Tuesday, December 30, 2003

"Those who are both humble and tough"

Last fall, a good friend gave me a remarkable little book, a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis (good sites here and here ) from the 1930s and 40s. Lewis is best known for his five-book set about the fictional world of Narnia. He was also, though one of finest thinkers and ethicists of the mid 20th century and has long been a favorite of mine.

And a surprise came in the middle of the book. In a lecture at Oxford in October, 1939, Lewis sought to give students perspective as to why they should continue in their education even as Europe lurched inexorably towards war. Why stay with their studies when the call to action seemed so loud?

Lewis answered with a telling quote. Each vocation and stage of training has its dullness, its boredom. Which is useful because, Lewis said,

It weeds out the vain, windy people and keeps in those who are both humble and tough.

Who really makes it? Who are the true influencers? Who is it who really changes things? Is it not those who have humility? Who do not care where the credit goes so long as the job gets done? Is it not those who are tenacious to get results and hang in there? Those who can put up with the boredom, the petty pot-shots, the political wrangling, the difficulty with understanding correctly? And is it not those who are humble and tough who earn the trust of others?

The simplicity of Lewis' words rings true 63 years later. And is a great challenge and encouragement to all of us hoping to make a difference in our organizations.

May you practice humility and be tough today.

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Monday, December 29, 2003

Five Minds of a Manager, Part 5

I'll tie up today my comments on this fine article from the November issue of Harvard Business Review by Jonathan Gosling and Henry Mintzberg (click for a free summary or to download for $7, if you don't have the article).

The last two mindsets of the manager as described are the Collaborative Mindset (that is, managing relationships) and the Action mindset (managing change). These two perspectives jive closely with previous three.

Collaboration cannot take place unless the manager is with others, both physically and emotionally. Relationships are key. And, this acknowledges that we are not purely rational people...we have likes and dislikes, warts and gowns. In one simple way, collaboration means the manger listens more than talks. The manager chooses to shut up. Frequently. It means leadership is earned from, not thrust upon them.

Which leads to action. The authors point out that our usual view of action is a linear one...we plot a course, take steps and the expected result happens. IF you are a good leader. In reality, action is far less linear. An opportunity presents itself. It is seized (or not). The organization improves (or not). And then it happens again. When will we get out of the illusion of linear action?

I think part of the key to moving out of this illusion is to look at the interrelatedness of managerial excellence captured in this short article. Unless one reflects, one will miss the opportunity. Apart from collaboration, others don't add their input. Lousy analysis will lead to poor use of cash and people. If we miss the impact on the worlds of the those affected, it won't improve. If we don't understand change, surprise, nothing will change.

Conversely, a reflective understanding of the worlds of others, collaborating with them while breaking down the components of the action will be generally positive. And, even if it fails, it won't sink the ship. And the lean leader will learn from any failure, and continue to drive waste out.

I hope this short series was helpful for you. Thanks for reading.

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Five Minds of a Manager, Part 4

I hope I'm not boring you with my continued comments on the most excellent article from the November issue of Harvard Business Review by Jonathan Gosling and Henry Mintzberg (click for a free summary or to download for $7, if you don't have the article). But it is very helpful to me to write about it. So, hang on!

The authors third aspect of managing was refreshing to me. They call it Managing Context: The Worldly Mind-Set. What on earth is this? A suggestion that the next business seminar should be in New Orleans during Mardi Gras??

Quite simply, the worldly mindset implores managers to make decisions looking hard that the "world" in which the decisions will be implemented. The authors write extensively for the multi-national corporation, with examples of cultures, governments, ecologies in far-off places. Probably true, I just don't know much about that.

However, this "mindset" is clearly something a Lean manager should address, at either the micro or macro level. Lean managers have known for a long time to physically get to gemba, the workplace. This is why daily meetings take place in the work area. This is why blitzes or kaizens take place on the shop floor. This is why a value stream map should be drawn in the work place, not in an office. This is why visual measurements are very clear right where people work.

In a sidebar, the authors summarize this mindset:

What matters is attention paid to particular responses to specific conditions.
Here's our old friend, the concept of "attention". They set this attention to specifics against the trend of generalizations about markets, values and practices.

I recall reading in the early 80s a business magazine marveling at how Canon had taken over such a huge market share in cameras at the time. The authors described, with apparent horror, Canon's technique. They would send an experienced manager or engineer to spend five days in a real camera store, behind the counter, talking to real customers. They found that a small handful to people spending a small amount of time in real contact with real customers gave them more market insight than processed data from focus groups. Is this "worldly"? Is this understanding context? Is this paying attention? I think so.

