Sunday, June 25, 2017

Kaizen & Changing the Way People Think

"If you can't explain it to a six-year-old, you don't understand it yourself.- Albert Einstein

For most people, structured problem-solving is not a natural process.  After years of being rewarded for quick answers and telling people what to do, along with the fact that most of us are overloaded, the ability to approach a problem without a preconceived solution is counter to the way people work.  Many see structured problem-solving as cumbersome and requiring more time than is necessary to address a problem - especially when they think they think they know the answer.

Because of this, coaching is critical to help a person move from jumping to countermeasures to following the process and actually learn about the problem before arriving at answers.  Even using a problem-solving A3 tends to result in filling in the boxes in a way that supports what we already know needs to be done.

Coaching is critical to changing the way people think about and approach problems. The advantage of using a tool like an A3 for this is that the coach can see what the person is thinking as he or she follows the process. An effective coach can review an A3 and, even without a deep understanding of the problem or related processes, ask a series of questions to help the person understand where they went wrong and how to improve the effort.

An A3 should provide a simple and clear overview of the issue, and the story describing how it was addressed. In fact, the simpler and more clear the A3, the better handle the team has on the problem, what caused it, and what to do to address it.


There are a series of questions that can help someone learn to follow the process.  There is much more to problem-solving than following the steps listed on an A3.  The key is to help a person change the way he or she thinks. It's a tall order, but it can be done if the person is open to learning and the coach is experienced and patient (it also helps if the coach is also open to learning).

The questions below, along with a good deal of practice, can help to start the change in thinking that will lead to more effective learning and better problem-solving.

1) Why should I care? 

Right up front, the A3 should objectively demonstrate context for the problem and the benefit(s) of addressing it now.  An excellent way to do this is to connect it to the vision or high-level objectives for the business.  Getting the person to do this will help others agree with the importance of the issue in case support or help is needed to implement a countermeasure, and help to keep the team from straying away from the original objective.

2) Explain the logic? 

The steps in the process are not meant to be done independently; they must connect and build on each other. Going over the A3 backwards is a good way to get the person to see where the logic breaks down. A good check on the logic is to make sure that the units of measure throughout the effort don't conflict. Although it is possible that the units may change as the problem is broken down, there must be a logical relationship between them and, once the selected problem and target are defined (step 3 in the 8-step process), it remains consistent throughout the remainder of the effort.

3) What did you learn? 

A key objective of the structured problem-solving process is to learn. Besides making the problem smaller and easier to attack, the reason for breaking it down is for the team or person to learn something that was not previously known. Looking at data from a variety of perspectives (what happened, who was involved, when did the problem occur, etc.) should lead to discovery about the issue. By asking what the person learned during this step, it becomes easy to see if they began the process with the countermeasure already in mind and backfilled the steps to justify their idea.

4) Why did you move on from one step to another? 

Another question that can help a person learn where they didn't necessarily follow the process is to ask why they moved on from one step to the next. As they broke down the problem, for example, they decided that they had enough information to select the problem to attack and move to the next step. Question where they got the data – or if they used data to effectively prioritize the issues, and why they chose not to break down the data any further. Even if the person made a good decision in moving to the next step, asking why can help him or her realize how important it is to think about it during future problem-solving efforts.  Another benefit of asking why is that it helps the coach learn about the issue and ask good questions going forward.

There are many more common questions associated with coaching problem-solving – like who did you involve in the effort and how did you test the countermeasure? Although these are important, they are more procedural and focused on improving the mechanics of following the process, whereas the above questions help to get the person to change his or her thinking. Fundamentally changing the way people think helps them become coaches and can drive lean thinking in all situations rather than only when working on an A3.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Flattening the Organization - Probably Not the Answer

One of the misconceptions about lean thinking is that it automatically leads to flattening the organization. Many people think that layers of management are always a bad thing and start removing layers as a way to empower employees, speed up decision-making, and improve innovation. While there is no shortage of organizations that suffer from too many layers, it should be noted that flattening does not necessarily lead to improved performance. Many organizations that flattened their structures have experienced little more than burned out managers, frustrated employees, and high turnover.  

