The Cancer of Fear

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I am sitting in on a daily production status meeting. The site has been in trouble meeting its schedule, and the division president is on the call.

The fact that a shipment of material hadn’t been loaded onto the truck to an outside process is brought up. The actual consequence was a small delay, with no impact on production.

The problem was brought up because bringing up process misses is how we learn what we need to work on.

The division president, taking the problem out of context, snaps and questions the competence of the entire organization. The room goes quiet, a few words are spoken in an attempt to just smooth over the current awkwardness. The call ends.

The conversation among those managers for the rest of that day, and the next, was more around how to carefully phrase what they say in the meeting, and less about how do we surface and solve problems.

This is understandable. The division president clearly didn’t want to hear about problems, failures, or the like. He expected perfect execution, and likely believed that by making that expectation loud and clear that he would get perfect execution.

That approach, in turn, now has an effect on every decision as the managers concern themselves with how things will look to the division president.

Problems are being discussed in hallways, in side conversations, but not written down. All of this is a unconscious but focused effort to present the illusion that things are progressing according to plan.

Asking for help? An admission of failure or incompetence.

This, of course, gets reflected in the conversations throughout the organization. At lower levels, problems are worked around, things are improvised, and things accumulate and fester until they cannot be ignored.

They the bubble up to the next level, and another layer of paint is plastered over the corrosion.

Until something breaks. And everyone is surprised – why didn’t you say anything? Because you didn’t want us to!

In a completely different organization, there were pre-meetings before the meeting with the chief of engineering. The purpose of these pre-meetings was to control what things would be brought up, and how they would be brought up.

The staff was concealing information from the boss because snap reaction decisions were derailing the effort to advance the project.

And in yet another organization they are getting long lists of “initiatives” from multiple senior people at the overseas corporate level. Time is being spent debating about whether a particular improvement should be credited to this-or-that scope. It this a “value improvement,” is it a “quality improvement,” is it a “continuous improvement” project?

Why? Because these senior level executives are competing with one another for how much “savings” they can show.

Result at the working level? People are so overwhelmed that they get much less done… and the site leader is accused of “not being committed” to this-or-that program because he is trying to juggle his list of 204 mandated improvement projects and manage the work of the half-a-dozen site people who are on the hook to get it all done.

And one final case study – an organization where the site leader berates people, directly calls them incompetent, diminishes their value… “I don’t know what you do all day”, one-ups any hint of expert opinion with some version of “I already know all of that better than you possibly could.”

In response? Well, I think it actually is fostering the staff to unite as a tight team, but perhaps not for the reasons he expects. They are working to support each other emotionally as well as running the plant as they know it should be run in spite of this behavior.

He is getting the response he expects – people are not offering thoughts (other than his) for improvements, though they are experimenting in stealth mode in a sort of continuous improvement underground.

And people are sending out resumes and talking to recruiters.

This is all the metastasized result of the cancer of fear.

Five Characteristics of Fear Based Leaders

Back in 2015 Liz Ryan wrote a piece in Forbes online called The Five Characteristics of Fear Based Leaders.

In her intro, Liz Ryan sets out her working hypothesis:

I don’t believe there’s a manager anywhere who would say “I manage my team through fear.”

They have no idea that they are fear-based managers — and no one around them will tell them the truth!

And I think, for the most part, this is true. If I type “how to lead with fear” into Google I get, not surprisingly, no hits that describe the importance of intimidation for a good leader – though there are clearly leaders (as my example above) who overtly say that intimidation is something they do.)

My interpretation of her baseline would be summarized:

People who use fear and intimidation from a position of authority are often tying their own self-esteem to their position within that bureaucratic structure. Their behavior extends from their need to reinforce their externally granted power, as they have very little power that comes from within them.

They are, themselves, afraid of being revealed as unqualified, or making mistakes, or uncertain, or needing help or advice.

I have probably extended a bit of my own feelings into this, but it is my take-away.

She then goes on to outline five characteristic behaviors she sees in these “leaders.” I’ll let you read the article and see if anything resonates.

Liz Ryan’s article is, I think, about how to spot these leaders and avoid taking jobs working for them.

This post is about how the organization responds to fear based leadership.

The Breakdown of Trust

A long time ago, I wrote a post about :The 3 Elements of “Safety First”. Today I would probably do a better and more nuanced job expressing myself, but here is my key point:

If a team member does not feel safe from emotional or professional repercussions, it means they do not trust you.

Fear based leadership systematically breaks down trust, which chokes off the truth from every conversation.

Here is my question: Do you want people to hide the truth?

If the answer is “No,” then the next question is “What forces in your organization encourage them to do so?” because:

Your organization is PERFECTLY designed to produce the BEHAVIORS you are currently experiencing.

