The Key to Innovation is Iterate and Test

Key points from this great TED talk by Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab.

You can’t plan the path, you can only set the direction. He talks about the “compass” guiding a project that followed a route which was totally unpredictable. There was no way to plan out the path to success from the beginning.

Instead, at each step, they asked “Where are we now?”

“What do we need to do next?”

“What’s in the way of doing that?”

“How do we deal with that?”

I’m paraphrasing here, of course, but the key is that once again we have an instance the Improvement Kata pattern in the wild.

Ghost Victories – an excerpt from Upstream by Dan Heath

Amazon affiliate link to book listing for Upstream by Dan Heath
The link to the image takes you to the Amazon listing for the book. If you happen to order it, I get a small kickback, no cost to you, Just FYI.

Dan Heath has just published a new book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen.

I just got the book, and am reading it now. I think there is going to be a lot of good material to discuss here.

But this post is about a marketing email with an excerpt really resonated with me, and I want to discuss that. I wrote to Dan Heath, and got his permission to use pieces of the excerpt here. (Thank you, Dan)

Management By Measurement = “Ghost Victories”

I have talked about what I call “management by measurement” in the past. In that post I told a true story of a company that placed very heavy emphasis on reducing inventory levels without digging into how that performance was achieved. The net result was a an embarrassed CEO during a quarterly analyst’s call. Not good.

Dan Heath talks about the same thing in Upstream. He calls it “ghost victories.”

[when] there is a separation between (a) the way we’re measuring success and (b) the actual results we want to see in the world, we run the risk of a “ghost victory”: a superficial success that cloaks failure.

The most destructive form of ghost victory is when your measures become the mission. Because, in those situations, it’s possible to ace your measures while undermining your mission.

He goes on to describe a case in the U.K. where the Department of Health established penalties for wait times longer than four hours in the Emergency Departments. And it worked. Wait times were reduced – at least on paper. Then the facts began to emerge:

 In some hospitals, patients had been left in ambulances parked outside the hospital—up until the point when the staffers believed they could be seen within the prescribed four-hour window. Then they wheeled the patients inside.

In the old post I referenced above, I said:

If making the numbers (or the sky) look good is all that matters, the numbers will look good. As my friend Skip puts it so well, this can be done in one of three ways:

  • Distort the numbers.
  • Distort the process.
  • Change the process (to deliver better results).

The third option is a lot harder than the other two. But it is the only one that works in the long haul.

All of this ties very well to Billy Taylor’s keynote at KataCon6 where he talked about the difference between “Key Activities” and “Key Indicators.” It is only when we can get down to the observable actions and understand the cause-and-effect relationship between those actions and the needle we are trying to move that we will have any effect.

To avoid the “Ghost Victory” trap, Dan recommends “pre-gaming” your metrics and thinking of all of the ways it would be possible to hit the numbers while simultaneously damaging the organization. In other words, get ahead of the problem and solve it before it happens.

He proposes three tests which force us to apply different assumptions to our thinking.

The lazy bureaucrat test

Imagine the easiest possible way to hit the numbers – with the least amount of change to the status quo. The story I cited above about inventory levels is a great example.

I can make my defect rates improve by altering the definition of “defect.”

There are lots of accounting games that can be played.

This is one to borrow from Skip’s list – How can the underlying numbers be distorted to make this one look good when it really isn’t?

The “rising tides” test

What external factors would have a significant impact on this metric? For example, I was working at a large company where a significant part of their product cost was a commodity raw material. As the market price went down, “costs” went down, and bonuses all around. But when the market price went up, “costs” went up and careers were threatened and bad reviews issued.

Those shifts in commodity prices had nothing to do with how those managers were doing their jobs, the tide rose and fell, and their fortunes with it.

The question in my mind is “What things would make this number look good, or bad, without any effort or change in the process we are trying to measure?”

The defiling-the-mission test

Hmmm. This is a tough one. (not really)

And it is a really common problem in our world of quarterly and annual expectations. In what ways could meeting these numbers in the short term ultimately hurt our reputation, our business, in the long term?

For example, I can think of an ongoing story of a product development project that hit its cost and schedule milestones (what was being measured). But they did so at the cost of destroying their reputation with customers, their Federal regulators and the public (and, to a large extent, their employees). They now have a new CEO, but the deeper problem has origins in the late 1990s.

