Monthly Archives: October 2009

Do You Have The Commitment of A Gurkha?

Even if you’re a student of history, this one may have flown under the radar.

Back in 1964 there was a confrontation between Malaysia and Indonesia. In his book One Crowded Hour, Tim Bowden tells about an incident that happened in Borneo during this time.

A group of Gurkhas from Nepal were asked if they would be willing to jump from transport planes into combat against the Indonesians should the need arise. The Gurkhas had the right to give the request a “thumbs down” because they’d never been trained as paratroopers. Bowden quotes cameraman Neil Davis’ account of the story:

Commitment “The Gurkhas usually agreed to anything, but on this particular day they provisionally rejected the plan. But the next day one of their NCOs sought out the British officer who had made the request and said they had discussed it further and would be prepared to jump under certain conditions.

“What are they?” the British officer queried.

“The Gurkhas told him they would jump if the land was marshy or reasonably soft with no rocky outcrops, because they were inexperienced in falling. The officer considered this and noted that the drop zone would almost certainly be over the jungle. No rocky outcrops there. So, they would surely be all right. Anything else?

“Actually, yes,” answered the Gurkhas. They wanted the plane to fly as slowly as possible and no more than a hundred feet high. At that point, the British officer explained that the planes always did fly as slowly as possible when dropping troops, but to jump from 100 feet was just impossible. The parachutes would not open in time from that height.

“‘Oh,’ the Gurkhas replied, ‘it’s OK then. We’ll jump with parachutes anywhere. You didn’t mention parachutes before!”

What does it take to have, or receive, Gurkha-like commitment and courage?

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Skitt’s Law Applied to Kaizen

I became aware of a truth about lean problem solving and kaizen yesterday while reading an article about ten internet rules and laws.

4. Skitt’s Law

Expressed as “any post correcting an error in another post will contain at least one error itself” or “the likelihood of an error in a post is directly proportional to the embarrassment it will cause the poster.”

It is an online version of the proofreading truism Muphry’s Law, also known as Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation: “any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror”.

Language Log quotes the following example, from Paul Ordoveza’s How Now, Brownpau? blog:

“For too long, we linguistic pedants have cringed, watching this phrase used, misused, and abused, again, and again, and again. ‘This begs the question…’ [we hear], and we must brace ourselves as the ignoramii of modern society literally ask a question after the phrase.”

While Mr Ordoveza’s point is entirely valid (“begging the question” is a logical fallacy, meaning to “beggar the question”, or assume your conclusion in your premise – not to raise the question), the plural of ignoramus is ignoramuses.

It was apparently first stated by G Bryan Lord, referring to a user named Skitt, on Usenet in 1998.

Skitt’s Law applied to kaizen would be “any action to solve a problem will contain at least one problem itself” or “the likelihood of a problem resulting from a proposed solution is directly proportional to the embarrassment it will cause” to the person who is promotion the particular solution. Just as all standards should be considered temporary until improved, all improvement ideas should be considered provisional until they are not proven to be ineffective. Too many times people approach problem solving or kaizen as a process of championing a favored solution, only to be blinded by its failings. This results in embarrassment when a solution proves ineffective but the organization has already committed too much time and resource, as well as personal reputations, and it is difficult to change course gracefully at that point.

We should keep in mind Skitt’s Law and assume that all kaizen ideas are full of holes, no single countermeasure will solve the problem entirely, and that some countermeasures may solve one problem but cause another. Toyota uses the term “countermeasure” for a reason, rather than “solution” because they understand problem solving to a taking a series of measures to counter root causes of problems, rather than to put so-called solutions in place and moving on.

As with anything, kaizens can contain errors. Many times the countermeasures are the result of solution-jumping and shallow or non-existent root cause analysis. Just like we should run spell check before sending out a piece of writing, we should spell check our problem solving thought process by tracking the solution back through the root cause to the original problem statement using the “therefore” or “so what” test.

The kaizen process must be inherently self-skeptical. While being confident that we can surely solve all problems (the what), we should always be challenging the method or solution itself (the how). The PDCA cycle is all about checking and adjusting our plan, learning from the result of the do phase. The learning is as important, if not often more important, than the solution that is put in place. Remember Skitt’s Law and check your work. Don’t fall in love with your kaizen ideas because love will blind you. Keep a healthy skepticism and be prepared to love and nurture all kaizen ideas.

Speaking of healthy skepticism, there were two other laws also worthy of note:

8. DeMyer’s Laws

Named for Ken DeMyer, a moderator on Conservapedia.com. There are four: the Zeroth, First, Second and Third Laws.

The Second Law states: “Anyone who posts an argument on the internet which is largely quotations can be very safely ignored, and is deemed to have lost the argument before it has begun.”

And to bolster my argument with another quote from the internet,

7. Pommer’s Law

Proposed by Rob Pommer on rationalwiki.com in 2007, this states: “A person’s mind can be changed by reading information on the internet. The nature of this change will be from having no opinion to having a wrong opinion.”

