Chasing the Rabbit – Steven Spear

Steven Spear has been on the cutting edge of research about what makes exceptional organizations exceptional for over 10 years. The landmark paper “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System” summarized his PhD research on Toyota. His dissertation is the 5th most popular publication on ProQuest, the online source for academic work.

His recent book, “Chasing the Rabbit” brings his work from academic publications such as “The Harvard Business Review” into the mainstream business press.

One of the differences between Steven Spear and most other experts on the TPS is that Spear is, first and foremost, a student of theory. He does not make casual observation and render an opinion. Rather, he develops a formal theory then seeks to continuously test it against facts.

During his years of research into high-performing organizations, Spear has found consistent examples where – all conditions being equal; where products are a commodity; where the playing field is level – one organization in the field consistently outperforms the others over time. Spear builds on a metaphor of the front-runner in the Boston Marathon seemingly coasting to victory while the pack following him struggles, fights and elbows for the honor of coming in second. He calls these high-performing or high-velocity organizations the “rabbits.”

Spear’s theory of what differentiates the “rabbit” organizations is, ironically, that they consistently apply theory and theory testing into their management systems. I suppose it took someone who was well trained in the “theory of theory” to really see that. He has extended the application into a general set of principles that he has found across all organizations which excel. Further, he has found that mediocre operations which begin to apply the principles can rapidly and dramatically improve their performance.

He makes his case through example after example of organizations outperforming their peers and comps.

I am not going to repeat those stories here – you can click on the link above, buy the book, and read them for yourself. Rather, over a series of posts, I am going to go through some of the points in the book that struck me, share my mental notes, cite examples where I believe his theory holds, and hopefully spark some discussion.

Andon Leadership

On a world-class automobile assembly line, the actual work is continuously being compared to the planned work. In each work zone, there is a planned sequence of tasks which are expected to produce a specified output.

If there is any departure at all from the planned sequence, if things get behind the planned timeline, if the necessary conditions are not there, if any process step does not complete as required then either the Team Member or an automated system turns on a help call – an andon.

The response is immediate. The first response is within seconds with a priority of clearing the problem. The line itself is still moving, but if the problem is not cleared before the end of the takt time the line automatically stops – things go from “yellow” to “red.” When that happens, the responsibility for the problem also shifts up a level in the response chain.

The priority is still to clear the problem quickly – and clearing the problem means to restore conditions required for safety and quality without compromise.

Once the problem is cleared, and the line re-started, the rest of the problem solving process engages to find the cause of the problem and address it in the system itself. If the problem is outside of the bounds, or outside of the capability, of the original Team Leader to solve, then his chain-of-support will engage to help him solve it so that his skills can be improved.

In summary – we have a sequence of tasks to be accomplished over about six hours that, in the end, will result in a car. That sequence of tasks is further broken down into sub-intervals where progress against the plan is checked. If problems develop, the system responds, swarms the problem to clear it, understand it, and adjust the process if necessary.

None of the above should be a surprise.

But what happens in your management monthly reviews?

Huh? How are management monthly reviews related to an assembly line?

Let’s see. In a reasonably functional organization the business plan is (or should be!) a series of tasks to be accomplished over a period of time that, in the end, will deliver specified results. That sequence of tasks is further broken down into sub-intervals where progress of the plan is checked.

But in a typical monthly review, the analogy ends there. When problems develop, the reasons are discussed, mentioned, and worked around. In dysfunctional organizations only the objectives are discussed, and in truly dysfunctional organizations the objectives themselves are adjusted to match what is accomplished.

Shift your thinking a bit, and apply the assembly line analogy to its end-state.

The monthly review is the fixed-stop position. Up to this point, the person responsible for the task “owns” it. He should be checking progress and ensuring that things are getting done as specified, and that the results being achieved are as anticipated (predicted). He should be monitoring conditions and making sure that the operating assumptions are holding. Ideally those checks are built-in to the process and planning so that they are at least semi-automatic.

If all is “green” going into the monthly review, then things are great.

