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Self Directed Work Teams?

I wrote earlier about one of the Lean lessons that was learned when I read Toyota Kata.   I had another interesting epiphany later in the book that I thought I’d share.

This revelation was about the dismantling of the autonomous worker myth in TPS.  There are a lot of resources touting suggestion system data and the concept of the team members on the line making the improvements to their process.  I’ve heard or read variations of this narrative dozens of times and, frankly, never gave it much thought.  Although, I have been around people that were completely taken in by the thought and invested a lot of effort trying to figure out how to make it happen.  I hear people from time to time asking what has to be done to develop self directed work teams that manage themselves, make process improvements and don’t need an ‘indirect’ employee like a lead or a supervisor to be a part of the process.

The thing about this misconception is that it doesn’t make any sense at all.  If you have an area staffed with the correct amount of team members working to takt time, where is the excess labor capacity to make improvements?  Who responds to issues that fall outside of the standardized work?  Who is looking at the bigger picture needs as well as upstream and downstream impacts?  Those are all logical (some might say obvious) questions that I had never asked myself before.  Author Mike Rother points out that there is involvement from the front line workers, but not at the level that some resources may lead you to believe.

I had been involved with and studying Lean for over a decade before I gave this concept any thought at all.  I didn’t blindly accept it, it just wasn’t anything that I invested time or energy in to.  Looking back, that’s kind of unfortunate.  Had I taken a bit of time to understand this point, I could have helped save some of the effort spent working towards this goal and redirected it to where it would be more beneficial.

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Lean Epiphanies

As part of joining up a little more permanently here with Matt, I am going to be switching gears on the way I approach things.  Hopefully, I can continue to find different ways to approach some topics that I find engaging and contribute to the overall dialog.  As I’ve said before, I love that he named this place “Beyond Lean”.  It provides both of us a pretty big window on how we can observe and comment on our experiences and the world around us.

With all of that being said, I’d like to introduce a recurring episode I’m going to refer to as “Lean Epiphanies”.   I’m going to highlight some smaller points, quotes, or ideas that I have picked up in my ongoing studies or in my everyday life.  These are going to be those little “Aha” moments where you find a concept explained slightly differently than you’ve heard it before or small reminders of details of lean enterprises that suddenly click better than they have before.

One of those epiphanies came while reading the book “Toyota Kata” by Mike Rother.  Some others have written some very good reviews and I have no desire to match their words.  My only ‘review’ is to say that I can’t recommend the book highly enough.  While Rother is describing the Improvement Kata , he goes in to some detail on the planning of improvement and describing how to find the first step.  In discussing the delays associated with trying to find the biggest obstacle or the right place to start, he writes, “such delay is easy to avoid, because it matters more that you take a step than what that first step is.”  With that phrase, pieces of a Lean culture fell in to place in my brain more completely than ever before.  Framed against the background of a big picture Value Stream Mapping activity that I was working on at the time, the contrast of this phrase stunned me.  Not that the VSM wasn’t valuable, but I immediately started thinking about how many lost opportunities there were waiting for a clearer signal for what the biggest problems were.

Sure…I understood what Kaizen meant  and what it entailed.  Sure…I understood and had executed the what’s and how’s of PDCA cycles.  For the first time in my personal journey, I began to put those two pieces in context.  They weren’t just pieces of an executed Lean culture.  They were the culture.  If I had people willing to make small steps every day (Kaizen) and knew their business well enough to know where they should try to make changes and how to measure the impact (PDCA), any other pieces would fall in to place as solutions learned through this process.  The end result of those efforts would be orders of magnitude more “Lean” than all of the effort spent on tail-wagging-the-dog activities like premature Kanban boards and 5-S blitzes and so on.  This becomes the answer to the how question that hangs over every Lean effort.  I recognize that there are a some other aspects that are mandatory and I don’t mean to oversimplify.  But, for me, this changed the way I think about the Lean.

Epiphanies are by definition personal events, so I don’t expect that everyone (or even anyone) got the same inspiration from the original chapter or the original book.  But I do believe that these little nuggets are out there for everybody to find as long as we’re open to them.  I don’t expect that my epiphanies will become your epiphanies.  I just hope that as I add to this, you might be able to find some new moments that refresh your thoughts and your journey.

Train and Do. Do Not Train Then Do.

I have read about three quarters of the Toyota Kata by Mike Rother.  It is a very good book.  One that provokes a lot of thought even from people that have been implementing lean for a long time.  This post isn’t a book review of the Toyota Kata.  It is a reflection on a point made my Mike Rother in the book about training and doing.

In the book Mr. Rother talks about moving from a system where we train in the classroom and then ask them to go out on the floor and do.  Instead, the mentor needs to be with the mentee on the floor training and doing at the same time.  Below is a graphic to try and illustrate that it isn’t two steps, but one combined step.

As I thought about this, I remembered some of the coaches that I got the most learning from.  In every case, the coach was out on the floor with me observing me learning and resolving the problem.  The coach invested a lot of time in me.  He made sure I was thinking about the problem in every way possible and would ask questions and guide me when he saw I was off course.

In contrast, I had coaches that would train me in the classroom and then give me an assignment.  The coach would come back a week or month later and see how my work had progressed.  The coach would try to get an understanding of my thinking but it would be hard.  I learned but not nearly as much or as fast as when I had my coach there with me as I worked.  This isn’t an indictment on the coach.  It was just the way the process was set up.

It may seem that having coaches for a lot of employees that can spend time with them on the floor is not feasible.  In our current system and thinking that may be true.  What is amazing is that Toyota has found a way to do it.  Leaders at all levels are coaches to their employees so they are training and doing at the same time.  This creates hundreds of coaches training and doing on the floor across the organization.

Our organizations may not be able to do this right away.  If it is truly important to the company to create learning an investment will need to be made.  Start small.  Get a few people coached and then have them coach.  Slowly let it spread.  Start with a small part of the organization.  It allows for experimenting with the training and doing process before spreading it.

I know this is easier said than done.  It was a method that worked for me in the past.  To show how slowly it can move, I was coached and then I coached 5 others and then they started to coach.  Just to get to that point took 3 years.  That started with a base of one, just me in our plant.  The whole purpose was I was there with them training on the floor as they were doing.  It is definitely a huge commitment.

I believe this huge commitment and slow process is why organizations are not successful at it.  It takes patience.

I hope your organization is willing to make the commitment.