It’s easy to determine whether the leadership of a company truly embraces lean thinking. One of the more frustrating “tells” is the insistence of leadership to precisely follow the path others have taken.
The underlying notion of achieving the same or similar results may be appealing but it does not address why the specific path or methodology was chosen by a given company to begin with. Many automotive companies have learned that lean is not a simple matter of copying and duplicating the practices of a company like Toyota.
If lean is indeed a journey, it is only fair to say that any competitor or other company you have chosen as a model to follow is still in the pursuit of perfection to achieve the ever elusive ideal state. Since we don’t or can’t possibly know what their ideal state could possibly look like, implementing the best practices of other companies is merely nothing more than a starting point.
To be a “copy-cat” or “me too” company does little to differentiate you from the competition. What advantage or benefit will the customer realize if you are just like all the others?
The tools of lean and six sigma are not the concern here. Rather, the concern extends to the very systems and processes of the organization and business itself. It is the underlying thinking that forms the foundation on which the organif the underlying thinking and assumptions
Innovation is Lean Thinking by Design
Differentiation is a trait best demonstrated by a company like Logitech. While some companies simply attempt to make products faster and cheaper, Logitech’s appeal is to offer something more in the product itself.
Consider Logitech’s recently introduced flow technology where a single keyboard and mouse combination can seamlessly switch between two computers as though they were one. Spending a little more money on a premium or advanced product offering is still cheaper than having to buy three of each and also offers the benefit of having more available desk space.
As another example, Logitech recently released the MX Vertical Mouse, an ergonomically designed mouse that improves performance, productivity and reduces the risk of injury that may occur due to prolonged use of the device. Although the design changes are only slightly radical, they demonstrate the never-ending cycle of continuous improvement.
Systems, methods, processes, and procedures are present in every facet of an organization or business. Consider how lean thinking can be applied to increase their effectiveness, improve performance, and ultimately eliminate waste.
As I’ve said before, “What you see is how we think.” I contend that Lean thinking is best demonstrated by what differentiates your company from the competition. The greatest value may be found in those elements that defy logic and the small things that set you apart to position your company ahead of the curve.
Lean can be summarily defined as “The pursuit of perfection (value) through the relentless elimination of waste.” Understanding what this actually looks like in the real world is an entirely different matter.
The 8 wastes (technically 7) and the tools to continually strive to eliminate them are well documented. Why is it then that companies still find themselves struggling to implement lean thinking into their culture?
Any lean initiative requires mutual trust and respect between members of the team, the leadership, and stakeholders. Many companies follow traditional management methods that are contrary to the servant-leadership style required to foster an environment that provides:
Time to Learn – at all levels
Permission to Think
Authority to Execute
Permission to Fail
Time to Reflect
Time to Share (Lesson Learned / Successes Earned)
To continually improve is to recognize that successes and failures are synonymous with learning. Understanding what works and how it can be improved is equally as important as what doesn’t.
Some leaders and managers claim they do not have the resources that are available to larger corporations. I would argue that this is simply an excuse for failing to engage their employees in the process. In essence, they simply don’t perceive their employees as partners in the improvement process or trust that their employees are capable of making a difference.
All the tools in the world won’t save your business if the very people who are expected to use them can’t be trusted to do so. A servant-leader can teach them “why” and show them “how”. When done correctly, a short time will pass and the “student” employee will tell them why and show them how – only better.
The Dunning-Kruger effect, according to Wikipedia, is best described by the first two paragraphs and paraphrased in context as follows:
The Dunning Kruger effect is a cognitive bias where people of low ability people assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is and do not recognize their low-ability. Low ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence.
High ability people may incorrectly assume that tasks easy for them to do are also easy for other people to do, or that other people will have similar understanding of subjects that they themselves are experienced in.
Assessing our own abilities or the abilities of others will directly influence our own ability to learn or teach. Regardless of whether we are teaching or learning, we must first have the ability to recognize that a gap exists.
How many times have you encountered someone who thinks they have all the answers? Where a knowledge or skill gap exists, a person with this mind set is likely not going to be very teachable. How engaged will this person be when they think they know all there is to know?
On the other hand, it is as important for the person teaching or speaking to know their audience. Assuming a certain level of prerequisite knowledge or a given skill set may impede your ability to teach those who are there to learn.
