Reviving How To Make Things

Almost three years ago I wrote “Don’t Lose How To Make Things.”

In that post, I wanted to emphasize the risks of losing your expertise in the technology and skill required to make your product. Too many companies today seem to be bent on replacing those skills with financial ones.

Today I came across a fascinating article on Bloomberg’s site about how Toyota has come to the same conclusion.

You can read it here: ‘Gods’ Make Comeback at Toyota as Humans Steal Jobs From Robots.

In short, they have established workshops where workers manually produce parts that are normally made by automated processes.

A worker welds an automobile part in the chassis manufacturing department at a Toyota Motor Corp. plant in Toyota City.

The idea is to maintain understanding of how things are made so they do not lose the skill required to improve their production processes.

“Fully automated machines don’t evolve on their own,” said Takahiro Fujimoto, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Manufacturing Management Research Center. “Mechanization itself doesn’t harm, but sticking to a specific mechanization may lead to omission of kaizen and improvement.”

One result?

In an area Kawai directly supervises at the forging division of Toyota’s Honsha plant, workers twist, turn and hammer metal into crankshafts instead of using the typically automated process. Experiences there have led to innovations in reducing levels of scrap and shortening the production line 96 percent from its length three years ago.

Toyota has eliminated about 10 percent of material-related waste from building crankshafts at Honsha. Kawai said the aim is to apply those savings to the next-generation Prius hybrid.

Today’s financially driven managers are unlikely to allow the space to experiment and learn. Instead, they want a deterministic process so next quarter’s results can be forecast accurately. It isn’t good to surprise the analysts.

At the same time, though, companies are pressing for things like “innovation.” That doesn’t happen in a breakthrough. It happens through the rigorous application of the skill of expanding knowledge. Once enough knowledge is accumulated, expertise develops and innovation follows.

Years ago, when I was working for a company making heavy equipment, one of our Japanese consultants (who had worked many years directly for Taiichi Ohno) urged our engineers to hand-form sheet metal parts – with hammers(!). We didn’t do it. But now I understand what he was trying to get us to do.

What Is “Lean?”

I did a Google search on the terms [ lean manufacturing definition ]   . Here is a smattering of what I found on the first page of results. (I did not go on to the second page.)

On the site we get a page with about 10 paragraphs describing the general outcome, philosophy, and what it isn’t.

On a consultant’s web page we get a list of principles and terminology definitions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says “Lean manufacturing is a business model and collection of tactical methods that emphasize eliminating non-value added activities (waste) while delivering quality products on time at least cost with greater efficiency.”

Tooling U defines “lean manufacturing” like this: “An approach to manufacturing that seeks to reduce the cycle time of processes, increase flexibility, and improve quality. Lean approaches help to eliminate waste in all its forms.”

Another consultancy has a PDF of “Lean Sigma Definitions” that includes Lean Manufacturing or Lean Production: “the philosophy of continually reducing waste in all areas and in all forms; an English phrase coined to summarize Japanese manufacturing techniques (specifically, the Toyota Production

Let’s Rewind a Bit

What all of these definitions have in common is they are attempting to describe some kind of end state.

Over the last 10 years or so we (meaning those of us who are doing top drawer research) have put together a pretty comprehensive picture of how Toyota’s management systems are intended to work. (I say “intended to” because we are always dealing with an idealized Toyota. They have issues as well, just like everyone.)

What we seem to try to do is try to create a generic context-free definition of what Toyota is doing today.

But they didn’t start out that way. Everything they are, and do, evolved out of necessity as they struggled to figure out how to take the next step.

Toyota didn’t engineer it, so I don’t think it is something we can reverse engineer. Toyota evolved it organically. They applied a common mindset (a dedication to figuring things out) to a specific goal (ideal flow to the customer) in a specific set of conditions.

So What is “Lean?”

Mike Rother makes a really interesting attempt at resetting the definition of “lean” as being about the drive and the mindset that resulted in Toyota’s management system.

Give it a read, then let’s discuss below. (Since you are going to see it – when he sent it around for input, I passed along a thought which he has added verbatim in the last slide. Maybe that will spark a little more discussion.)


OK, are you back?

I like this because I think anyone who adopts the mindset that they (and I mean “they” as a true plural here) must take it upon themselves to figure out what they do not know, figure out how to learn it, figure out how to apply it, all in a relentless pursuit of perfect flow will end up with a nimble, empowering, relentlessly improving, formidably competitive team of people.

Focus on the process of learning, focus on the people, and keep them focused on the customer, and you’ll get there.

In my experience, the differentiator between organizations that “get there” and those who don’t comes down to the willingness to work hard to learn it themselves vs. wait for someone to tell them the answers.

Thoughts? Maybe we can take the “most comments” record away from the “Takt Time Cycle Time” post.  *smile*

Upcoming Jeff Liker Webinar: ”What the brain sciences teach us about Lean”

Just a quick note…

Jeff Liker (of the “Toyota Way” series of books) is putting on a webinar on March 13, 1pm Eastern Daylight Time titled “What The Brain Sciences Teach Us About Lean.”

The fields of psychology and neuroscience are advancing very rapidly right now, and we are starting to see practical applications to that knowledge in our field. I’m guessing this will be pretty good.

Here is the registration link: What The Brain Sciences Teach Us About Lean.

I’m not sure my schedule will allow me to participate directly – if any of you watch it, how about writing up a synopsis and sending it to me or commenting below. I’ll publish it as a “guest author” piece and make you famous. Well, at least I’ll publish it.  Winking smile

Jeff Liker: Is Lean a Waste Elimination Program or Striving for Excellence?

Jeff Liker asks (and answers) the title question in a great Industry Week blog article by the same title.

One of the biggest obstacles we in the lean community need to overcome is our own inertia around “Lean is a process for finding and eliminating waste.”

In the article, Liker brings up a point that is often lost on us: Looking for the problems and negative things kills morale.

The “waste” that you see is the result of underlying issues and culture. Stop overproduction in one place, and it either returns or pops up elsewhere because the underlying reasons for it were never addressed.

Operations that are not operating at a high level of lean typically are lacking underlying process discipline, which leads to these problems and they proliferate daily as the company is in a constant firefighting mode. Trying to eliminate waste in the current system and culture is like identifying and fighting problems—it is debilitating and a losing proposition.

[Emphasis added]

I bolded that phrase for a reason.

We aren’t talking about a technical implementation here. We are talking about a shift in the underlying culture – the habitual ways people interact with one another, with the process, respond to challenges and problems.

Today we have, thanks to Jeff Liker and a few others, an excellent picture of an ideal version of Toyota. We know what it looks like.

Getting there is an entirely different proposition, as most companies that have tried this stuff know first hand. It is hard.

What is beginning to emerge, though, is that the thinking pattern that is learned through solving these problems the right way (vs. just implementing tool sets) is the same thinking pattern required to shift the culture.