The internet is a dangerous place for a curious mind…

By Jon Miller – October 26, 2009 12:15 PM

life = risk

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Helping Teams Advance One Gemba at a Time

Most frontline teams in my organization are not used to being asked to improve their own process.  Like most organization in transition most improvement that has taken place in the organization in the past was management driven and usually owned and executed by outside experts like consultants and project managers.  As we transition into a system where teams are asked to be responsible for improving their processes every single day one of the most powerful tools management has is the gemba walk.   There are many reasons why the gemba walk is not only an important tool, but an essential tool in a Lean transformation.  Here are just a few:

  • Gemba walks are one of the most important methods for teaching management Lean.  It takes Lean out of the conceptual world and forces management to learn by doing. 
  • Gemba walks demonstrate a behavior change from management.  It shows that management is curious about the work and interested in seeing the real problems.   Early on they also demonstrate to the teams that everyone is in the change together.  Management is learning alongside the teams they are coaching.
  •  Gemba walks allow management to begin to understand the problems that they create and forces them to begin to take responsibility for solving the gaps in their management system.  They see firsthand the challenges created by unclear or too many priorities, silo thinking, narrow job classifications, etc.    
  • Gemba walks teach leaders how to set clear expectations and have the discipline to follow-up to see progress.  In order to do this effectively the manager must understand the content of the work; know how to see problems, and to know how far a team can improve over a set increment of time. 

In several post in the past I have talked about some of the advice I give leaders as the learn how to effectively lead gemba walks.  As my own experience has grown some of my thinking has advanced.  Here are a couple of tips that I hope help:

  • Gemba walks can only be effective if leaders are disciplined, consistent and organized.  This is why having management standard work is so important.  In our organization we create visual systems (Kamishibai boards) that track adherence to management system work to help reinforce this discipline.   These boards track the frequency, sequence and content of what should be checked during each gemba walk and clearly make visible that the walks are happening as scheduled.  As managers build these boards they need to determine how often they will visit each team (less frequently the higher you are in the organization), and then the board makes it transparent to the teams how often they can expect a visit thus reinforcing the management responsibility.
  • Early on it is important to have some coaching help during gemba walks.  It is nice to have a Sensei to go with you, but it is also effective to walk with a leader that has more experience then you do if a Sensei in not available.
  • During each walk a leader should ask the team a series of open ended questions to assess the current situation, challenge the current thinking and prepare the team for taking the next step.  If you are just getting starting it is very helpful to have a set of standard questions you always ask the team as well as a system to track notes from past gemba walks.  The leader should take the time to review their notes and prepare their questions so that they respect the time of the team.
  • Gemba walks and visual management go hand and hand.  Without visual systems gemba walks often end up being disorganized, not focused on data and worst of all they turn into PR visits or complaining sessions.  Gemba walks are probably the most important tool in helping set and maintain the expectation that teams make their processes visible.
  • Finally, at the end of each gemba walk the leader should summarize what they and the team has learned and then clearly define the follow-up items that the team and the leader need to resolve.  Often the due date will be during the next gemba.  This is the most powerful part of the gemba, because when done effectively it helps move the team to the next level of improvement and at the same time gives leadership credibility as the leaders solve some of the systems problems that get in the teams way.   In order to do this well a leader needs to have a system to track on follow up items.  If they ask a team to try x by y date the leader better show up to check or they will lose credibility quickly.  When they do show up to check on the follow up just like they said they would teams start to see that management is serious and they will invest the appropriate time in the improvement activities moving forward.  Something very important as teams begin to learn how to improve their own processes.

Power of a great story

Make a decision

It doesn’t have to be a wise decision or a perfect one. Just make one.

In fact, make several. Make more decisions could be your three word mantra.

No decision is a decision as well, the decision not to decide. Not deciding is usually the wrong decision. If you are the go-to person, the one who can decide, you’ll make more of a difference. It doesn’t matter so much that you’re right, it matters that you decided.

Of course it’s risky and painful. That’s why it’s a rare and valuable skill.

Creating sustainable competitive advantage

No successful web company (not eBay, Flickr, Amazon, Facebook…) succeeds because of a significant technological barrier to entry. It’s not insanely difficult to copy what they’ve done. Yet they win and the copycats don’t.

Few organizations succeed in the long run because of proprietary technology. Not Starbucks or CAA or Nike, certainly. Not Caterpillar or Reuters either.

Technologists often tell me, “this product is very hard to build, that will insulate us from competition and protect our pricing.” It might. For a while. But once you’re successful, the competition will figure out a way. They always do.

So, what to do?

  • You can own something that’s hard to copy (like real estate).
  • You can race down the pricing and scale curve, so it’s cheaper for you to do what you do because you have a head start.
  • You can create switching costs, so that the hassle and cost of moving to a cheaper competitor is so great, it’s just not worth it.
  • You can build a network (which can take many forms–natural monopolies are organizations where the market is better off when there’s only one of you).
  • You can build a brand (shorthand for relationships, beliefs, trust, permission and word of mouth).
  • You can create a constantly innovating organization where extraordinary employees thrive.

The reason the internet is such a home to wow business models is that it’s easier to create a network here than any other time in history.