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There is a bit of a misconception in the Lean community about the value that consultants bring to the table in terms of helping with specific projects. The consensus view is that consultants provide expertise and knowledge to their clients. This is true, but they provide a great deal more than that.

The problem is that those extras that they are providing are generally things that people can, and should, be doing on their own. The list below includes many of these things that hiring an outsider provides that a business, even one with limited continuous improvement expertise, can do without getting help.

(Note that this list focuses on larger, cross-functional projects. You should still be making lots of little improvements every day.)

  1. URGENCY

Continuous improvement is far too often a back burner activity. It is done when all of the production work is complete. Unfortunately, as most of you know, production work is never done. Even when something is on the calendar, as the date creeps closer, it is simple matter to push it back. Having a consultant on the calendar makes it much harder and costlier to change.

You can replicate this to a degree internally. If you create a continuous improvement calendar, and assign resources, the truth is that it will be just a piece of paper. But if you require top level approval to change the calendar, it becomes more difficult to do so. Eventually, you want to get rid of any kind of bureaucratic administrative work such as this, but in the short term, it sends a message that it is not OK to miss planned dates.

  1. PRIORITIZATION

Companies have a lot of improvement ideas. They often, though, skip the step of prioritization and get too many things on their plate. Then they spread resources out among multiple projects, delaying results for all of them. This also dilutes the talent on the teams. When a company brings a consultant in, they tend to assign their best and brightest to the project and send it to the front of the line with the most resources. Obviously, they will select the most important projects to get this attention.

A coordinated calendar can help, but again, there may be limited benefit if it is just a piece of paper. If, however, it is owned by a value stream manager, there is more emphasis on what is good for the whole team. Prioritization is, by definition, unequal, and can create bad feelings. Hard decisions require strong leadership.

  1. FOCUS

Prioritization addresses what to do first. Focus is more about what NOT to do. Companies get long lists of ideas, and start chasing squirrels. They get easily distracted and run around trying to do every little project that attracts their attention. Unfortunately, those projects often have low return on investment. Consultants give leaders a reason to say no in a way that they otherwise might not.

Be realistic about what projects have a chance. Make a list and limit how long it can be, or assign points to projects and cut off the list that don’t have enough. Make sure that points are not unlimited, or everything will be deemed important. The key is to say no to the things that have the lowest bang for the buck.

  1. ATTENTION

There is a well-known phenomenon called the ‘Hawthorne Effect‘ in which teams and people perform better when they know they are being observed. Consultants tend to generate that response in people. It is further amplified, not because they care about what the consultant thinks, but because team members know that the company leadership will pay attention to what the consultant is doing.

If a leader paid the same attention to a team without a consultant, the impact would be similar. I worked with two different companies that used Shingijutsu consultants, rather pricey Japanese consultants with links to the early days of Toyota’s Lean efforts. Both companies did daily leaders meetings and an end-of-the-week report out regardless of whether there was a consultant. Which do you suppose had better attendance? Bottom line is that people perform better when they know it matters enough to leaders to show up. Of all the factors on this list, this is by far the easiest. Leaders…go to project meetings, especially the end of the week report out.

  1. QUESTIONS/DATA COLLECTION

When a leader is going to write a big check, she asks more questions. These questions often have unknowns associated with them. When it is an internal project, we often rush blindly into it. When there is a consultant coming, we tend to get answers before we commit.

Project planning processes and checklist go a long way towards preventing this problem. Make a data collection gate where preliminary information must be collected prior to moving forward.

  1. GOAL SETTING

Closely related to questions is goal setting. Think of a project to improve on time delivery. Failing to ask questions means that we might not know what the current rate is, or where the problems are. But even once we know those things, we often do projects without setting clear goals that we will hold ourselves to. When a consultant comes in, goals are a big deal. Companies want to get more back than they paid, so they evaluate how effective the consultant was in making change.

This seems relatively simple—set goals before a project, right? Well, there is more to it than that. You have to make sure that the goals are SMART, and that they don’t change when there is an obstacle that pops up. I recommend posting goals and progress for projects. Make sure that any changes are apparent, with an explanation. If it is OK to simply change a number, it masks that goals are not real.

  1. RIGOR

It is hard to find a person even remotely interested in continuous improvement who does not see the value of following a process on the factory floor. When you ask those same people to create a project team to solve a problem, any semblance of a process often goes out the window. A consultant, on the other hand, likely has a process that that they ask you to follow in both planning for a project and in actually doing the work.

Put a process in place for improvement projects that require a team. You should be doing quick little daily improvements on the fly, but as the project gets bigger, a process prevents waste.

  1. DISCUSSION/COORDINATION

When teams do projects, they often leap into action on their own. They don’t communicate what they want to do to the rest of the organization. As a result, they often duplicate effort, or work at odds with each other. When a consultant is used, companies generally talk about what is going to happen more, and as a result, more people get involved in the conversation.

This is a relatively easy item to fix. Make sure that project plans and schedules are posted. Also, include a review of the plan in operations reviews (monthly meetings).

  1. RESOURCE PLANNING (TOOLS/EQUIPMENT)

Many projects fail because teams scramble for the materials and tools that they need. They often end up trying a less effective alternative when they give up scrounging for the needed materials. Consultants generally have a good understanding of what might be needed and can direct a team to have certain materials on hand and the necessary tools available.

If you want to be a company that focuses on continuous improvement, you need to commit to it. That means creating project spaces stocked with tools and materials. Do it once, and you’ll have it for all future projects.

