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How can we remain positive?

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Dear Gemba Coach

I am a kaizen coach in a large company, and it never seems to get any easier. We’ve been doing kaizen for several years but people seem just as resistant, the problems we face are just as huge, and our sensei is never satisfied. I find it hard to remain positive, and am not the only one in our group who experiences this sense of discouragement. Do you have any advice?

Thank you for that question, which is a thorny one, and unfortunately not uncommon in the lean efforts I’ve come across. At the Gemba, lean can indeed be difficult. Fostering the kaizen spirit means chipping away at issues continually, even while people feel overwhelmed with simple day-to-day work. They legitimately perceive kaizen events as an increase in their workload and a perturbation in their work. Unless they also believe that as a result of the kaizen they will have gained in autonomy and competence, the net result of anticipating a kaizen event will be increased stress. Understandably, they’ll drag their feet to attend.

There is one aspect of lean tradition that might help. Soichiro Toyoda, one of Toyota’s key players, once chairman and father of the present President, formulated the three Cs that became the basis of the “Challenge” dimension of the Toyota Way: Challenge, Courage, and Creativity. Breaking this down, challenge is defined as: “We form a long-term vision meeting challenges with courage and creativity to realize our dreams.” Okay, you’ll think, more lean slogans, jargon, and Japanese folklore? How does that help in practice?

As part of my research in how to implement lean outside of Toyota I’ve often been struck how many aspects of Toyota’s teachings that we consider to be Japanese folklore are in fact bona fide tools to help us deal with difficult situations. I’ve also grown increasingly respectful of how astutely they have, over time and in a very tradition-laden way, recapitulated a number of sophisticated psychological concepts. In this instance, I’d like to refer to psychologist C. R. Snyder’s work on hope. Snyder was one of the foremost thinkers in the relatively new field of “positive psychology” and he developed a powerful and original theory of hope. By studying people in concrete situations, Snyder came to focus on hope as goal-directed thinking which blends the perceived capacity to find routes to our goals and the motivation to use those routes. Snyder defines hope as:

Hope = Mental Willpower + Waypower for Goals

Mental willpower is the energy, attitude, and persistence one brings to meetings one’s goals, and waypower is the capacity to generate alternate plans to do so. Both are particularly important in the face of the inevitable setbacks, since one needs to: 1) not give up and find the energy to stay the course as well as 2) invent different routes to the goal if the way is blocked. That is exactly what the “Challenge” concept expresses. In order to realize our dreams (hope), we need to be clear on the three Cs: challenges (goals), courage (willpower) and creativity (waypower).

How does this help at the Gemba? Well, having an operational definition of the terms helps considerably. The three main strategies we can develop here are: first, clarify the goals; second, rebuild your willpower by focusing on past successes; and third, develop waypower by trusting the lean tools.

The first step in rebuilding a positive attitude to kaizen is to make sure the kaizen goals are crystal clear. You must be able to address the simple question of “what is the problem you’re trying to solve?” Most groups get bogged down when they go for “open eyed improvement” (look at all that’s wrong and see if we can find something to fix) or blinkered tool implementation (we were told to implement a kanban, so that’s what we’re doing). Understanding the problem in detail and expressing it clearly is key for the group. As psychologists know we are irredeemably goal-seeking creatures. Try NOT to think about goals. Can you do it right now? Or is that already a goal?

The clearer the goal, the better we all feel. In kaizen events, I typically look at five main goals:

  1. Improve ergonomics (lower mental and physical burden)
  2. Improve quality (fewer ppms)
  3. Improve productivity (higher pphs)
  4. Improve lead-time (fewer inventory days)
  5. Improve environment (lower consumable bill)

The idea for the kaizen is to focus on one of these five objectives without losing ground on the other four. Clarifying the goal, such as “improve productivity by better balancing the line” or “improve ergonomics by using smaller containers” and so forth, is a great way to focus the group on what we want to achieve.

Remember as well that as a kaizen coach, your goal is not exactly the same as the participants. While you want to improve things, your main goal is to develop their engagement and autonomy. They will feel motivated if they get good results, for sure. But they also need to realize the solution themselves. If you direct them too forcefully, the workshop is likely to end on a disappointment, because no matter what the benefit, they won’t be interested or thankful. Your main goal is to get them to work through their own problems and build their own solutions by practicing with the tools you give them. Dumping the corporate one-size fits all kanban system on them won’t do much in that respect.

