A Lean Leadership Pocket Card

I was going through some old files and came across a pocket card we handed out back in 2003 or so. It was used in conjunction with our “how to walk the gemba” coaching sessions that we did with the lean staff, and then taught them to do with leaders.

There is a pretty long backstory, some of it is summarized in Earl’s recollection on this old post: Genchi Genbutsu in a Warehouse as well as here: The Chalk Circle – Continued.

A lot has happened, a lot has been learned since then. Toyota Kata has been published, and that alone has focused my technique considerably (to say the least).

Nevertheless, I think the elements on these little cards are valuable things to keep in mind.

With that being said, a caveat: Lists like this run the risk of becoming dogma. They aren’t. There are lots of lists like this out there, and the vast majority are very good. The key here is something that a leader or team member can refer to as a reminder that may bias a decision in the right direction. It is the direction that matters, not the reminders.

Fundamentals

The fundamentals are based on the “Rules-in-Use” from Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System, a landmark HBR article by Steve Spear and H. Kent Bowen. The article, in turn, summarizes (and slightly updates) Spear’s findings from his PhD work studying Toyota.

A. All work highly specified as to content, sequence, timing, and outcome.

B. Every customer-supplier connection is simple and direct.

C. The path for every product is simple and direct.

D. All improvements are made using PDCA process.

What we left off, though, is that in each of those rules there is a second one: That all of these systems are set up to be “self diagnostic” – meaning there are clear indications that immediately alert the front line people if:

  • The work deviates from what was specified.
  • The connection between a customer and supplying process is anything other than specified.
  • The path a product follows deviates from the route specified.
  • Improvements are made outside of a rigorous PDCA (experimental) process.

In other words, the purpose of the rules is to be able to see when we break them, or cannot follow them, so we trigger action.

To put this into Toyota Kata-speak – every process is set up as a target condition that is being run as an experiment – even the process of improvement itself!

Every time there is a disruption – something that keeps the process from running the way it is supposed to – we have discovered an obstacle. That obstacle must first be contained to protect the team members and community (safety) and to protect the customer (quality). Then goes into the obstacle parking lot, and addressed in turn.

If you think about it, the Improvement Kata simply gives us much more rigor to (D).

This ties to the next sections.

Key Leadership Behaviors

Note that this is behaviors. These are things we want leaders to actually strive to do themselves, not just “support.” It was the job of the continuous improvement people to nudge, coach, assist the leaders to move in these directions. It was our job to teach our continuous improvement people how to do that coaching and assisting – beyond just running kaizen events that implement tools.

A. PDCA Thinking

Today we would use Toyota Kata to teach this. But the same structure drove our questioning back then.

B. Four Rules:

1. Safety First

Even though this should be obvious, it is much more common that people are tacitly, or even directly, asked to overlook safety issues for the sake of production. I remember walking through a facility with a group of managers on the way to the area we were going to see. Paul stopped dead in his tracks in front of a puddle on the floor. He was demonstrating just how easy it was for the leadership to walk right past things that should be attended to. And in doing so, they were sending the message – loud and clear in their silence – that having a puddle on the floor was OK.

2. Make a Rule, Keep a Rule

This is a more general instance of Rule #1. But the it is more subtle than it may seem on the surface. Most people immediately interpret this as enforcing organizational discipline, but in reality it is about managerial discipline.

Nearly every organization has a gap between “the rules” and how things really are day-to-day. Sometimes that gap is small. Sometimes it is huge.

Often “rules” are enforced arbitrarily, such as only cases where a violation led to a bigger problem of some kind. Here’s an example: Say your plant has a set of rules about how fork trucks are to be operated – speed limits, staying out of marked pedestrian lanes, etc. But in general the operators hurry, cut a corner now and then. And these violations are typically overlooked… until there is some kind of incident. Then the operator gets written up for “breaking the rules” that everyone breaks every day – and management tacitly encourages people to break every day by focusing on results rather than process.

When we say “make a rule / keep a rule” what we mean is if you aren’t willing to insist on a rule being followed consistently, then take the rule off the books. And if you are uncomfortable taking the rule off the books, then your only option is to develop something that you can stand behind. It might be simple mistake proofing, like physical barriers between forklift aisles and pedestrian aisles. But if you are going to make the rule, then find a way to keep the rule.

Do you have “standard work” documents that are rarely followed? Stop pretending you have standards or rules about how the work is done. Throw them away if you aren’t willing to train to them, mistake proof to them and reinforce following them.

3. Simple is Best

Simply, bias heavily toward the simplest solution that works. The fewest, simplest procedures. The simplest process flow. Complexity hides problems. “Telling people” by the way, is usually less simple than a physical change to the work environment that guides behavior. See above.

