Kevin is a co-founder of Gemba Academy and an accomplished lean practitioner. He has been in a variety of executive leadership roles, primarily in the medical device industry. Kevins background is in engineering and operations with a focus on lean manufacturing and lean leadership.
My favorite part of last week’s podcast with James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, was the last five minutes when he talked about a potential downside of good habits. When we decide to improve, and create a new practice with the right cues and rewards, we form a new habit. But habits can put us on autopilot and, if we’re not careful, we can stop improving or even regress.
This is why surgeon effectiveness can peak four or five years after they start practicing – unless they actively try to improve their craft, and why “number of surgeries” may not be a metric that correlates to quality of outcome. James Clear suggests that deliberate reflection is critical to loop back to learning to create further improvement, which can then lead to mastery.
Interestingly, Taiichi Ohno said something very similar:
Most of us look for reasons when we fail, but very few of us look for reasons when we succeed. It is important to search for the reasons why you were able to succeed, and make sure to use the acquired learning in the future.
Not only should we reflect on success in order to continue to improve on that success, we should also reflect on success so we can learn and apply those lessons to other activities.
The deliberate in deliberate reflection is the key. Deliberate (or “intentional”) reflection is not simply thinking about a circumstance or situation, but actively planning for and methodically executing the reflection process itself. In fact, some of us who have come to embrace deliberate reflection will deliberately reflect on the reflection process itself. Like any process it can always be improved. I try to practice deliberate reflection daily, weekly, monthly, and annually – all with different formats and purpose.
Preparing for deliberate reflection includes deciding on a location with appropriate surroundings and stimuli (or lack thereof), time required, focus or topic, questions to be asked, and desired outcome. Questions always include some form of “what is the desired future state”, “what is the current state”, “what are the gaps”, and “what should I do differently?” I also reflect on previous reflections and the activities and goals that derived from them. You’ll recognize a lot of kata in that process… in effect, PDSA. On a daily and weekly basis the topics are more short-term or smaller in scope, and that grows as the time period expands. My annual reflection takes a couple weeks of preparation, and at least a week to execute. All of it, from preparation through conclusions, is written in my journal.
This practice has had a profound impact on my life, especially with improving aspects I was dissatisfied with. The James Clear podcast made me realize that I need to use the process to improve aspects (not just habits) that I am already generally satisfied with, and the Ohno perspective reinforces that I need to understand and apply what I’ve learned to other activities.
I can think of a couple examples already.
I have travelled a lot, beginning with exploring most of South America during the seven years I lived there decades ago. My wife and I continued the practice, usually traveling at the last minute, often knowing nothing about the destination before reading about it on the plane trip over. We’ve visited nearly 70 countries. Pro tip (from experience…): visiting a country with an AK-47 on its flag warrants at least minimal preparation.
We learned a lot about the world, met interesting people, and that changed our perspectives on many issues. We consider it a very positive aspect of our lives – a success. A couple years ago we deliberately reflected on our travel and decided that sacrificing some of the allure and excitement of last-minute travel for more planning could yield a more fulfilling experience. We tried that out with a trip to Tasmania last year and found it more relaxing and felt we saw and experienced more.
We improved on a success. Where else could I apply the lesson of improved pre-planning? Well, where couldn’t I might be the better question.
I’ve taken a similar approach to interesting ideas and projects, where I’ve never had a problem finding things to interest me – a positive. For the past two decades I’ve taken time at the beginning of the year to reflect on all the projects available or interesting to me and choose one to be my “do something different” goal. This goal has led me to run a full marathon, rebuild a ’73 Triumph Spitfire, and explore the history of several religions – among many, many others. This year I’m going to learn about and try some specialized horticulture.
I’ve been successful with finding interesting projects with an ultimate “why” of becoming a well-rounded human, and a reflection process improved on that by helping me focus on just one major “something different” project each year. One of my favorite books, Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, also helped with that. Where else can I apply those lessons?
Lately I’ve been reflecting on my daily productivity. For many years I’ve written down my top three projects for the day and used the pomodoro method to focus on a single key activity for an hour without distraction, then take a break. I’m generally satisfied with my productivity, and the balance with healthy free time. The new functionality in iPhones that reports on screen time was a wake up call – far too much time was being spent gazing at small screens.
I reflected on why and how I was using my phone, and realized I was getting too sucked into social media, especially Twitter, and that I was seeing a lot of duplicate information – even if I was learning a lot. So two weeks ago I reviewed all 5000+ folks I follow and whacked it down to just 150. Those were the most interesting 25 or so people in a half dozen topic areas that interest me. Now with a quick check I can see relevant, interesting information. With that, and some other changes such as switching my screen to gray scale instead of “look at me” eye candy color, my screen time has dropped by nearly 80%, freeing up hours of time.
I felt I was successful at being productive and through reflection I was able to improve on that. Where else can I apply the lesson of saving time by reducing the number of information sources to just the key relevant ones, or even using a “top three” or pomodoro method?
