“I’m confused…what are we doing?”

LabelSo I heard a really good question at a meeting recently, which (with a touch of poetic licence) I’ll set out as follows:

“We seem to be talking about all sorts of different things at the moment, such as ‘Agile’ and ‘Systems Thinking’…this can be quite confusing (and/or frustrating)…can we be clear as to what we are doing?”

The question nicely highlights the problem with giving something a label, and of having multiple labels ‘out there’ all at the same time.

Most ‘things with a label’ in the world of organisational change relate to a specific philosophy, with defined methods, and a collection of associated tools and techniques. Perhaps they arose from a seminal business article (e.g. in the Harvard Business Review) or ‘meeting of minds’ (e.g. at a conference) …which got turned into a best-selling book…which became a movement…and then a healthy1 consulting revenue stream.

People often say that “we are doing [name of current thing]”, with some becoming quite fanatical in its application.

Conversely, some will (properly) argue that the philosophy is the important bit…but they are often (usually?) still trying to ‘implement’ it…which doesn’t make much sense (see intervention bit near the end).

Consider, compare and contrast

So, the two labels in the quote above are ‘Agile’ and ‘Systems Thinking’. Let’s examine them a bit:


Agile ManifestoAgile:

In the beginning…: Computing is a relatively new phenomenon, well at least in terms of human years. (If you believe in evolution then) we’ve been roaming around this planet as Homo Sapiens for roughly 300,000 years…but the first computer that could store and run programs didn’t get built until around 70 years ago2.

Early computer programming efforts borrowed the existing thinking derived from the mature discipline of engineering – such as up-front customer requirements, robust planning and estimates, detailed documented specifications and ‘sign offs’, and clear stages and processes within.

However, around the 1990’s the use of such a ‘heavyweight’ approach (often referred to as ‘waterfall’) was becoming a big problem: software development projects were taking many years from start to delivery and regularly didn’t achieve what was actually required…and were often un-useable and even scrapped!

The new science/art of software development was clearly different to a classical engineering project, in two particular ways:

– Dynamic: the customer/ worker/ user environment is constantly changing…what you needed today may be quite different tomorrow; and

– Emergent: ‘an answer’ isn’t (and usually can’t be) known ‘up front’…because what is desirable and possible is constantly evolving.


What is ‘Agile’ and where did it come from? Software engineers were getting frustrated with the situation and, rather than sitting on their hands, were experimenting with doing things differently, to make their work more timely and responsive to actual needs. A whole bunch of (so called) ‘lightweight’ software development ideas were being tried.

A group of software development ‘thought leaders’ began collaborating. A seminal moment occurred in 2001 when they met (at Snowbird, Utah) to discuss the lightweight software development methods that had been developed so far.

Together, they published a ‘Manifesto for Agile3 Software Development’. This short and concise document4 proposes four values and twelve principles

…and that’s it!

Some things to note: It was explicitly about software development. There were no methods, no tools, and no techniques mentioned…and if you read the values and principles, then there’s a lot to like within. In fact, (I think that) it would be hard to objectively argue with them.


And so where did ‘Agile’ go, and what has it become? I’ll start this bit by putting up a diagram to express how I see it:

Agile diagram

The starting point (green box) is the software development values and principles (a.k.a ‘The Agile Manifesto’). This then feeds into a whole bunch of potential methods, which include:

– some that already existed and were then aligned and further developed; and

– new methods that have since been derived.

As such, in ‘Agile Manifesto’ terms, there aren’t right or wrong methods – what matters is whether they fit, and are carried out in accordance, with the values and principles.

If we go below methods, we can get to a whole set of techniques that people use. Many of these techniques may be used across multiple methods…and that’s fine. But, again, the important bit is how they are being used. For example: anyone can do a ‘stand-up’5 …but it’s not much good if I ‘commanded and controlled’ my way through it.

“A fool with a tool is still a fool” (Grady Booch)

(If you want to get a good understanding of the important difference between techniques, methods, and principles then please read my earlier post ‘Depths of Transformation’ that uses another (related) label of ‘Lean’ to explain.)

And so, at this point, you can imagine that we’ve got lots of different teams working towards constantly delivering useful software in a timely manner, and each such team will have arrived at a method (and set of techniques) that works for them. Nice.

The next thing that happened was the desire, usually within large ‘IT shops’ to co-ordinate all this (now labelled as) ‘Agile’ work together into a portfolio…and we get the birth of approaches6 aiming to scale the method – to align and co-ordinate all those agile teams. It sounds like a reasonable thing to do but there’s a big risk here: such attempts at scaling can obliterate the simplicity, add top-down hierarchy and cause inflexibility and confusion…all things that the Agile Manifesto was trying to cut through….and putting the well-intended ‘Agile’ label in jeopardy.