Unconscious incompetence – unaware, lacks knowledge or skill
Conscious incompetence – aware, lacks knowledge or skill
Conscious competence – aware, has knowledge or skill with conscious effort
Unconscious competence – aware, knowledge or skill is second nature / autonomous
People and organizations are generally not open to criticism, constructive or otherwise. In this regard, assessing an individual or organization can be quite challenging. Asking questions that emphasize and expose potential gaps and deficits where a clear and defined value can be found is sure to raise awareness and peak the interest of most.
One of the roles of leadership is to instill and foster a culture that embraces change and empowers the team to improve. This call for change is also echoed in the Plan-Do-Check-Act or PDCA cycle that serves as a typical model for driving continuous improvement in many organizations. In this regard, Apple has clearly demonstrated their commitment to develop and improve their existing products.
As I’ve written many times before, “There’s always a better way and more than one solution.” From the outside looking in, Apple appears to embrace this thinking too, as evidenced by the unveiling of the new and much rumoured iPad Mini as well as announcing a number of significant upgrades to their existing product lines.
However, as the late great management guru Peter Drucker stated, “There is no business without a customer”. When we consider the numerous and diverse range of brand advocates a business may have, we also realize and understand that customers are very much a natural extension of the business itself. In this context, I contend that Apple’s best kept secrets may just be their own worst enemy.
Timing is Everything
From a leadership perspective, transparency, respect, accountability, integrity, and trust are just a few of the defining traits of a lean organization. The vision must be clear and understood to ensure that decisions, goals, objectives, and actions are aligned accordingly. Unfortunately, as customers, we can only rely on “leaks” and “rumours” to learn of Apple’s hidden agenda and attempt to plan our purchases accordingly.
While Apple may be lean at its core, I can only wonder how much waste is generated at the consumer level. Each new product introduction is met with a host of people ready to replace their existing devices with the latest and greatest technology Apple has to offer. It begs the question, “How many people can actually afford to keep pace with the current rate of change?”
In this regard, continuing to release new products at an ever-increasing frequency is quickly becoming a deterrent for people to “buy now.” The decision to purchase is offset by the potentially greater benefit of waiting just a little while longer. I contend that this is where Apple’s strategy may soon fall short. I’m not endorsing Samsung here, however, this Samsung Galaxy S3 ad has captured the point we’re making here:
Effective leadership understands that the timing for change is as critical as the change itself. If change occurs too frequently, people will abandon their efforts to embrace any of them knowing that another is already in the making.
Chasing the Dream
As a public company, Apple is subject to tremendous market pressures to maintain its record-setting trend of higher returns for shareholders and also serves to fuel a shorter cycle of new product introductions and upgrades. This rapid injection of perceived “new” technology is equally offset by higher rates of planned obsolescence.
While some of the changes announced were much-anticipated, especially the iPad Mini, the 4th generation iPad was a complete surprise – at least it was to me. Was the release date of the 4th Generation iPad so obscure that a 3rd generation product release was required only seven short months ago?
I have become increasingly concerned over the frequency that change occurs, especially when they directly affect my pocketbook. Frequent changes leave consumers little time to absorb them and their significance is rapidly diminished by the next generation of products that follow. From a lean perspective, the PDCA cycle encourages incremental improvements to – or within – an existing process or system and this is the consistent, fundamental flaw in Apple’s product development cycle:
Existing devices cannot be upgraded.
The majority of recent changes introduced by Apple are hardware related including the release of iOS6 as a necessity to support the new offerings. The new A6X chip, an integral part of the new iPhone 5 and the recently announced 4th generation iPad, offers twice the speed and twice the graphics performance over its predecessor, the A5X chip. Hardware changes of this nature are rarely an after thought and keeps me wondering why Apple was so compelled to release the 3rd generation iPad only a few short months ago.
Loyalty, Trust, and Making Amends
Many consumers are advocates of the Apple brand and their loyalty implies that a certain element or level of trust exists. With this in mind, the changes introduced by Apple carry an even greater significance as this trust is tested with each step that Apple takes. The decision to purchase an Apple device is as significant as the price tag it carries – they are expensive. Apple clearly understands this and created the new iPad Mini to bridge the price gap in kind, although it too carries a hefty price tag.
For Apple, change may be the norm but, for consumers it’s not always that simple. Apple clearly recognizes that consumers want the latest and greatest product offering available. The questions to be answered here are two-fold:
How much are consumers willing to pay for a new device? and,
How OFTEN (or how soon after) are they willing to purchase its successor?
