Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Why Lean Fails

Why do so many organizations give up on lean even after experiencing initial success with the effort? There are several examples of companies in various industries that experienced sustained success with lean, but these examples seem to be few and far between when compared to the large number of companies that attempt it and fail.

To be clear, lean doesn't fail . . . it's the transformation that fails. While there are many reasons for the failure, there are a few that seem to be common across various organizations. Regardless of which one or more of these reasons apply, correcting them is possible only when leaders begin to develop a deep understanding of lean and realize that the responsibility for the transformation rests squarely on their shoulders rather than something that can be delegated to lower levels in the organization.

Although the premise of lean is simple, integrating it into an organization is highly complex, and the larger the organization the more complex it becomes. Lean thinking is a system that requires understanding how the elements come together to drive continual improvement in support of the organization’s aim. The big gains that some organizations have been able to achieve with lean are only possible after fundamentally transforming the way people think, lead, and approach problems.

The list below is far from comprehensive but is meant to stimulate thinking and reflection to understand the reasons for failure and to help move toward fundamentally changing the culture to enable it to increase and sustain the rate of improvement.
  1. Fail to understand the level of transformation required: Far too often, organizations attempt to lay lean on top of a traditional leadership system and expect things the change. It is a simple fact that nothing will change unless the leadership system changes, and failing to understand this will lead to frustration and disappointment in the effort. This is often the main reason behind what appears to be a lack of commitment by the organization’s leaders. People cannot commit to something they do not understand.
  2. Focus on the home runs: Far too many people read about the Toyota and its rise from virtual ashes in the 1940s to become the most successful automaker in terms of sales, profit, and market capitalization. When reading an article about it or hearing someone tell the Toyota story, however, misses the point that it was the decades of small, continual improvements that led to significant step changes in performance. Although there are many examples of large innovative improvements at Toyota and other lean thinking companies, they happen because of the collective change in thinking that occurs through a focus on small continual improvements and daily problem-solving.
  3. Focusing on financial benefits only: After experiencing a few early improvements, it is very common for leaders to become focused on the financial benefits of the effort and change their focus from learning to cost savings. When this happens, lean becomes a set of tools rather than a system of continual improvement. SQDC (safety-quality-delivery-cost) is replaced by C, and understanding the true meaning of improvement is lost. As small improvements and learning is virtually ignored and the big improvements (the home runs mentioned above) are celebrated, people will do what it takes to show big gains, whether real or fabricated, and any early success with lean will break down and die.
  4. Focus on the tools rather than the thinking: Without a deep understanding of lean as a system and the fundamental reasons for its success, it is not possible to think beyond the tools. The tools are easy to understand while the theory behind lean is not. Leaders, especially in the west, are much more interested in things that are concrete, practical, provide quick results, and are easy to explain than organizational theory, psychology, learning, and systems thinking.
  5. Lack of systems thinking: Unless leaders understand the complexity of the organization’s system, including how the subsystems work together to drive performance, people and teams will continually compete with one other resulting in continual performance problems and increasing sub-optimization. One of the most critical responsibilities of leaders is to create and continually improve the organization’s system to enable it to achieve its purpose. This includes helping everyone understand clearly how the work they do supports the achievement of organizational objectives.
  6. Lack of patience: If you are looking for quick results, lean is probably not the way to do it. As mentioned above, lean requires a shift in the way people think, lead, and perform work, and it takes time – a lot of time – to make it happen. Although results will be seen along the way, there will be gaps that make it seem like nothing is happening. W. Edwards Deming once said that transformation is discontinuous, so it is important to understand that there will be many instances of two steps forward and one step back. The key is to stick with it and remain constant in the purpose and the transformation.
When any of the above characteristics are present, people who are against lean will gain ammunition to bury the effort. It is very easy for the people who feel threatened by lean to plant seeds of doubt in those who are on-board with the change. Getting past this initial stage of the transformation requires regular reflection and continual learning by leaders to see the signs and address them as they happen.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Objective of Problem-Solving is Not Solving the Problem

"The ability to learn faster than competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage" - Arie de Geus

One of the misconceptions that interferes with an organization's transformation toward lean thinking deals with the objective of problem-solving. People tend to focus problem-solving activities mostly on the business result, or solving the problem, and ignore whether or not any learning occurred while doing the exercise.  What many fail to understand is, when the focus of problem-solving is results, very little learning takes place, but when the focus is learning, more significant and sustainable results will follow.