Where would you like to improve? Don’t forget to consider habits or areas where you are already competent or satisfied, and think about where else those lessons from success can be applied. Develop a deliberate, intentional reflection process to understand the desired future state, current state, gaps, and experiments and activities to achieve the desired future state.
Experienced leaders know that failure is not necessarily a negative, and can lead to both individual and organizational learning. We try to embrace failure and create a culture where appropriate failure is accepted as long as it’s learned from, giving our team members the space and support to fail. That creates learning and innovation.
Preferably the possibility of failure is an intentional result. To achieve this positive outcome an experiment is defined, with expected potential outcomes identified, and then there is an intentional reflection activity on what actually happened. This reflection creates the learning and becomes the foundation for future experiments. Many of us are beginning to see this manifestation of the PDCA process as kata.
Sometimes it’s unintentional, where we are thrust into an unexpected situation with even more unexpected results. An family medical emergency years ago taught me a lot about compassion, self-care, and the insurance industry. Two decades ago a rapid change in an industry taught me how to manage extreme business disruption.
And, yes, sometimes it’s just stupidity. Most of us have experienced this often particularly painful form of learning in our (hopefully) earlier years. Somehow we survived.
Failure as a learning tool has limits. Would you put a chef in the cockpit of a plane and be ok with him learning that he doesn’t know how to fly? Or letting a child try driving a car? Of course not. The learning experience of failure is one thing, but the consequences of the failure itself must be considered. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal, The Truth About Failing Spectacularly, looks at this balance.
Consider this example:
The sinking of the MS Explorer on November 23, 2007, was one of the most bewildering disasters in modern maritime history. Sixteen months after the accident, marine safety investigators representing Liberia, where the Explorer was registered, fixed the blame primarily on one person: Bengt Wiman, the ship’s 49-year-old captain, who’d been commanding the Explorer for the first time and had participated in only one Antarctic voyage.
Or this one:
In the runup to the Super Bowl, one of the hottest storylines was the precocity of Sean McVay, the innovative 33-year-old head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. The high-flying offense he’d built had turned the Rams into a contender, prompting several other NFL teams to hire untested coaches, too.
On Feb. 3, however, that parade got rained out. The New England Patriots, coached by the 66-year-old veteran Bill Belichick, devised a stifling defensive game plan that limited the Rams to three points. On a day that Mr. McVay became the youngest coach in Super Bowl history, he also tied another record—fewest points scored.
Maybe I’m trying to make a case for experience, and I’m a bit biased as I hit my mid 50s.
These allegations seem to suggest that any business ought to think twice before sending a lightly seasoned manager on a perilous new assignment. The real problem, I’d argue, is that when first-time leaders fail, they often do so spectacularly.
The main reason veteran leaders rarely fail dramatically is that they’ve failed before. They’ve learned where problems come from and how to spot them in the larval stages. Their genius is being able to identify a ship’s weakest rivets before setting sail, and formulating a plan that protects them from unsustainable pressure.
Experience definitely plays into the failure equation, but in order to learn we need to provide opportunities for failure to everyone on the experience continuum. In fact, we know that some of the best and most innovative ideas often come from folks with less experience and hence less blinders from preconceived frameworks. So what do we need to put into place to hit the sweet spot?
For starters, a less experienced person can be supported by others with more experience. This new leader must be receptive to receiving the lessons of that experience, but also confident and able to evaluate those lessons balanced with new ideas and thinking.
Perhaps more importantly is an environment that encourages and supports a scientific approach to problem-solving and investigating new opportunities, such as PDCA and the kata derivative. What is the current state? What is the ultimate goal? What barriers are in the way of achieving that goal? What is the next experiment that can be run to remove a barrier, and what are the expected results? What are the potential risks, and are those risks reasonable and acceptable? If not, can they be mitigated to an acceptable level? Then run the experiment and reflect on what actually happened, what was learned, and how that be applied to the next experiment.
Failure can be a great learning tool, especially if it is planned. Create an environment that supports and learns from failure, but also use the scientific method, coupled with experience, to understand and mitigate the risks.
Chemical engineering provides an exceptional foundation for process thinking. Chemicals generally flow in continuous fashion via pipes through various reactors to create a finished product. Small batches and work-in-process inventory are rare as the stability of WIP intermediates can be low. I mastered the theory and knew the equations, and enjoyed the puzzle of how do you turn raw component A into finished product B.
I’ve always been a hands-on guy, and after three years of heavy duty theory and equations I felt a need to see it in action. I took a semester and a summer off and did a co-op at a Nestlé manufacturing and research facility in Connecticut. This turned out to be one of the favorite experiences of my life and set the stage for my career in manufacturing.
The Nestlé facility was a large production operation that made hydrolyzed plant protein for bouillon cubes. It’s a very nasty process where plant foods such as soy and corn are boiled in hydrochloric acid to break down the proteins into amino acids which are then neutralized in sodium hydroxide. Nearly continuous flow, tens of thousands of gallons per day, strong acids and bases, and a very, very pungent product. Heaven! Well, not for the owner of the house I was renting a room in, who kicked me out after a couple months due to the stench I always came home with.
