Monthly Archives: May 2012

More Learning from an Elementary School

Learning without fear of consequences is what lean thinkers expect from their environment.  At a traditional workplace, this does not happen a majority of the time.

When I spent time with my kids at their elementary school this was the foundation of how the school operated.  The school provided a very large learning zone.  The learning zone is the amount of room or flexibility a person has to try new things and learn without the fear of repercussions.  The larger the learning zone the more a person can stretch their ideas and try new things.


What impressed me about the school wasn’t the the learning zone for the academic part of learning but the size of the learning zone that is given for the behavioral aspects.  The librarian stuck out in my mind the most.  During the kids’ time in the library, she would gently correct the child if they weren’t following the rules.  At the end of their time in the library, the kids would line up and the librarian would then go through an exercise of evaluating their behavior.  She would give the kids a scale of 1 -5 and explain what each number meant for effort.  Then one-by-one she would ask each child to rate themselves.  The honestly that came from the kids was incredible.  Some saying they honestly gave a low effort  and rating themselves at a 1 or 2.

The librarian never criticized them.  She just asked if they would give a better effort next time and the kids always said yes.  She tracked the number the kids gave in a book to compare to each time to look for a pattern or trend.

The kids felt completely safe to be honest and by asking if they would give a better effort next time helped the kids become accountable for their behavior.

This does not mean they can do whatever they want.  This would be an infinite sized learning zone.  But the learning zone she provided was large enough for the kids to explore their own behavior during their time with her in the library.

When do we lose that learning zone?  When do we switch from learning being the most important to execution being the most important and forget all about learning?  How can we create safe learning zones at work as we ask people to change behaviors of a lean leader?



Importance of Kaizen Event Follow Up

An often glossed over part of a kaizen/improvement event is the follow up after the event.  Why is this?

Part of the reason is the plethora of information available on how to run a kaizen/improvement event.  I have even written blogs (here and here) about executing an event.  It is easy for people to focus on, because it’s a big deal to get so many people from cross functional areas in one room for a long period of time.  Facilitators want to make sure it is a valuable use of the people’s time and not wasted sitting around.  This is a reasonable expectation.

However, coming out of a kaizen/improvement event there usually are a few action items to still be completed.  If these are not completed, the full value of the event won’t be reached.  The event would have wasted some of the participant’s time.  This is a hidden waste.  The participants are busy during and after the event with work they are completing at the time.  If the full value of the event isn’t reached, it isn’t seen by everyone.  It is pretty obvious if people are sitting idle in a conference room.  It is frustrating to the participants as well.

renjith krishnan /

The 30, 60, 90 day follow up is an important tool to help ensure none of the time participants’ time is wasted.

The 30, 60, 90 day follow up is used to drive accountability to complete the action items and verify the results are moving in the desired direction.  The follow up is valuable time to reflect on what is working so far and what is not.  The team can make adjustments if necessary and drive to the results that are desired.

The event is draining and hard work, but the real work begins once the team leaves the kaizen/improvement event and embarks on implementing their new process.

The hype is around the the event itself, but don’t forget the follow up or you may be wasting people’s time.

Podcast with Joe Dager of Business901

Earlier this week, Joe Dager of the Business901 blog posted a podcast.  We did a couple of weeks ago.  Joe and I discussed using A3s to plan out learning opportunities.

It was a great opportunity and I appreciate Joe reaching out to allow me to share more of my thoughts on the use of A3s for learning.

You can check out the podcast here.

More on Measurement Systems

One of the books that were recommended to me a couple months back was a book called “Scorecasting”.  It’s sort of Freakonomics meets sports statistics tome.   Without stealing the thunder of the book and getting too far in to the details, two points stood out to me as they could relate to other business data.

The first interesting point was the historical data showing umpires and officials to make fewer borderline calls late in games.  In a simple way of saying it, they were more likely to err on the side of not making a call that should have been made than in making a call that shouldn’t have been made.  The second piece that related to me was the chase of round numbers.  Again in simple terms, the rate of people who cross a round number (multiples of 5, 10, 100, etc) is much higher than those just under the line.  (The book offers a much better, more detailed description of these phenomena).

