Lean Frontiers: Are they differences in getting middle management on board from getting executive management support?
Are there differences in getting middle management from executive management on board for 1) developing the lean enterprise and 2) direct engagement on their part? What are the differences, if any?
Posted on May 9, 2015
Author Archive
Steven Spear

Steven Spear: Accelerated learning of what to do and how to do it

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Certain organizations “punch above their weight,” generating far more value (that accrues to everybody, not just customers or just shareholders, etc.), faster, and more easily. This despite them having access to the same technical, financial, and human resources as all their counterparts——and thereby enjoying the same advantages and suffering the same constraints.(1) The difference? They know much better what to do and how to do it, so operate on a frontier of speed, timeliness, efficiency, effectiveness, safety, security, and so forth others barely perceive. As with all knowledge, the source of ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: All tools are based on key capabilities

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Monday, October 20, 2014
In answering the question about the use of particular tools, it helps to anchor in the fundamentals first and then elaborate on the use of tools in pursuit of those fundamentals second. In engineering, for instance, we start with Newtonian mechanics and then introduce tools like finite element analysis for testing the integrity of structures, or we introduce concepts of feedback and control before introducing matlab and other tools for simulation.  Likewise, in finance, we introduce concepts of discounted cash flow, option theory, and risk diversification before constructing models based on those concepts.  In these professions, grounded in causal theory, we ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: How do temps fit in with See, Solve, Sustain, Spread

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Sunday, March 23, 2014
Whether or not temporary workers are a benefit or a hinderance to an organization depends on how senior leadership chooses to employ them. First, we have to recognize that certain sectors have large fluctuations in work load——isn’t HR Block the single largest employer of temporary workers each tax season——that flexing headcount is unavoidable. Second, let’s recognize the dynamics by which exceptional performance altitude is achieved. It depends on having a steep ‘climb rate’ fueled by broad based, non-stop, high speed learning. It is in the learning that the link to positive or negative use of temporary workers comes in. Learning depends on seeing ...

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Steven Spear

Steven Spear: Start with a ‘model line’ so that leadership can learn to see and solve problems

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Becoming an exceptional organization, one capable of short term reliability and longer term responsiveness and agility requires building skills that accelerate feedback, correction, and learning. The reliable mechanism is starting with a ‘model line’ incubator in which leadership is connected to creating and harnessing a problem seeing problems solving dynamic and then using that incubator as a developmental tool to propagate those skills broadly. PERFORMANCE LEVELS AS FUNCTION OF LEARNING RATE We get entranced by the difference in "performance altitude" between those who are exceptional and those who are typical. In doing so, we overlook the fact that superior altitude was ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: It’s not about formal boundaries between firms, but about the dynamics of improvement

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Monday, November 11, 2013
In trying to understand what to in source and what to out source, it is first important to recognize what we are trying to accomplish: create the possibility for high speed problem seeing and problem solving as the engine for improvement and growth. The key point is that exceptional performance levels are won by exceptional rates of internally generally improvement. Improvement, in turns, means finding where problems are occurring and concentrating time and resources on them to convert the ignorance at their core into useful knowledge that separates us from the pack. In effect, those who win do so by ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: In high velocity learning, standardization is about capturing the best known approach in design, and seeing flaws in production

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Monday, April 15, 2013
To your quote: In France, the battle against lean is raging (as in: CEOs use lean for brutal productivity gains and Unions are dead set against it), Ironically, both adversaries in this contest share a common assumption: that standardization, visual management, and the like are for the purpose of control--management wants to exercise it, labor wants to avoid it. Also shared is the assumption that work is low variance but numbingly routine or non routine but high variance in quality and productivity. That, of course, misses the reality by which Toyota another superlative organizations succeed. All ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Measure outputs generated by pathways of connected activities

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Sunday, January 27, 2013
For technical systems, the logic is self evident that we link independent variables (e.g., "settings") and dependent variables (e.g., "states") through a causal logic, and measure both to be sure we are tracking well.  When we are not, the gap between anticipated and actual is trigger for corrective action--both immediate containment and update to a better model of input-output causality. Organizational measurement often fails by the being irrigorous in comparison. -- what objectives are being pursued are ill defined. -- what factors can be controlled to affect outcomes are ill chartered. -- how behavior affects consequences is not logically ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: The key differentiator is what leadership thinks it need accomplish: redesign of processes others use to conduct their business or acquisition of capability that they can cultivate, propagate, and engage energetically

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Friday, January 4, 2013
What role a kaizen promotion office plays depends on what problem you are trying to solve.  Is it to make a single change in process design and performance or it is to change the ramp-slope at which an organization discovers its way to greatness? For the former, organizations might want to stabilize otherwise chaotic processes--both those that are physically transformative and also those that are administrative.  Doing so has the obvious benefits of moving from the low performance plateau of disarray to the higher performing plateau of increased  efficiency and effectiveness. In that ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: How do you select the next CEO for continuity in excellence?