Further, the ‘Agile’ label, having been created for the specifics of software development, has been pushing its boundaries to become more generalised. Those that (might be said to) ‘love the label’ are applying it to wider areas, such as project management and product development.

And yet further, the word ‘Agile’ is being used to describe an even higher aspiration for business agility…which is taking us to a literal dictionary definition:

Agile: Able to move quickly and easily. Synonyms: nimble, alert.” (Oxford Dictionary)

Now, whilst this might be a commendable (and valuable) aim, it’s a long way from (just) software development. As such, it definitely needs to come back to (i.e. be grounded in)  philosophy rather than methods and techniques.

Right, so that’s a short trip around ‘Agile’….moving on to:


Systems thinking diagramSystem Thinking:

What is ‘Systems Thinking’? Unlike ‘Agile’ (or its relation ‘Lean’7), there wasn’t a seminal moment when people sat around in a meeting and invented/ derived something and labelled it as ‘Systems Thinking’. There isn’t some ‘central body’ that (might attempt to) define and regulate it….however there have been a number of (what I would term) ‘Systems Thinking’ giants over the years.

Rather, ‘Systems Thinking’ is a discipline (heavily based in the fields of science and logic) that has been developing over hundreds (if not thousands) of years, sometimes splitting into new fields, sometimes coming back together again.

“Systems Thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes rather than parts, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots, and for understanding the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character.” (Peter Senge)

It’s about a shift of mind from seeing problems as caused by someone or something ‘out there’ – to seeing the role that our actions (and inactions) have in creating the problems that we experience.

(If you want a bit of a Systems Thinking history lesson then please read my earlier post ‘Hard, Soft or Laminated?’)


“Er, okay Steve…that’s about as clear as mud…so what does it actually involve?

 Well, put simply, it is about:

  • understanding what is meant by a system8, and the implications that flow from this;
  • observing how a system behaves, over time, to better understand:
    • how it actually works;
    • whether it is stable or changing; and therefore
    • what interventions may be beneficial, when considered against the system’s purpose
  • understanding how human beings think (rationally…and irrationally);
  • designing intervention experiments, towards the system’s purpose; and
  • measuring whether, and how these interventions alter the system (for better or worse) and therefore whether to attempt to amplify or dampen them.

 Here’s another nice ‘Systems Thinking’ definition:

“a disciplined approach for examining problems more completely and accurately before acting. It allows us to ask better questions before jumping to conclusions.” (thesystemsthinker.com)


HabitsWhat habits need to be learned and practised to enable ‘Systems Thinking’?

I’ve deliberately used the word ‘habits’ rather than ‘skills’ as they mean different things. I’ve also held back from talking about methods and techniques.

It wouldn’t be right (in my view) to say that person X is a systems thinker and person Y is not.

Systems’ thinking is something for each and every one of us to work on….which is a nice link to the Waters Foundation’s one-page poster9 setting out (with useful pictures) the ‘Habits of a Systems Thinker’…go on, have a quick look – it’s very good.

These habits:

  • can (and should) be used in any and every setting, whether at work or home, and with regards to society or our environment…and everywhere in-between; and
  • are lifelong practises, to be constantly explored, matured and extended.

In this sense, it doesn’t make sense to say “we are ‘doing’ Systems Thinking here”…rather, it’s a journey.

Commonality

I’d argue that ‘Agile’ and ‘Systems Thinking’ are two very different things, and it’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges.

Agile to systems thinking target diagramIf I absolutely had to link them together then I quite like this diagram because:

  • ‘Agile’ began as being about improving software development;
  • ‘Lean’ began as being about improving value streams (from customer need to its satisfaction)…where software might be a useful enabling component within this; and
  • ‘Systems Thinking’ is about navigating through, and improving our whole world…where (true) ‘Lean’ and ‘Agile’ thinking fit very well within this endeavour.

In fact, the extension of the meaning and usage of the ‘Agile’ label from its software development roots outwards kind of shows that it was all about the foundational system thinking.

Intervention

I shouldn’t end this post without making a comment about intervention.

You can want the philosophy behind ‘Agile’, ‘Lean’….[and the next label] but you’ll only truly move towards it when you understand about how to intervene successfully.

I’ve written a fair bit about this10 so I won’t repeat it here…but I will say that it’s not about (attempting to) do things to people, it is about helping people discover, experiment and learn for themselves….just give them a clear purpose and conducive environment to do so.

“People don’t resist change, they resist being changed” (Scholtes)

You don’t ‘implement’ Systems Thinking…you constantly learn about, and question, your thinking, whilst experimenting towards a system’s (customer) purpose.

