I recently did an “Introduction to Toyota Kata” session for Kata School Cascadia. The intent is to give an overview of my interpretation of the background, and how Toyota Kata fits into, and augments, your Continuous Improvement effort.
Here is a direct URL in case you can’t see the embed on your phone or pad: https://videopress.com/v/4vWvDZRe
In this presentation I go over what I mean when I say “culture” and then briefly discuss a “continuous improvement culture.” Then introduce the “why” of Toyota Kata as a way to start to nudge the culture in the direction we want it to go.
Finally I overview the structure of the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata, then answer a couple of questions.
Continuing on the theme of value stream mapping (and process mapping in general) – in the last post, Where is your value stream map? I outlined the typical scenario – the map is built by the Continuous Improvement Team, and they are the ones primarily engaged in the conversations about how to close the gap between the current state and the future state.
The challenge here is that ultimately it is the line leadership, not the Continuous Improvement Team, that drives whether or not this effort is long-term successful.
Getting a continuous improvement culture into place means changing the day-to-day patterns of interaction between people and groups of people. We can put in all of the lean tools we want, but if those conversations don’t follow, the system quickly reverts to the previous baseline.
What is interesting (to me, but I admit I’m a geek about this stuff) is that this is a meta level thing. While we are working on improving the performance of the value stream, we really have to be working on the performance of the process of leadership in the organization.
The value stream map can help with this, but we have to be deliberate about it, and realize that it will be an incremental and iterative process, just as we find in trying to improve how any process functions.
Start With Where You Want To Go
For line leadership, before we even start drawing process boxes, the first step is deciding why you are even doing this. What problem are you trying to solve? What aspect of your current performance needs to change… dramatically?
Is your system unresponsive to customers? Do customers expect deliveries inside your nominal lead times? Does that disrupt your system? What lead time capability would let you routinely handle these issues so they weren’t even issues anymore, just normal operations? That objective is going to bias your current state VSM toward understanding what is driving your lead times, where, when, and for how long, work is idle vs. actually being processed, etc.
Or maybe you need to increase your capacity while holding your costs (vs. just duplicating the existing processes). Now you are going to be focusing on the things that constrain your throughput, activities that consume time within cycles of output and the like.
Establishing that focus is a leadership / management task. It doesn’t work to just say “We need to improve” or even worse “We need to get lean.”
Sometimes these things are obvious frustrations to management, but often they are overwhelmed with general performance issues, or trying to define problems in terms of financials. That is an opportunity to focus back on the kind of performance that would address the financials.
The cool thing here is that you really can’t get this wrong. If you set a goal of radically improving your performance on any single aspect of your operation, you will end up improving pretty much everything in the process of reaching that goal. But it is critically important to have a goal to strive for, otherwise people are just trying to “improve” without any objective.
Then map your current state. The challenge gives you context. The current state map gives you a picture of how and why the system performs as it does.
Just so we don’t get sucked down the whirlpool of focusing too much on the business process in this discussion, the reason why you are getting this clarity is to get (and keep) the leaders engaged. If the objective is something abstract like “get lean” it is easy for them to think they can just get updates while they deal with the “real issues.” We want to attach this to a real issue that they are already working on.
Thus there is no “lean plan.” So many companies make “lean” somehow separate from other business objectives. I never could understand that. Maybe they are trying to separate “gains” that are a result of the “lean program” from those created by other initiatives. It doesn’t work that way. There is only one operating system in play, and that is what drives your day-to-day performance. If you don’t like the performance, you have to change the operating system. That is a management function, and it can’t be delegated.
The photo above is a current state map from a process that took several weeks to ship a part that the customer had ordered. Since it was a make-to-order shop, this was, shall we say, challenging for the customer relationship people.
As the team built the map it began to sink in that the time actually making the part was less than 30 minutes, and the value add was about six of those minutes. Their performance metric was “Past Due Hours” which was an abstraction of the programmed jobs that were behind the promised ship date.
Because the customers were always asking the business team members, “Where’s my stuff?” those customer reps were, in turn, always on the shop floor trying to get their orders expedited. They were competing with one another for a place in the production queue.
There is an icon in the middle of the map. Here is a close up:
This is Jim. He was an hourly associate whose nominal job was to pull the paperwork, match it up with raw material, and stage the work package into the production queue.
But this role made him the gatekeeper. So the customer service people (you can see their names in the lower left corner) would be pressuring Jim to jump their hot orders (and they were all hot by the time it got to the point where there was paperwork release – another story) into the queue so they could tell their customers that their orders were “in production.”