– VitalSmarts via Rich Sheridan

Lessons from Driving a Forklift

The spring and summer of 2000 were a long time ago, but I learned some lessons during those months that have stayed with me. In fact, the learning from that experience is still happening as I continue to connect it to things I see today.

I was a member of a team working hard to stand up a new production line of a new product. The rate pressures were very high, the production, production control, and quality processes were immature.

At a high level, the parts flow was supposed to work like this:

Steel parts are fabricated and welded, based on the production schedule for various configurations.

Unit sets of parts were sent to outside paint. (We didn’t have our own paint system yet.) In reality, unit sets would be broken up as some parts went to sister plants, others went to outside vendors, each with their own lead times and flow times.

Parts return from outside paint. Because of the different vendors and lead times, different parts arrive on different days.

On assembly day, kits are built for the parts required at each entry point on the assembly line. Those kits are delivered based on a pull. The assembly line had a number of entry points and feeders, so for each takt time cycle, though only one “unit’s worth” of parts were actually delivered, those parts were for different units, as feeders had different lead times into the main line.

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The innocuous challenge was to develop the kitting process (in red) that broke down the parts into  kits and got them delivered to the line.

I got pulled in on Thursday of a “kaizen event” that was supposed to develop this process. What had actually happened, though, was analysis paralysis, a lot of theoretical discussions, a lot of drawings on a white board, but nothing had actually been tested or tried. My assignment was simple: Organize this and get it going on Monday.

I had four people working for me, though they were not officially direct reports. They were an eclectic mix of personalities and styles.

A few things became apparent very quickly:

The process of scheduling which parts needed to be fabricated and welded to be sent through painting on any particular day was broken. Result: What was needed wasn’t necessarily what got sent to paint.

The processes of keeping parts organized during the various outside paint operations was broken. Result: Unit sets got mixed together, parts went missing.

As a result this is what my days looked like:

I came in before a hint of dawn at 4:45am to prepare for the assembly line starting at 5:40. I would go out into the parts yard with the day’s production schedule and a flashlight. My goal was to answer a simple question:

What units on this list can I build with the parts that are here?

I would re-sequence the production schedule to front-load the units that looked like we had everything we needed. (This caused all kinds of problems with serial number sequences and engineering change control, but that is a different story.)

We would start pulling in those parts, and breaking them down into the kits. We set up FIFO lanes for each entry point on the assembly line, and worked as fast as we could to build up about a three hour backlog. Why? Because it took about three hours to expedite a missing part through paint. Once we had that queue built up, as we discovered shortages (or parts painted the wrong color!), we had a chance to get the situation corrected and have a shot at not creating a shortage on the line.

We were working 10 hour shifts, I was typically there for 12-14 hours. Even though I was a “lean guy” my daily work was orchestrating all of this chaos, expediting and delivering parts, and I spent at least six of those hours every day driving a forklift. I got really good at forktruck operation that summer.

At the end of the day, I might sit and chill for a little while, then would get in my truck, go home, and do it all again tomorrow. One of those days as I went to back out of the parking space, I hit the turn signal to put my stick-shift truck into reverse – because that’s how the forklift controls worked.

What I Learned

I actually continue to learn. But here are a few things that have stood out for me.

Shop Floor Production Supervisor is a really hard job. I wasn’t a supervisor, but I was doing many of the things that we asked supervisors to do. Making my people take their breaks. Slow down on the pallet jack. Listening to a frustrated guy who was ready to quit – understanding his paradigm, and helping him re-frame his experience. Constant radio calls to places in whatever building I wasn’t in at the time. Operating within a system that functions only with continuous intervention.

I totally knew how to set up a workable, stable process. I knew how to get all of these processes linked together to pull everything through. I knew how to build in effective quality checks.

What I was able to do was spend a few minutes at the end of my day, or during my lunch breaks (instead of eating) trying to implement some kind of simple visual control that mitigated against repeating a mistake we had just made. We attached a tag with a production sequence number (000 through 999, repeating) to each kit. That let us, and the people on the line, see if we had delivered something out of sequence.

Then, after I had delivered a yellow painted kit to go onto an otherwise blue painted unit (oops) we made a board with the production sequence numbers and the associated colors for the major components.

Then… after I had delivered (note the theme here) the wrong size of a major component to the line, we added that information to the board AND tagged those components so we could quickly distinguish one from the other.

But I was never able to address the upstream issues that were delivering short kits to us in the first place. All I could do was add steps, add time, add inventory to protect myself from those things and do my best to fix it before the main line got stopped.

We had a saying in the Army: “When you are up to your a$$ in alligators, it is hard to work on finding the best way to drain the swamp.”