It is hard. You have to do the work. But the way to get there is emerging.

David Marquet: Turn The Ship Around

A while back, Mike Rother sent around a link to a sketchcast video of a U.S. Navy submarine skipper talking about the culture change aboard his submarine, the USS Santa Fe. I posted and commented on it below, in “Creating an Empowered Team.” If you haven’t watched it, do so now so you have context for the rest of this post.

Since then, I found other presentations by Capt Marquet (pronounced, I have learned, “mar-kay”), read every post on his blog, then bought and read his book Turn the Ship Around.

His message is compelling, and I have been digesting and integrating it for a couple of months now.

The Empowerment Movement

Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s there was a big push for “empowerment” and the idea of “self directed work teams.”

Supervisors and managers were re-titled as “coaches.”

Work teams were told they were expected to self-organize to accomplish the work at hand.

I suspect this was yet another case of “benchmark and copy” – observing the attributes of high-performance organizations and trying get the same results by duplicating the description. “They have self-directed work teams, so let’s tell our work teams to self-direct.”

In the classic words of Dr Phil… “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

I have worked with, and in, a few organizations with a very bad taste for their past experiments with “empowerment.”

The Difference between “Involved” and “Committed” Leadership

Obviously some organizations have succeeded at creating work environments where work teams know what has to be done and do it. If that weren’t the case, there wouldn’t have been anyone to benchmark and copy.

Capt Marquet’s book gives us a first experience account of a leader who resolved to change the climate of his organization. Admittedly, he did so out of perceived necessity. (Read the book to get the full story!)

Today, though, when leaders say they are “committed” they usually mean they are willing to fund an effort, allow someone else to carry it out, get updates, and give encouragement. That might work for starting a subsidiary, but it doesn’t work for changing “how things get done.”

What we are talking about here is developing the competence and capability of the organization, step by step, individual by individual, as the primary daily work of leadership.

Capt Marquet describes his struggles, setbacks, how hard it was at times, and the long-term reward of his efforts – unprecedented promotion rates or personal successes among his former officers and crew in the 10 years following his time in command. His primary role was developing people. They happened to be the crew of a nuclear powered submarine.

Over the next few posts, I am going to explore the correlation between David Marquet’s leadership development model and Toyota Kata. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, read the book. It’s an easy read and worth your time.

Takt Time: Let’s Do Somebody’s Homework

On the back end of this site, I see the search terms that landed people here. This one showed up yesterday:

"a packaging process works two, 8 hour shifts per day. there are two 15 minutes breaks per shift. daily production requirements are 240 packed units, with a planned machine down time of 30 mins per shift, team has to work 60 mins overtime per shift, it is a 4 member team – calculate takt time"

OK, readers, let’s help him out. What’s the answer?

Why is this phrasing ambiguous if the author of the question is looking for a “right” answer?

Toyota Kata “A3 Problem Solving”

Over the years, I’ve been exposed a number of efforts to “implement A3 problem solving” in various companies. I worked for some of those companies, I’ve observed others.

The results are nearly always the same.

Here are a couple of examples. Let me know if any of these match up with experiences you have had.

Example 1: The company had put many people through “Practical Problem Solving” training and was (ironically) trying to measure how many problem solving efforts were underway.

I was watching a presentation by one of these problem solving teams to management. Their A3 was on a computer, projected onto the screen. They were reporting their “results.” Yet there were large discontinuities in their problem solving flow. The actions they were taking simply did not link back (through any kind of identifiable cause) to the problem they were solving.

The management team listened carefully, applauded their efforts, and moved on to the next topic of their meeting.

Example 2: A different company had a form to fill out called an “MBF” or “Management by Fact.” From the labels on the boxes, it was clearly intended to be structured problem solving. By the time I worked there, however, “MBF” had become a verb. It was a solo activity, filling out the form at the desk, and reporting on it in a staff meeting.

Example 3: Well-meaning former Toyota team members, now working for a different large company wanted to “train everyone in problem solving.” They put together a “class” that presented the purpose of each block on their A3 form with the expectation that people would adopt the process.

All of these efforts had something in common.

They didn’t work.

Over the last few days, I’ve been privileged to be included in an email exchange about the relationship between A3 and Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata. My small contribution was apparently enough to get my name onto the cover, but I want to give a real nod in the direction of a Jenny Snow-Boscolo for instigating inspiring a really good exchange.

The result is here. I think this presentation does a really good job of summing up the relationship between Toyota Kata and Toyota A3. Thanks to Mike Rother for taking the initiative and putting it all together (more below)

One of the difficulties with gaining insight into Toyota’s management processes is that they really aren’t codified. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Look at your own company, and ask how much of the culture – the reflexive way things are done and interactions are structured – is written down.

(In fact, if it is written down, I would contend it is likely your actual culture has little resemblance to what is written about it. Those things tend to be more about what they wish the culture was.)

Culture, any culture, is learned through daily interaction. This is all well and good in cases where people are immersed in it from the beginning.

But the rest of us aren’t operating in that problem solving culture. Rather, we are trying to create it. And as the former Toyota Team Members from Example 3 (above) learned, it isn’t a simple matter of showing people.

Rather than two different things, we are looking at a continuum here. At one end is the culture described on Slide 9. There isn’t any formal structure to it, the process for teaching it isn’t codified. It is learned the same way you learn the way to get the job done in any company. They just learn different things than you did.

But in another organization there is no immersion. If there is anyone who is steeped in The Way, they are few and far between.

In these cases, we want to start with something more overt. And that is the purpose of having a rote drill or kata. It isn’t something you implement. It is a structure, or scaffold, to learn the basic moves. Just as mastering the musical scales is only a prelude to learning to play the instrument, the kata is the foundational structure for learning to apply the underlying thinking patterns.

So… if you are working on kata, it is critical that you are reflecting on your thinking patterns as much (or more) than you are reflecting on your improvements. It might seem rote and even busywork at first. But it is there to build a foundation.

Learning To See in 2013

With the publication of Learning to See in 1999, Mike Rother and John Shook introduced a new genre of book to us – a mix of theory, example, and practical application. The story invites the readers to follow along and actually do for themselves.

This is one of those books that gives a bit more every time I read it. The more thorough my baseline understanding of TPS, the more I get from some of the nuances of Rother and Shook’s intent.

At the same time, I am beginning to formulate an idea that perhaps this book is often used out of its intended context – maybe a context that was assumed, but left unsaid.

I’d like to share some of the things I have learned over the years, especially as I have worked to integrate the concepts in Learning to See into other facets of the TPS – especially research by Steven Spear, Jeff Liker, and of course, Mike Rother’s follow-on work Toyota Kata with my own experience.

Value Streams

Learning to See introduced the term “value stream” to our everyday vernacular.

Although the term is mentioned in Lean Thinking by Womack and Jones, the concept of “map your value streams” was not rigorously explained until LTS was published.

