Monday, 24 November 2014

Community of purpose

A client runs a large team conducting several complex projects in parallel for an international company in the US. He has been going through a difficult personal time and was saying that his management had slipped as a result 

To wit: his team recently invited him to attend a project management meeting. This is the kind of meeting that he would normally call and lead himself, but which he'd uncharacteristically not organized for a while. His team saw a need and did it for him. 

He was, in his own words, hurt and upset that his team had felt the need to "do [his] job for [him]". His managerial mojo was being challenged, but he put on a good face and ultimately thanked his team for taking the initiative for this much-needed meeting.  

Upon reflection, we came upon another reading of this situation. His team allowed itself to take a risk: to call a meeting and thus signal a need (and a minor slip on his side). They were able to take this risk, albeit small, because they know that he trusts them and their motives, and because they trust him, his fairness, and goodwill. Further, they respect him and thus wish him well, as they perceive his success to reflect positively upon them. They know he respects them and would react accordingly. 

In other words, the carefully crafted mutual trust and respect that he has fostered over time has created a community of purpose and goal. It is within this community that his team could reach out to him, to help him and themselves simultaneously. As a manager, building such a community is significantly more difficult, long lasting, and valuable than tracking projects on a spreadsheet, or running team meetingsthat is the mark of a true leader.

Monday, 17 November 2014

What is your takt time of change?

We've grown up with bureaucracies who's main purpose is to fend off change. We love the thrill of new, but we hate to have to change our habits on anything to do with daily logistics. We've been told change is external, something to be managed, something supposedly good but to which we're naturally resistant.

And yet, we're now building a world of transformation. Google, Amazon and Apple think in terms of how many lines of code changed by second. Transformation is not a machine in which I change this or that - it's constant, messy, on-going change.

In the old xeroxed Toyota manuals, they hit it on the nail. They said the purpose of standardized work was to train people to change - by knowing what we know, and seeing where we fall short, we can kaizen small step change, regularly. Learning to kaizen is the best training to constant change.

What was the last specific thing you changed in how you work or live? What is the next? How can we learn to see ourselves as work in progress, as non-complete beings in becoming and not as finished machines with broken parts that need to bee fixed? What is your takt time of change?

Friday, 14 November 2014

What's the point of it all?

I've been asked: what's the point of teaching companies to make a profit? Shouldn't we help people who really need it instead?

When companies make a profit they do something or other than is profitable, and they're more likely to create jobs.

People working in profitable companies feel better because, by and large, motivation comes from success, not the other way around.

Profitable companies are also likely to be doings something their customers like, and are ready to pay the asking price for.

But in the end, it's not the profit: it's how we achieve it. Human beings crave meaning and purpose in what they do, to varying extent. Keeping a boring or unpleasant job for the cash is never much fun. Teaching companies to be more profitable by putting purpose back into every job is the aim - this is where individual fulfillment aligns with the company's destiny.

This is the point of it all: how can we create the conditions so that every person sees the point of their job and leads in putting purpose ahead of procedure.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Nothing is ever solved

A man works and then walks on, turns around, starts again, works some more goes left, goes right, stops, thinks, goes back, does the same work again. Inefficient? Badly organized?

Picture this man as a gardener: every move makes sense as he tends his various different plants. He is not building a bridge. The is not digging a ditch or paving a road. Going from A to B is not always a straight line.

We were taught to be bridge builders, not gardeners. We want to solve all problems with definitive solutions to move on to the next thing and never have to go back. But the forces that create problems are still there.

No process is ever perfect, yet people are locked into processes by the computer or the procedure. So problems will always come back. Every new customers has a new concern - and is a new opportunity to either excel or piss them off. Like a garden, processes are full of weeds and uneven earth. They need to be carefully tended across the vagaries of weather and bugs.

No problem is ever solved, but we learn to deal with some issues better, faster, more confidently. So the garden can grow and prosper.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Can we speed up learning?

When the people I work with come across an improvement, they invariably ask me: how can we speed this up? What they usually mean is: how can we spread this around the company. Hmm. Not so fast.