But if something is “off” – yellow – that is equivalent to an andon call. The responsible person is that first-responder. He has until the next review to clear the problem. Think about the ramifications here. This means that if the reviews with the boss are every month, the responsible manager better not wait until the week before to find out what is happening so he can report on it. He has to stay in touch with what is happening.

The monthly review is the fixed-stop-position at the review, and the “andon” goes red.

The reviewing manager now “owns” the problem. His job is now to ensure that there are effective countermeasures in place to get things back on track. That does not absolve the responsible manager, but rather, this becomes a “check” and an “act” for his professional development by the more senior leader.

Again, think of the ramifications. The responsible manager must not only be in touch with what is happening, he also needs to make sure his people are being developed and pushed to fully understand the problems as they occur.

The job of these leaders, at each level, is not only to keep intimately in touch with what is going on, but also be fully aware of the skills, gaps and development of their people. If someone should be able to handle an issue, but can’t, that is a skill gap that, like any other gap, must be addressed (in this case by developing the person).

In mediocre organizations, professional development is owned and overseen by H.R. and may be tied to the annual review process. In organizations that “get it” professional development is a natural part of the leadership process, and happens at all levels in the natural course of getting things done.


This is a bit of a more pragmatic breakdown from the “How Strong Is Your Immune System?” I plan to follow-up with some practical approaches and tools to implement and conduct the kind of problem solving that needs to be done every day.

As we “promote lean,” what expectations to we set?
How well do those promises match up with what is delivered?
If there is a gap, does it dampen the enthusiasm of “management support?”

I think this is important for us to understand.

In the enthusiasm to “make the case” many lean manufacturing proponents point (and rightly so) to the higher performance levels of organizations that have done it. They talk about greatly improved quality, much faster inventory turns, greater returns on capital, much quicker response and throughput. By whatever measure, these systems clearly perform better.

The implementers start teaching the system through its mechanics. Takt time to pace everything; one-piece-flow; pull systems, supermarkets and kanban; quick changeovers; standard work; mistake-proofing.

Now I will be the first to tell you – this is how I was taught – the “just do it, and you will understand” approach. But no matter how well-intended, there is the danger of a diluted message: “Copy the mechanics of how these operations work, and you too can have these results.” Or, put another way, it “Don’t ask questions, just do it” gets (mis)translated into “You don’t have to understand it.”

Wrong. You do.

An expectation is created that, by implementing the basic mechanics of takt, flow and pull, these terrific results can be achieved and sustained.

Here’s the rub. All of the “tools of lean” are designed to force problems to the surface and make them too obvious to ignore. There is an implied expectation that the organization will see these problems and take on the challenge of tackling them as they emerge – true kaizen.

Of course all of this presumes that the organization has the resources, skill and most importantly the stomach to deal with these problems quickly and efficiently.

Bluntly, most don’t. If they did then none of this would have been necessary in the first place.

By implementing the tools alone, they are in effect taking a Newcomen steam engine – primitive, big, inefficient, slow, but functional through brute force- and replacing it with a state of the art steam turbine.

Yes, the turbine is much more efficient, but if you took one and dropped it into the year 1715 it wouldn’t run for very long. They didn’t have the resources or the skill to operate or maintain it.

So, in our lean- implementing factory, the new system is put in and in fairly short order, all of the previously hidden and tolerated problems are now revealed.

And it reveals the problem of “no process to devote the time or to develop the resources and skills to handle those problems” – to detect them, fix them, understand them and solve them.

Lacking the time and skills, the first line leaders do what they must to get the job done… they return to the tried-and-true countermeasures that keep the problems from disrupting things too much:

Kaizen Deterioration Reinforcing Loop

This is the fate of many so-called “kaizen events” which seek to make great change in a hurry.

So why does this happen?

I can speculate that it is a combination of ignorance on the part of some implementers who “got” the “just do it” part but didn’t pick up the “think for yourself” part.

Somewhere, sometime, someone established a precedent that making dramatic but unvalidated changes to a system was “kaizen.” Perhaps, at some point, a sensei said “Don’t ask questions, try this…” with the intention that people would try it and learn what problems came up, only to have it turned into “Do this” without any follow-up or understanding.

