One at a time please

knivesI had an interesting conversation with my youngest son yesterday after dinner. Mum had cooked (a wonderful meal I should add…if she ever reads this), so it was up to me and my boys to wash and dry the carnage left behind.

I washed. I always do the sharp knives first – a touch of OCD according to my wife. There were a number of knives to wash.

No. 2 son picks up the first knife from the draining board, dries it and puts it on the side waiting for the second knife.

  • Dad:“why haven’t you put that away in the knife block?”; 
  • Son: “because I’m waiting for the other knives first”;
  • Dad: “why are you doing that?”
  • Son: “because it will be quicker!” (said in a tone of amazement at the apparent stupidity of my question)
  • Dad: “why will it be quicker?” 
  • Son: “because I will only have to walk over to the knife block once – duh!”

I let it pass, and carried on to see what happened. Here’s what I observed:

  • He put the dry knife down on a dirty surface whilst it was waiting ‘in process’ – grrrr, needs washing again!;
  • He waited (doing nothing) whilst I was washing the next knife. He and his older brother usually have a tussle about the next object, it’s desirability for drying and therefore who’s picking it up…I’m sure there’s a situational comedy sketch in there for the likes of Eddie Izzard!;
  • He had created a pile (batch) of dried knives and then, somewhat dangerously, picked them all up and walked across the kitchen (bare foot), past his brother and I, and then tried to juggle them in his arms whilst attempting to slot them into the knife block;
  • He nearly killed his brother in the process….though I can’t be sure as to whether that was his intent.

The funny thing is that we all seem to think, instinctively, that doing things in batches is more efficient. We don’t seem to see all the problems that it can create.

Whenever we deal in batches, we have to:

  • create the batch;
  • handle the batch; and then
  • un-create the batch

…and, whilst this happens:

  • items ‘wait’ in the batch whilst its assembly and disassembly is completed;
  • defective items are masked until later in the process…at which point it is probably a problem for many, if not all, items in that batch;
  • the whole batch suffers (is held up) whilst the item problem(s) are resolved.

I read a similar example on the ‘Leanthinker’ blog recently. It is another nice, short illustrative demonstration of the point.

I also highly recommend the wonderful 1980’s HP video that does much to show the sense of reducing batch sizes. It’s in two circa. 15 min. parts: part 1, part 2 (for info: there is a short ‘part 3’ as well)

Toyota’s phenomenal success (and other Lean Enterprises) lies to a large part down to its focus on the flow of each individual item, rather than the (supposed) efficiency of each activity within the flow.

A reminder that batches take a number of forms: they might be quantitative (e.g. when a load is full) or, more commonly in service value streams, temporal (i.e. at a point in time, such as monthly, weekly or daily)

Let’s see if we can re-programme our brains from seeing batches as a good thing to seeing flow as the ultimate prize.

I’m sorry to say that, after my ‘knife-juggling son’ observations, I attempted to explain the above to him and was accused (as usual) of “giving him a lecture”. I saw his eyes roll back in his head, I can’t win! I think mum was happy though: she was oblivious to the major life lesson being attempted.

I’m right behind you…

man-309490_640How many times have you heard your hierarchical ‘superiors’* say “I’m right behind you” when you explain what you want to do/ are doing and ask for their support?

Is this where you want them?!

How many times have you said it to your ‘subordinates’*?

The following quote from Deming relates to management’s (obvious) stated desires to improve ‘their’ organisation:

It is not enough that top management commit themselves to quality and productivity. They must know what it is that they are committed to – that is, what they must do. These obligations cannot be delegated. Support is not enough: action is required…

…A quality program for an [organisation], launched by ceremonies with a speech by the [sponsor], raising of flags, beating of drums, badges, all with heavy applause, is a delusion and a snare.”

It’s not about support. In fact, as Deming’s last words above allude to, such support is often worse than none at all. It can create false expectations, cause misreporting and distortion, eventual disillusionment and witch hunts for ‘blame’…causing immeasurable damage.

I don’t want my ‘leader(s)’ behind me. In fact, I don’t want them in front of me, (heroically) telling me what to do. I want them with me, where we are working in partnership towards the purpose of the system.

But what about if ‘the leader’ is busy?