  1. UNITY OF EFFORT

Companies often act as a collection of many little organizations. When you bring a consultant in, they may work with several teams at once. It is not a big leap to get them working together, often to the point of having complementary projects or shared training.

Good planning calendars and strong processes lead to teams sharing effort. In many cases, just talking about problems openly and regularly drives this cooperation. Monthly operations reviews and continuous improvement steering committees are both good forums for this coordination.

  1. STAFFING FOR CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT

When I worked as an internal consultant or as a manger running a project, I have frequently had team members pulled off my team at the last minute. As an external consultant, it is very uncommon for a manager to come into a project and take a person out for an extended duration, and even more rare for a person to be pulled from the project team altogether, especially after they were involved in the planning.

This long term answer is that project time must be factored into the staffing equation. If leaders treat it as extra work, their teams will not see CI as a priority. There needs to be some capacity to work on projects built into the headcount. I even recommend that a resource team is created to have people to support projects and backfill for employees that are on teams.

  1. CREDIBILITY

As a consultant, I am expected to know stuff. For most projects, especially those early in a team’s development, the information I give is pretty fundamental. Many of the people on the teams I coach are already pretty well-versed in Lean. I saw the same thing when I was an employee at a company working with external consultants. They tried not to flood us with high level concepts until we got the basics down, so we had a lot of people who already knew what the consultants were advocating. Sometimes, though, it takes hearing it from an outsider to believe it.

There is the old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt.” This applies here. If you are doing something revolutionary or making a major overhaul, it makes sense to bring in a consultant. But if you are spreading a proven concept to a new work area, you’ll need to get a track record of success to build internal credibility. That means numerous projects with a concerted effort to create internal expertise. If you want to be a strong company with a continuous improvement culture, you’ve absolutely got to develop internal Lean talent.

  1. ROADMAP

There is a term called ‘kamikaze kaizen‘ or ‘drive-by kaizen‘ that basically means that the project is unconnected to anything relevant. Any consultant worth using will ask about the big picture. They’ll want to know why this project is important and how it fits into the big picture. In effect, they want to see where this project fits into the roadmap to get you where you want to go.

Over and over, I tell people to start their continuous improvement efforts with policy deployment. The reason people don’t use a roadmap in planning is more often than not, because one does not exist. Get one.

  1. FOLLOW-UP

Backsliding is one of the greater risks of projects. A team comes in and makes some changes, but leaves a few key things unfinished. If the get done, things would get better, but interim steps become permanent very quickly, especially if there is no follow-up. Consultants, at least the good ones, check in to make sure those follow-up activities are being worked on.

There is no secret sauce here. Leaders just need to mark follow-up dates on their calendar and then actually go out and ask about status. They also need to be firm about not letting dates slide. Follow-up is useless if due dates are optional.

  1. LEADER INVOLVEMENT

People tend to be starved for leadership. They may go days or weeks without seeing a boss above their direct supervisor. Consultants show up or they don’t get paid. Bosses, on the other hand, are conspicuously absent far too often.

Again, no big secret on how to fix this. Leaders need to show up. If there is a kick-off event, show up. During the project, show up unannounced. At leaders’ meetings, show up. At report outs, show up. Obviously, that is not all there is to it, but showing up is the first step.

As a consultant, there is absolutely value I can provide in creating a culture, helping avoid mistakes, charting a path, and getting people started on doing independent projects. If you are considering hiring a consultant, or are already using one regularly, look over this list and think about why you are bringing that person in. If you need help because you don’t know how to do something, that’s a good reason to get help. If you have tried something a few times and haven’t solved the problem, that’s a good reason to get help rather than just beating your head against something. If you have a big risk of failure and want a second opinion, again, by all means, call for help.

But if the issue is that you are passing the things in the list along to a consultant, you are going to have an uphill battle at creating a continuous improvement culture.

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One of the mistakes companies make when they try to create a business system or develop a continuous improvement culture is that they focus on the wrong things. They scrutinize behaviors. They spend their energy reacting to unexpected results. They bounce from tool to tool trying to find a fix for their problems.

What they often overlook, though, is that fact that their employees are often not guided by unifying principles. There is no clear corporate identity. Guiding principles are like beacons for the team, and create continuity as people come and go.

The following list of principles comes from our continuous improvement transformation model. It breaks the progress from an ordinary company to a world-class one into six phases. Each of these phases requires the adoption of certain principles to successfully navigate through it. While this is a fairly long list of principles, they are rolled out over an extended period. By the time you move to the next phase, living by the previous principles should have become a habit.

PHASE 2: COMMITTING

In the committing phase, the key leaders of an organization turn the corner from accepting business as usual to choosing a new path. It is one of the most difficult of the phases because it entails accepting that there is a flaw in the way the business is currently being run, or at least that there is a better way to do things.

  • Build RelationshipsIn the later phases, it is imperative that team members and the leaders in the organization work together. It takes a long time to cultivate a strong relationship, so the groundwork has to be laid early in the process of change.
  • Develop Trust: An integral part of relationships is trust. It is important enough to warrant a separate principle. Team members have to feel safe and confident in their bosses. Leaders have to believe that team members will act in the best interest of the organization.
  • Develop Leaders InternallyGreat organizations push themselves. Weak leadership results in a lack of stretch goals, and an inability to successfully reach them, regardless of how demanding they are. Strong leadership gives an organization purpose and direction.
  • Show Respect for PeopleFirst of all, treating employees respectfully is the right moral thing to do. After all, employees are people. They are not bodies, heads, etc. But beyond that it is good for business. Respect breeds satisfaction, and satisfaction breeds success.
  • Think Long TermFar too often, people think in a short timeline and don’t invest in the future. Creating a strong business system takes time and requires patience.
  • Embrace Facts and Data: You can’t effectively improve without a deep understanding of things. Far too often, decisions are based on opinion and create conflict. Facts and data create clarity and alignment.

