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You know what the problem is with your lean initiative? You’re not doing any process mining. 

Yup, that’s right. You’re missing the boat on “process mining,” the latest improvement breakthrough that will catapult your firm to the top of your industry. According to a new HBR article, process mining will “revitalize process management in firms where it has lain fallow for years.” 

The authors state that companies adopting business process reengineering are so focused on the future state that they ignore a thorough analysis of the current state. Conversely, companies that adopt an incremental improvement approach

tend to spend too much time on analyzing the “as-is.” In addition, their current process analysis is frequently based on interviews and sticky notes, which executives sometimes regard as overly subjective and treat with justifiable skepticism.

I hardly know what to say about this argument. How do you define “too much time”? If you don’t know where you are and what’s actually happening, how do you know what to change? What kind of current state analysis only has interviews with no observational data? And are executives really skeptical of sticky notes? I could be wrong—I’ve never shown a hand-drawn process map to the CEO of a Fortune 10 company. Maybe executives at that pay scale really do have an issue with sticky notes. But you could always transfer the notes to Visio or Smartsheet or iGrafx if your CEO is allergic to Post-Its.  

Fortunately, now there’s a host of companies providing process mining software that will eliminate all these problems and set you on a smooth glide path to success. The software captures information and transactions as they flow through the company, and makes visible how long that (computer-mediated) work takes. 

For example, the global chemical company Chermours used process mining to analyze their order-to-cash process:

It took the process mining effort four months to uncover how the actual process was performing (not just what the ERP documentation stated). It made the entire process visible and revealed some glaring issues. Credit holds was one such issue, as process mining exposed that strategic customers were sometimes placed on credit hold needlessly to enable manual steps in the O2C process.

Look, I know that Chermours is a large company—4000 customers in 130 countries. But still. It took four months and an expensive piece of software to find out that strategic customers were needlessly placed on credit hold occasionally? They couldn’t have figured that out in two days by going to the gemba, watching the process, and actually, you know, talkingto the employees in the credit department? I’ll bet you dinner that when the CIO and CFO announced this Copernican insight to the company, there were a bunch of $20/hour front-line workers doing a facepalm.

Another great sales point for the software—the opportunity to anoint a class of high priests with specialized knowledge who take responsibility for improvement. At ABB, 

A small group coordinates the process mining effort in the head office, and as much as 80% of the process mining work is done by Quality & Operations personnel at the business unit level as part of ABB’s continuous improvement program.

Gee, that sounds terrific. Place responsibility for improvement in the hands of a few people who have the special skills and training to operate the software, and let them fix the problems. Leaving aside the fact that you’re ignoring the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the front line employees, you’re setting yourself up for an improvement bottleneck and a nice long queue when the high priests of process mining can’t work with you for another six months. Continuous improvement? Discontinuous improvement is more like it. 

And finally, one last benefit of process mining: 

Process mining also contributes to reducing non-value-add activities and eliminating manual reporting efforts.

I’m sure it does more efficient. And so does close observation of the work with standard work combination tables. But that would only cost about three cents per page, which isn’t nearly as exciting as investing in a giant piece of software.

Look—I’m sure that sophisticated software can play an important role in process improvement, especially when you’re dealing with highly complex processes. But relying on software at the expense of direct observation is insane. 

I spent two days watching the warranty process at one of my clients. I saw how one person was slower than another because at 5’0” tall, she couldn’t reach the shipping boxes where they were stored, and she couldn’t access the database at the same time as the warranty lead. I’m sure that process mining software would have revealed precisely how much slower she was than her colleagues, but that would really have missed the point.

Go see. Ask why. Show respect. Before you start mining. 

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It’s been a long time since I blogged about the inanity of multitasking in a cognitively demanding environment, but my friend Mark Graban sent me an article that reminded me of how important this topic is. 

According to a new study by Penn Medicine and Johns Hopkins, first year physicians spend 87% of their time on indirect patient care, half of which is consumed by the various electronic medical record systems. Worse, they spend only about three hours per workday on direct patient care, and they multitask during a large chunk of that time. 