Others, perhaps, have an underlying fear that if they revealed just how much work and change was really involved that the leaders would be scared off and not take the first steps.

Now, to be clear, a certain amount of “just try it” is required to anchor that initial leap of faith. But the implementers must be prepared to immediately guide, lead, teach, coach and build the problem solving capability of the organization.

But, in the end, digging further into “Why?” doesn’t give us any more actionable information. “The system is designed to surface problems, and there is no process to handle them” is a root cause that can be directly addressed. It is simply important to acknowledge the truth.

What to do about it. I’ll get into more detail in future posts, but to begin, here are some things to think about:

  1. Small steps. (Note that “small steps” ≠ “slow steps”). Kaizen can be done rapidly, but it must be done deliberately in a context of understanding. Understand why things are the way they are, understand the effect your change should have. Try it out – ideally simulate if first – and see what problems surface. Solve those problems, then implement your change.
  2. Dedicate and manage time for solving problems. This is briefly covered by a couple of previous posts, “Why Doesn’t Daily Kaizen Happen?” and “Systematic Problem Solving” but is worth repeating. Problem solving and kaizen are work, just like anything else. If you want it to happen, you need to allocate time, resources and management to organize it.
  3. Develop a systematic approach, then follow it. I am going to go into some detail on this over the next few posts, but I need to emphasize the last part: then follow it. Too many “standards” are declared, then ignored.
  4. Don’t wait for “the next event” to make improvements.
  5. Just get started. Don’t wait until you are ready, you never will be. The only way to learn is to practice, observe yourself, see what works, what doesn’t, and learn. This, in turn, requires something that is sadly in very short supply in most corporations: humility. Learning means acknowledging, usually in public, that “we don’t have the answers” and perhaps that is the most important lesson.

I could digress into a leadership roles discussion here, but I won’t. But if you want to do a bit of pre-reading for future discussions, find a copy of “Learning to Lead at Toyota” by Steven Spear, and as you read it think about the role of the leader in that story. Bob, the protagonist, starts out with one role, and learns his role is actually quite different. There will be a quiz later.

The Messy World of Dealing With People

Jim’s recent comment about his job having a heavy dose of psychology certainly rang true with me. Even Deming acknowledged this in his discussions on “Profound Knowledge” (which is at the core of the TPS even though we use different words).

This article The most common pitfalls that new tech managers face is about leadership in the I.T. world, but the issues are actually common to leadership in any technical function – including those of us who started out as kaizen event leaders or trainers. The skill set is different, and is rarely considered (and almost never developed) prior to promoting someone. So – if you are in this situation, read the article then look in the mirror.

This article Why Do Rational People Make Irrational Decisions ties in with my previous post about Blame vs Accountability. It might help answer the question we all ask sometimes: “What were they thinking?”

A Firefighting Culture

In honor of October being Fire Prevention Month (at least here in the USA), I’d like to talk about firefighting.

“We have a firefighting culture.”

“We spend all of our time fighting fires.”

We have all heard (and sometimes made) these statements. But I would like to take a couple of minutes and look at what real firefighters do.

They don’t just run in and spray water everywhere in an effort to “do something.”

They study fire. They seek to understand how fires start, how they burn, how they spread. They understand the interactions between fire, air, the specific environment (building structure, outdoor terrain, etc).

They develop a plan to attack the fire. They make themselves reasonably sure that if they do (a), (b), and (c) that the fire will respond in a predictable way.

They execute the plan.

They watch the results. If the fire behaves the way they predicted it would, they continue with the plan. If something unexpected happens, they pause their thinking long enough to understand what additional factor may be at play; what they might not have known or considered. They seek to understand the situation whenever something is going differently than what they predicted.

They adapt the plan to account for the new information or the changed circumstances.

They continue to do this until the situation is under control, and the fire is out.

While doing these things, they work methodically. They verify success at each step of the plan – they do not move ahead of their confirmed progress (which would put fire behind them and block their escape route).