Any improvement comes from learning. Very locally, the guys doing the job in specific circumstances have enquired into their own practice, found a better way to do so, tried it, ironed out the kinks and eventually adopted it. This is when leaders finally see it and go wow! (and wow, how do I spread this around).

Problem is, of course, that other units have not followed the same path and no risk to be told to do something different without understanding either the reasons or the ins and outs of the next best thing. It might also simply not be appropriate for them.

Enquiry is unique to us human animals. And still, we find this hard. We need a lot (as in: a lot) of self confidence and low anxiety to actually enquire as opposed to jump on the next available solution as a drowning person grabs a floating plank. Enquiry requires a kinder immediate environment even as it can be stimulated by a pressing overall challenge. Enquiry is hard - certainty is easy.

Businesses have learned to learn inasmuch as they've learned to identify best practices and then organize catch-up. It is learning, in a clumsy, inefficient, and not very nice way. It is a huge improvement from not learning at all.

But it's slow because whenever people are confronted with the instruction to catch up, they immediately push back against it - and who can blame them.

Faster learning is fuzzier and more reflexive. Faster learning comes from the learned habit to question one's own assumptions on the face of facts. Faster learning comes from the ability to parse cases and distinguish where any statement works, works somewhat or doesn't work at all: there are a few clear cut white cases, a few black cases and many grey areas.

Accelerating learning is possible, but it means slowing down catch-up learning to take the time to consider whether the new practice considered actually works, where, how or is a tactical special case slipping into a policy choice. Why does it work? How does it work?

Why? How? Where? By how much? You want to speed up learning? You can, but it means slowing down force-feeding solutions and developing the habit to ask why? and how? and where?

Monday, 27 October 2014

Simulate this!

Have you watched kids play the latest video games? Don't you wonder at how good the simulations look? At how fast they've progressed since we played packman or tetris? Does Moore's Law work in simulation quality? If it does, simulations will no doubt progress to the point that our limited beleaguered senses won't be able to distinguish simulated from real - Welcome to the Matrix.

The kicker is that these geeks of the future will, in all likelihood, industrialize the production of sense-perfect simulations. They won't produce one, they'll make many, many. So, the probability is very hight that we currently live in a simulation designed by the geeks of the future rather than in the real world - the odds are one to... how many simulations they've invented.

Yeah, alright far-fetched. Truth is, you already live in a simulation: your own. I'm not saying that there is no bedrock, common reality. I have no doubt that it is. But the fact is that the way each of us experiences this reality is the product of the simulation run by the mind software on the brain hardware. And it has gaps:

We don't need to worry much about alternative worlds. We should worry far more about our ability to pick up alternative interpretations to our own world. No matter how unlikely it sounds, every one's story is their story and there is no single story.

When someone states something outlandish or bizarre - how can we reconstruct a mental image of their brain simulation that makes them believe this? What kind of universe is this person simulating that makes their statement 100% true? We don't need to be opened-minded as much as multiple-minded.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Is 100% the goal?

When we have a problem, our instinct is to want to solve it - completely and finally. We crave for final solutions, cross the line off the list, move on to something else and not have to worry about it again.

If I see I have 100K in unpaid bills, I want to make sure bills will be paid on time. How about a late payment penalty in the contract? How about harassing clients until they pay up? Or better still, how about no longer working with bad payers?

Improvement is different. The question now is how do I cut my unpaid bills in half - say to 50K. in doing this I'll discover that there are all sorts of reasons why clients don't pay on time - or should I say in my time. Some are contractual, some are logistical, some are indeed inefficiencies on their part, but some are also due to my own screw ups or lack of follow up. Maybe I don't send my invoices at the right time for them? Maybe I haven't filled in the paperwork correctly because I find it stupid?

Solving half the problem changes things. The countermeasures I will discover to improve are different from the 100% solution I'd need to solve the entire problem. Changing things through countermeasures also changes the entire situation and maybe, when I'm down to 50% of the problem, things look different: some doors have closed and others have opened.

