Teams are “Us” – Part 7: OK, Now What?

Teams are “Us” – Part 7: OK, Now What?

“If you want one year of prosperity grow grain. 

If you want ten years of prosperity grow trees. 

If you want one hundred years of prosperity grow your people”

— Confucius (~ 500 BC)

In the last few posts of this Teams are “Us” series I have emphasized the structure and internals (the Nitty-Gritty) of “Cross Functional/Breakthrough Teams” more so than the “Natural Work Group”. This should not be taken as elevating these types of Teams to a higher level of importance for Lean transformations than the Natural Work Groups. Quite the contrary. As I said at the end of my last post: “Remember that other type of Team? Remember the one Team structure that is the living breathing soul of a Lean organization? Remember them?” I was, of course, referring to the Natural Work Group.

No, my early emphasis on Breakthrough Teams was more an emphasis on chronology rather than relative importance. Part of this is due to my background with Lean. In the 20 years or so that I had vigorously led Lean transformations in several different companies, I always had to start from scratch. None of these companies had any prior knowledge or background with Lean/TPS. (Actually, with the first company, I personally had no real prior knowledge or background either. That’s where I started my own journey of learning).

The first step in a transformational Lean journey is the breaking of existing cultural paradigms. From Wikipedia:

A paradigm is a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates, and standards for what constitutes legitimate contributions to a field.

Or to put it much more succinctly: “We’ve always done it this way!”

This is probably the single biggest obstacle to a successful Lean transformation. If you can’t get past this, your Lean efforts will amount to little more than applying “Lean Tools” to whatever seems convenient. And you may even create some Teams out of thin air to go around applying these tools. This is tantamount to Joel Barker’s “action without vision”.

In Thomas Kuhn’s revolutionary book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he coined the term “paradigm shift”. He defines a paradigm shift as “the successive transition from one paradigm to another via revolution”. It literally takes a revolution to shift paradigms. That is where Breakthrough Teams come in. Take key people in the organization, across multiple disciplines and up and down the organizational hierarchy, and show them how to apply revolutionary principles to create revolutionary change. That’s why you go for 90% improvements and not 10% improvements. You’ve got to break that paradigm. You’ve got to prove to them that “There’s another way!

Or should I say: “There’s another, revolutionary, way!

I once had a senior manager at one company, while we were in the midst of the beginning of a Lean transformation, say to me: “You know, we could go the way of evolution instead of revolution”.  My response was along the lines of: “Yes, we could. But evolution doesn’t require us to change the way we think. Revolutions always change the way we think. Evolution can come later, but not before we change the way we think”.

We have to break that paradigm. Breakthroughs break paradigms (think Einstein!). Thus my early emphasis on “Breakthrough” Teams (or “Blitz” Teams if you prefer that structure). One of my favorite phrases, that I picked up during my early TPS learning days, was “Ready-Fire-Aim”. I said this a lot and it made some people very uncomfortable, especially the engineers (and by the way, I am an engineer). But, if you think about it, this is nothing more than the first three steps of PDCA – Plan-Do-Check. Without these first three steps, you have nothing to Act upon. Don’t ever be afraid of making mistakes – just make sure you always learn from them.

The great “systems thinker” Russell Ackoff has a unique twist on this type of thinking:

“Continuous improvement isn’t nearly as important as discontinuous improvement. Creativity is a discontinuity. One never becomes a leader by continuously improving. That’s imitation of the leader. You only become a leader by leapfrogging those who are ahead of you.”

Discontinuous improvement comes first! Break that paradigm! Create breakthroughs! Just do it! Ready-Fire-Aim!


Ok, now what?


Well, if we have begun the “breakthrough” journey, we’ve started to change a few paradigms and we’ve started to learn how to think differently. That’s pretty damn important! But now I must throw a little water on the fire. To quote Mike Rother (Learning to See, Toyota Kata, Shingo Prize winner) from the 1998 book “Becoming Lean” by Jeffrey Liker:

“No one has ever blitzed a lean production system into place.” [emphasis in original]

Rother is pointing out that, while “blitz’s” and “workshops” are important, they only touch parts of the entire system. Flow may be improved in those parts of the system where the “blitz” took place, but the ultimate objective is to create flow throughout the entire system. He also emphasized the unfortunate fact that too many of these efforts do not focus on flow at all. Randomly instituting certain “Lean Tools” into the processes such as workplace organization (5S), visual factory, error proofing, etc. may do nothing to improve flow and thus are a waste of time. As he states: “flow come first”.

While I whole-heartedly agree with all of that, I also see another inherent problem with relying solely on “breakthrough” or “blitz” or “workshops” or “events” to establish, and more importantly, to sustain our Lean transformation.

Remember that thing called Mura? Also known as Entropy? If you don’t remember, please read these two links to past posts.

To briefly recap, the most basic definition of Mura/Entropy (I will refer to it as “entropy” going forward) describes it as an indicator of the amount of disorder in a given system. Entropy is also a measure of the quality of the energy in a system. Higher entropy indicates higher disorder (lower order) and lower energy quality.

For our purposes, probably the best definition of entropy is that it is a measure of how much of the energy in a given system is unavailable to do useful work. Look around – do you see it – do you see the entropy in your workplace? When combined with Muri, this is what we call Muda or waste – wasted energy to be more exact (and yes, there are more than 7 types).