Well then, it can’t be that important then can it.

I love the words of William E Conway on this “…and if you can’t come, send nobody.”

Deming expanded on this by saying “In other words, if you don’t have time to do your job, there is not much that I can do for you.”

* …just in case you hadn’t worked it out: I hate the words ‘superiors’ and ‘subordinates’. I also hate the concept of a ‘boss’ and what it implies….I see all of us simply as people with roles to play within a system, for the overall good of our customers in respect of the purpose of the system. One of THE traits of a great leader is humility, such that people never feel like the leader thinks that they are anything more than them.

Benchmarking – worse than cheating

CheatingDo you remember back to your school days, and the scandalous crime of cheating by copying someone else’s work?

Why was school-boy (& girl) copying seen as such a sin?

  1. The most obvious reason in traditional education is that you are cheating the ‘grading’ system such that people will think you are ‘better’ than you (currently) are;
  2. But, what’s far worse is that you haven’t actually gone through the learning and development process, for yourself…which is what education should be about.

So why am I comparing and contrasting ‘benchmarking’ with school-boy copying? Let’s first look at a definition:

“Benchmarking: Managers compare the performance of their products or processes externally with those of competitors and best-in-class companies and internally with other operations within their own firms that perform similar activities.

The objective of Benchmarking is to find examples of superior performance and to understand the processes and practices driving that performance.

Companies then improve their performance by tailoring and incorporating these best practices into their own operations.” (from Bain & Co. website – a well regarded Management Consulting organisation selling its benchmarking services)

So, essentially Benchmarking is akin to deliberately (and usually openly) finding out who the best kids in the class are and then trying to copy them…with this being seen as a logical and acceptable thing to do. Business is clearly different to Education (right?)

A number of things strike me about this ‘benchmarking’ definition:

  • It assumes that, if I find someone with excellent ‘result metrics’ (in respect of what I chose to look for) then:
    • the metrics I see are true (undistorted) and tell the whole picture (e.g. cope with differing purposes, explain variation,…); and consequently that
    • I should be doing what they are doing…which implies that I can easily, correctly and completely unpick how they arrived at these results;
  • It is about managers looking for answers externally and, essentially, telling the workers which areas will change, and to what degree (commanding and controlling);
  • It is looking at what other organisations are doing rather than what the customer requires (wrong focus)…and likely constrains true innovation;
  • It focuses on component parts of the system, rather than the system as a whole (which will likely destroy value in the system);
  • It incorporates the related, and equally flawed, idea of ‘best practise’ (rather than understanding that, setting aside the above criticisms, there may be better practises but no such thing as perfection);

Sure, we should be aware of what other organisations, including our competitors, are doing for the good of their customers but attempting to copy them is far too simplistic (see my very first post re. ‘perspective’ ).

It is interesting to read what Jim Womack (et al at MIT) had to say about benchmarking after they spent many years studying the global car industry.

“…we now feel that benchmarking is a waste of time for managers that understand lean thinking. Benchmarkers who discover their ‘performance’ is superior to their competitors have a natural tendency to relax, whilst [those] discovering that their ‘performance’ is inferior often have a hard time understanding exactly why. They tend to get distracted by easy-to-measure or impossible-to-emulate differences in costs, scale or ‘culture’…

…our earnest advice…is simple: To hell with your competitors; compete against perfection…this is an absolute rather than a relative standard which can provide the essential North Star for any organisation. In its most spectacular application, it has kept the Toyota organisation in the lead for forty years.”

And to compete against perfection, you must first truly understand your own system:

“Comparing your organisation with anything is not the right place to start change. It will lead to unreliable conclusions and inappropriate or irrelevant actions. The right place to start change, if you want to improve, is to understand the ‘what and why’ of your current performance as a system.” (John Seddon)

Each organisation should have its own purpose, which attracts its own set of customers, who have their specific needs (which we need to constantly listen to)…, which then determine the absolute perfection we need to be continually aiming for.

You can see that, if we use benchmark metrics, we usually end up back with the Target/ Incentive game. We can expect distorted results and ‘wrong’ behaviours.

The real point – Experimentation and learning: Now you might respond “okay, so we won’t benchmark on result metrics…but surely we should be benchmarking on the methods being used by others?”

