Coaching: Getting Specific, Finding the Knowledge Threshold

When coaching, I often find improvers / learners who tend to be superficial or vague about target conditions, current conditions, the experiments they intend to run, the results they expect, what they learned.  Huh… I guess I should have said “vague about everything.”

As several of my clients would tell you, one of my themes is “drive out ambiguity.”

Recently I’ve been trying a simple follow-up question that seems to be working to help people dig a little deeper without pushing them back as much as other questions might.

“Could you be more specific?”

I will plead completely guilty to stealing this from an unlikely source.

In his book “The Cuckoo’s Egg“, Clifford Stoll describes a line of questioning during his oral defense of his PhD thesis in astronomy:

I remember it vividly. Across a table, five profs. I’m frightened, trying to look casual as sweat drips down my face. But I’m keeping afloat; I’ve managed to babble superficially, giving the illusion that I know something. Just a few more questions, I think, and they’ll set me free. Then the examiner over at the end of the table – the guy with the twisted little smile – starts sharpening his pencil with a penknife.

“I’ve got just one question, Cliff,” he says, carving his way through the Eberhard-Faber. “Why is the sky blue?

My mind is absolutely, profoundly blank. I have no idea. I look out the window at the sky with the primitive, uncomprehending wonder of a Neanderthal contemplating fire. I force myself to say something—anything. “Scattered light,” I reply. “Uh, yeah, scattered sunlight.”

“Could you be more specific?”

Well, words came from somewhere, out of some deep instinct of self-preservation. I babbled about the spectrum of sunlight, the upper atmosphere, and how light interacts with molecules of air.

“Could you be more specific?”

I’m describing how air molecules have dipole moments, the wave-particle duality of light, scribbling equations on the blackboard, and . . .

“Could you be more specific?”

An hour later, I’m sweating hard. His simple question—a five-year-old’s question—has drawn together oscillator theory, electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics, even quantum mechanics. Even in my miserable writhing, I admired the guy…

[Emphasis added]

As you can see from Stoll’s experience, his professor was seeking to find his knowledge threshold – something a kata coach should be doing as well.

Now, I’m not going to push the “5 Whys” quite as deep as quantum effects (except, perhaps, at one client who DOES deal with things at that level…), but I find this is a far more effective question than “Why?” or asking leading questions. It, obviously isn’t universal, but it has been working reasonably well with a client whose corporate culture drives indirect assertions and vague predictions.

Try it… leave a comment if it works for you (or bombs). But please… be specific.  🙂

P.S. – In this video, Cliff Stoll tells the same story, likely more accurately, and makes another valuable point:  “It’s obvious” is a statement which often hides limited understanding of what is being discussed. It might be “obvious,” but… let’s go see.

Eiji Toyoda 1913-2013

Reuters reports the death of Eiji Toyoda today, 3 days after his 100th birthday.

In the late 1940’s, the fledgling Toyota Motor Company was in financial difficulties, and was forced to lay off workers. As part of the agreement, Kiichiro Toyoda resigned in 1950 and turned the helm of the company over to his cousin, Eiji.

Kiichiro had developed the early concepts of Just In Time production, and his father, Sakichi, had developed the early concepts of stopping a process that was having quality issues (jidoka).

Eiji had to deal with a turnaround situation, and challenged the company to reach U.S. levels of productivity on a very short timeframe. As part of that effort, he assigned Taiichi Ohno, a machine shop manager, to make it all work. The result was what we today call “The Toyota Way.”

Though there were obviously many people involved, Eiji has a huge share of the credit for creating “The Machine that Changed the World.”

Checklists: “Do.” vs. “Did you do?”

When operations or steps get omitted, a common countermeasure is to establish a checklist.

A typical checklist has a list of items or questions – sometimes even written in the past tense.

“Was the _______?”

There are a couple of common problems with this approach.

First, the time to actually, physically make the checks is not included in the planned cycle time. This implies we are expecting the team member to review the checklist and remember what she did.

The second issue is that the team member often does remember doing it even if it wasn’t done.

This is human nature, it isn’t a fault or flaw in the individual. It is impossible to maintain continuous  conscious vigilance for any length of time. There are techniques that help, however they require some discipline from leaders.

Overall, a checklist that asks “Did you___?” in the past tense is mostly ineffective in practice.

We make things worse when the checklist is used as a punitive tool and we “write up” the team member for signing off on something that, actually, didn’t get done. Most of the time it does get done, but everyone in this system occasionally misses something. Sometimes those errors get caught. This kind of “accountability” is arbitrary at best.

