Scut Work Matters

Basic maintenance (or as my wife calls it, "scut work") matters. Especially for senior leadership. 

Not because the 10% of the time that senior leadership spends on maintenance makes a significant difference in preventing breakdowns or keeping the company operating smoothly. But because it has enormous impact on how well, and how often, everyone else in the organization does maintenance. 

In Gemba Kaizen, Masaaki Imai suggests that most of top management's time should be spent on innovation and kaizen, with just a small percentage of time devoted to basic maintenance, as he shows in this chart:

In my experience, most leadership teams ignore the area in red: to the extent that they even think about the need for maintenance, they assume that since it occupies such a small percentage of their time, it's unimportant. 

Nothing could be farther from the truth. You could even argue that it's the most important portion of their time. 

As I've written about before, effective coaching requires that leaders both go to the workplace ("go see") as well as participate in the work that they're asking people to do. That doesn't mean that the VP of Engineering has to clean and oil the machines everyday, or that the CFO should organize client files every morning, but they should at least join in once every month or two. Participation in this kind of scut work doesn't just demonstrate "servant leadership." It also sends a powerful signal to employees that this work is important. If senior leadership can do it, then surely it's important enough for everyone else to do it as well.

Want to see what this looks like? Check out Paul Akers, the president of FastCap, on his hands and knees. . . cleaning the company toilet. My hunch is that if more CEOs did this, we wouldn't need 5S audits. And, of course, there wouldn't be a need for Undercover Boss

Maintenance may only be 10% of your time, but don't ignore it. Otherwise, everyone else will, too.



Paris Is All Wrong

Joseph Paris, that is. Not the city of lights.

Recently, Joseph Paris of XONITEK and the Operational Excellence Society argued that the continuous improvement community is making a grievous mistake by worshipping at the altar of Toyota and all things Japanese. He writes:

I believe this reverence of Japan and Japanese companies is largely (perhaps entirely) undeserved—possibly even a myth.  As they say, sacred cows make the best hamburger. And even if all this hype about Japan and Japanese companies was ever true at some point in the past, it is certainly not true today—and has not been true since the early 1990’s.  Further, I would propose that the expected results of any company that has “drank the Kool-Aid” and is trying to emulate the way a Japanese company operates as a path to a better future are misguided at best, and more than likely greatly exaggerated—leading to a disappointment that is almost certainly inevitable.

Paris goes on to compare per capita GDP in Japan, Germany, and the US; the movement of the Nikkei, DAX, and Dow stock indices; and finally the performance of Ford and Toyota stock prices over the past 20 years to demonstrate that Japan and Japanese companies don’t outstrip the US and American companies, and concludes that lean isn’t sufficient to improve organizational performance and competitiveness.

I am by no means a macro-economist (as my MBA professors will no doubt attest), so I won’t argue his GDP and stock index analysis. But I’m happy to debate two premises: that lean management is pervasive, and that Toyota is no better managed than Ford.

Paris says that 

the use of [lean] tools and techniques are now ubiquitous across companies—and since they are nearly universally accepted and embraced by companies, they no longer offer themselves as a differentiator nor do they offer a competitive advantage as they once did. And as such, they expose the limitations of the Japanese way of running a business.

I’m not sure what companies Paris has been consulting to, but in my experience, the number of companies that have fully embraced the lean management system is vanishingly small. Autoliv. Lantech. Herman-Miller. Virginia Mason. A few others for sure, but certainly not to the point that lean has become “ubiquitous” and “universally accepted and embraced.” These organizations are the exception, not the rule—both in the US and in Japan. Moreover, lean is by no means “the Japanese way” of doing business. I’ve worked for two Japanese firms over the years; neither had any knowledge of, or interest in, lean tools or philosophy. To say that there is a universal Japanese way of management—or a universal “American way” of management—is ridiculous. Could there be any more divergent management styles than General Electric and Zappos? It’s like saying that there’s one universal Japanese style of literature, or one universal style of American beer. 