How long will it take them to recover? That story is still playing out.

In another case I was in a meeting with a team that was discussing a customer complaint. The ultimate cause was a decision to substitute a cheaper material to reduce production costs. But this is a premium brand. There was a great question asked there: “Which of our values did we violate here?” – so the introspection was awesome.

Next step? Ask that question before the decision is made: “Is this decision consistent with our values?” If that makes you uncomfortable, then time to look in the mirror.

Then there is this little incident from 2010:

Picture of burning Deepwater Horizon oil platform
BP Deepwater Horizon fire – Photo by USCG

The metric was cost and schedule. Which makes sense. But the behavior that was driven was cutting corners on safety.

Getting Ahead of Problems

The book’s subtitle says it is about getting ahead of problems. I am looking forward to reading it and writing something more comprehensive.

LEI Book: Getting Home

“Are you ahead or behind?” seems an innocent enough question.

But when asked by a Toyota advisor, the simple process of becoming able to answer it launched Liz McCartney and Jack Rosenburg on a journey of finding consistency in things that were “never the same” and stability in things that “always changed.”

Getting Home is, first and foremost, a story. And, with the “business novel” being an almost worn-out genre, seeing a non-fiction story was refreshing. So when Chet Marchwinski from the LEI offered a review copy to me, I accepted.

For the story background, I’ll leave it to you to read the blurb on Amazon.* Better yet – read the book – and it is worth reading. I’ll say that right up front.

Yet with stories like this it is all too easy to dismiss them because they have different circumstances from “my” specific case and say “Yeah, it worked there, but won’t work here.”

I would contend, however, that in this case “it worked” in situations that are far more difficult than anything we are likely to encounter in most organizations.

What I want to do here is help pull their specific achievements into more general application – what lessons are here that anyone can take away and apply directly.

What They Achieved

I can’t think of a lot (any?) business circumstances that would have more built-in variability and sources of chaos than the process of rebuilding communities after a disaster such as a hurricane or flood.

Every client has different circumstances. The make, mix and skill levels of the volunteer workforce changes continuously. Every community has different bureaucratic processes – not to mention the various U.S. government agencies which can be, well, unpredictable in how and when they respond.

Yet they have to mobilize quickly, and build houses. This means securing funding, getting permits, mobilizing unskilled and skilled labor, and orchestrating everything to meet the specific needs of specific clients on a massive scale… fast.

How They Achieved It

When they first connected with their Toyota advisor, the simple question, “Are you ahead or behind?” prompted the response that drives all improvement, all scientific advancement, all innovation:

“We don’t actually know.”

Actually they did, kind of, but it was in very general, high-level terms.

And that is what I encounter everywhere. People have a sense of ahead or behind (usually behind), but they don’t have a firm grasp on the cause and effect relationship – what specific event triggered the first delay?

This little book drives home the cascading effect of ever deepening understanding that emerges from that vital shift from accepting things as they are to a mindset of incessant curiosity.

Being able to answer “Are you ahead or behind?” means you have to have a point of reference – what is supposed to happen, in what order, with what timing, with what result. If you don’t know those things, you can only get a general sense of “on track” or not.

They had to develop standards for training – what to train, how to train – volunteers! – , which meant challenging assumptions about what could, and could not, be “standardized.” (A lot more than you think.)

A standard, in turn, provides a point of reference – are we following it, or are we being pushed off it. That point of reference comes back to being able to know “Are we ahead or behind?”

 

It Isn’t About the Specific Tools

Yet it is. While it isn’t that important about whether this-or-that specific tool or approach is put into place, it is critical to understand what the tools you use are there to achieve.

As you read the book, look for some common underlying themes:

Information as a Social Lever

The project started revolving around the ahead/behind board.

In the “lean” world, we talk about “visual controls” a lot, and are generally fans of status boards on the wall. We see the same thing in agile project management (when it is done well).

These information radiators work to create conversations between people. If they aren’t creating those conversations, then they aren’t working. In Getting Home it was those conversations that resulted in challenging their assumptions.

Beyond Rote Implementation

Each tool surfaced more detail, which in turn, challenged the next level. This goes far beyond a checklist of tools to implement. Each technical change you make – each tool you try to put into place – is going to surface something that invites you to be curious.

It is the “Huh… what is happening here?” – the curiosity response – that actually makes continuous improvement happen. It isn’t the tools, it is the process of responding to what they reveal that is important.

