Tag: Lean Transformation

Neil deGrasse Tyson Doesn’t Like The Idea Of Superheroes… And Neither Should Your Organization

The other day I listened to a great discussion on a podcast from The Forward, with host Lance Armstrong.  The guest was Neil deGrasse Tyson, popular astrophysicist, (6.74M Twitter followers for an astrophysicist? wow!) Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and host of The Cosmos. (Lance refers to him as a “rock-star” astrophysicist)  Neil commented on a variety of topics, from cosmic perspective, to the future of NASA, to science in schools, to what drives innovation, to the influence of his parents, and on how there are a higher number of microbes in one linear centimeter of your colon than the number of total human beings ever born.

I found his take on these and other topics to be humorous, logical, warm and inviting, and grounded in a long-term vision vs. knee-jerk short term reactions.  Science in schools?  He didn’t want to prohibit a state like Texas from teaching creationism if they chose to do so, he just wanted to make sure that state’s choice didn’t automatically proliferate throughout the rest of the country without it being their choice as well, and to make those responsible aware of the potential long-term economic impact that choice may have.

One discussion caught my ear from a Lean standpoint.  At 40:00 in, Neil has been discussing his father and family upbringing, how his parents nurtured their children’s interests, and then Lance asks “was he your hero?”  Neil responds “I tried not to have heroes, because a hero – what is a hero… I like what Carl Sagan said about superheroes one day – he didn’t like the idea of superheroes, because they make the rest of us complacent – oh, there are problems in the world, the superhero will take care of it, i’ll sit back and watch that happen…. a superhero allows people to not have to take responsibility over their fate.

This next statement may be an over-generalization, but I’ve seen it discussed enough I feel it is broadly applicable:  Employees in larger organizations have historically been rewarded for being the superhero.  They come through in the clutch, they bring knowledge and experience no one else has, they get results.  Oh, we have a difficult quality problem?  Bring in the specialist.  She’ll help us solve it.  Oh, that machine isn’t working right?  Call in Jim, he’s the only one trained on how to get it back up and running, he’ll know what to do and help us save our production numbers this shift.  These organizational superheros get the praise and recognition, get the most high-exposure assignments, and tend to get the highest performance ratings and promotions.  So… what’s wrong with this model?  Why wouldn’t I want to assign the most important projects to the people that tend to get the best results?  Why wouldn’t I want to reward my high performers so they want to stick around my organization, continuing to drive great results?

There isn’t technically anything wrong with that concept.  Many organizations have done (and still do) just fine with that model.  Wrong isn’t the right word to use.  A more complete description would be that it is your current state, but that the organization could evolve to be more efficient overall, could realize a higher potential utilizing all of its resources to their maximum capabilities, and be built to deliver and sustain results over time.  In an organization where superheros can thrive, it is as Carl Sagan (possibly) said – the rest of us can become complacent.  We may see a problem, and just say oh, Robert will be able to solve that for us, let’s just wait until he has some time free up.  We wait.  And while we wait, the waste caused by that problem continues.  Perhaps it grows. Perhaps it festers.  The benefit you would gain from improving the problem has been delayed.  And perhaps specialists like Robert get tired of operating in a crisis or high-pressure mode all the time and leave for another company environment.  What do you do then?

What’s the alternative?  An organization where everyone solves problems.  A community of scientists, a community of problem solvers, an organization where everyone drives improvement, from the shop floor to the executive office.  Instead of waiting for Robert, anyone can take on the problem, or the team can work on it together. No need to call in a specialist – let’s improve the situation now.  What does it take to build this type of an organization?

  • Balancing rewards equally between building capability in team members and achieving results
  • Rewarding solving problems to root cause vs. quick temporary countermeasures that make you feel good in the short term
  • Setting the expectation that everyone will learn to solve problems – and following it up with leadership modeling those behaviors
  • Asking questions rather than providing solutions or instructions, which empowers the team to think rather than simply to execute

So Neil’s comment about superheroes should really ring true with those who are in the midst of lean transformation.  And by all accounts, Neil is a pretty smart guy.  It isn’t about creating Lean Superheroes.  It is about studying your current organizational superheroes – what skills and knowledge do they have that enables them to consistently deliver results?  What about those capabilities can we extract from them and move from tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge that anyone can use?  How can I build those capabilities into the rest of the organization?  And most importantly, how can I enable my team to evolve into a community of scientists?  What obstacles are holding us back?