The research side of the facility was also working with continuous flow production of chocolate custards. This was interesting as the entire production line, miles of stainless steel piping, was completely disassembled every night, cleaned, and put back together before the much smaller day production shift arrived. My first introduction to quick changeover. They were also experimenting with removing the alcohol from wine (why??) using reverse osmosis and the first attempts to package liquid in brick cartons – which we see everywhere today.
My engineering courses had taught me convergent thinking, which is “linear, going through a list of steps to get to a single answer.” I was assigned projects at Nestle that required divergent thinking, where there were many potential answers, and pathways to achieve them. I wasn’t prepared for this, and it took some time to break out of the strict linear thinking mindset and start using what I’d eventually learn is a “beginner’s mind” perspective when looking at problems.
As the HBR article describes, “both types of thinking are important to finding the best final solution, but divergent thinking is particularly important for developing innovative solutions. However, divergent thinking skills are largely ignored in engineering courses, which tend to focus on a linear progression of narrow, discipline-focused technical information. This leads engineering students to become experts at working individually and applying a series of formulas and rules to structured problems with a ‘right’ answer.”
When I returned to school I had an even more difficult time focusing purely on the theory when I knew reality required a completely different perspective. But I muddled through, graduated, and have spent the next three decades making stuff and then helping people continuously improve how they make stuff.
I do know of some schools that are putting a lot of effort into developing more open-ended thinking skills with a hands-on “learn by doing” approach. CalPoly, near me, is one good example. But more can be done.
The second HBR article points out that, in addition to divergent thinking skills, employers are asking universities to train students on soft skills. Not just the “how to act in a business setting” but also “how to learn.”
While employers want candidates with higher levels of EQ, resilience, empathy, and integrity, those are rarely attributes that universities nurture or select for in admissions. Additionally, employers like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, have highlighted the importance of learnability — being curious and having a hungry mind — as a key indicator of career potential.
That “hungry mind” is important both to drive creative innovation, but also to help organizations ensure the investment they’re making in their own internal training will create a return. Without knowing how to learn, and wanting to learn, both will fail.
I’ve mentioned before that a demonstrated hunger for new knowledge, and the ability to distill, apply, and teach it, is the primary characteristic I look when hiring managers and especially executives. The same characteristic is increasingly important for all employees at all levels.
For the past several years I’ve been fascinated by how we think – and how that affects us, our leadership, and the organizations we’re a part of. A couple years ago I wrote about the beginner’s mind and the various forms of bias, particularly confirmation bias. Over the past couple months I’ve read three books that have expanded my view of how the world around us can influence how we think, and they have made me wonder about the impact on observation, discovery, and problem solving.
First off was Factfulness by Hans Rosling. Why do our perceptions seem to err to the negative when it comes to facts and opinions about the world? In the last fifty years the percentage of people living in poverty has fallen from 50% to less than 9%. 90% of girls (and 92% of boys) worldwide attend primary school, and violent crime has fallen significantly everywhere, yes including the U.S.. There are similar stories for the vaccination rate, deaths from disease, and deaths from war. Not every statistic, of course, but many of the ones we often read about.
After millions of years of evolution our brains are wired to look for the dramatic and to pay attention to the negative as that often signals potential danger. In addition, we also retain a frame of reference partially governed by facts fed to us in our early education – which for some of us can be forty or fifty years ago.
Perhaps most importantly, it is difficult for us to recognize the compounding effect of slow but continuous improvement. It’s not “dramatic” and there is also little incentive for journalists to report on it so we simply may not hear about it.
Next up was But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman. Yes, the cover is really upside down. Klosterman’s books are always a bit of a crazy treat as he likes to dive into unusual subject areas, but they are enjoyable and thought-provoking. In this book he tries to “take a look at this present as if it were the past.” In effect, many years from now, what will people think of us?
He dives into a variety of topics such as music, literature, the plight of the Native Americans, architecture, and physics. Klosterman interviews a variety of people, often on two sides of a perspective on a single topic, for example Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Green on whether we believe our understanding of current physics will remain solid into the future.
Aristotle created an understanding of gravity that was accepted for almost two thousand years until it was upended by Newton, whose version was significantly tweaked by Einstein just relatively recently. Tyson argues that thanks to the rigor of math-based experimental physics over the past century, current theories will stand the test of time. Green believes we have only scratched the surface and our current understanding will appear analogous to old theories we’ve discarded and sometimes even ridicule. How quantum physics is beginning to link the physical world with consciousness and the incredible unknowns of a potential multiverse makes me lean toward Green’s position.
Finally, Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci is easily the most intriguing and well-written biography I’ve ever read – on anyone. At over 600 pages it is daunting, but after you start it is hard to put down. Like a typical biography, I learned about his stupendous intellect – such that he had inferred the first and third laws of motion two hundred years before Newton and figured out how the heart’s aortic valve worked more than four hundred years before medical science.
