Lean Leadership Lessons from Covid
You may recognize the quote from Friedrich Nietzsche – or more recently from Kelly Clarkson “What doesn’t kill you makes your stronger.” I’ve thought about this often in the last 22 months in context of the horrible pandemic and more parochially in relation to the efforts of many client organizations to sustain continuous improvement in a period of great uncertainty. There are more than a few parallels. Here are some that occur to me:
Burning platforms are finite. 17th Century playwright, Samuel Johnson said, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The sense of urgency generated by immediate threats, commonly referred to as burning platforms, has kick started many a Lean transformation including at Toyota where, as Taiichi Ohno noted “The oil crisis opened our eyes,” as the event that kicked TPS into high gear in the 1970’s. Similarly, the existential threat of COVID-19 enabled an intense period of historic collaboration between government and industry to produce vaccines in record time. But what happens when the perceived crisis is past? We celebrate and take little break, which too often becomes an indefinite backslide. Shigeo Shingo warned that complacency is a killer of improvement. Too many organizations get comfortable after an initial burst of improvement. Contrary to the popular “critical mass” metaphor, I think there is no such thing in continuous improvement. Organizations that are able keep the continuous improvement flywheel turning are blessed with leaders who work tirelessly to renew a shared sense of purpose that extends beyond the burning platform.
Myopia is Normal. W. Edwards Deming described ‘lack of long term thinking’ as a management sin. But, I’ve regrettably concluded after 50 years in the workforce that long-term perspective is just a very rare capability. I don’t expect it any more than I expect everyone to have 20/20 vision. Many executives talk a good game about vision and strategy, but their actions are more tactical, reactive and transactional. And, unfortunately, no amount of tactical gyrations can overcome a lack of strategic thinking – a painful lesson from the last two years. Speaking at a conference in 2003, my teacher, Hajime Oba, was asked why American companies did not see more benefit from TPS. He responded, “Two reasons: 1) American management does not understand what TPS is, and 2) they are driven by quarterly earnings.” Fact is, we look to our executive leadership for that view over the horizon. While most of us are busy in the trenches, those super-normal visionary leaders are looking out for our futures.
We are ruled by emotion. Shigeo Shingo noted “People take action only after they are persuaded, and persuasion is achieved not by reason, but through emotions.” Even if you’re the boss, according to former Toyota exec, Gary Convis, it’s essential to “Lead as though you have no authority.” This advice has been helpful to me in my career, but it is easy to slip into a disrespectful and disengaging ‘just-do-it” mode. Leaders are charged with bridging the disconnect between reason and emotion. We count on them to make reasoned decisions based on science and then persuade the rest of us to buy-in and collaborate.
Life is an infinite game. From philosopher James Carse comes the idea that the status quo will only change when we fail to take it seriously. He cites the Berlin wall as an example. Decades of fighting only proved to galvanize the differences between two sides. The wall was symbolic of a finite game – one that succeeded only because it pitted two sides against one another. When we talk about win-win propositions in business we are proposing an infinite game. In fact, one of the biggest obstacles to continuous improvement is business factionalization: sales versus operations, marketing versus engineering, factory versus office, customer versus suppliers, winners versus losers. These are our Berlin walls. The leader’s job is to help us to not take them seriously. Call that transformational.
As we say good-bye to another plague-riddled year, I’m hopefully subscribing to Nietzsche’s aphorism; that our collective experience from the last two years will only make us stronger in 2022. Here’s to resilience! And also, here’s to leaders everywhere who will:
To our customers, suppliers, partners and friends,
For the last four months, GBMP, has of necessity, pivoted to predominantly virtual consulting, training and coaching. Now, as the economy begins to reopen, I’d like to share with you two lessons that we have learned:
Office space adds limited value to our work.