PHASE 3: STARTING THE JOURNEY

There is an old expression that says even the longest journeys begin with a single step. The same is true when developing a continuous improvement culture. You won’t immediately reach your destination. This phase transitions the leadership team from deciding to acting and sets the tone for your Lean journey.

  • Look WithinThere is a tendency to focus on external factors and other people when facing barriers and obstacles. It is important to look at yourself first. This remains important throughout the development of a business system. The performance bar is continually raised. If you continue to operate at a static level, you will eventually become a barrier to progress.
  • Align the TeamIt should come as no surprise that great organizations have a unity of effort. Leadership tools like policy deployment and operations reviews are the tools for getting the team working together. The guiding principles on this list, though, are the bedrock of that alignment.
  • Avoid BureaucracyOrganizations without strong principles need lots of rules and policies to get things done. When you have a strong belief system, you need less bureaucracy to be effective.
  • Invest WiselyContinuous improvement is not free. It is an investment in the same way that buying a rental property has an upfront cost. Eventually, if you do the right things, you’ll get a payoff. But it is important to make sure that everything you spend has a purpose and will contribute to your overall goals. One of the best investments you will make when developing your business system is in people.
  • Know Your Customers and What They ValueIt is impossible to be successful in the modern, competitive world without understanding what your customers want and are willing to pay for. Pay close attention to the Voice of the Customer (VOC).

PHASE 4: BUILDING THE FOUNDATION

There are some key skills that your team will require as you develop your business system. You’ll also need some basic structure and systems. The focus of this phase is developing the required talent and building a Lean infrastructure.

  • Focus on Processes: Processes are the lifeblood of any business system. If people do things in a haphazard manner, you can’t expect consistent results. And without consistent results you cannot rely upon each other.
  • Learn to LearnPeople have three basic problems when it comes to learning. The first is that they don’t know what they don’t know. The second is that when they do see a knowledge gap, they tolerate it. The final problem is that they don’t know how to close the gap when they do identify it as a shortcoming.
  • Build and Empower TeamsIf you can replace your team with a robot, you’re not using people properly. Strong teams have the proper training to make decisions in the absence of leaders.
  • Create StructureCreating a business system based on a continuous improvement culture needs the right framework within which it can operate effectively. This structure doesn’t happen by accident. It needs to be planned and maintained for the business system to flourish.
  • Embrace SimplicityWe often confuse technology with effectiveness. Now, technology is fine when it makes things better, but technology for its own sake is not. Look for the simplest solution first, even if it is not as exciting as other options.

PHASE 5: RAMPING UP

Once the foundation is built, it is time to start building upon it. In the early part of the ramp up, you’ll probably focus on cultivating talent (though you will still need to deliver results). While that sort of focus on skills growth never goes away, by the end of the ramp up phase, most people on your team should have at least some continuous improvement experience. At that point, there will be a subtle shift from learning and teaching as the priority to a greater focus on results. Learning should not go away, but there will be a change in the ratio of how time is spent.  Note that this phase can take a number of years. It is important to be patient.

  • Structure Your ThinkingPeople need to think scientifically. That means that they gather and interpret facts about a problem before acting. This way of thinking is unnatural for many people. In the early days of humanity, fight or flight were the two basic responses when cavemen were presented with a problem. The decision had to be made quickly and was based upon what one had seen before. Modern problem-solving, though, tends to be ineffective when done with snap decisions.
  • Focus on FlowEvery time works sits it creates a problem. It takes more energy and effort to manage it, and customers wait longer to get what they want.
  • Create StandardsContinuous improvement requires a baseline the start and the ability to recognize abnormal conditions. This means that you have to have standards in place. Without them, there is no foundation upon which to improve.
  • Manage Your Value StreamCompanies often erect artificial barriers within the organization. They arrange their functions as silos. That makes it hard to create value for customers. Instead, the company should be arranged by value stream.
  • Improving Your Job is Part of Your JobCompanies turn the corner on their CI journey when employees start taking responsibility to make their own job better. In typical organizations, changes in work are driven by managers. When continuous improvement is part of the company’s DNA, people become dissatisfied with waste in their work and take action to do something about it.

Phase 6: Keeping Momentum

The risk during Phase 6 is complacency. Once the company gathers steam, it has to keep it. Don’t confuse this phase for steady state, though. The improvement trajectory should still be steep. It is just that it is using well-established systems with highly trained people. The stability of this phase also allows for greater experimentation with more sophisticated tools.

  • Build in QualityEvery company understands the quality is important to their customers. Most, though, inspect it into their products. Great Lean companies build quality into them.
  • Adopt a Zero Defects MentalityThis is a tricky principle. No company has ever achieved perfect quality. But that does not mean you shouldn’t strive for zero defects. It is a mentality more than a goal, and it results in localized pockets of excellence. Get enough of those pockets, though, and quality ends up being pretty great.
  • Strengthen Your SystemsSystems put tools into context. They also make sure that you understand how a change in one place will impact operations in another. Good systems also reduce the day-to-day effort required to run an operation.
  • Build Full EngagementEmployee engagement is actually the result of many other factors. Engaged employees, make customers happier, take the initiative more, contribute to higher morale, and make systems work better. The bottom line is that employee engagement helps the bottom line.
  • Monitor ProcessesIt is important to manage operations and solve problems with actual facts and data. You don’t get that information unless you monitor processes. Pay attention to that word choice. Make the distinction between scrutinizing people and tracking processes.

