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.