Is Your Problem Technical or Adaptive?

Back in the early 1990s I was an avid skier, putting in 40+ days on the slopes every season. I was part of a group that did days in local (to Seattle) ski areas; annual trips to Whistler, BC (my favorite place); Mount Hood and Mount Bachelor in Oregon; and a semi-fateful trip to Red Mountain in Trail, British Columbia in March of 1993. Red Mountain is known for its challenging terrain.

March 13, 1993: Mark and the Red Mountain ski patrol

I was a pretty good skier, though not an expert. There were places where I would be in over my head. And I followed some expert skier friends into one of those places. To cut to the chase, I ended up learning how to spell “anterior cruciate ligament” and later on how to spell “arthroscope.”

My torn ACL was a technical problem, but not one I was (or am) qualified to fix. I outsourced the solution to a technical expert – an orthopedic surgeon and his team. They did a great job. Today that knee is better than the original equipment.

But the surgical, technical repair did not address the root cause of the problem. I could not outsource that. The work was mine, and mine alone, to do. Dealing with the root cause required me to change my own behavior. I had a few choices:

  • I could give up skiing entirely. Nope, too much fun.
  • I could take fewer risks, though that would mean plateauing my own learning.
  • I could work deliberately* to become a better skier so I can take on more challenging terrain with reduced risk of serious injury.**

No matter which of those courses of action I chose, they are not things I can assign to someone else to do for me. I have to do the work myself. Solving the problem requires a change in my own behavior.

I believe it was Ron Heifetz at Harvard who coined the term “adaptive leadership” to describe leading for behavior changes vs. simply guiding technical solutions. If you are a change agent, you are (or need to be) engaging in adaptive leadership.

In the context of continuous improvement, we are talking about the culture change that has to accompany any technical implementations if they are to stick for more than a few months.

Trying Technical Solutions on Adaptive Problems

An organization had a culture of working around their ERP / MRP system. If production fell behind, they extended lead times in the system (which is the worst thing you can do in this case). They would schedule “hot” orders in the past to force them to the top of the queue, driving material shortages for later orders – repeating the cycle.

They all believed that the computer system itself wasn’t up to the task of managing their “complex requirements.” (Which actually weren’t that complex at all – everyone seems to think their production portfolio is more complicated than everyone else’s.)

The new system, though, would fix all of this.

When the new system went into place, though, things got worse. Much worse. They doubled down on the same things they had done in the past, which made things worse again.

This wasn’t a problem with the computer systems. It was a problem with the way the team members worked together, a problem with their understanding of how their computer systems responded to their manipulations. It was a problem that no changes to the I.T. systems could solve.

Not surprisingly the same organization had tried kanban in the past. And not surprisingly they had worked around the system to “solve” perceived problems, and not surprisingly they had blamed the system for the failures.

It would not matter what technical system they had, their results would ultimately be shortages, expediting, scrambling to rush late shipments out the door. It was not the technical systems that produced those results, it was their behavior.

What Kind of Change Do You Have to Make?

This is adapted from material published by the Kansas Leadership Center, see more below under Further Information and Reading. The expansion, examples and explanations are my interpretation.

What kind of problem are you facing?

Is the problem clearly defined (like my torn ACL)? Or do you have to begin work to learn what actual problem(s) you are facing? If the later, you are dealing with adaptive, culture change work.

What kind of solution can be applied?

If there is a clear solution, or one can be researched, then you are dealing with a technical problem. But if the solution must be learned, then more likely it is adaptive. One key indicator – if you have put in a technical solution (like “standard work” or “5S” for example), but then seen it erode, then you are probably in adaptive territory. You have to learn what unseen factors are driving how people respond.

What kind of work is involved to apply the solution?

If you can just implement, like buying or upgrading a machine, then you are in technical territory. But if you have to diagnose, experiment, learn about things like the organizational dynamics then you are dealing with people’s behavior – an adaptive problem. Like above, I have seen many cases where a technical solution was implemented only to have that surface all kinds of adaptive and leadership issues. A new ERP system is a prime example. The software is the easy part. Beware of someone selling a “solution” by the way.

Whose Work Is It?

Even though this is a header, I bolded it, because this is The Critical Question. If technical experts or authority can just tell you what to do, then it is a technical problem.

But most meaningful change requires the stakeholders – the people responsible for the system and the results – to actually do the work themselves. This is the difference between fixing my torn ACL and the work I had to do.

In other words, if you put in “lean tools” (or complete a “black belt project”) only to see the results quickly eroding, then the technical tools, no matter how well you see them work elsewhere, are not going to help you. The organizations where you see them working have fundamentally different systems of leadership, and that is where the change must occur of the tools are going to work as promised.

What Timeline Should You Expect?

Technical solutions can be put in quickly. Anyone who has been though a classic “kaizen event” knows this. But changing people’s default thinking and behavior takes time because it takes practice and correction. And the default thinking and behavior is what created the technical systems you are trying to adjust. Eventually your kaizen blitz rocket runs out of fuel, and things fall back to Earth because gravity pulls them there.

What Are Your Expectations?

This is a tricky one. The whole reason to do any of this is to change results, change outcomes in some way. Technical solutions can do that pretty directly.

But when you are in adaptive territory, learning you way in, then you need to celebrate making progress and learn to trust the process – the results will come. Impatience does not serve us here.

Required Mindset

For technical solutions, skill and confidence are enough. You can hire someone with that. But if you are seeking to make real, meaningful change then you are better served with curiosity.

Further Information and Reading

If you want to learn more about Adaptive Leadership, here are some sources you can start with. Of course you can also leave a comment or click on “Contact Mark” in the right sidebar and ask me if any of this is interesting to you.

(Books are Amazon affiliate links, I get a small kickback at no cost to you if you buy through them.)

Best starter book: Your Leadership Edge by Ed O’Malley. This is also the text for a course by the same name taught by the Kansas Leadership Center.

Teaching Leadership by Chris Green and Julia Fabris McBride, who are also affiliated with the KLC, is more technical and more advanced. It is targeted more at people who understand the basics, and have practiced a bit, who now want to begin to coach others.

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ron Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow is what I would call the baseline reference. The books above are geared toward developing your practice. This book is more about the underlying principles. It is also a heavier read, just so you know.

*Note the word deliberately. This meant taking lessons specifically targeting my skill gap. Simply putting in more hours skiing would not be deliberate practice, I would simply be reinforcing the habits I already had. In other words – get a coach.

**Some of my more astute – probably younger – readers may question my judgement about not wearing a helmet. At that time, helmets were pretty uncommon for recreational skiing. Thankfully that has changed in more recent times. And yes, today I wear one.

Boeing: The Turning Point(s)

In early spring of 1999 I was sitting in a classroom at Boeing with a couple of dozen other employees. Everyone with a “management” job code was being sent to this session over a few weeks’ time.

The topic was a major new direction for the company. From this point forward, management was to use “shareholder value” as the primary consideration for decisions.

The main emphasis here was on a financial metric that would drive all decisions: RONA, or Return On Net Assets.

This was obviously a long time ago, and I have long since (unfortunately) discarded the handout materials because I wanted to reuse the fancy tabbed folder for something else. But as I recall, there were two primary topics discussed.

The first one was around what “shareholder value” meant. To that end they explained why maintaining a high stock price was important to the company: So they can raise money more easily for growth.

This was all about stock price. They didn’t talk about profits or dividends. Nor did they talk about executive bonuses or using excess cash for stock buybacks to raise the price of outstanding stock rather than investing that money into developing new aircraft; improving existing products or processes; or distributing that profit as dividends to the shareholders.

Of course, a high stock price enriches those people who already own shares, and makes options and stock grants more valuable, but they didn’t get into that either.

With the justification aside, they next had us go through exercises calculating net present value and ROI for a hypothetical capital investment in tooling – as though a shop floor supervisor would do this at any point in the course of their job. Maybe they wanted to show the thinking behind how requests for things like upgraded tooling were evaluated. I left the class not really sure of why they took us through that. I already understood those calculations from my background, but the shop floor guys were kind of scratching their heads.

The second part of the class involved a facilitator leading our group through discussion of the “grieving process” as it relates to “change” and trying to draw out how we felt about it. Then we were video-linked to other groups in identical sessions, perhaps in some effort to show how we were all in this together. Again, I wasn’t sure of the point of all of this.

Sidebar: If anyone reading this has better memory or still has any of the original materials from that class, I’d love to talk to you.

Overall, this shift was about the management process becoming financially centric. Boeing’s performance as a company since this shift has been (painfully) obvious to anyone who has been following business news over the last decade or so. The details have been covered elsewhere, so there is no need for me to reiterate them here. However, if you are interested in a succinct and well researched history, Petter Hörnfeldt is doing a fantastic job with a multi-part series on his Mentour Now YouTube channel.

Optimizing for RONA

RONA is calculated by dividing net profit by total assets. The obvious way to improve RONA is to improve operations and optimize processes to create maximum customer value for any given level of capital investment.

And this is exactly what Boeing had been working to do prior to this pivot toward “running like a business.” It was even developing a name: “Working Together.”

The Original Pivot: From “Do What You’re Told” toward “Working Together”

Ten years before this shift toward financialism, Boeing had been going through a different shift.

The Boeing that emerged from the early 1970s downturn was highly engineering centric. Engineers ran the company, engineers decided what would be designed and built. In the world of production, though, the culture was far from ideal.

I hired into Boeing in July of 1989. I was fresh out of the Army, and one of the contractors I had worked with in my last assignment was working as an Industrial Engineer in Boeing Flight Test. He introduced me, I had an interview (and couldn’t get a word in edgewise), and was offered the job.

At the time, Boeing was scrambling to keep up with deliveries for the hot-selling 747-400, and the Flight Test teams were helping prepare new planes for delivery. This involved inspections by the customer and test flights which, in turn, produced lists of things that needed to get fixed. My job, essentially, was to keep track of what was getting fixed, by who, and when, and produce daily reports on progress. My first plane was RT001 (internal production line number), the first 747-400 Combi being delivered to KLM.

The production processes were archaic, with legacies going back to the 1940s. Industrial engineers dutifully analyzed each job, and determined the time it should take. They used those times to build what were essentially Gantt Charts of the production plan for each worker. These were called “bar charts” and “making your bar” was, for all intents and purposes, how workers were evaluated.

The system was not robust, overtime would swing: When production managers were being beaten up about being behind schedule, they would turn on the overtime. A few weeks later, when overtime costs were climbing they were beaten up over that, and overtime would be shut down, leading everything started to get behind again.

Those costs were out of control. One bit of “common knowledge” in the company at the time – and I have to way to know if it was true, but it is certainly credible to me – was that for every four 747-400’s that Boeing delivered, they built the equivalent of five and threw one away into the scrap bins.

There wasn’t a lot of focus on the things that actually got in the way of people doing the work. There wasn’t time for that. Things were behind, and there was work to do.