Now let’s turn to Paris’s argument that Ford’s and Toyota’s stock price is an adequate reflection of their performance. According to his analysis, this chart doesn’t show that Toyota is a significantly better-managed company than Ford. 

Hmm…where do I even start with this argument? First, Ford has significantly improved its product development processes over the past decade—in fact, modeling them after Toyota. Second, and more significantly, unless you’re completely naïve (or a Chicago School of Economics professor), you can’t really believe in the absolute wisdom of the market. If you really believe that stock price correlates with the quality of management, then I’ve got some stock for you to buy: Enron. Sunbeam. Worldcom. Lehman Brothers. 

Instead of looking at the stock price, let’s look at Ford and Toyota’s net income. That presents an entirely different (and I’d argue, a more relevant) picture of management quality:

Which company would you invest in now?

Paris closes with a straw man argument that reflects his shallow understanding of lean. He states that 

the company that focuses on cutting waste over innovation and driving value to the customer—innovation and value for which the customer is willing to pay a premium—is not at any particular advantage.

He’s absolutely correct here. . . except that lean is not just about cutting waste out of operational processes. The elimination of waste is certainly part of lean, but that’s in the service of driving value to the customer. Less waste means that more financial and human resources can be dedicated to the creation of customer value. 

I agree with Paris that we shouldn’t hold up the Toyota production system as a “holy scroll” and a “sacred scripture.” (In fact, I argue the same thing in my new book, Building the Fit Organization.) But in everything else, Paris is all wrong. 



Training Wheels vs. Crutches

Last week I was speaking about my new book at a company that has a well-developed internal improvement team. In most engagements, the team embeds one of their lean experts within a department, and for the next year or two, that person works within the business to improve operations, while gradually easing herself out of her role. When that posting is complete, the person moves on to another department. 

This company views their office as the equivalent of kaizen training wheels. Their job is to help the various functional departments learn the skills, tools, and mindsets needed for lean and support them on their journey until the department can do it on its own. Their job is not to assume responsibility for improvement, or do all the heavy lifting, for the department. Cardinal Health, which uses a lean six sigma methodology, takes a very similar approach, in which people from the LSS team rotate in and out of functional departments, helping them improve processes, but not owning the improvement projects -- until eventually, the LSS expert finds a permanent position within the business units.

By contrast, many organizations use their internal improvement team as a crutch. In these organizations, the team parachutes into a department for a week/month/year, fixes the current problems, and then moves onto the next challenge. The emphasis is on rapid results, not on skill development -- and I'd argue, on episodic, rather than continuous improvement. When new problems arise, or when the company decides that the department must do still better, it has to wait until the continuous improvement cognoscenti with their belts and decoder rings are able to slot them into their schedule.

Training wheels help you develop new skills so that you can continue to ride on your own. Crutches make life easier today, but don't develop new capacity or capability. How does your organization operate?




The Tragedy of CEO Curiosity

My friend Roger is the president of a small manufacturer here in California that's owned by a larger Swiss company. A few months ago, his facility hosted a global meeting of all the companies held by the Swiss parent. In keeping with company custom, he made a sign welcoming all the participants and listing their names. After peering at the list for awhile, the Swiss CEO said, "Interesting. . . I'm trying to figure out how you ordered the names."

In fact, there was no particular order -- Roger listed the names randomly. But when the CEO made his comment, Roger panicked: did the CEO expect a particular order? By title? Seniority? By shoe size? Roger was so anxious about making a mistake that when he made a list for an event later in the meeting, he agonized over it for 45 minutes before finally putting the names in alphabetical order.

Now, it turns out that the CEO didn't care. He was just curious, because he couldn't see any discernible pattern in the names. (And he's Swiss.) But Roger, as a relatively new head of the subsidiary, couldn't help but read something into the CEO's question that just wasn't there.