But where Isaacson really shines is his description of Da Vinci as a human and his creative process. He had no ego, loved knowledge for the sake of knowledge, didn’t compete with other intellectuals, and didn’t care what other people thought of him. Unlike another genius of his era, Michelangelo, he was comfortable about being openly gay, and society and the Church accepted and even embraced that.
Like many geniuses he was a perfectionist, but unlike most he was also an admitted procrastinator. This led to many failures, and he learned to embrace it. He knew when to stop and simply abandon a creative direction – whether it was art, a machine, or an anatomical investigation. He would then take a step back, reflect on what was learned, and often try a radically different approach instead just an incremental adjustment. He was conscious that what he was observing may not be the whole story – or even accurate – and believed a small change could be just a waste of time.
The three books impact completely different angles of thinking, but have made me ask more – and deeper – questions about thinking and observation.
When we’re enlightened enough to leave the conference room and visit the gemba to “observe reality” are we really seeing it? In addition to the usual biases, are we able to recognize small ongoing activities that may compound to have a major impact in the future? Is the inner Neanderthal in us skewing the impact of the negative over the positive?
Much has been written lately about Elon Musk and Tesla building Model 3s in a tent, with lots of inventory, fixing problems after the cars are built (like GM did decades ago), “nano management,” and pounding on people. Seems like a trajectory to catastrophe, and I count myself in the camp of those that don’t want it to happen but believe it probably will. But if we take Klosterman’s “look back from the future” perspective, what if these difficulties are the birth throes of something new and improved – perhaps even over lean and TPS? Highly unlikely in my opinion, but I should be open to the possibility. Can we discard the perspective of lean purism (or is it “puritanism”…?) and our own experiences with manufacturing and objectively consider it?
Failure is something we all deal with, in different ways. Kata teaches us to try planned experiment after planned experiment, learning from the results of each and making small incremental changes to iterate to a desired future state. But what if, in some cases, a better approach was to just say “screw it!” (ok, in a more reflective manner and creating some learning!) and point the arrow at a radically different place? It’s not “scientific” (or maybe there could be some PDCA around that new radical direction?) but maybe it would save another year of iterating down a path that may not bear fruit?
The important point is to question what we are observing, thinking, and intuiting. How are we affected by bias, by our framework and viewpoint, and by not fully understanding that context? If we took a “look back from tomorrow” perspective, how would our thoughts change?
It seems that the more places I see and experience, the bigger I realize the world to be. The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn. Maybe that’s enlightenment enough – to know that there is no final resting place of the mind, no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom, at least for me, means realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.
– Anthony Bourdain
Forty-five years ago, my parents uprooted our family from a comfortable existence in west Texas and moved to Peru, which at the time was in the middle of a military dictatorship. This was before the internet and Amazon, news and our usual comforts were hard to come by, and the heavily-armed police on every corner were a little disturbing. My sister and I weren’t exactly thrilled about leaving our friends and first world problems, nor did we appreciate seven years of visiting probably every nook and cranny in Latin America.
Now I am very, very thankful. The experience gave me a perspective of the world that has proven invaluable in life and my career, as well as a wanderlust that has led me to visit over 65 countries. I always encourage people to go overseas with their kids, even if just for a visit, as the experience is truly life-changing.
There were a lot of Americans in Peru at the time, thanks to the oil and copper industries, and we attended a large American school. I was on the swim team, which was often like a mini Olympics – we competed against the British, Japanese, and German schools. But we didn’t just hobnob with expats – my parents insisted that we spend a lot of time with typical Peruvians, at all levels of the socioeconomic scale. We’d take long trips on back roads through small villages, spend a Sunday afternoon tramping through a slum trying to find a furniture woodworker, and go to parties at the homes of dad’s local staff.
My wife and I have carried that concept with us when we travel – domestic and overseas. Instead of spending weeks planning how we’re going to hit all the tourist hot spots, we’ll often do a quick scan of a guide book on the plane over and perhaps a quick traditional tour the first day. Then we spend the rest of our time off the beaten path, trying to learn how typical people live. Yes, we miss a lot of museums, but I think we gain a more real understanding of the locale.
Some memories are truly special. We’ll always remember spending Christmas at an orphanage in Panama, sipping tea with villagers in the high mountains of Bhutan, touching old bullet holes in the walls of a new yoga studio in Bosnia-Herzegovina, visiting a hospital in Tanzania (that happens to apply lean principles – see the impromptu video series I filmed for Gemba Academy!), having a beer while listening to a concert in a small beach town in Cuba, and contemplating the incredible violence of years past while having a sunset drink at a café on the Mekong River in Laos.
The experiences change you. They are truly a gemba, as value is created there both for the local people and for us in terms of accurate perspectives on the world. Reality is often far different from what many people think it is, especially in the U.S. where so few people travel outside of the country, let alone continent. Sort of like running a factory from a conference room instead of visiting the shop floor.
The walls of our home are filled with photos of our travels, almost all with people. The old man in the photo above, taken in Dhulikhel outside of Kathmandu in Nepal, still haunts me. Take a moment and really look at the leathered skin, the tired eyes, and the gnarled hands. You can almost feel the extreme hardship he’s endured. When I face a struggle I remember people like him and realize, again, how blessed I am to have the pure luck to be born where I was.