Take the time and reflect – do you have an organization that looks to its superheroes to solve problems?  If you do… is it possible this part of your culture is a reason your transformation is being held back?

 

To Strive For Perfection Or Not To Strive For Perfection… That Is The Question…

Mornings at my house aren’t chaotic, per se, but they are quite busy.  Our two little school age kids still need a lot of help getting dressed, fed, and ready.  Waffles are their preferred choice of breakfast food.  Everyday.  With butter, syrup, and whipped cream of course.  And we all like our sleep, so we get up with only the minimum amount of time necessary to get everything done before we head out the door to school and work.

So it is not unheard of for a mistake to be made, between preparing breakfasts, packing lunches, making sure outfits match, getting on the snow pants, making sure the right earrings are in, making sure the library books are packed (oh, and we didn’t read it in the past week?  By all means, let’s read it right now)…. you get the idea.

One of my duties is to make sure both kids have water bottles filled and packed.  Not a difficult task.  But for some reason, sometimes it is hard to remember to get it done, catching it at the last minute before we get in the car.  99 times out of 100, they have their water bottle. But I missed one morning, completely forgot.  Before you scold me too much, of course they have drinking fountains and cups available at school… they survived.  But I still felt bad.

So I began wondering… how can I prevent this from ever happening again?  What system can I create, what checks can I put in place?  A dry erase task list on the door to the garage?  A reminder that pops up on my phone?  Ask my wife to do a double-check?   Five sets of water bottles, with a circle labeled M-T-W-R-F under them so it is clear if today’s bottles have been utilized?  Ask the kids to learn to take responsibility themselves? (You’re right… silly thought…)

Nothing I was brainstorming appeared to be simple and also immune to human fallacy.  With all my ideas, there was still a chance I would forget, walk by the reminder without noticing because my brain was focused on the big meeting I had that day, still a chance a defect would get through.  And I don’t think my budget request would be approved for RFID chips in backpacks and water level sensors in water bottles and a connection to the car that wouldn’t let it start unless full water bottles were detected to be in the vehicle…  (I tested that hypothesis… it was correct… budget request denied)

Then I began thinking about an important question…. did it matter?  If a mistake was made and I missed the water bottles every once in a great while, should I care?  The kids weren’t unhappy… the teachers didn’t send any nasty grams home… I didn’t get yelled at… much… it might only happen two or three time a school year.  Really, the only thing driving me to attempt to improve here was my standard desire to eliminate defects and strive for perfection in anything and everything.  So I chose to let it go.  This time.

Why do lean transformations fail?  Why are they abandoned, sometimes after several years, even with wins and excitement early on?  Of course there are many, many factors, endlessly debated in books and blogs and conferences and online forums, and every situation is different.  But I think a key one is in the title of this post.  Are you as a company, as an organization, committed to striving for perfection?  Whatever your version of perfection is?

As your organization becomes more competent in identifying waste, identifying problems in your processes, the amount of opportunities you could work on begins to outweigh your capacity for actually working on them.  And as the water is lowered, and more systemic, complex, and multi-functional problems and opportunities are surfaced, developing simple solutions that are easily implemented gets harder.  People begin to ask – do we really need to spend time on that?  I’m busy – can it wait?  That seems hard… I’m not sure we will see the immediate benefits of this effort for a while – I’d rather focus on bringing in the quarterly numbers.

Selecting the right things to work on and improve is not always easy for large organizations, and lies somewhere between having an onerous improvement idea/initiative prioritization process that stifles the very spirit of making problems visible in the first place, and simply choosing to work on whatever problem we see today and never solving things through to root cause.  What are the one or two most important things you must accomplish to achieve your business plans?  Improve those processes that will help you deliver them.  Kaizen those obstacles that sit in your path.