Where checklists work is in “what to do next” mode – referring to the check list, doing one item, checking off that it was done, then referring to the next item on the list. This is how it works in an airplane cockpit.*

CAPTAIN: okay, taxi check.

FIRST OFFICER: departure briefing, FMS.

CAPTAIN: reviewed runway four.

FIRST OFFICER: flaps verify. two planned, two indicated.

CAPTAIN: two planned, two indicated.

FIRST OFFICER: um. takeoff data verify… one forty, one forty five, one forty nine, TOGA.

CAPTAIN: one forty, one forty five, one forty nine, TOGA.

FIRST OFFICER: the uh weight verify, one fifty two point two.

CAPTAIN: one fifty two point two.

FIRST OFFICER: flight controls verify checked.

CAPTAIN: check.

FIRST OFFICER: stab and trim verify, thirty one point one percent…and zero.

CAPTAIN: thirty one point one percent, zero.

FIRST OFFICER: the uh…. engine anti-ice.

CAPTAIN: is off.

FIRST OFFICER: ECAM verify takeoff, no blue, status checked.

CAPTAIN: takeoff, no blue, status checked.

FIRST OFFICER ON PA: ladies and gentlemen at this time we’re number one for takeoff, flight attendants please be seated.

FIRST OFFICER: takeoff min fuel quantity verify. nineteen thousand pounds required we got twenty one point eight on board.

CAPTAIN: nineteen thousand pounds required, twenty one eight on board.

FIRST OFFICER: flight attendants notified, engine mode is normal, the taxi checklist is complete sir.

(This is also how it works when assembling a nuclear warhead, but I can’t tell you that.)

This is also very effective for troubleshooting. For example, I was working with a team in a food processing plant. The obstacle being addressed was the long (and variable) time required to change over a high-speed labeling machine and get it “dialed in” and running at full speed without stops and jams.

Some operators were much better at this than others. We worked to capture an effective process of returning the machine’s settings to a known starting point, then systematically adjusting it for the specific bottle, label, etc. It worked when they were able to slow down enough to use it. That was an instance of “Slow is smooth; smooth is fast.”

The act of reading out load, performing the action, and verbally confirming is very effective when it is actually done that way. Even so, people who are very familiar with the procedure will often take shortcuts. They don’t “need” the checklist… until they do.

Still, you have a sequence of operations, and it is critical that they are all performed, in a specific order, in a specific way.

What works?
I’d say look around.
If you are reading this, you likely have been at least dabbling, and hopefully trying to apply “lean” stuff for a while.

What is a basic shadow board? It is a “checklist” of the tools to confirm they are all there – and a lot faster because missing items can be spotted at a glance. At a more advanced level, companies move away from shadow boards and to having the visual controls outlining what should be where to perform the work.

Color coded tool holders.

If you kit parts, you can set them out in a sequence – a “checklist” that cues the team member what order they should be installed.

I could continue to cite examples, but here’s the point.

When things are being left out, there is a high temptation to say “Let’s make a checklist” and sometimes make it worse by saying “…and we’ll have the worker sign it off for accountability.” That is more often than not simply a “feel good” solution. You feel like you have done something, and I’ve even heard “Well, it’s better than nothing.” I’m not sure it IS better than nothing – at least not in very specific conditions.

Instead, you need to study the actual work. Don’t try to ask questions, just stand and watch for a while. (Explain what you are doing to the team member first, otherwise this is creepy. “Hi – I’m just trying to understand some of the things that might get in your way. Do you mind if I just watch for a while without bothering you?”)

What cues the team member which step to perform next? Does he have to know it from memory? Or is there something built into the way the workplace is organized?

Does he end up going back and doing things he forgot?
Does he set out parts and tools in order on his own so he doesn’t forget?
Does he get interrupted, by anyone or anything, that takes him out of his mental zone?
(I go through airport TSA security checkpoints at least twice a week. I have a routine. When the TSA agent tries to “help” by talking to me, my routine gets broken, and that is when I forget stuff.)

If you are coaching someone, it helps if you go there with them, help the see the details by spotting these things and “asking” about them; then taking them to another area and challenging them to see as many of these issues as they can. See who can spot more of them.

What you are seeing are obstacles that impact the team member’s ability to do quality work.

Checklists don’t help remove those obstacles.

___________________

*The checklist transcript here is a cleaned up version of the Cockpit Voice Recorder transcript from Cactus 1549, the US Airways A320 that successfully landed in the Hudson River after multiple bird strikes knocked out both engines. I used it here because it is authentic, and the accident was one where everything went right and no one was seriously injured.

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.

PDCA, A3 and Practical Problem Solving

Over the years, I have been party to at least three corporate-level efforts to bring “A3” or “Practical Problem Solving” into their toolbox. Sometimes it has other names, such as “Management by Fact” or such, but the approaches are all similar.