I’m not a physician (and I don’t play one on TV), but I’m pretty sure that spending 87% of your time away from the customerpatient can’t be any good. To be sure, there’s certainly value—doctors need to do research, examine lab results, evaluate patient and family history, etc.—but 87%? And I know there’s incidental work that must be done in order to ensure high quality care and compliance with the thicket of regulations that hospitals and physicians labor under. 

But still: 87%? It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which 87% is the appropriate amount of time to spend away from the patients to whom caregivers devote their lives. And I can’t think of a single doctor (including my wife) who has said, “Yeah, I spend way too much time with sick people. There’s nothing better than a few hours in the privacy of my office messing around with the EMR.”

The multitasking issue is perhaps even more alarming. The time that the physicians have in direct contact with patients is so limited, you’d think that they’d want to maximize its effectiveness. But by multitasking, they compromise the benefits of the face-to-face interaction. The research on multitasking is voluminous and unequivocal): it simply doesn't work. Whether you’re a student taking notes, a businessperson reading email while in a meeting, or a doctor listening to a patient, if you’re splitting your attention between two cognitively demanding activities, you’re not going to do either of them well. When you think about the importance of using all your senses to really engage with a patient to deeply understand the problem, well, multitasking is a recipe for misdiagnosis, medical errors, and at the most basic human level, just plain hurt feelings. (“Why isn’t the doctor looking at me and paying close attention?”) 

The fact that the physicians are coordinating care or updating medical records for about 25% of the time they spend with patients reminds me of a story that my friend, Roger Chen, former head of CI at Martin Memorial Health System told me. Years ago, MMHS invested heavily in computers on wheels (“COWS”) for the patient rooms to make it easier for the doctors to enter information while they were with their patients. Unfortunately for MMHS’s finances, it turned out that patients hated the COWS—they felt that the doctors weren’t really paying attention to them when they were multitasking (listening and typing). So they scrapped all of them. 

We spend a lot of time in the lean community talking about value added activity, incidental work, and waste. Many hospitals are beginning to turn that lens on physician activity. It seems like a good idea to bring that mindset to the training of new doctors as well.

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(Note: this article first appeared in Industry Week.)

recent article by Sam Walker in the Wall Street Journal argues that better managers are the key to delivering better results.

Walker cites research by Gallup showing that the quality of middle managers determines 70% of the variance between high-performing and low-performing companies. Because managers can instill (or at least heighten) a sense of purpose and meaning in employees’ work, they drive the critical measure of employee engagement, which Gallup defines as a belief among employees that they’re doing meaningful work in a climate that supports personal growth. And that in turn leads to lower turnover, higher productivity and better profits.

This isn’t really an earth-shattering insight (even if the high level of correlation is eye-opening). We’ve all heard the maxim that workers don’t leave companies; they leave their managers. So this makes sense.

Now, it’s not always easy to connect an organization’s product or service to something “meaningful.” Not everyone works in an organization singularly focused on eradicating river blindness or rescuing otters. It’s a lot harder to talk about meaning when you work in a quarry or a factory making low-density polyethylene squeeze bottles for ketchup. And there are plenty of days when the work you’re doing—no matter where you're employed—isn’t going to feel particularly meaningful (notwithstanding the apocryphal story about JFK and the janitor at NASA who proudly explained that he was helping put a man on the moon).

But what’s most dangerous in Walker’s prescription is that companies simply need to hire (or train) better managers, and everything will be right with the world. He places the burden for increasing engagement on the individual manager.

That seems risky to me. There’s so much variability in people and environments that a “good” manager in one situation might not be a good manager in another.

What if instead we created mechanisms to increase employee engagement? What if we set up policies and processes so that it’s easy for people to grow in their jobs?

That’s the beauty of focusing on improvement. Every job does provide an opportunity to grow. Challenging people to improve the process by which they do their jobs harnesses their creativity and their innate desire to succeed, leading to higher engagement.