4. Small Steps

Again, Toyota Kata’s teaching covers this pretty well today. The key is that by taking small steps, verifying that they work, and anchoring them into practice before taking the next ensures that each step we take has a stable foundation under it.

The alternative would be to make many changes at once in the name of going faster.

We emphasized here that “small steps” does not equal “slow steps.” It is possible to take small steps quickly, and we found that in general doing so was faster than making big leaps. Getting big changes dialed in often required backing out and implementing one thing at a time anyway – just to troubleshoot! See “Gall’s Law” which states:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

John Gall, author of Systematics

and sums this up nicely.

C. Ask “Why, what, where, when, who, and how” in that order.

Here we borrowed the sequence from TWI Job Methods. The first two questions challenge whether a process step is even necessary: Why is it necessary? What is its purpose? To paraphrase Elon Musk, the greatest waste of time is improving something that shouldn’t even exist.

Then: Where is the best place? and When is the best time? These questions might nudge thinking about combining steps and further simplifying the process.

And finally we can ask Who is the best person? and “How” is the best method? The key point here is until we have the minimum possible steps in the simplest possible sequence, and understand the cycle times, it doesn’t make sense balance the work cycle or work on improving things.

Come to think about it – perhaps we should ask “How?” before we ask “Who” since improving the method will change the cycle times and may well inform out decisions about the work balance. Hmmm… I’ll have to think about that. Any thoughts from the TWI gurus?

D. Ask Why 5 Times

Honestly, this was a legacy of the times. Unfortunately it suggests that you can arrive at a root cause simply by repeatedly asking “Why?” and writing down the excuses answers that are generated. In reality problem solving involves multiple possible causes at each level, and each must be investigated. I talked about this in a post way back in 2008: Not Just Asking Why – Five Investigations.

E. Go and see.

Go and see for yourself. Taking this into today’s practice, I think it is something that the Toyota Kata community might emphasize a little more. We tend to ask the question “When can we go and see what we have learned…?” but all too often the answer to “What have you learned?” is a discussion at the board rather than actually going and observing. Hopefully the board is close to where the improvement work is being done. Key point for coaches: If the learner can’t show you and explain until you understand, it is likely the learner’s understanding could be deeper.

As You Walk The Workplace:

Check:

perhaps we should have said “Ask…” rather than “Check” but asking and observing are ways to “check.” All of the below are things that the leader walking the workplace must verify by testing the knowledge of the people doing the work.

A. How should the work be done? Content, Sequence, Timing, Outcome

This is another nod to the research of Steven Spear. The key point here is that before you can ask any of the following questions, you have to have a crisp and precise of what “good” looks like. In this paradigm, all processes are target conditions. And as the work is being done, we are actively searching for obstacles so we can work to make the work smoother and more consistent.

In other words, “What should be happening?” and “How do you know?”

Do the people doing the work understand the standard process as it should be done?

A few months ago I went into some depth on this here: Troubleshooting by Defining Standards. That probably isn’t the best title in retrospect, but there are too many links out there that I don’t want to break by changing it.

B. How do you know it is being done correctly?

Today I ask this question differently. I ask some version of “What is actually happening?” followed by “How can you tell?” We want to know if the people doing the work have a way to compare what they are actually doing against the standard.

C. How do you know the outcome is free of defects?

So, question B asks about consistency of the process, and question C asks about the outcome. Does the team member have a way to positively verify that the outcome is defect-free?

D. What do you do if you have a problem?

Again, we are checking if there is a defined process for escalating a problem. And we define “problem” as any deviation from the standard, or any ambiguity in what should be (or is) happening. We want someone to know, and act, on this, and the only way that is going to happen is to escalate the problem.

We want this process to be as rigorous and structured as the value-adding work.

And we want as much care put into designing production process as was put into designing the product itself. All too often great care and a lot of engineering time goes into product design, and only a casual pass is made at designing and testing the process.

Even better if these are done simultaneously where one informs the other.

For Abnormal Conditions:

ACT:

These are actions that the leader must take if she finds something that isn’t “as it should be” in the course of the CHECK questions above. Key Point: These are leadership actions. That doesn’t mean that the leaders personally carry them out, but the leaders are personally responsible for ensuring that these things are done – and checking again.

That is the only way I know of to prevent the process from continuing to erode.

A. Immediately follow up to restore the standard.

If it isn’t possible to get the intended standard into back place, then get a temporary countermeasure into place that ensures safety and quality.

B. Determine the cause of erosion.

We are talking about process erosion here, with the assumption that something knocked the process off its designed standard. Some obstacle has been discovered, we have to better understand what it is – at least enough to get it documented.

C. Develop and apply countermeasure.

Here we may have to run experiments against this newly discovered obstacle and figure out how to make the process more robust.