This put Jim in the position of having to make the priority decisions that the leadership wouldn’t make. Ultimately it was Jim who decided which customers would be disappointed that day. That made his day way more stressful than his pay grade. Respect for people? Hardly.
It also resulted in a staged order queue (materials and paperwork on carts) that snaked through the shop until it finally (days later) got to the actual production cell which, once they started, could actually knock things out pretty fast.
None of this addressed the past due issue. In fact, this made it worse.*
The key question for this team was “Who needs to have what conversation about work priorities so it isn’t all on an hourly associate to decide which of our customers will be disappointed?”
Who Needs To Fix This?
We want to solve problems at the lowest possible level, but no lower. In this working example, asking the shop floor workforce to fix this problem would be futile. Yes, they can propose a different structure, but they do not control how orders are released, they do not control how capacity is managed, they do not control the account managers who are fighting for a spot in the queue. They had been complaining about this bind for a long time. It wasn’t until the people running the business saw how the overall system worked that they understood that this is a systemic issue, and “the system” belongs to line management.
The facilitation question that got their attention was “Do you want Jim to be the one who decides who gets production priority?” Of course the answer was “No.” And that wasn’t about Jim, rather it was the realization that this WAS the existing process, and that wasn’t how they wanted things to operate. As my friend Brian says, “You may not like your normal, but you have to deal with it.”
That is generally the case at the value stream level. Value stream problems are usually at the interfaces between processes. The shop floor can’t, for example, transition from a push scheduling system to pull on their own. If they try, they create conflicts with the existing scheduling system and this usually tanks their metrics – even if performance is actually getting better.
These are all management discussions.
Key Point: The value stream level is a systems view. While you absolutely want input from the people who are engaged in the work every day, working on the system itself is not something that can be delegated by line leadership. They are the ones who are responsible for the overall system, and they are the ones who need to be responsible for changing it.
The Future State Map is a Hypothesis
Once you understand the current condition, the next step is to answer the question, “How does the process need to operate in order to meet our goal?”
The purpose of mapping a future state is to design process flow that you believe will meet your challenge if you can get the system to work that way.
It isn’t about seeing what you could do by removing waste. It isn’t “what could we improve,” it is “what must we change to reach our objective?” Again, this is a management function. It’s called “leadership.”
Which brings me to the title of this post.
Who Is Talking About This Stuff?
If the Continuous Improvement Team simply facilitated the process for line leadership (the actual stakeholders) to grasp the current condition and establish a target (future state) condition, what is crucial is who takes ownership of closing the gap. If the C.I. team are the ones discussing the problems they are often in a position of having to sell and justify every step of the effort to get to the future state.
Likewise, I have seen a lot of cases where the people primarily participating in building the value stream map were working level team members. Yes, it is absolutely necessary to have their insights into how things really are for people trying to get stuff done. Yes, it is critically helpful for them to understand the bigger picture context of what they do. However, all too often, I see senior leaders disengaged under the umbrella that they are “empowering” their workers.
Just to be clear: We absolutely want to create conversations about improvement at the level of the organization where value and the customer’s experience is actually created. The point here is that those conversations cannot be the exclusive domain of the working levels. It is critical for line leadership to be, well, leading. They can’t just delegate this to the continuous improvement specialists. Nor can they simply leave it to the working levels to sort it out – not if they expect it to work for any length of time.
Who reports on progress?
When an executive wants to know the progress toward an improvement goal, who do they call? Do they call the continuous improvement team to report? Or do they call the actual stakeholder who is responsible?
This is an easy trap to fall into. The C.I. Manager wants to show they are making a difference. The senior manager knows the C.I. Manager probably has better information. But that isn’t the conversation we want to create. The conversation needs to be between the line leaders. Yes, the C.I. team can (and probably should) help structure that conversation, but if they inject themselves into the middle (or allow senior management to put them there) the vital vertical connections are weakened – if they ever existed.
Thus, it is critical for the Continuous Improvement team to have a crystal clear picture of who should be having these conversations, and be actively working to nudge things in that direction. This is the process the C.I. team should actually be working to improve.
What should people talk about?
Ah, here’s the rub. For some reason managers today have a reluctance (or even disdain) to talk about operations, preferring to keep conversations in financial terms of cost, earned hours, yield and the like. These are all outcomes, but they are outcomes of process, and it is only by changing the process that those outcomes can sustainably change.
