One of the common objections we hear to doing kaizen is that “We’ve tried it before” and it didn’t work. It’s amazing that this could ever be a reason for people to stop trying, yet it is. Last summer I spent and inordinate amount of time lost on unfamiliar roads in Europe. But I never gave up, parked my car on the highway and just waited for something better to happen to me. I corrected course and kept driving. This is true of most of us who drive. What is the difference between our willingness to give up on the continuous improvement path and our determination to get there by car? These days when we drive our cars, we have three things things to keep us going:
- Clear destination
- An appointment
- A Global Positioning System
We’ve found that most people who “fail” on the continuous improvement journey have started out lacking one or more of these things.
First, the destination: there is none on the continuous improvement journey. It is still possible to know points along the routes, mileposts if you will, to know that we are still on the continuous improvement journey and going in the right direction. Some call this True North or “what good looks like”. A benchmarking visit to companies further along on the lean journey can help provide this vision of a clear destination.
When does lean fail? It fails all of the time in small ways, but only the real failure comes only when you stop trying. In the words of Harry Truman, “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”
Second, we need a clear idea of where we need to be at given points in time. Whether we call this a sense of urgency, annual business goals, quarterly performance targets (*shudder*) or daily and hourly tracking against a target, we need to do continuous improvement with a keen sense of time, even to the second. Breaking down the target into “what by when” is a key step in continuous improvement that focuses our mind on what we need to do, by when. It gives us a point in time to check our progress.
Third, we need a friendly voice to tell us when we have taken the wrong turn on the lovely cow path or that we’ve been circling the ring road for 2 hours. We need to turn on our friend Tom Tom and listen, especially in unfamiliar territory. The equivalent to a GPS device in the continuous improvement journey is the concept of “image of excellence” or “ideal condition” of a value stream, and often the best place to find this is inside the head of someone who has already taken the journey. Just seeing world class sites cannot teach you about the human systems or the information systems that support what you see. How does a lean enterprise look and behave from the perspective of people, process and purpose? Asking a sensei to guide the vision and provide long-term direction is the best way. There are also various self-help books, guides and assessment tools people use for setting the course for the lean journey.
One of my projects this year has been updating our lean assessment tool. It’s a typical 1-5 scale questionnaire resulting in spider charts. Below is an example of one of the sections on quality management. It’s shaping up to be 100+ sub-categories organized around 12 major categories. Most companies have some version of a lean assessment chart. I’ve helped in the design / redesign of several over the years. I’ve compared and reviewed several lean assessments that readers have sent me or that our consultants have developed and used over the years. There is still much of what I call “incorrect knowledge” or GPS database maps that need to be updated, redrawn and clarified, in practically all of the existing lean assessment tools. What I’ve found interesting is not what people include but what people choose to leave out of their assessment tools.
Our goal is to develop and share this so that we can develop a consensus “GPS for the TPS” if you will, or a compass that covers the whole territory along the continuous improvement. A clear destination, I have. A GPS on what this product should look like: vague. An appointment… none so far. This project is yet another vying for my time. A side trip on the continuous improvement journey.