If you have developed a clear understanding of what perfection is for your organization, and if you are committed to achieving it, then those questions should become easy to answer.  Does improving this process help you along the path towards your goal?  Or said another way, are the problems you see preventing you from achieving those goals?  If so – the answer is yes, you should spend the time and energy to improve.  If you don’t have that vision of perfection, or if you aren’t committed to it, then the questions and debate will continue to swirl.  Less-committed team members will see lack of clarity and commitment and begin to drift back to their old methods and ways of doing work.  Highly-committed team members will continue to want to improve what they believe makes sense, but will become frustrated when other team members, leaders, and functions are not coming along with them.

Vision – Commitment – Alignment – Discipline.  These are keys to continued progress towards your goals of perfection.

If you’re wondering, yes, it did happen again, several months later.  And the kids survived, and nothing bad happened, and heck, the boy seems to prefer having no water bottle… but for a moment I still wondered what I could have put in place three months ago to have prevented the miss.  The moment passed, and then I made another waffle.

Great Scott! Potential Sighting of Lean Product Development!

doc-brown1

There’s a scene in Back to the Future 2 where Doc and Marty McFly are trying to figure out how they have come back to a completely different 1985 than they remember.  Doc has a simple timeline up on a chalkboard, trying to outline to Marty how there has somehow been an alternate future created due to Biff getting a hold of a history of sports outcomes, taking the DeLorean back to 1955 and giving it to a young Biff, which is why Doc and Marty can’t travel back to the future from this reality to stop Biff from stealing the time machine because they are in an alternate reality and it won’t happen there…

Ok, you’re right, we’re already getting off-track.  The point is, Doc’s very simple timeline reminds me of how a mature company who gets introduced to lean product development might tend to think:  How can we go back in time and design our products so that all these years they would have cost us less money, taken less work and resources to produce and distribute and innovate against, and provided more value to our customers and our consumers?  Wouldn’t that be nice?

Applying lean concepts in a manufacturing environment, at least to me, seems to be much more straightforward and logical to understand.  The world is more transactional, has shorter cycle times, and tends to already have a plethora of process measurements to pull data and analyze from.  And there are numerous success stories to help sell the thinking and tools (and sometimes just the tools).

When we move to apply lean in the product development world, it always feels like we are starting from scratch.  How good are we at delivering on innovation?  How well do we understand our consumers needs and wants?  How would we even measure the health of our product development process?  Knowledge-based development?  Don’t we already do that?

There is a very good reason why it is important to get lean in the world of product development.  I’ll paraphrase from Ron Mascitelli – No matter how lean you make your factories, if you fill them with fat products, you’ll never realize the full potential of how profitable your product line can be and how much value you can deliver to your customers.  You will always be limited by the waste that is built into the product design very early on in the development process.

So now to the sighting of lean product development.  I don’t even know that this company is lean, knows what lean or lean product development is.  They could simply be very creative!  But what I observed seems to be a great illustrative example of end to end waste reduction through product design.  And I wish I took more pictures to share with you…

We recently finished the inside of our garage, and of course we said, let’s get some nice new cabinets to go with those freshly painted walls!  My wife found a great online deal on a set of NewAge metal cabinets, so we ordered them.  Within a short period of time they delivered a pallet to our garage with two large boxes on it.  Just one pallet, for something that would measure several feet long and tall.  As I looked at the box, I only wondered how much work I would have to do in order to assemble all the different cabinets.  I imagined something similar to a typical piece of Sauder furniture – all the flat side, back, bottom and top pieces nicely tucked into to the boxes with minimal space, but plenty of assembly hardware included.

Garage Cabinets in PalletOne morning I decided to open everything up and calculate how many hours I would need to commit to getting these up on the wall.  I opened the first large box only to find one giant single cabinet inside.  I was concerned – were there several other pallets on their way with other cabinets?  I opened up the doors on the large cabinet and found that inside were several other of the smaller cabinets.  They fit perfectly inside with minimal packing materials.  I moved on to box number 2 and found the same thing – one large cabinet with the other small cabinets inside.  I was very impressed (and happy) – this entire set of cabinets all compressed into one small area on a pallet, and I wasn’t even going to have to assemble them!

