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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: a “problems first” attitude is the key to sustaining learning leadership

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

The first answer is leadership, the second leadership and the third… leadership. But a very special and specific kind of leadership. Of all the quirks of the lean thinking the one that has always fascinated me is “problems first.” In practice this means we are not so interested in successes (the right results from the right process) because there is nothing to learn there – we are only interested in problems, failures, and things that don’t work as expected, because there is much to learn. “Problems first” also means that any employee can come up to a manager and discuss any problem without fearing to get shot as the carrier of bad news. And executives take seriously the problems brought to them.

This is fascinating because it’s profoundly counter-intuitive. Our minds are built to look for confirming information (select facts that fit with what we already know) and to dismiss disconfirming evidence (not see facts that go against our preconceived ideas). The power of the scientific method is to focus on disconfirming evidence – areas where experiments don’t work out as the theory has predicted, because this is how we can learn more about how the universe works. And this is the insight lean has brought to business. This is very powerful because, to take a page from Jared Diamond’s study of civilization collapse, most of the time:

The core of lean management is, to my mind:

  1. Go and see at the gemba and look for abnormal situations (accepting that our established processes also create problems)
  2. Visualize the processes in such a way that problems are revealed and react immediately to protect customers
  3. Pick problems one by one and learn to solve them by asking ‘why?’ until the root cause is clear
  4. Draw the right conclusions and improve management standards in order to share the learning

In essence, this starts with the will to recognize that although the way we run processes might be doing a lot of good and fulfilling our objectives, it also creates some problems for our customers, our environment and our associates. The moment top management stops or slows down in visiting the workplace and challenging teams to maintain the “problems first” spirit, people will revert to “what I do is fine, it’s everybody else that creates problems” and lean will backslide.

On the second point, I’ve learned in lean that the most direct evidence of a frontline supervisor’s commitment to improvement can be seen in how he or she maintains the visual management system. The workplace should make it easy for anyone, at any time to see problems, much like a good road system will. At any point, one should be able to know whether one is performing right or wrong. In other terms, the work environment should provide a clear test method and clear standards for any activity. Maintaining that is frontline management’s essential task.

Thirdly, solving recurring problems requires real courage – I’ve seen this time and time again. First because this will lead to challenging the rest of the organization sooner or later (we’re rarely alone in creating the problem – it’s more a number of things coming together) and secondly because finding the root cause will involve experimenting and not all experiments bear fruit immediately. Solving problems rather than going around them requires the feeling of permission to experiment and knowing the right method to do so rigorously. Again, this is where senior management’s leadership is crucial. Visiting problem solving groups regularly is a fundamental task of lean leaders.

Finally, the organization will have improved its competitiveness when the learning from the problem solving has been groked into a procedure or structure change. This often means challenging sacred cows internally (sacred cows make the best burgers, they say). And again, only top leadership can do so.

In that respect, in the current quality perfect storm, Toyota remains very interesting to watch. In his Washington Post op-ed piece, Akio Toyoda outlines steps about accepting responsibility, establishing ways to better see safety problems, reviewing existing processes to figure out how they failed and solving large problems identified, such as sharing safety information across continents. And Mr. Toyoda intends to lead this himself.

Backsliding in lean efforts is unavoidable – the path of least resistance is to refuse responsibility for problems, ignore the symptoms, not have the courage to face them when they become obvious, nor the know-how to do so. Learning is hard, even when it’s exciting and pleasant, and keeping an entire organization learning requires constant drive from the top.

The moment leadership falters, lean will backslide – and we’ve got many unhappy examples to support this statement. This is one of the reasons it’s hard to find a “lean” company, because few companies sustain lean beyond a leadership change – which can happen as frequently as every five years in some industries. Passing on the baton of “problems first” and “why? Why? Why?” from one manager to the next is very unusual.

Maintaining lean long-term is a matter of the company’s leaders keeping to the discipline of “Go and See” to make sure that the visual management is in place, to challenge teams to react to problems, to ask why? Repeatedly, and to constantly wonder whether they’re solving the right problem. As Toyota’s current predicament shows, problems will happen – some are benign, and some are true “black swans” – the rare but potentially deadly issue. That’s fine. The gist of lean is solving problems so that we learn to deliver better products at lower overall cost.

As Mr. Toyoda says, “great companies learn from their mistakes” – as long as the will to do so remains unwavering.

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