Monday, 14 April 2014

There is no breakthrough. Don't ask 5 Why's. Doesn't it make sense?

I'm working in manufacturing now for more than 25 years. But in all this time I made never the experience that I was part of a breakthrough result. For sure, if I look back, there are sometimes incredible better results, much improved performance and unbelievable increased competencies but I have never experienced a big move forward in a short period of time that I can call a breakthrough.

All experiences I have, I would describe as hard work, talent and luck. And all so called breakthroughs look to me as if it is always only a historical point of view. Most of the time there is an explanation that looks like a necessary development toward a breakthrough following the principle cause and result. But a good explanation of a breakthrough doesn`t mean that there is more than a result of a lot of small steps from many different people working in the same direction.

You can explain life backwards, but you have to live forward. But despite of thinking this, nevertheless the question still remains "Does it make sense to go for a breakthrough?". I don't know. Maybe yes, to get the best possible result. More than what is usually expected. But I'm struggeling with this approach because it can happen that this approach becomes more the purpose instead of the tool.

And if the objectives become more and more unrealistic, it leads to forcing the system and threatening the people. Forcing a system is impossible. Threatening people leads to fear, overwhelming workload, political games, missing openess. You can go for a breakthrough. But same time you should not go for unrealistic goals, what leads to force and fear.

Doesn't it make sense, does it?

In manufacturing during the last years I was trained to ask "5 Why's" in order to come to the root cause. This approach ensures to solve sustainably a problem. But especially from my point of view a lot of managers are not aware that before you start solving a problem, the team has to agree to the problem. And to have deeply a good understanding of the problem, you have to pay a lot of time in the description of the problem. The moment you start asking "Why", you start to conclude logically, what solution is necessary. The moment you start asking "Why", you start judging and you start narrowing your perception.

Asking "Why" does not differentiate anymore. Asking "Why" integrates. It's going for a specific answer. The answer to the question "Why" gives never new information. You always get an answer that the asked person has already in mind. There is no learning in asking "Why". The person you ask will never be surprised by your question and only if the person is surprised by your question, a thinking process can occur.

Furthermore "Why" is asking for an explanation. This meets very often the feelings of the asked person. You have to give an answer and this answer has to be a reason, an explanation. You feel forced to explain the problem and yourself.

If you start asking more open, this is much more humble and allows the asked person to draw a picture with more colours. It builds trust. Don't start an investigation for a root cause with a "Why".

Doesn't it make sense, does it?

Last funny remark to all bosses in the world. Don`t ask "Doesn't it make sense, does it?" at the end of a speech. You will never get a senseful answer.

Doesn't it make sense, does it?

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Smiles are a valid goal

I was on the shop floor yesterday visiting a large project with the company's CEO and the project team were smiling. They had just had a visit from their customer to review progress, and the customer had a smile for them as well (this might explain that). The CEO smiled back. Hell, I smiled.

As a young man, I had to go all the way to Africa to learn how to smile. There is an inherent contradiction between strength and warmth: the stronger you are, the colder you appear. The warmer you are, the weaker you seem. I was young, and making such efforts to seem strong. But in Africa, people were warm first - whatever happened in their real life, I was just passing through. I discovered there a fundamental question; warm first? Or strong first?

Strong is useful, because people will both fear you and follow you, which is great to get things done (after all, that's a time-tested method). But strong is wasteful as it creates unnecessary pushback and low initiative. The trick, I've learned over the years, is to meet strength with strength and warmth with warms, kind of a postural TIT-FOR-TAT strategy for life's prisoner's dilemma.

But I'm also learning that starting with warm is less wasteful. Seeking smiles before results is not weak, it's actually much stronger. It's a valid business goal:

  1. seeking the customers' smile: that special smile of enjoying the feel or the ownership of a product, of enjoying the kindness or genuineness of a service. That brief, unguarded, true smile that flits on someone's face when something just happened just right.
  2. seeking employees' smile: no matter how hard the situation is, the shared smile of feeling self-confident enough to tackle the technical challenge and trusting enough in one's team to take on the political challenges, the simple pleasure of working well together as a team - this is a unique experience that only work can offer.
  3. seeking our own smile: when do we start being kinder to ourselves? This is not the "tick the box" grim satisfaction of actually getting something out of the job, or having beaten an opponent, but the relaxed smile of actual enjoyment, for the fun of it.
A few years ago, having lost yet another political battle, I found myself back on the shop floor with a senior exec - we had just lost the game, the program that had delivered so much progress and sizable results was being dismantled by top management, once again. But as we stood side by side at the gemba looking at people working more easily, focused, without strain, work flowing from one person to another, we smiled.

Smiles are a legitimate challenge. Imagining delivery so that customers smile. Creating work environments so that employees smile. Smiling yourself more often, to others, but to yourself as well. This is not being weak, this is a far deeper kind of strength.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014


A CEO decided that he wanted to "shake up" his rather stodgy company to turn it into an outward-looking innovative juggernaut. The industry had been so comfortable for so long that innovation had not been necessary for survival. With the market upended and significant pressure on margins, the CEO thought that the innovation imperative would be evident to all. He envisioned a company where a question from Asia would find an answer in France, and where people who didn't know each other would collaborate to innovate. He put a team in charge of innovation, reporting directly to him, and bypassed the IT department to launch an enterprise social network (ESN).  

