Monthly Archives: April 2011

My Continuous Improvement: Reflection is Key to Learning

As I look for ways to improve, I am inspired by other lean thinkers and bloggers.  I see what they are trying and look to how that might work for me.  I try and experiment with things in order to make my job easier and to feel more in control and organized.

I decided to start a series that will be based on what I have tried in order to make my work better.  It may be small or large things and most likely it was an inspiration I got from someone else.  I hope that by passing along what I have learned that it may inspire others the way others have inspired me.

A few years ago, I took a class at the Lean Learning Center.  The class taught the lean principles as presented by Andy Carlino and Jamie Flinchbaugh.  One of the five principles is to “Create a Learning Organization Through Experimentation and Reflection.”  The point that resonated with me was the importance of reflection.  Without reflection, there can be no learning.  Reflection is the time when we take what we have learned and applied and decide how it has worked or not worked for our situation as an individual, group, or organization.  The difference isn’t reflecting after the fact, but planning the reflection in as part of the process.

It resonated so strongly with me that I block off one hour every Friday morning (or last day I work in the week) to reflect on the previous week.  I have been doing this for almost four years now.  There have been weeks when I have missed the reflection time, but that is OK.  It signaled that something was different.  It is such a habit for me that co-workers have stopped interrupting during my reflection time.  I look back at the work done over the last week and how to move forward the next week.  I make note of some of the challenges and mentalities I have encountered over the week so I can reference them if need be at a later date.

I still have room for improvement in how I reflect and the content to make it even more meaningful, but there is no doubt that doing this has helped me understand how I have handled different situations over the last few years.

It’s not the learning and doing that makes us better.  It is understanding how and why the learning and doing makes us better.


Guest Post: Reasons Lean May Fail

Joe Wilson has worked in a variety of continuous improvement, problem solving and engineering roles in manufacturing and distribution functions  in the automotive, electronics, and food/grocery industries. He was responsible for site leadership of Lean implementation during the launch and ramp up of becoming a supplier to Toyota and was able to work directly with their personnel and the Toyota Supplier Support Center.   His training background includes courses in Lean/TPS through TSSC and the University of Kentucky’s Lean Systems program.  He is a Six Sigma Black Belt and a Shainin Red X Journeyman in addition to training in Kepner-Tregoe problem solving techniques.  Joe also has a BS degree in Engineering Management from the University of Missouri-Rolla.

I have been a part of  a handful of conversations lately with people in what I’ll call “non-lean” organizations.  Because of my background, these folks will tell me about how they have a Lean position or Six Sigma position or they know of someone trained in the toolbox.  The common laments that I hear break down as either “We have this person, but I don’ t know what they do” or “This person has the training, but doesn’t seem to do anything with it.”  This is certainly not the first time I’ve heard these type of comments, but they have come with an alarming frequency lately.  Being a self-described Lean Thinker, I can’t help but begin to ask Why this seems to come up so often.  Not only that, but what does it mean in the big picture for Lean and/or Six Sigma as movements.

Why do people perceive this situation?

I guess there are a few reasons why people could see things this way.  One of the first possible reasons is that people in the organization don’t know or understand what is going on could be trying to avoid contact with the individual(s) or the initiative.  I’ve seen this happen for several reasons.  Sometimes it is out of fear of what the initiative is intending to do.   (Not wanting to get too close to the perceived ‘axe’.)  Others could ignore it out of a ‘Flavor of the Month’ cynicism.  I can understand both of these mindsets blocking the message or the messenger.

Another reason the perception exists could be a company/system failure.  Maybe it IS a Flavor of the Month or a side project and not a true commitment from the organization.  Maybe it’s a pilot program that isn’t ready for mass communication yet.  Maybe the organization just stinks at communicating and this is symptomatic of other issues.

