What Mode Are You In?

The main purpose of an andon is to signal that some part of the system is no longer in normal operating mode. The immediate response should be to quickly assess the situation, and recover the process to the normal mode.

Many organizations, however, do not make that mental shift. They don’t have a clear sense of whether they are in the normal operating pattern, or in recovery mode.

Without that sense of mode, “recovery” can quickly become the norm, and a culture of working around problems develops. Sometimes we call this a “firefighting culture,” but I find that term regrettable, as it reflects poorly on actual firefighters.

In the andon driven environment, the andon is either on or off. That is, things are either operating as they should be (no andon) or they are not (andon is triggered).

All of this presumes, of course, that you have some idea what your normal operating pattern should be. Go and walk your shop floor or work area. What can you see happening?

Is what you see what you want to be happening? How do you know? What do you compare it against?

Can the people working there tell if they, and their process, are in the normal operating pattern, or in some other mode?

If they are recovering, do they know they are recovering? Are they striving to get things back to the normal operating mode; or are they striving to simply get the job done in spite of the immediate problem? Big, big difference here. This is what makes or breaks your continuous improvement effort.

Once the normal operating mode is restored (assuming you had one), are at least some of these incidents investigated down to root cause, with countermeasures tested by appropriate PDCA cycles and experiments?

What mode are you in right now?

How can you tell?

What Must Be Done To Make It Happen?

The May 2013 edition of the U.S. Airways inflight magazine has a really interesting article in a monthly “Making it Happen” feature called “One Job At A Time.” (Click the link to follow along at home. The article is on page 12 of the magazine, page 14 of the pdf.)

The piece follows a machinist through his shift in their maintenance facility.

What is interesting is what he has to do to get the job done.

I’m not going to detail it all out here, but suffice it to say that his shift starts at 2:30 pm, and between then and 7:00 pm he only spends about an hour and 10 minutes to pull the old bearings and install the new ones – actually doing the job he set out to get done on the airplane.

The rest of the time is spent interacting with the job tracking computer, gathering the required tools, supplies, waiting for the inspector, and making a part because the one in the kit didn’t fit.

This team member is working within the system, and what is described here is so routine that it is a featured article in the inflight magazine.

Now – before you get really critical, you might want to follow one of your primary team members around for a shift and see if your organization does any better.

For example a ward nurse in a local hospital spent exactly 10 minutes over a 4 hour period actually providing care to patients and charting – the things I would call “nursing.”

These are dedicated team members, but the system gets in their way.

The Weird Stuff We Notice

Monday and Tuesday I had lunch in the client’s facility.

I had the same sandwich, prepared by the same worker each day.

Monday he put the mayo directly on the chicken salad, on his left.

Tuesday he put the mayo in the other piece of bread on his right.

Then I smiled at myself wondering why on Earth I even noticed that, all the while conversing about something unrelated.

Note to self: get brain checked and turn down the gain a bit.  🙂

The Simplest “Lean Audit”

I’m sorting through some old files, and just tossed a 20 or so page “lean audit” from some consultancy into the recycle bin. Like most of them, it tries to gauge the maturity of the organization by the depth and breadth of their implementation of a packet of “lean best practices” – the tools.

What I am interested in, though, is gauging maturity of the thinking and interactions, the culture.

If I ask a typical supervisor what he or she is working on right now for process improvement, what kind of answer will I get?

Does that supervisor’s boss give me the same answer? Are they coordinating and talking?

Ultimately, it comes down to the shop floor’s perception and answers to questions like:

“What are you trying to achieve?”

“Where are you right now?”

(If these look like the generic coaching questions that Mike Rother talks about in the video clip a couple of posts down, you’re right.)

The context of the answers to those questions tells me a great deal. Is it daily survival / firefighting? Or is there something they are striving for to make things better?

Even if the supervisor is engaged in daily firefighting, there is still some kind of target (usually making the production numbers); some kind of current condition (which may be clear, or may be just a judgment).

So I am curious now about what he sees as the problems and obstacles in his way of success.

“What kind of issues are keeping you from hitting your target?”

Then just listen. Whatever he says is the right answer, because I am interested in his overall perception.

Is the response from someone who is positive and feels supported, or besieged and left on his own?

