Gemba Walking: A ‘how to’ guide

Gemba basicsThis is a quick guide I wrote to explain: what is meant by ‘Gemba walking’; who should do this and why; and how to go about doing them (regularly!).

It is a detailed follow-up to an introductory post I wrote some five years ago (called ‘Meet the process’).

The What:

‘Gemba’ is a Japanese word meaning ‘the actual place’.

In service organisations1, this is likely to mean the front line, where the value is (or should be) created for the customer.

Gemba can be thought of as four actions:

  • Go to the actual work place;
  • See the actual work in process;
  • Observe what is happening; and
  • Collect the actual data.

It is fundamentally about working with facts (evidence) obtained in the work, rather than discussing opinions derived away from the work.

A Gemba walk would be to follow an initial customer demand being placed on the system all the way through to its conclusion (i.e. the proper resolution of the customer’s need) and observing (in detail2) everything that happens in between.

The Who and Why:

Anyone and everyone in a management position3 (all the way up to the CEO and the board) should be regularly going to the Gemba, to find out what happens and why.

“Most leaders’ assumptions about what is happening on a day-to-day basis really don’t align with what is actually taking place!” [Michael Bremer].

Put simply, managers should be managing based on what is actually happening. To go to the Gemba and really look is to open one’s eyes to reality!

The need for regularity in Gemba walking is that:

  • it takes time for those in hierarchical positions to establish trust with those working at the front line (such that the people believe you are there to help, rather than judge, them);
  • there is great variety within customer demands and, in order to understand this, you need to observe many different customers; and
  • if changes are being made (as is nearly always the case), you need to be going back to see the effect (i.e. is it better? worse? no different?)

The How

The following is meant as a generic guide:

Create the ability to visit the work – talk with the site management, and whomever will be supervising on that day. Set them at their ease as to why you want to visit.

Once there, understand what customer demands are being handled.

Engineer your ability to (respectfully5) sit alongside employees who will be handling customer demands.

Introduce yourself to the employee – explain what you are wanting to do, and why. Set them at their ease. Discuss that you are interested in understanding:

  • what the customer is asking for and/or needs – and why;
  • how the organisational system responds; and
  • what makes it hard (or impossible) for the employee to be able to help the customer

Listen and observe – take good clear notes.

Don’t interfere in the work – no tinkering or attempts at instructing/ advising/coaching. Let it happen as if you hadn’t been there.

Talk to the employee after the customer interaction has ended (perhaps walk through what you observed, asking any clarifying questions6) – demonstrate that you have not been making judgements about them.

Provide the opportunity for the employee to reflect on the customer interaction – help them think about the customer purpose and how the organisation responded.

Summarise your key findings.

Repeat until you see patterns in your findings.

Discuss your findings with site management such that they are pleased you came and would welcome you again.

Do something about what you found! (though see clarification 4 below).

Clarification 1: ‘Meet the process’ vs. ‘Meet the people’

Senior Managers may consider that they regularly go out to sites and that, in doing this, they are already ‘going to the Gemba’. However, there is a huge difference between going to sites to:

  • meet the people; and
  • encounter what’s actually happening

A typical management site visit would be to meet people when they aren’t dealing with customers, and ask these people questions along the lines of ‘how are things going?’

This is a very poor, and typically misleading, approach to understanding the work.

Conversely, if managers sit with people whilst they perform the work, the meeting between manager and worker is a healthy by-product. It is also more likely to allow ‘conversations between equals’ (i.e. remove hierarchy as a barrier).

Clarification 2: Mindset

The point of Gemba Walking is to find things to improve, NOT to hope that all is working according to expectations.

The mindset is to look for opportunities for improvement. It is completely unrealistic to suppose that everything is going wonderfully. It won’t be. Rather than being disappointed that all is not going as desired and/or as ‘instructed’, be thankful that you’ve found out what’s actually happening and can now facilitate doing something useful about this.