A third, and by far the least comforting to me, option is that some of the people in these roles just aren’t the right people.  Sometimes these roles get filled by people looking to add some training or a job title to their resume.  Sometimes they get filled by people who had some available time or were expendable from their current roles.  Maybe they aren’t either of those and are truly interested, passionate people who are missing a trait that helps them be effective in their role (i.e. communication skills, technical aptitude, ability to teach others, ability to influence others to change, etc.).  These aren’t the easiest jobs to do and sometimes it is difficult to define exactly what traits you are looking for, especially for new initiatives.  Sometimes these gaps can be filled as an individual grows and develops, sometimes they can’t.

What do these problems mean?

Aside from the avoiders and willfully ignorant group in my first possible reason, the other two causes should be real concerns for those of us in the Lean community.  The more people are exposed to bad views of Lean, the harder it becomes to sell the good stuff.  (As a side note: I am distinguishing between Mark Graban’s LAME and just flat out poor execution of Lean here.)  The less people are willing to buy in to Lean because of previous bad experiences, the more entrenched people become in the ‘old way’ of doing things and the more trouble industry as a whole will have working to compete.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a clean solution here.   We can do the best we can and hope that our good outweighs some others not so good.  Either way, I find myself much more interested lately in failed lean initiatives than successful ones.  Maybe there are as many lessons for all of us in places that it hasn’t worked as there are in Toyota’s (and other companies’) successes.

Tasty Catering Delivers On Employee Engagement

About a year ago I posted a blog about transparency being crucial to employee engagement (post here).  I have seen companies be transparent and get great gains from it.  Add another company to that list.  Last week I found a blog post (here) about Tasty Catering using transparency in order to keep their employees engaged in the company’s improvement and operation.

After hearing CEO Tom Walter share how he drives engagement with his employees through transparency and shared decision-making, it became apparent how Tasty Catering has received so many awards.

Starting off his talk, Walter said he isn’t concerned with modern technology or tweeting.  “I’m concerned about people and communicating with them. I want to connect with their values,” he said.

It sounds like Walter understands communication is a two-way street.  It is not about just putting something out where someone can read it on twitter or facebook or the company newsletter.  It is about connecting with the individuals and having a meaningful dialogue.

Walter also feels very strongly that all his managers understand Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (pictured to the left).

Walker feels that if his managers don’t understand it, they don’t really understand how employees think. He sees the”Love and Belonging” rung of the hierarchy as the communications piece.  ”We share the risk, and then we share the rewards,” Walter said.

In addition to having meaningful dialogues, Tasty Catering also publishes the financial results every month as part of the newsletter, called “Inside the Dish.”  They don’t make it looks slick.  They present the facts.

Newsletters are usually thought of as slick, four-color publications with articles and graphics. But that”s not what “Inside the Dish” is at all. Picture this:

  • Several sheets of paper stapled together at the corner
  • Absolutely no photos or graphics
  • 10pt Arial font in black with single-line spacing
  • Every section chock full of financials, including profits and losses (P&L) and other data such as sales and operations numbers

I would ask why no pictures or graphs to help illustrate the point.  With lean, we prefer visual management and part of that is trying to make the numbers easy to understand by representing them graphically somehow or show a process throw a process map.

Financial information can be difficult to understand and Walter knows that.

You may be wondering how all of Tasty Catering’s employees understand the financial data because they aren’t all accountants. Walter is so committed to making sure his employees understand where the company stands, he has the CFO conduct one-hour sessions each month with every team.

From a lean lens, I see these meetings as a large amount of waste.  Lean accounting would say to create plain English financial statements that are easy to understand.  This way the CFO doesn’t have to waste a day or more of his time just explaining the numbers.  This would allow him more time to be able to look for ways to improve the business instead of talk about the past performance.

How has this transparency paid off into employee engagement?  Here is one example:

During the recession, Tasty Catering was really struggling. To keep the company afloat, Walter was planning to institute a 10% pay reduction and let five hourly staff members go. When he proposed this solution, one employee suggested an alternate solution. She said to ask everyone to drop down to 25 hours a week. They could survive on that until the company recovered.