Thus:

It is unreasonable to expect systems improvements when everyone is scrambling to make the system function at all. It isn’t that they don’t want to make improvements. It isn’t that they don’t know what to do. It is that there is barely time to breathe before the next problem needs to be stamped down.

And finally: A five person job requires five people. I had four people working for me. That wasn’t enough. Guess who had to fill in the rest of it? I tried my best to handle the problems so they could get into some kind of cadence on the stuff that wasn’t a problem. But (Routine+Problems) = (or greater than) 5 people in this case, and it took all of us just to navigate the rapids without dumping everyone out of the boat. If everything was running smoothly, it was probably a three person job. If we could have set up a sequenced pull from assembly all the way back through weld, it would have been a two or even one person job.

Reflection

That forklift key is still on the keyring in my pocket as a reminder of that time. What follows are some of the bigger-picture things that come to mind as I continue to construct, tear down and reconstruct my own thinking.

Attribution Error

There is a strong tendency among us humans to attribute our own failures to a poor environment, but to attribute other’s failings to individual character or capability. Yet in many cases, simply changing the venue or circumstances can allow a previously low-performer to blossom. We see this (and the opposite) all of the time in professional athletics.

Making this error is easy when we are talking about “they.”  If only they… Why don’t they… They don’t get it… “They” are people who are likely doing the very best they can within the context of the system they are in. And, as I pointed out above, changing the system from the inside is hard.

Actually that isn’t quite accurate. Changing the system is hard work.

The Pace of Change

The organization I was describing above was experiencing circumstances at the time that outpaced their ability to experiment, reflect, and adapt. Every organization has a rate at which they are able to change.

Just to make things more complicated, it is possible to learn what must be done much faster than those things can be put into place. This frustrates a lot of change agents. They see the technical changes that must take place, but often struggle against cultural barriers and obstacles. These things take much longer, and it is pretty much impossible to put them on a fixed timeline or project plan. Thus, we frame them as “resistance to change.” We know what must be done, but “they” don’t do it.

Organizations Under Stress

When an organization is under stress, there is fear of complete breakdown. People become very conservative and avoid the uncertain and unfamiliar. If they become overwhelmed just trying to get their task done, they are going to shut out any information that isn’t relevant right now. Horizontal communications break down, and the feeling of isolation increases.

At this point, all coordination has to funnel upward and then downward through the vertical linkages, as cross-functional coordination largely isn’t happening.

Now the higher leader gets overwhelmed, feeling she has to micro-manage every detail- because she does. “Why don’t they talk to each other?” Well, the structures for that were probably very informal, and now have broken down.

This Isn’t About “Them”

As I mentioned above, it is really easy to attribute the perception of dysfunction to individuals. And as people become isolated within their own task-worlds, avoiding a mistake becomes the dominate motivation. This happens even in organizations with the most benign intentions.

If you are a leader, pay attention to the emotions. If people are snippy, are pushing back on ideas as “just more work” then that saturation point may well have been reached. Pushing harder isn’t going to make things go faster, it is going to slow them down.

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Creating Resistance As You Go (Don’t)

The role of “change agent” is actually a role of leadership.

Leading change is difficult work that involves changes in the norms, routines, working relationships, behavior within and between groups. It is required when a simple technical change either isn’t going to get the job done, or requires the above changes to work at all. Most (if not all!) of the “lean tools”* fall into the later: The process changes are straight forward, but making them work requires altering the habitual patterns of how people work together.

Before I dive into what works, I want to spend a little time on what doesn’t work.

The Bulldozer: Creating Resistance

Bulldozer climbing a mound of dirt.

A team had a challenge – the result they were striving to achieve – of getting a 2-3 week administrative workflow (that sometimes went longer) down to a consistent three days. Their target condition was a pretty good work flow that, by all accounts so far, could avoid a lot of delays (on the order of days and weeks).

The changes they proposed would eliminate a number of transfers from one department to another (which always means another queue). However it also calls for eliminating some long-standing work-arounds that involve filling out forms and passing them along by email. But now they have a new ERP system, and the intent has been that this work is done within that system.

Those forms are in another department’s process, and involve people who haven’t been involved (so far) with the work to date. (There are valid reasons for this, and yes, some of this could have been avoided by involving everyone from the beginning, but that isn’t the point of the story.)

A functional department manager set off a flurry of pushback through a series of emails that essentially said “This is the future” and exhorting people to get on board with the new process vs. defending the old one.

One of the tenants of an effective change agent is “Don’t work uphill” with the corollary of “Don’t create hills in front of you.” I call the opposite of this the bulldozer approach. Unfortunately, like the picture above, just trying to push things through tends to build up a mound of resistance in front of you.

What did we learn?

