Category Archives: Lean

Find the 15-Minute Competitive Advantage

Just because this is a time of transformation doesn’t mean that it’s easy to sell transformational ideas. Economic uncertainty has reduced the audience for bold, grand rhetoric. Besides, even in boom times innovation is risky. Innovators often have to ease anxieties by sounding conservative while doing something radical.

We all want breakthroughs; it’s just that we can’t know exactly which of the bold new ideas will break through. For every Mustang, there’s an Edsel. For every flip phone, there’s a flop. (Apple’s track record — iPod, iTunes, iPhone — is extraordinary but atypical.) It’s is also hard to get traction for ideas that are so far ahead of their times that the infrastructure or human habits do not yet support them. For every dream of cheap renewable energy, there’s the reality of still-high costs of wind turbines or solar panels.

As many technology companies have seen to their peril, you can leap much too far into the future by seeking revolution, not evolution, leaving potential users in the dust. But steady progress — step by single step — can win internal support and the external race for share of market or share of mind. Especially if you take each step quickly.

Consider Woody Allen’s comedy routine about the first landing of UFOs on Earth and our first contact with an advanced civilization (AKA advanced competitor). Allen wrote that most worries about planetary takeovers involve aliens that are light years away and centuries ahead of us in technology, bringing devices we can’t understand or communicate with, which enables them to control everything. Not to worry, Allen said. If we can’t understand or communicate with their systems, we’ll just ignore them, doing our work the way we always do until they leave in frustration. Instead, he argued, the advanced civilization that we should really worry about is one that is just 15 minutes ahead. That way they’d always be first in line for the movies, they’d never miss a meeting with the boss… and they’d always be first in every race.

Call this the “15 minute competitive advantage”: changing in short fast bursts rather than waiting for the breakthrough that transforms everything. If every proverbial 15 minutes, you learn something and incorporate it into the next speedy step, you’ll continue to be ahead. And a few time periods later, transformation will be underway.

Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, praised the value of cheap, fast experiments at a recent CEO meeting. He recalled watching Toyota’s method of continuous improvement on the shop floor: simplifying, speeding, and taking costs out with each round. Bolt instead of weld, tape instead of bolt, hold instead of tape. Cook’s advice is to turn business concepts into hypotheses to test fast. This is the essence of rapid prototyping, and it doesn’t require total transformation.

Stay a little ahead of the competition while close enough to what customers can understand and incorporate, and the innovation idea is easier to sell. Here are some characteristics of innovations most likely to succeed at gaining support:

Trial-able: The idea or product can be demonstrated on a pilot basis. Customers can see it in action first and incorporate it on a small scale before committing to replace everything.

Divisible: It can be adopted in segments or phases. Users can ease into it, a step at a time. They can even use it in parallel with current solutions.

Reversible: If it doesn’t work, it’s possible to return to pre-innovation status. Eventually you want life to be unimaginable without it, but at least in theory, it’s possible to go back to zero.

Tangible: It offers concrete results that can be seen to make a difference in something that users need and value.

Fits prior investments: The idea builds on “sunk costs” or actions already taken, so it looks like not much change is involved.

Familiar: It feels like things that people already understand, so it is not jarring to use. It is consistent with other experiences, especially successful ones.

Congruent with future direction: It is in line with where things are heading anyway. It doesn’t require people to rethink their priorities or pathways, even though of course it changes things.

Positive publicity value: It will make everyone look good.

These principles leave plenty of room to promote revolutionary ideas under cover of evolutionary change. But to find and grow a market for anything — whether green products or new health delivery plans — means staying close to what users can adopt easily and then leading them to the next iteration.

Innovators who take risks must reduce the risk for others. Think long-term trends but short-term steps —15 minutes at a time.

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.

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

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.

Change Initiatives and Employee Engagement

According to a recent global study by Right Management, 94% of employees who report that change was not handled well in their organizations – are disengaged.

Drawing from research of 28,000 employees in 15 countries, Right Management’s key findings from the global study include:

  • Employee engagement is a key driver of organizational effectiveness and directly impacts productivity and profitability.
  • Best-performing organizations manage change nearly four times more effectively. In top-performing companies (defined as those achieving higher revenue and above-average customer loyalty profit results), 60% of employees responded that “change is handled effectively in my organization,” compared to 16% of employees in below-average performing organizations.
  • Less than half (43%) of employees are confident in their organization’s change process. One in three employees believes their organization does not handle change effectively.
  • The biggest downfall for senior leaders is the perception that they do not follow through on what they say they will do. Less than half (47%) agreed that senior leaders communicated change effectively; 54% of employees doubted senior leaders’ ability to respond appropriately to changing external conditions.
  • Organizations that do not manage change well are four times more likely to lose talent. Twenty percent of employees who perceived change was not handled effectively indicated they planned to leave within one year versus only 5% of employees who held a favorable view. The latter planned to stay for at least five years.
  • Ineffective change management can lead to lower levels of job confidence. Of the employees who reported that change management was not handled well, 45% expressed favorable feelings about not losing their job within 12 months, while 32% did not. This is in stark contrast to organizations with effective change management, where 80% of respondents had positive feelings about keeping their job versus only 7% who did not.
  • Ineffective change management negatively impacts an organization’s ability to attract talent. When employees reported that change was managed poorly in their organizations, 75% of respondents had concerns with their company’s ability to attract talent.

No Rx for Lean

by Jamie Flinchbaugh, Lean Learning Center

I recently have had the opportunity to review a wide range of sites and companies and provide feedback on their lean journey. One of the things that really surprised me was how many of them were still trying to follow a prescription for lean. I heard things such as “the book says to do this but it doesn’t work for us, what should we do?”

Simple, drop it or change it.

Too many lean thinkers (I use the term loosely because to me, they aren’t thinking) try to take a prescription or recipe and apply it across all sites within a company universally, or across multiple companies. There are many people to “blame” for this (sorry, hate to even use the word) from authors to consultants to new hires into companies. Here’s an author that we’ve come across that in my opinion is part of the problem. His statement includes:

I reduced applying lean to almost a prescription that you can follow with detailed steps that have been proven, time and time again. I have a number of case studies in the book where the prescription is laid out and you just have to implement it.

That’s a prescription for one thing: failure. We hope that you don’t follow the same approach. Every organization is different. You have different cultures, resources, skills, business needs, restrictions, and hopefully a vision of your own ideal state that you would like to achieve.

Understand your current state, have a vision of where you would like to go, and chart your own course of action. This is a lot more work, and that’s probably why some people avoid it. But it’s working on the hard that separates from the good lean efforts from those that fail. Take ownership. Only you can lead your organization, don’t try to rely on a prescription.

Failure: The Secret to Success