Sunday, January 25, 2015

Driving Learning & Improvement

“Experience by itself teaches nothing... Without theory, experience has no meaning. Without theory, one has no questions to ask. Hence, without theory, there is no learning.” – W. Edwards Deming
Is there a place for theory in everyday business?  It is not uncommon to hear complaints about people who are too theoretical and not practical enough to get things done.  For whatever reason, we have come to believe that “doing real work” is what matters and that theory has no place in real work.
Very few people would argue with the idea that learning is critical to the success of a business.  But what is not widely understood is that learning requires theory.  If there is no theory behind an action, there is nothing with which to compare results and drive improvement.  People will either keep doing the same thing or randomly change regardless of the type of results achieve.
The Learning Organization & Standardized Work
In organizations where learning is truly a competitive advantage, people understand that all actions are based on theories that require continual adjustment.  They realize that improvement results from a conscious connection between theory and practice, and that one without the other is meaningless.  They coach people to understand the connections and use even the smallest problems as impetuses to change.
Connecting action to theory is the basis of standardized work.  Inherent in standardized work is the theory is that performing work in the manner described will produce desirable results.  When a problem occurs in practice, the standard – or the theory – needs to be changed.
We’ve all dealt with people who continue to do something the same way even though it doesn’t seem to work.  One has to wonder whether this results from a lack of willingness to change or a lack of understanding of the theory behind actions.  This is much more understandable if the organization’s leaders don’t value theory.  And the situation won’t change until the leaders realize that, without consciously understanding the theory behind their actions, they will have little success in driving continual improvement across the organization.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Kaizen for Leaders

One of the most common roadblocks to the successful adoption of lean thinking is the mistaken idea that kaizen applies only to the shop floor.  Some leaders unfortunately consider kaizen as something to be delegated rather than used at all levels to drive improvement.  Unless leaders become actively involved in learning and doing kaizen, however, the level of transformation required to achieve the big gains with lean will never happen.
Kaizen at the Leadership Level
One reason leaders need to use kaizen is to improve the company’s high-level systems, including business planning, hiring, and leadership development.  W. Edwards Deming estimated that more than 90% of an organization’s problems are the result of the system; and improving the system is not something that can be delegated.  Applying a kaizen mindset, based on the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle, is the key to unlocking the 90% and achieving the type of improvement expected from the transformation.
A far less understood – but just as important – benefit of leadership involvement in kaizen is to coach and develop the problem-solving skills of team members.  Success cannot be sustained without developing an army of problem solvers throughout the organization, and limiting problem-solving to a select few experts, as is often the case with initiatives like 6-sigma, prevents creating a culture where everybody improves the work they do every day.
Developing problem-solving skills across the organization starts at the top and cascades downward through coaching and developing the abilities of leaders and team members at all levels.  Leaders need to take responsibility for creating a continual improvement culture by modeling a kaizen mindset and coaching the ability of others – including future leaders – to do the same.
Strategic Initiatives and Kaizen
One thing that is not often understood is that a strategic initiative is really a large-scale kaizen.  The objective of a high-level initiative should identify a business gap that needs to be closed, and that the plan is a hypothesis that (1) it can be implemented as defined, and (2) it will result in achieving the objective.  Regular reviews to measure progress and adjust as needed constitute the STUDY and ACT phases of the PDSA cycle.  For these reasons, approaching an initiative as kaizen greatly increases the probability of success.
Rather than an executive driving the initiative, however, it is best to assign it to someone targeted for development as a future leader.  Facing a tough high-level business problem, along with coaching from a current leader, is an excellent way to develop long-term abilities in problem-solving, coaching, and leadership.
When a leader starts to develop a deep understanding of kaizen, it becomes clear that the process applies to all aspects of work.  Until the transformation occurs however, kaizen – like virtually all aspects of lean thinking – will be seen as something that can be delegated.  As a result, frustration and disappointment with lean grows until the effort is abandoned altogether.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Does Anyone Really Care About Developing Leaders?

