Monday, 26 May 2014

Does someone learn by lowering the water level?

Lowering the water level is a well known image to describe how we can start problem solving in order to eliminate waste and improve processes. If we lower the water level, the rocks occur that represent both the hidden costs and hidden ressources in people or inventory. Quickly we think the image is easy to understand. But this doesn't mean we know what this image exactly describes.

Lowering the water level reveals the problems. In order to solve the problems, we have to understand the problem. By experimenting we learn until the rocks disappear. If we learn, we move from data to information to knowing and at the end to acting accordingly. We move from symbols to understanding to involvement and at the end we change our behaviour.

If we look at the image, we maybe see a technical solution but we often miss that people only learn, if they are so deeply involved that they start changing their behaviour at the end. In books this is described as people have to leave the comfort zone. But in any case that means that emotions and feelings have to occur. There is shock, anger, sadness, hope and so on. All this is necessary to become a new identity. All this is part of learning something new. All this has to taken into account especially by management if we lower the water level.

Lowering the water level is not an academic approach, it`s not only a technical question or problem solving excercise, it's change management in any case. What ever you want to change, in the beginning people have to be emotionally involved, at the end there are people who have to change their behaviour. Otherwise learning didn't take place. And there is no shortcut.

If you lower the water level people become involved, feelings occur and change management starts. As a leader you have to accompagny the process accordingly. In the following two examples are given for lowering the water level. And in both examples besides the aspect, if the technical problem was solved, the question is - does someone learn out of this experience? And furthermore - did the organization learn?

In the first example an assembly line for electronic products was changed. 15 operators were working  in this line. Conceptually this line should be able to work only with 9 operators. But for years a lot of maintenance and quality issues weren't be solved. In a two day Kaizen workshop the situation was analysed and at the end of the Kaizen it was decided that 6 operators have to leave at once. The output should be the same. The line became modified. Conveyors were installed. But the underlying problems couldn't be solved during the event. All additional necessary actions should be solved during the next 30days.

In order that this can happen a daily genba meeting with all necessary departments took place in the morning for 20 minutes. Participants were the operators, manufacturing engineers, logistics, quality and maintenance.

The water level was lowered by taking out the people. Now the problem solving should happen. But in the beginning besides the technical questions the operators were shocked. They were crying and shouting and complaining. They lost colleagues, should show the same output and the problems weren't solved. The engineers were unsatisfied because they couldn't believe to solve the problems during a few days if it was not possible for years. The plant manager had to stay calm, don't go back, show clear direction and a lot of understanding for the feelings and emotions. Every morning the plant manger had to call the supportive functions in order to review the activities, the output of yesterday and the plan for the actual day. Three weeks all actions didn't move the needle. Then unexpected and suddenly in week number 4 the output of the assembly line increased by 30% compared to the starting point with 40% less operators. It was an incredible result.

The question is - who has lerned out of this something? The technical problems were solved. The output of the line had increased dramatically. The plant manager had a better understanding of what is behind the idea of lowering the water level. But were the operators involved? Were the engineers involved? Did management share the objectives? Were the approach aligned? Did people change behaviour after the event? And did participants share their lessons learnt afterwards? Not a single question can answered by yes because there was fear, force and facts but no relate, reframe or repeat (Alan Deutschman).

In the second example an assembly line for diesel engines with 45 linked assembly stations was objective of lowering the water level. One section of this assembly line of 6 stations was controlled by a small group of operators and the group leader. This section was the bottleneck of the assembly line and herewith the constraint for the achievable tact of the line. Besides this technical question the group leader showed a good development. He was shortly named as a group leder but showed a empathic contact to the operators and a good understanding for the technical questions in ths assembly area.

The first question how can the bottleneck be eliminated in this area? The second question was how can the group leader be challenged in a way to develop and to learn? Because of the good relationship the group leader has build with his team it was decided to give him the task to reduce the cycle time of his bottleneck area by 20% in 6 weeks. It was also decided that the group leader gets the task with no further explanation in the beginnig. That was decided consciously in order to throw the group leader into the cold water.

