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I hope this doesn't mean I have to read "Atlas Shrugged" again.


I spent a few days coaching high-potential public health academics this week, and noticed a common problem: they struggled to complete their important work like grant applications and papers because they didn't place a priority on their own needs. (Truth is, this is a problem for many people, not just academics, but I suspect that it's more common in this world than, say, on Wall Street.) They were so committed to the needs of their colleagues that their own needs went unfulfilled. That makes them martyrs -- or saints -- which is great if you want a lifetime of free admission to the Vatican, but not so great if you're trying to, you know, get stuff done.

A healthy commitment to oneself is necessary if you want to accomplish something valuable for yourself and your community. It's the oxygen mask rule: put the mask over your own nose and mouth first, before you take care of your kids.



You want muda? Let’s talk about muda!

Cognitive Waste
Cognitive Waste

Cognitive capacity at any given time is limited. There’s only so much mental bandwidth for processing information. So when we introduce lean to an organization, why do we insist on using up some of that precious capacity by forcing people to translate Japanese into English? Why do we ask them to make the mental leap from making cars to healing patients?

In my forthcoming book, Building the Fit Organization, I argue that we should be speaking a language that people are comfortable with when we introduce radically new ideas. Lean is a new way of thinking for many people—it’s crazy to make it harder for them to wrap their heads around these ideas by wrapping them in a foreign language, or by telling people how Toyota makes cars. All that does is consume valuable cognitive capacity on the waste of translation.

Some people will argue that there’s no real equivalent to many of the original Japanese words like gemba, but I maintain that the slight difference in nuance between “front lines” and gemba is probably not your biggest obstacle to changing your leadership behavior. And do you really want people to struggle with memorizing the definitions of muda, muri, and mura? If you’re so committed to Japanese, why not ask people to use tsukurisugi, temachi, unpan, zaiko, dōsa, and furyō for six of the wastes? There are subtle differences in translation there, too. And please, let’s not talk about Toyota. AGAIN. You know as well as I do that as soon as you mention Toyota, your audience immediately resists: “Toyota’s totally different from us. They make cars. We make _______.” They think that even if they make something like motorcycles. (“It’s totally different. Our vehicles only have two wheels. No crossover at all.”)

Look, there’s nothing wrong with using the original Japanese words or referring to Toyota. There’s a lot of value there. But maybe it shouldn’t be the first thing you throw at your team. First, get them to embrace the fundamental concepts. Use language and examples that people can relate to easily and comfortably. Once you’re past that intellectual, emotional, and cultural hurdle, you can do a gemba walk at Toyota and learn your 3Ms and 5Ss.

Until then, it’s just intellectual muda.



Avoiding hiring debacles with standard work

I was fortunate last week to join the Lean Enterprise Institute for a gemba walks class at TaylorMade Golf. While they will be the first to admit that they have a long way to go before they can be considered a lean organization, I was struck by the emphasis placed on standard work. TaylorMade’s business is highly seasonal, which means that each year they have to hire—and train—large numbers of new workers. (Volume from the low season to high season increases about 800%.) Getting these workers up to speed to receive and handle materials, not to mention assemble clubs, is a formidable challenge for the company.

That’s where the standard work comes in. With the standard work, team leaders and supervisors are able to train new hires more quickly, and they’re able to objectively and fairly assess how the new workers are doing in relation to the agreed-upon standard. This assessment allows the TaylorMade to determine whether to keep a new employee, promote them to another role, or to let them go.

Of course, many companies understand the value of standard work for front-line employees on the shop floor. But consider the benefits at the managerial or executive level. What would happen if there was standard work for new managers, VPs, and C-suite employees? What if they had a regular cadence of work that brought them to the front lines to observe and coach employees? What if they had a structured and defined management method that they were expected to follow in your company?

Having lived through more than my fair share of poor hires, bad fits, and cultural mismatches, I believe that they could have been largely avoided if we had had standard work for leaders. Standard work is no guarantee of a perfect hire, of course. But even if we did hire poorly, I know for sure that the mismatch would have been spotted earlier, and the person replaced, more promptly, with a better fit. What’s your way of assessing performance? How do you know (before the annual performance review) if an employee is panning out?


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The ants know it. Why don't we?

A new study in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology finds that in ant colonies, a large number of worker ants are idle at any given time. (No, I don't subscribe to this journal -- I just heard about it on the radio.) These ants aren't just lazy slackers, though. As one of the researchers explains it,

. . . in order to make sure that the right number of workers are allocated to all the particular jobs that have to be done, it's beneficial if the colony has some excess workers -- essentially, extra workers, more than the number that they need to get the work completed because it just makes that process run more smoothly -- of actually figuring out who has to do what.

Sounds to me that the ant world has figured out Little's Law -- that the cycle time to get essential ant business done increases exponentially when labor utilization crosses a certain threshold. Maintaining slack in the system enables the colony to be more effective when work has to get done (like collecting food for grasshoppers).