To close

I started this post using the word ‘label’…because a label can become really problematic11. Here’s a great quote that (hopefully) puts labels into perspective:

Don’t call it anything: If it has a name, then people, including you, will waste time arguing about what ‘it’ is and isn’t… but

Call it something: otherwise nobody can ever talk about.” (Thinkpurpose.com)

i.e. when thinking about labelling something, you are ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’.

Footnotes:

1. Healthy – I mean large 🙂

2. Computers: If you want a history of the term ‘computer’ and the dates of various advances in computing then see this informative webpage

3. The informal use of the word ‘lightweight’ got given the label ‘Agile’.

4. The Agile manifesto can be found here

5. Stand-up: A regular (e.g. daily) meeting where team members have a collaborative conversation about what they’ve done towards the current goal, what they are doing next and any impediments preventing them from making progress. It’s called a stand up because it is intended as a short meeting (hence people usually stand).

6. Scaling methods: Two well-known methods are called SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) and LeSS (Large Scale Scrum). There are others.

7. Lean: I mention Lean because it may be seen as a parallel (and related) development to ‘Agile’. The ‘Lean’ label came about from the study of how Toyota were making high quality cars in a highly efficient manner.

8. Definition of a system: “a network of inter-dependant components that work together to try to accomplish the aim [purpose] of the system” (Deming)

9. Habits poster: It’s worth printing out and putting on your wall…and getting into the habit 🙂 of looking at.

 10. Intervention: Here’s an earlier post that should assist ‘What do germs have to do with modern management?’

 11. Misuse of Labels: If someone attempts to justify prescribing a specific tool or technique by saying ‘this is Agile’ or ‘this is ‘Systems Thinking’ then I hope that you can politely point out that this is unlikely to be the case. A tool/ technique could be useful…but not if you are unclear as to why it is being used or if it is being forced upon you.

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Depths of ‘Transformation’

butterflyI’ve been meaning to write this post for 2 years! It feels good to finally ‘get it out of my head’ and onto the page.

It’s about that lovely ‘Transformation’ word.

Before I go on, I’ll repeat a definition from an earlier post:

Transformation: In an organisational context, a process of profound and radical change that orients an organisation in a new direction and takes it to an entirely different level of effectiveness….transformation implies a basic change of character and little or no resemblance with the past configuration or structure.” (businessdictionary.com)

To repeat the key phrase: An entirely different level of effectiveness! …and, just in case you missed it, the word is effectiveness, not efficiency.

I’m going to outline 3 levels of (supposed) transformation and I’ll do this by borrowing the bones of an idea from Mike Rother’s excellent ‘Toyota Kata’ book and extend it with a large dose of my own ‘poetic license’.

Level 1 Transformation: ‘On the surface’

iceburgSo, picture the scene: It’s the late 1970s. Your organisation desperately wants to improve and, on looking around for someone achieving brilliant results, you spot the awesome Toyota (or such like1).

You go on a Toyota factory visit. You are amazed at what you see and excitedly ask them how they do it.

You easily observe (‘on the surface’) lots of obvious methods and tools…and so you grab evidence of how these are carried out – e.g. some template forms, and the instructions that go with them. You also take lots of pictures of their (visual management) walls to show all this working in situ.

You run back home, hand out the methods and tools and mandate that, from now on, this is what we are doing.

toolboxYou helpfully provide training and (so called) ‘coaching’…and you put in place ‘governance’ to ensure it’s working. You roll it all up together and you give it a funky title…like your Quality Toolbox. Nice.

So what happens?

Well, yep, those tools and methods sure are ‘shiny new’ and easily applied. There’s an initial buzz, probably because of senior management focus…and pressure to prove the comedy ‘Return on Investment’ (ROI) calculation that had to be set out in the short-term thinking ‘will you pay for our factory trip?’ business case.

But the initial effects fall away. Anything achieved was a one-off, or of limited and low level benefit. The changes aren’t sustained – with a slide back to the old state. People start to misuse the tools and methods, and do much damage rather than good. There is a brief and ugly fight with the ‘methods and tools’ compliance police but disillusionment sets in and the early good work becomes discredited and abandoned (just like the last silver bullet…and the one before that…)

Timely reminder: “A fool with a tool is still a fool” (Grady Booch)

Note: This ‘on the surface’ transformation attempt has been likened to organisations going over to Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s and coming home to fanatically ‘do Total Quality Management’ (TQM)…and then quietly dropping it a few years later. Sure, some organisations sustained it but most didn’t.

Level 2 Transformation: ‘Under the skin’

skinSo it’s now the 1990s. The methods and tools that came out of the initial Toyota factory visit weren’t sustained but the pressure is still on (and mounting) to transform your organisation…and your management can’t help noticing that Toyota are still doing amazing!