Typically these efforts, if they catch on at all, become exercises in filling out a form.

Actually, that shouldn’t be a surprise, because they are often taught that way – as process of filling in boxes in sequence, with a “module” for teaching each step.

Worse, it is often taught as an intellectual exercise, and once you are done with the three day class, you’ve been “taught.”

The various classes mention PDCA as being a crucial part of this process, but nobody really practices it.

People are sometimes taught that this process should be coached, but the “coaching” they get is typically organized as management reviews via PowerPoint.

The “problem solving team” shows their analysis and their “implementation plan” that is a list of tasks, and a timeline to get them done. The meetings become status reviews.

Sometimes the “coaches” offer suggestions and speculation about the problem, symptoms, or actions that might be taken. They rarely (if ever) get into the quality of the PDCA thinking.

This is one of the challenges we have in the west (and especially in the USA) where our culture is more one of “go it alone then get approval” rather than true teamwork with the boss. This often turns the “A3” into an exercise of getting approval for a proposal rather than a learning process.

Worse, it does nothing to teach the problem solvers to be better problem solvers.

Note that sometimes an A3 is used for a proposal, but the process of creating it is still coached, and part of the process is the consensus-building that happens before there is any meeting. But here in the west, we still seem to like to spring these things on a leadership team without a lot of that background work ahead of time.

Mike Rother and the “Toyota Kata” community have been discussing this gap lately, and working to close it.

The latest iteration is this SlideShare that Rother sent around today:

He clearly points out what people have been missing: The “A3” is really just another method to document the “improvement kata.”

The “Implementation” box, rather than representing an action item lists, is where the problem solver captures her PDCA cycles, what is being tried, what is being learned, as she drives toward the target condition.

The other boxes are capturing her understanding of the current condition, the target condition, and the impact of various problems and obstacles in the way of closing the gap.

One thing that makes this extraordinarily difficult: We are talking about more than the mechanics of problem solving here. We are talking about shifting the default, habitual structure of the interaction between people. That is culture, which is notoriously hard to change. Not impossible, but unless people are up front that they are actually trying to change at this level, there are a lot of obstacles in the way. This can’t be delegated.

Eliminating Key Points

TWI Job Instruction is a structured process for breaking a job or task into teachable elements, and a 4 step process for teaching that job to someone.

I am not going to try to explain everything about breaking down a job here, this post is primarily for people who use job breakdowns and job instruction already.

The process of breaking down a job involves:

  • Identifying the Important Steps – the sub-tasks that materially advance the work.
  • Then identifying Key Points within important steps. These are things which the team member must pay special attention to, or perform a specific way. The guideline is that a key point is something which:
    • Is a safety issue – could injure the worker, or someone else.
    • Would “make or break the job” – critical to quality or the outcome of the work.
    • Is a “knack” or special technique that an experienced team member would use to make the job easier to do.

Breaking down a job this way takes practice, but it is a great way to identify the elements that are critical to safely getting a quality job done, and ensuring that the team member understands them.

But I want to propose this is only the first step.

Every key point is something the team member must remember in order to to not get hurt (or hurt others); to avoid scrapping or damaging something; to perform at the level you need.

Take it to the next level.

Think of these key points and the training that they drive as temporary countermeasures.  They are stop gaps you have in place until you can do something more robust.

Take one key point at a time. Why is it necessary? Why is it possible to do this step any way but the best way?

Can you alter the work environment – the product, the process, the equipment, the visual controls to reduce the things the team member has to remember (and you have to remember to teach)?

Can you make it impossible to perform that step in any way other than the way it should be done?

If you can’t, can you make it impossible to proceed until the error is corrected, before any harm is done?

If you can’t, can you make it so obvious that it is impossible to miss?

If you can’t, can you put in a robust reminder? (Signs and placards generally DON’T WORK for this unless they are especially “sticky.”

Every key point is something you have identified as critical to doing the job directly. Therefore every key point should drive a focused effort to mistake-proof the work.

You want to have as few as possible… but no fewer.

The Value of Mistake Proofing

Most companies use some version of the words “respect for people” in their HR mantras. But how is that respect demonstrated?

A team member made a mistake today. He is building a sub-assembly on a mixed model line. He picked a part from a small blue bin with a divider in it.

On one side of that divider is the part he should have picked and installed.

On the other side of the divider is a very similar part.

Guess which one ended up in his hand?

The issue wasn’t caught until a couple of positions down line. When it was caught, it was quickly reworked and corrected.

This particular team member is coming up on the end of his 90 day probationary employment period.