With all of that, though, things had started to change. Boeing had brought in some of the well known quality names (Conway, Deming) in the late 1980s. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Colin Fox, an early consultant in the world of flow production, had led a series of study missions to Japan that engaged Boeing’s top 100 or so leaders.

Some of the pull quotes from those sessions were interesting – like the indignant reaction that Airbus would somehow dare to talk to long-established Boeing customers. These study missions were quite eye-opening for the participants.

These leaders had learned about the emphasis on quality, consistent execution, focus on the needs of the customer, using flow and just-in-time production to progressively surface problems, and engaging everyone to progressively drive those problems out of the system.

Those groups came back from their experience with an visceral understanding that the status-quo wasn’t going to cut it in the face of the then newly emerging Airbus. They realized then that Boeing had to transform itself from an engineering company focused solely on meeting engineering challenges to one focused on meeting the needs of the customers. But the key to meeting the needs of the customers was more than just understanding those needs better. It required creating a company culture that supported employees – everyone – to do the right thing for those customers.

Soon after these study missions someone decided, “Everyone in management needs to hear this.” The result was a 32 hour course that ran two days, then a break, then two days the following week. During the break, work teams were expected to do some homework assignments.

The idea was that the original leadership teams would teach this course to the next level of leadership, then train people at that level to teach the next – and cascade the teaching through the leadership ranks. The hypothesis was that since the message was coming from your immediate supervisory level, the thinking went, it would resonate better than if it was just professional instructors.

Sometime in late 1992 somebody then decided, “EVERYONE needs to hear this,” and the deployment was changed to include everyone in the company, all 130,000 people. That was, in my opinion, a smart move if only because it was a move toward transparency. The class wasn’t some secret management thing.

I was aware of all of this because one of the supervisors (though not my direct supervisor) in the Industrial Engineering group I was working in had become an evangelist, and ultimately put in charge of coordinating the delivery of the class through about half of the company. (The “Renton Division” – at the time Boeing was essentially North Boeing (in Everett) and South Boeing (in Renton.))

He and I had a lot of common values and background, and he shared a lot of his excitement with me.

When they started rolling the class out to second shift he told me they had an extra slot on one of the sessions and I managed to wrangle attending, probably about a year before I would have otherwise. I went to a 2nd shift schedule, and attended the class… on crutches, as I was recovering from ACL reconstruction surgery at the time. This would have been late spring 1993.

But his real agenda here – I later learned – was that he wanted me to teach it. To that end, he had established a program of inviting “non-management volunteers” as instructors. Within a month of having attended the course, I was one of the instructors delivering it. I taught it (always as part of a team of four) about a dozen times, always to an audience of hourly employees (union members). They could be a tough audience, but not necessarily for the reasons you might expect.

Why am I telling you all of this?

I think it is important to relate that this is my personal story and experience rather than just reporting on something. I do not pretend to be a journalist, and am certainly not objective in this case. While Boeing had lots of issues, at the time I felt they were generally trying to move in the right direction and the potential was, simply put, unlimited. I believed, and still believe, that Boeing at the time had the technical capability – if they had the financial resources – to land people on the Moon (and return them safely to the Earth).

Managing for World Class Competitiveness

The name of this course was Managing for World Class Competitiveness.

The core message was (quoting from an introductory slide):

  • Management is responsible for and committed to making Boeing a world-class company.
  • To become a world-class company requires an understanding how world-class companies operate.
  • Continuous Quality Improvement encompasses all of what you are about to learn.

Remember that this was 1992 or so. The “continuous improvement world” was in a gradual shift from the language of TQM (big ‘Q’ Quality) to looking at the Toyota Production System as a specific benchmark. Although The Machine That Changed The World had just been published, the word “lean” was not yet in common use to describe these things. We referred to “Japanese Management” or “JIT” to describe what, today, we call “lean.”

Other context – Six Sigma was largely a Motorola thing, and was just beginning the morph that happened as it passed through G.E. It for sure had not yet had the word “Lean” spliced onto it. I think that happened in the late 90s, and if I recall correctly (and I could be wrong), it happened at Maytag.

Other WCC Key Messages (Quotes from Key Slides)

  • Superb manufacturing processes, delivering world-class levels of quality, are a primary source of competitive advantage.
  • The product development process, likewise, must be focused, fast, and integrated with production.
  • Leadership and management systems focus on operational strategic objectives that, in turn deliver financial performance.

This last bullet is a critical point. It is the one that was totally lost later.

World Class Principles

Without going into all of the content, I think I can summarize the core messages with the “Twelve World-Class Principles” which, I think, have aged pretty well:

  1. Quality First: policy in action.
  2. Customer-driven.
  3. Partnership with people.
  4. Management leadership.
  5. Quality built in.
  6. Organizational alignment.
  7. Cross-organizational coordination for the customer.
  8. Elimination of waste: Focus on adding value.
  9. Reliable processes through reliable methods.
  10. Healthy work environment.
  11. Simplify.
  12. Continuous improvement as a way of life.

The Impact

The course rolled down through the company into 1994. There was also an economic downturn happening, at least in aerospace. Some of the hourly mechanics in the classes I was teaching had already been notified they were being laid off. That could have created some real awkward moments – and it did. But most of those guys were actually thankful to have been sent to the class when there was no business need to do so. “You guys are showing me how to run a business if I end up starting one.”

In the background, also in the early 90s, Boeing was beginning to experiment with things like 5S and “Accelerated Improvement Workshops” (AIW) (aka kaizen events). Most of these were small-scale tactical affairs.

Also happening in this time was the development of the Boeing 777. Alan Mulally, as the chief engineer / program owner (and later the President of Boeing Commercial Airplanes) had introduced the theme “Working Together” to describe how they were going to involve key customers, like flight-line mechanics from United Airlines, directly into the process of specification, design, and testing.

The new plane was also being designed with producibility in mind. The structural designs were far more tolerant of production variation, for example. This was also the first Boeing plane to be designed in electronic 3D CAD systems that showed things like interference. Boeing had worked with Dassault Systems to develop CATIA pretty much for this project.

Outside of 777 development, around 1994 or so, Pratt and Whitney (who are profiled in Womack and Jones’ book Lean Thinking) introduced Boeing to Shingijutsu, the Japanese consultants that were made famous by that book. My experience was that they, especially Mr. Iwata and Mr. Nakao, challenged Boeing to take the game up quite a few levels.

Peak Boeing

On April 9, 1994 I took my then-girlfriend-now-wife as my guest to the rollout for the new Boeing 777. There were actually 15 “rollouts” that day – this was a major celebration, and over 100,000 people attended. The company had hired Dick Clark Production to stage the event, and even thinking about it today still brings (good) chills. It was a triumph moment for everyone.

What followed was regarded as the most intense, and smoothest, flight test and certification program Boeing had ever done. The goal was to deliver this long-range twin-engine plane with the certification to fly long-haul over water from day one. This was the first time that had ever been done. It was ambitious, to say the least, as these were also new engine designs from G.E., Pratt and Whitney, and Rolls Royce. Side note: The engines on the 777 are roughly the same outside diameter as a single-aisle airliner’s fuselage.

The first 777 delivery took place in May, 1995 – pretty much exactly as had been promised back in late 1989/early 1990 when the design program was officially launched.

All of the above was a triumph in the engineering and product development process.

Production, though, still had work to do.

Working Together in Manufacturing

The story about the overtime cycles I told earlier was the world my by-now-wife was dealing in when she was working night shift on the 777 assembly line in 1998 as she was part of the team putting together the fuselage section that sits over the wing (called the “44 Section”). By the time she was working there, they were running a takt time of 3 days, which, for something this large and complex, is impressive.

While the design of the airplane made the airframe much easier to assemble compared, for example, to the 1970 era 747, there were still supplier quality issues and general “stuff” to deal with in production. They worked very hard, much harder than they really should have needed to.

While this was all happening in Everett, there was a revolution happening in Renton.

At some point, Mr. Iwata, the chairman of Shingijutsu Consulting, had challenged Boeing to build planes on a moving assembly line.

The original response to that challenge was a team trying to design a moving assembly line. Their approach was to try to work out solutions to all of the problems that would entail and then build the line and run it. There were a few iterations of this effort, but they all got overwhelmed in the thousands (millions?) of details. They were trying to develop solutions to every problem they could imagine.

Just for context, this is what Boeing 737 final assembly looked like in 1990 when they were running a cycle of 20 planes / month (one per workday):

There were actually two lines running parallel, each one on a two day cycle. Toward the top of the picture you can see the “slant positions.” Each time the line was indexed, it generally took a shift to, in succession, pull each plane back, then forward, then dock it into the next position. And because this was a schedule-driven line, the planes moved on time, ready or not. Incomplete work became “travelers” – jobs that traveled with the plane to be completed later when, for example, the parts became available. Exactly who was supposed to do that out-of-sequence work while everyone was busy with the scheduled jobs was a little vague. Usually… overtime.

There are about 23 planes of work-in-process in this photo.

The assembly manager for 737 then ran an experiment. Instead of trying to solve all of the problems they could think of before trying anything she took the opposite approach. She got an RV winch, bolted it to the floor by the door, hooked the cable to the last plane, and started pulling it – slowly – through the work position. If everything was going smoothly, they kept pulling. If something disrupted the work, they stopped the winch, wrote that down, and picked off a few of those things to try to fix on the next cycle.

It took a few years, but this is what the same line, making the same planes, at the same one-plane-a-day rate, looked like by 2000:

There is only one line. The planes are nose-to-tail. What you can’t see here is that those planes are all moving toward the door at about three inches per minute.

After I had left Boeing, I had the opportunity to organize a study mission group through a series of factories in the Puget Sound area. One of them was the Boeing 737 moving line. This was late 2002, they had gone through a recession, and were in the process of ramping back up. (There was no public tour for this, you had to know someone.)

This is part of the report I submitted to our VP of Operations at Genie (Colin Fox – remember that name from earlier?) the next day:

Renton is building the 737 at a rate of 14 planes per month with a two shift operation on a moving assembly line. Although they are very clear that they are still in transition, our tour guide (the 737 program manager) told us their hours worked per plane have been cut roughly in half. The reduction has been through the elimination of rework and overtime – building the plane on the intended schedule – rather than absolute gains in productivity. They achieved this by implementing aggressive expectations for problem escalation and response from support organizations. This has been a major culture shift as the support organizations shift their approach from “I’ll get back to you” to a sense of urgency about getting production started again. There are andon and status screens for each position on the assembly line.

