Toyota Kata: What is the Learner Learning?

In the language of Toyota Kata we have a “coach” and a “learner.” Some organizations use the word “improver” instead of “learner.” I have used those terms more or less interchangeably. Now I am getting more insight into what the “learner” is learning.

The obvious answer is that, by practicing the Improvement Kata, the learner is learning the thinking pattern that is behind solid problem solving and continuous improvement.

But now I am reading more into the role. The “learner” is also the one who is learning about the process, the problems, and the solutions.

Steve Spear has a mantra of “See a problem, solve a problem, teach somebody.” This is, I think, the role of the learner.

What about the coach?

The coach is using the Coaching Kata to learn how to ask questions that drive learning. He may also be un-learning how to just have all of the answers.

As the coach develops skill, I advise sticking to the Coaching Kata structure for the benefit of beginner learners. It is easier for them to be prepared if they understand the questions and how to answer them. That, in turn, teaches them the thinking required to develop those answers.

Everybody is a Learner

The final question in the “5 Questions” is “When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?” It isn’t when can I see what You have learned. It is a “we” question because nobody knows the answers yet.

The Destructiveness of “What Can You Improve?”

“What Can You Improve?”

Leaders often ask “What can you improve?” as an empowerment question. In reality, it may have the opposite effect.

I am coming to the belief that “What can you improve?” (about your job, about your process) is possibly one of the most demotivating, disempowering, destructive questions that can be asked.

What can you work on?” is another one of many forms this question takes. “How could you improve this process?” is another. What they all have in common is the psychological trap they set.

Now this really isn’t that much of a problem in a company that has a history of transparency in leadership, comfort with discussing the truth, and no need for excuses or justifications. Then again, those companies tend not to ask these questions straight-on.

But the vast majority of organizations aren’t like that. That doesn’t mean they are unkind. Rather, they operate in an environment where truthfully answering this question is difficult at best.

The Psychological Trap

To answer that question with anything other than trying to guess what you want, implies I have:

  • Thoroughly examined my results and the underlying processes.
  • Identified gaps in performance.
  • Know what to do about those gaps.
  • And haven’t done anything about it until you asked.

This puts me in the position of either defending the status-quo, or saying that I need to improve something that is out of my control – someone else’s process needs improvement so I can do better.

Hint: If you are a leader, and you ask a “What can you improve?” question and get an answer like the above – defending the status-quo or pointing to an outside problem –, there is fear in your organization. Justified or not, the person answering is struggling to maintain the impression that everything they can do is being done. Why do they feel the need to do this? Think about it.

This is especially pervasive in support / staff departments with a charter of influencing how other organizations perform, or in those who must work together with line organizations to succeed in their tasks. In industry this might be maintenance, HR, industrial engineering, or even the “improvement office” (who are often not a  beacon of internal efficiency or effectiveness).

A Bit of Background

When I start working with an organization, we usually start with practicing the basic mechanics of the Improvement Kata in a classroom setting. We then follow up immediately with kick-starting some live improvement cycles so we can begin practical application. Classroom learning really doesn’t do much good unless it is applied immediately.

Applying the Improvement Kata is a lot harder in the real world than it is in the classroom. I could go into a tangential rant on why I think our primary and secondary education system makes it harder, but I’ll save that for another day.

Even though I am as adamant as I can be on the importance of the organization identifying challenges for the new improvers / learners, the reality is that most organizations don’t know how to do this, or at least aren’t comfortable with it.*

As a result, the new improvers often struggle to define a “challenge” for themselves.

They guess – because they haven’t yet studied their process (which is the next step once context is established, they haven’t yet established a target condition (which is the step after that), and therefore, they haven’t identified what improvements they must make to get to the challenge state.

And if that guess is something in someone else’s domain, or worse if the “coach” has something else in mind, they are told “That’s not it,” they guess again, and eventually get defensive or give up.

Now – to be clear, this doesn’t happen every time. But I have seen it enough, across multiple organizations in very different domains that it’s a problem. And it is frustrating for everyone when it happens.

I indirectly addressed this topic a long time ago in “How the Sensei Sees.” Now, though I am talking about my own direct observation of the effect. And I am still learning how to deal with the fallout without becoming part of the problem.

