Continuous Improvements May Need To Be Discontinued — Effective Covid Restart Lean
My LinkedIn blog post with the above title attracted more than 40,000 views in 2019. The word ‘Continuous Improvements’ has gained so much common use in businesses that people have become used to it as a permanent fixture.
Reading this post may not save you any money or effort. The sincere effort here is to show and tell and let the reader decide if a restart is in their best interests.
Almost everything we have heard learned and believed as true about Lean is now obsolete. I am going to show you how popular beliefs are working against you in the first few posts. Later, the second set of posts will deal with the principles of effective Covid Restart Lean.
One comment under the LinkedIn post captured the essence of what is wrong about Continuous Improvements. There is an endpoint for improving the candlelight and adopting a lightbulb. In many businesses, we are using this phrase to mean useless changes when, in fact, we should not even be doing that process itself in the first place.
This short story illustrated the useless idea of trying to continuously improve a useless activity.
As I joined this company XXX a few years back, one of the things that frustrated everybody at the management level was that the actual inventories never matched the computer. Uppermost in my tasks was the changes to the process of maintaining accurate inventories. The owner, general manager and Courtney, the office administrator did not doubt that the errors originated from the workers.
My investigation revealed something different. Courtney had no trust in the workers to do it correctly, so she had made a system of paper reports which she would enter the computer. This created an additional layer of potential errors.
Before my arrival, several attempts at Continuous Improvements had been made already with multi-coloured paper forms and tally forms, but none of them had worked.
Courtney grew impatient with every passing day and she asked me one day in the presence of the general manager:
“How are you going to fix it?”
My reply, “get rid of the useless papers,” was not to her liking. Jim, the manager, wanted to give me a chance. At my request, he delinked the task from Courtney. I started collecting the paper forms. I conducted a short training for the workers to do the entering themselves and still retained the paper forms for me to check. In the matter of a few days, the inventory counts were better than ever before. In the process, I got rid of a process that did not need to exist. Whoever did the Continuous Improvements in that process was wasting time and money in it.
I call this process untying our horses, taking the metaphor of the horse in the short story with the same title the Indian Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. In this interesting story, man domesticated the horse, fooling God who created a horse to be a free wandering animal by hobbling it, to prove to God that it could not run freely. (Funny enough, God did not notice the hobbling.)
In business and philosophy, this idea of intentional hobbling happens quite more often than we care to admit. These are known as the ‘Unknown Knowns.’ There are numerous such known inefficiencies that we know as in existence, but we are unwilling to let go of, for fear of causing some dangerous mistakes.
The fundamental weakness of incremental improvements is its inability to compete with disruptive and innovative changes. We could embrace a new approach, by re-defining continuous improvements and lean manufacturing.
Unwillingness to evaluate our current state continuously is the biggest risk of all. The risk is like the risk Goliath was unaware of against an agile young sharpshooter with no battle gear and associated paraphernalia. Goliath’s arrogance made him believe that his size, battle gear and experience would be no match for David, so much so that he did not even care to evaluate what David’s strategy might have been. While praising David for his planning, self-training, deception, nerves, and marksmanship, it is plain and obvious that Goliath’s arrogance proved to be his biggest risk.
In this short series of posts, I am going to explain how most of the conventional wisdom on systems and technology are only hobbling the creativity and skills of our value-adding workers. It costs to pay for that software; to train green, yellow and black belts; and it costs to pay for consulting. But the result in a lot of cases is not to improve, but to limit our inherent strengths.
Another interesting story will illustrate the point of hobbling the potential or ‘tying the horses.’ When trucks started replacing bullock carts in goods transportation in rural India several years ago, this strange thing happened. The labour union agreed to the transition only on one condition: make sure each truck carried only as much load as a bullock cart and the trucks made only as many trips a day! Now the cost of the truck is a waste in terms of productivity improvements.
We are unnecessarily hobbling our horses. In other words, we have an ‘unknown’ known. Any amount of Continuous Improvements with truck transportation will not improve productivity unless we remove the arbitrary limitations placed on it.
How to beat a 10th degree mixed martial arts black belt? With well-aimed stone! That is the power of disruption.
There is no antidote to the disruptive power of the stone- thrower in incremental interventions or continuous improvements, Disruption must be met with disruption — and the best way to do that is to use a lesson from the story of David and Goliath.
I got a ‘tip of the hat’ endorsement for the ‘David and Goliath’ idea from Mike Rother, inventor of Kata. I used the story of David and Goliath to illustrate this point: “Was King David a Kata practitioner?”
Goliath made the mistake of undermining David!
David studied the Giant for days and made up his clear plan, and when it was the showtime, he sprang a huge surprise on the giant. He appeared without the conventional armour and revealed his true battle strategy only at the last minute.
I tend to think that David would have fooled Goliath into thinking that he would appear in conventional battle gear! However, there he was, without the armour, armed only with a sling, at a little over a sprint-distance from the Giant! Goliath did not have time to change his strategies, and David did not let him. About 10 seconds, Usain Bolt’s time to run a 100-meter-sprint, was all David needed to strike Goliath on the run, the running adding to the projectile velocity, a scientific principle. The deception was important too, as Sun Tzu’s classical treatise, Art of War, expounded centuries after David.
In business terms, David’s strategy was Plan-Train-Do, Of course, David would have had training comprising Check-Adjust cycles of improvement, but at showtime, it was just one chance to kill Goliath or be killed. Thankfully, business is more forgiving than that — we have numerous chances to fail, pick up and improve! This is the martial arts analogy for cycles of Plan-Do-Study-Adjust: it is just not one cycle of PDCA, it is numerous such cycles until a target condition is reached. This requires a martial arts coach or mentor who understands the method. In David’s case, though, he would have self-trained.
In the Lean Six Sigma world, a lot of martial arts terms are used liberally. Lots of us have difficulty understanding the terms like guru, sensei, a black belt concerning Lean Six Sigma. It is very doubtful if those who use these words act in this way at all. The overuse may have tended to deteriorate the intent and power of the metaphor.
I would think Kata or Toyota Kata should be understood in this way. It is a comparatively new martial arts term to enter the Lean Six Sigma world and tries to leverage the same concept of a Sensei or a martial arts coach, but in a structured, democratic way.
ISO 9001 is a wonderful framework for defining Quality Management Systems. The 2015 version of it, called ISO 9001:2015 is the best version ever. However, they are not prescriptive. Completely wrong and literal interpretations have made them very ineffective in the application.
Lean Sensei’s and Black Belts, beware! If you are not practising the true art of the sanseis and Black Belts, the stone-thrower will beat you easily. And there are many potential stone-throwers out there.