Struggling to Learn

One of the challenges of teaching and consulting is resisting the temptation to give people the answers. Honestly, I like giving people the answers. It feels genuinely helpful, and it provides a nice ego boost.

But according to this article on Time’s “Time Ideas” site by Anne Murphy Paul titled “Why Floundering is Good,” that isn’t the best way to teach.

In fact, it can hinder learning.

The key point is summarized at the end:

… we need to “design [teaching] for productive failure” by building it into the learning process. Kapur has identified three conditions that promote this kind of beneficial struggle. First, choose problems to work on that “challenge but do not frustrate.” Second, provide learners with opportunities to explain and elaborate on what they’re doing. Third, give learners the chance to compare and contrast good and bad solutions to the problems.

Right now we are (hopefully) in the midst of a paradigm shift in how lean practitioners and teachers go about what we do.

Traditionally, a lot of us have simply given people the answers, or at least strong suggestions. Given the time constraints and overly ambitious targets of a typical 5 day event, that is understandable.

But now we are starting to see these events as skill building, which means learning, which means the teams need time to muddle through.

I have been structuring my approach quite differently for about a year now. I’ll be the first to admit that I, too, am figuring it out, reinforcing what works well, altering what needs to work better. These days I am far more comfortable letting things move through this struggle in order to set up deeper understanding once the light does come on.

The trick is to let them fail small, and not let them fail big. The problem has to have a solution that is within reach, or they will only come away frustrated.

Thus, teaching is becoming a matter of judging the knowledge and skill threshold and making sure they don’t take on too much at once. That is part of respect for people.

One problem at a time. Single factor experiments.

A great deal of the power in the “Coaching Kata” is turning out to be the question “Which *one* [obstacle] are you addressing now?” as it rules out working on everything at once.

Don’t Outrun Your Headlights

I am finding good resonance with my management training sessions. Rather than doing an overview of the “tools of lean” I go in depth into the fundamental things that the leaders need to

  1. Learn to do, and do.
  2. Ensure are done.

in order to build this on a solid foundation.

But “resonance” seems to mean “in a hurry to get to the good stuff” and a temptation to skip some of the foundational work.

We need to start off in learning mode, working to build a foundation of stability and consistent execution.

Without consistent execution, all of the great plans are nothing but ideas. The first hoshin to work on is establishing a stable process of daily improvement. Once you have that, your improvement management process becomes an exercise in priorities and direction setting.

Without consistent execution, your improvement plan is application of brute force against the momentum of business as usual.

That isn’t “resistance to change” at work. It is “we barely have time to survive down here, so we’ll get to your improvements when we have time.”

You have to create that headroom first. Honestly, it is mostly about instilling confidence, both in themselves, and in you. They have to believe they can carry out the plan. They have to trust you to be consistent with your purpose and not cut their legs out by asking them to change course in the middle.

All of this takes practice. With the right kind of practice comes teambuilding. (That shouldn’t be a separate activity.)

Step by step. You can move quickly, but only if you embrace “smooth is fast.”

The Process of Caring

Vance left a really good comment on the recent Travel Tales post. He said, in part:

Having worked in the airline business, it’s really a matter of having employees that CARE (most due to their own pride, not by management) We many times had weather and mis-connected passengers to deal with. It only took a few minutes of extra time to send a message to the destination station and let them know what to expect or which passenger was going to be disappointed to not get their bag. Today’s situation is exacerbated by under-staffing, stressed employees, passengers with sometimes unrealistic expectations, checked bag fees, etc it’s ugly and very little relief in sight.

He brings up some really interesting points. In most of the airline industry, like most industry in general, “caring” is thought of as something the people have to do.

“The employees don’t care” or even “management doesn’t care” are pretty common statements.

Let’s turn it around.

How was the original process designed?

Continuing on the theme from the original post, I would speculate that most players in the airline industry see themselves as providing transportation to people and their stuff.

The process design is, logically, going to center on what things have to happen to get people and their stuff from their point of entry into the system through to their point of exit at baggage claim. (the fact that the trip doesn’t actually end at baggage claim is another topic – one which has been discussed by Jim Womack in Lean Thinking, among other places.)

In traditional thinking, improvements in that process will involve making those things happen cheaper, usually by doing less.

What if, though, we start with a different question:

“What experience do we want the customer to have?”

