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This Lean blog is dedicated to providing useful Lean information that both changes the way you think about continuous improvement, and gives you tools to act on those changes. It is the only blog backed by The Continuous Improvement Companion, our extensive Lean reference guide.

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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One of the biggest barriers to standardization is fluctuating short-term demand. Long term changes in demand can be managed by hiring staff or by attrition, but when there is significant variation day to day or even hour to hour, it just isn’t practical to hire new people for the handful of hours when workload exceeds demand. Conversely, it is inefficient and expensive to pay people when there is not enough work.

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One of the jobs of a leader is to set clear expectations. There are two implications here. The first is that she must understand, very clearly, what she wants her team to do. The second is that she must know what her team is actually doing. And, of course, the manager and employee must be in alignment on the expectation. That’s not to say that they will always agree on whether the expectation is fair or valid. But they should both at least have the same understanding of what the expectation is.

In some cases, expectations become complicated when measurement is introduced. A common problem is that the qualitative expectations, such as keeping customers satisfied or maintaining timely communication, don’t match the qualitative expectations related to the core tasks a person is expected to accomplish.

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Most people understand that if there is no standard process, it is hard for other individuals to come in and help out when things go wrong. What is less commonly understood is that simply establishing consistent methods is not enough to support teamwork. The process must be configured in a manner that allows a person to receive help when they need it. Often, even with a standardized process in place, if a person gets in a bind, the helper can do little more than stand around and watch or hand the operator an occasional tool.

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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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