I'm asking myself (and thus encourage you to do the same) "OK, Joe, how do you get closer to the target of the impact of decisions?" Often, it is no more complicated than physically getting to the scene of the action. But that is usually preceded by an intention. I challenge myself to make that intention practical, more often.

I hope this is helpful.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Thoughts on Christmas Eve

This day is always a quiet, reflective one for me. Looking back at my blog a year ago today , I see that some of the same things are on my mind, yet modified by current events.
  • What to say about the economy? The glass has water up to the mid point. Is that good or bad? Depends on who you want to believe. Some metrics are encouraging. Other measures depress us all. In our area, several factories are re-hiring. Another one was shut down last week. This morning, we learn that mad cow disease is found in the US. Looks to me like we'll keep lurching sideways.

  • Change is difficult. Combating such inertia, even on a local level, is tough. The inertia to maintain the status quo is huge. The need for a combination of focus and perseverence has hit me more deeply than ever. And indifference to focus and persevernce bugs me more than ever.

  • My sons seem to be in better spots than they were a year ago. David, age 25, is loving being a medic in the US Army, despite the fact it means he spends this Christmas in barracks 12 miles from the North Korean border. He and his wife are expecting twin boys in early March. Nathan, now 23, is more settled and finding a career job opportunity at last. The maturation process continues, positively. Matt, age 15, has straight A's, good friends and a Learner's Permit. Look out, local drivers. Being a Dad, example and counselor to three very different kids remains a joy and a mind-blowing challenge.

  • My own Dad remains a huge example to me. It's hard to believe that he died ten years ago today, Christmas Eve, 1993. I am so grateful for a man from whom I could learn everything from soybean futures to serving on a school board to nurturing a long marriage. With my own son soon becoming a Dad himself, his example means more than ever.

  • Hope is central, and without it we have little to hang on. My own hope flows from my faith in Christ, which continues to be very real to me.

My very best to you this Christmas. Thank you for your gift to me, allowing and encouraging me to write and learn in the public space. It means more than you can imagine.

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Sunday, December 21, 2003

Five Minds of a Manager, Part 3

Continuing to comment on the most excellent article from the November issue of Harvard Business Review by Jonathan Gosling and Henry Mintzberg (click for a free summary or to download for $7, if you don't have the article).

The second of the five mindsets of the manager is the analytical mind-set, the management of organizations. This is breaking down a complex phenomenon into it's component parts.

The authors suggest that conventional analysis is inadequate; rather it is crucial that managers dig up deeper.

That said, they don't offer ways to do this deeper analysis, other than to say to appreciate the "soft data" and to examine "biases and assumptions." Let me offer a way to do analysis, based on the well-known factors of the Balanced Scorecard.

  • Financial Factors. No amount of "soft data" can overwhelm an inadequate or nonsensical financial analysis. And financial analysis begins with a hard look at cash. Any lean initiative MUST lead to improved cash flow. Cash will usually lead us in the right direction. So, look at the cash flow first.
  • Customer Factors. How will the change affect the folks who pay for this? Will it get product or service to them sooner? Better? In a way that they want and will pay for? Has anyone actually asked the customer about it?? Does it make sense from the customer's point of view?
  • Process Factors. So how will it affect our own processes? Will it lower our operational cost? Will is shorten our cycle time? Will it lower our work-in-process inventory? How about our raw materials inventory? Will it make it easier to deliver and assess quality?
  • Development Factors. Will this help the training of our key people? Will it trigger more learning? Will we encourage or discourage our people?
This is a basis for analysis for a lean decision making process. It is not difficult nor is it complicated. Neither is it simplistic.

I hope this is helpful.

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Monday, December 15, 2003

Five Minds of a Manager, Part 2

This intriguing article from the November issue of Harvard Business Review by Jonathan Gosling and Henry Mintzberg (click for a free summary or to download for $7, if you don't have the article) suggests five ways a manager unpacks the chaos around him/her.

The first is by managing self, via "The Reflective Mindset". The authors maintain that "what managers need is to stop and think, to step back and reflect thoughtfully on their experiences."

Why mention this? Is it obvious? Perhaps. Yet, I see it seldom practiced. In the "action oriented" business world we swim in daily, many regard quiet consideration as a "wimpy" type of practice.

The authors tell us that the root of the word "reflection" is in the Latin word "refold". I like that...a great mental image of the active mind opening and refolding the situation. Looking at it from different angles. Flipping it back and forth in the hand. Considering the full feel of the fabric of the situation.

