Saturday, 25 January 2014

How to embed innovation in your organization?

This was my topic last week, speaking to a group of executive MBAs during a seminar focused on entrepreneurship. 
Innovation is a new and relevant answer to an important question. But once you have deciphered the "Mystery" of unnamed or unknown desires  leading to your unique Offer, when you have found your entrepreneurial Heuristic pattern  and finally designed a robust and attractive Algorithm, exit innovation; you enter the daily “raison d’être” of all businesses: reproducing  the formula, the solution, at the lowest cost and the highest profit, as long as possible. Even though we all know that in the future we'll have to make changes we are not willing to reopen everyday the Pandora Box of Inquiry.

Keeping innovation alive in an organization built for execution implies that essential questions, emerging or unknown are "routinely" identified and "processed" to keep  creating and implementing innovative solutions. A "double-bind" challenge.

Over a few decades of management practice, I tried to overcome this "double-bind", eager to combine the chaos of questions with the dull order of repetitive solutions. 
Amid some successes and numerous failures, I eventually discovered three essential "ingredients", tightly linked to each other.

First, People: Do you see them -do they see themselves - as the prime source of innovation or just silent performers of pre-established processes? I engaged my "authority" to allow everyone to be a potential "author", not just a docile instrument or scape goat for every problem; I went on suppressing information barriers and hierarchical walls, facilitating dialogue and initiative, giving time and space to breathe, think and relate, even introducing Art to the shop floor!  But along the way, I discovered that this "humanistic" and inclusive approach was incomplete: good intentions, great values, deep empathy and inspiring declarations are short-lived if not rooted in reality by a strong purpose.

Purpose is the second ingredient of embedded innovation: if we - the people- are the key to innovation, we must work together on it, addressing and solving the quintessential question- the what and the how of our "raison d'être"- which will keep  us ahead of the game. But in business,unlike school, problems and  issues are not given, they emerge,or not, are solved, or not, reinforcing or destroying the organization's life expectancy. We need to be on the outlook, open to discovery, ready to learn and unlearn to innovate. For this, we took the "organizational learning" road: fighting mental models entrenched in routine, valuing curiosity, fueling team learning, world cafés and open forums to develop collective intelligence. But I discovered that if our learning purpose was key for innovation, it was difficult to "engrain" in everyone's activity, everyday: our learning moments were mostly off time and off site; besides,too often we were not addressing the real issues: we were learning what we wanted to learn, not what we needed to learn. 

We were missing the discipline (everyday learning for everyone) and the alignment (addressing our "raison d'être": better customer value at a minimum waste); we were missing a common "innovation & execution" Practice, the third ingredient: learning tools,  rites and behaviors which are helping people to find and solve the right questions, leading to wiser solutions and frugal innovations. We developed this practice rooted in daily respect for people as authors and constant focus on the purpose of "necessary" learning. Young startups and reputed leaders call this practice "Lean". A practice for people with purpose.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Filtering our Filters

We are filters. Our eyes only pick up a small part of the spectrum of light. We ignore, or we fail to be aware of, something like 98% of the sensory input that we receive. This is apparently to keep us from going mad. Our digestive systems are essentially filters that incorporate the nutrients but not the roughage. For the most part, we are pretty good filters. When it comes to determining truth, it is another matter. For more on that, read Schein, Kahnemann and others.

Today "Lean" makes the front page of major business & technology media under it's increasingly popular definition as "a modern way of designing, launching, marketing" a new product or service. This is because people with the "startup" filter ingested traditional Lean and did a fantastic job of explaining what they saw to the startup community, less the operations management and sustainability roughage.

For the past decade or so, thanks to thinkers, writers and practitioners whose filters were for anthropology, organizational behavior, socio-technical systems, and learning theory, Lean has been dragging itself out of the operations-and-supply-chain world. It was not until value stream mapping was popularized that the production engineering process fixing tool filter of Lean started to be replaced with one that looked at material and information flow across the supply chain.

There has been a false dichotomy of “IE vs. HR” in the Lean world going back decades. The US market filtered what they saw of TPS via the lens of JIT / kaizen / TPS / Lean in the 1980s, thanks to books from Productivity Press, with a heavy tool focus. There were books on the importance of people development but these lesson were mostly ignored as their prescriptions did not fit within a 5-day kaizen event. What the kaizen event filter allowed in was mostly a watered-down version of the scientific method and practical applications of system theory (flow, pull, stop and fix, takt, WIP controls, etc.), often missing the fact that the latter emerged from efforts with the former. We filtered for solutions, not problem solving processes.
The recent pivot from a total enterprise improvement system to a startup approach notwithstanding, why has Lean stumbled around in the dark so long, missing vast parts of the system? Filters.