In light of these recent announcements, a third and perhaps even more important question begs to be asked, “What is the relevant lifespan of my new device after purchase? The 3rd generation iPad’s core chip technology became obsolete in as little as 7 months from the date it was introduced and the relative value is sure to decrease even more rapidly with each generation that follows.
As mentioned earlier, the A6X chip was an integral part of the iPhone 5 and it is highly likely that integrating it into the 4th generation iPad was a known “next step”, long before the 3rd generation iPad was even released. I would suggest that the new iPad Mini, also built on the A5X platform, will also be short-lived as an A6X upgrade or even a retina display can’t be too far behind.
A company as large as Apple must have a product development plan and I challenge the ethics of a company that would knowingly lead consumers to purchase a “new” device that will become obsolete before they even take it out of the box. To make amends with recent buyers of the 3rd generation iPad, it has been suggested that Apple plans to offer free upgrades if their product was purchased within a certain time frame prior to the announcement of the 4th generation iPad.
I’m not opposed to any company that can make a profit, especially in today’s economy. However, Apple’s profits are borne by consumers who remain hopeful that Apple may actually provide a product that can deliver real value. It is peculiar and concerning that consumers are almost too anxious and willing to abandon their current devices for the “next best thing” as though their existing devices fell short of meeting expectations.
Now Serving … Shareholders
I am convinced that Apple’s primary interest is shareholder satisfaction at the expense of consumers by convincingly giving cause for consumers to part with their hard-earned dollars in pursuit of the “Next Big Thing.” In summary, the secret to Apple’s fortunes lies in ever shorter product cycles and even more frequent changes that give rise to increased product turnover, increased revenues, significantly higher profits, and ultimately higher returns for shareholders.
As we pursue our own lean efforts, we must be cognizant of the perception created when the need for change is driven by an agenda that is contrary to the vision of the company, namely, that of the shareholders themselves. You may recall the “noise” surrounding the valuation of Facebook’s IPO and shareholder concern over the process of creating and generating revenue. Even more profound (and to be applauded) was Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that Facebook intended to make money through the IPO to make Facebook even better – it was never Mark’s intention to make shareholders rich at the expense of FaceBook users.
I am always more than a little concerned when the influence of the stock market is greater than the vision that brought the company there in the first place. RIM serves as an excellent example of a company that has managed a fine line with shareholders to make leadership changes while still pursuing the release of the much-anticipated next generation BlackBerry 10 Operating System. While the changes announced by RIM were very well received, failing to provide a release date caused stocks to decline even further. Despite their announcements of cuts to the workforce, they have remained committed to pursue the next generation hardware and software. Time will tell how the market responds now that RIM has announced a January 30, 2013, product launch.
The Next Step
With many thanks to Steve Jobs, Apple certainly deserves credit for shaping how we use computers today and Apple’s ability to create consumer frenzy for “What’s Next” is to be admired. Though Apple cites rapidly changing technology as the reason for its frequent product changes, I would challenge this statement as evidenced by the seemingly lower rates of change from Apple’s competitors.
On the whole, I find Apple’s products to be of high quality – though not without flaws – and extremely overpriced. The new iPad Mini and protective cover retail at $330.00 and $45.00 respectively and serve as just one example where the price far exceeds that of it’s nearest competitor. To make matters worse, a power adapter that should cost only a few dollars to manufacture retails at almost $30.00. Apple’s sales are staggering, however, their margins on sales are even more so.
I fully appreciate the craftsmanship of the Apple product line. The machines at all levels are exceptionally crafted and the user interface – at least on “touch” devices – is to be commended. However, from a software perspective, I have yet to see a serious professional suite that rivals that of Microsoft Office (Home or Professional). The release of iOS6 did nothing to improve my experience with Apple’s existing hardware or software.
The number of available “apps” is literally overwhelming and continues to grow at a daunting rate. Although many are either free or relatively inexpensive, finding an app that meets your needs can be a real challenge. I find many apps are overrated, lacking depth beyond the simple and individual functionality they provide. As a result, I tend to gravitate toward those apps (Evernote, Dropbox) where the scope also extends to competitor products as opposed to Apple specifically. As the major players continue to define and refine available hardware platforms, the App market may still be too fresh to establish the real dominant players in certain core segments.