Additionally they have ship sets (What we would call a “unit set.”) of parts and tools delivered to the work position for each shift of work. This has eliminated the shift start-up ritual of a mechanic looking up his jobs, investigating the engineering drawings, going and finding his parts, going and getting his tools, visiting the chemical crib to get his materials, etc, etc. Instead the mechanic can get straight to work.
Just as impressive is that they do this with less than half the number of aircraft-in-process as they would have had with their traditional slant-position approach. Where they used to have a month or more of flow through the line they are down to a little over a week.
Mary, our tour guide, also discussed some of the leadership challenges at length. She encountered considerable “what about” type resistance from traditionally thinking support organizations who wanted to solve every problem they could imagine before proceeding. She was adamant that the only way they could get anywhere was to just try it and see what happens. They started the way Henry Ford did – by pulling a plane down the line with a winch to see what disrupted the flow, and fixed the problems as they came up.
Boeing’s other assembly lines are studying the lessons from 737 (and 717 in Long Beach). The gains realized in converting from a pulse type line to a continuously moving line are no longer in question there because someone has gone and tried it. Equally impressive is that the “Snohomish Airplane Company” (Everett) is studying and adapting ideas from the “Lake Washington Airplane Company” (Renton). Traditionally there has been very little travel of ideas across this divisional boundary. (“Big airplanes are different from little airplanes” and vice-versa.) The 747 is continuously moving through part of its production – using the winch mechanism that 737 gave them.

On that same tour we also saw amazing efforts in their Fabrication Division in Auburn.

Like all of Boeing’s operations, the Fabrication Division has been severely impacted by their workforce reductions. They told us they are down to approximately 8,000 employees from 14,000. They have been consolidating plants – partly due to reduced capacity requirements and partly due to lean manufacturing improvements. They recently sold a major portion of their Auburn property to Safeway. In addition, they are consolidating operations out of Harbour Pointe (near Everett) into Auburn and Everett.
At our request, the tour highlighted their technology for developing custom ‘right sized’ equipment and machinery. Boeing’s first chaku-chaku line went into operation in early 1999, but faced significant management resistance. Since then Boeing has had a clear, but unpublished, intention to get out of the fabrication business and outsource it. The Fabrication Division has seized the crisis. Everyone we spoke to is very clear that they must compete against a world-wide supply base to stay in business. They want to be the “preferred supplier” for the parts they make. The Fabrication Division no longer regard their existence as a given.
Their response has been to attack capital expense.
The technology is most widely deployed in their Integrated Aerostructures operation. This is where the original chaku-chaku line was developed. That line is still in operation, along side a second generation set of equipment.
Throughout the tour I observed that they have a technology base – a consistent approach  for designing and developing this equipment. But this base is not an anchor. Rather, it gives them a platform from which to improve. Each generation or project clearly adds features and sophistication (though not complexity). In all cases they are focused on single-piece takt time production with minimum capital, minimum labor and maximum quality.
Although the machine shop and emergent manufacturing are not as far along, they have boosted the level of effort in those areas by shifting people from the Integrated Aerostructures moonshine teams into those operations. The solutions we saw in those facilities were no less innovative, they simply did not have the breadth of implementation yet.
We also saw early examples of ‘bus routes’ for drop-off and pick-up of work in process from point to point, visual scheduling and pacing boards.
On the down side, their orders are still ERP / MRP generated, and they have yet to integrate their internal supply chains with pull. In my opinion this will be a difficult challenge as it requires a breakdown of traditional organizational boundaries. While they are deploying innovative production technology, those areas are still islands of flow in a largely batch environment. This is even more true in the Interiors operation in Everett (which I visited this Fall) where one-piece-flow fabrication cells are loading carts of parts that feed batch assembly operations a few feet away.
The obvious (to me) end-game would be to develop right-sized processing and finishing operations that allow detail fabrication to be exported from the Fabrication Division in Auburn to the line side at the assembly plants in Renton and Everett. Again – whether they do this or not will depend on whether Fabrication Division shift their emphasis from being a parts supplier to being a technology supplier, and overcome a reluctance to take on processes that affect metallurgical characteristics such as aging or heat treating.

Just to be clear, I did not cite this report from memory 20+ years later, I copied and pasted from the report that I actually submitted. This was my reflection at the time.

To put it simply, Boeing was on the verge of the breakthrough. They knew what to do, they knew how to do it. The approach was diffusing beyond a few staff specialists. There was a sense of purpose.

But all of this was 2002. The pivot to financially driven management had been underway for three years by that point.

The bit that is lost here is that all of these efforts were focused on improving RONA – Return on Net Assets. In Renton they were working on improving the return to get more value out of the assets that were already in place rather than continuing to add more. In Auburn they were working to develop equipment that was cheap and scalable that was just as (or more) capable as the large, expensive, automated equipment it was replacing. Less capital, more flexibility, linear scalability, little or no depreciation costs booked.

But from corporate HQ, the Jack Welch protégés that were now running the company had a quicker way to get to that RONA number: Attack the denominator: slash assets. To that end they were working to outsource large swaths of production, especially capital intensive parts like fabrication and airframe assembly; as well as a large portion of the design process itself.

By 2003 I had left the Puget Sound area for a few years and the only information I had about things happening inside Boeing at that point would be from reports in the press. The 787 program had run years behind schedule and billions over budget. The 767 Tanker program for the Air Force had been through a series of scandals, and then persistent overruns and quality issues.

Years later I joined another group touring the 737 “moving” line. By this point, though, the line was not actually moving. The tugs were just used to pull the stationary planes to the next position. We were told they would start moving the line again, “once we have solved enough problems.” The thinking had reverted – we have to solve the problems before we try, rather than trying to surface the problems we have to solve to make it work.

Fear had re-entered the equation. It was becoming palpable even to me as, now, an outsider just visiting.

Then in late 2018 and early 2019 two 737 Max planes crashed within five months of each other, for the same reason, with the loss of 346 lives.

Up to that point the cost of managing for “Shareholder Value” had been tremendous, but limited to damaging Boeing’s reputation and finances, as well as the morale in its workforce. Now people had died.

The rest of the story, honestly, remains to be told.

Boeing is at another turning point.

All of Boeing’s CEOs since the resignation of Phil Condit, have been Jack Welch protégés. Welch’s legacy at G.E. was, ultimately, to destroy the company. As I am writing this G.E. has finally completed the breakup into major divisions. Their current CEO, Larry Culp has, at least from what I have heard from people working there, repudiated the Welch era and is focusing on building a culture of teamwork.

If Boeing’s board can find the courage to admit that the results of last quarter decade have been the direct and predictable (and replicable in other companies) outcome of the way the company has been led and managed then maybe, just maybe, they have enough airspeed and altitude to recover from a flat spin.

When former Airbus executives are chiming in about what Boeing must do, it might be time to think a little harder than doubling down on what they have been doing.

They almost did it.

What Conversations Does Your VSM Drive?

Continuing on the theme of value stream mapping (and process mapping in general) – in the last post, Where is your value stream map? I outlined the typical scenario – the map is built by the Continuous Improvement Team, and they are the ones primarily engaged in the conversations about how to close the gap between the current state and the future state.

The challenge here is that ultimately it is the line leadership, not the Continuous Improvement Team, that drives whether or not this effort is long-term successful.

Getting a continuous improvement culture into place means changing the day-to-day patterns of interaction between people and groups of people. We can put in all of the lean tools we want, but if those conversations don’t follow, the system quickly reverts to the previous baseline.

What is interesting (to me, but I admit I’m a geek about this stuff) is that this is a meta level thing. While we are working on improving the performance of the value stream, we really have to be working on the performance of the process of leadership in the organization.

The value stream map can help with this, but we have to be deliberate about it, and realize that it will be an incremental and iterative process, just as we find in trying to improve how any process functions.

Start With Where You Want To Go

For line leadership, before we even start drawing process boxes, the first step is deciding why you are even doing this. What problem are you trying to solve? What aspect of your current performance needs to change… dramatically?

Is your system unresponsive to customers? Do customers expect deliveries inside your nominal lead times? Does that disrupt your system? What lead time capability would let you routinely handle these issues so they weren’t even issues anymore, just normal operations? That objective is going to bias your current state VSM toward understanding what is driving your lead times, where, when, and for how long, work is idle vs. actually being processed, etc.

Or maybe you need to increase your capacity while holding your costs (vs. just duplicating the existing processes). Now you are going to be focusing on the things that constrain your throughput, activities that consume time within cycles of output and the like.

Establishing that focus is a leadership / management task. It doesn’t work to just say “We need to improve” or even worse “We need to get lean.”

Sometimes these things are obvious frustrations to management, but often they are overwhelmed with general performance issues, or trying to define problems in terms of financials. That is an opportunity to focus back on the kind of performance that would address the financials.

The cool thing here is that you really can’t get this wrong. If you set a goal of radically improving your performance on any single aspect of your operation, you will end up improving pretty much everything in the process of reaching that goal. But it is critically important to have a goal to strive for, otherwise people are just trying to “improve” without any objective.

Then map your current state. The challenge gives you context. The current state map gives you a picture of how and why the system performs as it does.

Just so we don’t get sucked down the whirlpool of focusing too much on the business process in this discussion, the reason why you are getting this clarity is to get (and keep) the leaders engaged. If the objective is something abstract like “get lean” it is easy for them to think they can just get updates while they deal with the “real issues.” We want to attach this to a real issue that they are already working on.

Thus there is no “lean plan.” So many companies make “lean” somehow separate from other business objectives. I never could understand that. Maybe they are trying to separate “gains” that are a result of the “lean program” from those created by other initiatives. It doesn’t work that way. There is only one operating system in play, and that is what drives your day-to-day performance. If you don’t like the performance, you have to change the operating system. That is a management function, and it can’t be delegated.

The photo above is a current state map from a process that took several weeks to ship a part that the customer had ordered. Since it was a make-to-order shop, this was, shall we say, challenging for the customer relationship people.

As the team built the map it began to sink in that the time actually making the part was less than 30 minutes, and the value add was about six of those minutes. Their performance metric was “Past Due Hours” which was an abstraction of the programmed jobs that were behind the promised ship date.

Because the customers were always asking the business team members, “Where’s my stuff?” those customer reps were, in turn, always on the shop floor trying to get their orders expedited. They were competing with one another for a place in the production queue.

There is an icon in the middle of the map. Here is a close up:

This is Jim. He was an hourly associate whose nominal job was to pull the paperwork, match it up with raw material, and stage the work package into the production queue.

But this role made him the gatekeeper. So the customer service people (you can see their names in the lower left corner) would be pressuring Jim to jump their hot orders (and they were all hot by the time it got to the point where there was paperwork release – another story) into the queue so they could tell their customers that their orders were “in production.”

This put Jim in the position of having to make the priority decisions that the leadership wouldn’t make. Ultimately it was Jim who decided which customers would be disappointed that day. That made his day way more stressful than his pay grade. Respect for people? Hardly.

It also resulted in a staged order queue (materials and paperwork on carts) that snaked through the shop until it finally (days later) got to the actual production cell which, once they started, could actually knock things out pretty fast.

None of this addressed the past due issue. In fact, this made it worse.*

The key question for this team was “Who needs to have what conversation about work priorities so it isn’t all on an hourly associate to decide which of our customers will be disappointed?”