The passing of Anthony Bourdain in early June impacted me more than the death of any other celebrity, perhaps because I don’t really watch mindless TV or keep up with celebrities. Bourdain was an exception. We shared his love of food and travel, and especially how he went out of his way to connect with the local culture.
Over eleven seasons his Parts Unknown series visited 100 locations. Oftentimes we had already been where he went and could relive the experience, but several times he added new places to our wanderlist.
Lots has been written on how Bourdain struggled with his own demons. Maybe that’s why Bourdain was able to connect with people, creating real understanding, empathy, and compassion. And that’s why my wife and I connected with Bourdain’s show. In his travels he found what we also seek when we explore the world: a true understanding of the lives of people.
We live in strange, dark times that often seem bereft of fellow-feeling. For many (me included), Bourdain was an ideal of how empathy and curiosity could be wielded against the world’s ignorance and fearfulness. He felt deeply. Now he’s gone, and we’re still here. We need to be people who feel things deeply. We need to interrogate our assumptions about the world and the strangers in it. We need to try to know each other.
Rest in peace, Anthony. Thanks for inspiring us to discover and connect with real people.
A legendary CEO, Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, passed away last week. Many articles have already been written memorializing him, including this one by Bill Taylor in the Harvard Business Review and this one by our friend Mark Graban, but I’d like to reinforce a couple attributes that are important to me.
The key to Kelleher’s success was his focus on people – customers, employees, and suppliers. He epitomized the “respect for people” (or “human nature“) pillar of lean and demonstrated how effective and powerful humble, authentic, and empathetic leadership can be. Bill writes,
As I take stock of his life and legacy, what strikes me is how much all of us can learn from what he created and how he led—that you can create vast economic value based on genuine and generous human values, why what you hope to achieve in the marketplace must be reflected in what you build in the workplace, how in an age of disruption and transformation, simplicity and consistency matter most.
Southwest’s mission was to “democratize the skies” by making it easy and affordable for everyone to fly. Kelleher and Southwest succeeded, and to this day reinforces this mission by eschewing tactics such as charging for carry on baggage. Kelleher viewed corporate rules as guideposts, but not walls, and encouraged his employees to “serve the customer regardless of what the rules were.”
The focus on people was also internal, with Southwest’s “8 Freedoms” that created an incredible corporate culture, which includes the “freedom to innovate,” the “freedom to achieve financial security,” and the “freedom to learn and grow.”
Kelleher viewed business as an ecosystem where everyone could achieve success if they worked together, and there are many stories about how he actually helped competitors. Andrew Wagner described this well in a reply to Mark’s article:
There was an MIT Leaders for Manufacturing dissertation written about ten years ago by Ted Piepenbrock that studied “enterprise architectures.” It outlined two different approaches, “modular”, in which the company, shareholders, employees, suppliers, and customers were all interchangeable parts, and “integral” in which the opposite was true: companies, their shareholders, employees, suppliers, and customers were interlinked, committed, and interdependent on each others success.
Two companies most epitomized the “integral” enterprise: Toyota and Southwest Airlines.
I would add “competitors” to that list as, similar to Southwest, Toyota has partnered with competitors such as GM (NUMMI) in an attempt to create mutual value. Unfortunately that mindset is so unusual that those partnerships aren’t often successful.
Finally, a third characteristic that led to Southwest’s success is a focus on simplicity and consistency – perhaps an anathema to the pressure most organizations feel today to rapidly innovate. A single type of plane to reduce maintenance costs and increase interchangeability, a simple boarding method rather than the ten or more zones of larger carriers, and a point-to-point network instead of hub-and-spoke.
Take some time to reflect on Herb Kelleher. How can we learn and improve from his drive to build value via a focus on people? How can we grow customer value while also being authentic, and empathetic to the needs of our team? How can we look outside of our organization, even at our competitors, and help them succeed so we all succeed? And where can we grow by embracing simplicity and consistency?
It’s that time of the year again when many people ask “where did the year go?” and furiously try to wrap up projects, crank out potentially unnecessary production, create plans and budgets for next year, and perhaps start reflecting on the past twelve months. Why? What is so special about the calendar year?
Over a decade ago Steve Player did a presentation at a Lean Accounting Summit where he challenged us to stop “budgeting to an arbitrary wall” – the end of the calendar year. That resonated with our team (which included our CFO), so we went back to our company and announced we were stopping budgeting altogether, and would instead make the best financial decision at whatever point in time we were at. It was a dramatic, and positive, change for our company. We also took the concept a step further. We tried to no longer constrain projects to arbitrary timeframes like “years” or “months,” but instead determined was was an appropriate, and challenging, target for completion.
Early in most lean journeys companies learn to stop trying to maximize production at the end of a calendar month just to “make the month look good.” Instead, production is matched to demand, regardless of time frame.