"What is at the heart of transformation? It is the release of the power of intrinsic motivation. How? By creating joy, pride, happiness in work; joy and pride in learning . . . Create leaders with attributes that work to help their people, who know how the work of the group fits in to the aims of the company.- W. Edwards Deming
How serious are you about developing leaders? Virtually all companies talk about the importance of leadership development, and a Google search of the term will return almost 17 million hits. So businesses obviously take it seriously, right? Well, not really . . .
I’ve dealt with a number of organizations over the years and found that, although most talk about the importance of leadership development, very few actually take it seriously. The usual process is to identify those with potential and send them to a seminar to train them how to be a good leader. From that point, these future leaders may enter a sink or swim program where stretch projects may thrown at them to see if they can survive. And for those who are able to make it into leadership positions, the higher they go, the less time they have for further development. In the end, many organizations let other companies develop their leaders and hire them away when they're ready.
Among the problems caused by an ineffective leadership development system include variation in leadership styles, excessive costs and time associated with recruiting new leaders from outside the organization, demotivated team members who see that leaders are regularly hired from the outside, and sub-optimal business performance.
Those organizations that do a good job of developing leaders are deliberate about developing talent and have a clearly defined process for making people succeed. These companies tend to view leadership as a system rather than a group of individuals focused on managing people and achieving targets however in their own way. This is a critical distinction because approaching leadership as a system naturally drives the organization toward a standardized approach that requires continual improvement in order to assure that the business continually improves.
Some of the elements that are generally a part of an effective leadership development system include:
  • Clearly Defined Competencies: Understanding the DNA of the organization’s leaders is critical to assuring that you are selecting the right candidates and developing in the right areas. Besides selecting the wrong people to develop, failing to clearly understand the expected competencies of the organization’s leaders can result in a wide variety of leadership approaches across the company that confuses the organization and demoralizes people.
  • Standardized Approach: Creating a standardized approach for identifying and developing leaders assures consistency in results and provides a basis with which to improve. As with any process, knowing what you expect and comparing to results identifies the gaps that need to be addressed to move closer to the desired state. A problem with a particular leader should be looked at as a problem of the system for development. The individual may need action to deal with the immediate issue but the system needs to be looked at to determine why the problem occurred and how it can be prevented in the future. Standardizing the development process also clarifies expectations of existing and future leaders.
  • Everyone has a Coach: Although assigning challenging projects focused on development is an important part of the process, the results can backfire when they aren’t combined with effective and ongoing coaching. The objective of assigning a challenging project is development - not to weed out those who can’t cut it; and without coaching, there is little chance that any real development will occur. Also, since everyone develops bad habits now and then, senior leaders need coaching to assure problems are identified and corrected quickly.
  • Leaders Continually Develop: Leadership development does not end when a person moves into a leadership position. If the organization is to continually improve, its leaders need to continually develop their own abilities. There is no such thing as the perfect leader and, although it is something everyone in a leadership position should strive to become, it won’t happen without continual development. In fact, one of the biggest problems with western leaders is, the higher one moves up the ladder, the less personal development that tends to occur.
  • Pipeline of Future Leaders: One of the biggest complaints people have about investing heavily in developing leaders is that, the better the system, the greater the chance they will be recruited by other companies. Although this will undoubtedly happen, the better the system, the more likely you will have a pipeline of potential leaders to fill the gaps. In fact, anytime a leader is hired from the outside, it should be seen as a failure of the system because someone from the inside was not ready to move into the position.
No system is as important to the company’s success as leadership development. Because there is no easy way to measure the system’s performance, though, it is often given little attention and done poorly. All too often, it is assigned to a small team within the HR department and, although supported, lacks the commitment and involvement of the most senior leaders needed to succeed.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Lean Approach to New Year's Resolutions

