Grassroots Innovation: Business is Like Swimming, Not Running

Grassroots Innovation: Business is Like Swimming, Not Running

Let’s take Greg Eisenbach’s totally on-target analogy and expand just a bit. Greg points out:

…a world class swimmer is only 9 percent mechanically efficient. This means 91 calories out of 100 in swimming are lost due to friction.

For the non-world class swimmer the best way to increase your speed is not to spend more calories, but figure out how to become more efficient. A gain from 3% efficiency to 4% efficiency would represent a 33% increase.

Business is the same way.

This probably explains why a little thing like the new technology in competitive swimming suits had such a huge (and controversial) impact in the 2008 competitive season. In competitive swimming, small advantages are huge advantages.

One of the big differences, though, between swimming and business is that a competitive swimmer knows, in real time, that he is winning or losing. Triathlons aside, a typical swim race is under a minute, a long one might be a couple. In this competitive environment, it is impossible to be complacent and believe you are in the race when, in fact, you are not.

On the other hand, I have worked with a number of businesses (or operations within larger businesses) that have had a truly amazing capacity for denial. What else can explain a headline in a company’s internal newspaper that exclaimed the “big order” when, in fact, the customer had placed a mixed order, giving 80% of it to the competitor… but no mention of that inconvenient truth. So when this company also wonders why people feel “no sense of urgency” you have to wonder. Of course the real story was all over the local news, about how the competitor had gotten the bulk of the order, and how the local company had “lost” it, only getting 20%. What does that do for the corporate credibility? Not much.

World class swimmers are 9% efficient. World class manufacturing value streams are about 40% value-add. (By % value-add I mean the time the product is actually in the value stream vs. the time something that matters is actually being done to it.)

Contrast this with a typical manufacturing flow where the value-add can easily drop into single digits.

This is basic stuff, but sometimes we forget what this lean stuff is about.

Consider a 10% value-add flow. Out of 100 minutes in the plant, 10 minutes are spent actually processing. The other 90 minutes are just sitting, moving, counting, stacking, etc.

Let’s say I spend my time and energy to speed up the value-adding process (like make the chips fly faster, speed up the processing time, find some high-tech fast curing compound). Let’s say I am really successful and cut that value-adding time in half. Whoo-hoo.

Now out of 95 minutes in the plant, 5 minutes are spent actually doing something.

Not exactly a stellar improvement, no real impact on lead time, no reduction in inventory, no reduction in waste. All of the original costs are still there, and I have probably just added more.

On the other hand, if I were to focus my time and energy on reducing that 90 minutes of “other stuff” I run into a couple of realities.

First, all of that “other stuff” costs time, money, space and accumulates inventory. It adds to lead time. Cutting it in half cuts the lead-time from 100 to 55.

And critically important – these changes are typically pretty easy to make. They don’t require engineering or computer science degrees, they just require watching the work and asking “Why is this stopping, why can’t it just go to the next operation right away?”

Greg is dead-on with his analogy. The difference, though, is that there is much higher potential for businesses to improve than there is for swimmers.

But like swimming, small advantages are huge advantages. It isn’t the companies that make the “blitz” type of changes that are sustaining world-class players. It is the companies that, every day, scratch out another little improvement.

It is those “a little every day” companies that, over time, build an insurmountable lead. They engage more of their people, and they learn as an organization what continuous improvement is all about. The “blitz” approach retains the knowledge in the few experts who are responsible for all of the kaizen activity. As good as they may be, they can’t be everywhere.

The TPS In Four Words

ptolematic_universeIn the world of science, great discoveries simplify our understanding. When Copernicus hypothesized that everything in the universe does not revolve around the Earth, explaining the motions of things in the sky got a lot easier.

In general, I have found that if something requires a great deal of detail to explain the fundamentals, there is probably another layer of simplification possible.

Even today, a lot of authors explain “lean manufacturing” with terms like “a set of tools to reduce waste.” Then they set out trying to describe all of these tools and how they are used. This invariably results in a subset of what the Toyota Production System is all about.