The trouble with this goes back to the 2nd, and most consequential, ‘sin’ of school boy copying – if you copy another’s method, you won’t learn and you won’t develop.

“We should not spend too much time benchmarking what others – including Toyota – are doing. You yourself are the benchmark:

  • Where are you now?
  • Where do you want to be next?
  • What obstacles are preventing you from getting there?

…the ability of your company to be competitive and survive lies not so much in solutions themselves, but in the capability of the people in your organisation to understand a situation and develop solutions. (Mike Rother)

When you ‘benchmark’ against another organisation’s methods you see their results and you (perhaps) can adequately describe what you see, but:

  • you don’t understand how they got to where they are currently at, nor where they will be able to get to next;
  • you are not utilising the brains and passion of your workers, to take you where they undeniably can if you provide the environment to allow them to do so.

…and, as a result, you will remain relatively static (and stale) despite what changes in method you copy.

“When you give an employee an answer, you rob them of the opportunity to figure it out themselves and the opportunity to grow and develop.” (John Shook)


ObsessionThere’s a word that seems to be overly used within many organisations, almost an obsession.

That word is ‘Culture‘. Indeed, they seem to have a culture of ‘being obsessed by the word culture’.

We hear the following phrases (or variants of):

  • We are measuring our culture
  • We need to change our culture
  • We have a culture committee
  • We are performing a culture-changing programme of work

So, here’s the thing – an organisation’s culture is a result, an outcome, just like its financial situation. As I wrote in one of my first posts, we shouldn’t be attempting to ‘manage by results’ (as in “let’s change our culture”), we need to manage the causes of the results…and the results will then look after themselves.

The culture of an organisation is the sum of the way people behave. The main cause of the culture is the management system in place. That management system reflects the beliefs and behaviours of the leaders of the organisation.

A reminder of a hugely important quote from John Seddon:

“People’s behaviour is a product of their system. It is only by changing [the system] that we can expect a change in behaviour.”

i.e. we can do all sorts to ‘require’ people to change how they behave (in an attempt to change the culture), but if we continue to apply the command and control management instruments ‘on’ them, such as:

  • management by hierarchical opinion rather than facts at the Gemba;
  • cascaded personal objectives;
  • setting of arbitrary numeric targets;
  • dictating methodologies and tools to use;
  • contingent rewards; and
  • the rating and ranking of people

…then we can’t expect much to really change.

No end of people ‘attitude’ targets, incentives, evidence gathering and rewards will change the system. Instead, we can expect such a system to derive distorted ‘attitude’ metrics – “I will likely tell you what you want to hear if it benefits me to do so.”

Interestingly, whenever I’ve worked in an organisation with a really good environment, the ‘culture’ (outcome) word was seldom mentioned – it didn’t need to be.

So, whilst we’re considering the ‘Culture’ word, what about the ‘Transformation’ word?

Here’s a definition to ponder:

Transformation: In an organisational context, a process of profound and radical change that orients an organisation in a new direction and takes it to an entirely different level of effectiveness….transformation implies a basic change of character and little or no resemblance with the past configuration or structure.”

Many organisation’s use the word ‘transformation’ a lot, and perform major organisational change a lot…but unless that change has succeeded in delivering an entirely different level of effectiveness, then they’ve only really been ‘rearranging the deck chairs’.

Conversely, if an organisation changes its management system (which would be truly transformational!) then culture change is free.

If an organisation truly operates a ‘systems thinking’ management system then it should result in a powerful culture capable of continuously improving, through the people who work there…with no need for endless attempts at ‘transformation’.

Oh no, not that old theory!

9365403Most of us who have been on some form of management course will likely have heard of ‘Theory X and Theory Y Management’. You may groan and say “oh no, not that old theory…I’ve never used it for anything” or “you’re a bit behind the times…we’ve all moved on since then!”

The more I look back at the early work on management, the more I believe that they contain profound foundations for what has come since. Let me explain.

A short history lesson (taken from Scholtes ‘The Leaders Handbook’ and Handy’s ‘Understanding Organisations’):

  • Douglas McGregor’s father and grandfather were ministers;
  • His grandfather founded a homeless shelter in Detroit during the 1930s depression;
  • A young Douglas worked in the shelter alongside his father and grandfather.

