Learning Starts With “I Don’t Know”

If an organization wants to encourage learning, they have to get comfortable with not having all of the answers. Learning only happens when we discover something we don’t know, and then actively pursue understanding it. Many organizations, though, equate “having the answers” or “already knowing” with “competence.” Thus, if I say “I don’t know” then I am setting myself up for being regarded as incompetent.

What I see in these organizations is people will take great pains to hide problems. They will try very hard to figure things out, but do so in the background always reporting that everything is going fine. They live in the hope that someone else’s problem will emerge as the show-stopper before theirs does, and give them the extra time to sort out their issue.

Meanwhile, the bosses are frustrated because people aren’t being truthful with them. But what should they expect if “truth” attracts accusations of being incompetent?

But… there is hope.

I was talking to a friend last week who works in a huge company that seems to be making an earnest effort to shift their culture. There is nearly unanimous agreement that the existing culture isn’t working for them. On the other hand, actually changing culture is really, really hard because it involves changing people’s immediate, habitual responses to things.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged when my friend recounted a recent meeting where someone admitted two things:

  1. There was an unexpected problem that came out in a recent test.
  2. They, right now, don’t know how to fix it.

Just to be clear, these two things coming out in this meeting is a big deal. This has been a culture where unexpected problems have not been warmly received. Bringing them up without a confident assessment about a prospective solution was inviting the kind of intervention that is rarely helpful.

This time, though, was a little different.

The leaders started going down the expected responses such as “What do you mean we don’t know what to do?” then… stopped short. They paused, and realized this was not in line with their newly stated values of creating trust and accepting failure as an inherent part of learning.

And they changed their tone. They shifted the conversation from trying to assign responsibility blame for the test failure toward asking what we, the organization, needed to learn to better understand what happened.

My thoughts are:

Kudos to the person who was brave enough to test the waters and admit “I don’t know.”

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.


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.


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.


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.


*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.

The Lure of Rapid Lean Transformation


Lean In A Box

I can see where the promise of a rapid “lean transformation” is appealing. We shop around, listen to presentations, read proposals, and find someone with a good “solution.”

For the next few weeks, maybe a couple of months, things move in a flurry. Lines are connected, visual inventory controls are established, your team is taught about the lean tools with simulations demonstrating the power of flow. Thus convinced, the team is expected to buy into the changes being made.

At the end, with much hoopla and pizza, we are done, and the new system is running.

The Grass is Greener – For a While

Now let me tell another story. It isn’t my story, I heard it during a presentation by Jim Sorensen in Seattle. I’m sure he tells it much better than I will. Jim talks about his neighbor who has a fantastic, immaculate lawn. Jim recounts that, one day as he was chatting with his neighbor, shared a little envy – “I wish my lawn looked as good as yours.” The neighbor’s response was “Jim, if you had a lawn like mine, in three months it would look like your lawn does now.” His neighbor works on his lawn. The immaculate appearance was important to him. For Jim? He chose to spend his time doing different things, which is fine. But at the same time, he, we, shouldn’t expect an immaculate lawn to stay that way unless we are willing to do the work.

Likewise with these rapid implementations. To continue to metaphor, we rip out your old grass, put down beautiful fresh sod, take the photos, and move on to the next house. But if you don’t fundamentally change the way you maintain that new lawn, by the end of the year, it will look like your old one.

You Are Transforming Your Culture

Continuous improvement as “the way we do things” is a fundamental shift in the way people think, and the way they spend their time. There is no “set it and forget it.” Your processes are either improving or eroding. You must exert continuous active control by the people who are closest to the work just to keep up with the entropy. Their “buy in” is not even close to being enough to make it work. They need different leadership.

Many years ago I was interviewing at a Big Household Name Company that looking to accelerate their “lean deployment.” They already had a guy with incredible qualifications working very hard to teach the things they needed to understand.