That is the end of the little card. But I want to point out that we didn’t just hand these out. You got one of these cards after time paired with a coach on the shop floor practicing answering and asking these questions. Only after you demonstrated the skill did you get the card – just as a reminder, not as a detailed reference. This exercise was inspired by a few of us who had experiences “in the chalk circle” especially with Japanese senseis who had been direct reports to Taiichi Ohno.

We piloted and developed this process on a very patient and willing senior executive – but that is another story for another day. (Thank you once again, Charlie. I learned more from you than you will probably ever realize.)

KataCon 2020: Billy Taylor on Key Actions

Key Actions vs. Key (Performance) Indicators

Billy Taylor – Photo by Michele Butcher / Lean Frontiers

Another concept Billy brought out in his presentation was the difference between what he calls “Key Actions” (KA) and “Key Indicators” (KI) – often called Key Performance Indicators (KPI).

He actually introduced me (and a couple of other attendees) to the concept the previous evening. (Did I mention that a lot of the rich discussion took place in the lobby bar?)

We use the concept in Toyota Kata, we call them the “process metric” and the “performance metric” but I think Billy’s explanation offers more clarity than I have been able to pull off in the past.

He also ties it back into “what we must practice” to get the outcome we want.

In short, I look at the outcomes (the performance) I want, then ask “What actions, if they were carried out consistently, would give me this performance?” Those are the things that must be tracked, improved, and practiced.

I kind of addressed this concept a few years ago in Delivering the Patient Satisfaction Experience. But I’d like to focus in a little better.

Continuing on the health care theme, a key performance indicator is “hospital acquired infections” – getting sick in the hospital. Everyone agrees that this metric should be as low as possible, ideally zero.

But just tracking the “hospital acquired infections” isn’t going to nudge the needle much. There may be periods when there are improvements if there is emphasis, but year on year these things tend to be frustratingly steady over the long run.

If I ask “What behaviors, what actions, should we take to diminish opportunities for these infections?” then one thing pops right up on top: Anyone interacting with a patient must wash (or sanitize) their hands before doing so. Every. Single. Time. That action alone would have a dramatic and measurable impact.

It is so important that some systems have automated tracking to ensure compliance with this simple rule. (It is amazing to me that, in general, some of the worst offenders are physicians, but that is a rant for another day.)

Key Action: Wash your hands. Key Indicator: Hospital Acquired Infections.

OK – what about industry?

“Our machine downtime is too high. We need to improve our availability.” Key Indicator, but not directly actionable. What actions, if we take them consistently, do we believe are critical to reliable equipment?

Now we can track those. What are the critical-to-reliability things that must be checked every shift? Are they checked? How do you know? Do you track misses?

How about your preventative maintenance schedule?

Is the machine in configuration? Or are there improvised repairs in place? Why?

These are behaviors, actions, that relate directly to the availability of the equipment.

Together, they form a hypothesis: “If we carry out these actions (and know we did), then we predict this KPI will improve.” For this to work, though, we have to test whether or not the actions were carried out AND test whether or not the KPI needle moves over time.

One thing I would add: Focus on what people should do. Not so much on things they should not do. It is a lot easier to get a new habit into place than it is to stamp out an existing one. Working to replace an undesired action with a desired action is a lot easier as well.

The things that keep people from carrying out the Key Actions are obstacles. Now we can engage the Improvement Kata process and get to work.

TWI comes into play as well. “Are we carrying out the actions as we should?” It is all to easy to tell someone to do something and assume they know how, or assume that the way they do it is the way you have in mind. Trust, then verify.

KataCon 2020: Billy Taylor on Leadership

Photo by Michele Bucher / Lean Frontiers

Continuing my breakdown of Billy Taylor’s opening keynote at KataCon…

Key Bullet Points

  • People follow what you do before they follow what you say.
  • If you (as a leader) think you are above the process…
  • Deliberate practice on your practice of leadership. Focus on one thing.
  • Break down your leadership style [into elements]. Practice deliberately on one thing you want to reinforce or improve.

That second bullet is a real challenge for those of us who are in leadership positions (or even positions of influence). “If you think you are above the process…” – do you follow the standards and expectations you ask of others?

I think a good test would be “If a production worker corrected you, how would you respond?” If your internal emotional response (that initial feeling you have, not how you show yourself) is anything other than “Thank you for reminding me” then you are exempting yourself from the rules.

The other take-away:

Throughout his presentation, Billy was tying together the idea of “deliberate practice” and “developing leadership skills.” Leadership is a process, and processes can be broken down into their constituent elements and practiced.

This ties back perfectly to a broad spectrum of leadership development models. In the end, what we can control are:

  • What we say.
  • How we say it.
  • Who we say it to.
  • The structure of the environment that either inhibits or encourages the behaviors we want.

