So my son had some school exams and this post was triggered from a conversation I had with him just afterwards:
I expect all of you can cast your minds back to school and if you’ve got teenagers then, like me, you will also be sharing their experiences.
Picture the following scenario:
- You’ve studied for, let’s say, a maths exam1;
- You’ve spent 2 long hours sat on an uncomfortable school chair, whilst being watched by the beady eyes of the maths teacher (who was actually asleep), and have just emerged from the exam hall;
- You and your mates fall straight into discussing the trauma that you’ve just been through:
“What did you put for question 4?”
“Oh [beep], I hadn’t realised it was about that! I wrote about [something else that was completely irrelevant to the question]”
“Could you work out the pattern in that sequence of numbers?…’Fibonacci’ who?”
“What do you mean there were more questions over the page?!!!”
…and so on.
What you will notice is that they are all ‘switched on’ in the moment, whether they ‘enjoyed’ the exam or not. They really want to know what the answers were and how they did against them!
The after’math’ 🙂
So, next day, they have double-maths…whoopee!
The Students all plead together: “Sir, Sir, Sir…have you marked our exam yet?”
Teacher: “Whoa, hold your horses, I’ve barely sat down! I’ll do it as soon as I can.”
…and the students engage in yet more chatter about the exam but their memory of the exam is beginning to fade.
At the end of the week, they have maths again:
The majority of Students: “Sir, Sir, Sir…have you marked our exam yet?”
Teacher: “No, not yet, I’ll do it over the weekend.”
…much less chatter now. They have forgotten most of it.
So, now it’s the following week and maths:
A few keen Students: “Sir, have you marked our exam yet?”
Teacher: “Sorry, no, I’ve been writing reports so I haven’t got around to it yet. I’ll definitely do it by the end of this week.”
…the mood has changed. The content of the exam has been forgotten and so, instead, they fall back to merely wanting to know a score.
End of week 2 maths lesson:
One diligent Student: “Sir, have you marked our exam yet?”
Teacher: “Yes I have! I’ll read out the marks” and the marks are duly read out to the class, which brings out the whole spectrum of emotions (from feelings of elation to tears of despair, with a healthy dose of indifference in between).
That diligent Student again: “…but Sir, can I have my marked exam paper back?”
Teacher: “Erm, yes…I haven’t got them with me now…I’ll bring them in next week.”
What do we think about this?
We all know that by far the best thing to do for effective learning to take place is to mark this exam, get the marked papers back to the students and then go through the paper to explain and then discuss it question-by-question…and to do all of this As Soon As Possible.
(… and I know that this is what all good teachers will try to do)
We can see that:
- There is a human desire for immediate and meaningful feedback, which quickly dissipates over time;
- An overall score (the result), whilst potentially providing some useful indicative data, cannot help with learning – you can feel emotions from receiving a score but you can’t improve. Instead, you need to know about the method (or, in this exam scenario, each question);
“We don’t learn from our mistakes, we learn from thinking about our mistakes” (Ralph Tyler, Educator)
- There is little point in just the teacher knowing the current capability of each of their students. Each student should be very clear on this for themselves.
So, to organisations:
The above might seem blindingly obvious and a world away from work but every day we all carry out actions and interactions within value-streams for the good of our customers…and the usual buzz phrase uttered at regular intervals is ‘we want to continuously improve!‘…but do we provide ourselves with what we need to do so?
Think of the richly varied units of customer demand that we* strive to satisfy as analogous to the maths exam:
- (how) do we all know how we (really) did?
- (how) do we find this out quickly?
- (how) do we know what specifically went well and what didn’t?
- …and thus, (how) can we learn where to experiment and how this went?!
(* where ‘we’ refers to the complete team along the horizontal value stream)
There’s not much point in senior managers receiving a report at the end of the month that provides them with activity measures against targets and some misleading up/down arrows or traffic light colouring. Very little learning is going to occur from this…and, worse, perhaps quite a bit of damage!
…and when I say learning, I hope you understand that I am referring to meaningful changes being made that improve the effectiveness of the value stream at the gemba.
