Monday, March 11, 2019

Neither Too Rigid, Nor Too Loose

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

When it comes to fundamentals like Strategy, Management System, Standardized Work, Quality in the Process and the like, it’s easy to become rigid and even doctrinaire.

After all, these are the concepts that underlie TPS, the ‘world’s most powerful production system’. In the circumstances, we’re right to be doctrinaire, aren’t we?

“We have to have four mother A3s – one each for People, Quality, Delivery and Cost! We have to have strategy A3s and dashboards for everything!

Standardized work means Content-Sequence-Timing-Expected Outcome! Quality in the Process means detect the abnormality, stop the process, fix the immediate problem and develop countermeasures for root causes!”

No doubt, you’ve heard this sort of thing too.

In fact, as we apply these timeless ideas in areas further and further from manufacturing, finesse is of the essence, and rigidity, a recipe for failure.

The further from manufacturing we get, the more important it is the we translate the principles, and not insist, “This is how did things at Toyota, or Honeywell, or Proctor & Gamble or…”

This is a major challenge for ‘Lean’ practitioners in these times of tumultuous change. Who cares if your muffler manufacturing factory has the best SMED process in the industry?

Demand for mufflers is going nowhere but down, no? But the principles underlying SMED – separate internal & external work, convert internal work to external work etc. – transcend manufacturing.

SMED principles can readily be applied to shortening changeover times in healthcare, aviation, and software design.

The same applies to any ‘Lean’ principle. Principles are eternal, countermeasures temporary.

And this reflects the deeper challenge facing the Lean movement these days.

Is ‘Lean’ a principles-based profession, or a skilled trade? The distinction is important.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I respect and admire skilled tradespeople. They’re an honorable and essential element of successful organizations.

But they’re insufficient if you want to transform an organization or an industry. For that you need principles.

Principles are harder to internalize than countermeasures. But principles are eternal, whereas countermeasures are temporary.

Which brings me to the title of this piece, which a wise old gentleman taught me many years ago. The old gentleman is gone, and I am his scarcely adequate proxy.

Neither too rigid, nor too loose, expresses reflects the subtlety and intelligence needed to apply principles in ever more complex situations.

It reflects the need to be humble and learn from quick experiments – because we don’t really know, and can’t really know what’s going on unless we study the situation.

As a colleague likes to say, “If your first hypothesis isn’t embarrassing, you’re not really trying.”

Good advice in a world where Value is often a vague shadowy thing, and changing with every new technological miracle.

Best regards,


Monday, February 25, 2019

Scatter - Our Nemesis

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

Big Company Disease has many causes.

One of the most subtle is our inability to ‘wrap our arms around’ the PDCA cycle.

Myriad improvement cycles begin – but they become fragmented:
  • Group A develops the Plan,
  • Group B deploys,
  • Group C checks the Plan, and
  • Group D adjusts it.

I call this Scatter, with a deep bow to the late, great Al Ward – friend, colleague & profound Lean thinker.

Al described this syndrome to me over lunch a decade ago, and then again in his splendid book Lean Product & Process Design.

Improvement, whether a Kaizen Workshop, Problem Solving cycle or Strategy A3, requires complete PDCA cycles

One person (or team) needs to wrap her arms around the cycle, and thereby develop the profound, sympathetic knowledge central to breakthrough.

Thereby, our entire brains start firing – Left, Right, prefrontal cortex etc.

The countermeasures we select are usually simple and clear.

There’s usually a sense of release. “Of course! Why didn’t we see it before!”

As opposed to the ponderous, countermeasure-by-committee stuff that blights so many report outs.

So how to reduce Scatter?

Lean fundamentals like visual management and Leader standard work are a good start.

Veteran Lean companies like Toyota have developed the Chief Engineer role in Design, and Key Thinker (aka Deployment Leader or Pacemaker) role in Strategy Deployment.

Their job is to oversee & manage broad PDCA cycles – and to record & share the learning.

There are all a good place to start in your never-ending battle with Scatter.