All of these things can be developed through experimentation, and then practiced. This is what Toyota Kata is about.

KataCon 2020: Billy Taylor on Deliberate Practice

The first official day of KataCon kicked off with a keynote on deliberate practice by Billy Taylor. I first met Billy back in 2012 when I was doing some work with Goodyear. When I saw him at last year’s KataCon it was like running into an old friend, but that is who Billy Taylor is – even if you just met him.

Billy Taylor on Deliberate Practice

Pull quotes and thoughts

The Concept of Deliberate Practice
  • Toyota Kata has two sides, like a coin. On one side is scientific thinking. On the flip side is deliberate practice.
  • Traditional practice is often just mindless repetition. Deliberate practice has focused attention on perhaps one aspect of the routine.

A couple of things come to mind for me here. First is that too many coaches go through mindless repetition of the Coaching Kata. They just ask the next question on the card, and never practice using the questions to nudge the learner’s thinking to the next level.

This means they never practice in a way that pushes them as coaches. More about that below.

The other is that we, all too often, take a learner through the entire process much too fast. We do this in classes to give them a taste of the whole process. But in real life, perhaps it would be best to anchor each Starter Kata step and ensure there is at least understanding before moving to the next.

When 2nd coaching it is equally important to focus both the coach AND the learner on improving a single aspect of the board.

As I am writing this, I am reflecting more, and parsing more. This slide offers a ton of insight for me:

From Billy Taylor’s KataCon6 Presentation

There is so much here on a lot of levels.

This is how I interpret the graphs: On the left we have “Just Practice.” Maybe I am learning to play a song on the guitar. As I practice I learn to play it better and better. Then I hit a plateau because I am comfortably good and not challenging myself anymore. I am just playing. And that feels awesome, because I validate to myself that I am pretty good.

At a higher level, this is the “lean plateau” that so many companies hit. They get really good at running kaizen events, or black belt projects, or whatever they do. They hit a pretty good level of performance, but things erode. They reach a plateau when the implementers are spending all of their time re-implementing what has eroded. They shift into mindlessly repeating the familiar rather than challenge themselves. What are we missing? Why is the skill concentrated into the same half dozen individuals who have been doing this since 1999?

The graph on the right represents something that is the same, but different. Take a look – each little squiggle repeats the graph on the left, only smaller. Each time a plateau is hit, the learner challenges herself to practice a new aspect. Things get a little worse for a bit, then as the new aspect is mastered, the process is repeated.

I see the job of the coach as two fold:

  • To challenge the learner in small steps, always looking for the obstacle to the next level of performance.
  • To offer up specific things to practice.

Billy’s presentation covered a lot of overlapping territory – enough for at least two more posts – stay tuned.

KataCon 2020: Ninja Kata and Kata in Secret

Clipped from Steven Kane’s presentation

In his level-set / coaching demonstration, Steven Kane talked extensively about obscuring the jargon of Toyota Kata to defuse pushback.

Tracy Defoe had a separate brief presentation titled “Kata in Secret” – and this has been a topic of discussion in the weekly Cascadia Kata Coaches call that Tracy hosts.

The two cases were a little different. In Steven’s case, he was (I think) talking about an organized effort. Lots of companies trying something new need to alter the jargon a bit. On a broader scale, there are quite a few companies where Japanese jargon will create an immediate wall of resistance, so why create the problem? Just change the words.

And I’ve certainly encountered cases where there was resistance to the very idea of any structure at all. Dealing with that took regressing away from the Coaching Kata and back to the more informal conversation that the Coaching Kata is teaching us to have.

Tracy’s cases are a little different. She is collecting stories from often solo practitioners who are practicing Toyota Kata under the radar because they are perceiving career risks if they are overt. In one cases a leader was explicitly told not to use Toyota Kata because it ran counter to the corporate lean program. She did anyway.

While I find these stories interesting, I am not surprised by them. I have seen, and even advocated, this for a long time. I call it “camouflage.” My principle is this:

Do the right thing, but make it look like what they expect to see.

In other words, there is no point getting dogmatic about something unless doing so advances your cause in come way. In still other words, don’t let “being right” get in the way of what you are trying to get done.

For example – one company I have worked with for a long time got hard pushback from their corporate continuous improvement mafia office. “We don’t have obstacle parking lots. We have kaizen newspapers.” OK, fine. They labeled the obstacle sheet “kaizen newspaper” and just call it “improvement coaching” and everybody is happy.

The key is this: Don’t dilute what you are trying to do. If you start moving away from developing a pattern of scientific thinking in the people you are helping, then you are letting the tools take precedence.

