Performance is the Shadow of Process

“Time is the shadow of motion” is an observation usually attributed to Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, pioneers of modern industrial engineering.

What they realized was this: You want to save time. But you cannot directly affect how long something takes. You have to look at the motions, at the process structure that is casting the shadow of time. To change how long the shadow is, you have to change the structure of what is casting it.


As you start your improvement effort, your challenge is often to change the size or shape of the shadow.

Grasping the current condition is looking at the process structure so you can see what patterns and characteristics of the process are shaping the shadow.

It is important to understand how the process patterns and characteristics are affecting the shadow before you just go changing stuff.

You might think “Oh, this part of the process ought to look like this…” and change it. There might be a lot of effort involved. But if you don’t have a sense of cause and effect, then you might end up with something like this:


Change have been made, but we really haven’t changed anything on the outside.

Your target condition has three components, and it is good to develop them in this sequence:

1. The “achieve by” date.

2. The target process pattern and characteristics, and the internal process metrics that will tell you if you are working to that pattern.

3. The expected change in performance if the target working pattern becomes the norm. Then check your expected performance change against the challenge. Is it moving you in the right direction? Is it moving you enough in the right direction? If not, then go back to #2.

Edited to add: In the purest sense, you should start with the performance change you require, then determine the pattern you need to achieve it. That is what it says in Toyota Kata, and in the Improvement Kata HandbookI don’t disagree with that sequence. However beginning improvers, when asked to first decide the performance target tend to just make a guess and can struggle if they over-reach.  I find that this is more of an iterative process than a fixed sequence.

Key Point: The target process pattern has to be what you must do to get to a specified level of performance. It isn’t “Well… we can make these improvements, and therefore might be able to deliver this improvement.” It’s “We have to make these changes in order to reach the goal we have set.”

The pattern of work is what should be emphasized. The performance level is an outcome, the shadow, of the work pattern. Your target condition is really a hypothesis: “If I create a process that follows this pattern, then I will get this level of performance.”


Why am I emphasizing this?

Because a lot of managers have been taught, by pretty much every MBA program out there, to manage to results.

They believe that by measuring and asking about results that those results will be achieved.

That may well happen, but often the changes made are (1) not sustainable and/or (2) people are creative at finding solutions that are destructive to the long (and intermediate) term interests of the organization.

The exchange of intent that is inherent in the Improvement Kata is a way to open up this communication channel.

The person making the improvement clearly has a result based challenge, and the boss ought to be asking the questions to confirm he hears it spoken back to him in the same way he understood it.

Then the boss should become intently curious. “What is it about the way we do things now that is creating (this result we want to change)?” In other words, ‘What is the actual condition now?”

“What process changes are you proposing as your initial step? What result to you expect? When can we see what we’ve learned? These questions are summarized in “What is your target condition?”

3 Replies to “Performance is the Shadow of Process”

  1. I’ve struggled with what you list as the first element to creating a target condition, setting the “achieve by” date. By it’s nature a target condition should be a challenge that pushes you out of your current knowledge threshold. As a result we really don’t know what needs to be done to achieve it, we may have some theories but at this point, that is it.

    The learning that takes place is when we begin to test our hypothesis. Through PDCA we refine our hypothesis to incorporate what we learned in the last test. These cycles build upon each other until we are now at our target condition.

    The problem I’ve had is that because we are moving into the unknown, it’s very hard to determine what we are going to have to fix and how long that will take. I’ve seen target conditions that seem reasonably achievable end up taking weeks longer than expected. This wasn’t because of lack of effort, it was because the more we began to understand the true problems the more we realized we needed to address to reach the target condition.

    How have you dealt with this challenge?

    1. Brian –
      Here’s how the conversation would sound.
      Learner: I have a good idea where I am trying to go, but I really can’t tell you how long it will take to get there.
      Coach: OK. Maybe pull your scope in a bit. Where do you think you could be by this time next week?

      A lot of learners try to take the entire challenge in a single leap, rather than tackling successive target conditions. I want them to be reasonably confident that they can figure it out, even if they don’t know the exact solution.

      I’ve found the analogy of American Football useful.
      The challenge is “Score a touchdown.”
      The target condition is “Get a 1st down.”
      In this case, the deadline (four snaps or less) has been established ahead of time.

      A team looking 10 yards out can be reasonably confident that they can get there in three (or four) plays, but they don’t know exactly what plays they are going to call. They might have an idea, but it is only until they know the result of the last play that they can, for sure, know the next. 2nd and 2 is a whole lot different than 2nd and 12.

      In improvement, of course, it is easier because you don’t have an intelligent obstacle that is also adjusting to you.

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