Sometimes this serves authors or consultants who are trying to show how their process “fills in the gaps” – how their product or service covers something that Toyota has left out. If you think about that for a millisecond, it is ridiculous. Toyota is a huge, successful global company. They don’t “leave anything out.” They do everything necessary to run their business. Toyota’s management system, by default, includes everything they do. If we perceive there are “gaps” that must be filled, those gaps are in our understanding, not in the system.

So let me throw this out there for thought. The core of what makes Toyota successful can be expressed in four words:

Management By Hypothesis Testing

I am going to leave rigorous proof to the professional academics, and offer up anecdotal evidence to support my claim.

First, there is nothing new here. Let’s start with W. Edwards Deming.

Management is prediction.

What does Deming mean by that?

I think he means that the process of management is to say “If we do these things, in this way, we expect this result.” What follows is the understanding “If we get a result we didn’t expect, we need to dig in and understand what is happening.”

Control ChartAt its most basic level, the process of statistical process control does exactly that. The chart continuously asks and answers the question “Is this sample what we would expect from this process?” If the answer to that question is “No” then the “special cause” must be investigated and understood.

If the process itself is not “in control” then more must be learned about the process so that it can be made predictable. If there is no attempt to predict the outcome, most of the opportunity to manage and to learn is lost. The organization is just blindly reacting to events.

Here is another quote, attributed to Taiichi Ohno:

Without standards, there can be no kaizen.

Is he saying the same thing as Deming? I think so. To paraphrase, “Until you have established what you expect to do and what you expect to happen when you do it, you cannot improve.” The quote is usually brought up in the context of standard work, but that is a small piece of the concept.

So far all of these things relate to the shop floor, the details. What about the larger concepts?

What is a good business strategy? Is it not a defined method to achieve a desired result? “If we do these things, in this way, at these times, we should see this change in our business results.” The deployment of policy (hoshin planning) is, in turn, multiple layers of similar statements. And each of the hoshins, and the activities associated with them, are hypothesized to sum up to the whole.

The process of reflection (which most companies skip over) compares what was planned with what was actually done and achieved. It is intended to produce a deeper level of learning and understanding. In other words, reflection is the process of examining the experimental results and incorporating what was learned into the working theory of operation, which is then carried forward.

Sales and Operations Planning, when done well, carries the same structure. Given a sales and marketing strategy, given execution of that strategy, given the predicted market conditions, given our counters to competitor’s, we should sell these things at this time. This process carries the unfortunate term “forecasting” as though we are looking at the weather rather than influencing it, but when done well, it is proactive, and there is a deliberate and methodical effort to understand each departure from the original plan and assumptions.

Over Deming’s objections, “performance management” and reviews are a fact of life in today’s corporate environment. If done well, then this activity is not focused on “goals and objectives” but rather plans and outcomes, execution and adjustment. In other words, leadership by PDCA. By contrast, a poor “performance management system” is used to set (and sometimes even “cascade”) goals, but either blurs the distinction between “plans” (which are activities / time) and “goals” which are the intended results… or worse, doesn’t address plans at all. It gets even worse when there are substantial sums of money tied to “hitting the goals” as the organization slips into “management by measurement.” For some reason, when the goals are then achieved by methods which later turn out to be unacceptable, there is a big push on “ethics” but no one ever asks for the plan on “How do you plan to do that?” in advance. In short, when done well, the organization manages its plans and objectives using hypothesis testing. But most, sadly, do not.

Let’s look at another process in “people management” – finding and acquiring skills and talent, in other words, hiring.

In average companies, someone needing to hire someone puts in a “requisition” to Human Resources. HR, in turn, puts that req out into the market by various means. They get back applicants, screen them, and turn a few of them over to the hiring manager to assess. One of them gets hired.

What happens next?

The new guy is often dropped into the job, perhaps with minimal orientation on the administrative policies, etc. of the company, and there is a general expectation that this person is actually not capable of doing the work until some unspecified time has elapsed. Maybe there is a “probation period” but even that, while it may be well defined in terms of time, is rarely defined in terms of criteria beyond “Don’t screw anything up too badly.”