That conversation about progress I talked about above? That can’t be solely about the performance. It has to be about what is changing in the way the work is being done, and more importantly, what is being learned.
What the future state value stream map does (or should be used to do) is translate those business objectives into operational requirements for the process.
What Is Your Target Condition?
How we start to see the organic intersection between Toyota Kata and the value stream map.
The future state map defines a management goal. It also highlights the problems that must be solved to get there. (Those are the “kaizen bursts” that Learning to See has you put on the future state map.)
Those problems, or obstacles in Toyota Kata terms, at the value stream level become challenges (again in Toyota Kata terms) for the respective process owners.
Now the conversations move to the right level. Rather than asking for the status of action items for the “lead time reduction initiative,” the line leaders are discussing progress toward getting the changeover in stamping down to 17 minutes, and the cycle times in the weld cell under the takt time.
In my working example above, the first target condition was to have Jim simply pull the next order from a FIFO queue in a series of slots on the wall. The customer service reps had to meet every morning and could reshuffle the orders in those slots all they wanted, but Jim’s job was just to take the next one. That pushed the initial conversation to the one they had been avoiding: The customer service team talking among themselves, rather than making Jim the arbitrator.
There was a lot of other work as well. They established a rigid FIFO with a fixed WIP level of staged orders. Instead of pushing days of work into that queue, there was a buffer of about an hour (to absorb variation in processing times between various jobs).
At the same time, the team running machines now understood the rate of processing that was required to keep up with the volume of work. That had been totally hidden by the queues before. All they knew is that they were behind. Now the conversation shifted to “Are we going fast enough?” It shifted from discussions about backlog (which really are not productive) to discussions about rate of processing which is the only thing that affects the backlog.
Getting all of this dialed in and stable took a few weeks of daily conversations between the Operations Director and the various managers and supervisors whose work impacted the flow. It involved walking the floor, putting in visual indicators that clearly defined what should be happening – the target condition – and they discussed reasons things looked different: The actual condition now, and what obstacles were being surfaced as they worked to reduce the WIP buffers.
The net result?
Learning is Critical
The current performance is an outcome of the current system. People do their best within the system they have to work within, and we have to assume the system reflects management’s understanding of how things should operate to get the best results.
Even if someone knows a better way, that knowledge is wasted unless it is applied to the overall system of operating – the way we do things.
You would never say “The freezer is cold enough, we can unplug it now.” You have to keep putting energy into the system just to keep the temperature where it is. Tightly performing production systems are no different. Over the course of the next year or so past due hours slowly crept back up for unknown reasons. Why? Because they didn’t talk about it every day.
*When a shop is behind, the management reflexes are (1) increasing batch sizes and (2) expediting. There really aren’t any better ways to make the throughout and response times worse.
Although Learning to See (the book) describes building your value stream map on A3 / 11×17 paper, most of the maps I have seen have been large affairs on a wall.
I like this approach because it shifts people into the position of standing side-by-side talking about what is in front of them, which fosters collaboration.
The question in the title, though, is more about whose wall is it? Who sees this every day, who is standing and talking about the current state, the future state, and steps to close the gap between them?
I usually see these in the Continuous Improvement team’s workspace. That was certainly the case for the one in the photo. Sometimes they would bring management into that room to discuss progress, but all too often that became a report-out to the managers.
And right there we have an interesting situation: The Continuous Improvement Director and his team have a much deeper understanding of what was going on than the people in charge.
This was partly because it was the Continuous Improvement team members who made these maps in the first place. And they were the ones tracking the metrics, including quality, productivity. They were the ones identifying the problems, and they were the ones working to solve the problems.
And they were the ones complaining when things eroded because management “wasn’t supporting the changes.”
As a Continuous Improvement team (and if you are reading this, that is likely you), your ultimate goal is to enable the line leaders by engaging through them rather than engaging for them.
You likely have to get there step-by-step, with successive target conditions, but it is the level of engagement of those leaders, and their growing competency in doing so that you and your C.I. team should be tracking on your walls.
Andrea brought up an interesting point in our weekly open Toyota Kata discussion. She noted that as the coaching conversation became more and more fluid, it tended to become more like a report-out from the learner than coaching them. That got me thinking about a couple of things.
Something I think I have talked about in the past is the technique of using the Improvement Kata structure to report out. In other words, report out progress (like in a meeting, for example) as though you were answering a version of the Coaching Questions even though they aren’t being asked.