What filters are we using? Most of us are unaware. We filter out our filters. This is why it is so important to study cognitive biases, the impact emotion has on our decisions, and how fear makes people act in stupid ways, and how clever marketing trumps complicated truth 8 times out of 10 (and the fact that humans are terrible at grasping what statistics mean) and so forth.
They key is to be more deliberate about this (mindfulness, personal transformation, culture change) rather than just being satisfied with getting these as a side benefit of bottom-line-focused kaizen, as are most organizations today.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

'Why?' not 'Who?'

Have you noticed how easy it is to blame the person rather than the circumstances? Or how easy it is to focus on the process and simply not see the people who make it up? We treat people as tools every day - and that's coded in. The very structure of human languages is about a subject doing (verb) something to something else (object) which is good or bad (adjectives). When anything doesn't go as planned, the first question that comes to mind is "who screwed up?" - you can't fight it, it's coded in. But you can learn to go beyond it.

On the other hand, we're all very, very sensitive to being treated with fairness. As Frans de Wall has shown, this is also probably deeply in-built in all primates: so when a person is taken to task for sothing they feel is beyond their control, they'll react with hurt and anger: it's unfair!

When we visit problem solving efforts with the CEO of a cosntruction company we find that in the "cause" box managers often write a variant of "the operator screwed up" (didn't follow instructions, didn't pay attention, couldn't be bothered, didn't know what they were doing, was in a bad mood, and so on and so forth). On one point, we're all the same: unfair is OK as long as it happens to someone else! The CEO then reframes the question in the terms:

"What blocage did the person encounter that made them deviate from the correct process (they have usually been using everywhere else)?"

This question refocuses attention on the circumstances, not the person - and very quickly turns it around to management as we discover that the operator was trapped in a way: wasn't told, was distracted, was given confusing instructions, wasn't taught, etc.

A problem statement is first a gap in performance (what we get as opposed to what we hoped for) and a blocage in the ideal process (this was supposed to happen, but because of these circumstances, that happened instead). Sure, the person could have been smarter than the circumstances, but that's a lot to ask for isn't it?

Because our talking-monkey mind is so biased to solving our immediate problems and using people as tools to do so, we can accept it and retrain ourselves to see people as allies which we can enroll to improve a situation and share success. This radical shift in language supports a radical change in behaviour, and, if you practice it long enough a revolution in both outlook and attitude. People are not instruments but they can become partners.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

1 x100% or 100 x 1%

I visited a service team yesterday who reduced penalties paid to customers for late deliveries from 6000 euros a month to 100 last month. How did they do it? They did a VSM map of the process, narrowed down on the bottleneck and reconfigured a new process. NOT. I'm pulling your leg (got you, didn't I? :)) When I asked them how they did it they told me: we followed the procedure.

Okaaaay. What they actually did is chart the late deliveries (and associated penalties) and then looked into every single instance of late delivery. They spotted minor problems creating hiccups and solved them one by one. In the process, without making a big thing out of it they did change some parts of the process, but in no ways that would qualify as redesign.

It turns out that grains of sand really do accumulate into major blockages. It also turns out that in a service environment every grain of sand is different in nature, so it's hard (and silly) to come up with structural solutions. The CEO of this company was astonished to find that many small hiccups could add up into such a visible over cost, and yet, we see it in many, many cases. Our thinking that a process with a few random hitches will have an acceptable exceptional costs burden is just plain wrong.

Any process should deliver flawlessly, period - because this means we understand the process in its context. Random mishaps are a sign of not groking specific cases. As the people in the team solved all issues, as they came, without ranking or prioritizing, they learned about specifics, specifics, specifics. They now understand about boundary conditions of their procedure and when to call for help or do something different. 1x100% change doesn't give you 100%, but 90 at best, because of more heat than light, where 100x1% will deliver 99%. This can be the difference between making and losing money.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Innovation or Waste?

Eventually our generation - the"Y", the "millenials"- will take over after our elders, with a strong challenge: to be more cooperative, intelligent and less wasteful.
Easy to say, but ultimately where do we start?

We have been brought up with an early awareness of saving water, electricity and all kinds of energy savings. This way of life should help us understanding and reducing other large wastes of our time: resources, motivation and also innovation.
And the question that I am asking myself today is whether modern tools reduce or rather  amplify our daily waste.

Motivation. How did you buy your Christmas gifts ? Have you used one of the many websites to save time and preserve your motivation, avoiding exhausting walkabouts ?
But using  these "one-click" online shopping platforms, did you succomb to impulse buying, unnecessary consumption and waste?

Resources. Many mobile applications allow you to avoid traffic jams, to find available parking places or bicycles (i.e the "Velib" renting stations in Paris). These applications are saving considerable time and energy for those who know how to use them.  But how many people find themselves stuck by ergonomics and interface issues,  connectivity problems or functionality limitations?

