I recently wrote about the difference between Toyota Way lean thinking versus short-term, quick win style lean thinking which for good or ill seems to be the default approach. Along these lines, I want to recommend Dr. Robert Mager’s classic What Every Manager Should Know About Training. It’s effective in challenging default thinking about training and shares deep roots with The Toyota Way. It’s also a good starting point for what is a large body of powerful methods.
It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to think of Dr. Mager as the Taiichi Ohno of being PDCA-scientific about human performance, except that Ohno was the Ohno of being PDCA-scientific about human performance, too. The difference is that Ohno’s focus was on improving the Toyota Production System and Mager’s has been to help improve pretty much any kind of human performance. Starting from similar perspectives but focusing on different problems, they wound up with different yet overlapping sets of countermeasures. The thinking they share goes back through Training Within Industry to Walter Shewhart to John Dewey, the American Pragmatist philosopher. Those are some serious roots.
So, what does “human performance” have to do with training and how does that map to the Gemba, problem solving, and PDCA? The default thinking at play here is what too often leads managers to deal with performance shortfalls by punting responsibility to a training function. Consider, for example, all the Death by PowerPoint training we’ve suffered and caused others to suffer because someone with enough authority thought (hoped? wished?) that general lean awareness training would transform things.
Now, compare Mager’s performance-based approach with a conventional content-based, awareness training approach:
A careful look at this table reveals contrasts between Toyota Way “Management by Means” thinking on the left side with classical “Management by Objective” thinking on the right:
- coaching vs. telling
- learning that is driven by problems (performance gaps) in the Gemba vs. decisions by distanced experts
- a focus on what individuals need to learn and when and how (plenty of practice with high quality feedback!) vs. driving the herd through sheep-dip training
- attention to how attaining mastery is motivating vs. overlooking how demotivating being incompetent feels
- clear emphasis on real, observable improvement vs. questionable “numbers trained” kinds of metrics that actually measure attendance, not achievement. Using “numbers trained” KPIs to assess lean implementation brings serious risk of wasting money, wasting trainees’ time, and worse yet… wasting the heart of the firm’s openness to change, lost to cynicism about leaders’ will to lead in their hand-off to the Training Department or a Lean Promotion Office.
Wait – it gets worse: why we’re setting up managers to fail
Default-thinking transformation training can be actively pernicious – making things worse than doing nothing at all. Here’s why: David Dunning and Justin Kruger, two Cornell psychologists, have shown that the less you know about something, the greater your tendency to feel you know it well enough. A little thought suggests why – if you don’t know much about a topic it’s hard to judge just how little you know, and confident folks, as managers can be, will tend to estimate on the “more” side. But isn’t confidence always a good thing for lean transformers? Well, no.
Consider the Dunning-Kruger effect on managers after attending (they have Certificates!) content-based lean transformation training – training that didn’t laser-focus on the particular new skills each person needed to develop and didn’t provide individualized practice, with clear feedback, to build those skills. Feeling D-K confident and excited, our newly minted experts sally forth to launch their transformation efforts. But, short on key skills – gotta Kata to get skilled – and lacking the environment necessary for such novel and complex performances, their efforts falter. Even worse, because they felt competent, they may see failure as caused by weaknesses in lean or blocked by “cultural” inertia in their firm or by others’ flawed performances. For those of them old enough to remember TQM, CQI, six sigma, BPR. etc. it’s déjà vu all over again, Charlie Brown – no more kickoffs, Lucy, thank you very much!
Now for some good news: high performance, no training required
Those check sheets widely used in Toyota Way firms? Mager would call them job aids and they’re wonderful ways to get reliable standard performance without any training at all. They support the performer while he does the work. Performer support systems range from simple handwashing check lists for hospital infection control all the way to adaptive electronic performance support systems (EPSS) for complex real-time tasks, such things as Integrated Development Environments like PyCharm for software development.
Other Toyota job aid examples are A3 and QC Story standard layouts serving as performer support, scaffolding the performances of learners (they also neatly tend to focus on performance gaps, just as Mager advocates). Repair bays in Toyota dealerships have dual screen EPSS that not only guide techs, they also feed techs’ insights from the repair Gemba directly back to support design engineers’ and supply chain performances.
Toyota engine designers use a sophisticated proprietary wizard app to step them through preparing CAD models for intricate thermal and structural computer simulations, a task only highly trained specialists could do before. Obeya visual project delivery practices and layouts scaffold project teams’ performances. Chief engineers’ wisdom builds in precious binders handed along from project to project. General engineering design, organized around problem solving, involves cadenced, standard practice collaboration using a large number of standard format performer support items. Direct performer support is embedded thinking at Toyota, and with a little practice, it’s something we can embed into our organizations, too.
Of course, performer support has to be worth the cost, so investment comes way after we grasp the performance problems in the Gemba AND see that investment matches benefit better than simpler alternatives. Naturally, before we deploy any kind of instruction or support tool or work environment intervention, Mager requires us to prototype it, see how it delivers for our target population of learners, and adjust accordingly before rollout. PDCA!
Sometimes evolution generates similar countermeasures to the challenges of fitness through different pathways – biologists call this “convergent evolution.” Functional eyes, for example, are believed to have evolved along more than a half-dozen separate paths. Perhaps under selective pressures of market capitalism convergent evolution also occurs in industrial organization, and an example of that is how Ohno and Mager wound up showing us similar ways to use performance gaps to see and learn. What do you think?