If You Can't Save 1/10 of a Second, You Can't Save 1 Second

I’m back from joining Honsha on their semi-annual Executive Development Mission to Japan. It was a remarkable learning experience — although I’ve been on two other study trips to Japan, there’s always something new to see and understand when you visit a company that has adopted (and adapted) the Toyota Production System.

The president of one company we visited said something that really resonated with me:

“If you can’t save 1/10 of a second, you won’t be able to save 1 second.”

He made this comment when we mentioned how impressed we were with the kaizen done in a production cell. It was an incredibly efficient cell already, with no obvious waste that we could see. The president pointed out that in a recent kaizen, one of the workers had moved a handle to reduce his arm motion by approximately three inches. (This was in a cell where the cycle time was less than a minute.) It didn’t change the amount of walking or the overall cycle time. It just reduced the amount of reaching with his right arm.

Such a small improvement was clearly the result of careful observation and thinking. Frankly, it would have been easy for a worker to say that there was no room for more improvements. But the president steadfastly believes that before you can ask for big improvements, you have to be able to find small improvements.

To me, there are two levels of meaning here. Most obviously, one second is composed of tenths — you’ll have to combine ten of them to save one second. And if you can’t find even 1/10, you’ll never get one second.

On a deeper level, developing the eyes to see a one second improvement takes practice. It’s hard to see the opportunities for large improvements if you can’t even spot simple, small improvements.

That’s a good reminder for leaders that kaizen means *continuous* improvement, not necessarily large improvements. The foundation for major improvements is built with bricks of 1/10 of a second.



A Better Way to Visualize Hoshin Plans

The hoshin kanri X-matrix makes my head hurt.

I mean, kudos to the person who invented it for creating something so incredibly compact and information-dense. But I’m not sure it’s the easiest way to convey the information in the hoshin plan. Small dots in three locations on a spreadsheet with text running in two directions isn’t a recipe for easy digestion.

image via kanbanize.com

image via kanbanize.com


(I was gratified to learn from Katie Anderson that Toyota doesn’t use the X-matrix. Probably they realized that in an effort to make things easier/better/faster/cheaper for workers, it doesn’t really pass the first test.)

As a result, I’ve been using a series of spreadsheets adapted from a template by Karen Martin. Karen’s template is great for making the goals and projects of the annual plan easy to read, since you don’t have to rotate your head like a great horned owl to read the X-matrix. However, one of my clients recently struggled to understand the connection between the corporate goals and their associated projects, and the projects with their associated tasks. The vertical relationship between these three levels—generated through catchball—got lost in the multiple spreadsheets. They couldn’t see how these levels were tied together.

My client came up with a new way to represent the information contained in a hoshin plan that highlighted the relationship between the levels. They essentially created an org chart with all the necessary information—the corporate goal at the top of the hierarchy (where the CEO would be), with specific departmental goals, projects, major tasks, and due dates listed below (where you’d typically put direct reports). They even color-coded the critical tasks for each project to highlight which team was responsible for each task. It looks like this (with confidential information redacted):

Lumentum X Matrix.jpeg

This has become one of the most widely used charts in the company. The relevant teams hold hoshin review meetings around it as they track progress towards their departmental goals, and they have a clear picture of how their daily work ties into the larger corporate goals.

This was a terrific improvement on the spreadsheets that I originally gave them. Give it a try—it might work for you, too.



Speaking the Language of Your Team

I started using Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata approach at a new client in NYC recently. The mechanics are young (18-25 years) old, and the education level is low. No one has been to college, and not all of them have even completed high school. 

Some of the obstacles I ran into were predictable to anyone who’s used kata before—people jumping to solutions rather than identifying real problems, focusing on symptoms rather than root causes, turning the discussion around obstacles into a (long and loud) general complaint session. 

But the big surprise for me was how difficult it was for the team to grasp the terms that I put on the learner’s storyboard. “Focus process,” “target condition,” etc. may be perfectly familiar to me, but they were about as accessible as a German language menu in an Applebee for the mechanics. They weren’t comfortable using those words, and they struggled to understand the meaning of a phrase like “focus process.” So not only was I presenting them with a new way of thinking about their work, I was essentially asking them to learn a foreign language. (Ironically, my book Building the Fit Organization was written precisely to explain lean principles without using Japanese buzzwords or references to Toyota.) This is a beautiful recipe for failure.

Of course, I wasn’t perceptive enough to see the problem. One of the managers had to point it out to me. 

So we changed the terminology to something more comfortable for the mechanics:

  • Focus process => Problem area
  • Challenge => Long-term goal
  • Target condition => Where we want to be next
  • Current condition => Where we are now
  • Experimenting record => Experiments
  • Obstacle parking lot => Obstacles

I haven’t run these changes past Mike Rother, but I think that he’d approve. After all, the terminology doesn’t really matter. What’s important is learning how to think—and experiment—scientifically. And if changing the language makes it easier to grasp the new way of thinking, so much the better. 



Why I Was Wrong About 2 Second Lean

It’s time to admit that one of my consulting approaches has failed. 

I’m a huge fan of Paul Akers’ 2 Second Lean philosophy. It’s simple, easy to understand, and has an intrinsic appeal: “fix what bugs you.” “Figure out how to do your job two seconds faster each day.” Who wouldn’t sign on to a lean program that promotes that mindset?

So off I went to my clients, with Paul’s videos embedded in my PowerPoint presentation, ready to show them how 2 Second Lean is the answer to their productivity problems, their low employee engagement and morale scores, their mediocre customer service, and their too-high defect rates.

And I failed.

When I look back at the clients I introduced to Paul’s method, I have to be honest and admit that a more traditional, kaizen event-driven approach would have served them better. 2 Second Lean didn’t hurt them, but they didn’t reap the rewards that they wanted, and that I promised. 

I missed the most obvious fact: 2 Second Lean is simple. But it’s not easy. The commitment required of the president is enormous. 