We have discovered that physical distancing for our team does not necessarily reduce presence or alignment. In fact, the need for very frequent communication during the pandemic has highlighted the advantages of virtual methods like Zoom and Slack. The GBMP team has not been able to assemble physically since February, but we have met “face-to-face” virtually nearly every day, something that would not be practical in real space. While do look forward to a time when can occasionally meet in person, we have come to realize that the “new normal” may not require the expense of an office.
Virtual is here to stay, as a component of learning.
Like many of you, GBMP has adapted to the pandemic’s reality, and we have learned through this difficult process that there are aspects of virtual learning – particularly the explicit learning – that are actually advantageous to both teacher and learner. This is something I would not have subscribed to personally, had pandemic conditions not demanded it; but response from customers has been overwhelmingly positive. We are anxious to be back on-site with our customers “in the Gemba” at some point, but we also anticipate that aspects of virtual learning will continue and develop as an improvement to Lean and Six Sigma learning and organizational transformation.
While timing for recovery from Covid-19 is no less uncertain for me today than several months ago, life goes on, work continues and so does improvement to the work.
GBMP’s mission, to keep good jobs in our region, is stronger than ever and we will continue to adapt to provide value to our community. We value our many relationships and look forward to bright outcomes for all of us.
June 25, 2020
Most Lean folks use “5-Whys” daily to problem solve; but, relatively few are familiar with a clever problem solving device developed 30 years ago by Deming Prize winner, Ryuji Fukuda, called the Why-Not Diagram.
Because objection is a natural human response to new ideas, Dr. Fukuda created the Why-Not Diagram to afford every stakeholder an opportunity to put his or her concerns out on the table: all the reasons why an idea won’t work. Fukuda recommends that why-not reasons be recorded in silence so that no one is unduly influenced by anyone else. We use a separate post-it note for each separate idea. In my own experience, this technique generates a lot of post-it notes. It seems to be easier for participants to fire off thoughts about why something won’t work than how it will work.
Some time ago, my previous company was having an especially tough sales quarter and the level of frustration was high throughout the organization. I posed this Why-Not question to my field sales force:
“Why Not Double Sales?”
In a cathartic burst, our sales people busily wrote all the reasons they could think of as why our sales were low: late delivery, billing issues, bad sales policies, too many reports, slow response to questions, long time to market for new products, etc. Some had very specific causes, while others were more general, but all were recorded in silence over a period of about twenty minutes and passed to me. Then we read the notes aloud, one-by-one, and organized them by category, creating an affinity diagram of why-nots. Clear categories emerged as we continued reading; and there were many duplicates, which we piled on top of one another creating a visualization of consensus. Finally, there were a couple of post-its that didn’t fit into any category. “Lone Wolves,” Dr. Fukuda calls them; things that most persons had not previously considered. One note turned out to be a brilliant and previously missed issue with our sales process. As that Post-It was read, there was a quiet murmur in the room acknowledging that in the process of collecting our thoughts, something new and special had been discovered.
As the salesperson team was congratulating themselves for a concerted show of resistance to the idea of doubling sales, I challenged them: “So what I take from this exercise is that if we can address all of these objections, then we CAN double sales.” A couple of startled participants protested. “Oh no, we didn’t mean to imply that.” After a few moments of silence however, another participant thoughtfully replied, “Well . . . maybe.” The seeds for change had been sewn.
From this experience I take two lessons which, particularly in this chaotic and emotion-charged pandemic time are worth relating:
The first lesson is from one of my favorite stimulators, Alan Watkins. creator of Crowdocracy, Watkins asks “Who is the smartest person in the room?” The answer is...
ALL OF US. The collective intelligence of everyone easily surpasses that of any single person. This concept is not new to Lean (“The ideas of 10 are greater than the experience of 1.”), but it is not well practiced. Fukuda’s Why-Not gets everyone involved; it’s a trick to surface objection and create dialogue. If we have conflicting views about how to adapt to Covid-19, we should share them – maybe there will be lone wolf or two.