The value-creating people ‘at the gemba’:
The people who need the (relevant) measures are the people who manage and perform the work with, and for, the customer.
If the people who do the work don’t know how they are truly doing from the customer’s point of view then they are no different from the students who don’t have their marked exam papers back.
There should be no surprise if the workers are merely clocking in, turning the wheel, collecting their pay and going home again. It’s what people end up doing when they are kept in the dark….though they likely didn’t start out like this!
Senior Management may respond with “but we regularly hold meetings/ send out communications to share our financial results with them, and how they are doing against budget!”
- This gives people the wrong message! If you lead with, and constantly point at, the financials, you are telling people that the purpose of the system is profit, and NOT your stated ‘customer centric’ purpose;
- You can’t manage by financial results. This is an outcome – ‘read only’. You have to look at the causes of the results – the operational measures;
- …and as for budgets!!!
To repeat a hugely important John Seddon quote:
“Use operational measures to manage, and financial measures to keep the score”
I am championing what may be termed as ‘visual management’: being able to easily see and understand what is happening, in customer terms, where the work is done.
A whopping big caution
However, ‘visual management’ should have a whopping big warning message plastered all over its box, that people would have to read before undoing the clasps and pushing back the lid…because visual management works for whatever you put up on the wall!
If you put up a visual display of how many calls are waiting or how long your current call has taken or a league table of how many sales each member of your team has made or….etc. etc. etc. people WILL see it and WILL react….and you won’t like the dysfunctional behaviours that they feel compelled to engage in!
So, rather than posting activity measures and people’s performance comparisons, what do the value creating people need to know? Well, put simply, they need to know how their system is operating over time, towards its purpose.
Here’s what John Seddon says about the operational measures that should be “integrated with the work: In other words they must be in the hands of the people who do the work. This is a prerequisite for the development of knowledge and, hence, improvement.
- Demand: what are the types and frequencies of demands that customers place on the system? What is the predictability of failure demands and value demands?
- Flow: what is the capability of the system to handle demands in one-stop transactions? Where a customer demand needs to go through a flow, what is the capability of that flow, measured in customer terms?
…in both cases we need to know the extent of variation – by revealing variation we invite questioning of its causes. By acting on2 the causes, we improve performance.”
A final thought: This blog has often said “don’t copy manufacturing because Service is different!“ But gemba walks through a well run ‘Lean thinking’ factory floor may very well assist your understanding of what is meant by good visual management. No, I’m not saying ‘copy what you see’…I’m suggesting that you might understand how a well run value stream has a physical place alongside the gemba where its participants gather and collaborate against a background of what they are currently achieving (their current condition) and what experiments they are working on to improve towards some future target condition.
To close – A shameless segue:
So I’ve been writing this blog for nearly 2 years…and I know many people read it…but I don’t get much feedback3.
If you have read, and accept the thinking within this post, you will understand that this limited feedback ensures that I am somewhat ‘in the dark’ as to how useful my writings are for you.
I do know that people see/ open my posts…but I don’t know too much more:
- you might read the title or first few lines of a post, yawn, and go and do something else;
- you might get half way through and not understand what on earth I am rambling on about;
- you might read to the end and violently disagree with some or all of what I’ve written;
but…and here’s the punch line, how would I know? 🙂
- It’s clearly a totally separate, and MUCH bigger question as to whether taking exams is good for learning – I’m aware that many educators think otherwise. The genesis of this post merely comes from my son’s exam reality. Just for clarity: I’m not a fan of the ‘top-down standards and constant testing’ movement.
- Seddon writes ‘acting on’, NOT ‘removing’ the causes of variation. The aim is not to standardise demand in a service offering…because you will fail: the customer comes in ‘customer shaped’. The aim is to understand each customer’s nominal value and absorb it within your system as best you can…and continue to experiment with, and improve how you can do this.
- A big thanks to those of you that do provide me with feedback!….and I’m most definitely not criticising those that don’t comment – I’m just saying that I have a very limited view on how I am performing against my purpose…just like many (most?) people within their daily work lives.