Innovation. I often wonder if innovation is not a main source of waste.  A new release every year which suddenly renders obsolete the previous version, still working perfectly, isn't it  a waste of resources? At the same time, a new dishwasher, using half of the water consumed by the previous model is a real innovation.
Including elimination of waste "by design" seems a good starting point. In this perspective, here is an initiative to fight the smartphones' accelerating obsolence cycle, by associating  wisely innovation and waste reduction: Phonebloks

Kaizen, music and competitiveness

For many specialists, Kaizen is the essence of Lean. The main equation of Lean is Kaizen+Respect: developing in people, day after day, their ability to solve their problems with others,  establishing between themselves clear rules of the game, and fostering their initiative.
 In fact, what is the main purpose of an enterprise? Creating and/or manufacturing products that the market (customers) will buy, regardless what industry we are referring to. Following the main purpose an enterprise needs to produce said goods at a reasonable cost assuring to the customer the best total cost of possession. That means quality, reliability, value for the customer, and of course, competitiveness, because the enterprise has to be profitable.
 Regarding competitiveness, what really makes the difference between companies? Is it your know how?  Obviously. It is the basis! Is it the mastery of the direct costs? Of course. But your competitors are working hard on their direct costs too. Is it the mastery of your processes? Sure. But don't worry, all companies have excellent processes, validated by many international norms as ISO ... So what's making really the difference? Mainly, the ability to face hazard and unexpected events.  That means any situation, problems, and/or unforeseen events that may occur and are not described in your processes. Even if some people are convinced that they are able to take into account everything, that is a very good way to have huge amount of documents and to deprive people of their responsibilities, we are in a changing world, and real life is full of surprises.
So, how could you ensure to your company the ability to face unexpected events? More than that, how could you ensure a quick answer to unexpected events? By employee development. By daily, regular, systematic and general problem solving, people are able to learn to detect, analyze, prioritize and solve problems, all kinds of problems, from small and daily deviation to important gaps, and even catastrophe.
But how do we develop people to understanding and being good at problem solving? Exactly in the same way we would do it for any competition, sport or gymnastics or even music: by exercises. No one is surprised when an athlete is training himself every day, and is not just waiting the competition to act. No one is surprised to know that a pianist is spending hours, day after day to play his/her scale, before practicing a piece, and then playing in front of spectators. So why should it be surprising to ask to people in a company to practice exercises day after day to develop their skills in terms of problem solving? Kaizen is first of all that: exercises to develop and maintain people capacity to detect, prioritize and solve problems.
The main misunderstanding about kaizen is to suppose that what is important is the fact that the problems are solved. No. What is important is the fact that people are more and more trained to solve any problem. Kaizen, as all Lean tools, has at least two objectives. One is simple to understand, it is done to improve a situation by solving a problem. It is the reason why Kaizen is often translated by "continuous improvement". But the second, in fact the very first one, is to train people. It also the reason why, at Toyota's, they explain that a Kaizen idea is quite never refused, whatever is the estimated saving. On the other hand, they encourage people to realize their ideas themselves as far as possible, to train and to make them aware about their ideas.
 The New Year is the best time to make a good resolution- but we know that it is difficult to maintain more than one good intention! In 2014, start Kaizen: practice it!

Friday, 3 January 2014

Accumulating Knowledge Vs Learning

I'm an IT guy. I've been working for 25 years in this business doing just about any job you can think of. I've been working in different industries, different countries, using different types of technologies, from IBM Mainframe technology built in the 60s to 00's avant-garde mobile start-ups.

My strategy to survive in this fast-pace changing business has been to think in patterns. This comes from IT industry standards called Design Patterns. The baseline is : for every problem that will slow you down you while designing a software solution, someone has already bumped into it and standardized a generic design solution.

This is both a bless and a curse. This is a bless because it has saved me time, it has allowed me to easily navigate the IT world and be somehow successful. The curse is that it has deeply shaped the way I think : rather than really trying to understand the problem, I've just tried to recognize known situations to apply prepackaged patterns : talk about preconception and jumping to solutions ! What's more, this thinking results in over-engineering (a disease of Java programming language and more generally enterprise software) and a tendency to tackle world complexity with abstract, generic and complicated solutions while forcing patterns where they may not have necessarily applied.

This is just a continuity of the way I've been educated : building stocks of knowledge (accumulating patterns as "how to" or anti-patterns as "how-not-to"), thinking the more stocks I have, the more weapons I will have to shoot problems and discordant voices down. The issue here is that you don't eradicate problems this way, just their symptoms : the difference between fast thinking and deep thinking. Not to mention that in the process you don't really show much respect to people.

For the last couple of years it has just occurred to me that lean thinking is different. It aims at really showing respect to people while trying to understand the problem (and being kind to it), then making hypothesis, testing them and learning while measuring the difference between the expected result of hypothesis and the real world. Learning while doing and fully, deeply understanding what hinders our thinking process while surfacing our preconceptions. As Joshua Foer puts it, this helps in trying not to stay too long on the OK plateau and the comfort zone to get back to the cognitive stage.
Design Patterns are stocks of knowledge and, as such, static entities, which make every problem looking like the proverbial nail. Learning is a dynamic discovery process. Accumulating stocks of knowledge is not learning : this is what Lean has helped me to clearly see.