While theirs is a dangerous business, they do not, as a matter of course, put human life in jeopardy simply to save property. Heroics are reserved for saving the lives of others.

Once the fire is out, the fire investigators arrive. They seek to understand how this fire started. Where did fuel, oxygen and a source of ignition come together and how? What fire suppression mechanisms failed, and why? How, why, did it spread? Did containment fail? This information is incorporated into the knowledge base of the society in general in the form of regulations, building codes, electrical codes – countermeasures.

In short – firefighters relentlessly follow PDCA.

Now, I must admit that, occasionally, in the excitement of the moment, firefighters get ahead of themselves, or rush into something they don’t fully understand. We usually know when this has happened because there are somber processions and bagpipe music. But even then, they seek to understand what happened, why, and improve their process to prevent recurrence.

Now, the next time you say “All we do is fight fires” consider the above. My guess is that you aren’t fighting anything. Rather, you are running around, making a lot of noise, but tomorrow the building is still burning – just in a different place.

Don’t forget to check your smoke alarms and change the batteries!

Be sure to read the follow-on post here: /2011/01/17/firefighting-kata/

Why Doesn’t Daily Kaizen Happen?

More than one organization gets stuck in kaizen events. By "stuck" I mean that kaizen events are the only mechanism for improvement. A good indicator of this is "waiting for a kaizen event" to make an improvement that everyone agrees should be made.

At the same time, I see leaders who understand that these kinds of improvements should be made on a daily basis, but those leaders are frustrated because that doesn’t happen.

So why does this happen?

There are a few things that have to be in place, but even with a workforce that understands improvement and where this is going, even with shop floor leaders who understand how to do it, that doesn’t seem to be enough.

So here are some things to think about.

You block out time during the day for your start-up meeting, end-of-shift cleanup (a different topic). You block out time for preventative maintenance (you do, right?). You block out time and resources for the things you expect to get done.

Do the low-level work groups capture, in real time, the little issues that disrupt smooth work? Those are your daily kaizen opportunities.

Do you block out time for daily kaizen? If you don’t, then you are saying "Do kaizen when there is nothing else to do. Your daily kaizen time should not count as "available minutes" when calculating your takt time.

Do the Team Leaders and Supervisors expect the work teams to work on those problems during the kaizen time?

The bottom line: Don’t just wish it would happen. Look at what is necessary for success (skill, time, leadership, tools, expectations), make sure those things are available. If actual events are not what you planned, then study and understand why not and fix it. Daily kaizen is no different than production. You have to plan for it.

Span of Support vs Span of Control

One of the popular buzzwords floating around out there right now is "servant leadership." Like all buzzwords, it is easy to say, and easy to subjugate.

One of the best terms I have heard that helps set the thinking is "span of support." Normally leader-to-lead rations are discussed in terms of "span of control." By saying "span of support" instead, the entire concept is turned on its head.

That makes it much more clear that the job of the leader is to ensure his or her people have what they need to succeed, to help them clear problems, and develop them professionally.

The Power of Vision

In the last post I brought up the advantage of having a long range plan vs. quarter-to-quarter thinking. I’d like to explore the concept a little more by way of an analogy.

Put yourself in the spring of 1961.
The USSR, by all demonstrative measures, is ahead of the USA in human space flight, and seems to be increasing that lead. On April 12, Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth. On May 5, Alan Shepard went up, and came down on a 15 minute trajectory.

At the time, there were important geo-political reasons for establishing a public perception of technological leadership, and space exploration seemed to be the place to do it.

On May 25, President Kennedy made a public commitment to regain, and maintain, that leadership. He could have done it with corporate-speak:

This nation will become the world leader in space exploration.

But he didn’t. He said:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself, to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon, and returning him safely to the Earth.”

Only the second statement is actionable. Only the second statement carries the possibility of failure. And only the second statement galvanizes action. In pursuing that goal with that degree of commitment, it achieved the first – to demonstrate world leadership in space exploration, not with words, but with action.

Of course the first statement carries no risk, since there is no actual performance requirement. Perhaps that is why corporate-speak carries that kind of language today. The shareholders can’t fire the board for not achieving something that was never articulated. The statement leaves open the capability to re-define the goal so that it matches what was actually done – something that happens all too often in today’s world.