2015 has arrived, and for many it’s time to start working on the resolutions we’ve made to address personal problems and make life better for the future.  Despite best efforts, though, many of us will end up abandoning our resolutions and try again next year.
I was thinking about how common it is to fail with resolutions and wondered how a lean approach may help the process.  When you think about it, resolutions are about solving problems, so why not approach them with a kaizen mindset and put serious effort this year into being successful.  Who knows . . . we may end up feeling good about ourselves and actually come up with some different resolutions next year.
Develop the Plan
Once you’ve clarified the resolution and understand exactly what it is you want to accomplish, develop the plan to get you there.  If you want to lose weight, how are you going to do it?  Is it through exercise, diet, better quality sleep, or a combination of actions?  A lean mindset would guide you to not take on too much at one time, so it’s important to break down the problem and address the most important areas first.
Rather than get too detailed with the plan for the entire year, though, start with specific actions for the next month or two and keep things more general further into the future.  Also, be aware of becoming obsessed with the plan - the key is to start doing something, so if you find yourself spending too much time making a plan, you’re probably stalling.
Create a Dashboard
Create a simple dashboard to measure progress with your plan and ultimate goal.  If you decide to exercise to lose weight, measure how much you are actually doing it compared to your plan.  Your dashboard should also include a measure of your ultimate objective (e.g., your actual weight) to make sure that your actions lead to success.
As in a business setting, you are trying to be honest with yourself and make your problems visible.  If you are not exercising as planned, for example, or you are but not losing weight, you need to see it so you can do something about it. 
Address Your Problems
Suppose you planned to exercise five times each week but your dashboard shows that you are only doing it 2-3 times.  Rather than relying on trying harder, you need to figure out why you’re not exercising as planned.  Understand what is interfering with exercising regularly and develop countermeasures to correct the root cause of the problem.  If you come to the conclusion that the target was too aggressive, you need to figure out whether less exercise will get you to your objective of losing the desires amount of weight.
A Shift in Thinking
Just as best efforts won’t lead to success in a business, trying harder will not lead to personal success.  Without a method that you continually check and adjust, your chances of success are likely to be fairly small.
I’m not suggesting going overboard with the process and creating A3s and fancy charts to measure your progress.  Approaching a resolution in a simple way with a lean mindset, however can make the effort more interesting and who knows, you may even learn something to take back to the workplace.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Creating a Continuous Improvement Culture Requires More Than Logic

There are very few people in business who would argue with the value of continual improvement.  Whether following the principles of lean or not, leaders regularly talk about the importance of improving processes, products, and services.  Why, then, are some organizations significantly better at driving and sustaining continual improvement than others?
It Takes More than Logic
Establishing a culture of improvement should be as simple as encouraging people to look for better ways of doing work.  This is, after all, one area where common sense should prevail and everybody should be aligned, right?  Well . . . not really.  Appealing to common sense and logic by discussing issues like competitive position, rising costs, or falling revenues will only get you so far in sparking an ongoing improvement effort.  Even establishing programs that reward and recognize people for implementing improvements seldom drives the type of behavior that is needed to sustain the change.
Changing a culture to one where improvement happens on a continual basis requires more than appealing to logic because it tends to run counter to common sense – at least when compared to the way most businesses operate.  There are natural organizational and psychological barriers that interfere with the ability to improve on a continual basis.  One of the most significant barriers is related to the way people think and approach work and, without a concerted effort to shift thinking toward a mindset of continual learning, efforts to improve will likely be fragmented, discontinuous, and difficult to sustain.
shift in thinking means getting everyone – from the CEO to the shop floor – to approach everything they do in terms of scientific method.  Most people know about scientific method but, for a variety of reasons, don’t consider applying it outside of the laboratory.  Creating an improvement-focused culture, however, requires learning; and learning results from continually comparing results to expectations – the basis of scientific method.  The vehicle for this is the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle, and success results from reprogramming people to apply PDSA-thinking in everything they do.
Scientific Method – A Quick Review
As shown in the figure below, scientific method refers to the process of testing an idea – or hypothesis – to determine whether or not it appears to work as intended.  It begins with consciously considering the hypothesis, conducting one or more tests to prove the validity of the hypothesis, studying the results of the test, and accepting, rejecting, or adjusting the hypothesis as a result.  In the end, the cycle drives learning by helping people gain improve their understanding regarding the reasons why a hypothesis is true or not.
Applying the PDSA cycle in a business environment involves consciously understanding that a specific action, decision, process, or standard is intended to achieve a specific outcome.  Testing the hypothesis could be done off-line in a limited area of work, or in the normal course of business, but the key is to always compare outcomes to actions and, as a result, learn what needs to change and why.
Although the concept appears simple, most people don’t generally think or act in terms of the PDSA cycle.  We tend to make a decision or document a process and move on; rarely taking the time to look back and learn whether the results matched expectations.  Often, the only time we do look back and make adjustments is when a problem occurs that is significant enough to warrant attention.  Since we don’t normally think scientifically, however, and we’re not always looking for the gaps, we miss the small issues that prove the hypothesis – the decision, action, or process – is incorrect.  And often, the significant issues start off as small ones that, because we don’t notice or worry about them, grow into big problems.
Reprogramming Thinking
The organizations that are able to successfully change the way people think understand that it cannot happen through occasional coaching or random interactions.  These organizations have, for instance, a new employee orientation and follow-up process that is intensive – especially for leadership positions – and includes much more than showing the new person where the lunchroom is or how to enroll for insurance.  It incorporates a heavy emphasis on developing problem-solving capabilities and adjusting the way the person thinks.  The more pervasive PDSA thinking is throughout the organization, the easier it is to adapt the new person’s mental models because, in addition to formal coaching, learning happens informally through observation and interactions with others.  In those organizations where thinking is not generally guided by scientific method, however, transformation requires a concerted and deliberate effort of coaching and developing key leaders.  In turn, these leaders coach and develop others, eventually changing the organization’s mindset.
The first step is to understand that transformation requires more than desire and support to be successful.  It is a leadership issue that requires commitment, involvement, and an openness to change the way the organization thinks and learns.  Relying solely on logic and common sense to drive the change, on the other hand, will likely result result in little more than frustration, disappointment, and a long wait.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Standardized Work: Avoiding the Complexity Trap

