Bill: Today I’m speaking with Jamie Flinchbaugh. He is Co-founder of the Lean Learning Center and author of the book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean. I recently read his book and it was apparent to me that he brings a lot of experience in lean transformation as both a practitioner and as a facilitator. It was literally one of those books I could not put down and wanted to read cover to cover in one sitting. I’m really looking forward to getting started. Jamie, what is your best process improvement strategy or tactic that has worked really well for you or your clients?
Jamie: I think it is really hard to narrow it down to one, but if I really did have to pick one, I’d say it is a true commitment to the concept of the check step of the plan-do-check-act process. I don’t care if people use plan-do-check-act or if they simply do hypothesis testing or whatever that might be, but it really comes down to the true discipline of saying “did we get the result that we expected to get, and if not, why?”
I think if you stay true to that, whether the change is strategic, organizational or a minor process improvement – I don’t care – it can lead you on the right path toward everything else.
You can’t really go wrong, if you are constantly checking to see whether the change is delivering the results you were expecting. This practice, by itself, is the ultimate self-correcting mechanism.
Bill: That’s a fascinating insight, and something that comes up for me from time to time. When I’m in a hurry to do something, I know I should do a check or give it to somebody else to peer review. When I skip this step, it always bites back. When you consistently practice that discipline, it just pays back over and over.
Jamie: Absolutely, and I think that the two failures that are most common are, first, not even bothering to do it, and second, if they do try, asking the wrong questions. I think too often what people put in place is, “Did I do the thing I said I was going to do?”, which isn’t really a check – that is more project management, and that’s different than, “Did I get the result I expected to get?” So they’re basically asking, “Did I do the work?” instead of “Did I get the result?”
Secondly, people get hung up around measurement. They think “Did I get the result I expected to get?” This means that I have to figure out how to measure the thing, and that’s not really always the case. It’s, “Did I get the behavior I was expecting to see?”, “Did I observe the result I expected to see?” Measurement is only one tool of validation – and people sometimes get wrapped up around having to find a way to measure everything.
Bill: Great points. I just looked over the highlights I made on my Kindle when I read your book, and this leads into another thought that caught my attention, and that was the whole aspect of learning. It seems like the above topic ties into that in a large part.
Jamie: Absolutely. It’s a core part of learning. When we talk about learning organizations, I really try to distinguish between learning information and learning capability. Do I read books and go to classes? There’s nothing wrong with that. Or am I a student of what’s going on around me? The latter part is the kind of learning we’re really talking about here, really being a true student of cause and effect, what drives the results that we get, that’s the kind of learning that we really want to see.
Bill: Another topic I wanted to explore with you was leadership. You talk a lot about leadership in your book. Why is leadership so critical to a lean transformation?
Jamie: In some sense you could say that leadership is critical to anything. In some ways it’s an easy lever to say it’s important, but I think why it’s so important to lean is that we believe the effect of lean is based on how people think; it’s based on behaviors.
The second reason is, it really is all-inclusive. The effect of lean engages the whole organization; it casts a very wide net. It’s not isolated to a few super problem solvers. It really turns everybody into a problem solver. If you take those two factors together and say we’re trying to engage everybody and we’re trying to do it at the behavioral level, well I’m going to need leadership to overcome those kinds of challenges. Simple program management and training is not going to be enough. I think those characteristics about lean are what makes leadership so essential in the lean journey.
Bill: Related to what you were just talking about, I was in an organization recently that’s going to undergo a lean transformation. As I was talking to one of the managers about it, one of the frustrations he expressed was, “What does it really mean? It seems to mean different things to different people.” I know for myself, my understanding of lean is always evolving, can you share your perspective on this?
Jamie: Yes, that’s not an uncommon challenge. In that sense, lean is a pretty nuanced practice, so you could say it’s a set of tools and a set of practices, and a set of behaviors and beliefs, and then start to define some of those. But then even if you do, there are nuances and levels of depth that can take it to different levels. I have two primary answers to this question. One is, I think it’s more important that people have an answer of what it means to them than we all have the same answer. As much as lean is about standardization, I don’t think all of us having the same answer is nearly as important as people having a committed answer. This is what lean means to me, and this is what I’m trying to do with it. I think if folks really seek that, people will correctly approach it it from a perspective of learning and exploration and discovery, and that is more important than boiling it down to a few common things.
Second, I think when folks do try to boil it down, it is important for them to say, this is our language and this is our model. It’s not that that’s right, it’s just that… in fact, I subscribe to the theory that all models are wrong and some are useful. But if you get to a point that says, “Here’s how we operate, these are our beliefs, these are our practices, and this is how we, as an organization, do our work,” it does set a tone for how we are trying to be consistent. We will then keep that consistency, but still, the nuances come out when we start to apply it, and people think they’re on the same page until they start to get to work and realize it’s not so easy. Because lean is not a narrowly defined set of practices, it does, on the downside, make it harder for people to get their arms around. On the upside, it leads you down a path of continual exploration, which in itself I believe is a healthy thing.
