Eliminate the Need for Heroics

Four Business Superheroes

Any leader or skilled improvement professional knows that metrics are necessary to define what success looks like, measure progress toward a defined target, and assess performance against defined standards. Metrics also serve as a powerful way to demonstrate improvement success to people who might otherwise roll their eyes.

Used properly, relevant metrics provide the much-needed fuel for better decisions, better problem solving, and better improvement. Unfortunately, all too often, organizations operate with a “empty tank” with few, if any, metrics that matter. Data is one thing; meaningful information is quite another.

But as powerful as metrics can be, there are many noble improvement goals for which measuring success is difficult or impossible. Some of the greatest minds recognized this reality.

Consider the saying that’s been attributed to both Albert Einstein and William Bruce Cameron: “Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that’s counted counts.” (“Matters” is sometimes used in lieu of “counts” and “measured” is sometimes used in lieu of “counted.”)

W. Edwards Deming echoed this maxim in Out of the Crisis:

“One can not be successful on visible figures alone. Now of course, visible figures are important. There is payroll to meet, vendors to pay, taxes to pay; amortization, pension funds, and contingency funds to meet. But he that would run his company on visible figures alone will in time have neither company nor figures. Actually, the most important figures that one needs for management are unknown or unknowable.” (p. 121; he credits the last statement to statistician Lloyd S. Nelson)

In The Outstanding Organization I defined four behaviors that I have found provide the necessary foundation (and are often lacking) for achieving outstanding business performance: clarity, focus, discipline, and engagement.


Without those behaviors firmly in place, organizations produce varying degrees of self-inflicted chaos. The most common and destructive type of chaos is more commonly referred to “fire fighting.” In many organizations, fire fighting has become such a normal behavior that, like a fish in water, they don’t even realize that they’ve habituated chaos into their daily operations.

In the most extreme cases, organizations encourage fire fighting because they habitually reward the heroine or hero who saves the day and they do not reward the people working to prevent chaos. After all, chaos is exciting! It gets our juices flowing! But it’s all too easy to become an adrenaline junkie. Like any addiction, being hooked on adrenaline will bring you down.

How does this relate to measurement? Improvement is defined as reducing (or closing) the gap between a defined current state and a target condition you’re aiming to achieve. If your organization is hooked on fire fighting, your target condition is to reduce (ideally, eliminate) the need for fire fighting. After you identify the root causes for fire-fighting (there will be several) and test, adjust, and implement the countermeasures that will address the “vital few” root causes that are causing the bulk of the pain, it’s time to measure your success. How do you know if you’ve successfully reduced or closed a nebulous gap?

One way to quantify a reduction in chaos is to conduct brief employee surveys. Another is to simply get anecdotal feedback to the question: “Does it feel better?”

Yes. “Does it feel better?” is a legitimate question.

While I’ve often admonished improvement teams, “It can’t just feel better. It needs to be measurably better,” it’s also true that there are a some wildly important improvements that may be tougher to measure, but are simply the right thing to do. You may not be able to draw a direct cause-and-effect correlation between chaos reduction and an increase in profit, market share, or employee engagement, but reducing the need for heroics remains a noble goal.

Work shouldn’t require heroics to get it done and get it done well. Outstanding organizations continuously strive to create work environments where successful performance isn’t dependent on heroics. Where people can be proud of the deliverables they create versus rushing through everything and delivering suboptimal output. Where leaders sleep at night versus wondering if deadlines will be met. Where customers don’t have to regularly call the customer service center because… well, there’s no need to. Where stress levels are in check and employee joy is palpable.  Being proud, reduced stress, sleeping, joy… they may not be easy to measure, but….

Don’t you want to be one of those organizations?

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Leadership: What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Heart on computer keyboard

In 2012, I spoke at the Lean HR Summit, which is one of the many excellent annual Summits delivered by Lean Frontiers. I had heard about David Veech‘s work (@DavidVeech) at Ohio State and was eager to hear him speak. So I settled into my chair, ready to hear David’s take on the interplay between Lean principles and HR practices. But that’s not what he talked about—at least not explicitly. What David talked about was love. Come again? Love? In business?