Then, based on those responses, I might or might not get curious about his improvement activities. If he isn’t engaged in any, I’m not going to try to make anyone wrong, I am just trying to understand what is.

On the other hand, if there are improvement activities, then I am curious to know what he last tried, and learned, and what he plans to do next.

What kind of collaboration do I hear about?

What is the sophistication of the targets, the challenges, the experiments?

THOSE are the things that tell me how “lean” a company is… not whether or not they have uniform label colors on everything.



Mike Rother Overview of Toyota Kata

This is a 5 minute edit of the presentation Mike Rother made at the UK Lean summit.

It is a succinct summary of interaction between a coach (leader) and learner (someone working on improving a process).

My thoughts are below the video…

OK – here are some things I have learned with these methods “in the wild.”

Most organizations I have been working with can’t take on 1-3 year challenges and stay the course for that duration. The horizons are too far for them to see what is possible within that kind of time frame and stay the course.

I have been trying 3-4 month time horizons for initial challenges in organizations where everyone is learning the basics at all levels. That gives them an opportunity to practice with a horizon that is less likely to be derailed by a sudden change in direction during that time. Eventually, as they develop capability, they can extend the time horizon and morph these practice challenges into something more formal, linked to the business plan.

Middle managers like to leap onto the coaching questions much too early – before they are capable of actually coaching. The coaching questions are seductive because they are written down and structured.

The PDCA process is much more nuanced, but it must be mastered before attempting to coach. Why? Because the coaching process is application of PDCA toward the learner’s development.

While it is OK to round-robin coaching and actual process improvement, everyone has to work together to reflect and learn.

In addition, those middle managers tend to try to leap into coaching before they have an internally set non-negotiable sense of “True North” – driving toward better and better flow.

When a middle manager is taking on the role of the “learner” there is a great temptation for him to delegate tasks to others, and get reports. This is status quo, and does nothing at all to develop capability.

Like everything else we do in the West, or at least in the USA, we try to get there fast by skipping the basics.

Make no mistake – you don’t “implement Toyota Kata.”

You use it as a structure to build foundational capability and new thinking patterns.

Those patterns are only developed through practice, and deliberate reflection on the management process itself.

I have also seen an organization that is “getting it” pretty quickly. The difference is that they are all overtly in “we are just learning this” mode, and willing to make mistakes and learn from them vs. trying to appear to be competent from the get-go.

Mike Rother has other videos on YouTube as 734Mike.

5S With Purpose

The team was driving toward a consistently executed changeover process as a target condition.

In the last iteration, the process was disrupted by a scrapped first-run part. The initial level cause was an oversize bit in the NC router resulting in an out-of-spec trim and oversize holes.

This occurred in spite of the fact that there are standard tools that are supposed to be in standard locations in the tool holders on the back of the work pallet.

Upon investigation, the team found:

  • The previous part had a programming error calling out the oversize tool from the wrong location.
  • All of the operators were aware of this, and routinely replaced the “standard” tool with the one the program required.
  • After that part was run, the standard condition had not been restored.
  • There was likely a break in continuity between operators here, but that was less clear.
  • The two bits are only 1/8 different, and hard to distinguish from one another across the 10 feet or so of the work pallet.

The team addressed the programming error, but among the thousands of other programs out there, they were reasonably certain that there were other cases where the same situation could be set up.

They wanted to ensure that it was very clear when there were non-standard tools in the standard locations.

Their initial approach was to create a large chart that called out which tools were to be in which holders. Their next experiment was to be to put that chart up in the work area.


“What do you expect to happen?”

That turned out to be a very powerful question. After a bit of questioning, they implied that the operator was to verify that the correct tools were in the standard positions before proceeding.

“How does this chart help them do that?”

They can see what the standard is.

“Don’t they all already know what the standard is?”


“So how does this chart help them do that?”

Now, to be clear, the conversation was not quite this scripted, but you are getting the idea. The point was to get them to be specific about what they expected the operator to do, and to be specific about how they expected their countermeasure to help the operator do it.

One team member offered up that maybe they could color-code the standard tools and their holders so it would be easy to check and easy to see if something was off-standard. That way, even IF the situation came up where the operator needed to deviate from the standard, anyone could easily see what was happening.