Rebuilding Courage

kaizen means endlessly starting again. Quite legitimately, some days you feel down, tired, and not quite up to revving up one more group to solve one more problem they should have dealt with on their own a long time ago. We all have ups and downs. And sometimes, the challenge simply seems so great that we don’t feel up to it, period. We’ve all thought: I’ve had it, I can’t, it’s not worth it, I am not up to this and so on, all the more so in the kaizen coach position since that’s exactly what the participants are going to be telling you. Courage can be either chronically low, or recently drained by a tough break. But in any case, it’s useful to see it as a renewable stock, not a fixed quantity. The first step to having courage is to rebuild courage. If you feel low energy about doing the job, spend some time rebuilding that flow of enthusiasm rather than drag yourself through the event through sheer discipline. You might force yourself this time, but what about the next? And if it doesn’t go well, you’ll end up feeling even more negative about the job.

The most practical way of doing this is rehearsing all the previous cases where you have succeeded: the group has had some positive results, and reached this through their own ideas and by working together. Even if the result is not all the way up to the objectives, your goal of getting participants to work together and develop their engagement and autonomy by improving their process has been reached. Rather than rehash your perceived failures, give yourself some time to rethink of all the good times. And as for real disasters, and we’ve all had some, let’s try to find the humor in them. It’s hard on the morning after, but a few months later, the funny side is often more apparent. So here’s the pep talk you can give yourself: this is your chosen job (if not, hmm, maybe a rethink is in order?), you’ve succeeded at it many times, and you’ve survived the few disasters to fight another day. Helping the group to work together to understand and improve their own situation is a good thing to do, I’ve succeeded in the past and I will see this as a chance to stretch myself and do some good.

Alternate Routes

Sometimes, there is will, but without the way. Some situations appear so daunting we simply don’t see how we can come through in one piece. No matter how much courage you have, you can still be stuck. On this front, you’re lucky to be working with lean because it has a long tradition of dealing with impossible challenges. The first step is to think “kaizen”: let’s break down the larger goal in smaller ones: 100 times 1% rather than 1 time 100 percent. Secondly, trust the lean principles and tools. They are the result of a cumulative process of more than sixty years. Whenever I’ve found myself stuck on the shop floor, it always emerged later I had ignored one of the basic principles. So, go back to the basics and apply the tools even if it doesn’t feel that it applies. For instance, in many cases, people tell me “takt time” doesn’t apply. takt time always does, why shouldn’t it? It’s about dividing open time by workload to get a rhythm of delivery. This is where creativity is useful: how can we apply takt to a job shop environment? Or to projects? Or to service? Usually this mental exercise is enough to get you unstuck. And if one principle doesn’t do the trick, try another one.

The other trick to develop waypower is to plan for alternate routes. Rather than let people jump to their preferred solution right away, get them to formulate at least two valid alternate ways of doing whatever they want to do. This will usually lead them to clarify their goals further by better understanding the problem they’re trying to solve. One useful technique is “walk through talk through’: by rehearsing several alternate routes step by step, you can build waypower by creatively thinking of new ways of doing things.

Hope is not a vague thing we’re born with (or without). It’s not optimism or cheerfulness or blind confidence that all is for the best and will turn out well in the end. It’s a skill in itself which one can develop in the course of challenging jobs such as being a kaizen coach. Challenge, courage, and creativity are not vague exhortations, they are practical tools to build up your capacity to change the world one step at a time.

As for the sensei? Think of it this way. From the start, the senseis have told us their challenge is not to implement lean in every process but to develop the kaizen mindset in every employee. The sensei’s goal is NOT to make you feel good about what you’ve done (recognition or praise is your boss’ job – if she or he is not doing this, you’ve got a problem of another nature). The sensei’s job is to stretch you by keeping you thinking and realizing that the moment kaizen has delivered a result, it’s time to start again. So don’t worry about it: senseis are never happy – they can’t be. If you get a chance to have a quiet beer with the guy later on, he’ll probably tell you how impressed he is with your overall progress, but on the Gemba, the sensei’s job is to point out what has NOT been achieved – which usually means that the process has not been challenged deeply enough. There you go: a new cycle of challenge, creativity, and courage! As a kaizen coach, try not to see difficulties or setbacks as letdowns, but as chances to practice your craft.

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