Clarification 3: Surveys aren’t ‘in the work’

You can’t understand how the work works (or why it is like this) from performing surveys. You can (perhaps) gain some idea of the outcomes that the work created from surveying people afterwards but even this is likely to be limited, biased and muted (Ref. my earlier posts on ‘Net Promoter Score’).

The place to understand is in the work.

Clarification 4: Making improvements

When you go to the Gemba you will notice lots of things – many (most) that have been hidden from you.

You may want to rush off and make changes! However, if you act in this way:

  • you will likely be swamped with things to do;
  • you will have taken ownership of them (and away from the people in the work); and
  • you risk acting in a component (rather than systemic) way

For each thing you notice, the need is to work with the people to ascertain:

  • what the people can own – and your role is to help them develop the capability to improve their own work (and how they would know if it is an improvement); and
  • what is systemic and therefore out of their direct control – and your role is to champion the bigger changes for them.

Footnotes

1. In Manufacturing, Gemba is likely to mean the factory floor.

2. Re. in detail: “It should take you [Management] hours to walk 100 metres each time you enter the factory [i.e. the work place]. If it takes you no time at all…that means no one is relying on you.”[Taiichi Ohno]

3. Re. regularity: If you are sat in a management meeting and aren’t regularly going to the Gemba, then what on earth are you talking about?!

4. The word Gemba: Another (and perhaps more correct) way to refer to what is being meant when we use the word ‘Gemba’ is (as I understand it) Genchi Genbutsu – meaning ‘the real location, the real thing’.

5. You will need to understand the nature of the customer interaction and what is most appropriate. There is a difference between listening to a telephone call and observing a face-to-face meeting. The need is to be able to see and understand what happens without getting in the way/ affecting the interaction.

6. All your questions should be about ‘why’ and not about ‘who’.

Emotions in fancy dress

Fancy dressI published a post last week for the first time in ages.  In so doing, I stumbled across a graveyard of half-written posts (the kernel of an idea comes easily to me, making this relevant and coherent does not). I’ll see if I can finish a few more posts – here’s another. It starts with a quote:

“…opinions are bad things.

By opinions I do not mean ideas, and I do not mean thought. An opinion is rarely born of thought. Instead it arrives fully formed in a head. Opinions are…almost always emotion in fancy dress. They can be inherited, or they can spring from fears or desires, but they are never right.

Yet look how ferociously, how indefatigably, people cling to their opinions in the face of a flood of evidence that those opinions are at best questionable, and more likely mere dump fodder.

Look at the intransigent folly of so much politics. Look at the nonsense that passes for political debate….if you want to take part in this contest you are required to join a team and in order to join a team you have to have a packaged set of opinions.

Where do these opinions come from? Are they arrived at by rational analysis? If so, and if reason is reason, how come they differ? But opinions are not reasonable.

We are emotional creatures in an irrational world. Anyone who holds opinions is wrong and dangerous…The only comfortable seat for a thinking human being is a fence.

…and that’s my opinion.” (Joe Bennett1)

Joe’s article (from which the quote is pulled) brings a broad smile to my face. I absolutely love the penultimate line. In the societies that I have known (the UK, and to a lesser extent NZ) the phrase ‘sitting on the fence’ is often (i.e. normally) used as an insult – and yet this has always irritated me. I often find myself sitting on the proverbial fence…because I feel that I don’t know enough to pass judgement.

I don’t see this as a bad thing.  Whenever I find myself in a ‘fencing-sitting’ scenario, it suggests that:

  1. I shouldn’t be giving an opinion (no matter how hard I am pushed to do so)….since I clearly feel that I don’t know enough; and
  2. I could do with learning some more.

I see the ‘I’m fence-sitting’ circumstance as a useful realisation because, if I care about the issue in focus, then it should trigger me into putting some effort into ‘digging in’, to uncover facts, to appreciate perspectives, to see the bigger picture. In so doing, I am highly likely to move to a new (and more productive) place.