If you want to follow in Paul’s footsteps, you really have to follow in Paul’s footsteps. That means that you have to be a relentless, maniacal cheerleader for lean. You have to be at the office nearly everyday, talking to everyone, asking them to show you their improvements. You have to make videos of every little kaizen, and show them to the whole company at the daily huddle. You have to celebrate—loudly and visibly—every single improvement, no matter how small, every single day. You have to be more excited about the improvement than the person who’s actually made it. 

How many presidents/CEOs are willing to make that commitment? Not many. Travel gets in the way a lot. There are other meetings to attend, other issues to address, other decisions that only the president can make.

So the president misses a day, or two, or a week. He supports 2 Second Lean, but he doesn’t lead it.

If you’re trying to get the kaizen flywheel turning from a dead stop, you have to constantly put energy into it. You can’t build momentum if you slack off even for a moment. At best, employees will assume that the president doesn't really care that much about 2 Second Lean—it’s nice, but it’s not as important as their day jobs. At worst, they’ll decide that it’s just another flavor of the month, and they’ll wait for it to go away. 

There are people who understand this. Paul has a host of acolytes who have embraced and succeeded with his approach. Their companies are doing great—they’re growing profitably, and they have terrific employee morale. Day by day, they’re building wonderful businesses. These leaders have committed wholly and completely to the daily care and feeding of the kaizen mindset. They talk to all employees about their latest improvements, and they celebrate and share all the kaizen work that’s being done in their daily meetings.

My mistake? I didn’t adequately determine whether or not the presidents of my clients were willing to make that commitment. They all liked the idea of 2 Second Lean, but they weren’t willing to dedicate the time, effort, and energy to getting the lean flywheel turning. That was my fault. 

As a consultant, it’s important to live in the world of the possible, not the world of the desirable. It’s incumbent upon me to tailor an approach to the constraints of a given situation. If a client is willing to follow in Paul’s footsteps, then great. If not, it’s my responsibility to find a different approach. 

Lesson learned.


1 Comment

Interested in going to Japan with me?

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be joining the Japan Executive Development Mission to Japan from October 7-13, 2018 as guest faculty and facilitator. 

Having been part of different Japan study trips in the past, I can tell you that learning about lean at the source is a unique experience. The closer you get to the origin, the clearer you can see and understand the original purpose for each technique. 

The Japan EDM is hosted by Honsha, a network of former Toyota team members. Honsha’s missions to Japan include executives and practitioners from a variety of industries, ranging from healthcare to airport operations to manufacturing and many others. 

Darril Wilburn and Sammy Obara will be leading the study trip. (At least at the host companies. I'll be leading the trip at the bars and izakayas.) I’ve had the privilege to work with both of them many times — not only are they incredible lean practitioners, they're seriously nice guys (which is good, since we’ll be together for a week). My friend and colleague Mark Graban, lean healthcare expert and Japanese whisky aficionado, will also be on the trip as a speaker and facilitator. 

You can find additional information, along with a sample itinerary, on the mission website.

Let me know if you’d be interested in joining us. October is a beautiful season in Japan, and it would be great to spend some time with you in Japan learning more about lean.

1 Comment

1 Comment

Six Failure Modes to Avoid in Strategy Deployment

I’ve been working with a company on a strategy deployment project recently, and noticed some common problems across the teams as they’ve worked on their hoshin plans. 

1. No, you’re not an army of one. Leaders are smart and experienced, which makes them think that they can develop the hoshin plan on their own. But without including the whole team in the conversation, they may not be fully on board during the year. It’s equally important to include people from other organizational silos so that their efforts are coordinated and aligned with yours. The HR and Finance departments would love to know six months in advance that you need to hire two more process engineers, instead of dropping the request on them at the last minute. And you can avoid a lot of heartache if the sales team knows today that you won’t continue work on the new project that one of your customers was hoping for. 

2. Projects are not chocolate: more is not better. Leaders are ambitious, and it’s difficult for them to turn down opportunities. However, it’s essential to face reality—there’s limited time, people, and money, and it’s impossible to do everything, no matter how appealing. Even companies that thoroughly analyze expected ROI for equipment or new products are usually not as thorough in calculating it for non-revenue producing projects. But that analysis is critical in enabling you to cull the list of projects from the attractive “nice to do” list to the “must do, can’t fail” list. 

3. Fear the walking dead. And the zombie projects. Every group has “zombie” projects that seemed like a good idea at the time. Perhaps the projects seemed small and relatively easy at the outset. Or perhaps a customer pulled a Lucyand assured them that no, really, this time, they really would jack up their orders if the company just made this onechange. Even though everyone knows that they should kill these projects, they survive on momentum and a reluctance to forgo possible revenue. Be tough. Kill them. Individually these projects may seem insignificant, but taken together, they compromise the team’s ability to execute on the critical few hoshin priorities. 

4. Beware the Hemmingway rule of bankruptcy. In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway's character Mike Campbell explains how he went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” In an environment where you’re working on multiple projects at a time, it’s essential to check on progress at least weekly (if not daily). Monthly or quarterly reviews just aren’t frequent enough to identify and deal with the inevitable problems that arise—they lead to the “green-green-green-red” syndrome, where everything is on track until suddenly it’s delayed by two months. Frequent check-ins on projects will increase the likelihood that you’re able to stay on track, and if not, at least have more time to adjust. If Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford, could convene his top executives for a weekly business plan review, you can manage it, too. 

5. For god’s sakes, not another email. Email is fast, free, and easy—unless you’re using it to stay on top of ongoing projects, or to solve problems. Then it’s slow and clunky, and the important information is at risk of disappearing into the bottomless pit of an inbox. It may seem charmingly retro at best, or a logistical hassle at work, but discussing projects while standing around visual boards that have project timelines, KPIs, problem solving worksheets, etc. posted on them is a better option. Avoid the temptation to deal with problems via a lengthy series of emails. It’s easier and more productive to address them when you’re all standing around the visual management boards, looking at the data together.

6. Look through the windshield. Not the rear-view mirror. We’re so used to looking at lagging indicators that we often don’t realize that they’re useless in helping us improve. You cannot drive forward (safely) by looking at the rear-view mirror. You have to look through the windshield to see where you’re going. If you’re trying to improve corporate culture, don’t just conduct an annual survey or exit interviews—track attrition rates and number of resumes received for job openings. If you’re trying to improve first-pass yield, by all means measure it—but also look at compliance with 5S policies, machine maintenance records, and employee training measures. These leading indicators are more useful than lagging metrics. Make sure that you’re choosing KPIs that tell you where you’re going, not where you’ve been. 