No matter how great the principles behind a manual are, it has no value if it cannot be applied in practice.Taiichi Ohno*

One of the most critical but challenging elements of an organization’s lean transformation effort is the adoption of standardized work.  Often underestimated by those just learning lean, the benefits of standardized work include among others, reducing process and product variability, providing a starting point for investigating problems, helping people identify when a problem is about to occur, and enabling improvements to be sustained. 

Within the oil and gas industry, it is common to face resistance from people recounting images of one of the major players known for creating large, overly complicated instructions that strangle innovation and, in reality, cannot be fully followed - and oil and gas is unfortunately not the only industry where this happens.  There are companies in virtually every industry that complicate documentation to the point of ineffectiveness and crushing the creativity of team workers.  Documents in these companies tend to be long, complex, and rarely change, and as a result, create a false sense of security that the standards are helping achieve consistent, predictable, and inherently safe performance throughout the operation.

How Much is Too Much?

So what is the difference between a lean thinking approach to standard work and one where the documentation is ineffective and stifling?  Both approach standardization with the objective of reducing variation in the way work is done.  Both use standards to assure the most important aspects of the process are followed and work is done safely and with a high level of quality.

To prevent heading down the wrong path when rolling out standardized work, it is important to understand the key differences between the two approaches and what it is that makes one more effective than the other.

Guided by Scientific Method

Although there are numerous differences between a lean and traditional approach to standardization, the most glaring is that work in lean thinking organizations is guided by scientific method or a PDSA (plan-do-study-act) mindset, while traditional organizations are not.  Although a seemingly simple difference, the effect on standardization, as well as other aspects of the business, can be dramatic.

In both types of organizations, standardized work is the best current practice known at the time it was developed and is expected to be followed as written.  Organizations guided by PDSA thinking, however, consciously accept the notion that following the practice to consistently producing safe, efficient, and high quality work is a hypothesis - and people are always looking for the hypothesis to fail.  Whenever a defect, delay, or incident occurs, it is understood that the hypothesis has failed and that a quick adjustment - or improvement - is necessary to prevent a similar failure from occurring in the future.  The resulting change to the process becomes a new hypothesis that it will operate as expected and, when it fails, will drive further action.