“Perhaps we didn’t look hard enough or close enough or long enough…perhaps we should go back and have a look ‘under the skin’.”

…and so you go for another factory visit (once you’ve been given permission following another well written story business case 🙂 ).

This time you take real care – studying ‘at the gemba’ for weeks, asking questions, watching activities, understanding the nature of changes being made to the system before you.

“Eureka! There’s something underneath those methods and tools! We can see that there’s an underlying logic that we missed last time round…oooh, we could codify them into a set of principles!

And here’s basically what you arrive at:

0. Everything should belong to, or support, a value stream (a horizontal flow from customer need, through to its satisfaction)

…and for each value stream we should:

1. Specify value, where this is through the eyes of the customer; then

2. Identify all the actions performed within the value stream, and expose and remove the obvious waste; then

3. Create flow by understanding and removing the barriers; then

4. Establish pull by producing only what is needed, when requested; and finally

5. The ‘golden nugget’: we should continually strive for perfection because this is a never-ending journey

Wow, that was profound – your factory tour team now need to give it a name!

And so, after a fun focus group, a young member of your team called John2 shouts out “It needs less of everything to create a given amount of value, so let’s call it ‘Lean’.”

Whoop, whoop, he’s only gone and cracked it!

You run back home to tell everyone about the wonders of ‘Lean’. You hand out books, provide training courses, coaching and mentoring and you slot all those wonderful tools and methods nicely into their place…neat…this is going to be great!

So what happens?

Well, everyone absolutely LOVES the principles. They make sooo much sense. They particularly liked playing with Lego in the training sessions to demo flow, pull, kanban and ‘stop the line’ thinking.

But after a while (and some short-term gains) you realise that there’s a huge tension building. No one can make those darn principles work because they continually clash with existing management practises.

Your senior management employ a gaggle of so-called Lean coaches to try to change the people at the bottom whilst they carry on at the top as before!

Your ‘Lean Office’ has become an island of coaches doing great work with the people but unable to turn the tide. Coaching conversations end with responses like:

“Yes, I can see that would be the right thing to do for the value stream…but that’s not what my objectives, performance rating and bonus is based on…or what my manager above me would support…so I’ll stick to soul-destroying fighting within my silo. Sorry about that 😦

This culminates in huge frustration; a revolving door of broken coaches; and many a good employee finding a better organisation to work for. If you ran an employee survey at this point, the results would make for ugly reading – you’ve created a complete divide between worker reality and management ‘cloud cuckoo land’.

Oh, and that lean word? Well it became capitalised! LEAN…as if it were a thing. You’ve all forgotten that it was just a label thought up by John in a focus group merely to describe what the factory visit team saw.

Pause for reflection: Taiichi Ohno is considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System (TPS) but he didn’t want it to be written down3 (codified) because he wanted it to remain dynamic.

And as for that name:“Ohno did not call his innovation ‘lean’ – he didn’t want to call it anything. He could, perhaps foresee the folly of a label.” (John Seddon)

Caution: …and if you did this ‘under the skin’ (supposed) transformation within a service organisation, you may find (if you properly stood back to look at it!) that you’d totally f@ck$d it up!

Credit: The ‘Level 2’ principles jotted down above are the core of the 1996 book ‘Lean Thinking’ by Womack and Jones….which they wrote following their research in Japan. They explicitly set out 5 principles, with a foundational one implied (hence why I’ve labelled it as ‘principle nought’).

Level 3 Transformation: ‘In the DNA’

dna…and so to the 2000s. The pressure to change your organisation is relentless – the corporate world is ‘suffering’ from seemingly constant technological disruption…but Toyota continues to be somehow different.

You pluck up the courage and ask for a sabbatical for 6 months – you want to find the meaning of life…well, perhaps not that deep…but you sure as hell want to know what Toyota have got that you don’t…and to work this out, you are going to have to go in deep – to their DNA.

Toyota are happy to see you again. But, rather than repeating what you did on the last two trips, you come straight out with it:

“Okay, you’ve shown me your tools and methods…you’ve let me uncover your principles…and I know that these aren’t the answer! What are you hiding from me?! Come on, I get it, it’s a competitive world out there but PLEASE let me in on your secret.”

The Toyota managers are perplexed. They don’t know what else they can do. They are adamant that they aren’t hiding anything from you.

…and so, rather than go straight back home empty handed, you ask if you can work with Toyota to experience what day-to-day work is actually like. They humbly agree to your request.

And six months later your mind has been totally blown!

You really get it….no, REALLY GET IT!

You couldn’t see the wood for the trees but now it’s as obvious as can be.