Walter also offered discounts on food from the company inventory during this time to help out as well as low interest loans to be paid back when they could.

Tasty Catering may not claim to be a lean company, but they seem to act like one.  The transparency shows respect for the people allowing them to want to be engaged in the company’s direction and decisions.  Sounds like a company doing the right things.

Coaching and Influencing People Around You

The lean philosophy is one that wants to see everyone get valuable and honest feedback in order to improve.  Giving honest feedback to a person shows respect even if the person may not want to hear it.

When coaching this can be very hard to do, but it is needed.  Steve Roesler posted a blog entitled “How to Build Your People.”  In the post, Steve mentions his thoughts on what a coach should do.

I was thinking about the things an executive coach really does–or should be doing. One of the most important is this: Seeing people for who they are, realizing what they can be, and helping to take them there.

I agree with Steve on this point.  Putting it into practice can be a very hard thing to do.  Sometimes people think they already know it all.  They have don’t know what they don’t know, making influence a much harder task to accomplish.

Sometimes the mindset is they got there by doing things the old way so why change.  This can be hard to overcome too, but in my experience these mindsets are easier to overcome.

Here is what Steve has seen:

I see highly motivated people getting performance appraisals that are designed to force rankings on a curve so they never accurately portray an individual’s contribution and worth. I see employees at all levels  getting feedback on the gaps in their performance–and then receiving direction to “close the gaps.” I see the same people then coming to workshops and seminars, hearing theoretical–but good–teaching, only to go back to work and say “what do I actually do with that?”

To me this is a third category of people.  These are people that want to learn and apply but just don’t know where to start.  These are people that can be influenced.

It is not only a task of a coach but also of the individual to let people see their value.  Steve believes that letting people know who you really are is a way to show your value.

If you want your talent to be valued, you’ve got to let people around you know who you really are. Make it impossible for them not to see you clearly.

This goes back to being transparent and honest.  If we want to build the people around us we must know who we are and then understand who the people we are helping are and get them to see it too.

Seth Godin and Failing Better

Last week, I found a blog post by Seth Godin.  He talks about failing in order to be successful.

All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else.

The first thing that I thought about is how the lean philosophy talks about rapid experimentation using the PDCA cyle.  If we are experimenting then by definition we will fail.  It is what we learn from these failures that can help us improve and take us to new heights.

Seth mentions two habits that don’t help:

  • Getting good at avoiding blame and casting doubt
  • Not signing up for visible and important projects

Avoid blaming others is one that we talk about quite frequently with the respect for people pillar of lean.

I really took note of the “not signing up for visible and important projects” habit.  I never thought of this as a way to avoid failure, but I can see that it is.  We avoid it so we don’t fail in front of important people and hurt our careers, potentially.  I know I have done that in the past or even made comments like, “Boy that sucks to be on that project.”

I think the underlying point to this is the culture that exists in the organization.  If the culture is to look down upon failures as a very negative thing and to ridicule someone for failing then I can see why people avoid the highly visible and important projects if there is a hint of failure possible.  If the culture is such, should this be a place we want to work?  Should we take the project and if failure occurs show how that can be spun into a positive?  These are not easy questions to ask ourselves and can take a lot of courage to do.

Seth gives a few tips on how to fail better:

  1. Whenever possible, take on specific projects.
  2. Make detailed promises about what success looks like and when it will occur.
  3. Engage others in your projects. If you fail, they should be involved and know that they will fail with you.
  4. Be really clear about what the true risks are. Ignore the vivid, unlikely and ultimately non-fatal risks that take so much of our focus away.
  5. Concentrate your energy and will on the elements of the project that you have influence on, ignore external events that you can’t avoid or change.
  6. When you fail (and you will) be clear about it, call it by name and outline specifically what you learned so you won’t make the same mistake twice. People who blame others for failure will never be good at failing, because they’ve never done it.