Every person that talked to me asked “How can we go faster?” My reply was “Listen to what [your lean director] says and do it. He knows what he is talking about.” Unfortunately, he was telling them that there were no easy shortcuts, and that they had to begin thinking about production in a fundamentally different way. My feeling was they were looking for someone to tell them there was an easier way to do it.

I run into that a lot. An organization wants the results, they want the immaculate lawn, but they want someone else to do the work to make it that way, then they want the outcome.

The problem is you can’t outsource your own thinking.

It’s “What must we learn?” not “What should we do?”

Darren left a great question in the Takt Time-Cycle Time post:

Question… Which system is more efficient, a fixed rigid Takt based production line or a flexible One Piece Flow?

In terms of designing a manual based production line to meet a theoretical forecasted ‘takt time’, (10 fixed workstations needs 10 operators), how do you fluctuate in a seasonal business (+/-25%/month) to ensure you don’t end up over stocking your internal customer?

Would One Piece Flow be more efficient on the whole value chain in this instance due to its flexibility?

That was a few weeks ago. Through its evolution, this post has had four titles, and I don’t think there is a single sentence of the original draft that survived the rewrites.

I started this post with a confident analysis of the problem, and the likely solution. Then I realized something. I don’t know.

My brain, just like every other brain on the planet (human and others) is an incredibly efficient pattern matching machine. I got a little bit of information, and immediately filled in a picture of Darren’s factory and proceeded to work out a course of actions to take, as well as alternatives based on other sets of assumptions.

NO, No, no!

Our Reflex: Jumping to Solution

This graphic is copied from Mike Rother’s presentation material. It is awesome.


It is likely that at this point you know that it doesn’t say “JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS” under the little blue square, and of course you are right.


But in spite of the fact that you know the truth, it is likely you still read “JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS” when you look at the first graphic. I know I do, and I present this all of the time.

Our brains are all wired to do this, it is basic survival. It happens very fast. Think about a time when you have been startled by something you thought you saw, that a few seconds later you realized it was nothing.

That pattern recognition triggered the startle. It was seconds later that your logical brain took over and analyzed what was really going on. This is good. We don’t have time to figure out if that movement in the grass was really a leopard or not. We’ll sort that out after we get away.

Our modern brains work the same way with learned patterns imagebut we are usually very poor at distinguishing between “what we really know” and “what we have filled in with assumptions.”

This is the trap that we “lean experts” (whatever that means) fall into all of the time. We take limited information, extrapolate it into a false full understanding, and deliver a diagnosis and treatment.

Boom. Done. Next?

What’s even worse is we often don’t hang around to see if the solution worked exactly the way we expected, or if anomalies came up.

In other words, everything comes down to takt, flow and pull, right? Kinda, but kinda not.

Some Technical Background

All of the above notwithstanding, it really helps to understand how the mechanics of “lean” tie together to create the physical part of an organic/technical process.

What I mean by “really helps” is this understanding gives you a broad sense of how the mechanics help people learn. Someone who only understands the mechanics as “a set of tools” is committing the gravest sin: Leaving out the people.

One Piece Flow

One piece flow is not inherently efficient. It is easy to have lots of excess capacity, which translates to either overproduction or waiting, and still have one piece flow.

This is the people part: One piece flow makes those imbalances very obvious to the people doing the work so you can do something about them, if you choose to. Many people think the goal is one piece flow. The goal is making sure the people doing the work can see if the flow is going smoothly or not; and give them an opportunity to fix the things that make flow less than smooth.

A pull system is designed to throw overproduction (or under-production) right into your face by stopping your line rather than allowing excess stuff to just pile up. Again, it is a tool to give the people doing the work immediate visibility of something unexpected rather than the delayed reporting of inventory levels in a computer somewhere.


Any given level of capacity has a sweet spot for efficiency. Even “inefficient” systems are most efficient when their capacity (usually defined by a bottleneck somewhere) is at 100% utilization (which rarely happens).