For many organizations a subsequent and similar hurdle is to get over the fear of insufficient demand. Traditional companies like having sufficient demand in the following month to ensure the operation is fully loaded, but as they remove waste and streamline processes their lead times may shorten to less than a month. This is good – but can be a bit gut-wrenching not having the next month “filled.” The increased value to the customer almost always creates a good outcome, and over time the confidence is regained. The importance of the arbitrary concept of “months” decreases.
I’m trying to become more cognizant of when I put activities into arbitrary time blocks, and I even attempt to minimize the impact of time altogether. For example, I stopped wearing a watch years ago and recently I’ve even stopped wearing my Fitbit. Having my phone in my pocket is sufficient for when I really need to know the time, and is remote enough so I’m not continually aware of it.
My wife and I are currently in Hawaii for twelve days (not two weeks!) to celebrate our 20th anniversary. We’re staying on the north shore of Oahu, right on the Banzai Pipeline beach where world class surfers are participating in the Vans World Cup of Surfing. It’s spectacular to watch right from the house we’re renting, especially a few days ago when there was a monster swell. It took a little getting used to waves far taller than our house coming right at us, but then breaking and flattening, ending just a few feet from the deck. Somewhat unsettling, especially at night.
Surfing competitions are interesting as they are completely dependent on weather, which destroys any attempt to align with time. The competition only takes a couple days, but is scheduled for two weeks. Each morning the organizers determine if conditions are right and make a call as to whether it will be held. If it is, then the competitors, judges, spectators, press, and support services such as food vendors and traffic control, are notified. A complex logistics chain must remain flexible, independent of time, ready to respond within just a couple hours.
A similar defocusing on time can happen to us as individuals. Consider the difference between chronological and biological age. Some of us are lucky enough to have a biological age considerably younger than our chronological age – or at least it feels that way. Yet we make decisions on our future based on our chronological age.
My father in-law worked hard his entire life, and unfortunately due to a biological age that was older than his chronological age he passed away just a couple years after retiring from GM. He was unable to enjoy a long retirement filled with the travel and projects he was looking forward to. In some cases you can influence your biological age while in some, such as with my father in-law and his battle with brain cancer, you can’t. But how could decisions change? Although I feel like I’m in good health and great shape, I know I don’t know everything. So I try to live life to the fullest, every day, and not put off new experiences.
Time can be an appropriate measure of progress or relative change, such as my anniversary or a reduction in manufacturing lead time. Time can be a valuable tool, but as with most concepts in lean it is just that – a tool. It needs to be used deliberately, judiciously, and only after understanding the “why?” it is needed.
For example, I do use the pomodoro method to be more productive, and I have a 30 minute hourglass on my desk. I have found that removing all distractions and focusing on a single task is more productive and hence adds value. However, I do not try to constrain the task to 30 minutes – that is just the amount of time I will focus solely on it. Some tasks take more time, some less.
I have also found that a deliberate and planned reflection activity is powerful every four to six weeks. It is not a “monthly” activity anymore (it used to be), but is based on what I have found to be a timeframe that allows both sufficient activity and with sufficient recall of the past. I do not constrain the reflection to a set amount of time, but go through a planned set of questions. As I begin to organize more around kata experiments driving toward a desired end state, this reflection process may change again.
So at this arbitrary time of the year, think about how time influences you. Where does it unnecessarily create constraints? Does it add value? If not, how will you change your relationship with time?
Meanings are not determined by situations, but we determine ourselves by the meanings we give to situations. – Alfred Adler
I’m not really sure how it started, but one day a couple months ago I found myself diving down an internet rabbit hole in search of more information on a guy named Alfred Adler. Adler was an Austrian psychotherapist in the early 1900s who, although a good friend of Sigmund Freud, developed a theory of individual psychology nearly the opposite of Freud’s.
Adler’s perspective can most simply be described as “look forward, not backward.” Whereas Freud focused on how the past affects current decisions (etiological), Adler suggested focusing on how a current decision will affect the future (teleological). Like every varietal of both legitimate and fad psychological theory, this spawned some self-help books. Not usually my genre, but I came across a fascinating book with a unique presentation style, and spent a few days knocking it out.
The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga is sort of like Adler meets Stoicism. The entire book is a Socratic dialogue between a student and a philosopher, which helps make it an enjoyable read for the non-psychologist. It doesn’t veer off the deep end too often, and simply tries to help you reframe your perspective to focus on a future driven by goals that then guide current day decisions.
Now the reason I will sometimes venture into individual psychology is because there’s often an analogue to organizational psychology or even basic organizational leadership. This book slides right into that, and I immediately thought of several relevant parallels.
Consider the craziness of budgeting that most organizations unfortunately endure. Sometime around September or October the process will begin, looking backwards at financial history then imposing some arbitrary mandate like “keep spending flat while increasing sales 25%.” That preliminary budget will go up the chain, get bloodied up to further veer from any potential reality, and after lots of anguish and gnawing of teeth, will be set in stone retroactively around February or March.