I really like #6.  If we stand-up and admit when we fail, don’t blame others, and call out what we learned we can start to change the culture of the organization that failure is a bad thing.  Not to mention admitting we failed, instead of blaming others, is a leadership trait that usually sticks with people.

Lets take the fear out of failing and as Seth puts it “fail better.”

One Reason Our Healthcare Costs Are Increasing

One industry that lean is starting to penetrate is the health care industry.  After experiencing a story of a relative last week, it made me sick to hear how insurance companies don’t help the situation of increasing cost.

The person is on a medication that is extremely hard to get approved for by the insurance companies.  Approval from the insurance companies is a must because most people can’t afford the medication without it.

A few years back the person was approved for the medication after a 4 month process.  When they started the medication the expectation was they would be on it for at least 15 years or so.  It basically is part of their life at that point.

Fast forward to present day.  The person has responded incredibly well to the medication.  In fact, they responded so well, there is thought that the person may not have to take it anymore, but the doctors can’t take the patient off of the medication because if they do and the patient does need the medication the doctors will not be able to get the patient approved a second time.  At least it has never happened yet.

Because of the pain and inflexibility of the insurance companies, the patient and the doctors are in a tight spot.  Do they keep the patient on the medication even though they may not need it or do they go a few months without the medication but still filling the prescriptions and holding on to the medication so the patient doesn’t loss eligibility?

Either way, it is money out of the patient’s pocket that could be saved.  Plus, additional cost to the insurance company of a VERY expensive medication.  In either of these cases, more costs will be added causing insurance premiums, medications, the whole health care system to increase.

This just isn’t right.  The system has made it nearly impossible to do the right thing and extremely easy to do the wrong thing.  As a country, we have a long way to go to fix some deep rooted issues with our health care system, which I believe is still one of the best in the world.

Leadership…Training or Talent?

I believe there is a difference between managers and leaders.  Managers help drive the business to reach results in a status quo way.  Leaders help drive change in the business.  Leaders pull the business forward to new levels.  Both are needed in a company.  Leaders don’t necessarily have to be in management positions.

With that being said I do believe that there are certain positions in an organization that the manager must also be a leader.  Most of these positions are at higher levels of the organization.  Without leaders at higher levels driving change, the company will not grow or move forward the way that it might need to in order to survive.

So, is the ability to lead effectively a talent or is it something that can be taught?

I believe that leadership is a talent.  It is something that a person has the natural ability to do.  Can they person get some training and education on how to be a more effective leader?  Sure they can.

Can a person who doesn’t have a talent to lead learn some leadership skills?  Yes.  But, this is more of a stop gap because they are in a role that requires them to be more of a leader.  Leading still won’t come easy to them, therefore people will have  a hard time following.  I have seen people follow a manager trying to lead just because of the respect for the position and not the person leading them.  In every case, I have never seen this workout to a good result.

True leadership, getting people to change their minds and direction is a talent that can be enhanced and fine-tuned through training.  When leading people want to follow and go where the leader is taking them.

What do you think?  Is true leadership a talent or can it be trained?

Is Your Lean Training a Waste of Time?

Last week, my company had Jamie Flinchbaugh, from the Lean Learning Center,  in for some follow up on training his organization gave us back in November.  A point that Jamie makes during every session is about doing something with what we learned.  If we leave any training session and do nothing with it, then by definition it is waste, because we haven’t changed anything and we can do that without spending time in training.

This is something I have taken to heart for a few years now.  Anytime I go to training or learning session, I make it a point to learn something new that can help me in my work.  More importantly, I try to incorporate what I learned into my work or thinking where appropriate.

After applying this for so many years and listening to Jamie last week, I finally realized I had never expected the people I am teaching to do anything with what I have taught them.

There are two reasons why I haven’t done it. One is I have never told any class I have taught my expectations are they will take something from the class and apply it.  I need to be clear and explicit about expectations.