Removing layers of management downplays the important role managers play in improving the organization's performance. This includes responsibilities like coaching people to solve problems, developing future leaders, and continually removing barriers to team member performance.  

When an organization removes layers and managers have large numbers of people on their teams, it is not possible to spend the time needed to develop problem-solving or leadership skills of team members. As a result, the managers resort to directing and telling, rather than coaching and teaching, leaving team members feeling stuck with little hope of improving their skills or growing in their careers.  

Flat organizations leave personal development completely up to the individual, something that rarely, if ever, works effectively. When people are left to develop on their own, the lack of objectivity will lead them to focus on the areas they want – rather than need – to improve. When this happens, the team member, as well as the organization, stagnates resulting in a deterioration in customer service and long-term performance.  

Understanding the Problem  

One of the reasons often given for eliminating layers of management is that managers get in the way and slow down processes. Although there are cases where this is true, eliminating layers is not necessarily addressing the root cause of the problem. The company can benefit more by understanding why its leadership is ineffective and its processes and systems are slow, rather than assuming it is because of excessive layers.  Firing managers without addressing the real causes of poor performance can magnify the problems and, after a short-term improvement in results, end up in worse shape than if no action was taken.  

No Quick Fix  

In spite of what many believe about management layers, they do have a purpose in organizations. Flattening the organization is a fad that ignores the importance of developing people and continually improving. As companies like Toyota, Facebook, and Google have proven for many years, long-term success still comes down to effective leadership, respecting people, and a never-ending focus on improvement.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Driving Improvement Through Systems Thinking

"Management of a system requires knowledge of the interrelationships between all of the components within the system and of everybody that works in it." W. Edwards Deming 

One important discovery people make when they start on a lean journey is how much they still need to learn about their business.  Although they may have extensive knowledge about individual parts of their products, processes, markets, etc., lean thinking forces them to connect the components as a system, which is something many organizations have never done before. 

When starting an improvement effort, I usually ask about the minimum target the team is attempting to achieve.  The answer is often something made up on the spot or a generalization, like as much as possible.  Improvement efforts should generally be driven by the actual requirements of the business.  For example,  if a company determines that the time between a customer placing an order and receiving the product is too long, it should determine an improvement target based on what the business needs.  If it currently takes 42 days and customers expect to receive the product in 22 days because of their needs or what competitors are offering, the minimum improvement needed is 20 days.  Although the gap appears to be significant, people will look at it as if it is based in reality, rather than a target that management dreamed up.  So,  instead of thinking of it as an impossible target, it becomes possible and something that the business needs to survive.  Attempts to go beyond the 22 day target can be attempted later, but should still be based on strategic reasons. 

Although the concept appears simple, it can become much more difficult when applied to something deeper in the business than a product lead time.  In an oil and gas operation, for example, suppose it is taking too long to change out filters on a compressor.  Setting an improvement target would require first understanding what "too long" means.  This involves quantifying the compressor's contribution to the overall system, and includes things likethe overall production target; uptime of the facility required to meet the production target; uptime of the subsystem where the compressor is located in order to meet the facility uptime; the compressor startup time after maintenance; the current uptime of the compressor; and the time needed to change the filters.  By understanding how all of these elements connect and contribute to the production target, it becomes easier to accurately determine the gap between the required time to change out filters and the actual time. 

The more people learn the connections the components have with each other to achieve the overall business objectives, the easier it will be to see the problems and set improvement targets based on reality rather than gut feel.  It is not enough for people to know that the work they do contributes to the organization's purpose and objectives - they must know how.  This comes through a continual focus on coaching and basing improvement activities on learning, which happens through questioning, discussing, and connecting to gemba. 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Short-Term vs Long-Term: They Both Matter

Over the years, I have found many organizations the lack the ability to effectively balance short-term pressures with long-term improvement.  The situation causes frustration in people because, in the end, the short-term virtually always wins while the focus on the long-term suffers. 

