Creating an Empowered Team

EDIT: There is a follow-on post here: David Marquet: Turn the Ship Around

In the past couple of decades, we went through an “empower your people” fad. We saw work teams in world class companies that were largely self directing, surprisingly well aligned with the overall goals of the organization, and getting things done.

“Well,” we thought, “since empowered teams are obviously more effective, we’ll empower our teams.”

harry potter wandThey brandished their wand uttered some wizard’s chant, and bing! empowered their teams.

“What did you expect to happen?”

“We expected our newly empowered teams to self-organize, get the work done, plan all of their own vacations and breaks, and continuously improve their operations on their own.”

“What actually happened?”

“Work ground to a halt, people argued and squabbled, quality went to hell, and labor hours went up 20%”

“What did you learn?”

“That empowerment doesn’t work.”

Which is obviously not true, because there are plenty of examples where it does. Perhaps “Empowerment doesn’t work the way we went about it” might be a better answer. That at least opens the door to a bit more curiosity.

The last place I would expect an experiment in true empowerment would be onboard a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine.

Take a look at this video that Mike Rother sent around a couple of days ago, then come back.

A U.S. Navy submarine skipper isn’t generally inclined to swear off ever giving another order. It runs against everything he has been taught and trained to do since he was a Midshipman.

I’d like to cue in on a couple of things here and dissect what happened.

First is the general conditions. I think he could do this just a bit faster than normal because everyone involved was sealed inside a steel can for six months. Just a thought – groups in those conditions tend to have a lot of team cohesion.

But the mechanics are also critical. He didn’t just say “You are empowered.” Rather, this was a process of deliberate learning and practice.

What is key, and what most companies miss, are the crucial elements that Capt. Marquet points out must be built as the pillars of an empowered team.


Let’s put this in Lean Thinker’s terms.

As the Toyota Kata wave begins to sweep over everyone, there is a rush to transition managers into coaches.

“What obstacles do you think are now in the way of reaching the target?”

See the illustration above.

Competence and clarity.

I am going to start with the second one.


Or… where the hell are we trying to go?

Capt. Marquet points out the critical element of commander’s intent. I learned this during my decade or so as a military officer (U.S. Army). When preparing operations orders, I had to clarify the overall commander’s intent. Why? So that when everything went to hell in a handcart, everyone knew what we were trying to get done even if the how to do it entirely broke down.

What that means in the lean thinking world is “What is the business imperative” or “What is the challenge we are trying to achieve?” If nobody knows “why,” then all they can know is “what” and that comes down to “implement the tools,” which, in turn, comes down to “because I said so” or “Because we need a 3 on the lean audit.”

Doesn’t work. Never has.

But I’m beating that topic to death right now, so I want to move the pillar on the left.


In my book, that means “The leader has a good idea how to do it.”

What does that mean in practical terms? In Capt. Marquet’s world, it means that, fundamentally, the crew knows how to operate a nuclear submarine. Additionally, it means they understand the ramifications of the actions they are taking on the overall system, and therefore, the contribution they are making to achieving the intent.

It doesn’t matter how clearly anyone understands what they are trying to get done if they have no idea how to do it.

In Lean Thinking world, competence means a few things.

  • The leader knows how to “do the math.” She understands the overall flow, the impact of her decisions on the system and the overall system.
  • The leader / coach has a good understanding of at least the fundamentals of flow production, and why we are striving to move in that direction.

While these things can be taught through skillful coaching, that implies that the coach has enough competence to do that teaching.

But if the coach doesn’t fundamentally grasp the True North, or doesn’t consistently bias every single conversation and decision in that direction, then Clarity is lost, and Competence is never built.

We end up with pokes and tweaks on the current condition, but no real breakthrough progress.

Day to day, this means you are on the shop floor interacting with supervisors and front line managers. You are asking the questions, and guiding their thinking until they grok that one-by-one flow @ takt is where they are striving to go.

In my Lean Director role in a previous company, I recall three distinct stages I went through with people calling me for “what to do” advice.

First, I gave them answers and explanations.

Then I transitioned to first asking them what they thought I would give as an answer.

Then they transitioned to “This is the situation, this is the target, this is what we propose, this is why we think it will work, what do you think?”

“Captain, I propose we submerge the boat.”

“What do you think I am thinking?”

“Um… you would want to know if it is safe?”

“How would you know it is safe?”

In other words…

What are you trying to achieve here? How will you know?

So here is a challenge.

If you are a line leader, especially a plant manager, take one week and utterly refuse to issue direction to anyone. Ask questions. Force them to learn the answers. Test their knowledge. Have them teach you so they must learn.

You will learn a lot about the competence of your team. You will learn a lot about your own clarity of intent. Try it on. No matter what, you will learn a lot.