It’s not the learner’s problem. It is a leadership problem.

________

*Dave Kilgore at Continental Automotive had the additional insight that it is important for beginners that this challenge should be something important but not urgent so they don’t feel pressured to jump to an immediate solution. This is a good example of “constancy of purpose” – his priority is developing the skill level for improvement first.

Prediction Doesn’t Equal Understanding

Lunar Eclipse over Everett, WA. Photo by Mark Rosenthal, © 2015Sometimes people fall into a trap of believing they understand a process if they can successfully predict it’s outcome. We see this in meetings. A problem or performance gap will be discussed, and an action item will be assigned to implement a solution.
Tonight those of us in the western USA saw the moon rise in partial eclipse.

We knew this would happen because our understanding of orbital mechanics allows us to predict these events… right?

Well, sort of. Except we have been predicting astronomical events like this for thousands of years, long before Newton, or even Copernicus.

The photo below is of a sophisticated computer that predicted lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, and other astronomical events in 1600BC (and earlier). Click through the photo for an explanation of how Stonehenge works:

Photo of Stonehenge
Creative Commons flickr user garethwiscombe

Stonehenge represented a powerful descriptive theory. That is, a sufficient level of understanding to describe the phenomena the builders were observing. But they didn’t know why those phenomena occurred.

Let’s go to our understanding of processes.

The ability to predict the level of quality fallout does not indicate understanding of why it occurs. All it tells you is that you have made enough observations that you can conclude the process is stable, and will likely keep operating that way unless something materially changes. That is all statistical process control tells you.

Likewise, the ability to predict how long something takes does not indicate understanding of why. Obviously I could continue on this theme.

A lot of management processes, though, are quite content with the ability to predict. We create workforce plans based on past experience, without ever challenging the baseline. We create financial models and develop “required” levels of inventory based on past experience. And all of these models are useful for their intended purpose: Creating estimates of the future based on the past.

But they are inadequate for improvement or problem solving.

Let’s say your car has traditionally gotten 26 miles-per-gallon of fuel. That’s not bad. (For my non-US readers, that’s about 9 liters / 100 km.) You can use that information to predict how far a tank of fuel will get you, even if you have no idea how the car works.

If your tank holds 15 gallons of fuel, you’ll be looking to fill after driving about 300 miles.

But what if you need to get 30 miles-per-gallon?

Or what if all of a sudden you are only getting 20 miles-per-gallon?

If you are measuring, you will know the gap you need to close. In one case you will need to improve the operation of the vehicle in some way. In the other case, you will need to determine what has changed and restore the operation to the prior conditions.

In both of those cases, if you don’t know how the car operated to deliver 26 miles-per-gallon, it is going to be pretty tough. (It is a lot harder to figure out how something is supposed to work if it is broken before you start troubleshooting it.)

Here’s an even more frustrating scenario: On the last tank of fuel, you measured 30 miles per gallon, but have no idea why things improved! This kind of thing actually happens all of the time. We have a record month or quarter, it is clearly beyond random fluctuation, but we don’t know what happened.

The Message for Management:

If you are managing to KPIs only, and can’t explain the process mechanics behind the measurements you are getting, you are operating in the same neolithic process used by the builders of Stonehenge. No matter how thoroughly they understood what would happen, they did not understand why.

If your shipments are late, if your design process takes too long, if your quality or customer service is marginal, if the product doesn’t meet customer’s expectations, and you can’t explain the mechanisms that are causing these things (or the mechanisms of a process that operates reliably and acceptably) then you aren’t managing, you are simply directing people to make the eclipse happen on a different day.

“Seek first to understand.”

Dig in, go see for yourself. Let yourself be surprised by just how hard it is to get stuff done.

 

 

“We Need To…”

When working with large organizations, I frequently hear a surprising level of consensus about what must be done to deal with whatever challenge they are facing.

Everyone, at all levels, will agree on what must be done. They will say “We need to…” followed by statements about exactly the right things, yet nobody actually does it. They just all agree that “we need to.”

I even hear “We need to…” from very senior leaders.

It’s a great car, I wish we made more of them.