Merely having an opinion and sticking to it is likely to keep me anchored rigidly to the spot, as if stuck at the bottom of a deep lake in a pair of concrete boots.

A likely critique:

“But you’d never get anywhere Steve! You’d be forever stuck, like a broken record.”

I would suggest the opposite.

‘Not having opinions’ doesn’t have to mean staying meekly silent. Rather, it implies entering and sustaining an open-minded dialogue. This would require skillfully setting out:

  • what you think you know, and why;
  • what you are uncertain of, and why; and
  • what you understand as clear holes in your knowledge.

…and thus collaborating with others who can perhaps expand the group’s (never to be complete) jigsaw of knowledge.

Further, ‘not having opinions’ does not mean ‘not making decisions’. Rather, it means using facts to make decisions, and investing in the (hugely rewarding) effort of collecting facts before doing so.

If you feel that you don’t know, well go and find out some more!

We’d probably move away from ‘implementing ideologies’ (going fast to go slow) to ‘experimenting with hypotheses’ and making adjustments as we learn (going slow to go fast).

…but that’s just my opinion 😊.

On ‘going and find out more’

‘Finding out more’ doesn’t mean canvasing other people’s opinions or biasing your search for ‘evidence’ to that which supports your opinion. It means going to the ‘coal face’, observing reality (and the variation within), collecting the evidence for yourself and reflecting on what it is telling you.

A nice quote I heard the other day from a colleague:

“If you haven’t observed, you can’t talk”.

Now, that’s quite a bold and (perhaps blanket) statement, but there’s a rather important point within.

If we are not (yet) in a position to be able to observe (i.e. gain primary evidence) then I’d suggest that we should listen very carefully to those that have.

Linkages

I recognise that this short post may be questioned by many, since opinions are (rightly or wrongly) a huge part of life.

I’ve written a number of earlier posts in this space and if you’d like to play with the idea further, here are a few to look at:

Addendum

Take ‘Brexit’ as an example (the idea of Britain leaving the European Union).

Who’s got a strongly held opinion regarding Brexit? I’d suggest millions of people.

Who can (really) say that they fully understand what is being proposed and what will transpire? I’d suggest maybe a handful of ‘experts’…and even these will likely be wide of the mark.

…and with that thought, who will move onto the fence, to stop pushing their opinion and, instead, spend some real effort to further try to understand? Perhaps not so many.

‘Fence sitting’, at least while you are (meaningfully) learning, is a most excellent place to be.

Conversely, who’s dug into themselves, to think about the emotions that are answerable for driving their opinions? (Inherited from their parents? Created by their fears? Constructed from their cravings?…)

A reminder that Joe wrote that Opinions are…almost always emotion in fancy dress”.

What costume(s) are you (and I) wearing? Why?

Footnote

1. Joe Bennett is a most excellent writer of short, insightful, challenging (usually contrarian) articles that are published weekly in our local newspaper (‘The Press’) here in Christchurch New Zealand. https://www.joebennett.nz/

“Sir, Sir, Sir…have you marked it yet?!”

class with hands upSo 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.

hamster wheelThere 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;

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

caution signHowever, ‘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.

  • 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? 🙂

Notes:

  1. 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.  
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

“We have an ‘open door’ policy here!”

Translation:

  • You are quite welcome to come up to me, and try to get my attention….otherwise you will be completely ignored;
  • If you do ‘risk it’ and open your mouth, just make sure that you say something I want to hear;
    • Every problem you have is your fault by default…so already know what you are going to do about it – you should merely be asking for my permission (as in begging);
    • …which I won’t give (at least not clearly or straight away or in any timescale that is of use to you)…but I will still hold you accountable.
  • Conversely, if I want you, I will summon you through my ‘open door’ and into my domain as and when I wish (I won’t pick up the phone or come to you).

Open door policy.gif

Meanwhile, in another Universe: Managers Leaders ‘go to the Gemba’.

