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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Excellence is the common goal. Discovery, be it called improvement, innovation, or invention, is the means

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Monday, November 22, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Arguing the merits of lean versus six sigma versus agile versus any other quality method creates a distraction of debating labels and the artifacts associated with each rather than understanding the fundamentals that allow some organizations to achieve levels of performance unmatchable by others.

The truth is there are very few organizations that have achieved exceptional levels of performance based on a capacity to continuously improve and internally generate innovations broadly, consistently, and with tremendous speed and velocity. That handful certainly includes Toyota, which converted itself from a second or even third rate automaker in the late 1950s into an exceptional one by the 1960s, though this wasn’t quite recognized by its American competitors until the 1970s and 1980s. Also included is the US Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, which had an exceptional “time-to-market” of only six years from the start of the program to the launch of the first nuclear power submarine, in 1954, and since which, has had an impeccable safety and reliability record.

This list also includes Alcoa which over a 15 year stretch, converted itself from a heavy industrial company with a reasonable safety record to arguably one of the safest employers in the United States if not the world. Though less open to outsiders, and consequently less transparent about its inner workings, Apple has constructed a string of product successes unparalleled in its sector, largely without the benefits of monopoly like positioning often attributed to its archrival Microsoft.  It too must be in this category.

As disparate as these stellar examples are by product, process, and market, they share some very strong commonalities. All have achieved exceptional levels of performance and front-runner status on the strength of their internal operations across the span of development, design, and delivery.

In effect, where others were plagued by ignorance, uncertainty, novelty, and all the other manifestations of “ignorance” that affect all of us when we try to do what is new and complex, these leaders were able to outrun the competition by their ability to out learn them and out discover them.

Their ability to do this was rooted in common approaches in managing the complex work systems on which they depended.

The examples I cited, and others such as Southwest Airlines, all made strenuous commitments to declaring, or specifying, in advance of doing work what they thought would lead to success. In the midst of doing work they were exceptionally attuned to departures from those expectations be those departures be characterized as “incidents,” “problems,” “exceptions,” and so forth.

Whenever these “abnormalities” were seen, they were immediately swarmed, both to prevent their spread and also to begin their diagnosis while they were still “hot” or “live.” This urgency about solving problems as they were being seen and experienced was and is the basic mechanism by which things for which we are largely ignorant are converted to things about which we are knowledgeable.

In turn, the true standouts, as few as they are, have extraordinary rigor in converting local discoveries  into learnings which are incorporated and applied systemically. Finally, these behaviors of seeing problems, solving problems, and sharing learnings are deeply rooted in a dynamic form of leadership that views its primary responsibility as fostering an environment of incessant, relentless, almost paranoia-driven discovery.

In short, four key capabilities, or, said differently, four characteristic behaviors, are the linchpins for success across industries, and across phases in the value creation endeavor.

How then, do these various quality movements fit into this basic framework of excellence achieved through unless discovery?

“Lean,” as often practiced in its most distilled form, contributes much to the stabilization of previously chaotic processes. Flow, to replace the haphazard mess of job shops, pull, with its consequent synchronization in lieu of the chaos of production schedules, and standard work and its associated accoutrements in lieu of improvisation are all means for creating integrated process out of disconnected work components.

“Lean” has also contributed insights into disciplined problem solving with advocacy for “A3” thinking.

Lean, of course, is not alone in encouraging process definition as a prerequisite for process improvement. Deming, one of the foundational inspirations for six sigma,  was adamantly opposed to any behavior which seem to be “tweaking.” Hence, the advocacy of statistical process control to distinguish real process drift, a.k.a. “problems,” from noise.

First and foremost, according to Deming, be sure you’re responding to signal of real problems rather than responding to noise thereby further compounding the problems you’re experiencing. To avoid “tweaking” when problems are actually being solved,  Deming  championed the Shewhart or PDCA cycle (now branded DMAIC) to be sure problems were being solved with the rigor of the scientific method. Somewhat different tools, certainly, given that Deming wrote, spoke, and consulted when the dominant processes were high-volume and repeatable. Nevertheless, when one looks past the specific tools he advocated for a specific context, one sees similar themes underpinning the relentless pursuit of excellence.

As for  “agile,” the emphasis there is, correctly, on the necessity of a dynamic, iterative convergent approach to discovering one’s way to greatness. That, in the “agile” world of software development, end users can collaborate in this convergent discovery more so than can external customers for manufacturing process of finished product is beside the point. The key is creating a situation in which discovery can occur subject to the limitations of the situation taking full advantage of the peculiarities of the context.

In short, debates amongst various “camps” or “factions” is wasteful and largely pointless.

Excellence is the common goal. Discovery, be it called improvement, innovation, or invention, is the means.

Discovery can only occur when problems can be seen in what is already known and what is already practiced. Learning can only occur when problems are solved with rigor and discipline. Betterment can only occur with great speed and breath when local discovery is made available systemically. And all of this only occurs when leadership formats its role as fostering, encouraging, and creating an environment in which learning and discovery never end.

Those four “truths” are foundational to the “basic science” for achieving exceptional performance, just as there are first principles and basic science in different forms of engineering, chemistry, physics, and biology.

Worrying about labels and artifacts is about as helpful as the debating the merits of different test tube sizes in lieu of mastering the basic science of biological mechanisms.  Focusing on those “truths” and endeavoring to express them in myriad situations and various contexts is ultimately a productive use of time and energy.

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