Rather than waiting for a truly significant product upgrade, Apple has been too fast with too many incremental product changes that may leave some consumers suffering buyer’s remorse, feeling alienated, or worse – betrayed. Although RIM may be too long in the making of its BlackBerry 10 Operating System, Microsoft’s major Operating System releases are typically far and few between too. Certainly Windows 8 has taken the market by storm with full touch screen integration for desk top, lap top, and ultrabook computers.
Perhaps the questions to be discerned are, “How soon is too soon?” and “How long is too long?” If it hasn’t been determined yet, there must be a “Goldilocks” cycle that’s just right: worth the wait and worth the money.
I contend that Apple has succumbed to a greater concern for shareholders to sustain market share at the expense of customer trust and cash. To maintain their share of the market, they have taken their suppliers and competitors, namely Samsung, to court and seem compelled to pre-empt any new product announcement from their competitors with an announcement of their own – ready or not.
Apple provides a high quality premium priced product. Yet, as I look at the tools I have at my disposal (no pun intended) – a Mac Mini, iPhone 4s, and a 3rd generation iPad – I am underwhelmed by each of them. With all of the attention to detail that Apple seems to mind, I can’t help but wonder why something like the on-screen keyboard doesn’t reflect the current shift state of the keys – like my PlayBook does.
I have already heard rumours that a new iPhone 5s may be available in the first quarter of 2013. If memory serves me correctly, that should be just in time for RIM’s launch of the new BlackBerry 10 Operating System and the launch of Microsoft’s Surface Pro. Of course, despite the rumours, who knows what or when the next surprise will be. I’m sure it will be sometime soon.
Only time will tell how long Apple can continue to keep customers “Chasing the Dream.” As for me, like a number of Apple’s recently resigned Apple executives, that chase is over.
It’s hard to believe that four years have passed since we started blogging here on WordPress! We would like to thank our many subscribers and visitors for your many e-mails and comments, making this a fulfilling learning experience for all of us.
This blog was originally founded on the premise that very little information was available on the topic of Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) with the exception of the most basic formula and it’s application for single machine operations. We advanced the application of OEE over numerous posts to include multiple machines, parts, shifts, divisions, and even corporate level reporting. We have also maintained that the intent of OEE is to serve as a tool to drive continuous improvements in your operations.
When integrated correctly, OEE provides feedback to operations management that enables further improvements to occur. From this perspective, leadership that empowers employees to implement improvements is a pre-requisite for manufacturing operations wanting to gain the most from their OEE initiative. In this regard, leadership recognizes and embraces lean thinking and instills lean principles throughout the organization. Where lean serves as the overarching strategy, OEE is an integral key performance indicator (KPI) that enables continuous improvements to occur.
We recognized that our initial offerings would serve and be of interest to a niche audience, however, after four years it is exciting to see that we have received more than 100,000 visitors from over 150 countries. The top 10 countries driving visits to our site – to date – are:
We are thankful for the feedback we have received and for the many people who have taken the time to express their thoughts and share their gratitude either in the comments or by the many e-mails we have received from around the world. Social media have certainly played a role in expanding our scope and our reach. We look forward to continuing our journey with you.
“Our goal is to deliver the highest quality product or service in the shortest amount of time at competitive prices on time and in full.”
“There’s always a better way and more than one solution”
“What you see is how we think”
Thanks again for reading and, to our US friends, have a Happy Thanksgiving!
We’ve all said it, “I just can’t wait!” We look forward to certain events, both big and small, with eager anticipation. We carefully plan for vacations, family events, a get together with friends, or major purchases like a new car or home. Our minds race, eagerly waiting for that magic moment to arrive.
Anticipation instills excitement and expectation in the present moment with regard to a future event. Anticipation introduces an emotional quotient to an outcome that has yet to be realized. Is “anticipation” an inherent part of the culture where you work? Do you look forward to Monday mornings? Do you create opportunities to experience anticipation? What are some of the events you look forward to? In contrast, what are some of the events you dread?
Putting Metrics in Perspective
Key performance indicators (KPI’s) or metrics are used to measure our progress toward achieving goals and objectives. Overall Equipment Effectiveness is one such key performance indicator used by many companies and provides a means to monitor and improve operational performance. Timely corrective actions and improvement measures should be accompanied by expected outcomes. In other words, we should anticipate increasing returns for our efforts.