A Pet Hate of Mine

screamSo, probably once a year throughout my career (mmm, that’s a grandiose word), I have been invited to an annual Corporate ‘road show’ type event at which the current ‘leader’ stands on stage and holds forth for up to an hour on ‘their vision’ for us – the gaggle of employees corralled together before them.

Over my 20 years of such ‘fun’ I’ve seen all sorts of performers and heard all sorts of visions. Some good, many mediocre, some bad.

But a pet hate of mine is how they usually start off.

Picture the scene. The VIP is standing in the wings, waiting to come on and another (slightly less hierarchically) important person has the job of introducing them onto the stage.

…and what do these ‘introducers’ always seem to say? Something like this…

“we are all very lucky to have [insert name of important person] here with us today…s/he has freed up his/her extremely important time in order to be with us…so put your hands together in appreciation for [  ]”

And I always want to SCREAM!

Now obviously each announcer uses their own personal wording but it’s usually around:

  • us ‘being lucky’: as if we are worshippers at the VIPs altar; and
  • they (the VIP) having ‘freed up’ their time to be here, as if they have far more important things to be doing than to be talking to us.

A refreshing change

I was lucky enough 🙂 for the first CEO of my working life to be intelligent/ humble/ astute enough to realise the huge error in the above.

The first time John was introduced it was just as above. But he shot up on to the stage, put his hands out and asked us to stop.

He then made clear that we were not lucky that he was ‘before us’, that there was nothing ‘more important’ that he should be doing and that he should be thanking us for coming along and listening to what he hoped to say.

He recognised that he had to earn his ‘leader’ moniker by:

  • gaining (and retaining) our respect and trust; and
  • motivating us to want to follow him for ourselves

His mild (yet respectful) rebuke of the person that had introduced him ensured that I saw him speak many more times (because I wanted to) and, subsequent to that first time, no-one introduced him other than to ask us to give him a warm welcome…which we should give to anyone (and which ‘leaders’, in turn, should want to give all of us back).

I was never asked again to feel lucky about seeing him speak. Nice!

“Stop being so puerile Steve!”

Now you might read the above and think that I am a truly awkward and prickly bugger (and you might be right) but the fact is that:

  • the ‘VIP’ wants us to listen to them because they want our help in achieving their aim of a successful organisation; and
  • we have our own personal purpose and it is up to us to work out if and how it fits with what this VIP is putting forward to us – we can’t be made to love the words coming out of their mouths (though many of us can be bribed to comply)

To conclude – How to avoid my pet hate:

Please don’t ever tell me that I am lucky that you (or one of your associates) came before me and I was lucky that I heard you speak! Thanks….and I won’t presume the same of you 🙂

It’s my job to listen, consider and then make my own mind up, rather than be told that I should be grateful.

 

My 2nd pet hate at these events is the Q&A session near the end…but that’s another story!

 

Clarification: I am more than happy for such communication events to occur and, yes, I want to know what’s happening from the person charged with leading us but:

  • don’t use ‘happy talk’: treat me like an adult and tell me ‘warts and all’;
  • don’t attempt propaganda and corporate babble on me: this naively assumes that I don’t feel what’s really going on around me (which you, the VIP, are highly unlikely to truly know);
  • don’t think that, just because you said it, I agree with it and will embrace it; and finally but most importantly
  • don’t use 1-way corporate events and communications as substitutes for regular, respectful and meaningful 2-way ‘gemba walking’.

Talk-back radio

talkback-radio-2So I’m driving home from work in my car and I turn the radio on.

Damn, it’s one of those talk-back radio shows. You know the ones: the radio presenter seeds the show with a couple of emotive topics that are bound to wind up some sections of the population (those ‘for’ and those ‘against’) such that they are goaded into ringing in to robustly ‘tell us their view’.

I’m just about to change radio station when my subconscious tells me “no Steve, you should try to listen for a while.” And so my hand drops away from the controls and I settle in.

Things start okay. The presenter puts forward a clear articulation of a topic that we would obviously care about and invites people to call in to ‘assist him with the (supposedly) important task of unravelling the greyness within’. He waits a bit for the phone lines to warm up and then, yee-haw, we are off!