In the evening the group leader showed up and explained to management that he doesn't know what to do, how to do and that he is afraid not to succeed. Management explained to him that they will show up in his area every evening in order to see progress, the action plan, next steps and in order to support him if necessary.

The next days the group leader and the team members asked every evening for support from manufacturing engineering, logistics and quality. Management gave them all they were asking for. Logistics, engineering and quality had to support. After a few days the content of the meeting changed. The group made the experience that they were supported, that management came back every evening. They became more comfortable with the situation and started to show own ideas, steps, experiments and solutions. They experimented with different approaches and tracked the impact on the cycle time. It took 6 weeks by experimenting this way and afterwards the cycle time was reduced by 30%.

Again the question - who did learn something in this example?

In both cases management learned something about what is possible and what will happen with people if the water level is lowered. In the first example the organization and the people didn't learn anything out of it. Because after the storm was over behaviour long term was same. In the second example the group leader and the team learned a lot because they introduced the solutions by themselves and got support from management. Also the organization learned because the example was shared with people and other mangement teams. It was discussed afterwards what happened, what worked and how did the group overcome the obstacles as a team. Furthermore management discussed with the group leader what he did, how he did it, why and how he felt about. And that made a difference (relate, reframe, repeat).

Friday, 23 May 2014

Respect is to Remove Burden

Lean toys with a lot of ideas. One of them is the so-called respect for people principle. A noble idea, a poor translation of the original Toyota phrase, seldom well-executed even among the most committed lean organizations. Respect is not to be toyed with. We know when we are being disrespected. Less talk and more action is needed about lean in general, but with regards to respect critically so.

In the USA we approach this Memorial Day weekend with gratitude and respect for those who took on great burdens and made great sacrifices with the intent to protect the freedoms we enjoy. At the same time we hear very sad news about how the Veteran's Administration is mismanaging, disrespecting and unduly burdening people.

Looking for a more positive and pragmatic way towards respect, I propose to keep it simple. Respect is to remove burden. This makes respect a very individualized and concrete matter. We are all burdened in different ways by different parts of our lives. Where our lives intersect at work, leaders have the opportunity to remove (or at the very least not add to) burden.

People are burdened by not having the tools, materials, instructions, space, information needed to do a quality job on-time. Supplying basic workplace design and 5S is a way of removing burden and showing respect.

People are burdened by the insecurity of not knowing where they stand in the organization. Lean leaders can give clear roles and responsibilities.

People are burdened by a lack of recognition, feedback on performance and coaching of how to improve. Lean leaders remove this burden by doing so.

Workers on high speed manual assembly or packaging lines are burdened by boring, repetitive short cycle, tasks with little sense of fulfillment or completion. Lean engineers know to design manual work cycles closer to the sixty second mark in order to reduce physical, mental and emotional burden of this type of work.

Small businesses are burdened by 90+ day payment terms by large corporations whose finance and purchasing departments treat their suppliers as banks. It's laudable that these organizations aspire to lean and continuous improvement, laughable when they claim respect for people.

And the list goes on.

In order to remove burden without adding cost, we are forced to address the root causes of unstable, unreasonable or unfair process conditions. This in turn reduces cost and improves quality. Respect the people and the process will reward you.

Lean without respect, as the intentional removal of burden, is a superficial at best and burdensome at worst. I hope there are aspiring lean leaders in the world who become burdened enough by this knowledge to seek out advice on how to put respect into practice.

Control is waste

Look around and you will find that a great many (most?) companies are busy controlling their employees. This control is effected through indicators, which aim to control what they are doing, and through procedures and processes, which aim to control how they do it.

Look deeper, and ask why such control is necessary, and what its consequences are. Control is necessary to appease the fears of management. Indeed, as Robert Dilts points out, there is a pervasive, but limiting, belief that control leads to quality. This sad notion effectively stifles innovation.