Unfortunately when results begin to plateau, a perceived “point of no return” is reached, support on all fronts begins to wane, and apathy sets in. A vision that extends beyond the current “process as we know it” coupled with effective leadership is required to strive for even greater achievements. Some companies use the term “stretch targets” or “stretch goals” to ensure a gap between current and ideal performance exists. For lean practitioners, there is always a gap between the current and ideal state and as a result “pursuing perfection and pure value through the relentless elimination of waste” is a never ending journey.
Kaizen – Continuous Improvement
Daily Kaizen embraces the ideology that there is always a better way and more than one solution. We anticipate improved performance as we continue to understand and learn more from our experiences. We appreciate and learn from our failures and successes recognizing that each brings greater understanding of the process at hand. A missed target is a learning opportunity – whether expectations were exceeded or not.
While some would consider success as exceeding the target, doing so actually demonstrates that we did not fully understand all of the influences or elements of the process. As such, even hitting the target should be cause for review to validate our initial assumptions. We may discover that some elements or combination of elements outside of our initial “assumptions” were actually responsible for hitting the target.
Kaizen is an integral part of a learning environment where lean thinking flourishes. Anticipation brings an element of excitement to the work place that keeps us wanting to come back to do it all over again.
“Anticipation” – Carly Simon sang it right – its keeping me waiting!
I coined the phrase “What you see is how we think” to suggest that the principles of lean thinking are not only embraced by everyone but are also evident throughout the organization. In this context, becoming a lean organization requires effective leadership to create and foster an environment that allows lean thinking to flourish. Just as a teacher establishes an environment for learning in the classroom, leaders carry the responsibility for cultivating a lean culture in their organizations.
So how could it be that Lean Leadership is the missing link? I suspect and have observed that too many leaders have displaced the responsibility for lean into the middle management ranks rather than taking ownership of the initiative themselves. These same leaders often operate on the premise that lean is simply a matter of implementing a collection of prescriptive tools to improve efficiency and cut costs. It is clear they have failed to understand the most fundamental principles and basic tenets of lean. If this sounds familiar, I recommend reading “The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles from The World’s Greatest Manufacturer” by Jeffrey K. Liker.
So where do we turn?
Toyota is one company that exemplifies what it means to be lean and the lessons learned through their trials, tribulations, and continued successes are well documented. I admire Toyota both through first hand experience as a supplier of products to all of their operations in North America and secondly through their willingness to openly share their experiences with the rest of the world. This is evidenced by the many books and articles that have featured them.
I recognize that Toyota has been the subject of many news stories in recent years, the most notable being the recession of 2008, the extremely high-profile recall crisis for Sudden Unintended Acceleration (SUA) in 2009, and most recently, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. In turn however, we must also acknowledge and recognize that Toyota’s leadership was instrumental to guiding the company through these crisis and for directly addressing the diverse range of challenges they faced.
A sobering look at the crisis that challenged Toyota’s integrity and leadership as well as the many lessons learned are well documented in “Toyota Under Fire: Lessons for Turning Crisis into Opportunity” by Jeffrey K. Liker and is highly recommended reading. I am further encouraged that Toyota acknowledged that problems did exist and didn’t look to deflect blame elsewhere. Rather, Toyota returned to the fundamental principles of “The Toyota Way” to critique, understand, and improve the company.
“Lean is the pursuit of perfection and pure value through the relentless elimination of waste.”
As every lean practitioner will (or should) tell you, the process begins by defining value. Many companies operate under the false pretense that they are already providing the value that customers want or need. As such, they attempt to improve existing products or services by either adding features or making them faster and cheaper. From the perspective of Lean Thinking, the “secret” to making real change begins by finding:
“… a mechanism for rethinking the value of their core products to their customers.”
Lean Thinking challenges us to consider the value our customers are demanding. Accordingly, we must ensure that our infrastructure, business practices, and methodologies deliver that value in the most efficient and effective manner possible. Only when we focus on value from a customer perspective can we offer a solution that truly meets the customers’ needs.
Apple is one such company that continues to redefine and improve its product offerings to the point of anticipating and creating needs that never before existed. Apple’s iPad is just one example of their unique approach to creating niche products and solutions to address speed, connectivity, portability, and features that we as customers never thought possible.