The mechanics of strategy deployment are actually pretty easy (even if you do use an X-matrix). But the way to make it truly superior to the strategic planning you’ve done in the past and fully reap the benefits of this powerful tool, is to avoid these six pitfalls. 

1 Comment


Netflix Brings Lean Thinking to Board Meetings

Well, not really. I doubt Netflix was thinking how Jim Womack would apply lean to their board meetings. But in a new article, the Harvard Business Review describes how the company reinvented board meetings by creating a better way to share information with its board of directors.

The authors point out that without day-to-day exposure to the firm’s operations, directors typically have a thin understanding of the company. Their knowledge is based solely on turgid PowerPoint slides and carefully scripted presentations delivered by a chosen few executives.

Netflix takes a different approach (to the benefit of the company and the relief of anyone who’s had to sit through a 175 slide deck). First, board members attend monthly and quarterly senior management meetings as observers. CEO Reed Hastings says that direct observation of critical management discussions “is an efficient way for the board to understand the company better” and develop trust in the leadership. 

This approach is really just an elegant adaptation of the lean precept of going to the gemba. In the same way a supervisor needs to see an operation or a process with her own eyes instead of relying upon reports delivered in a conference room, so too should a director directly observe how a company’s executives perform while doing their core work of planning and decision-making. The authors explain that

By directly observing management, directors gain a greater understanding of the range of issues facing the company, the analytical approach that underpins managerial decisions, and the full scope of the tradeoffs involved. Ultimately, the aspiration is that this will translate to significantly more confidence in management and its choices.

A second innovation is the format of communication with directors. Instead of the typical slide deck, Netflix provides  

30-page online memos in narrative form that not only include links to supporting analysis but also allow open access to all data and information on the company’s internal shared systems. This includes the ability for directors to ask clarifying questions of the subject authors. . . . The memo itself consists of written text that highlights business performance, industry trends, competitive developments, and other strategic and organizational issues. 

Directors receive these memos a few days in advance of the board meeting, during which time they can ask questions within the memo. Senior management responds to the questions prior to the meeting. As a result, board meetings are only three to four hours long, compared with the all day or multiple day exercises in tedium at many large corporations.

This approach reminds me of the lean approach to reducing setup times in machine changeovers. Essentially, Netflix has separated internal and external steps—the directors can ingest information and clarify issues before the actual meeting, rather than spending time receiving that information when everyone is gathered together. Not only do they benefit from shorter meetings, but there’s more time—and more mental bandwidth—to delve into substantive governance issues. (You could make a good argument that this approach should be taken with all serious company meetings, but I doubt that will ever happen.)

Netflix doesn’t explicitly pursue lean, but its willingness to rethink how it operates displays the hallmarks of an organization that’s constantly seeking to reduce waste and increase the amount of time and attention that people can devote to value-added activities. (Read about the legendary PowerPoint on corporate culture that Netflix created to rethink HR policies and make life easier for everyone.) Too many companies apply lean thinking only to manufacturing operations where the direct labor and material costs make it easy to calculate benefits. Netflix shows clearly that lean thinking can benefit a company everywhere. 



How To Get A “Single Minute Exchange Of Brain”

Reducing changeover time of machines—the time it takes to switch from the last “good” part of product A to the next “good” part of product B—is one of the most powerful tools in lean manufacturing. The goal is to achieve “SMED”—Single Minute Exchange of Dies—in other words, bringing changeover time below 10 minutes. (Although "SMED" is perhaps the ugliest sounding acronym ever invented. It sounds like some horribly virulent disease. Or something that oozes from some body cavity.) Legendary consultant Shigeo Shingo introduced this concept to Toyota in the 1950s, helping them reduce the changeover time for some of their stamping processes from eight hours to less than 10 minutes.

The concept applies to any other process in which you need to make a change from one “product” to another. Turning over hospital operating rooms so that they can accept the next patient is one example. Changing tires on race cars is another example. (Here’s a mind-boggling video of the fastest Formula One tire change (1.92 seconds!) in history. And here’s a 21 minute analysis of how they did it.) Although we don’t think of people as products, hiring and onboarding new employees is actually another place where reduction in “changeover” time is important—what organization wouldn’t want a new employee to be fully ready to work on the first day of the job?

For an individual in an office, changeover isn’t visible the way it is in a manufacturing plant. But knowledge workers are constantly changing over the most critical piece of equipment: their brains. Any time people are interrupted in the middle of a task, they’re forced to execute a complex mental changeover (particularly when the tasks are vastly different). This task switching imposes a real cognitive tax on the worker, too—greater stress, and a longer time to complete the work. Gloria Mark, professor at the University of California, has estimated that after a significant interruption, people take about 23 minutes to return to the original task

Interruptions—even self-imposed “multitasking” interruptions—are costly, but there are ways to mitigate the damage, even if you can’t get down to a “single minute exchange of brain. 

One of the key tenets of SMED is to do as much prep work as possible before you stop the machine—in the language of manufacturing, you externalize preparation steps that can be done while the machine is running. For example, you might get all the tools and replacement parts lined up at the machine before stopping it. For a knowledge worker, that can mean having the information (files, emails, reports, etc.) for your next task already pulled out, rather than having to look for them when you switch. That’s pretty obvious. 

But a more valuable kind of setup externalization comes from simply knowing what it is that you’re going to work on next. There’s a real and significant “initiation” energy required to scan your to-do list and just decide your next task. We’ve all had that experience—trying to decide whether you should fill out your expense report, work on your annual peformance reviews, or call your mother-in-law back is an exhausting choice that usually results in you checking email, or getting a cup of coffee instead.

However, if you consciously plan and sequence your tasks—if you “pre-decide” your work—you reduce the cognitive burden of simply figuring out what to do next. You’ve essentially externalized one of the key elements of the changeover. And that allows you to make the changeover to the next task faster. 

