Sunday, August 25, 2013

Improvement Requires More Reflection; Less Justification

Using an A3 for business planning is one of those practices that, like many aspects of lean thinking, is simple but not necessarily easy.  Although the basic process tends to make sense to people, success requires those involved to exhibit certain behaviors that are so different from the norm that most plans produced by the process result in nothing more than business as usual.

Making Problems Visible

There are few people who will argue with the concept of making an organization's problems visible.  Understanding the role that KPIs or the boards and lights associated with an Andon signal play in problem-solving efforts is not difficult.  What does tend to be difficult, though, is applying the same type of thinking to the company's higher-level planning processes.  An organization has little chance of improving performance if its leaders can't agree on the problems they need to address.

In The Birth of Lean, Taiichi Ohno is quoted as saying that kaizen continuously requires people to, "assume that things are a mess."  Since business planning is fundamentally kaizen at the organizational level, we've got to create the idea that things are always a mess.  To do this requires that targets are clearly visible and people feel free to openly and honestly reflect on performance against the targets.

During business reviews, it is not uncommon for teams to spend significant effort justifying the performance gaps rather then accepting them and reflecting to understand the reasons that drive the gaps.  This is not surprising given the way many organizations to recognize and reward people.  When rewards are based on meeting targets rather than addressing problems, people will fight to justify results.  The crazy thing about this type of behavior is that most people recognize it - we just don't tend to do anything about it.

Moving the culture away from justification and toward reflection requires recognizing that the company's systems and practices may be driving the wrong behaviors.  There is always a mess, and it's got to be okay to recognize and openly admit it in order to free  people up to drive improvement.

It's difficult to say that any single component of business planning is more important than another but without adequate reflection, the organization will fail to recognize its biggest problems and will never move beyond mediocrity.  Time and energy spent justifying results is waste, and the sooner we replace it with open and honest introspection the sooner we can bring the big gains into reach.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Maslow: Still Relevant 70 Years Later

Being an effective leader is not easy. With all of the external factors that can affect performance seemingly coming at an ever-increasing pace, keeping an organization operating at a high level can be a difficult job. With the continual changes in technology, markets, and regulations, however, the most difficult aspect of leadership continues to be the same as is has for the last 100 or more years: people.

Organizations have gotten thinner in recent years forcing managers to increasingly become doers. Because of this, the importance and complexities of helping team members be satisfied and productive in their jobs has unfortunately become more of an afterthought than a priority. Although we talk about the importance of developing and motivating people, our actions say otherwise.


In 1943, Psychological Review published A Theory of Human Motivation by Abraham Maslow. In the paper Maslow presented the results of a study of highly successful people, including Albert Einstein, Frederick Douglass, and Eleanor Roosevelt focused on understanding what motivates people to become high performers. As a result of the study, Maslow proposed that the stages of growth of human beings tends to follow a pattern which he characterized as a hierarchy of needs, or stages of development that drive motivation.

As presented in the diagram, the stages generally go from lower-level basic survival needs to higher-level increasingly sophisticated needs focused on fulfilling one's potential.*

The hierarchy proposed by Maslow has been taught in business schools for years as a component of effective leadership. Leaders need to understand where team members are in the pyramid as a basis for motivation and development. Also, it's important to understand that a person can move up and down the hierarchy depending on his or her individual circumstances, including things like personal relationships, impending layoffs, health, or a variety of other factors.

Effective leaders appreciate the importance of building relationships with those on his or her team to understand how to best help them develop and grow and be successful. When the leader is too busy doing things other than coaching and developing team members, there will be a tendency to treat everyone the same and focus only on group motivation techniques, often resulting in dissatisfied team members, poor performance, and high turnover.

To improve the situation, leaders need to be taught how to apply the hierarchy in everyday situations.  They need to be given the ability to work closely with those they lead, and held accountable for the development, motivation, and retention of team members.

Leadership is a serious responsibility and there is no magic formula to assure success. Maslow gave us a model 70 years ago that, although not necessarily making the job any easier, can make it much more effective. The hierarchy presents a hypothesis that spending time with people and treating them as individuals can lead to increased success for the person, the leader, and the organization. And when you get down to it, anyone who doesn't think it's important to spend time with team members really has no business being in a leadership position.
* NOTE: Maslow never actually presented the hierarchy in terms of a pyramid.  The pyramid was developed much later as a simple way to graphically depict the theory.