– Attributed to Roger Smith, CEO of GM, following a presentation on the Pontiac Fiero.

I can’t come up with a clever name for this, but it is really the opposite of Jerry Harvey’s “Abilene Paradox” where a group embarks on an activity that no one actually wants to carry out. In this case, a group doesn’t take action toward something they all agree must be done.

I would contend that “We need to” spoken to no one in particular is an artificial substitution of the word “we” that does not actually include “I.” Substitute “they” for “we” and you hear what is really being said.

“They need to…”

“Somebody needs to…”

This isn’t clarity. It isn’t accountably. It is a wish.

In Turn the Ship Around, David Marquet challenged (actually ordered) his crew to never use the word “they” to refer to any crewmate on the submarine. This shift in language was an early step toward shifting the teamwork dynamic on the USS Santa Fe. Marquet comments “We don’t have teamwork. We have a rule. You can’t say ‘they’.” but the truth was that the linguistic shift precipitated a shift in the behavior and then the underlying thinking.

This week we asked the question: What small change to their language could we challenge a leadership team to make that would shift the dynamic of “We need to” from general, ambiguous statement toward taking a step to fix it.

What should follow “We need to…” to turn it into accountable language?

One suggestion that came up would be to follow “We need to…” with “…therefore I…

By making that thinking explicit, we might tacitly flush out “We need to, therefore I intend to wait for someone to tell me to do something.” or “We need to, therefore I am going to hope it happens.” or “We need to, but there’s nothing I can do.”

Realistically, no one would say those complete sentences on purpose, but a struggle to come up with something more concrete might trigger some reflection on the underlying thinking.

Maybe we can turn “We need to, therefore I…” into describing one step the speaker can take in his or her organization without seeking permission*. There is always something that can be done.

This doesn’t need to be scripted or literal. It might just take a self-empowered voice to ask “We all seem to agree on what must be done. What step are we going to take, today, to move in that direction?”

Action Step: Challenge your team when you hear “We need to.” Are you talking about an anonymous “they” or taking a concrete action step? Who, exactly, is “we” if doesn’t include “me”?

Never give up.

_________

*Keeping in mind that “without permission” does not always mean “I have the authority to do it.” It just means “It is the right thing to do, so I’m going to do it.”

How Do You Measure Toyota Kata?

I’ve run into a couple of cases where there is an initiative from a corporate continuous improvement team to “implement Toyota Kata.”

Aside from trying to proscribe each and every step of the way (which runs counter to the entire point of discovering the solution – “you omitted step 7b”), they also expect reports of metrics related to the “implementation.”

Things like:

  • Number of coaches.
  • Number of coaching sessions.
  • Number of active improvement boards.
  • Scoring learners on a dozen or so categories of specific attributes for their coaching session.

Then there are bureaucratic reporting structures demanding that this information (and much, much more) get dutifully filled in and reported up to the continuous improvement office so they could monitor how each site is progressing (often from across an ocean).

I’ve seen this before.

I’ve seen companies try to count kaizen events, and quantify the improvements for each one to justify the payback of the effort.

Similarly, I’ve seen top-level corporate leadership teams struggle to determine how to measure, at a glance, whether a site was “doing lean” to get their results (or getting the results by some other means(?) that were less appropriate).

I’ve seen companies try to manage quality by having the quality staff prepare and submit elaborate monthly reports about what was, and was not getting done based on what they felt was important.

I lump all of this under “management by measurement.” I think it is often a substitute for (1) trusting middle management to tell the truth and (2) actually talking to people.

What’s The Alternative?

First we need to work out what we really want people, especially middle managers, to actually do. What would full participation look like if you saw it?

For example, one company I work with has had a problem where middle managers send their people to internally run “kata training,” then say they have no time to coach their people, give them ambiguous or shallow challenges to work on, and generally look at the training as someone else’s responsibility.

OK, what do you want them to do?

In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath talk about “scripting the first moves” so someone who is unsure how to begin doesn’t need to expend limited psychological energy figuring out how to start. We want to get them going. We don’t need to lay out the entire process (that will end up being different for everyone) but we can create some clear rules or guidelines for getting started.

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.