You can do this in a few ways. You could use a personal kanban to show you what five things you’ll work on today. You could schedule the work in your calendar. You could simply lay out the files on your desk (but just the ones you’ll work on today). Or you could make a very short to-do list, with just the 3 or 4 things you’ll take on today. Or you could use phone apps or other software to help. 

This improvement may not seem like much. But if you could reduce mental changeover time by five minutes per day, that adds up to about 20 hours a year, which you can either spend doing something more useful for the organization, or just adding to a vacation on Maui. 



Respect for Humanity Starts with Yourself

I recently gave a talk to the Bay Area chapter of the Lean Construction Institute. One of the most active discussions centered on how the lean concept of flow translates to individual work. (This was a topic in my first book, A Factory of One.) The group concluded that enabling people to have flow in their work is a demonstration of respect for humanity. 

The notion of 1x1 flow in a lean production environment is pretty easy to grasp—individuals or teams should build one product at a time, in contrast to the classic mass production approach of building and warehousing large work-in-process inventories of parts. But what does that look like when you’re a knowledge worker sitting at a desk, handling multiple types of work?

This is where lean thinking intersects with classic time management principles. The time management community understands the peril of multitasking. Research from people such as David Meyer, Clifford Nass, and Gloria Mark (among others) proves conclusively that multitasking is a myth. Humans can’t multitask between two cognitively demanding tasks. (Folding laundry while talking? Sure. Calculating square roots while writing down the lyrics to It’s The End of the World As We Know It?" No so much.) Instead, we “switch task,” going from task A to B, and back to A. The cognitive tax from this switching is severe, resulting in more errors, longer processing times, and higher levels of stress. In lean terms, we’re not working on 1x1 flow, because we never finish a task; we just start another one. 

One-by-one flow for a knowledge worker means having the opportunity to finish a task before starting the next one. Enabling people to work this way is another form of respect for humanity—it means recognizing the brain’s limitations, and allowing people to work in accordance with those limits. We’d never dream of interrupting someone who was pouring molten aluminum, transplanting a heart, or landing an F/A-18 on an aircraft carrier. Similarly, we should respect our colleagues who are closing the books at month-end, solving a customer complaint, or creating a new marketing campaign. It’s not as dramatic as what the metal workers surgeons, or pilots are doing, but it’s still important to the organization.  

But first we have to carve out time in our calendars for our own knowledge intensive work. We can’t expect others to respect our need for single-tasking focus until we make that commitment ourselves. 

Anything less, and we’re disrespecting our own humanity. 



Of Course People Aren’t Going to Do What They’re Told

According to the Wall Street Journal, passengers on Southwest Airlines flight 1380, which suffered an engine failure and broken window, didn’t use their oxygen masks properly. Some passengers only put the mask over their mouths (as you can see in this photo) -- even though everyone has heard the instruction to “put the oxygen mask over both your mouth and nose” countless times.

Screen Shot 2018-04-20 at 4.38.39 PM.png

Jonathan Jasper, manager of cabin safety at the International Air Transport Association, said “We were surprised when we saw the pictures [of passengers incorrectly putting on the masks].”

He shouldn’t have been.

As one passenger on the flight explained,

That 30-second demo of how to put the mask on properly is such an insignificant portion of most of our lives. Having to use the oxygen mask for the first time amid all that chaos and the turbulence and fact that there was huge hole out the side of the window made it very difficult.

That sounds about right to me. Airlines and regulators can’t get passengers to follow instructions because it’s absurd to expect them to remember what they’re supposed to do in such a terrifying situation no matter how many times you’ve told them. Leaving aside the panic that clouds rational thought (OH MY GOD I’M GOING TO DIE!), virtually no one has had the experience of using a mask during a flight. Moreover, passengers don’t even practice using the oxygen masks during pre-flight instructions. With no kinesthetic training to support the flight attendant’s instruction, it’s highly unlikely that people will do it properly. Manufacturers of modern defibrillators understand this—that's why there’s a step-by-step audio recording when it’s activated explaining how to use it. 

Given this reality, the pre-flight instruction is about as silly as all the warnings we see in workplaces to just “be more careful.” And based on this Southwest Airlines accident, it’s about as effective.

What to do?

I’m sure that there are better brains than mine working on this problem, but one simple idea would be a version of poka-yoke. Take a look at the opening of the standard airplane oxygen mask itself: it’s a circle. There’s nothing in the shape that indicates it should go over the mouth and nose. If anything, the symmetrical shape makes it looks like it should just go over the mouth. 


But a mask that’s molded with a clear location for the nose would be an unambiguous signal of how to wear the mask: 


It seems like a pretty simple and inexpensive solution to a potentially serious problem for the passengers. And not having to remind people how to use the masks would free up the flight attendants’ time to deal with other issues in the emergency. 

[N.B. In fact, I just found that the National Aerospace Training And Research Center is looking for volunteers to test this new design for an oxygen mask this week!]


1 Comment

Are We Sending the Right Message?

The latest issue of the Spring 2018 AME Target magazine excerpts some mind-boggling—and depressing—data from LNS Research about continuous improvement. As you can see in the chart below (copied from the magazine), fully 44% of responders said that ROI justifications are a key operational challenge in making improvements.


The lack of executive support (20%) and the lack of an improvement culture (30%) is predictable. These complaints are aired at all lean conferences.

But the issue of ROI justification is both mysterious and worrisome. One implication is that workers are looking to major investments in machinery, software, or other technology for their improvements, rather than exercising their creativity. 

Another interpretation is that the executive leaders don’t value small improvements. Instead, they’re looking for huge gains from a few major events. They’re looking for home runs instead of singles and walks—while at the same time, they’re unwilling to make the investments unless they can be guaranteed a huge ROI.

In a particularly ironic twist, the very fact that organizations are relying upon large improvements instead of small, daily improvements drives another problem: the lack of continuous improvement culture and processes. Large improvements tend to be episodic, and they often involve just a subset of workers. As a result, the kaizen mindset doesn’t spread throughout the organization. 

