Saturday, April 8, 2017

Stop Jumping to Countermeasures

One of the challenges in teaching people problem-solving is to get them to follow a formal process based on the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle rather than quickly jumping to countermeasures before fully understanding the problem.  Although it’s fairly easy to spot an A3 that started with a countermeasure and backfilled the other information, it’s generally difficult to get the person who wrote it to understand why this is a problem.
There are times when it’s fairly easy to coach a person or team to follow a PDSA-based problem-solving process. For example, when two or more people on a team have different ideas about the countermeasures, or when I have enough technical knowledge to push back on a proposed solution, convincing people to follow a formal process is a relatively easy task.  In other instances, however, I generally use four basic questions to help people understand the importance of following a formal process based on scientific method to thoroughly understand a problem before jumping to countermeasures.
  1. Are You Ever Wrong?
It is perfectly normal for people to have misconceptions.  Misreading a situation, lacking experience, and impatience are just a few of the reasons people are occasionally incorrect.  The problem with this is that we do not know that we are wrong until after the fact.  Following a standard method for problem-solving greatly reduces the chances of misconception.  Jumping to a countermeasure without truly understanding the causes of the problem may work, but it can also have no effect on the problem or actually make things worse.
  1. Where is the Learning?
There is an old proverb that says, the man who is too big to learn will get no bigger.  Problem-solving is as much – or more – about learning as it is about solving the problem.  Even when the initial instincts of the team were correct and the countermeasure they selected was the one they thought would work from the start, following the scientific method will increase team knowledge and help drive future improvements.
  1. How Are You Developing Others?
Those with experience and knowledge about a process have a responsibility to teach others to help less experienced team members develop.  When an experienced person jumps to a countermeasure without following the process, they miss a valuable coaching opportunity.  Rather than telling the team the answer, using the process to teach others is an effective way of increasing the level of knowledge on the team.
  1. Can You Convince Others to Support Your Idea?
When resources or money is needed to implement a countermeasure, you must be able to prove that the idea will effectively address a problem.  This becomes very difficult without a logical presentation that flows from the problem statement to the proposed countermeasure.  The resulting A3, when done correctly, is a perfect way to get others to care about the problem and buy into the proposed actions without a lot of additional work.
  1. How Will You Share Your Ideas with Others?
A valuable outcome of a problem-solving exercise is that the countermeasures can be shared with other areas facing similar problems.  When sharing only the solution, it is unlikely that others will
Understand enough to apply the countermeasure in another area.  Sharing the problem statement, breakdown, and root cause along with the countermeasure greatly increases the chances that others can understand and use all or a modified version of the plan.
As strange as it may seem, one way to get people to correctly follow a PDSA-based problem-solving process is to convince them to forget much of what they know and approach at least the early steps in the process as if they don’t completely understand the situation.  In the end when you get a team to select a countermeasure that they hadn’t considered beforehand, convincing them to continue to use the process becomes much easier.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