Asking that question, in terms of what they would actually see their middle managers doing, we came up with three general actions:

  • Work with their learner / improver to establish a clear challenge for them.
  • Commit to regular coaching cycles with their improver.
  • Commit to receiving 2nd level coaching during those sessions (so they can learn as well).

The question then becomes what mechanism can the organization put into place to encourage that behavior vs. just sending people to the class and not following up in any way.

It is easy to tell people what they shouldn’t do. It’s a little tougher to tell them what they should do.

In this case, we discussed establishing prerequisites for sending someone to the class. But these prerequisites are for the organization sending the participant to the training, rather than just the person attending the class.

It is the sponsoring manager who must commit (perhaps even in writing) to ensuring there is an improvement challenge; to establishing a regular coaching cycle; and to welcoming 2nd level coaching.

Perhaps this would be a commitment to the advance team who becomes a bit of an admissions committee – ensuring the support structure is there before we commit to taking someone on in the class.

We discussed taking a copy of the organization chart and putting dots on it where they had active improvement boards and coaching relationships. That would highlight which organization groups were developing their own people and which ones were doing less of it.

We discussed inviting the middle managers who have sent people to the class but, today, are not supporting, to come to the advanced team with a plan – perhaps a similar commitment – for their renewed participation. But no one would be required, because you can’t force anyone to learn something. Put your energy toward the people who want to learn. Trying to get participation from people who don’t want to do it just frustrates everyone.

And finally, create a mechanism for someone inside a non-participating organization to raise their hand and ask for help with their own development. Don’t punish the entire organization because their boss won’t play.

Now you are talking about mechanics, about actions that have testable outcomes: Experiments that can be set up and tried, improved, and iterated in the direction of something that works for your organization.

It is more work than just measuring people. And it doesn’t work every time. But it works more often than something that never works.

A Tale of Two Sites

With apologies to Charles Dickens, but the opening line is just too good to resist…

The Best of Times

In this plant, the advance team is chaired and actively led by the most senior manager on the site. He is actively coaching, he is actively being coached. He is questioning his own learning, seeking council, and acting on it.

They are clear that, while there may be general guidelines, they must learn by trying and experimenting. They cannot simply deploy a roadmap because they can only see the next mile on a 1000 mile journey.

They see it as a method to shift their culture away from its “tell me what to do” legacy and toward one of an empowered workforce that takes initiative and works on the right things, the right way.

There is no doubt among the leadership team that this is the path forward.

They are starting to apply the language of the Improvement Kata informally in their meetings and discussions.

Overall, it seems a bit messy. But learning is like that.

The Other Site

The “implementation of Toyota Kata” is a directive from the corporate Continuous Improvement team.

The corporate team spends much of their energy developing and deploying templates, PowerPoint presentations, setting standards for the forms and the layout, lettering and colors on the improvement boards, and setting milestones.

They have published a step-by-step procedure for a site to implement Toyota Kata, based on their assumptions of what ought to work. None of them has actually led a change like this.

They are, in turn, working through the site continuous improvement team who is expected to execute to these standards.

The site leader receives weekly reports on progress. Training the managers and “implementing Toyota Kata” is the responsibility of one of the site’s continuous improvement staffers. The site leader questions him using the 5 Questions each week, and issues direction in response to the answers.

It is the continuous improvement practitioner who is responsible for motivating the members of the management team to challenge their own processes and develop their improvement boards. A significant number of them are questioning the need or purpose of this exercise.

Thoughts

Unfortunately I run into the second case far more often than I see the first. But the story is decades old. That is how we did Six Sigma, kaizen events, Theory of Constraints, Total Quality Management. In each case we have separated the deployment of a core change in the way we manage operations from the responsibility for actually managing.

It

doesn’t

work.

This TED talk by Tim Harford actually sums up the difference pretty well:

But beyond what works, and what doesn’t, we also have to ask “Which approach is respectful of people?”

What are the underlying assumptions about the people at the gemba when “standards” are established thousands of miles away, published, and then audited into place?

Why do they feel they must tell people exactly what to do?

What do they feel is lacking on the site?  Competence? or Clarity?

