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Could hoshin kanri be too bureaucratic for my small tech company?

Michael Ballé
6/9/2015
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Dear Gemba Coach

I started a new IT services company 15 years ago and we’ve grown to 20 people. We must keep abreast of new tech, but I get frustrated with being the only one seriously concerned with experimenting and learning new systems, so I implemented hoshin kanri to get others on board. I'm getting a lot of pushback that hoshin is too bureaucratic for our size. Is this normal resistance? Should I stick with it, or regroup and rethink?

To be honest, hoshin kanri for 20 does sound like overburden, and possibly overkill. Let’s take a step back and ask: what is the problem you’re trying to solve? What does hoshin kanri do?

Hoshin kanri was born in the 1950’s Japan as a tool to:

  • Focus the organization on a shared goal.
  • Express this goal clearly to all leaders.
  • Translate this goal in objectives and involve leaders in planning to reach these objectives.
  • Hold leaders accountable for achieving these objectives.

In your case, I understand that you are trying to focus your firm on exploring new technologies, involve your leaders (who are they?) in adopting this goal, establishing objectives and planning for them, and finally make sure progress on these objectives is happening as you wish.

These core questions are very powerful and maybe need not the full bureaucracy of hoshin kanri to get started? In a small firm, issues are far more personal, and very different from the need to roll-out objectives to hundreds of people. If we look at your problem from a one-to-one perspective, we can explore a few key questions.

Mind the Gap

First, do each of your employees understand what you’re trying to do? My experience with small firms is that everyone has more work than the day is long, and as a result, people tend to prioritize the things they need to do right now – client work in particular. Do you take the time to personally explain your technical vision to each employee? I’m not talking about do this, do that but lengthy, repeated discussions about why you think exploring new tech is important. Where do you see the market going? Where do you want to move the firm to?

This may sound obvious to you and feel like a waste of time but, in my experience, even in a small outfit there is a huge gap between what the boss has in mind and what his employees think. The first issue is creating genuine space to think before moving on to action plans, and this is particularly difficult because of the pressure of existing contract work.

Second, have you discussed with each person what you specifically expect them to tackle and how? If you want your staff to buy into your vision, you’ve got to let them contribute their ideas and experience, even if this is not exactly what you’d like. This means steering the discussion of where you’d like to move the firm to specifics about how can each person help in their own personal work. Can so-and-so learn a new app? Can they find a new way of doing something routine, with new tech? If they look out of sorts and don’t commit, you’ve got to narrow the scope further until you both can agree on a specific goal and a specific method to reach it with each person.

On the whole it might not seem very coherent or be the grand vision to which you aspire, but it gives you a practical starting point with each person, and something you can build on as they progress (or rethink if they don’t).

Third, have you defined specific control points to check how things are doing and share progress across your team? This can be an individual review, or a team discussion around pizza and beer – the point is that you’ve defined beforehand when you’re going to check progress both individually and collectively. In effect, you become a “client” for your team, and your requirements are part of their job backlog, just as client work is. Obviously, this requires sensible judgment calls.

What’s in it for Them?

Fourth, how do you make it worth their while? In general, people don’t do the things they know they should do for one or two reasons (often both):

  1. They’re not comfortable that they will successfully achieve the task.
  2. They don’t see how succeeding at this task can benefit them relative to doing what they’re good at.

This means taking a real hard look at the implicit incentive structure you’ve put in place in your company.

Don’t underestimate the impact of modeling, particularly in a small outfit. Tell someone twice to get on with client work rather than an exploratory project, and they’ve got you; they’ll know that new tech is not a priority, but a nice-to-have.

Similarly, get frustrated and tell someone to stop asking questions and just get the bloody job done a few times and they will hunker down, avoid any thinking questions, and deliver whatever they think you want with taking minimal chances. Keeping your staff guessing on what you’d like to see from them is a sure way to make sure they pretend to think and stop thinking for themselves in earnest.

I realize this is hard to hear, but hey, it’s lean, right? The first step in answering your question is to ask yourself if you could be stopping your staff from exploring new tech without realizing it?

In her recent talk at the Dutch Lean Summit, Jean Cunningham describes how, at Lantech, every employee was expected to contribute in three ways:

  • Doing their job as well as they could
  • Doing kaizen work to improve immediate work methods
  • Participating in strategic initiatives to explore new avenues for the company.

She suggested one could draw a pie chart of how involved each person was with these three activities.

Search for Hoshin Spirit

In a small firm, it’s often hard to distinguish kaizen from strategic initiatives. The distinction tends to be blurred by the fact that everyone does everything more or less, and, in any case, getting the job done keeps everyone busy full time. I suspect that the pushback you get on hoshin kanri is legitimate – it sounds like a heavy handed corporate rain dance approach for such a small company. Employees will roll their eyes at the formalism and shrug their shoulders when you tell them how important it is – you see something that they don’t.

On the other hand taking on board hoshin thinking and practicing it one-to-one with each of your staff, and then getting them to share their explorations regularly is a practical way to address your problem. Casual hoshin kanri, if you like.

In this case – small company – I’d argue to search harder for the spirit of hoshin kanri (explaining what you’re looking for and letting your guys to come up with their objective and their method to help you achieve it) rather than a heavy-going step-by-step process to define targets and check progress against targets (the 15 x 15 matrix, anyone?). When the finger points at the moon, it’s the moon we should look at, not the finger!

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