“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).

FlyerModelWing

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.

Standards: Notes On A Whiteboard

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I saw this on a client’s whiteboard this morning. (Actually I saw it a while ago, but just took the photo.)

By having a clear expectation about what is supposed to happen, they can work to converge the process toward some kind of consistency. The opposite is just accepting whatever happens as OK.

By having a degree of stability, it is easier to see issues and opportunities, that in turn, allow them to set the next level of standard.

He put it up there to remind him when he is distracted in the day-to-day fray that “What are we trying to achieve?” is the important first question to ask.

Remember, there is no dogma. Your choice of words and definitions may vary. But these work for him.

The Struggle

In The Leader’s Journey, I highlighted the struggle with escalating challenges as a core driver of growth in both our fictional heroes and real-life developing leaders.

This week I was essentially doing 2nd level coaching with a client I have been working with for quite a while. One of the things we did was have a brief session where we reviewed and reflected the ideal state of a coaching / problem solving culture (thanks in large part to Gerd Aulinger and Mike Rother). We reviewed the principles of what a coach and the coaching chain is striving to achieve, and the mechanics of doing it.

Combining that review with the shop-floor 2nd level coaching, a couple of my participants commented on how much better they “got” what they were trying to do. They started to move from rote to the higher-level understanding.

I am still digesting why this week had this kind of breakthrough when we have been working on the same key things for months. Nothing we went over was new information. What was different this time around?

My thought right now is that they have been in the struggle trying to understand this stuff, and finally reached the point where the additional theory snapped things into place. I told them “if you hadn’t been struggling with this, you wouldn’t have had the insights you got this week.”

I really think that is the case. We can give people all of the answers. But I am realizing if they haven’t, first, been struggling to find those answers on their own – if they haven’t been trying hard to figure it out – then the additional information would have far less (or little) impact. It is only after they have challenged themselves that the externally supplied insights have any meaning or context.

At least that is where I am right now. Time for a couple of additional experiments.

Shifting the Learning Zone

A client and fellow lean learner today shared a cool extension of the Toyota Kata model for establishing target conditions.

Mike Rother’s Improvement Kata Handbook establishes a couple of key concepts about where a target condition should be set. The key is that the target should be somewhere beyond the learner’s knowledge threshold:

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The knowledge threshold marks the point where the process is not yet fully understood. Setting a target inside that boundary is simply a matter of executing a plan, no learning is required.

A target beyond the knowledge threshold is true improvement, because we don’t know how to do it yet. We just have a reasonable belief we can get there.

This is the concept of challenging the learner, depicted here:

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Here is another way to look at it – thanks to Matt – though I have altered the geometry a bit here.

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In the “Comfort Zone” we are, well, comfortable. This is the daily routine, things are predictable. As our brains are wired to seek predictability, most people seek out activities they already know how to perform.

Beyond the knowledge threshold is the “Learning Zone.”

We know from the principle of Deep Practice that skill only develops when we are striving to perform just beyond the limit of our capability – on the edge of failure.

It a zone where small mistakes can be made, realized quickly, and corrected immediately for another try.

If, though, we ask someone to do something that he perceives carries a high risk of failure, he enters the “Fear Zone.”

The boundaries for these zones are individual, and are a mix of the person’s skill and knowledge base + his tolerance for risk.

What I like about this model, though, is that can be extended.

Our brains are incredible simulation machines. We can imagine an activity or event, and feel the same emotional response we would have if it were real.

But we have a heavy, survival based, bias for loss avoidance. Simply put, we have a stronger drive to avoid loss than we do to seek reward. This is why people hold on to investments that are tanking, and remain in bad jobs and unhealthy relationships. The predicted sense of loss is actually stronger than what would actually be felt.

This explains the seemingly backward effect of high stakes incentives that Dan Pink talks about in his book Drive and in this TED Talk. (Skip ahead to 1:50 to get to the main points.)

If the leadership climate sets up fear of loss as a consequence of failure, we have a very strong force pushing the boundary of the fear zone to the left:

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But what we want to do is, over time, shift the learning zone to the right. That is, the team member is comfortable in increasingly complex situations – her skill levels for dealing with the unexpected are much higher.

So how do we get there?

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We can look at the highest performing people, and look at the social support networks that nearly all of them have.

If you want performance, you have to (1) remove fear and (2) provide safety for experimentation and learning.

One final note – changing the culture of an organization is not easy, and the appropriate tools to do so are highly situational. You can’t just say “You’re empowered” and expect a transition. More about that in a few days.