Phase 7: World-Class Performance

Few companies will make the leap from Phase 6 to Phase 7. First of all, it is hard to uncover the subtle distinctions between a very good company and a great one. Secondly, even if you know what to do, it can be extremely difficult to actually accomplish it. Winning isn’t easy.

  • Expect to WinThere is a fine line between confidence and overconfidence. Top-performing companies know that they have the right team and systems to take on the competition and beat them.
  • Think BigThe companies that have changed the world, or at least their industry, have always done it with great leaps forward. With a strong business system in place, an organization opens up more possibilities.

About this article: This article is part of “The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Continuous Improvement.” This practical guide to Lean takes a phased approach to creating strong business systems to create a culture of continuous improvement in your organization.

In each phase of your development, we introduce a handful of new principles to integrate into your corporate DNA. These principles are presented here in a rule format, but they are actually derived from ‘natural laws’ of business. For example, ‘Structure Your Thinking’ comes from the natural law that organized problem solving efforts tend to generate less waste and produce better results than snap judgements. Unlike values that are company dependent, these principles hold true across companies and industries.

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I recently had an interesting experience on LinkedIn. On occasion, I answer discussion questions where I think I can add value. One such question mentioned that Dr. Liker recommends Toyota alumni to lead Lean transformations, and questioned why companies would be interested in advanced degrees and certifications.

The question was intriguing to me, as I am always curious about how little Lean measures its own performance. Sure, there are measures within a company about productivity or lead time, but there is little in the aggregate. It is extremely hard to find any real, believable data about the effectiveness of continuous improvement programs. There is nothing about the success rate, the time it takes to transform, or even how you would quantify that a company has, in fact, transformed. The LinkedIn question highlighted that issue. Any answer would be anecdotal without facts and data to support it.

So, I responded to the question with a few points.

  1. This is an opinion question. Ironically, there are no facts and data to answer this question about who is better at driving a system that thrives on facts and data.
  2. Certifications are an indicator of someone who is willing to set goals and act on them to improve. Regardless of the effectiveness of the certification, the people going down this path act in alignment with Lean principles. (Note: There was actually a response before mine that said something similar.)
  3. Toyota is not necessarily the best at Lean. I did an article a while back that compared historical quality trends of automakers, and while Toyota was strong, there were at least three other comparable companies. (In fact, Toyota was not the best in 4 of the 5 years I looked at.) I also mentioned that I suspect that a large part of Toyota’s high profit margin comes from being able to charge more for cars based upon a reputation that is not necessarily supported by data. The point was that “Toyota DNA” may not actually be better than the DNA from other high-performing companies.
  4. Finally, I mentioned that Dr. Liker is vested in Toyota’s dominance in Lean. Nearly all of his popular work focuses on it. It would be surprising to see him say anything other than recommending Toyota alumni. While his information is extremely helpful and I recommend his books, Toyota is not the only game in town.

The interesting part was not my response, or even the question. The issue that inspired me to write this article was that when I was pinged about a new response, I noticed that mine and the one before it were both missing. There was a new response, though, that supported the Toyota DNA claim, and the questioner had even added a few responses of his own. Apparently, unless there was a glitch, the person starting the discussion purged the contrary responses.

(UPDATE 12/31/14: Turns out, I’ve got some egg on my face here. The person did not delete my responses, but rather had posted the same question more than once. What I saw were comments on a different discussion board. The Toyota points still stand. The social media points are still valid, but are based on a misunderstanding, so are just theoretical rather than actually based on a real event.)

Interestingly, this is about the most un-Toyota like thing that one could do. Now I am not a Toyota alumni and the gentleman posting the question was. But it seems to me that if you go about collecting data in a problem solving effort, you don’t discard the data points that don’t agree with your presumption about the solution.

Additionally, Toyota is focused on respect for people. It felt disrespectful to me to ask for an opinion, and let people spend the time responding, only to delete them from the discussion thread.

So what’s the point of this article? There are actually a few points. The first two are related to behaviors within a company. (1) Don’t waste time asking questions if you are already set in your opinion. It will just create conflict. (2) When hiring, don’t make assumptions about people’s performance based on pedigree. Look into what the qualifications actually mean, and try to focus on facts and data.

The final point relates to social media etiquette. The last few years have been a boon for continuous improvement efforts. In addition to sites such as Velaction.com, social media allows people to interact about questions in ways that can make Lean transitions monumentally easier. You can find people to act as mentors, get questions answered, or arrange tours. You can link up with groups that meet for coffee in your area to discuss improvement issues. You can get recommendations about services or materials. You can learn about job openings, or do some background checks on candidates. But don’t forget that social media augments the real world, it does not replace it. There are still people on the other side of that screen. Your online reputation carries over into the real world. Behave online as you would towards actual people.

I like to end articles asking for your opinion. I’m curious if you agree that it is inappropriate to delete comments that you don’t agree with from a professional social media thread, or if you have the right to remove those that you don’t like. I am not talking about rude or profane or obscene or spammy responses. I’m talking about bona fide responses that don’t agree with your opinion.

Your thoughts?