Review what we are are trying to accomplish.
Where we are now.
The last step taken, what happened, what has been learned.
The next step being taken, what we expect (or expect to learn)
My hypothesis here is that people would like hearing a report in that format, and the boss might well start asking others to do the same thing.
Maintaining the Coaching Structure
Of course I don’t think this is what Andrea was talking about. It was the opposite. The learner is so familiar with the structure, and well prepared, so the coaching questions seem moot.
So what is a coach to do?
Here is my question:
Are You Challenging Your Learner?
When you are getting a report-out with little room for coaching this is actually a good thing. It means that your learner has developed and what may have been challenging in the past is now more or less routine.
Keep in mind that your learner has two thresholds of knowledge. One is around the actual process or task they are taking on. That is what is actually being discussed in the coaching conversation.
The other threshold of knowledge is around learning to tackle tough challenges with the scientific thought structure.
With beginner learners, both of these knowledge thresholds are pretty apparent. As a coach you are working to develop their thinking patterns, to make that scientific thought structure habitual. You do that by giving them challenges that take them a bit beyond their threshold of knowledge, and then coach them to apply scientific thought to take on that challenge.
As they get better, they will apply scientific thought to any problem they take on. Congratulations, Coach, it worked. You can tell this is happening when the conversation starts to sound like a report-out. What once was a tough problem is now handled routinely.
OK, Coach, Time to step up your game.
What challenge can you issue that would have your learner struggle a bit with grasping the current condition? Establishing a target condition? Figuring out what the obstacles are and isolating them? Developing good experiments?
In other words, how to you push your learner a bit beyond their threshold of knowledge of tackling challenges scientifically? Then you are back into the learning zone and both of you are operating at the next level.
Once again I am going through old files. These are some notes I wrote back in 2005 that I thought might be interesting here. Looking back at what I was writing at the time, I think I was thinking about nailing these points to a church door somewhere in the company. That actually isn’t a bad analogy as I was advocating a pretty dramatic shift in the role of the kaizen workshop leaders.
This was written four years before I first encountered Toyota Kata, and reflected my experience as a lean director operating within a $2billion slice of a global manufacturing company. What reading Toyota Kata did for me was (1) solidify what I wrote below, and (2) provided a structure for actually doing it.
Perhaps this will create some discussion. If you are interested in getting a Zoom session together around it, feel free to hit the Contact Mark in the right sidebar (or just click it here) and drop me a note. If there is interest, I’ll put something together.
Kaizen events (or whatever we want to call the traditional week-long activity):
Can be a useful tool when used in the context of an overall plan.
Are neither necessary nor sufficient to implement [our operating system].1
There are times when any specific tool is appropriate, and there are no universal tools. Kaizen tools included.
(Our operating system) is, by our own model, the “Operational Excellence” pillar of (our business system). This is keyed in leadership behavior, not implementation of tools. The tools serve only to provide context for leaders to rapidly see what is happening and the means to immediately respond to problems.
Thus, focusing on implementing the tools of TPS (takt time, flow, pull, etc) outside of the immediate response and problem solving context is an exercise which expends energy and gains very little sustainable change. This is independent of whether it is done in a week-long intense event or not.
However, in my experience, organizations which take a deliberate and steady approach implementing have had more success putting the sustaining mechanisms into place. While it is sometimes necessary to bring teams together for a few days at times to solve a specific problem, or to develop a radically different approach, these efforts tend to be more focused than a typical kaizen week I see.
When the kaizen week is scheduled first, and then the organization looks for what needs improving, this is a symptom of ineffective use of the tool.
In general, a kaizen, whether it is a week, a month, or even just a few minutes, must be focused on solving specific problems which are impeding flow or are barriers2 to the next level of performance. Without this focus, there is no association with the necessities of the business, and no context for the gains.
There are a few simple countermeasures which can be applied to a kaizen week activity that focus the participants much more tightly on learning the critical thinking.
Improvement can, and must, take many forms. A week-long kaizen activity is but one. It is expensive, time consuming, disruptive, and should be used deliberately only when simpler approaches have failed to solve the problem.
Classes and Courses ≠ Teaching and Learning
Bluntly, even though we preach PDCA and say we understand it, we are not applying PDCA in our education approach.
Some fundamental tenets:
All of our teaching should be contextual and focused on what skill or knowledge is required to clear the next barrier to flow or performance.