He takes call after call. I’m starting to get wound up by them…I’m not totally sure why, but I persevere.

Until, finally, one of the callers opens up with the following revealing words…and yes, this is the very first thing that came out of the caller’s mouth:

“I don’t know much about it but what I think is….”

Wow, I thought, that phrase just about says it all: “I don’t know much about it, but what I think is…” If you don’t know much about it then what makes your thinking credible, let alone relevant?

A common talk-back topic is on some current and major court case, often involving a horrendous crime. People love to ring in to tell the host whether the accused is guilty and whether they should be hung, drawn and quartered…and I always want to stop the radio show, get on the phone and ask the caller:

Q: “Were you in court?” A: “Erm, no.”

Q: “Have you seen the evidence?” A: “No. I haven’t”

Q: “Have you read the full set of court transcripts?” A: “That’s also a no.”

Q: “Do you understand the necessary law/ science/ statistics? Or have you had this suitably explained to you?” A: “Mmm, not really…well actually, not at all.”

“…but I have listened to lots of opinions!”

There’s a reason for a court case taking time, with huge files of documents and a jury who have to take time out from their daily lives to listen for days on end. The victim, society and the accused need a proper decision based on the facts, not on opinions.

Unfortunately, a clamour of ill informed opinions cause people (like politicians) to take knee-jerk actions that may very well do more harm than good.

Spot the link:

“Okay, Steve, interesting (sort of)…but what’s this got to do with our organisation and improving it?”

Well, there are two aspects to this…and both come back to getting knowledge and avoiding opinions. That’s the link. So here goes:

Understanding:

If you want to understand a system (let’s say a process) you have to study it – in detail and over time. If you are asked a question about it, you should only answer if you know….and if you don’t (which is absolutely fine), well you had better get back to the Gemba* and look some more….but please don’t guess, or rely on what you think might be the answer based on hearsay.

(* Japanese word meaning the place where the work is done)

And, to be clear, this ‘getting knowledge’ thing is a very natural iterative process. You think you know – you find out that you don’t – so you learn more…meaning that, again, you think you know…and on and on. This means that you continually understand your system at a deeper and deeper level and are more able to meaningfully and continuously improve it.

Ask yourselves this: How many times have you been in a meeting/ workshop, a question has been asked and either you or someone else has replied “I believe/ think the answer is…” and the meeting carries on under the assumption that this is correct?

Well, in my experience, this ‘answering with an opinion’ happens all the time.

But, stop, what damage could this be doing? This is a classic case of ‘going fast to go slow’ rather than ‘going slow to go fast’.

Example coaching conversation:

Improver:     “…so then the agent does [xyz] with it”

Coach:     “How do you know this?”

Improver:     “I’m pretty sure that this is what happens, based on talking to a few people about it.”

Coach:     “Have you seen the agent doing this?”

Improver:     “Well, no, but it makes sense that this is what they do with it.

Coach:    “This could be what happens but it would a good idea if you observed this yourself. Then, you can understand if this is correct, can see if there is actually more to it, and can gain an understanding of ‘why’ it’s like this.”

.….next meeting:

Improver:    “I watched what they actually do and I talked to them about it…and, erm, in fact they throw it in the bin because….”

As you can see from this example it was far more important to stop the conversation and go to the Gemba to truly learn than it was to ‘use a plausible answer’ to complete the conversation.

What would be even better than stopping a workshop to go and find out? Don’t start with a workshop! Start at the Gemba and ask questions whilst you are there…and when you come away and think about it and have some more questions…well, go back.

Taiichi Ohno was renowned for his method of developing managers. He would have them regularly stand at the production line (you may have heard of his ‘chalk circles’) and observe it. He would then come along and ask them what they had learned…and he would likely walk away if they simply came up with opinions.

Voting:

Okay, on to the 2nd and highly related point.