(I should add that they have already put an escalation process into place that should trap, and correct, these programming errors as they come up as well.)

The tools were color-coded over night, and in place the next day.

Color coded tool holders.

This wasn’t a “5S campaign,” nor is there an audit sheet that tries to measure the “level” of visual control in the work space.

Rather, this is using a visual control to visually control something, and reduce the likelihood of another scrapped part (and therefore, disrupted changeover).

Over the last week, the work cell has been improving. When things are flowing as they are supposed to, changeovers are routinely being done within the expected time.

But there are times when their standard WIP goes low; there are times when someone gets called away; when the flow doesn’t go as planned. When those things happen, they get off their standard.

The next countermeasure is to document, clearly, the normal pattern for who works where, for what inventory is where. Then the next question is “How can anyone verify, at a glance, whether or not the flow is running to the normal pattern?”

More visual controls. Ah.

Now we are seeing the reason behind 5S. It will come in to that work area, step by step, as the necessity to make things more clear arises.

“No Question…Sketch!”

One of the more famous tools taught by Chihiro Nakao of Shingijutsu fame is to direct the learner to observe an operation and “sketch the flows.”

Another Time Ideas article by Anne Murphy Paul, How to Increase Your Powers of Observation, validates Nakao’s instinct.

She makes the distinction between casual observation that we all do, and scientific observation.

[…]scientists train their attention, learning to focus on relevant features and disregard those that are less salient. One of the best ways to do this is through the old-fashioned practice of taking field notes: writing descriptions and drawing pictures of what you see. “When you’re sketching something, you have to choose which marks to make on the page,” says Michael Canfield, a Harvard University entomologist[…]  (bold emphasis added)

The common factor here is that, like scientists, we don’t want to simply watch a process, we want to observe it. We want to predict what we think will happen, and then observe to confirm or refute our predictions.

While casual observers simply sit back and watch what unfolds, scientific observers come up with hypotheses that they can test. What happens if a salesperson invites a potential customer to try out a product for herself? How does the tone of the weekly meeting change when it’s held in a different room?

The next time you are in your work area, rather than simply watching, bring a bad and pencil, and sketch out what is happening.

How does the material actually flow through the process? Where does it pause, stop, get diverted?

How to people flow, move into, and out of, the process?

Where does the information come from?

Does the layout support, or get in the way of, smooth flow?

How about the tools, equipment, machines? Do they help the worker get the job done, or make it awkward?

And finally, what actually happens when there is a problem of some kind? How does the team member indicate this? What is the response?

By sketching, you force your eye to see the details that you might have missed. You force yourself to actually see, and might be surprised when that is different from what you assumed was happening.

Sharpen your eye – learn to observe like a scientist.

No question… sketch!

Make a Rule / Keep a Rule

I was driving home today and saw a construction sign on the sidewalk. It read: “Sidewalk Closed, Use Other Side.” Ahead was a section of the sidewalk which was, indeed, closed off and impassible.

By the time a pedestrian encounters this sign, he is well into the middle of a long block.

The sign is at least implying that the pedestrian should cross the street in the middle of the block to get around the construction. The alternatives are:

  • Ignore the sign, and walk on the street around the torn up sidewalk.
  • Backtrack to a legal crosswalk, and cross the street where it is legal to do so.

This situation is actually fairly common in a lot of companies. There is a rule “Don’t cross the street in the middle of the block.” Then there is an expectation that is incompatible with following the rule.

  • “Be careful, but hurry.”
  • “Stop and fix problems, but don’t lose production.”
  • Stop for quality, but make the numbers.”
  • Get 90 minutes of work done in an hour.

The team member has the same alternatives as above – ignore the expectation, or ignore the rule.

This is a slightly higher level than Hirano’s observation that “the words ‘just for now’ are the origin of all waste.” Here we are putting the team member in an untenable situation because there is no action available that is clearly OK.

Take a look at the rules you have. Take a look at the actual behaviors. Remember that what people actually do is generally what they sincerely believe you expect of them.

If it is impossible to follow a rule, consider why the rule exists.

The words “Do the best you can.” are a warning that you are in this kind of situation.

Don’t Outrun Your Headlights

I am finding good resonance with my management training sessions. Rather than doing an overview of the “tools of lean” I go in depth into the fundamental things that the leaders need to

  1. Learn to do, and do.
  2. Ensure are done.

in order to build this on a solid foundation.

