The Power of Yokoten

9/22/2020
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I’ve written a lot about yokoten in recent years – the practice of spreading good (lean) ideas horizontally between and across organizations from their point of initial success (“Yoko” means in Japanese horizontal.) It turns out that this is hard, even for the methods and tools needed to create lean value streams. Lean requires practice, even when the theory is clear and simple, and it’s hard to find enough teachers with enough experience and time to lead the cycles of practice needed for sustainable yokoten.

As a result, it’s common to see isolated improvements -- points of light -- in otherwise dark organizations long after the lean tools and methods that would dramatically improve performance have been transplanted from other organizations and proved in one place.

Recently, and maybe it’s a matter of age, I’ve been thinking about a different type of yokoten, the yokoten of spreading new beliefs -- about management and leadership rather than methods and tools -- to the next generation. Most of my work these days (as the pandemic permits any work) is helping managers who are twenty, thirty, or even forty years younger learn how to lead A3 cycles in their organizations.

On the face of it, these exercises are about mastering a management tool – A3 analysis – through cycles of experimentation and learning. But at a deeper level these exercises are about changing personal beliefs down the organization – vertically if you will – about what managers at every level need to do and what leadership means. I call this personal yokoten, focused on one person at a time, individuals who can then transfer these beliefs to the teams they create.

For example, I have recently been working with some very bright young people on an A3 about the future of personal mobility. The issue can be broken up into a number of parts, which leads in turn to multiple A3s. And in each case the team leaders’ instincts are to go quickly (“we are quick studies”), to consult only a few (if any) people familiar with the actual conditions at the gemba (“we’ve got lots of data already to analyze”), to stick to one silo of knowledge (the one they best understand because it is central to their career path), and to jump to solutions without ever actually understanding the problem. Above all they feel the need to supply the answers instantly when their teams start to struggle. Wow. And, to repeat, these are very “bright” young people.

My job is to slow everyone down, to devote what seems like excessive time and study to the description of the current situation and the identification of the root problem, and to continually point out that pure, brilliant logic in the absence of knowledge of the context is often worse than useless.

My hope is that over time I can change the way these young people think about problems and problem solving (or, more accurately about counter-measuring problems) and the role of the leader. This is not to “solve” the problem but to create and sustain a social process in which problems can be continually attacked by a team including everyone touching the problem.

And, here’s my bigger belief. Personal yokoten to teach new mindsets and attitudes is an activity all of us can perform out in the world every day with every manager, team leader, and team we touch. What’s more, we can transfer new, lean ideas about management and leadership in our civic roles and even in our families as we think through tough issues. It’s a gift that we all can give and that this messy world truly needs, where everyone is talking past everyone and jumping to fraught solutions.

P.S. In the spirit of improving one’s capacity to reflect on and learn from lean practice, I recommend you explore The Virtual Lean Learning Experience 2020 (VLX). This is hosted by the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI), and features a two-week immersion into LPPD principles and practices. The theme of the overall event will be Building Resilience with Lean Thinking and Practice.

 

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    Personal yokoten to teach new mindsets and attitudes is an activity all of us can perform out in the world every day with every manager, team leader, and team we touch, says Jim Womack. He believes we can transfer new, lean ideas about management and leadership in our civic roles and even in our families as we think through tough issues.
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