No Systems Thinking in Trump's Plans

It’s inauguration time and a new administration is moving into the White house attempting to fulfill its promise to “make America great again.”  A key to Donald Trump’s platform throughout the election had been the need to drive fast and significant change in government structures and systems.  Some Americans find this approach refreshing.  What I’m seeing, though, is a lack of a systems thinking in the plan, and it concerns me greatly.
The U.S. operates as a system.  Federal departments and agencies, businesses, states, citizens, and even foreign entities act as components of the system that interact and drive results that, although far from perfect, enable the country – and to some extent, the world – to function.  As with any system, there must be a clear and unified purpose to help drive objectives and improvement.  The more complex the system, the more important it is to understand how the system works and how the components interact to assure changes do not end up making things worse.
Making large-scale changes to components of a system without understanding how they interact amounts to tampering, and can quickly lead to chaos.  And what I've seen in the comments, tweets, and appointments in the new administration, this appears to be  exactly what's happening.  Talks of closing borders, eliminating the Affordable Care Act, turning education focus to charter schools, cutting environmental regulations, etc. look more like fragmented actions than steps resulting from a deep understanding of how the system operates and where the real gaps lie.  In lean terms, the Trump team is developing countermeasures to problems without truly understanding the causes.
Some examples that appear to result from a lack an understanding the system include:
Import Tariffs  On the surface, raising import tariffs to increase domestic jobs sounds like a good idea.  The effect this has on U.S. purchasing habits and the American and world economies, however, is complex and not easily understood.  For instance, there are many economists who believe that the Tariff Act of 1930, along with the retaliatory responses of many U.S. trading partners was a significant contributor to the Great Depression due to the negative effect on American exports and imports.  Exports fell because of higher tariffs on American-made goods and, because the prices of imported good increased, people bought less overall.
A second, but difficult to quantify consequence of significant tariff increases is the effect on developing nations that rely on access to the U.S. market to continue growing.  The administration wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to keep people from crossing into the U.S. illegally.  Since many of those coming into the U.S. from Latin America do so for economic reasons, raising tariffs and pressuring manufacturers to scrap foreign factories to build in the U.S. will result in lost jobs and other problems for those countries.  It seems logical then, that this action could actually increase the number of people attempting to cross into the U.S. to escape poverty.  And this does not take into account the fact poor economic conditions tend to increase drug trafficking.
A third, but rarely considered effect of restricting trade with other countries is reduced influence on the working conditions that exist in some countries.  Improvements in labor conditions in many developing countries have resulted from the influence of American companies and trade groups because of the size and power of the U.S. market.  As we reduce imports, we reduce our ability to influence international labor laws.
Scrapping the Affordable Care Act
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been a huge source of political strife since it was enacted in 2010.  Whether you agree or disagree with the effects of the ACA, it is important to understand and recognize that the Act is a component of the healthcare system which, in turn, is a component of the overall American system.
A systems approach to dealing with the problems from the ACA is to improve it – not scrap it and start from scratch.  It includes understanding the problems – i.e., why they are problems and what is causing them – and taking steps to reduce or eliminate them.  Although completely replacing a system may address some of the problems, it is likely to create many others that are not problems with the current system.
Raising import tariffs and scrapping the ACA are just two examples where actions meant to drive improvements can lead to negative consequences if done without a holistic understanding of the system.  As long as I remember, though, American politics has never taken action resulting from a deep understanding the nation as a system.  Fortunately, the changes have rarely been large enough to cause major problems in the American system.  What I’m hearing now about the coming changes, however, I’m very concerned that the damage could be long-term and significant.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Are We Too Obsessed With Competitors?

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark.” - Michelangelo

It is common for businesses to direct a fairly significant level of effort toward understanding the competition.  Collecting information on costs, market share, new products, and a host of other areas often drives business planning and improvement initiatives to keep a company from losing ground to others.

For a number of reasons, though, I believe we go overboard and expend far too much energy worrying about competitors.  Considering the amount of money and time spent on researching the competition, one has to wonder how much better it would be for an organization if this energy were directed toward more important areas of the business.


What I used to accept as a normal business activity, I started to question as I saw little benefit – and sometimes negative effects – from the effort.  Some of the reasons for this include the following:
  • Leaders Don’t Follow
    Looking to competitors to focus your efforts can guarantee that you will always be a follower.  Creating a culture of continuous improvement and innovation are what makes an organization successful – looking to others for ideas does not.  This in addition to the fact that a strategy of following is not highly energizing or motivating for team members.
  • Many Competitors Are Mediocre
    A number of industries are plagued with mediocrity, and focusing on competitors who are mediocre will result in little benefit.  Leading a pack of poor or mediocre companies is not something with which to be proud.
  • You’re Not in Business for CompetitorsFocusing on competitors takes resources away from a company’s most important group of stakeholders – its customers.  Companies like Marriott, Apple, Google, and Toyota have shown repeatedly that focusing on customers generates far greater returns than focusing on competitors.  A company exists to serve one or more needs, and success comes from focusing on those who have the need.
  • It Puts Blinders on ImprovementBringing performance to continually higher levels cannot happen by looking at what others are doing.  Looking at the performance of industry leaders can limit what people think is possible.  Targets are set at what others have done rather than at true breakthrough levels.  As a result, “safe” targets are set and creativity is crushed.


Many years ago, I worked for an instrument manufacturer in a highly competitive industry that, because of lagging sales, decided to redesign its flagship product.  What was once the most accurate instrument of its type had fallen behind other producers, and we wanted to regain the lead.

It was a fairly significant effort, but we succeeded in improving the accuracy enough to once again be the best.  After announcing the new product, we even became concerned after hearing rumors that a competitor had initiated a redesign of its own product to provide an even higher level of accuracy. 

Although we were proud of our accomplishment, sales were disappointing.  As part of an effort to address the sluggish sales levels, we began to visit our customers.  Our product was used by customers to calibrate their products during production.  We quickly found out that, rather than increased accuracy, what they really wanted was the ability to perform quick changeovers from one product to another within their own process.  In contrast, in order to provide higher accuracy, our product required longer stabilization times, meaning that it provided the exact opposite of what our customers really wanted.  We wasted a significant amount of time worrying about what our competitors were doing when we should have been worrying about what our customers were doing.