To be clear, we had been mapping out process flows for a long time before Learning to See. But the book provided our community with a standard symbolic language and framework that enabled all of us to communicate and share our maps with others.

That, alone, made the book a breakthrough work because it enabled a shorthand for peer review and support within the community.

It also provided a simple and robust pattern to follow that breaks down and analyzes a large scale process. This enabled a much larger population to grasp these concepts and put them to practical use.

Learning to See and “Getting Lean”

In Chapter 11 of Lean Thinking, Womack and Jones set out a sequence of steps they postulate will transform a traditional business to a “lean one.”

The steps are summarized and paraphrased in the Forward (also by Womack and Jones) of Learning to See:

  1. Find a change agent (how about you?).
  2. Find a sensei (a teacher whose learning curve you can borrow)
  3. Seize (or create) a crisis to motivate action across your firm.
  4. Map the entire value stream for all of your product families.
  5. Pick something important and get started removing waste quickly, to surprise yourself with how much you can accomplish in a very short period.

Learning to See focuses on Step 4, which implies establishing a future-state to guide you.

In the Forward, Womack and Jones commented that people skipped Step 4 (map your value streams). Today, I see people skipping straight to that step.

Let’s continue the context discussion from the Forward, then dig into common use of the value stream mapping tool..

“Find a change agent (how about you?)” is a really interesting statement. “How about you?” implies that the reader is the change agent. I suspect (based on the “change agents” discussed in Lean Thinking that the assumption was that the “change agent” is a responsible line leader. Pat Lancaster, Art Byrne, George Koenigsaecker were some of the early change agents, and were (along with their common thread of Shingijutsu) very influential in the tone and direction set in Lean Thinking.

Today, though, I see job postings like this one (real, but edited for – believe it or not- brevity):

Job Title: Lean Manager

Reports To: Vice President & General Manager of Operations


Lead highly collaborative action-based team efforts to clean out, simplify and mistake-proof our processes and our strategic suppliers’ processes.

This includes using proven methodological approaches, applying our culture and providing our team with technology, best cross-industry practices and all other resources needed to attain ever higher levels of productivity and customer delight.

Essential Duties and Responsibilities:

Endlessly define, prioritize and present opportunities for applying AWO’s, GB/BB projects and other LEAN principles to our supply chain and customer deliverables.

Develop, plan and execute the plans as selected by the business leaders.

Train all team members (and other selected individuals) in LEAN principles and mechanisms to be LEAN and preferred by customers.

Document procedures/routines, training, team results/best practices and the like.

Coaches business team members in the practical application of the Lean tools to drive significant business impact.

Leads and manages the current state value stream process.

Develops and implements future state value stream processes.


Responsible for planning and assisting in the execution of various Lean transformation events targeted towards improving the business’s performance on safety, quality, delivery, and cost.

Focuses on business performance that constantly strives to eliminate waste, improve customer satisfaction, on-time delivery, reduce operating costs and inventory via the use of Lean tools and continuous improvement methodologies.


Acts as change agent in challenging existing approaches and performance.

Whew. With all of that, here is my question: What is the line leadership expected to do? In other words, what is left for them to do? And what, exactly, are they supposed to be doing (and how) during all of this flurry of activity?

While all of the “change agent” examples outlined in Lean Thinking (which, in turn, provides context for Learning to See), are line leaders, all too often the role of “change agent” is delegated to a staff member such as the above.

I believe it is entirely possible for a line-leader change agent to also be the “sensei” – Michael Balle’s The Lean Manager shows a fictional scenario that does just that.

But if your “sensei” is a staff technical professional, or an external consultant, the “change agent” function is separate and distinct, or should be.

Which leads me to the first question that is never asked:

Why Are You Doing This At All?

That question can be a pretty confrontational. But it is a question that often goes unasked. 

This is especially true where “getting lean” is an initiative delegated to staff specialists, and not directly connected to achieving the strategic objectives of the business. In these cases, “Lean” is expressed as a “set of tools” for reducing costs.

I do not believe that “creating a crisis” is constructive, simply because when motivated by fear people tend to (1) panic and lose perspective and (2) tend to apply habitual responses, not creative ones. If there are high stakes at risk, creativity is not what you should expect.

On the other hand, a narrow and specific challenge that is set as Step Zero helps focus people’s attention and gives them permission not to address every problem all at once (which avoids paralysis and gridlock).

So, if I were to edit that list of steps, I’d change “Create a crisis” to “Issue a challenge to focus the effort” and move it to #1 or maybe #2 on the list. The “Find a sensei” then becomes a countermeasure for the obstacle of “We need AND WANT to do this, but don’t have enough experience.” (That assumption, in turn, implies a driving need to learn doesn’t it?)

These are appropriate roles for the “change agent” – and they are things that can only be effectively done from a position of authority.

Which brings us to back to Learning to See.

Beyond “Value-Added”

Someone, a long time ago, proposed that we categorize activities as “value-added” or “non-value-added.”

We say that a “value-added step” is “something the customer is willing to pay for.” A “non-value-added step” is anything else. Some non-value-added steps are necessary to advance the work or support the business structure.

While this analysis is fundamentally correct at the operational level, and works to get a general sense of what it possible, this approach can start us off on a journey to “identify and eliminate waste” from the process. (Not to mention non-productive debates about whether a particular activity is “value added” or not.)

Right away we are limited. The only way to grow the business using this approach is to use the newly freed up capacity to do something you aren’t doing now. But what?

If that decision hasn’t been made as a core part of the challenge, the leaders are often left wondering when the “lean initiative” will actually begin to pay – because they didn’t answer the “Why must we do this?” question from the beginning.

Without that challenging business imperative, the way people typically try to justify the effort is to:

  • Analyze the process.
  • Try to quantify the waste that is seen. This would be things like inventory, walking distance, scrap, etc. that are easily measurable. More sophisticated models would try to assign value to things like floor space.
  • Add up the “proposed savings”
  • Determine a return on the investment, and proceed if it is worth it.

The idea, then, would be to deliver those savings quickly with some kind of rapid improvement process.

This fundamental approach can be (and is) taken at all levels of the organization. I have seen large-scale efforts run by a team of consultants doing a rapid implementation of an entire factory over a timespan of a few weeks.

I have also seen that same factory six months later, and aside from the lines that were painted on the floor and the general layout changes, there was no other sign the effort had ever been undertaken. In this case, no matter how compelling the ROI, they didn’t get anywhere near it.

One of the tools commonly (ab)used for this process is value stream mapping.

This approach is SO common that if you search for presentations and training materials for value stream mapping on the web, you will find that nearly all of them show describe this process:

  • Map your current state map.
  • Identify sources of waste and other opportunities on the current state map.
  • Depict those opportunities with “kaizen bursts” to show the effort you are going to make.
  • Based on what opportunities you have identified, and your proposed kaizen bursts, develop the future state map to show what it will look like.
  • Develop the new performance metrics for the future state.
  • Viola – make the case to go for it.