Who Needs To Fix This?

We want to solve problems at the lowest possible level, but no lower. In this working example, asking the shop floor workforce to fix this problem would be futile. Yes, they can propose a different structure, but they do not control how orders are released, they do not control how capacity is managed, they do not control the account managers who are fighting for a spot in the queue. They had been complaining about this bind for a long time. It wasn’t until the people running the business saw how the overall system worked that they understood that this is a systemic issue, and “the system” belongs to line management.

The facilitation question that got their attention was “Do you want Jim to be the one who decides who gets production priority?” Of course the answer was “No.” And that wasn’t about Jim, rather it was the realization that this WAS the existing process, and that wasn’t how they wanted things to operate. As my friend Brian says, “You may not like your normal, but you have to deal with it.”

That is generally the case at the value stream level. Value stream problems are usually at the interfaces between processes. The shop floor can’t, for example, transition from a push scheduling system to pull on their own. If they try, they create conflicts with the existing scheduling system and this usually tanks their metrics – even if performance is actually getting better.

These are all management discussions.

Key Point: The value stream level is a systems view. While you absolutely want input from the people who are engaged in the work every day, working on the system itself is not something that can be delegated by line leadership. They are the ones who are responsible for the overall system, and they are the ones who need to be responsible for changing it.

The Future State Map is a Hypothesis

Once you understand the current condition, the next step is to answer the question, “How does the process need to operate in order to meet our goal?”

The purpose of mapping a future state is to design process flow that you believe will meet your challenge if you can get the system to work that way.

It isn’t about seeing what you could do by removing waste. It isn’t “what could we improve,” it is “what must we change to reach our objective?” Again, this is a management function. It’s called “leadership.”

Which brings me to the title of this post.

Who Is Talking About This Stuff?

If the Continuous Improvement Team simply facilitated the process for line leadership (the actual stakeholders) to grasp the current condition and establish a target (future state) condition, what is crucial is who takes ownership of closing the gap. If the C.I. team are the ones discussing the problems they are often in a position of having to sell and justify every step of the effort to get to the future state.

Likewise, I have seen a lot of cases where the people primarily participating in building the value stream map were working level team members. Yes, it is absolutely necessary to have their insights into how things really are for people trying to get stuff done. Yes, it is critically helpful for them to understand the bigger picture context of what they do. However, all too often, I see senior leaders disengaged under the umbrella that they are “empowering” their workers.

Just to be clear: We absolutely want to create conversations about improvement at the level of the organization where value and the customer’s experience is actually created. The point here is that those conversations cannot be the exclusive domain of the working levels. It is critical for line leadership to be, well, leading. They can’t just delegate this to the continuous improvement specialists. Nor can they simply leave it to the working levels to sort it out – not if they expect it to work for any length of time.

Who reports on progress?

When an executive wants to know the progress toward an improvement goal, who do they call? Do they call the continuous improvement team to report? Or do they call the actual stakeholder who is responsible?

This is an easy trap to fall into. The C.I. Manager wants to show they are making a difference. The senior manager knows the C.I. Manager probably has better information. But that isn’t the conversation we want to create. The conversation needs to be between the line leaders. Yes, the C.I. team can (and probably should) help structure that conversation, but if they inject themselves into the middle (or allow senior management to put them there) the vital vertical connections are weakened – if they ever existed.

Thus, it is critical for the Continuous Improvement team to have a crystal clear picture of who should be having these conversations, and be actively working to nudge things in that direction. This is the process the C.I. team should actually be working to improve.

What should people talk about?

Ah, here’s the rub. For some reason managers today have a reluctance (or even disdain) to talk about operations, preferring to keep conversations in financial terms of cost, earned hours, yield and the like. These are all outcomes, but they are outcomes of process, and it is only by changing the process that those outcomes can sustainably change.

That conversation about progress I talked about above? That can’t be solely about the performance. It has to be about what is changing in the way the work is being done, and more importantly, what is being learned.

What the future state value stream map does (or should be used to do) is translate those business objectives into operational requirements for the process.

What Is Your Target Condition?

How we start to see the organic intersection between Toyota Kata and the value stream map.

The future state map defines a management goal. It also highlights the problems that must be solved to get there. (Those are the “kaizen bursts” that Learning to See has you put on the future state map.)

Those problems, or obstacles in Toyota Kata terms, at the value stream level become challenges (again in Toyota Kata terms) for the respective process owners.

Now the conversations move to the right level. Rather than asking for the status of action items for the “lead time reduction initiative,” the line leaders are discussing progress toward getting the changeover in stamping down to 17 minutes, and the cycle times in the weld cell under the takt time.

In my working example above, the first target condition was to have Jim simply pull the next order from a FIFO queue in a series of slots on the wall. The customer service reps had to meet every morning and could reshuffle the orders in those slots all they wanted, but Jim’s job was just to take the next one. That pushed the initial conversation to the one they had been avoiding: The customer service team talking among themselves, rather than making Jim the arbitrator.

There was a lot of other work as well. They established a rigid FIFO with a fixed WIP level of staged orders. Instead of pushing days of work into that queue, there was a buffer of about an hour (to absorb variation in processing times between various jobs).

At the same time, the team running machines now understood the rate of processing that was required to keep up with the volume of work. That had been totally hidden by the queues before. All they knew is that they were behind. Now the conversation shifted to “Are we going fast enough?” It shifted from discussions about backlog (which really are not productive) to discussions about rate of processing which is the only thing that affects the backlog.

Getting all of this dialed in and stable took a few weeks of daily conversations between the Operations Director and the various managers and supervisors whose work impacted the flow. It involved walking the floor, putting in visual indicators that clearly defined what should be happening – the target condition – and they discussed reasons things looked different: The actual condition now, and what obstacles were being surfaced as they worked to reduce the WIP buffers.

The net result?

Learning is Critical

The current performance is an outcome of the current system. People do their best within the system they have to work within, and we have to assume the system reflects management’s understanding of how things should operate to get the best results.

Even if someone knows a better way, that knowledge is wasted unless it is applied to the overall system of operating – the way we do things.


You would never say “The freezer is cold enough, we can unplug it now.” You have to keep putting energy into the system just to keep the temperature where it is. Tightly performing production systems are no different. Over the course of the next year or so past due hours slowly crept back up for unknown reasons. Why? Because they didn’t talk about it every day.

*When a shop is behind, the management reflexes are (1) increasing batch sizes and (2) expediting. There really aren’t any better ways to make the throughout and response times worse.

Where is your value stream map?

Thanks to everyone who left comments on the last post, Learning to See in 2023. You are making me think.

Although Learning to See (the book) describes building your value stream map on A3 / 11×17 paper, most of the maps I have seen have been large affairs on a wall.

I like this approach because it shifts people into the position of standing side-by-side talking about what is in front of them, which fosters collaboration.

The question in the title, though, is more about whose wall is it? Who sees this every day, who is standing and talking about the current state, the future state, and steps to close the gap between them?

I usually see these in the Continuous Improvement team’s workspace. That was certainly the case for the one in the photo. Sometimes they would bring management into that room to discuss progress, but all too often that became a report-out to the managers.

And right there we have an interesting situation: The Continuous Improvement Director and his team have a much deeper understanding of what was going on than the people in charge.

This was partly because it was the Continuous Improvement team members who made these maps in the first place. And they were the ones tracking the metrics, including quality, productivity. They were the ones identifying the problems, and they were the ones working to solve the problems.

And they were the ones complaining when things eroded because management “wasn’t supporting the changes.”

What’s the problem here? What were they actually expecting the line leaders to do?

As a Continuous Improvement team (and if you are reading this, that is likely you), your ultimate goal is to enable the line leaders by engaging through them rather than engaging for them.

You likely have to get there step-by-step, with successive target conditions, but it is the level of engagement of those leaders, and their growing competency in doing so that you and your C.I. team should be tracking on your walls.

Think about what that would look like.

Learning to See in 2023

Pat’s comments on my last post reminded me of another post I had written a decade (!!!) ago titled Learning to See in 2013*. I think it is time for reflection and an update. That being said, I think the 2013 post has actually aged pretty well. I don’t see anything in it I would retract, just some things to further clarify or amplify.

Of course that implies that we (our community) is still largely stuck in the same groove we were a decade ago. *sigh*

Let’s ask some questions:

Who is “Learning to See?”

The first time I made a real value stream map was in 1999. A plant manager asked me to build a map of the flows in his factory. I spent three or four days talking to his area managers to get their understanding, observing flows on the shop floor, getting actual cycles, comparing what I observed with what those managers thought was going on.

With all of that information, I mapped out the factory’s flows. It took four 11×17 (A3 size) sheets taped together to depict what happened as raw steel came in one end of the building and was cut, bent, welded, painted, and assembled with purchased components into the final product.

I learned a lot, not only about mapping a process, but about the way this factory functioned, and had pretty compelling evidence that the bottleneck was not what the common knowledge said it was.

I dutifully presented my findings to the plant manager and his continuous improvement manager. And things pretty much ended there.

Years later, another plant manager asked me to come out to their site and map their value streams. This time I was pretty insistent that though I was happy to come out and facilitate the process, it really had to be the site leaders that were doing the observations and building the map. What they wanted, though, was for me to report my findings to them once I was done. I still scratch my head about that one as the General Manager was an ex-Toyota guy who knew better.

Which brings us to:

Who is mapping the process?

A production team reviews their understanding on a value stream map

Regardless of what structure you use to map your process (VSM, Swim Lanes, SIPOC, to name a few), the learning comes from the experience of building the map and then having to explain it to someone else.

That second bit is important: If you can’t explain it to someone else, you probably don’t understand it as well as you thought.

So, if you are a consultant or internal change agent, and you build the map and then try to explain it to management, guess who learned the most? (Hint: It wasn’t your audience.) The key point here is if your objective is for the line leaders to gain insight into what is actually happening, you are unlikely to accomplish that objective by explaining it to them. They will never gain as much insight as you did.

In the photo above, it is the operational leaders who are explaining what they are learning to me. I’m just asking questions until I understand. They ended up going back out to the shop floor more than a couple of times as the picture came into focus.

Why are you mapping the process in the first place?

I asked this question in the 2013 post: “Why are you doing this at all?” with a context of having some kind of strategic intent, a challenge, in mind.

If there isn’t a concrete challenge or objective in place, this quickly turns into a “What could we improve?” exercise followed by a calculation about whether it is even worth going through that effort or might be cheaper to just outsource the entire thing to a “low wage country.”

But there is another, more tactical, reason to ask this question.

If your step was “Make a value stream map,” then “What do you expect as a result of taking that step?”

I have heard responses such as “I expect the leaders to see what they need to fix.” That, actually, is a testable outcome if you do so with intent. But if you are frustrated that, time after time, a current state process gets mapped and then nothing else happens, then it might be time to ask “What am I learning?”

