Sunday, May 31, 2015

Lean Leadership: From Doing to Coaching

One of the most difficult aspects of transforming an organization toward a lean mindset is getting leaders to understand the importance of using questioning to develop team members.  It is difficult for someone who has been rewarded many years for being a problem-solver to suddenly shift behavior from solving problems to teaching others how to solve problems.  It can be a difficult habit to break that requires patience, perseverance, and a method to help leaders do it.
The Method
The best method I’ve found to teach leaders how to question is to begin with providing a clear and consistent process for problem-solving to be used throughout the organization.  When the steps for problem-solving are clear, leaders can question people about the process to understand how they are thinking and if they are approaching the problem in a way that will lead to improvement.
If, for example, the organization employs the Toyota 8-Step Business Practice for addressing problems, it is important for leaders to clearly understand the process, and commit to following the steps one-by-one to address problems.
Once the process is clearly understood, the leader can help team members approach problems by questioning them through the steps.  The leader should not do any of the problem-solving him- or herself, but learn to use open ended questions to guide the person’s thinking about the issue to be addressed.
Examples of some of the types of questions to use include the following:
  • Why did you define the problem in this way?
  • What data did you use to break down the problem in this way?
  • What is the data telling you?
  • Have you gone to where the problem occurs to see it for yourself?
  • Have you talked to the people who are affected by the problem?
  • Why do you think the countermeasure will actually solve the problem?
  • How will you make sure that the improvement will be sustained?
Questioning a team member through the process will take longer than the leader solving the problem but in the long-run, the benefits to the organization of improving team problem-solving abilities is exponential.  In addition to improving the problem-solving skills of team members, the process also improves technical knowledge of the company’s processes, the value of which is immeasurable. 
It should be noted that effectively coaching someone through a problem sometimes requires that you let the person pursue a countermeasure that you feel is incorrect.  Besides improving process knowledge, failed countermeasures can do more to teach effective problem-solving than always being right.
Leaders Need Coaching, Too
Improving the ability to question rather than tell often requires coaching of leaders to help them understand how to do it and to break old habits.  This requires spending a significant amount of time with the leader to help them see when they could have used questioning rather than telling.  Breaking a habit that has been gone on for decades can take a long time, but with consistent coaching can be done.
It is difficult for some leaders to grasp the concept that they need to become teachers rather than doers.  In many instances, they will know what needs to be done to address a problem, and convincing them to do something that will take days or weeks rather than minutes to complete can be difficult.  When done well, though, the benefits to the organization of unleashing the problem-solving abilities of team members can be immense.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Which Matters More? Process or Results?

If the room is too cold, do you work on the thermometer or the heater?

Which is more important . . . process or results? It's a question that spurs debate on bulletin boards and in blog posts. The problem with the question is that it approaches the two as disconnected rather than one-in-the same. Obviously, results are what really matters, processes exist to produce results, and when results are not at the levels desired, the processes need to change. On the other hand, whatever results are at any given time, it is impossible to sustain them successfully without effective and stable processes.
Results Drive Process . . . Which Drives Results
A manager who emphasizes results over process will drive team members to deliver "at all costs." The range of possible outcomes from this type of a culture include continual quality and safety problems, regular cost overruns, and high employee turnover.
On the other hand, a manager who understands the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle drives and supports team members to improve processes based on the results they are getting. The outcome from this type of focus is continually improving processes and a much better chance of sustaining results.
Those who argue against a process focus often cite examples of long, complicated instructions that are difficult to follow and cause more problems than they prevent. This type of process documentation is not, however, aligned with a process-focused mindset. The instructions are often written by people who are not doing the work and do not exemplify PDSA thinking. When problems arise, the instructions are either not changed quickly to address the root causes or the changes are additive – resulting in longer and more complicated documents.
The essence of PDSA thinking is assuring processes are achieving desired results on a continuing basis and, when they are not, improving them. The key word being improve. Changes to processes should include making the process easier and simpler to meet standards and produce desired results. Changing a process by making instructions more complicated and difficult to follow does not constitute improvement. A new or revised instruction that is difficult to follow should identify a problem that drives further change – and the change should be to simplify the instruction.
When an organization without a process focus misses its targets, improvement will be futile because there is nothing with which to maintain the improvement. When a person or team finds a better way to perform the process, there is nothing to assure that a different person or team will follow the new way.
Letting a process run without standardization is damaging to the culture, teamwork, and customer. Letting people do things their own way also goes beyond the shop floor and bleeds into hiring, leadership, and a host of other aspects of the organization.
Leading and Lagging Indicators
Lagging indicators are the measures of the results of a process. Leading indicators are the upstream measures that enable problems in to be seen before results are affected. The key to developing effective leading metrics is to make them activity based, meaning that they measure an activity the team performs that can be quickly adjusted when a problem arises. Along this line of thinking, effective leading metrics often measure adherence to critical parts of the process. When a process focus is absent, however, this type of measure will identify a lack of standardization and stability but, without a change to the company’s culture, will not prevent problems or drive improvement. Lagging measures – or the results – will continue to be highly variable, putting further pressure on results.
Revising the Question
Results always matter. When one understands the PDSA cycle, however, it is not a question or process versus results; it is more a question of whether processes matter or not. In other words, working on the thermometer will not warm up the room but focusing on the heater, insulation, etc. will.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Case Against the Flat Organization