If other process steps are capable of running faster (which is the very definition of a bottleneck), they will, they must either be underutilized or build up work-in-process. This is part of the problem Darren is asking about – flooding his downstream operation with excess WIP to keep his line running efficiently.

If your system is designed to max out at 100 units / day, and you make less than, that your efficiency is reduced. If the next operation can’t run at 100 units / day and absorb your output, then it is the bottleneck. See above.

Now, let’s break down your costs of capacity. In the broadest sense, your costs come down to two things:

  • Capital equipment. (And let’s include the costs of the facility here.)
  • Labor – paying the people.

The capital equipment cost is largely fixed. At any rate of production less than what the equipment is capable of holding, you are using it “less efficiently” than you could. Since machines usually operate at different rates, it is you aren’t going fully utilize anything but the slowest one. It doesn’t make sense to even try.

People is more complicated. In the short term, your labor costs are fixed as well. You are paying the people to be there whether they are productive or not.

When the people are operating machines, your flexibility depends on how well the automation is designed. The technical application of “lean tools” to build flow cells pushes hard against this constraint. We strive to decouple people from individual machines, so the rate can flex up and down by varying the work cycles rather than just having people wait around or over produce.

At the other end of the labor spectrum is pure manual work, like assembly. We are striving for that same flexibility by moving typically separated operations together so people can divide the labor into zones that match the desired rate of production.

All of these approaches strive for a system that allows incrementally adjusting the capacity by adding people as needed. However this adds costs as well, often hidden ones. Where do these people come from, and frankly, “what are they doing when they aren’t working for you?” are a couple of questions you need to confront. The people are not parts of the machine. The system is there to help the people, not the other way around. This is people using tools to build something, not tools being run by people.

Handling Seasonal Production Efficiently

“Our demand is seasonal” is something I hear quite a bit. It is usually stated as though it is a unique condition (to them) that precludes level production. In my nearly 30 years in industry, I haven’t encountered a product (with the possible exception of OEM aircraft production and major suppliers) that didn’t have a seasonal shift of some kind.

Depending on the fluctuations and predictability of future demand, using a combination of managing backlog and building up finished goods is a pretty common way to at least partly level things out for planning purposes.

That being said, I know of at least one company whose product is (1) custom ordered for every single unit and (2) highly seasonal (in fact, they are in their peak season as I write this). They don’t have as many options.

Solving the Problem

With all of that, we get to Darren’s specific question.

The short answer is “I don’t know, but we can figure it out.”

There isn’t a fixed answer, there is a problem to solve, a challenge to overcome.


I am interpreting the challenge here as “Have the ability to flex production +/- 25% / month without sacrificing efficiency.”

Just to ensure understanding of the challenge, I would ask to translate the production capacity targets into takt times. What is the fastest takt time you would need to hit? What is the slowest?

In other words, the +/-25% makes me do math, even if I know the baseline, before I really know what you need to be able to do. Let’s get some hard numbers on it so we will all agree when we see it, or don’t.

Remember, takt time is simply a normalization of your demand over your production time. It is a technique for short-term smoothing of your demand. It doesn’t mean you are operating that way.

Current Condition

We need to learn more, so the next questions have to do with the current condition.

While this post is too short to get down to the details, there are some additional questions I would really need to understand here.

Known: There are 10 fixed workstations with 10 operators.

Assumed to be known: The high and low target takt times (from the challenge).

How are the workstations laid out?

What are the cycle times of each operation?

What is actually happening at each of the workstations?

What are they currently capable of producing in relation to the takt times we want to cover in our +/- 25% range?

A good way to start would be to get exit cycles from each of the positions, and from the whole line. What is the current cadence of the operation? What are the lowest repeatable cycle times? How consistently is it able to run? What is driving variation?

Since we are looking for rate flexibility, I am particularly concerned with understanding points of inflexibility.

