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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: True North is key because building capability feels like failure on the spot

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: lundi, octobre 31, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

“You’re the problem” told the Toyota coordinator to the shop manager when the latter complained about the level of the operators he had to work with. It took the manager a full year to understand what the sensei meant, and come back with “okay, I’m the problem – not the operators. What should I do?” His sensei then got him to start a training dojo.

It took that manager a year to accept that he was the problem. It’s taken me fifteen to reach the same conclusion: if lean is rarely carried out beyond cost-cutting programs, we’re the problem. So: what is it that we missed? I’ve come to accept that lean results are generated by slow and patient capability building, much like the dojo – although I’ve not yet been able to go all the way down to dojos for key movements. But it’s not an accident that Mike has used the “kata” terminology, we’re finally getting to the core of things (he hopes!).

“Problems first!” is the number one capability building tool. By teaching people ongoingly to solve problems and kaizen we build their capability to react to change and new situations. Because the cost of the error avoided is hard to measure, it remains hard to link the painstaking problem solving practices and the evident financial results but the link is THERE: just slow down the problem solving and see what happens to results.

One key emotional difficulty is that constantly attacking problems is kind of depressing: it never seems to work. There are no solutions, only countermeasures. And when these problems are core to the business (ie, source of competitive advantage), well, they’re not easy t solve routinely and more often than not, the subjective impression is that we’re failing. Again. (What do you mean the 5S has come backwards? or the pull system is down? or there a new quality problems in the red bins? we need to do this AGAIN?)

And yet, through the grind of the cycles of kaizen although we feel like we’re failing or floundering, the overall capability improves and results start soaring. It’s bizarre. Oddly enough, the people within the system (those being constantly asked to solve problems) more often than not do not see the link. Yet, reaching out for perfection by all people all the time is what produces results, not reaching it sporadically here and there.

True North is essential to communicate this stretching towards perfection. Without true north, problem solving because yet another corporate raindance, formalized behaviour as we see too often with “lean” implementations. The first time I came across a true North specific description was Hajime Ohba’s slide:


Customer satisfaction:

0 defects

100% value added

1×1, in sequence, on demand

Human development:

Physical & Mental Safety


Professional Challenge

Everyone, every minute, every day,

Another form of true north is practiced by lean CEOs who will aime to:

Reduce accidents by 50% a year every year,

Reduce quality incidents by 50% a year every year

Reduce inventory by 20% a year every year

Improve productivity by 15% a year every year

As they stretch for such goals, they know that their growth is dependent on their customer lead-time and quality, and that if they can’t reach the goal they need to hansei and look for a different way of doing things.

So, I’ve come to believe that without true north there can’t be any meaningful kaizen because people will protect themselves from failure in any way they can. In reaching for True North, sure we fail – it would be hubris to expect different – but we also know that we’re working for larger stakes, that there is something profoundly esthetic and, yes, human, about the job and how we go about it. True North is what makes us all belong to the same project of constant search of perfection.

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