Obviously, I haven’t been to these gembas, so I have no idea what the actual situation is. But legions of organizations—including Toyota—make enormous strides in performance through small, simple kaizens that are free or cheap. In fact, many companies report that their biggest gains come from the steady accumulation of these small improvements, and not from some heroic—and expensive—fix to a problem. Paul Akers, for example, has kept his company on a remarkable growth trajectory by focusing on 2 Second Lean

Moreover, focusing on small improvements increases the likelihood that everyone gets involved in kaizen, and not just one or two times per year. Culture is an outgrowth of our daily behaviors. If you want to develop a continuous improvement culture, you have to start doing continuous improvement—even if those improvements are small changes that won’t directly affect the company’s financial results. As Masaaki Imai said, kaizen means “everybody, everywhere, every day.”

I wasn’t involved in the research presented in Target. But if these results are reflective of the lean community at large, then it raises an important question: what message have we been sending to the leadership and employees at these companies? 

1 Comment

1 Comment

How to Build a High Trust Workplace

Megan McArdle of Bloomberg View recently wrote about the benefits of a high level of trust—among individuals, companies, and even government— in Denmark:

[The high level of trust among people] allows Danish labor to be more productive than workers elsewhere. An economy’s labor productivity, after all, is its output divided by the number of hours worked. Supervision and enforcement are in some sense wasted labor; they don’t, by themselves, produce extra output. So if you can get rid of the people who are paid to stand around ensuring that people do their work and don’t cheat, and instead redeploy them to make something or perform a necessary service, productivity will go up. When labor is highly productive, employers can afford high wages.

It seems to me that one of the great benefits of lean tools is the way they increase the level of trust among people in an organization. Functional and divisional silos will never go away, of course, but the tools we deploy tend to reduce the mistrust that corrodes the relationships between them.

Value stream mapping, for example, gets people from different departments to sit on the same side of the table (literally and metaphorically) so that they can see a process from the same perspective, rather than from their entrenched positions. People in a value stream mapping exercise don’t point fingers at each other—they point fingers at the work.

Toyota kata does the same thing. At a new client I’ve started working with, kata coaches are working with learners in all different departments, enabling them to see how work gets done in other functional areas. It doesn’t matter whether or not the work they’re observing was passed from the coach’s department. Seeing the learner struggle with problems creates understanding, empathy, and eventually trust.

In fact, most lean tools foster trust in the same way. You can’t draw a spaghetti chart by yourself, but when your supervisor maps your steps, she gains a deeper appreciation for the burden of your job under the current layout. Or when you level the workload on a production line, you’re forced to think about the burden of a person’s job in the context of his productive capacity.

At the most fundamental level, the entire ethos of “going to the gemba” is the essential tool in building trust. Seeing your colleagues and your employees struggling with their actual work, instead of just complaining about them in a conference room, is the soil in which trust—and respect—grows. A3 problem solving is so powerful precisely because it institutionalizes this activity.

As Megan McArdle points out, we don’t have Denmark’s level of trust. Given the size and heterogeneity of the US, it’s unlikely we could ever develop it on a national level. But we can certainly do so in the smaller environments of our companies by using the lean toolbox.

1 Comment


Improving Teamwork Through Kata

I introduced Toyota Kata to a new client last week with a short simulation. It was the first time that I formally taught this approach to problem solving, and it was probably as educational for them as it was for me. (Note to self: need to get a few more cycles in to adequately model the coaching kata!)

The people in the class loved the approach. Not only could they see improvement from the first round to the last, they could feel how different this kind of structured experimentation was from the way they typically solved problems at work. But what really struck me—and them—was the way that kata improved teamwork.

This is a small company that suffered through layoffs last year, which caused people to emotionally hunker down in their silos. Problems were always due to the other department, not their own. People pointed fingers rather than looked into mirrors. The relationship among functional silos may not have been acrimonious, but it certainly wasn’t open and cooperative.

However, during the kata exercise they were all on the same side, trying to solve a shared problem rather than assign blame. And the emphasis on rapid experimentation eliminated the fear about suggesting the “wrong” solution. As Mike Rother frames it: “We know this isn’t going to work, so don’t worry about it being “right.” But by trying it, we can learn what might work.”

The participants said that the atmosphere during the simulation was totally different from what they regularly experienced at work. And the atmosphere in the classroom changed, too—they interacted with each other far more after the simulation than they had prior to it. The exercise had changed their behaviors as students, not just employees.

Kata isn’t the answer to all problems, and it may not be the way to introduce continuous improvement to all companies (any more than 5S is always the right first step). But in this case, it worked perfectly for this company.

*        *        *

And in an only tangentially related note, James Dyson (of Dyson vacuum cleaners) was the subject of a recent How I Built This podcast. His description of improving his vacuum (through 5000 iterations!) epitomizes the kata mindset:

It was entirely empirical . . . .I was building one prototype at a time, making one change at a time. So I knew what difference that one change made, and so I progressed. There were quite a number of problems to solve. Firstly, at that time the state of the art was that cyclones were only good at separating dust down to 20 about microns, whereas I had to get it down to half a micron – cigarette smoke type particles. So that was the first problem. And the second thing was that I found that hairs and fluff would go straight through the cyclone and not be collected. And I built 5,127 prototypes before I got it right.



Why It Makes Sense (Sometimes) to Start With Hoshin Kanri

I just published a new article at Industry Week about why it (sometimes) makes sense to start a continuous improvement initiative with hoshin kanri (also known as strategy deployment, or policy deployment).

Up to now, I've been dismissive (or even scornful), of companies that started with hoshin. Walking before you run has always seemed to be a better approach to me, and so I've been a strong advocate of starting with some sort of small, everyday kaizen -- or as Paul Akers would say, "fix what bugs you."

But a recent conversation with a friend has made me rethink that attitude, and now I believe that there's at least one really good argument to be made for starting down the lean path with hoshi kanri. Read more here



Why You’re Struggling to Improve Company Culture

(This post originally appeared in Industry Week.)

The new Proqis BTOES Insights report on operational excellence is out, and by a landslide margin (55% to 37%), the most critical challenge for respondents is “improving the company culture.”