Summary

Like the tools it describes, Getting Home is an invitation, and that is all, to think a little deeper than the surface telling of the story.

My challenge to you: If you choose to read this book (and I hope you do), go deeper. Parse it. Ask “What did they learn?” ask “What did this tool or question reveal to them, about them?” And then ask “What signals did they see that am I missing in my own organization?”

 

 

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*This is an affiliate link that give me a very small kickback if you happen to purchase the book – no cost to you.

That Broken Bolt is Speaking to You

The factory is running complex automated equipment. At the morning meeting today we heard “machine x was down for broken bolts.” Actually “again.”

Background – the bolts in question resist pressure in molding equipment. The details of how the equipment works aren’t relevant here. This isn’t the first time I have heard of “broken bolts” being the source of downtime.

After the meeting, I saw the production manager on the shop floor. “So, tell me about the broken bolts.” We know each other, he is happy to.

We went to the machine in question. “How do bolts break?” (These days I ask “how?” rather than “why?” because I am interested in the mechanism of failure rather than whatever mistake is being made.

I am asking that question for a simple reason: Grade 8 bolts don’t “just break” in equipment that is properly engineered and assembled as designed. Something, somewhere, is stressing things beyond their limits.

Normalized Deviance

By accepting that “bolts break” and “shafts get stripped” and “hoses fail” we move into the realm of “normalized deviance” where we accept as OK something that actually is a sign of a serious problem.

image

This is no different than accepting that “o-rings burn through sometimes but it hasn’t caused a problem so it must be OK.”

How do Bolts Break?

A few possibilities came up.

  • The bolts might be just a bit too long allowing movement.
  • The might be loose.

“Why is a ‘too long’ bolt even needed in the plant?” – that is still an open question.

“What is the torque spec?”

“… I don’t know.”

Now we are getting somewhere.

Once we hit the threshold of knowledge, we know the next step.

If You Aren’t Being Heard, Then Listen

I was sitting in on a conversation between a Continuous Improvement Manager and the Operations Manager the other day.

The Operations Manager was asking for help developing good leader standard work.

The C.I. manager was responding that she had already developed it for the Value Stream Manager, the Supervisor.

The Operations Manager said he thought right now, they needed to focus on the Team Leads, the first line of leadership.

The C.I. manager reiterated that she had already prepared standard work for the Value Stream Manager and the Supervisor.

The Operations Manager reiterated that he wanted, right now, to focus on the Team Leads.

This went back and forth three or four times, and the Operations Manager moved on to something else.

The C.I. Manager seemed frustrated and even a little angry.

My Working Hypothesis

The C.I. manager was frustrated because the work she had already done had not been implemented or acknowledged.

The Operations Manager was frustrated because his immediate need was not being acknowledged.

So they were each reiterating, again, what they had said before, neither of them acknowledging what the other was trying to say.

Being Heard as a Change Agent

When you say something, and the other person responds by reiterating what they have already said, this is a Big Red Flag for you. They are not going to hear anything you say until they feel you have heard them.

The cool part is that either of these parties can break the cycle of repetition by shifting into listening mode. I am going to take this from the perspective of the C.I. Manager / change agent since most of you reading this are more likely to be in that position.

Book cover: Never Split the DifferenceThere are lots of classes and materials out there about “active listening” but I really like a simple techniques that Chris Voss shares in his awesome book Never Split the Difference.*

At least they seem simple. But they require a lot of deliberate practice to master as they require breaking long standing unconscious habits. At least I know I’m still working on it.

The Goal: Hear “That’s Right”

The first step to listening is to listen!

Is the other person simply reiterating what they have said before in response to your message? Are you even aware of that? (or are you waiting them to stop talking so you can reiterate your message?) Take responsibility for breaking the cycle. Pay attention to their body language. Try to read how they are feeling right now.

Then test your hypothesis.

Instead of reiterating your message, repeat theirs back to them. Even better if you acknowledge the emotions behind their message.

“It sounds like you are really concerned that the leads don’t know what to do.”

Critical: In the words of Chris Voss, this requires that “late night FM DJ voice.”

NO sarcasm. NO implied judgement. You must come from a position of being curious about what they are trying to communicate, and what they are feeling.