Douglas and his father held very different views on the people they assisted, something that they would argue about.

  • His father held negative views towards the unemployed and homeless, considering them shifty and lazy etc;
  • Conversely, Douglas considered the poor to be no different from others, just that they were simply down on their luck and victims of a terrible economic situation.

As Douglas grew older, his thinking evolved into his famous 1960s articulation of Theory X and Theory Y assumptions about workers.

Theory X:

  1. The average human being has a natural dislike of work, and will work as little as possible;
  2. He/she lacks ambition, wishes to avoid responsibility and prefers to be led;
  3. He/she is by nature resistant to change but is gullible and not very bright;

Because of these characteristics, most people must be coerced, controlled, directed or threatened so as to modify their behaviours to fit the needs of the organisation.

The above might be said to require a ‘command and control’ style of management.

Theory Y:

  1. The expenditure of physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest;
  2. People will exercise self-direction and self-control in the service of objectives to which they are committed;
  3. The motivation, potential for development, capacity to assume responsibility, and readiness to direct behaviour towards organisational goals, are all present in people;
  4. The capacity to exercise a relatively high degree of imagination, ingenuity and creativity towards organisational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.

It is the responsibility of management to arrange the conditions and methods of operation so that people can achieve their own goals best by directing their own efforts in alignment with the purpose of the organisation.

The above matches the teachings of W Edwards Deming and what has been labelled a ‘Systems Thinking’ management system.

The point: McGregor was NOT writing about two different types of people. His theory was about two sets of assumptions made about people.

We can see that this will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If management apply Theory X assumptions to their people (commanding and controlling them), then they can expect to see Theory X behaviours in return. This is cause and effect.

People are not, by nature, passive or resistant to working towards the organisation’s purpose. They have become so as a result of the management system that they experience.

Conversely, if management provides an environment that allows systems thinking, collaboration, interesting work content and choice through self direction, then we can expect Theory Y assumptions to become a reality.

A clarification: Theory Y still requires a clear sense of organisational direction (purpose) and systemic structure (though not necessarily hierarchical).

As an aside:

  • I always see a flaw in Theory X assumptions. It requires manager and worker to be two different sub-species of human beings. Otherwise the theory is disproved by contradiction – if, for example, people don’t like responsibility but managers do, then they can’t be the same human variety!;
  • Conversely, I see that Theory Y fits with one human genus. It works no matter where you are positioned within an organisation’s system.

Actions speak louder than words: Now, you will likely say “…but leaders always talk about their ‘Theory Y’ assumptions”….and, yes, I realise that this is so…this is what they (rightly) think the people want to hear.

But are their actions the opposite? What about the management instruments of cascaded personal objectives, arbitrary numeric targets , contingent rewards , and the rating and ranking of people’s ‘performance’.

A subtle, yet massive implication: If leaders use carrots and/or sticks then they are subscribing to Theory X assumptions about their people….otherwise carrots and sticks would make no sense.

A thought-provoking quote from Scholtes:

“Behind incentive programs lies management’s patronising and cynical set of assumptions about workers….Managers imply that their workers are withholding a certain amount of effort, waiting for it to be bribed out of them.”

The Devil Incarnate

the devilThe scene: 

We’d been talking about it all week – that ‘big game’ banter. It’s an important year, it’s an important game, it’s a massive rivalry and a cauldron of passion and emotion….and we had die hard supporters of both sides – this was going to be massive! Even better, it was a Friday night game meaning it was a 9 a.m. kick off in New Zealand, live on Sky 1. Get in! Thank you (wo)man in the Sky!

What on earth am I writing about? I’m talking about Wales vs. England in a sell out Millennium Stadium to open up the Six Nations Rugby Tournament in 2015 England World Cup year.

We’d got it all worked out. Four families all going round to Stu’s (biggest screen – obvious choice!). Mostly England fans but pockets of Welsh resistance within.

We were going to do a full English* Breakfast fry up at the end, and the shopping list had been divided up and bought. It was going to be an epic post match feed. (* an omen perhaps?!)

We get to Stu’s at 08:30, and stack the breakfast goodies in the kitchen – tonnes of bacon, sausages, eggs, hash browns, tins of baked beans, mushrooms to fry, bread for toast, (exotic) corn fritters….and so on. Jonesy had even remembered the HP sauce – good man!