Anytime I read that culture is a stumbling block for companies pursuing continuous improvement, I go back to John Shook’s reflections on NUMMI. With the same people as those who worked at the GM Fremont plant, product quality in the NUMMI joint venture with Toyota went from GM’s worst to best in one year. Absenteeism dropped from 20% to 2%. Strikes stopped completely. No one was intentionally sabotaging cars. As Shook points out, the union and workers didn't just accept Toyota's system; they passionately embraced it.

If GM/Toyota could make this kind of tectonic improvement in company culture in one year, why are companies that aren’t starting from such a deep hole struggling so much? Why do 55% of the BTOES respondents say that cultural improvement is such a challenge? I think there are several reasons that companies struggle with cultural change.

1. Leading with artifacts. Organizations may have finally let go their obsession with lean tools, but I’m seeing it replaced by an obsession with artifacts: kaizen submission cards, A3 forms, visual management boards, 5S checklists, and the like. Without the appropriate management values and attitudes, these artifacts become just more examples of meaningless corporate flotsam and jetsam landing on the workspaces of hard-working staff. When management doesn’t actually support people in A3 problem solving—not only by coaching the employees, but by giving them time to work on those problems—then the A3 is just another template buried on the file server. When leadership doesn’t come to the visual management boards at least a couple of times per week to ask questions, learn what people are working on, and provide the needed help, then the boards quickly become moveable wallpaper. You can’t lead with artifacts. Artifacts are only valuable when they follow a change in leadership behavior.

2. Lack of investment. Shook reports that in the first year of the NUMMI joint venture, 600 NUMMI employees—anyone who supervised another person—visited Japan for at least two weeks of intensive training. Additionally, Toyota sent about 400 trainers from Japan to the US to work side-by-side with their NUMMI counterparts for three-month stints. That’s an extraordinary investment of time, money, and people. Now look at the “investment” most companies make: they set up an OpEx office with a few people; they run workshops on tools; and they lead kaizen events. Sometimes they’ll pay tuition for employees to get a yellow or black belt from an external Six Sigma training firm. To be sure, Toyota and GM are huge auto companies—not too many companies can afford to spend the kind of money needed to send 1000 people around the world. But you seldom even see a commitment to investing time on a daily basis for practicing lean and solving problems. An employee at an HVAC manufacturer recently told me that he thought lean was just another management flavor of the month. But when the president told him that he would happily pay overtime so that he could do his daily 30 minutes of kaizen, he knew that leadership was committed. And he’s now one of the biggest supporters of lean in the company.

3. Poor framing. Many companies promote lean as simply a different way for employees to do their jobs. But it’s more than that: it’s a fundamental shift in the way both workers and leaders must think about their work. The installation of the andon cord at NUMMI is one of the most well known changes that Toyota made when they started the joint venture. Shook says that GM colleagues questioned the wisdom of installing the system at NUMMI:

“You intend to give these workers the right to stop the line?” they asked.

Toyota’s answer: “No, we intend to give them the obligation to stop it whenever they find a problem.”

There are two critical shifts in mindset here. First is the belief that fixing problems is a worker obligation, not just a right. Most companies don’t talk about this obligation. They talk about tools and artifacts, problem solving and respect for people, true north and customer focus. But they don’t emphasize the absolute, non-negotiable responsibility of every worker to stop a process when they see a problem. The second shift is the change in management attitude towards problems. How does leadership respond when employees find them and bring them to leadership attention? It’s a cliché by now, but management’s matching obligation is to cherish problems, to see them as treasures so that employees are willing to accept the burden of stopping the line. This change in thinking on both sides is the linchpin for successfully changing the organizational culture.

Changing an organization’s culture is no small feat. It takes time and persistence. But a lean organization is one that is fundamentally human-centered, one that enables people to thrive and grow. If we focus more on leadership mindset and behavior, and less on the mechanical aspects of operational excellence, it should be easier to create the culture we want. 



How to Build a Better Organization? Build Better People.

The “All Blacks,” New Zealand’s rugby team, is arguably the most successful sports team in history. Since its founding in 1903, the team has won 77% of its matches. However, something went wrong in 2003. They lost the World Cup that year, and by the following year, players were drunk and disorderly, on-field discipline faltered, senior players threatened to quit, and the team began losing.

A new management team under Graham Henry began to rebuild the world's most successful sports team with a culture emphasizing individual character and personal leadership. Their new mantra was “Better People Make Better All Blacks,” and it was anchored in 15 core principles. 

                                                                                   infographic courtesy of @YLMSportScience

                                                                                   infographic courtesy of @YLMSportScience

Although the specifics differ, many of the principles echo that of lean.

1. Sweep the Sheds. Before leaving the dressing room at the end of the game, all players clean up as a symbol of humility. This humility is at the core of Paul Akers’s insistence that visiting CEOs clean the Fastcap bathrooms with him, or the way the president of HOKS Electronics in Japan sweeps and mops the floor along with his employees everyday.

2. Go for the Gap. A focus on continuous improvement means that even when you’re on top, you always have room to get better. You can see this mentality at all organizations that have truly embraced lean, from hospitals like Thedacare to manufacturers like Danaher.

3. Play with Purpose. People perform better when they’re in service of a larger purpose. For the All Blacks, it’s elevating the performance of the team. Toyota talks about “true north,” and Simon Sinek preaches about starting with “why.”

4. Create a Learning Environment. Team leaders are teachers of the younger players. Teaching and coaching cannot be outsourced to the HR department at your company; everyone must take ownership of that responsibility.

5. No Dickheads. Or as Bob Sutton would say, “No Assholes.” Self-explanatory.

6. Train to Win. Preparation and practice are essential to success in competition. Great organizations enable people to thrive in their daily work, not just by showing them how to do their jobs, but by supporting their growth. Mike Hoseus’s story about how his Japanese teammates actually thanked him for pointing out an error he made is a beautiful example of this approach.

7. Invent Your Own Language. A vocabulary, language, and values that everyone understands bind the group. This, of course, is the reason I wrote Building the Fit Organization—I wanted to provide people with a way to express core lean ideas without relying upon often off-putting references to Toyota. Whether you use the language of fitness (as I did), or something else, the key is finding something that resonates with you and your team.