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Wednesday, November 2, 2011
The inability to maintain continuity with a firm's efforts around continuous improvement, operational excellence, and broad based product and process innovation has to be tied, in part at least, to poor succession planning and process. Be it the CEO or board, there must be some criteria of critical skills and capabilities that leadership candidates must posses to be deemed likely at success.  One couldn't imagine a contender who either lacked some demonstrated competency in finance, marketing, strategy and the like or who had no plan to acquire those competencies before taking over. Unfortunately, the skills relevant to achieving operational excellence are too ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: The True North “Ideal”: A source of tension for continuous improvement

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Wednesday, September 21, 2011
In Toyota thinking, there are at least two indicators that a problem is occurring that needs to be resolved. -- The first is a sign that the process is not in control and that the process is understood imperfectly. -- The second, the 'True North Ideal,' as we called it in "Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System," is a source of relentless tension for improvement and innovation--even when the system is capable and in control. 1- Specification, Built in Tests, and Problems as sign of gap between expectations and actual experience. "Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System <http://hbr.org/1999/09/decoding-the-dna-of-the-toyota-production-system/ar/1> " begins ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Healthcare is least likely to benefit from lean or any other operational excellence approach because healthcare professionals are not trained to think systematically about systems

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Friday, June 17, 2011
Healthcare is the sector least likely to achieve process excellence with any meaningful breadth or speed because of three key impediments, one internal to healthcare,  one about the environment in which healthcare organizations operate, and one about the way in which ideas about process excellence are presented. Internal Problem: Training in Functions without Systems Thinking The internal problem is that healthcare professionals are trained, promoted, and evaluated in narrowly defined functional specialties--specialties within imagining, within surgery, within medicine, within nursing, etc.  There is good reason for this focus within specialties--mastery of the advanced science and technology requires time, practice, and effort. However, missing ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Why Lean Fails: Operational Excellence Treated as Tool Based Vocation, Not Principle Based Profession

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Sunday, April 3, 2011
Lean efforts are aplenty.  Rare are successful ones—characterized by sufficient improvement in the ability to create great value by delighting customers with best in class products and services, offered reliably and responsively to change, done affordably and profitably.   Nearly unheard of are sustainable successes—characterized by success over years and waves of market change and leadership succession. Why? The few world-class organizations that compete well on ‘operational excellence,’ reflected in quality, variety, time to market, affordability, agility, and many other positive attributes—manage the complex operating systems on which they depend based on few principles, adherence to which allows short term reliability and ‘high ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Relentless pursuit of perfection means just that – self-critique and facing one’s problems

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Toyota has long committed itself to the "relentless pursuit of perfection" by cultivating and sustaining relentless, internally generated improvement and innovation.  The results were legendary: movement from terribly unproductive in the late 1950s to on par by the early 1960s, a productivity leader by the late 1960s and a quality leader too by the early 1970s.  Subsequently, it set an unmatchable pace of introducing affordable, reliable new models, brands like Lexus and Scion, and innovative product technology like the hybrid drive, all the while increasing its organizational scale, scope, and complexity with aggressive efforts to localize its production (and later ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Perfection is achieved by discovery

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Tuesday, January 18, 2011
The challenge common to all organizations is achieving exceptional performance to gain and sustain competitive advantage.  Achieving superlative results in terms of quality, productivity, reliability and responsiveness demands that improvement and innovation--both small scale and large--be as regular a part of work and delivering product and service to market. A capacity for relentless betterment is a prerequisite for success because nothing designed by people--product, service, or the processes behind them--is designed perfectly.  At best, the initial design is adequate.  Perfection is only achieved if an organization is capable of discovering towards it relentlessly. Therefore, the only way an organization can compete by ...