Policy Deployment and the Coaching Chain

Gosh, I guess it is a couple of weeks ago now (I’ve been up to my eyeballs in work), Gerd Aulinger posted this presentation up on the Lean Enterprise Institute’s “Kata” page:

I’m obviously interested in your comments as I had some amount of input into the final product.

For that, I would ask that you actually download the SlideShare, print it out, parse it, discuss it with others, and really pick apart what it means.

There is a lot in here, more than you find in a typical LEI workbook.

But I’d also like to discuss what I think are important points made here.

Continuous Improvement is a Line Leader Job

Though it isn’t stated explicitly, the very structure of this example only shows the roles of line leaders. You don’t see anything about kaizen events or rapid improvement workshops led by staff specialists here. Each leader is directly responsible for getting the process to the next required level of performance.

Improvement isn’t “What Can We Do?” It is “What Must We Do?”

There is a business imperative underlying this entire effort. They didn’t just make a value stream map and ask “Hmmm… how much better could we make this by taking out some waste?” Nope, this is driven by a need to get a level of performance that, today, they cannot achieve.

As a sidebar, please note that the “kaizen bursts” are on the FUTURE state map (slide 28) … they represent the OBSTACLES in the way of getting there, not “opportunities” on the current state map.

If you look at the target condition for the changeover, it is 14 minutes. There is nothing sacrosanct about a 10 minute changeover, that is just from the name of a book. They need to get changeovers to 14 minutes to get the process performance they want. It’s math.

Added, thanks to a comment from Kris:

“Catchball” is More About “How” than “What”

You will notice there is some back and forth – what is commonly called “catchball” in the dialog between the various levels of coaching. But they are not discussing the overall business imperative. They are discussing the obstacles, targets, and approach that will be taken to get there.

This is an important point because, in the early days, “catchball” was taught by many consultants as a negotiation of the objectives.

But Nancy’s objective isn’t negotiable. What might be negotiable is how much of her lead time objective gets carried by gear machining vs. the unseen conversation with assembly, a cap-and-trade of sorts, but in the end, her group is on the hook to hit her target.

The Entire Chain is Fractal

When Nancy asks Steve “Which obstacle are you addressing now?” he responds with the long changeover… while that changeover is the target condition between Steve and Roger.

Steve is working with Roger to break that obstacle, to hit the 14 minute changeover, thus this is what he tells Nancy he is working on now. The presentation doesn’t go into the further details of their discussion (heck, it is already up to 80 slides…), but I’d venture to say that conversation is going to be as much about how well Roger is doing figuring it out and his learning conditions as it is the process itself. Why? If Steve did it himself, Roger wouldn’t learn anything.

Continuous improvement is about continuously improving people.

At the next level down, Roger is addressing obstacles one by one.

Roger’s target condition of a 14 minute changeover breaks down to obstacles that he thinks are in the way of getting there. Each of them has an unknown solution, and so must be broken down systematically. The terms change, but the process is just getting finer grained. We finally get down to individual experiments to test an idea and learn more about the process.

Improvement is a Team Sport

There are a lot of sports analogies, heck, “kata” itself is a sports analogy of sorts. But the key is that this isn’t just giving someone an objective and having them report progress. Though the “coaching kata” seems ritualized, there is a lot of nuance.

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of novice coaches, especially those whose normal work patterns are to delegate the details, fall into the trap of thinking they can just recite the coaching questions and they are coaching. It actually takes a lot of practice reading how far you can push your learner today, what he is struggling with, knowing when to give direction, vs. give a hint, vs. let her try something that the coach is pretty sure won’t work but will be a learning opportunity.

That means the coach has to be able to see things the learner or improver might miss. Sometimes those things can only be seen from an outside perspective. That is why expert Olympic-class athletes have coaches. There are some details that cannot be seen from inside.

Being with people in a supportive but challenging way so they can learn and develop is one of the key elements of respect for people.



Mike Rother Overview of Toyota Kata

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

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

My thoughts are below the video…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike Rother has other videos on YouTube as 734Mike.

“No Question…Sketch!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where does the information come from?

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

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

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

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

Sharpen your eye – learn to observe like a scientist.

No question… sketch!

Learning vs. Knowing (or not)

PC once again left a provocative post in the Lean Thinker’s Community, and gave us a link to this Tim Harford TED talk that drives home the point that learning and improvement is more about rapidly discovering things that don’t work than about designing things that do.

Trial and Error

Tom Wujec makes the same point in the Marshmallow Challenge. In that video, Tom talks about how 5 year old kids out perform most adult groups in a problem solving / learning game. While the adults engage in a single cycle of “know-build-fail” the kids engage in multiple cycles of “try-fail-learn-try again.” In the improvement world, we call this process PDCA.

Harford’s key point is that learning only happens through a process of trial of large numbers of ideas, followed by the selection and further trials on the best ones.

Hmmm… that sounds a lot like the 3P process of “Seven Ideas” as well as “Set Based Design.”