Now – to my readers – think for a minute. Where are the “kaizen bursts” in Learning to See? They are on the current state map, right?


Here is the current state map on page 32:



If, on the other hand, I were to ask “What value do we wish we could create for our customers that, today, we cannot?” I open myself up to a host of possibilities, including creating a new value stream that currently doesn’t exist at all – using freed up resources, at essentially zero net cost (or at least heavily subsidizing the new effort).

Now I ask “What must I do to make these resources available to me?”

In the “find and eliminate waste” model, the staff-change agents are often responsible for the “lean plan.” Like the job description above, they are charged with convincing the leaders (who hired them!) that this all makes business sense.

A Manual for How to Meet a Challenge

In “Part III: What Makes a Value Stream Lean” (the green tab) there is a strong hint of the original intent in the second paragraph:

To reduce that overly long lead time from raw material to finished goods, you need to do more than just try to eliminate obvious waste.

This statement implies that the value stream mapper is dissatisfied with the current lead time, and has a compelling need to change it.

What you are looking for in the Future State is how must the process operate to get to the lead time reduction you must achieve.

For example, given a target lead time and a takt time, I can calculate the maximum amount of work-in-process inventory I can have and still be able to hit that objective.

I can look at where I must put my pacemaker process to meet the customer’s expectations for delivery.

Based on that, I can look at the turns I must create in the pull system that feeds it.

Based on that, I can calculate the maximum lot sizes I can have; which in turn, drives my targets for changeovers.

As I iterate through future state designs, I am evaluating the performance I am achieving vs. the performance I must achieve.

What is stopping me from making it work?

What must I change?

If something is too hard to change, what can I adjust elsewhere to get the same effect?

In the end, I have a value stream architecture that, if I can solve a set of specific problems, will meet the business need I started with.

This is my view on the fundamental difference between creating a generic “crisis” vs. stating a compelling performance requirement.

The process outlined in the book is to develop the future state, and then identify what is stopping you from getting there.

Of the eight KEY QUESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE STATE that are outlined in page 58, What process improvements will be necessary for the value stream to flow as your future state design specifies?” is question #8.

It is the last thing you consider.

The kaizen bursts are not “What can we do?”

They are “What must we do?”

The first thing you consider is “What is the requirement?”

“What is the takt time?”

In other words, how must this process perform?

Here is a clip of the future state map from page 78:


The “bursts” are not “opportunities” but rather, they represent the things we have to fix in order to achieve the future state.

In Toyota Kata terms, they represent the obstacles in the way of achieving the target condition, just at a higher level.

What this is saying is “To achieve the future state we need to rearrange the work flow AND:

  • Get the stamping changeovers down to 10 minutes or better.
  • Get the weld changeovers to where we can do them within the takt.
  • Get the welder uptime to 100%.
  • Get the work content for weld + assembly down to under 168 seconds.”

These are the obstacles to achieving the performance we want from the future state value steam.

Notice that the stamping press only has an uptime of 85% on the current state map. There isn’t a corresponding kaizen burst for that – because, right now, it isn’t in the way of getting where we need to go. It might be an issue in the future, but it isn’t right now.

But if we were just “looking for waste” we might not see it that way, and spend a ton of time and resources fixing a problem that is actually not a problem at the moment.

Putting This Together

Thus, I suspect that Learning to See, like many books in the continuous improvement category, was intended for value stream leaders – managers who are responsible for delivering business results.

In my experience, however, most of the actual users have been staff practitioners. Perhaps I should use the 2nd person here, because I suspect the vast majority of the people reading this are members of that group.

You are a staff practitioner if you are responsible for “driving improvement” (or a similar term) in processes you are not actually responsible for executing on a daily basis. You are “internal consultants” to line management.

Staff practitioners are members of kaizen promotion offices. They are “workshop leaders.” They are “continuous improvement managers.” The more senior ones operate at the VP and Director level of medium and large size companies.

No matter what level of the organization, you are kindred spirits, for most of my post-military / pre-consulting career has been in this role.

The people who actually read and study books like Learning to See are staff practitioners.

This creates a bit of a problem, because Learning to See is very clear that the responsible manager should be the one actually building the value stream map. But often, that task is delegated to the staff practitioner.

“Map this value stream, and please present your findings and recommendations.” If you have gotten a request or direction like that, you know what I am talking about. Been there, done that.

In my personal experience, although it gave me valuable experience studying process flows, I can honestly say that relatively few of those proposed “Future States” were actually put into practice.

The one that I vividly remember that was put into practice happened because, though I was a kaizen promotion office staffer, I had start-up direct responsibility for getting the process working, including de-facto direct reports. (That is a different story titled “How I got really good at operating a fork lift”)

Into 2013

Today we see Toyota Kata quickly gaining popularity. The Lean Bazaar is responding, and “coaching” topics are quickly being added to conference topics and consulting portfolios.

I welcome this because it is calling attention to the critical people development aspect that distinguishes the Toyota Management System from the vast majority of interpretations of “lean” out there.

But make no mistake, it is easy to fall into the tools trap, and the Lean Bazaar is making it easier by the way it positions its products.

Just as value stream mapping isn’t about the maps, establishing an improvement culture isn’t about the improvement boards, or the Kata Kwestions.

It is about establishing a pervasive drive to learn. In that “lean culture,” we use the actual process as a laboratory to develop people’s improvement skills. We know that if we do the right job teaching and practicing those skills, the right people will do the right things for the process to get better every day. Which is exactly what the title of Learning to See says.

Fast Transients

Warning: Arcane esoteria follows.

A while back, Steve Spear put on a webinar about problem solving.

A key theme in the early part of Spear’s presentation was about a company that realized a need to be able to cope with ever accelerating changes. My notes captured this as:

We no longer do high volume manufacturing..

We do high volume engineering.

The design process is on a ramp-up.

In other words, in the context of this product development cycle, they needed to shift their thinking. They are mass-producing designs, not products. They need to be able to not only get the designs out, but get those designs into production and to the market with faster and faster transitions from one product to the next.

This meant that they were never in a steady state. Rather, the normal state was transition.

Everything in our world is accelerating. Our organizations must become very quick at adopting to new products, new technology, and process changes as a matter of routine.

We are living in a world where it isn’t so much what we know that gives us an edge, but how fast we can figure out the meaning of what is new.

This idea of faster and faster transients is not new to me, and I wanted to share some thoughts and background from a previous line of work that is technically out of the realm of “lean.”

Transient back in time: Korea: MiG Alley – 1952

Flying a MiG-15 in the Korean War was a very dangerous business indeed. The front line U.S. fighter was the F-86, and they were shooting down MiG-15s in a 10:1 ratio.

“North Korean” MiG-15s during the Korean War

But that statistic beguiled analysis. By nearly all objective measures, the MiG-15 has a decisive advantage in a dogfight. It was lighter and more nimble. It could fly faster, out climb, out gun, and out-turn an F-86.