You are trying to learn. You are not trying to make them wrong. You are not trying to make a point. You are not trying to be right.

If you are trying to do any of those things, you are not listening. You are, instead, trying to collect ammunition for your next salvo.

You will get one of two responses:

  • The other person will correct you.
  • The other person will give you some version of “Yeah, that’s right.” Those are the magic words you are trying to hear.

Let’s parse that sentence.

“It sounds like…”  (or “It seems like…”). You are not telling them what they are saying. You are telling them what you are hearing and sensing.

This invites correction. “No, that’s not it.” or “No, that’s not what I’m saying.”

They may be frustrated. That is why you must remain the calming influence.

(By the way – this is MUCH easier if you don’t have a stake in the conversation, and the process of being listened to really helps the other person clarify their own position. That is a good place to practice before you are in a high-stakes situation.)

“… you are really concerned…”

Acknowledge how you sense they are feeling. Again, this is inviting correction, clarification or agreement. In either case, you are getting more information.

“… that the leads don’t know what to do.”

This part of the sentence communicates your understanding of what you think is causing the emotion in the other person. Again, this is just an acknowledgment. It doesn’t mean that you agree that this issue should trigger this emotion, you are just acknowledging that it does.

If you don’t get “that’s right” then it is time to humbly and sincerely ask for correction. You have to do so in a way that makes it clear you really care about understanding. (“Seek first to understand.”)

Ideally the other person will attempt to clarify what they are trying to say. Cycle through this until they agree that what you are saying back is what they are trying to convey to you.

Trap: “You’re Right”

Voss points out a trap in this process: The critical difference between “that’s right” and “you’re right.”

First, if you hear “you’re right” that is an indication that the other person perceives you are trying to make your case vs. hearing them. Were you adding to the information? Were you passing judgement?

Next – In this context, “You’re right” often translates as “I’m tired of trying to talk about this.” There isn’t agreement yet. “You’re right” is about you. “That’s right” is about what you were saying. Very different things.

Which leads us to:

Don’t let “being right” about something get in the way of getting what you want or need.

The C.I. manager was right that she had prepared leader standard work for the value stream manager and the supervisor. And she was right that it hadn’t been acted upon.

But by sticking to her guns about that, the Operations Manager was left with the impression that she was refusing to help develop standard work for the team leaders, so he gave up on the conversation.

Here is what happens. Her frustration comes through. His brain (all of our brains) contains “mirror neurons” that invoke in him the emotions he is seeing across the table, which elevates his frustration without him even knowing it.

This is why that calming demeanor is so critical. If the other person picks up sarcasm, negativity, dismissiveness in your voice or body language, that will be reflected right back at you, and amplify everything the wrong way.

After (AFTER!!) getting an acknowledgment that he felt the main priority right now was the Team Leads, the C.I. manager might have created an opening –

State your facts: “I worked really hard on standard work for the value stream leader and supervisor.”

Own your own feelings: “I am feeling frustrated that none of that work was acted upon.” (Avoid victim language like “that makes me feel” or “you make me feel” statements.)

State what you need right now: “I’ll work on the standard work for the leads, but I would like to review the work I have already done and what happened with it so I can avoid the same situation with the leads. Can we do that?”

Finally…

There is no guarantee this works every time. But it works more often than escalating the emotion which probably never works.

_________________

*Why am I touting a book about negotiating? Because change agents must be able to reach agreements with others. And negotiating is a process of agreement creation. Chris Voss is a former FBI hostage negotiator. His job was to create agreements with terrorists, kidnappers, bank robbers. If his techniques work there, they probably work for a change agent in a company.

 

 

Scientific Thinking vs. The Scientific Method

My recent post, “…but where is the problem solving?” stirred up quite a bit of conversation and traffic. I would like to dig a little deeper into what “good problem solving” actually looks and sounds like – beyond the forms and tools.

Underlying all good problem solving is scientific thinking. With it, I am constantly comparing what I think with what I observe, and looking at differences as evidence that what I think might need revision.

Some years ago, I was driving down a residential street in Rochester, New York, and observed a series of signs in a yard, each with a single number on them.

Huh… what are those? Maybe they are the house number. (Hypothesis) I checked the mailbox across the street, and saw the next number in sequence, the neighbor’s mailbox had the same as had the next number after that. (Devise a test of the hypothesis, run the experiment, gather evidence.) I concluded that, yes, the signs were indeed just the address displayed in a creative way, and continued my drive.

