem solvers, that their course must be really good.

My response was that I have a copy of Toyota teaching materials for a problem solving course. It is good, but nothing magical. Because that isn’t how Toyota develops good problem solvers.

They do it with coaching.

What makes the “A3” process work isn’t the A3, or even the structure. It isn’t the instructions, guidelines, or the quality of the problem solving classes.

It is the almost continuous interaction between the problem solver and the coach.

The problem solver’s thinking is challenged. “What evidence do you have?” “Have you tested that assumption?” “How is that happening?” “Why do you think that is the problem?” “What are you planning for your next step?” “What do you expect to learn?”

And it is the coach’s stubborn refusal to give the problem solver the answer. Rather, they insist on following the rigor of the problem solving process using scientific thinking.*

The process is an application of the principle of “Challenge” followed by support to enable the problem solver / learner to meet the challenge. They have to bring perseverance to to the table, but the coach is there to make sure they actually learn to be better problem solvers in the process.

Likely (if you are reading this) you already know that. We knew that when we worked so hard to make those A3 guidelines and problem solving courses. But we did those things anyway.

Why? Because it is easier to develop and deliver those general class materials than it is to develop managers into coaches and leaders.

But the fact remains:

If you want to develop better problem solvers, what you need are better coaches.

The implications here are really profound for most organizations.

If you assign someone to solve a problem, to “do an A3” (or whatever structure you use), you are obligating yourself to coach them through the process.

This is far more than getting status updates. And it is far more work. Because you are teaching, not just supervising. If they fail, it’s on you, not them. “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”

In Toyota Kata world we have reduced those questions down to the critical few in the Coaching Kata. That, of course, is a start. Your job as a leader is to practice until the flow of the logic is second nature to you, until you can go beyond the script. Until your first-nature, reflexive response to anyone proposing to do something is “What problem are you trying to solve?” or “What are you trying to learn?” and then carefully listening to their logic and pushing them to the edge of their ability with the next step.

When you can take your own coaching training wheels off, you can then (and only then) ask someone else to ride a bicycle for you, because you will know how to teach them to ride – and that involves more than sending them to a PowerPoint lecture on “Riding a Bicycle.”

“Because knowledge is not understanding” – Destin Sandlin.

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*Some years ago I worked briefly with a manager who had been one of the key players in Toyota’s initial startup of their plant in Kentucky (TMMK). He told me an interesting story. In the beginning, he noted, the U.S. managers would go to their coordinators (Japanese Toyota senior leaders there to advise the new team) and ask for advice.

Then one week all of the U.S. team went through the problem solving / A3 course. The following Monday, he went to his coordinator with a question, and the response was “Doug-san, where is your A3?” After that day, the coordinators would not engage unless there was an A3 that outlined, in writing, what the manager already understood about the problem, what he was seeking to learn, and how he proposed to go about learning it.

Think about that story vs. sending people to “problem solving class” or even a “Toyota Kata” class. When they return, do you insist that they apply what they have learned whenever it is appropriate from that day forward? If you don’t then you are wasting their time and your money sending them to that class. They will never develop the skill without practice, and it is always easier not to practice something we are not comfortable doing.

Daily Management for Improvement

I’m digging through old archives again, and came across this graphic I put together around 2006 or so. It depicts more detailed version of “Organize, Standardize, Stabilize, Optimize” showing the continuous comparison between “what should be happening” and “what is actually happening.” It is the gap between these two that drives improvement forward.

Like the pocket card in the last post, this is built on a foundation established by the work of Steven Spear, especially his PhD dissertation that is summarized in Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System. By the way, if you are in the business of continuous improvement, reading (and understanding) this breakthrough work is critical for you.

Other than generally sharing this, my other reason for putting this up is that in the Toyota Kata community there has been discussion for about a decade about whether or not the right hand loop – pushing for stability – is an appropriate use of the Improvement Kata.