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Lean leadership and the two neural domains

By Karen Wilhelm

Note from Jeff: In recent months, I have been working to collaborate with a group of fellow Lean bloggers to enhance the Lean community. While we are still in the infancy of figuring out all the different ways this group can work together, we are experimenting with innovative ways to get our message out. One such idea is getting some peer review of our articles. I look forward to working more with Karen, Matt, and Chris in the future.

Toyota’s two pillars of management are respect for people and continuous improvement. Respect for people obviously calls on the DMN, the “default mode” neural network associated with emotion and relationships. Continuous improvement does not neglect the people factor, but it does require methodical data collection and analysis — TPN (task positive network) activities. We have seen in earlier posts in this series that good leaders can smoothly switch networks depending on the situation.

Your Brain on Lean

Your Brain on Lean

When the leader chooses the mode that resonates most with the one the team members’ are in, outcomes are better. The TPN mode is a good choice when helping people focus on standard work, production goals, data collection, and problem analysis. Creative situations where leaders are teaching, or team members are developing improvement ideas, require more DMN time.

Policy deployment and problem solving are two other lean processes that involve contrasting brain activities. The hard analysis that shows up on an A3 single-page problem analysis tool calls on the task network. The people network applies to both policy deployment and problem solving, in catchball or socializing processes, where people at different levels and in different functional departments consider, make suggestions, and ultimately agree.

Not all leaders — or team members — are good at understanding and switching between modes. There are some ways leaders can choose to get better at switching however. They can exploit the use of leader standard work to include deliberate talking and listening pauses. In manufacturing, where many leaders come from engineering or production backgrounds, they can set aside time each day to coach (DMN) a supervisor or workgroup — and that fits with the “coaching kata” concept Mike Rother has learned from Toyota.

See Part 1 of the series on Karen’s Lean Reflections blog, and Part 2 on Matt Wrye’s Beyond Lean blog.


Peer Comments…

How can understanding your neural networks help you be a better leader? Here’s what some lean leaders say:

Matt Wrye: This research has helped me learn to be more purposeful in understanding what type of leadership I should be using in different situations.  I have used the suggestion of incorporating it into my standardized work for the day. 

Having a better understanding of ourselves and why we may do things helps us become better leaders for any situation.

Chris Paulsen:  This is exciting news!  Many leaders have not really achieved the right balance between the two domains so there are many who can become better leaders just by practicing the use of both.  I know that I have seen leaders strike a better balance when they have made the effort.  This research shows that while we have a natural bent, we can develop the skills needed to be great leaders.


 Guest Author Bio: Karen Wilhelm is a business blogger and freelance writer covering lean as applied in many domains. She has been blogging at Lean Reflections (www.leanreflect.com) eight years and has more than 20 years experience in manufacturing and management.

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In any field, there are a handful of common mistakes. Continuous improvement is no different. Some of these errors come as a result of ignorance about the proper way of doing things. Some are the result of habit. And a handful come as a function of taking the path of least resistance.

Regardless of the source of these problems, it is important to be able to recognize them, and more importantly, correct them. Now, very few people make all of these mistakes. But even fewer make none of them. Most of you will fall somewhere in the middle, committing a handful of these infractions. As you read the list, consider if you or your team are falling into these continuous improvement traps.

1. Voting on Ideas

While voting sounds like a good idea in theory, the truth is that it is simply a way of choosing the most popular opinion. Now I’m not saying that all voting is bad. When using a decision matrix, for example, you might vote for the most important factors. But you should never vote on a process or other business decision. Those should be grounded in facts, not popular opinion. If there are two competing choices, decide on the criteria you will measure them by, but let the options go head-to-head against each other on their own merit.

Answer Polls

2. Using Averages

It is very uncommon for averages to help you improve processes. Let’s say that your takt time on an assembly line is 12:07, and your average cycle time is 11:52 on all of your stations. Using the average would tell you that you are in good shape. However, you know nothing about how often you have to stop the line. The same holds true in virtually any meaningful metric. The average ship time compared to your target time tells you very little about on-time delivery. The average size of the component may make it look like a part is in tolerance when in reality it has a high defect rate. Make sure you have some way of looking at the spread of your results rather than just the average.

3. Collecting Data without Using It

Everything you do should have a purpose. We recognize this when doing customer facing processes, but often we neglect this principle in our management and administrative processes. Very often we spend resources collecting data, and then sorting and processing and compiling it, but never get around to actually using it to make an improvement. The problem is that resources are spent without a return on that investment.

From Our Data Collection Training Module

From Our Data Collection Training Module

4. Making Lists

I had a coworker once say, “Lists are just a renewal of hope.” It stuck with me. Very often, we compile lists of things to do, and problems, and issues, and ideas, but the lists just sit there. A list should never be a final step. They can be useful in creating a plan or developing a schedule, but on their own, they do nothing for you. You need dates and people assigned to do the tasks to get things accomplished. The real problem with a list is the perception of activity. Once something makes it onto a list, it can stagnate for an eternity. But since it is on the list, people think it is being addressed and nothing else is done.

5. Not Planning for Improvement Time

This is one of the biggest issues I see for most management teams. They want to develop a continuous improvement culture, but then staff for teams to be continuously doing production work. It sends a mixed message. I tend to recommend about 10% of a person’s time be spent on making improvements. That means that you’ll need to be staffed as if a person was only working 36 hours per week, less breaks, meetings, etc. Now, as improvements come from that planned project time, the staffing requirements will drop. But it is simply not logical to claim that something is important to the business and then not allocate resources to it.