Fighter pilots being what they are, the original assessment was better piloting skills. And, overall, that was likely true. U.S. pilots, at least the more senior ones, were combat veterans from WWII. But many MiG pilots were combat veterans as well – especially the Russian ones.

No, while piloting skill could account for some of the difference, the mystery remained.

John R. Boyd

johnboydJohn Boyd (1927-1997) was a fighter pilot with no aerial victories. Yet he is acknowledged as one of the greatest fighter pilots in history. His contributions to the theory of aerial warfare are the anchor for training every fighter pilot in the world today. His theories are used to evaluate every fighter aircraft design.

As he was developing his breakthrough Energy-Maneuverability Theory, the MiG-15 / F-86 victory ratio did not fit his equations. In other words, he was faced with observation that did not fit his theory.

What was the advantage held by the F-86 that made it so formidable?

Though the MiG is physically smaller, the two aircraft are actually very similar looking. But there are some crucial differences in the design.

US F-86 fighters over Korea during the Korean War

The F-86 has a large bubble canopy. Pilot visibility is unobstructed, superb. The MiG-15’s canopy is more conventional. It has frames, is smaller, and does not extend as low as its F-86 counterpart. This translates to the F-86 pilot being able to see more, see better. He is less likely to miss a spec that is behind a canopy frame. He can see better beneath him, and to his rear. Thus, he can begin to set up his next move just a little sooner than his opponent in a MiG-15.

The F-86 has hydraulically boosted controls. The F-86 pilot does not have to use his muscle power against the aerodynamic forces on the control surfaces. He can effortlessly move the stick, and the elevators and ailerons respond.

The MiG-15, on the other hand, requires muscle power. It is physically harder to move the controls, and the pilot must continuously fight, and overcome, the air pressures on the control surfaces.

Thus, the F-86 pilot can transition from one maneuver to another with less effort.

An aerial dogfight is not a steady state affair. The dynamics are continuously changing as each combatant tries to gain an advantage.

With these seeming small advantages, the F-86 pilot could gain situational awareness a touch more quickly, and change his maneuver a touch more quickly than his North Korean counterpart.

Even if the MiG could turn inside the F-86, this is a steady-state advantage. It only holds while both planes are in a constant turn. The F-86 pilot, though, could change directions more quickly and easily than his opponent.

As the maneuvers progressed, the MiG pilot would be lagging further and further behind the developing situation. Eventually he would be countering the last maneuver of the F-86, while the F-86 is already doing something else.

In other words, the F-86 pilot could gain the initiative by executing fast transients – changes in the tactical situation that forced his opponent to respond; or he could respond more quickly than his opponent could change things up.

Mig-15 Ejection
Gun camera photos of a MiG-15 pilot ejecting

The gun camera films showed that often the MiG pilots would either use their superior speed to break off the engagement (which leaves the F-86s in local control); or if the situation was hopeless, sometimes would bail out before the F-86 even fired his guns. He was defeated psychologically before physically.

From this analysis, Boyd developed a model of situational awareness, analysis and response that is known today as the OODA loop.

  • Observe – the process of physically sensing the outside world.
  • Orient – interpreting what was observed, and forming a picture of the situation. This process engages in some hypothesis testing as well – checking what is actually happening against what should be happening if the conclusion is correct.
  • Decide – Based on the situational awareness, decide the next action to take to gain advantage.
  • Act – Carry out the action.

Act carries with it a prediction. “If I carry out this action, this is what I anticipate will happen next.”

Act is the only thing which physically affects the outside world.

As the action is carried out, Observation is made to determine the actual impact, maintain situational awareness, and adjust accordingly.

Orient is an interpretation process. It carries all of the biases and assumptions that are inherent in human nature. There is a heavy bias toward seeing what is believed vs. seeing what is. This is the weakest point in the process, and the point where deception exploits the opponent by presenting something they expect or want to see.

After developing this theory for aerial combat, Boyd went on to develop it into a general theory. He was a student of military strategy, some have likened him to a modern Sun Tzu.

Boyd studied other cases in history where one side or the other had a clear advantage, and asked “What do these things have in common?”

He took the specific instance of aerial combat in the Korean War, searched seemingly unrelated experiences, and teased out a common pattern: The ability to execute fast transients – to change up the situation more quickly than the opponent can get a handle on what is happening; and to respond to changes quickly and routinely – gives a decisive edge. Modern maneuver warfare is built around Boyd’s theories.

According to Boyd, defeat was more about the opponent becoming so confused and disoriented that they became totally demoralized and lost command cohesion. They were no longer functioning as a team.

A poorly led army has a very rigid and centralized command structure. There is a detailed plan, every unit has specific instructions they are to carry out. Though this approach is appealing, it only works until first contact is made.

In this high-control environment, any unit needing to deviate from the plan must report the situation upwards, and wait for a decision and instructions. This takes time. In this time, an opposing unit who can execute more quickly can quickly gain an advantage. Our (U.S.) military calls this “getting inside the enemy’s decision cycle.” It means changing things up faster than they can react.

In the mid 1970’s, Boyd developed a two day briefing titled “A Discourse on Winning and Losing” and presented it to packed rooms at the Pentagon.

Later on, Boyd became interested in the Toyota Production System as he saw this system as increasing the ability of a company to quickly respond to challenges – execute fast transients – through its central direction / local execution model.

Normandy, June 5, 1944

On the night of June 5/6 1944, thousands of paratroopers were dropped on the Normandy peninsula. The U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were scattered all over the countryside. Very few troopers ended up on their intended drop zones.

But each trooper knew the overall mission, and they got together with whoever they could find, and banded together into whatever units they could assemble. The ranking man took charge, and they set out to get things done. They didn’t (and couldn’t) call in and get permission to carry out the new mission. They knew what was supposed to be done, and found a way to do it.

This was not the first time this had happened. The experience in Sicily in 1943 was similar. In both cases, what is known today as “The Rule of LGOPs (Little Groups of Paratroopers)” comes into play:

After the demise of the best Airborne plan, a most terrifying effect occurs on the battlefield. This effect is known as the rule of the LGOPs. This is, in its purest form, small groups of pissed-off 19 year old American paratroopers. They are well-trained, armed to the teeth and lack serious adult supervision. They collectively remember the Commander’s intent as “March to the sound of the guns and kill anyone who is not dressed like you…” or something like that.

Even when things do not go horribly wrong, a key element of modern command and control is centralized direction and decentralized execution. This means that the higher level commander sets the direction, the objective for the operation. They establish boundaries, priorities, overall intent, and ensure that everyone knows what needs to get done.

As a sub-unit encounters an opportunity or a problem, they respond and report. But the reporting in this case is not to seek permission to do something, but rather, to report what initiative is being taken. The purpose is so the higher level headquarters can coordinate support from other units to deal with the developing situation. In this way, there is no need to tightly coordinate each individual unit, only to ensure that the right resources are being applied in the right place to exploit opportunities and deal with threats.

