Monday, October 16, 2017

Where Lean Has Gone Wrong & What to Do About It, Part 2

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

“What is your thinking way, Pascal-san?”

Thanks for your thoughtful feedback on part 1 of this note.

The Lean ‘movement’ is indeed in flux, no? We need to reflect and adjust our activities in accord with the needs of our partners and communities.

How to do this? In my view, we need to double-down on Lean principles. Otherwise, may I suggest that we are essentially a skilled trade – useful, honorable, worthy of study and practice – but not a game-changing, earth-shaking, get out of town transformation.

Lean – aka Toyota Production System, aka the ‘Profound System of Knowledge’ (Deming) – is a set of principles that turn into methods & tools appropriate to the situation.

But many of us have become enamoured of our tools & methods, have we not? To be sure, Standardized Work, Jidoka, Heijunka and the like are splendid & powerful methods. But unless we understand & translate the underlying principles, our impact will be limited.

Principles are ideas; methods are the action that bring them to life. Principles are eternal; methods, temporary.

For example, principle like ‘Make Problems Visible’ and ‘Build Quality into the Process’ find expression in Toyota’s famous Andon board. If we focus on the Andon board, and not the underlying principles, how are we to help, say, a developer of financial security software?

Do we advise them to install an Andon board & all the related electronics, because that’s how we did it in our manufacturing plant? The IT company would show the ‘sensei’ the door – rightfully! (“I don’t care what you did in your manufacturing plant…”)

But if we reflect deeply on the underlying principles, we might come up with very interesting countermeasures, as have the splendid Menlo Innovations and their CEO Richard Sheridan – (two coders side-by-side, checking & confirming each line…)

Or we might have come up Agile & its constituent methods (Scrum, Kanban etc.), as our IT colleagues did a decade ago.

Now ideas are harder to teach & apply than methods. Unlike methods, ideas cannot be turned into three-day, or five-day, or three-week ‘programs’. Ideas are not so easily monetized. But their impact is much greater, and the astute leader will notice the difference.

Much of my personal practice entails coaching senior executives. I start with the principles, to get their interest, then provide examples of how the principles have been applied in different industries.

Underlying message: “Lean is a transformational strategy, a game-changer…”

Starting with tools sends a different message. “Lean is like a skilled trade – helpful, useful, worth doing, but not a game-changer.”

Our Toyota senseis emphasized principles above all, and their core question is burned into my consciousness: “What is your thinking way?”

If we deepen our understanding & application of Lean principles (thinking), we’ll be relevant & helpful for decades to come – and have a hell of a good time too.

Best regards,


Monday, October 2, 2017

Where Lean Has Gone Wrong & What to Do About It, Part 1

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

Thanks to Jim Womack for his insightful & heartfelt piece about this last month. (Jim is a friend, supporter and visionary, not to mention a person of decency & kindness. It’s fair to say that Jim & Dan Jones kicked off the Lean movement twenty years ago. Their insights have penetrating ever since.)

Here are a few thoughts, building on Jim’s points.

Lean is hard and only fully succeeds when there is aligned motivation on many levels. While it’s true that few transformations succeed without the senior leader’s full-hearted participation, that’s not enough.

We need a single-minded strength of purpose throughout the organization. We need front line team leaders and middle managers teaching & doing the right thing – even when nobody is watching. And that, of course, means a management system, (a concept I’ve tried to illuminate, especially in all my most recent stuff - Andy & Me and the Hospital.)

Single-minded strength of purpose also requires full alignment between the organization’s Purpose, and each member’s Purpose. Toyota’s corresponding alignment is more or less: “You do the work that needs doing and help us to improve, and you’ll have an engaging & well-paying job here for as long as you want it.”

I believe each organization needs to develop something similar, in accord with its culture. Do not copy Toyota or any other strong Lean company. This alignment must resonate with your team members, culture and industry. In a number of our partner firms, the deal is subtly different: “You do the work that needs doing and help us to improve, and you’ll learn & grow more than you ever thought possible, and will do cool things for as long as you want to.”

People systems including Recruitment, Succession Planning and Compensation are central of course, and a very common impediment. We have to start with Strategy Deployment, the senior leader’s core methodology.

Negative motivators can be helpful too. A number of Lean Pathways team members are Toyota alumni and remember the acronym CLM – Career Limiting Move! Any selfish, destructive, random, political disrespectful to a team member, the customer or the community would quality as a CLM. Any action that compromised Safety or Quality was a CLM. A few CLMs and your future at Toyota was in doubt. These are, in effect, a healthy version of the corporate antibodies.

One more thing. After a decade & a half of practice, our Lean Pathways team has lived through many transformations. In every blow your socks off, get out of town, let’s do the Moon Walk in slow motion transformation, (pardon the body English), the CEO, COO and their teams have a) made significant time for Executive Coaching, and b) been wide open to making corresponding changes in their day to day work.

More to come.