I would be looking at individual steps, at distance between the workstations, and how easily it is to shift work from one to another. Remember, to be as efficient as possible, each work cycle needs to be as close as possible to the takt time we are striving to achieve this season. Since that varies, we are going to need to create a work space that gives us the smoothest transitions possible.

What is the Next Target Condition?

I don’t know.

Until we have a good grasp of the current condition, we really can’t move beyond that point. While I am sure Darren knows much more, I am at my threshold of knowledge: 10 workstations, 10 operators. That’s all I know.

However I do know that it is unlikely I would try to get to the full challenge capability all at once. Even if I did have a good grasp of the current condition, I probably can’t see the full answer, just a step that would do two key things:

  • Move in the direction I am trying to go.
  • Give me more information that, today, is hidden by the nature of the work.

For an operation this size, (if I were the learner / person doing the improvement here) I would probably set that target condition for myself at no more than a week or two. (This also depends on how much time I can focus on this operation, and how easy it is to experiment. The more experiments I can run, the faster I will learn, and the quicker I can get to a target.)

Now… I will re-state the target condition to answer this question:

“We can’t… [whatever the target condition is]… “because ________.” as many times as I can. That is one way to flush out obstacles.

Another way is just to tell the skeptics we are going to start operating like this right away, then write down all of the reasons they think it won’t work. Smile

Then the question is “OK, which of these obstacles are we going to address first?”

Iterate Experiments / PDCA to learn.

Once I know which obstacle I am choosing to address first, I need to know more about it. What do I want to learn, or what effect do I want to have on the process? Those things are my expected result.

Now… what do I need to do to cause that to happen? That is my next experiment.

And we are off to the races. As each learning cycle is completed, your current condition, your current level of understanding, changes. As you learn more, you better understand the obstacles and problems.

When you reach a target condition (or realize you are at the deadline and haven’t reached it), then go back to the top, review the challenge, make sure you understand the current condition, and establish a new target. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This Isn’t About “The Answers.”

imageA long time ago, when I first started this blog, I wrote a post called “The Chalk Circle.” I told the story of one of my more insightful learning experiences in the shadow of one of the original true masters, the late Yoshiki Iwata. My “ah ha” moment finally came several years later, and a year after his death. He wasn’t interested in the answers, he was teaching me the questions.

We don’t know the answers to a problem like “How do I get maximum efficiency through seasonal demand changes.” The answer for one process might give you something to think about, but copying it to another is unlikely to work well. What would work for Darren’s operation is unlikely to work in Hal’s. Even small differences mean there is more learning required.

When confronted with a problem, the first question should never be “What should we do?” Rather, we need to ask “What do we need to learn?”  What do we know? What do we not understand? What do we need to learn, then what step should we take to learn it? Taking actions without a learning objective is just trying stuff and hoping it works without understanding why.

What works is learning, by applying, the thinking behind sound problem solving, and being relentlessly curious about what is keeping you from moving to the next level.

I have come a long way since my time with Mr. Iwata, I continue to learn (lots), sometimes by making mistakes, sometimes with unlikely teachers, at times and in ways I least expect it. Sometimes it isn’t fun in the moment. Sometimes I have to confront something I have hidden from myself.

One thing I have learned is that the people who have all of the answers have stopped learning.

Darren – if you want to discuss your specific situation, click on “Contact Mark” and drop me an email.

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.


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.


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.

The Lean Plateau

Many organizations trying to deploy lean get great results for the first couple of years, then things tend to stall or plateau. This is in spite of continued effort from the “lean team.”


We Still Don’t Have a Lean Culture

This was the comment by the Continuous Improvement director of a pretty large corporation. They had been running improvement events for several years, everyone had pretty much been through one.

Each of the events had made pretty good strides during the week, but the behavior wasn’t changing. Things were eroding behind the events, even though everyone agreed things were better.

It was getting harder and harder to make more progress. They had hit the plateau.

What Causes the Lean Plateau?