Struggling to Learn

One of the challenges of teaching and consulting is resisting the temptation to give people the answers. Honestly, I like giving people the answers. It feels genuinely helpful, and it provides a nice ego boost.

But according to this article on Time’s “Time Ideas” site by Anne Murphy Paul titled “Why Floundering is Good,” that isn’t the best way to teach.

In fact, it can hinder learning.

The key point is summarized at the end:

… we need to “design [teaching] for productive failure” by building it into the learning process. Kapur has identified three conditions that promote this kind of beneficial struggle. First, choose problems to work on that “challenge but do not frustrate.” Second, provide learners with opportunities to explain and elaborate on what they’re doing. Third, give learners the chance to compare and contrast good and bad solutions to the problems.

Right now we are (hopefully) in the midst of a paradigm shift in how lean practitioners and teachers go about what we do.

Traditionally, a lot of us have simply given people the answers, or at least strong suggestions. Given the time constraints and overly ambitious targets of a typical 5 day event, that is understandable.

But now we are starting to see these events as skill building, which means learning, which means the teams need time to muddle through.

I have been structuring my approach quite differently for about a year now. I’ll be the first to admit that I, too, am figuring it out, reinforcing what works well, altering what needs to work better. These days I am far more comfortable letting things move through this struggle in order to set up deeper understanding once the light does come on.

The trick is to let them fail small, and not let them fail big. The problem has to have a solution that is within reach, or they will only come away frustrated.

Thus, teaching is becoming a matter of judging the knowledge and skill threshold and making sure they don’t take on too much at once. That is part of respect for people.

One problem at a time. Single factor experiments.

A great deal of the power in the “Coaching Kata” is turning out to be the question “Which *one* [obstacle] are you addressing now?” as it rules out working on everything at once.

Decisions, Decisions

How many “If-Then” steps do your team members have to deal with in the course of their routine work?

Every one of those branch points is a decision. It is a point where the team member must memorize decision criteria and the correct choice(s).

Each “If-Then” in the process flow potentially doubles the number of possible paths the process can take.

Each decision is an opportunity to make a mistake.

The more complex a process, the more time and experience the team member requires to master it.

Mental bandwidth is limited.

The more attention they must expend to do it right, the less they can devote to thinking about how it could be done better.

How complicated a world do you create for people trying to do the work?

The more “flexible” your human interface with the process, the more complicated it is for the person who has to use it.

Do they have to enter ad-hoc query criteria into computers to pull information they routinely need every day?

How many decision criteria are things that people “just know?”

How often does someone encounter a problem or new situation and get a verbal instruction from the supervisor on how to handle it? What happens then? Maybe a general announcement at the next team meeting, if you’re lucky?

Go down to your work area.

Watch how people interact with the routine work.

Each of those decision points is an opportunity to simplify your process flow and make life a little less stressful for all of you.

“Find the Bright Spots”

One of the problems facing all of us – from pundits to practitioners alike – is “too much information.” We look at a complex state, like the way Toyota operates, try do describe it in great detail, break it down, build models, and say “OK, make it look like that.”

So one of the most common questions is “Where do I start?”

The platitude is “start with 5S” but in reality, that doesn’t really work very well either. It doesn’t really drive a cultural and behavioral shift. If you have to audit people into compliance, that’s how it is working for you.

What we know today is that TPS is much less about how it looks than it is about what people do.

I have seen a handful of other companies who have managed to get a true continuous improvement culture running (at least for a while). There is something very different about them vs. a standard “lean implementation.”

Yet these companies have the same caliber of people, the same resources, the same baseline problems as everyone else. They operate in the same environment, and yet operate differently.

A key point in Switch is “find the bright spots.” That is – look at who has success in the same environment, and grasp what few factors are actually making a difference.

Perhaps, rather than “looking for waste” we ought to be looking at what few things make a big difference. Just a thought.

If The Student Hasn’t Learned…

The teacher hasn’t taught.

This article, titled “Why China is Not Ready for Lean Manufacturing” presents an account of trying to teach “lean manufacturing” in a Chinese factory. The experience is summed up in a couple of key paragraphs:

The team arrived in Dongguan and went to work giving an overview class on Lean techniques. The factory workers seemed attentive and interested in learning. The next day, the Silicon Valley Lean team gathered the people from the assembly line to begin the process of working on the quality problem. After 3 hours, the Lean team ended the session in utter frustration. No one participated. No one would identify problems on the line. No one knew how to approach gathering or analyzing data. No one volunteered.