I didn’t run any formal experiments. I didn’t document anything. I didn’t go through “the five questions” – I just thought about what those numbers might be, and tested my thinking. Had the house numbers across the street been totally out of sequence, it would have remained a mystery, as my hypothesis would have failed.

Was I applying the scientific method? Not really. I applied all of those “hypothesis” terms after the fact as I wrote this. But at the time I was curious about something (the first step of science), and applied simple logic to test an assumption I had made. While it might not be “the scientific method,” I would contend this was “scientific thinking.”

Most of the time, that is my habit. When I am uncertain and curious about something, I check it out. I apply the same thinking pattern troubleshooting my computer when it does something surprising (or annoying – are you listening, Microsoft?). None of this rises to the level of formal experimentation, it is just methodical thinking.

More difficult problems require more rigor and structure. But many “problems” just require a pause, a little thought, trying something – followed by making sure it works – and moving on. It is the “making sure it works” part that many people leave out of this process. And it is “making sure it works” that raises a blind fire-and-forget action item into an experiment… assuming that if it doesn’t work, you then dig in to understand why.

Most of these things are quick and need little formal structure. People call them “applying common sense,” and I agree – as long as the experimental mindset is there.

Much like that previous post, some of us continuous improvement people have built specific expectations about what “problem solving” should look like. But, no matter what structure is applied, the underlying pattern of thought remains the same – even for casual troubleshooting.

It is this habitual pattern of thought that Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata is intended to teach through practice. He introduces structure, but any logically and consistently applied structure will work.

Let’s not confuse specific jargon or forms with our underlying intent: Learning to habitually glance across the street at a mailbox if you think those signs might just be the house number.

If the student hasn’t learned…

… the teacher hasn’t taught.

Do you regard the structure of problem solving as dogma, or as an experiment with a predicted outcome?

If the learner struggles to master the structure, sometimes it is more valuable to find a different structure than to double down on what clearly isn’t giving the predicted result.

The Problem

Early this year I started work with a new client. They were trying to “implement A3,” and as I began to work with them, especially the new-in-the-position C.I. manager, I found they were struggling with what to write in the blocks of the “form.”

Of course there isn’t an A3 “form.” The A3 takes many configurations as the problem solver sets out to share the narrative with her coach. Nevertheless, beginners tend to find a format online, and work to put the right information in the various blocks.

In this case, my impression was that the blocks were getting in the way. “What should go in here?”  “What goes in the next block?” I didn’t really make a deliberate decision here, but I’ll tell you what I ended up doing:

What I Tried

First I tried the Toyota Kata format. He really liked that approach, but ultimately in this case we ran into the same kind of struggle. “Getting the structure right” seemed to be obscuring the bigger picture of the underlying thinking.

So I tried something more drastic: I let go of the format and the structure. Instead, let’s work on solving problems.

Like all organizations, there was no shortage of problems to practice on. So we just picked one.

Without the form, I had him map out the basic process steps. Then what happens, then what happens. What, exactly, is happening here. “The part is dropping off the conveyor.”

“OK, that’s the outcome, but what, exactly, is the mechanism that causes it to drop?” Describe what is happening. Draw it. Write it down. Show me.

After working to see process steps, we took on some pervasive quality issues.

“How is it even possible to produce this defect?” What are the steps involved to make a defective product? Yes – making defective product is a process, just like making a good product is a process. It is just a different process. What is actually happening here?

There were trials, experiments, measurements all with the goal of learning more, digging deeper, until the mechanism of the failure could be described. “This is what is happening.”

OK – how could that happen? Always forcing the discussion toward what is actually happening vs. what is not happening. If there was more than one possible mechanism to cause the problem, then “Based on the evidence we have, which of those can we rule out, and why?” Look at what’s left as a possible cause.

Of those, what trial can we run to see if we can rule that one out, or keep it in play.

At the end of a few of these, his language started to shift. He started speaking to others differently. He was learning to coach in different ways. He started asking different questions, boring in on the details with the intent of inquiry and dialog vs. “showing what I know.”

Oh – and he cracked a couple of chronic problems.

Then when the Corporate C.I. guy started insisting on “using A3” it was a pretty simple transition – it is just a way to describe what you know, what you do not know, and what steps you are taking to deepen your understanding because…

“The root cause of all problems is ignorance.”