Most companies realize that Little's Law applies to machines and manufacturing processes, but it's often ignored when considering the workload on people. In a misguided quest for increased "efficiency," we overload people with work, eliminating their slack time -- and thereby cross the utilization threshold beyond which response time plummets. We even do this to ourselves: we pack our calendars with meetings, projects, and tasks, guaranteeing that the inevitable glitch in our systems (a meeting that runs long, a software snag, an unexpected problem with a customer, etc.) will create a cascade of failures in our ability to meet deadlines and deliver on time.

A terrific article in Strategy + Business tells the story of St. John’s Regional Health Center, where the operating rooms were at 100 percent capacity. Emergency cases would lead to postponing long-scheduled surgeries, forcing doctors to wait several hours to perform their cases (sometimes as late as 2 a.m.) and requiring staff members to work unplanned overtime. The hospital was constantly behind.

The solution? Leave one operating room unused so that it would be available for unplanned, emergency cases. That room provided the slack the system needed for the hospital to run smoothly. The authors explain:

On the surface, St. John’s lacked operating rooms. But what it actually lacked was the ability to accommodate emergencies. Because planned procedures were taking up all the rooms, unplanned surgeries required a continual rearranging of the schedule. . . .Once a room was set aside specifically for unscheduled cases, all the other operating rooms could be packed well and proceed unencumbered by surprises. The empty room thus added much-needed slack to the system. Soon after implementing this plan, the hospital was able to accommodate 5.1 percent more surgical cases overall, the number of surgeries performed after 3 p.m. fell by 45 percent, and revenue increased.

What's happening in your product development team, your credit department, your finance group? Do you have enough extra workers -- or more to the point, do they have enough slack in their workdays -- to accommodate new demands, respond to emergencies, or answer customer questions in a timely fashion? Or are you running the team with so few people, or have overloaded them with so many initiatives that there's no slack in their schedules?

Can you run your organization as intelligently as an ant?

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Going to the Customer at Starbucks

In a serendipitous bit of blog timing, I was just editing a new post on how fanatical Howard Schultz is about going to see his customer when I read Michel Baudin's latest on his experience at Boeing in getting up close and personal with customers. (Maybe it's something in the Pacific Northwest waters?) Tom Peters tells this story about a conversation he had with Howard Schultz:

Howard Schultz will personally, physically, visit a minimum of 25 Starbucks shops per week. . . I asked him about it and he said, “Look, I don’t care if we have three, thirteen, or 13,000 shops. The reality of the business is one Starbucks employee selling one cup of coffee to one customer. And despite all the statistics that pour across my desk, unless I can feel it, and taste it, and smell it, and touch it—that fundamental human interaction—I ain’t in touch with what’s going on in the world.”

Check out the full video here, or below:

So yes, by all means go to the gemba. But don't forget to visit your customers (internal or external), too.



Your lean transformation is going to fail.

Are you considering a lean transformation? Don't bother. You're probably going to fail. The truth is, most companies are temperamentally unsuited for lean. Maybe management doesn’t have the patience and long-term outlook to stick with anything for more than a year. Maybe the executive team sees lean as just an HR program, or something that they can hand off to the quality department. Or perhaps the company’s leaders aren’t emotionally ready to make the fundamental change in leadership style from command and control to coaching and consulting. And maybe the interpersonal soil between labor and management is so poisoned by a lack of trust that lean will never take root and grow.

Good luck trying to succeed with lean in this kind of environment. You’re much better off just doing a few improvement projects here and there (with or without lean tools) to improve sales or profit margins. You’ll save yourself lots of money and time, and spare yourself a giant headache. A lean transformation? It’s just not worth it. You’ve got about as much chance as Donald Trump does of getting elected president.

But if, against all odds and common sense, you really do want to pursue lean, you’ll want to make these five commitments.

  1. Take a minimum five-year view. Consider any financial gains in the short term as a gift, strictly as icing on the cake. If you really want to transform your organization, it’s going to take a long time to change the fundamental thinking and culture of your firm.
  2. Hire a coach for everyone on the leadership team—including the CEO. Give the coach tools to hold execs accountable for changing their behaviors. (Hmm, performance reviews and pay docking?)
  3. Get rid of executive offices. Move everyone onto the floor in their respective functional areas. Require that senior leaders spend a certain amount of time each month doing one of the front line tasks in their departments.
  4. Insist that all members of the leadership team attend at least one improvement conference per year.
  5. Commit to a policy of no layoffs as a result of improvements.

Making these commitments won’t guarantee success in your lean journey. But without them, you’ll almost certainly fail.



Avoiding the Information Push/Pull Mismatch

Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 9.25.21 AM
Screen Shot 2015-06-15 at 9.25.21 AM

Despite the proliferation of convenient, easy, fast, and free communication devices and media, communication chaos often reigns in complex organizations. That’s because there’s a terrible mismatch between the content of the messages we’re sending and the type of messaging media we often use. Messages fall along a continuum of urgency—from “The building’s on fire!” to “There are leftover brownies in the break room.” You can’t afford to miss the first one; the second one, not so much. (Okay, I know some people would say that the leftover brownies are just as urgent, but at least in terms of survival, if not gastronomic satisfaction, the fire really is more urgent.) The differing urgencies point us to different communication media. The fire gets a loud alarm and a PA announcement over the loudspeaker, while the brownies get an email. From a lean perspective, urgent messages get sent via a push system—you get the fire alarm when the sender wants you to. (Of course, Toyota’s famous andon cord is a push system—music plays and lights flash when the worker needs help.) Non-urgent messages get sent via a pull system—you retrieve the message from the server when you’re ready.