So when one company says “We are going to sell more products next year.” and another says “We are on year 2 of our 10 year plan to be #1 in sales with 15% market share.” which one do you think can align actions of the people in the company?

To continue, when Kennedy made that speech:

  • The United States had a human space flight experience totaling 15 minutes.
  • The world had human space flight experience totaling under 2 hours.

Nobody actually knew, for sure, what the moon was made of.

To be sure, the visionaries within NASA had been thinking about sending someone to the moon for a long time. And in May, 1961 there were competing strategies in play at NASA for getting it done. They either involved an unimaginably HUGE rocket (think twice the size of the one that actually did it), or two or three Saturn class rockets to launch and assemble the lunar spacecraft in orbit. But when faced with a deadline of “before this decade is out,” the challenges were immense. Another strategy, considered a bit crackpot at the time, was named “lunar orbit rendezvous.” It involved a smaller (but still huge) rocket to send a throw-away lander on the moon along with a re-entry capsule. The capsule remains in lunar orbit, the lander lands, takes off, docks with the capsule. The crew transfers to the capsule, and they head home. As each piece fulfilled its intended purpose, it would be discarded.

It became increasingly clear, in the months that followed the speech, that neither of the “mainstream” approaches would get the job done with the time and resources available.

During the summer, consensus formed around the lunar orbit rendezvous scenario.
Key Point: Once they decided to pursue that option all further pursuit of the others was stopped. They committed. They did not have the resources to do otherwise.

In the corporate world, how often does that happen? Once a project, or even an idea, has any kind of resourcing or momentum behind it, stopping it is incredibly difficult. More things to do get added, but it seems that nothing gets taken off. This is equally true of “improvement schemes.” I recall a company that had active people in various improvement initiatives. There was the “Workout” group. There were the TQM people. There were the Six Sigma folks. (It took me a while to realize that the TQM and Sigma people considered each other competitors, where I had initially lumped them in together.) Then there were the “Lean guys” who had just come in. There were also pockets of Theory of Constraints believers, the agile guys, everyone saying they had “the answer.”

Back to NASA.

Landing a person on the moon by the end of the decade was a clearly articulated vision for accomplishing the high level mission of becoming “the world leader in space exploration.” That was the hoshin.

After a round of “catchball” a strategy was selected from the options available. Note that the catchball didn’t negotiate the goal. That was stated. The question was not whether to do it, but how to do it. The strategy was Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR). They committed to the strategy and ceased all distracting activity to focus 100% of their energy on getting it done.

To make LOR work, they had to learn three things:

  1. Can people stay and work together in space for the 10-14 days required for the trip?
  2. Can people work outside the spacecraft in protective suits?
  3. Can one space vehicle locate and dock with another?

We do these things routinely today, but in 1961 nobody knew the answers.

These three things were the ONLY major objectives of Project Gemini.

The fourth big task was to develop the Saturn V as well as the facility to assemble and launch the rockets.

This goal is very sticky.
Any time one of the hundreds of thousands of Team Members working at NASA and in the contractors had a decision to make, the criteria was simple: “Will this action help the effort to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade?” If the answer was “No” then don’t do it. Great idea. But don’t do it. We don’t have the time or energy for the distraction.

The second thing it did, and this is even more important, is in the face of major setback – the Apollo 1 fire in January 1967, the organization was able to recover, regroup and stay on course because they had a sense of destiny. There was a clear goal, and they were working to meet it. It provided a compass that pointed the way when all other navigational references were blacked out.

Contrast this with the way NASA has been run during the Shuttle era. The massive amounts of energy involved in space travel mean this is, and is likely to remain, a risky business. But in the shuttle era, the tragedies seem to have created doubt and loss of confidence. There is no higher purpose other than space flight for its own sake. They are running it like a business.

“But we ARE a business! you may say. Sure you are. But the truly excellent businesses, those with the ability to adapt to changing situations quickly and recover are the ones whose sense of “self” transcends quarterly profits and financials. They are successful because they stand for something more.