What makes this work is every sub-unit knows the situation, the mission, and the overall intent of the plan. Thus, even if the exact details don’t work, they can quickly devise, and execute, actions that further the overall goal. This allows them to maintain overall direction while quickly exploiting opportunities and dealing with emergent threats.


A large flock of birds in flight looks like a fine chorography of fluid motion. But, of course, there is no bird-in-charge coordinating everyone and saying “Turn left… now.”

In 1986, Craig Reynolds studied how this complex behavior emerged from groups of individual “agents” that, individually, show none of the complex characteristics of the flocking behavior. He developed a computer simulation called “Boids” that implemented three simple rules for each “boid” in the network.

Those rules defined how each “boid” responded to the other “boids” in its immediate neighborhood. Based on these simple rules, the complex, fluid, rapid response to changing external conditions emerges.

We see similar patterns throughout nature. Ant foraging behavior is based on simple rules for following pheromone trails. Indeed, there is nothing inherent in a neuron that suggests the complexity of the human brain.

A flock of birds, though, exhibits very complex, fluid behavior. They can collectively respond very quickly to changes of direction, threats and opportunities. In other words, the flock, as a whole, can transition quickly from one state to another.

What Does It All Mean?

Back in 1970, Alvin Toffler published a best selling book Future Shock. He (and his uncredited wife, Heidi) set out a premise that, as the pace of technology development accelerated, we would be faced with making ever quicker transitions from one base of understanding to another. In other words:

“The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.

Putting all of this into context, our success will become increasingly dependent on our ability to see emerging opportunities, necessities, problems, threats; assess them; understand what must be done; solve the underlying problems; implement, then do it all again… at ever accelerating rates.

The competitive advantage will come to the organizations that can organize around fast transitions from one structure to another, all within the context of a well aligned direction.

What I see is that our developing understanding of “lean” as a process for developing and coordinating fast cycles of learning is exactly what we are all needing to become.

But the classic model of “lean” is too static. It relies on a hand full of professional implementers working hard to install pre-defined systems that strive to copy the mechanics from the mid 1980’s. While these installations may pride themselves on speed, they routinely do not leave behind an organization that is capable of nimble adaption and transition in the face of emerging issues.

Regular readers (or those who choose to wade through the past posts) know I write a lot about “lean” being more about a culture shift than the mechanics.

That culture is one where ad-hoc groups can quickly come together under a common alignment and direction; work to a robust, simple set of pre-existing rules for local interaction; and fluidly adapt to changing situations.

Those teams might be putting together a production line that is only in existence for a few weeks or months before quickly transitioning to another. There won’t be time to wring out the bugs, it will have to come up operational and undergo rapid improvement throughout its existence- passing what was learned to the next iteration.

The innovations will come from the user community. Proprietary ideas may be too slow. Rather, those who can quickly exploit public ideas, then grab the next one once the fast-followers catch up will be the organizations that stay ahead.

It is going to be about fast transients.

What we have to get very good at executing is learning and discovery.

How Do We Learn to Learn?

Saying “you have to do something” is the way of too many consultants and authors. The real question is “How do you do it?”

As I continue to strive to teach the principles in Toyota Kata in diverse organizations, I am building a model of how the organization actually functions.

If there is a common structure and framework that aligns how people think and interact with one another about problems, I see an analogy to the structural rules that govern swarms, like flocks of birds. (Kanban follows the same pattern, by the way, but that is a different topic.)

Not having to take the time to develop problem solving skills and norms would allow teams to come together and quickly get to work. Having good alignment on the direction and challenge up front would prevent a lot of rototilling that many teams go through when they try to tackle a problem they haven’t defined first.

“What are we trying to achieve, and how will we know? followed by “Where are we now? and “How do we know?” are questions that are rarely asked in many organizations. And when they are asked, my experience is the questions are regarded as a waste of time, because “everybody knows” or “it’s obvious” – except that they don’t and it isn’t.

But to answer the question in the header – “How do we learn to learn?” the answer is the same as for “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”  Practice.

Practice means you likely won’t be very good at it at first, and the results may be slow in coming. You will have to work on simpler systems at first, because they are easier to improve. It will feel like you aren’t tackling “real problems” – but in reality, you will see issues that have been adding friction to your systems for years.

Practice means you don’t try to play like Mozart before you can play notes without thinking about where your fingers are going.

The good news is that if you decide to actually take on the struggle and do the work, you will develop a basic proficiency pretty quickly. On the other hand, if you are fighting the utter necessity to learn, then you will never progress beyond going through the mechanics.


John Boyd, Conceptual Spiral, and the meaning of life

The Leader’s Journey

Earlier this year, Sir Ken Robinson gave a great TED talk about the state of education in the USA. While his talk was about K12, nearly everything he says applies to how we grow and develop leaders.

Or stifle their growth.

He makes it clear that no teaching is taking place unless learning is taking place.

And he points out that if we create an environment that encourages curiosity, then we get creativity and learning in return.

But many of our organizations and institutions almost seem to be designed, instead, to discourage curiosity. If being wrong or incorrect has negative consequences, then the safest course to take is one which makes no commitments and questions nothing.

Robinson finally points out that the ability to grow and learn is in all of us. It is much more a matter of the right conditions than it is innate talent or skill.

I would like to suggest that creating those conditions, and that process of growth, is deeply embedded in nearly all of our cultures and in our very humanity.

This growth is what the management consulting business calls “change.” Change is a hot topic. There are bookshelves, file drawers and web servers chock full of advice on how to “change.”

But what are we really talking about? Though we discuss “organizational change,” I think the process of “change” is deeply personal to each individual. It is a process, not so much of adopting new behaviors, but of personal growth.

And as individuals grow, connections between them strengthen, and the organization as a whole performs. But it’s people that change. And that change, more often than not, comes down to growth and confidence in the face of adversity.

So how, exactly, do people “change?”

Let me tell you about Karen.

She is a typical supervisor in a typical small manufacturing company. The company could be anywhere.

Karen is responsible for the shipping department. She oversees the work of about half a dozen people who process customer orders, pick the items, package them, label them, pack them and ship them.

As straight forward as this sounds, the real world throws a lot of chaos at Karen every day. They don’t know how many orders they are going to get, yet Karen must maintain a reasonable level of productivity.

Some orders are simple, others are complex with multiple packages being consolidated into a single shipment.

Sometimes the items aren’t on the shelf even when the computer insists they are.

A typical day for shipping was a continuous push to get the orders picked as soon as possible, then a push to get the orders packed, then there was the Big Push at the end of the day to try to force everything through the shipping process and ready for UPS.

Karen was coming in at 2 or 3 am to sort through paperwork and try to organize things. During the day she was working to manage the Big Pushes, move people to where the work was. And at the end of her 13 hour day she went home exhausted. And the next day she got to do it all again.