Rather than trying to engage the new idea as an experiment – “Let’s try this and see what we learn,” the change agent tried to use position power to push the idea through. He took an action, and had an (implied) expected result – that people would see the light and adopt the new process.. The actual result, though, was quite different than what was expected – they doubled down on their resistance.**

A scientific-thinking change agent (a.k.a “a leader”) is going to step back and assess. Why did I get the reaction I did? What triggered it? What are the values of this constituency that are being challenged? Most pushback comes from a perceived threat to something that is regarded as valuable.

Perhaps the current workflow solves a very real problem. Perhaps it is otherwise very useful for something I am not aware of. Or maybe there is some emotional stake attached to the status quo. There is likely a combination of all three, or other factors I haven’t mentioned.

When proposing a new idea there is an opportunity to become curious about what previously hidden (to us at least) obstacles have just been uncovered, step back and work on the next one.

Leadership is a series of experiments. Not everything will work. But everything is an opportunity for learning and adjusting or adapting the next step appropriately.

People who expect their position-power to carry them through often tend to assign blame to individuals as “resisting the change.” But if we carry a different assumption – that everyone is doing the best they can to do the best job they can – then we can reframe and possibly reinterpret the reaction we are getting.

What other interpretations could we assign to this pushback other than “They don’t want to?” How many of those interpretations can we think of?

What is your next step or experiment?

Each of those possible interpretations is a testable assumption. Now I can frame my next action, conversation, or intervention to test one or more of those assumptions. This requires me to go into curiosity mode, because I really don’t know if they are true or not.

Now I have a different conversation because I am seeking first to understand. I can test assumptions without threatening anyone. Listen. Don’t defend. Paraphrase back until you hear “That’s right” signaling agreement that you heard what they were saying. That doesn’t mean you agree, but that you heard. Until someone feels heard they aren’t going to be soaking in what you are trying to tell them, they are going to be setting up the next defense of their position.

There is VERY rarely a need to directly confront someone over a different interpretation of the facts.

Don’t be a bulldozer – it doesn’t work.

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*And Six Sigma tools, and Theory of Constraints tools, and TQM Tools, and the tools associated with pretty much any other “program” that falls under the umbrella of continuous improvement.

**Though, Dr. Phil’s coaching would probably be something along the lines of “What did you THINK would happen??” (Semi-apology to my non-US readers who may not have context for this attempt at cultural humor.)

The Ecosystem of Culture

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An organization’s culture and mindset evolve over time. When confronted with a problem or challenge, the organization (or more accurately, the people in the organization) view it through a filter of their experiences. Ideas that they believe have worked for them under past similar conditions are more likely to be applied again. Ideas that have seemed less successful, or more difficult, in the past are less likely to be applied again.

Over time, this collective experience determines how they respond to the day to day rough spots as well as more serious challenges. Those unconscious biases drive the responses, and in turn, shape how their processes are structured.

Different Cultures = Different Ecosystems

The process mechanics in a company like Toyota evolved over decades in a very specific organizational culture ecosystem, with specific values and beliefs shaped by their historic experiences.

When we are looking at the current processes in a different company, we are seeing the process mechanics that evolved in their management culture. Those process mechanics are optimized by the pressures that are exerted by the way THAT company is managed. Since Toyota is managed differently, its processes are optimized by different pressures, so will look different.

If we take Toyota’s process mechanics and shift them into a different ecosystem, they will have the different pressures exerted upon them. Different default decisions will be made. These alien process mechanics will likely begin to resemble the legacy processes rather quickly, if they survive at all.

This is why the promise of a rapid and dramatic change in operational results is frequently unfulfilled. The process mechanics are imported from a tropical rain forest, and installed in an alpine meadow. As beautiful as it looks in one environment, it won’t stand for long in the other.

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Adjusting the Culture vs. Adjusting the Process Mechanics

If we want this transplant to work, we have to pay careful attention to those evolutionary pressures. In practical terms, this means we try the new mechanics, we must watch carefully to learn what problems they reveal. We also need to observe the decisions that are made when these problems come up.

What adjustments need to be made in the way people interact, and to the immediate response to problems or surprises if this new process is to thrive?

Having a formal structure for this deliberate self-reflection is critical.

The Improvement Kata is engineered to specifically drive this kind of reflection by making changes as experiments, then deliberately reflecting with the question “What have we learned?”

For this to work, of course, we must be honest with ourselves and not just issue a flip answer like “It doesn’t work.”

Because we are asking people to adjust their responses, we are asking them to do things which are unfamiliar and may well run opposite from what they have experienced as successful for them in the past. If we try to move too fast, we are asking them to trust an alien process which is, in their experience, unproven in their environment. We might be asking them to reveal their own limits of knowledge – which is very scary for most of us.

That, in turn, asks for reflection on why “I don’t know…” is so scary to admit in the organization’s culture.

