Jon Miller’s Lean Response to NYR and his Insights into Organisational Behaviour

Welcome to a new post on the Lean Tank! Today we are adding an important name to the lean thinkers that make up the global lean awareness think tank. Ladies and gentlemen, Jon Miller!

Jon MillerJon co-founded the lean consulting and training firm Gemba Research in 1998, which merged with Kaizen Institute in 2011. Jon served as CEO and board member of Kaizen Institute Consulting Group for 4 years. Jon has led dozens of lean transformation projects in a wide range of industries. He has helped thousands of people across 20+ countries understand and apply Toyota Production System principles. Jon co-authored the Shingo Prize-winning book, Creating a Kaizen Culture. He contributes to a variety of publications, including over 1,000 articles on his Gemba Panta Rei blog. Today Jon advises clients on their lean journeys and supports content development efforts at Gemba Academy.

There are two articles  on the Gemba Academy Blog authored by Jon Miller that I would like to share with you here. The first is Jon’s response to New Year’s Resolutions, more specifically: how he stopped making New Year’s Resolutions and the three lean habits he replaced the NYR with. Are they easier to follow? Read on and decide for yourselves.

Personal Kamishibai Jon Miller

Jon Miller’s Personal Kamishibai

Daily kami board. It is a process audit board, tracking activity towards long-term goals, loosely based on the kamishibai board (kami for short). It is made out orange and green post-its stuck back-to-back. Orange side visible indicates not done and green indicates done. The pockets are just slits cut into notebook paper, backed with tape so the cards don’t fall through. On the cards are written the “standards” or actions that move me towards my goals every day. They include things like exercising, writing, taking a walk with my wife, and a catch-all category of “chip away at long-term projects” which reminds me to work on home improvements, family financial planning or other things that are timely and top-of-mind. Each of these actions is in support of one or more specific personal long-term goals. For example the daily walk supports both my fitness goal and marital harmony. The day starts with all cards orange and they are flipped to green as they are completed. A few items are not daily but M W F, and are flipped to green on all other days when no action is needed. The board has been updated a few time over the past year, but remains simple and even pencil-and-paper device.

Visible standards. These are hand-written or printed sheets of detailed instructions for when the kami card action requires it. The weekly exercise routine is printed and posted in the garage. Writing assignments are posted above my writing desk. There is no written standard for the daily walk, we try to find an hour around midday, based on weather, errands we need to run, and other priorities, and set the route. The purpose of the posted standard is to reduce time thinking and deciding what to do, but also to have a standard that can be scribbled on, adjusted and improved upon over time. For example, last year I began lifting weights again, and I injured my shoulder. What I learned from this is that I am no longer a young man, but also that my lifting form was bad, according to YouTube and the latest in sports medicine. Working with a trainer at a gym would have saved me the pain. But the physical pain is a reminder of the importance of realistic and fact-based goal-setting. It vastly improved the “visible standard” for exercise and made the routine more sustainable.

Hansei journal. Every night before going to sleep I write down a few sentences in a notebook. These are reflections on how I did that day with the kami items. The best days are when I can confess my failings, be brutally honest and think of a change to the kami or the content of the standards. The hansei process has also identified where motivation was low because the goal and purpose was not clear. During American Football season, the motivation to watch games is high and these 3-hour blocks several times per week can interfere with working on some of the kami items. Adjustments to the kami will be made between February 8 and next September…

How did stop making New Year’s resolutions? That result was an accident, but there are some general lessons here. First, I had to remove demands on my time that prevents me from being able to chip away at the long-term resolutions during the year. My game-changer was removing the overburden of constantly being on the road. Being able to follow a daily routine, fail regularly and try again, has been essential to developing this process. Workload still varies each day, and getting all-green on the kami remains a stretch on many days. Second, break big goals down to smaller things that can be done on any given day or on specific days of the week, and can fit onto something like a kami. Third, make a habit of frequent progress checks and course corrections. In my case this is multiple times daily as I try to flip over all 12 of the cards on the kami board each day. It is very rare that all kami cards are turned green, for a variety of reasons. This feeds the hansei journal.

I don’t expect that my specific approach to daily personal PDCA will work for everyone, but am resolved to keep following and learning from it.

Wishing everyone a safe, prosperous and happy New Year.

The second article is Putting Things on Top of Other Things. It offers a great picture of organisational culture linked to a comedy sketch you may know. In the very first Lean Tank article we explored the connections between movies, three of them in particular, and lean concepts. It’s time to continue exploring. Have fun! 

One of my favorite comedy sketches is the “Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things” by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Over the years I have grown to appreciate its insight into organizational behavior. Here is how the Society’s President opens the meeting

“The year has been a good one for the Society. This year our members have put more things on top of other things than ever before. But, I should warn you, this is no time for complacency. No, there are still many things, and I cannot emphasize this too strongly, not on top of other things.”

For those who haven’t seen the sketch, I won’t give away the payoff. Click on the YouTube link and take a couple of minutes to watch it.

When I was younger, I enjoyed this sketch simply for the absurdity of its premise as well as the deadpan delivery. After becoming a working adult I, came to appreciate that this was absurd yet had much to do with how organizations worked. Organizations are groups of people who come together for a common purpose, such as to put things on top of other things. Large organizational failures are often preceded by activities becoming an ends in themselves. Examples include production targets set for factories in planned economies such as the USSR, Toyota’s pursuit of the vehicle volume even at the cost of design quality systems during the first decade of the 2000s, or the U.S. financial sector forgetting that the purpose of banking was to support the growth of the rest of the economy rather than just to use money to make more money. Putting things on top of other things.

In terms of our personal inboxes, it seems we are “putting things on top of other things”. A typical manager’s daily or weekly priorities are being shifted regularly as new priorities are placed above previous ones. Things on top of other things. This may be due to small problems being escalated ahead of the day’s work, senior managers reacting to new opportunities and redirecting their teams, projects falling behind and requiring management attention, etc. We have a chance to be more effective when we ask ourselves the purpose of our work rather than simply moving things through our inbox.

Some years ago, while at an aerospace company on the east coast, a visiting General Manager who we will call Mr. W observed a problem during a gemba walk. He discerned that the problem with recent performance at the plant was in the shipping and receiving area. Wishing to enlighten and motivate the team, he gave a speech which was essentially, “It’s all about the boxes. Boxes on the conveyor. Boxes in the door. Boxes out the door.” Boxes on top of other boxes. Sure, it was important for the boxes to move through the area in a certain way. The people knew this. What they needed from leadership was not exhortations to “put more things on top of other things” but a connection between their efforts and serving the customer, also a chance for their voice to be heard as internal customers with valid concerns about upstream processes and policies that affected their ability to serve the customer. If YouTube and smart phones had existed back then, I could have pulled up the Monty Python video for Mr. W and asked, “How are these two situations similar?”

Studies have shown that organizations with adaptive cultures are more innovative, profitable and resilient. Non-adaptive cultures are internally-focused and bureaucratic, insisting more on following rules without question and meeting internal targets rather than questioning how things are done, listening to customers and flexing to meet their needs. The Society was about putting things on top of other things, rather than why. As times change, the original purpose is forgotten or fades into the background, our activities inevitably become silly to future generations. It’s early in the year, a good time to look for opportunities to questions things we may be putting on top of other things, and to find the courage to say, “The whole thing is a bit silly.” That way we can better focus our time on serving the customer and our long-term purpose.


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