The Leadership Challenge
Leadership is challenged to define and deliver “value” to the customer in the most effective and efficient manner. This is not as simple as it sounds and having leaders within the company that understand Lean Thinking is a requisite mandate for any company wanting to compete in today’s global market. The challenge exists for leaders to adopt lean thinking to deliver real value at prices we can all afford.
I continue to be frustrated by the notion that the only way to reduce spending is by cutting services. While the demand for change is high, few are willing to challenge tradition and conventional thinking to improve services and increase efficiencies that will enable us to do more with less, find new opportunities, and to create jobs instead of eliminating them.
On a global level, governments continue to grapple with increasing economic pressures brought on by the recession. Rather than demonstrating fiscal restraint however, governments have grown and spending has increased at rates that far exceed that of the public sector. The result is an unsustainable government and services that will either be cut or funded through newly created revenue streams.
Rather than challenging the infrastructure and systems that comprise the delivery of these services, the governments scramble to find new ways to reach further into our pockets to pay for inefficiencies, high paid union labour, and questionable entitlements. In some instances, services have been abandoned only to be properly managed by the private sector.
For example, when we consider the delivery of health care in Canada, we find a system plagued by excessive wait times and ever rising costs. Doctors and specialists continue to operate as a fragmented community of service providers, adding layers of bureaucracy, greater inefficiencies, and more cost.
These inefficiencies are further evidenced by patients who are sent into a frenzied schedule of appointments and tests in various locations without regard for the many inconveniences and disruptions they may incur in their personal lives.
On the other hand, emergency rooms do not present the same constraints and, though some waiting may be required, patients are examined and assessed immediately, a prognosis is determined, priorities are established, and resources are made available on demand as required.
Expedience does not jeopardize the level of care provided. While the emergency room may not present the ideal case, it is radically different from “standard” care.
In stark contrast to the government-political processes that continue to insult our intelligence, I am always encouraged by the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of individuals who prove that there is always a better way and more than one solution:
The quicker we realize that truly radical changes are necessary, the sooner we can abandon traditional cost cutting practices and apply Lean Thinking to improve society as we know it, not cut it to shreds. My simplified definition of Lean Thinking follows:
Lean is the pursuit of perfection and pure value through the relentless elimination of waste.
As every lean practitioner will tell you, the process begins by defining value. Unfortunately, many governments and companies alike start by falsely assuming that they are already providing the value that customers want or need. As such, they attempt to improve existing products or services by either adding features or making them faster and cheaper. From the perspective of Lean Thinking, the “secret” to making real change begins by finding:
“… a mechanism for rethinking the value of their core products to their customers.”
In this same context, consider how our desire to “travel from Point A to Point B in the shortest time” has evolved and transformed our personal modes of transportation / communication into the following “value” propositions:
Personal: Crawl > Walk > Run > Tricycle > Bicycle
Roadways: Bicycle, Motorcycles, Cars, Buses
Railways: Passenger and Freight Trains
Seaways: Boats, Ships
Airways: Helicopters, Planes, Jets, Rockets
Telephone: Phones, Faxes, Internet (email, social media)
Each mode of transportation presents a unique solution to address a shared common value: “Short Travel Time”. Although changing technologies is inferred, lean does not require an investment in new technologies to be successful. To the contrary, Lean Thinking simply challenges us to consider the value our customers are demanding. Accordingly, we must ensure that our infrastructure, business practices, and methodologies deliver that value in the most efficient and effective manner possible.
Only when we focus on “value” from a customer perspective can we offer a solution that truly meets the customer’s needs. When we consider the premise for this example, the need to travel is implied. It does not answer the question “Why do we travel?
If the reason for traveling is simply to “communicate” with friends and family, then we can see that the telephone becomes a viable solution to eliminate the need to travel at all. From a similar perspective, fax machines and the internet were created to expedite data transfers and to communicate with the world in real-time.
The Challenge is On
It is time for all levels of government, business, unions, and society as a whole to acknowledge that our economy is in a state of crisis and demands real action. Real people are hurting at a time when others are pursuing their own agendas for self-preservation – all at the expense of society. We can not simply assume that everything is “just fine – only more expensive”.
Lean Thinking is a requisite mandate for any company wanting to compete in today’s global market. In this regard, the same challenges exist for governments and businesses alike to adopt lean thinking to deliver real value to the people they serve at prices we can all afford.
