Too busy to improve?!

Buisness_Man_AQIf you are interested in improvement, and you love stuff being explained using Lego (I do!) then Hakan Forss is your man!

Hakan is a Lean/Agile coach in Sweden and runs a blog using Lego to get his thinking across.

Now there are many of his posts worthy of sharing but, for starters, here’s a short but great one about improvement called ‘are you too busy to improve’.

…now that you’ve read that, and had a good chuckle at his Lego examples (the first picture needs to be a poster on all organisations’ walls!), I summarise what I see as the key points:

  • we shouldn’t be planning for 100% utilisation of our people (or anything near to this). The two primary reasons for this are:
    • demand is variable and the closer to 100% utilisation we are at then the worse our ability to cope with this variety (i.e. the longer our queues will be, the more frustrated our customers will be, the more our potential customers will go elsewhere)
    • we want our people to have time to see the defects, consider their causes, experiment with improvement and improve the current method (and associated standard)…which will free up capacity!
  • improvement should be part of the daily work, not seen as a separate parallel activity that people get ‘assigned to’. The process owner (with his/her process performers) should be constantly gardening the process, not waiting for some saviour project to come along and ‘solve’ all our known problems in one big “transformational” batch.

A caveat:

If you read this and think “we need to set some objectives regarding being too busy, agree on some metrics, set some targets and then measure people’s performance against these”…then you will be creating a great deal of waste (requiring more capacity*), likely distort your knowledge of what is happening (i.e. what is being reported will not be reality) and generally head in the wrong direction.

* capacity will be used in time spent on objective setting, performance appraisals, rating/ ranking…and (perhaps) the four-fold time spent preparing for and then ‘debating’ each of these with our managers and then informally yet emotively ‘discussing’ (polite word used) with our peers…and then carefully crafting management communications to ‘explain’ their judgements upon people.

Stating the obvious!

Copy-of-dumb_blondeIt is really easy for any leader to say “I want…

  • Continuous Improvement;
  • Removal of waste;
  • Reduction in failure demand*.”

(* explained in my earlier marbles post here)

All are sensible, in fact obvious! But it’s a bit like a financial advisor telling you to ‘buy low and sell high’…what have you actually learned that you didn’t already know, and how does this help?

It’s much harder to understand the system conditions (structures, policies, procedures, measurement, IT), and underlying management thinking (beliefs and behaviours) that protect the status quo, create the waste and cause the failure demand….because you have to change your thinking!

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” (attributed to Einstein)

If you:

  • set numeric activity targets to make improvements…
  • …and offer rewards for their achievement…
  • …and rate (and rank) people’s performance against them…

…then you haven’t understood (or accepted) about systems, measurement and motivation.

To quote from John Seddon:

“Treating improvement as merely process improvements is folly; if the system conditions that caused the waste are not removed, any improvements will be marginal and unsustainable.

Change – just suck it up!

dui-law-changesBeing a pom, I hadn’t heard the ‘suck it up’ phrase until I came to New Zealand. I find it quite amusing…I particularly like some of its derivatives like ‘harden up’ and ‘take a concrete pill’.

Obviously it isn’t always appropriately used but it reflects an attitude of ‘stop whinging, it is what it is – just get on with it’.

So, when I hear the oft quoted remark that ‘change is the only constant’ (or such like), I note that this is used (in various guises) by ‘leaders’ to basically say ‘just suck it up’. A re-organisation is a classic example when it is brought out of the ‘communication’ drawer.

Consider the opposite though, that human beings are creatures of habit and resist change. Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter sets out reasons for why this is so, and I pull out/shape some of these below:

  • Loss of control: interfering with our desire for autonomy
  • Excessive uncertainty: major change feels like walking off a cliff blindfolded
  • Sudden surprise: no time to consider (where a short ‘consultation’ period does not count as time)
  • Loss of face: we are likely to have a lot emotionally invested in the current state…we might even have designed parts of it!
  • More work: having to deal with the change (and it’s inevitable glitches because the new ‘grand plan’ can never be 100% thought through) on top of the real work
  • Upsetting the system: the change is likely to have knock on effects, disrupting other parts of the whole which could not have been foreseen.

So there is clearly a paradox, a herculean rub here: We are being told to constantly change, yet we don’t like change!

Now, the command-and-control response is typically to introduce a ‘Change Manager’ to the mix to grease the change through the lumps and bumps in the way.

But what if the combined ‘manager – process performer team’s constant state was of one in which their job was to continually change the system they work in, for the good of the customer…rather than having this done to them.

Mike Rother, in his excellent book Toyota Kata contrasts two types of management thinking in respect to making improvements:

  1. normal daily management + improvement (where process improvement is a separate add-on activity, often wrapped up into projects to be carried out by other teams and then ‘rolled out’ to the process…often requiring significant ‘change management’)
  2. normal daily management = process improvement (where improving and managing are one and the same, where the changes are identified, tested and then ‘rolled in’ within the system…which virtually strangles the need for ‘change management’)

For us to crush the ‘change’ paradox, we need to move from a command-and-control environment in which the change is dictated to the system to a systems-thinking environment in which the changes come from within the system.