A few years ago I remember standing outside in the Seattle area during an earthquake that lasted close to a minute. It was an unsettling experience because the ground itself was moving. Leadership’s job is largely providing a sense of solid ground so everyone else can operate without feeling off balance. This is done with very clear goals that are

  • Simple to understand.
  • Unexpected – they compel attention
  • Concrete – they can be seen, touched, felt.
  • Credible – they make sense in the larger context.
  • Emotional – they appeal to people’s feelings and
  • have Stories – they can be communicated in a way people can visualize.

Kitchen sink “KPI” lists don’t do this.

Who’s Your Coach?

In a few weeks, the best athletes in the world will assemble in Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Just being there means these individuals are performing at a level that the rest of us can only watch and appreciate.

Each of these world-class top performers has a coach.

Ironically, their coaches are not capable of performing at the same level as the athletes themselves. If they could, they would be competing, not coaching.

To be sure, some of the coaches are former world-class athletes. But most of them are “just” world class coaches. They have the skill to watch the athlete perform, to compare what they observe against a standard of perfection and to see very subtle things which might make a difference in the athlete’s performance.

World class athletes all know they only perform at a world class level because they have world class coaches. It is the coach who takes them from “very good” to “Olympic contender.”

A coaches credibility is based on his ability to observe and teach. His success is built on the success of the people he coaches.

For business leaders:
Do you believe you can perform at a world-class level on your own?
Is your insight into your own performance good enough to pick up nuance and detail that could make a huge difference?
Do you believe that, because you have more experience, that no one below your level could teach you anything?
Do you believe that, because you have been successful, only someone who has had more personal success could teach you anything?
Do you measure “competence” by hierarchy level?

Who is your coach?

“Management Resistance” or Poor Process?

At, Mark Graban recently posted about the latest State of Lean survey from the LEI. His observation is that the survey seems to be a search-for-blame (looking for the sources of resistance) rather than focused on root cause for the resistance itself. Following a couple of links in that post takes us back a year to his comments on the 2007 survey, and then to an attempt to go through 5 Why’s.

I just took the survey myself, and felt the same way. It is really easy for the “lean guys” to cite “management resistance” as a root cause. Certainly there are instances when local leaders are outwardly hostile or passive-aggressive about the proposed changes. But I’d like to explore this a bit.

Just as it is easy to blame the Team Member’s inattention for an accident or a defect, it is easy to blame leaders for failure to embrace the kaizen culture. In both cases, though, the kaizen culture itself mandates exhausting every other possibility before we shift our focus from “process” to “person” as the problem. And even if “person” ends up in the chain of causes, again, the kaizen culture demands that we ask “Why?” a few more times and try to get to the reasons why a person behaves the way he or she does. Although not put quite in these terms, these are people principles which have been taught since the early 1940’s as part of TWI Job Relations.

Back last July I related a story in “The Chalk Circle – Continued” where the “lean leaders” of a large company were busy blaming management non-involvement for the continuous backsliding we were experiencing. At the end of the story, Dave’s “oh shit” comment sums it up when we realized that the last “Why?” in our chain pointed, not at the leaders, but at us. The way we got there was (by accident) staying on a “process” path in our discussions.

Since then I have learned a few things, but I think the basic message still stands.

First, I’d like to propose to re-frame the problem because I think “leader resistance” is pejorative. I’d like to go through a series of questions. The first is getting a little more clear on what, exactly, we are asking of these leaders. Accepting that the opposite of “resistant” is “engaged” for the purposes of this discussion:

What do “engaged leaders” do?
Without a clear picture in our heads as an answer to this question, we cannot develop effective countermeasures. Honestly, I don’t think there is a strong consensus out there. I can go into why that is, but it is a topic for another (lengthy) post.

Suffice it to say that we need a working definition. I was going to render an opinion here, but I decided instead to drop the question into the LEI site’s forums, and see what others think. (If you are not a member you will have to register first, but that is no big deal.)

You can also leave a comment here.

After I see where people are going, I’ll ask another question.