Notes from the 2020 TWI Summit – Part 1

Photo by Michele Butcher of Lean Frontiers

Last week (February 17-20) I attended (and presented at) the TWI and Toyota Kata summits put on by my friends at Lean Frontiers. As always, I took a few notes and I would like to share some of those notes and thoughts with you here.

To be clear, what follows are my impressions and thoughts that were sparked by some of the presentations. I am not trying to be a reporter here, just catch my own reflections.

Martha Purrier

Martha Purrier, a Director of Nursing at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, talked about “auditing standard work,” though in reality I think her process was more about auditing the outcomes of standard work. More about that in a bit.

My interpretation of the problem: Traditional “audits” are infrequent, and tend to be time consuming for those doing them because there is an attempt to make them comprehensive.

Infrequent checks are not particularly effective at preventing drift from the standard. Instead they tend to find large gaps that need to be corrected. This can easily turn into a game of “gotcha” rather than a process of building habits. What we want to do is build habits.

Habits are built in small steps, each reinforced until it is anchored.

Make it Easy: Short and Simple Checklists

Martha’s organization created short checklists of critical “Key Points” (from TWI Job Instruction) that were critical to the standard they wanted to maintain.

Audit Check Card. Photo from Martha Purrier’s Presentation

As you can see, this is a quick and simple check to see if the contents and organization of a supply cart meets the standard.

But what really caught my attention was how they are triggering the audits.

The Key: Reliable Prompt for Action

This is a pretty typical work task board. There is a row for each person or team. In this case the columns look like they represent days, but they could just as easily represent blocks of time during the day, depending on how granular you want your tracking to be. At some point these start to become a heijunka box, which serves the same purpose.

You can see the yellow bordered audit cards on there. Martha said that when a task is complete, it is moved to a “Done” column that is out of frame to the right.

Here is what is awesome about this: It gives you the ability to “pull” checks according to need.

Do you have a new process that you want multiple people to check during the course of the week? Then put the check card for that task in multiple rows at staggered times.

Do you want to go broad over a group of related checks? Then put different checks on the board.

Who should do the checks? Whoever you assign it to. Totally flexible. Do you want to trigger a self-audit? Then assign the card to the person who does the task being checked, with the expectation that they self-correct.

Do you want to bring a new supervisor up to speed quickly? Assign multiple audits to her, then assign follow-up audits to someone else.

Making it Better: Follow-up Breakdowns

If we don’t want audits to simply become lists of stuff to fix, there has to be some process of following up on why something needed correction.

Martha’s organization introduced a simple check-form that lists “Barriers to Standard Work – (check all that apply)” and provides space to list countermeasures taken.

The lists includes the usual suspects such as:

  • Can’t find it
  • No longer relevant
  • Not enough detail
  • etc.

but also some that are often unspoken even though they happen in real life:

  • Lack of enthusiasm to continue or improve
  • Mutiny
  • Relaxed after training – drift

If a large part of the organization is pushing back on something (mutiny), then the leadership needs to dig in deep and understand why. To continue in our TWI theme, this is a great time to dig into your Job Relations process.

Standard Work vs. “Standards”

In my past post, Troubleshooting by Defining Standards, I made a distinction between defining the outcome you are trying to achieve and, among other things, the way the work must be done to accomplish that outcome.

When I think of “standard work” I am generally looking for a specification of the steps that must be performed, the order for those steps, usually the timing (when, how long) as well as the result. In other words, the standard for the work, not just the outcome or result.

To verify or audit “standard work” I have to watch the work as it is actually being performed, not simply check whether the machine was cleaned to spec.

Now, to be clear, I LOVE this simple audit process. It is an awesome way to quickly follow-up and make sure that something was done, and that the patient or customer-facing results are what we intend. It is flexible in that it can quickly and fluidly be adjusted to what we must pay attention to today.

I realize I am quibbling over words here. And every organization is free to have its own meanings for jargon terms. But when I hear the team “standard work” I am looking for the actual work flow as well as the result. YMMV.

This post got long enough that I am going to let it stand on its own. More to follow.

The Cancer of Fear

File:Nandu River Iron Bridge corrosion - 03.jpg

I am sitting in on a daily production status meeting. The site has been in trouble meeting its schedule, and the division president is on the call.

The fact that a shipment of material hadn’t been loaded onto the truck to an outside process is brought up. The actual consequence was a small delay, with no impact on production.

The problem was brought up because bringing up process misses is how we learn what we need to work on.

The division president, taking the problem out of context, snaps and questions the competence of the entire organization. The room goes quiet, a few words are spoken in an attempt to just smooth over the current awkwardness. The call ends.

The conversation among those managers for the rest of that day, and the next, was more around how to carefully phrase what they say in the meeting, and less about how do we surface and solve problems.