The above does not rule out teaching fundamental theory, but fundamental theory must be immediately translated into actions and put into practice or it will never be more than a nice discussion.
The vast majority of our teaching should be experiential, and based in real-world situations, solving actual problems vs. examples and contrived exercises.
We want to move our teaching toward an ideal state (a True North in our approach) where it is:
Socratic – focusing people on the key questions.
Experiential – learn by application to solve real problems and thus gain experience and confidence that the concepts translate to the real world.
Thus, education and training is but one tool used by leadership to help people clear the barriers and problems that block progress toward higher levels of performance.
As far as I can determine, the “Toyota Way” of teaching is similar to this model.
The content of training is as critical as the way it is delivered.
Our objective is to shift people’s thinking, and in doing so, shift their day-to-day behavior as they make operational decisions. The target audience for all of our efforts are the people who make decisions which impact our direction and performance. This is anyone in any position of leadership, at any level of the company – from a Team Leader on the shop floor to the CEO.
The key is to embed the structure of applying PDCA into all of our content. For example:
Every tool, technique, etc. we teach, or should teach, is some application of the above. (The rules-in-use include problem detection, response, and problem solving.) I have yet to encounter an improvement tool or technique that does not fit this model.
This approach fundamentally re-frames the concept of “problem” and what should be done about it.
The Toyota Production System (in its pure state) is a process which delivers a continuous stream of problems to be solved to the only component of the system that can think – the people. This is how people are engaged, and this is what makes it a “people based system.” Leave this out, and “people based system” is just hollow words. Nearly every discussion talks about how important people are, but then dives right into technical topics without covering how people are actually engaged — outside the context of a week-long kaizen.
The Role of “Workshop Leaders” in the (Continuous Improvement Office)
No one has disputed the critical make-or-break role played by the line leadership, not only in implementation, but even more so in sustaining.
Workshop leaders are generally taught to plan and lead workshops. The emphasis is on the week-long workshop logistics; on presenting modules in classroom instruction; and on the skills to facilitate a team through the process of making rather dramatic shop floor improvements.
In a typical (not saying it happens here) implementation scenario, it is the workshop leaders who go to the work area, do the observations (usually without a lot of skilled mentoring, and usually just to collect cycle times); build the balance charts and combination sheets; plan what will be changed; how it will be changed, set objectives, targets and boundaries.
They are the most visible leadership of the teams during the week, and they are the ones tracking and pushing follow-up and completion of open kaizen newspaper items.
The effect of this (which is fairly consistent across companies) is:
The standard work tools are something workshop leaders use during improvement events.
Cycle times, observations, and looking for improvement opportunities is something that is the domain of the workshop leaders.
Actually guiding the team members through the problem solving process is the job of the workshop leaders.
The supervisors and managers are there as team members, in order to learn by participation, from this outside expert.
The question is: Who is responsible to coach the line leaders through the process of handling the problems that the TPS is designed to surface in operation?
Once the basic flows are in place, there will be a stream of problems revealed. Those problems will either be seen or not seen. IF problems are seen, they will either be dealt with quickly, following good thinking, or they will be accommodated so they go back to being unseen. This is a critical crossroad for the organization…. and it is the behavior of the first and second line leaders, and the support they get from their leaders, that most influences whether the system backslides or continues to get better and better.
Note: There is not middle ground. One-piece-flow really can’t sustain in a stable state. It is either improving or getting worse. It isn’t designed to stay still, and it won’t. Continuous intervention is required for stability, and that intervention is what improves it.
Who is teaching the leaders to do this?
Each leader must have a coach, by name, who can, and will, always challenge his thinking and his solutions to problems against a specific thinking structure.
My view is this is the primary role for the Kaizen Promotion Office.
The way to do this is through application of a few core skills, and skills can be taught.
Include this vital role into the expectations of a “workshop leader” – to take them closer to being “coordinators” in the Toyota factory start-up model.
Provide these “coordinators” with a specific support process so they know that they can quickly get assistance if they feel they are in over their heads.
The role of that assistance is not to step in and solve the problem. It is to take the opportunity to teach both the workshop leader and the area manager by guiding them through solving the problem.
My experience with this concept is that teaching these skills to someone is not as difficult as most people assume. The basics of observing and seeing flows can be taught over a few days to someone who is motivated to learn. The skill of teaching by asking questions can be accelerated from the “pure” method by telling them what is being done in why. “This isn’t about the answers, it is about learning the questions.”