Contrast this with a world-class operation.

The desired outcome is a Team Member who is fully qualified to learn the detailed aspects of the specific job. He has the skills to build upon and need only learn the sequence of application. He has the requisite mental and physical condition to succeed in the work environment and the culture. In any company, any hiring manager would tell you, for sure, this is what they want. So why doesn’t HR deliver it? Because there is no hypothesis testing applied to the hiring process. Thus, the process can never learn except in the case of egregious error.

If we can agree that the above criteria define the “defect free outcome” of hiring, then the hiring process is not complete until this person is delivered to the hiring manager.

Think about the implications of this. It means that HR owns the process of development for the skills, and the mental and physical conditioning required of a successful Team Member. It means that when the Team Member reports to work in Operations, there is an evaluation, not of the person, but of the process of finding, hiring, and training the right person with the right skills and conditioning.

HR’s responsibility is to deliver a fully qualified candidate, not “do the best they can.” And if they can’t hire this person right off the street, then they must have a process to turn the “raw material” into fully qualified candidates. There is no blame, but there are no excuses.

Way back in 1944, the TWI programs applied this same thinking. The last question asked on the Job Relations Card is “Did you accomplish your objective?” The Job Instruction card ends with the famous statement “If the worker hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” In other words, the job breakdown, key points and instruction are a hypothesis: If we break down the job and emphasize these things in this way, the worker will learn it over the application of this method. If it didn’t work, take a look at your teaching process. What didn’t you understand about the work that was required for success?

I could go on, but I have yet to find any process found in any business that could not benefit from this basic premise. Where we fail is where we have:

  • Failed to be explicit about what we were trying to accomplish.
  • Failed to check if we actually accomplished it.
  • Failed to be explicit about what must be done to get there.
  • Did something, but are not sure if it is what we planned.
  • Accepted “problems” and deviation as “normal” rather than an inconsistency with our original thinking (often because there was no original thinking… no attempt to predict).

As countermeasures, when you look at any action or activity, contentiously ask a few questions.

  • What are we trying to get done?
  • How will we know we have done it?
  • What actions will lead to that result?
  • How will we know we have done them as we planned?


  • What did we actually do?
  • Why is there a difference between what we planned and what we did?
  • What did we actually accomplish?
  • Why is there a difference between what we expected and what we got?

The short version:

  • What did we expect to do and accomplish?
  • What did we do and get?
  • Why is there a difference?
  • What are we doing about it?
  • What have we learned?

Learning To Sensei:

John Shook’s latest column on LEI’s site is about coaching and whether it is better to give them the answers or just ask questions.

Asking questions in a way that actually teaches is a skill that we, as a “lean” community do not foster very well. Certainly in U.S. corporate culture, we are expected to be the experts, and to have the answers. John’s post is summed up well by his last paragraph:

Learning to Sensei: A prerequisite for the apprentice sensei who is learning to not give solutions is to grasp for himself the fact that he doesn’t actually know the solution. Once you grasped that, then it’s very easy to not give “the answer” you simply don’t really have an answer to give. But, while it is not necessary for you to give or even possess “the solution”, you do have an important obligation, which is to give the question or learning assignment in a way that will lead to the learning, with learning as the goal. Once that is accomplished, all sorts of “solutions” will fall out. Then you can experience the joy, liberation, and humility that come with admitting you don’t know.

You can read the whole thing here: – Lean Enterprise Institute: Coaching and Questions; Questions and Coaching

Now, as an additional value-add…

This really falls under the general notion of “Socratic teaching.” One of the best overviews of what this is really about is Rick Garlikov’s classic piece where he recounts his experiment with teaching through questions. If you don’t think this can work for difficult topics, then I suggest you read his account of using only questions to teach binary arithmetic to a typical class of third graders. If he can teach 8 year olds to understand that 0110 + 0011 = 1001, then surely we can get adults through understanding why takt time is important for management.

“What are you trying to do?”

“How will you know you have done it?”

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.