From The Toyota Kata Seminar

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

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

I am taking the three day version.

Impressions of Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insights from Day 2

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

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

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

Key Points that are becoming more tangible for me:

The “Threshold of Knowledge” concept.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no Dogma in Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Target Conditions and PDCA Cycles

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

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

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

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

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

More tomorrow…

Leadership and Challenges

This post rambles a bit, and wraps up a few concepts. It was, however, inspired by a recent interview of Mike Rother on Lean Nation. (See below)

One of the many good points that struck me was that you can’t rally around an ROI.

Yet companies try to do just that. They set something ROI or margin objectives, and wonder why everyone doesn’t pick them up and run with them.

Even companies that do issue a good challenge often come up wondering why the organization doesn’t align around it. Rother mentions one good reason: Nobody is there to coach them through meeting their part of the challenge.

A similar fallacy is trying to rally people around an abstract vision. I have experienced this a couple of times. A company tries to apply general education to people – lots of it – in the (vain) hope that once people “understand” then they will pick up the ball and run. But without consistent direction toward a limited objective that is easily articulated, people freeze up. “What do we work on?” There are too many choices.

Chip and Dan Heath discuss the importance of a rallying point in their book about culture change, Switch. They talk about “Pointing to the Destination” and “Scripting the Critical Moves.” When we talk about an aligning challenge, we are saying the same thing. Remember – in these initial stages you are trying to infuse a fundamental behavior and culture change. You can’t just tell people what it is and expect things to change tomorrow.

Classroom training may teach people the words, but it does little to accelerate the process of learning on the shop floor. That takes leadership.

More after the video:

One of the concepts that Rother discusses in Toyota Kata is the concept of “True North.” Spear also talks about it as striving toward the ideal process. Same thing, different words.

But at another level, when we are trying to shape a different management system, it is equally important for the leaders to have a “true north” for the ideal leadership process. I think this is different (or should be expressed differently) from the True North of the ideal value-adding process.

As I develop my own practice, I am honing in on those key elements of “leadership true north” and making it the cornerstone of my engagements. Mainly I try to describe specific behaviors and critical elements that need to be in place. This seems to play better than abstract concepts like “servant leadership” because it tells people what they need to do. (See “Script the Critical Moves.”)

Steve Spear on Creative Experimentation

On Monday MIT hosted a webinar with Steven Spear on the topic of “Creative Experimentation.”

A key theme woven throughout Spear’s work is the world today is orders of magnitude more complex than it was even 10 or 15 years ago. Where, in the past, it was feasible for a single person or small group to oversee every aspect of a system, today that simply isn’t possible except in trivial cases. Where, in 1965 it was possible for one person to understand every detail of how an automobile worked, today it is not.

My interpretation goes something like this:

Systems are composed of nodes, each acting on inputs and triggering outputs. In the past, most systems were largely linear. The output of upstream nodes was the input of those immediately downstream. You can see this in the Ford Mustang example that Spear discusses in the webinar.

Today nodes are far more interconnected. Cause and effect is not clear. There are feed-back and feed-forward connections and loop-backs. Interactions between processes impact the results as much as the processes themselves.

Traditional management still tries to manage what is inside the nodes. Performance, and problems, come from the interconnections between nodes more than from within them.

The other key point is that traditional management seeks to first define, then develop a system with the goal of eventually reaching a steady state. Today, though, the steady state simply does not exist.

Product development cycles are quickening. Before one product is stable, the next one is launched. There is no plateau anymore in most industries.

From my notes – “The right answer is not the answer for very long. It changes continuously.”

Therefore, it is vital that organizations be able to handle rapid shifts quickly.

With that, here is the recorded webinar.

(Edit: The original flies have been deleted from the MIT server.)

A couple of things struck me as I participated in this.

Acknowledging that Spear has a bias here (as do I), the fact that Toyota’s inherent structure and management system is set up to deal with the world this way is probably one of the greatest advantages ever created by happenstance.

I say that because I don’t believe Toyota ever set out to design a system to manage complexity. It just emerged from necessity.

We have an advantage of being able to study it and try to grasp how it works, but we won’t be able to replicate it by decomposing its pieces and putting it back together.

Like all complex systems, this one works because of the connections, and those connections are ever changing and adapting. You can’t take a snapshot and say “this is it” any more than you can create a static neural net and say you have a brain.

Local Capability

One thing that emerges as critical is developing a local capability for this creative experimentation.

I think, what Spear calls “creative experimentation” is not that different from what Rother calls the “improvement kata.” Rother brings more structure to the process, but they are describing essentially the same thing.

Why is local capability critical? Processes today are too complex to have a single point of influence. One small team cannot see the entire picture. Neither can that small team go from node to node and fix everything. (This is the model that is used in operations that have dedicated staff improvement specialists, and this is why improvements plateau.)