Application and good teaching can easily be verified by checking the leader’s (the student’s) level of skill and behavior. (The senior teacher checks the teacher by checking the student… just as the area supervisor checks the Team Leader’s teaching by verifying the standard work on the shop floor.
None of this is an advanced topic. These are the basics. Once a good context is established in people’s minds, my experience suggests that the Toyota system is no longer counter-intuitive. The tools and techniques that, at first, seem alien now make sense.
1 By this I meant to shift the operating culture to one that inherently supports continuous improvement.
2 In Toyota Kata language, we would say “obstacles.” I had used the term “barriers” up to that point.
When someone brings a problem to a leader, it is typical for the leader to begin asking questions. The intent of those questions can make a world of difference.
In what I would contend is the more typical case, the questions are diagnostic. The leader’s intent is to get more information so that he can then propose or direct a solution. I can certainly speak for myself that when I have knowledge in the domain it is really easy to just drop into this mode. Someone is asking for advice, and I naturally reflex to giving it.
Of course there are times when this is wholly appropriate. Think of a physician and a patient or an auto mechanic and a customer. The customer has a problem that they are not capable of fixing and is engaging an expert to fix it for them or at least tell them what they should do.
If the intent is to develop the expertise in people then the questions must be different. This isn’t about finding the answers, it is about teaching the questions. Here the leader is coaching. The questions are about helping the problem-solver find her threshold of knowledge and the next step to learn more.
In other words, rather than asking the diagnostic questions yourself (as the leader), it is about helping the learner determine what diagnostic questions she should be asking herself, and then going about finding the answers.
This is Harder and Takes Longer
In the short term, it is always easier to just give them the answers. We are all hard-wired to seek out affirmations of our competence. Equally, we are hard-wired to avoid situations that might call our competence into question. It is uncomfortable to be expected to know something we do not. This is part of being human. I would contend it is especially hard to resist showing what I know when I actually DO know (or think I do – though often I know a lot less than I assume).
It can also be frustrating for the learner, especially if they are used to just being told the answers. “Just tell me what to do” is a response that should clue you in to this frustration.
But if your intent is to develop the organization, you have to work a little harder.
Let’s Go See – and learn together
Even if I am asking diagnostic questions, I am likely to get to a point where I start hearing speculative answers or even a hard “I don’t know.” This is a great opportunity to shift gears from diagnostic to coaching with “Let’s go see so we can both understand what is going on.”
Now you can work together to help someone get deeper understanding of the current condition and the nature of the obstacles and problems being encountered. It is also a good opportunity to ask them to document what they are seeing in ways that help them explain it better.
This can take the form of a Toyota Kata storyboard, or an A3, or whatever other structure you are trying to teach and use for problem solving and improvement.
If done well, you will turn “What should I do?” into a learning and growth opportunity for everyone.
Whether you are a line leader or an internal or external consultant, if you are reading this you are likely working to shift the culture of your organization.
The technical “tools” alone are pretty useless unless you are already operating in the kind of culture that embeds the mechanisms of learning and collaboration deep into the structure of day-to-day work. If that kind of culture isn’t present, the “lean tools” will reveal those issues just as quickly (more quickly, in fact) as they reveal shortages, work balance mismatches and quality problems.
Making these kinds of changes is a lot harder than teaching people about how the “lean tools” work, and a lot of change agents are frustrated by the perception that the changes are not sustaining or being supported.
Back in February 2019 I gave a talk at KataCon5 in Savannah on some of the challenges change agents face when trying to influence how people respond to challenges and interact with one another. Here is the direct link in case the embed doesn’t work for you: https://youtu.be/NnvwOF4J3g8
As you watch the video (assuming you are *smile*) give some thought to how well you can paint a picture of how your efforts are influencing the patterns of interaction within the organization. Do you have something in mind for what you are trying to achieve there? What patterns are you actually observing?
And what is your role in those dynamics? How do you influence the patterns of who talks to whom, how, when, and about what? Are you acting as an intermediator between groups that don’t communicate or who are antagonistic toward one another? If so, what would happen if you stopped?
What happens when a production team member, or a nurse doing rounds on the med-surg floor, or your front-line customer service agent encounters something that is different than it should be? What is the threshold of starting action?
All of these things are cultural norms. And the “lean tools” all impact those norms in ways that people often are not prepared for.
None of these questions are on a checklist. Rather, they are the kinds of things to think about.