Shifting Perspective from Getting Results to Developing People

Note: This post has been in my “Draft” queue for a few months, so actually pre-dates the previous one. But I’m seeing a theme developing in what I am paying attention to lately.

Taken from an actual conversation.

“What is your target condition?”

“To get [this productivity metric] from 60% to 85%.”

(thinking) – he is only talking about the performance metric.

“How would the process have to work to achieve that level of performance?”

(pointing to process flow diagram) “We have two work flows. One for routine project work, the other is high-priority emergent work. Whenever a worker has an opportunity to take on routine project work, I want him to be able to take the next most important job from the prioritized work queue.”

“This would eliminate the need for the worker waste time trying to find me to get an assignment or investigate or guess what he should do next, and let him get started right away. It would also stop cherry picking the easier jobs”

“My goal is for the Team Leader to establish those priorities, and keep track of how work is progressing.”

(thinking) – OK, I see where he is trying to go. I’m not sure I would have taken this exact approach, but it looks good enough right now to let him run with it and see what he learns.

“What was the last step or experiment you completed?” (Note: I am trying asking this question with ‘you completed’ so emphasize I want results from the last one, not information about what is ongoing or next.)

“Before I went on vacation, I looked at the incoming work queue, and established priorities for that work. As the workers needed their next job, it was clear to them what they needed to do.”

“What result did you expect?”

“I expected my productivity metric to hit my 85% target.”

“What actually happened?”

“The metric did hit the 85% target, when I prioritized the work. Then I went on vacation, and as you can see here (pointing at the graph), the productivity dropped back to its baseline level.”

“What did you learn?”

“I learned that when I set the priorities, and track the productivity, it improves as I expected it to. I also learned that when I don’t do it myself, then things go back to the way they were.”

“What obstacles do you think are preventing you from achieving your target condition?”

“People don’t know what the most important job is.”

“You said your target condition is for your team leader to make those assignments. How does that obstacle relate back to your target?”

“My team leader doesn’t know what the most important jobs are.”

“How about writing that down on the obstacle list.”

(he adds it to the list)

“Any other obstacles?”

“Um… I don’t think so.”

(thinking) I’m pretty sure there are other issues, but he seems focused on this one. Let’s see where he is going with it.

“OK, so that (the team leader) is the obstacle you’re addressing now?”

“Yes.”

“OK, what is your next step?”

“I am going to assign the priorities myself.”

“What result do you expect?”

“I expect the performance to go back to its target value.”

“How is that addressing the fact that your team leader doesn’t know how to assign priorities?”

pause…

(thinking) He isn’t connecting the dots here.

“Let’s come back to your target condition. You said you want the team leader to do all of this, rather than you, right?”

“Yes.”

“What is keeping you from just giving him the work and having him do it?”

“If I did that the productivity would go down again.”

”How come?” (Yes, I am leading the witness here. My thinking is that if I can get the right words to come out of him, he’ll “get it.”)

“My team leader doesn’t know how to set the priorities.”

“Right, so that’s the real obstacle in the way of reaching your target of having him do it, right?”

“Yes, but if I have him do it, then my productivity will go down. Isn’t the idea to hit the goal?”

“Yes, but you said in your target condition you wanted to hit the goal by having your team leader set the priorities, not just do it yourself.”

pause… (he’s probably feeling a little trapped now.)

(continuing) “So, if your team leader did know how to set the priorities, you think you’d hit your productivity goal with him doing it, right?”

pause…

“What else might be in the way?”

“He (the team leader) doesn’t like to go and talk to managers in other [customer]departments about their work priorities.”

“Write that down. Anything else?”

“He sometimes is reluctant to give assignments to people who would rather be working on something easier [but less important].”

“Write that down. Anything else?”

“I don’t think so. It sounds like the team leader is the problem.”

“You remember the session we did about David Marquet, the submarine captain, right?”

pause… “yeah.”

“So is this an issue with his (the team leader’s) competence – something you need to teach – or clarity – something you need to communicate?”

“I guess I need to teach him how to set the priorities.”

“So that is still the obstacle you are addressing now?”

“Yes.”

“OK, so what step are you going to take first?”

and from here, the conversation took a 90 degree turn into how this manager was going to develop his team leader.