It is strange to think that the main objective of problem-solving is not solving the problem, but the more one understands organizations and behavior, the clearer it becomes that sustainable improvement can only occur through continual team learning. When it is obvious that the only concern of leaders in a problem-solving effort is results, people will respond by showing positive results whether or not they are real or sustainable. Problem-solving will become nothing more than an exercise to get to the countermeasure as quickly as possible.

The Benefits of Learning

Some of the benefits of emphasizing learning during problem-solving include:

Improved understanding of systems and processes When done correctly, problem-solving requires looking at the issue from a number of perspectives to better understand how to approach it. It also involves understanding and proving the connections between potential causes and effects and, although it takes time to do this, it leads to increased understanding of the processes and systems that contributed to the issue. This learning leads to better problem-solving and greater improvements in the future – something that cannot occur without learning.

Improved understanding of the problem-solving process The more a team solves problems, the better everyone involved learns the process.  Rather than merely following the steps in a process, people start to learn why the steps are important, how they relate to the quality of the output, and where changes can be made to make the process better and faster.  When the focus is on getting to the countermeasure, the only learning that takes place is how to make an A3 look good. No useful learning will occur as people jump to the countermeasure and backfill the A3 to make it appear that the process was followed.

Learning stays with the team rather than with a single person The A3 (or whatever document is used in the process) from formal problem-solving is captured and maintained as a record of how the problem was defined, broken down, how the root cause was determined, the countermeasures selected, and the results.  In this way, when one or more people leave the team, the learning is maintained through the records and the countermeasures captured in standards related to the process. Also, the increased knowledge and understanding of the process throughout the team that was gained as part of the effort will not go away when one or two people leave.

Motivation increases as people learn and grow For most people, learning and contributing to improvement makes the work they do more interesting. When learning is the focus of problem-solving, the more energized people become and the more interested they are in driving improvements into the work they do.

Leaders Must Learn Also

Emphasizing learning rather than results takes patience and a belief that it will eventually lead to far greater and sustainable results.  Without this transformation, people will see that results are all that matters and respond accordingly. Rather than generate real results based on scientific analysis and concrete actions, however, they will likely be achieved quickly and be superficial and unsustainable. Problems will become hidden and not given the attention they require.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Slowing Down to Speed Up

Borrowing From Neuroscience to Drive Kaizen Thinking

"If you are going to do TPS you must do it all the way. You also need to change the way you think. You need to change how you look at things." - Taiichi Ohno 
One of the most common issues lean coaches face when teaching structured problem-solving is keeping people from immediately jumping to countermeasures when addressing a problem. Touting the virtues of sticking to the process and mentioning that the countermeasure may be wrong is rarely an effective way to getting someone to forget what they already think is the answer and to take more time and effort only to arrive at the same conclusion. There are a number of reasons for countermeasure-jumping, and understanding the motivation behind the behavior can help people appreciate the importance of following the process. 
There are many reasons people jump to countermeasures rather than following the process to solve problems. The need to be an expert (for personal or cultural reasons) and being stressed or overloaded are two common reasons.  A third reason, which is the focus of this blog, comes from the study of neuroscience and our internal programming regarding how we make decisions. 