But “resonance” seems to mean “in a hurry to get to the good stuff” and a temptation to skip some of the foundational work.

We need to start off in learning mode, working to build a foundation of stability and consistent execution.

Without consistent execution, all of the great plans are nothing but ideas. The first hoshin to work on is establishing a stable process of daily improvement. Once you have that, your improvement management process becomes an exercise in priorities and direction setting.

Without consistent execution, your improvement plan is application of brute force against the momentum of business as usual.

That isn’t “resistance to change” at work. It is “we barely have time to survive down here, so we’ll get to your improvements when we have time.”

You have to create that headroom first. Honestly, it is mostly about instilling confidence, both in themselves, and in you. They have to believe they can carry out the plan. They have to trust you to be consistent with your purpose and not cut their legs out by asking them to change course in the middle.

All of this takes practice. With the right kind of practice comes teambuilding. (That shouldn’t be a separate activity.)

Step by step. You can move quickly, but only if you embrace “smooth is fast.”

From The Toyota Kata Seminar

I am taking the Toyota Kata seminar this week in Ann Arbor. There are two programs offered:

  • A one-day classroom overview of the concepts in Toyota Kata.
  • The one-day classroom overview followed by two days of practice on a shop floor, for a total of three days.

I am taking the three day version.

Impressions of Day 1

There are about (quick count) 36 participants, a big bigger group than I expected considering the premise. I don’t know how many are not going to be attending the shop floor part, but most people are.

I suppose the ultimate irony is the slide that makes the point that classroom training doesn’t work very well for this.

Realistically, I can see it as necessary to level-up everyone on the concepts. The audience runs the gamut of people who have read, studied, written about, made training material from, and applied the concepts in the book; to people who seem to have gone to the class with quite a bit less initial information.

That being said, everyone had some kind of exposure to lean principles, though there was a lot of “look for waste” and “apply the tools” mindset present. Since one of the purposes of the class is to challenge that mindset, this is to be expected.

You can get a good feel for the flow and content of the material itself on Mike Rother’s web site. He has a lot of presentations up there (via Slide Share).

Like any course like this, the more you know when you arrive, the more nuance you can pull out of the discussion.

Since I have been trying to apply the concepts already, my personal struggles really helped me to get a couple of “ah-ha” moments from the instruction.I arrived with a clear idea of what I wanted to learn, and what I thought I already knew. Both pre-disposed me to get insight, affirmation, and surprise learning from the material.

I would not suggest this for anyone who was looking to be convinced. Classroom training in any case doesn’t do that very well, and this material isn’t going to win over a skeptic. You have to be disposed to want to learn to do it.

At the end of the day, the overall quality, etc. of the presentation was pretty typical of “corporate training” stuff – not especially riveting, but certainly interesting. But we don’t do this for the entertainment value, and the learner has a responsibility to pull out what they need in any case.

Insights from Day 2

Day 1 is intended, and sold, as a stand-alone. The next two days are available as follow-on, but not separately.

The intended purpose was to practice the “improvement kata” cycle in a live shop floor environment. Today was spent:

  • Developing our “grasp of the current condition.” There is actually a quite well structured process for doing this fairly quickly, while still getting the information absolutely necessary to decide what the next appropriate target is.
  • Developing a target condition. Based on what we learned, where can this process be in terms its key characteristics and how it performs, in a short-term time frame. (A week in this case)

Key Points that are becoming more tangible for me:

The “Threshold of Knowledge” concept.

I elaborated on Bill Costantino’s (spelled it right this time) presentation on this concept a while ago. In the seminar, I am “groking” the concept of threshold of knowledge a bit better. Here is my current interpretation.

There are really three thresholds of knowledge in play, maybe more. First is the overall organization. I would define the organizations’ threshold of knowledge as the things they “just do” without giving it any thought at all.

For example – one company I know well has embedded 3P into their product design process to deeply that the two are indistinguishable from one another. It is just how they do it.

They still push the boundaries of what they accomplish with the process, but the process itself is familiar territory to them.

Likewise, this company has a signature way to lay out an assembly line, and that way is increasingly reflected in their product designs as 3P drives both.