Unless government spending is brought under control and services are delivered effectively and efficiently, the system is sure to implode. It’s time for an extreme make over, engaging the best and sharpest minds to bring us to the cutting edge in business and technology, not to the cutting board where nothing remains but shattered hopes and dreams.
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Almost everything I read or learned suggests that lean was never intended to be complicated. The simplest definition of lean I have read to date follows:
Focus on what matters and eliminate what doesn’t
This is not to suggest that lean is easy. In actual practice I find that some companies have sufficiently compounded the definition of lean to exclude all but a select team of employees.
I contend that lean is an all inclusive initiative based on the simple premise that we can always find a better way.
As suggested by our definition of lean above, the ability to discern what matters from what doesn’t is the most fundamental step to any lean initiative.
As I discussed in “Discover Toyota’s Best Practice“, improvements are seldom the result of a single action or countermeasure. Rather, in the context of lean, innovations are the culmination of numerous improvement initiatives over time.
I become increasingly concerned where a lean culture is compromised by infrastructure, policies, systems, and procedures that inherently frustrate improvement initiatives.
This reflects one of my qualms with six sigma where an implied hierarchy is created by virtue of the “belt” or level that a person has achieved. The approach is intentionally “exclusive” by virtue of education, experience, and / or proven expertise. As such, people are inherently disqualified from the process.
Quite simply, don’t create an environment that alienates your team to the extent that lean is beyond reach by design.
I recognize that benchmarking is not a new concept. In business, we have learned to appreciate the value of benchmarking at the “macro level” through our deliberate attempts to establish a relative measure of performance, improvement, and even for competitor analysis. Advertisers often use benchmarking as an integral component of their marketing strategy.
The discussion that follows will focus on the significance of benchmarking at the “micro level” – the application of benchmarking in our everyday decision processes. In this context, “micro benchmarking” is a skill that we all possess and often take for granted – it is second nature to us. I would even go so far as to suggest that some decisions are autonomous.
With this in mind, I intend to take a slightly different, although general, approach to introduce the concept of “micro benchmarking”. I also contend that “micro benchmarking” can be used to introduce a new level of accountability to your organization.
Human Resources – The Art of Deception Interviews and Border Crossing
Micro benchmarking can literally occur “in the moment.” The interview process is one example where “micro benchmarking” frequently occurs. I recently read an article titled, “Reading people: Signs border guards look for to spot deception“, and made particular note of the following advice to border crossing agents (emphasis added):
Find out about the person and establish their base-line behavior by asking about their commute in, their travel interests, etc. Note their body language during this stage as it is their norm against which all ensuing body language will be compared.
The interview process, whether for a job or crossing the border, represents one example where major (even life changing) decisions are made on the basis of very limited information. As suggested in the article, one of the criteria is “relative change in behavior” from the norm established at the first greeting. Although the person conducting a job interview may have more than just “body language” to work with, one of the objectives of the interview is to discern the truth – facts from fiction.
Obviously, the decision to permit entry into the country, or to hire someone, may have dire consequences, not only for the applicant, but also for you, your company, and even the country. Our ability to benchmark at the micro level may be one of the more significant discriminating factors whereby our decisions are formulated.
Decisions – For Better or Worse:
Every decision we make in our lives is accompanied by some form of benchmarking. While this statement may seem to be an over-generalization, let’s consider how decisions are actually made. It is a common practice to “weigh our options” before making the final decision. I suggest that every decision we make is rooted against some form of benchmarking exercise. The decision process itself considers available inputs and potential outcomes (consequences):
Better – Worse
Pro’s – Con’s
Advantages – Disadvantages
Life – Death
Success – Failure
Safe – Risk
Decisions are usually intended to yield the best of all possible outcomes and, as suggested by the very short list above, they are based on “relative advantage” or “consequential” thinking processes. At the heart of each of these decisions is a base line reference or “benchmark” whereby a good or presumably “correct” decision can be made.
We have been conditioned to believe (religion / teachings) and think (parents / education / social media / music) certain thoughts. These “belief systems” or perceived “truths” serve as filters, in essence forming the base line or “benchmark” by which our thoughts, and hence our decisions, are processed. Every word we read or hear is filtered against these “micro level” benchmarks.
I recognize that many other influences and factors exist but, suffice it to say, they are still based on a relative benchmark. Unpopular decisions are just one example where social influences are heavily considered and weighed. How many times have we heard, “The best decisions are not always popular ones.” Politicians are known to make the tough and not so popular decisions early on in their term and rely on a waning public memory as the next election approaches – time heals all wounds but the scars remain.