In most cases, the people who are a part of these activities aren’t attempting to undermine or “game” the system.  It seems to be more of a reflection of overall patterns of human behavior.  Where this gets interesting to me is in wondering how this behavior may influence business performance or metrics.  I don’t necessarily mean that a company may “manage” its earnings to match Wall Street commitments.  I am thinking more on a micro level of individuals changing their behavior around a performance level (efficiency, yield, throughput, etc.) or in how they select samples to measure.  Is the data that we are able to gather influenced by people who may not want to be the “cause” of attracting any extra attention?

The answer to that question, I know, is that the data absolutely is subject to human influence.  Unless the process is fully automated, at some point you have individuals who are responsible for gathering and recording data or issuing go/no-go decisions on quality or pressing the start and stop button on the machine.  Any of these folks can make the decision that ultimately influences what we see.  Does it make a huge difference?  I don’t know for sure and I have no clue on how to filter out the data collection process for every set of circumstances.   Ultimately it comes back to looking at data with a critical, but open mind.  Sometimes the toughest part of dealing with data is trying to know what it does and doesn’t say.  That may mean that the measurement system is skewing your data in ways you never expected.

Breakout Groups During Improvement Events

A common tool in the lean world is the kaizen event.  This is where a cross functional team meets for 3-5 days all day to improve a process.

The days are long, not only for the participants but also for the facilitator(s).  Participants hate sitting around a conference room for multiple days straight.  It is difficult to concentrate and people become bored quickly.  It is hard for facilitators to keep the energy up during this time also.

This is where breakout groups come in handy.  Using breakout groups gets everyone engaged and can get the team up and moving around.  If there are participants who don’t like to speak to a bigger audience, the smaller groups give them a chance to give input without feeling uncomfortable.  Also, it can give the facilitator time to gather their thoughts and re-energize during the session.

Breakout groups can be used in different ways.  For an event focused around a business or transactional process that is hard to see, a rotating chart can be a good option.  Have everyone write their improvement ideas on a post-it note.  One idea per post-it note.  Give the team a few minutes to write them down.  Then have each person come to the front, read their idea and stick the post-it on paper hanging on the wall.  Group the post-its by similar ideas from individuals.  After you have all the ideas, split the large group into smaller teams and give each team an equal number of ideas to discuss.  Use a flip chart.  Have one idea per flip chart page.  List the idea at the top and then write the benefits on the left side and the challenges to the idea on the right side of the chart.  When all the teams are done, have them rotate to read what the other group wrote and write any additional thoughts they have on the idea.

This is just one way to get people up and more engaged.

If the improvement event is in a manufacturing area, a typical breakout group is going out and actually moving the work area around to the improved design.  Simple, effective and the process is ready to run right after the event is over.

It is important to balance working as a group and breaking out into smaller groups.  When done well, it energizes the group and the facilitator and allows everyone a chance to give input no matter what their communication style is.

Book Review: Agile Kids

This is my first book review on the website.  I was contacted and asked to review the ebook.  It is a good book and a quick read with great visuals.

Name of the Book:  Agile Kids

Authors: Shirly Ronen-Harel &  Danko Kovatch

Publication Date:  May 2012

Book description: what’s the key message?

Shirly and Danko have spent several years working in hi-tech industry learning and implementing lean and Agile concepts.  They saw a practical use for these concepts at home with their kids.  Through their experiences, Shirly and Danko learned ways to implement these concepts with their kids in order to clearly define the work that needs to be done and show progress made towards completing the work.

Shirly and Danko discuss how to use visual task boards and daily update meetings as well as practical advice on how to get everyone involved.  They covers everything to make the process work; the tool, the roles and responsibilities of the parents and children, how conduct a daily meeting as well as a reflection (retrospective).  Shirly and Danko cover all three P’s (product, process, people) in describing the concept usage at home.