I think that is an unfortunate result of some very early conversations about the difference between “troubleshooting” and “improving” a process. We get into semantic arguments about “problem solving” as somehow different from “root cause analysis” and how the Improvement Kata is somehow distinct, again, from those activities.

This makes no sense to me for a couple of reasons.

Scientific Thinking is the Foundation

Toyota Kata is not a problem solving tool. It is a teaching method for teaching scientific thinking, and it is a teaching method for learning to teach scientific thinking. In the books and most literature, it uses organizational processes as working examples for the “starter kata,” but exactly the same thinking structure works for such diverse things as working through quality issues, developing entirely new products and processes, working through leadership and people issues. The underlying sub-structures may change, but the basic steps are the same.

When I encounter an organization that already has a “standard problem solving approach” I do not attempt to tell them they are wrong or confuse them by introducing a different structure. Rather, I adapt the Improvement and Coaching Kata to align with their existing jargon and language, and help them learn to go deeper and more thoroughly into their existing process.

Stability is a Target Condition

I see a lot of pushback about working to “return a process to standard.” In reality, that is the bulk of the activity in day-to-day improvement. The whole point of having a standard in the first place is to be able to see when the actual process or result is somehow different.

Think about it: If there isn’t an active means of comparing “actual” vs. “standard” what is the point of having a standard in the first place?

Think of the standard as a target condtion.

What obstacles are preventing you from [operating to that standard]? You can guess, but the best way is to diligently try to operate to the target condition and see what gets in your way. That might not happen immediately. Maybe some time will go by, then BAM! You get a surprise.

This is good. You have learned. Something you didn’t expect has interfered with getting things done the way you wanted to. Time to dig in and learn what happened.

Maybe there was some condition that you could have detected earlier and gotten out in front of. Who knows?

This is all part of the continuum of Troubleshooting by Defining Standards.

You Cannot Meet a Challenge Without Working on Stability

As you are working to reach new level of performance – working toward a new challenge – there will be a point when the process works sometimes, so you know it is possible. But it doesn’t work every time because there are still intermittent obstacles that get in the way.

Nevertheless, you have to work diligently to see problems as they occur, respond to them, dig into causes (root cause analysis anyone?) and systematically protect your process from those issues.

The only real difference between covering this territory for the first time vs. trying to recover a previously stable process is that in the later case you can ask “What has changed?”

But, in the end, in both cases – stabilizing a new process vs. re-stabilizing an old one – you are dealing with conditions that are changing from one run to the next. That is why it works sometimes and not others. You don’t know what is changing. You are trying to figure it out by experimenting and learning.

What About Root Cause Analysis?

My challenge is still a stable process.

My current condition is my level of understanding of how the process works today, and the exact mechanism that results in a defect. Even defects are produced by a process – just not the process we want.

That understanding will be incomplete by definition – because if we truly understood what was going on we wouldn’t have the problem. So… what do I know (and can prove with evidence) and what do I not know.

What do I suspect? What evidence do I need to gather to rule out this possible cause, or keep it in play? Next experiment. What do I expect to learn?

I’ll write a more detailed post about this at some point. I think it is a topic worth digging into. Suffice it to say that I have absolutely used the Improvement Kata structure to coach people through finding the root cause of wicked quality problems.

It really helped that they were able to see the same underlying pattern that I had already been teaching them. It made things simpler.

Don’t Complicate a Simple Concept

It’s all “solving problems” (the term “problem solving” apparently has some specific form it needs to take for some people).

The underlying structure for all of it is scientific thinking. Some say it’s PDCA / PDSA. Same thing.

Splitting semantic hairs and saying “this is different” makes simple things complicated. Yes, there are advanced tools that you use when things get tough. But… addition and subtraction; basic algebra; advanced polynomials; basic differential calculus; advanced multivariate calculus – IT IS ALL MATH. You apply the math you must to model and solve the problem at hand.

DON’T apply more math than you need just because you can. That serves no purpose except, perhaps, to prove how smart you are… to nobody in particular.

