I was sitting in a meeting and the leader decided to do a quick refresher for his team on quality tools. Someone mentioned to me, “I guess this might be a little redundant for you.” Have I heard the material before? Sure, several times. I’ve even taught it several times. But I value going over the fundamentals time and time again, because every time I go through them there is always something new to take away due to new experiences, new applications, or new thinking learned in another area.
This particular time my mind honed in on the fishbone diagram. I reflected on my capability and decided I didn’t truly know the proper way to use and apply a fishbone diagram; I’d really only used it as a trigger when thinking about direct causes in problem solving. And from all accounts, using it in the right way is a big help in determining cause. So I made a note to myself to do some research and get better at it.
There are clearly many different paths to implement lean in a company. It ranges from those that will have a very specific timeline, objectives, and return on investment they try to hit, to some (although few) that will just commit to the transformation and let it take them on a journey, having faith that this is the right thing to do and good things will come of it. In either case, you typically need some form of a plan of how people will be taught the thinking and the tools so that they can begin to use them to improve. Whether you have consultants come in and teach classes, send them to Lean Six Sigma Green Belt training, assign them books to read, or have everyone discuss what they read on lean blogs, there has to be some form of an actionable plan to move forward.
Many times that plan will involve “levels” of capability, from novice to expert, green belts to black belts, bronze to platinum, student to sensei. There are usually some criteria, classes, activities, or experiences you need to have to move from level to level. Much like prerequisites in college curriculums. Or, one analogy I always use is, “I want to teach you how to skydive before I push you out of the plane. The outcome is usually better.”
I am in favor of having these types of capability plans. I think setting expectations for progress is important. I’m not always on board with setting expectations for specific results targets early on in the journey, other than seeing some level of improvement, either quantitative or qualitative. The one caveat I have with this fairly standard approach is that some people will work hard to “check the box” on the list of requirements, and then proclaim, “I am now done with my lean training!” The problem is when they ask, ok, what’s next? Sometimes there is no next class to take, there is simply getting better and building on what you have learned. One thing most companies do not outline is what life looks like after your initial training. What does sustaining your capability look like?
I like to relate capability building to the game of Tetris. When you first start the game, the pieces come down slowly. You have time to analyze the best possible place for that piece, because you can see what piece is coming up next, and you have plenty of time to twist it around. Mistakes you make are easier to remedy. Then you begin to realize that you get more points when you complete more lines at the same time. So you begin building a structure that saves a space for that special piece that will allow you to eliminate 4 lines at once.
As you complete more and more lines, the game begins to speed up. Pieces come down faster, and you have less time to rotate them and fit them perfectly. However, since you learned the fundamentals at a slower speed, you are able to adapt to the new speed because you really don’t have any new concepts to learn about the game, you simply see the opportunities faster and move the pieces to the right places faster.
To finish connecting my analogy, I see building up the lines on the screen as reaching those initial capability targets your implementation program has set up. You feel pretty good about putting the structure together. Then, as those special straight 4-block pieces come along to blow away several lines, those are your “ah-ha moments” when you realize you only thought you knew what you were doing, or that you recognize you really weren’t solving to root cause at all, or when you say “oh that’s what they meant.” And this process, much like the game of Tetris, simply continues – build up the structure, take it down with your ah-ha moments, and build again, even faster, on what you now call your ever-strengthening foundation.
As you progress and you reflect on your journey, you realize there was much you did not know at the outset. There was much you did not know after 5 years. And there is still much you do not know after 10 or more years. But take solace in the fact that with every new experience you know more than you did the day before.