Shirly and Danko state they are not child psychologists.  This is a way they have found to positively engage their children in the work that needs to be done around the house.  They have found it to be fun, interactive and it drives responsibility among their children showing how lean and Agile can be used at home.

What are the highlights? What works?

Shirly and Danko do a great job of bridging lean and Agile concepts from the workplace to the home.  Even with no lean or Agile experience, the concepts can be understood.  The book gives great step-by-step instructions in how to go about implementing the task board, the roles and responsibilities of the parents and children as well as the daily meetings and reflections.

The pictures that are included as examples area a great help as she steps through the process.  Shirly and Danko give a true sense of what the outcome can look like and how it would work.  The reader can follow the process and implement the ideas they have outlined.

What are the weaknesses?  What’s missing?

Sometimes the book teeters between being for someone with a lean and Agile background and being for anyone.  A few times technical terminology is used.  Later Shirly and Danko give the reader typical everyday terminology for the same thing.  One example is using the term “backlog”, which is common computer and data terminology, to describe the list of “to-do’s” or “tasks to complete” that is easier for everyone to understand.

It would be helpful to have a Table of Contents to enable readers to find content in the book quickly.  There is good reference material but the reader will be flipping page-by-page through the book to find something specific.

This is an ebook.  I have a copy in .pdf format.  I transferred the file to my Kindle 2 in order to read easily at home.  It was very difficult to read on my Kindle.  The font was extremely small, the great summaries were not readable and the pictures are harder.  After three chapters, I had to read the file on my computer which was great.  The pictures and graphics were vibrant and easy to see and the font was very readable.  I know .pdf is not the normal format for a Kindle file, but Kindles are made to read .pdfs and this is the first time I had this trouble.  It may work very well on a Kindle Fire that has color.  I have not tried.

How should I read this to get the most out of it?

If the reader is someone who has lots of lean and Agile experience, the concepts are basic and easy to understand.  It shows how the concepts can work at home and is easy to translate to work at the office.

If the readers do not have any lean or Agile experience, the concepts are laid out simply so anyone can understand and try to use them.  It can help a parent at home or be used to understand how to implement the concepts at work.

Create Superheroes Through a Strong Process

It is amazing to me the amount of confidence a person can have of producing a successful outcome when they are supported by a strong process.

“A bad process beats good people” is a quote I picked up from Jamie Flinchbaugh and Any Carlino.

The point of the quote is to stress that even good people will fail within a bad process so design the process so it will repeatedly deliver good results.

Let’s look at the same thing but in a different way.

“A strong process turns good people into superheroes!”

When a strong, repeatable process is designed and followed it will instill confidence of the people using the process.  The more the people use the process and the more they see successful results the more confidence is built.  The person looks like a superhero because they are delivering on results time after time.  Confidence can build to a point of almost arrogance because they know they can deliver the results wanted if they follow the process.

This is true of kaizen events and problem solving as well as day-to-day work execution processes.

This does not mean a strong process can’t be improved because you can always make it stronger, but understand if you have a strong process and use it to your advantage.

Turn yourself into a superhero as well as others around you by developing a strong process for something you do and following it.

Your Problem Solving Team

This post is the second of at least three posts in my problem solving mini-series.   Think of this as “more lessons learned along the way”.  In my career, I’ve been part of a bunch of problem solving activities/projects/blitzes etc.  Over time, I’ve developed a sort of ‘radar’ that clues me in that I am dealing with people who aren’t plugged in or who think they already have the answers.  These clues don’t lead me to knowing who is “in” and who is “out”, just who might need to be dealt with differently than others.  Without further ado, here’s my list of red flags:

– Saying “I think” – Unless you are brainstorming or there is a very specific reason, problem solving is not usually the time for a soapbox.  It should be a time to focus on data and facts.

– Ignoring data – Often, people come in to an activity with the ‘solution’ in their head or a bias towards some particular actions.  These folks can cause a lot of havoc in sidetracking others.