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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
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 ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: The gap with the ideal is a good place to define objectives

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Thursday, October 21, 2010
There are at least four conditions that trigger improvement: what we did didn't work as planned, we disappointed a customer, there is an anticipated (or actual) need to get better, and what we do departs from the ideal. The most superlative operationally excellent organizations generate and sustain rates of improvement and innovation that are faster, broader in span, and more relentless than their peers and competitors can generate. There are several triggers for this improvement. First, because work is consistently designed so departures from expected approach or outcome are immediately evident, those surprises are trigger for problem solving. Second, even if work proceeds as ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: What to learn from Toyota for those who already haven’t … Improvement and Innovation needed now more than ever

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Monday, July 12, 2010
BACKGROUND: WHY LOOK AT TOYOTA?  BECAUSE IT CAME FROM BEHIND TO DOMINATE ITS COMPETITION! Understanding the tremendous commercial success of Toyota, rising from an uncompetitive auto maker in the 1950s and 1960s, to the most dominant in the world by 2000s, and understanding the vast benefit that has come to some that have diligently sought to emulate Toyota--sharp reductions in time and cost, with vast improvements in quality and responsiveness, is reason for others who have not yet to look more closely. Toyota's success, after all, is rooted in its ability to generate and sustain broad based, high speed, relentless improvement and ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Lean is about making clear and explicit the best known approaches to achieving success

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Sunday, July 11, 2010
Sales and marketing may seem a far cry from the production shop floors on which 'lean' was first observed.  Nevertheless, that type of work lends itself to exactly the same disciplines of rigorous discovery that allowed Toyota to come from beyond, over take its rivals, and run away from the field. There is a mistaken notion that the essence of 'lean,' as an approximation of the Toyota Production System, is the stabilization of processes, heretofore chaotic, as an endpoint in and of itself. Not so when practiced by the masters.  'Stabilization,' or more generally 'specification' is both a means of making clear ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Managing work to see problems when and where they occur

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Managing work to see problems when and where they occur is a necessary precondition--one too often overlooked--if an organization is going to achieve bona fide continuous improvement in pursuit of operational excellence. Here's why. Absent an ability to design perfect systems for design, production, and delivery on the first try, operational excellence depends on continuous improvement and relentless innovation.  As important as it is to have rigor in solving problems, the necessary pre condition is managing work so problems—flaws in the current design of systems and the current approaches to doing work--are seen when and where they occur. Deming, for example, was a passionate advocate of the 'Shewhart Cycle' of Plan, Do, Check, ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Managers are trained for decision making, not discovery and development

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Thursday, June 10, 2010
C level executives are often absent from 'lean initiatives,' 'lean transformations,' and the like. This is unfortunate given the truthy cliche, "what is interesting to leaders, is fascinating to followers." The question is, "Why?" Let me suggest two reasons: • Lean presented as a kit of system engineering tools which senior leaders feel they can delegate to technologists. • Senior leaders not taught/trained for an environment of continuous improvement/discovery. REASON 1: LEAN=TOOL KIT The interpretation of lean manufacturing as a kit of system engineering tools, meant for the 'shop floor,' largely for high volume, low variety, repeated work, certainly impacts senior leaders view that lean is tactical ...

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Steven Spear

Steven Spear: Innovation is the reward of mastery

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Friday, May 14, 2010
There is a conventional wisdom that 'lean' and other efforts towards process excellence and 'innovation' conflict, the former about standardization and rigidity, the latter about free-flowing creativity. There are reasons for those wisdoms, but they miss the significant complement between rigor in design and speed in improvement. Lean grew out of efforts in the 1980s to understand Toyota's success catching American auto makers. People found approaches, particularly in the shop floor environment that allowed select organizations to operate with far greater stability and far less chaos than was the norm elsewhere. That stability and order led to far better ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Designing, Operating, and Improving Complex Systems: Common Challenges–>Common Responses

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Sunday, April 4, 2010
TQM, six sigma, lean, TPS, and the like stem from different sources but nevertheless share common approaches because they are responses to a common challenge: managing the design, operation, and improvement of complex systems of work--many people, spanning many disciplines, using multiple technologies, to deliver value to the market. This is so challenging because the design of any complex system is a product of imperfect people's creative efforts.  Hence, the initial design is imperfect and needs to be improved relentlessly. Therefore, all these approaches have some element of rigor in: • the design of work to reduce variation and to help distinguish between ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Designing, Operating, and Improving Complex Systems: Common Challenges–>Common Responses

