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Lean thinkers tell me not to give answers but my sensei keeps telling me what to do; which is it?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

My experience is that if you want to get anything done you have to ask very specifically and follow up thoroughly. Now, lean guys tell me I should ask questions but not give answers. Plus, I have a sensei who keeps asking me to do very specific stuff. I’m confused.

Do you find that when you ask people to do something precise for you they always screw it up and you have to explain again and again until they get it right? And then they resent you for it? Even though the overall plan is successful? And then the next time a similar situation presents itself you have to go over it again? And then you get annoyed with all these idiots, and get home exhausted and exasperated because no one recognizes all the hard work you do to keep the ship afloat?

If the above doesn’t feel familiar, ignore the rest – and please share your secret?

The real fuel of getting things done is willingness. When folks are willing, they go out of their way to make things happen. When they’re unwilling, you have to pull and push and control in order to obtain … poor work.

The current dominant theory of psychology distinguishes two cognitive systems, two thinking paths:

  • System 1: Thinking is fast, emotional, stereotypical, and unconscious, and what we do most of the time.
  • System 2: Thinking is slow, takes effort, logical, calculated, conscious, and costly in terms of brain power, so it takes effort to trigger.

Think of system 1 as a “low road” – your thoughts go on a slide of habitual thinking and emotional knee-jerk reaction – and system 2 as “high road” – looking at the bigger picture and reasoning your way out of tight spots to better outcomes through insight and intuition.

The trade-off is that if you tell someone what to do very narrowly without explaining the purpose or exploring the goals, you’ll immediately trigger system 1. Worse, if you phrase it in terms of “I need you to …” or “I want you to…,” you’re certain to trigger the fear/flight mode of fast thinking.

On the other hand, addressing system 2, which is hard enough in a concrete situation, risks leaving people cold and vaguely interested but without any motivation or intent to do anything about it. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t problem.

Getting to System 2

I was last week on the Gemba at the customer service department of a consumer goods company. The customer service team was very happy to show a report detailing how customers were satisfied by the responses to their complaints (high Net Promoter Score after customer service response). The team was cheerful, nice, responsive, and very good at pacifying customers.

But why were customers complaining in the first place? Uncomprehending looks and shrugs: “All sorts of reasons.” No one had ever asked that question. The leader can then go either way:

  1. I need you to track the reasons for each customer complaint;
  2. Explain that understanding real-life customer complaints are key to improving the product.

If they do a) they’ll get one more report with some meaningless Pareto charts that state the obvious (everyone knows the #1 complaint, it’s just hard to solve) and lumps all the interesting ones into “other.” If they do b) they’ll get an “ah, okay, interesting, but we’re so busy answering complaints that we really don’t see what we can do about product improvement – that’s way out of our scope.”

The sensei exercises are rarely about solving the problem itself, but more getting started practically to better understand it.

The difficulty here is to engage the team’s willingness to do something. The natural low road of system 1 will lead them to keep focusing on what they already do and ignore the bigger issues. On the other hand, you’ve got a point, just getting to think about the bigger issues is likely to get them discussing and then end up… nowhere.

Somehow, we need to engage them in system 2 thinking, but get them to do something concretely as well. The lean trick is to:

  1. Explain the problem: Detailed information from customers must be feedback to the engineers so they understand real-life usage of the products.
  2. Ask them where they’d start concretely: What would be the first concrete step that you would do to start solving this problem?

Making Sense of sensei Requests

Why, then, do sensei demand you do very concrete specific things? Because sometimes people simply don’t know where to start. They’re so new with the question everything seems both impossible and pointless. They try to visualize a complete scalable solution, rather than a concrete step towards an ideal.

A large part of learning is familiarizing oneself with a problem until it becomes clear in our mind, and through manipulating it mentally we get sudden moments of Aha! The sensei exercises are rarely about solving the problem itself, but more getting started practically to better understand it.

In the customer service case, the sensei exercise was simply: start writing interesting complaints on the wall and imagine what the cause could be – why is the customer complaining? How did this issue affect his or her well-being? How did they have to compensate for the value loss?

The sensei exercise is, hopefully, a way to create a willingness to solve the problem by showing a way into the problem. Now, of course, in some cases, people will be unwilling to do even that – but then you have a deeper, managerial issue, likely caused by years of telling them “I want you to …” without showing why.

The elements we need to navigate are always the same: 1) get people to observe the facts by themselves, 2) discuss the theory and the logic until it’s clear in their minds, and 3) make an emotional connection to the outcome and the need to change something. A large part of all of this depends on how much trust you bring to the table: your “internal” strength (how people see you) is as important as the “external” strength, the forcefulness with which you make your argument.

The Tricky Part

To answer your question, what we try to do in lean is:

  1. Engage people in understanding the wider issue and coming up with their own first step (and then the next step, and so on);
  2. Focus their attention by giving them specific observation exercises to get beyond the “I don’t have time to think with all the work I’m currently doing”;
  3. Be careful to maintain willingness throughout – which is often the tricky part and involves both browbeating and cajoling to get people to do exercises to observe, not to solve (and is also the part where you select who you’re going to be working with and who you’ll work around).

The real risk of just “getting things done” is that you’ll end up optimizing what there is rather than reflecting on what should be. In lean, the North Star is detailing an ideal regardless of what the current situation or capabilities are. This requires hours of discussion and Gemba visits at customers, with engineers, in production, at suppliers. A take-charge leader, even a smart and open one, will by-pass this discussion and start fixing all of the wrong things, thus precipitating the very events they try to avert.

There is a practical incrementalism to “I need you to do this …” This is our default mode when we’re either tired or in a dramatic rush. It gets you moving, it gets you to the next step. But if you can’t formulate clearly the theory or vision of what you’re after, so that you can get people to discuss the logic of the next steps, chances are you’re not as clear in your mind as you thought. If you’re at a cliff edge in the fog, one step forward could well be one step too many.

The discipline of engaging people through system 2 by having a valid theory of what goes on and a vision of which way we want to go forces you to clarify those same things in your mind, and then to benefit from others’ views and insights, so that next steps can be defined by the people who’ll do the work themselves – and so that they can bring their own willingness to the changes, which is the key ingredient to success.

1 Comments | Post a Comment
Jon Miller February 9, 2019

If a sensei doesn't you ask clarifying questions and listen well before either answering your question or giving you instruction, find a new one.

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