This kind of brings us back to the importance of that overall strategic intent, because that is what drives the necessity to then build a possible future state map that, if we can operate that way, will deliver the results we need. From that we can establish challenges for individual local leaders and work with them (coach them) toward reaching those challenges.

Again – this is all a lot of work. And it is hard. Thus it is equally important to understand that the higher level goal here is to build capability and competence within your organization. If you forget that part, then it is all to easy to just outsource the mapping (see the beginning of this post) or, worse, outsource your entire value-add chain.

*The title of that post, and this one, is based on a groundbreaking book by Mike Rother and John Shook, Learning to See. Published in 1999, it introduced the term “value stream map” into the vernacular. And it was the first significant publication of the then newly-formed Lean Enterprise Institute. I think Learning to See actually had the impact of establishing a genre – practical application workbooks that sent beyond just discussing benchmark examples and general principles.

Signs of a Failing Lean “Implementation”

Let me profile a company – I have an actual company in mind, but this one is only a concrete example.

This company has been engaged with continuous improvement since at least 1998. Yet, just a few weeks ago, they posted an opening for a Continuous Improvement Director. And this isn’t the first time. I have seen this position posted by this company every couple of years.

The posting explicitly calls out this C.I. director’s responsibility to “champion” their “[Corporate Name] Business System.” That at least implies that the [Corporate Name] Business System is something aspirational that must be internally championed by others rather than the way they simply do business every day. Indeed, they feel the need to hire someone from outside the company to champion their [Corporate Name] Business System to their own leaders. This is pretty strong evidence that the actual Business System within the company is something radically different than [Corporate Name] Business System.

This is not a sign of success over the past quarter century. Quite the opposite. We have a company with people on the payroll who were not even born when the C.I. effort was initiated. If senior leaders have come up through the company ranks, they have been exposed to the tenants of the [Corporate Name] Business System their entire careers.

Yet it is still necessary for a dedicated person to advocate for it.

If this company might be you… here are some questions to think about:

How much actual cultural change has taken hold in the day-to-day operations since you have been engaging in kaizen activities?

Is the daily activity of your line leaders – the team leaders, supervisors, first line managers – reflective of something other than your [Corporate Name] Business System? If so, why? What forces are at work to push those activities in a different direction than the one you say you want? For example, are there metrics or line management expectations that run counter to moving continuously toward 1:1 production at takt? What policies or expectations are in place that systematically undo the results of a kaizen event?

How much daily kaizen is done by your line leaders? Your supervisors? Do your first-line leaders coach your supervisors on improvement? Are they qualified to do so? If yes, do those improvement activities tier up through line management toward the higher-level goals of the company?

Do your manufacturing supervisors have the basic industrial engineering skills? Can they fluently talk about takt time, cycle time, flow, work balance, etc? Are those skills represented in the way they run their day-to-day operations?

If the answers to these questions are largely in the negative — if you have been at this for two decades+ and they are still in the negative, then I think I can safely say that this isn’t just some kind of fluke. What you have been doing is not working. If you are looking to do more of what you have been doing, maybe consider trying something else.

That being said, don’t give up. It isn’t that this stuff doesn’t work, it is that your approach to embed it into the organization has, up to this point, been ineffective.

Consider an approach where the primary focus is on the patterns of day-to-day interactions between people, working toward having them engage in effective problem solving and learning on a daily basis. If improvement only happens as an event, then it is, by definition, not “continuous.”

I believe that structuring those day-to-day interactions is the purpose of all of the so-called “lean tools” (and all of the other “tools” called out by other packages such as TQM, xSigma, TOC, etc). But unless those tools are deployed with that purpose in mind, it is all too easy to put in the mechanics without creating any shift in the culture.

And it is the culture that actually matters.

So ultimately my question is this: Do you have the continuous culture that you want today? If your [Corporate Name] Business System is actually in place, congratulations. But if that culture is still aspirational, and if you are trying to, yet again, hire someone from outside to champion that culture, what is everyone in charge doing?

The CEO’s New Strategy

by Hank C. Andersen

Not many years ago there was a CEO so exceedingly fond of finding the right strategy that he spent all of his money on consultants to tell him what the strategy should be.

One day there came two consultants and they said they could craft the most magnificent strategy imagianable. Not only would it solve all of the problems, and produce great prosperity and profitability, but it had an added feature: It would make no sense to anyone not qualified to be in his job.

“This would be just the strategy for me,” thought the CEO. “If I adopted it, then I would be able to discover which managers in my company are unfit for their posts. I could tell the ones I can trust from those who must be fired. Yes, I must have this strategy,” and he paid the consultants a large sum of money to start work at once.

The consultants set up their laptops and pretended to produce all sorts of presentations, though the presentations were actually jargon, buzzwords and gibberish. They demanded all sorts of information about customers, sales, products, and market sectors while they worked their PowerPoint far into the night.

“I would like to know how these consultants are getting on with the strategy,” the CEO thought, but he felt uncomfortable when he remembered that those who were unfit for their position would not be able to understand it. It couldn’t be that he doubted himself, yet he thought he would rather send someone else to see how things are going.

The whole staff knew about the strategy’s peculiar power, and all were impatient to find out how stupid everyone else was.

“I’ll send the President of my largest division to the consultants,” the CEO decided. “He’ll be the best one to tell me how the strategy works, for his division is always highly profitable, and no one does the job better.”

So the Division President went to the room where the two consultants sat working away at their Buzz Words PowerPoint presentations.

“Heaven help me,” he thought, as he studied the screen, “but this makes no sense at all. If we follow this strategy we shall surely send our customers to our competitors.” But he did not say so.

Both of the consultants begged him to be so kind as to come near to approve the details of the strategy, the nuances of the implementation plans. They pointed to boxes, arrows, circles, and buzzwords, but as hard as the poor Division President looked, he could not understand anything because there was nothing that could be understood.

“Can it be that I am a fool? I could have never guessed it, but not a soul must know. If I question the strategy, I will reveal myself to be unfit, and surely be fired,” he thought.

“Don’t hesitate to tell us what you think of it,” said the consultants.

“Oh it is amazing, I can clearly see how this will streamline our operations and increase our profit margins. I will be sure to tell the CEO that this strategy must be adopted, without question, across the company.” And so he did.

The consultants at once asked for more money and more data so they could add to the details, and continued to pump out more and more slides of management buzzwords.

The CEO asked his Chief Operating Officer to see how the work progressed, and how soon it would be ready. The same thing happened to him as had happened to the Division President. He looked and looked, but as there was nothing that made sense, he could not understand it.

“Isn’t this a magnificent strategy?” the consultants asked him as they displayed and described their back-up slides.

“I know I am not stupid,” the COO thought, “so it must be that I am not qualified for my job, for this strategy makes no sense to me.”

“That’s strange, I know I have been a successful business leader. I must not let anyone find out.” So the COO praised the strategy that he could not understand. He declared it to be almost ready for deployment across the entire company. To the CEO he said, “It is magnificent, and anyone who questions or challenges it must be fired immediately.”

All the company was talking of this splendid strategy, and the CEO wanted to see it for himself while it was still on the consultants’ laptops. Attended by the Board of Directors, among whom were his two old trusted officials, the ones who had seen the consultants, he set out to find the consultants hard at work on their PowerPoint slides.

“It is amazing,” said the COO and Division President. “Just look, sir, what brilliance! What design!” They pointed to boxes and arrows each supposing the others understood what it all meant.

“What is this?” thought the CEO. “I can’t understand any of this. This is terrible.”

“Am I a fool? What if the Board of Directors finds out that I cannot understand this?”

“Oh – it is brilliant,” he said, “It has my complete approval.”

The entire Board and Staff stared and stared. Nobody could understand more than anyone else, but they all joined the CEO in exclaiming, “Oh it is brilliant!” and they advised the CEO to deploy the strategy across the company in a great kickoff and rollout process.

The CEO gave each of the consultants a company pin to wear, and paid their final fees plus a bonus.

Before the kickoff, the consultants sat up all night and drank two pots of coffee to show how busy they were finishing the CEO’s new strategy. They printed handouts and workbooks, posters and training materials. And at least they said, “Now the strategy is ready for the kickoff.”

Then the CEO came with all his staff, the Division Presidents, and the Board of Directors to see the consultants’ presentation.

The consultants went through each slide, pointing out how the new strategy revolved around empowering the organization to achieve market positioning by creating synergy through focus on cultivating agile B2B relationships with key customers utilizing the talent pool. This would be done by incorporating A.I. to embrace the vital few in order to maximize the effectiveness of the e-commerce solutions. Further, costs would be reduced and product quality enhanced through embracing a holistic approach, continuously monitoring performance, and fostering a culture of continuous improvement in order to optimize production processes through operational efficiency measures, streamlining supply chain management, and technology integration. And on and on they want, explaining nothing at all as though it had profound meaning.

During the break, the CEO asked his staff what they thought. “It is a find strategy,” they all agreed. “It is lightweight, robust, and will give us great focused solutions.”

“This strategy is brilliant,” they all agreed, as they flipped through the colored brochures describing everything.

And with that, they agreed they must post the entire presentation on the corporate interwebz for everyone to see.

And so they did. And the Middle Managers all agreed this this, indeed, was a remarkable strategy. When one of them dared to question it, he was fired immediately, for he obviously was incompetent.

In the coming weeks, the CEO presided over all-hands meetings at each site in the company. Then, at one of the meetings, a forklift driver said, “But this makes no sense at all, It is just a bunch of management gibberish.”

“Have you ever heard such an ignorant comment?” said the worker’s manager. But the others started to whisper to one another… “But the strategy makes no sense.”

As the word spread by social media, email, and even phone calls, soon everyone in the company was saying, “The strategy makes no sense.”

The CEO shivered, for he suspected they were right, but he thought, “We must deploy this strategy,” and had his staff report weekly on implementation progress on a strategy that was nothing at all.

Toyota Kata: Coaching vs a Report Out

Andrea brought up an interesting point in our weekly open Toyota Kata discussion. She noted that as the coaching conversation became more and more fluid, it tended to become more like a report-out from the learner than coaching them. That got me thinking about a couple of things.

Updating the Toyota Kata Storyboard

Reverse Coaching

Something I think I have talked about in the past is the technique of using the Improvement Kata structure to report out. In other words, report out progress (like in a meeting, for example) as though you were answering a version of the Coaching Questions even though they aren’t being asked.

  • Review what we are are trying to accomplish.
  • Where we are now.
  • The last step taken, what happened, what has been learned.
  • The next step being taken, what we expect (or expect to learn)

It would be really simple, for example, to format PowerPoint slides in this sequence. I discussed this a little bit way back in 2008, before Toyota Kata was published.

My hypothesis here is that people would like hearing a report in that format, and the boss might well start asking others to do the same thing.