A3 by PowerPoint

aarrgh! all of the purists say! Death by PowerPoint. Yup.

But one of today’s realities is that many managers expect to be “briefed” and expect it to be done in a conference room with a projector and… PowerPoint.

Getting them to sit down and go through a single sheet of A3 paper is going to be a stretch at best. So let me propose an interim.

Five slides, six at the most.

No fancy headings, logos, etc. They take up space and distract from the message.

Simple text. No animation. Pictures, graphs to make the points.

The slides are:

Background / Current Condition

Briefly cover where we are, and why we are talking about this right now.

Back up your assertions with data and facts. Note that, in my context, a “fact” is something you can see, observe, sense, touch. The data must be explained by the facts.


What is this going to look like when we are successful?

The target is binary. It is verifiable as “met” or “not met.” It does not include vague words like “improved” or “reduced” which are subject to interpretation.


What is keeping us from hitting the target right now? What is in the way? What must be solved, what barrier must be cleared, what factor must be eliminated?

Clearly demonstrate that dealing with these issues will allow reaching the target.

Countermeasures / Implementation

What actions will be taken to deal with the issues or shortcomings?

When will they be taken?

Who will take them?

When will they be checked for successful implementation?

For each one, what is the predicted effect if it works as planned?

How will you check the actual effect?

Do the cumulative predicted effects of your countermeasures add up to enough to close the gap and reach the target?

If not, then what else are you going to do?

Results / Follow-Up

What actually happened?

If When things got off track, what is the recovery / correction plan?

If When actual results were different than planned, what else are you going to do?

Did you reach the target? If not, what else are you going to do?

It’s the thinking, not the format!

Do the headers change sometimes? Sure, but the intent is:

What is happening?

What do you want to happen?

What is the gap?

What will you do to get it there, and how will you check that:

  • You did you you planned.
  • It worked like you expected?

Do it.

Check it.

Fix it.



This is a leader’s tool

If it is done well, and done correctly, it is done the way John Shook describes it in his new book Managing to Learn. But don’t confuse the size of the paper with the structure of the thinking. Get that right. Worry about the sheet of paper later if you must.

When encountering resistance, a good teacher knows what things can be left for later, and which ones are critical to get right.

Management by Measurement vs. a Problem Solving Culture

As I promised, I want to expand on a couple of great points buried in John Shook’s new book Managing to Learn, published by LEI.

A while back I commented on an article, Lean Dilemma: System Principles vs. Management Accounting Controls, in which H. Thomas Johnson points out that

Perhaps what you measure is what you get.
More likely, what you measure is all you get. What you don’t (or can’t) measure is lost.

In his introduction to the book, Shook describes the contrast:

Where the laissez-faire, hands-off manager will content himself to set targets and delegate everything, essentially saying, “I don’t care how you do it, as long as you get the results,” the Toyota manager desperately wants to know how you’ll do it, saying “I want to hear everything about your thinking, tell me about your plans.”

and a little later:

This is a stark contrast to the results-only oriented management-by-numbers approach.

Shook then also references H. Thomas Johnson’s paper. (like minds?)

But I would like to dive a little deeper into the contrast of leadership cultures here.

Let’s say the “management by measurement” leader thinks there is too much working capital tied up in excess inventory.

His countermeasure would be to set a key performance indicator (KPI) of inventory levels, or inventory turns, and “hold people accountable” for hitting their targets.

Since there is little interest expressed in how this is done, the savvy numbers-focused subordinate understands the accounting system and sees that inventory levels are taken at the end of each financial quarter, and those levels are used to generate the report of inventory turns. This is also the number used to report to the shareholders and the SEC.

His response is to take actions necessary to get inventory as low as possible during the week or on the day when that snapshot is taken. It is then a simple matter to take actions necessary. A couple of classics are:

  • Pull forward orders from next quarter, fill and ship them early.
  • Slow down (or even stop) production in the last week or two of the quarter.
  • Shift inventory from “finished goods” to “in transit” to get it off the books.