Work Lean and Surf the Continuous Improvement Wave

Work Lean and Surf the Continuous Improvement Wave

6. Training for the Current Job Only

Most employers train their teams. Much of that training, though, is focused only on how to do the current job. If you want your team members to grow in their capabilities, you need to train them for what you want them to do tomorrow. Unfortunately, training tends to be treated as a low priority, so it is hard to get in front of the training curve. The bottom line is that if you expect employees to take on more responsibility, you have to train them before you give them their expanded role.

7. Managers Overriding Processes

You’ve helped your team develop great processes. You’ve trained them. You’ve set up the systems to support those processes. And then, when there is a crisis or a problem, you immediately discard the process. It is surprising how often managers make exceptions to a procedure. It gets the immediate problem fixed, but at a cost. All the work backed up in the queue now is in disarray, and the team has to get things back in order. It introduces a tremendous amount of waste for very little actual gain. Instead, improve the process to either eliminate the reasons for the exceptions, or set up your process with some decision points to accommodate the special situations.

8. Encouraging Variation

Not only do managers often tolerate variation in processes, they often actively encourage it. The most common infractions occur in administrative processes when there is a big backlog or a person is going on vacation. The boss looks at the workload and asks the person to clear his or her desk before the time off starts, or says things like “Do what you can” or “Let’s pull out all the stops”. Does he think that the person normally is not doing what she can? Does he think that there are normally ‘stops’ in a process that are optional, but are left in there for no particular reason? What he is really saying is that he wants the person to change the way the work is done. That should never happen. When there is a big pile, the manager should provide help. When there is a vacation, the manager should provide help. When there is a big order or a spike, the manager should provide help. See the trend? The manager should never ask people to disregard their processes.

Control Charts Promo

9. Making Time Estimates or Mapping Processes from a Conference Room

Picture this scenario. A kaizen team is sitting in a conference room, and the facilitator asks them to map out a process. The team hovers around a big sheet of butcher paper with sticky notes and does the map from memory. Or the facilitator asks how long a process takes and the response is “about 5:30”. In truth, when a team is trying to analyze a process to improve it, they rarely get the degree of accuracy they need from memory. Even with a map created by a team of people who do a process every day, I invariably find inaccuracies or missing steps when we actually go and watch the process. And if you look at a list of actual timings, only 2 out of 60 should end in either :00 or :30. About 97% of the time it will be some uneven number. You need accuracy to make improvements, and guesses don’t cut it.

10. Treating Symptoms

Far too often, a team attacks a problem and comes up with a solution. This fix looks like it works. Then, a short time down the road, a related problem pops out sideways. Why? Because the original solution was actually just a treatment. It addressed the symptom and not the root cause. We hear repeatedly to just try things, and we reward action. The problem, though, is that we don’t consider root cause analysis to be action. Spend the time looking for the underlying issue and you’ll only have to ‘solve’ a problem once.

11. Believing “The Customer is Always Right”

Over and over again, people repeat that mantra to me when I am coaching them. Normally it is used as a defense against changing a process. My response is usually something like, “So, if I told you I was only going to pay $1.00 for your product, you would still sell it to me?” This adage is not to be taken literally. Obviously, respecting the voice of the customer is important, but you also have to remember that not all customers are actually right for your business. Some are far too demanding for what they are paying for. Some look for every little loophole and take advantage of policies in ways they were not intended. Some simply think they are more important than all of your other customers and should immediately get priority treatment. Unfortunately, these sorts of customers not only consume more than their share of your time, but they also disrupt the process for other customers, putting other relationships at risk. Managers should be far less reluctant to tell a disruptive customer “no” if the request will negatively impact others. Now, don’t take that to mean I don’t think you should focus on customers or that I don’t value them. You should set lofty goals and provide outstanding service and value to all of them. I just am opposed to increasing the service level of one customer at the expense of others and thinking that it is good customer service.

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Over the years as a member of the online continuous improvement community, I have had the pleasure of meeting several like-minded individuals. Each contact with them helps me refine my ideas and learn more, as well as reinvigorates me in what I do.

Recently, I’ve gotten involved in a series of conversations with a small group of those individuals. One of the topics we’ve been discussing is what was missing from the Lean community, and what we could do about it. Being a group that practices what we preach, we decided to avoid sitting around talking about something that could be measured.

So, we put together a brief survey about what you think would make the Lean community more valuable. And since we know your time is limited, we thought it might be a good idea to bribe you with a freebie to say thanks for investing a few minutes to help us out. It’s got a few of my items in there, as well as materials from Matt Wrye (Beyond Lean) and Chad Walters (Lean Blitz Consulting). The URL for the free content is at the top of the survey.

Thanks in advance for letting us know what you think!

Click here to answer the survey.

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Once again, I had the pleasure of hosting an interview with Karen Martin. She recently co-authored a book with Mike Osterling. It’s titled Value Stream Mapping: How to Visualize Work and Align Leadership for Organizational Transformation. (If you are interested in buying the book, it is available at Amazon.com.)

Value Stream Mapping Book

If you’re not familiar with what a value stream map is, just think of it as a snapshot of your operation from about 30,000 feet. It shows how the various processes connect to turn raw materials into a finished product for your customer. The map also shows the information that supports the value stream.

Traditionally, value stream maps showed the flow for a physical product. More and more, though, people are realizing the power of this tool in service and administrative environments. Applying the tool in this new way takes some finesse. Karen and Mike’s book touches on some of the nuances that go into mapping your Lean office.

That’s not the real power of this book, though. As I read it, what really came to mind is that it is a great primer for senior leaders that are trying to start value stream mapping on their own. Karen and Mike distill the lessons they have learned from years of experience into something that leadership teams can put to practical use.