The only way to respond as quickly as change is happening is to have the response system embedded throughout the network.

How do you develop local capability? That is the crux of the problem in most organizations. I was in an online coaching session on Tuesday discussing a similar problem. But, in reality, you develop the capability the way you develop any skill: practice. And this brings us back to the key point in Kata.

Practice goes no good unless you are striving against an ideal standard. It is, therefore, crucial to have a standardized problem solving approach that people are trying to master.

To be clear, after they have mastered it, they earn a license to push the boundaries a bit. But I am referring to true mastery here, not simple proficiency. My advice is  to focus on establishing the standard. That is difficult enough.

An Example: Decoding Mary – Find the Bright Spots

Spear’s story of “Decoding Mary” where the re-admission rate of patients to a hospital directly correlated with the particular nurse handled their transfer reminded me of Heath & Heath’s stories from Switch. One of the nine levers for change that they cite is “find the bright spots.”

In this case the creative experimentation was the process of trying to figure out exactly what Mary did differently so it could be codified and replicated for a more consistent result independent of who did it.

The key, in both of these cases, is to find success and study it, trying to capture what is different – and capture it in a way that can be easily replicated. That is exactly what happened here.

A lot of organizations do this backwards. They study what (or who) is not performing to determine what is wrong.

Sometimes it is far easier to try to extract the essence what works. Where are your bright spots for superb quality? Does one shift, or one crew, perform better than the others? Do you even know? It took some real digging to reveal that “Mary” was even the correlating factor here.

Continuous Improvement Means Continuous Change

Since “continuous improvement” really means “continuously improving the capability of your people,” now perhaps we have “to do what.” I have said (and still say) that the “what” is problem solving.

What you get for that, though, is a deep capability to deal with accelerating change at an accelerating rate without losing your orientation or balance.

It is the means to allow the pieces of the organization to continue to operate in harmony while everything is changing. That brings us back to another dilemma: What is the ROI on learning to become very, very good? You don’t know what the future is going to throw at you, only that you need the capability to deal with it at an ever quicker pace.

But none of this works unless you make a concerted effort to get good at it.

Here is the original link to the MIT page with the video, and a download link for PDFs of the slides:

Bill Costantino: Toyota Kata “Unified Field Theory”

Mike Rother and Bill Costantino have shared a presentation titled “Toyota Kata Unified Field Theory.”

I think it nicely packages a number of concepts in an easy-to-understand flow.

I want to expand on a couple of points but first take a look at the presentation.

This is a direct URL to the original SlideShare version:

Challenges and Campaigns

First of all, this presentation differentiates between a “challenge” and the target condition. That is important, and (in my opinion) had not been as clear in Rother’s original book.

I have been advocating setting a challenge, or campaign if you well, for some time. This is where we address a class of problems that are a major issue. Things like:

  • Too much cash tied up in working capital. (Which can be expressed a number of ways, such as improving inventory turns.)
  • Poor schedule performance – “on time delivery” becomes the theme.
  • Quality issues (too much rework, scrap, etc.)
  • Our nurses don’t have time to prepare rooms for the next patient.
  • Of course, safety can come into this arena as well, as can other issues that impact the organization’s health.
All of these things are not really problems in the sense that they can’t really be solved. These are the aggregated symptoms of lots of smaller underlying problems that accumulate into things on this list.

Setting a specific challenge doesn’t mean you ignore the other stuff. You have been coping with it and working around it for years. But you know you haven’t had time to fix everything, so stop believing that you do.

The point here is to galvanize the effort.

Chip and Dan Heath address the importance of setting the challenge in their book Switch (which I have reviewed here). They emphasize the importance of “scripting the critical moves” and “pointing to the destination” so that people have a good grasp of what is important.

Once the challenge is addressed, say “on time delivery,” it can be broken down into target objectives that are both local (large organizations need to have things broken down to what the local group is expected to work on) as well as those which cut cross-functionally. The scope of the effort is really defined by the depth of the organization’s skill at addressing the issues at this point.

Bill Costantino correctly points out that setting the vision, and deciding the theme or campaign, is a leadership function. This can’t be done by your “lean team” in a way that sticks. The discipline required here is for the leaders to maintain what Deming referred to as “consistency of purpose.”

Simply put, to say “this is the challenge” and then continuously ask about other stuff jerks people around and serves only to paralyze the organization until the leaders decide what people should spend their limited time on.

The good news is that it really doesn’t matter. If the organization can focus on One Big Thing long enough, their efforts will eventually touch on the other stuff anyway.

Jim Collins uses different words to make the same point in Good to Great with the “Hedgehog Concept.”

The Path to the Target Condition

One place where I think we can still use some more clarity is in the illustration of the path to the target condition.

This is the illustration from Slide 20 in the Slideshare version of the presentation:

The presentation (and Rother’s coverage in Toyota Kata) is quite clear that navigation through “the grey zone” is a step-by-step process (kind of like driving off-road at night where you only see as far as your headlights).

