Lean Management: No Posers Allowed!

A lot of executives have heard about Lean management and would like to try it – seems like a good idea.

(Even the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service thinks Lean is a good idea!)

Are you ready to Rock?

For those who have heard of Lean, they usually think of exercises like 5S or Kaizen blitz. These are tools that let people sample the Lean approach and gain some quick wins – without making a real commitment. Unit managers can dip a toe in the water while still reporting to the C-Executives that, “Yes, we’re doing Lean!”

But running a couple of workshops and re-organizing the supply closet – then declaring yourself a Lean shop – is like learning to play three chords on a guitar and declaring yourself a rock star.

Just because you can play a little doesn’t mean that you are ready to live like a rock star – Rock and Roll is a lifestyle, man! No posers allowed.

Live Below the Waterline

Peter Hines and his co-authors, in the book Staying Lean, employ the (overused and tired, yet still appropriate) Iceberg metaphor to describe what really drives successful and sustainable Lean adoption.

In this interpretation of the Iceberg you’ll find the obvious, visible aspects of Lean above the waterline:

  • Technologies, Tools & Techniques
  • Processes

But, as always, the centre of gravity – and the aspects of Lean that will ultimately determine the long term success of the initiative – lies hidden below the waterline:

  • Strategy & Alignment
  • Leadership
  • Behaviour & Engagement

Enough about Lean

“But isn’t Lean supposed to be about focusing our efforts on the customer, eliminating waste, and continually improving our processes?”

Yes.

Now, this is where we stop talking about Lean for a minute.

It doesn’t matter what approach to managing your business you choose, if you don’t have those items that are “below the waterline” –

Strategy & Alignment, Leadership, Behaviour & Engagement – working, it doesn’t matter what approach you use. It won’t last, and you will soon be off chasing the next ‘flavor of the month’.

And that next approach will probably offer some nice short-term gains that are, again, not sustained. Rinse. Repeat.

Back to Lean.

Given that, couldn’t you just focus on those three items and forget about Lean? Yes, absolutely. But those three bullets are so difficult for managers to get right that often an external framework is useful to guide their behaviours and actions.

Note – we are not talking about “employee” behaviours and actions.

Unfortunately, that is the mindset that many managers take when they start to explore Lean as an approach to guiding the activities in their organization. But it’s not about “them”. It’s about “you”.

With that in mind, I would like to talk about the single most important tool that a manager has to support a successful Lean rollout.

Genchi Genbutsu

Genchi genbutsu is Japanese for “go and see for yourself”, often referred to in North America as going gemba.

This is a simple concept that can be further simplified for the North American manager: “Get out of your office!”

You will never get the real story sitting at your desk. Reports will be filtered for any number of reasons – most emerging directly from CYA issues.1

This is not a “take charge” event. Your goal is to observe and ask appropriate questions; perhaps the most important – and least employed – tool that a manager has.

Stop making excuses. You are not too busy. You want to call yourself a leader? Get out of your office and go talk to your people. Every day. Nothing that you do is more important than this.

Scratching the Surface

This Lean project? It won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy.

Obviously, we are just scratching the surface of these topics, but the resources available are vast. Some are free, some not. The most important thing?

First, you have to care.


1CYA

‘Stones’ Photo Credit: Jonathan Bayer via Compfight cc
‘Office Door’ Credit: Julia Manzerova via Compfight cc

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2 Rules to Organize Yourself: Personal Kanban

Update 1 June 2011:

I have been exposed to Kanban and other Lean tools for a few years, which led to my exposure to Personal Kanban via the Lean community.  However, I was of the belief that this was a generic term and practice.  Apparently, not so.  I saw this tweet this morning, and must assume that Jim Benson, author of Personal Kanban, with Tonianne DeMaria Barry, originated the concept and name.  My apologies and regret for the oversight.  I did link to a review of the book in the N.B., but I should have been more thorough in my research.  Go read it and visit his site.

– Geoff

We have written extensively in this space about the relentless pace of change and turmoil that is accelerating around us. This upheaval is not limited to “the world”, but trickles down into the everyday demands that each of us must face as we “do more with less” – smaller budgets, reduced staff, and seemingly fewer hours in the day as our personal and professional lives bleed together.

The result is a flood of priorities – both small and large, both personal and professional – accompanied by the projects, the emails, the voicemails, the to-do lists – the endless number of things that we have to remember, attend to, and complete.

Your time and your attention are fixed, a non-renewable resource, regardless of the number of tasks that get “delegated” to you.

Productivity Porn

The psychological burden that each of us carries with us every single day continues to grow with each new ball that we have to keep in the air.

And so we seek new and better ways to keep track of it all.

Some of these things – dubbed Productivity Porn by the irrepressible Merlin Mann – are truly excellent (thinking of the David Allen empire or Atul Gawande and his Lists) while others I just find baffling (can someone make me understand the emotional need to pay triple for a paper notebook because it has a Moleskine label?).

So let me introduce yet another system for personal organization that may not be familiar: Personal Kanban.

Kanban

Kanban is a system of visual communication – in Japanese “kan” means visual and “ban” means card – that was developed for the shop floor at Toyota by Taiichi Ohno to create transparent communications to everyone in the production process, not just the managers.

Eventually Kanban became another of the tools used in the Toyota Production System (TPS) – also known as Lean Manufacturing or World Class Manufacturing.

Email and Lean Manufacturing

So, what do just-in-time manufacturing processes have to do with your exploding Inbox? And what makes this Kanban nonsense any different from GTD or FranklinCovey or any of the other systems?

First, Kanban is not another personal productivity system in-and-of itself. It’s more a way of thinking about how you implement the system that you are currently using.