Yet, for those involved in a quest to eliminate waste, this is "refolding" is vital. Why? Because waste seldom jumps up with a large label on itself. It is often buried in machines, processes, procedures. Because we seldom really reflect on what the customer is really telling us about value. Because we get so enamored with measuring activity, we seldom stop to see what these measurements are telling us.

In the alternative, though, reflection allows for thoughtful discussion about what the customer is saying. It allows for further discussions with the customer. It allows for discussion about the metrics. It allows for asking the second, third, fourth, fifth "why" in getting to root cause. It allows for careful listening to the complaint (dare I say "whining"?) of a co-worker.

Reflection allows for respect for others, both inside and outside the company. It listens to what people and events have to say. Reflection is the opposite of multi-tasking. Reflection tells me to not check my email while someone is talking to me on the phone.

Reflection allows for assessments of the situation. Remember an assessment is an opinion stated with a particular goal in mind. Without reflection, assessments can be merely shot from the hip, inaccurate, insipid weak. With reflection, which allows one to consider the goal, we can make well-grounded assessments, which then will lead to effective action.

So try something today. Take a task you need to get done and, before you launch into it, sit quietly for five minutes and think about it. Why are you doing it? What is the basis for it? What do you want to accomplish with it? Who will be affected? Sit. Think. Consider.

And time yourself. Yes, I really mean five minutes.

Then start in. But, not until you've sat there for five minutes, focusing on the task.

Do the task. Then, later in the day, assess how it went. Were you more effective? Did you have better insight? Did the reflective mindset help you move through this better?

I'd enjoy hearing from you, if you tried this exercise. Leave a comment if you'd like to make it public; email me if you'd rather not. I do ask you to write about it, though, as it will help cement what you've learned.

I hope this is helpful and you can reflect further on it.

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Saturday, December 13, 2003

The Five Minds of a Manager

In the November issue of Harvard Business Review, Jonathan Gosling and Henry Mintzberg authored an article by this title (click for a free summary or to download for $7, if you don't have the article). I was so intrigued by the article, I'm going to attempt to learn it better by summarizing it myself in the next several blog entries, as it applies to any of us attempting to lead a Lean Transformation.

While I am unfamiliar (until now) with Mr. Gosling's work, Mr. Mintzberg has been a key light to me for over 15 years. His insight into organizations has been very influential for me. (thanks again to my friend, Ann Marie Ott, a deep thinker who put me on to Mintzberg's work in the late 80s) So, his name drew me to the article.

Their key premise is that our fascination with "leadership" has made the term "management" seem less noble, less appealing. Yet, we badly need both. Their summary:

Just as management without leadership encourages an uninspired style, which deadens activities, leadership without management encourages a disconnected style, which promotes hubris.

Whoa. What's hubris?

From Encyclopedia Britannica, hubris is defined, in classical Greek ethical and religious thought, to be an overweening presumption suggesting complete disregard of the limits governing human action in an orderly universe. It is the sin to which the great and gifted are most susceptible

So, the authors succinctly grasp that the leader who does not manage is not only disconnected, but risks missing the normal limits surrounding human action.

Put more simply, that leader can become an emperor with "New Clothes".

I've seen this in a number of settings. When "leadership" is held up to be the "only thing" and the nuts and bolts of management are ignored or put down, the leader always becomes more distant and unable to relate to the real world of her/his people. It is a scary thing.

So, desiring to neither be uninspired nor disconnected, I read on.

The authors propose that the effective manager be one who can actively synthesize five different mindsets:

  • Managing Self: the reflective mind-set
  • Managing organizations: the analytic mind-set
  • Managing context: the worldly mind-set
  • Managing relationships: the collaborative mind-set
  • Managing change: the action mind-set

The authors claim, and I agree, that this framework allows one to make sense out of complicated and confusing situations. I'll discuss each of these in future entries. I hope you find it helpful.

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Friday, December 12, 2003

Improvement Fatigue

Is it possible to just plain get tired of continuous improvement?

What is the likelihood of all those Atkins Diet fans going on carbo binges over the next three weeks? How well will they stand up to the relentless barrage of holiday goodies at the office, at parties, at home? How many Cinnamon Strudel Delights can go unsampled? How many Christmas cookies can go unsnitched? Can that one remaining Snickerdoodle on the plate be passed up by the Hi protein guru?

You get the idea...we've all fought fatigue.