H had already got the tea pot on for a brew.

Stu’s got the TV on and is playing with the remote.

Stu: “eh? It’s not showing on the sky listing anymore!” said in an uncertain and shaky voice “it was there the other day. What the hell’s going on?!”

Me: “perhaps it’s moved over to the Rugby channel.”

Stu: “erm, no, not on Rugby channel or ESPN”….losing his composure a bit “…what the @#$% is going on.”

Me: “Have we got the right day?”to which I receive a stern look.

In walks Paul with 5 mins. to go before kickoff. He’s a bit more ‘techy’ than Stu and I (which isn’t hard): “use ‘Sky GO’ and stream it live.”

Now, picture the scene….we’ve got:

  • Stu doing the comedy typing thing on an (allegedly) SMART TV – trying to speed type website addresses, user names, passwords etc. with a TV remote control. If you’ve ever tried it you will know how frustrating it is;
  • Jonesy texting his mates up in Auckland to see if they are having the same troubles and trying to work out alternative methods of obtaining the holy grail of live rugby;
  • Paul trying to find a number to ring Sky…looks all over website, can’t find one (why do they make it so hard to have a 2-way interaction with them!)…finds a number….on hold, clearly very busy at the movement….wonder why!!
  • Me being as much use as a chocolate fire guard….but offering lots of helpful suggestions (I thought they were). H was keeping me supplied with tea to calm my nerves;
  • The ladies in the kitchen surveying the mountain of food and wondering how on earth we’ll eat it all. (We will);
  • Loads of kids in various states: some desperate to watch the rugby, some running riot around the house.

We tried all sorts of internet sites, including Sky Go: all the genuine ones said that we couldn’t view it from New Zealand; a number of dodgy sites requested credit card details – Stu did really well and resisted. Jonesy was willing to pay with the shirt off his back but we protected him from himself.

Finally, after over an hour of trying (i.e. the 2nd half had already started) we all reached that point when, looking around the room and seeing the pain in our comrades eyes, we admitted defeat. We weren’t going to get to watch the rugby live.

But NO, Jonesy wasn’t having this…he wasn’t going to let Sky get away with this – they were playing with people’s lives….he was going to ring that number and wait to talk to someone no matter what it took! His rationale was that they needed to know how we felt, they needed to know what they had done, they needed our feedback else how can they improve.

So he rings the 0800 number…and he waits…and he waits…and he waits.

The music comes on, he puts it on loud speaker so that we can all enjoy, thanks Jonesy – all heart.

And then, after 10 minutes of waiting, it happens – the computer talks to us:

“Thank you for your patience. Because your call is important to us we have increased your priority in the queue.”

Oh man, that really set me off. If they knew there was a Steve ‘button to press’, they had found it! (I even wrote down the exact words so I could write this post).

What does their message even mean! The first sentence is okay…the second part?????

How have they increased our priority in the queue?

How is this any different to a ‘first in, first served’ priority that we should all expect as normal decency?

How do they know that we should be of a higher priority – they don’t know who we are or what we want (yet).

These words are worse than throw away…they are infuriating, treating the human being (the customer) as some low intelligence life form who is expected to be pleased, puppy-like, with the words “you are important so we’ve bumped you up the queue.”

Important? No we’re not – if we were important you would have spare capacity in your contact centre so that you could answer your calls!

Bumped up the queue? No you haven’t – we are in the exact same place as before, only now we’ve been waiting longer whilst you’ve been attempting to answer all those calls above us!

Now, just to finish this up:

  • we heard that lovely message a further four times in the 20 minutes we waited. Fat good that increase in priority did!
  • Jonesy did get to have his rant at the call centre agent: I thought Jonesy was very restrained considering. He’s a nice polite English man;
  • we turned the TV off and consoled ourselves with cooking one humungous breakfast…’comfort food’ if you will…and it was good;
  • Stu wandered around the house, dazed, a broken man, looking a shadow of his former self;
  • we all spent the day with our fingers in our ears so that no one could tell us the score…and then reconvened in the evening to watch the replay;
  • ….consolation: England won!!! (commiserations to my Welsh friends)

So, what’s the point?