Unfortunately, too many organizations pay lip service to the notion of improvement without creating mechanisms to make it happen. They won’t spend the money to give workers enough training: A woman I know in the OpEx department of a $30 billion company needed three weeks to get approval for the $900 to attend a recent conference. Or they rely on suggestion boxes (“Where good ideas go to die”) rather than openly posted improvement boards. Or they don’t provide workers with the slack time they need to do improvement work—workers are paid for a 40-hour week, and it requires the papal seal of approval to get overtime pay for improvement work.

Cambridge Engineering in St. Louis is an example of a company that has created these mechanisms. Workers get training in lean and problem solving, of course, but even more importantly, they have 30 minutes every day to do “lean and clean”—work on improvement projects, or just clean/maintain/5S their areas. During their busy season, the company unquestioningly pays overtime to ensure that everyone has the ability to do their half hour of daily improvement.

Of course, these mechanisms don’t guarantee a high level of employee engagement. But they reduce the reliance on the talents of individual managers and increase the likelihood that employees will feel their jobs provide them with the opportunity for personal growth.

Toyota says that there are two aspects to every job: doing the work, and improving the work. Instead of relying on individual managers for employee engagement, let’s rely on this second component for higher employee engagement—and higher company profits.

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I’m heading to Houston tomorrow for the LEI Summit—always an exceptionally inspiring and educational event. I’m particularly excited to visit Houston because I just saw the new documentary, Apollo 11. It’s amazing. Composed of video taken by NASA and the Apollo 11 astronauts, along with Walter Chronkite’s actual description of the events, the movie provides a kind of fly-on-the-wall perspective of the now 50-year-old mission. It’s riveting. 

My favorite part of the movie (aside from, you know, the actual landing on the moon) is the launch status check just before the Saturn V rocket lifts off. The “go/no go poll” was dramatized in the movie Apollo 13, but not by much—it’s pretty close to the real thing. (Here’s the status check for the launch of the space shuttle Discovery.)

You seldom get to see such tight coordination of knowledge workers. In physical assembly lines or manufacturing facilities, sure. But knowledge workers are more disconnected—communication and information flows asynchronously through emails and memos. Much of their work is done on a “push” basis, rather than pulled at the moment of need by customers, which reduces not just the drama, but also the inherent tension of the need to do the job precisely right. 

But in the go/no go poll, you see dozens (hundreds?) of knowledge workers coordinating their efforts as precisely as any high-tech robotic fabrication machinery. Each person (and each team) delivers exactly what the flight director needs exactly when he needs it. It’s a symphony of work, a ballet of knowledge, a miracle of coordination. 

And when you’re choking on yet another stupid “reply all” email, it’s utterly inspiring.

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A prospect told me recently that he wanted to work with me to bring lean/continuous improvement to his company, but first he needed to “integrate it into his Training and Development” plans.

I told him that he was making a mistake, and that he was likely to fail.

If you frame lean/CI as a training and development activity, you won’t get the of buy-in and commitment from staff that you need. Lean becomes something nice to do, not something that must be done for the long-term success—and survival—of the company.

To be sure, when lean is done well, it IS a skills and human development activity. John Shook and others have written extensively about how lean is a socio-technical system, not just a collection of tools. And yes, some training is required to learn both those tools and the fundamental way of thinking.

But try getting a plant manager, or the leadership team of a company, to commit the necessary time and attention when they see lean as simply another training and development offering of the HR department. You’d have as much success telling your 10 year old that meditation and yoga are important for success in a PE game of kickball.

Whether or not you buy into the idea of lean as strategy, the results over the past 75 years show that it’s an unequalled tool for improving both the performance of an organization and the people who work in it. It’s not just a training and development activity. It must be integral to the way the company operates. You need to think of it as the way that you do business, period

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Maggie Jackson, a journalist focusing on the effects of technology on the nature of our humanity, and author of the book Distracted, recently highlighted research showing that the mere presence of a cell phone—even if it’s turned off—lowers “fluid intelligence.” That is, the phone essentially siphons our attention away from what’s in front of us, making it more difficult to solve unfamiliar problems. 