Fast vs Slow Thinking 

In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman presents the results of his research into decision-making. Kahneman presents two distinct processes in the brain that, although apparently designed to work together, often conflict with one another. The first, which he refers to as System 1, is the fast thinking process that runs on autopilot. The obvious purpose of the fast brain is to protect us from danger - i.e., we don't have to take the time to think about getting out of the street when a car is coming - and to keep us from having to relearn simple tasks each time we perform them. The fast brain is guided by intuition and habits, and takes virtually no effort to use. 
System 2 is the slow brain, and is used for issues that require deep-thinking logic and focus. It takes time and effort to use the slow brain, but it is the part of thinking that deals with complex issues and enables innovation and creativity to occur.   
The issue with all this, however, is that that the more the fast brain is used, the more it tends to dominate the slow brain and could, in fact, shut it down in most situations.  When applied to the workplace, the fast brain always wants to jump to countermeasures immediately.  
For a variety of reasons, many organizations tend to reward fast-brained people through promotions and bonuses because companies that want quick answers and immediate results do not value deep, careful thinking. Because of this, organizations that have not identified their few highly critical priorities will have cultures that lean toward fast thinking. 

Thinking, Reflecting, and Learning 

Kaizen requires slow thinking and reflecting in order to identify and challenge assumptions that are preventing effective and innovative countermeasures. This may be what Taiichi Ohno meant in the above quote when he wrote that TPS requires you to "change the way you think," since lean requires much more engagement of the slow brain. 
I believe that this is the reason kaizen is not natural for most people. Since most of us are overloaded in our professional and personal lives, we are dominated by our fast brains. As a result, we probably get more done by operating in this way - it's the quality of our work that we have to question. Getting people to understand kaizen requires making them realize this and to learn how to access their slow brains when approaching a problem. 
I spend a lot of time these days getting people to slow down when they're addressing problems.  If it's a small, one-time issue, I only try to get those involved to do a basic 5-why exercise to help them start to appreciate slower thinking without shutting them down completely. When dealing with the larger and more critical problems, however, I continually coach them to slow down and think about the steps in problem-solving before jumping to any conclusions.  It requires a lot more time and coaching to get a person or team to clearly understand a problem and think deeply about each step in the process. When people can start to understand the value of accessing their slow brains, the transformation (or "thinking differently" as Ohno stated) starts to occur. 
When you think about it, Toyota's 8-step problem-solving process is designed to encourage slow thinking. Clearly identifying the gap frames the process, and breaking it down requires looking at data and going to gemba to understand the issue from various perspectives before wasting time attempting to think about causes or countermeasures. Anyone who thinks an A3 can be completed in one sitting is being guided by their fast brain. And for people who do this, their fast brains will get a lot of exercise as they continue to address the same issues over and over again. 

The Big Gains 

Slow thinking is what leads to the big gains that lean thinking drives.  Organizations that approach lean without changing the way people think will likely end up disappointed and abandon the process as not applicable to their business.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Why Questioning is Critical to Lean Leadership

One of the most critical but underappreciated skills required to successfully transform an organization toward lean thinking is the ability of leaders to use questioning to coach and develop team members. As important as coaching is to leadership, however, it is also one of the most challenging for people to understand and apply in their daily interactions with others. Like much of lean thinking, using questions to develop people is simple and logical but difficult to put into practice.

Learning to use questioning usually requires understanding why it works and how it helps the leader and the person being coached. It is not an attempt to portray the leader as a wise or deep-thinking philosopher who has all the answers. It is a way to help understand what a person is thinking and how to tailor the conversation toward helping them see a situation in a different way. When a leader begins to understand why questioning is important, he or she starts to see how to apply it to a variety of interactions throughout the day.

Why We Question 

There are some basic reasons why questioning is an effective way to teach and learn. Understanding and applying questioning effectively requires considering these reasons during conversations with team members and reflecting afterwards to continually improve your ability to coach and develop others.