There are a number of reasons for tendency toward short-term thinking.  First of all, people tend to be measured and rewarded based on achieving current year targets much more than long-term improvements.  Another factor driving a short-term focus is the targets are right in front of people.  The gaps are easy to see and it's clear that, if the problems are not addressed immediately, meeting the targets may not be possible.  Long-term gaps are also more difficult to measure and it's easy to justify dealing with them later. 

Which is More Important? 

So how should people deal with this type of situation?  We can't ignore the short-term targets because they are often necessary to assure we will be around for the long-term.  On the other hand, the more we ignore the long-term, the more we jeopardize our survival.  Regarding the question of which is more important, the answer is actually they're both important.  Customers, as well as investors and fellow team members, rely on our ability to deliver what we promise. 

Assuming that annual targets were set based on current capabilities, we should be able to meet them with enough focus and daily problem-solving.  After all, we made a commitment, so we should feel compelled to meet it.  On the other hand, if the targets do not have some semblance of reality, the company has much bigger problems, and meeting them most likely won't happen with or without a heavy focus and effort. 

When a problem arises today that will affect meeting short-term targets, it is difficult for most people to ignore it.  People will naturally jump in to address the problem and get performance back on track, especially if nobody else is available or a particular type of expertise is needed. 

The real problem for the organization occurs when people get so consumed with short-term problems that the long-term becomes an afterthought.  In reality, it seems that the poorer we are at taking care of the long-term, the more short-term problems we battle year-after-year. 

Implementing the 80/20 Rule 

I have found that the best way to assure we take care of both short- and long-term objectives is to consciously split time between the two, and in the most general terms, the split to be 80/20 (80% on the short-term and 20% on the long-term).  This is a general rule because the closer one is to where direct value is created (e.g., the factory floor in manufacturing, the sales counter in retail, or the wellhead in oil and gas production), the more time is focused on short-term objectives.  For example, a team member working on an assembly line has to focus most of his or her day on performing work within takt time that meets standards.  Although problems will regularly arise that the person will need to address, they are generally related to short-term safety, production, quality, and cost targets.  For this person, the split may be 95/5. 

Long-term projects, whether new or carried over from previous periods, should be apparent at the start of year when annual plans are being developed.  Making sure that these projects make their way into the 20% is important at this point, as is assuring that they require no more than 20% of the person’s effort.  Catchball and careful planning is critical to align expectations in the split between short-term and long-term focus, as well as the specific projects that fall into the 20%. 

As with any project, whether related to the short-term or long-term, clear objectives are needed along with a detailed and measurable plan.  The better and more measurable the plan, the easier it is to ensure progress.  Implementing a rhythm for regular reviews is necessary to assure the project is progressing according to the plan, and to determine whether changes in the plan, priorities, or resources assigned are needed to get it back on track.  We all know how to measure the short-term targets – it's the longer-term projects that require serious thought to determine the right measures.  Measuring progress to a project schedule will help but measuring quality of deliverables along the way is even better. 

Applying the 80/20 rule and ensuring that short-term and long-term objectives are met requires that managers be close to team members and truly understand what is going on in the workplace.  Rather than hearing about delays when it is too late to help make adjustments, managers must have enough awareness to provide help to get the project back on track before targets need to be changed. 

Intention is Everything 

It should be noted that none of this applies to an organization where meeting short-term targets is everything and commitment to the long-term consists of nothing more than words.  If the environment is so toxic that shipping defective products or cutting corners just to meet short-term targets is the norm, it has much deeper problems and attempting to manage through an 80/20 split will do little to help.  Like most things in business, long-term success begins with an obsession around understanding and meeting the needs of customers. 

Just like short-term objectives, long-term projects need to have targets based on successfully progressing plans, and these targets must be reviewed regularly – at least monthly – to ensure they are on-track and understand if help is needed.  If the split generally follows the 80/20 rule, and long-term commitments are taken as seriously as short-term targets, the chances of success will increase.  Discipline is needed to fight the tendency to put off developing or maintaining the measures and to skip the reviews now and then.  Like much of lean thinking, the concept is simple, while making it work effectively requires a lot of focus, effort, and consistency in behavior.