Meanwhile, in the background, a storm was brewing. We had identified an opportunity with great potential for productivity in manufacturing and shipping. But for Karen, that “opportunity” meant her team had to take on higher volumes of work with no more predictability than what they were already struggling to get out the door.

Let’s just say that Karen was skeptical. She was convinced there wasn’t any way, short of increasing her staff, that this could be done.

Karen was a good sport though, and grew into the challenge of learning how to break down and analyze the work steps, and get on-by-one flow into place. It was a lot of work as she tried some things that didn’t work in order to learn more about the things that did. Throughout this process, she was getting support, encouragement, advice and coaching from a couple of key, experienced people.

But it was Karen and her team, not her coaches, who were solving the problems because it was Karen’s team who had to live with the solutions.

A few weeks later I was back, and we were taking another team from another department through the same process. To give them a visible example of what to strive for, we went to shipping to let Karen show them the changes they had made, and were continuing to make, and explain the new work flows.

It turned out that one of the people getting that little tour had done Karen’s job a few years ago. Her first question was “Is the computer down?”

“No,” said Karen.

“Are you having a really slow day then?”

“No, in fact this is a pretty busy day,” was the reply.

“But…” with an incredulous look “… it’s calm.”

And yes, it was calm.

In addition to the process changes, Karen was leading differently.

Instead of being “Hurricane Karen” and disrupting the flow of work with constant intervention, she was starting to trust the flow and visual controls to tell her where she needed to pay attention.

When she was surprised by something, she was asking “What would have let us spot that issue sooner?”

She was beginning to manage problems and exceptions with an eye toward preventing them.

Her new skills were still rough and needed practice, but she was working hard to apply them. She was still getting a lot of coaching, but it was mostly to help her stay on track and not get distracted from the path by the urgent.

There was still a looming challenge, however.

While the new process had dramatically improved quality and productivity, the “one order at a time” rule that made it all work had the side effect that the pickers were doing a lot more walking up and down the aisles.

Karen was feeling a lot of pressure to go back to picking batches of orders. She challenged her coaches, and they challenged her to look at why the walking was necessary in the first place.

They found fast moving items in locations at the very back of the store;

And long one-way aisles with no cut-throughs and no room to turn around a cart;

The locations were poorly marked, increasing the time to search for something.

Pulling and picking one order at a time wasn’t causing more walking, it had highlighted the poor organization of the storage area.

Holding the line here took a lot of courage. Karen had to step up her leadership and gain the faith of her people.

She also had to learn to work with other parts of the organization to:

  • Get slow moving and obsolete items off the shelves to free up space.
  • Get a more rational location system into place.
  • Take advantage of the increased shelf space to open things up; put breaks and cross-over points in the aisles; and create wider aisles where carts could pass one another.

This was new territory, technically and politically. As a side-effect, the company had the insight that working on their changeover times in injection molding would have a direct effect on how much walking parts pickers in shipping had to do. I’ll let you figure out why those things are tightly related.

Some months later I was back again, and of course went to see Karen.

Now she was telling me about her initiative to take on even more volume by creating capacity from wasted time.

Karen had observed that they spent a lot of time counting out little parts into bags. Working with her team, they had developed a simple, inexpensive, part counting jig that mounts on the cart. They worked this out through a series of trials and experiments, solving one problem at a time, cut the counting time by around two thirds.

2013-02-07_14-47-10_376See that red spoon? Some of their parts are silver, others are white. And there are other colors as well. Their experiments had shown that candy red gave the best contrast between the parts and the spoon used to scoop them from the counting tray into the bag (even the red ones), thus reducing the opportunity to mis-count.

Who has time to think through this level of detail?

Karen and her team do now, because getting the daily work done is a matter of routine rather than a daily battle. She has time because, through her leadership, they have created that time. She took this last initiative on her own. She took what she had learned, and is now applying it every day.

When we talk about “change” this is what it looks like. It is people that change, and when they do, the organization changes with them.

Most of us have stories like this – of someone we know who was initially reluctant or skeptical;

Who overcame those initial doubts and committed themselves to a course of action into the unknown;

Who worked through a series of challenges, overcame them, and emerged change in some small, or large, way.

We find these stories compelling… but why?

This is the story of

The Karate Kid

Harry Potter

Dr Grant in Jurassic Park

Huckleberry Finn

It is the story of Beowulf, of Dorothy Gale, and Gilgamesh, of Alex Rogo in The Goal, Tom Hank’s character in Castaway and the real-life story of Apollo 13.

Snow White, Cinderella, Sarah Conner, Luke Skywalker, and on a grand arc, even the story of Darth Vader.

The story is told and set on sailing ships, star ships, in little cafes in Morocco, and across countless urban legends.

It is a narrative that is embedded in the psyche of every human culture from the dawn of storytelling.

And it is the continuing story of Karen.

Some of you may have heard of Joseph Campbell. His work became well known after a series of interviews with Bill Moyers in 1988, broadcast a year after Campbell’s death. The most famous of Campbell’s work is The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell found common elements in nearly all mythology and stories across all human culture, throughout human history.

We tell these same stories, with different twists and forms, over and over. But they all have a similar underlying structure.

This isn’t about a formula for story creation, rather, our compelling stories follow the path taken by those we admire in real life. The stories and myths are concentrated for effect, but the transformation is the same. Although there are a lot of variations, there are some patterns of common elements.

What makes them compelling is growth through perseverance.

The Dragons, Orcs, Wicked Witches and Grendel all represent our inner fears and doubts.

What makes the “hero” – and our emerging leaders – is the willingness to set aside those fears and take on the challenges.

That, in turn, produces growth – what we call “change.”

It is individual people that change, and in the process of changing, they often follow their own “Hero’s Journey.”

The Mundane Life

The stories start with the protagonist leading an ordinary, often mundane life. He or she may be satisfied with that life, or may be yearning for something more.

Dorothy is on the farm in Kansas dealing with the demands of her aunt, and her little dog getting into trouble, dreaming of somewhere over the rainbow.

Sarah Connor is a waitress in a diner, and Bilbo is enjoying his days sitting outside and contemplating the scenery.

Nothing about Karen’s work life was mundane, every day was a new battle. But the battles were fought over and over. Victory was survival until tomorrow morning.

The Call

Early in the story, the hero often receives “the call” to depart the ordinary life into something compelling but unknown.

Sometimes “the call” is a violent event, like a tornado carrying the house to Oz. Other times it is an opportunity to “take the red pill.” It could come in the form of a change in the dynamics such as the arrival of Buzz Lightyear in the toy box.

Karen’s “call” was being asked to participate in a kaizen event to examine the very work that she managed every day.

Refusal of the Call

Often the hero initially refuses the call. Karen was very skeptical.

They often do not feel up to the challenge being issued, or feel they cannot leave their current responsibilities.