The second is from Shigeo Shingo who said “99% of objection is cautionary,” meaning that when persons express objections to an idea, they are often saying they don’t agree YET. They need more information. From my days in sales promotion I recall that every sale begins with “no.” Getting these ‘no’s’ out into the open, rather than letting them privately fester, is the first step to responding to them. Dialogue is the countermeasure to objection. Let’s keep it going.
Stay safe everyone.
Hey, here’s a “why-not” question for you: Why not accelerate your continuous improvement process right now, taking advantage of the non-value-added time you might be spending cooped up in some socially distanced environment. Any time is a good time learn, develop, improve and problem-solve.
For over 25 years, my orginization's mission has been to help others develop their most valuable resource: their employees. Given the right training and inspiration, every employee – from the front lines to the corner office - can be a Lean thinker and problem solver. While we may not be able to march forward arm in arm now, thanks to technology, we still can learn together – face-to-face – in the Gemba remotely. And there is no better time or burning platform than at this moment to engage and inspire all of our employees to become innovators and problem solvers. Whether your workforce is presently at home or in the workplace, local or dispersed, GBMP consultants can help with interactive Lean and Six Sigma training, consulting and coaching targeted exactly to your needs and time-frame. While we may not be able join you at your site, we are all still as close as your nearest computer or smart device. Whether you are an existing GBMP partner or are just beginning with continuous improvement, we encourage you to take a few moments to peruse the many interactive Lean learning opportunities available to you from GBMP. Let us help you turn downtime into learning time.
On a contemporary note, I’ve been reminded daily in the last month that objection to new ideas is a normal human response.
For those not into 17th century English poets, this final line from John Milton’s, On His Blindness, had particular significance in 1665 at a time when denominations of the Christian world were debating whether we sinners were saved by faith alone or by a combination of faith and good works. This question was the cause of the Reformation, the split between the Protestant churches and Catholic Church. Milton was siding with those who felt that faith alone was the way to salvation. Being a good person was nice but not necessary in the eyes of God. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, was among those who disagreed, however. Faith alone was not enough. Good works, things like charity and kindness, were equally parts of the road to salvation. It was simply not enough to “only stand and wait” as John Milton suggested.
In the summer of 1665, debates over the path to salvation would have been in context of the deadly epidemic, Black Death. This wave of the bubonic plague started slowly in a London neighborhood, but by May of 1665, 43 had died. In June 6137 succumbed and then in July, 17036. Finally, at its peak in August, 31159 people perished. In all, 15% of the London population perished during that terrible summer. There was little recourse beyond prayer and primitive forms of protection like the avian-like “gas mask” worn by physicians to damp foul smells. Filled with lavender and camphor to ward off the invisible pestilence, this protective gear was 17th century state of the art – the best that science and medicine had to offer.
We can all take heart that science has advanced remarkably since Milton. While we justifiably worry about the elapsed weeks of time needed to properly garb our pandemic frontlines and months of time to a vaccine or other therapies, we should consider, as a frame of reference, that the Black Plague lasted more than three centuries in Asia and Europe without remedy. As an optimist by nature, I still find myself fighting off angry thoughts and wondering how we ever got into this mess. Better to focus on the moment. Seize the day. What can we do to help the frontlines? Where is our salvation?
Perhaps, as in the 17th century, there is power in faith. I would not disparage it. As an aphorism from the Second World War maintains, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” Beyond this, however, what about “good works”? With regard to our current dilemma, it seems for most us who are not on the front line – not clinicians, not public servants, not essential service workers – there are just two things we can do:
P.S. Well, perhaps not nothing. My organization, GBMP, is assisting companies who wish to turn downtime into learning and improvement time through virtual Lean, Six Sigma and Shingo Model workshops, training, coaching and project assistance. The remote platforms are robust and interactive learning and sharing are possible whether your workforce is presently at home or in the workplace, local or dispersed, in one state, multiple states or spread across countries. Contact us to learn how we can assist your team or peruse some of our scheduled Lean learning opportunities.
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