We have sold “lean” as a deceptively simple set of common-sense process mechanics with the idea that if we just implement them, we’ll get incredibly great results. As true as that is, “just implement them” is a lot harder than most of the “rapid improvement” models imply.

There is a lot going on behind what appears to be well understood and simple on the surface.

Learning Starts With “I Don’t Know”

If an organization wants to encourage learning, they have to get comfortable with not having all of the answers. Learning only happens when we discover something we don’t know, and then actively pursue understanding it. Many organizations, though, equate “having the answers” or “already knowing” with “competence.” Thus, if I say “I don’t know” then I am setting myself up for being regarded as incompetent.

What I see in these organizations is people will take great pains to hide problems. They will try very hard to figure things out, but do so in the background always reporting that everything is going fine. They live in the hope that someone else’s problem will emerge as the show-stopper before theirs does, and give them the extra time to sort out their issue.

Meanwhile, the bosses are frustrated because people aren’t being truthful with them. But what should they expect if “truth” attracts accusations of being incompetent?

But… there is hope.

I was talking to a friend last week who works in a huge company that seems to be making an earnest effort to shift their culture. There is nearly unanimous agreement that the existing culture isn’t working for them. On the other hand, actually changing culture is really, really hard because it involves changing people’s immediate, habitual responses to things.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged when my friend recounted a recent meeting where someone admitted two things:

  1. There was an unexpected problem that came out in a recent test.
  2. They, right now, don’t know how to fix it.

Just to be clear, these two things coming out in this meeting is a big deal. This has been a culture where unexpected problems have not been warmly received. Bringing them up without a confident assessment about a prospective solution was inviting the kind of intervention that is rarely helpful.

This time, though, was a little different.

The leaders started going down the expected responses such as “What do you mean we don’t know what to do?” then… stopped short. They paused, and realized this was not in line with their newly stated values of creating trust and accepting failure as an inherent part of learning.

And they changed their tone. They shifted the conversation from trying to assign responsibility blame for the test failure toward asking what we, the organization, needed to learn to better understand what happened.

My thoughts are:

Kudos to the person who was brave enough to test the waters and admit “I don’t know.”

Toyota Kata: Reflection on Coaching Struggling Learners

The “Five Questions” are a very effective way to structure a coaching / learning conversation when all parties are more or less comfortable with the process.

The 5 Questions of the Coaching Kata

Some learners, however, seriously struggle with both the thinking pattern and the process of improvement itself. They can get so focused on answering the 5 questions “correctly” that they lose sight of the objective – to learn.

A coach, in turn, can exacerbate this by focusing too much on the kata and too little on the question: “Is the learner learning?”

I have been on a fairly steep learning curve* in my own journey to discover how modify my style in a way that is effective. I would like to share some of my experience with you.

I think there are a few different factors that could be in play for a learner that is struggling. For sure, they can overlap, but still it has helped me recently to become more mindful and step back and understand what factors I am dealing with vs. just boring in.

None of this has anything to do with the learner as a person. Everyone brings the developed the habits and responses they have developed throughout their life which were necessary for them to survive in their work environment and their lives up to this point.

Sometimes the improvement kata runs totally against the grain of some of these previous experiences. In these cases, the learner is going to struggle because, bluntly, her or his brain is sounding very LOUD warning signals of danger from a very low level. It just feels wrong, and they probably can’t articulate.

Sometimes the idea of a testable outcome runs against a “I can’t reveal what I don’t know” mindset. In the US at least, we start teaching that mindset in elementary school.

What is the Point of Coaching?

Start with why” is advice for me, you, the coach.

“What is the purpose of this conversation?” Losing track of the purpose is the first step into the abyss of a failed coaching cycle.

Coach falling over a cliff.

Overall Direction

The learner is here to learn two things:

  • The mindset of improvement and systematic problem solving.
  • Gain a detailed, thorough understanding of the dynamics of the process being addressed.

I want to dive into this a bit, because “ensure the learner precisely follows the Improvement Kata” is not the purpose.

Let me say that again: The learner is not here to “learn the Improvement Kata.”

The learner is here to learn the mindset and thinking pattern that drives solid problem solving, and by applying that mindset, develop deep learning about the process being addressed.

There are some side-benefits as the learner develops good systems thinking.

Learning and following the Improvement Kata is ONE structured approach for learning this mindset.

The Coaching Kata, especially the “Five Questions” is ONE approach for teaching this mindset.

The Current Condition

Obviously there isn’t a single current condition that applies to all learners. But maybe that insight only follows being clear about the objective.

What we can’t do is assume:

  • Any given learner will pick this up at the same pace.
  • Any given learner will be comfortable with digging into their process.
  • Any given learner will be comfortable sharing what they have discovered, especially if it is “less than ideal.”