It’s all about the environment created by management’s actions, which come from their beliefs and behaviours about human beings: about society, about customers…and, most profoundly, about employees.

This is invisible on a factory visit! But it’s still there. It’s simply ‘in the DNA’.

Sure, you could provide a list of attributes as to what this looks like…but management can’t just do them, they have to believe in them – in fact, ‘be’ them!

Further, there’s nothing to be ‘implemented’ because it can’t be!

Everything flows from management’s beliefs and behaviours: It’s from these that Toyota creates new principles, methods and tools all the time…and throws out old ones that are no longer appropriate. Their systems thinking and human thinking is solid and profound, whilst their method is dynamic and agile.

…and the realisation sinks in: No wonder Toyota are happy to open their door to anyone. The thing that makes them great can’t be copied. It has to be lived and breathed…and nurtured from the shop floor all the way up. Oh sh1t!

…and so to your new headache: you totally ‘get it’ but how on earth do you change your organisational system – now that is THE nut to crack. That would be transformational!

Reflection time:

So ‘On the surface’, ‘Under the skin’ or ‘In the DNA’: What level of transformation are you playing at?

…if you are at level 1 or 2 then it’s not actually transformation.

…if you are truly at level 3, then here’s the final mind blowing bit – it is self-sustaining.


To close: I have been asking myself a HUGE question for a fair while now: Can management’s beliefs and behaviours change within a large floating (i.e. short-term thinking) shareholder owned organisation.  I’m nearly there with writing down my thoughts. Watch this space…

Footnotes:

1. Just Toyota? I use Toyota in this story since everyone knows who they are…and visits to their factories is precisely what happened regularly over the last several decades. But it isn’t just Toyota.

Your own ‘Toyota’ factory visit could be to another great organisation…and it needn’t be a factory making products – it could be a service organisation. Handelsbanken would be a great financial services example.

Though beware, there aren’t that many ‘true Toyotas’ out there. And perhaps none that have sustained it for so long.

2. ‘John’: He’s even called John in the true story – John Krafcik, a young researcher on Womack’s MIT research team…and those were his words back in 1987 (as recalled by Womack) to give birth to the Lean label.

3. Writing it down: Ohno finally relented when he retired in 1978 and wrote a book on TPS.

4. Clarification: I think a great deal of Lean Thinking, but not a lot about ‘LEAN’ – the implementation movement. I respect Womack and Jones, and their writings…but I note that my favourite Womack book is ‘Gemba Walks’ written about a decade after ‘Lean Thinking’ in which he humbly reflects that it was about far more than the tools and the principles. It was really about the management system (or, in my words, the DNA).

Crossing the Divide

Picture1Are you interested in crossing that divide?

Okay, listen up 🙂 …this post is my attempt at one of those important bringing-it-all-together ones that provide a big message (see – look at the picture!)…which means that it’s a bit longer than normal because it needs to be.

I thought about breaking it into pieces and publishing bit-by-bit but this would make it longer (each bit needing a top and a tail) and hard to mentally put back together.

So I’ve decided to keep it together and let you, the reader, decide how you consume it. You might like to read it in one; or dip in and out of it during your day; or even set yourself an alert to finish it the next day…so (as Cilla Black used to say) “the choice is yours”. Here goes…

Mike Rother wrote what I believe to be, a very important book (Toyota Kata) about how organisations can improve, and what thinking is stopping them.

In particular, Chapter 9 of the book deals with ‘Developing Improvement Kata [pattern] behaviour in your organisation’. I thought it worthwhile posting a summary of his excellent advice derived from his research….

…and I’ll start with a highly relevant quote:

“Do not create a ‘Lean’ department or group and relegate responsibility for developing improvement behaviours to it.

Such a parallel staff group will be powerless to effect change, and this approach has been proven ineffective in abundance.

Use of this tactic often indicates delegation of responsibility and lack of commitment at the senior level.” (Mike Rother)

Many an organisation has gone down the ‘Lean department’ (or some such label) route…so, given this fact, here’s what Rother goes on to say, combined with my own supporting narrative and thought:


1. Be clear on what we are trying to achieve

If you really want to cross that divide then the challenge that we should be setting ourselves is learning a new way of thinking and acting such that we:

  • get the ‘improvement behaviour’ habit into the organisation; and then
  • spread it across the organisation so that it is used by everyone, at every process, every day.

And to make it even more ‘black and white’: the challenge is NOT about implementing techniques, practices or principles on top of our existing way of managing.

It means changing how we manage. This involves a significant effort and far reaching change (particularly in respect of leadership).