The most basic reasons to question rather than tell in conversations with people includes the following:
  1. To know what the person is thinking.  You can't help correct incorrect assumptions if you don't know what those assumptions are and why the person is making them. Use questions to better understand the assumptions behind actions and where they are coming from. 
  2. To help the person see things the way you do.  When you see a situation differently than the person you are coaching, you want to help the person to see the situation from your perspective. He or she is likely missing something, so you need to question to find out what it is and to help them understand. 
  3. To help you understand the facts.  It is possible that the person you are coaching knows more about what's going on at gemba than you do. If you believe in lean thinking, you must respect this and be open to the idea that you could be wrong and can learn something from the person you are coaching. Questioning is the only way to help you understand what you may be missing. 
  4. To help the person understand the value of thinking slowly and deeply.  I have found that one of the most beneficial ways to help someone develop is to get them to slow down and deeply think through a situation before acting. Most people feel overloaded, and when faced with a problem, just want to get it off their desks as quickly as possible and move on. Especially for the big problems, though, jumping to countermeasures without thinking deeply about the situation rarely eliminates the cause of the problem and, even when it does, does not tend to make life easier. It often ends up creating extra work or just buries the problem until the next time it comes around. Using creativity and innovation to address root causes and truly make things easier generally requires reflection and deep thinking to understand which pieces of information are fact and which are assumptions. 
  5. To get the person actively involved in the learning process.  Studies show that passive listening – sitting and listening to someone lecture – is a far less effective way to learn than active participation. Active participation involves engaging the mind when attempting to learn, and answering questions about a situation provides a good way to engage a person's mind. On the other hand, listening to someone lecture does not require engagement and allows the listener's mind to wander to other things going on at the time. 
Although it depends on the circumstances and the person being coached, some questions that can help provide clarity about the process and help develop the ability to coach include:  What do/did you expect to happen? What do you think is causing the problem? Did you learn anything that you didn't know when you started investigating the problem? I have also found that asking why is the most effective way to get someone to clarify their thinking and start to see what they may be missing.

Mixed Messages 

One of the reasons that people have difficulty with coaching is that those of us who teach and write about lean are likely sending mixed messages regarding the why and how of the process. On the one hand, we tell leaders that they don't need to be experts in everything and that it is okay to admit that they don't have all the answers. On the other hand, we talk about people like Taiichi Ohno and Hajime Oba and the ability these people had to see problems quickly and clearly, and coach others to the answers.  I believe that this turns people off of the process because most will never measure up to these legendary leaders. In actuality, these two and other legendary lean figures didn't know the answers but they did know how to use questioning to gather facts (or identify when the facts are not yet gathered) and help the person being coached to arrive at an answer.

Start Small

When I work with leaders to develop coaching skills, I recommend starting small with a few key conversations each day or week.  Teaching the ability to question – which, by the way, also requires questioning – is easier when connected to the overall philosophy of lean thinking. Decisions should never be made without understanding the facts, and understanding the facts often requires going to gemba and asking questions to those who are closer than you are to the processes involved. When people understand and believe this, questioning starts to become a normal part of leading teams. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Lean Leadership: A Direction . . . Not a Destination

One of the problems with some of the books and articles on lean leadership is the tendency to oversimplify the concept in terms of a dictator versus coach.  It is too easy for people to read about the characteristics of a traditional manager and, because they aren't that bad, surmise that they are therefore a lean leader.  What many do not understand, though, is that the difference between a traditional manager and a lean leader is not binary . . . it's a continuum and very few, if any, are completely at one end or the other. 

There are many characteristics that separate a traditional leader from a coach and most of us tend to drift to one side or another under any given circumstance.  Moving toward a lean leader, however, requires the application of the PDSA cycle guided by regular and honest personal reflection, along with a sincere desire to help others develop. 

The key to becoming more of a lean leader on a consistent basis is to understand the characteristics that separate the two ends of the spectrum and work to improve the areas where one shows the biggest gaps.  Although it is a humbling and sometimes painful exercise, it is one that can reap huge rewards if done consistently and effectively. 