She cites other research demonstrating that instantaneous access to information (I’m looking at you, Google) makes it less likely that we’ll struggle to solve a new problem. Even a brief online search for information reduces our willingness to engage in the cognitively challenging process of deep thinking. 

Jackson sums up this situation as follows:

 In our current culture, “knowing” is becoming something brief, perfunctory, neat, packaged, and easily accessible. Yet complex murky problems demand firstly the willingness not to know, to understand that the time for ease in thinking has ended and the real work of reflective cognition must begin.

And second, difficult problems demand tenacity, a willingness to struggle and connect and reflect on the problem and its possible solutions and move beyond the first answer that springs to mind. This is when we must extricate ourselves from automaticity in thinking and call consciously upon the side of ourselves that can decouple from tried-and-true answers, gather more information, test possibilities, and build new understanding.

Given this situation, is it any wonder that we have difficulty solving the complex problems that afflict our organizations? Is it any surprise that we struggle to avoid easy, reflexive “solutions” that seldom address the root cause of a problem? Who wants to take the time to work on an A3, or DMAIC, or 8D analysis when you can just do somethingand get plaudits from the CEO for being a take-charge employee who gets stuff done? Why chew through a (real) bagel when you can have a donut?

A few years ago, Karen Martin wrote about an experiment she ran with her workshop clients. Instead of teaching them a full suite of root-cause analysis tools, she’d do the following:

  1. Ask the participants to list a few problems and solutions to them. 

  2. Introduce the concept of PDSA (but without teaching any root cause analysis tools).

  3. Have the participants list the same problems as before, but this time with possible root causes—and suggest potential countermeasures to those root causes.

Each time, the participants come up with different countermeasures. Karen points out that even though their solutions may not be “best,” by simply inserting an additional step she was able to shortcut reflexive knee-jerk responses, and push people towards deeper, reflective consideration. 

Synthesizing these two articles leads me to the following conclusions:

  • People naturally gravitate towards simplistic answers. (This is the Type 1 vs. Type 2 thinking dichotomy that Kahneman and Tversky described.)

  • Today’s omnipresent, always-on, completely seductive technology makes it even more difficult to think deeply about problems. It distracts us, and it weakens our mental muscles. 

  • It’s incumbent upon lean thinkers to help people overcome the natural and the technological hurdles to deep thought. Karen’s experiment is one way to do this. I’ve suggested another approach. Neither of our techniques is the ultimate method of problem solving, of course, but they’re both useful in developing the right mindset. The skill set can follow. 

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One of the great benefits of the 2 Second Lean approach to lean is the way that it gets everyone engaged in kaizen with simple improvements. The genius of Paul Akers’ approach is the low barrier to entry for workers.

But as I’ve written about before, the problem with 2 Second Lean is the high barrier to entry for leadership. If leaders aren’t completely, continuously, and passionately involved as improvers and cheerleaders, it just doesn’t work. It becomes a trivial exercise distracting people from solving real problems. As one of my clients said to me, “Frankly, it’s hard to see how moving the garbage can closer is going to move the needle on our business.” Ouch.

And yet I’m also not a big fan of kaizen events. Sure, they have their benefits, but they tend to make continuous improvement discontinuous. Besides, copying an approach that was specifically designed to make life easier for Japanese consultants who flew back and forth between the US and Japan is like buying a buggy whip for your car, because it used to be a horse.

That’s why the presentations and the experiential workshops at the Katacon Summit last week in Savannah were inspiring. They reinforced the way that Toyota kata provides a path with a low barrier to entry by encouraging small experiments on individual obstacles. At the same time, kata ensures that leadership and internal skeptics can’t dismiss the improvement work as trivial by using the challenge to align the work with important business objectives. And finally, the requirement to have both a coach and a learner dealing with the gap between the current condition and the target condition means that employee engagement and managerial support will be high.