This is understandable. The division president clearly didn’t want to hear about problems, failures, or the like. He expected perfect execution, and likely believed that by making that expectation loud and clear that he would get perfect execution.

That approach, in turn, now has an effect on every decision as the managers concern themselves with how things will look to the division president.

Problems are being discussed in hallways, in side conversations, but not written down. All of this is a unconscious but focused effort to present the illusion that things are progressing according to plan.

Asking for help? An admission of failure or incompetence.

This, of course, gets reflected in the conversations throughout the organization. At lower levels, problems are worked around, things are improvised, and things accumulate and fester until they cannot be ignored.

They the bubble up to the next level, and another layer of paint is plastered over the corrosion.

Until something breaks. And everyone is surprised – why didn’t you say anything? Because you didn’t want us to!

In a completely different organization, there were pre-meetings before the meeting with the chief of engineering. The purpose of these pre-meetings was to control what things would be brought up, and how they would be brought up.

The staff was concealing information from the boss because snap reaction decisions were derailing the effort to advance the project.

And in yet another organization they are getting long lists of “initiatives” from multiple senior people at the overseas corporate level. Time is being spent debating about whether a particular improvement should be credited to this-or-that scope. It this a “value improvement,” is it a “quality improvement,” is it a “continuous improvement” project?

Why? Because these senior level executives are competing with one another for how much “savings” they can show.

Result at the working level? People are so overwhelmed that they get much less done… and the site leader is accused of “not being committed” to this-or-that program because he is trying to juggle his list of 204 mandated improvement projects and manage the work of the half-a-dozen site people who are on the hook to get it all done.

And one final case study – an organization where the site leader berates people, directly calls them incompetent, diminishes their value… “I don’t know what you do all day”, one-ups any hint of expert opinion with some version of “I already know all of that better than you possibly could.”

In response? Well, I think it actually is fostering the staff to unite as a tight team, but perhaps not for the reasons he expects. They are working to support each other emotionally as well as running the plant as they know it should be run in spite of this behavior.

He is getting the response he expects – people are not offering thoughts (other than his) for improvements, though they are experimenting in stealth mode in a sort of continuous improvement underground.

And people are sending out resumes and talking to recruiters.

This is all the metastasized result of the cancer of fear.

Five Characteristics of Fear Based Leaders

Back in 2015 Liz Ryan wrote a piece in Forbes online called The Five Characteristics of Fear Based Leaders.

In her intro, Liz Ryan sets out her working hypothesis:

I don’t believe there’s a manager anywhere who would say “I manage my team through fear.”

They have no idea that they are fear-based managers — and no one around them will tell them the truth!

And I think, for the most part, this is true. If I type “how to lead with fear” into Google I get, not surprisingly, no hits that describe the importance of intimidation for a good leader – though there are clearly leaders (as my example above) who overtly say that intimidation is something they do.)

My interpretation of her baseline would be summarized:

People who use fear and intimidation from a position of authority are often tying their own self-esteem to their position within that bureaucratic structure. Their behavior extends from their need to reinforce their externally granted power, as they have very little power that comes from within them.

They are, themselves, afraid of being revealed as unqualified, or making mistakes, or uncertain, or needing help or advice.

I have probably extended a bit of my own feelings into this, but it is my take-away.

She then goes on to outline five characteristic behaviors she sees in these “leaders.” I’ll let you read the article and see if anything resonates.

Liz Ryan’s article is, I think, about how to spot these leaders and avoid taking jobs working for them.

This post is about how the organization responds to fear based leadership.

The Breakdown of Trust

A long time ago, I wrote a post about :The 3 Elements of “Safety First”. Today I would probably do a better and more nuanced job expressing myself, but here is my key point:

If a team member does not feel safe from emotional or professional repercussions, it means they do not trust you.

Fear based leadership systematically breaks down trust, which chokes off the truth from every conversation.

Here is my question: Do you want people to hide the truth?

If the answer is “No,” then the next question is “What forces in your organization encourage them to do so?” because:

Your organization is PERFECTLY designed to produce the BEHAVIORS you are currently experiencing.

– VitalSmarts via Rich Sheridan

LEI Book: Getting Home

“Are you ahead or behind?” seems an innocent enough question.

But when asked by a Toyota advisor, the simple process of becoming able to answer it launched Liz McCartney and Jack Rosenburg on a journey of finding consistency in things that were “never the same” and stability in things that “always changed.”

Getting Home is, first and foremost, a story. And, with the “business novel” being an almost worn-out genre, seeing a non-fiction story was refreshing. So when Chet Marchwinski from the LEI offered a review copy to me, I accepted.

For the story background, I’ll leave it to you to read the blurb on Amazon.* Better yet – read the book – and it is worth reading. I’ll say that right up front.