It wasn’t always like that. It started with a handful of people who had experience with the process. They guided teams through applying it, in small steps, on successively more complex applications until they hijacked a design project and essentially redid it, and came out with something much better.

Another level of knowledge threshold is that held by the experienced practitioner.

Today I walked into a work cell in the host company for the first time, and within a few minutes of observation had a very clear picture in my own mind of what the next step was, and how to get there. My personal struggle today was not in understanding this, but in methodically applying the process being taught to get there. I knew what the answer would be, but I wasn’t here to learn that.

An extended threshold of knowledge in one person, or even in a handful of people, is not that useful to the company.

But that is exactly the model most kaizen leaders apply. They use their expert knowledge to see the target themselves, and then direct the team to apply the “lean tools” to get there.

They tell the team to “look for waste” but, in reality, they are pushing the mechanics. You can see this in their targets when they describe the mechanics as the target condition.

The team learns the mechanics of the tools, but the knowledge of why that target was set remains locked up in the head of the staff person who created it.

So his job is to set another target condition: Expanding the threshold of knowledge of the team.

He succeeds when the team develops a viable target themselves. It might be the same one he had, but it might not. If he framed the challenge correctly, and coached them correctly, they will arrive at something he believes is a good solution. If they don’t he needs to look in the mirror.

So the next level of knowledge threshold is that held by the team itself.

If enough teams develop the same depth, then they start to interconnect and work together, and we begin to advance the organization’s threshold. Now what was previously required a major “improvement event” to develop is just the starting baseline, and the ratchet goes up a bit.

None of the above was explicitly covered today, but it is what I learned. I am sure I’ll get an email from a certain .edu domain if I am off base here. Smile

There is no Dogma in Tools

This is the third explicit approach I have been taught to do this.

The first was called a “Scan and Plan” that I learned back in the mid/late 1990’s. It was more of a consultant’s tool for selecting a high-potential area for that first “Look what this can do” improvement event.

Though I don’t use any of those forms and tools explicitly, I do carry some of the concepts along and apply them when appropriate.

Then I was exposed to Shingijutsu’s approach. This is heavily focused on the standard work forms and tools. Within the culture of Shingijutsu clients, it would be heresy not to use these forms.

The “Kata” approach targets pretty much the same information, but collects and organizes it differently. I can see, for myself, a of better focus on the structure of establishing a good target. I can also see a hybrid between this method and what I have used in the past. Each form or analytical tool has a place where it provides insight for the team.

One thing I do like about the “Kata” data collection is the emphasis on (and therefore acknowledgement of) variation in work cycles. (All of this is in the book by the way. Read it, then get in touch with me if you want some explanation.)

Now, I want to be clear – in spite of the title of this section, when I am coaching beginners, I will be dogmatic about the tools they use. In fact, I plan to be a lot more dogmatic than I have been.

I am seeing the benefit of providing structure so that is off the table. They don’t have to think about how to collect and organize the data, just getting it and understanding it.

What I can do, as someone with a bit more experience, is give them a specific tool that will give them the insight they need. That is where I say “no dogma.” That only applies when the principles are well within your threshold of knowledge.

The real ah-ha is that, unlike the Shingijutsu approach, we weren’t collecting cycle times at the detailed work breakdown level. Why not? Because, at this stage of improvement, at this stage of knowledge threshold for the team, the work cell, that level of detail is not yet necessary to see the next step.

I will become necessary, it just isn’t necessary now.

Target Conditions and PDCA Cycles

One place where my work team bogged down a bit this afternoon was mixing up the target condition that we are setting for a week from now, and what we are going to try first thing in the morning.

The target condition ultimately requires setting up a fairly rigid standard-work-in-process (SWIP) (sometimes called “standard in-process stock) level in the work cell.

There was some concern that trying that would break things. And it will. For sure. We have to stabilize the downstream operation first, get it working to one-by-one, and make sure it is capable of doing so.

The last thing we want to do while messing with them is to starve them of material.

So – key learning point – be explicitly clear, more than once, that the Target Condition is not what you are trying right away. It is the predicted, attainable, result of a series of PDCA steps – single factor experiments. You don’t have the answers of how to do it yet. So don’t worry about the SWIP level right now. That will become easier… when it is easier.

More tomorrow…