Dear Gemba Coach,
Well, that’s the point isn’t it? Do things ever work out as planned?
I was recently on the gemba of a maker of sophisticated equipment. In a story familiar to many, they had tried to come up with a new machine to fill a gap in the market. Then reality fought back: not only were few customers were interested, but the new machines had quality problems that were really, really, difficult to solve.
The hoshin kanri plan is: develop a new offer to stimulate growth – with sales objectives. The reality is nothing happens as planned. How do we react?
When you look at it this way, it’s easy to see how prevalent is the following story: Someone high up in management has a great idea for a new way to make easy money. Resources are planned and people driven to work hard. Then it doesn’t work out as expected. The company enters a weird and elaborate dance of justifying and covering up what went wrong.
In the end, after meetings and PowerPoints, after arguments won and lost, the company finds where to attribute the blame and moves on, abandoning the goal in the process.
What the CEO Did
This could easily have happened in the previous company I mentioned, particularly since the engineer had made at least one design mistake that was spotted soon enough – even though it was hard to fix.
But the CEO took it all very differently. He saw the non-achievement of his hoshin as a challenge, and he brought everyone together to formulate a response:
- Rather than let the blame game happen and, in the process of finding a sacrificial victim, abandon the original hoshin goal by explaining the plan was correct, but someone ruined it …
- The CEO reasserted the hoshin goal of finding this new place in the market, and brought the team together to observe and discuss what had been wrong about the plan in the first place and how to try something different.
This is the key to lean spirit. Yes, we plan. Yes, we work hard to achieve these plans through actions. But then, when reality fights back, we practice mental agility:
- What is it we had not seen? Where does our mental map not fit the territory?
- What can we try to do differently? Trying to do something different is as much figuring out the gaps in our understanding of the situation as much as solving the immediate problems.
- How can we think more deeply? What are the assumptions that still hold true and where do we have to change our minds?
What Engineering Did
By doing this, the engineering team started breaking down fundamental systems in the architecture of the machine and figuring out where they’d made wrong calculations. This exercise turned out to be immensely rich in discovering grey areas in the design. The team discovered that many of the designs they used were poorly understood and worked on the current equipment simply because they worked – they had no clear idea why.
First, the team invested in more precise measuring tools. Then, by painstakingly putting together causal diagrams of critical functions, the team explored a deeper understanding of how the systems worked and started experimenting with aspects of their machines they had not looked at so far.
The result was a different new machine, not as revolutionary-looking, but that responded reliably to the need of the market. But more importantly, learning projects fundamentally improved the design of the existing product line, enhancing reliability and ease-of-use for customers with a visible impact on sales.
This, of course, could not have happened without the engineers strenuously working their way up a difficult learning curve. In this case, there was lots of unlearning to do first – in order to rethink some basic calculations. We can see here a rare clear example of what “learning to learn” really means: figuring out first what we need to learn, and then managing the learning curve.
5 Disciplines for Responding
The deeper point here is that we humans naturally plan to achieve goals. Very often these goals are narrowly expressed – we just want that new car/job/gig/profit. Then we’re massively overconfident our plan will work out, as well as easily crushed when they don’t.
Better be lucky than good, sure, but plans hardly ever work out because we’re not alone in the game and other people have different ideas. When the plan doesn’t pan out, the strongest human instinct is denial and blame: denial that the plan was wrong, and blame on something/someone for the totally unexpected, treacherous, unknown unknowns for things going awry. This is human nature. We feel we are the masters of our fate so when we’re thwarted it has to be someone’s fault.
Practicing lean thinking leads you to change your mental model: plans don’t go awry, situations change. A situation change is a challenge, and what matters is our response: how are we going to change ourselves to succeed in the new situation, without giving in on our fundamental goals. This requires the discipline of:
- Focusing on broader goals. Why do we want what we want as opposed to narrowing it down and fixating on “I just want this.”
- Accepting we’re not in control of everything. Others play a huge part in how things turn out, which means being aware of how allies, competitors, and other stakeholders impact the situation.
- Trying new stuff. Not so much to solve the problem but to figure out what the problem really is, what we still know and where we have to change our mind. Many of these new attempts will seem futile at first, but how can we know beforehand what will pay and what won’t?
- Building on what works accidentally. Think deeply to link it to our broader goals to realize we can actually move in an unexpected or unlooked for direction and succeed.
- Challenging and supporting the team. They’ll do the hard work of exploring the river without quite seeing the dry land on the other side. Offer them the opportunity and recognition of building something new.
I’ll answer your question by a question: how are you going to change yourself to make sure you still achieve your hoshin goals even though your initial hoshin plans failed?