100% solutions rarely work and are often quite scary. Improvement means cutting the size of the problem by half, stop, breathe and take another look at it. The lay of the land already looks different.

Friday, 24 October 2014

A direction without a destination

Explorers set out with a direction and the intent to reach the horizon - they don't have any other destination in mind than tomorrow's stretch of the journey and the final prize, the Source of the Nile. They don't have road maps or plans. They explore.

The day after tomorrow is an undiscovered country - it changes all the time right before our eyes. Experts are really good at telling us what will happen tomorrow (after all, they understand what happens today) but equally poor at guessing what happens the day after (something hitherto unforeseen has become the defining factor).

When designing new products, we should not think in terms of existing product plus, but define large challenges - double one performance, cut the weigh in half. Find a place on the horizon. The led the team explore - the only step that matters is the next step, there is no plan, because we don't know what we're going to find. In development, we don't know before hand what will turn out to be easy and what will remain intractable.

Working without a plan requires a strong sense of direction and mastery of today. Through solving today's problems we discover tomorrow's opportunities. In the end, the explorers reach the horizon because with small, non-aggressive teams, they pass through the lands they encounter without raising war-like reactions: they are no threat, they're passing through. It's hard for managers to live without a destination. They want to build bridges and then force everyone across. But how well does that work? Tomorrow might shift with the fog, but the horizon is still there, and so is the improvement direction. ONe step at a time in a steady direction gets you farther quicker than following the wrong plan.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

There is no Out There

In this fast moving world we live in, we all seek transformation, reform, change: the solution is out there. We don't like the way we look, the knife is out there. We don't like being too fat? The diet is out there. We don't like how our career is going? The new job is out there. We don't like the way the business runs? The new organization is out there.

But every jump to out there is ever more painful and destructive. Every new reorganization turns out to be a game of musical chairs. Every new job means rebuilding an entire network of relationships. Every new diet... let's not go there.

What's so wrong with in here that we need to throw it all away? If we got this far, chances are we're MOSTLY fine. Buddhists ask you to make a pile of white stones, each stone representing a personality defect, and then a pile of black stones, each stone a personal quality. You know what? We all have far larger piles of black stones, qualities, than defects.

Back in the old days, when Toyota engineers arrived at a supplier, they first asked to see the supplier's own procedure. They would point out that the supplier did not follow his own procedure. That's the point, would argue the supplier. My procedure is faulty. I want a new Toyota-like procedure. The Toyota engineers would be puzzled. First follow your procedure, they would ask, and then we can help you solve problems as they arise. The conversation never went well. The supplier wanted the silver bullet from out there.

So how about building on our strengths and challenging the misplaced energy we put on misconceptions and useless activities. How about enriching in here rather than seeking out there? Transplanting yourself is the real danger. Growing from your roots will let you reach higher, as well as further develops the roots themselves. There is no out there that's real.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

What is "lean" about a lean enterprise?

People often ask me: What does a lean enterprise look like? Continuous improvement is hard to describe precisely because it... continuously improves. Here's another attempt:

Copyright 2014 by the Institute of Industrial Engineers. All rights reserved.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Pursuit Of Perfection

Can continuous improvement make sense without the intent to pursue perfection? Can kaizen (change for the better) make sense without an ideal? Ideal need not be a destination. Vision need not be the farther shore, the other place where, having been transformed, our current problems won't occur. How many times have we seen a new investment replace an old one - with exactly the same problems and misconceptions carried over?

Ideal can be a movement, a posture, an angle of view. Ideal can be an act that you repeat endlessly until perfect, almost perfect, one day perfect. Ideal doesn't need to arrive, it can also be a journey:

Would Toyota value and cultivate Takumis
 if it didn't recognize the need to pursue perfection? Would the finishing touch of every operation be as important if we didn't need to see how good we did, how far we went?