2. What do we know about this challenge?

  • Toyota (from the foundational work of Taiichi Ohno) is considered the world leader in working towards this challenge…they’ve been working towards it for 60+ years;
    • We can study and learn, but should not merely copy, from them;
  • The start, and ever-continuing path, is to strive to understand the reality of your own situation, and experimenting. This is where we actually learn;
  • No one can provide you with an ‘off-the-shelf’ solution to the challenge:
    • There isn’t likely to be an approach that perfectly fits for all;
    • It is in the studying and experimenting that we gain wisdom;
    • ‘Copying’ will leave us flailing around, unknowingly blind;
    • Our path should continually be uncertain up until each ‘next step’ reveals itself to us.

Wow, so that’s quite a challenge then! Here are some words of encouragement from Rother on this:

“There is now a growing community of organisations that are working on this, whose senior leaders recognise that Toyota’s approach is more about working to change people’s behaviour patterns than about implementing techniques, practises, or principles.”


3. What won’t work?

If we wish to spread a new (improvement) behaviour pattern across an organisation then the following tactics will not be effective:

Tactic a) Classroom training:

Classroom training (even if it incorporates exercises and simulations) will not change people’s behaviours. If a person ‘goes back’ into their role after attending training and their environment remains the same, then expect minimal change from them.

“Intellectual knowledge alone generally does not lead to change in behaviour, habits or culture. Ask any smoker.”

Rother makes the useful contrast of the use of the ‘training’ word within sport:

“The concept of training in sports is quite different from what ‘training’ has come to mean in our companies. In sport it means repeatedly practicing an actual activity under the guidance of a coach. That kind of training, if applied as part of an overall strategy to develop new behaviour patterns is effective for changing behaviours.”

Classroom training (and, even better, education) has a role but this is probably limited to ‘awareness’….and even that tends to fade quickly if it is not soon followed by hands-on practising with an appropriate coach.

Tactic b) Having consultants do it ‘to people’ via projects and workshops:

Projects and workshops do not equal continuous improvement. This is merely ‘point’ improvement that will likely cease and even slip backwards once the consultant (or ‘Black Belt’) has moved on to the next area of focus.

Real continuous improvement means improving all processes every day.

Traditional thinking sees improvement as an add-on (via the likes of Lean Six Sigma projects) to daily management. Toyota/ (actual) Lean/ Systems thinking (pick your label!) is where normal daily management equals process improvement i.e. they are one and the same thing.

To achieve this isn’t about bringing experts in to manage you through projects; it is to understand how to change your management system so that people are constantly improving their processes themselves. Sure, competent coaches can help leaders through this, but they cannot ‘do it for them.’

And to be clear: it is the senior leaders that first need coaching, this can’t be delegated downwards.

“If the top does not change behaviour and lead, then the organisation will not change either.”

Tactic c) Setting objectives, metrics and incentives to bring about the desired change:

There is no combination of these things that will generate improvement behaviour and alter an organisation’s culture. In fact, much of this is the problem.

If you don’t get this HUGE constraint then here are a few posts already published that scratch the surface* as to why: D.U.M.B., The Spice of Life, and The Chasm

(* you are unlikely to fully ‘get’ the significance from simple rational explanations, but these might make you curious to explore further)

Tactic d) Reorganising:

Shuffling the organisational structure with the aim (hope) of stimulating improvement will not work. Nothing has fundamentally changed.

“As tempting as it sometimes seems, you cannot reorganise your way to continuous improvement and adaptiveness. What is decisive is not the form of your organisation, but how people act and react.”


4. How do we change?

So, if all those things don’t work then, before we jump on some other ideas, perhaps we need to remind ourselves about us (human beings) and how we function.

The science of psychology is clear that we learn habits (i.e. behaviours that occur unconsciously and become almost involuntary to us) by repeated practice and gaining periodic fulfilment from this. This builds new and ever strengthening mental circuits (neural pathways).

Put simply: we learn by doing.

We need to start by realising that what we do now is mostly habitual and therefore the only way to alter this is by personally and repeatedly practising the desired (improvement pattern) behaviours in our actual daily work.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (Aristotle)

“To know and not to do is not yet to know.” (Zen saying)

Further, a coach can only properly understand a person’s true thinking and learning by observing them in their daily work.

In summary, we need to:

  • practise using actual situations in actual work processes;
  • combine training with doing, such that the coach can see in real time where the learner is at and can introduce appropriate adjustments; and
  • use the capability of the actual process as the measure of effectiveness of the coaching/ learning.

5. Where to start?

So, bearing in mind what is said above (i.e. about needing to learn for yourselves), what follows is merely about helping you do this…and not any ‘holy grail’. If there is one then it is still up to you to find it!

An experienced coach:

“Coaches should be in a position to evaluate what their students are doing and give good advice…in other words, coaches should be experienced….