At least, that’s how communication should work. In practice, however, we’ve gotten out of the habit of using different mediums for different types of messages. Email has become the default mode of communication in most companies irrespective of the message’s urgency. The result is communication chaos. We send urgent messages via email even though we fear they’ll be lost in the mass of non-urgent messages (both important and trivial) —and then to compensate, we follow up with a phone call two minutes later: “Did you get my email...?” Or we send the email and then go to the recipient’s office immediately after: “I just sent you an email, and….” Intuitively, we know that email is a pull system, so we rely on a push system (phone call, face-to-face conversation) as a backup. That’s crazy, but fortunately it’s only a waste of time. What’s worse is when a truly urgent message gets lost in the inbox and we miss the opportunity to respond quickly enough to avert a serious problem.

You might argue that this problem could be avoided by just reviewing messages as they come in. That, after all, is what the email desktop alert does for you. But that argument doesn’t make sense. First, there are plenty of times when you’re not actually at your computer, or you’re talking with someone, so you’ll miss the alert. Second, the cure is worse than the disease: as numerous studies have shown, dealing with interruptions (aka multitasking) is toxic to productivity and work quality. Finally, it just doesn't make sense to review each incoming email when 99% of them are not urgent.

It’s far better to just match the right communication medium for the type of message you’re sending. Why bother searching for a needle in the email haystack when you can just avoid putting the needle in there in the first place?

Here are four steps to take to avoid the information push/pull mismatch:

  1. Identify the communication tools people are already using widely in the organization. (You’re probably using more than you think.)
  2. Choose one or two “push” media for urgent issues. They could use technology (pagers, cell phones) or not (face-to-face meetings, flashing lights).
  3. Conduct an internal discussion about what constitutes an urgent issue and decide upon the appropriate channel to handle it.
  4. Explore different types of “pull” media to reduce email burden—for example, Yammer, Slack, even old-school project boards.

Undoubtedly, there will be mismatches in some of the messages. But establishing a protocol for choosing more appropriate communication media will reduce the frequency of those mismatches, and lead to smoother, faster, and less chaotic communication and cooperation.



Three Ways to Increase Value

If you’re overweight, your doctor will certainly advise you to go on a diet. But not only a diet—she’ll likely ask you to begin an exercise program as well. Calorie restriction may be useful in shedding a few pounds in the short term, but it’s not going to make you fitter in the long term. Companies in tough financial straits often resort to the equivalent of dieting: cutting expenses through layoffs. “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap is the poster child of this approach, unafraid to layoff thousands after he took the helms of underperforming companies. It brought him fame and wealth. . . until he went too far and drove Sunbeam into bankruptcy. Leaving aside the accounting scandals, the consensus opinion was that his layoffs eviscerated corporate muscle, not just fat, leaving the company unable to compete.

A better countermeasure for poor financial performance is to embark on the corporate equivalent of a fitness program: increasing strength, flexibility, and resilience by creating more value for your customers. At a children’s hospital in Texas, for example, the radiology department dealt with financial pressures by reducing the lead time to schedule an MRI appointment. Shorter lead times meant increased value for patients (not to mention happier parents!), and at the same time an additional $500K in annual revenue due to higher MRI utilization. Ruffwear, a maker of outdoor products for dogs, increased value to their European distributor (their customer) by shipping more frequently in smaller batches. The smaller shipments made it easier for the distributor to pay for products, reduced the number of season-end closeouts, and increased profits for both parties.

Here are three ways to begin thinking about increasing value:

Magnifying the product or service:

  • Can you make something larger, bigger, or stronger? Think of free popcorn refills at theaters, oversized smartphones, or carbon fiber reinforced versions of a product.
  • Can you increase its frequency? Think of airlines adding flights to a route, or FedEx offering delivery several times per day.
  • Can you add extra features? Think of front- and rear-cameras on cell phones, freemium web services, or post-sale customer support and service.

Minimizing and eliminating (stripping away non-essentials)

  • Can you remove elements without altering its function? Think of the BMW i3 interior lining, which is no longer an applied finish to the car body; the lining is the finish, or the holes put into the Mazda RX-8 gas pedal to make it lighter.
  • Can you make it smaller or more compact? Think of the Nespresso Pixie machine designed for small urban apartments, or the new 10-denier fabrics for outdoor jackets.
  • Can you make it faster? Think of wait time for medical procedures, or expedited passport services.

Repurposing (give it greater worth)

  • Can you use it for something else can it be used for? Think of apps that allow your phone to act as a remote, Dermabond (basically Krazy Glue for closing surgical incisions), or plastic bottles turned into polyester fleece.
  • Can it be used by children or old people? Think of wheeled luggage to relieve overburdened parents or people lacking physical strength.
  • Can you use it in other markets or industries? Think of Microplane kitchen tools.

