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 leanblog.org, 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.

Getting Leaders Involved

“How do I get the leaders involved?” How often have we all heard, or even asked, that question? Of course the actual answer is “you can’t.” At least you can’t force them to. But there are things that might help the leader decide to get involved.

I think the biggest mistake people make is to assume that in the face of adequate logical argument, a right-thinking leader will see the benefits and jump right in. This thinking ignores one simple truth: Leaders are human. Humans, in spite of our desire to believe otherwise, make decisions at an emotional level, and then construct a logical argument to support the decision. Actually we construct illogical arguments, carefully shaping, amplifying, demoting, excluding evidence to rationalize what we want to do. We humans would all like to believe (or would like other humans to believe) that our decisions are logical and rational. Sorry, just ’tain’t so. Advertisers and marketers know this, as do good politicians.

Another big mistake is to think it is possible to use measures to “make” them engage. “If only,” it is thought, “we used the right metrics.” Again, sorry. You can’t measure people into behaving a certain way. An even worse approach is to try to measure “lean implementation” as if you can quantify it by looking at what tools are in use. That, at best, drives the wrong behavior with shallow understanding. At worst, it poisons the entire implementation. Counting kaizen events falls into this category, as does demanding central reporting on them.

True leaders do what they believe are the right things, metrics be damned. And the ones who focus all of their decisions on making the metrics look good are not the people you want to have that kind of responsibility.

So what does work?

Let’s go back and think through what we want here.

Consider this: We emphasize full involvement and participation from the people who carry out the production processes, but we don’t demand the same level of participation from the people who carry out the management process.

So what do we do to get the production people fully participating? I can’t speak for anyone else, but what I have found that works is to give them the opportunity to step back and just watch the process and understand what is actually happening.

Remember, there are no guarantees. Nothing is a sure bet. But if you buy the argument that a purely logical argument probably isn’t going to do it, then you need to look at how to make an emotional impact.

I think the key is to help them see one important thing: Most of the things which disrupt people’s work are small. They are small problems, and each one has a small impact. It is the cumulative impact of these issues which overwhelm the traditional response system.

But those small things are also wonderful because almost anyone with a little time, a little smarts, and a little leadership support can come up with countermeasures that make those problems go away. Since “smarts” is pretty much randomly distributed in the organization (meaning no one has a monopoly on it by virtue of position), it is the other two ingredients which leadership must provide.

The classic “kaizen event” is a wonderful way to teach just what this is about. In fact, that was the original intention of the classic “kaizen event.” I have already talked about that. But you don’t need a formal kaizen event to do this, you just need you and a leader willing to humor you.

Take your leader down to the work area. Stand with him “in the chalk circle” and give him a running commentary of what you see. Call out everything that isn’t value-add, and get him thinking why that activity is necessary. Then go fix something. The two of you, together. Go get the cardboard, the bins. Go propose a couple of solutions to the affected worker(s). Going to them with something concrete to bounce from is a more effective way (in the beginning) to get their input than asking them a totally open-ended “What do you want here?” question.

Try a few things, make an improvement.

Then make another. Then another.

Work at this for as long as you can get away with it.

Then ask your leader to do the same thing you just did with him, only do it with his direct report(s). At that point, try to shift your role to that of a facilitator and adviser.

If you succeed, you leader catches kaizen fever.

Be Sure: What Are You Trying To Accomplish?

And how will you know you have accomplished it?

This article on Tech Republic is about defense against a hacker strategy called “Social Engineering” wherein the hacker uses a ruse to gain someone’s trust. The goal (for the hacker) is to leverage human nature and get information or access.

So what does this have to do with lean thinking?

It emphasizes the nature of policies with unintended consequences. I have seen all kinds of environments where a Team Member would suffer negative consequences for doing the very thing required to assure safety, quality, delivery or reduce costs. Never happens in your company, right? The examples in the article are mainly in items (2), (3), and (4).

I especially like (4) where the hacker poses as a person in power and simply intimidates the Team Member into giving him the information he wants. What is the countermeasure?

Strict policies and procedures created to discourage this kind of bullying. If it’s allowed from management, someone engaging in social engineering will be able to employ it.

Think about it. If someone abusing his authority is normal behavior, then your Team Member will not be able to detect this condition something out of the ordinary.

In another context, if a Team Member is routinely told “We’ll fix it in inspection” or to otherwise ignore a defect and allow it to pass on, then he will quickly stop reporting them.

Think through the behavior you want people to exhibit. Then, study (stand in the chalk circle again) and see for yourself what the actual behavior is. If it is different than what you expect or what you want, start asking the 5 Why’s. What people do every day is the norm of your organization. It is the path of least resistance. If you want people to do something different, then you must make the right way the easiest way.

This accomplished by a combination of mistake-proofing, policies and procedures that support people who do the right thing, and continuous two-level checking by leaders to reinforce and encourage.

In Item (2) in the article, the author talks about the “I don’t want to get in trouble” excuse. In his example, there is a negative consequence for reporting a lost or misplaced ID badge, so everyone works to avoid reporting the problem. Perhaps the intent was to have people pay more attention. As Deming said, you must drive out fear, and this isn’t the way to do it.

Remember: The right process will produce the right results. Think:

What results are you trying to accomplish? How will you know you have accomplished them? (How will you check or verify your results?)

The more clear you are on the target condition, the better equipped you are to think through how you will achieve it. When dealing with people, it is easier than you think to build negative consequences for the very thing you want them to do.