If we re-examine the reasons for fearing change, we can see that most dissolve away when:

  • the ‘manager- process performer team’ are in control of improving the process;
  • …which means we have replaced excessive uncertainty with controlled sequential experiments;
  • …with no surprise as to what is coming (they, after all, are masters of this);
  • …meaning that they own how they build upon what they have already done, for the good of the customer;
  • …such that these improvements are part of the work, not extras imposed upon them;
  • …with all experimental results studied to learn their effect on the system BEFORE action is taken.

How do we successfully do this? To start, we need to critically examine our management thinking.

IT and Improvement

Bruce_the_Shark_by_hayn“Asking a consultant if you should….put in a new computer system is like asking a hungry Great White Shark if the water is warm and you should go for a swim.” (Seddon quoting Craig, D and Brooks, R)

We all know about the wonders that can be achieved through technology…we also know the massive pain that we can suffer from trying to jump on/ implement the next ‘big thing’.

Another quote that fits well in this space:

“IT marketing is more hyped than next season’s fashion colours and the MTV awards combined.” (Unsourced)

John Seddon contends that the problem with IT is with the way we approach it, this being something like:

  • We see some potential ‘holy grail’ dangled in front of us that seems to play to our symptoms;
  • We write some specification of what we think we need/ how we might use the ‘shiny new thing’;
  • The IT provider then takes this, re-writes it in their own version (a straight jacket if you will) and then delivers against this;
  • …which then fails to deliver against our actual reality (which only now we begin to properly understand…but this is now too late);
  • …so the supplier blames our original specification;
  • …and succeeds in selling more ‘implementation consultancy’ to ostensibly ‘put matters right’ or, at the risk of being cynical, ties us further into the abyss of their technology.

Seddon proposes that our approach should be to “understand and improve – then ask if IT can further improve.”

  • Understand: Ignore IT. Do not even assume the problem, or solution, has anything to do with IT. Instead, work first to understand the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of current performance as a system…which means learning about demand, capability, flow, waste…and the underlying causes of waste;
  • Improve: Improve performance without using IT to do so. If you currently use IT, either leave it in place or work without it. Now, improve doesn’t just mean the process…it very often means the management system surrounding it;
  • Ask ‘can IT further improve this system?’: It is only now that you can address the benefits that potential IT counter-measures can bring because you are asking from a true position of knowledge about the work. This is IT being ‘pulled’ into the work rather than dictating the method (“the way the work works”).

And, throughout all of the above, we should be measuring the capability of the system against its purpose (from the customers’ point of view) and can then consider whether each change in method (including the use of IT) has in fact been an improvement.

Now, an obvious chicken-and-egg question arises here: ‘…but don’t I first need IT to measure capability?’. A couple of thoughts in reply:

  • You don’t need IT to capture the demand trigger point and its satisfaction point….though it is likely to make it much easier – the same ‘understand, improve and then ask if IT can further improve’ applies to IT reporting. Before touching IT for reporting, you need to understand what you should be measuring. I have seen most IT implementations deliver a suite of out-of-the box reports that do not measure capability;
  • Even if your IT ‘solution’ delivers you such measures, you need to understand whether they are being distorted by the process performers due to the effects of the management system on their behaviours? …perhaps this needs focus first?

Two parallel tracks

railway-track-leading-into-distanceI get a number of different reactions from people when I discuss organisational ‘systems thinking’ ideas with them. These range:

  • from “wow, that’s so right…but we are completely stuck in our current ‘command-and-control’ reality and surely can’t do anything about it!” ;
  • to “we need change and I can’t wait around for your theory to come to fruition – I’m going to accept things as they are and tinker at the edges as best I can…otherwise I will go mad with frustration!”.

To quote Russell Ackoff: the later response above is basically trying to make a “wrong thing righter” or, in effect, limit the damage.

However, I am very mindful that people can’t feast on ideas alone and that the point is to improve. All the theory in the world won’t help if we can’t apply it.

I have pondered this dilemma a lot and often…and came across (what is to me) a profound answer to this dilemma, as written by Alfie Kohn:

“When something is wrong with the present system, you move on two tracks at once.

  • You do what you can within the confines of the current structure, trying to minimise its harm.
  •  You also work with others to try to change that structure, conscious that nothing dramatic may happen for a very long time.

If we move exclusively on the latter track, such as by mobilising people to dismantle [the destructive instruments of the] system, we may not be doing enough to protect [our colleagues] from the destructive effects [of these instruments] with which they are going to be controlled in the meantime.

But – and this point can be more difficult to recognise – if we simply reconcile ourselves to the status quo and spend all our time getting our [colleagues] to accommodate themselves to it and play the game, then nothing will change and they will have to do the same with their [colleagues and on and on].

As someone once said, realism corrupts; absolute realism corrupts absolutely.”

So, we need to simultaneously travel along two tracks.

We need to accept that our progress along the (truly) transformational track of changing our management system will take time….but we MUST start and sustain this journey (i.e. not see it as an impossibility) whilst also doing what we can within our current daily realities. We can only do this if you and I continue to think, collaborate and learn….which, I suggest, may be intrinsically motivating for us and give us a clearer sense of purpose.