Maintaining the Coaching Structure

Of course I don’t think this is what Andrea was talking about. It was the opposite. The learner is so familiar with the structure, and well prepared, so the coaching questions seem moot.

So what is a coach to do?

Here is my question:

Are You Challenging Your Learner?

When you are getting a report-out with little room for coaching this is actually a good thing. It means that your learner has developed and what may have been challenging in the past is now more or less routine.

Keep in mind that your learner has two thresholds of knowledge. One is around the actual process or task they are taking on. That is what is actually being discussed in the coaching conversation.

The other threshold of knowledge is around learning to tackle tough challenges with the scientific thought structure.

With beginner learners, both of these knowledge thresholds are pretty apparent. As a coach you are working to develop their thinking patterns, to make that scientific thought structure habitual. You do that by giving them challenges that take them a bit beyond their threshold of knowledge, and then coach them to apply scientific thought to take on that challenge.

As they get better, they will apply scientific thought to any problem they take on. Congratulations, Coach, it worked. You can tell this is happening when the conversation starts to sound like a report-out. What once was a tough problem is now handled routinely.

OK, Coach, Time to step up your game.

What challenge can you issue that would have your learner struggle a bit with grasping the current condition? Establishing a target condition? Figuring out what the obstacles are and isolating them? Developing good experiments?

In other words, how to you push your learner a bit beyond their threshold of knowledge of tackling challenges scientifically? Then you are back into the learning zone and both of you are operating at the next level.

TWI: Is it Time to Rethink Job Relations?

My intent with this post is to spark a conversation about whether it is time to adjust what we teach people to say when they are teaching TWI Job Relations. It is based on, and expanded from, a talk I gave at the 2023 TWI Summit.


TWI stands for Training Within Industry, a program developed during WWII by the U.S. War Manpower Commission. During the war there was huge growth and turnover within the industrial base as production shifted from civilian products (locomotives, for example) to wartime production (tanks). Many of the (mostly male) workers were drafted or enlisted. People with no industrial experience were joining the workforce. Technicians, often very technically skilled, but inexperienced in leading people, were put into supervisory positions.

The Commission deployed a series of training programs to teach industrial supervisors:

  • Job Instruction, teaching the skill of breaking down a job and teaching it to others.
  • Job Methods, teaching the skill of analyzing work with an eye to improve efficiency.
  • And, Job Relations, what we are discussing here, the skill of handling people problems.

The program produced detailed manuals for certified instructors, and was rigorous in insisting that instructors not deviate from the words in the manual (unless the manual called out using their own words to tell a story, for example).

Today there are a lot of people, both internal trainers and quite a few outside training companies and consultants, using this material to teach.

In many cases the material these current-day trainers use deviates very little from the source material.

In addition, there are companies that are “training the trainer” to deliver the course precisely – which is good – and coaching them not to deviate from the words in the manual.

When we have people follow a script, they are playing a role that is defined by the voice in the script. Yes, they bring their own style, but the scripted dialog sets the tone of the message.

I believe it is time to take a look at that source material through the lens of 21st century values and ask whether or not we should revise the words and content in that script rather than blindly following something written in 1944 as though it is somehow sacrosanct. If the words do not match the story we want to tell, and the values we want to communicate, then perhaps we should update the script.

The challenge, of course, is that nobody owns this material. The original 1944 manuals are all in the public domain. Thus there is no central owner or go-to “keeper of the configuration.” Anyone can take the source material, and with some practice and feedback, do a credible job delivering it. But it remains that most of the versions in use out there don’t deviate much from the original material.

Thus, my message is not about anyone in particular. It is about the 1944 material. What follows is a review I would write if it were just being published, separating from the legacy and taking an objective look at the document and training material as it stands on its own.

If you are considering using it yourself, or are considering hiring someone to bring this material to your company, then hopefully this will make you a better customer by arming you with some questions to ask.

Determine Objective: What Kind of Relations Do We Want?

The TWI Job Relations course emphasizes the importance of supervisors having “good relations” with their people, and giving supervisors the basic skills they need to develop and maintain those relations is clearly the objective of the course. In principle, I agree with this objective 100%. The relationships between a supervisor and the team are critical to the success of the organization.

How do we define “Good” in “Good Relations?”

If “good relations” is the overall objective, then we should look at what is meant by the word “good.” I think the answer depends on the person’s mental model and biases about the role of authority. There are a couple of distinct paradigms I want to discuss. There may be more, but I think most are variations of these two. And, to be clear, this is actually a continuum rather than a bipolar model. I am just showing the endpoints.

Thus, rather than thinking about whether a particular turn of phrase in the script represents one end or the other, perhaps ask, “Which direction is it nudging things?” In other words, which end of the continuum is it biased toward – and is that the direction you want to emphasize in your own organization?

Traditional Transactional Relationships

In a lot (probably most) organizations the relationship between the supervisor or boss and their subordinates is largely transactional.

They ask people to give their time and participation in exchange for tangible benefits (like pay) and intangible rewards (like approval).

Transactional Relationships within a work group

This model embeds some tacit assumptions including:

  • If everyone does their job, we get the result we want.
  • The supervisor is largely responsible to define the jobs.
  • The supervisor is responsible ensure that everyone is doing those jobs.

The Job Relations material is pretty explicit when it describes the purpose of the class:

Management wants output and quality.

Output and quality always require the loyalty and cooperation of the people in addition to what machines can accomplish.

Can we do something which will improve loyalty and cooperation? That is the purpose of these meetings.

– From Job Relations Session 1

Loyalty and cooperation are certainly things we would like to get from people, but I also think it is also a pretty low bar. And loyalty is a two-way street, at least outside of a dysfunctional relationship where it is expected but not given outside of the bounds of a transaction.

A Mechanistic Model of the Universe

This transactional view is representative of a 17th century mindset that, unfortunately, prevails today in many domains, especially in business and industry.

Largely defined in the work of René Descartes (1596-1650) and really solidified in the work of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) this model depicts a universe that operates like clockwork. It is mechanistic. It is deterministic – if we know the starting positions and characteristics of the pieces, we can predict what will happen. This is a reductionist view – we can understand the whole by decomposing it and understanding the parts. If we optimize the parts, we will optimize the whole.

From the 1944 perspective, the world of physics had been grappling with the idea that none of this is actually true for the previous 30 years or so. In the world of everyday experience, the mechanistic view still made common sense to people. It still does today. But on the level of human relationships, we now understand things much better.

The Mechanistic View in Industry

What do I observe that might lead me to conclude that the mechanistic view prevails in a business or factory?

Relationships Are Transactional

There are discussions around the relationship as an exchange between the business and the employee.

Motivation is Regarded as Extrinsic

Workers in the Ford Model-T Factory

“They are only here for the paycheck” and even the attitude that the purpose of treating people well is to motivate them to perform – as part of the transaction. The general belief here is that if it were not for the external rewards, people would not bring what is required to the job.

Issues, “problems,” are framed as restoring or renegotiating the transactional relationship, or at best, heading off things that might disrupt it.

The Goal or Objective is for everyone to “do their part” for the performance of production – to meet the needs of the organization which is thought of as separate from the employees.

Therefore, leaders intercede when something threatens production. Their goal, their objective, is to head off threats to the status-quo or to restore the status quo.

Now, to be clear, there are elements of these things in even the most enlightened organizations. But there are key differences in the underlying paradigm and, more critically, the words that are used when discussing problems.

The Holistic, Teamwork View

The reductionist, mechanistic model is appealing because it creates an illusion of direct cause-and-effect between a change in one component and the overall outcome. It is also appealing because it gives the illusion that we can deal with each component, including each person, separately, and shape their behavior by altering the terms of the transaction.

We have learned a lot since the early 1940s.

The Holistic, Systemic View

In this paradigm the emphasis is on teamwork rather than “do your job.”

“Teamwork” is interesting. People tell me they want “teamwork” within their organizations as though teamwork is a tangible thing. It isn’t. Teamwork is an emergent property of specific habitual patterns of interaction between people. When those interconnections are strong, there is teamwork. When those interconnections are weak, then people tend to retreat into their own individual silos.

The supervisor’s role in this model is much less directive. Their objectives are around maintaining clarity so that the entire team is aware of how they are doing vs. their objective; to work to build trust with and between the members of the team; and work to grow people’s skills, both technical and social.

The objective is centered around strengthening the team.

What kind of things do I observe when this model prevails?

Relationships are Social

This doesn’t mean that everyone is friends or socializes outside of work (though that can happen). It doesn’t even mean they all like each other. Rather, there is a bond of trust and respect between the members of the team. This isn’t just about the interactions between individuals and the supervisor, but interactions between everyone.

Sidebar: It your organization refers to employees in terms such as “team member” but still engages in traditional transactional relations focused on compliance and control, the values in your language do not reflect the values people actually experience, and you are only fooling yourself.

Motivation is Considered to be Intrinsic

Human motivation is probably the thing we have learned the most about since the 1940s. There is a robust body of research that suggests that transactional, extrinsic, motivators alone actually reduce teamwork, reduce the level of commitment, and impede creative problem solving because they introduce a fear of loss into the transaction. Organizations that have strong teamwork also understand this.

They work hard to build a workplace that creates a sense of autonomy, competence, and most critically, relatedness – the sense of satisfaction from relationships and being a part of something bigger than ones’ self.

And crucially, these organizations tend to consider all employees, regardless of level, to be vested members of a single entity rather than transactional employees. Note that I say “employees” here but I am not implying any particular legal relationship. I have seen phenomenal teamwork and intrinsic motivation within groups of independent contractors, or hybrid groups with both independent contractors and formal employees. I have even seen it with team members who were technically employees of a temp agency.

This feeling of being vested in the teamwork and the outcome arises from the relations between the team members, not any particular legal structure.

Assumption: Good Teamwork Produces Better Results

In the strongest teamwork cultures, the lowest level of accountability for results is the team. Admittedly this is exceptional, but it demonstrates a basic underlying assumption: The way to get the best performance is to focus on strengthening teamwork rather than reacting directly to things that disrupt production.

Now… reality is more subtle than this, of course. But that really means that the leadership, especially the first line leadership, must be steeped a mindset of learning and growth rather than one of simply gaining compliance.

A Thought Experiment – Which Team Do You Want?

Consider this hypothetical. We have two groups that are identical.

  • The same people.
  • The same process.
  • The same equipment.
  • The same environment.

The supervisor for Team 1 has a focus on things that disrupt production.

The supervisor for Team A has a focus on things that strengthen teamwork.

Which of those teams will be more productive? Team 1? or Team A?

I asked this question to an audience of about 60 people (as I gave this talk) at the 2023 TWI Summit. Nobody raised their hands for Team 1. About two thirds raised their hands for Team A. Strong teamwork produces better results.

Two Teams Thought Experiment

Getting the Facts: What Does TWI Job Relations Actually Say?

Which brings us back to our original question: How do we define “good” in “Good Relations?”