Kanban has only two hard and fast rules:

  1. visualize your workflow
  2. limit your work in progress

Visualize Your Work

Much like the GTD approach, Personal Kanban requires that you do a complete mental “dump”. You need to write down everything that is on your plate. Every project big or small, every task you need to remember, every little niggling thing that sits at the edge of consciousness abrading on your peace of mind.

The point is to get it all out of your brain and onto paper (pixels?).

Then it is placed into some version of a Kanban Board. This can be a cork board with note cards, a white board filled with post-it notes, or any one of many digital versions. It doesn’t matter which approach you take – it only matters that you are able to create a visual representation of your tasks.

The board is broken into three columns:

  • Backlog – these are your tasks that are waiting to be done
  • Doing – these are the tasks that you are working on right now (work in progress)
  • Done – yes, capture what you have done, see it

Limit Your Work in Progress

It’s becoming more apparent that the human brain doesn’t multi-task well. Yet we insist on multi-tasking all of the time in an effort to “be more productive”.

Kanban abhors this approach.

We each have a finite capacity. So, we must limit the amount of Work in Progress (WIP) to allow for proper focus on the task at hand. The human psyche isn’t a great juggler – too many balls in the air reduces our efficiency and makes it far more likely that one of them is going to drop. And the amount of concentration and psychic energy spent on constantly shifting contexts is concentration and psychic energy that isn’t available for the work itself!

Implementation

Kanban doesn’t ask for great changes in the way we approach our own organization. However you sort and prioritize right now – keep doing that.

The steps that are required to use Personal Kanban:

  1. You must visualize your work – get it out of your brain and onto paper.
  2. Place your tasks in the ‘Backlog’.
  3. Based on your system of prioritization, pull two or three or four of those into the ‘Doing’ column. Only you can determine the proper amount of active tasks that you can handle. (Though I would note that very few people can juggle five balls…)
  4. As you complete a task, it gets pulled over into the ‘Done’ column.

That simple.

Why bother with the ‘Done’ column – why not just trash those tasks as completed? Two purposes are served:

  • It provides a record of your workflow for review and refinement. Are you working on the “right” things?
  • Back to that concept of “psychic energy” – visual cues from the ‘Done’ column provide an excellent source of positive reinforcement.

Your board can be reviewed on a daily or weekly basis – whichever works best for you. What matters is that you visualize your work and that you don’t take on too many things at once.

And, once you understand and implement this approach on a personal level, you can apply the same methods with your teams and your organization for greater transparency and efficiency in your communications.

N.B.  This post doesn’t pretend to provide a complete discussion of Kanban systems or how to best incorporate them into your own life. If you are really interested in exploring this topic, deep guidance is only a Google search away – or have a look at this review by Tim McMahon.

So what do you think? Does this approach resonate with you or is it yet another plank in the great pile of productivity porn?

 

Picture Attribution:
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note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 31 May 2011

PICO: 4 Steps to Asking Better Questions

Many of my current friends and colleagues are not aware of it, but I actually spent the first half of my professional life working as a medical professional.  There are, of course, many differences between working in a medical setting and working in a traditional business environment.  But one of the biggest – in  my view – is in the use of critical thinking processes and evidence-based practices.

Without a doubt, there are many reasons why true scientific methods – actual randomized, double-blinded, rigorous research methodologies – are rarely applied to the world of business:

  • “There isn’t time.  We have to work to do, we can’t be wasting resources on some ‘placebo’ process.”
  • “If the research is inconclusive we’ve wasted our investors money.”
  • “We operate in the ‘real world’.  There are too many variables to account for.”

Be more “critical”

However, there is one place where we can all do a much better job of applying critical thinking processes to our daily grind – it’s the way that we ask questions.

Posing questions is critical to improving any activity or process.  We should be constantly asking questions about our performance, our methods, our strategies, our processes.

Root Cause Analysis – one of the fundamental building blocks of the Continuous Improvement movement that has spawned Kaizen, LEAN, and Six Sigma – uses the 5 Why’s approach to uncovering the true underlying reason for problems.  The philosophy is that you must repeatedly ask questions to get to the root of the problem.

This isn’t Cosmo

So, why do I favour the questions that medical professionals ask? Well, modern medicine is, at its core, based in the concept of evidence-based practice, and this requires that disciplined critical thinking skills be applied.  They don’t “follow their gut”, they don’t take their health care instruction from Cosmo or Men’s Health, and they are trained to ask good questions.

The kind of question that you and I typically hear:

“Why do our operating margins continue to shrink no matter what we do?”

The kind of question that a medical professional will typically ask:

“In adults who sustain a grade three anterior cruciate ligament injury, does immediate surgical reconstruction using autograft techniques result in better five year outcomes than waiting six to eight weeks to perform the same intervention?”

PICO

Structuring good questions really isn’t difficult.  It just requires a small amount of effort and a 4-step process that is well known in medical circles: PICO

  • P: Problem
  • I:  Intervention
  • C: Comparison or Contrast
  • O: Outcome

“In adults who sustain a grade three anterior cruciate ligament injury (P), does immediate surgical reconstruction using autograft techniques (I) result in better five year outcomes (O) than waiting six to eight weeks to perform the same intervention (C)?”

The order doesn’t matter, just be sure to include all four components to pose a “good” question.

Consider our previous question, “Why do our operating margins continue to shrink no matter what we do?”.  Now, let’s rephrase:

“Our operating margin declined by 2% per quarter for the past six quarters (P), if we move to an on-line bidding platform for our commodity inputs (I) rather than continuing with the negotiated contracts that are in place (C), can we achieve 15% improvement in operating margin from current levels (O)?”

By using these principles, you can better clarify your situation and create an improved understanding of the issue.

So, what do you think? Is there a place for these tools in the “real world” workplace?


note: this post originally appeared on the Delta Blog, 14 January 2011