The Dictator-Coach Spectrum 

Some of the characteristics that separate a controlling manager from a lean leader are included in the questions below.  Understanding how often and effectively you apply these characteristics can be a good starting point for reflection and eventual movement toward the positive side of the spectrum.   
  • Do you stop and reflect regularly on your performance as a leader?   Effective leaders take time to reflect on the performance of their teams and how their own performance could have improved results.  Sincere reflection can help determine where to focus development efforts for the team as well as well as yourself. 
  • During conversations with team members, do you listen more than you talk?   Perhaps the most common behavior that drives leaders toward the traditional side of the continuum is the propensity to talk too much.  Besides the fact that development does not generally occur when people are lectured to or talked at, they tend to turn off when they do not feel listened to.  If, after a conversation, you can't clearly understand the other person's opinion by recalling specific examples of what they said, you most likely did too much talking. 
  • How often do you realize that you don't know something?   One characteristic of great leaders is that they continually develop themselves.  One way to effectively self-develop is to have the courage to regularly question your own knowledge and performance.  Kaizen thinking is personal and happens when someone deals with a situation by questioning the status quo and challenging what they and others believe to be true.  
  • Do you spend more time worrying about your own image than developing your team?   A clear red flag that someone leans toward the traditional side of the spectrum is spending more time with those above him or her in the organization than team members.  It is an unfortunate but it is common for leaders all the way up the organization to be disconnected with those on the team. Performance reviews, promotion systems, and overflowing in-boxes are just a few things that distract leaders from their main responsibility to support and develop people on their teams, and although these things can explain the reasons for becoming self-centered, they do not excuse one from ignoring one of the most important responsibilities of leading a team. 
  • Do you continually develop your own skills?   An important trait of successful leaders is that they never stop developing themselves.  When it comes down to it, it is not possible to continue to develop others unless you continually develop yourself.  I have known many leaders over the years who stagnated and stopped learning and developing.  Whether resulting from too much to do or thinking they already know everything they need to, stagnation really means atrophy.  When it comes to development, you either go forward or backward . . . there is no standing still. 
  • Do you go see your team or make them come to see you?   Although a basic element of lean thinking, going to gemba to see and learn firsthand is something that still has not made it into everyday leadership.  Leaders who refer to an "open door policy," do not understand how intimidating it is for some people to walk into their office.  By making team members come to them instead of going to the team members, they also do not understand the importance and value of seeing for themselves. Relying on spreadsheets, meetings, and the opinions of others to know what is happening in the workplace misses a critical dimension in truly understanding the facts. 
  • Do you help your team understand how they contribute to the purpose of the larger organization?  To become engaged in their work, people need to understand how it fits into the bigger picture for the organization.  Through regular conversations, coaching, and effective dashboards, the team can gain a much better idea about how important their work is, and why it is critical to continue to improve.  Leaders can also become more effective when they gain a better understanding the larger system.  Handoffs between teams improve and more attention is focused on improving the value stream rather than attempting to optimize individual team performance.  
Moving toward lean leadership involves a system approach that requires attention to and development of numerous factors.  There are obviously more than the seven listed above, but these are the issues I see most often.  The key is to understand how you, as a leader, fit into the performance equation of the team and to continually improve the areas where you can positively affect the outcome. 

One of the most common reasons organizations fail with lean is that they attempt to deploy it in the operation without changing the system of leadership.  Lean is about shifting the way people throughout the organization think and approach work and if leaders expect it to happen without transforming themselves, the probability of sustaining improvements is pretty much zero. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Motivation and Helping People Learn, Make a Difference, and Have Fun

"Why are we here?  To learn, to make a difference, and to have fun.- W. Edwards Deming 

Many years ago, I was fortunate enough on a couple occasions to attend W. Edward Deming's 4-day seminar.  Early in both seminars, Dr. Deming asked attendees, "Why are we here?" After waiting in silence and repeating the question, he would offer up the notion that we are here "to learn, to make a difference, and to have fun." 

