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New Year’s Reflection

John Shook
1/15/2015
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New Year’s Resolution Reflection

Happy New Year! Even if you are not one of those who makes New Year’s resolutions the new year is surely a good time for reflection. Lean thinkers conduct specific reflection after completing each activity. The transition to a new calendar year is an excellent occasion for general reflection, for asking: “how are things going?”

My first reflection this year is that in 2014 I didn’t do enough reflection! So, there’s resolution #1 – build in time for basic, fundamental reflection. No excuses. No “I’m too busy – the next thing is waiting…”  You won’t HAVE time if you don’t MAKE time. When reflection devolves into an optional activity it won’t happen.

For specific reflection, here’s a sequence that often works well:

  • Did the activity go as intended?
  • If no, why not?
  • If yes, was it useful (did it move the needle in the right direction)?
  • If no, why not?
  • What problems or issues? What improvement ideas?
  • What are the aspirations for next time?
  • What are the next steps?

Such reflection questions are fine for workaday, quick on-the-go reflection (C of PDCA). But, it can be easy to overlook the important piece: the why, the purpose. Did we really accomplish our original aim or move in the right direction?

For general reflection, you must – no way around it – return to your purpose. Why are we doing a, b, or c?  Why are we?  What’s our purpose? What’s the purpose of this activity? 

Why do we exist as an organization? What is our overall purpose? These questions often seem so innocuous as to border on sounding stupid to even ask. But, consider Lego. Jorgen Vig Knudstorp was named CEO in 2004 to lead the turnaround of a great but fading and flailing brand. In his words:

“We started with that fundamental question: why does Lego exist?”

Purpose

What is any firm for? What’s its purpose? Why do humans organize themselves into groups, configure legal agreements, to design, build, and sell products? Yes, to make money to feed our families. But is that all?

Consider these words…

“We shall build good ships

At a profit—if we can

At a loss—if we must

But always good ships.”

And these…

“The surest foundation of an enterprise is Quality.

After, far after, comes Cost.”

That first quote is from Newport News Shipbuilding circa 1916. The second is from that legend of capitalism, Andrew Carnegie. Pretty interesting.

More interesting to me than who first uttered the words is who repeated them – and to whom. Both of these quotes were invoked with profound effect in late 1949 to a group of Japanese industrialists who took them to heart. Young American Homer Sarasohn was teaching them about the purpose of an enterprise.

Learning Purpose, Purposeful Learning

At the time, Homer’s job was to lead the rebuilding—or building—of the Japanese electronics industry which had been devastated by WWII. His students, including such soon-to-be-famous champions of Japan’s post-WWII economic miracle as Akio Morita of Sony (then called Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corp) and Konosuke Matsushita, wanted to learn about the arcane practices of statistical process control (SPC) to ensure quality. Having witnessed the superiority of American products (Japanese vacuum tubes failed at a rate ten times that of those produced in the USA), they were convinced that the secret lay in mysterious quality control tricks. Homer, however, would have none of that thinking and gave them none of the technical details they coveted. “Quality is not a matter of manufacturing techniques; it is a matter of management mindset,” he said.

This was, to remind you, in 1949! Those words sound progressive even in 2014.

Homer refused to teach the rudiments of SPC until he was convinced that his students understood that tools were just tools; first was required a problem consciousness and understanding of purpose. He insisted that his students have a clear sense of the specific problem that they wanted to use SPC to solve. (By the way, this all preceded the more famous arrival in Japan of Deming. It was Homer who recommended Deming to replace him as he returned to the USA upon conclusion of his assignment in Tokyo. You can read about Homer, his colleagues, and the fascinating story here: Homer was a wise sensei indeed.  

Homer’s wisdom takes us back again to purpose. What’s yours? What’s your company’s? Do companies exist for the sake of customers? For-profit enterprises exist to create value. It’s different to state that a company exists to make a profit, versus it can’t exist without making a profit (a distinction made here in contrasting Toyota’s stated purpose – “contribute to society through providing ‘better cars, for more people, at lower prices’” – with GM’s raison d’etre of financial profit).

Delivering Respect – One at a Time

Kroger is a massive grocer ($100 billion in sales makes it the third largest grocer in the world) that is turning its attention back to the most basic of basics. Recognizing that the company exists to create value for customers, one customer at a time, Kroger is building the capability to focus on one customer at a time, one deli order at a time. To do so, it is also focused on building the capabilities of its people, also one at a time.

If mass production (producing in big batches) gets us into trouble, mass service does the same. It only follows, then, that mass training and development does the same. Each product is best produced one at a time. Each customer deserves to be treated one at a time. And each employee deserves to be developed – one at a time.

Mass training is tempting. “We have 10,000 employees; we have to scale this up quickly…!” is an understandable mantra. But, it gets us into trouble. Producing in batches results, invariably, in rework. So too with people development.

Menlo Innovations looks, on the surface, like a software company. Creating software is how the company makes money. But, according to founder and CEO Rich Sheridan, Menlo exists to alleviate human suffering as it relates to technology. And, in the process of answering that challenge, Rich and team created a company that seeks to create joy in the workplace and among everyone the company touches .

Reflecting on “purpose,” nothing more clearly highlights questions of organizational purpose than taking a look at a purely mission-driven organization. Margarette Purvis, CEO of Food Bank for New York City, connects the lean principle of “respect for people” with another fundamental piece of being human – love. In the most inspirational “lean talk” any of us had ever heard at our Lean Transformation Summit last March, Margarette told us that the reason lean connects so well with her organization is that both are "all about love." She says, “That’s why we feed people, and that’s why we pursue continuous improvement, that’s why we attack our many problems and attack them as we do with respect: nobody wants a love that is not respectful.” 

Respect the person, respect the situation, respect the problem, even respect kaizen. They decided, for example, to “attack the line” (the long lines stretching down city sidewalks of people waiting for food) as an act of love and respect. Explains Margarette, “Our goal is to move people quicker” so they don’t have to wait as long – a purposeful, situational problem to solve that is in its very essence filled to the brim with respect. (Watch this video for more.)   

New Year’s Reflection

Back to my New Year’s reflection, our purpose at LEI is to help you make things better through lean thinking and practice – one community member at a time. We rely on you to help us do that, to help us help you.

Taking inspiration from Lego again, late last year former Toyota manager Lesa Nichols helped us use Lego Serious Play to understand more deeply what problem each of us at LEI is trying to solve, and how we can work together better, to better help you, the members of the lean community. The purpose of the work of each of us here at LEI needs to be inexorably linked with situational problems that you face, as you go through your day-to-day work of making one product at a time, serving one customer at a time, solving one problem at a time.

So, tell us, why does your organization exist? What is the purpose of your work? What situational problems do you need to solve today? How can lean thinking help you attack them … respectfully one at a time.

John

John Shook
Chairman and CEO
Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.
jshook@lean.org

PS – Join us in New Orleans to reflect on the purpose and future of lean along with Toyota, Kroger, Menlo, Food Bank of NYC, St. Bernard Project (where you will be able to REALLY help, by building a house in New Orleans 9th Ward on Friday!) and 500 other fellow lean thinkers, including Lesa who will provide a Lego Serious Play experience in one of ten special-topic learning sessions (about 100 Summit seats remain as I hit the send button, right … NOW).

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