Solving problems is the same. There are some cases where I need to develop a designed experiment to better understand the current condition – the interactions between variables. There are cases where other statistical tools are needed. Use them when you must, but not just because you can.

Use the simplest method that works.

The Perils of Weekly Toyota Kata Coaching

Outside of the actual operation, the default meeting schedule for most organizations is weekly.

This is OK when everyone understands what is expected and the default thinking and behavior is working for you.

With Toyota Kata, though, the intent is to practice a routine that is not default thinking or behavior. Yet many organizations fall into the default of a weekly coaching cycle.

What we have to remember is that the coaching cycle, and the learner’s preparation for the coaching cycle, are practice. The time(s) that you aren’t practicing you are engaging in the default, and if the default isn’t what you want it to be then it will easily overpower what you are trying to learn.

15 minutes a day is practice. 15 minutes a week is dabbling.

It is the same as a supervisor’s area experiencing one or two “kaizen events” a year. It is just dabbling with kaizen, not practicing it every day, and certainly not immersion. They aren’t going to learn to think differently with that kind of cadence.

Time spent on improvement vs. business as usual
Illustration courtesy of Mike Rother

Batch Production of Experiments

One of the reasons we want to drive toward one-by-one flow in production is so we can have one-by-one confirmation of products vs. waiting for a huge batch to be produced only to discover that they all have problems.

Breaking it down even further, we want one-by-one confirmation of operations so that we don’t keep working on something that is already unusable from something earlier.

Likewise, if a learner is running many experiments without checking in with a coach, he can get pretty far off track without realizing it. The coach can provide a valuable outside check to make sure the learner isn’t getting locked on to something that is distracting him from the bigger picture.

Remember: This is about developing people

Before you jump in and say “But I don’t have time…” consider the alternative.

How much time do you, as a manager, spend intervening in problems that you think people should be able to solve on their own? If you keep giving them the answers, they are going to keep brining those issues to you.

With a little bit of thinking, the Coaching Kata cycle can be easily spliced on to David Marquet’s “Ladder of Leadership” and guide your conversations away from intervention and toward creating able problem solvers.

But before you can do that well, you have to practice the Coaching Kata until asking those types of questions becomes second nature to you.

This isn’t all about the learner’s development! If you only practice coaching once a week, whatever your default is today will likely remain so tomorrow. Change requires repetition and practice.

Just some things to think about this week.

The Key to Innovation is Iterate and Test

Key points from this great TED talk by Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab.

You can’t plan the path, you can only set the direction. He talks about the “compass” guiding a project that followed a route which was totally unpredictable. There was no way to plan out the path to success from the beginning.

Instead, at each step, they asked “Where are we now?”

“What do we need to do next?”

“What’s in the way of doing that?”

“How do we deal with that?”

I’m paraphrasing here, of course, but the key is that once again we have an instance the Improvement Kata pattern in the wild.

Ghost Victories – an excerpt from Upstream by Dan Heath

Amazon affiliate link to book listing for Upstream by Dan Heath
The link to the image takes you to the Amazon listing for the book. If you happen to order it, I get a small kickback, no cost to you, Just FYI.

Dan Heath has just published a new book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen.

I just got the book, and am reading it now. I think there is going to be a lot of good material to discuss here.

But this post is about a marketing email with an excerpt really resonated with me, and I want to discuss that. I wrote to Dan Heath, and got his permission to use pieces of the excerpt here. (Thank you, Dan)

Management By Measurement = “Ghost Victories”

I have talked about what I call “management by measurement” in the past. In that post I told a true story of a company that placed very heavy emphasis on reducing inventory levels without digging into how that performance was achieved. The net result was a an embarrassed CEO during a quarterly analyst’s call. Not good.

Dan Heath talks about the same thing in Upstream. He calls it “ghost victories.”

[when] there is a separation between (a) the way we’re measuring success and (b) the actual results we want to see in the world, we run the risk of a “ghost victory”: a superficial success that cloaks failure.