Sometimes economic realities necessitate budget cuts and layoffs. But that shouldn’t be the only, or even the first, approach to dealing with financial problems. You might find that looking at your products and services through the lenses of magnification, minimization, and repurposing will make it unnecessary to cut costs at all.



Six Questions for Managerial Improvement

Executives, managers, and supervisors often get caught up in the “busyness” of their days and fail to consider which activities are both truly necessary and value-adding to the organization and the customer. They’re typically so deeply immersed in the minutia of their jobs that they lose sight of the forest for the bark, much less the trees. Reflection (or hansei, or after-action-review) is a necessary step for improvement. It’s a critical part of Plan-Do-Study-Adjust cycle of learning, and you see it done after projects and during focused improvement work (particularly on the shop floor). But why not reflect more frequently, especially in the office? Why not turn everyday office work into an exercise in PDSA?

The cascade of six questions below is an easy way to step back and gain perspective on what you’re doing, whether you should be doing it at all, and how it could be improved. Taken together, they enable you to bring a PDSA mindset to your daily work, not just to large improvement projects. (Note that these questions can be used both by individuals as well as teams.

  1. What did we do today?
    • (Connect activities and results.)
  1. What did we accomplish today (e.g., design, make, sell, service)?
    • (Track progress, celebrate success, and establish the value of the team)
  1. What obstacles got in our way today (e.g., materials, lack of information, miscommunication, repeated fires, etc.)?
    • (Start the conversation on where improvement is necessary and possible.)
  1. What were the causes of these obstacles?
    • (Start the diagnostic process.)
  1. What alternative approaches might remove, offset, or remediate these causes?
    • (Start the process of planning and testing improvement ideas.)
  1. How are the alternative approaches progressing? Where are they succeeding? Where are they failing?
    • (Instill the discipline and mindset of reflection and analysis.)

Try it for two weeks. My hunch is that these will provide an easier on-ramp to continuous improvement than first diving into the rigorous details of, say, an A3 analysis, and will propel you towards a more efficient and effective day.


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Charles Kettering Forgot About Fear

In researching and writing my next book (Building the Fit Organization, coming out in September!), I’ve been thinking a lot about what constitutes good leadership—or what I call “fit” leadership. Charles Kettering, the head of research at General Motors in the early 20th century famously said that

The biggest job we have is to teach a newly hired employee how to fail intelligently. We have to train him to experiment over and over and to keep on trying and failing until he learns what will work.

That’s an admirable sentiment, and more recently it’s been echoed to the level of a platitude by the Silicon Valley mantra of “fail fast.” But before leaders can teach people how to fail intelligently, they have to drive the fear out of the organization so that employees are willing to experiment in the first place.

“Fear” is a strong word—so strong that I’d bet most leaders don’t think that fear runs through their organization. But W.E. Deming was right: careful reflection reveals anxiety—and yes, fear—that all the foosball tables, free massages, and Red Bull-stocked refrigerators can’t eliminate. Employees are afraid that new methods or technology will make their skills obsolete and threaten their jobs. They’re afraid that mistakes will be thrown in their face during the year-end performance evaluation. They’re afraid of having management criticize, ridicule, or ignore their suggestions. They’re afraid of being attacked for errors and failures, even if they’re committed in the service of improvement. They’re afraid of what’s known in the healthcare field as “name, blame, and shame.”

The first, and perhaps most important, step to driving out fear is a fundamental shift in attitude towards problems. Most leaders hate problems. They want their operations and their processes to run smoothly. They get frustrated when something goes wrong. They blame people. They try to find out who is responsible for the problem. By contrast—and at the risk of sounding hyperbolic—fit leaders love their problems. Problems are not things to be hidden. They’re not things to fear. They’re not even negative things—they’re improvement opportunities in disguise. A fit leader frames the problem as nothing more threatening than the gap between where the organization is today and where it wants to be tomorrow.

To that end, a fit leader tries to find out why a problem occurred, not who screwed up. (In fact, if someone did screw up, a fit leader asks why the system made it so easy for the person to screw up. The blame, such as it exists, is on the system, not the person. Why, not who.) When good leaders do blame people for a problem, they point the finger only at themselves.

Larry Barrett, VP of Operations at Sage Rods, exemplifies fit leadership. He views most problems as a signal that the leaders have erred. He tells this story:

One thing that we do now in our team meetings is to publicly recognize the responsibility that the leaders have. Especially when we are talking about an obstacle or an area where we’re not hitting our goals, I’ll make a point of calling out my responsibility. I encourage my other leaders to emulate this type of accountability and transparency. A common example is when we’re asking the team to work overtime. It’s hard to think of a scenario where this is not my fault as the leader, and I make sure that the team knows: (1) that I own this; (2) what I plan to do to fix it; and (3) how long it might take. We get better results with this style of communication.

That kind of self-imposed accountability drives out fear, and creates the kind of environment where people feel free to experiment. . . and fail.

What are you doing to drive out fear?