In retrospect, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, one of W. Edwards Deming’s greatest contributions to business management is #8 of his 14 Points for Management: Drive out fear. And I’ve understood for quite some time now that all of our feelings and behaviors can be distilled down to two primal human emotions: love and fear. So to drive out fear, we have to replace it with love. Makes sense.

David went on to deliver one of the most compelling keynotes I’ve heard and his words deepened the quest I’ve been on to uncover the keys to consistent, outstanding business performance. One thing that’s clear is that love and fear play a critical role. Likely THE most critical role. We have to build cultures of love in order to have cultures devoid of fear.

Uncomfortable with the words love and business in the sentence? Simon Sinek’s most recent TED Talk is arguably his best yet and is laced with Lean leadership principles, even though he never mentions the word Lean. What he does mention is love as a precondition to establishing a culture of trust and cooperation, which leads to significant business results. This 12-minute talk packs a powerful punch.

Similar to a post I penned last week for Switch and Shift and I address in The Outstanding Organization, Sinek talks about the need to create the environment that enables people to perform at their best.

Sinek says it best:

“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people in the organization first, to sacrifice the comforts, to sacrifice the tangible results so that the people remain feel safe and feel they belong, remarkable things happen.”

Take a look and then read on (If you’re pressed for time, I’ve listed some of Sinek’s key points at the end of this post):

In The Outstanding Organization (TOO), I talk about the establishing a work environment that fosters “reciprocal nourishment,” a term I learned from clinical sociologist Kathryn Goldman Schuyler. While writing TOO, I never even thought the word love. I do now.

In last week’s webinar about Respect for People: The Lean Way, I address the need to build work environments that draw on and are highly respectful of the full set of knowledge, skills, aptitude and creativity (KSAC) each employee brings to a job. In doing so, business performance soars. This webinar was the first time I mentioned the word “love” and “business” in the same sentence (at 6:00). It felt very right.

I believe we’re on the cusp of a major transformation in business and the way leaders lead. Command-and-control never worked and it especially doesn’t work with Millennials. One of my favorite little books released in the past two years is Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go by Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni. People are starved for feedback, learning, and development. They are not merely widgets to do a company’s bidding. When companies create environments where love and respect for humanity drives all decisions and behavior, they become unstoppable.

Spread the word. Say the word. Love. When it comes to achieving outstanding business performance, love’s got a LOT to do with it.

Here are some of my favorite Sinek-isms from his TED Talk:

“In the military, they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain.”

Wow. Jarring statement, but it’s often true. Let’s change that. Another good one:

“When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people in the organization first, to sacrifice the comforts, to sacrifice the tangible results so that the people remain feel safe and feel they belong, remarkable things happen.”

Indeed. In environments where people don’t feel safe, trust and cooperation is non-existent and the truth about anything can become unknowable. How ’bout this pearl:

“Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank.”

Enough said.

And about layoffs, a key Lean principle. Pay particular attention to the story about Bob Chapman (8:26), a deeply-respected Lean leader who believes in “heart counts” instead of  “head counts”:

“Great leaders would never sacrifice the people to save the numbers. They would sooner sacrifice the numbers to save the people.”

And finally:

“If you get the environment right, every single one of us has the capacity to do these remarkable things. And more importantly, others have that capacity too.”

(Hat tip to Jean Cunningham for mentioning Sinek’s TED Talk in her May newsletter.)

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The Case for Kaizen Events

Kaizen Events

One thing that there’s no shortage of in life is criticism about things we don’t fully understand—or haven’t experienced success with. Another thing there’s no shortage of is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Broad generalizations—especially those that are patently untrue—serve no one.

Enter Kaizen Events—also known as Kaizen Blitzes, Kaizen Workshops, Rapid Improvement Events (RIEs), Rapid Process Improvement Workshops (RPIWs), and a host of company-branded terms. Some people equate “Workouts” (a term used for an improvement method popularized by General Electric) with Kaizen Events, though there are striking differences—at least in terms of how Mike Osterling and I define Kaizen Events in our book, The Kaizen Event Planner (And good news! TKEP has just been released in e-book form).