The most destructive form of ghost victory is when your measures become the mission. Because, in those situations, it’s possible to ace your measures while undermining your mission.

He goes on to describe a case in the U.K. where the Department of Health established penalties for wait times longer than four hours in the Emergency Departments. And it worked. Wait times were reduced – at least on paper. Then the facts began to emerge:

 In some hospitals, patients had been left in ambulances parked outside the hospital—up until the point when the staffers believed they could be seen within the prescribed four-hour window. Then they wheeled the patients inside.

In the old post I referenced above, I said:

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

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

The third option is a lot harder than the other two. But it is the only one that works in the long haul.

All of this ties very well to Billy Taylor’s keynote at KataCon6 where he talked about the difference between “Key Activities” and “Key Indicators.” It is only when we can get down to the observable actions and understand the cause-and-effect relationship between those actions and the needle we are trying to move that we will have any effect.

To avoid the “Ghost Victory” trap, Dan recommends “pre-gaming” your metrics and thinking of all of the ways it would be possible to hit the numbers while simultaneously damaging the organization. In other words, get ahead of the problem and solve it before it happens.

He proposes three tests which force us to apply different assumptions to our thinking.

The lazy bureaucrat test

Imagine the easiest possible way to hit the numbers – with the least amount of change to the status quo. The story I cited above about inventory levels is a great example.

I can make my defect rates improve by altering the definition of “defect.”

There are lots of accounting games that can be played.

This is one to borrow from Skip’s list – How can the underlying numbers be distorted to make this one look good when it really isn’t?

The “rising tides” test

What external factors would have a significant impact on this metric? For example, I was working at a large company where a significant part of their product cost was a commodity raw material. As the market price went down, “costs” went down, and bonuses all around. But when the market price went up, “costs” went up and careers were threatened and bad reviews issued.

Those shifts in commodity prices had nothing to do with how those managers were doing their jobs, the tide rose and fell, and their fortunes with it.

The question in my mind is “What things would make this number look good, or bad, without any effort or change in the process we are trying to measure?”

The defiling-the-mission test

Hmmm. This is a tough one. (not really)

And it is a really common problem in our world of quarterly and annual expectations. In what ways could meeting these numbers in the short term ultimately hurt our reputation, our business, in the long term?

For example, I can think of an ongoing story of a product development project that hit its cost and schedule milestones (what was being measured). But they did so at the cost of destroying their reputation with customers, their Federal regulators and the public (and, to a large extent, their employees). They now have a new CEO, but the deeper problem has origins in the late 1990s.

How long will it take them to recover? That story is still playing out.

In another case I was in a meeting with a team that was discussing a customer complaint. The ultimate cause was a decision to substitute a cheaper material to reduce production costs. But this is a premium brand. There was a great question asked there: “Which of our values did we violate here?” – so the introspection was awesome.

Next step? Ask that question before the decision is made: “Is this decision consistent with our values?” If that makes you uncomfortable, then time to look in the mirror.

Then there is this little incident from 2010:

Picture of burning Deepwater Horizon oil platform
BP Deepwater Horizon fire – Photo by USCG

The metric was cost and schedule. Which makes sense. But the behavior that was driven was cutting corners on safety.

Getting Ahead of Problems

The book’s subtitle says it is about getting ahead of problems. I am looking forward to reading it and writing something more comprehensive.

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.

image

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 Aren’t Being Heard, Then Listen

I was sitting in on a conversation between a Continuous Improvement Manager and the Operations Manager the other day.

The Operations Manager was asking for help developing good leader standard work.

The C.I. manager was responding that she had already developed it for the Value Stream Manager, the Supervisor.

The Operations Manager said he thought right now, they needed to focus on the Team Leads, the first line of leadership.

The C.I. manager reiterated that she had already prepared standard work for the Value Stream Manager and the Supervisor.

The Operations Manager reiterated that he wanted, right now, to focus on the Team Leads.