While it might not be universal, what I have seen happen is this:

The implementation is led by a small group of dedicated technical experts. They are the ones who are looking for opportunities, organizing the kaizen event teams, leading workshops, and overseeing the implementation of lean techniques.

While this works in the short term, often the last implemented results begin to erode as soon as the lean experts shift their attention elsewhere.

At first, this isn’t noticed because the implementation is proceeding faster than the erosion.

However the more areas that are implemented, the faster the erosion becomes. There is simply more “surface area” of implemented areas.

At some point, the rate of erosion = the rate of implementation, and the lean team’s efforts start to shift from implementing new areas to going back and re-implementing areas that have eroded.

The lean team’s capacity becomes consumed re-implementing, and they spend less and less time going over new ground. They are spending all of their time “spinning the plates” and no time starting new ones.

Key Point: The lean plateau occurs when the level of implementation effort and the rate of erosion reach an equilibrium.

In the worst scenario, sooner or later financial pressures come into play. Management begins to question the expense of maintaining an improvement office if things aren’t getting significantly better on the bottom line. What they don’t see is that the office is keeping things from getting worse, but they aren’t called the “maintain what we have office” for a reason.

Breaking the Lean Plateau

When I was a lean director in a large company, we were confronting this very question. We had a meeting to talk about it, and quickly started blaming “lack of management commitment.”

Leaders Weren’t Stepping Up

In any given area, after education and planning, our last step was always to have a major effort to put flow production into place. Since the performance of the area would be substantially better, we expected the leaders to work hard to continue that performance.

What actually happened in an area was “implemented,” was the line leaders in that area – supervisors, managers, senior managers – weren’t working to look for erosion and correct it.

Instead, when a problem was encountered, they were making some kind of accommodation that compromised flow. The effect of the problem went away, but things had eroded a bit.

What we thought we learned: The weren’t “supporting the changes.”

What we really learned – though it was only realized in hindsight: This is the mechanism of “erosion.”

Flow production is specifically designed to surface small problems quickly. If there is no mechanism to detect those problems, respond, correct, and learn, then the only thing leaders can do is add a little inventory, add a little time, add an extra operation.

As Hirano put it so well decades ago:

All waste is cleverly disguised as useful work.

But Our Current Condition was Incomplete

There were outliers where it was working.

As we talked, we realized that each of us had experience with an outlier – one or two areas that were actually improving pretty steadily. Trying to understand what was different about these bright spots, we looked for what they all had in common. Surprisingly:

  • They were areas with no dedicated improvement teams.
  • They ran few, if any, 5-day kaizen events.
  • They were geographically close to one of us (senior “Directors”).
  • One of us had decent rapport with the area management team.
  • We each had an informal routine with them: We would drop by when we had time, and walk the work area with the area leader. We could discuss the challenges they were facing, how things were operating, go together to the operations concerned, and look at what was happening. We could ask questions designed to “sharpen the vision” of the leader. Sometimes they were leading questions. Most of the time they were from genuine curiosity.
  • By the time we left, there was generally some action or short term goal that the leader had set for himself.

Even though we “lean directors” had never worked together before, our stories were surprisingly consistent.

The Current Condition (Everywhere Else)

aka Dave’s Insight

The next logical question was “If that is what we do, what happens everywhere else? What do the lean staff people do?”

Now we were trying to understand the normal pattern of work, not simply the outcome of “the area erodes because the leaders don’t support the changes.”

Dave confidently stood up and grabbed the marker. He started outlining how he trained and certified his kaizen leaders. He worked through the list of skills he worked to develop:

  • Proficiently deliver the various topical training modules – Waste vs. Value Add; Standard Work; Jidoka; Kanban and Pull;
  • “Scan” an area to find improvement opportunities.
  • Establish the lean tools to be deployed.
  • Organize the workshop team.
  • Facilitate the “Vision”
  • Manage the “Kaizen Newspaper” items
  • etc

and at some point through this detailed explanation he stopped in mid sentence and said something that brought all of us to reality (Please avert your eyes if you are offended by a language you won’t hear on network TV):

“Aw… shit.”

