Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Can we speed up learning?

When the people I work with come across an improvement, they invariably ask me: how can we speed this up? What they usually mean is: how can we spread this around the company. Hmm. Not so fast.

Any improvement comes from learning. Very locally, the guys doing the job in specific circumstances have enquired into their own practice, found a better way to do so, tried it, ironed out the kinks and eventually adopted it. This is when leaders finally see it and go wow! (and wow, how do I spread this around).

Problem is, of course, that other units have not followed the same path and no risk to be told to do something different without understanding either the reasons or the ins and outs of the next best thing. It might also simply not be appropriate for them.

Enquiry is unique to us human animals. And still, we find this hard. We need a lot (as in: a lot) of self confidence and low anxiety to actually enquire as opposed to jump on the next available solution as a drowning person grabs a floating plank. Enquiry requires a kinder immediate environment even as it can be stimulated by a pressing overall challenge. Enquiry is hard - certainty is easy.

Businesses have learned to learn inasmuch as they've learned to identify best practices and then organize catch-up. It is learning, in a clumsy, inefficient, and not very nice way. It is a huge improvement from not learning at all.

But it's slow because whenever people are confronted with the instruction to catch up, they immediately push back against it - and who can blame them.

Faster learning is fuzzier and more reflexive. Faster learning comes from the learned habit to question one's own assumptions on the face of facts. Faster learning comes from the ability to parse cases and distinguish where any statement works, works somewhat or doesn't work at all: there are a few clear cut white cases, a few black cases and many grey areas.

Accelerating learning is possible, but it means slowing down catch-up learning to take the time to consider whether the new practice considered actually works, where, how or is a tactical special case slipping into a policy choice. Why does it work? How does it work?

Why? How? Where? By how much? You want to speed up learning? You can, but it means slowing down force-feeding solutions and developing the habit to ask why? and how? and where?

Monday, 27 October 2014

Simulate this!

Have you watched kids play the latest video games? Don't you wonder at how good the simulations look? At how fast they've progressed since we played packman or tetris? Does Moore's Law work in simulation quality? If it does, simulations will no doubt progress to the point that our limited beleaguered senses won't be able to distinguish simulated from real - Welcome to the Matrix.

The kicker is that these geeks of the future will, in all likelihood, industrialize the production of sense-perfect simulations. They won't produce one, they'll make many, many. So, the probability is very hight that we currently live in a simulation designed by the geeks of the future rather than in the real world - the odds are one to... how many simulations they've invented.

Yeah, alright far-fetched. Truth is, you already live in a simulation: your own. I'm not saying that there is no bedrock, common reality. I have no doubt that it is. But the fact is that the way each of us experiences this reality is the product of the simulation run by the mind software on the brain hardware. And it has gaps:


We don't need to worry much about alternative worlds. We should worry far more about our ability to pick up alternative interpretations to our own world. No matter how unlikely it sounds, every one's story is their story and there is no single story.

When someone states something outlandish or bizarre - how can we reconstruct a mental image of their brain simulation that makes them believe this? What kind of universe is this person simulating that makes their statement 100% true? We don't need to be opened-minded as much as multiple-minded.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Is 100% the goal?

When we have a problem, our instinct is to want to solve it - completely and finally. We crave for final solutions, cross the line off the list, move on to something else and not have to worry about it again.

If I see I have 100K in unpaid bills, I want to make sure bills will be paid on time. How about a late payment penalty in the contract? How about harassing clients until they pay up? Or better still, how about no longer working with bad payers?

Improvement is different. The question now is how do I cut my unpaid bills in half - say to 50K. in doing this I'll discover that there are all sorts of reasons why clients don't pay on time - or should I say in my time. Some are contractual, some are logistical, some are indeed inefficiencies on their part, but some are also due to my own screw ups or lack of follow up. Maybe I don't send my invoices at the right time for them? Maybe I haven't filled in the paperwork correctly because I find it stupid?

Solving half the problem changes things. The countermeasures I will discover to improve are different from the 100% solution I'd need to solve the entire problem. Changing things through countermeasures also changes the entire situation and maybe, when I'm down to 50% of the problem, things look different: some doors have closed and others have opened.

100% solutions rarely work and are often quite scary. Improvement means cutting the size of the problem by half, stop, breathe and take another look at it. The lay of the land already looks different.

Friday, 24 October 2014

A direction without a destination

Explorers set out with a direction and the intent to reach the horizon - they don't have any other destination in mind than tomorrow's stretch of the journey and the final prize, the Source of the Nile. They don't have road maps or plans. They explore.

The day after tomorrow is an undiscovered country - it changes all the time right before our eyes. Experts are really good at telling us what will happen tomorrow (after all, they understand what happens today) but equally poor at guessing what happens the day after (something hitherto unforeseen has become the defining factor).