Nevertheless, in our stories, the call is eventually answered, and sometimes events compel the protagonist to act.

This is a point in the development of a leader when we must have empathy.

We have to realize that the known, no matter how ugly it may be, is at least predictable and safe.

Karen knew she had to come in at 4 am every day, and she knew she would be battling to keep things on track.

She knew she would be there late to make sure everything got done.

And she knew that the process would utterly fail if she did not do these things.

It was completely reasonable for her to be skeptical that it would be possible to change this dynamic.

Sadly, too many of us are quick to frame these reasonable fears as “resistance to change” and make judgments about the protagonists in the story unfolding in front of us.

But our reluctant heros-to-be are holding the best interests of the organization in their hearts. What we call “resistance,” most of the time, is actually fear of letting people down. We need to empathize with this fear because it is in all of us. In other conditions, that same fear also motivates great heroism and sacrifice.

The Mentor Figure

In a real-world organization we are all too willing to abandon people into stressful situations and expect them to step-up. In my own studies of world-class management systems, though, I have found a common theme:

The primary responsibility of true leaders is to coach and develop people.

In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Gandolf represents the mentor or spiritual guide. In The Goal this role is played by Jonah. We see Tinkerbell with pixie dust, retired Jedi Knights, and fairy godmothers.

The mentor cannot actually be the hero, but is highly influential in the hero’s development by providing guidance and emotional support.

In our story, Karen’s “Gandolf” was Brian, the Continuous Improvement Manager. This role, however, is temporary for Brian. Ultimately this role falls to Karen’s boss, Carlene. But Carlene is on her own journey as this company was still in transition.

Brian took on the role of giving Karen the training and guidance to help her along her journey.

This is very different than sitting her down in a class and deluging her with PowerPoint slides about general principles.

Though only Karen can lead her group, Brian was there to make sure she succeeded.

Crossing the Threshold

In the Hero’s Journey there is usually a moment when the protagonist steps from the ordinary world into the world of adventure and learning.

Campbell calls this “crossing the threshold.

After the tornado drops her house into Oz, Dorothy opens the door and sees and world of Technicolor. “Oh Toto, this isn’t anything like Kansas.”

Luke Skywalker goes to the bar to meet Han Solo.

John Dunbar moves to the Sioux village.

Karen entered the kaizen event on Monday morning.

The Journey of Adventure

Of course, “one does not simply walk into Mordor.” Actually you do. But there are obstacles to overcome.

The new world is different, and our hero must learn its rules, find new friends and allies, and overcome new challenges that usually increase in drama and complexity.

These events and experiences shape the growth of the character as he transforms.

As leaders develop, their styles and approaches change. They must. When leaders change their style and role – like Karen – they still face challenges from the people around them.

Karen was developing and testing new skills. She had never been taught how to carefully study how the work was done. We taught her.

She had not considered how smooth, steady work was faster than pushing everything. She learned by trying and experimenting. We taught her these things by teaching problem solving in the context of what she was trying to get done.

The emerging leader must be willing to learn, which means being willing to try something she doesn’t know how to do, and fail a few times.

The Mentor’s job is to shape the path forward and provide support, technical and emotional, throughout this process.

During this part of the journey, the hero usually acquires something – what Campbell calls “the elixir” but it may be symbolic and take the form of new knowledge or skill, or a great insight.

Karen’s “elixir” was developing faith that it was possible to calm down the chaos of shipping, to see problems sooner, and deal with them before they turned into disruptions.

The Final Confrontation

In our mythology, there is often a Big Confrontation toward the middle or end of the story, a symbolic death and rebirth. The protagonist must draw upon the strength that was gained up to this point, and emerges with new confidence, a changed person.

Dorothy had the courage to stand up for her friends and confront the Wicked Witch who, back in Kansas, had been trying to take her dog away.

Even though things were much better, Karen was confronted about the additional walking, and had her meddle as a leader tested. Where she might have argued in the past that this wasn’t working, per perspective was now “How do we move this forward?”

The Journey Home

Now the hero must return. Often there is yet one more confrontation and a final chase scene.

The hero re-enters the “old” world, but profoundly changed. Sometimes the world itself has changed, other times the protagonist’s response to that world has changed. Either way, things will never be the same.

Sarah Connor was no longer a waitress in a diner. She was tough, alert, and protecting the future savior of humanity.

Karen was learning to delegate the things she had previously done personally, and allow the process to handle them. Her management style has shifted from “Who is doing what?” to “Is the process working as it needs to?”

Oh – and maybe she doesn’t see it, but I do. Her mannerisms have changed. She is far more articulate and confident.

Why did I take your time to map this analogy?

When I read Jeff Liker’s book that describes Toyota’s process of leader development, what really struck me was the principle of self development combined with stepping up to the challenge.

A prospective leader is offered a challenge to take on a project that is likely outside of his or her current experience and knowledge base. While there is, without a doubt, an urgent business imperative, it is also a process of developing leaders.

The challenge is probably scary. The prospective leader has an opportunity to refuse the call and remain in her current job for the remainder of her career. There are certainly people who are very happy working on the assembly line until they retire. There is no prejudice here. How you reach fulfillment in your life and career is a decision as unique as your DNA.

But if the “challenge” is simply “make the numbers or we will find someone who will” the story can fall apart. Yes, there are truly exceptional people who can dig out of those challenges on their own. But they are rare.

We have to realize that, even in our adult post K12 world, our organizations must be institutions of learning.

And the way people learn is through experiences. Not just any experiences, but experiences that illicit specific emotions. It is the act of struggling with something we almost get that resets the neural patterns in our brains.

Today, we know how to teach emerging leaders to become critical process thinkers.

We do it by teaching routines that, once mastered, become thinking patterns. We guide them through that struggle in a kind, supportive, challenging way.

You may remember “Wax on, Wax off” from the classic motion picture Karate Kid (or perhaps you recall “Hang up coat” from the recent remake). Those basic motions were used to build strength and motions that could be carried out without thinking. In Japanese martial arts, they are called “kata.”

Thanks to research by Mike Rother, published in his book “Toyota Kata,” we are actively experimenting with a “kata” for learning foundational problem solving and leadership skills.

But this learning does not occur without motivation and perseverance. If we want to grow leaders and innovators, we have to understand that each of them must go through their own Hero’s Journey and emerge in their own way.

The path is not known beforehand.

What we can do, though, is recognize the pattern of human growth, support it, and create the best possible environment for people to find their path.


Update: August 20, 2015 – two years later. I saw Karen again today. She is now overseeing the assembly department, which is much more complex. Her successor in shipping was telling me about her challenge to improve counting accuracy for larger orders (~100 small parts). The journey continues.

Another update: Karen is now overseeing injection molding, the most critical value stream in the company. Her first step there was to make sure the work schedules were realistic, visible to all, and to begin understanding what obstacles were coming up to prevent attainment. Then she started working on them.