What we realized more or less simultaneously was this:

Management wasn’t engaged because our process wasn’t engaging them.

Instead, our experts were essentially pushing them aside and “fixing” things, then turning the newly “leaned” area over to the supervisors and first line managers who, at most, might have participated in the workshop and helped move things around.

Those critical front line leaders were, at best left with a to-do list of ideas (kaizen newspaper items) that hadn’t been implemented during the 5 days.

There was nothing in the structure to challenge them to meet a serious business objective beyond “Look at how much better everything runs now.” The amount of improvement was an after-the-fact measurement (or estimate) rather than a before-we-begin imperative.

So it really should be no surprise that come Monday morning, when the inevitable forces of entropy showed up, that things started to erode. The whole system couldn’t have been better designed for that outcome.

Why the Difference in Approach?

In retrospect, I don’t know. Each of us senior “lean directors” had been taught, or heavily influenced by, Toyota-experienced Japanese mentors, teachers, consultants.

When we engaged the “outlier” areas, we were following a kinder, gentler version of what they had taught us.

On the other hand, what we were teaching our own people was modeled more on what western consultants were doing. Perhaps it is because it is easier to use forms and PowerPoint for structure than to teach the skills of the conversations we were having.

Implement by Experts or Coached by Leaders

That really is your choice. The expert implementation seems a lot easier.

Unfortunately the “rapid improvement event” (or whatever you call them) system has a really poor record of sustaining.

Perhaps our little group figured out why.

There are no guarantees. No approach will work every time. But a difficult approach that works some of the time is probably better than an easy path that almost never works.

Toyota Kata: What is the Learner Learning?

In the language of Toyota Kata we have a “coach” and a “learner.” Some organizations use the word “improver” instead of “learner.” I have used those terms more or less interchangeably. Now I am getting more insight into what the “learner” is learning.

The obvious answer is that, by practicing the Improvement Kata, the learner is learning the thinking pattern that is behind solid problem solving and continuous improvement.

But now I am reading more into the role. The “learner” is also the one who is learning about the process, the problems, and the solutions.

Steve Spear has a mantra of “See a problem, solve a problem, teach somebody.” This is, I think, the role of the learner.

What about the coach?

The coach is using the Coaching Kata to learn how to ask questions that drive learning. He may also be un-learning how to just have all of the answers.

As the coach develops skill, I advise sticking to the Coaching Kata structure for the benefit of beginner learners. It is easier for them to be prepared if they understand the questions and how to answer them. That, in turn, teaches them the thinking required to develop those answers.

Everybody is a Learner

The final question in the “5 Questions” is “When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?” It isn’t when can I see what You have learned. It is a “we” question because nobody knows the answers yet.

The Destructiveness of “What Can You Improve?”

“What Can You Improve?”

Leaders often ask “What can you improve?” as an empowerment question. In reality, it may have the opposite effect.

I am coming to the belief that “What can you improve?” (about your job, about your process) is possibly one of the most demotivating, disempowering, destructive questions that can be asked.

What can you work on?” is another one of many forms this question takes. “How could you improve this process?” is another. What they all have in common is the psychological trap they set.

Now this really isn’t that much of a problem in a company that has a history of transparency in leadership, comfort with discussing the truth, and no need for excuses or justifications. Then again, those companies tend not to ask these questions straight-on.

But the vast majority of organizations aren’t like that. That doesn’t mean they are unkind. Rather, they operate in an environment where truthfully answering this question is difficult at best.

The Psychological Trap

To answer that question with anything other than trying to guess what you want, implies I have:

  • Thoroughly examined my results and the underlying processes.
  • Identified gaps in performance.
  • Know what to do about those gaps.
  • And haven’t done anything about it until you asked.

This puts me in the position of either defending the status-quo, or saying that I need to improve something that is out of my control – someone else’s process needs improvement so I can do better.

