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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?



Kaizen Lies Between Frustration & Seagulls

Knowledge vs Authority
Knowledge vs Authority

Continuous improvement requires the coupling of authority to make changes and knowledge about what to change.

Authority without knowledge creates that pernicious breed, the "seagull manager," who, in the words of Ken Blanchard, flies in, makes a lot of noise, dumps on everyone, then flies out.

Knowledge without authority leads to frustrated workers who know what changes to make, but lack the authority to do so without the approval of at least one layer of management.

A structured problem solving approach like A3 thinking creates overlap in these two zones. As John Shook argues in his book Managing to Learn, the A3 creates "pull-based authority," such that the person with the greatest knowledge earns the authority to make decisions and improvements. That's fertile soil for kaizen.


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Say ACK! for Kaizen

Courage Autonomy Knowledge
Courage Autonomy Knowledge

I've noticed recently that even in the presence of obvious problems and easy improvements, people often don't engage in kaizen. They just muddle through their work, wishing it were easier, and resigning themselves to the fact that it's not. But why? I think that kaizen activities flourish at the intersection of Autonomy, Courage, and Knowledge.

  • Autonomy: the ability for a person to act without seeking permission. Many organizations are so sclerotic as to require workers to get approval for any change they want to make. Example: Rich Sheridan, president of Menlo Innovations, allows (expects!) people to sit where they need to sit and form the teams they need in order to create the right products for customers. Or any organization that eschews suggestion boxes in favor of improvement boards on the walls.
  • Courage to Experiment: the confidence that making mistakes is natural, expected, and -- as long as it doesn't cripple the company -- welcome. Example: Grey Advertising (NY) bestows a "Heroic Failure" award. SurePayroll actually gives a cash award for errors that lead to significant learning. WL Gore distinguishes between "above the waterline" and "below the waterline risks" -- only the latter need approval from the senior team.
  • Knowledge: understanding one's work well enough to be able to improve the way things are done. Example: This is the easiest criteria to meet, because anyone who does a job with some modicum of self-awareness has the necessary knowledge to improve the work. In other words, *everyone* has the knowledge they need to make improvements.

Having just one or two of the elements won't create an environment conducive to kaizen. Without all three, you end up with passive bystanders, frustrated innovators, or wasted effort.

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A sheep in sheep's clothing

In working with a client this week, I learned that there can be serious cultural obstacles to embracing structured problem solving (what I'll call "A3 thinking" in this post -- sorry, Jon Miller). A worker at one of my clients recently confessed that she was anxious about talking to colleagues in other departments about her A3. She needed to get background information about how this problem was affecting other areas of the company in terms of cost overruns, rework, etc., but she was afraid that her coworkers would be suspicious of her questions. Even though the company doesn't have the entrenched fiefdoms of a giant 10,000 person firm (it's only about 150 people), there's still a deep-seated wariness of someone from another functional silo poking around. She was also worried that her colleagues would see her questions -- and her A3 -- as merely a cover for her ulterior motive: a justification for her pre-determined and preferred solution.

Creating and sustaining a culture committed to learning and continuous improvement ain't easy -- if it were, we wouldn't still be talking about Toyota. (And I'm looking forward to reading Jon Miller's new book, Creating a Kaizen Culture.) But it seems to me that one critical step is in the process is to undertake A3 thinking with a true spirit of open inquiry.

You can't go into an A3 with a pre-determined solution. The A3 is a vehicle to structure your learning process and help you communicate your learning effectively. It's a visible way to guide your PDSA cycles. It's not a sales technique (although it does ultimately help sell your solution), and it's not a magician's misdirection. To use it in these ways is to breed cynicism, suspicion, and resistance.

An A3 is not a wolf in sheep's clothing. It's just a sheep.




Sowing the seeds of our own demise

Leslie Perlow, author of the seminal study on "time famine," is at it again, this time with a new book called Sleeping with your Smartphone. The book is based on experiments that she did with the Boston Consulting Group (and which I described in an earlier blog post) to reduce the need -- or the perceived need -- to be "always on." In a new HBR blog post, Perlow points out that

accepting the pressure to be "on" — usually stemming from some seemingly legitimate reason, such as requests from clients or customers or teammates in different time zones — in turn makes us accommodate the pressure even more. We begin adjusting to such demands, adapting the technology we use, altering our daily schedules, the way we work, even the way we live our lives and interact with our family and friends, to be better able to meet the increased demands on our time. Once our colleagues experience our increased responsiveness, their requests on our time expand. Already "on," we accept these increased demands, while those who don't risk being evaluated as "less committed" to their work.

She calls this the "cycle of responsiveness (although I'd probably call it the "vicious cycle of responsiveness"), in which our willingness to respond to increased requests simply leads to increased demands. Like ocean waves gradually wearing away a sand castle, these demands end up eroding any vestige of time that we can unambiguously arrogate for ourselves.

From a lean perspective, there are two major problems with this cycle of responsiveness. First, there's the waste of overproduction. I've argued before that if the only thing you're providing your customers is a fast response, you'll soon be replaced by someone cheaper in Shenzen or Mumbai. Your job is to provide real value -- value which most of the time doesn't need to be delivered within 12 minutes of receipt of the email. In other words, being "on" all the time isn't necessarily what your customer needs. Yes, your customer may appreciate it, but that doesn't mean that they need it. And that, from a lean perspective, is overproduction.

Second, the cycle of responsiveness prevents (or at least impairs) the ability to do kaizen and reflection. If you're always "on" and responding to customers, you never have the time to stop, to reflect, to figure out how to improve your processes and systems. You end up racing faster and faster in a desperate attempt to stay in the same place on the treadmill, like George Jetson.

Perlow provides valuable suggestions for how to break the cycle. Check them out here.



"I'm not stressed out."

Mark Graban tells the following story about his visit to VIBCO:

The two women who were working at the front desk (answering phone calls and customer requests, among other duties) were describing the impact of Lean on their work – how they standardized many of their activities and applied a Kaizen mindset to making their work easier. There were lots of little Lean improvements in place, stuff they had worked on themselves. They mentioned how they were able to get much more done during their day.

A visiting healthcare executive asked one of the women if she was working harder as a result of those changes. She responded,

It doesn’t feel like I’m working harder. I’m not stressed out. I’m getting more done and there’s a sense of accomplishment.

There's an important point here, and it's easy to miss. Generally speaking, the front desk job is incredibly demanding: there's no time for planning and there's no predictability to the schedule -- when you're working the phones and tending to the front door, you have no idea what's coming through the door or when. In a lot of respects, it's a lot like working in the emergency department at a hospital: you never know what kind of patient will come through the door next.

What's noteworthy is that even in a position where the worker has to be immediately responsive to the unpredictable incoming work (after all, they can't just not answer the phones, or lock the front door), they were able to standardize some element of their activities and make those activities easier. And the establishment of standardization resulted in less stress and more work completed. (Not to mention that nice feeling of accomplishment.)

If you're reading this blog, there's an excellent chance that you're not a receptionist, and therefore that your job allows for a more measured response time. For the most part, you don't have to answer the phone on the first ring, or respond to an email within a minute of its arrival (even if you feel you do). Think about the effect that standardizing -- and improving -- some of your work could have on your ability to accomplish your work.

Analyze your responsibilities. Break out the recurring, predictable work (ordering supplies, processing email, dictating cases) from the creative, unpredictable work (writing ad copy, choosing a color palette for the product line, choosing a medication protocol). Standardize and kaizen the predictable stuff. Get more work done. With less stress.

If a receptionist can do it, you can too.