Fighting the waste around us is a lot like fighting the waist around us. I let up and back it comes. With far less effort than it took to get rid of it in the first place.

So what is the role of the Lean leader in the workplace to fight this inevitable fatigue? I'm not entirely sure, but here are some thoughts:

  • Accept "fatigue" as a real phenomenon. As I've often mentioned in this blog, the lean process is an intensely human one. And we get tired of it. To deny its reality is silly.
  • Learn to notice the signs of fatigue. Lack of attention. Sloppiness on the edges. Tolerance of non conformances. It is in the "noticing" that one begins to exercise leadership.
  • Talk about the fatigue. Some sentences like this perhaps? "Wow, have we run out of ways to improve?" "Gee, where's the bottleneck? What can we do to improve it?" "It gets frustrating doesn't it...so how do we work through it?"
  • Learn to enjoy the "plateau"In his excellent little book Mastery, George Leonard describes the learning process as brief spurts of improvement followed by much longer "plateaus". It is on these plateaus that we secure the gains made by during the improvement. Yet it does not appear we are making much progress. What is crucial is being able to recognize the difference between a plateau and a full-scale regression.
  • Celebrate. Perhaps if we are fatigued over improvement, we are also fatigued over celebration. So, can I find something to really be excited about? To give out a simple award? To thank sincerely? To write a thank-you note?
  • Review basic goals. Our sugar-laden Atkins friend may need to ask himself "So what was my weight target anyway? Have I weighed in during the past week?"
Hope you don't run out of gas anytime soon. The Lean process is a marathon, not a sprint. Don't ignore the water table along the way...and don't forget to pass the water along to your fellow participants.

I hope this is helpful. And encouraging!Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

The High Price of Scrap Steel

My colleague Ken Kellams alerted me yesterday to recent data showing a very rapid rise in the price of scrap steel to all-time record levels over the past four months. This is gaining attention since scrap is a key input to new steel manufacture.

Which got me thinking; Does a high price for scrap steel serve as a disincentive to eliminating waste? Does this make the effort to get rid of scrap less attractive? So I ran some numbers.

Consider a hypothetical steel processor who purchases steel for $500/ton and by processing it further adds 20% to its value, selling it for $600/ton. Further, assume the processor has an 8% scrap rate.

In this scenario, the processor requires 1.08 tons of steel to produce one ton of salable product. The input steel will thus cost $540. Assuming all scrap is recoverable and is sold at the current record-high price of $190/ton, the 0.08 tons of scrap will generate $15.20 of additional revenue. Put together, one ton of product will generate $44.80 in net profit.

What happens then if the processor can cut the scrap rate to 4% from 8%??

The customer doesn't care, still paying only $600 for the finished product. However, it now only takes 1.04 tons of input to produce that output, costing $520. The now-smaller scrap of 0.04 tons yields $7.60 of additional revenue. The result? $72.40 of net profit for the ton of output.

An increase of 61% in operating profit. By simply focusing on waste elimination as a strategy.

Now, if that processor can handle, say, 500 tons of product per week, it would be left with an improvement on operating profit of $13,800 per week. With this data, the processor could assess if additional labor costs and/or capital improvements are justified for $13,800 per week.

Further calculations indicate that the price for scrap steel would have to triple in this scenario to make waste elimination not pay off.

Test these figures with your own...but the logic is the same. Inevitably, waste elimination wins out because one saves the high priced inputs, which will always cost more than scrap.

I hope this is helpful...and that you don't get distracted by the appeal of selling scrap to the exclusion of not needing to sell it in the first place.

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Saturday, December 06, 2003

Learning to Live with "Igor"

As promised, blogging has been slow the past couple of weeks due to the shoulder surgery I had before Thanksgiving. I'm pleased to report that the surgery seemed to have had its intended effect in getting rid of the bone spurs. However, I have also had to learn to live with a tender and weak right arm. I've nicknamed the arm "Igor" as it kind of just hangs there and I sling it around as needed.

And Igor has taught me several things. Take the simple act of brushing my teeth in the morning. I'm right-handed...and Igor is on my right side. Have you ever brushed your teeth with the "wrong" hand? Wow, does it feel weird. Clumsy. Unnatural. New. Different. Slow.

And very, very wrong.

It takes me a lot longer than normal to brush my teeth. My gums hurt more, as I jam the brush in from an unnatural angle. I can't think about other things as I brush...I have to concentrate on this very mundane task or else my bicuspids get ignored badly. I don't like it. I'm working hard at my physical therapy, so that I can get Igor up high enough to take over again. But it's looking like it will be another 3 weeks before he's "up" to it.