This went back and forth three or four times, and the Operations Manager moved on to something else.

The C.I. Manager seemed frustrated and even a little angry.

My Working Hypothesis

The C.I. manager was frustrated because the work she had already done had not been implemented or acknowledged.

The Operations Manager was frustrated because his immediate need was not being acknowledged.

So they were each reiterating, again, what they had said before, neither of them acknowledging what the other was trying to say.

Being Heard as a Change Agent

When you say something, and the other person responds by reiterating what they have already said, this is a Big Red Flag for you. They are not going to hear anything you say until they feel you have heard them.

The cool part is that either of these parties can break the cycle of repetition by shifting into listening mode. I am going to take this from the perspective of the C.I. Manager / change agent since most of you reading this are more likely to be in that position.

Book cover: Never Split the DifferenceThere are lots of classes and materials out there about “active listening” but I really like a simple techniques that Chris Voss shares in his awesome book Never Split the Difference.*

At least they seem simple. But they require a lot of deliberate practice to master as they require breaking long standing unconscious habits. At least I know I’m still working on it.

The Goal: Hear “That’s Right”

The first step to listening is to listen!

Is the other person simply reiterating what they have said before in response to your message? Are you even aware of that? (or are you waiting them to stop talking so you can reiterate your message?) Take responsibility for breaking the cycle. Pay attention to their body language. Try to read how they are feeling right now.

Then test your hypothesis.

Instead of reiterating your message, repeat theirs back to them. Even better if you acknowledge the emotions behind their message.

“It sounds like you are really concerned that the leads don’t know what to do.”

Critical: In the words of Chris Voss, this requires that “late night FM DJ voice.”

NO sarcasm. NO implied judgement. You must come from a position of being curious about what they are trying to communicate, and what they are feeling.

You are trying to learn. You are not trying to make them wrong. You are not trying to make a point. You are not trying to be right.

If you are trying to do any of those things, you are not listening. You are, instead, trying to collect ammunition for your next salvo.

You will get one of two responses:

  • The other person will correct you.
  • The other person will give you some version of “Yeah, that’s right.” Those are the magic words you are trying to hear.

Let’s parse that sentence.

“It sounds like…”  (or “It seems like…”). You are not telling them what they are saying. You are telling them what you are hearing and sensing.

This invites correction. “No, that’s not it.” or “No, that’s not what I’m saying.”

They may be frustrated. That is why you must remain the calming influence.

(By the way – this is MUCH easier if you don’t have a stake in the conversation, and the process of being listened to really helps the other person clarify their own position. That is a good place to practice before you are in a high-stakes situation.)

“… you are really concerned…”

Acknowledge how you sense they are feeling. Again, this is inviting correction, clarification or agreement. In either case, you are getting more information.

“… that the leads don’t know what to do.”

This part of the sentence communicates your understanding of what you think is causing the emotion in the other person. Again, this is just an acknowledgment. It doesn’t mean that you agree that this issue should trigger this emotion, you are just acknowledging that it does.

If you don’t get “that’s right” then it is time to humbly and sincerely ask for correction. You have to do so in a way that makes it clear you really care about understanding. (“Seek first to understand.”)

Ideally the other person will attempt to clarify what they are trying to say. Cycle through this until they agree that what you are saying back is what they are trying to convey to you.

Trap: “You’re Right”

Voss points out a trap in this process: The critical difference between “that’s right” and “you’re right.”

First, if you hear “you’re right” that is an indication that the other person perceives you are trying to make your case vs. hearing them. Were you adding to the information? Were you passing judgement?

Next – In this context, “You’re right” often translates as “I’m tired of trying to talk about this.” There isn’t agreement yet. “You’re right” is about you. “That’s right” is about what you were saying. Very different things.

Which leads us to:

Don’t let “being right” about something get in the way of getting what you want or need.

The C.I. manager was right that she had prepared leader standard work for the value stream manager and the supervisor. And she was right that it hadn’t been acted upon.