– Steven Spear

What I Learned:

A core prerequisite to continuous improvement is good daily management of problem solving that applies solid scientific thinking to find the answers.

Once that thinking structure is in place, it can be expressed many ways, and A3 is but one of them. It isn’t the only one. As the level of scientific thinking deepens, the more the various tools and structures simply become fluid extensions to make it easier to express.

Sometimes I have found that if I try to force a particular format into place, I can end up having a container without any content.

Now… to be clear, there are many instances where the structure facilitates learning. It is just that in this particular case, the structure got in the way.

Asking whether learning is actually taking place, rather than trying to force a specific structure into place, may well be the difference between trying to teach by rote vs. staying focused on what the student is actually learning.

Problem: What Does Maintenance Cost?

Another interesting “homework problem” showed up in the searches today:

an assembly line turns out parts at the rate of 250 per hour. on the average, the line must be shut down for maintenance for 20 hours during a month. how much production is lost each month?

Answer: None.

Wait a minute!! What about the 20 hours * 250 units / hour = 5000 units? Isn’t that lost production? Maybe. What problem are you trying to solve?

I’m making a couple of assumptions here. First is around the word “maintenance” vs. the word “repair.” If the line requires 20 hours of maintenance to run reliably and avoid repairs, then this time must be planned into the expected monthly production. Thus, no planned production is lost.

If no production above the planned level is required, then I can’t say any is lost. This is why one-dimensional questions like this are so dangerous. Whenever we are confronted with questions like this, we must always ask another:

Compared to what?

What should be happening? What is normal? What is needed? Simply saying that the line (when it is running) can produce 250 units per hour is data, but it gives us nothing to act on.

Here is the rule I have been pushing lately:

Whenever you measure something, there are always two values.

  1. What you measured.
  2. What is required or expected if the process or thing you are measuring is problem free or otherwise doing what it should or what you expect.

This is equally true for an observation.

  1. What you saw.
  2. What you should have seen if things were as expected or problem-free.

Then you can start the process of meaningful inquiry.

If my line produces 250 units / hour when running problem-free, and requires 20 hours of maintenance a month to be able to do that, we have a single piece of information: How much production I should expect during the month.

Is that enough? Then no problem, turn your attention to something more pressing.

Is that not enough? OK – now we have to get serious.

A lot of management teams confronted with this problem are going to reflex to just allocating fewer hours to maintenance in order to get more hours for production.

Don’t do it.

Just cutting maintenance time is going to make things worse. Maybe not this month or even next, but sooner or later you will be losing a lot more than 5000 units of production / month. What will make this frustrating is you won’t lose them all at once. You will experience slowdowns, short stoppages, jams, and all of these things will seem like a normal day – only you won’t be making 250 units per hour anymore.

This is where a lot of management team struggle. They only look at “maintenance hours” and issue a directive to cut those hours.

But “maintenance hours” is a metric that you cannot action directly. This is a classic example of what I wrote about a couple of years ago in “Performance is the Shadow of Process.”

Worse, this is a step away from what you are trying to accomplish… which is what?

Key Question: What Problem Are You Actually Trying to Solve?

“I need to reduce the time we spend on maintenance.” is not a problem. It might be a desire, or a possible solution, but if you start here, you are already restricting your thinking.

If you did reduce the time you spent on maintenance, what would you be able to do that you can’t do today? Why is this important to work on?

(Sometimes I get “We wouldn’t spend so much time on maintenance.” I always have to laugh when I hear something like this. Aren’t circular arguments fun? “OK, why is it important to spend less time on maintenance?”)

After some discussion, we might arrive at something like a need to produce another 1000 units / month to meet increased sales demand.

That becomes our challenge. Then the fact that we spend 20 hours / month doing maintenance is part of (and only part of) the current condition. But I can ask other question now such as:

How fast must we produce (units / hour) to get another 1000 units / month? You would be surprised how often the math tells us a number that is slower than “250 units per hour.” Huh. So maybe that’s the rate when things are running smoothly… where is the time going?

The point is that it is critically important to understand why you are asking how much time is being “lost” to maintenance to avoid jumping to a solution.

 

Poster - What Problem are you Actually Trying to Solve?