But the “plan and execute” paradigm is very strong out there.

My experience is that people in the field see this illustration, and fully expect the green path to be set out, and the “dots” identified, along with a time line and resources required to get there. It becomes a “project.”

This is a strong symptom of the “delegate improvement” paradigm that we should all be actively refuting.

Let’s look at how I think this process actually plays out dynamically.

Initially we know where we are, we have target condition, so we know the direction we need to go to get there.

We are still inside the red line of the “current knowledge threshold.” Solving these problems is generally application of things we already know how to do, perhaps in new ways.

And having solved one problem, we now identify the next known barrier:

Once that one is cleared, we see a couple of choices. Which one?

All other things being equal, pick the easiest, and move on. (As we said when I was learning rapid maneuver tactics in the Army – “haul ass and bypass.”)

Up to this point, we have been operating inside the “current knowledge threshold.” Our efforts are better focused by pursuing a clear target objective, but we aren’t really learning anything new about the process. (Hopefully we are becoming better practiced at problem solving.)

Pretty soon, though, we reach the edge, and have to push out the red line. Why? Because we can’t solve a problem we don’t understand. As we approach the boundary, things get harder because we have to do a better job assessing, and extending the knowledge threshold around the problem.

This is the essence of the problem solving process – If you can’t see the solution, you need to better understand the problem.

The process becomes one of progressively solving problems, identifying the next, and expanding our understanding. Once there is sufficient understanding to anchor knowledge and take the next step, do so. Step and repeat.

Putting the whole thing in motion, it looks like this:

The key is that the “green path” isn’t set out as a predictable trajectory. It is hacked out of the jungle as you go. You know you are going, are confident you can get there, but aren’t sure of exactly what issues will be encountered along the way.

Let me apply my “Project Apollo Test” to this process.

Vision: “The USA will be the undisputed leader in space exploration.” Vague, a long way out there, but compelling.

Challenge, Theme: “…before this decade is out, […] landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” In 1961, a serious challenge, but considered do-able based on extrapolating what we knew.

At this point, though, space exploration was exploring a lot of different things. Building a space station, reusable launch vehicles, pretty much the whole gamut was being explored by someone, somewhere. The effort wasn’t focused. The “man on the moon” goal focused it. Every thing was pretty much dropped except solving the problems that were in the way of making Lunar Orbit Rendezvous work.

There were four target conditions that had to be cleared.

Build and test the Big Honkin’ Rocket called the Saturn V plus the infrastructure to launch them in rapid succession.

And they had to answer three questions:

  1. Can people spend two weeks in space without serious physical or psychological problems?
  2. Can we build a space suit that lets someone operate outside the protection of a space craft?
  3. Can one space craft maneuver, rendezvous and dock with another?

Of course each of these objectives, in turn, had lots of smaller challenges. NASA’s effort between 1962 and 1966 was focused on answering these three questions.

In doing so, the threshold of knowledge expanded well beyond the immediate issues.

Yup, I’d say this thinking works, and it scales up.

Why did I go through this little exercise? Because if this thinking can put people on the moon, it is probably powerful enough to move your organization into new territory.

Back on Earth, a company undertaking “lean” needs to really grasp that they need to be committing to embracing this process. There are clear things that leaders need to do to make it work, and those things go beyond “supporting” or “sponsoring” the effort. We’ll get into some details on the next few posts as we continue to build on Rother’s and Costantino’s work.



Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard

I have been touting Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch for some time now, so it I thought I ought to actually write about why.

If you are in the role of a “change agent” this book is your manual.

Up to this point, the bible for “organizational change” has been John P. Kotter’s book Leading Change published by the Harvard Business School.

Based on his article Eight Reasons Why Transformation Efforts Fail, Kotter outlines (not surprisingly) an eight stage process for changing a culture:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency.
  2. Create the guiding coalition.
  3. Developing a vision and strategy.
  4. Communicating the change vision.
  5. Empowering employees for broad based action.
  6. Generating short term wins.
  7. Consolidating gains and producing more change.
  8. Anchoring new approaches in the culture.

I have found it quite valuable in the past to challenge a leadership team to assess their own efforts against these factors, then listen to what the next level down has to say. There is always a large gap – what the leaders THINK they are saying clearly is much more muddled to the listeners.

Chip and Dan Heath take things down another couple of levels. They deal with the psychology – what goes on between our ears, and their process maps very well back to Kotter’s – as a much more explicit “how to.”

The Psychology of Continuous Improvement

What really hooked me into this book, though, was just how well it maps to key characteristics of a Toyota-style management system.

People in companies that are exceptionally successful with continuous improvement have the same baseline thinking patterns as people in every other company out there.