Decisions – Measuring Outcomes
As alluded to in the last paragraph, our decision process may be biased as we consider the potential “reactions” or responses that may result. Politics is rife with “poll” data that somehow sway the decisions that are made. In a similar manner, substantially fewer issues of value are resolved in an election year for fear of a negative voter response.
In essence there are two primary outcomes to every decision, Reactions and Results. The results of a decision are self-explanatory but may be classified as summarized below.
If you are still with me, I suggest that at least two levels of accountability exist:
The process used to arrive at the decision
The results of the decision
In corporations, large and small, executives are often held to account for worse than expected (negative) performance, where results are the primary – and seemingly only – focus of discussion. I contend that positive results that exceed expectations should be subject to the same, if not higher, level of scrutiny.
Better and worse than expected results are both indicative of a lack of understanding or full comprehension of the process or system and as such present an opportunity for greater learning. Predicting outcomes or results is a fundamental requirement and best practice where accountability is an inherent characteristic of company culture.
Toyota is notorious for continually deferring to the most basic measurement model: Planned versus Actual. Although positive (better than expected) results are more readily accepted than negative (worse than expected) results, both impact the business:
Better than expected:
Other potential investments may have been deferred based on the planned return on investment.
Financial statements are understated and affects other business aspects and transactions.
Decision model / process does not fully describe / consider all aspects to formulate planned / predictable results
Decision process to yield actual results cannot be duplicated unless lessons learned are pursued, understood, and the model is updated.
Worse than expected:
Poor / lower than expected return on investment
Extended financial obligations
Negative impact to cash flow / available cash
Lower stakeholder confidence for future investments
Decision model / process does not fully describe / consider all aspects to formulate planned / predictable results
Decision process will be duplicated unless lessons learned are pursued, understood, and the model is updated.
The second level of accountability and perhaps the most important concerns the process or decision model used to arrive at the decision. In either case we want to discern between informed decisions, “educated guesses”, “wishful thinking”, or willful neglect. We can see that individual and system / process level accountabilities exist.
The ultimate objective is to understand “what we were thinking” so we can repeat our successes without repeating our mistakes. This seems to be a reasonable expectation and is a best practice for learning organizations.
Some companies are very quick to assign “blame” to individuals regardless of the reason for failure. These situations can become very volatile and once again are best exemplified in the realm of politics. There tends to be more leniency for individuals where policies or protocol has been followed. If the system is broken, it is difficult to hold individuals to account.
The Accountability Solution – Show Your Work!
So, who is accountable? Before you answer that, consider a person who used a decision model and the results were worse than the model predicted. From a system point of view the person followed standard company protocol. Now consider a person who did not use the model, knowing it was flawed, and the results were better than expected. Both “failures” have their root in the same fundamental decision model.
The accountabilities introduced here however are somewhat different. The person following protocol has a traceable failure path. In the latter case, the person introduced a new “untraceable” method – unless of course the person noted and advised of the flawed model before and not after the fact.
Toyota is one of the few companies I have worked with where documentation and attention to detail are paramount. As another example, standardized work is not intended to serve as a rigid set of instructions that can never be changed. To the contrary, changes are permissible, however, the current state is the benchmark by which future performance is measured and proven. The documentation serves as a tangible record to account for any changes made, for better or worse.
Throughout high school and college, we were always encouraged to “show our work”. Some courses offered partial marks for the method although the final answer may have been wrong. The opportunities for learning here however are greater than simply determining the student’s comprehension of the subject material. To the contrary, it also offers an opportunity for the teacher to understand why the student failed to comprehend the subject matter and to determine whether the method used to teach the material could be improved.
Showing the work also demonstrates where the process break down occurred. A wrong answer could have been due to a complete misunderstanding of the material or the result of a simple mis-entry on a calculator. Why and how we make our decisions is just as important to understanding our expectations.
While the latter situations may be more typical of a macro level benchmark, I suggest that similar checks and balances occur even at the micro level. As mentioned in the premise, some decisions may even be autonomous (snap decisions). Examples of these decisions are public statements that all too often require an apology after the fact. The sentiments for doing so usually include, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know what I was thinking.” I am always amazed to learn that we may even fail to keep ourselves informed of what we’re thinking sometimes.