Who's on your teaching list?

X — Your office is incredibly quiet and peaceful. Don’t you have any angry customers or suppliers calling from time to time?

Me — I tend to visit Lean offices and workshops these days, so I can’t compare to your place, but apart from the machines’ noise most are indeed pretty focused on the job at hand.

X — You’ve got to tell me the secret: I’m desperate for a smooth and tranquil day at work.

Me — Sorry, but the secret is « there’s no secret ». Take a problem, try to get to the bottom of it with whoever can do something about it, rinse and repeat.

X — But I’m bombarded by calls and texts and emails from just about everybody in my company: it feels I have to be on top of everything all the time.

Me — So who is on your teaching list?

X — What do you mean? I’m no teacher. I’ve barely enough time to give directions or instructions when called upon.

Me — So why are they calling you, maybe you’re the one having a problem? If your goal is « having a smooth and tranquil day at work », surely receiving impromptu text messages all day long is a pretty big gap from this ideal scenario.

X — And you think teaching a few people there or here would help?

Me — You’re right maybe I was a little too presumptuous. Maybe you could start understanding a little more about who’s calling you most often. Is it the sales guy or the shop floor manager? The graphic designer or the accountant?

X — Well it’s definitely not the accountant: she’s on maternity leave and I have to fill up her job as well…

Me, joking — And I hope it’s not your banker! But more seriously who’s calling you the most?

X, frustrated — Hmm, I would have to check on my phone and it would take a little bit of precious time. Do you really think that’s the most pressing issue I should be addressing right now?

Me, shrugging — I don’t know. I’ve made my own choice for the kind of work environment I wanted years ago. But the Lean literature says you can or should start with angry customers and their complaints. And I have a feeling you most direct customers - your own team - are quite vocal…

X, irritated — But they’re not my customers, they’re my team! They should be working for me.

Me, whispering — I think I’ll keep the kanban cards at bay for the time being…

X — Sorry, I didn’t quite hear your last phrase.

Me, aloud — Remind me of visiting your customers' service if I ever get a chance to visit your office…

Reading books to anchor knowledge, after practice

I’ve been for 5 years on a Lean journey and I’ve read countless books about the topic : wandering through my personal library, I can actually count 26. Though not « countless », it’s still a sizable lot.

Unfortunately there’s no shortcut from reading a book to practicing lean on the Gemba. And I start to feel the arrow of usefulness flies in the other direction as well : first you practice techniques with your team and then it’s time to anchor the knowledge through book reading.

At the turn of 2022, I decided to have another go at mandating kaizen work for all my team. But I decided my focus would be less on the actual results (which had lead to dwindling energy output over long periods) and more on the interactions between team members.

And off course, when I re-opened earlier this week Lead With Lean by Michael Ballé, I was struck by an article about the Standard Work for CEOs?

Lean thinking brings in a major change for managers: training their direct reports becomes their number one responsibility.

Lead With Lean
Lead With Lean, an excerpt from page 205 : Standard Work for CEOs?

The ink hadn’t moved: I did read that page back in 2017 but it didn’t make an impact then. And now the words do… I guess I should re-read books more often !

Building psychological safety to make great teams

When Google published the result of its Project Aristotle back in 2016 on what made great teams, a concept stood out : psychological safety. That’s when "team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other". It was the number one factor in their original paper.

After the successful NUMI experiment, Toyota decided to build its own plant in the US in the early 1980’s, Georgetown - Kentucky was chosen and a group of mentors (ie. senseis) was sent from Japan to teach, train and guide the newly recruited management team.

Steven R. Leuschel went back to this group of American employees in order to gather their views 30 years later for his PhD. The book Sensei Secrets: Mentoring at Toyota Georgetown was the end result. And guess what: it’s the notion of protection that stands out.

Sensei Secrets: Mentoring at Toyota Georgetown
Sensei Secrets: Mentoring at Toyota Georgetown

Monday morning, we unload the dolly at 5 a.m., the trial started at 7, by this time I've been up like 48 hours and I was covered with black soot and grime. So [my sensei] comes in, and I walk up to his desk and he is sitting there, writing like he always does, and I said, "Kaz, I got the dolly in."

He said, "How did it go?"

I said, "It was a piece of shit."

And he just kind of started grinning.

I said, "You knew that when you signed it off."

He said, "Yeah."

At this point, Jeff thought he was going to get screamed at or even fired because his mistake cost a few thousand dollars. The conversation contined:

He said, "You knew that is was a piece of crap, yet you let me do it anyway?"

Kas said, "Will you ever do that again?"

"Hell no!"

Kas smiled. "Cheap lesson."

Sensei Secrets: Mentoring at Toyota Georgetown
Sensei Secrets: Mentoring at Toyota Georgetown
All these stories of protection showed an unanticipated them of the research: the extent to which the Japanese senseis protected the Americans from negative emotional experiences, from fear of failure, and from the negative consequences of failure.

If it’s not a path to psychological safety, I don’t know what is!

Teaching and learning in the new normal

Empty desks in No Parking office, 2022
Empty desks in No Parking office, 2022

X — With the pandemic still under way, it must be a challenge to practice the kind of Lean you’ve been trained to do.

Me — Sure ! When you’ve invested in post-its and boards and pencil markers for the last 10 years, it can be frustrating.

X — I guess you’re happy having avoided them most frivolous of 2020 investment, the top floor office with a view.

Me — Well, here’s the view from our nearly empty office we got into in 2018… Not sure we’d be doing the same kind of investment in 2022.

View from the No Parking office
View from the No Parking office, 2022

X — Are you forcing the staff to enjoy it?

Me — Not quite : everyone can work from home as long as he wants.

X — No strings attached ?

Me — The only one is coming at least half a day for training purposes : it’s the main part I’m not confident of doing online. I feel I haven’t cracked that yet. That and onboarding new staff.

X — Hold on a minute, are you teaching your employees every other week ? It seems an absurd amount of wasted energy. Surely they know what they’re doing!

Me — There’s a classic in Lean circles that goes like this: a CEO asks What happens if we train people and they leave? and the sensei answers What happens if we don’t and they stay? And Toyota actually means it : in their french plant, every manager has a local supervisor, like you would expect, and a second « coordinator » directly from Japan as well. His task is simply to instill the Kaizen spirit.

X — I’d call that an overloaded bureaucracy.

Me — That’s because you haven’t heard the Toyota CEO actually doing the first lecture from their TPS training program to its upper management. But back to what we’re doing to deal with the online training stuff : we’re calling it the « Gemba Code ». Each week with a different developer, I’ll do a deep dive into a problem found in the « red bin ». It’s usually a one-hourish Zoom session and brings invaluable knowledge about the things we need to get better at for the next time.

X, shrugging — And I thought pair programming was some fringe and extreme practice.

Me — Ah, XP : music to my hears. Funny how one of their core practices isn’t possible anymore : imagine being in one room with the entire team, sharing a desk and a computer with your closest neighbour and chatting with the customer as well. The health officer would go nuts. And I wonder how the XP community will cope in this new normal.

X — It seems you do like experimenting weird stuff at your place.

Me — The weird thing is people accepting the status quo in their company, waiting for a magic wand that will get them through without doing too much effort such as bringing on the consultants to do some change management.

X — And what are you suggesting instead?

Me — I’m actually so glad I’ve found a bunch of likely minded folks in Lean, trying to push the agenda towards a better futur for their customers, their companies, their people and the planet. And writing books, and doing conferences, and so on and so forth. And lately I’m particularly eager to follow their new « on-line gemba » course.

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