What I've learned, afresh, is just how uncomfortable change is. Doing something differently hurts. It feels weird. Clumsy. Unnatural. Slow. And very, very wrong.

When I come in, all flags flying, proposing some new lean implementation, it should not surprise me that folks resist. Because none of us want to brush our teeth with the wrong hand!!

Thus, having Igor here is a great learning tool for me as I continue to try to drive change. Change is hard...give it time and keep persisting. The "therapy" will pay off.

The best work I've read on this whole subject is George Leonard's little book Mastery. In it he described the physical and mental blocks to change. Very helpful, if you'd like to understand the change process in more depth..

I hope this is helpful.

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Monday, December 01, 2003

Wisdom from a Lean Veteran

This morning on the Northwest Lean Listserve, my friend Mary Pat Cooper posted a very incisive post, which I want to pass along. She wrote the following in response to a question posed by another reader; "What's in it for me to pursue a Lean strategy?"

Mary Pat's 20 years of Lean experience at Wiremold and passion for people jumps out of this. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. And, you go apply some this deeply held and well-learned wisdom!

Dear Jeff,

What's in it for me? Your question is inspiring. I will try to limit my
comments to these 4 themes:

1. Creating a crisis...
2. What you learn to achieve, no one can take away.
3. Improving work working life is improving the quality of our lives.
4. If it ain't broke, fix it till it is.

1. There is a crisis - we just can't see it. Our assumptions about the
stability of our jobs, our work environment, and our own expertise are
all pure fantasy. No one knows what the future holds. We do know that if
we learn how to learn quickly, we can adapt faster than the next guy.
That's basic science, survival of the fittest (which, if you really
think about it, is really survival of the most adaptable...) Waiting
until the doors are closed and the facility is consolidated into
something else will be too late to do anything other than film another
chapter of "Roger and Me..."

2. There is a powerful speech made by the protagonist as he runs for
president in the book "Primary Colors." When challenged to promise job
security, his passionate answer is that our basis of competition rests
in what we put between our ears. Job security is a moving target. You
may not be able to control which base is closed, but you can add to the
employability of your skills.

3. During the weekday most of us spend at least 8 hours at our jobs,
another hour or two in the commute, and another 2 or 3 hours chasing
after the required errands of our lives. Maybe 8 hours asleep. That
leaves 3 or so hours for "enjoyment." We would not expect to "enjoy"
work - that's why they call it work, isn't it? How could anyone enjoy
working all day around stupid processes in a slop heap of wasted time
and energy? Work is a bitter, dirty, junkyard of busted dreams filled
with grey-faced sleepwalkers with a scattering of posers climbing
towards the corporate Olympus over the backs of everybody else.

What a horrible picture! Why do we accept it so readily? Why do we
keep ourselves separate and cynical, never expecting anything more?

Watching successful teams is a multi-billion dollar entertainment
industry. Groups of people overcoming outrageous odds are the highlight
of the human condition. Think about how fun it would be to be a part of
a great team. Learning how to continuously improve a work situation
under difficult circumstances is a high, as natural and as addicting as
physical exercise. You do it once well enough to make a real difference
and you get hooked for life.

4. I saw this bumper sticker on the back of a pickup truck; I think it
was a government service vehicle of some sort. "If it ain't broke, fix
it till it is." I'm sure that it was meant as a cynical dig at the
bumptious, ambitious, crop after crop of program-promoting dimwits that
wear out the "working stiffs" with their endless management fads of the
month. But riding along in traffic behind this pickup, I realized that
this is exactly what we must do to survive. How else can we break
through mediocrity and sustain front-running performance?

Wasted work creates its own false reality. High inventory hides the
waste of bad quality, poor planning, inept equipment and busted
processes, making everything seem just fine. Long lead times, ridiculous
layouts, computer complexities and stacks of paperwork grow illusions of
importance and security; of course we are so badly needed to deal with
this stuff because no one else can! We are trapped in our assumption
that the recipients of our goods and services must be satisfied, because
they keep coming back. Therefore, it "ain't broke, so don't fix it."

But our customers only come back until they can find satisfaction
somewhere else. We are trapped until we "break it", or "break out of it"
or have it broken by someone else who has figured out a better way
before we have.

What's in it for me? What's not?! Thank you for the inspiring
question, Jeff. Best of luck.


Marypat Cooper
Brooks Electronics Division of the Wiremold Company
Philadelphia, PA

I hope this is helpful. Thanks, so much Mary Pat.

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