My Japanese teachers often spoke about making processes flow “like a single brushstroke”. It was and still is a phrase difficult to translate. Often I would mimic picking up a calligraphy brush and sweeping it in a u-shape to demonstrate to others what the our sensei was trying to convey. To explain in a few words, the process should move continuously and smoothly as a brushstroke, not leaving the paper until the motion was complete, and when the brush returns to the original position the shape should be simple and elegant. When we design work as repetitive cycles that are easy to perform at a high value-added content, we experience this calligraphy brushstroke-thing the sensei talked about.
U shaped cells
At a nuts-and-bolts level, the u-shaped cell we see in factories, warehouses, and increasingly in transactional environments is an example of the power of the u-shape. Most students of lean manufacturing will have encountered the maxim that the workplace should be designed for “u-shaped” flow. There are many reasons for this, including having a counterclockwise flow instead of linear flow, establishing a clear and single “in” and “out” area for the connected processes, removing barriers to flow between the processes on the inside of the U, and allowing easy access for material logistics and equipment maintenance.
The fact that the u-shape brings people together is by far the most important factor, of which more here.
Change management U shape
Many lean implementations have struggled or been scuttled due to resistance to change. Even before stepping foot into a kaizen event, much less a full-blown lean transformation, people should be made aware that change is painful and that there is a natural human resistance that comes with this. Ideally a smooth change management transition would go from awareness of why the change is needed to desire to support and be engaged in the change, followed by an understanding of how and the skills and abilities to change, resulting in behaviors to commit and sustain the changes.
But this rarely happens without active upfront planning or massive downstream intervention. One recipe for effective change by John Kotter suggests an eight-step strategy for change management:
- Establish a sense of urgency
- Create a guiding coalition
- Develop a vision for the change
- Communicate the change vision
- Empower everyone to act on the vision
- Generate short-term wins
- Consolidate gains and produce more change
- Set the new ways as part of the culture
This broad-based prescription for change management is only as effective as the speed at which each person goes through their personal change curve, beginning with the guiding coalition in step 2 above.
This 4-stage u-shape personal change curve is based on the five stage Kubler Ross model on the transition people go through when they are grieving some personal loss. It’s worth acknowledging where people stand and spending the time and effort to get people from stage 1 to 2 to 3 as quickly as possible. Until they are on the right side of the center line people are not adding momentum to the change effort but in fact they are putting on the brakes.
The four stages of competence
Even after people are in stage 3 of the personal change curve and open to exploration and learning, we are not out of the proverbial woods. As people emerge from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, they may experience another sense of loss, whether it be of power, self image, respect or control. One of the challenges with lean is that it requires leaders to learn a lot. It would be easy if all they needed to learn were Japanese words, formulas, and how particular problem solving tools are used; instead we need them to learn new behaviors. There is a classic u-shaped learning curve that in some ways parallels the personal change curve above:
1. Unconscious incompetence. The leader does not understands or know how to support the change or demonstrate the appropriate behaviors, and also does not recognizes this inability. As a result, they may not have a desire to address it.
2. Conscious incompetence. Though still unable to do what is needed, the individual recognizes this deficit. Only with learning, practice and effort can people exit this phase.
3. Conscious competence. The leader understands how to do what is needed, but can only do so through a great deal of consciousness effort. Most likely coaxing, encouragement and audits are needed to pass through this phase.
4. Unconscious competence. The leader has sufficient practice that the new behavior becomes second nature. They do what is needed without thinking most or all of the time. When enough people do and teach this to others, it has become part of the culture.
Understanding and knowing what these lean leadership behaviors are in itself used to be a challenge but increasingly there is a consensus on what these are, so ignorance is no excuse.
Bonus: Theory U
First there was theory X, then theory Y and now theory U. MIT lecturer C. Otto Scharmer has written a book on his approach to leadership called Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges.
At a glance the content looks good, with some notable commonalities to lean thinking:
- Build common intent: harmony, consensus, and listening to customers and stakeholders
- Observe, observe, observe: go see, gemba focus, keep an open mind
- Connect to the source: not so sure about this one. perhaps reflection and hansei
- Prototype the new: very much in line with experimenting and the hands-dirty aspect of lean
- Embody the new in the ecosystem: the whole systems focus is a lean-friendly message
Theory U promises to encourage you to “step into the emerging future”. Like change, the future is something that happens whether we accept it or not, so being aware and ready in advance is surely a good thing. I will have to learn more about Theory U and where it’s going.
What is this power of U that attracts so many ideas to it?