The target condition got clarified into the capabilities and information the Team Leader needed to be able to perform the job competently.

The obstacles turned into things which must be taught, and things which must be communicated.

In retrospect, the obstacle I was addressing was reluctance on the Manager’s part to accept that developing the team leader was nobody’s job but his. But I’m finding that to be a common theme in a few places.

DMAIC and Toyota Kata

A lot of the organizations I deal with have a legacy with Six Sigma, or some x-Sigma variant. If they are now trying to incorporate Toyota Kata as a way to shift their daily behavior, questions arise about how it fits (or might fit, or whether it fits) with DMAIC.

This sometimes comes about when the impetus to embrace Toyota Kata comes from outside the organization, such as an initiative from the corporate Continuous Improvement office. In this case, unless integration with legacy approaches is carefully thought through, Toyota Kata (or whatever else is coming down the pipeline) can easily be perceived as “yet another corporate initiative” or “something else to do” rather than “a new (and hopefully better) way to do what we are already doing.”

My Background

First a disclaimer. My deepest exposure to Six Sigma was during my time as a Quality Director in a large company that had a long history with TQM and then Six Sigma. Thus, I dealt with the Black Belts and Green Belts in the organization, and paid a lot of attention to the projects they were working on.

In addition, every certification project for a new Black Belt came across my desk. Unlike a lot of managers in the chain (apparently), I actually read them, parsed them, and asked questions when I couldn’t follow the story line of the project. (Apparently nobody expected that, but it’s another story.)

I worked with the corporate Master Black Belt, made input into their programs, and did what I could to create a degree of cooperation, if not harmony, between the Six Sigma community and the lean guys.

Thus I am not claiming this is anything new or profound. Rather, this is sharing my own sense of connection between these two approaches in a world where I often find them competing for people’s mindspace.

The Improvement Process Flow

As I observed it, a Six Sigma project was typically organized and conducted as follows:

An area manager, usually a Green Belt, identifies something that needs improving. He assembles a team of stakeholders. He is coached by a Black Belt through*:

Defining the problem and establishing a charter for the team.

Establishing a Measurement that will define progress.

Conducting a thorough Analysis of the process, with a primary focus on sources of variation, especially those which are intertwined with quality issues.

Developing a list or set of Improvements and putting them into place, again focusing primarily on variation in methods, etc. that drive defects.

Establishing a standard to Control the process and keeping it running the new way.

Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control. DMAIC.

In actual practice, it is very similar to the large single-loop “six step problem solving” process I was taught as “the problem solving process that came out of TQM.” That is probably not a coincidence.

DMAIC projects are typically targeted at measurable significant financial payback. Black Belts are trained to find and spend their time on high-payback projects. At least in the company I worked for, there was a minimum payback they had to achieve to get their certification. They also had to demonstrate knowledge of the various high-powered statistical tools.

It makes sense for people steeped in this methodology to ask how it fits in with “short cycles of experiments and improvements” that are the anchor for not only Toyota Kata, but kaizen in general (if you are doing it right).

And, put another way, if the organization is trying to establish a coaching culture using Toyota Kata, is Toyota Kata something different from DMAIC, or do they fit together? (I have actually been asked exactly the same question about Toyota Kata and kaizen(!), but that, too, is another story.)

To give credit where credit is due, this was the topic over lunch last week at a client site whose Six Sigma projects also follow the general structure I outlined above. Jazmin, the continuous improvement leader, was already working through this in her mind, and recognized the linkage right away.

Since the company has an active Six Sigma program, with dozens of projects ongoing, we wanted to find a way to integrate Toyota Kata thinking into what they were already doing vs. introducing yet another separate initiative. (It is easier to “embrace and extend” something you are already doing than bring something brand new into the domain.)

Relating DMAIC to the Improvement Kata

Here is how I relate DMAIC to the Improvement Kata.

Define the Problem =(more or less) Challenge and Direction. This is what we are working on, and why it is important.

Measure and Analyze = Grasp the Current Condition. Six Sigma has a host of powerful tools (which are often used just because they are there … so be careful not to make easy things complicated).