Some control is necessary: for example, nobody will dispute the need to dictate, to some extent, the behavior of assembly line workers. The source, manner, and purpose of this control are crucial. Indeed, if said assembly line workers devise their own processes to increase profits in which they have a stake (through bonuses), they will own the processes, and be able to adapt them over time. However, if the processes are imposed by management out of fear or to meet external investor-driven goals, they will be perceived negatively, particularly if the management doesn't have much technical legitimacy.

A similar pattern emerges with indicators, which are notorious in driving behavior in ways that sometimes detracts from the overarching corporate objectives. Individuals adapt their actions to meet their immediate targets without regard for whether these immediate targets have a positive collective effect. In many cases, extra effort (waste) is

Management, therefore, would be well-advised to do the following:
  • reduce the number of indicators and trust that employees will both struggle to meet overall goals and set relevant intermediate indicators for themselves (i.e.: I know that I can help overall profits by reducing my costs, so I will track my costs - I don't need management to tell me; I just need to know overall profits at all times and transparently)
  • share with employees the data and information that they need to devise their own indicators
  • engage employees in devising relevant processes in light of the overall corporate goals
  • share profits 
This requires trust and respect for line managers and workers.   

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Discussion or Dialogue. Value or Waste?

A few days ago, I was asked to talk about the future of “social relations & dialogue” during a seminar with human resources executives and trade union representatives. I chose to highlight the confusion often made between dialogue and discussion....and to show that this confusion is revealing deeper organizational issues.

The confusion. We often think that we have opened a dialogue when, in reality, we have just started a discussion: the traditional debate between discordant opinions (management Vs unions or staff Vs line) is simply a discussion, i.e. a negotiation between specialized solutions advocated by dissenting parties. To open a real dialogue, you must add one more dimension: inquiry, exploration: what are the deep and essential questions laying behind or beside the advocated solutions? Dialogue combines  the assertion of your own opinion with the common search for “the” core question(s) that we all can agree on. When there is agreement on the question, the "fight" for solutions takes a quite different turn, becoming a collaborative and productive quest.

This turning point is key to a company's transformation or stagnation. 
We privilege discussion because we fear the uncertainty and the loss of control that dialogue creates with its unexpected questions and the unknown solutions it may lead to.  Therefore we tend to devote time to discuss at length our choice of familiar  solutions (how?), leaving no room for re-checking the changing reality, exploring problems and learning to adapt (why & what?). Dialogue is part of the learning process. It needs time, space and overture to uncertainty and doubt: finding, recognizing and facing together the issues and problems ahead of us, understanding their root causes, experimenting solutions, sharing and capturing the learnings, all these learning steps are built on dialogue, our way to learn from each other. 

Friday, 9 May 2014


When I watch my kids play (they're both boys), the youngest is always trying to get his big brother to play to his games (jedi versus with, avengers versus justice league, etc.). you should see his happy face when his brother plays along - and his disappointment when the older boy shrugs him away. Also, occasionally, the older brother will try to teach his younger brother something, and there again, there's a happy grin when the smaller boy is interested and listens, and a definite sulk when the younger kid ignores him.

These, I believe are fundamental motivations. The "yes!" drive to tell others what to do and have them follow. The deeper, more mature pleasure, of watching people grow in skill, autonomy, and progressively have ideas you've never thought about. My elder boy is now learning to program simple computer games on his own - it's kid's stuff, but still a media that is totally beyond me, and well, wow!

In today's complex environment, we now how well the "I'm the decider! [Don Rumsfeld is doing a fine job]"approach works. We also realize that a "I'm a developer" posture is harder and not so well codified. It delivers greater performance because a knowledge economy rests on knowledge workers, but we need to acknowledge we have no way to respond to people who become leaders for the kick they get out of telling others what to do - nor for the fact that many employees actually prefer being told what to do in no uncertain terms, even if it's to ignore it or bitch about it (or worse, interpret it perversely).

We understand better what developing people means:

  1. creating a visual environment that aligns their job with value for customers
  2. deepening technical skills by problem solving
  3. strengthening collaborative skills by improvement efforts
  4. developing a self reflexive quality by observing, discussing and challenging aims and results
But this remains a very minority know-how. In order to ask for managers to behave other than "I'm the decider" what can we do to grow further the body of knowledge that supports the intent to be a developer?