When suggesting that a company should stop worrying about competitors, I am often met with blank stares or comments that I don’t understand the business.  Like anything, though, the effort put into studying competitors should be questioned as to the value it provides.  People should be clear about the results they expect from the process and follow up with understanding what was actually achieved.  If results were not as expected, something related to the effort needs change or the effort needs to be stopped completely.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Improving Dashboards With The 3-Meter Rule

Dashboards are critical for a successful continual improvement effort.  Effective dashboards can drive better coaching, faster team meetings, and more effective problem-solving.  A common problem that interferes with the effectiveness of dashboards, however, is the inclusion of charts that attempt to convey too much information and are difficult to understand.  One way to prevent this problem is to make sure that all charts on a dashboard comply with the 3-meter rule.

Simply stated, the 3-meter rule means that a chart should clearly convey its message from a distance of 3 meters.  When looking at a chart, if you need to move close or ask for explanations to understand the information displayed, you can assume that the chart is in need of improvement. 

Dashboards should drive conversations around closing gaps between current and targeted performance.  To make sure the conversations are focused and effective, however, they should be centered around data. When the problem or breakdown is not clear, people will spend time attempting to understand the intention of the chart rather than addressing the problems shown by the data.

Besides helping focus the discussion on problem-solving, a chart that meets the 3-meter rule enables more people to be involved in the conversation.  The closer someone needs to be to understand a chart, the fewer people who are able to see the information and participate in addressing the problem.  Minds wander and separate discussions begin to happen, which negatively impacts the effort.

Creating charts that are easy to understand from a distance of 3 meters sometimes requires significant reflection and effort, but the investing time upfront can greatly aid the improvement process by making objectives clear and the problems that interfere with meeting the objectives visible.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Identifying Proper Leading Metrics

One of the areas of lean that people tend to have difficulty grasping is the relationship between leading and lagging metrics, and how to identify effective leading metrics. People spend a lot of time attempting to determine leading indicators that, in the end, are often disconnected with any of the actions being taken to improve performance. 

Leading and lagging metrics both have a role to play in improving performance and are not difficult to identify once you understand the process and how to properly connect them to the problem-solving.


A lagging metric measures the result of a process. Barrels of oil produced, total recordable incident rate (TRIR), warranty expenses, and production costs are all examples of lagging indicators because the activities they measure have already occurred. The result lags the activity being measured and, whether you are happy with the result or not, you can't do anything to change it. 

Lagging indicators are important because they tend to represent what's important to the area being measured. They measure a result we are ultimately trying to achieve and help us determine if our efforts were successful in meeting targets.

Other examples of lagging metrics include on-time delivery, actual capital expenditures, defect rate, and customer satisfaction. Identifying them requires a clear understanding of what the business or team is ultimately trying to achieve. 


A leading metric is a measure of an activity that influences a lagging metric.  As a measure of an activity being performed by a team, leading metrics can be influenced by the team in an effort to improve the results of a lagging metric. 

As an example, suppose a team is trying to improve safety performance as measured by TRIR and, through a breakdown of past incidents, discovers that hand injuries represent the largest category.  After breaking down the problem, the team determines that incorrect use of tools is the most likely cause and failing to wear gloves is increasing the severity of the injuries.  As a way to reduce the number and severity of hand injuries, the team introduces regular training sessions and an audit process to help assure team members are using proper tools and gloves.

The team can now create a dashboard that measures like TRIR (lagging metric), injury type (lagging breakdown), hand injuries (lagging metric), training classes held (leading metric) and audit results (leading metric).  By following these leading metrics, the team is assuring that the activities to improve safety are happening and that they are truly reducing hand injuries. 

In the above example, the effort of identifying the leading metrics did not consist of an isolated brainstorming session attempting to identify a specific metric to follow.  It was integrated with the problem-solving process and became nothing more than identifying a measure of the actions taken to eliminate a root cause of the problem.


The problems people have related to identifying leading metrics often result from failing to connect the effort to problem-solving.  Attempting to determine the proper leading metrics in isolation from problem-solving often leads to frustration and wasted effort in creating and maintaining the measures, and a lack of clarity in understanding how to improve performance of lagging metrics.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lean Requires Deliberate Action