There’s no easy or universal path to creating a culture of continuous improvement. It’s a long, difficult trip, and each organization needs to find a route that works for its own idiosyncratic needs. My experience at the Kata Summit last week, though, makes me think that this is a great approach to try.

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In 2014, The Greening of Detroit (TGD), an environmental non-profit, was pushing hard to reforest the city after years of neglect. To their surprise, the tree planters faced stiff resistance—about 25% of the 7,500 homeowners they approached rejected the opportunity to have a free tree planted in front of their houses. 

Residents weren’t stupid—they understood that the trees provided more shade, better air quality, and increased property values—but they still elected not to have trees planted for them.

As Brentin Mock explains in his CityLab article, the well-meaning volunteers made several fundamental errors that explain why their efforts failed. And that explain why so many of our well-meaning lean improvements fail as well. 

1. The Arrogance of the Enlightened: the volunteers from TGD “presumed to know what’s best” for the poor communities. The trees are unquestionably good for those families, but no one was included in the decision-making and planning processes. Instead, the volunteers simply assumed that their noble efforts would be valued and welcomed. They decided unilaterally what kind of trees to plant, which neighborhoods to plant in, and what the maintenance protocols would be without any input from residents.

How often do executives, internal CI leaders, or external consultants make the same mistake? It’s true that lean does make work easier and safer, but we often don’t include the workers in the initial discussions about what lean is, why lean is important, why the organization has chosen this approach, and where the initial efforts will be made. Sure, workers are introduced to lean before changes are implemented, but by that time the decision to go down that road has already been made in a conference room with executives and lengthy Powerpoint presentations. It’s no surprise when they “resist change”—just like the Detroit residents rejected the trees. 

2. Ignorance of Context: Black and brown residents remember when the Detroit municipal government chopped down trees and flew helicopters over their neighborhoods following the race rebellion in 1967. They believed that the city was doing this to make it easier to surveil their “dangerous” communities. The city was actually trying to stop the spread of Dutch elm disease by spraying them with DDT and then cutting down the dead trees. Consequently, when TGD showed up to plant new trees, people were skeptical. As the author explains, “it’s not that they didn’t trust the trees; they didn’t trust the city.” 

Whether it’s the outside consultants or a new leadership team, the promoters of lean are often ignorant of the context of continuous improvement efforts in the organization. Perhaps people were laid off years earlier during an effort to get “lean and mean.” Or maybe continuous improvement was used to justify making people work harder and faster, with fewer resources. Regardless of how often the new management or consultant spouts the “respect for people” mantra, workers will be suspicious that it’s the same thing as before. 

3. Neglecting the Externalities: Planting trees is not a simple, one-time activity. Residents knew that they’d be responsible for the long-term care of the trees, such as watering and fertilizing them when they’re young, raking up leaves in the fall, dealing with sidewalk damage from spreading roots, and clearing fallen limbs after storms. Not all residents wanted that responsibility—or, at the very least, they wanted a voice in the decision-making process, since they’d be taking care of the trees. 

Too often we neglect the externalities of a lean transformation. It requires that workers either do their jobs faster so that they have time for improvement activities during the day, or that they stay late to do their improvement work. But it’s not fair to workers to ask them to take on these burdens without additional support. Not many companies follow the lead of Cambridge Engineering, which pays people overtime to do their improvement work if it can’t be done during their regular shifts. Not many companies give workers time off to develop public speaking skills or fundamental MS Office competence, even though those skills are useful in leading shop floor improvements. 

It can be baffling why employees don’t embrace lean. By all standard measurements, it makes work easier, safer, and more fulfilling for workers. But if people won’t accept free trees in their neighborhoods, it’s no surprise that getting them to accept lean isn’t easy. Yet Detroit’s experience with reforestation teaches us three valuable lessons:

  1. Bring workers into the earliest discussions about lean. Don’t wait until the leadership team has decided to do it. Involve them in the decision.