He acted fast and decisively, and expected quick results - an enthusiastic snowball effect of sorts. What he did not foresee, however, was that instead of rising to the challenge of the transformation, the majority decided to either 'wait and see' or to oppose him outright. In particular, there was strong resistance among second and third-line managers against the ESN. An idea that seemed obvious at HQ failed in the hands of the people it was supposed to help.  

What happened? 

For one, this is a classic case of "transformation by bus". The tools are deployed in the hope that people will use them. There is no clearly articulated and desirable target that the organization will reach by using this tool, and the employees have not formulated a need for the tool as a means to reach the target.  
Further, signing up for the ESN was an individual initiative for each employee. In a culture steeped in conservatism, that was already a stretch. Some staff resisted using a tool for which they were not specifically trained.  

More disturbingly, some second and third-line managers actively forbade their direct reports from using or engaging in discussions on the ESN. Upon inquiry, three things stand out:  
  • the time spent collaborating and innovating (through the ESN or not) could not be clearly tallied towards the objectives guiding the managers' decisions. Nobody was going to get a bonus for or by using the ESN - it was "a waste of time". 
  • the managers seem to have perceived the ESN as the threat to their authority. Specifically, if their reports could bypass them to engage directly with others in the company, they might discover that their bosses were less competent than previously believed. Alternatively, if someone had to ask the ESN for help, it might reflect poorly on the manager who, it would be assumed, had not provided the answer or guidance.  
  • the managers also perceived, in a less explicit way, that an informed workforce requires leaders, rather than managers - that is to say bosses that inspire and facilitate rather than know and control. Ill-trained (or untrained) for this new responsibility, they could not take it on. 
We see here that this attempt to free knowledge and information in the corporate organization was thwarted by fear; fear of being exposed as less-than-competent and fear of actually being unprepared for one's new tasks. This fear, obviously, is just that: most of the managers are actually competent, and it results from lack of confidence. 

Confidence both in oneself and in the goodwill of others is a crucial ingredient for success that appears to have been lacking at the individual and corporate levels. To "develop individual initiative and individual ability to work with each other" in particular through the liberation of information flows within the organization - the ESN's purported objective - we need to ensure that the staff understands and buys into the shifts required in their positions, prerogatives and responsibilities. I propose that one way that this can happen is if those affected by the changes are :  
  1. sufficiently self-confident that they accept to challenge the status quo and their position therein 
  1. convinced that their management, peers, and reports will treat their experimentations and questions (and potential failure) with goodwill and that they will be given the necessary training and support to succeed.  
Treating employees with kindness, trust and respect is a good place to start building  self-confidence and corporate goodwill. Almost more importantly, giving employees the freedom to err, and even to fail, is the highest show of confidence and encouragement to their ability to make decisions - to take initiative.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Food for thought...

At the Lean Transformation Summit in Orlando last month I was blown away by a powerful presentation by Margarette Purvis, CEO of Food Bank For New York City. With the help of Jamie Bonini of TSSC they looked closely at the distribution of the food to their clients. Kaizen activities helped to solve a big problem, the lines. People stood in line for hours waiting for their food, outside, in the cold or heat, visible for all to see. They optimized the distribution of the food using Lean principles, trained the staff and got rid of the lines. Big difference for the people in the lines having to go through this every week. But no lines, no problem right? Wrong, the problem is now hidden inside. And even though I think no one should have to stand in line at the foodbank….they eliminated a symptom, not the problem. 

What is the biggest problem for a foodbank? Let’s dive into the facts for a moment.

Food banks emerged in the United States in 1967 and the idea worked its way from Canada through to Europe. France opened the first European food bank in 1984. Belgium followed in 1986. Meanwhile, food banks in 17 European countries have joined the European Federation of Food Banks. In the course of 2009 the food banks also felt the economic crisis , businesses sit on their stocks longer and only allow their excess inventories to go to food banks just before the expiry date. This while the growth in the number of families that need the foodbank increased. Reality hits in 2013, food shortages at the foodbank. This led to waiting lists at various food banks. Reasons are companies are more efficient in production, and there is less waste. For food banks, it is becoming more challenging to get food. Food that would otherwise be wasted.
Paradoxically only 0.3% of the amount of food wasted in the Netherlands reaches the food banks (Source: estimates by WUR and food banks Netherlands).

Aha! So our efforts as Lean guys and girls, eliminating waste in (food) companies, actually increases the problem of food shortage at the foodbanks! I wonder how many people at the Transformation Summit made this connection? The story was so moving and we all felt for the people in the pictures  standing in line waiting for food. I got teary eyed and saw that the other people in the room did too. But, back to reality, we need to force ourselves to take a step back and analyze. What can we do at the foodbank to impact the bigger (economic) problem? What can we do at the foodbanks to decrease the time someone needs help from the foodbank? How can we create jobs through or at the foodbank? Food for thought…

So, as ‘punishment’ for the impact of your Lean activities and its results for the hungry people at the foodbank, I am assigning all of you Lean guys and girls some homework:
  • Think about how the foodbank process could create jobs, and share with your local foodbank
  • Think about possible countermeasures to decrease the time a client needs the foodbank, and share with your local foodbank
  • Email or call your local foodbank and sign up as a volunteer. To make right what you have caused down the line for the hungry.
  • Optimize your local foodbank through Kaizen activities (for free).

Now? Yes right now. Thank you.