In addition:

  • Many learners are totally unused to writing down precisely what they are thinking. They may, indeed, have a lot of problems doing this.
  • Many learners are not used to describing things in detail.
  • Many learners are not used to thinking in terms of logical cause-effect.
  • The idea of actually predicting the result in a tangible / measurable way can be very scary, especially if there is a history of being “made wrong” for being wrong.

Key Point: It doesn’t matter whether you (or me), the coach, has the most noble of intentions. If the learner is uncomfortable with the idea of “being wrong” this is going to be a lot harder.

Summary: The Improvement Kata is a proven, effective mechanism for helping a learner gain these understandings, but it isn’t the only way.

The Coaching Kata is a proven, effective mechanism for helping a coach learn the skills to guide a learner through learning these things.

For the Improvement Kata / Coaching Kata to work effectively, the learner must also learn how to apply the precise structure that is built into them. For a few people learning that can be more difficult than the process improvement itself.

Sometimes We Have To Choose

A quote from a class I took a long time ago is appropriate here:

“Sometimes you have to choose between ‘being right’ or ‘getting what you want.’”

I can “be right” about insisting that the 5 Questions are being answered correctly and precisely.

Sometimes, though, that will prevent my learner from learning.

Countermeasure

When I first read Toyota Kata, my overall impression was “Cool! This codifies what I’ve been doing, but had a hard time explaining.” … meaning I was a decent coach, but couldn’t explain how I thought, or why I said what I did. It was just a conversation.

What the Coaching Kata did was give me a more formal structure for doing the same thing.

But I have also found that sometimes it doesn’t work to insist on following that formal structure. I have been guilty of losing sight of my objective, and pushing on “correctly following the Improvement Kata” rather than ensuring my learner was learning.

Recently I was set up in the situation again. I was asked to coach a learner who has had a hard time with the structure. Rather than trying to double down on the structure, I experimented and took a different approach. I let go of the structure, and reverted to my previous, more conversational, style.

The difference, though, is that now I am holding a mental checklist in my mind. While I am not asking the “Five Question” explicitly, I am still making sure I have answers to all of them before I am done. I am just not concerned about the way I get the answers.

“What are you working on?” While I am asking “What is your target condition?,” that question has locked up this learner in the past. What I got in reply was mostly a mix of the problems (obstacles) that had been encountered, where things are now, (the current condition), some things that had been tried (the last step), what happened, etc.

The response didn’t exactly give a “Target Condition” but it did give me a decent insight into the learner’s thinking which is the whole point! (don’t forget that)

I asked for some clarifications, and helped him focus his attention back onto the one thing he was trying to work out (his actual target condition), and encouraged him to write it down so he didn’t get distracted with the bigger picture.

Then we went back into what he was working on right now. It turned out that, yes, he was working to solve a specific issue that was in the way of making things work the way he wanted to. There were other problems that came up as well.

We agreed that he needed to keep those other things from hurting output, but he didn’t need to fix them right now. (Which *one* obstacle are you addressing now?). Then I turned my attention back to what he was trying right now, and worked through what he expected to happen as an outcome, and why, and when he would like me to come by so he could show me how it went.

This was an experiment. By removing the pressure of “doing the kata right” my intent is to let the learner focus on learning about his process. I believe I will get the same outcome, with the learner learning at his own pace.

If that works, then we will work, step by step, to improve the documentation process as he becomes comfortable with it.

Weakness to this Approach

By departing from the Coaching Kata, I am reverting to the way I was originally taught, and the way I learned to do this. It is a lot less structured, and for some, more difficult to learn. Some practitioners get stuck on correct application of the lean tools, and don’t transition to coaching at all. I know I was there for a long time (probably through 2002 or so), and found it frustrating. It was during my time as a Lean Director at Kodak that my style fundamentally shifted from “tools” to “coaching leaders.” (To say that my subsequent transition back into a “tools driven” environment was difficult is an understatement.)

Today, as an outsider being brought into these organizations, my job is to help them establish a level of coaching that is working well enough that they can practice and learn through self-reflection.

We ran into a learner who had a hard time adapting to the highly structured approach of the Improvement Kata / Coaching Kata, so we had to adapt. This required a somewhat more flexible and sophisticated approach to the coaching which, in turn, requires a more experienced coach who can keep “the board” in his head for a while.

Now my challenge is to work with the internal coaches to get them to the next level.

What I Learned

Maybe I should put this at the top.

  • If a learner is struggling with the structured approach, sometimes continuing to emphasize the structure doesn’t work.
  • The level of coaching required in these cases cannot be applied in a few minutes. It takes patience and a fair amount of 1:1 conversation.
  • If the learner is afraid of “getting it wrong,” no learning is going to happen, period.
  • Sometimes I have to have my face slammed into things to see them. (See below.)
  • Learning never stops. The minute you think you’re an expert, you aren’t.