So you are in a workshop; a discussion has been had; there isn’t a clear way forward but there appear to be options on the table…so the meeting chair says “let’s vote on it.”

Now, there are quite a few voting ‘tools’ out there that help you carry out the desired task of voting* and therefore this becomes a very easy (and even, dare I say, rousing) activity to perform. Some of you might be familiar with them (such as ‘fist to five’ or ‘multi-voting’).

But if the question requires knowledge to be answered, voting is NOT appropriate.

“If the [necessary] knowledge is not common, it is very hard to do the right thing, especially as, in any consensus-building exercise, knowledge has no greater weight than opinion.” (John Seddon)

i.e. the trouble with voting is that knowledge and opinion appear to be equal. This is clearly madness. Imagine one person has knowledge and nine merely have their opinions – what chance has the knowledge got? Rather than voting, the need is to take the time to find out who (if anyone) has knowledge and listen to them.

Note: Voting can also work against variety, aiming at ‘an answer’ rather than realising that, perhaps, there should be many (see A Service Revolution).

Right, voting warning given…so when is voting okay? Well, if you want a group to democratically decide something and such democracy is relevant (“should we stop for a break now or later” or “is the room temperature okay”) then, great, use a voting tool.

(* Voting is a great example of where a tool can be easily misused. You should understand what a tool is for and whether it is applicable for your situation before you pick it up. Should you use a saw to hammer in a nail? And if you do, what damage might you do and what might the quality of the outcome be?)

In summary:

I suppose that it would be pretty rare for you to hear someone at work actually say “I don’t know much about it but what I think is….” but is this often the underlying truth?

So:

  • Try not to rely on opinions yourself: Always go (back) to the Gemba and find out the facts;
  • If you hear others doing it: Politely ask them some pertinent questions about how they arrived at their opinion…you can skilfully move them to want to find out the actual facts for themselves.

And finally:

  • By all means vote on whether the group is going to, say, have a toilet break but, for anything more than this, please seek out, recognise and suitably respect the difference between knowledge and opinion.

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.” (Daniel J. Boorstin)

Does anyone else get wound up by Talk-back radio….or is this what it’s actually for 🙂

Scrap the ‘100 day plan’

Blank desktop calendarI’m sick of leaders coming into new roles with the ink already dry on their ‘100 day plans’. I’m sick of the conventional view that such an up-front and detailed plan is “critical for success”…success of what?

Throw that plan in the bin!

  • Who are you to know what the hell actually needs doing, by whom, and by when?
  • Even if some of your plan is vaguely logical (for the system and its purpose), how is your ‘commanding and controlling’ going to help the people accept your proposed changes and, even more importantly, learn for themselves so that an environment of improvement is sustained?

Instead, go to the Gemba, study the system with a truly open mind (and open eyes and ears) and get knowledge.

In this way you will get to understand:

  • The true purpose of the system, from the customer’s point of view;
  • The nature and frequencies of demands being placed upon it (including failure demands);
  • The current capability of the system (including the variation within) against its purpose;
  • How the work flows (or not!);
  • The system conditions that cause the above to be so; and most importantly…the underlying cause…
  • The current management thinking that makes the above the way it is.

Now, you can properly appreciate how the current management system constrains the system from achieving its purpose.

Now, you are in a position to help the people see, accept and make the necessary changes themselves that will truly and sustainably improve the system against its purpose….and meaningfully measure the effects.

Now, you can help the people experiment and learn, to make ongoing long term sustainable improvements rather than carry out knee-jerk ‘activities’ on a plan.

I can hear management’s riposte now: “We can’t take the time to do that! We’ve got to get results now!”

A reminder of the quote:

“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”

Taking actions does not equate to transformation. Your 100 day plans become ongoing nightmares!

A true but comedy illustration: I met a guy who had just come into a role. He had his 100 day plan (that he had presented at his interview and which had secured him the job). I asked him whether he had met his team yet. His reply? “Oh no, not yet, that’s not until day 21 on the plan.”