Yet with stories like this it is all too easy to dismiss them because they have different circumstances from “my” specific case and say “Yeah, it worked there, but won’t work here.”

I would contend, however, that in this case “it worked” in situations that are far more difficult than anything we are likely to encounter in most organizations.

What I want to do here is help pull their specific achievements into more general application – what lessons are here that anyone can take away and apply directly.

What They Achieved

I can’t think of a lot (any?) business circumstances that would have more built-in variability and sources of chaos than the process of rebuilding communities after a disaster such as a hurricane or flood.

Every client has different circumstances. The make, mix and skill levels of the volunteer workforce changes continuously. Every community has different bureaucratic processes – not to mention the various U.S. government agencies which can be, well, unpredictable in how and when they respond.

Yet they have to mobilize quickly, and build houses. This means securing funding, getting permits, mobilizing unskilled and skilled labor, and orchestrating everything to meet the specific needs of specific clients on a massive scale… fast.

How They Achieved It

When they first connected with their Toyota advisor, the simple question, “Are you ahead or behind?” prompted the response that drives all improvement, all scientific advancement, all innovation:

“We don’t actually know.”

Actually they did, kind of, but it was in very general, high-level terms.

And that is what I encounter everywhere. People have a sense of ahead or behind (usually behind), but they don’t have a firm grasp on the cause and effect relationship – what specific event triggered the first delay?

This little book drives home the cascading effect of ever deepening understanding that emerges from that vital shift from accepting things as they are to a mindset of incessant curiosity.

Being able to answer “Are you ahead or behind?” means you have to have a point of reference – what is supposed to happen, in what order, with what timing, with what result. If you don’t know those things, you can only get a general sense of “on track” or not.

They had to develop standards for training – what to train, how to train – volunteers! – , which meant challenging assumptions about what could, and could not, be “standardized.” (A lot more than you think.)

A standard, in turn, provides a point of reference – are we following it, or are we being pushed off it. That point of reference comes back to being able to know “Are we ahead or behind?”

 

It Isn’t About the Specific Tools

Yet it is. While it isn’t that important about whether this-or-that specific tool or approach is put into place, it is critical to understand what the tools you use are there to achieve.

As you read the book, look for some common underlying themes:

Information as a Social Lever

The project started revolving around the ahead/behind board.

In the “lean” world, we talk about “visual controls” a lot, and are generally fans of status boards on the wall. We see the same thing in agile project management (when it is done well).

These information radiators work to create conversations between people. If they aren’t creating those conversations, then they aren’t working. In Getting Home it was those conversations that resulted in challenging their assumptions.

Beyond Rote Implementation

Each tool surfaced more detail, which in turn, challenged the next level. This goes far beyond a checklist of tools to implement. Each technical change you make – each tool you try to put into place – is going to surface something that invites you to be curious.

It is the “Huh… what is happening here?” – the curiosity response – that actually makes continuous improvement happen. It isn’t the tools, it is the process of responding to what they reveal that is important.

Summary

Like the tools it describes, Getting Home is an invitation, and that is all, to think a little deeper than the surface telling of the story.

My challenge to you: If you choose to read this book (and I hope you do), go deeper. Parse it. Ask “What did they learn?” ask “What did this tool or question reveal to them, about them?” And then ask “What signals did they see that am I missing in my own organization?”

 

 

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*This is an affiliate link that give me a very small kickback if you happen to purchase the book – no cost to you.

It will feel worse because it’s getting better.

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The line is starting to flow, or at least there is more time flowing than not flowing. The places where it isn’t flowing well are now much more evident.

Things are speeding up. That is placing more stress on the engineering and materials supply processes where, before, they were shielded by a rough start-up that was always behind schedule.

They are catching up on the backlog, closing in on “on schedule shipment.”

“John” forgot to send a batch of parts to an outside processor. Before that would have been no big deal, it would be a day or so before those things were actually needed. But this time it briefly stopped the line and forced a work-around.

When everything was a work-around, nobody noticed. This time it got on the radar. It feels worse because the system is sensitive to smaller problems now, and there are plenty of those.

It isn’t “John’s” fault. He is flooded with a constant flow of things he needs to react to. There isn’t a structure for him to work within. That is the next opportunity.

Thus, it is critically important to remember a Toyota mantra:

‘No problem’ is a big problem.

If problems are not coming up, then your system is hiding them, plain and simple. You have stopped learning, stopped improving, stopped growing.

It is an easy groove to get into because we get all kinds of feel-good brain chemicals when things are going smoothly. We want more of those, less of the ones that call us to action.

But it is those “call to action” things that drive us to get better.

If You Think “We Can’t Please Our Customers” You’ll Be Right

The center of the B Concourse at O’Hare Airport in Chicago is dominated by a Brachiosaur skeleton, part of the Field Museum exhibit for their store there.