Continuous improvement's discipline only makes sense in the context of the pursuit of perfection, our inner drive to master an activity, to clean up our act, to seek the economy of movement that makes the juggling balls spin without apparent movement from the hands. The place of aaah!The gap between the ideal of our inner vision and the reality of what our hands can achieve is the creative tension that keeps us improving step by difficult step.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Let's stop being stupid

Management books and conferences are all about being smarter, faster, cleverer. We want to be better by doing something more. The monkey in our minds loves this: new tool, new idea, new distraction... new way to avoid self-reflexion. Any shiny new thing keeps the ego safe from looking at mishaps, miscalculations, misunderstandings, misconceptions.

Few management conferences are about being wiser, thinking deeper, feeling kinder. Yet, there are far much greater gains to find by stopping being stupid than by seeking to be smarter. Systems behavior clearly show than reinforcing positive feedback quickly leads to burnout - removing limits to growth is sustainable.

Why? Because every time we're being clever, we make a bet on what's going to happen next and, well, if we had a crystal ball we'd be better off with betting at the races. On the other hand, in reflecting on what we do wrong, we have a wealth of history, data, cases to guide us. Stopping to do stupid things is a far safer way to get ahead.

But it's scary. It means self-examination, and confronting the fact that we do goof off and balls up. It means having enough self-confidences to admit slip-ups and outright being wrong. It means beating the brain hard-wired design of cognitive dissonance (mistakes were made... but not by me) and identity consistency. In other words, it means practice. Practice with problem finding, problem facing, problem framing and problem solving. Practice in solving problems with others, to boost self-confidence and confidence in our colleagues, and progressively grow confident in the fact that we will know how to face our challenges together.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Respect For People: a driving value to build a better society

When you read the new novel from Freddy Ballé and Michael Ballé, Lead With Respect, you realize that, regardless that we consider governments, institutions, communities or companies, we still have a huge Leadership gap in our society. This gap is largely explained by the lack of a driving value: Respect For People.

However, to close this gap is possible. Respect For People is the strongest commonality that Lean organizations have. They all have learned from Toyota.  There, their leaders believe that to waste anyone’s time is to waste their LIFE, and they deeply believe no one has that right. 

In this sense, how we understand RESPECT makes a huge difference.  This isn’t like just being a servant: taking orders, trying to make people comfortable, etc. but more like being a doctor: asking questions, diagnosing and proscribing for each person what they need to grow and be successful in life.  

From the benchmark of Procter&Gamble with Toyota, I remember a quick story from one of Toyota’s former leaders. He had lots of stories of how he learned the philosophy of Toyota leadership, but I was illustrated by one instance. He explained how early at his journey there, after a discussion about the follow-up of a problem at Gemba, his immediate manager held him back, and said: 

“You are mistaken.  People are not working for you. People work for your customers and YOU work for your people.  Don’t ever forget that.”

Respect for People, by working for them, means to fulfill individual’s self-actualization needs:  unleashing people's potential by continuously enabling their self-development, creativity, autonomy in the broadest sense: goodness, aliveness, self-sufficiency!

Can you imagine a society where leaders lead with respect? I can. Lean will help us.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Listening Means Doing (by the Transitive Property of Respect)

Listening to the podcast interview with Michael Ballé there were many things to like. The interviewer asked the question of what respect, in the context of lean and the notion of respect for people, meant to Mike personally. He answered that it meant really listening to people. Listening in order to understand. No necessarily to agree, but to understand their position at the least.

I think this is an important point. Leaders are tasked with making decisions and taking the organization in a direction. Successful leaders would likely agree that listening to customers, reviewing the data and weighing options are all necessary steps to developing a sound strategy. We may call it grasping the situation. But how well do we listen to understand?

In regards to leading with respect, specifically demonstrating respect in human interactions, leaders need to listen to their followers. This is far more than a morale-boosting exercise, or developing soft skills of leaders. It is as muchabout harvesting hard facts. The facts on the gemba. By definition there are far more followers than leaders within an organization. These followers are on the gemba face to face with facts that make up the performance of the organization, daily. Enlightened leaders listen to understand.