8. Ritualize to Actualize. Rituals reflect, remind, and reinforce the belief system that you’re creating at your organization. Whether that’s the morning meeting, the 30-minute “lean and clean” time that Cambridge Engineering gives its employees everyday, the daily “walk around review” at Lantech, or the peer-to-peer review of lean concepts at Kaas Tailored, these aren’t just breaks from daily work for the employees. They’re rituals that reinforce the principles and beliefs that the company espouses.

These principles are powerful enough, but their impact is heightened by clarity and simplicity. Compare them to the typically turgid, grammatically tortured, long-winded, and uninspiring mission statements that most companies carve into plaques on their walls. Even organizations pursuing continuous improvement sometimes make the mistake of larding up their intent with meaningless corporate-speak.

Find your own principles. Live them daily. Speak plainly. That’s the road to excellence. 



Don’t Forget the Heart

Head vs Heart.jpg

Three days at the AME Conference in Boston showed me that there’s no shortage of skilled, knowledgeable, continuous improvement professionals who can teach their colleagues the intricacies of lean.

Three days at the AME Conference also showed me that we should spend less time focusing on lean tools and techniques, and more time telling stories that reach the heart.

Don’t get me wrong—tools are not just important, they’re necessary. But the energy, the passion, the emotion, the raison d’etre for the entire lean effort comes from the emotional power of stories.

Raye Wentworth of New Balance brought the house down in her keynote speech. It wasn’t because she’s such a polished speaker, and it wasn’t due to the huge reduction in inventory levels and space utilization. No. She moved people to tears (and cheers) when she played a video showing how their lean operations allowed one of her employees to thrive at work and contribute to his community after work.

Paul Akers intrigued the audience when he talked about his 2 Second Lean approach to improvement, but that’s not what really hooked the crowd. It was his videos of Cambridge Engineering, in which a new employee shook his head in wonder at how the president of the company knew his name before he knew the president’s name. (That’s the power of leader standard work.) And the video of another worker whose face lit up when he described the way he gets to use his creativity and imagination on the job.

These human stories are what resonated in the hearts of the audience. It’s the human stories that touch us, that move us, that inspire us. And perhaps that’s where we—consultants and internal improvement professionals—should be spending more time. 

Simon Sinek preaches that we should “start with why.” That’s a great rule. But we can’t forget that the “why” of lean isn’t just to deliver products faster or cheaper. The why is about making people’s lives better—not just for our customers, but our employees. If we do a better job of making that clear, we’ll probably have an easier time getting people to embrace a new way of working. 



Applying Kaizen to Teaching Lean

I’m back from a workshop with a client in Denmark. The room was filled with continuous improvement experts from about a dozen companies, all of whom were looking for inspiration and ideas for accelerating the promotion of lean in their organizations.

I was struck by how little variety and innovation exists in the way we teach lean. Whether you’re in the US or Europe, it seems that the formula is pretty much the same: one part classroom lectures, two parts PowerPoint presentations, a dash of simulations, and a tablespoon of shop floor kaizen. Based on the results over the past thirty years, as a recipe for improvement, it’s guaranteed to produce a pretty flat soufflé. 

We spend enormous effort on improving our organizations’ various processes, but I don’t see the same effort in improving our own processes in teaching lean. You see periodic spasms of innovation—teaching through A3s following the publication of Managing to Learn, or direct coaching following the publication of Toyota Kata—but by and large, it’s year after year of boring lectures and soul-destroying, bullet point-choked slides. I wasn’t at Toyota in 1951, but I’m pretty confident that Taiichi Ohno wasn’t dragging his welders into day-long workshops to teach his 8 Wastes. 

My friend Sally Dominguez (a keynote speaker at the recent LPPDE Conference) has developed an approach to innovation that she calls “Adventurous Thinking.” In her “parkour” exercise, you identify five characteristics (or norms, or expectations) of a product or service, reverse them, and then figure out how to make those ideas workable. When we did this exercise on “teaching lean in your company” in Denmark, the results were fantastic. People started thinking creatively about teaching:

  • If you’re training for a marathon, for example, you get an individual, customized program—we don’t force everyone to train together at the same time and the same speed. So why can’t we individualize lean training?
  • People love playing games, especially on their phones and computers. Why can’t we make lean into a computer-based game?
  • Ant colonies (yes, ants!) don’t rely upon one ant or group of ants to direct the activities of each individual ant. Broadly dispersed pheromones provide the direction. How can we replicate that idea in a company?

Here are some of the specific ideas the group generated:

Current Norm Reversal New Idea
PowerPoint slides No presentations Experiential learning – practice on the job, and then follow up with explanation of theory
Classroom based Gemba based Instruction done at the gemba w/o any classrooms.
Inside the company Outside the company Observe work at other companies and invite other firms to observe (and improve) your own processes.
Driven by the kaizen office Driven by the workers Gamification through badges, leaderboards, etc.
People trained in groups People learn at their own speed Tablet/phone/computer-based simulations, learning modules, and games.
Departmental learning/successes not aggressively shared Learning/successes shared with everyone Capture improvements when they’re made with iPhone videos and show at daily standup meetings.

Will all of these ideas work? Will they work in your organization? Who knows? But that’s not the point. In about 90 minutes, the participants came up with dramatically new ideas and frames for thinking about their work—frames that will help them do kaizen on their own work, and that will hopefully drive their organizations to new heights.

What have you done recently to improve the way that you teach and promote lean within your company?



Are Companies Following "2 Second Lean" Really Doing Lean?

A reader questioned my post about the lean conference I recently attended where everyone was a rabid adherent of Paul Akers’s 2 Second Lean philosophy. He wondered whether these companies are truly practicing lean, or just kaizen. In fact, he argued that perhaps Paul should be calling it “2 Second Kaizen” rather than “2 Second Lean.”

He has a point. After all, many of the improvements people mentioned are relatively superficial. I don’t think the companies are doing much deep analysis of operations work using standard combination worksheets; I’m not sure if anyone reorganized their company along value streams; and I didn’t see any of the heavy math supporting kanban levels, etc. And while there’s nothing wrong with that—you’ve got to start somewhere, right?—there’s definitely more to lean than standardizing the bathroom cleaners. 