At which time it’s already outdated and the underlying assumptions, if there were any meaningful ones to begin with, have probably diverged from current business reality. Therefore it’s obviously time to start spending countless hours on variance analysis, coming up with explanations for missing budget, and presentations to executives on what will be done to fix it. To top it off, the entire process is based on an arbitrary calendar year, which is usually completely unrelated to desired business activities which are often unrelated to creating customer value.
A decade ago I was president of a mid-sized medical device company. We were well into our lean journey, and I was starting to think about lean accounting. I dragged our CFO to one of the first Lean Accounting Summits, where there were several presentations on the craziness of budgeting, the silliness of arbitrary calendar year timeframes, and the incredible waste created by the budgeting and then variance analysis process.
At the end our CFO looked at me, nodded, and the day we got back we told the entire company that we were going to stop budgeting. Effective immediately. As a private company, we could do that. We stopped, and after some initial panic the accounting department found they could now spend a lot more time helping the operations group analyze and thereby improve costs, and the other departments could focus on improvement.
We stopped looking backwards and using the past to guide our decisions. Instead we set goals for the future and made financial decisions with that in mind. Those goals were tied to hoshin plans, and reviewed quarterly. Although we still reported financials monthly with a calendar year summary, projects and goals, and the associated funding, were not tied to the calendar year.
(Side note: one interesting downside we observed after a couple years was that the old traditional budgeting process had provided a lot of informal Finance 101 training for the non-accounting folks. Without budgeting we ended up having to find other ways to provide that exposure.)
Yes, understanding the past can be important for context. But just as with a balanced individual life you should put the past behind you and focus on the future, spend most of your organization’s time looking forward, focused on goals that are tied to principles, strategies, and creating customer value.
The treatment of people with severe mental illness often means locking them away in large, impersonal facilities or letting them bounce between short stays at in-patient units at major hospitals, followed by a rapid decline of functioning sometimes resulting in homelessness, then back again. This is especially true for psychotic disorders such as experiencing hallucinations and hearing voices. It’s a broken, ineffective system with minimal respect and compassion for the patient, and hasn’t changed much in centuries. The only real change is that the patients are now highly medicated, often further hindering recovery. Many psychiatrists don’t believe a full recovery from severe psychotics disorders is even possible.
My wife is a therapist at a small non-profit organization that operates facilities for the severely mentally ill, usually including psychotic disorders. Their approach is radically different, with “community members” (not “patients”) living in an actual home in a small town, with full-time support via a trained “room mate” and therapists that spend several hours at a time with the community member. Their entire purpose is to help community members help themselves by understanding their issue, confronting it, and overcoming it – while living in society. It’s not traditional therapy, but more just being with them as a supporting companion. The person is treated as an equal, and respected to the extent that they are included in all treatment meetings.
The program is very expensive, not covered by insurance, and due to the highly respectful and individualized regimen, is difficult to scale. But it is also very effective, with lasting results.
To further understand the concepts behind the program, my wife is reading one of the foundation texts, Recovering Sanity by Edward Podvoll. I always like to explore and learn something a bit different, so I thought I’d read it too. The author tells several stories of people who have been able to fully recover from severe psychotic disorders by becoming self-aware and confronting the psychosis on their own.
One such person was John Perceval, who was an English nobleman in the very early 1800s. He began to hear voices, started to listen and respond to them, and consequentially was institutionalized in an asylum for several years. He goes through a cycle of first listening to the voices, responding to and being guided by them, then being self-aware enough to doubt the voices. Those doubts create moments of clarity that allow him to confront the “spirits and demons,” and after a lot of hard work and introspection he is then eventually able to fully recover. But the system doesn’t believe recovery is possible, so it takes several more years before he is released.
Upon his release he sues the asylum, various doctors, and even his mother for malpractice. Perceval publishes the detailed notes he kept (and hid) while institutionalized, leading to public awareness of the problem. He goes on to found a patient advocacy group that was very successful in changing the English laws to support, respect, and show compassion for the patients. This included mandating a judicial review before confinement, improved conditions inside hospitals, treatment regimens that include using homes and keeping families and especially children together, and standardized care models backed by outcomes and science, not societal fear and paranoia.
This was in the mid-1800s, in England. And he was building off of similar changes that had already taken place in France a couple decades earlier. How little has changed since then, and perhaps we’ve even regressed.
The core concept driving my wife’s organization is a rejection of “asylum mentality.” Asylum mentality is the traditional method of exerting power over others, in this case “therapeutic power” which leads to “therapeutic aggression” that can thwart the process of recovery. Instead the patient, the community member, is respected as an equal, and is supported while he or she actively confronts the psychosis.
It’s a much longer process, but far more sustainable as the person learns how to take individual corrective action when relapses occur. There is also the recognition, and acceptance, that recovery is non-linear. Setbacks are to be expected, and learned from.
In a way, that’s analogous to a lean transformation (and I don’t really like that term – it’s a journey). The ones that are the most solid and sustainable take a long time, but the organization understands the underlying concepts. It is not just a set of tools that can be thrown at a problem, perhaps by a consultant from outside the organization, but a true understanding of why it is being done. What is the problem or opportunity and what is the appropriate tool for that specific circumstance? What is the next experiment being run within a scientific PDCA problem-solving framework? It’s the power of owned understanding versus simply being told what to do.