The not-very-smart leader may need to spend more time listening and being educated about the daily operations. This requires humility. I have heard too many executives say, "I can't get into the day-to-day," proudly delegating the go see and listen. In this definition listening is necessary but not sufficient. To show respect, not only for people but for the operation, one must listen to understand. This is good practice both for the growth of the leader as an individual, good practice for collecting useful management information, and respectful of people who do the work.

The important females in my life have taught me that I don't really understand. I have become better at listening, but probably still am bad at it. I am too quick to say, "I understand" when in fact I really don't. Or so they tell me. If I really understood, I would keep listening, or do something else. Other than claiming to understand. It is a mystery, and I suspect, a lifelong challenge.

Taiichi Ohno said "Understanding means doing." By this he meant that the only way he knew his students really understood what he was teaching them was through their actions and behaviors. If he taught them about kaizen, or a key element of the Toyota Production but heard them saying, "I understand" but not urgently doing something to improve the situation, they didn't really understand.

Ohno was not teaching theory, but practice. Likewise when respecting people, if we listen and truly understand, we should be moved to somehow act, to do something, even if we do not fully agree with the other person. That shows a deeper level of caring and respect for the other person. That is the more Ohno-esque and lean definition of "understanding".

In another time, in another universe, in another podcast...

Ohno: What does respect mean to you?

Ballé: Respect means listening.

Ohno: Why do you listen?

Ballé: In order to understand.

Ohno: Why do you wish to understand?

I wonder where the conversation would have gone from there.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Trust Maker's Secret

20 years ago, the plant was a wreck, forgotten witness of the soviet era. Now, the local employees produce state of the art bio-technological products and the nearby research center, established 10 years later in connection with the University, has become the spearhead of its parent company, a North American family business, world leader in its industry. The local manager  - she started back then as a purchasing clerk- is  welcoming the guests coming from all parts of the world to Tallinn, Estonia where we are celebrating this joyful anniversary.
“Looking back”, says the CEO addressing the audience, “and trying to explain our incredible journey since we bought this plant two decades ago, I think that your success, our common success, comes mainly from this network of Trust patiently built over the years. After all, business is just about building a trust network: our customers trust us, we trust each other to do the job, we trust our suppliers to deliver their part, we trust our research partners, the universities, and they trust us. We are all trust makers, trust weavers. Over the years you have built this fantastic network of trust...that’s the real and full value of our company."

As I was listening to the CEO's speech, I could not help thinking that if he was brilliantly explaining the effect of Trust making, he was not unveiling the Trust making process itself and its obvious but overlooked secret, which may take a lifetime of trials and errors to figure out.

We all know that Trust is the bond which secures the conditions for co-creating great value: Trust triggers cooperation which in turn will combine competences and goodwill inside and outside the company to deliver unique customer value.
We also know that Trust will improve the probability of getting the expected result as it works as a risk reducer: while check and controls reduce uncertainty within complex processes, Trust reduces uncertainty between People: uncertainty spurred by continuous and unexpected change, by multiple internal and  external interactions, by the mix of functions and cultures.
By reducing uncertainty, Trust is reducing fear and opens the joy of creating distinctive value.

But we often skip the "secret" source of Trust: mutual Respect.
Respect starts with acknowledging, sharing, including and nourishing each others' intentions and actions in a common project: there is no respect without full inclusion of all partners.
Inclusion. I feel that I am included when my drive for personal achievement is considered in the collective project, when I am not just a pawn being used by a dominating power. I feel that I have been included when, looking back, I can see what this network of Trust has helped me accomplish: dreams, ambitions, hopes.

But these dynamics are fragile.
Lacking respect means that you deny inclusion. Lacking respect develops mistrust, defiance, contempt; fear takes over the joy of creation, opening the vacuum of  destructive production.

Respect is the real secret,
Trust its great by-product.

If you want to be a Trust Maker... the CEO of this story.....start by leading with Respect!*

* a great book just published on this issue: Lead with Respect by Michael Ballé

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?

A friend once asked if I thought it necessary to suffer in order to succeed - it seemed like a trick question. After hemming and hawing a bit, I had to confess that although I wished to think otherwise, I sadly believed that suffering leads to success.