Describe, first and foremost, the things the customer has to do to get herself and her stuff from the point of departure to (sadly) baggage claim. (Bonus points if beyond, but let’s not stretch the fantasy too far.)

Even better, act it out. Simulate it. Try it on. Work out the kinks, from the customer’s perspective.

Next, design the interface between your customer and your process. What does the customer-touching part of your process have to look like to deliver that experience?

(I often wonder if airline executives ever see their own web reservation systems.)

Now, only when you know what the “on stage” part of your process looks like can you design the rest of it – the back stage parts that make it all happen.

Economics come into play at this last stage. This is where you have to get creative. If the solution is too expensive, work on the back-stage part to make it cleaner and more streamlined. The customer facing part of the process is the target condition. Your problem solving works to deliver that experience in continuously better ways.

What does this have to do with “caring?”

Remember, this is from the customer’s perspective. When we say “our employees care” do we not really mean “our customer’s feel cared-about?” Since we started with the customer’s experience, if that is what is desired, it was built into the process specification from the beginning.

Once there is a process that we predict will result in customer’s feeling that people care about them, then your market surveys make sense. You are not soliciting complaints about things to fix, you are validating (or refuting) your design assumptions. Every bit of customer feedback will be a learning experience.

Don’t forget Murphy.

In a complex business like airline travel, sometimes luggage doesn’t get to baggage claim at the same time as the customer. It happens. But this is the time to really apply the above process design. What do you want the customer to experience when things go wrong?

Ironically, in the customer satisfaction world, a spectacular and surprising recovery actually generates more loyalty than flawless delivery of service. This is the moment for your company to shine.

Whatever happens, though, make sure it is something you would do on purpose rather than relying on chance or a random team member’s disposition. Build “caring” into the process itself, and you will embed it into the culture.

‘Tis The Season for Management by Measurement

It must be that time of the year. I see traffic in the online forums asking about how to set key performance indicators for lean staff people so their performance incentives can be set.

If anyone were to ask my advice here, it comes down to one word:


Two reasons.

First, we have overwhelming evidence that these incentives not only don’t work, but they actually make performance worse in the kinds of work you are asking these people to do.

The Overjustification Effect

Dan Pink on motivation

All of this is consistent with what Deming told us decades ago, yet we keep doing it.

The second reason is inconsistency and misalignment.

Having the continuous improvement staff operating to separate metrics disconnects their efforts from line management’s. They become responsible for improving the operation while the line management processes are… what?

The message to the shop floor team is pretty clear here. They can read an organization chart. Do what the boss says, then, if we have time, and if the improvement guys can make the case, then maybe listen to what they have to say.

If you must have management-by-KPI, then the performance measurement for continuous improvement must be exactly the same as the line manager being supported. Why?

The question I would ask is “Who is responsible for the performance of the organization?” If it isn’t the line leader, then why does that position exist?

It makes no sense whatsoever to have the lean implementer working to a different agenda.

Our management traditions of de-aggregating and delegating are not serving us well. We need to take a systems view and realize that everything is inter-related. Further, we need to grasp that B.F. Skinner’s (dubious) research on rewards-based-behavior simply does not apply to management. Never has. Wishing otherwise isn’t going to change it.

Decisions, Decisions

How many “If-Then” steps do your team members have to deal with in the course of their routine work?

Every one of those branch points is a decision. It is a point where the team member must memorize decision criteria and the correct choice(s).

Each “If-Then” in the process flow potentially doubles the number of possible paths the process can take.

Each decision is an opportunity to make a mistake.

The more complex a process, the more time and experience the team member requires to master it.

Mental bandwidth is limited.

The more attention they must expend to do it right, the less they can devote to thinking about how it could be done better.

How complicated a world do you create for people trying to do the work?

The more “flexible” your human interface with the process, the more complicated it is for the person who has to use it.

Do they have to enter ad-hoc query criteria into computers to pull information they routinely need every day?

How many decision criteria are things that people “just know?”

How often does someone encounter a problem or new situation and get a verbal instruction from the supervisor on how to handle it? What happens then? Maybe a general announcement at the next team meeting, if you’re lucky?

Go down to your work area.

Watch how people interact with the routine work.

Each of those decision points is an opportunity to simplify your process flow and make life a little less stressful for all of you.