The difference is not about hiring different people, it is about how the work and the environment itself is structured. It is likely that structure wasn’t deliberate, these outlier companies just stumbled into it. But if we look at what makes them different (see “Find the Bright Spots” below), we can see they are better at dealing with the things outlined in this book.

That, to me, is encouraging because it reinforces the idea that true operational excellence is within the reach of anyone who is willing to deal with the real issues.

And – key point here – these changes are within the power of the mid-level change agent to affect. You don’t have to be “top management” or even in charge to have an impact. (You do have to work harder and more explicitly, though.)

We (like to) Think It’s About Logic – But It Isn’t.

In business we operate on the assumption that decisions are based on objective, rational analysis of facts and data. If presented with a compelling case, we say, the logical conclusion should follow.

So our efforts to enact “change” start, first and foremost, with trying to educate so that people will “understand the changes” and the “reasons why.”

If they don’t get it, we think, it is because they don’t understand the goodness, so we need to explain it better.

This thinking drives us to try to construct more compelling models and representations of “the system” in our effort to explain why it is better.

If we address the emotional aspect at all, it is usually with trying to “create a crisis” or a “burning platform” – in other words, using fear as a motivator. Or, even worse (apparently), we try incentives to manipulate behavior.

Switch uses a metaphor of the human psyche that is borrowed from Johnathan Haidt’s work in The Happiness Hypothesis.

Haight constructs a metaphor of our mind as an elephant, representing our emotional responses, and a rider on the elephant, representing the logical and rational side of our mind.

You can quickly get the idea here – the rider can influence where the elephant goes, but that’s about it. Unless the elephant feels safe going there, and trusts the rider’s judgment, it ain’t gonna happen.

Following that metaphor, Heath and Heath outline nine actions that shape how groups (and individuals) respond to changes. The book describes them in detail, with stories, examples, and structure.

Online, they have the Switch Workbook which provides a great quick-reference for the book. I highly suggest reading the book rather than trying to use the workbook as a substitute, though. Otherwise you lose a lot of context.

The overview and comments below are organized the way the key points are covered in the workbook.

Direct the Rider

Our metaphorical elephant rider is busy and stresses easily. Given too many choices, the rider becomes paralyzed and takes no action at all.

This is what happens, I think, when we present tons of general, theoretical education and then expect team members to pick up their own initiative and “improve things.”

So it is necessary to provide enough structure to allow people to focus their attention on “how to do it” rather than “what to do.” This means being far more explicit than we typically are. “Vision” is not an ethereal saying on the wall. It is a concrete description of how we want the organization to work.

In this category, Heath & Heath cover three key points that address the logical approach:

1. Find the Bright Spots

Rather than focusing on what isn’t working and trying to fix it, go find examples of where things are working and try to understand why – what makes them different.

Often there are one or two key factors involved and, once understood, they are fairly easy to educate and replicate.

Of course, to understand what makes them different, you must also understand the normal way things are done, and compare that with what you find in the positive outliers.

If I were to use Toyota-style language, I would say “understand the current condition” and use the positive outliers as the basis for a target. Then look, at a detailed level, at what small things make such a big difference. This is a classic “is / is not” analysis, but applied rather than just theoretical.

2. Script the Critical Moves

The most common theme of frustrations I hear from change agents and practitioners has to do with people “not supporting the changes.” But when I question them about what they WANT people to do, I often get a list of abstractions.

To make things even more interesting, many of us (myself included) have been taught to focus on the physical process changes rather than the behaviors required in a continuous improvement culture.

From the Switch Workbook on the Heath Brother’s web site:

Be clear about how how people should act.

This is one of the hardest – and most important – parts of the framework. As a leader, you’re going to be tempted to tell your people things like: “Be more innovative!” “Treat the customer with white-glove service!” “Give better feedback to your people!” But you can’t stop there. Remember the child abuse study [from the book]? Do you think those parents would have changed if the therapists had said, “Be more loving parents!”  Of course not. Look for the behaviors.

Another common source of frustration among practitioners is the comparison with perfection. Now there is nothing wrong with this. It is actually how we should think. But there is a difference between using perfection as your benchmark and expecting it to be achieved in one fell swoop.

By setting a limited theme that you know will advance the process, you help people focus on specific actions – you script what they should be working on, and give them permission to not try to fix everything at once.

One good way to test a theme or critical move is to ask whether or not it is “sticky.”

The other thing that helps, according to the workbook, is keeping the change within the scope of how people think about themselves. It is far easier to reinforce behavior that fits in with an existing self-image than to try to change something so fundamental.

3. Point To The Destination

Do you have a tangible objective that is “met” or “not met?”

What happens in too many “lean implementations” is that the process itself is the objective. “We want to be a lean company.”

So what?

“OK, we want all of our materials on a pull system.”

So? Why?

“We want zero parts shortages.”

Ah! That is something you can rally people around.