I call this problem the "inference effect." The higher up the organizational food chain the person asking the questions is, the more likely we are to infer meaning that isn't there. If it's your colleague asking a question, you probably take it at face value. If it's your (Swiss) CEO, you'll infer all kinds of unintended meaning. The mangers at one of my clients often joke that they'd like to "kill the CEO's curiosity"-- whenever he asks a question at one of the quarterly business review meetings, it causes the team to prepare even more reports and analysis for the next one. Over the years, his team has sliced and diced the data so many ways that they can hardly see the forest for the bark, never mind the trees. And the sad thing is that the CEO didn't care deeply about most of the questions -- they were simply expressions of idle curiosity.

The tragedy of the inference effect is the needless waste and churn it creates. Roger spent 43 minutes more than was necessary to make a list on a sign. The financial team at my client is spending time analyzing sales by region by distribution channel by packaging color by day of the week by store manager's zodiac sign.

As the CEO, you owe it to your team to be cognizant of the inference effect. You're one of their most important customers, and they'll work hard to provide you with an answer, because they assume you value it. Feel free to ask something out of sheer curiosity, but if you don't want them to do additional analysis, say so. Don't let them infer meaning that's not there -- because they will. And that's not only a waste, it's a tragedy.


My new book, Building the Fit Organization, comes out on September 22. It's a fresh approach to continuous improvement -- no mention of Toyota, no Japanese, and no weird English jargon. Instead, it has approachable examples and models drawn from the world of physical fitness and athletic excellence. You can pre-order it on Amazon now:

Joe Dager at the wonderful podcast Business901 interviewed me about the book recently. You can listen to the podcast here: If you like to watch more than listen, you can see my first webinar on the book, which I idd for Joakim Ahlstrom and the C2 Consultancy here:

If you're in the SF Bay Area on Sep 24-25, I've organized an amazing 2-day workshop with Mark Hamel on Visual Management & Leader Standard Work. Mark is a great teacher and deeply experienced in all facets of lean. The event will be held at the hospital job site of Boldt Construction, where you'll have a chance to see an how an obeya can be used to manage the complexity of a major construction project. For more information, go to


That's all the self-promotion for this week. 




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Semantics Matter.

I was helping a client with a process mapping exercise recently, and saw this post-it:

n their excellent book Metrics Based Process Mapping, Karen Martin and Mike Osterling suggest that process steps be written in “Verb-Noun” format to show the action. Therefore, the mapping team defined one of the steps as “Receive Ingredients.” (Although with a process time of a half-day and a lead time of eight weeks, it’s actually more like “wait for ingredients,” but no matter.)

What’s interesting in this example is that the team was viewing the activity from their perspective, rather than from the perspective of the work that’s being done. As a result they defined the critical action as “waiting.” And while that’s technically true, it obscures the critical issue: that while they’re waiting, the production of those ingredients is taking eight weeks. In other words, the focus is on the team that’s waiting, not on the team that’s producing the ingredients.

There’s very little you can do to improve “receiving.” There is, however, plenty that you can do to improve a manufacturing lead time of eight weeks when the process time is only half a day. But those possible improvements are obscured by the passivity of “receiving ingredients.”

What did we do? We changed the process block to “Produce Ingredients” and placed it in the supplier swim lane—and then started the examination of why the lead time is so long, and began brainstorming possible countermeasures. The team now expects that they can reduce the lead time to 1-2 weeks.

Another team in the same workshop had a similar issue: one of their process blocks was “Get Sales Input,” with a small process time but a long lead time. When we moved this block from the design team swim lane to the sales team swim lane and relabeled it “Provide Customer Feedback,” it became apparent that the design team could go directly to customers for feedback, and avoid the time waste of working through the sales team.