I realized with conventional thinking, your cabinet design paradigm might be that all the cabinets had to be the same depth so they were flush with each other and looked nice.  So all you would be able to do is box them individually, or break them down into multiple pieces that the consumer would then need to assemble.  If a conventional product development process designed these cabinets, then it may have taken up several pallet spaces on a delivery truck, multiple SKUs in a warehouse to keep track of, and extra inventory of each of those SKUs.  And if a company wanted to take cost out of the product or process, there is a good chance they would turn to thinning out the materials, squeezing the supplier for alternate lower-cost materials, do their best to eliminate waste in the manufacturing process, use cheaper fasteners, and so on.

Garage Cabinets unpackedThis is where the wish for the alternate timeline comes in.  What if at some point in the past they had designed a cabinet that consumers wanted but didn’t need to ship in separate boxes or be assembled by consumers?  What if they were able to design something that could be sold as a package and only took one SKU in the warehouse, and only one pallet space on the truck?  Surely this is a more desirable reality than the conventional one.

It seems to me that a designer or design team somewhere along the way asked the question of whether keeping the faces of the cabinets flush with each other was a true consumer need.  And if not, what if we reduced the depth on the smaller cabinets so they could all fit inside the two larger cabinets?  And put it all on a single pallet?  The result in this case was a very happy consumer and impressed lean thinker.  I can only assume it also resulted in a happy company and a profitable product.

So how would a company ensure that they didn’t just get “lucky” with one great design idea?  How can they constantly work towards the best product design possible that creates the most value for the company and the consumers?  The answer lies in the fundamentals of lean product development, from set-based concurrent engineering to evaluating risks to 3P and beyond.

Garage Cabinets

How do you begin this transformation?  Decide that’s the direction you need to go, get educated, get a capable teacher, and try!  Read a book: A Ron Mascitelli or an Allen Ward book are excellent and complementary to each other.  Based on my experience, it’s likely to be a long transformation, so that makes today a better day to start than tomorrow.

Hard-Wired for Lean?

Ever take part in a team-building event where you and your co-workers take a personality test to find out more about what makes each other tick?  I know that I’ve taken several over the years, and have seen a few used in our company that I haven’t taken.  Usually you get some kind of a “scorecard” that you can post on your door or your desk to show others what type, score, or color you were rated at.

myersbriggstypeI’m actually a big fan of personality tests from a personal reflection standpoint, ever since I took my first Myers-Briggs in college.  I’ve usually been amazed at how accurately they seem to describe me after only answering multiple choice questions, without any face to face discussion or direct observation of my behaviors.  Some test result descriptions speak in generalities, while others seem to have been sitting in the room with you over the past month!

Many of the tests you take at work as part of a business team event are meant to identify strengths and weaknesses, better methods of how to communicate with each other, and when used properly are supposed to turn you into a more effective team.  My experience has been that managers and team members rarely know how to “use” the results to actually improve and realize the full potential of the information you just learned.  But you nearly always learn new things about your co-workers, which can lead to increased communication, therefore meeting success criteria for a teambuilding event.

dilbert relocation

This past week I switched offices at work.  I won’t go into all the waste I observed while only moving to another location 30 yards away.  But moving tendsinsights-discovery-wheel to be a great time for cleaning out all those old files, papers, and accumulated “stuff” that you forgot you still had.  (Yes, I know, I should have a better 5S system!)  While leafing through some of these documents, I found a personality test my group took in 2010, and decided to take a few minutes to read through it.  It reminded me that when I originally read through the report, I thought it to be an accurate assessment that described me to a T.  (“Color/Insights Wheel” from Gatehouse Alliance)

Several statements in the personality assessment really stood out to me that I can connect to Lean thinking:

  • Usually weighs up all relevant factors before reaching decisions – I like to evaluate multiple alternatives, I want to know how a decision in one area affects work in another area, negatively or positively (how it affects the overall value stream), and want to make sure root cause has been identified and verified before implementing solutions.
  • Can look for flaws and errors in almost everything – This can go both ways, because if you focus on nothing but problems and don’t celebrate any progress or accomplishments, it can be very demotivating.  On the positConCive side though, if you are of the mindset that everything can be improved in pursuit of the ideal, then this is a great skill to have vs. just saying everything is fine, let’s keep things how they are today.
  • Sees the world…as in which he can develop a series of procedures and regulations that will take care of the situation in hand – Process-oriented thinking, I see that there is a lot of opportunity to eliminate waste and defects by operating with the current least waste practice (and improving it!), and that I focus on the process and not the people.
  • May tend to believe that the success of the team and its individuals are a measure of his own success – I think the correct concept here is “servant leadership”.  Typically leaders are not the ones who create value in an organization, the team members are.  I believe the purpose of a leader in a lean environment is to develop the next generation of leaders by ensuring they have the opportunity to build capability, to remove obstacles from their work and their mindsets, and to ensure the team is working on projects aligned with the organization’s needs.
  • Ideal environment is one in which unity and cohesion prevail, theories and ideas have been tried and tested, clear rules and procedures exist – Here I see respect for people through respect for standard work and testing hypotheses, the organization is set up and connected in order to be highly efficient at creating value, and pathways for products and services are simple and direct.

Reading through these statements, I got to thinking about lean transformation.  There is no question; adopting and building a lean culture is difficult for most companies, and it takes time.  There are about as many recommendations out there for how to begin to transform as there are lean practitioners.  One common option is to choose a test area, try to apply the thinking and tools, generate, celebrate, share the good results and use the story to generate traction in other areas.  But how do you choose the right area?  Who are the right people to choose to lead the transformation?  Who are the right people to choose to do the work and learn the thinking first?  What kind of skills should you look for?

By most measures, I’d be considered an “early-adopter” in our culture change.  Lean thinking simply connected with the way I thought, or wanted to think.  Was there a chance I heatmapwas “hard-wired” for lean even before I learned what it was all about?

The bigger question is, can a tool like a personality test be used to identify key traits of potential early adopters and get them involved at the outset?  Or perhaps, could a widely distributed test give you an output that could be used like an organizational “heatmap” showing where higher densities of “hard-wired lean thinkers” exist, to help you choose your starting point?  Would there be value in knowing where you might find the path of least resistance and where you might encounter tougher than expected obstacles?

Just like any subjective test, data like this should be used as one of many decision criteria, not the only criteria.  The test is only as effective and accurate as the effort and information that people feed into it.  And I think for an effective lean transformation there need to be people who learn and apply the thinking and tools well, but there must also be individuals who are skilled in promoting and selling the change story to your organization, and these two skillsets may not always overlap.

I Came, I Saw, I Problem Solved… I Only Got To A Temporary Countermeasure. Do I Still Feel Worthy Of Lean?

Problem solving to root cause is an important skill to build capability in.  The “why” behind problem solving to root cause is so that you prevent problems from ever recurring again, thus eliminating potential waste from your future PDCAactivities.  Along the way you grasp the situation, take steps to contain the problem so you are still able to provide the product or service to your customers, understand potential direct causes, test the connection from cause to the problem, develop and test a countermeasure (your hypothesis towards preventing the problem from ever coming back), and put measures in place to sustain and check that the countermeasure works and is still in place.  (Yes, this is simply a description of P-D-C(S)-A with a containment step thrown in!)  It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about 4-Step, 8-Step, x-Step or DMAIC problem solving, the fundamental principles are all the same.

Most organizations that begin a lean transformation are already very good at what they think of as problem solving.  A problem comes up, I work hard to understand what caused it, I fix what caused it, and we’re up and running again.  I add it to our troubleshooting guides and therefore if it happens again we will be able to get up and running even faster because we know how to fix it!  And the veteran problem solvers will be able to tell you war stories of all-nighters where hours of investigation finally yielded something they never thought of: a motor wired backwards and turning in the wrong direction, a bit set wrong in the control logic, or an incorrect part sent and installed that looked just like another part but had different guts.  They might call it “stuff that never should have happened if someone else had done their job right in the first place”, because they are still learning what it means to focus on the process and not the people.  And how if only they’d called the expert in the first place they could have avoided all those hours of downtime because he’d recognize the symptoms and connect it to a problem he solved 5 years ago and could have told them exactly what to check and fix.