At the same time, avoid abstract metric targets. “Gross margin” or “inventory turns” targets might be OK in the board room, but in the real world (which, unfortunately, rarely extends into a board room), you need something tangible that people can see and experience.

Motivate the Elephant

The next three items come under the heading “Motivate the Elephant.” The elephant is the metaphor for our emotional responses to things. As much as the business world likes things to be sterile and logical, people never work that way.

Our logical decisions always follow emotional decisions. If there is a misalignment between the two, we feel great anxiety. Haidt describes “the rider” (our logical mind) as a skilled attorney who can construct a logical, sound rationale for any actions that the elephant takes.

So, where “the rider” can be paralyzed by too many options, “the elephant” needs to feel it is safe to go where the rider is trying to take him.

4. Find the Feeling

Taiichi Ohno talked a lot about waste. He described wasteful actions in ways that made it easy to see. His point, I think, was to give his managers a clear picture of just how much opportunity there was, if only they worked to make things flow.

As a sidebar, I don’t believe he made TPS about “eliminating waste” per se. He doesn’t talk about it much once he makes the initial point. Different topic.

The idea of concentrating your effort into a small model area (rather than trying to take everyone along at once) fits into this. It shows people, in a tangible way, what is possible.

The principle of “go and see for yourself” makes the current condition (and the possibilities) real to people in ways that the best PowerPoint presentation never can.

The key is to acknowledge that “rational analysis of facts and data” rarely (if ever) evokes the kinds of things that cause change.

5. Shrink the Change

When I read this chapter, I saw an immediate correlation with the process of rapid coaching cycles and target conditions that Mike Rother describes Toyota Kata. Aside from driving continuous improvement, that process seems to be almost engineered to shift the culture.

This might seem contradictory with “Find the Feeling” but Big Change overwhelms people – it scares the elephant. So while it is important to have a compelling sense of destination, it is equally (if not more) important to have a sense of immediate progress – “we are getting somewhere.”

In the book, the authors give a couple of great examples. In one, they outline an experiment with customer loyalty cards for a car wash. Two groups of customers were given loyalty cards.

One group required 10 stamps to get a free car wash.

The other group required 12 stamps to get a free car wash – but they were given two free stamps to start with.

Thus, each group actually had the same distance to the goal. But the response was significantly higher for the second group. Why? Because they started with a sense of investment. They had runway behind them, which made the distance to close seem shorter.

The two free stamps also gave them a sense that they would be “wasting” or “losing” something of value if they didn’t go ahead and complete the card.

When we look at an area for improvement, do we focus on how bad it is, or do we frame our next steps to honor the work they have already done and work to build on it? We are going to be doing the same work either way, this is a matter of presentation.

At the same time, do we try for the “big leap” and the 80% reduction as the goal, or do we set a series or more modest objectives that anchor a sense of success and moving forward?

Do you structure a big, complex “lean implementation plan” or do you take on one value stream loop at a time?

6. Grow Your People

Humans are incredibly social. We want to feel we are part of a group. We want a group identity that we can share.

Can you cultivate that sense of group identity in a way that aligns people in the direction of the changed behavior? What sense of identity already exists?

At the same time, you can strengthen people’s resolve in the face of obstacles by predicting them.

“When we implement flow, we are going to see a lot of problems come to the surface.” By warning people in advance about what to expect, you can shift the response from being discouraged to accepting the challenge of solving those problems one by one – because those problems tell us “This is working” rather than “it isn’t working.”

If you can challenge people to embrace what Heath and Heath call “the growth mindset” – we are going to build out competency by practice, which means failing and learning sometimes – that helps turn a surprise or disappointing result into a challenge to learn and grow.

Shape the Path

This is, in my opinion, an area where we make the biggest mistakes. A lot of efforts to implement start off with a “lean overview” of some kind – even to the top leaders – and then leaves it up to them to decide how to go about implementing all of this.

But they are still operating in the same environment they always have, and no matter how compelling the vision, there are obstacles in the way. The path is not clear.

The last three actions cover how to structure the process, the environment, even the organization in ways that clear the path you want people to follow.

7. Tweak the Environment

As I was reading these examples, I was getting really excited because it was all familiar. But Switch was adding even more weight behind the things that we do under the name of “kaizen.”

Yes, we are stabilizing and improving the process, but we are also clearing the path toward the behavior we want.

Consider these two examples from the workbook:

Do a “motion study.”

If you’re trying to make a behavior easier, study it. Watch one person go through the process of making a purchase, filing a complaint, recycling an object, etc. Note where there are bottlenecks and where they get stuck. Then try to rearrange the environment to remove those obstacles. Provide signposts that show people which way to turn (or celebrate the progress they’ve made already). Eliminate steps. Shape the path.

If this doesn’t sound familiar to you as a kaizen practitioner, you need to dig out the basics. This is not only exactly what we should be doing every day, it is exactly what we should be teaching others to do as well.