  2. Learn the history of past improvement efforts. Are certain words toxic, or loaded with hidden meaning? Did certain production lines, departments, or plants have particularly painful experiences in the past? Were employees hurt by earlier improvement efforts? This knowledge will help you anticipate and mitigate problems. 

  3. Consider the new burdens lean places on workers, not just the benefits it confers. You’ll need to provide them with more support so that they can fully engage in improvement. Extra skills training, overtime pay, early morning or late night transportation to and from work, etc. are important signals that you understand—and support—the commitment they’re making to the lean effort. 

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In 2014, The Greening of Detroit (TGD), an environmental non-profit, was pushing hard to reforest the city after years of neglect. To their surprise, the tree planters faced stiff resistance—about 25% of the 7,500 homeowners they approached rejected the opportunity to have a free tree planted in front of their houses. 

Residents weren’t stupid—they understood that the trees provided more shade, better air quality, and increased property values—but they still elected not to have trees planted for them.

As Brentin Mock explains in his CityLab article, the well-meaning volunteers made several fundamental errors that explain why their efforts failed. And that explain why so many of our well-meaning lean improvements fail as well. 

1. The Arrogance of the Enlightened: the volunteers from TGD “presumed to know what’s best” for the poor communities. The trees are unquestionably good for those families, but no one was included in the decision-making and planning processes. Instead, the volunteers simply assumed that their noble efforts would be valued and welcomed. They decided unilaterally what kind of trees to plant, which neighborhoods to plant in, and what the maintenance protocols would be without any input from residents.

How often do executives, internal CI leaders, or external consultants make the same mistake? It’s true that lean does make work easier and safer, but we often don’t include the workers in the initial discussions about what lean is, why lean is important, why the organization has chosen this approach, and where the initial efforts will be made. Sure, workers are introduced to lean before changes are implemented, but by that time the decision to go down that road has already been made in a conference room with executives and lengthy Powerpoint presentations. It’s no surprise when they “resist change”—just like the Detroit residents rejected the trees. 

2. Ignorance of Context: Black and brown residents remember when the Detroit municipal government chopped down trees and flew helicopters over their neighborhoods following the race rebellion in 1967. They believed that the city was doing this to make it easier to surveil their “dangerous” communities. The city was actually trying to stop the spread of Dutch elm disease by spraying them with DDT and then cutting down the dead trees. Consequently, when TGD showed up to plant new trees, people were skeptical. As the author explains, “it’s not that they didn’t trust the trees; they didn’t trust the city.” 

Whether it’s the outside consultants or a new leadership team, the promoters of lean are often ignorant of the context of continuous improvement efforts in the organization. Perhaps people were laid off years earlier during an effort to get “lean and mean.” Or maybe continuous improvement was used to justify making people work harder and faster, with fewer resources. Regardless of how often the new management or consultant spouts the “respect for people” mantra, workers will be suspicious that it’s the same thing as before. 

3. Neglecting the Externalities: Planting trees is not a simple, one-time activity. Residents knew that they’d be responsible for the long-term care of the trees, such as watering and fertilizing them when they’re young, raking up leaves in the fall, dealing with sidewalk damage from spreading roots, and clearing fallen limbs after storms. Not all residents wanted that responsibility—or, at the very least, they wanted a voice in the decision-making process, since they’d be taking care of the trees. 

Too often we neglect the externalities of a lean transformation. It requires that workers either do their jobs faster so that they have time for improvement activities during the day, or that they stay late to do their improvement work. But it’s not fair to workers to ask them to take on these burdens without additional support. Not many companies follow the lead of Cambridge Engineering, which pays people overtime to do their improvement work if it can’t be done during their regular shifts. Not many companies give workers time off to develop public speaking skills or fundamental MS Office competence, even though those skills are useful in leading shop floor improvements. 