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Proclamation, Observation, Participation


John Wooden, legendary coach of the UCLA men’s basketball team, demonstrated basketball techniques and plays on the court with his players. Jim Caldwell, the highly respected former coach of the Indianapolis Colts, used to go over the offensive game plan each week with his team, imitating a safety or a linebacker so that his quarterback would understand how to react. Coaching—and leading—in a business setting should be the same. Great coaching and leadership doesn’t happen through proclamation or mere observation. It happens through participation in the activities that your team is doing.

Proclamation: At the lowest level of involvement and effectiveness, proclamational leaders dictate how work should be done and how processes should operate, but they don’t join in the change. They continue to fight fires, attend executive briefings, and make decisions and manage the business from the executive conference room. These are the CEOs that are shocked (shocked!) at actual working conditions when they go on Undercover Boss.

Observation: Observational bosses are better than proclaimers. They recognize the need to go to the front lines where work is being done so that they can see problems and issues first-hand. However, because they don’t join in the actual work, they never experience the daily frustrations and obstacles that affect workers. And in general, they don’t understand the work well enough to help improve it.

Participation: At the highest level of effectiveness, participatory leaders not only get out to the front lines, they get involved in the work itself. They model the right behaviors and techniques, and they work shoulder-to-shoulder with employees to better understand what’s happening. (Within reason: no one needs a hospital CEO doing their coronary bypass.) As Art Byrne, former CEO of Wiremold says, “You can’t just send a memo. You’ve got to lead it. Show them by example, do it on the shop floor.”

Leadership is more than simply dictating memos from the C-suite on how things should be done. It’s more than observing the messy reality of what’s happening on the front lines (although that’s important). Leadership—great leadership— requires active engagement and participation.



Do You Start Training for a Marathon with a 20-Mile Run?

Do you start training for a marathon with a 20-mile run? Of course not. Do you go to the gym for the first time and try to bench-press 250 pounds? Not unless you want to get injured.

So why was your first kaizen event a 10-month slog towards some financial improvement goal that didn’t actually change much in your daily work life?

You see this all the time: a company decides to try lean. It hires external consultants, and tackles a sprawling, exceedingly complicated process for their first kaizen effort. After all, that’s how to sell it to the leadership team—by taking on a huge project with significant financial impact. Even assuming the project is successful, by the time it’s complete, the people involved are often burned out, they haven’t really understood and embraced lean, and the 90% of the people in the organization who weren’t involved in the project still have no idea what lean is. The overall problem solving skill of the organization is still pathetically low.

People intuitively understand that the pursuit of athletic fitness is a long process involving the slow but steady buildup of muscular strength, cardiovascular capacity, and flexibility. That’s why marathon training programs last five months. That’s why there are many different weights in the gym. We have to build up to our fitness goal.

Why don’t we treat lean transformations the same way? In my forthcoming book, Building the Fit Organization, I argue that the principles necessary for reaching physical fitness are the same principles needed for organizational “fitness.” One concept common to both is the need to start small, with manageable amounts of work. Consequently, you start training for a marathon with a two-mile run, not a 20-miler. You start a weight training program with light weights, so that you can learn the proper form and not hurt yourself.

But organizations that embark on a lean transformation often do the opposite. Before they’ve built up their problem solving muscles, before they’ve gotten employees to embrace the lean approach, they take on a complex project that requires advanced skills and full support. While that doesn’t doom them to failure, it certainly stacks the deck against them. Needlessly.

At a workshop I recently gave, one attendee said that the first project her group worked on took 15 months to complete. It was only moderately successful -- and more significantly, they haven't done one since. Another attendee said that his group started with small projects lasting a couple of days to a couple of weeks. In the past year and a half, they've done 30 projects, gotten nearly everyone involved, and generated widespread commitment and enthusiasm for lean. To be fair, none of those projects made huge differences in the company's bottom line, but they definitely developed people's problem solving capabilities, and set the stage for more significant improvements in the future.

Whether you're training for a marathon or embarking on an organizational transformation -- which approach do you think will get you to your goal faster?



Where's Martin Luther When You Need Him?

Latin was the language of the Catholic Church for over 1000 years. Conducting the mass and printing the bible in Latin, a language that the laity didn’t understand, required a priest to act as an intermediary between god and man. It took Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and Vatican II to bring the language of religion into the vernacular.

The lean community is in a similar position of the church prior to Luther. The literature is filled with Japanese terms (gemba, kanban, heijunka), English jargon that doesn’t mean what you think (water spider, shine, autonomation), and abbreviations and acronyms (A3, 5S, 3P) that are impenetrable to newcomers. If you’re a member of the Lean Six Sigma community, there are even official vestments in the form of colored belts. This makes little sense: If we’re asking people to think, act, and work differently from they way they’re currently doing, why make the task harder by erecting linguistic barriers? Why not express the core principles in people’s native language.

Some will argue that there are subtleties that are lost when we translate the original Japanese into another language. Others will argue that it doesn’t make sense to translate a single foreign word that perfectly captures an idea into a longer English phrase (think schadenfreude, déjà vu, or sushi). While that may be true in some cases, the vast majority of words used in the lean community aren’t so specialized and nuanced that they can’t be adequately translated.