Since the 1990s, consultants and authors have been touting the benefits of the flat organization.  Among the advantages commonly associated with flattened organizations are improved innovation, empowered employees, and faster decision-making.  I’ve worked with many “flat” organizations over the years and, rather than improved flexibility and increased speed, found burned out managers, frustrated employees, and high turnover. 
Removing layers of management downplays the importance of the coaching and development of future leaders.  When a manager has a large number of people on his or her team, it is not possible to spend the time needed to develop problem-solving or leadership skills of team members.  As a result, the manager resorts to directing and problem-solving, rather than coaching, and employees feel stuck and left out of the process.
Flat organizations utilize the sink or swim approach to developing people - something I’ve never seen work effectively.  When people are left on their own to develop, they will do so in their own way based on their own experiences without the ability to see themselves objectively.  As a result, the company can lose control over its culture and systems resulting in 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 often a true statement, eliminating layers is not addressing the root cause.  The company can benefit more by understanding why its leadership is ineffective, and why its processes and systems are slow, and developing countermeasures that effectively address these causes. 
Although there are many companies that do have too many layers of management, improving the situation requires identifying what the organization is trying to achieve and understanding and removing the barriers that are interfering with success – and this is not a quick process.  Firing several 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 doing nothing.
No Quick Fix
In spite of what many of those who tout flat organizations believe, managers 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, Amazon, 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 10, 2015

Using Dashboards to Develop Leaders

It is pretty widely known that the role and responsibilities of a leader differs significantly in a lean environment.  As is often the case, though, knowing and doing are two different things.  Becoming a lean leader, like most of lean thinking, is a simple concept that is very difficult to apply.
Jeffrey Liker and Gary Convis wrote about the system of lean leadership in The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership.  In the book, they point out that the four basic responsibilities of a leader within a lean culture are (1) develop self; (2) develop others; (3) create alignment between vision and goals; and (4) drive daily improvement.  Although appearing to be fairly straightforward, putting these responsibilities into practice can be very difficult without understanding that lean is a system where the elements have to be applied together to successfully transform an organization.  Lean is like a Charles Dickens novel, where even the seemingly smallest details play a part in the story. 
What this means is that the leadership responsibilities listed above cannot be approached in isolation.  They work together, along with the tools and principles, to drive improved performance.  And focusing on the details while keeping the overall system in mind is not an easy thing to do.
I have found very few people today who don’t agree that lean makes sense for business.  Leading a team, plant, or organization, however, is a complex and challenging undertaking; and with a host of responsibilities and competing priorities and pressures, it’s not realistic to expect a leader to change his or her way of leading just because it makes sense.  The best way to help people understand how the work they do can align with these four responsibilities is to show them.  By going to gemba and demonstrating how the elements of lean work together to drive improvement, those you are coaching will begin to understand how the philosophy connects to real work. 
The Role of Dashboards
Dashboards are a perfect place to demonstrate to leaders how to fulfill the responsibilities of developing others, creating alignment, and driving improvement (and, more indirectly, developing oneself).  By creating a standard script and coaching leaders around the use of questioning based on data, you can help them gain comfort in the application of lean thinking through improved understanding of how the elements work together to drive improvement.
The questions I often use around dashboards include the following:
  • What is the target? This question assures that the team is clear on what they is trying to accomplish.  It directly addresses one of the biggest problems in organizations that people “just know” what they are expected to accomplish by making the targets absolutely clear.
  • Why? This moves the conversation from clarifying the target to assuring that it is the correct target.  To be truly successful, people need to understand why they are doing what they are doing, and clarifying the higher level objective helps drive alignment to the vision.
  • What’s the gap? Effective problem-solving requires clarity around the gap between the target and what is actually happening.
  • What are you doing about the gap? Actions to improve need to be directly aligned with the gaps in performance, and questioning the team leader on this can help assure that: (1) actions are being taken to close the gap; and (2) it is likely that the actions will be successful.  Asking how the actions were developed and assuring that they are focused on root causes will also help improve problem-solving capabilities. 
  • How are the actions going? It should be clear from the dashboard which actions are being taken and how they are doing.  This is the conversation around leading and activity-based indicators that show whether or not the team is carrying out the activities they feel will address the root causes.  If the actions are being completed as planned, is it starting to close the gap?  If not, why not?  If so, what is the team planning to address next?
  • What help do you need? A leader should always close the conversation with an offer of help to show that he or she is just as committed to improvement as the team.
The process can be demonstrated through a scripted conversation or by walking the leader through several dashboards to help him or her become more comfortable about applying it on a regular basis.  What is important is to understand that learning does not happen without action, and action requires that people know what they’re expected to do and how to do it.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Deliberate & Calculated System of Improvement