“Haven’t we worked on this problem before?” and “Didn’t we fix this last year?” are common phrases you might hear that should trigger you to wonder if you really understood the root cause of the problem the first time.  It feels like problem solving deja vu!  You honestly shouldn’t feel bad about it though, especially if you are still at the outset (read: first several years or perhaps decades depending on point or systemic problems!) of your lean journey.  Solving to root cause, so the problem never occurs again anywhere in your organization, is hard.  It can be hard to identify the root cause, hard to rollout countermeasures across groups in multiple global locations, hard to not get distracted by all the other fires you need to fight this week that seem like a much higher priority.

I recently switched cable, internet, and phone service providers from Time Warner to att uverseAT&T, for a whole host of reasons that could be turned into another post on “thinking customer”.  I’m actually very happy so far in a short period of time with what I now have from AT&T Uverse.  It’s not all ice cream and puppy dogs through the switch however, I have had a couple of internet setup issues that have been frustrating, but they’ve actually been more due to lack of knowledge and added system complexity on my end vs. something that was the service provider’s responsibility.

Yesterday I woke up to a new problem.  When I tried to open a web browser, I got an error message from my AT&T wireless router that popped up on the screen, saying “Excessive Sessions Detected.”  It explained that one of my computers had a whole lot of internet sessions going at once, and that it was likely the result of some form of a virus, or malware.  So, my head began doing problem solving.  Target = Able to access the web from all my devices.  Actual = Not able to from one PC.  Let’s continue to grasp the situation.  Check PC #2 – I get the same error.  Check IPhone – I get the same error.  Actual now equals “Not able to access web from any devices.”

Excessive Sessions Warning

Potential direct causes… 1) the error message tells me it may be a virus 2) the error message tells me I may have gaming software causing it 3) could be a problem with the router 4) a power problem or connection problem somewhere in the system 5) something is broken on AT&T’s end 6) my internet cache is full 7) just something weird that requires a restart.

Ok, so let’s try and work through the most likely causes – 2) I can eliminate this cause, don’t have any gaming software going on (sad, I know, I’m a long way from my college and single days!).  4) check to see I have power everywhere – all ok, eliminated.  1) the system error is telling me “virus” is the first place I should look.  So I run a check, and sure enough, it finds two items and eliminates them.  So as I restart my computer my mind is already jumping down the why chain to root causes like, inadequate standard for setting up my antivirus software, or inadequate process for selecting antivirus software.

Computer is restarted, and… nope, error message still pops up.  How about 7) – let’s restart the router and everything else.  Nope, error still there, can cross that one off.  Now it is about time for work, so I eat some breakfast, watch some TV, and off I go.  Midway through the day my wife tells me the TVs no longer work.  So now, new information surfaced that tells me that something in the system is degrading – the problem is getting worse!  So in my head I mapped out how the system worked and where problems could occur (see setup picture below), and couldn’t figure out what was changing to cause the new problems, because most of the TVs don’t run off the router.  Why did they work in the morning and then suddenly not work in the middle of the day?  Now I start leaning towards something on AT&T’s end as the direct cause.

ATT Setup Map

When I got home I hopped on the phone with AT&T, explained the situation and what I’d done so far, and then we went through their troubleshooting guides.  We do a reset from their end, restart computers and routers and DVRs, and the error still comes up. We cleared the internet cache and tried again.  Still have the error.  We’ve now eliminated 5) and 6), and AT&T is out of ideas on their end too.  Their only solution left is to send out a technician tomorrow, and maybe they’ll swap out a router to try and check 4) – the only direct cause we have left on the list.  This disappoints us, because we wanted to watch the new Modern Family!