Quality Bike Parts (QBP), a distributor of bike parts and accessories in Minnesota, has fully embraced the ethos of continuous improvement. However, not only do they avoid using Japanese words and jargon, they’ve translated the concepts into relevant English. The entire program, for example, is called the GRIP Program—“great results from improved processes”—which connects nicely to the products they sell. And rather than use the terms kaizen (small improvements) and kaikaku (large, revolutionary improvements), they simply have “big GRIPs” and “little GRIPs.” They don’t talk about muda (waste); they send new employees into the company dumpster to see what’s thrown out and to consider how they can reduce the amount of wasted material. Not surprisingly, employees at QBP readily accept the discipline of continuous improvement, without the typical resistance so many companies face: “We’re not Toyota. We don’t make cars. Lean won’t work here.”

Translating the Mass into the vernacular made Church teachings accessible to the masses. Blind obedience and total reliance on the priest was replaced by a deeper and more thoughtful understanding of religious teachings. And although it removed the priest from his position as intermediary between god and people, the change didn’t make the priest irrelevant. In fact, I would argue that it put the priest in a better position to help teach, guide, and support his congregants. Authority is most powerful when it comes from knowledge, skill, and a deep-seated commitment to serving others, not from ownership of a specialized vocabulary or a colored belt. And motivation to change is stronger when people can readily grasp the fundamental ideas without struggling over the words.



What Problem Are You Trying to Solve?

The soul-deadening excesses of corporate 5S tyrants continues to astonish me. While leading a workshop at a healthcare client last week, I learned that two of their internal lean champions—and I use that term VERY loosely—had become tin-pot 5S dictators. One of these so-called lean leaders forbade anyone to have more than a single personal photo on their desk. Another dim bulb insisted that everyone put blue tape outlines around their computer, phone, stapler, etc. These exercises in small-minded stupidity were all the more surprising because this is an organization that has been pursuing lean for several years now, has a lean leadership development program in place, and has been consistently working with an outside consultant.

I’ve written before about the absurdity and wrong-headedness of transferring 5S in a literal fashion from the factory to the office. Setting that equipment in “order” doesn’t accomplish anything, because—as far as I know—no one has ever lost their computer or their keyboard. Setting the information that office workers manage in order is a good idea, but not the computer itself. And as far as the one-personal-photo limit? That’s stupid. And cruel. And pointless.

5S is nothing more than a tool designed to solve specific problems, like abnormalities in a process that might otherwise be hidden, or wasted motion while looking for tools. But it’s a tool for a specific problem, not something to be slavishly and mindlessly applied because it shows up on page 34 of your Big Book of Lean. That makes as much sense as using a crescent wrench to hammer a nail. Or doing extended calculations in a table in Word.

Whether you’re implementing an improvement program on your own, or you’re getting help from an outside consultant, you always need to start with this fundamental question: What problem am I trying to solve? The answer to that question will direct you to the appropriate tool (if it exists), or force you to invent your own.

Stop worshipping at the altar of Toyota. Instead, learn from Toyota. They invented tools to solve their specific problems at specific times. You need to do the same.

Commit to problem solving. Commit to learning. But don’t commit to 5S unless it's relevant for the problem you’re facing. Otherwise, all you’ll get is alienated workers who will leave you for an organization that allows them to have a picture of their wife AND their dog on their desk.



For the Last Time: Cost Cutting Isn’t “Lean”

The headline in the Wall Street Journal last week was utterly predictable: “Kraft Deal Fueled by Lean Recipe.” It was only a matter of time after Heinz’s acquisition of Kraft that the business press would refer, once gain, to 3G Capital Partners’ use of zero-based budgeting as something “lean.” This approach, which requires managers to justify spending plans from scratch every year rather than simply modifying the previous year’s budget, is many things, but it is certainly not lean.

Yes, lean organizations relentlessly seek to lower costs. And yes, lean organizations constantly strive to eliminate wasteful expenditures of cash. But the layoffs that accompany zero-based budgeting are most certainly not lean. Neither is the infantilizing, management-directed, and disrespectful (to employees) cost cutting that the Wall Street Journal describes:

After chicken processor Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. adopted it a few years ago, it scrutinized how much paper it used to print documents, how much soap employees used to wash their hands, and how much Gatorade hourly employees at one processing facility drank during breaks.

In my new book about continuous improvement (still untitled, but coming out this September), I draw a parallel between individual physical fitness and organizational “fitness.” You can’t get physically fit simply by dieting—sure, you can lose weight, but that doesn’t make you healthy and strong. Similarly, you can’t get organizationally fit simply by cutting costs. Laying off people and prohibiting color copies doesn’t make a company nimble and competitive. It may boost the share price and profitability in the short term, but it can’t develop the organization’s competitive powers for the long term.