Best regards,


Monday, February 11, 2019

If It’s Not Simple, It's BS

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, "any scientist who can't explain to an eight-year-old what he's doing is a charlatan." This principle is especially true in strategy, perhaps our most human management activity.

Artificial Intelligence & Robotics can eventually handle many jobs, but can they make & deploy strategy? Can they motivate a team to be better than it's parts, to rise together in some great endeavor?

"How will you win? What is the logic?" I`m a proverbial broken record in strategy sessions. It's remarkable how difficult we find these questions. We've been taught that complexity is profound. In fact, it's a crude state. Simplicity, by contrast, marks the end of a process of refining.

The late great physicist, Richard Feynman looked and talked like a New York City cabbie. His Caltech freshmen lectures in Physics, and all his books are classics for their simplicity & humor.

How did Feynman achieve that level of clarity? Through slow, patient reflection, by turning a problem over and over in his mind until a 'simple' explanation suggested itself.

And that's where the shoe pinches in our time-starved era. Who has time to turn a problem over and over in their mind these days? Who has the time, as Einstein did, to imagine himself riding a light beam - so as to makes sense of time and gravity and light?

Which invokes the second great law of strategy: less is more.

Knowing we'll be time-starved, please let's not over-fill our strategy plates, like teenagers at a buffet. "First we'll do this, then this and this and that over there. Oh, and then we'll..."

One of the many benefits of Lean Start-up and Design Thinking is that they force you to simplify and clarify your offering. We test our 'Minimum Viable Product', on the way to our 'Minimum Viable Company'.

Similarly, in strategy, we want to deploy our 'minimum viable plan', watching carefully what happens, and ever ready to adjust to the inevitable 'known, and unknown, unknowns' that confront us.

Breakthrough entails walking up the stairs in the fog, continually making & easy quick experiments, most of them yielding a negative result.

Best wishes,


Monday, January 28, 2019

Design Thinking and the PDCA Cycle

By Pascal Dennis (bio)

To everything there is a season

In a world of tumultuous and endless technological change, Design Thinking has rightly become a core methodology.

In many industries, we can no longer confidently claim that we understand the customer’s problems. An thus, we can no longer define Value with any certainty.

A generation ago we rediscovered, seemingly, Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Adjust cycle.

Deming’s work, in turn, was heavily informed by Walter Shewhart and the idea that operational data comprised both a signal and noise.

And that through patient observation and statistical methods, we could separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff.

Before Shewhart, Deming and the other great pioneers of modern management, business processes were essentially unknown – unknowable.

(In a some sectors this is still the case, no? The ‘Noble Savage’ approach to management…)

Both Deming and Shewhart informed our Toyota senseis. Every day, a little up, Pascal-san!

Is Design Thinking entirely new? Or is our current expression of the timeless ideas that Shewhart and Deming conveyed in generations past?

Like PDCA, Design thinking entails a Diverge-Converge pattern. The 4 D’s are perhaps its most succinct expression:

Discover – (Diverge)
  • Develop empathy with the customer
  • Go see and experience for yourself
  • Seek thereby to understand their jobs/pains/gains in a direct way
Define – (Converge)
  • Define the customer’s jobs/pains/gains
  • Pick a focus and define the essence of problem
Develop – (Diverge)
  • Ideate possible countermeasures
  • Develop and test prototypes
  • Focus on the best solution
Deliver – (Converge)
  • Test and confirm your design choice
  • Once the design is confirmed, develop a deployment plan
  • Release and scale

Each of the 4 D’s finds unique expression in different industries. Develop, for example, entails very different activities in, say, web design vs car detailing products.

In the former, Develop entails developing, say, the web page’s content, and the front and back end – (translation to HTML, functionality, database, logic).

In the latter industry, Develop entails testing the various chemicals and application methods in the lab. This one works, that one does not…

Like PDCA, Design Thinking entails a journey up a staircase in the fog, during which we learn through rapid experimentation and iteration.

In my view, both are rooted in the same tradition but differ in that one is aimed at continuous improvement, the other at continuous innovation.

We need both arrows in the quiver, no?

Best regards,