So what happened? The training was adequate and the Lean principles and methods are sound and easily understood. Why weren’t the Chinese factory workers participating?

Why indeed?

The author’s conclusion is that Chinese worker’s culture and values conflict with the idea of collaboration and contributing ideas to improve production quality and efficiency.

But the article brought up two separate thoughts.

First, there is nothing magic about Western culture. These concepts can, and do, fall just as flat in the USA and Europe as they did in this factory. The problem in these cases has less to do with the national culture, and more to do with attempting to apply a rote approach to teaching.

Second, the result cited here was exactly the opposite of my own experience in a Chinese factory.

It took some persistence, and it took some deliberate steps to remove fear from the factory floor, but in the end we had these Chinese workers making some very innovative contributions.

400ArmBoringMock01 This photo is an old boring mill. It was a slow old boring mill. We needed to squeeze cycle time out of the process to make the projected takt time. We showed the workers some photos of other teams’ efforts to mock-up fixtures so they could quickly try out ideas. The workers, after a few false starts, constructed what you see here, and ended up with a pretty good set of fixtures that could be loaded and unloaded quickly. After some trials, they figured out on their own that they could fit two fixtures on the platform, which allowed them to be unloading and loading one while boring on the other.

400BucketBoring

One of the machinists complained that the machine could run faster if it had a liquid cooling system. With encouragement, he designed and built a simple, but working, cooling system for the cutting tools. (The steel box in the foreground with a pump on it.) The clever part was the chip filter made from a bottle cap and a nail.

400BucketCellMock01 Another team was working on a welding cell. They ended up designing and fabricating more efficient fixtures than had been provided by the engineers. Then they set out to develop the most efficient way to get parts positioned, to load them quickly into the fixture, and weld up the part.

 

 

What was different?400CellWorkDesign

First, we didn’t do any classroom education. Not quite true. We showed them photos of really good welding fixtures that had been designed by a sister company. That took about 30 minutes. We explained what features made those fixtures good. Then we continuously encouraged them to try things so they could learn on their own. And try they did.

We didn’t ask them to go beyond mock-up. We fully expected to take their ideas, turn them over to engineers to get them finalized and drawn up, then have the fixtures fabricated. But the workers took it on their own initiative to dig through the (embarrassingly large) amount of scrap metal out back, bring in what they needed, machine parts, scrounge others, and built their fixtures in steel.

A number of ideas were things I could clearly see would not work. I knew that heat distortion from welding would make a particular fixture design difficult (impossible!) to unload after welding. I could tell them it wouldn’t work, or I could let them try it on their own. I chose the path that would engage their curiosity and let them learn through experience. They became better welders for it.

Honestly – this was a slow time while we were working out other issues with market positioning, sales, design and sourcing decisions, and most of this activity was intended to keep people busy and engaged. But what we ended up with was production-ready work cells, all built upon ideas from the workers.

So why did I tell this little story?

First, I will admit that I was pretty proud of these guys. This was a few years ago now, but it was fun blowing away everyone’s stereotypes about Chinese factories and Chinese workers.

But I wanted to make a key point.

Instead of looking for cultural reasons why “this won’t work here” we kept faith that, if the initial response was silence and non-participation, there was something that we needed to address in the way we taught, and in the environment we were creating.

Indeed, what the Chinese culture brings to kaizen is a centuries-old tradition of improvising with what you have to get something done. This is a great strength that can be hard to find in cultures with longer traditions of wealth.

Just as we were encouraging these workers to try things so they could learn what did work, we had to do the same thing. We didn’t give up after three hours. Eventually we managed to remove the fear and bring out the best these people had to offer.

Classroom education is actually a very poor way to teach people how to study a process, understand it and improve it. Sometimes it kind of works, but I think that is because it is marginally effective if all of the other conditions are right. Perhaps in some cultures that starting point is past the limit of what classroom education can handle. That isn’t a problem with the culture, it is revealing the inherent weakness in the approach.

There is no cookbook. There is only a clear objective, and good faith effort to keep trying until a solution is found.

Epiloge: Yes, this factory got into production. However the parent company could never get traction in this market with this product and recently made a decision to close this plant and pursue a different strategic direction. That is not a reflection at all on the people who did the work in these photos.

leanblog.org “10 Lean Things Not to Say”

Fellow blogger Mark Grabon recently posted “10 Things I Wish Lean Practitioners Wouldn’t Say in 2010” on his leanblog.org.

