How The Sensei Sees

Steven Spear told an interesting story in our session with him.

A Toyota sensei, very senior, was looking at a process unlike anything in his previous experience base. The researchers watching expected him to do “analysis by analogy” – to take what he observed, find a matching analogy in his deep experience, and then draw conclusions about the current situation.

This model, by the way, is a commonly accepted one for how “experts” work with new situations.

But that isn’t what happened. The insights were very fundamental, and quite specific to the process he was seeing for the first time.

The way he worked was revealed in the way he described the issues.

“Ideally,” he would say, “it should be ___________ . But the problem is __________ .”

In describing the “problem” he would describe the departure from the ideal situation. In so doing he was seeing problems, not as “seeing waste” but as seeing “departure from the ideal.”

This was, at least for me, a fairly significant ah-ha. I realized two things immediately.

  1. If I may be so bold, I got some insight into what I did in the same situation. At the risk of over-stating myself, I have found I am fairly good at getting to the core issues when looking at a process. Becoming a little more concious about it will, first, let me be better at it and, more importantly it will allow me to be much better at teaching others to do it.
  2. Tying back to #1, we teach this wrong. We teach people to look for “waste.” We teach them to look for ways to “make the process better.” We are always measuring “what could be” from a baseline of “what is.” This is totally backwards.

What we should be doing is measuring “what is” from a baseline of “what is perfect?”

What is the difference? I think it is important on a couple of levels. First is simple engagement of the workforce.

Ask someone “How can we make your work better than it is?” And the question carries all kinds of baggage. It says “Obviously you don’t do it as well as you could.” Whether or not it is meant this way is irrelevant. That is how it, all too often, comes across. The common symptom of this thinking is when you hear “This is as good as we can make it.”

Ask, instead, “Where is this process imperfect?” or “What gets in your way of doing this perfectly?” and you disarm the above objection. Anyone who works in the midst of complexity encounters dozens or hundreds of things every day that must be worked around or somehow coped with. All of those things take time, effort, energy, and each decision about how to handle something unforseen brings in the possibility of getting it wrong – making a mistake.

Think about it – how many mistakes result from someone just trying to figure out what should be done to correct some kind of anomaly, and making the wrong judgment?

Over the next few posts I am going to continue to beat these concepts to death from different angles. Forgive me in advance – it is my way of exploring it in my mind, and I am using you, the reader, as a sounding board. Writing things down forces me to think about them in more detail.

5 Replies to “How The Sensei Sees”

  1. Mark, I’ve been doing a lot of work at incorporating the A3 PDCA problem solving methodology at a Ten X company. I have incorporated many elements of the Deltapoint material to help breakdown the PDCA cycle one more level. Let’s take the Plan phase – first important step is to get the operators and leads to begin to express the current situation, so a key point I have them use the DP STP: Situation-Target-Proposal. The reason why is that they have a reliable format to follow along with a common language we are building in the company. The next important step is the Do, which I use the DP-3P plus 1. As you remember the DP 3P was Purpose, Process and Payoff of the activity of what we are going to do. The plus 1 is the parking lot, which I state is the boundries of the project and anything outside of that scope is parked. Again the same key points and reasons why as the “Do” phase. The Check is a 5 element check – 1) Process Check, 2) Payoff Check, 3) Follow up Action Items check, 4) daily measures check and 5) A 30 day audit. Finally we have the Adjust, what do we need to go do next or differently as a result of the check. I was thinking that this would be a good place to incorporate your S/B:, IS: ideal condition, problem statement thoughts. What do you think?

  2. The place where my thinking has shifted the most with what I have learned in the last few years is that we need to go down two or three levels in granularity to effectively apply these tools.

    Thinking in terms of “daily measures” is way to slow. The check should be execution for every iteration. The daily measures will take care of themselves if the process is driving toward robust perfection. It doesn’t have to get to perfection, just driving to get there.

    30 day audit? Too long. What kept it from working THIS TIME. Andon / stop / call / wait. By the time 30 days has gone by, the whole thing can have changed and the reasons why will be long gone.

    Kaizen events should be making the big change on day 1, or even ahead of time, then the main work is on stabilizing the new process – fixing all of the imperfections and things that nobody thought of when the big change was made.

    Sources of instability that drag your process off what you thought will kill it in a week, much less 30 days.

    The way I would break this down is:

    Define, first, what exactly this process is supposed to deliver to the customer. That may mean learning who the customer really is. (It is NOT automatically the next process in the chain, it is the next process that depends on a defect-free outcome of your work.) Define what a “defect-free outcome” really is, not just in the product, but in the delivery as well. What is “on time” what is “late” what is “early.” What is the right amount, right place, etc.

    Then define what would be the ideal process to deliver that defect free outcome.
    What steps must be carried out?
    This is the first pass at establishing a standard.

    As the ideal process steps are defined, also define how you will verify that each step is carried out the way expected, and that the outcome of each step is as expected. This is “building quality into the process” at a very low level.. at least the very first stages of it.

    TRY to carry out the process in the ideal way. Whenever there is something in the way of doing that, STOP.

    What got in the way? Fix it.

    Cycle again – each time, driving the process toward perfection, and if not perfection, at least robustness.

    Where this differs:
    I think STP is usually far to vague and high level. Just asking the team what is the “current situation” does not necessarily get them focusing on the things that stop them from performing, rather, you get a list of things that bother them a lot. Nor does it get them thinking of “problem” in terms of “departure from the ideal or preferred way”

    The idea is to measure improvement, not as progress from the current baseline, but as closing the gap toward perfection. Go half way, then go half way again, then again.

    The reason to capture the current baseline is to better understand the reasons for the gap.

    So – “look for waste” or asking “How can this process be better?” doesn’t really get people to this place. Instead the question is “What keeps us from doing this perfectly?” That question disarms people and allows them to focus on problems instead of defending why things have to be the way they are.

  3. Ideal state thinking is key.
    Many have told me I am an idealistic thinker, my reply is always, And So?

    Challenge should always be made to what should be happening, not what is happening.

    One can and should feel conflicted in this statement. Paradox should arise in the mind.

    My teachers made mention of this conflict all of the time…

    Internal Struggle ensues and the mind becomes the captor! Must brakthrough!

    Challenge all standards even if they have achieved basic stability. KAIZEN spirit has taken hold.

    Todd McCann

  4. I stumbled upon this string while looking for information on getting leaders to try the chalk circle idea in healthcare. It is a chaotic environment much of the time and many many opportunities. I am trying to add some formality to how problems are observed, seen, heard, prioritized, and acted upon. I appreciate these comments and wonder if this community has moved to a different platform. These are great exchanges. Please let me know how to connect.

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