The second reason is I have never incorporated any time into the class for them to think about and develop an action plan on how to apply something that was taught.  If the expectations are to take something from the class and apply it, then I should make it easy for them to develop an action plan.  Giving them time in class allows them to think about it while it is fresh.  Plus, having a support group to talk to can help.  Also, I can be there to answer any questions they have.

I made changes last Friday with a training session I conducted.  I set the expectations and I allowed time to think about and develop action plans to apply what they learned.  My hypothesis is this will increase the number of  changed behaviors and actions after attending my training sessions.  Otherwise, it would have been a waste of their time.

Human Resource’s Role in Lean

I am a firmly believe the Human Resource department needs to be a leader  in the transformation of  the culture during a lean implementation.  HR can and should play a role in helping with training of lean tools and concepts as well as the cross training of employees so the staff is more flexible.  HR can help with people having trouble transforming from a traditional culture to a lean culture.

A common  way to understand lean in is through two pillars: Continuous Improvement and Respect for People.  In my opinion, the greatest impact the HR organization can have on a lean transformation is the education on what respect for people really means and looks like.

Lean is about people and gaining everyone’s engagement in continuous improvement.  One reason an organization would like everyone engaged is to show respect for them.  It shows they value their brains and hearts and don’t look at them as solely hands and feet.

So if lean is about people, who better to educate and train on skills and behaviors to show the respect for people principle than HR?

HR can help with personality assessments, like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.  This allows people to get a better understanding of how the people they work with think.  When the group understands each other they can show respect for how one another operates and thinks.

HR can also train the group in skills on how to have open and honest communication based on your relationship with a person or group of people.

HR can also give training on the Woodstone Principles that are aligned with lean thinking.  The principles are:

  1. You are accountable for your performance
  2. You are accountable for the performance of your stake holders
  3. Subordinate your agenda for the betterment of the company

Finally, HR can help by educating on how to include people. When people feel included in the business they are more likely to understand and engage in the improvement of the business.

Lets respect Human Resources and ask them to use their knowledge in people to help the organization become better at showing respect for people.

An Acceptable Range Does Not Equal A Baseline

When solving problems the first thing a person needs to understand is where they are starting from.  To do this they have to create a baseline.  A set of data for the current process and situation.  Without a baseline, a person will never know if they improved the process or made it worse.

When I say a baseline, I mean an understanding of data of the current situation.  I do not mean a range of what is considered normal.  A range does nothing but tell a person where they might expect the data to fall when creating a baseline under normal conditions.  A range can hide problems under the guise of being acceptable.  What if something is at a high end of an range and drops to a low end of the range?  This can still create problems.

For example, two parts have to fit together.  If both parts are at the high end of the range of their part variation they snap in perfectly.  Then one part drops to the low end of the range, while the other is at the high end of the range.  Now the parts don’t fit together and people are confused because both parts are within their acceptable range.  The issue is there never was a baseline created to understand both parts were at the high end and this condition created a good result.

The area I have the most frustration with this is in health care.  A person can go to the doctor wondering if they have hearing loss or damage.  The doctor tests you and says you are fine there is no damage or loss.  How do they know?  They never had a baseline from before to understand the person’s hearing is any different.  The doctors just tells the person they are fine because they are in the “normal” range.

The assumption is the range is built on lots of data over time and covers the 80-85% of the normal distribution of data, again assuming the data fits a normal distribution curve.  What if the person is someone at one of the extremes of the curve?  Doesn’t this change things?

I understand doctors need some tools to help them out.  That is what a range is a tool.  If a patient says something is not normal for them, the doctor can’t say they are normal because their test falls in a certain range.

Ranges are nice and can be helpful, but they are not a substitute for a baseline.  The baseline gives a more detailed picture.  Baselines help to problem solve and improve. So before judging if there is a problem, a person should ask, “Where did I start from?” or “What is my baseline?”