Tips for Lean Managers

Hoshin Kanri as Both Strategy and Meta-strategy

By Jon Miller Updated on April 1st, 2021

Meta is one of my favorite four-letter words. People don’t use it often enough. Being meta is what makes ideas curl back upon themselves, thereby enriching our understanding of them. For example there is meta-emotion (our feelings about our feelings), meta-belief (beliefs about our beliefs), metalanguage (a language to describe our languages), metadata (data about data), meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) and meta-analysis (analysis of the analyses we have performed). Because understanding the current condition is the first step in making improvements, the self-awareness that being meta brings to our minds is an essential factor.

When we talk about “doing kaizen in how we do kaizen” or “5S of our 5S approach” or “KPIs to measure our KPIs” these are all meta. Within a thriving Lean culture there is much hansei, or reflection with the intent of self-criticism and betterment. During reflection we check the results of our actions, check the process, questioning whether we achieved what we intended and whether we were able to follow the plan. Hansei is the meta-check, checking how we checked.

The PDCA cycle itself is a method of meta-improvement when it is practiced correctly. A linear “fix and move on” approach to improvement follows a PD (plan-do) or PDC (plan-do-check) or often even just D (do) approach. However the full circle requires PDCA for the final A of Adjust / Act, by building on the learning from step C to the next turn of the PDCA cycle. Six sigma projects, kaizen events, or employee suggestions that merely result in improved process performance are not sufficient. They are improvements, but without following the PDCA cycle, they are missing meta-improvement.

At the highest level of meta-improvement, there is Hoshin Kanri. Also known as Policy Deployment or Strategy Deployment, Hoshin Kanri is often understood as a) the Lean method for developing a strategy, b) a way to deploy a strategy or goals down through an organization, or c) both. Answer “c” is more complete than “a” or “b” but it is missing the critical element of self-reference, the meta. Hoshin Kanri is in fact both strategy and a strategy about strategy, a meta-strategy.

In brief, Hoshin Kanri is the Japanese salvaging of MBO (Management by Objectives) through the injection of the objectivity and discipline of TQC (Total Quality Control). It is truly unfortunate that Frederick Taylor coined the term Scientific Management to describe a primitive form of industrial engineering, when Hoshin Kanri is so richly deserving of this title. Key concepts of Hoshin Kanri include starting from a long-term vision focused on the customer and broader society, focusing the organization on achieving a vital few breakthrough objectives each year, making sure projects are properly resourced through two-way communication called catch ball, and learning through regular reviews built on visual management of the PDCA cycle and the discipline to go see facts first hand. It is tempting but inadequate to say that it is strategic planning and deployment with the addition of a few Lean principles.

Observed in its most banal application, Hoshin Kanri is neither strategy nor meta-strategy. It is a management method or tool for setting and achieving a strategy. Too often when it is used as a tool, the traditional way of setting annual plans or budgets is followed, and these are squeezed through the Hoshin Kanri process with the belief that the templates, task assignment and color-coded status reports add value. Organizations that use Hoshin Kanri only in this way are committing a crime equivalent to using supercomputers loaded with learning algorithms designed to crack encrypted messages to physically beat down a locked door. They are not even using Hoshin Kanri as a strategy.

Used as a kata, or learning routine, Hoshin Kanri delivers much of its benefit in terms of achieving annual objectives, but critically half or more of the benefit comes from allowing people to learn how well the organization can develop and execute strategies. Failure must be not only allowed but celebrated as an opportunity to learn. Where failure is punished, facts hide, and the Hoshin Kanri dies of thirst. Hoshin Kanri used as a strategy to develop leaders, management ability and problem solving skills is far more powerful than as a tool to plan for and visually track results.

At a yet higher level of awareness, Hoshin Kanri as a meta-strategy enables an organization to treat Hoshin Kanri as a strategy for becoming more effective at developing and executing strategies. For organizations realizing this, a breakthrough strategy is often something like, “We will become better at creating and executing strategies.” However no senior leader will go to their CEO and ask that a portion of their bonus be pinned to such an objective. It takes courage, and experience failing at a breakthrough strategy to realize and make use of Hoshin Kanri as a meta-strategy in this way.

Laid bare, it is not difficult to see that Hoshin Kari is just an instance of the scientific method, with labs and experiments that cut across the whole organization. It follows the same PDCA process as problem solving on the front lines. In this way Hoshin Kanri is an example of Douglas Hofstadter’s “strange loop” in which by moving up or down through a hierarchical system one ends up at the same place that they started. It is strange because human minds perceive and expect a difference at these varying levels of hierarchy and yet find that they are back to the origin when they reach the highest levels. The famous drawings by E.M. Escher are examples of this. The more we advance up the hierarchy of Lean management, the more we find that we are practicing go see, PDCA and basic mutual respect. Why should this seem so strange?

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