Saturday, 3 May 2014


Assistant récemment à une People Review, je me faisais la réflexion que les managers mercenaires font encore beaucoup de bruit ... En tous cas, ce sont ceux dont on entend le plus parler, tant on sait bien que souvent, le faire-savoir a autant d’importance que le savoir-faire.
Le manager mercenaire est le héros de l’entreprise. C’est le spécialiste des « coups », celui qui éteint les incendies (allumés parfois par d’autres mercenaires, qui entre temps ont été promus ailleurs). C’est celui qui clame haut et fort « un bon manager n’a pas de problème, il n’a que des solutions ... ». Le summum du mercenaire, c’est la mission de sauvetage ... Ah ! Quel manager n’a pas fantasmé de s’entendre dire un jour, en tête à tête avec son propre chef, « Tu as carte blanche. La situation est catastrophique, on compte vraiment sur toi ». Quel plaisir que de sentir monter l’adrénaline, quel intime jouissance de se sentir indispensable l’espace d’un moment ... Et après ce premier moment intense, quel sentiment de puissance de pouvoir disposer des moyens et des gens, quel inégalable plaisir d’être celui qui qui quitte le bureau le dernier, harassé, qui envoie des mails le dimanche à des collaborateurs qui vont se battre pour être celui qui répond le premier ... Et quel récompense d’en tirer les bénéfices, les primes sont toujours données à ceux qui éteignent les incendies, beaucoup plus rarement à ceux qui évitent de les allumer. 
Bien sûr, les mercenaires n’ont pas le temps de s’occuper de faire grandir leurs collaborateurs, ils ont seulement besoin de quelques hommes de main. Ce sont souvent eux qui vont faire annuler les formations (il y a des urgences !), et qui ne laisseront personne prendre d’initiative (c’est moi le Chef !).
Les mercenaires  génèrent par essence l’existence de fonctionnaires. J’emploie ce terme avec le plus grand respect pour les fonctionnaires ... les fonctionnaires sont les personnels de l’administration. Il faut bien en effet des gens pour administrer, gérer le quotidien, la routine, établir des règles. Le modèle « commande & contrôle » génère plus de règlements, moins de confiance, de la déresponsabilisation, et donc plus de contrôle.

Je crois pourtant que c’est de missionnaires dont l’entreprise a besoin. On ne fait pas pousser les plantes en tirant dessus, mais en semant, en arrosant, en entretenant et en laissant du temps.
Le paradoxe, c’est que les entreprises aujourd’hui ont besoin d’être toujours plus réactives face à l’imprévu, toujours plus agiles. Mais pour y parvenir, la seule solution pérenne, c’est de faire grandir les personnes, Il faut que chacun devienne autonome, soit formé jour après jour à faire face à l’imprévu, à détecter, accepter et résoudre les problèmes. Et faire grandir les gens, c’est comme faire pousser des plantes : il faut de la constance, de l’exigence, du respect et du temps. Un vrai travail de missionnaire.

La seule façon de développer la réactivité et la proactivité de l’entreprise, c’est d’investir à long terme sur les gens qui la composent.
Bien sûr, c’est beaucoup moins excitant a priori d’être un manager « fermier » qui sème des graines,  et prend soin de sa récolte, et prépare le futur par une progression pas à pas que d’être un manager « pompier », un héros qui sauve la boîte. Mais sur le long terme, c’est beaucoup plus valorisant.
Le mercenaire arrive quand la catastrophe est déjà là, le missionnaire utilise tous les signaux faibles qui vont lui permettre de prévenir la catastrophe. Le mercenaire génère des comportements de protection (les fameux indicateurs pastèques, verts au dehors mais rouges en dedans, car chacun ayant peur d’être coupable va faire paraître que tout va bien). Le missionnaire accueille les problèmes comme des opportunités d’apprendre.
Les missionnaires font moins de bruit, mais ce sont eux qui font marcher l’entreprise. Il faudrait les entendre un peu plus ...