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image* “Steep learning curve” in this case means “sometimes learning the hard way” which, in turn means, “I’ve really screwed it up a couple of times.”

They say “experience” is something you gain right after you needed it.

Team Member Saves

image

Now and then one of your team members makes a great save. They catch something that could have caused a defect, an accident, or done harm in some way.

Often we celebrate these saves, sometimes informally, sometimes formally. And that is well and appropriate.

But let’s make sure we are celebrating for the right reasons.

The save isn’t what should be celebrated.

Rather, the celebration should be a big THANK YOU for finding a gap in your process.

Somehow the process is capable of producing a defect, resulting in an accident, or doing harm. Your team member noticed that.

We usually just celebrate correcting the immediate problem.

But What is preventing exactly the same thing from happening tomorrow?*

image

That front-line customer-facing team member is your last line of defense.

They only get an opportunity to make a “save” when every other point in the process has failed to detect the  problem.

Given enough “shots” at this front line team-member, sooner or later, one is going to get through.

What happens then? Is the inverse logic applied? “You should have caught that.”

Perhaps, but where in the process was the problem actually created?

Somewhere, long before this diving catch, there is an instant when the process went from operating safely and defect free to creating an opportunity, an opening, for a problem to pass undetected.

Where and when was that moment?

Or is that how the process normally operates, and we are just lucky most of the time?

Dig in, think about it.

And thank that team member for saving you, but don’t count on it every time.

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*Thanks to Craig for this great way to sum up the question.

Toyota Kata: What is the Learner Learning?

In the language of Toyota Kata we have a “coach” and a “learner.” Some organizations use the word “improver” instead of “learner.” I have used those terms more or less interchangeably. Now I am getting more insight into what the “learner” is learning.

The obvious answer is that, by practicing the Improvement Kata, the learner is learning the thinking pattern that is behind solid problem solving and continuous improvement.

But now I am reading more into the role. The “learner” is also the one who is learning about the process, the problems, and the solutions.

Steve Spear has a mantra of “See a problem, solve a problem, teach somebody.” This is, I think, the role of the learner.

What about the coach?

The coach is using the Coaching Kata to learn how to ask questions that drive learning. He may also be un-learning how to just have all of the answers.

As the coach develops skill, I advise sticking to the Coaching Kata structure for the benefit of beginner learners. It is easier for them to be prepared if they understand the questions and how to answer them. That, in turn, teaches them the thinking required to develop those answers.

Everybody is a Learner

The final question in the “5 Questions” is “When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?” It isn’t when can I see what You have learned. It is a “we” question because nobody knows the answers yet.

The Destructiveness of “What Can You Improve?”

“What Can You Improve?”

Leaders often ask “What can you improve?” as an empowerment question. In reality, it may have the opposite effect.

I am coming to the belief that “What can you improve?” (about your job, about your process) is possibly one of the most demotivating, disempowering, destructive questions that can be asked.

What can you work on?” is another one of many forms this question takes. “How could you improve this process?” is another. What they all have in common is the psychological trap they set.

Now this really isn’t that much of a problem in a company that has a history of transparency in leadership, comfort with discussing the truth, and no need for excuses or justifications. Then again, those companies tend not to ask these questions straight-on.

But the vast majority of organizations aren’t like that. That doesn’t mean they are unkind. Rather, they operate in an environment where truthfully answering this question is difficult at best.

The Psychological Trap

To answer that question with anything other than trying to guess what you want, implies I have:

  • Thoroughly examined my results and the underlying processes.
  • Identified gaps in performance.
  • Know what to do about those gaps.
  • And haven’t done anything about it until you asked.

This puts me in the position of either defending the status-quo, or saying that I need to improve something that is out of my control – someone else’s process needs improvement so I can do better.

Hint: If you are a leader, and you ask a “What can you improve?” question and get an answer like the above – defending the status-quo or pointing to an outside problem –, there is fear in your organization. Justified or not, the person answering is struggling to maintain the impression that everything they can do is being done. Why do they feel the need to do this? Think about it.

This is especially pervasive in support / staff departments with a charter of influencing how other organizations perform, or in those who must work together with line organizations to succeed in their tasks. In industry this might be maintenance, HR, industrial engineering, or even the “improvement office” (who are often not a  beacon of internal efficiency or effectiveness).

A Bit of Background

When I start working with an organization, we usually start with practicing the basic mechanics of the Improvement Kata in a classroom setting. We then follow up immediately with kick-starting some live improvement cycles so we can begin practical application. Classroom learning really doesn’t do much good unless it is applied immediately.

Applying the Improvement Kata is a lot harder in the real world than it is in the classroom. I could go into a tangential rant on why I think our primary and secondary education system makes it harder, but I’ll save that for another day.