But by sticking to her guns about that, the Operations Manager was left with the impression that she was refusing to help develop standard work for the team leaders, so he gave up on the conversation.

Here is what happens. Her frustration comes through. His brain (all of our brains) contains “mirror neurons” that invoke in him the emotions he is seeing across the table, which elevates his frustration without him even knowing it.

This is why that calming demeanor is so critical. If the other person picks up sarcasm, negativity, dismissiveness in your voice or body language, that will be reflected right back at you, and amplify everything the wrong way.

After (AFTER!!) getting an acknowledgment that he felt the main priority right now was the Team Leads, the C.I. manager might have created an opening –

State your facts: “I worked really hard on standard work for the value stream leader and supervisor.”

Own your own feelings: “I am feeling frustrated that none of that work was acted upon.” (Avoid victim language like “that makes me feel” or “you make me feel” statements.)

State what you need right now: “I’ll work on the standard work for the leads, but I would like to review the work I have already done and what happened with it so I can avoid the same situation with the leads. Can we do that?”

Finally…

There is no guarantee this works every time. But it works more often than escalating the emotion which probably never works.

_________________

*Why am I touting a book about negotiating? Because change agents must be able to reach agreements with others. And negotiating is a process of agreement creation. Chris Voss is a former FBI hostage negotiator. His job was to create agreements with terrorists, kidnappers, bank robbers. If his techniques work there, they probably work for a change agent in a company.

 

 

Scientific Thinking vs. The Scientific Method

My recent post, “…but where is the problem solving?” stirred up quite a bit of conversation and traffic. I would like to dig a little deeper into what “good problem solving” actually looks and sounds like – beyond the forms and tools.

Underlying all good problem solving is scientific thinking. With it, I am constantly comparing what I think with what I observe, and looking at differences as evidence that what I think might need revision.

Some years ago, I was driving down a residential street in Rochester, New York, and observed a series of signs in a yard, each with a single number on them.

Huh… what are those? Maybe they are the house number. (Hypothesis) I checked the mailbox across the street, and saw the next number in sequence, the neighbor’s mailbox had the same as had the next number after that. (Devise a test of the hypothesis, run the experiment, gather evidence.) I concluded that, yes, the signs were indeed just the address displayed in a creative way, and continued my drive.

I didn’t run any formal experiments. I didn’t document anything. I didn’t go through “the five questions” – I just thought about what those numbers might be, and tested my thinking. Had the house numbers across the street been totally out of sequence, it would have remained a mystery, as my hypothesis would have failed.

Was I applying the scientific method? Not really. I applied all of those “hypothesis” terms after the fact as I wrote this. But at the time I was curious about something (the first step of science), and applied simple logic to test an assumption I had made. While it might not be “the scientific method,” I would contend this was “scientific thinking.”

Most of the time, that is my habit. When I am uncertain and curious about something, I check it out. I apply the same thinking pattern troubleshooting my computer when it does something surprising (or annoying – are you listening, Microsoft?). None of this rises to the level of formal experimentation, it is just methodical thinking.

More difficult problems require more rigor and structure. But many “problems” just require a pause, a little thought, trying something – followed by making sure it works – and moving on. It is the “making sure it works” part that many people leave out of this process. And it is “making sure it works” that raises a blind fire-and-forget action item into an experiment… assuming that if it doesn’t work, you then dig in to understand why.

Most of these things are quick and need little formal structure. People call them “applying common sense,” and I agree – as long as the experimental mindset is there.

Much like that previous post, some of us continuous improvement people have built specific expectations about what “problem solving” should look like. But, no matter what structure is applied, the underlying pattern of thought remains the same – even for casual troubleshooting.

It is this habitual pattern of thought that Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata is intended to teach through practice. He introduces structure, but any logically and consistently applied structure will work.

Let’s not confuse specific jargon or forms with our underlying intent: Learning to habitually glance across the street at a mailbox if you think those signs might just be the house number.