It can be baffling why employees don’t embrace lean. By all standard measurements, it makes work easier, safer, and more fulfilling for workers. But if people won’t accept free trees in their neighborhoods, it’s no surprise that getting them to accept lean isn’t easy. Yet Detroit’s experience with reforestation teaches us three valuable lessons:

  1. Bring workers into the earliest discussions about lean. Don’t wait until the leadership team has decided to do it. Involve them in the decision.

  2. Learn the history of past improvement efforts. Are certain words toxic, or loaded with hidden meaning? Did certain production lines, departments, or plants have particularly painful experiences in the past? Were employees hurt by earlier improvement efforts? This knowledge will help you anticipate and mitigate problems. 

  3. Consider the new burdens lean places on workers, not just the benefits it confers. You’ll need to provide them with more support so that they can fully engage in improvement. Extra skills training, overtime pay, early morning or late night transportation to and from work, etc. are important signals that you understand—and support—the commitment they’re making to the lean effort. 

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“Disruption” has become another business buzzword that obviates the need for prudent, careful thought and consideration. If something is “disruptive,” then it must by definition be good. But when it comes to internal operations at least, disruption is often both bad for business and for employees, because it causes unevenness in work.

Last week, I wrote about how kaizen events can disrupt daily operations and overburden employees. In addition, they tend to signal that “continuous improvement” is actually discontinuous. (“We have a kaizen event this week. Next week it’s back to business as usual.”) I pointed out how companies can make kaizen a daily practice by setting aside standard time, or by using the Toyota kata approach of small experiments.

A final cause of self-inflicted disruption is management’s overreaction to noise in the data it measures. Managers capture all kinds of metrics, from the number of patient falls in a hospital ward, to the first pass yield in a production line, to the number of hits on a website, to the time it takes to repair a bicycle. They cover walls with graphs, and launch investigations when a number turns red or a trend turns downwards. However, not every change is meaningful. Too often, leaders react to every up and down in the metrics, asking for explanations and root causes that don’t actually exist. This kind of overreaction disrupts the organization and leads to activity that is more busy than useful. 

Some changes in metrics are just noise in an otherwise stable system. In his book Measures of Success, Mark Graban makes a compelling argument for more use of Process Behavior Charts (PBC), rather than bowling charts, bar graphs, or a table of numbers. PBCs (also known as process control charts) provide a holistic view of a system’s performance over time, allowing us to hear the “voice of the process.” This context enables management and front line workers to determine whether a change is significant, indicating that something has fundamentally shifted in the system and is worth investigating. As Graban writes, using PBCs subtly shifts the question from “What went wrong last week?” to “What was different last week?” Or even better, “How can we improve the system and its typical performance?” The result is less disruptive overreaction and empty explanations (what Professor Don Wheeler calls “writing fiction”) and more time spent on true value creating work.  

One of my own clients learned this lesson in tracking throughput at its repair facility. For months, the chart turned red or green based on the number of completed repairs each day, leading the VP of the facility to pressure workers, or congratulate them, based on the color in the bowling chart. This was both stressful and frustrating for his mechanics, since they felt as though they were working equally hard everyday.

Only after we made a PBC could we see that the the variation was simply noise in the system—there was no statistical significance to the change in the daily number of repairs. And with the chart, we were able to identify—and celebrate—when our changes truly improved the performance of the system.

Companies that create truly valuable disruptive products and services rightly reap outsize economic rewards. However, the headlong pursuit of external market disruption can blind leaders to the existence, and the cost, of internal disruptions caused by their own business practices. To be sure, some internal disruptions can be beneficial to the company by significantly streamlining processes. But when the disruptions lead to excessive unevenness in daily operations, they create distortions that stress employees, systems, and supply chain networks. By all means, pursue disruption for competitive advantage—but be careful not to disrupt yourself.

Part 1: Management By Walking Around
Part 2: Incentives & Discounts
Part 3: Batch Processing
Part 4: Kaizen Events

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