Rather than turning this post into a book review though, I will wrap up here and let you hear Karen talk about her book. Make sure you listen to the “speed round” at the end of the interview. I asked her a series of several how-to questions about some of the challenges that many people have when trying to create and use a value stream map.

Click the audio tab in the table of contents to listen to this interview. Registered users will also be able to download it and listen to it on the go.

Finally, I like to think Karen for her time and for once again contributing a valuable tool to the Lean community. For more information about her book, visit Karen’s website.

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Organizations that thrive at continuous improvement often do so because they have a staff of dedicated experts acting as guides on their Lean journeys. There are a few different flavors to how these people are assigned, though.

  1. People are assigned to a leadership role such as VP of Operational Excellence or Director of Continuous Improvement. These are generally executive level positions that have oversight on how the organization implements Lean. While they may coach junior leaders, they generally are not engaged at the project level.
  2. People are assigned to an internal consulting organization. They might be called something like the Lean Promotion Office or the Process Excellence Team. They are available to coach managers, lead or facilitate kaizen teams, and conduct training.
  3. People are assigned to a resource team. This group provides talented individuals to either backfill teams working on projects, or can actually participate in kaizen activity. It will typically have a few individuals with special skills like welding assigned on a somewhat permanent basis. The majority of the resource team, though, is filled by the personnel who were freed up through productivity gains. Instead of hiring new team members from outside the company, managers fill their job openings from this group. A big benefit is that they gain significant improvement experience all a part of the resource team.

This poll question focuses on number two. I’d like to find out what you think the appropriate internal expert ratio within the organization is. To keep things uniform, let’s consider companies that have been focusing on continuous improvement for a couple years but still don’t have a fully developed Lean culture.

Note: Please let me know at info@velaction.com if you have problems voting. We recently made some changes to our site that may affect this feature.


How many hands- on internal experts should a company have on their staff to help them along their Lean journey? Feel free to add comments at the bottom of this page to explain your choice.

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So, it is a lazy Saturday morning, and my elementary school age son asked me to play a game of baseball on the Wii. He even offered to “take it easy on me.” It is impossible to resist an offer like that, so, of course I played.

The first inning was scoreless. In the second inning, he put up 4 runs to my goose egg. After the 4th or 5th run in the third inning, I asked about his promise to go easy on me.

His response: “Not that easy.”

The final score for the three inning game was 10-0. In my defense, we are not allowed to throw breaking balls. He does anyway, and then just denies it with a smirk on his face even though the screen shows the pitch he threw. Take that out of the mix, and I probably only lose 5 or 6 to nothing.

The point that struck me, though, was about the perception of what “taking it easy” meant. Very clearly, we had different ideas about how to interpret that vague term.

When going through your Lean journey, you will likely encounter the same sort of situation. “We won’t stay too late” when working on a kaizen team might mean 6:00 to one person and 9:00 to another. “Reasonable” improvement targets might mean 10% to a manager and 5% to the “overworked” team.

Whenever possible, make sure to include numbers or other specifics in your plan. At some point, vague goals and instructions will create conflict. It is better to deal with that up front so people know what they are getting into.

I always like hearing from you. Does anyone have an example of a situation where vague terminology led to trouble? Let us know in the comments section below.

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I dropped my son off at his elementary school this morning. The spot where they line up was flooded with a giant puddle that was a few inches deep. Interestingly, there were a few different responses to this unusual situation. Some kids just got in line behind it and paid little attention to the standing water. Some kids moved up and explored along its edge. Some of the more adventurous ones, primarily those with boots on, walked into the puddle.

There were also a few people at the extremes. One boy found it amusing to kick giant waves of water at the people standing along its edge. Needless to say, the other students weren’t thrilled about this. But there was also one girl was at the opposite end of the spectrum. When a teacher came out to try to clear the drain, she was interested in helping solve the problem. She assisted the teacher in locating the drainage grate and watched with great interest as it was removed and the puddle started to recede.

The kids’ variety of responses was not all that different from how adults react when presented with a problem. Some ignore it and some dabble in figuring out what’s going on.

The boy represents the slice of people who create more chaos when a problem occurs. These are the ones who complain about having to work on it. They are the ones who continue to work without addressing the problem. There are the ones that actively pass on poor quality. Just like with the boy, this group tends to garner a lot of attention.

The girl, on the other hand, represented what we want in a continuous improvement culture. We want people who are interested in getting to a solution. We want people who will find a mentor if they don’t know how to do something. We want people who don’t accept problems as the new status quo. Unlike the boy causing the problems, this girl went relatively unnoticed by the other students.

The take away I got from this observation was not necessarily about problem-solving. It was about human nature. The behaviors that you want to cultivate in your organization may be contrary to what people have been doing for decades. You can’t expect people to cast aside all that conditioning without a concerted effort to change their attitudes.

It is also interesting to note which of the people were most noticeable. The problem boy grabbed people’s attention. It isn’t a big deal in the schoolyard, but in the workplace, the time these people consume costs a lot of money and add to frustration.

Let’s wrap up by applying the lessons from this observation to your Lean strategy. My recommendation is that you start small when you push for major change. Create rituals for people to follow when specific situations present themselves. For example, create a specific drill for when an andon cord is pulled. Have people fill out startup checklists before they begin their work. Make returning tools to their correct location every single time a part of the job. Over time the repetitiveness of these rituals will start shaping behaviors, which will in turn, form the attitudes and values that are the bedrock of a continuous improvement culture. 