Competitive strength comes from the development of employee problem-solving capabilities and the improvement of operational processes. Zero-based budgeting doesn’t do that. Want to reduce the amount of Gatorade people drink? Teach employees how to attack the “problem” of excessive Gatorade consumption at its root cause, which might very well lead to improvements in ventilation, plant layout, and workflow—and along the way, truly significant cost reductions. Want to cut down on soap consumption (which, honestly, doesn’t seem like a great idea in a poultry processing plant)? Challenge employees to redesign the process in a way to reduce the amount of direct poultry handling. At the very least, having employees figure out how to take costs out of a system is far more respectful of their intelligence and creativity, and far less dispiriting than simply dictating a 30% cut in their Gatorade allowance.

There’s plenty of research proving that cost reduction isn’t sustained in the long run. Just like weight always comes back after drastic dieting, costs always creep back two to three years after drastic cuts, because the underlying processes and capabilities haven’t been improved. As soon as the financial crisis fades, people start buying more Gatorade and making color copies.

Look, I fully support the elimination of excessive corporate privilege. I cringe at the thought of executives flying first class on the company dime while front-line workers fly coach. I can’t stand swanky corporate offices with Persian rugs and fireplaces that serve only to gratify egos and create unnecessary distinctions within an organization. But skinny and starved isn’t healthy and fit, and cost cutting isn’t lean.


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What you can learn from Marie Kondo

The Life-Changing Mindset of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo has sold 2 million copies worldwide. It’s the top seller in the New York Times “advice and how-to” category. It’s the number one seller overall on Amazon right now. 5S for Operators by Hiroyuki Hirano, who in many ways is the father of 5S, ranks number 129,268 in books on Amazon. Ron Taylor’s 5S: Workplace Organization and Process Design Using Lean 5S checks in at number 87,584. Ade Asefeso’s 5S for Supervisors is at 550,900. 5S for Healthcare by the well-respected Tom Jackson is at 377,661. Brice Alvord’s Planning & Implementing 5S comes in at 937,654. I don’t know exactly how many copies of these books have been sold, but I’m pretty confident that their total combined sales over the past 19 years (when Hirano’s book came out) are nowhere near the 338,000 copies of Tidying Up sold in the U.S.—since October.

Okay, this isn’t a fair comparison: Kondo’s book is for the mass market, while these 5S books are targeted primarily at manufacturing organizations. But there’s a deeper truth operating as well. Kondo writes in the language of ordinary people. She doesn’t force readers to adopt new jargon or even a foreign language. She tells readers to look at their closets and answer one simple question: “Does it spark joy?” If yes, keep it and treat it with respect. If not, toss it out.

Now, think about 5S. The concept is basically the same as the one Kondo advocates. (Sure, there are differences, but many of the fundamentals are similar.) But instead of presenting the overarching concept in easily grasped language, the lean community uses the meaningless shorthand “5S.” We tell people that they must follow each “s” in the proper sequence. We translate the original Japanese into words like “shine,” which actually doesn’t mean shine in the way any English speaker would expect.

Kondo asks people if the stuff in their houses sparks joy. We ask people to distinguish between “set in order” and “straighten.” Is it any wonder that it’s so hard to get workers to accept (much less embrace) 5S?

Shame on us for making such an important concept so off-putting.

As you may know, I just finished writing my second book. (It’s still untitled, but McGraw-Hill will be publishing it in September.) One of my goals was to take the Japanese, take the jargon, and take the Toyota out of lean. I wanted to tell a story about continuous improvement unencrusted by the barnacles of traditional lean vocabulary that can be so alienating to newcomers. I’m pretty sure that the book won’t reach the heights of Tidying Up, but I hope at least that it helps you think about making improvement tools and concepts more accessible for your organization.

Take a lesson from Kondo. She’s inspired rabid groupies committed to her vision of cleaning the crap out of their houses. You can too.

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What event are you training for?

Managerial Takt Time
Managerial Takt Time

"Takt time" is part of the gospel handed down by Jim Womack and Dan Jones in their seminal book, Lean Thinking. Despite the awkwardness of the German word from which it derives (taktzeit), it's a very simple concept: it's the average unit production time needed to meet customer demand. The goal of takt time is to link your company's value-added work to the customer's needs.

But what if you're an executive or a manager without direct production responsibility, and without a clearly defined customer demand? How do you calculate takt time for a leader in this circumstance?

In the new book I'm writing, I suggest that a useful way to think about takt time for a leader is to compare it to the schedule for someone training for a specific event -- say, a marathon. The training schedule links the workouts to the goal, ensuring that training is done so that the runner peaks at the right time. The training schedule also ensures that the runner invests an appropriate amount of time in the different types of training needed for success: aerobic running, anaerobic running, cross-training, flexibility, etc.

If you're a leader, you need to link your daily/weekly/monthly activities to the strategic goals you've set. You can do that by allocating your time to the critical areas that will get you there: improvement, talking to customers, coaching & training your team, strategic planning and thinking, etc. Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, provides a good example of this kind of thinking:

I budget how much time I’m going to be out of Seattle and in Seattle. I budget what I’m spending my time on — customers, partners, etc…. I schedule formal meetings and my free time…. I’m not saying when they’re going to happen, but I budget all this stuff. I try to make sure that I feel comfortable that I have enough time to…think, to investigate, to learn more, but I have to budget my time…. I give the budget allocation to my administrative assistants, they lay it all out and then anybody who asks for time, they say, "Steve, this is in budget, it’s not in budget, how do you want us to handle it?"