The people at Kaas Tailored in Mukilteo, Washington are friends, neighbors, and colleagues of mine. They have been a tour stop for people from all over the planet who want to learn more about their people-centric culture of continuous improvement.
Last year when the tsunami of COVID washed over all of us, their business faced an existential threat and they made a dramatic pivot to making medical PPE – masks and face shields. Their main motivation was “This is what our community needs right now.” In fact, you might have seen a bit of their story as part of the PBS Frontline Coronavirus Pandemic episode.
Dramatic change reveals obstacles that may have been buried under the Old Normal, and this was certainly the case for Jeff Kaas and his team. The awesome part is that they doubled down on their effort to learn and practice Toyota Kata as a response. They needed better organizational alignment, tying their organization’s philosophy and direction down to their day-to-day processes, and they used Toyota Kata to do that. I think they are emerging as a stronger organization as a result.
I mentioned in the opening that they have been a tour stop for many years. To further that end, they have worked hard to make that experience available online. What is cool about it is now it isn’t necessary to travel to Mukilteo, Washington (about 20 miles north of Seattle) to see them. They can come to you.
So when they asked me if I would like to participate with them in a series of online events they will be presenting starting on March 24, 2021 my response was an immediate Yes. To be clear, my role is chiming in with color commentary, and perhaps being a little more in front when they start talking about Toyota Kata.
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Sometimes the situation arises where the learner has been beating her head against an obstacle with little or no luck overcoming it. The question comes up: When is it OK to give up and switch to something else.
The answer is, of course, a little situational. (Consultant speak: It depends…)
The natural progression of the Improvement Kata will provide an opportunity.
As the learner is iterating against obstacles toward the Target Condition the clock is ticking because the Target Condition is always associated with an “achieve by” date. If the Target Condition is achieved OR we hit the “achieve by” date without achieving it, the learner should cycle back to the beginning and:
Verify understand of the direction and challenge. (The learner may well have gotten more clarity along the way.)
Get a complete grasp of the Current Condition. This is important because often while working toward a Target Condition the learner is only updating specific process and performance metrics, and may not be looking for collateral changes elsewhere. This is a time to take a step back, put up the periscope, and get a grasp of the complete picture.
Based on that new Current Condition, establish a new Target Condition, with a new “achieve by” date.
Now… identify the obstacles in the way of achieving that new Target Condition. Ideally they should wipe the obstacle parking lot clean and take a fresh look.
This process often helps clear the learner’s mind and see another way to get there, or see easier obstacles that were overlooked before.
This is also why it is important for the “achieve by” date to be relatively close (a couple of weeks) – because that date is a safety valve that forces a reset of the process if the learner is stuck.
If the learner asks if it is OK to work on a different obstacle, then the coach should become curious about the learner’s rationale.
Specifically, I want to understand why the learner thinks there might be an easier way vs. just saying this one is too hard. This may well require some more information gathering – a mini version of the reset I talked about above.
The key point here is to maintain the learner’s motivation. There is a fine line between struggling to solve a problem and getting frustrated. This might be a good time for the coach to engage in some empathetic questioning.
For example, name the feeling you are picking up to test your hypothesis: “It seems you are really frustrated by this…” Then listen. The learner will likely either agree, “yeah, I am.” or refute and give you more information, “No, I’m just trying to…” Then you might learn more about their threshold of knowledge with the process of problem solving.
That can open up a discussion for why the learner thinks it would be a good idea to try something else. Then use your judgement.
But as a coach, I don’t want to make switching obstacles too easy because there is a high risk of it becoming a whack-a-mole game. Some obstacles actually require digging and perseverance to overcome. Your job, coach, is to keep the learner in the game.
Sometimes, though, the learner gets fixated on a problem and doesn’t see another way. Even in this case, if the time to the “achieve by” date is short, I’d let it ride. But if that isn’t practical…
The coach may well have a broader perspective – in fact, this is part of the coach’s job.
If the learner is making progress on something I (the coach) consider a red herring, I generally let it go. There is always learning involved – so long as the effort doesn’t bog down progress.
Sometimes, though, the learner is getting frustrated and so focused that he just doesn’t see any other way.
This is time for gentle intervention with whatever questions might help the learner pause, step back, and see the bigger picture.
For example, perhaps something like “If this obstacle were cleared, how would the process operate?” This might not be the full target condition. I’m just trying to learn what “solved” looks like to the learner. Maybe just thinking about it will help them see the where they are trying to go and possibly another path to get there.