While the exact genesis of Kaizen Events is unclear, it appears to be tied to a convergence of interest from Danaher executives who were working with the consulting firm Shingijutsu in the late 1980’s and the Northeast Region of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME). According to Jon Brodeur’s introduction in AME’s The Kaizen Blitz:

“Our decision to structure the Kaizen Blitz as a three-day event came down to economics; three days was the right amount of time people could spend away from their companies and still get a good taste of the approach. Three days would not magically transform the organization, but a three-day blitz would give management and people at all levels a good idea of what could happen in a concentrated effort driven by human creativity.”

So here we are—20 or more years since Kaizen Events were born. We’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. But I’m concerned with the degree to which Kaizen Events are derided by some of the leading voices in the Lean movement. One notable Lean thinker recently wrote: “Who has time for the hugely wasteful & mechanical five-day kaizen events?” Are you kidding me? Hugely wasteful? Mechanical? That’s not at all my perspective and extensive experience with the methodology. Perhaps we need to reboot our Kaizen Event engine and learn how to use them responsibly and effectively.

Here’s how:

1. View Kaizen Events as transformation “practice sessions.”

Kaizen Events offer an efficient and effective method for achieving more than improvement to specific processes. Sure, the methodology offers a powerful venue for solving problems quickly. However, the cognitive learning, skill development, and psychological and behavioral shifts that occur with well-executed Kaizen Events offer even deeper and longer-lasting benefits.

Organizational transformation is contingent on drawing clearer lines between leadership’s role in setting strategy and drawing on workforce experience and creativity to solve problems at a tactical level. Kaizen Events offer a powerful training ground for achieving this shift. Leaders get more skilled in determining what needs to happen; the people who do the work become authorized and progressively more skilled in determining how. This shift ultimately frees leaders’ time so they can focus on their primary role—vision and strategy—and produces high levels of engagement all the way to the frontlines.

Kaizen Events also offer an efficient and effective way to teach critical thinking and develop proper problem-solving skills to 6-10 people at once. Putting a problem through its plan-do-study-adjust paces (for a full description, see pp 120-132 in The Outstanding Organization), helps habituate proper problem solving across an organization. Encouraging a team to repeatedly kick the tires and ask “why?”, “why not?”, and “what if?” creates a way of thinking that has far-reaching benefits.

Kaizen Events also offer a powerful way to replace unhealthy organizational habits with healthy ones. Done well, Kaizen Events help organizations learn how to:

  • See work through the holistic lens that reflects reality. Organizations that are structured solely by function create an environment where no one person understands the way work truly flows and value is delivered to a customer. No one. Now that’s plain silliness and the subject for a different post. But even if an organization isn’t prepared to challenge its existing structure, Kaizen Events result in a team of 6-10 people who FINALLY understand how work flows (or, more commonly, doesn’t flow) across a large swath of the organization. As a team member on last week’s Kaizen Event admitted during a interim briefing to leaders (that included some of the most senior leaders in the organization): “I thought my portion of the process was perfect! (Laughter) And then I found out how much I contributed to the problem.” Kaizen Events build holistic thinking that results in greater collaboration, cooperation, and decision-making all of the time, not just in Kaizen Events. And it creates a pool of people who are far more knowledgeable about the business and what customers value, which is a boon for developing up-and-comers and building a customer-focused operation.
  • Build proper meeting management skills. Many organizations have highly dysfunctional meeting management practices. Properly planned and executed Kaizen Events build skills around establishing clear meeting objectives, involving the proper people (no more and no less), starting and ending on time, sticking to scope, etc. Another participant on last week’s Kaizen team said: “Wow. If only all of our meetings were conducted like this!”
  • Build strong collaborative problem-solving skills. By design, Kaizen Events move fast. Having only 3-5 days to solve long-standing problems requires that people learn how to ask the right questions, listen deeply, avoid side conversations, and avoid talking over each other. This last one is particularly important—many organizations have a habitual pattern of talking over each other and having multiple conversations going on at once. Like fish in water, most don’t even recognize that the problem exists. The “ground rules” in effectively facilitated Kaizen Events disallow this behavior, which team members quickly embrace and value. And I know I’ve truly succeeded as a facilitator if, by the end of the Event, team members begin asking the types of questions that only I asked on day one. When the facilitator can take a back seat to the improvement process, this is true success!

