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).

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

image

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:

image

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:

image

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

image

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:

image

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?

image

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.