“True North” – Explicit or Intrinsic?

compassOne of the factors common to organizations that maintain a continuous improvement culture is leadership alignment on an overall direction for improvement – a “True North” – that defines the perfection you are striving for.

Steve Spear describes Toyota’s “Ideal” as:

An activity or a system of activities is IDEAL if it always produces and delivers:

(a) defect-free responses (those that meet the customer’s expectations),

(b) on-demand (only when triggered by the customer’s request),

(c) in batches of one,

(d) with immediate response times,

(e) without waste, and

(f) with physical, emotional, and professional safety for the supplier.

(From The Toyota Production System: An Example of Managing Complex Social / Technical Systems, Steven Spear’s PhD dissertation, 1999, Harvard University)

You (and I) can quibble about some of the semantics, but overall, this is a pretty good list.

Mike Rother (not coincidently, I am sure) puts up something quite similar in Toyota Kata:

…Toyota has for several decades been pursuing a long-term vision that consists of:

  • Zero defects
  • 100% value added
  • One-piece-flow, in sequence, on demand
  • Security for people

Toyota sees this particular ideal-state condition – if it were achieved through an entire value stream – as the way of manufacturing with the highest quality, at the lowest cost, with the shortest lead time. In recent years, Toyota began referring to this as its “true north” for production.

As I have tried to emphasize the importance of a leadership team having a clear sense of “True North” I have noticed that many of them get bogged down in trying to develop and articulate a concrete statement. (This is partly my fault, and I am revising my training materials to reflect what I am writing here.)

What I am realizing is that this is more of an “attractor” than a rule set. Let me explain through a bit of digression.

When we see something, we have an immediate emotional response. Generally it is attraction toward something we see as good (or are curious about); or avoidance of something we see as fearful or dangerous.

We construct a logical reason for that emotional reaction several tenths of a second after that emotional reaction is firmly anchored. Thus, our logic follows, rather than driving, our responses to things. This happens so fast that we are not usually aware, but two people seeing the same thing can respond very differently based on their individual background and experience. I don’t want to dive too deeply into psychology here, so I’ll pull back out of this.

“True North” sets the direction of process improvement because there is high alignment on what kinds of process changes are attractive vs. those which should be avoided. When I say “attractive” I mean “we want to actively move toward them” meaning the organization will expend energy, ingenuity, and resources to do so. This is how continuous improvement is driven.

If I am right, then “True North” is more of an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing than it is a carefully articulated statement.

If I look at other businesses who are (or have been) pretty well aligned with their efforts, I can see the same kind of thing.

For example, though I doubt that it is articulated internally in this way, it has been pretty clear to me “Windows Everywhere” has been something that sets (or set) overall direction within Microsoft. (I’ll admit I don’t have as strong a sense of this as I did in the late 1990’s when my social circles included a number of people who worked there.)

A local hospital does articulate theirs, but it also makes sense: “No wait, no harm.”

Most organizations I have dealt with, though, don’t have a good sense of long-range perfection. They are mired in the details of today, tomorrow, this quarter.

They might have some kind of “vision” or “mission” statement, but often those are paragraphs that are carefully constructed to address constituencies (“Satisfying our customers while delivering maximum shareholder value and being a great place to work, blah, blah”)

Those “visions” though are rarely actively used to guide conversations or decisions, much less continuous improvement.

Since I believe this is a gap these teams need to close if they are to shift toward a continuous improvement culture, I need to improve how I am getting this across to them.

So… the next thing I am going to try is to rework my “True North” instruction and do a better job of framing it as something to actively move toward rather than something to try to logically articulate.

“True North” may be more of a feeling rather than a logical test.

This means that the job of the teacher / practitioner / change agent is to hold on to that “True North” during your coaching until the leaner “gets it” and starts actively seeking solutions that move in that direction.

5 Replies to ““True North” – Explicit or Intrinsic?”

  1. This topic ties in with the principals in the book Switch by Chip and Dan Heath about how emotion is what really motivates change. A powerful, emotion-evoking goal is what can really motivate people in an organization. Something simple like “No Wait, No Harm” can help direct decisions, and motivate to constantly improve toward the True North goal. The book goes on to tell how positive emotions work better for long-term change, and negative emotions help change quickly. “Save my job” will motivate me for a little while, but “helping save lives” or “creating the perfect system to solve customers’ problems” is better for a long-term, continual improvement culture.

  2. This must be a good post because I can’t decide if I completely agree with your basic premise or not. Anything that makes you that introspective is hitting something important…

    This is where my internal debate is:

    “True North” may be more of a feeling rather than a logical test.

    You say “may” so I think you have some debate too. You are absolutely right that when it comes to ideal state, you know it when you see it but isn’t the point of developing the ideal state to ensure that you have a cohesive logical test that everyone will “know when they see”.

    One application I can think of fairly recently was when we were prioritizing projects. We had a project where the ROI was hazy and not exactly riveting on the surface but it was a definitive step much closer to ideal state. On the other hand there were projects out there that had clear ROI but were kind of neutral in wether they were stepping us closer to ideal. What the project that was moving us toward ideal state had was synergy. When you combined it with other activities moving us toward ideal state, the paybacks were stackable and exponential.

    This was a very logical test on the alignment of these projects to our business long term vision.

    I think that the problem that most leaders have in developing their ideal state is that they ask the wrong question. They ask what the ideal state of their business is. This leads to a vision about their contituecies. It is really a question of what the ideal state of their processes are.

    Taichi Ohno took a very logical approach to realize that the ideal process had the a-f categories that Steven Spear describes and is quoted above. I have yet to find a process anywhere, when evaluated, where this ideal state was NOT universal. I think leaders need to go through the work of determining their ideal state but I will bet that if it isn’t in alignment with Toyota’s, then they did a bad job.

  3. Is the conflict between a company’s mission statement and the ideal state of lean? Since Toyota’s True North is essentially the goal of lean, then every company that wants the benefits of lean should have the same True North, as Kris pointed out. However, if a company’s mission statement is more helpful or effective at helping make decisions, then perhaps the mission statement should be emphasized more than lean’s True North. Although Southwest Airlines should strive for one-piece flow, and zero waste, the goal of being “The Low Fare Airline” may be more helpful in steering the company strategically.

    Are there companies that effectively operate with a True North significantly different from Toyota’s? Or despite different mission statements, should all companies’ True Norths be the same?

    1. For the good expressions, where the over arching direction truly aligns the effort in the long term, I think the differences are more semantic than real.

      Toyota, if they have expressed it at all, would likely be characterized by their former marketing slogan “the relentless pursuit of perfection.”

      Because there is an inherent understanding of what perfection is, that works for them.

      Southwest has “THE low fare airline” and that clearly aligns their efforts.

      But there is a tacit, cultural context underlying it, so they have a deep common understanding of not only what it is, but also what it means.

      They are not trying to get things done on the cheap or by cutting corners. Their maintenance is very good, they are a fun place to work as part of their value set.

      Other airlines trying to compete with them in fares bring in their operational thinking patterns and they try to get there by cutting costs… but it isn’t the same thing.

      I would contend that Microsoft’s “Windows everywhere” (my assumption based on observation) didn’t include their users and customers in practice, and instead focuses on knocking out and blocking competitors. Thus, though there was a clear understanding of what it was, it likely hurt them as the market adapted to their tactics.

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