Of all that I learned from Dr. Demingthis statement stuck with me the most.  When I searched the internet to make sure I remembered the quote correctly, I found that it seemed to have also made an impact on many other people. 

I've had a variety of jobs throughout my career, in both management and advisory positions and thought about these words many times.  It is such a simple and logical statement that one would think is a normal part of leading people - unfortunately, this is not the case.  After being promoted into leadership positions, many organizations leave people to their own devices to figure out how to do it well.  So rather than learning, making a difference, and having fun, team members end up stressed, overworked, and looking for their next job. 

What does it mean to help people learn, make a difference, and have fun?  It's something I've thought about for many years and have figured out at least what it means to me.  

Besides the fact that many people want to grow in their careers, there is an innate drive in most of us to learn.  Recent studies have concluded that learning has physical effects on the brain which can influence motivation, energy, and confidence. 

Studies also show, though, that the desire to learn can be buried by poor teaching and coaching experiences.  To prevent this and help team members learn requires that leaders have the interest and ability to coach in real situations using problems that people face every day.  They must be able to make coaching a normal part of their job and ensure people are continually improving existing skills while developing new ones.  This can only happen when leaders understand that they must also continue to develop their own skills and abilities. 

Make a Difference 
There have been numerous examples and studies on motivation that point to things like engagement and purpose as critical factors in driving motivation.  When a person understands how the work he or she does contributes to the achievement of a worthwhile purpose, energy level increases as does the motivation to make it happen.  On the other hand, a purpose that is nonexistent or unclear can lead people to disconnect and focus on work as little more than a way to receive a paycheck. 

Enabling a true connection to the purpose requires that leaders establish a clear and logical purpose – often referred to in lean terms as True North – and that they continually drive the organization toward its achievement.  The company's leaders must define the organization's true north and never waver in steering toward it.  It should go without saying but, to be effective, true north should not change as the organization changes its leaders. 

This is one of the things Deming meant when referring to constancy of purpose.  When the reason for an organization's existence is clear and unchanging, people will better understand how the work they do contributes to its achievement and work hard to make it happen.  As much as people want to believe in a true north and be a part of its journeythey will always be looking for examples that demonstrate a lack of commitment or constancy.  This is a defense mechanism people have developed over the years to protect themselves from the disappointment that results from believing in something that turns out to be false. 

Have Fun 
Although there are a number of studies available, it should not take extensive research to understand the benefits of creating a work environment where people have fun.  The positive effects that happiness has on stress, motivation, productivity, teamwork, and employee turnover are well known.   

Learning and making a difference are two factors that can lead to having fun at work, but relying on these things alone will not assure continued success or prevent burnout.  I tend to think of learning and making a difference as having positive effects on performance, and having fun as something that prevents negative effects.  The human brain cannot continually perform at high levels without regular downtime and preventive maintenance.  Having fun is one way to ensure the maintenance is happening.  

Putting it Together 

Learning, making difference, and having fun is something that should be critical parts of any leadership systemIt is a clear way to demonstrate the respect for people that is so important to continually improving results for an organization.  Like much of leadership and lean thinking, though, it is much more difficult to apply than it appears on the surface.  There are often cultural and systemic barriers that need to be overcome to ensure its continued success. 

I have to say that I cringe whenever I hear a leader say that he or she doesn't want people to have "too much fun" because of a fear that they will forget about work.  This is a clear sign that the leader lacks the understanding that having fun is part of a system that includes learning and making a difference, and that all three must be present to work effectively. 

The more I've reflected on these three simple drivers of motivation, the more I realized that they apply to my own personal life as much as they do to organizational success.  They are three factors that truly connect the work-life balance that virtually everyone wants to achieve.