I like it enough that my thoughts won’t fit in an appropriate comment on his blog, so I’ll write them here. Go back and read his post first, though, or you won’t make sense of this one.

Added last: This turned into a stream of consciousness that ranges on a variety of topics. You are getting a bit of insight into how my mind works here.  🙂

“Lean them out” — “Get them lean” — “What would lean say?” — “Is that lean?”

In the context of “lean production” or “lean manufacturing,” the word “lean” is an adjective. It is not a noun, it is not a verb. I would argue that you can’t even get agreement about what it means in a room of “experts.” Today we have spliced other words to it, like “Sigma” that dilute it even more – implying that it needs something else to be complete without every saying what was missing in the first place.

The word “lean” has taken on a life of its own. As Mark points out, it even issues judgments as in “What would lean say about…” as though phrasing the question this way somehow quotes an objective source instead of someone’s opinion.

Sensei says…

Aside from introducing the word “lean” into the vernacular, Womack and Jones also made having a “Sensei” an imperative. Now I am seeing consultants, even non-Japanese ones, brand themselves as “Sensei.” Worse, there are consultants and other agencies who preport to “certify you” as a “Sensei.”

As Mark points out, the Western use of the term differs from the everyday use in Japan. Our meaning likely comes from martial arts classes. When I was at a previous company, people I worked with tried to apply the term to me. Like Mark, I objected. As they were insisting, I “allowed” them to use the word “sempai” and told them that was just someone who had been in the martial arts class a week longer. In reality, the only thing that differentiates teachers and students in the business is a bit of experience and something to say. But, as I said previously, what sets apart a master is that he has mastered learning.

Counting kaizen events.

Bluntly, this is one of the most effective ways I know to derail a journey of continuous improvement. The behaviors that are driven by counting kaizen events are counter to the very things we are trying to accomplish. If you aren’t sure why, ask yourself if a team member taking his own initiative and drilling some holes in a block of wood so that he can hold his bolts is a kaizen event or not.

Variations on the theme of Buy In / Resistance to Change are pervasive in the forums and in real life. And professional kaizen practitioners are not immune to denying that someone has found a breakthrough that they hadn’t.

But, sorry folks, there is nowhere on Earth where you can avoid the necessity to understand other people’s needs and feelings and take them into account. Not, at least, where you are dealing with other people. So, even if you are in a company that totally “gets it,” you had best develop the skills to do this.

Why? Because you aren’t going to “lean anybody out” without their total, complete and enthusiastic cooperation. The reason is simple. Until they are doing it themselves, without prompting, without being pushed, without being boxed in by coercive approaches, it simply isn’t working. You can’t force people to be creative problem solvers. They have to like doing it.

This is the challenge of the true change agent. Like what I said in the previous post about job shops, if you aren’t getting clear answers about how to get people involved, you are talking to the wrong person. Try someone else.

And finally is the jargon of our community. Some of it is Japanese, other terms are inherited from other disciplines like organizational development.

Jargon has two purposes. One is it provides people in a specific field or organization a clear means of communicating with one another. The legal profession, for example, is full of Latin terms that require paragraphs to define. So are military organizations. And an organization will often have a language of its own that members use internally. You won’t know the difference between a blueline, a greenline or an IW unless you have worked in Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Toyota has this corporate jargon. They have redefined a fair number of common Japanese terms that, today, carry very specific meanings within the Toyota context. Kanban, jidoka, yamazumi and even kaizen are some of those words. That is all well and fine for Toyota. It gives them a common shorthand so they can communicate more efficiently.

The more insidious use of jargon, though, is for a group to use it to exclude others from the “in” circle. Rather than being a shorthand to enable communication within the group, jargon becomes an obfuscation to disable communication, establish a sense of mystery, and differentiate those who “know” from those who are not yet enlightened.

So how do I feel about Japanese jargon in this context? Only you know. Look in the mirror. Check your purpose. Why do you feel the need to use it? How do you feel when you use it? Do you feel that it shows you know more than someone who does not use it? Do you take pride in making elaborate explanations of these terms? If so, I feel you are doing it for the wrong reasons. I don’t say not to use it. I do say to check your intentions. Are you doing so out of respect for people, or to elevate your own status? Then act according to your own conscience.

I have gone a lot deeper into this stuff than Mark did, and I am not nearly as well organized. Ah well. You get the benefit of seeing one of my raw brain dumps.