Even though I am as adamant as I can be on the importance of the organization identifying challenges for the new improvers / learners, the reality is that most organizations don’t know how to do this, or at least aren’t comfortable with it.*

As a result, the new improvers often struggle to define a “challenge” for themselves.

They guess – because they haven’t yet studied their process (which is the next step once context is established, they haven’t yet established a target condition (which is the step after that), and therefore, they haven’t identified what improvements they must make to get to the challenge state.

And if that guess is something in someone else’s domain, or worse if the “coach” has something else in mind, they are told “That’s not it,” they guess again, and eventually get defensive or give up.

Now – to be clear, this doesn’t happen every time. But I have seen it enough, across multiple organizations in very different domains that it’s a problem. And it is frustrating for everyone when it happens.

I indirectly addressed this topic a long time ago in “How the Sensei Sees.” Now, though I am talking about my own direct observation of the effect. And I am still learning how to deal with the fallout without becoming part of the problem.

It’s not the learner’s problem. It is a leadership problem.

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*Dave Kilgore at Continental Automotive had the additional insight that it is important for beginners that this challenge should be something important but not urgent so they don’t feel pressured to jump to an immediate solution. This is a good example of “constancy of purpose” – his priority is developing the skill level for improvement first.

Prediction Doesn’t Equal Understanding

Lunar Eclipse over Everett, WA. Photo by Mark Rosenthal, © 2015Sometimes people fall into a trap of believing they understand a process if they can successfully predict it’s outcome. We see this in meetings. A problem or performance gap will be discussed, and an action item will be assigned to implement a solution.
Tonight those of us in the western USA saw the moon rise in partial eclipse.

We knew this would happen because our understanding of orbital mechanics allows us to predict these events… right?

Well, sort of. Except we have been predicting astronomical events like this for thousands of years, long before Newton, or even Copernicus.

The photo below is of a sophisticated computer that predicted lunar eclipses, solar eclipses, and other astronomical events in 1600BC (and earlier). Click through the photo for an explanation of how Stonehenge works:

Photo of Stonehenge
Creative Commons flickr user garethwiscombe

Stonehenge represented a powerful descriptive theory. That is, a sufficient level of understanding to describe the phenomena the builders were observing. But they didn’t know why those phenomena occurred.

Let’s go to our understanding of processes.

The ability to predict the level of quality fallout does not indicate understanding of why it occurs. All it tells you is that you have made enough observations that you can conclude the process is stable, and will likely keep operating that way unless something materially changes. That is all statistical process control tells you.

Likewise, the ability to predict how long something takes does not indicate understanding of why. Obviously I could continue on this theme.

A lot of management processes, though, are quite content with the ability to predict. We create workforce plans based on past experience, without ever challenging the baseline. We create financial models and develop “required” levels of inventory based on past experience. And all of these models are useful for their intended purpose: Creating estimates of the future based on the past.

But they are inadequate for improvement or problem solving.

Let’s say your car has traditionally gotten 26 miles-per-gallon of fuel. That’s not bad. (For my non-US readers, that’s about 9 liters / 100 km.) You can use that information to predict how far a tank of fuel will get you, even if you have no idea how the car works.

If your tank holds 15 gallons of fuel, you’ll be looking to fill after driving about 300 miles.

But what if you need to get 30 miles-per-gallon?

Or what if all of a sudden you are only getting 20 miles-per-gallon?

If you are measuring, you will know the gap you need to close. In one case you will need to improve the operation of the vehicle in some way. In the other case, you will need to determine what has changed and restore the operation to the prior conditions.

In both of those cases, if you don’t know how the car operated to deliver 26 miles-per-gallon, it is going to be pretty tough. (It is a lot harder to figure out how something is supposed to work if it is broken before you start troubleshooting it.)

Here’s an even more frustrating scenario: On the last tank of fuel, you measured 30 miles per gallon, but have no idea why things improved! This kind of thing actually happens all of the time. We have a record month or quarter, it is clearly beyond random fluctuation, but we don’t know what happened.

The Message for Management:

If you are managing to KPIs only, and can’t explain the process mechanics behind the measurements you are getting, you are operating in the same neolithic process used by the builders of Stonehenge. No matter how thoroughly they understood what would happen, they did not understand why.

If your shipments are late, if your design process takes too long, if your quality or customer service is marginal, if the product doesn’t meet customer’s expectations, and you can’t explain the mechanisms that are causing these things (or the mechanisms of a process that operates reliably and acceptably) then you aren’t managing, you are simply directing people to make the eclipse happen on a different day.

“Seek first to understand.”

Dig in, go see for yourself. Let yourself be surprised by just how hard it is to get stuff done.