…If a coach or leader does not know from personal experience how to grasp the current condition at a process, establish an appropriate challenge [towards customer purpose] and then work step by step [experiment] towards it, then she is simply not in a position to lead and teach others. All she will be able to say in response to a student’s proposals is ‘Okay’ or ‘Good job’ which is not coaching or teaching.

The catch-22 is that at the outset there are not enough people in the organisation who have enough experience with the improvement kata [pattern] to function as coaches…

…it will be imperative to develop at least a few coaches as early as possible.” (See establishing an Advance Group below)

A word of warning: Many people assume a coaching role, often without realising that they are doing so. Such a presumption seems to be something that anyone hierarchically ‘senior’ to you considers to be their right. As in “Now listen up minion, I am now going to coach you – you lucky thing!*”

(* I had a rant about this in my earlier post on ‘people and relationships’ …but I’m okay now 🙂 )

So: Before any of us assert any supposed coaching privileges, I think we should humbly reflect that:

“The beginner is entitled to a master for a teacher. A hack can do incredible damage.” (Deming)

Who practises first?

The improvement pattern is for everyone in the organisation……but it needs to start somewhere first.

“Managers and leaders at the middle and lower levels of the organisation are the people who will ultimately coach the change to the improvement kata [pattern], yet they will generally and understandably not set out in such a new direction on their own. They will wait and see, based on the actions (not the words) of senior management, what truly is the priority and what really is going to happen.”

The point being that, if the organisation wants to effect a change in culture (which is what is actually needed to make improvement part of daily management) then it requires the senior managers to go first.

This statement needs some important clarifications:

  • It isn’t saying that senior leadership need to stand up at annual road-shows or hand out some new guru-book and merely state that they are now adopting some shiny new thing. This will change nothing. Far better would be NOT to shout about it and just ‘do it’ (the changed behaviours)…the people will notice and follow for themselves;
  • It isn’t saying that all senior leaders need to master all there is to know before anyone else can become involved. But what is needed is a meaningful desire for key (influential) members of the senior team to want to learn and change such that their people believe this;
  • It isn’t saying that there aren’t and won’t be a rump of middle and lower managers who are forward thinking active participants. They exist now and are already struggling against the current – they will surge ahead when leaders turn the tide;
  • It isn’t saying that the rest of the people won’t want the change: the underlying improvement behaviours provide people with what they want (a safe, secure and stimulating environment). It is just that they have understandably adopted a ‘wait-and-see’ habit given their current position on a hierarchical ladder and the controls imposed upon them.

Establishing an Advance Group

The first thing to notice from this sub-title is that it is NOT suggesting that:

  • we should attempt to change the whole organisation at once; or that
  • we should set up some central specialist group (as in the first quote in this post)

Instead, it is suggesting that we:

  • find a suitable1 senior executive to lead (not merely sponsor!2);
  • select/ appoint an experienced coach;
  • select a specific value-adding business system3 to start with;
  • form a suitable1 group of managers (currently working in the system, not outside it);
  • provide initial ‘awareness’ education;
  • ‘go to the Gemba’ and study4 to:
    • gain knowledge about purpose, demand, capability, and flow; and then
    • derive wisdom about the system conditions and management thinking that make all this so;
  • perform a series of improvement cycles (experimenting and learning);
  • reflect on learnings about our processes, our people and our organisation…
    • …deriving feelings of success and leading to a new mindset: building a capability to habitually follow the improvement routine in their daily management;
    • …and thereby crafting a group of newly experienced managers within the organisation who can go on to coach others as and when other business systems wish to pull their help.

(for explanatory notes for superscripts 1 – 4, see bottom of post)

Caution: Don’t put a timescale on the above – it can’t be put into an ‘on time/budget/scope’ project straight jacket. The combination of business system, team and organisational environment is infinitely varied…it will take what it takes for them to perform and learn. The learning will emerge.

A number of things should be achieved from this:

  • meaningful understanding and improvement of the selected business system’s capability;
  • highly engaged people who feel valued, involved and newly fulfilled;
  • a desire to continue with, and mature the improvement cycles (i.e. a recognition that it is a never-ending journey);
  • interest from elsewhere in the organisation as they become aware of, develop curiosity and go see for themselves; and
  • A desire to ‘roll in’5 the change to their own business system.

A caveat – The big barrier:

Every system sits within (and therefore is a component of) a larger system! This will affect what can be done.

If you select a specific value-adding business system, it sits within the larger organisational system;

If you move up the ‘food chain’ to the organisational system, it potentially sits within a larger ‘parent organisation’ system

….and so on.

This is a fact of life. When studying a system it is as important (and often more so) to study the bigger system that it sits within as studying its own component parts.

