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Why Is Failure Key to Lean Success?

August 10, 2011
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Dear Gemba Coach,

I am a LSS black belt working with a sensei to improve our performance. We conduct many workshops that get results, but the sensei focuses on only what we didn’t achieve. Although I understand the logic, I find this tiresome and difficult to explain to the teams. Many people have invested significant time and effort in improving things and end up feeling let down. How do I help the group deal with this?

Firstly, let me say that I feel your pain: I’ve been there. In fact, one of my senseis is my father, and so, as you can imagine, this is not always easy. All too often, I find myself echoing my nine-year-old son: “Oh Dad! You don’t understand! It’s not fair! You’re ruining it all.” I remember a discussion a while ago with another lean expert whose sensei would start every discussion by saying something akin to “you will fail, but try anyhow.”

Now, failure is not a word we like to hear. And we all crave praise from the people we respect. Without this recognition, finding the motivation to fight to make things better is a daunting task.

I would suggest that you try to understand this “you will fail” attitude from your advisor’s perspective. Your sensei is not your boss, and keeping you motivated is not his or her job. In fact, getting you to learn is not even the key to the sensei’s mission. The sensei’s role as regards to workshops is very clear: to push the teams to improve the furthest possible without investment, so that the company can learn. The most important person who needs to learn from shop floor experiments is the top executive visiting with the sensei: his or her understanding of what is possible has the greatest impact on further decisions. Next on this list are the members of the team, who can learn how much better they can do when they stretch themselves. Number three is the lean coach. If the group is unhappy with that, so be it. Most senseis I’ve met regret it but won’t lose any sleep over it.

Learning by Failing

But why be so mean? Why not praise people for their results? Consider the sensei’s challenge. Most kaizen events can produce significant results—without challenging any of the assumptions about how work is performed. Just this week, I was visiting a kaizen workshop in a production cell where it appeared that they had one person almost full time (there was a small assembly operation as well) checking components from the previous process one by one because of the high rate of defectives. By moving the quality check where it belonged, at the previous process, they had radically improved the cell’s productivity. Or had they?

They had certainly solved one problem. They had also correctly applied a tenet of lean thinking: to deliver only good parts to your internal customer. Full marks on both items. But they had also successfully avoided rethinking their cell in terms of better balancing and takt time thinking. In this typical instance, they’d hit upon a visible improvement—without having to challenge any basic assumptions about how they were organized for production. In other words, they had made improvements, and they had not learned anything much. Should they be praised for their effort? Absolutely. Had they failed? Completely.

Lean thinking is based on applying the scientific mindset to business situations. In science you learn when you fail. Successfully replicating an experiment may be reassuring by confirming that that you know what you know, but you have the most to learn in those dark corners where the experiment doesn’t conform with expectations. It means that there is something about your assumptions that doesn’t square with reality.

Actually challenging one’s thinking and looking for new ideas is hard. Our brains are hardwired to like known ideas and to dislike mistakes or failures. As Taichi Ohno realized at the birth of lean, if you don’t push yourself in to a mental corner and point an imaginary gun to your head, you’ll come up with a solution to the problem which generally involves workers working harder but without ever challenging the underlying reasons for the problem. Hence the fabled “5 Why?”

Wired for Status Quo

Social psychology has uncovered a few key findings about failure that should be noted: our brains have marked in-built biases for loss aversion, dissonance reduction and conformity.

  1. Loss aversion: first highlighted by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (who received the Nobel prize for this work), it appears that we suffer more from a loss than we enjoy from a gain. As a result, we overestimate the probability of loss, and the expected pain that goes with it. Furthermore, when loss does occur, we’re liable to make irrational decisions to compensate for these losses quickly. The sane thing to do is to learn to be quickly at peace with our loss, but that’s pretty hard to do.
  2. Dissonance: Leon Festinger first showed that when confronted with specific facts that go against deeply held opinions, we find ways to dismiss the “dissonant” information without realizing we’re doing so.
  3. Conformity: In another classic experiment, Solomon Asch showed that when surrounded with people holding the same opinion, we often adopt a position that we know is evidently wrong.

As a result, improvement efforts are inherently biased against looking for real change. They geared instead towards “fixing” the issue without challenging the underlying cause. As a result, no real learning occurs. Researcher Mark Fruin pointed out there was a word in Japanese, “mannerika” to describe thoughtless actions or apparent change without real change – think of the “here we go again” groans you get with some kaizen teams.

kaizen efforts are truly fruitful when the person or team realize an improvement beyond what they already know. This is the zone sensei seek – the moment when the team breaks the barrier of fixed assumptions and starts exploration for real. In general, this means acknowledging the immediate efforts without taking them seriously, focusing instead on what we’ve failed to achieve. Pushing people into that mental corner is essential to moving forward. It’s a countermeasure to the profound mental biases towards pretending to learn (confirming a further example of what we already believe) as opposed to real learning (acknowledging and understanding why we were wrong about something).

I guess that explaining why doesn’t make it easier to accept. Except that it does, to some extent. As you learn to seek that difficult corner, that obscure place where something strange is going on we need to understand better, you will discover the thrill of the chase, the excitement of the police investigation. In this mental frame, convicting the wrong suspect becomes unacceptable and chasing the true perpetrator imperative. Although it doesn’t get any easier to hear “you’re wrong” or “you failed”, one learns to get over it quickly by simply focusing back on the task at hand: what is the underlying cause driving this situation?

And the same applies to the groups you facilitate. If you set expectations right from the start, and you tell them how it’s going to be, they’ll be less surprised the next time the sensei comes along and just frowns and shakes his head disapprovingly as they proudly present their result. And if you quickly pick up on the remarks and get the team moving right away into the deeper investigation (why did he say that? What have we missed?), you’ll find that the team won’t fixate on what they feel is a negative reception, and will be more able to accept the positive part of their work – the improvement itself.

Escaping Ruts and Rituals

In my personal case, this aspect of lean became easier when I stopped focusing on each immediate kaizen activity, and looking instead at a sequence. I’ve come to realize that what people conclude from one event doesn’t mean much. When they’ve conducted three or four, they start to see things differently. By the tenth, they begin to understand the deeper issues. When you look at a sequence of activities, and not just one, to keep pushing for further answers makes simple sense.

Lean thinking is never easy because although we’re at our best when we’re fully engaged in discovery at work, keeping ourselves there is hard work and it’s easy to slip back into mindless routine and repetition. This is as true about kaizen as it is with any other human activity: without care, any behavior is likely to be ritualized and lose its purpose and meaning. Our mental images easily become cages we hold on to for comfort. The sensei’s role is to break these cages and set your thinking free. Putting the events in the perspective of a regular run of activities and sharing this understanding with your teams should help you cushion the blow.

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