And it should be no surprise. Judeo-Christian enshrines suffering as a test of faith and valor, one from which the sufferer somehow emerges greater than he entered (Book of Job, for example), closer to salvation. Take a look around at the countless variations on the "no-pain no-gain" mantra, particularly as regards athletic training and performance. Nietzsche's famous quote "what does not kill me makes me stronger", taken out of context, figures prominently in this Western mindset according to which success stems from hard work, which in turn requires effort and therefore suffering.  

Indeed, it can seem like sweet justice that those who succeed should have to sweat for it. Under this system, the lazy have only themselves to blame for their mediocrity while the mediocre are made to feel guilty that they are not working hard enough. Meanwhile, the industrious can forever hope to be rewarded for their pain - except that it doesn’t always work out. Why is that? 

Continuing with the sports analogy, it's quite clear that it's possible to train too much, to inflict so much suffering on one's body that it cannot benefit from the training. It's also possible to do wasteful work that yields limited or negative returns. Identifying useful work and finding the sweet point between effort and rest is the task of the coach. Looking further, the notion of pleasure is paramount: one can only excel at a task that provides enjoyment, even if effort is necessary. Indeed, that is Nietzsche's overarching point in Ecce Homo: 

"Now by what signs are a well-made human being recognized? They are recognized by the fact that such a person is pleasant to our senses; he is carved from one whole block of wood which is hard, delicate and fragrant at once. He enjoys only that which is good for him; his pleasure, his desire ceases when the limits of that which is good for him are overstepped. He divines cures for injuries; he knows how to turn misfortune to his own advantage; that which does not kill him makes him stronger. " 

Let's leave the athletic pitch to enter the shop floor. Workers, who extend themselves physically and psychologically, are much like athletes. Days are long, repetitive tasks cause injuries, and bodies age and whither at ill-conceived work stations - with well-known impacts on productivity. In the corporation at large, busyness is rewarded through so many indicators, most of which are essentially proxy measures of suffering. And yet, powering through pain, the ethos of bygone eras, has shown its limits. Unsurprisingly, concepts like lean come from outside the Judeo-Christian cultural sphere.  

Workers, we can all agree, should seek to maximize production while minimizing their suffering (which we can expand to include all waste). Nietzsche provides perspective and a few hints: seek pleasure and 'that which is good' when looking for optimization. A "well-made" person will know when his/her limit has been reached, will learn from mistakes, and find solutions to recurring problems. But there is more; Nietzsche's "well-made" person  
"… instinctively gathers his material from all he sees, hears and experiences. He is a selective principle; he rejects much. He is always in his own company whether his intercourse be with books, with men or with landscapes; he honors the things he chooses, the things he acknowledges, the things he trusts. " 

In these few lines we find some key ingredients to an innovative optimization process. We have left the realm of suffering for gain and entered the domain of progress through thoughtful observation, self-awareness, personal commitment, education, intuition, and (ultimately) pleasure.  

Today, I am changing my vision and trying to reject suffering as a basis for success. Effort is necessary to improve, but pleasure is a key driver. This is easier said than done. Abandoning suffering for pleasure requires trust and confidence  
  1. Self-confidence because(a) if underlings suffer, the boss gets stature fromimposing the suffering, and (b)each individual must believe in his/her sustained desire to strive in a positive-reward environment that markedly departs from western cultural norms  
  2. Trust because, under a pleasure-based management model, management must trust its underlings to continue to work efficiently and innovate without fear of punishment - this despite the pernicious notion that underlings are somehow "lazy" (otherwise, they'd have worked hard and become part of management!) 
The benefits are potentially significant: workers will use their innate wisdom to improve their performance, as long as that they operate in an environment that gives them choices, and even more so if they can use the services of a well-meaning 'coach'. In short, management must trust that workers are "well-made" and engaged employees. This can be a difficult step to make for those raised in the worship of pain as a pathway to success, but it is a step on the long path to  kinder and wiser management.