Archive for October, 2010

Guest Post: “Magical Thinking”

They engage in “magical thinking” she said.  They think something is true, or becomes true, just because they say so.  She was describing the leadership approach of her hospital.  She has been a nurse for years.  And now, after decades of helping the sick, she hates her job.  Don’t get me wrong, she still loves taking care of patients, but she hates her job.

Her workplace has been infected with management that tells her how many FTEs are required; she doesn’t even know what a FTE is.  She is exasperated, disenfranchised and done.  Her strategy now is to try to keep her head down until retirement.

There were many difficult aspects to this conversion, the worst part being that she is a friend.  Her pain and frustration is palpable.  I was not surprised to hear of magical thinking.  It is an apt description of something I have seen in many organizations, in many different industries.  But, I was surprised to learn that it has invaded health care.

In magical thinking, management teams set BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), often reductions in staff or increases in workload, that are unrealistic, unsustainable, or unachievable.  They may look good on paper, but without the tools, people, resources, infrastructure, and leadership needed to achieve them – they are folly.  They often leave employees, like my friend, tired and dispirited, with justifiably diminished confidence in their leadership.

I have seen “magical thinking” in the private and the public sectors.  In my experience, the most pervasive form lately is “lower cost at any price.”   These are initiatives that solely focus on cutting cost, often at the expense of quality, safety, and customer satisfaction.   One particularly egregious example that I recently encountered, is an organization, that in the interest of costs, switched from instructor/hands-on training to solely computer based training.  While this may be appropriate for some positions,  I doubt it served the diesel engine mechanic  well , who,  on their first day on job said of the 16 valve 30 ton engine that they were responsible for –  “I didn’t think it would be so big, or so hot.”

In defense of magical thinking it can occasionally work.  There can be some fantastic wins – perhaps accidentally when the directed action (a.k.a. “countermeasure(s)”) happen to address the root cause(s) of the barrier between the current condition and the target condition. But in the long run, the results are unsustainable.  Like any gambling strategy, the laws of probability describe the long-term behavior and unfortunately the odds are not in the magical thinker’s favor.  Fortunately, there are better ways.  There are tools, systems, and philosophies that give better and more consistent returns.

Hard work, coupled with sound principles is a better approach.  Nothing can re-align magical thinking like going to the gemba and challenging one’s assumptions with fact.  Continuous improvement can only be accomplished  and sustained through humble leadership, not through arrogance and hubris.  Indeed, PDCA presumes that there is a check with reality and the openness to consider and make the necessary adjustments. In hoshin planning, this same spirit is applied within the catchball process – another means of immunizing the organization against magical thinking.

Lean thinking’s magic is about people, learning, science, value creation, the seeking of perfection and the like. Magical thinking, well…that’s for people who really dig the emperor’s new clothes.

Related post: Easier, Better, Faster, Cheaper…in that Order

This post was authored by Michael O’Connor, PhD. “Dr. Mike,” as Mark Hamel refers to him, is a lean six sigma implementation consultant and a passionate learner, educator, and communicator. He was recently bestowed with the Master Black Belt of the Year award by the International Quality and Productivity Center.


Guest Post: Fall Foliage and…Organizational Development

Fall colors, at least here in southern New England, are beginning to lose some of their brilliance. It’s the normal course as we approach November. But don’t despair, my friend and colleague, Chuck Wolfe, has captured some beautiful, peak foliage with his camera and added some simple, but poignant thoughts on organizational development.  Enjoy his pictures and his prose. You can access the PDF in the link below.

Organization Development article with fall pictures

By  the way, Chuck and I collaborated on a Defense Industry Daily article back in February called, “Want an Effective Kaizen Event? Don’t Forget the Human Side!” Chuck also co-authored the Kaizen Event Fieldbook’s third chapter on Transformation Leadership with me.

Related post: The Human Side of the Kaizen Event – 11 Questions for Lean Leaders

Charles J. Wolfe is CEO of Charles J. Wolfe Associates, LLC. Chuck is internationally recognized as an expert in applying emotional intelligence to organizational change, leader development, coaching, and teambuilding. Chuck created the Emotion Roadmap™, a unique methodology, featured in his workshops, publications, and radio talk show. He can be reached at cjwolfe, over at cjwolfe dot com, or via 860-985-3747.

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Easier, Better, Faster, Cheaper…in that Order

Lean is deep. It’s multi-faceted. Heck, even the “simple” stuff is profound.

These characteristics, along with (or should I say, in spite of) my own denseness, are why my lean learning never plateaus. Here’s a very recent example of two experiences that refined my kaizen appreciation.

Experience 1. This week I attended and spoke at the Sixth Annual Northeast Shingo Prize conference. It was a wonderful experience. (See below for a picture of the “four bloggers.”) The conference title was, “Easier, Better, Faster, Cheaper.” Great title and great theme right? Like motherhood and apple pie. Who could ever argue with it?

Well, as many of us know, the title was derived from a Shigeo Shingo quote:

There are four purposes of improvement: easier, better, faster and cheaper.

Cool, right? Except, there’s another sentence that immediately follows – a sentence that should alter the mindset of most American allegedly “lean thinkers.”

These four goals appear in the order of priority.

Do you think that most executives would agree with that priority? I sincerely doubt it.

If we surveyed senior leaders, I would be quite confident that the order would be reversed. Unfortunately, such a hierarchy (no pun intended) does little to gain buy-in from the workforce and it is often inconsistent with the notion of respect for people. Which leads to my next recent experience.

