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How effective is a book club?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

How effective is a book club? Should we invest in book clubs?

It really depends where you want to take your lean journey. What are you trying to achieve? A core part of kaizen is not just looking for the results of the physical improvement, but the opportunity to grow, develop people – or self-develop, so that the learning can be applied to every other work situation. Learning – as opposed to simply understanding – starts with self-reflection.

For instance, as we can read from this interview of Toyota veteran Isao Yoshino, having a personal hoshin for self-development is about asking ourselves:

  1. What is the challenge?
  2. What is the feedback on this for the past period?
  3. What is the hoshin, or intent, for the next period?
  4. What concrete actions will be undertaken?
  5. How does this translate into targets and schedules?

 Typically, at work, we’re quite comfortable with questions 4/ and 5/, establishing action plans, targets and schedules, but often feel at sea with questions (1), (2) and (3).

A specific opportunity – and difficulty – in lean is we go after big, challenging goals with baby steps, one after the other. The good part is that solving immediate problems teaches us a lot about the shape of the global challenge – we learn by doing. The difficulty is that it’s easy to get lost or discouraged when real life happens and resists.

Typically, within a lean culture, you wouldn’t be left alone struggling with a hoshin. As Yoshino-san explains in the same paper, when his one-time boss Nemoto-san created a huge program to refocus about 2,000 Toyota lower level leaders on quality in the early eighties, he set up so that each person would develop a hoshin in A3 format and present to their own manager every six months.

He also provided a lot of guidance:

  • Nemoto-San periodically provided group training to all managers. He focused, for example, on things like “how to turn a PDCA circle”, “how to make a review”, “how to develop targets”, “how to analyze results”, or “how to develop detailed implementation items to attain the goal”. He helped people reflect on their priority items as managers (and insisted they should keep the number of such items to a minimum, to encourage focus and deeper thinking).
  • He also taught them to make easy-to-understand and to-the-point presentations in an A3 format.  The idea behind this was to push managers to complete a thorough “5Sing” on their ideas, so that they would retain key data and facts.
  • Nemoto-San clearly encouraged those managers who were sincere about their trials and errors, who were pro-actively looking for solutions by developing their subordinates. The program clearly re-enforced the culture of PDCA, hoshin kanri and people development throughout Toyota.
  • Additionally, the assistant managers and rank-and-file employees, who had watched their bosses wrestle with the approach for two years, learned a lot – just like apprentices learn by watching their seniors every day. Before too long, they started to do the same with their own teams.

Nemoto-san acted as what we’d call in the west “sensei” to those managers who showed promise by sincerely trying stuff and trying to work out the lessons of their errors and how to correct them.

Outside of Toyota, we have no lack of sincere people ready to try new things and reflect on whether it worked or not, what should be learned and how the original response should be adapted. Indeed, the concept of double-loop learning (sensing, responding, studying and adapting the response) was developed in the sixties and studied extensively, as you can find in this seminal paper by one of its researchers, Chris Argyris.

The difficulty lies in the dearth of true sensei of the caliber of Nemoto-san, or indeed, Yoshino-san.

If we’re sincere in our intent, and don’t have access to a sensei, what can we possibly do? Stop and give up? I honestly believe that starting a book club is the next best thing.

Yes, I’ll suggest The Gold Mine trilogy, of course, because that was exactly the intent we had with my father (and my sensei) when we wrote them: how do we share the learning experience with a sensei when we don’t have access to one – hence the “novel” format to show two things:

  • The real story is the transformation of the company, the business story. The lean tools are the tools of the business turnaround – the business case is not there to sweeten the explanation of the tools. We meant to show how the tools change the business.
  • And that the transformation of the company happens through the transformation of its leaders by learning from a sensei. The Gold Mine is essentially about Phil Jenkinson’s relationship with his sensei Bob Woods, The Lean Manager is about Andy Ward’s relationship with Phil (and some of Bob), and Lead With Respect is about Andy learning to sensei Jane Delaney (and not doing such a good job of it at first).

But, really, any book will help. The key is to understand that if you truly intend to learn from your own experiments, at some point you have to take an external perspective, information from outside of your own mental models to challenge your own thinking. sensei do that to you whether you like it or not. But failing that, books can play the same role:

  1. Gather as a team
  2. Read a chapter together
  3. Commit to trying something somewhere obvious (go to the easy places first)
  4. Tell the before/after story to the group
  5. AND HERE’S THE TRICK: rather than get sucked in a discussion of “what happened” with the group, use the group to discuss whether what happened was consistent with what the book suggested and whether the concepts were interpreted in the way the book (rightly or wrongly) meant.

As an author, when I talk to book clubs, I am often astonished at how what I meant to convey is interpreted by the group. Not surprising, people read things in the light of their perspective and often bring it back to what they know. For instance, if I write about a bear (please take a second to visualize one) ...

…. Omitting to say I meant a polar bear, the mental image will be very different from the one I, as a writer, tended to convey. Lean concepts tend to be slippery that way. Think of standards: is it the rule that regulates the new process after improvement (Taylorist thinking) or is it the flag upon the hill, the idea we try to reach every day when performing the task (lean thinking)?

These are the in-depth discussions where a study group can learn a lot from both trying stuff first hand and then delving into its own understanding of:

  • Operational definitions (à la Deming): what is the concrete criteria that separates this from that.
  • Sharing understanding of the basic language: the group will most likely discover that each person has a different opinion about what is meant by each concept in practice.

Clearly, no group discussion of a book is ever going to replace the hands-on learning of practicing kaizen through PDCA: change something, measure the impact, figure it out. This is the first loop of learning. But book clubs can significantly leverage this learning by supporting the second loop: study your response, think deeply about it, and look at it from different angles to adapt it in unexpected ways.

I honestly believe that book clubs are the lowest cost, highest pay-off investment you can make to support a kaizen program and to step further towards creating a lean culture.

We’d love to hear your experiments with book clubs. Let us know!

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