As AT&T is finalizing the order for the technician, I decide to check one more thing.  On the error message there are two buttons – one says “Do Not Show” and the other says “Continue”.  I had tried “Continue” early on and didn’t get anywhere.  “Do Not Show” was labeled as something you should only click if you think the cause was gaming software 2) which we had already eliminated, and I didn’t want to ignore the error if I really had a problem or a virus.  So at this point I said what the heck and clicked “Do Not Show”.  It asked me to log in to my gateway, I did, and then it gave me a message – “The problem has been resolved.”

docmcstuffinsEureka!  We were now connected to the outside world again!  My three year old would not be without her Doc McStuffins in the morning!  We could watch Modern Family!  I could stream YouTube videos through my TV again!  I was the hero, I had “resolved the problem”!

My lean thinking was gnawing at me though.  I didn’t know what caused the problem in the first place.  I can’t recreate it.  I can’t develop any countermeasures to prevent it from happening again.  And I’m not sure the AT&T person really captured my “solution” in their knowledge database so that they try it with other customers in the future before deciding to send out a technician.  Yes, the problem is contained, and we are up and running again.  Is that good enough for this situation?  Or should I have done more?

Good organizations are very quick to recognize and contain problems, and to get up and running again to avoid customer service issues.  Great organizations have the discipline to spend time working towards truly understanding the root cause of the problem, developing adequate countermeasures, and ensuring waste never recurs.

The Neverending Story: Capability Building

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 examplefishbone 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 tlean six sigma levelshose 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, fskydiverom 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 tetristime 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.

How NOT to Implement Lean – Thanks for the Lesson, Grey’s Anatomy

There are right ways and wrong ways to implement lean at a company.  True lean improvements have a benefit for the business, the customer, and the employees.  If you only focus on a single area to create benefit in, there’s a good chance that you will alienate the other two.  If you make it a perfect world for employees, you may not make any money.  If the customer is put on too high of a pedestal, you also might not make any money.  But if you only work to maximize how much money you bring in, there’s a good chance customers and employees alike will seek to go elsewhere.

Grey's 2A recent episode (aired 1/31 – “Bad Blood”) of Grey’s Anatomy features an “efficiency expert” who is essentially in charge of making the hospital run much, much more efficiently and cheaper because they are out of money because several of their doctors sued the hospital for negligence for flying them on a cheap airline where several of them were severely injured and several more died.  Following me so far?  Great.

The opening scenes caused my lean implementation radar to scream “No!  Wrong thinking!  Why would you do it this way!”  At least they weren’t calling it “lean”.  But in the first few minutes, the efficiency expert told them all they would be following new equipment storage standards to reduce their surgery changeover time, and an “eye in the sky” security system with a doctor behind it would be monitoring everyone and making improvement suggestions in real time.

Grey's 1Later on in the show, a guest is in the hospital teaching everyone his standard method of closing an incision, and that it would be the new standard that everyone throughout the Seattle Grace hospital system would be required to perform in order to help cut their surgery time in half.

I’ll give you just a few seconds to guess what the reaction of the employees in both scenes was from being dictated how they were going to operate from this point forward.  Rebellious, frustrated, not on board, rolling their eyes, combative… the list goes on!  So, what could they have done differently to implement their “efficiency programs” with more buy-in from their employees?

A really simple answer is, involve them in the problem solving and the solution.  There is great power when employees have ownership of both the problems and the solutions.  If employees and management are both aligned at the outset to the question of “what problem are we trying to solve”, and then both work together to develop solutions, implement them, and study the results, then adoption of the countermeasures across the company / hospital would happen much faster.  (it’s never that easy, of course – but better than not doing it together!)  So really, it is all about involving everyone in PDCA (or PDSA), and not just specialists.

Now, if you watch the show, you’ll counter with “Well, they are under a serious budget crunch, the hospital is going to run out of money and close down in a matter of weeks, and they have to make these drastic changes quickly in order to help everyone keep their jobs, so they don’t have time to involve the employees and do a proper job.”  And I might agree, say that’s true, but then I’ll counter with, “If they had only been using lean thinking all these years, their standards for approving private airlines may have caught a potential risk situation early on and prevented all the chaos, or they might have already made a lot of efficiency improvements that would have made them a profitable hospital in the first place.”

Are you going to wait until a crisis happens to implement or adopt lean thinking at your company?  Or are you going to implement it so that you avoid ever getting into a crisis in the first place?