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How Does Asking Questions Create Change?

by Michael Ballé & Tracey Richardson
August 23, 2018

How Does Asking Questions Create Change?

by Michael Ballé & Tracey Richardson
August 23, 2018 | Comments (5)

In a recent column that Michael wrote, Ernie and I (Tracey) shared our simple definition of lean as “the continuous process of people development.”

So what does it mean to develop people? How do we do it?

Akio Toyoda often encourages his employees to “stand in the batter’s box” and to “challenge to improve.” This involves two dimensions: one, taking responsibility for outcomes based on good processes and, two, learning to achieve measurable improvements. Which is pretty much what we’d expect from someone we’d like to work with: that they take greater responsibility for helping us with whatever we’re facing by developing discipline and accountability around shared expectations This is leading and learning at its best.

"Learning (and understanding) involves change. Either changing what you do to meet an existing known way of doing something, or changing how things are done to solve a hitherto unsolved problem." If we establish that the best-known method that we agree to follow together at the moment, we are agreeing to  mutual accountability until we improve it together. This baseline sets the first bar to raise in the continuous improvement process.  This doesn’t mean to standardize everything, but to look at key process indicators that need to be controlled and continue to ask and engage the primary process owners to be creative and allow “space to think”.

This leads to an apparent contradiction: on the one hand, we need to follow the established process, and on the other, we need to change it to make it better.

The apparent paradox starts with the very mechanism of human learning. We, humans, learn when we see the impact of a change we’ve initiated. This largely predates speaking and reasoning. Learning, in fact, involves both acquiring culturally transmitted knowledge – in lean terms, let’s call this a bundle of standards, ritualized ways of conducting an activity – and experimenting with change to better grasp the underlying causality in how the existing process delivers the predicted output.

Theoretically, there is no real problem – you should be in one of two situations. 1) there is a clear and acknowledged standard, or someone is a reference is some way; and learning means changing what you currently do to meet this standard. In trying to do so, you’ll learn about why the standard is set this way, and/or why your role model does it this way. 2) there is no clear standard, and you see a problem that seems obvious to you, analyze it, try something different and see if it works – and keep going until it does. If you find an answer, you then convince others that this is the way to do it, and it then becomes a standard (as the history of science shows, don’t expect this to be an easy fight).

In real life, it’s very hard to know whether you are in situation 1 or 2, but the fact remains that learning (and understanding) involves change. Either changing what you do to meet an existing known way of doing something, or changing how things are done to solve a hitherto unsolved problem.

Which is the fundamental point that Deming grasped when he formulated the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle: in his terms, it’s planning a change, carrying out the change, studying the results, and either adopting the change– or abandoning it. He’s talking about intentional changes, not random “actions” (or tests, which are changes in formal controlled conditions). In fact, this is exactly how our mind works when we “woolgather” – we imagine changes and run through imaginary impacts on the simulation software of our brains. This is how we think. We act to understand.

Trouble is, although we all like the changes we propose, no one else seems to, and hence convincing others is a constant challenge and sometimes a real risk. “And yet, it moves,” Galileo is supposed to have muttered under his breath when threatened to be burned at the stake by the Church for suggesting the earth moved around the sun.

"Lean is not a sum of processes to acquire and apply which then will make things magically work better. It’s a set of techniques to visualize delivery processes so everyone understands them at a glance, reveal problems to give opportunities for people to exercise their abilities to think, be creative and utilize their strengths to self-actualize in the course of their work."Developing people, in that sense, would mean encouraging them to experiment with changes, one at a time. We don’t want them to reinvent everything every day, which would clearly lead to chaos (as we can currently see with many digital start-ups that try to reinvent everything from scratch and get nowhere fast). Somehow we want to balance changes in how they work to get closer to a known standard (which is no change of operating processes), with changes to the way things are done to find new, better ways of meeting our wider challenges.

The traditional way of running a business consists almost exclusively of the first approach: first learn every standard and every process the way it’s currently done, and then we’ll see if you earn a license to change something.

Lean accelerates learning by creating an environment where changes are easier. This works by first expecting people to learn existing standards, and then asking them to: 1) spot a problem (step into the batters’ box) 2) take responsibility for it (meet the challenge), 3) try changes one at a time with PDCA, studying results carefully, and 4) engage their colleagues once they’ve figured it out.

Lean is enquiry-based because it assumes that standards are known in the first place – which is far from true in many working environments. Assuming that standards are known and practiced, lean activities are all about asking “what is the metric that needs changing?”, and then “what are the causal factors impacting this metric?” to get to the one thing we want to try and change.

Which brings us to the answer to the second part of the question: how do we continuously develop people? Lean systems, such as the Toyota Production System (also known as the Thinking People System), are not production systems per se – they are techniques to visualize production processes so that problems are revealed and inquiries are triggered. Similarly, Hoshin Kanri starts with challenges from the top and is not cascaded as objectives to achieve but as inquiry points: which metric do we need to shift if we want to achieve the overall goal? How do we define this problem? How do we analyze the factors and narrow down on the causes with the people themselves? What do we change to understand the problem better?

In other words, if we involve all the stakeholders that do the work to create the expectations we would be bringing to life, the true meaning of respect for people and their ability to think and give them the avenue to hypothesize, run trials, piggy-back ideas and document through measurability of the process if the standard isn’t robust enough when the market asks for more.  Some ideas may work. Some may need to be tweaked. And others may be scrapped based on ROI. But the fact everyone is engaged individually which supports the team – departments and upward to the true north – creates a catchball effect. The whole point about catchball is not that people receive objectives aligned with the strategy from the top and then come up with an “action plan’” to make the numbers, but that they’re asked “how would we achieve this?”, take responsibility for one part of the problem and have the latitude to change things in order to improve what they intend to – and have management support to get buy in from their colleagues across functions.