I know very few executives that determine their calendars to this extent. When you think about it from the perspective of an athlete, however, it makes perfect sense. How can you decide whether or not to take on a new commitment or spend time on a new project if you don't know what else you're supposed to be spending time on? How can you be sure that your overall efforts are appropriately linked to your larger goals unless you have a master plan?

You've got 2000 hours per year. How are you going to spend them?


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The Training Triangle

Training Triangle
Training Triangle

Effective training/coaching in the workplace or the athletic arena rests on three legs.

Show respect: There may be some abusive coaches around these days, but by and large, the best coaches and personal trainers possess a deep and abiding respect for their players or clients. A trainer who disdains his overweight clients will very soon be looking for a new line of work. In the office or on the shop floor, a condescending supervisor will quickly lose the respect and support of her team. Respecting people's ability to grow, and honoring their desire to do a good job, is essential to effective training.

Go and See: Straight from the lean playbook, you have to see with your own eyes what's happening. Is an athlete suffering from repetitive injuries, or continually failing to perform an exercise properly? The only way to diagnose the root cause is to see with your own eyes what the athlete is doing. Are there repetitive order entry errors, or continual problems getting your marketing materials ready on time? You've got to watch the process, and the workers in the process, with your own eyes to help them do it correctly.

Participate: The best personal trainers don't just phone in the workout -- they model the exercises and participate in the activities they're prescribing for their clients. The great coaches are there on the court or on the field with their athletes. Similarly, the best leaders participate in their own improvement work. That's not to say that the leader has to clean the office floor everyday with his team (although the president of one $100M electronics company does), but the great leaders engage people's hearts and minds both by engaging in their own improvement work, and by getting involved in what their teams are doing. It's not enough to "support" what people are doing -- leaders have to actively participate.

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Why Visual Management Matters

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 9.28.57 AM
Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 9.28.57 AM

Bringing an organization, or even just a functional process within that organization, to higher levels of performance is a challenge. Workers often don’t know how well (or poorly) they’re functioning—if it’s always taken 7 days to close the monthly books, or 15 months to get through the product development cycle, then it’s just business as usual. Or people can’t see the problems their work creates for colleagues working downstream. Or there’s a deep-seated “us vs. them” feeling: “We do our jobs well in marketing, but it’s those guys in sales that create all the problems.” Or people can’t even agree on what the actual problems are. Or they just don’t care. That’s why visual management is so important. When people can see the processes in which they work with a value stream map (sorry, Pete Abilla), and when they can monitor and measure that process with visual controls, the obstacles to improvement are much easier to overcome. Rendering the current condition visible in a map and/or a dashboard externalizes it, so that we can examine it together, from the same perspective. As Michael Ballé writes in Lead With Respect, “we see together, so we know together, so we can act together.”

Visibility enables you to transcend the resistance to change that comes from differing perspectives, and harness your team’s innate creativity to create a better future.


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Cadillac's NYC Boondoggle.

Last week's news about Cadillac's management relocating to New York got me in the mood to steal one of Kevin Meyer's old tricks from his Evolving Excellence days: calling out corporate stupidity when I see it. In case you missed it, the leadership at Cadillac announced that it will be moving its headquarters to NYC, in order to better understand the needs of the luxury customer:

[Cadillac President Johan] De Nysschen said being in New York, which he called the epicenter for global trends, will allow the team to build a focus solely on the brand and to better understand the "sophisticated lifestyle" of Cadillac's target customer base.

I can understand the desire to have marketing and design people spend a lot of time in New York rather than Detroit -- although it's worth pointing out that in the US, BMW and Mercedes are both based in New Jersey, which is not exactly known for being a hotspot of global trends. It's also worth noting that the heart of American car culture is in California, and as a result, many car companies have their design centers in the Los Angeles area.

Of course, the truth is that you can understand your customers' lifestyle pretty damn well even without opening up a fancy showroom in SoHo. Toyota's Yuji Yokoya, chief engineer for the Sienna minivan, drove 53,000 miles around the U.S. to understand what American drivers needed in a minivan. (The minivan was not sold in Japan at the time, so Toyota's headquarters in Nagoya were much farther away from the target market than Detroit is from New York.) The Sienna received rave reviews and was a huge success.

What's more worrisome about Cadillac's move is the possibility that the company will send more functions than just marketing to New York:

GM is studying whether to send Cadillac's product planning and finance functions to New York, or to keep those in Detroit. Design, research and development and other technical aspects will remain based in southeast Michigan, de Nysschen said.

This dispersal of critical functions is a recipe for failure -- for missed handoffs, for botched communications, for rework in all phases of product development. Most companies, even well-functioning ones, have a hard enough time avoiding these snafus when people are working on the same floor, much less the same building. But separated by 600 miles? Good luck. And needless to say, GM isn't exactly an exemplar of efficient and effective communications.

My guess is that within 12-18 months Cadillac will abandon this project, citing absurd expenses in New York city, unanticipated project costs and errors in new product development, and a lack of sales growth.

You read it here first.

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