That’s not the only analogy. Another one has to do with observation, which is critical to both recovering from psychosis and a lean transformation. Consider what Podvall, and indirectly Perceval, say in Recovering Sanity:
Asylum preserves what is called “non-reciprocal observation.” One is observed without being able to observe properly. One’s state of mind – mistakes, awkwardness, and transgressions – is catalogued, diagnosed, and studied; whereas one’s own observations are held in suspicion and doubt and are called unsound, resistance, arrogance, transference, and the like. An examination by the insane of their conditions, including the state of mind and therapeutic intentions of all their caretakers, is more or less prohibited. It is a situation bound to evoke paranoia.
So when a leader goes to the gemba and observes the process, is it non-reciprocal or reciprocal? Is just the leader observing or are others involved? What lenses, or biases, is the observer limited by? Is the patient, the people working at the gemba, involved? Are they being heard, respected, and shown empathy and compassion? Are they being taught to observe, to learn, to own, and to confront and fix the problems?
Supporting, respecting, and encouraging the patient to observe, understand, and take action to confront issues is what makes change effective and sustainable.
In the late 1990s I was working in the Silicon Valley for a Fortune-50 medical device company, responsible for a drug infusion pump manufacturing operation. I had just completed a crazy period where I had also “temporarily” (months and months…) led the advanced engineering department after that manager had transferred to a different location. I was finally settling back into one job when I was offered a position to run the company’s largest molding facility in a different state. Of course I accepted, without asking more than a couple questions.
A month later I arrived to a large operation with 60 heavy presses in a monster cleanroom, running at full capacity, 24/7/365, to make medical device components for other company operations throughout the world. And it was several months behind schedule. Downstream plants were shutting down every week, the scrutiny (“help”) from corporate was enormous, and I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping much for a while.
How do you increase capacity, quickly, when you’re already pushing every machine to the limit, around the clock?
This became my introduction to lean. We went down the traditional path of spending millions on new presses, which had a lead time of a few months. In the meantime I also did some research and came across the Association for Manufacturing Excellence where some fine gents like Doc Hall, Dan McDonnell, and Dave Hogg taught me about quick changeover. By the time the new presses arrived we had caught up with demand and were even starting to think about retiring old presses. I was hooked on lean and it changed the trajectory of my career. Gemba Academy, and our strong support of AME, is one way I try to give back to help others be similarly successful.
But that’s not the point of this story. Those of you who have worked at 24/7 facilities know that the night shifts can be a bit crazy – or even scary. This operation worked a 4/3/3/4 rotation of 12 hour shifts, which gives the benefit of long weekends but can be pretty grueling long hours. I soon learned about some “interesting” issues on the night shift. Let’s just say that sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll covers about 50% of it, with the other half being quality and productivity. Which is how you’d like critical medical device components to be made, right? Perhaps I should have asked a few more questions before taking the job?
On the positive side I had a terrific staff that genuinely wanted to improve the operation. They gave a young kid like me a lot of support, even when I started trying those crazy lean ideas that my new AME friends were telling me about. But even before we dug into quick changeover, and before I knew what a “gemba” was, I knew we had to get those issues on the night shift resolved.
I thought a big reason for the issues was lack of attention and awareness by the managers, who primarily worked the day shift. So I had my first idea: once a month we’d have our staff meeting at midnight.
You can imagine how that went over. Ka-boom.
To their credit, my entire extended staff (I requested that supporting managers from QA, finance, HR, etc also attend) really did show up for that first meeting, even though some of them had an hour commute. We went over the usual agenda items for a half hour, then we all went and walked around. We met people we had never seen before, talked to supervisors, and experienced the operation at night. What was planned to be a one hour meeting actually ended around 3am… there was just so much to see and learn.
We realized that the issues weren’t just due to a lack of awareness by the day shift managers, but were usually driven by the night shift feeling like they were being ignored and unsupported. They also experienced unique problems ranging from being unable to quickly change to a new job due to lack of materials control and QA support to having a much worse break and “lunch” experience due to the cafeteria and nearby fast food options being closed. Snowy parking lots weren’t plowed at night, without natural light the factory felt more dark and cold, and the perception was that they were outcasts and loners even though many wanted that shift for a variety of reasons – usually to support their families.
Our eyes were opened, we paid attention, and we took action. Over the next several months most of the issues were resolved and the productivity and quality of the night shift began to match the day shift. We were also able to capture and capitalize on the ideas and creativity of that shift, and since they had operated so independently they were actually better at developing and implementing solutions than the day shift.
As Toyota’s Fujio Cho famously said, “Go see, ask why, show respect.”
Before we even knew about Toyota and lean, we realized the power of going to the gemba, discarding preconceived beliefs, and listening to and supporting the people. When we soon began to try quick changeover and then other lean tools, that respect paved the way for more support, enthusiasm, and results.
Are you respecting all of your people and tapping their potential?