An interesting follow-up might be, “Hmmm, what’s stopping it from working that way now?”
“What would you need to learn to better understand what is going on?” might be another avenue to get the learner to look at his threshold of knowledge vs. the big ugly obstacle in front of him
It all depends on what you think will help the learner raise her head and take a different look at things.
But in the end, if you have a learner that is truly stuck, and after a few tries isn’t going to get unstuck, then, honestly, it’s time to go shoulder-to-shoulder with them and dig into things together.
What I would work very hard to avoid is direct intervention – “Why don’t you work on…” because this undermines the entire process by giving them the answers and can easily create a “what do you think I should work on?” expectation next time.
In Western business it is pretty typical for someone to be assigned to come up with a proposed solution to a problem, and then seek approval for that solution. In some companies that consider themselves more forward thinking, they might even say something like “bring me an A3.”
As a result I have seen a number of organizations that produce some kind of guideline for “how to fill out and A3.” They teach “problem solving” courses so people can learn to do this properly. I have developed, and delivered, a couple of those back when I was working in internal continuous improvement offices. We had case studies, exercises, all in an effort to teach people to be better problem solvers.
Similarly, a (very) long time ago, I recall an exchange on an online “lean” forum where someone had asked about Toyota’s “problem solving class.” The thought was that because Toyota has good problem solvers, that their course must be really good.
My response was that I have a copy of Toyota teaching materials for a problem solving course. It is good, but nothing magical. Because that isn’t how Toyota develops good problem solvers.
They do it with coaching.
What makes the “A3” process work isn’t the A3, or even the structure. It isn’t the instructions, guidelines, or the quality of the problem solving classes.
It is the almost continuous interaction between the problem solver and the coach.
The problem solver’s thinking is challenged. “What evidence do you have?” “Have you tested that assumption?” “How is that happening?” “Why do you think that is the problem?” “What are you planning for your next step?” “What do you expect to learn?”
And it is the coach’s stubborn refusal to give the problem solver the answer. Rather, they insist on following the rigor of the problem solving process using scientific thinking.*
The process is an application of the principle of “Challenge” followed by support to enable the problem solver / learner to meet the challenge. They have to bring perseverance to to the table, but the coach is there to make sure they actually learn to be better problem solvers in the process.
Likely (if you are reading this) you already know that. We knew that when we worked so hard to make those A3 guidelines and problem solving courses. But we did those things anyway.
Why? Because it is easier to develop and deliver those general class materials than it is to develop managers into coaches and leaders.
But the fact remains:
If you want to develop better problem solvers, what you need are better coaches.
The implications here are really profound for most organizations.
If you assign someone to solve a problem, to “do an A3” (or whatever structure you use), you are obligating yourself to coach them through the process.
This is far more than getting status updates. And it is far more work. Because you are teaching, not just supervising. If they fail, it’s on you, not them. “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”
In Toyota Kata world we have reduced those questions down to the critical few in the Coaching Kata. That, of course, is a start. Your job as a leader is to practice until the flow of the logic is second nature to you, until you can go beyond the script. Until your first-nature, reflexive response to anyone proposing to do something is “What problem are you trying to solve?” or “What are you trying to learn?” and then carefully listening to their logic and pushing them to the edge of their ability with the next step.
When you can take your own coaching training wheels off, you can then (and only then) ask someone else to ride a bicycle for you, because you will know how to teach them to ride – and that involves more than sending them to a PowerPoint lecture on “Riding a Bicycle.”
“Because knowledge is not understanding” – Destin Sandlin.
*Some years ago I worked briefly with a manager who had been one of the key players in Toyota’s initial startup of their plant in Kentucky (TMMK). He told me an interesting story. In the beginning, he noted, the U.S. managers would go to their coordinators (Japanese Toyota senior leaders there to advise the new team) and ask for advice.
Then one week all of the U.S. team went through the problem solving / A3 course. The following Monday, he went to his coordinator with a question, and the response was “Doug-san, where is your A3?” After that day, the coordinators would not engage unless there was an A3 that outlined, in writing, what the manager already understood about the problem, what he was seeking to learn, and how he proposed to go about learning it.
Think about that story vs. sending people to “problem solving class” or even a “Toyota Kata” class. When they return, do you insist that they apply what they have learned whenever it is appropriate from that day forward? If you don’t then you are wasting their time and your money sending them to that class. They will never develop the skill without practice, and it is always easier not to practice something we are not comfortable doing.