Lean is not a sum of processes to acquire and apply which then will make things magically work better. It’s a set of techniques to visualize delivery processes so everyone understands them at a glance, reveal problems to give opportunities for people to exercise their abilities to think, be creative and utilize their strengths to self-actualize in the course of their work.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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5 Comments | Post a Comment
Katie Anderson August 23, 2018
2 People AGREE with this comment

Tracey and Michael - Great post. 

You call out out what is, in my experience, the essential missing component of hoshin kanri as practiced in the West: catchball up and down the system to inform strategy, goals, and actions. The focus is on inquiry to inform the system, rather than goals cascaded to be achieved.

This point was highlighted when Isao Yoshino spoke to a group in San Francisco last month. Mr. Yoshino talked about his expereinces with hoshin kanri at Toyota, and his part in the the "Kan-Pro" Program from the late 1970s intended to re-teach Toyota managers how to use A3 thinking and develop hoshin plans for their areas. 

He emphasized what you describe - that the essential part of hoshin is asking questions, having conversations, and jointly developing the plan. It's simple in principle, challenging in practice as it is so different from the usual state.

Some people in the audience were frustrated that he didn't provide details on tools and how to cascade goals, and many were shocked that he had never seen an X-matrix at his time at Toyota. There was one "ah ha" comment made by an audience member that she saw now that maybe their organization's challenge is that they are cascading goals, not having the necessary conversations to achieve them. 

I shared some other parts of this discussion and others in my lastest blog post about Mr. Yoshino: https://kbjanderson.com/toyota-leadership-lessons-part-11-everything-is-my-learning-journey/

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Michael Ballé August 23, 2018
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Thanks Katie! I've never seen an X-matrix either LOL.  Listening to Yoshino always hits the difference between assimilation (absorbing new ideas into our worldview by interpreting them in a way that makes them harmless) and accomodation (changing our entire worldview to accomodate a new fact). Think of how many A3s you see in outside of Toyota without a cause diagram in them :^) When he spoke at the French Lean Summit in March, he said the secret to Toyota... is there is no secret. They're just serious about this stuff. I loved it :^)))

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Tracey Richardson August 24, 2018
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Thank you Katie, I remember Yoshino-san from the very early days at TMMK, all this is very simple when you talk about it as you mentioned.  I think the discipline and accountability to hold yourself and others accountable for this thinking and cascading of goals is crucial.   To Michael's point about the secret there never has been one, even Mr Cho would bring our competitors inside the plant and let them look and ask questions all they wanted.  He knew what they may have written down wasnt important, it was the discipline to do it that is the culture that is difficult to create at times.   It really boils down to a choice in how you do business.  Toyota just made the choice and sticking to it ;).   Thanks Katie for sharing, Tracey

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sid joynson August 24, 2018

'This leads to an apparent contradiction: on the one hand, we need to follow the established process, and on the other, we need to change it to make it better.'

 There are two fundamental rules to guide our improvement activities;

1) Can we remove it, before we improve it?                            We should not be improving activities & items that should not exist. This is often lost in the complexity of VSM. What cannot be removed should then be the target for our improvement activities.                                                   

2) Maintain the gains, sustain the change.                                             

 I speak from personal experience when I say this can be a challenge to the western mind, unfamiliar with the concept of Yang & Yin* thinking. Once we have secured the improvement & ensured there will be no deterioration (YANG – Rigid-strict adherence to standards is used).  We can then press on with the continuous improvement process (YIN – Flexible-adaptive thinking is used.) This second rule is essential to maintaining the improvement process.

 As we put more things on the front of the lorry, we don’t want previous items dropping off the back

 It took me many years to get comfortable with this Yang-Yin idea. Initially it seemed contradictive to be rigid and flexible. Once you realise there is no contradiction, you can adjust your attitude to the one that any situation requires.---------                                                                          Hoshin planning is not just the deployment of goals and the activities to achieve them. We must also deploy the attitudes and behaviours that will create the cultural environment to sustain and support their achievement...

There are three V's needed to focus and guide our activities. They will create our culture, and define the results we must achieve. These must also be shared by our people.

 1) VISION, What is your purpose. What do you want to achieve or create?

2) VALUES, business, moral, attitudinal, behavioural & numerical to guide, support & focus your vision.     (Under most Hoshin planning exercises only goals, activities and numerical values are deployed.)

3) VECTORS, the specific direction of your activities to make your Vision and Values a reality. The key to success is to ensure the 3V's are shared by all your people, and everyone knows their team’s and their personal roles, behaviour and goals to achieve them.

 If we add 5 P’s to the 3 V’s we have the complete picture of the process..     

There are 3P’s that should guide our personal activities & performance; Purpose, Passion & persistence. Organisational performance requires two additional P’s; Practiced by all our People --- ‘Purpose, Passion, Persistence – Practiced by all our People. Job done!                                                 

 Leaders must define and demonstrate the Purpose, create the Passion, support the Persistence & ensure all their People are engaged in the Practice.  

Hoshin planning should involve the deployment of the 3V’s and 5P’s throughout your organisation.

The ultimate goal of Hoshin Kanri is to align our clock – the total time resource we have, with our compass – the direction* we have chosen to travel to achieve our Vision. Spreading this alignment throughout the organisation, and engaging all your people in this process, is the key to achieving maximum effectiveness, efficiency and enjoyment.

 *business, moral, attitudinal, behavioural and numerical.

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Ty Behnke September 09, 2018

Great Post! I loved the idea of the mechanism of human learning. "We, humans, learn when we see the impact of a change we’ve initiated." 

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