When designing new products, we should not think in terms of existing product plus, but define large challenges - double one performance, cut the weigh in half. Find a place on the horizon. The led the team explore - the only step that matters is the next step, there is no plan, because we don't know what we're going to find. In development, we don't know before hand what will turn out to be easy and what will remain intractable.

Working without a plan requires a strong sense of direction and mastery of today. Through solving today's problems we discover tomorrow's opportunities. In the end, the explorers reach the horizon because with small, non-aggressive teams, they pass through the lands they encounter without raising war-like reactions: they are no threat, they're passing through. It's hard for managers to live without a destination. They want to build bridges and then force everyone across. But how well does that work? Tomorrow might shift with the fog, but the horizon is still there, and so is the improvement direction. ONe step at a time in a steady direction gets you farther quicker than following the wrong plan.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

There is no Out There

In this fast moving world we live in, we all seek transformation, reform, change: the solution is out there. We don't like the way we look, the knife is out there. We don't like being too fat? The diet is out there. We don't like how our career is going? The new job is out there. We don't like the way the business runs? The new organization is out there.

But every jump to out there is ever more painful and destructive. Every new reorganization turns out to be a game of musical chairs. Every new job means rebuilding an entire network of relationships. Every new diet... let's not go there.

What's so wrong with in here that we need to throw it all away? If we got this far, chances are we're MOSTLY fine. Buddhists ask you to make a pile of white stones, each stone representing a personality defect, and then a pile of black stones, each stone a personal quality. You know what? We all have far larger piles of black stones, qualities, than defects.

Back in the old days, when Toyota engineers arrived at a supplier, they first asked to see the supplier's own procedure. They would point out that the supplier did not follow his own procedure. That's the point, would argue the supplier. My procedure is faulty. I want a new Toyota-like procedure. The Toyota engineers would be puzzled. First follow your procedure, they would ask, and then we can help you solve problems as they arise. The conversation never went well. The supplier wanted the silver bullet from out there.

So how about building on our strengths and challenging the misplaced energy we put on misconceptions and useless activities. How about enriching in here rather than seeking out there? Transplanting yourself is the real danger. Growing from your roots will let you reach higher, as well as further develops the roots themselves. There is no out there that's real.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

What is "lean" about a lean enterprise?

People often ask me: What does a lean enterprise look like? Continuous improvement is hard to describe precisely because it... continuously improves. Here's another attempt:

Copyright 2014 by the Institute of Industrial Engineers. All rights reserved.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Pursuit Of Perfection

Can continuous improvement make sense without the intent to pursue perfection? Can kaizen (change for the better) make sense without an ideal? Ideal need not be a destination. Vision need not be the farther shore, the other place where, having been transformed, our current problems won't occur. How many times have we seen a new investment replace an old one - with exactly the same problems and misconceptions carried over?

Ideal can be a movement, a posture, an angle of view. Ideal can be an act that you repeat endlessly until perfect, almost perfect, one day perfect. Ideal doesn't need to arrive, it can also be a journey:

Would Toyota value and cultivate Takumis http://www.worldcrunch.com/tech-science/takumi-toyota-039-s-secret-weapons-to-train-the-robots/industry-car-technology-unemployment-robots-takumi/c4s16867/#%2EVES0kIusVV9
 if it didn't recognize the need to pursue perfection? Would the finishing touch of every operation be as important if we didn't need to see how good we did, how far we went?

Continuous improvement's discipline only makes sense in the context of the pursuit of perfection, our inner drive to master an activity, to clean up our act, to seek the economy of movement that makes the juggling balls spin without apparent movement from the hands. The place of aaah!The gap between the ideal of our inner vision and the reality of what our hands can achieve is the creative tension that keeps us improving step by difficult step.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Let's stop being stupid

Management books and conferences are all about being smarter, faster, cleverer. We want to be better by doing something more. The monkey in our minds loves this: new tool, new idea, new distraction... new way to avoid self-reflexion. Any shiny new thing keeps the ego safe from looking at mishaps, miscalculations, misunderstandings, misconceptions.

Few management conferences are about being wiser, thinking deeper, feeling kinder. Yet, there are far much greater gains to find by stopping being stupid than by seeking to be smarter. Systems behavior clearly show than reinforcing positive feedback quickly leads to burnout - removing limits to growth is sustainable.

Why? Because every time we're being clever, we make a bet on what's going to happen next and, well, if we had a crystal ball we'd be better off with betting at the races. On the other hand, in reflecting on what we do wrong, we have a wealth of history, data, cases to guide us. Stopping to do stupid things is a far safer way to get ahead.

But it's scary. It means self-examination, and confronting the fact that we do goof off and balls up. It means having enough self-confidences to admit slip-ups and outright being wrong. It means beating the brain hard-wired design of cognitive dissonance (mistakes were made... but not by me) and identity consistency. In other words, it means practice. Practice with problem finding, problem facing, problem framing and problem solving. Practice in solving problems with others, to boost self-confidence and confidence in our colleagues, and progressively grow confident in the fact that we will know how to face our challenges together.