But I can’t agree with this reader’s argument.

For one thing, these companies consistently strive for one-piece flow and perfect quality, not just neat and tidy workplaces. 5S is certainly helpful in reaching that goal. And even if applying 5S in the bathroom and insisting that the president cleans the toilet seems trivial and superficial, I can’t help but think that there’s real power in those activities. The bathroom can serve as a “model line" that many consultants advocate and a place for everyone to learn. Employees might think, “Hey, I see how organizing and standardizing the bathroom cleaning supplies makes it easier for me to clean the place. . . I bet my workstation could benefit from the same approach." 

I also believe that when the president joins in cleaning the bathroom, it sends a powerful message that cleaning and taking ownership of one’s space is everyone’s job. We all know that when leadership doesn’t get involved in doing the same activities as the front line, it sends a message that it’s really not that important, whether that’s 5S, or gemba walks, or daily huddles, or whatever—and then it doesn’t stick. At a $100M electronics manufacturer in Japan, everyone participates in 5S for 30 minutes everyday. How do they sustain that commitment? At least partly because the president is on his hands and knees polishing the floors along with everyone else. To be fair, Art Byrne probably didn’t clean a lot of toilets at GE or Wiremold, but he was swinging a sledgehammer and helping move equipment. Not all the time, but sometimes. 

True to the spirit of lean, the companies at this conference have placed development of human potential at the core of their thinking. Learning more about lean and working hard to build a community of problem solvers is part of daily work, either during the morning meeting or during the daily time set aside for kaizen. Moreover, figuring out how to make work easier for employees, and how to increase value for customers, is on everyone’s mind, everyday.

As near as I can tell, as a result of this approach, they’ve overcome many of the cultural hurdles to lean that other firms struggle with. It may not be perfect, but I'd rather see everybody engaged in small improvements instead of the corporate wallpaper bullshit of 5S audit sheets that are posted and not used. Maybe that's all a company needs instead of a bureaucratic and ponderous lean “program.”


1 Comment

Five Ways to Spur Lean in the Office

A couple of weeks ago, I offered five reasons for why we don’t see lean very much in the office and admin areas of most companies:

  • Waste is harder to see in an office 
  • Waste costs less in an office 
  • Office waste is hard to calculate
  • The customer (usually) doesn’t complain about the waste in the office
  • We’re not very good at talking about waste in the office 

Naturally, a reader asked me to put my money where my mouth is and suggest solutions to this problem—and given that I make a living as a consultant, I suppose that’s a fair request. Even though every situation is unique and idiosyncratic, the following countermeasures would be worthwhile in any organization:

1. Make speed and quality a goal for office functions. Calculate takt time for transactional, repetitive tasks such as entering orders, paying invoices, processing time cards, etc., and assess your performance against it. Even though office workers will claim that their work is totally variable, there’s actually a relatively predictable demand for most office and administrative services. Even seemingly random work such as incoming customer service calls can usually be broken down into discrete categories that can be addressed—for example, 25% of incoming customer calls might be related to shipping information, or questions about invoices. If meeting takt time is not an issue—for example, in closing the books at the end of the month— then measure and benchmark the time it takes to perform those tasks and challenge the team to figure out how to do them faster.

2. Start treating offices errors and mistakes as real defects. Obsess over quality. Lean thinkers are rabid about pursuing defects on the shop floor—every missed weld, every scratched paint job, every stripped screw leads to an intensive root cause analysis and a host of countermeasures. Take that same fanaticism to the errors in the office. Are orders ever misfiled? Do people ever put incorrect shipping information into a warranty claim? Do product developers every transpose style codes or prices in a product spec sheet? Do meetings ever end with ambiguity around next steps? Do you ever have people in a meeting that don’t why they’re there? Does a supplier ever have to call to follow up on an invoice? These aren't just minor mistakes or errors. They're defects, and they create wasteful rework, consume valuable time, and jeopardize your relationship with suppliers and customers. Treat them seriously.  

3. Write your own book on lean in the office. Not literally, of course. But you can actively seek out examples of other organizations that have applied lean in administrative areas. Read about how Fujitsu Services in the UK did terrific work with lean thinking in a call center (full case study here, and more digestible summary here. Check out Karyn Ross and Jeff Liker’s new book, The Toyota Way to Service Excellence, which is full of examples of firms that have used lean in their office functions to improve efficiency and customer service at the same time. Engage the larger lean community and ask for examples of how they’ve improved office work with lean. And, of course, you can start capturing and documenting the improvements you make to generate excitement for more kaizen.

4. Stand in an Ohno Circle. Taiichi Ohno was famous (or infamous, depending on how sore your feet got) for drawing a circle on the factory floor and asking employees to stand in it all day so that they could deeply observe the work being done. There’s more to see in a factory, what with all the machines and metal moving around, but you can still see quite a bit watching office staff. How often are they interrupted in the middle of their work? How long does it take to get to the common screens in the computer system? How often do they switch tasks? How much time do they spend in meetings—and what’s their role in those meetings? How many handoffs occur between departments in order to complete a single transaction? How long does the item of work—an invoice, a customer order, an engineering change order, etc.—sit in an inbox before it gets picked up? The simple exercise of focused observation will help you see the waste.

5. Ask other people do your job. Factory floor workers at Cambridge Engineering, an industrial HVAC manufacturer in St. Louis, regularly ask their colleagues to do their jobs for them for a couple of cycles. Why? For one thing, it’s difficult to see the waste in one’s own work. It’s much more apparent when you’re watching someone else fumble with a process when they don’t know the workarounds and shortcuts that you’ve internalized. Watching someone else do the job literally gives the primary worker a fresh perspective on the process. (Workers will often video the other person doing the work so that they can review it together afterwards.) It’s a bit less exciting to video someone clicking a mouse, but you can still see things with fresh eyes when you watch someone else fumble through computer screens or make a data entry error while filling out the same information on four different forms in a product development spec package.

Give these five approaches a try, and see if they don't jumpstart your lean efforts in the office. 

1 Comment