It has been decades since we first learned about the Toyota Production System and how it contributes to the company’s quality, productivity, and competitive success.  And although some companies have done very well with lean, most have struggled.  There are many reasons for failed applications of lean, but one that gets very little attention is the notion that lean thinking has no room for generalizations when it comes to performance improvement.  Objectives must be clear and deliberate, and include appropriate plans and measures to assure success.
While vision statements are sometimes directional and somewhat general, turning them into action requires clarity around expectations, including short- and long-range objectives in order to make them a reality.  In fact, one of the problems related to visions is that many lack sincerity and do not progress beyond the development of creative slogans and posters.  Within a lean thinking environment, a vision is a serious and deliberate commitment of what the organization expects to be in the future.
I once worked for an organization that determined its vision to be Clearly the Best!  This could be thought of as a general, feel-good slogan if it did not progress beyond creating the statement, but the leadership team that developed the vision spent the time to create a common understanding of what it will mean to be the best.  They rolled it out to the organization with a picture of where they needed to be ten years out, and specifically what needed to be achieved within the next 3-5 years, including:
  • A Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) of 0.45
  • A 30% reduction in warranty claims
  • On time delivery to promise date of 99%
  • A 25% improvement in product development cycle time
By aligning the 3-5 year objectives with becoming clearly recognized by customers as the best, the team turned a generalization into deliberate objectives for the future.  Because competitors and customers did not remain static, the team was required to adjust its idea over the years of what it means to be the best, but it was always clear about what it meant at any given point in time.  Achievement of an objective usually meant setting the bar even higher to keep it moving even closer to the vision.  [It should be noted that the company’s mission was very clear which greatly helped the process by providing boundaries for the vision.]
In the above example, by creating specific long-term objectives, the team was able to quantify the milestones that needed to be achieved along the way to becoming the best.  Leaders mobilized the team around these objectives, resulting in plans and dashboards that monitored progress along the way.  Additionally, they provided opportunities for leadership development and coaching that proved invaluable for sustaining the gains.
If the vision is kept alive year-after-year by developing associated long-term objectives, it becomes much easier to assure that actions – from annual plans to daily problem-solving – are aligned and focused on continually closing the gaps between the present and the future.
Consider the following vision statements:
  • To be recognized as a trusted partner by customers, communities, and suppliers in all areas we operate;
  • We will be the leader in researched-based education;
  • To consistently provide products that make life healthy, exciting, and rewarding
 It is easy to see why these statements were created but unless they are associated with long- and short-term objectives, they are not deliberate statements about the future.  Developing the vision is important, but it must constitute a serious commitment and be followed up with deliberate actions and measures to prevent the exercise from becoming futile.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Are We Happy With Mediocrity?

“Nobody gives a hoot about profit.  I mean long-term profit.  We talk about it, but we don’t do anything about it.”W. Edwards Deming

hy do so many companies seem to be happy with mediocre performance? People generally consider the idea of having it all – perfect safety, high quality, short cycle times, low costs – as something that is impossible to achieve.  As a result, the bar is set low and everyone feels good when the low targets are achieved.

So often, it is our experience that interferes with moving to the next level of performance. We don't set aggressive targets because we know they are impossible to achieve and, in the end, we don't want to be disappointed or suffer the consequences of missing a target. As a result, we trudge along with average results and view many problems as inevitable or out of our control. If we're lucky, our competitors operate in the same mode. If not, we fall further and further behind until we are either acquired or forced to close our doors.

Energy Can Be Created and Destroyed

A group-wide acceptance of problems as inevitable is what causes people to lose their energy and inspiration. When one views significant improvement as impossible, intrinsic motivation wanes and extrinsic motivation – e.g., compensation – dominates. And the longer this type of “it happens” mentality continues within a company and the more deeply engrained it becomes in the culture, the more difficult it becomes to change course.

Leaders can stop or prevent mental mediocrity by first realizing that their own behaviors and the systems they created may at the root of the problem. It's not necessarily easy to do, but letting go of some traditional beliefs and methods of management can begin to drive the type of change that can energize improvement efforts and give people the confidence that they can have it all.

To do this first requires that leaders believe that problems are not inevitable and that the company has the ultimate control over its own future. They must fundamentally believe that they can have it all.

Stretching Without Breaking

Leaders have to trust that the people in the organization possess the talent to successfully tackle the difficult problems facing the company. They must often develop this ability, though, by stretching people and encouraging them to accept challenging projects and targets, and coaching them in their efforts to succeed. People won't always be successful in achieving the target (if they are, they're probably not being stretched enough), but the learning and development that occurs with each project is invaluable to tackling future problems and opportunities.

A stretch target refers to a target that is difficult, but not impossible to achieve and, although you can't stretch people all the time, you've got to make sure there is enough tension within the organization to keep people developing and the company's performance improving.

Getting people to accept stretch objectives assumes that they will not be penalized for missing a target. Reward systems need to support development and participation in stretching the organization rather than merely meeting a target. If you encourage people to stretch but continue with a reward system based on meeting targets, nothing will change. People will continue to pursue safe targets and push back on any attempt to stretch. In the end, mediocrity will reign.

More often than not, organizations cause their own problems. The effects of problems caused by the external environment tend to pale in comparison to those created on the inside. Understanding and accepting this, however, often requires a shift in thinking toward the idea that mediocrity is unacceptable and that the organization can, and will, have it all.