Hint: If you are a leader, and you ask a “What can you improve?” question and get an answer like the above – defending the status-quo or pointing to an outside problem –, there is fear in your organization. Justified or not, the person answering is struggling to maintain the impression that everything they can do is being done. Why do they feel the need to do this? Think about it.

This is especially pervasive in support / staff departments with a charter of influencing how other organizations perform, or in those who must work together with line organizations to succeed in their tasks. In industry this might be maintenance, HR, industrial engineering, or even the “improvement office” (who are often not a  beacon of internal efficiency or effectiveness).

A Bit of Background

When I start working with an organization, we usually start with practicing the basic mechanics of the Improvement Kata in a classroom setting. We then follow up immediately with kick-starting some live improvement cycles so we can begin practical application. Classroom learning really doesn’t do much good unless it is applied immediately.

Applying the Improvement Kata is a lot harder in the real world than it is in the classroom. I could go into a tangential rant on why I think our primary and secondary education system makes it harder, but I’ll save that for another day.

Even though I am as adamant as I can be on the importance of the organization identifying challenges for the new improvers / learners, the reality is that most organizations don’t know how to do this, or at least aren’t comfortable with it.*

As a result, the new improvers often struggle to define a “challenge” for themselves.

They guess – because they haven’t yet studied their process (which is the next step once context is established, they haven’t yet established a target condition (which is the step after that), and therefore, they haven’t identified what improvements they must make to get to the challenge state.

And if that guess is something in someone else’s domain, or worse if the “coach” has something else in mind, they are told “That’s not it,” they guess again, and eventually get defensive or give up.

Now – to be clear, this doesn’t happen every time. But I have seen it enough, across multiple organizations in very different domains that it’s a problem. And it is frustrating for everyone when it happens.

I indirectly addressed this topic a long time ago in “How the Sensei Sees.” Now, though I am talking about my own direct observation of the effect. And I am still learning how to deal with the fallout without becoming part of the problem.

It’s not the learner’s problem. It is a leadership problem.


*Dave Kilgore at Continental Automotive had the additional insight that it is important for beginners that this challenge should be something important but not urgent so they don’t feel pressured to jump to an immediate solution. This is a good example of “constancy of purpose” – his priority is developing the skill level for improvement first.

“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 Personal Challenge of One-by-One

I got a cool model kit of the 1903 Wright Flyer for Christmas, and am in the process of assembling it. Each wing (top and bottom) has two spars connected by 38 ribs. (To give you a sense of the size, the wingspan of the model is just over 30 inches).


Each of the 38(x2) ribs requires the following steps:

  1. Cut the laser cut part from the sheet.
  2. Sand the ends smooth with an emery board. Fit check between the spar.
  3. Sand the burned wood from the top edge with an emery board (outside curve).
  4. Sand the burned wood from the bottom edge (inside curve) with a piece of fine sandpaper wrapped around a round hobby knife handle.
  5. Sand the burn marks off the flat side with the emery board.
  6. Glue the front end to the front spar.
  7. Glue the back end of the previously done rib to the rear spar. (give the front glue joint time to set)

It was amazingly tempting to just cut them all out, the sand all of the ends, then sand all of the top edges, then sand all of the bottom edges, then sand all of the flats, then glue them all into place. That would have felt like it was faster.

But no matter what order I did it in, I had to repeat steps 1-7 38 times, there wasn’t any way around that. And yes, I picked up, and put down, the tools and glue bottle 38 times by doing it 1:1. But I also picked up on mistakes that I had made only once, and could check and adjust my technique as I went to ensure everything was fitting together the way it should be.

I could also more easily cut things loose when a little glue stuck the spar to the jig. It’s easier to get the knife under one stuck rib. (I only glued my fingers to the wood a couple of times, and only just a little. *smile*).

I know this is old stuff to most of my readers, but sometimes it is good to come back to the fundamentals and experience that 1:1 feels slower even though it isn’t.