He has seen co-workers who “didn’t make it” (not cut out for assembly work). But he is a smart guy, hard worker, has participated in a lot of improvements for the work he is doing.

Nevertheless, he is worried about the consequences of making this mistake so close to his 90 day evaluation. He just wrote, it seems, what he hopes is his last COBRA check* that will cover him and his wife until his health insurance kicks in at the end of the month.

What is the value of mistake-proofing this operation?

Actually, the consequences of this error are minor. It is easily caught and quickly corrected in a subsequent operation. It is very, very rare. You could make the argument that there are better returns spending the limited problem solving time on bigger issues, and you’d be right… to a point.

But what if this team member’s experience was to see attention focused, not on him, but on what it was about the layout of the work area, about the presentation of parts, about the structure of the work, made it possible to make this error.

What if they acknowledged, overtly, that this kind of mistake is a consequence of being a human being, and that it was only that he happened to be the one standing there when the random chance generator came up?

What if he saw the team leader and supervisor engage him in conversation about what might be done to at least eliminate some of those possibilities? (We don’t really know what happened, though there are some likely guesses.)

What if he was also asked to look for other similar error opportunities, even in his co-worker’s areas, and help eliminate those as well?

What would be the return?

Might this team member work just a little harder to make things even better in the future?

Maybe he would help turn around a cynical or skeptical co-worker.

Maybe he would feel a bit appreciated for what he is contributing instead of losing sleep about his job.

Maybe, at some point in the future, when he is a shop steward, he might remember that “they” are all to human as well.

Who knows.

Before you say “it isn’t worth it” remember what Deming pointed out – “Management’s real job is to manage the unmeasurable.”

Good news – in this (real life) case, they are, for sure, eliminating the split bin and separating the two similar parts from one another; plus likely separating two other bins holding similar bolts. Maybe more, there are some ideas being kicked around.

In the end, though, consider if you will the ROI on team members knowing you will support them in their quest to succeed every day.

*For my non-US readers: COBRA is a program where someone can continue employer-provided health care after termination of employment for up to 18 months by paying the cost yourself. This is sometimes cheaper than purchasing private health insurance.

Obstacles vs. Lists of Tools

I have been noticing a significant linguistic difference between those who still embrace the “implement the tools” paradigm, and a much smaller (but growing) group are are adopting the PDCA thinking structure as a framework for everything else.

It comes down to how a problem is stated.

We were looking at an operation with a lot of variation from one team member to another, both in terms of performance, and actually, what precisely was being done.

When asked what the obstacle was, the immediate reply was “Lack of standard work.”

While this may have been true, it is not a statement of the problem. Rather, it is defining the problem as “lack of a specific solution.”

This may seem to be an semantic discussion, but consider what the responsible supervisor hears, and interprets, from these two statements:

“There isn’t any standard work.”

or

“There is a lot of variation from one operator to another.”

In the first case, we are telling the supervisor what she isn’t doing, hasn’t done, needs to do. It isn’t even teaching.

In the second case, we are pointing out something that we can both agree on. I haven’t even said it is a problem, and honestly, in some cases it might not be (yet). It is a simple observation.

If, then, we agree that this variation is leading to some undesirable effect, then we can talk about countermeasures. That might include trying to capture a baseline, teach it to a few of the team members, and see if that helps. We can name it later.

Which of those approaches is more likely to enlist the support of the supervisor, which is more likely to put her on the defensive?

Lean thinking is not a checklist of which tools are in place. It is a step-by-step convergence on smoother flow, dealing with observed obstacles and problems.

This isn’t to say that the coach doesn’t have intimate knowledge and experience with flow, with standard work, and everything else. But the approach must be respectful of the people who are struggling with the real world issues every day. Saying “You need to implement standard work” isn’t helpful no matter how much logical justification is wrapped around it.

Teaching someone to observe the impact of variation on the process might seem slower, but it will get them there much faster because it engages their curiosity.

Visual Key Points

(Apologies for this post being “Password Protected” – I posted it from my smart phone, and obviously need to mistake-proof  something in the interface.) – MR

A key element of TWI Job Instruction is breaking down the job into important steps, key points, and reasons why.

An important step advances the work.
A key point is a critical aspect of the work that would:

  • injure the worker (or anyone else).
  • make or break the job.
  • make the job easier to do (a knack or technique that an experienced operator knows).

If it is worth making a key point over, it is worth putting a visual cue in the workplace.

If the key point is about something that would injure the worker, or make or break the job, you have a rich opportunity for mistake proofing.

In other words, a key point is something you are asking the team member to remember.

Help him out by reminding him or even better, engineering the work so that he doesn’t have to remember.

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.