– Placing TOO much faith in data – The flipside of the above problem.  Some folks become so data focused that they fail to see potential pitfalls with the data being used or the real world impact of what is happening.

– Talking about the way they solved this problem “in their old job” – While the problem you are solving is probably not unique to the world, solutions aren’t generally ‘copy and paste’ ready.  And, even if they are, the cause and effect needs to be understood in your specific case before implementing the solution.

– Being overly confident in the skills of the team – I’m a firm believer that people can learn and contribute at whatever level they may be at.  However, sometimes you need to consider the limitations in skills and/or experience that the team has so you can learn how to augment it.

These aren’t hard and fast rules, but some of the key flags I’ve come across in the past.  What about you…any red flags you have found?

Game Changing Improvements Hard to Discuss

Kaizen events are multi-day improvement activities aimed at creating change to a process.  During the event, the improvement team understands the current state, defines an ideal state and then develops a plan to create change headed in the direction of the ideal state.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Most teams don’t have any trouble discussing the ideal state.  The team can state the ideal state of a process but don’t necessarily believe they will get there anytime soon.

The hard part comes when discussing how the improvements they can make happen will change the process. Too many times I have seen groups scale back the improvement ideas.  They try to just change a few things within the current process.  The team has a hard time making bigger changes, even if it is just a recommendation.  In organizations where lean is not prevalent and traditional management behaviors have created silos and squashed improvement ideas from the employees, the employees do not believe the bigger changes they want will be put into action.

There can be time during the event spent convincing the team it is the right thing to recommend the bigger changes even if they think the leadership will not accept the changes.  It is about painting a picture.  The team has to walk the leadership through the current state and have them understand where they are.  Then paint a vivid picture of the ideal state.  More times than not I have seen the intermediate future state accepted by leadership when a vivid picture is painted and current and future state maps are made to make the process come alive.

Improvement teams cannot be afraid to recommend what they believe is truly the best option.  If the team feels strongly the leadership will not like it, then there is nothing wrong with having a Plan B.  But, never start with Plan B until you have tried everything to get Plan A bough into.

Problem Solving Pitfalls

Just for the reader’s information, I’m going to start a run here for a couple weeks about problem solving.  Some of these points I have touched on in other avenues, but these seem to fit as their own mini-series.  This isn’t a “How To”, but more of ‘Some of The Stuff They Don’t Tell You’.  Pretty much any structured problem solving method will lean heavily on data.  The good news is that most companies have a pile of numbers that can be used to identify problems.  The bad news is that these numbers often seem to lack some key characteristics that would make them very useful.  There are some serious pitfalls to be aware of as you are digging through the data.

One of the usual suspects to look for in terms of using data is the context that it comes from.  Does the data have a time or sequential relevance?  How can you tell what has changed in the process or the product that may have driven the data?  Put another way, what are the known special causes that can be filtered out so that the unknown special and common cause variation remains.  The data itself can almost never be taken at face value as a reflection of a stable reality.

A second area to dig in to is how much the data reflects what you are trying to measure about the process.  How direct and traceable are the measures to the actual process?  Do the numbers have to get combined and factored into something or are they transparent?  Is the data a reflection of a leading or lagging indicator?  Are they timely or delayed?  How much do the financial reports reflect actual dollars vs. some sort of calculated dollar figure?  All of these are important to understand to determine where you should be spending your time and how you need to leverage resources.

Once you can harness the data, gather the context it comes from and understand exactly what it tells you, there is another key step…verifying your measurement system.  Whether this step occurs in the form of a Gage R&R, a human verification, or whatever your MSA may need to be, it has to be done.  You have to know that the data you are getting is a reflection of what is attempting to be measured.

More times than I’d like to recall I’ve been a part of activities where one or more of these steps were skipped.  While you hate to say that any activity where you learn something is a waste of time, there has been a lot of time wasted in chasing problems that weren’t really there or trying to improve performance on a less important process.  That ‘waste’ could very easily have been avoided by investing the upfront time to study what was really there.  Maybe my errors can help save you the effort of going down the wrong path in the future.