The 1944 Job Relations trainer’s manual is silent on any direct definition of “Good Relations.” Therefore we have to look at what the material defines as the objective of the supervisor.

In the introductory material on day one, we see this definition of “Good Supervision” at the bottom of Page 18 in the 1944 Job Relations manual:

Good supervision means that the supervisor gets the
people in his department to do what he wants done,
when it should be done, and the way he wants it done,
because they want to do it.

Are you comfortable with this definition of “good supervision?”

All I can do here is relate my own reaction. Yours may be different. But to me, this is the very definition of compliance. Most updates to the material change the pronouns from “he” to something more inclusive, but the rest of the words remain, and are often quoted outside of the actual class.

Is this the objective? Is this the relationship we want our supervisors to have with their people? Only you know what your objective is.

Page 18 of the Job Relations Manual: Is this what we want?

Here is a little test you can do. Take this definition of “good supervision” and frame it in the first person. Imagine that a supervisor was saying these words to the people who report to him. “My job is to get you to do what I want done, when it should be done, and the way I want it done, because you want to do it.”

Now ask yourself: Would that statement reflect respect for the people it was spoken to? Would it fly when spoken to members, especially the youngest members, of a 21st century workforce? Does that statement meet the objective of good relations between a supervisor and his direct reports?

If teaching your supervisors how to constructively gain compliance from their people is your goal, you can stop reading. This post is not targeted at you.

But if you are after a different objective, then perhaps we should rethink the words we use when instructing. And, more importantly, we should rethink the words we teach others to use when teaching them to deliver this training material.

The Job Relations Model

If we were to hypothetically change the definition of “Good Supervision” to something a little more aligned with 21st Century values (or keep it if your values are aligned with it… why are you still reading this?) and look at the rest of the material, we see that we may have now created some discontinuities that need to be addressed.

The TWI Job Relations Model

The question remains: Does the model we use to teach these concepts support our objective?

In the 1944 course, the instructor constructs this diagram step by step with the objective of emphasizing that success of supervisors depends on the “loyalty and cooperation” of the people working for them.

The first step of building the diagram is to emphasize that “A supervisor gets results through people.” by making the valid point that it is the people actually running the machines and assembling the product (or in more modern language, performing the value-adding operations) that actually get the results.

Did that supervisor himself make wire? No, he supervised a department in which many people worked together to turn out the wire.

Now this is really just a quibble on my part, but is there a better way to say that the supervisors’ job is to enable their people to get good results rather than “the supervisor gets results…” which, in my mind, lays claim to them?

Gets Results Through People – Does it reinforce the idea of hierarchy and authority?

I’m just throwing that out there, but overall, the tone seems to me to be more about authority than teamwork.

If I look holistically, I think the supervisor is more about enabling the team to get results by working on removing barriers to teamwork and getting the job done in the most effective and efficient way possible.

As the vertical two-ended arrow labeled “Job Relations” is drawn, the training script directs the instructor to say:

“Job Relations are the everyday relations between you [the supervisor] and the people you supervise.

The kind of relations you have affects the kind of results you get.

Relations with some are good, with others are poor, but there are always relationships.

Poor relationships cause poor results ; good relationships
cause good results.

When a supervisor wants to meet any of these responsibilities effectively, he must have good relations with his people.

And all of this is totally true. What is not here is emphasis on the relations between the people. In fact, the word “trust” appears nowhere in the baseline material. “Teamwork” is mentioned only as “Lack of teamwork” in the list of possible problems a supervisor might encounter. It certainly isn’t a point of emphasis as a core objective.

So to someone who already has a mechanistic mindset, it is easy, in my mind, for that person to interpret this material as reinforcing a model where the supervisor uses his authority to oversee each member of the group individually with the overall objective of each one doing his job so that their piece of the process functions correctly.

The Foundations for Good Relations

TWI Job Relations – Foundations for Good Relations Pocket Card

The 10 hour course spends 10 minutes going over the “Foundations for Good Relations.”

They are:

  • Let each worker know how he is doing.
  • Give credit where credit is due.
  • Tell people in advance about changes that will affect them.
  • Make the best use of each person’s ability.

and at the bottom of the pocket card: People must be treated as individuals.

What is really interesting to me here is that, according to the 1945 Training Within Industry Report that outlines the development of these courses, an earlier version of these foundations was (Bold emphasis added by me):

  • Be sure that each person understands what his job is.
  • Be sure each person understands the working conditions.
  • Be sure each person understands what affects his earnings.
  • Be sure that the people on the team work together.

So earlier, pilot, version of the material from early 1942 (at the latest) included an explicit reference to teamwork as a foundation for good relations, but this was changed by the time the final 1944 version was finalized. And it is the 1944 version that everyone who teaches TWI Job Relations bases their materials on.

Although the foundations are pretty solid, I personally find the phrasing a bit paternalistic – which, again, reflects the values of the times. Thus I think we should review the foundations and choose our words carefully when teaching these critical concepts.

The other question I have is this: Since these foundations are a critical underpinning for the entire program, why do we only spend 10 minutes telling them about the foundations? From TWI Job Instruction we know that “telling alone is not enough” for something that is critically important.

Again, according to the official history of the program, earlier pilot versions spent more time on the foundations, but that time was given up in order to spend more time on what is now the main emphasis of the course: “How to handle a problem.”

How to Handle a Problem

TWI Job Relations – How to handle a problem

The course defines a problem as: “Anything the supervisor has to take action on.” and right away we set the tone for the remaining 8 hours and 55 minutes of the course – Problems.

What is awesome about TWI Job Relations is the Four Step Method for “handling problems.” What I wish were different is that it is framed to be about handling problems that cannot be ignored rather than a more general purpose process for developing people and teamwork. The process itself needs no changes. Only the title and context of teaching.

I think this point is driven home by the way the 10 hours course spends people’s time.

What Does TWI Job Relations Emphasize?

Timeline of TWI Job Relations 10 Hour Course

A simple look at the overall timeline of the course is telling. It spends slightly over 10% of the time talking about the foundations (in green above), the importance of good relations. And it spends just under 75% of the time practicing how to handle compliance issues (in red above). With the exception of “The Jim Problem” the case studies are around people having poor attitudes, not showing up for work, etc. And the case studies tend to set the tone for the “problems” that the participants bring to the class.

In the examples, the instructor emphasizes listening to people, though there isn’t any real practice around good listening skills. Again, earlier pilot versions of the course emphasized this more, but not the final version that everyone uses today.

OK, I could dig in more, but I’m not going to. Hopefully if you are considering using this material, you will read it for yourself, or listen to the words actually used, and ask yourself if these points of emphasis are what you want to teach your supervisors. Time for the next step.

Weigh and Decide

First, let me address some obvious (to me) potential objections to what I am saying so far. Then let’s look at alternatives, and finally, let’s ask which alternatives is most likely to meet our objective.

But Mark…Supervisors have to learn to deal with these real-world issues.

Yes they do. My questions are:

  • Are the case studies reflective of issues that 21st century supervisors have to deal with?
  • Are we giving our supervisors 21st century skills to deal with these their issues?
  • Are we emphasizing teamwork or compliance?

I don’t disagree at all that our objective includes teaching supervisors how to effectively handle problems. I question whether the tone and phrasing we are using is the most effective way to do so.

But Mark… I (we) absolutely emphasize building good teams when teaching Job Relations.

If so, that is awesome. My questions are:

  • Are you following the Job Relations course script, or are you deviating from the script to emphasize these things?
  • Are you having to emphasize these things in follow-up after the formal class?
  • If you are deviating from the script, then my message is not directed to you, BUT…

Do we teach new instructors to follow the script exactly?

If so, then my questions are:

  • Do those newly certified Job Relations instructors already work in a place with a solid teamwork-based mindset (or a place striving toward one)?
  • Do the words we teach them to say reinforce that teamwork mindset?
  • What happens when the norms and customs of the organization are focused on compliance and production numbers only?
  • Do those same words reinforce the mindset of compliance and production?

Are We Meeting Our Objective?

That depends very much on what your objective is.

If your objective is to prevent (or recover from) disruptions to production by teaching your supervisors to get people to do what he wants done, when it should be done, and the way he wants it done, because they want to do it, then everything is fine. The 1944 TWI Job Relations material is focused on this objective and does a great job.

If, on the other hand, the objective is to teach supervisors the skills they need to build a culture of teamwork, as well as to build a cadre of instructors who emphasize the things that contribute to that culture, then maybe, just maybe, we should take a look at the words we use.

And the words we teach others to use. And what we have them practice. And where they spend their time.

Job Relations is great. And when it is taught and coached through a lens of teamwork culture, it can have a profound positive impact on the organization.

But out of the box, I believe it is too deeply tied to the values and paradigms of its times.

I think we can do a better job preparing our supervisors for the next 80 years.


This is long enough, and I am not going to delve into any specific suggestions here. As I said at the beginning, this is public domain material, nobody owns it or manages the configuration. Anyone who wants to is able to take this as a baseline and update it to match your own values.

If you do, I would hope that you would consider re-contributing your updates to the public domain, so that our community can benefit as a whole.

What is a “Socio-Technical System?”

Lately the term “socio-technical system has been starting to show up more and I thought this would be an opportunity to weigh in on what I think it means.

Though the concept has been around since at least 1951 (see below), I think I have tended to “bleep over” the term as jargon without giving it a lot of thought. I don’t think I am alone in that.

People who try to describe the meaning tend to describe a system “that integrates the social and technical aspects” or words like that.

I would posit that it goes much deeper, and we “bleep over” the concept at our peril if we want our organizations to function well.

The Origin of Social-Technical Theory

*Up through the 1940s, coal mining in the UK was largely pick and shovel work aided by drills and, sometimes, explosives. A work crew typically consisted of three to half a dozen men (and they were all men) who were task organized to strip the coal off the seam face, shovel it into mining carts, and move those carts to the transport system.

These teams were distributed through the mine, and because the distance and working conditions really precluded a lot of supervision, the teams largely oversaw their own work.

Since each team worked independently, the system as a whole could easily accommodate the simple fact that in some spots the coal is harder to dig out than in others.

(If you want to get more of a feel for the work and working conditions, check out the photos in this Daily Mirror article:

The work also met every definition of “difficult, dirty and dangerous.” That work environment, though, created a social bond among the team members as they worked together to accomplish the task of “mining coal.”

The system was not without its problems, however. The social structure was built around loyalty to the small work team. When “trams” (coal carts) were in short supply, for example, the “trammers” would horde carts to optimize their team’s performance at the expense of other teams being limited by the number of carts available.

This all changed shortly after WWII.

The Long Wall Method

In the late 1940s the industrial engineers turned this craft production system into a factory system with the tasks divided between three shifts.

Long Wall Mining Shift Schedule

The process would begin on the evening shift. They would drill blast holes along the top of the coal seam, then dig an undercut about six inches high at the base to allow the blast to drop the coal. This would be done along a long (up to a couple of hundred meters) face of the coal seam. (Hence the name “long wall mining.”)