But notice that I referred to Kaizen Events as transformation “practice sessions.” I didn’t say that they were the way you play the game all of the time. At some point, rapid improvement by focused cross-functional teams needs to become the natural way an organization conducts its business and formal Kaizen Events need to be few and far in between.

2. Tie Kaizen Events to a larger strategy.

For all of the benefits listed in #1, who wouldn’t want to give Kaizen Events a try? Well, before you grab that hammer out and begin looking for nails, understand that Kaizen Events need to be tied to a larger strategy or they become reduced to “drive-by kaizen,” “Kamikaze Kaizen,” or, my favorite that I learned from a colleague many years ago, “Random Acts of Kaizen.”

Kaizen Events are first and foremost a method for executing. Proper Kaizen Events don’t result in a plan for making improvement. The improvement occurs right then and there. So you can technically use them any time you want to execute rapidly. But they should be linked to something larger that’s a top priority for the organization. For example, problem owners and problem teams using the A3 methodology for problem solving can turn to Kaizen Events as a means to rapidly design, test, and implement the countermeasures needed to solve a specific aspect of a problem. Organizations who are improving an entire value stream can use Kaizen Events to rapidly design, test, and implement the various countermeasures that are needed to achieve the future state value stream as a mapping team has designed. (But note that value stream mapping should PRECEDE Kaizen Events, not be part of them. See Value Stream Mapping for more details.) But, in all cases, Kaizen Events should be tied to something larger (Hoshin Plan, A3, Value Stream Map, etc.) to make the best use of these resource-intensive activities. Running Kaizen Events just because you want to or know how to simply doesn’t make good business sense.

3. Balance Kaizen Events with building daily kaizen chops.

I believe that most of the people who trash talk Kaizen Events do so because they see organizations who can’t seem to make improvement in any other way and haven’t made much, if any, progress in creating continuous improvement cultures.

If you view improvement in degrees, well-executed Kaizen Events are similar to double or triple hits in a baseball game. Large, well executed, multi-month projects are the organizational equivalent of home runs and grand slams: thrilling, but difficult to achieve. Consistent “single hits” that move runners from base to base are how games are won. Achieving consistent single hits is also what results in the “magic of Lean,” described by a long-standing client CEO:

“In my experience leading organizations through the Lean Journey, there’s a magic moment, a tipping point, where a critical mass of believers engage their hearts and souls into making their work simpler and easier. All of the workforce development, daily kaizen, Kaizen Events, and project teams finally kick into a natural unconscious behavior. The power of incremental improvements creates inertia that delivers profit to the bottom line. No one is really sure what exactly is driving the financial improvements. It’s not an event; it’s a change of culture, a new healthier, happier company. That’s what I call the Magic of Lean.”

As I mention in The Outstanding Organization (p. 172)you must include Kaizen Events in your portfolio of improvement methods. “Rapid improvement is energizing to workers and leadership teams alike, and provides an effective means to break organizational habits that slow execution.” Kaizen Events are a way to formally pass the baton from leaders to the front lines, and tie tactics to strategy. They’re an effective way to change behavior at all levels. Which gets us back to point #1 and the myriad of benefits Kaizen Events offer.

The bottom line? Don’t reject a concept just because it’s not executed properly much of the time. Nor because it’s used indiscriminately instead of purposefully. Instead, vow to help the organizations we touch learn how to harness the power that Kaizen Events offer and used them as a balanced approach to creating organizational transformation.

For assistance in using Kaizen Events as a balanced approach to transforming and achieving rapid results, please contact us to schedule a facilitated Event or facilitator development program. Or check out The Kaizen Event Planner in either paper or e-book form.

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