While, in my opinion (which is all that is), actions like this are at best deceptive, and (when reported as true financial results) possibly bordering on fraud, the truth is that these kinds of things happen all of the time in reputable companies.

So what is the countermeasure?

In a “management by measurement” culture, the leader (if he cares in the first place), would respond to put in additional measurements and rules that, hopefully, constrain the behavior he does not want. He would start measuring inventory levels more often, or take an average. He would measure scheduled vs. actual ship dates. He would measure “linearity” of production.

Fundamentally, he would operate on the belief that, if only he could measure the right things, that he would get the performance he needs, in the way it should be done. “The right measurements produce the right results.”

While not universal, it is also very common for a work environment such as this one to:

  • Attach substantial performance bonuses to “hitting the numbers.”
  • Confuse this with “empowerment” – and perceive a subordinate who truly wants help to develop a good, sound plan as less capable than one who “just gets it done.” He is seen as “high maintenance.” (“Don’t come to me with problems unless you have a solution.”)
  • Look for external factors that excuse not hitting the targets. (Such as an increase in commodity prices.)
  • Take credit for hitting the targets, even when it was caused by external factors. (Such as a drop in commodity prices.)

Overall, there is no real interest in the assessment of why there even is a gap between the current value and the target (why do we need this inventory in the first place?); and there is even less interest in a plan to close the gap, or in understanding if success (or failure) was due to successful execution or just plain luck.

The higher-level leader says he “trusts his people” and as such, is disengaged, uninformed, and worse, is taking no action to develop their capabilities. He has no way to distinguish between the people who “hit the numbers” due to luck and circumstances (or are very skilled at finding external factors to blame) and the ones who apply good thinking, and carry out good plans. Because the negative effects often take time to manifest, this process can actually bias toward someone who can get good short-term results, even at the cost of long-term shareholder value.

This is no way to run a business. A lot of businesses, some of them very reputable, are run exactly this way.

So What’s The Alternative?

Shook describes a patient-yet-relentless leader who is determined to get the results he wants by developing his subordinate. He assigns a challenging task, specifies the approach (the “A3 Problem Solving Process”) then iterates through the learning process – while applying the principle of small steps. At no point does he allow the next step to proceed until the current one is done correctly.

“Do not accept, create, or pass on poor quality.”

He has a standard, and teaches to that standard.

He is skeptical and intently curious – he must be convinced that the current situation is understood.

He must be convinced that the root cause is understood.

He must be convinced that all alternative countermeasures were explored.

He must be convinced that everyone involved has been consulted.

He must be convinced that all necessary countermeasures are deployed – even ones that are unpopular.

He must be convinced that the plan is being tracked during execution, results are checked against expectations, and additional countermeasures are applied to handle any gaps.

And he must be convinced that the results came as an outcome of specific actions taken, not just luck.

In short, even though he might have been able to do it quicker by just telling his subordinate what to do, in the end, that Team Member would only know his boss’s opinion on a particular solution for a specific issue… he would not have taught how to be thorough.

The Learning Countermeasure

If we start in the same place – too much inventory, too few turns – the engaged leader starts the same way, by setting a target.

Then he asks each of his subordinates to come back to him with their plan.

By definition that plan includes details of their understanding of the situation – where the inventory is, why it is. It includes targets – where the effort will be focused, and what results are expected.

The plan includes detailed understanding of the problems (causes) which must be addressed so that the system can operate in a sustainable, stable way, at the reduced inventory levels.

It includes the actions which will be taken – who will do what by when, and the results expected from those actions. It may include other actions considered, but not taken, and why.

It includes a process to track actions, verify results, and apply additional countermeasures when there is a barrier to execution or a gap in the outcome.

The process of making the plan would largely follow the outline in Managing to Learn. The engaged leader is going to challenge the thinking at each step of the process. He is going to push until he is convinced that the Team Member has thoroughly understood – and verified – the current situation, and that the actions will close the gap to the targets.

Rather than assigning a blanket reduction target, the engaged leader might start there, but would allow the Team Members to play off each other in a form of “cap and trade.” The leader’s target needs to get hit, but different sectors may have different challenges. Blanket goals rarely are appropriate as anything but a starting point. But it is only after everyone understands their situation, and works as a team, that they could come up with a system solution that would work.