If you have similar process block in your maps, the odds are good that the placement and phrasing of the post-it is obscuring both the real action and the opportunities for improvement. Focus on the work and who’s doing it, and let that be your guide. “Waiting,” “receiving,” “Getting” and other such phrases are passive, non-activities that impair your ability to see what’s really going on. In other words, semantics matter. 

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Directive Coaching Isn’t All Bad

I’ve been talking recently with a colleague about effective coaching. Like many in the lean community (including me, in my forthcoming book, Building the Fit Organization), he argues that coaching should largely consist of Socratic questioning that promotes thinking, reflection, and ultimately, self-development. In contrast to directive coaching in which the coach transfers knowledge to the learner, developmental coaching helps the learner discover the answers himself. In this developmental approach, improving a business process is less important than improving the ability of the learner to think.

These two approaches are nicely illustrated in a slide from David Verble of LEI:

Developmental coaching is powerful when you need people to grow. This kind of coaching essentially engages a person in meta-work—in thinking about how their work is done, and how to do it better. Developmental coaching results in improved outcomes over the long term—more Olympic medals, a lower rate of surgical complications, shorter time to market. Even more importantly, it improves people’s ability to improve.

But for many years, I was a high school cross-country coach, and the vast majority of my coaching followed the more traditional, directive model in which I told the runners what to do. And now, as an active member of a masters swim club, my coaches do the same—they tell me how to position my arms, hands, and body in the water in order to swim fast.

The kind of coaching that’s appropriate depends on the situation and the objective. Developmental coaching isn’t a great idea if the learner is competing—you’re not allowed to coach Roger Federer in the middle of a match, Michael Phelps is underwater and can’t hear you, and Usain Bolt is finished before you’ve cleared your throat. It’s also not a great approach if someone is learning how to operate heavy, dangerous machinery—asking an operator about the experiments he could run to improve safety is not helpful if he’s already crushed a finger. When you need results right now, you need directive coaching.

A friend of mine says, “The most powerful improvement tool we have is our employees’ brains.” That’s true. But let’s not forget the value (and role) of our own brains. 



What does Jon Stewart know about lean?

Very little, actually. But he does know quite a bit about standard work.

His retirement last week reminded me of a post I wrote six years ago about the process he and his team use to write the jokes for the Daily Show. He explained to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross:

You'd be incredibly surprised at how regimented our day is, and just how the infrastructure of the show is very much mechanized.
People say, The Daily Show, you guys probably just sit around and make jokes. We've instituted—to be able to sort of weed through all this material and synthesize it, and try and come up with things to do—we have a very, kind of strict day that we have to adhere to. And by doing that, that allows us to process everything, and gives us the freedom to sort of improvise.
I’m a real believer that creativity comes from limits, not freedom. Freedom, I think you don’t know what to do with yourself. But when you have a structure, then you can improvise off it.

What I hear all the time is, "My job is different. I'm not like the admin staff processing invoices, or the mail room guy whose job is just to send out letters. My work is creative."

More creative than a team of comedians?

Even for something as creative as writing jokes, there's a structure to follow. And by establishing that structure, writers can unleash their comedy. Without it, they'd probably be a bunch of unfunny fat guys eating donuts and wondering why their show just got canceled.

Take another look at your work. Sure, you have to be creative. But whether you're a doctor in an emergency department, the marketing director for a tech company, or the coach of a professional football team, you can define a process and create standard work.

Of course you'll have variability: the doctor never knows who's going to walk through the hospital doors, the marketer doesn't know what customer will complain about an ad campaign, the coach doesn't know which player will get injured. But these cases are the exceptions, not the rule. If you try to manage your work for the exceptions, you'll never get anything done. Jon Stewart said that it took him six years to write his first 45 minutes of material. Now, with a rigidly defined process (and, to be fair, a team of writers), he creates 30 minutes every single day. The structure, and the standard work you define, enable you to manage the unpredictable crises.

If something as evanescent as comic inspiration can leverage standard work, there's no excuse for you not to do so for your own work.



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.