Best regards,


Monday, September 18, 2017

Viva South Africa

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

Sawubona, kunjani, ngiyaphila!

Just back from splendid South Africa and the 2017 Kwazulu-Natal (KZN) Lean Conference.

A deep bow to Melanie Vaness and the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business team for planning, organizing & managing an unforgettable three days. (Thanks for the Zulu lessons too…)

My daughter, Katie, and I were lucky enough to tour South Africa afterward and to get at least a small sense of its wonders. “South Africa gets inside you, changes you,” Melanie said, and she was right.

Cape Town, Cape Point, Stellenbosch, the Natal Midlands, Phinda, Drakensberg, St. Lucia wetlands, Umhlanga and the Indian Ocean coast. I am forever a South Africa fan and supporter.

I begin to understand Nelson Mandela’s dream of a ‘Rainbow Nation’, and his greatness as a leader. I met leaders at every level, and of every rainbow shade, and was much impressed by their patriotism – and by their embrace of Lean.

South Africans are a practical lot. They like things that are simple, robust and effective. Hence, Lean.

To be sure, the Rainbow Nation is in political turmoil and the next few years are critical. (See: Racism Scandal & Bell Pottinger Disgraced)

I am confident that civil society will prevail and that a credible alternative government will emerge in the 2019 elections.

Beyond its beauty and majesty, the Rainbow Nation is a beacon, a metaphor, a harbinger of a fine future. Viva South Africa.

Hlala gahle – stay well.


Monday, September 4, 2017

Why is Business Transformation so Hard? Lessons from the ‘Back Pain Industry’

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

Many fine discussions these days about the above question.

Thanks to Bob Emiliani & other colleagues for their cogent questions & reflections.

Let me add a few thoughts based on my observations of another field – the so-called “Back Pain Industry” – another area wherein smart, capable people can’t seem to do what their trying to do. The back pain industry is

a) Enormous (> $ 100 billion USD), and
b) Doesn't seem to work. (Some common back treatments are not only ineffective, they’re harmful. See: Watch your back! & 30 Surprising back pain statistics)

What’s going on here? Any lessons for Lean/Continuous Improvement leaders?

Here’s my personal experience.

The back pain industry doesn’t seem to work, but some individual practitioners are extremely effective. My sport physiotherapist, for example, the splendid Janique Farand, has helped to keep my spine strong & supple for the past decade. I’m more active, and in better shape now than I was twenty years ago. A few years ago I even returned to Aikido practice, which severely tests back strength and flexibility. No problem, knock on wood. (Am throwing the young fellows around, and getting thrown, like in the old days.) All this despite significant disk deterioration in the L1 to L5 vertebrae. “Degenerative disk degeneration (DDD)”, my physician & specialist told me. “Normal wear & tear. You’ll have to learn to live with it.”

I don’t want to be misunderstood. All the people I’ve met in the back pain industry are capable, committed and hard working. One of them is clearly a great sensei. But they all work for major healthcare organizations and are constrained by ‘protocols’ sent down from on high. Woe unto them if they deviate from protocol!

Janique, by contrast, runs a small private physiotherapy (PT) practice specializing in sports medicine. Her diagnosis and understanding of root causes seems to be much deeper. She is ‘in the gemba’, if you will, closely observing what’s there. Janique is a detective, guided by her professional training, experience & acute knowledge of the latest advances. Is it any surprise that her countermeasures are deeper and more effective than the back pain industry’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach? (“I couldn’t do what I do if I worked for a major clinic or hospital,” she tells me.)

Here are here core countermeasures include a) Daily inversion using an portable inversion table, b) vigorous core strengthening exercises, c) natural anti-inflammatories (GLA, turmeric, ginger), and d) massage.

(I shared her diagnosis and treatment plan with the top neurologist in town. “Excellent,” he said. “Please continue.”)

“You have to work at it and be a bit lucky with chronic illness,” my PT tells me. “But you can be strong & fit into your eighties and beyond, knock on wood!”

Any lessons here for Lean/CI and business transformation professionals?
  1. Top-down improvement is slow & stupid. Bottom up improvement is smart, but can be chaotic. (Janique’s professionalism & experience are invaluable here.). This is called ‘Carlson’s Law’.

  2. Senior leaders should define purpose overall direction (the ‘banks of the river’ or design space). They should reduce hassles for their people, then trust them to figure it out, based on what they see in front of them.

  3. Respect the folks at the front line. Invest in them – give them the skills to improve the work. Then, let them do so.

  4. To truly grasp the situation you have to go see for yourself. It’s hard to manage or improve anything from on high. In fact, you usually make things worse.

  5. There are very few magic bullets. You have to work hard and stay with it. But if you do, very little is impossible.

I’m reminded of my physicist friend’s charming bumper sticker: GRAVITY – NOT JUST A GOOD IDEA. IT’S THE LAW.

There are immutable laws of transformation, no? We ignore them at our peril.

Best regards,