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As a reminder for those of you over the age of 14, the Brachiosaurus was 70 feet long, 30 feet tall, weighed in at around 60 tons.* It had a brain the size of an avocado. It wasn’t smart. It wasn’t fast. Its main defense against predators was that it was simply too big to catch and eat.

In the shadow of the Brachiosaurus is United Airlines’ main customer service desk for their headquarters hub.

Back in June, Chris Matyszczyk published some really interesting commentary on Inc. Magazine’s site: The CEO of United Airlines Says He Can’t Really Make Passengers Happy

In his article, he quotes from an interview Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, gave to ABC. From the interview:

“It’s become so stressful,” he said, “from when you leave, wherever you live, to get into traffic, to find a parking spot, to get through security.”

“Frankly,” Munoz added, “by the time you sit on one of our aircraft … you’re just pissed at the world,” and improving the flying experience won’t ultimately depend on “what coffee or cookie I give you.”

My interpretation? “We have given up trying to please our customers.”

That was the interpretation of Ed Bastian, Munoz’s counterpart at Delta Airlines:

…when Munoz’s views were put to Delta CEO Ed Bastian by Marketplace.

His response was, well, quite direct:

“I disagree. Those certainly aren’t Delta customers he is speaking to.”

My Perspective as a Frequent Flyer

Just so you know my perspective: In the course of my work, I typically purchase between 10 and 20 thousand dollars worth of airfare a year. While this isn’t anywhere near the highest, I think I am the kind of customer an airline wants to get and retain.

Further, I know the system. I know what to expect, can quickly distinguish “abnormal” from “normal” and know how to maneuver to get out in front of issues I see developing. I pay attention to weather and other events that might disrupt the system, and contingency plan accordingly. I know, generally, how to arrange my stuff to get through TSA smoothly (though they can be arbitrary).

And I have the perks of a heavy frequent flier, which buffers me from a lot of the “stuff” that casual travelers have to contend with.

Munoz used some words that really identify the problem: …by the time you sit in one of our aircraft…”

This casual statement, which correlates with my experience as a former United Airlines customer** implies a belief that the customer service experience begins once you are on the plane. This isn’t where United’s reputation is created. Once you are on the plane, the customer experience of all of the major airlines is pretty similar.

My experience reflects that it is what happens on the ground that differentiates one airline from another.

Assumptions About Customers Come True

The assumption that customers are just “pissed off at the world” and there is nothing we can do about it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If that is the attitude from the top, then it lets the entire system off the hook for making any effort at all to understand the things that might take some of the sharp edges off the experience.

On the other hand, if the attitude is “We are responsible for the experience of our customers – even if we aren’t” then the effort can get focused on understanding exactly what kind of experience we want our customers to have, and engineering a system that delivers it to the best of our ability. That, in turn, allows reflection when we miss, and improvement for the next time.

One is a victim attitude. “We’ll get better customer satisfaction when our customers are better at understanding how hard it is.”

The other is empowering – “Even if our customers *are* pissed off at the world, we will own it and work to understand what we can do.

How Does Your System Respond to Stress?

This in my mind, is what really differentiates a good system from a broken one. Like I said, it’s easy when everything is flowing smoothly. But what happens when the system is disrupted?

Is there a mad scramble of figuring out what to do – like it is the very first time a maintenance issue has caused a flight to be cancelled? What are we going to do with all of these passengers? Process them through two people? (See the line in my photo above!)

Or is there a clear process that gets engaged to get people rebooked – leaving the true difficult cases for the in-person agents?

Ironically, the major airline with one of the very best on-time schedule records also has one of the best recovery processes. Go figure.

Then there are little gestures, like snacks or even pizza for those suffering through a long delay.

“It’s not our fault” easily leads to “you’re on your own.”

“We’re going to own it, even if we don’t” leads to “let’s see if we can help.”

Now… to be clear, the entire airline industry has a long way to go on this stuff. But my point is that some are making the effort, while others have given up.

What Experience Have You Designed for YOUR Customers?

That, ultimately, is the question I am posing here. If you start with the experience you want your customer to have – a standard – then you have a point of comparison.

Did we deliver that experience? If so, then could we do it more efficiently?

If not, what got in our way, how do we close the gap?

Without a standard to strive for, there can be no improvement – and I think this is what Taiichi Ohno actually meant.

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* Estimates of the weight vary quite a bit.

Rough metric equivalents would be around 20 meters long, 9 meters high,  50 tons. About the weight of mid-cold war era tank.

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** With one exception that was booked for me, I haven’t flown on United since mid 2014 after an experience that could not have been better designed to tell the customer “We don’t work as a team or talk to each other.”

I cashed in my frequent flier miles for a camera about a year later.