Of course then the Team Members who had to take on less ambitious targets would get that much more attention and challenge – thus pushing the team to ever higher performance.

Today’s World

Even in companies deploying “lean”, the quality of the deployment is dependent on the person in charge of that piece of the operation. When someone else rotates in, the new leader imposes his vision of how things should be done, and everything changes.

There are, in my view, two nearly universal points of failure here.

  • The company leadership had an expectation to “get lean” but, above that local level, really had no idea what it means… except in terms of performance metrics. This is often wrapped in a facade of “management support.” Thus, there is no expectation that an incoming leader do things in any particular way. (What is your process to “on board” a new leader prior to just turning him loose with your profits and losses?)
  • The outgoing leader may have done the right things in the wrong way – by directing what was to be done vs. guiding people through the process of true understanding.

Fixing this requires the same thinking and the same process as addressing any other problem. Just trying to impose a standard on things like production boards isn’t going to work. The issue is in the thinking, not in the tools.


You get what you measure, but don’t be surprised if people are ingenious in destructive ways in how they get there.

You can’t force a solution by adding even more metrics.

Only by knowing what you did (the process) will you know why you got the results you achieved (or did not achieve). This is a process of prediction, and is the only way people learn.

Learning takes practice. Practice requires humility and a mentor or teacher who can see and correct.

Blame vs. Accountability

Steve left a question on The Whiteboard that everyone thinks, but almost no one asks.

Is there a point at which the “blame game” is appropriate? You once mentioned the “5 who’s” I’m thinking that at some point this has to be processed. Like getting the right people on the bus (or off it). Or in cases of accountability.

This subject, of course, opens up an entire line of complex discussion. We are dealing with psychology and sociology here, not mechanical or industrial engineering.

The question is very general. And like most "big problems" I don’t think it is solvable at this level. Rather, the general problem is a symptom of small problems that are chronically not addressed. In simple terms, the answer is "it depends" and "it is a case-by-case issue."

My first frame of reference is the post just before this one – "No blame means no excuses." There are a couple of other related gems in Managing to Learn that I will be calling out in subsequent posts here.

But right now, I want to go back to 1944 and dig out the cheat pocket card that is part of the TWI Job Relations course.

At the top the card says


(In this context, it means a people problem.)

Right underneath that are the words everybody skips over:


So let’s think about that a minute. Here is a person whose performance or behavior is something you find incompatible with the goals of the organization. But have you thought past your emotional response and really looked at, first, what the goals of the organization are in this context? If this problem is solved what outcome do you want?

Sometimes I hear "I want the person out of the organization."

OK. But that is a countermeasure, not an objective. What is the objective of the organization?

In the 1944 TWI context, it was generally to "help production." Certainly that was the main priority. But whatever your objective is, it is critical to understand it and I would suggest you write it down.

Then the card says:


In modern terms, this would translate to "Thoroughly understand the current situation." The odds are you have only second-hand information and complaints at this point. At best, you have only results of some underlying issue. The card says to "review the record" – what is the history here? Is this an ongoing issue that has a long history? Or is it a recent thing?

It says "Find out what rules and customs apply." Now – please remember that these words were written in a different era. One generation (half a generation) earlier, the USA had been a primarily agrarian economy with a growing manufacturing sector. Many manufacturing operations had more informal customs than actual rules. Many of those customs dictated the way people were expected to behave. Understanding, not just the rules, but the actual expectations of supervisors, peers, and the culture itself gives you the context that this person was working in.

In a world class organization, I would ask "What is the standard?" What is the expectation in this circumstance? What should be happening? If you are not crystal clear about that, then you have a case of vague expectations. Want to know the source of the problem? Look in the mirror.

The card goes on to advise:

"Talk with individuals concerned" and "Get opinions and feelings"

Go and see for yourself. Genchi genbutsu.

Do not rely on reports of others. That information is inherently biased.

