Go See, Show Respect, Ask “What Do You Need from Me?”

Last week we took a day at the Gemba Academy office in Fort Worth to map and improve our content development process. It was a humbling reminder of the importance of going to the gemba, asking the internal customer what they need and making adjustments to reduce ambiguity and burden.

We mapped the value stream using the visualization tool of a swim lane map. There are over a dozen major processes and as many as half a dozen people can be involved in creating a package of learning content. It’s a bit more involved than shooting and editing a video on an iPhone and uploading it to YouTube.

Creating video lessons, quizzes and various supporting documents is a highly variable process. In addition, our content team is responsible for creating videos, podcasts, articles, quizzes, templates and various other documents to support the learning efforts of customers. It’s difficult for us to flow one project task at a time due to differences in how fast we can write a script, film it, edit it, prepare documentation, do the IT work and so forth. Because of this we work with a buffer of work-in-process (WIP) between many of these steps.

As data WIP, scripts, video footage don’t occupy physical storage space. Creating WIP is risky as it can lead to rework or defects when specifications change. In general, less WIP is better, and a sign that the overall process is flowing smoothly. Yet from the point of view of the person writing the scripts, it feels good to have the next several projects on the shelf and ready. We can limit buffer stock by setting Standard WIP quantity such as a “now and next” type of visual kanban of content inputs.

The main goal of this exercise was making lead-time through the total process faster and more predictable, while improving quality wherever possible. This value stream improvement session was not so much about working faster but about how to optimize the overall process end-to-end process. Sometimes that means that certain processes have to slow down or be made less efficient.

A good illustration of this is that it may take two hours to write a script for a 10-minute video. This may take four hours to film and edit. Clearly, the writer can outpace the videographer, if we wanted to flow one-to-one. However, the quality of the screen play can introduce variation into the process. Specifically, vague or unfamiliar requirements for graphics and other visual elements cause the videographer to stop, think, search, and go through draft-and-revise loops of “Is this what you had in mind?” In Lean terminology, the videographer’s value-added ratio is reduced because unclear requirements result in waiting, motion, transportation, over-processing and rework.

These were completely preventable wastes but required the person writing the script to ask the videographers, “What do you need from my process to do your job waste-free?” It’s especially important that the next process is the internal customer when people work in different locations and don’t see the direct impact of the work they pass on. In this case, one of the improvements to the overall process was to take more time to be explicit in detailing the graphics requirements section of a video script. The faster process may slow down at first, but there will be less waste and a smoother process overall.

Lean thinkers often quote former Toyota executive Fujio Cho, “Go see, ask why, show respect” as the way leaders should show up and lead in the workplace. I can’t argue with the first and third parts of this advice. When there is a problem it makes sense to ask “Why?” When the person asking is supplying information, support, direction or direct inputs to the process, a better question may be “What do you need from me to do your job?”

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