TPS / “Lean” is a management system that strives to do this every day. The cool thing, in my mind, is that Switch is as much describing what should be our routine as it is describing how to change the routine.

Or try this example:

Can you run the McDonalds playbook?

Think of the way McDonalds designs its environment so that its employees can deliver food with incredible consistency, despite a lack of work experience (or an excess of motivation). They pay obsessive attention to every step of the process. The ketchup dispenser, for instance, isn’t like the one in your fridge. It has a plunger on top that, when pressed, delivers precisely the right amount of ketchup for one burger. That way, if you have to deliver 10 burgers in a minute, you don’t have to think at all. You just press the plunger 10 times. Have you looked at your own operations through that lens? Have you made every step as easy as possible on your employees?

Here is where the nay-sayers tell us “But that work environment gives people no sense of creativity.” Damn right. I don’t want any creativity around the way the product is made. I want to know that my customers are going to get exactly what was specified.

The opportunity for creativity comes from challenging people to create a work environment that makes it easy to consistently deliver the product. And there are endless opportunities to do this. If / when quality is perfect, then work on productivity.

So as we work to “tweak the environment” the real question for a lean practitioner is how to structure things that make and hold space for this creative process of improvement to happen. What blocks the path? Have you carved out that space, or do you expect people to just find a way to do it?

And finally, Heath and Heath challenge us to look at the environment before we start blaming people. Good people working in a bad environment are often painted as flawed in some way. This is called “attribution error” – attributing bad results to the person rather than the process. I have yet to meet anyone (myself included) who was not guilty of this now and then.

The people we call the “anchor draggers” and “cement heads” are making the best decisions they can in good faith, based on the environment and information that surrounds them. We have an opportunity to shape that environment, and thus alter the inputs they deal with.

8. Build Habits

“Behavior” is built up from how people respond to the things around them that trigger those responses. When we talk about “habits” we are really talking about consistent responses or actions.

If we want to change those responses, it is helpful to link the new response to a specific trigger.

Again, looking at a TPS environment, I immediately think “andon.” There is a specific trigger (the light is ON or OFF) and a specific response.

Digging in deeper, and looking at the work Steven Spear did in his original research (which is summarized in Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System) we see an environment that is precisely structured to provide explicit triggers for explicit actions.

Further, there are processes to verify that what was expected is what happened, and any deviation triggers another specified response. So I see yet another area where the Toyota management structure is engineered to provide the kind of environment that Switch talks about.

If I am trying to alter behavior, I ask the same questions. Can I set a specific trigger that calls for a specific action that I can check?

Can I take something that people already do and structure the work (“tweak the environment”) so that routine action triggers the new behavior?

Can I structure the work to sequentially cue the next process step as each is accomplished?

9. Rally the Herd

And finally is reinforcing, again, the fact that humans are naturally biased toward wanting to be part of a common social structure.

What is the prevailing social pressure in the organization? Is it counter to what you are trying to do? Are the people who are adopting the new behavior isolated from one another? Are you trying to spread the early adopters too thin, in the hope that they will inoculate the rest of the organization? They will inoculate the organization – by creating powerful antibodies against the change. Small, isolated efforts dissipate your resources to the point where they are ineffective.

What can you do to create a majority from the minority? This is one benefit of the model line. It establishes a concentrated environment where everyone is focused on the same thing, and eliminates (or at least reduces) the social pressure against the new behavior. “We are in this together.”

Now, having a model line does not guarantee that the rest of the organization will spontaneously adopt the new way. Far from it. It takes deliberate action.

“Rally the herd” also means that the group that is doing what you want are celebrated as “doing it right.” But you have to do this in a way that doesn’t rub people the wrong way. Believe me, I’ve seen with my own eyes the pushback created when one division of a large company was constantly lauded as the “shining star” to the others.

Nevertheless, you want to highlight the bright spots, and then find specific, small things that have made a difference. GM couldn’t “just be more like Toyota” or “more like NUMMI.” That wasn’t enough. They wanted the results, but apparently never dig in to truly understand the few key things that went deeper than the mechanics.


Practitioners are often expected to “drive the change” into an otherwise passive-aggressive organizational culture. This can be a frustrating experience because lean practitioners are rarely given the tools to affect social conventions.

It is a sad fact that the vast majority of efforts to “implement lean” falter or fail within a few years. The message that I draw from this is “Look at what most people are doing, and do something different.” The mainstream message we have been getting doesn’t work very well, and just “trying harder” is no more effective here than anywhere else.

This book, with some careful study, discussion, and a little collusion, can form a great blueprint for how to actually structure your work to move the cultural change along.

The key is to remember that the “lean implementation plan” is NOT about how to implement takt, flow and pull. It is a plan to shift how people behave and respond to issues every day. The tools are important, but only because they create opportunities for people to learn and demonstrate the new way of daily management.