“A goal without a method is nonsense.” – W. Edwards Deming
One of the key aspects of lean that many people have difficulty grasping is that it is more deliberate and calculated than the traditional approach to business.  Once a target or objective is set, lean provides a framework for mobilizing and organizing the team to make it happen.  In a cultural sense, lean thinking leads to an almost obsessive drive to improve.
As an example, it is fairly common for leaders to set a vision for an organization that’s creative or inspirational, only to leave its achievement to chance.  The barriers and roadblocks to meeting the near-term targets become distracting and interfere with efforts to focus on longer-term objectives.
By What Method?
I remember hearing W. Edwards Deming repeat the phrase, “by what method?” during his seminars.  It is a simple question that is so critical to driving the organization toward achieving an objective.  In effect, it forces efforts to the process to be used to achieve desired results rather than focusing only on the result. 
When approached with a lean mindset, setting a vision is only the first step of a long and deliberate process of making it a reality.  The vision becomes more than a creative or esoteric statement that is only considered when remembered or convenient.  It becomes truly integrated into the organization’s thinking and everyday operation.
The process for making the vision – or any long-term objective – a calculated and deliberate effort includes asking the following questions:
  • What are we trying to achieve? What is it we want to happen and by when? Clarify the objective in terms that everybody in the organization can understand.  This is where ambiguous or imprecise statements are translated into specific objectives (e.g., translating a 10-year vision into 3-year objectives).
  • What’s the plan? What are the gaps between where we are and where we want to be and what are we going to do to close them?  At the highest levels, this includes determining and deploying the targets throughout the organization.  At the business and operational levels, it means determining the steps to achieve the targets.
  • How are we going to measure progress? The long-term objectives are often expressed through lagging – or results-based – measures.  Although it is critical to understand and watch the lagging metrics, the information they provide is after-the-fact and too late to correct the problems that are blocking success.  Because of this, it is critical to establish leading measures that are closely tied to the plans.  When clear and well connected to the plan, the leading measures will provide information to the team early enough to change course before results are affected.
  • How are we going to mobilize the team? This includes communicating the plans up and down the organization to make it very clear how the team expects to achieve the objective.  Most people understand the importance of communicating downward but, what is often missed is the importance of communicating the plan upwards through a catchball process.  Leaders should have a clear idea how the team expects to achieve the plan to feel comfortable that the objective is understood and that the effort will not compromise aspects of performance outside of the team.  Catchball is also an opportunity for the team to express concerns about meeting the objective, and to ask for help from leaders.
  • How are we going to stay focused on the objective? How are we going to hold ourselves accountable?  Making a vision a reality requires much more than communicating or deploying the statement into the organization.  There needs to be a firm meeting rhythm around the objective to follow progress and determine actions when results are not occurring as expected.  It forces the leadership team to clearly understand where the organization is on its journey to achieve its purpose.
  • What adjustments are needed to stay on track? Nobody understands the future well enough to develop an iron clad plan that will lead to long-term improvement.  Because of this, the journey will require adjustments along the way, and knowing when and how to adjust is critical to staying on track toward success.  Understanding when and what to adjust comes from successful application of the previous five questions.
The above questions comprise a system of improvement that makes the long-term objectives truly achievable.  The process can apply to local process improvements or the organization-wide drive toward the vision.  When applied correctly and consistently, it can create the discipline to stay focused on a vision and shift it from hopes and wishes to a deliberate and specific plan to improve.