It’s Hard to Learn if you Already Know

In this TED Talk, Amy Edmondson of the Harvard Business School talks about “How to turn a group of strangers into a team.” Although long-standing teams are able to perform, our workplaces today require ad-hoc collaboration between diverse groups. The question is: What kind of leadership, and what kind of structure, contributes to working together on the problem?

For those of you unfamiliar with her work, I’ll add that I have found anything that she writes or speaks about is worth reading or listening to.

The key message starts around the 10:00 minute point:

“When teaming works, you can be sure that leaders, leaders at all levels, have been crystal clear that they don’t have the answers. Let’s call this ‘situational humility.’ It’s appropriate humility. We don’t know how to do it.”

[…]

“It’s hard to offer up an idea that might be a stupid idea if you don’t know people very well. You need psychological safety to do that. They overcame what I like to call this basic human challenge: it’s hard to learn if you already know. And unfortunately, we’re hardwired to think we know. And so we’ve got to remind ourselves – and we can do it – to be curious; to be curious about what others bring.”

Here is the entire TED talk. If the embed isn’t working for you, this is the direct link: How to turn a group of strangers into a team.

 

 

 

Which brings me to the quote I pulled for the title of this post: It’s Hard to Learn if you Already Know. As Amy Edmondson points out, “we’re hard wired to think we know.”

To counteract this we need to construct different artifacts that focus our attention on our shared understanding vs. trying to advocate a particular position.

Creating The Structures of Teamwork

As obvious as this is when we say it, if we want to create a culture or social structure of teamwork this must be done deliberately. This is especially important in environments where ad-hoc groups must collaborate very quickly. So… what works? I don’t know. But we do have the tools to figure it out.

Structure to Focus on The Problem

When two people are talking about a problem while looking at each other, they tend to equate “the problem” with “the other person.” Rather than trying to reach a shared, common understanding, the tendency is to try to convince the other person to adopt their point of view.

But if we introduce some kind of artifact – an A3, a Learner’s Storyboard, a shared keyboard and monitor – that physically turns people to look at the problem rather than at each other, the dialog changes.

Collaboration at a shared keyboard and monitor

Collaboration at a learner storyboard.

“What we’ve got here is a reason to communicate.”

Think about the key difference between people looking together at the information versus someone at the front of the room, facing everyone else. The tone shifts from “tell me” to “work with me.”

Think of the key difference in a meeting between everyone sitting at the table talking about the problem vs. what happens if someone stands up and starts to draw it out on a whiteboard.

What companies like Menlo Innovations, Kaas Tailored, Toyota, and others do is construct physical artifacts to focus people’s attention away from the person and toward the information. The information becomes neutral, vs. being attached to someone. If something isn’t working, we can work together to fix the issue vs. fix blame.

The “Lean Tools”

Let’s take something as simple as standard work. What is it for?

One interpretation could be that I watch you perform the work, and if you violate the procedure, you fail the audit for not following the standard.

But the other interpretation is that we have a neutral point of comparison for how we think the work should proceed if it is problem-free. Seeing, or detecting any difference reveals a problem of some kind. We are invited by this information to look at the problem and seek to gain more understanding.

Of course, just sending an invitation doesn’t mean people come to the party. Shaping that conversation in constructive directions is what leadership is about.

And, as always, I write these posts mostly to clarify my own thinking by trying to explain it to someone else (you). I’d love to know what you think, so post comments!

 

 

Toyota Kata and The Menlo Way

I have been telling everyone who will listen to read Rich Sheridan’s book Joy, Inc. ever since I came across and read it in the fall of 2015.

Fast forward to earlier this year when Lean Frontiers sent out their request for suggested keynote speakers for KataCon. I wrote to Mike Rother and asked him “Do you think we could get Rich Sheridan?”

Skip ahead a bit more, and I spent four days last week at Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor – two days “in the chalk circle” paying close attention to the actual day-to-day work there, and two days working (pairing) with Rich Sheridan to work out the key beats for his KataCon keynote.

 

The “So What?” Test

Menlo is well known as a benchmark for a great working culture. But the question you may be asking (and, honestly I hope you ARE asking it) is “What does Menlo Innovations and agile software development have to do with Toyota Kata?”

If you visit Menlo (and I really hope you do!) here is what you won’t see:

  • Learner storyboards.
  • “5 Questions” coaching cycles.
  • Obstacle parking lots.
  • Experiment Records (PDCA Records)

In other words, you won’t see the explicit artifacts that characterize an organization using Toyota Kata to learn how to think about improvement scientifically. In that sense, Menlo isn’t a “Toyota Kata” benchmark.