I would point out that if you follow the process in the Improvement Kata Handbook, you are also initially focused on variation in the process. Lean people tend to reduce all variation down to units of time, but in that noise are all sources of variation of the process. Defects, for example, don’t count as a delivery, and so introduce noise into the exit cycles. Machine slowdowns and stoppages, likewise, disturb the rhythm of the process. Like DMIAC, the Improvement Kata, as outlined in the handbook, steers you toward sources of variation very quickly.

Thus, a Six Sigma project team, and an improver following the Improvement Kata are both going to initially look for sources of instability. (Quality First, Safety Always).

At this point, the two diverge a little, but only a little.

Perhaps because DMAIC sounds like a single cycle, a fair number of teams tend to try to Implement a Single Grand Solution. They spend a fair amount of time brainstorming what it should look like, and designing it. Then, once they think they have a solution, they put it into place by establishing new “standards” (in this context, that usually means procedures), training people, and validating that it all works.

Again – a lot of kaizen events do pretty much the same thing, they just might do it faster if it is a classic five-day event.

A few years ago I was on a discussion panel at a conference in Chicago that was very Six Sigma centric. In the various breakout sessions, the Black Belts (who are mostly staff practitioners) universally complained about “management embracing the changes” and not enforcing the new processes. They were frustrated that once they were done, things slipped back.

In other words, once the energy input of the project itself stopped, entropy took over, and things regressed back to the original equilibrium.

And (once again) traditional kaizen events often have the same problem.

Blending Toyota Kata and Six-Sigma Coaching

Think of this conversation between the Black Belt coach and the Green Belt project leader in their daily meeting and check-in:

[preliminary social rituals]

“Just to review, what is the problem you are working on?”

[Green Belt reviews the charter and objective]

“Great, so what is the target condition you are striving for right now?”

[Green belt describes the next intermediate step toward the chartered defined state. He describes how the process will operate when key parts of it are stabilized, for example.]

The Black Belt is listening carefully, and may ask follow-up questions to make sure the target condition is clearly on the path toward solving the defined problem vs. chasing something interesting-but-irrelevant to the issue at hand.

“Good. Can you tell me the last step you took?”

[Green Belt describes a change they made, or some additional data they needed to collect and analyze, or a control measure they have experimented with, etc]

“What did you expect from that step?”

[Green Belt reviews the intent of the action, and what he expected to happen.]

“And what actually happened?”

[Green Belt describes what his data collection and observation revealed about the process, or how well his control measure worked to contain a source of variation, etc…. or didn’t.]

“And what did you learn?”

[Green Belt describes insights that have been gained, especially insights into sources of variation, or the effect of controlling them. He also describes what he might have learned about the tools, or struggled with in applying them.]

“Very good. So what sources of variation or obstacles do you think are preventing you from reaching the target right now?”

[Green Belt describes the current suspects for causes and sources of variation in the process, as well as other issues that may be impeding progress.]

“Which one of those are you addressing now?”

[The Green Belt may well still be working on the last one, or might have it effectively controlled and is now addressing a new one. If he has moved on to a new one, the Black Belt is going to be especially interested in the control mechanism for the sources of variation that has been “eliminated” so it stays that way.]

For example, a follow-up question might be “Can you tell me how you are controlling that? What countermeasures do you have to detect if that variation comes back into play?”

We aren’t limited to SPC of course, and actually would rather have a binary yes/no  need-to-act/don’t-need-to-act signal of some kind.

What we are going here is iterating through sources of variation, and establishing a positive Control on each of them before moving on rather than trying to stabilize everything in one step at the end.

Once he is satisfied that the project team hasn’t “left fire behind them,” then the Black Belt can move on.

“Great. Can you tell me the next step you plan to take, or experiment you’re going to run?”

[Green Belt reviews the next action to either learn more about a source of variation or attempt to keep it controlled.]

“And what result do you expect?”

[If the Green Belt is proposing using a specific Six Sigma statistical cool, the Black Belt is going to be carefully listening, and asking follow-on questions to confirm that the Green Belt understands the tool’s function and limitations, how he plans to use it, what he expects to learn as a result, and why he thinks that specific tool will give him the answers he is looking for.]