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Some people worry about shark attacks. They see the stories on the media, and get concerned that they will be a victim. But let’s look at the numbers. In the decade of the 2000’s, there were 11 unprovoked shark attacks in the US.[1]

I can’t imagine the horrific feeling one must experience when a shark attack happens, but the chance of it occurring is remote. How remote? Well, let’s compare it to the act of driving to the beach.

The 22 beaches of Santa Monica Bay, for example, have about 50,000,000 visitors per year, amounting to an average of about 6,000 people per beach, per day. Assuming that the average trip is 20 miles round trip, that’s about a billion miles spent driving to and from the beaches in this one area. (Note that the 20 miles is entirely made up, but seems reasonable as some visitors will be locals and some will be tourists. Besides, it makes for a nice, clean number.)

A typical measure of highway safety is fatalities per hundred million miles driven. It has been dropping over the years, but was somewhere around 1.5-1.7 during this time frame. Let’s use 1.5 for this exercise. With a billion miles driven to and from the beach, that is about 15 people per year and 150 people total. And remember, that’s just to Santa Monica Bay. Multiply that out by all the beaches in the US, and the number would likely be in the tens of thousands.

That means that you are at least a thousand times more likely to be killed driving to the beach as you are to be killed by a shark once you get there. And yet, some people will climb into the car, braving the gauntlet of death on the road, and then sit on the beach without entering the water because they are worried about the sharks. And this comparison only looks at one of the ways you could die. You could get sun stroke on the beach. You could be a victim of crime. You could choke on your sandwich. You could fall. You could drown. I suspect all of those present a risk that is at least an order of magnitude higher than a shark attack. Even the risk of being killed by a falling coconut (about 150 worldwide per year) is much higher than that of even being attacked by a shark, much less killed by one. But shark attacks still rank higher on the fear factor.

So what’s my Lean point? The takeaway is to be sure that you are worrying about the right things in your business. Far too often we act on emotion rather than facts. We get scared of a particular occurrence and focus on it. We get bitten (so to speak) by a quality problem, and think it is bigger than it is.

Why do we do this? Simply put, we act without understanding. We don’t gather up the facts and data to make an informed decision. We don’t do a thorough risk assessment such as a FMEA, and act on gut feel. Sometimes we get it right. Occasionally, we are way off. But most of the time, we probably are somewhere in between. The problem, though, is that we have limited resources and are operating with intense competition. Being just a little bit off can add up to being a lot behind the competition.

So, the next time you get worried about a problem that might happen and start to spend resources to address it, check to see if it is really the right problem. In short, don’t worry about going into the water. Just stay away from those palm trees.



[1] It is concerning to me that the statistics have to mention that there are enough ‘provoked’ shark attacks that they deserve a separate statistical category, but that is a topic for a different article.

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One of our goals is to help you create the best continuous improvement training program possible. We do this through a combination of various factors:

  • Our personal knowledge of how to teach people about continuous improvement
  • An review of our competitor’s product lines
  • An analysis of the terms people enter into search engines
  • Our own sales history
  • The information that is trending in various lean forums and social networks

In short, we look at the voice of the customer. And one component of VOC is to directly ask the customer what they want.

So we would very much appreciate if you would let us know the direction you would like to see us go as we wrap up 2013 and move into the next year.

Today’s poll question is…

Which training product would most help you develop a stronger continuous improvement culture in your organization? (Please pick top two)

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What These Answers Mean

  • Expanding our current modules: We have 34 training modules at the present time. They do not all have the entire range of training components. With this option, you are asking us to create training exercises, MP3s, videos, forms & tools, quizzes, etc. so that all of the training modules are more complete.
  • Adding new training modules: While 34 training modules provide a great start, we have more than 100 additional ideas queued up for development. The core of a training module is the PowerPoint presentation. With this option, you are asking us to increase the number of PowerPoint packages we offer to include value stream mapping, kanban, autonomation, cellular manufacturing, SMED, TPM, using Excel for continuous improvement, etc.
  • Creating self-guided study packs: We have a few independent study packs available. At present, though, these are simply a collection of training components that are most appropriate for individual use. They don’t include a guide on how to put them to use. With this option you are asking us to create individual lesson plans that walk a person through the use of the training components. It would also include a guide to walk the student through putting the information to use.
  • Expanding our audio training programs: We currently have 22 audio programs available. 16 of these are recorded terms and 6 are recorded articles. With this option, you are asking us to accelerate the process of recording our articles and terms.
  • Providing streaming or downloadable videos (instead of or in addition to DVDs): We currently provide our videos in DVD format. We recognize that this is no longer the most compatible format with the needs of our customers. With this option you are asking us to provide our videos as streaming media. The video would be hosted on our site and you would be able to access it with an Internet connection.
  • Providing downloadable videos (instead of or in addition to DVDs): With this option, you are asking that we provide you the video file the store on your computer (individual license) or on your network (corporate license).
  • Adding more trainers support (lesson plans, training programs, leader’s guides, etc.): While our training modules are extensive, we don’t currently provide much guidance on how to put the components to use. With this option you are asking us to create leader’s guides, lesson plans, training programs etc.
  • Providing online training programs: the majority of our training materials are focused on helping you teach yourself or your team. With this option you are asking us to do more of the training for you by providing online training programs for our modules.
  • Other: We recognize that we may not have covered all of the ideas that you have. If you think of something else that you like more than those listed above, please let us know in the comments section. If you are not a registered user, you can email us your response at info@velaction.com.

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