There’s a couple:

  1. Any company that plays at the customer service game (i.e. that doesn’t actually get it) thinks/acts as if the customer need starts with the customer attempting to make contact with them. In reality, the customer’s need can start hours, days, even weeks earlier. So much so that when that customer hears ‘that message’ it is soooo much more than a simple computer message…it is the devil!
  2. A computer message might be helpful…but it can also be incredibly harmful! Words that sound like marketing spin or, even worse, like you think your customer is a bit dim, are very likely to wind your customer right up, so much so that the poor customer service agent then has to spend some of that precious ‘handling time’ bringing them back down again!

We should be really careful about the use of those computer thingys when attempting to serve our customers.


5325139336_871c2e57b4“We trained hard – but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganised.

I was to learn later in life we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation.” (Petronius Arbiter, 65 A.D.)

Now, this isn’t suggesting that there isn’t a need to reorganise every now and then. It does signal the folly and pain of continual reorganisations dictated ‘from above’.

Another quote helps to put reorganisation into perspective:

“As tempting as it sometimes seem, you cannot reorganise your way to continuous improvement and adaptiveness. What is decisive is not the form of your organisation, but how people act and react.

The roots of Toyota’s success lie not in its organisation structures, but in developing capability and habits in its people. Anything unique about Toyota’s organisation structures…evolved out of them striving for specific behaviour patterns, not the other way around.” (Mike Rother)

i.e. develop the right environment, and a suitable structure will evolve….not the other way around!

It is far far better that you provide an environment in which:

  • the purpose of the system is clear (to you and those who perform it);
  • any/all ‘contingent reward’ management instruments have been removed;
  • your people are provided with visible measures of the capability of their system* (against its purpose); and
  • are allowed and encouraged to experiment with changes to their system, whilst observing the effects on its capability.

(* this is NOT numeric activity targets!)

In this way, it will be the people who will consider whether a change to the form of the current organisation is a valid countermeasure to experiment with and, from studying the outcome, whether to adopt, adapt or disregard this change.

The difference between:

  • management imposing a reorganisation on its people; and
  • the people suggesting, and trying, a change that will likely improve their system

… is the difference between chalk and cheese.

Proud…and excited!

businessman-432663_640The Oxford Dictionary defines the meaning of the word ‘proud’ as:

“Feeling deep pleasure or satisfaction as a result of one’s own achievements, qualities, or possessions or those of someone with whom one is closely associated”

i.e. If you are ‘proud’, it is essentially about yourself, even if it is about the actions of others that is making you feel proud.

What compelled me to look up this definition?

…because I find myself with feelings of (almost sub-conscious) irritation when I hear or read about leaders feeling ‘proud’ about what ‘their people’ have achieved (essentially for them) and I wanted to understand why I should feel this way…it was bugging me.

It seems obvious now that I have studied the dictionary definition.  For someone who isn’t, say, your parent to say “I am proud of you” is condescending. It suggests superiority.

It happens to be a phrase used often by command-and-control leadership towards their people.

I’m not really getting at the leaders who write or say it – they are trying to do their best to use ‘happy talk’ because they think this is good for us.  I am trying to point out to them the lack of humility and respect shown by using the word in their congratulatory phrases.

And ‘excited’? This is the other half of the dastardly duo. They always want to come across as ‘excited’ about what lies ahead in the vain hope that this will simply ‘rub off’ onto us….because, after all, that’s all that is necessary to motivate, isn’t it?

If you read an email, or watch a video (as I did) before the Christmas/ New Year breakup from your ‘leaders’ saying something like:

 “I’m proud of what we’ve achieved this year, in spite of the many challenges we’ve been through…and I am very excited about the opportunities ahead of us next year and what we can achieve….so have a relaxing break.”

…this could equally be translated as saying:

  • I am pleased that those of you who are still around (who didn’t leave or weren’t pushed) have put up with what we’ve done to you this year, and I got my bonus on the back of this….
  • …expect lots more stuff to be done to you next year (we’ve got loads of stuff in our heads to impose on you), and we will be holding you accountable for a set of stretching targets on brilliantly crafted personal objectives that will be SMART DUMB
  • Have a good break…because you are going to need it!