Traditional organizations do not approach standards in this manner because it is not normal behavior for people to be looking for something they created to fail.  A significant amount of time would be spent creating the perfect document that includes enough detail to accurately describe the prescribed process.  When the instruction is released, the work would be considered "done" and the person would move on to his or her next project.  The document would only be revised when a big problem occurs that identifies a glaring weakness needing attention.  And since people are not specifically looking for the practice to fail, the small issues would be ignored.  As a result, continual improvement of the process does not occur and variability between operators in the way work is actually done grows.

A Shift in Thinking

Keeping instructions short, visual, and easy-to-follow requires more than just telling people to do so.  It requires a far more significant shift in thinking than many people realize or are ready to accept.  When standardized work is approached standardized work as part of a continual experiment toward creating the perfect process, it will become seen as far more than just a way to convey information.  It will become seen as the anchor to learning and effective problem-solving, and a critical element to the company’s overall success.

Copyright © 2014 Gregg Stocker

* From The Toyota Mindset: The Ten Commandments of Taiichi Ohno by Yoshihito Wakamatsu (Enna Products Limited, Bellingham, WA, 2009)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Making Learning a Habit

The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be only sustainable competitive advantage.” – Arie de Geus 

Ever since the The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization was published back in 1990, business leaders have talked about the need to transform their companies into learning organizations.  And although the concept of organizational learning and its connection to competitive success is logical, there seems to be significant differences in what people think the term learning organization means.  As a result, in the 25 years since Peter Senge wrote the bookit seems that very few companies have successfully implemented the concept and truly become learning organizations. 

Learning and Performance 

The first point to clarify about organizational learning is that knowledge means nothing if it doesn’t eventually result in improving performance in some way.  The value of knowledge is in the ability to use it to improve qualitycost, safety, revenues, or some other aspect important to the organization’s success.  It should be noted that the value of knowledge could also be indirect - e.g., by coaching others to improve performance. 

Secondly, it's important to understand that there is a difference between individual and organizational learning.  Although there is obviously a relationship between the two, competitive success will occur on a much more consistent basis when people improve their ability to learn as a teamIf we think of success as resulting from a continual cycle of learning and applying, the faster an organization is able to move around the cycle, the more success it is likely to achieve. 

Making Learning a Habit 

Creating a learning organization requires establishing the culture, methods, and systems that support learning and make it become a part of the work people do every day.  Leaders can talk about the importance of learning, but without a method that institutionalizes it in some way, it will never become a part of the organization's DNA.  Besides enabling is to occur on a consistent basis, effectively standardizing an approach can make learning an expectation of everyone in the organization. 

This is where many people fail to understand the significance of the PLAN-DO-STUDY-ACT (PDSA) cycle.  Often thought of as only a tool to address problems, the PDSA cycle is a method to drive individual and organizational learning. 

Based on scientific method, the PDSA cycle drives learning through conscious understanding that every action is  based on a hypothesis that a specific outcome will occur and, when the outcome does not occur as expected, the hypothesis needs adjustment.  It is in the failure and subsequent adjustment of the hypothesis where learning occurs. 

As an example, the current design of a process is a hypothesis that it will enable work to be consistently produced in the right quantity and at the right quality and cost when needed.  Whenever this doesn't occur - e.g., defect, delay, cost overrun, etc. - the hypothesis is proven wrong and something about the process needs to improve.  Team learning occurs through the understanding of the root cause(s) of the problem, and in experimenting with countermeasures to address them.   

Learning driven by the PDSA cycle can be applied across the organization from the leadership team to the shop floor.  Selecting where and how to set up a new factory, deciding whether or not to enter new markets, or choosing where to focus capital investment in the coming year are all hypotheses that can drive learning.  The key is to consciously understand that the hypothesis, to study outcomes closely to know whether or not results met expectations, and to discover how to close the gap between the two. 

The Classroom is Where the Work Occurs 

For years we've been taught that learning takes place in a classroom where experts convey knowledge to students.  When looking at the value of classroom learning in terms of improving performance and competitiveness, though, it becomes evident that the connection is weak, at best.  And although there are some benefits to conferences, seminars, and in-house training classes, they are not the type of activities that drive team learning. 

Establishing PDSA-thinking throughout the organization is a significant change for most companies, but the results in terms of advancing team learning and improving performance make it well worth the effort.