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Sunday, April 4, 2010
TQM, six sigma, lean, TPS, and the like stem from different sources but nevertheless share common approaches because they are responses to a common challenge: managing the design, operation, and improvement of complex systems of work--many people, spanning many disciplines, using multiple technologies, to deliver value to the market. This is so challenging because the design of any complex system is a product of imperfect people's creative efforts.  Hence, the initial design is imperfect and needs to be improved relentlessly. Therefore, all these approaches have some element of rigor in: • the design of work to reduce variation and to help distinguish between ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: commitment to safety is unwavering, but perfection hits bumps in the road

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Monday, March 15, 2010
Thanks for the question. With all due respect to Professor Schein, there are other alternative explanations to "abandon safety" or "safety never part of their culture."  It is entirely possible (more likely) that safety--both workplace and product--remains part of their culture but maintaining perfection hit bumps in the road. These bumps in the road are: 1: The need to develop an increasing number of great problem solvers at an accelerating rate because of business expansion. 2: The need to develop people's problems solving skills to greater depth because of increasing product and process complexity. 3: The difficulty of responding to the weak signals of problems ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: The objective function in managing any system must be solving problems and learning

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Friday, March 12, 2010
The objective function in managing any system must be solving problems and learning.  There are four principles of a 'basic science' of system design, operation, and management, which if followed, generate, sustain, and accelerate high velocity learning, improvement, and innovation. If they are not followed, learning, improvement, and innovation are compromised. (This basic science has a sound theoretical underpinning as it is rooted in the science of closed loop control and experiential and experimental learning.) Learning, improvement, and innovation are core objective functions because the complexity of the 'socio-technical' systems (e.g., groups of people, doing interdependent work, to create value for others) upon which we depend for delivering value to customers. The complexity ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Overburdening the innovative capacity of the organization

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Friday, February 12, 2010
Dear Colleagues, What went wrong with Toyota is the flip side of what went right over so many decades. In the late 1950s or 1960s, Toyota was a pretty cruddy car company. The variety was meager, quality was poor, and their production efficiency was abysmal. Yet by the time they hit everyone’s radar in the 1980s, they had very high quality and unmatched productivity. The way they got there was by creating within Toyota exceptionally aggressive learning. They taught employees specialties, but more importantly, they taught people to pay very close attention to the “weak signals” the products and processes were sending ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Lessons from Toyota’s stumble

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Monday, February 8, 2010
Long the quality and efficiency standard-setter, Toyota now has an ostrich-sized egg on its face — a problem with sticking accelerator pedals that led to global product recalls and a suspension of production and sales. There are important lessons to be learned from Toyota's stumble: Competitive success is fluid. It depends on continuously discovering better ways to do work. The capabilities to do this are powerful but fragile and need constant reinforcement. Relentless attention to their development can lead to great success; conversely, a loss in attention can have grave consequences. Please see the rest of the piece, "Learning from Toyota's Stumble http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2010/01/learning_from_toyotas_stumble.html I ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: High Performance through High Velocity Discovery

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Monday, January 25, 2010
Dear Peter, Thanks so much for your question. A few points, elaborated on below. A: Success goes to those who improve and innovate most quickly and consistently. B: The ability to do so is rooted in core capabilities/disciplines that allow relentless discovery. C: Many managers are trained to think in terms of decisions, not discovery, thereby imperiling their ability to learn and improve continuously. A: High Performance through High Velocity Discovery In most sectors, even those with the most intense rivalry, there are standouts who achieve superlative performance by their ability to generate and then sustain improvement and innovation unmatched by breadth and speed. B: Disciplines of Discovery ...

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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: The path to collaborative achievement

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Friday, January 8, 2010
Many managers operate under a false premise: That they have to make decisions when confronted with unavoidable tradeoffs.  Quality versus cost, safety versus productivity, etc. The problem with the mindset trade off is that it is rooted in an arrogant pessimism. Quality, safety, cost, yield, responsiveness and so forth are all derivative measures, the consequence of how the complex interactions among people and technology are managed. To focus on trade offs--that to get more of something means you have to give up something else--means you assume you are extracting as much cumulative value out of your work as possible. To believe that true, you have to assume you already ...

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