Articles: In Praise of Evolutionary Improvement

Avoid the Distraction of Shiny Objects!

This is a sharing-of-experiences:  The improvements you seek are often just a reach away… but don’t lunge at them before thoughtfully considering other perspectives!

Many who earn their living by helping plants “Make things better”quietly remind us that the keys to achieving many solutions are already inside their walls – but have become invisible to those who live there.  What outside eyes (alias: consultants,  suppliers, customers, community or Consortium members) can add is the huge value of helping leaders and managers in those plants see their organizations through another set of eyes.  A big second benefit (if your ego will let you harvest it), is to help folks to see, and mine, the gold ore in their company that is often disguised as ‘taken-for-granted-employees’ who are so often stereotyped around their activitiesand not their potential.

Obtaining ‘outside eyes’ can be invaluable.  And they don’t have to be expensive.  I remember Dennis Wild, president of Willow Manufacturing,  regularly inviting high school students, SME, AME and Consortium members to walk through his machining centres (that were operating lights-out at the time) so he could hear their questions which very often delivered a helpful perspective to him in his pursuit of perfecting his vision – “To go from bar-to-box untouched by human hand!”

The Challenge

Today’s sobering global challenges suggest we need as many perspectives on these challenges as we can get – so we can select the best and adapt them to the needed solution.  (You will ALWAYS have to adapt – there is no Plug-and-Play in borrowing other perspectives).  The Lean Strategy by Jones, Belle, Chaize and Fiume, points out that much of our future will depend upon our ability to drive a Make Things Better mindset and culture into every corner of our organizations.

Dan Jones has always  stressed the need for processes to be evolutionary to be sustainable, so let’s be wary of ‘quick fixes’ or ‘knee-jerk’ reactions.  From our Consortium experience, we recommended taking a deep breath to check a process while remembering that old saying –  “Things that come together quick – usually come apart quicker“.  It is really the same spirit included differently in the ‘Slow down to go faster’ thinking that is appearing more often now as competition requires us to go faster.

Mike Rother introduced us to the elegant thinking and routines of Toyota KATA and how it can be  linked to problem solving and the management of people in our complicated world.  But it has been difficult to get traction with it – although the process is common sense, clear, logical, and delivers results.  Discussions with those who decided it ‘was not for them’ reveal a sense that ‘it was not instantaneous enough’, or ‘too disciplined for our organization’ which is often “avoidance-speak” for “we don’t have time for this since it requires a change in behavior.”

All this reminds us again of those first days of Lean implementations – which of course brings us all back to leadership.  In other words, Lean has met the same resistance KATA appears to have in some areas – yet with Lean now moving into every corner of human existence it is logical to suspect that it too will help pave the way for KATA.

Sustainable Improvements are Rarely Instantaneous! They just aren’t!

Sustainable improvements emerge ‘one-step-at-a-time’ – similar to the beat of the Toyota KATA process of disciplined, thoughtful, routines and thinking.   Sure we can do things in a hurry – but keep foremost the thought that “The velocity of change will be more controllable if we understand it is limited by the rate at which people can understand, digest, own, and act upon each process step… without waste of time.”

But there are other factors to consider, such as culture.  In some regions, sharing is not welcome.  This arises because of a feeling people have of ‘folks stealing their stuff’.  The culture in such environments show behaviours that are closed; no-risk; and lead to little personal growth or innovation because what is doneis done by the same people.  Before the consortium movement began circa 1990, visits to SMEs provided little learning because of the insecure ‘cover-up attitude’ which shut down discussion and produced little spontaneous practitioner-to-practitioner exchanges.  Make no mistake, there were outstanding companies alright, but their numbers were few.

The Awakening

In other more positive regions the opposite is true.  In one case, the launching of a member-driven consortium, circa mid 1990’s – was nudged forward by the fear of a possible new recession early in the decade.   In this case the leadership and culture of the Allen Bradley Suppliers Network committed to open-sharing – an earnest pursuit of discussion around different perspectives in an environment of total respect & integrity.  You could watch it emerge as an ‘all-members-are-equal-leveraged-learning-network’ which alone drew excited new members from excellent companies.  The network/consortium has continued to evolve year over year, which is why it is still very much alive – nearly three decades later.

It all began as a slow ‘controlled explosion’ of achievement upon achievement which produced relaxed & open practitioner exchanges.  This behaviour accelerated win-win thinking and a hunger for best practices.  From these simple roots, the concept of ‘Consortia’/Leveraged Learning Networks emerged, according to the Sloan Management Review following their investigation.  Today these ‘learning they have spread from manufacturing practitioners to those in Healthcare, Government, Service, and Education – all of which you will see in Boston at the Annual AME Conference this October of this –  with the Canadian Lean Conference arriving in Winnipeg next year.

Seizing the Moment

Bruised manufacturers emerging from the 2008 crash tell of the scary experiences which forced them to seek perspectives from sources they had never turned to before: other manufacturers!  As one leader said to ATJ, “They were driven to go where the answers were – no matter who had them.”  They had to.  The frank exchanges that followed enabled folks to ‘look’ at themselves through the eyes of others whose thinking had been shaped by different experiences.  The losers were those whose cultures held to “Anything not invented here can’t contribute to my solution” thinking.

It was amazing to see the difference of the others – whose first thoughts were, “Who’s doing this?”  “Who can I talk to that I trust?” and “Where can I go to see other applications?”  The differences between these two perspectives are cultural, and often geographical.

Success is coming to organizations evolving a culture of respect; abiding openness and mutual trust; where every employee is thinking and discussing daily – How can we Make Things Better?  It is essential to remember that the greatest motivator of the human being is achievement – And that achievement begets achievement.  What’s not to like?

I saw this first hand, from the ‘scramble-to-recover’ period, just after the major 81-82 recession, when hundreds of SME’s (Small Medium Enterprises) began opening their doors – and their minds – to learn from each other.  First there was caution, but that was quickly followed by the delight that came from the exchanges of perspectives seen among them.  This was followed by the acceptance that while every person and company is different, the exchanged perspectives opened up new vistas all could pursue.  It really delivered the message that “If these exchanges jar you to see your own operations from a different perspective… your future innovation has just taken a big step forward.”

This led to the emergence of Mfg Consortia in Ontario circa 1990 which then spread across North America and Australia.  In a relatively short time, fear and pride gave way to cooperation, mutual respect, and a hunger to learn more together – through exchanges that generated more questions and excitement for things they would not have achieved on their own.