Experience 2. (Actually this experience happened BEFORE the conference, but it works better explaining it in this order.) I was reading through the paper, “Transforming Kaizen at Toyota,” written by Koichi Shimizu from Okoyama University. This 29 page paper is undated, but I would guess it’s circa 2000. Shimizu presents a lot of information and analysis around volunteer and organized kaizen activities at Toyota.

Some take-aways:

  • Workers drive about 10% of the realized improvement and team leaders, production supervisors, engineers, etc. drive 90%. Here “realized improvement” is ostensibly around cost reduction through productivity and quality gains.
  • Workers principally engage in “voluntary kaizen” – kaizen circle activities and suggestions.
  • The purpose and effects of the voluntary kaizen, especially within Toyota’s US and European plants, are mainly around:
    • developing the (worker’s) kaizen mind and problem solving ability,
    • paying attention to quality and productivity,
    • perceiving the work-place as one’s own, and
    • developing self for promotion.

Occasionally, the worker generates a great idea around quality or working process improvement. But, the primary focus for the worker is typically around the “humanization of work. In other words, it starts with making the work EASIER. Just like Mr. Shingo said!


Here’s a picture of the four bloggers at the NE Shingo Prize conference. From left to right, yours truly (the old guy in the group), Tim MacMahon of A Lean Journey, Dave Kasprzak of My Flexible Pencil, and Mike Wroblewski of Got Boondoggle? It was great meeting these very talented folks!

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Fun and Kaizen Team Effectiveness

Recently, I facilitated a very large kaizen team – 16 people. There were many credible warnings from folks in the weeks prior to the event. “This will be a very tough group,” “You thought the people from X were challenging, wait until you work with Y,” etc.

Pretty dire stuff.

The stakes were high, in that we were embarking on a new stage of the lean transformation. We were moving from the pilot location (and its value stream) to what we call “initial deployment” (ID). This is where we expand the roll-out typically to one additional location (sometimes another cell or line within a given site, sometimes a different site altogether) before then moving to full scale deployment.

Within ID, we wholly expect to experience technical scaling issues and human resource development challenges. It’s also a juncture in which there is a risk that people within the ID site may feel like  they are getting newly improved processes, with the associated standard work, visual controls, etc. that were developed at the pilot, jammed down their throats. This is one reason why we engage in what we call “a net change activity” to identify differences between the pilot and ID value streams and make appropriate adjustments. The activity also invariably identifies other improvement opportunities, some even within the pilot itself.

Our kaizen team environment, to say the least, was exciting and intimidating at the same time. Over the course of the week, the team ended up identifying a number of opportunities, implemented some outstanding improvements, established an excellent foundation for the initial deployment, learned how to PDCA, and had a boatload of FUN!

It’s not that fun was necessarily just an outcome. It was an input. It was an enabler.

OK. So, “fun” is relative. There’s fun at a wedding reception and then there’s fun doing kaizen. In the world of kaizen, there’s a big difference between, “I’d rather having a root canal,” and “Hey, change is hard, but there’s a lot of camaraderie and more than a few laughs. We can do this!”

Our 16 person team definitely was in the latter camp. We had a lot of laughs.

It was reflective of a spirit of humility – not so easy in this particular industry, often with some serious caste differences. The laughter was self-deprecating, defused the stress, helped folks move on when their “check” within PDCA revealed that their needed serious adjustment, facilitated candor,  fostered participation, and helped provide the team with energy to put in some pretty long hours. And no one was safe from the occasional fun-loving jab – executives, directors, managers, staff, and…me.

Related posts: Kaizen and Chemistry, Of Team Size, Social Loafing and Lack of Direction


Telling “How” Removes Responsibility

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Over the years I have learned to be more patient. In the not too distant past and in the interest of quick results, I frequently told people how to solve problems – which countermeasures to apply as well as where and when. I do that a lot less now, but admittedly I still sometimes lapse.

Telling is fine when time is short and the real risk to life, limb and financial viability are high.  But, if we were to honestly reflect on the frequency of these types of situations, we would see that they’re pretty rare. Unfortunately, it’s normal to make a false choice between urgent and important.

So, what’s important? Certainly, building a lean culture, part of which is an organization of effective problem solvers, is eminently important. Effective problem solvers know how  to apply PDCA and take responsibility for solving their assigned or adopted problems.

How powerful is an organization of engaged and empowered problem solvers? A lot more powerful than a handful of puppet masters pulling the strings of a bunch of disenfranchised folks.

Think about it. If someone tells you “how” to solve the problem, then you do not, and cannot, really own it.  You essentially end up being an un-invested robot. You also end up with very limited (felt) responsibility, because the leader took the P, C, and A away from you and left you with just the D of PDCA. When you execute what someone has told you to do (and you have little insight into the “why” ) and it doesn’t work…well, it’s that do-telling bozo’s fault. Just following orders! I’ll wait for the next set of orders. Not good.

So, what to do? Try coaching your people on the why and the underlying methodology behind PDCA. Surely, make certain that they never violate lean principles – for example, observe reality, takt, flow, pull, etc. Coach them by asking them penetrating questions that will force them to think and hopefully adjust when required. Hold them accountable, but allow them to fail…and learn. In short, respect them and gain a fellow lean thinker, lean doer and lean owner.

Related posts: Lean Leadership – Lessons from My Dog Obedience Sensei, Stretch, Don’t Break – 5 ways to grow your people

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