It is this fact “that so often brings an expression similar to that of the Sheriff Brody in the film ‘Jaws’ when he turns from the shark and says ‘we need a bigger boat’. Indeed we do!” (Gordon Housworth, ICG blog)

If the bigger system commands down to yours (such as that you must use cascaded personal objectives, targets, contingent rewards and competitive awards) and your learning (through study and experimentation) concludes that this negatively affects your chosen business system then you need to move upstairs and work on that bigger system.

You might respond “But how can we move upstairs? They don’t want to change!”. Well, through your studying and experimentation, you now have real knowledge rather than opinions – you have a far better starting point!


…and there you have it: A summary of Mike Rother’s excellent chapter mixed with John Seddon’s thinking (along with my additional narrative) on how we might move towards a true ‘culture of improvement’.

There is no silver bullet, just good people studying their system and facilitating valuable interventions.

Notes: All quotes used above are from Mike Rother unless otherwise stated.

  1. Suitable: A person with: an open mind, a willingness to question assumptions/ conventional wisdom, and humility; a desire and aptitude for self-development, development of others and for continual improvement (derived from Liker’s book – The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership)
  2. On leading: “Being a…Sponsor is like being the Queen: you turn up to launch a ship, smash the champagne, wave goodbye and welcome it back to port six months later. This attitude is totally inappropriate for leading…in our business environment. We need ownership that is one of passion and continual involvement…” (Eddie Obeng)
  1. The business system selected needs to be a horizontal value stream (for the customer) rather than a vertical silo (organisational function) and needs to be within the remit of the senior executive.
  1. Study: Where my post is referring to Seddon’s ‘Check’ model
  1. Roll in: The opposite of roll out – pulling, instead of pushing. Please see Rolling, rolling, rolling… for an explanation of the difference.

L.A.M.E

inv6153_2_forearm_crutchesHave you heard people state that they are “implementing Lean” or, perhaps if they are further on their journey, that they are “doing Lean”? If so, I contend that they don’t really understand ‘Lean’. It is not something that you can tick the box when you ‘get there’.

And, because of this, it is no surprise to me when I come across people with a jaundiced view of ‘Lean’ – their understanding of it is probably not what those who coined the ‘Lean’ label would have hoped. This is no fault of the beholder – they are not cynics, just people who are likely to have experienced (or been passed on war stories about) L.A.M.E.

And before you ask a ‘Lean consultant’ if they agree with the above, bear in mind that there are two types of (usually clever) consultants: a) those that are selling a methodology and a bunch of related tools and b) those that really ‘get it’…and even they are (understandably) trying to make a living.

As a reminder: the word ‘Lean’ was simply attached as a label to describe the system (i.e. the complete management philosophy, principles, and operational practices) that a team at MIT uncovered within the Japanese car industry (but particularly Toyota) through their research, which began as far back as 1977.

The ‘Lean’ label has been on a journey since it was first coined in 1987 – it has spawned an industry of its own. Of note, one of the foundational researchers, Jim Womack, has spent time reflecting on this journey and accepts that ‘the early years’ were somewhat unfortunately tools focused. He is trying to reset people’s thinking.

Reflect that Taiichi Ohno, often referred to as the father of the Toyota Production System (TPS), didn’t want to write it down because he insisted we shouldn’t codify method, fearing that it would become stale – being seen as ‘the answer’ rather than merely the current state of thinking, to be continually challenged and improved.

So, I hope you understand when I try to be very specific when I talk about ‘Lean Thinking‘…and perhaps even get a bit edgy/ pedantic when people switch to talking just about ‘Lean’. This is because the real value in what the MIT researchers uncovered (which, incidentally, was being clearly articulated by Deming, Ackoff and others) is that Toyota’s success is based on their management system: the way they think….which has enabled, and continues to enable them to consistently deliver increasing value to their customers, whilst providing secure yet engaging work for their employees…which then delivers excellent results.

You can’t pick up a ‘Toyota organisation’ kit off the shelf and implement it into your organisation. You have to understand why they are achieving and how this differs to you…and it’s all in the thinking!

Oh yes, so what’s L.A.M.E? This is (yet another) label as dreamt up by Mark Grabban, a Lean blogger in the health space. It stands for ‘Lean As Misguidedly Executed’. If you remain within a command-and-control management system, having ‘Lean’ ostensibly done to you then this is clearly L.A.M.E.

To end with a quote from a favourite blog of mine (Thinkpurpose):

Don’t call it anything: if it has a name, people (including you) will waste time arguing about what ‘it’ is and isn’t….

Call it something: otherwise nobody can ever talk about it!”

As Womack no doubt reflects on choosing to label what they learned from their research – you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.