OK… and?

You don’t see those things at Toyota either. You don’t go to Toyota to see “Toyota Kata.”

The Underlying Thinking Pattern

What you will see (and hear… if you pay attention) at Menlo Innovations is an underlying pattern of scientific thinking and safe problem solving in everything they do.

Let’s review what Toyota Kata is really all about.

Rather than re-writing something elegant here, I am going to quote from my part of an email exchange between Mike Rother, Rich Sheridan and me:

Going back to Mike’s original research premise, we knew that Toyota has this pretty awesome culture thing, but didn’t really understand the “secret sauce” of the exact structure of their interactions. Put another way, we saw and understood all of the artifacts, but copying the artifacts doesn’t copy the culture.

Mike’s research was really the first that dug deeper into the interactions that the artifacts support.

Once he extracted that “secret sauce” he then boiled off all of the other stuff, and what remained at the bottom of the pot was the Improvement Kata steps and the Coaching Kata steps.

In practice at Toyota, those things are deeply embedded in the artifacts. Sometimes they aren’t even spoken.

My informal hypothesis was that if I spent time paying attention to, not just the artifacts, but the way those artifacts guided interactions at Menlo, and then boiled off the other stuff, what would remain at the bottom of the Menlo pot would also be the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata steps. And, though I didn’t do this formally, and yes, I had confirmation bias working here, I believe I can safely say “I have no evidence to contradict this hypothesis.”

For example:

In our conversation on Friday, Mike pushed back a bit on “just run the experiment,” [context clarification: Experiments to randomly try stuff, without a clear target condition rarely get you anywhere] but the reality I observed and heard was that “purpose” (challenge and direction) and “current condition” are deeply embedded in the day-to-day interactions, and “just run the experiment” is, indeed, working on a specific obstacle in the way of a target condition of some kind.

[…]

“What problem are you trying to solve?” is Menlo jargon that I overheard many times just listening to people talk.

Within Menlo, that term is contextual. Sometimes it is about the higher-level direction and challenge.

Sometimes it is about an intermediate target condition.

Sometimes it is about an immediate problem or obstacle.

As we say in Kata world, it is fractal. It is truly fractal at Menlo as well, to the point where the words don’t change at various levels.

The words DO change at various levels in Toyota Kata’s jargon, but we can’t get hung up on the terms, we have to look at the structure of problem solving.

Menlo’s co-founders already had this thinking pattern, and deliberately sought to embed it into the culture of the company they were starting. There wasn’t really any need to explicitly teach it because they weren’t trying to change the default behavior of an organization. New Menlonians learn the culture through the interviewing and on-boarding process and adopt very quickly because the very structure of the work environment drives the culture there.

In fact, spend any time there even just hanging out, and it is very difficult NOT to get pulled into The Menlo Way. Like everyone else, Rich and I were in the daily stand-up as pair-partners, reporting our work progress on his keynote.

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What About Toyota Kata?

Menlo has had hundreds (thousands, actually) of visitors, and those who are “lean savvy” all ask if Menlo is “using lean” as their guideline. The answer is “no, we are just trying to solve problems.” While they have certainly incorporated most of the artifacts of “agile software production,” the purists push back that they aren’t “really doing it” because they didn’t copy those artifacts exactly. Nope. They used them as a baseline to solve Menlo’s problems.

When we see an awesome problem-solving culture, it is tempting to try to reverse engineer it by copying the physical mechanics, such as heijunka boxes (work authorization boards), kanban, “standard work” and the like.

But we have to dig down and look at the routines, the behavior that those artifacts and rituals support. When we do, we see the same patterns that Toyota Kata is intended to teach.

You need to begin with the thinking pattern. Use Toyota Kata to learn that.

As you do, take a look at your artifacts – the procedures, the policies, the control mechanics of your work. Reinforce the ones that are working to create the kind of culture you want. Challenge the ones that are getting in your way. Do both of those things as deliberate experiments toward a clear vision of the culture you want to create.

That is the benefit of studying companies like Menlo.

I hope to see you all at KataCon, hear what Rich has to say to our community, and establish a link between these two communities that have, up to now, been separate.

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