If you start off with a couple of assumptions, your understanding can be much deeper.

  • This person is well meaning, and acting in his best understanding of what you expect.
  • This person is acting in a reasonable manner within the context he has around him.

These assumptions drive you to understand how expectations are interpreted, how priorities are understood, and the daily, working context of "normal" and "reasonable" within the work environment.

It is critical to understand this simple truth about all organizations: The written rules are over ridden by the daily working culture.

At the end, the card issues a caution:

"Be sure you have the whole story."

Once you understand the current situation, the next step on the card is:


"Fit the facts together"

"Consider their bearing on each other."

This is final reflection on the big picture and the context this person is operating in. What conflicts does he experience? How is he resolving them? Asking those questions in that way, again, frames the problem in terms of a person acting in a reasonable way to resolve conflicting priorities (work and personal) in the best way he can. If that priority conflict turns out to be a real or perceived difference between policies and expectations, that is your problem, not his.

Consider what message is sent by those two statements:"We never compromise safety for production." and "We need to do whatever it takes to get this done today."

Consider the actual consequences if all unsafe work in your operation halted. Now, in that light, consider the pressures this person might have been under when he got "written up" for a near-miss on a forktruck – as he was driving down a cluttered transportation aisle with a load that blocked his view that someone was impatiently calling him about.

The JR card goes on into executing your action plan, and then CHECK RESULTS.

The last question on it is:


Did your countermeasure address the problem?

This was all pretty radical stuff in 1944. Unfortunately it is still pretty radical in a lot of places.

But – at the end of the game, it comes down to objectively considering what you are trying to accomplish; understanding the entire story; developing and applying countermeasures; and seeing if they work. Then lather, rinse, repeat.

As an adjunct to this, Jim left a comment after the book review of Managing to Learn where he reflected that a lot of his (lean manager) job seems to be psychology. He is right – but that is the job of any manager whose ultimate success is dependent on how well his people perform. Understanding what really motivates people vs. what you want to motivate them is a critical first step to deal with the world as it really is.

So, back to the original question.

Steve used an expression "getting the right people on the bus (or off it)." I first encountered this in Jim Collins‘ book Good to Great. He refers to a corporate transformation where it is important to have the right team, and have the players in the right positions. (The right people on the bus, and those people in the right seats). Before you decide to kick someone off the bus, it is critical to first understand if s/he is in the right seat; to understand if the past is the result of circumstances or true failure to perform. So unless (until) you are truly certain of what you expect, you are in no position to judge whether someone is, or is not, meeting expectations.

Here is how I look at it. If someone has to be let go, it is because I:

Failed to hire the right person.

Failed to make my expectations clear enough.

Failed to adequately assess or correct the reasons for not meeting those expectations.

And in the end, I had to concede that I had failed, not only this person, but my own objectives.

Are we going to get it right every time? Of course not. But "finally getting him out of here" should be reflected upon, not as a success, but as a desperate last resort when everything else has failed.


No one has the resources to save people who are bent on destroying themselves or those around them.  Fortunately those people are actually few and far between. It is totally unfair (and not in your interest) to structure your operation as though anyone could be one of these people.

And finally, each of us is responsible for cutting our own path in the world. If I don’t like the results I am getting, I must acknowledge that those are results are the cumulative effect of every choice I have made up to this point. I may not get the results I want, but I get the results I have chosen.

No Blame Requires No Excuses

This little gem is buried on page 54 of John Shook’s new book Managing to Learn, recently published by the Lean Enterprise Institute.

Although it is almost just a passing thought in the overall context, it really gets to the core of a people-supporting culture.

To me, the concept of “No blame requires no excuses” means that the organization has created a culture where excuses are not necessary.

Think about this: What is the purpose of an excuse but an attempt to shift blame from a person to something that person could not control.

So what would it take to remove the need to do this?

First of all, it requires an organizational culture where it is safe to accept responsibility. At that point, excuses are no longer required for survival. Then, and only then, can the team start to deal with the facts as they truly are, rather first working to spin them in a way that is acceptable.