Bill: I think that’s a really good perspective on it. Another question, in your book you talked about traditional practices for understanding current reality focus on results or outcomes rather than understanding the means, not just the ends. Can you give readers a little more background or example so they could apply it more effectively?
Jamie: Absolutely. I think if you start to look around and say, what do you do to understand current reality, you get a pretty bounded set of things that focus on reporting. Reports that we go find or that are system generated. We focus on meetings that are primarily designed for people to get answers to questions—not explore answers but get answers, so they’re looking for information, looking for status reports.
Most of our inbox is filled with status reports—when is this thing going to be ready, when is it going to ship, what happened and that sort of thing. Even when we are engaging with people, we tell stories about events. What happened, tell me the story. If you put all those things together, all of them are about the results of what’s going on. They aren’t so much about the why. If you think about the reports that people have, just the first layer of that system for understanding current reality, if they’re good reports, they tell us whether we have a problem. If they don’t even tell us about a potential problem, I’m not even sure what the point of the report is.
Second, they should tell us where we have a problem, or at least help us figure that out. Many reports don’t do that, but if they’re really good and the problem is of a certain nature, reports should be able to tell us where we have a problem. Even so, they still really never tell us why we have a problem. For that, we have to go to the source – we have to go to how the work is done. Whether it’s direct observation, we go and actually see the problem, whether it’s process maps or value stream maps, or a mechanism to get into how the work is designed and managed and improved. Until we get to that level, we don’t really understand cause and effect; we don’t really understand how the problems are being generated. We often have much more focus on the results than we do on why we’re getting the result that we get.
I’m working with an individual right now who, for over three decades, would go figure out who was responsible for the problem. Now he’s shifted his behavior to start to look at why the process failed instead of the person who failed. What he’s found is that every time he’s gone out looking for someone to blame, he’s found a process failure instead. That requires looking in a different place, looking at how the process is working and why it’s generating the results that it is.
Bill: Reflecting on everything you’ve talked about so far, the thing that strikes me is everything in lean seems so intuitive and obvious, but for the most part, we’re all almost in trance where we don’t take that extra leap, that extra step. Do you have any recommendations on how we can keep ourselves in a lean mindset, so we’re more mindful of these things day to day, minute to minute?
Jamie: It is a challenge, and it does sound good, but as a guy named Kiyoshi Suzakionce said, lean tools are common sense after the fact. In advance, they don’t always look that intuitive, but after you hear it, see it, or experience it, you say sure, that makes sense. But we still struggle, and one of the reasons we struggle is that in any one moment, it’s always an investment. It’s always easier to jump to a conclusion than it is to go directly observe. It’s always easier to put a Band-Aid on than it is to get to a root cause.
For example,on Tuesday afternoon at 2:00 pm, when I have a problem, what’s the easiest path at that moment? It’s always the shortcut, not always the deeper dive. Because that is an investment, it doesn’t have the immediate gratification, it doesn’t always pay us back right away, and so that requires in the moment a more reflective, more long-term focus.
How do we get there? I think for each individual it requires a combination, at the minimum, of reflection and coaching. By reflection I mean that we start looking at our own behaviors and evaluating them, whether they were the right decisions. Even if we start doing it once a week and then we start doing it once a day, and then we start doing it at the end of an hour, and then we start doing it in the moment, we get closer and closer to time zero and recognize our behavior and make the corrective action. If we can reflect in time zero, even if we never get to the point where we automatically do the right thing, but instead at the moment recognize we’re doing the wrong thing and make the adjustment, that’s fine, that’s more important than what the right outcome is, than it is whether I got it immediately or I had to correct myself.
Secondly is the coaching piece, I think people need help with this, and this is what I spend most of my time doing. Whoever that coach is, whether it’s your boss or your peer, whether it’s inside or outside of the organization, I think folks need help to work through their own barriers, routines, and habits in order to overcome those and get to a different set of behaviors.
Bill: Jamie, you’ve shared many great ideas here and I would like to keep talking but we are approaching the five-minute mark. Is there anything you’d like to bring up in closing the interview?
Jamie: I think maybe my only point that at least builds on what we’ve already talked about is for folks to keep in mind that lean is about behaviors. It’s important for folks to realize that lean is fundamentally an inside-out transformation. We have to transform ourselves before we transform others, and so many folks I work with have the understanding, they know what good looks like, and they want to see the organization move forward. So, they’re very worried about or thinking about, “How do I get other people to change?” more than they’re focused on how they can change themselves. This is an inside-out transformation. The more that we transform our own behaviors and our own thinking, the easier it is and the more effective it is to then help others.
Bill: Okay, the thought that comes to mind to me is the notion of leadership from the inside-out.
Jamie: It’s very hard to lead through proclamation and tell people to go forward. It’s much harder to say, okay here’s the tough path. I’ve been the lead scout, I’ve headed out there, I’ve tried it, I’ve done it, it’s working for me. Adding, I’m nowhere near perfect, but this is the right path for us to head on. This is, for sure, a much harder leadership path.
Bill: This has been a fantastic interview, Jamie. I’m really looking forward to publishing it along with Tweets of many of the highlights I made while reading your book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean. Thank you again.