Meanwhile another team would break down the conveyor system that ran parallel to the coal face in preparation for moving it forward to position it for removing the loose coal.

Then night shift had two teams. One would extend the “gateway tunnels” at either end of the coal face. This was a crew of 8 men. Simultaneously another team would rebuild the conveyer in the new position.

Once all of this work was done, the shots would be fired, dropping the coal into a pile along the coal seam face.

Day shift would take the loose coal and transfer it to the conveyor system to be taken out of the mine.

Yes, this is an oversimplification, but it suffices for this discussion.

On paper, this process was far more efficient.

In practice, though, things did not go smoothly.

“Isolated Dependence”

A “filler” loads loose coal onto the conveyor.

Looking at this work breakdown, the first two shifts are prep work. Only the day shift, the “fillers,” actually get the coal out of the mine. But their success was entirely dependent on how well the first two shifts did their jobs. If everything was not “by the book” then the fillers would be significantly hampered. Since they were paid by the ton of coal extracted, there was more at stake than just a sense of accomplishment.

If the previous shifts ran into problems – such as a “shot” that failed to separate all of the coal from the roof of the seam, or harder material, etc. these inconsistencies slowed down the “fillers” and made them less successful. If the conveyor was not completely or correctly assembled, they could not begin work until this was corrected.

Because management pressure was on the key performance indicator – the rate of coal extraction, and because the “fillers” were paid by the ton of coal extracted, this created resentment between the “fillers” and crews on the other two shifts, as well as conflicts with management which the working crews began to regard (with ample evidence) as disconnected from the realities of their work.

Then, if the “fillers” were too far behind at the end of their shift, that would delay the start of the next cycle and things spiraled downward from there.

Productivity plummeted. The study I am citing here was commissioned to determine why. Their conclusion, in short, was that the new work organization was built around the paradigm of a factory assembly line without regard for the variation of geology. Success of the three shift cycle depended on each shift meeting a rigid schedule, but that schedule did not account for the simple fact that coal seams are not uniform.

In addition, the work organization destroyed the social structure of the mining crews. Their success was dependent on people they no longer saw or interacted with. The oncoming filler shift, in particular, would be confronted with all of the obstacles left by the previous two shifts. As their resentment for being unsupported built, their willingness to put in any extra effort dropped to zero.

Again – this is an oversimplification. If you want to read the full paper there is a link at the end of this post.

Oversimplification or not, however, the effect was stark. The social structure of the organization was driven to fundamentally change by alternations in the technical structure of the work. Quoting from my source material* :

The effect of the introduction of mechanized methods of face preparation and conveying, along with the retention of manual filling, has been not only to isolate the filler from those with whom he formerly shared the coal-getting task as a whole, but to make him one of a large aggregate serviced by the same small group of preparation workers.

The work design was based on a mechanistic view that ignored the how the social structure impacted the performance of the team.

The Mechanistic View

Installed in the year 1410, the Prague Astronomical Clock is the third-oldest in the world, and the oldest still in operation. (Prague is an awesome city, by the way.) Photo © Steve Collins, used under Creative Commons license via Flickr and Wikimedia

By the turn of the last century we thought we had the ways of the universe pretty well understood. Hundreds of years (thousands of years in some early societies) earlier we had the ability to predict the motion of the stars and planets – to the point that we could build machines that were analogues of their movements.

The prevailing model in psychology was classical conditioning which, in essence, said that behavior is an almost algorithmic learned response based on previous positive and negative reinforcements.

This mechanistic model leads to a belief that we can carefully design the machine and people’s work within the machine can be carefully designed and shaped through rewards and consequences.

And as long as everything, and every one, works as they are supposed to, it’s all good. If a machine malfunctions, we fix it. If people don’t follow procedures, we “motivate them” with incentives.

This model prevails even today and even colors our teaching of continuous improvement. One of the places we need tend to inherently adopt a mechanistic view is when we use the word “system.”

The Mechanistic View of “System”

In today’s world, when people talk about “the system” they are often referring to an information system of some type. Common examples are an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, or an Electronic Health Records (EHR) system. And these information processing systems do tend to shape how the organization functions, for better or for worse.

So when people talk about a “system” I think the reflex is to think of the system as a machine that is carefully designed, built, and tuned to perform a particular function or behave in a particular way.

And people tend to assume that once it is working, it will continue to work so long as it is maintained to be kept in the same condition.

This thinking often extends to the people as well. They are often viewed as servicing “the system” – providing it with information, and following the instructions it gives. (this is particularly true in ERP / MRP environments.) Everything is part of a machine, and as long as everyone does their jobs, and the equipment functions as intended, then it all works.

In practice, though, these systems tend to isolate people from one another, or into small single task groups in much the same way as happened in the coal mine.

The Mechanistic Paradigm at Work

The reason I explained all of this is so we can look at our own workplaces through this lens. The crucial question is: Do the work structures and systems support or hamper the social structure of effective teamwork?

Let’s take another look at those ERP or EHR systems. Without the interaction with and the interaction between the people who use them, those “systems” are inert. They do nothing. The mechanistic paradigm, though, tends to look at people as performing a task to serve or enable the system. Instead, we should look at the information system as a tool that should enable people do to a job they otherwise could not.

On the Shop Floor

The sign says “Hearing Protection Required.” The reality is that it is impossible for more than 3 or 4 people to have a conversation on the shop floor, as they are shouting to be heard. The final operation is highly automated, each machine has two people working in isolation, even from one another for the most part. In addition, the machine crews are isolated from one another, both by distance and by the noise level.

The machine operator is measured on his hourly rate of production vs. a standard expectation.

Meanwhile at the opposite end of the building, the production scheduling team works to carefully orchestrate the availability of packaging materials, purchased components, as well as scheduling each phase of production so work is available for the next step.

They do all of this with their ERP system and every day they create orders to issue components, production orders to the various areas in the shop, and purchase orders to their suppliers. They adjust priorities at least daily, based not only on lead times and changing customer requirements, but also on the reality of what has actually been produced, or not, up to this point. Items are early, they are late, production runs ahead, though mostly behind, the scheduled intent.

Everyone is frustrated. The planner / schedulers because production never seems to make what they planned. And production because scheduling never seems to schedule things that can be made with the available materials, etc. Shortages are discovered, an ad-hoc plan is created to keep things moving – but that may well consume components that were earmarked for something later in the week, and the cycle continues.

To make things even more interesting, the planner / schedulers are using production capacity numbers that they know are higher than reality. They are under pressure to put in unrealistic numbers because the real numbers would make the site’s cost estimates too high and attract scrutiny from corporate.

This means “the system” produces schedules that cannot be met by actual production even if everything else works, which, in turn, means continuously over-promising, under-delivering, and adjusting priorities.

Though the work is very different, we have a social structure not unlike the British coal mine.

This is what “isolated dependence” looks like in today’s work environments. If you are seeing blame casting and conflict between groups who are dependent on one another you likely have a similar situation in your organization.

Counter-Productive Response

Unfortunately the typical management response is to increase monitoring, control, incentives, “accountability” on individual parts of the process rather than looking at the entire system.

These things tend to increase the sense of isolation and frustration as they can create a sense of victimhood between the separate groups. For example, in the above situation everyone there told me that they used to have pull system on the factory floor, and it had worked really well, operated predictably, and gave them a lot more insight into what was actually happening. But some time ago a new management team wanted to track everything in the computer “for control” so the current system was installed.

Ironically, that management team had turned over, but for whatever reason people were very reluctant to return to what they knew had worked in the past. But I digress.

The Implications

Human beings are innately social. In any organization, or casual group trying to get something done, people develop webs of social networks. The more they can interact, the more everyone stays on the same page.

There are a few things we can do to reinforce this.

Bring People Together

And I mean bring them together literally, physically. Rather than just confronting one another in the morning meeting, have them literally work side-by-side with the common goal of a smooth process.

Have a Shared, Objective, Truth

Eliminate the need to ask or query “status.” Eliminate the one person who knows the big picture. Get the truth out there in the open– literally, physically. (See a trend here?)

In a well managed operation I nearly always find rich “information radiators” that are an inherent part of the process itself (rather than being a display of information that was input just so it can be displayed). This information is not simply a passive display. It is actively used by the people doing the work to they know where they stand, what comes next, and when they need to raise a concern.

A classic example of this is a heijunka or load-leveling box. The cards, or work orders, or pick tickets, are placed in slots that are based on the time that work is expected to start if everything is working normally. Thus it is insanely easy to spot if something is getting behind, long before it would show up in the daily production report. Menlo Innovations’ Work Authorization Board does the same thing.

The goal is for conversations to be about “How to respond” rather than discussions about “what is happening.”

This is really the purpose of nearly every “lean tool” — to ask, and answer, two key questions:

  • What should be happening?
  • What is actually happening?

and then invite a conversation about any difference between the two.

The fact that “we have made 234 widgets” is meaningless without a point of comparison of “how many widgets should we have made up to this point?” The goal is to invite curiosity and foster actual conversations, and eliminate debates about what should be and what actually is.

But more often, this is what I most find lacking. People well tell me they can easily query status, look up individual orders, but even then there is rarely a timely comparison between “nominal” and “actual” in that information. Even if status can be queried, there is often a lack a “compared to what?” Or worse, the status is abstracted from reality, for example, measured in “earned hours” or some other financial metric. Often “ahead or behind” is not known until the end of the day… or the week, or sometimes even the month. The greater the lag, the bigger is the scramble to make up production with overtime.

So here is question #1 for you: If I were to ask you, right now, “Is this operation ahead or behind?” could you tell me? Can the people who are actually doing the work tell me? And by “tell me” I mean immediately, without having to go research or launch some kind of query.

Another version of this question is, “How far behind do you allow yourself to get before you actually know there is a problem?”


So what we have is a technical aspect of a process that is deliberately designed to support meaningful social interactions between the people responsible for carrying out the work and accomplishing the overall task… as a team. We bring people together rather than isolating them from one another.

This is hard – Yup.

And these principles run against management “best practices” that have been taught since the 1920s.

Where to start? If any of this seems impossible, work on trust. Think about this – Why would people be reluctant to display an objective truth without the ability to first qualify it?

Why would people be reluctant to create a true dependent relationship with another department?

All of these things come down to a culture of self-defense because people feel a need to protect themselves from something or someone. Even if that force is long gone, the effects of leadership-by-fear linger, sometimes for many years, unless you take proactive and direct steps to eliminate that fear.

So… if this seems hard, work on that first.

* The original study of the interplay between social structure and work organization and technology looks to be the 1951 paper “Some Social and Psychological Consequences of the Longwall Method of Coal-Getting: An Examination of the Psychological Situation and Technological Content of the Work System” by E.L. Trist and K.W. Bamforth