“OK, when do you think we can review what you have learned from taking that step”

This interaction is using the Coaching Kata script to develop the Six Sigma skills of the Green Belt project leader. We already have a coaching relationship, so all we are doing here is practicing a technique to make it more effective and more structured.

DMAIC is now more like:

DM [repeat AIC as necessary]

as the team works methodically through the sources of variation as they are uncovered.

The Master Black Belt

At the next level up is typically a Master Black Belt who is generally responsible for mentoring and developing the Black Belts. They typically meet weekly or monthly and review and share progress on projects.

Only now, let’s shift the discussion to reviewing and sharing progress on developing the problem analysis and solving skills of the Green Belts. Remember, the Green Belts are line management, and we want to get them thinking this way about everything.

“Lets review your learning objective for your Green Belt last week.”

“What did he do? What did you expect him to learn?”

“What did he actually learn? Did he make any mistakes?”

“Is he stuck anywhere? What is your plan to give him additional coaching or instruction?”

In other words, they are following DMAIC as well. Except that the “problem” is the skill of the Green Belt and how effectively he is applying that skill to solve his chartered problem.

 

I am really interested in hearing from Six Sigma folks out there about how this resonates, or doesn’t, with you.

————

*Sometimes I observed a Black Belt doing the same thing on his own initiative, leading the project himself. Occasionally I saw a Black Belt acting solo. I am not discussing either of those approaches here, however.

Coaching: Getting Specific, Finding the Knowledge Threshold

When coaching, I often find improvers / learners who tend to be superficial or vague about target conditions, current conditions, the experiments they intend to run, the results they expect, what they learned.  Huh… I guess I should have said “vague about everything.”

As several of my clients would tell you, one of my themes is “drive out ambiguity.”

Recently I’ve been trying a simple follow-up question that seems to be working to help people dig a little deeper without pushing them back as much as other questions might.

“Could you be more specific?”

I will plead completely guilty to stealing this from an unlikely source.

In his book “The Cuckoo’s Egg“, Clifford Stoll describes a line of questioning during his oral defense of his PhD thesis in astronomy:

I remember it vividly. Across a table, five profs. I’m frightened, trying to look casual as sweat drips down my face. But I’m keeping afloat; I’ve managed to babble superficially, giving the illusion that I know something. Just a few more questions, I think, and they’ll set me free. Then the examiner over at the end of the table – the guy with the twisted little smile – starts sharpening his pencil with a penknife.

“I’ve got just one question, Cliff,” he says, carving his way through the Eberhard-Faber. “Why is the sky blue?

My mind is absolutely, profoundly blank. I have no idea. I look out the window at the sky with the primitive, uncomprehending wonder of a Neanderthal contemplating fire. I force myself to say something—anything. “Scattered light,” I reply. “Uh, yeah, scattered sunlight.”

“Could you be more specific?”

Well, words came from somewhere, out of some deep instinct of self-preservation. I babbled about the spectrum of sunlight, the upper atmosphere, and how light interacts with molecules of air.

“Could you be more specific?”

I’m describing how air molecules have dipole moments, the wave-particle duality of light, scribbling equations on the blackboard, and . . .

“Could you be more specific?”

An hour later, I’m sweating hard. His simple question—a five-year-old’s question—has drawn together oscillator theory, electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics, even quantum mechanics. Even in my miserable writhing, I admired the guy…

[Emphasis added]

As you can see from Stoll’s experience, his professor was seeking to find his knowledge threshold – something a kata coach should be doing as well.

Now, I’m not going to push the “5 Whys” quite as deep as quantum effects (except, perhaps, at one client who DOES deal with things at that level…), but I find this is a far more effective question than “Why?” or asking leading questions. It, obviously isn’t universal, but it has been working reasonably well with a client whose corporate culture drives indirect assertions and vague predictions.

Try it… leave a comment if it works for you (or bombs). But please… be specific.  🙂

P.S. – In this video, Cliff Stoll tells the same story, likely more accurately, and makes another valuable point:  “It’s obvious” is a statement which often hides limited understanding of what is being discussed. It might be “obvious,” but… let’s go see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Emphasis added]

I bolded that phrase for a reason.

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

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

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

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

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