Bear with me for one more moment, before I get back to the subject at hand (“Teams”, in case I’ve made you forget). There is that little, but extremely vexing, thing called the second law of thermodynamics:

“The entropy of the universe increases in the course of any spontaneous change”

Thus, as we go about our daily work, doing everything right and according to standard, creating value for our customers and hopefully turning a profit for our enterprise — inevitably — “stuff” happens! (You may substitute a certain four-letter word in the quote marks to better communicate how this feels). No matter how many “breakthroughs” we have accomplished and no matter how perfect we think we are doing the tasks at hand – things will deteriorate – things will get worse. It’s a law of nature! Literally!

That’s where the Natural Work Group comes into the picture (I told you I would bring us back). They play a very pivotal role in preventing continuous deterioration. They are there to insure continuous improvement! Because without continuous improvement there will always be continuous deterioration. We see that every day in our lives – it is unavoidable. So, I may have to have a long discussion with Dr. Ackoff about which “improvement” is most important. But I’ll be nice – he probably never studied thermodynamics.

I have a very good example of this phenomena from my distant past. We had chartered a “cross-functional/breakthrough” Team to reduce the lead time of one of our most important, and complex, value streams (yes, I knew the importance of lead time way back when). This was not going to be easy, much of the lead time was already tied up in value-added activities such as solution polymerization, membrane extrusion and curing. But after much hard work and some really creative thinking, the Team was able to reduce the overall lead time by 45% (the original goal). Fantastic! Here are the results:

Cross-Functional Team

See the problem? Want to make a guess as to when the Team disbanded? Yep, if you guessed when the lead time hit 11 days, you would be correct. That’s when they reached their 45% goal. After that, entropy, entropy everywhere!

Needless to say, this was a great learning experience. We can do great things with “breakthrough” Teams but there is still something missing – and that would be sustainability. So what to do? We hadn’t yet achieved our goal. We decided to turn the effort over to the Natural Work Group (NWG) that ran the value stream on a day-to-day basis. Several members of the NWG had been part of the “breakthrough” Team, but they evidently did not feel they had ultimate ownership of the final outcome. That was our fault – we did not understand entropy at the time – but we did now.

We met with the NWG and shared the data with them. And since they had been a part of the original Team effort, they had absorbed the Lean/TPS concepts that were the basis for the original success. They understood “flow”. They had changed the way they think. They were excited about taking on the challenge. Here are their results:

Natural Work Group

The NWG reduced the value stream lead time another 30% from what the original “breakthrough” Team had achieved. This represented a 60% total reduction in lead time, from 20 to 8 days, for this overall Lean/TPS effort. (By the way, the term “Lean” had not been invented yet. This was really a “JIT” effort to use the nomenclature at that time). And they continued to keep entropy at bay long after lead time ceased to be the primary target.

The Natural Work Group represents the culmination of almost everything I have been discussing throughout this blog. The Natural Work Group is where JIT, Jidoka, Continuous Flow, Standardized Work, Shortest Lead Time, Highest Quality, Lowest Cost all come together in one focal point. And that focal point is Kaizen. And the most important practitioner of Kaizen must be the Natural Work Group.

Breakthrough teams can more easily break paradigms, but it takes natural work teams to create sustainability and generate longer term results. The Natural Work Group is the glue that holds everything together. Without the Natural Work Group, Lean/TPS does not work.

I covered this concept in some detail in my previous discussion of the 1977 Toyota Paper “Toyota Production System and Kanban System Materialization of Just-in-time and Respect-for-human System”. You can read this discussion here and here.

Note that even as far back as 1977, Toyota had a “Production System”, a “Kanban System” (the backbone of just-in-time) and a “Respect-for-Human System”. In 2001 (24 years later), Toyota renamed the latter “Respect for People” and elevated it to one of the two pillars in what they called “The Toyota Way” (the other pillar was “Continuous Improvement”).

Needless to say, Toyota took this concept of “Respect for People” very seriously – they made it into a “System” for crying out loud! Sometimes I want to cry when I see how many of today’s “Lean Practitioners” have completely bastardized this important concept – Sad. I think this quote highlights the problem very nicely:

“Too many companies get training that is heavy on teams and light on doing anything that generates significant, measurable improvement.” – (Mark Manning, Delta Council)

There is nothing that will demoralize the workforce more than being asked to spend their time and energy doing something that does not result in “significant, measurable improvement”.

(Before continuing, I would highly recommend that you read or re-read the two posts that I linked to above. Or better yet, read the paper!)

OK, if you did your reading you will recognize this quote from the Toyota paper:

“Therefore, Toyota is endeavouring to make up a working place where not only the managers and foremen but also all workers can detect trouble. This is called ‘visible control’. Through visible control, all workers are taking positive steps to improve a lot of waste they have found. And the authority and responsibility for running and improving the workshop have been delegated to the workers themselves, which is the most distinctive feature of Toyota’s respect for human system.”

This says it all! Through creating maximum visibility (by removing inventory and reducing lead times), the “system” allows the workers (actually it depends on the workers) to run and improve the workplace on their own. “The authority and responsibility for running and improving the workshop have been delegated to the workers themselves”. To the Natural Work Group.

To quote John Shook, Chief Executive of the Lean Enterprise Institute:

“The famous tools of the Toyota Production System are all designed around making it easy to see problems, easy to solve problems, and easy to learn from mistakes. Making it easy to learn from mistakes means changing our attitude toward them.”

At Toyota, everyone in the plant works for the Natural Work Group, not the other way around. That’s one reason it’s called a Production System. The focus is always on the place (gemba) where the value is created. The system is designed to make problems or abnormalities immediately visible (jidoka) so that appropriate countermeasures can be implemented immediately, or as soon as humanly possible (kaizen). This is what is called Continuous Improvement at Toyota, the other pillar of the “Toyota Way”.

If the flow stops (that’s what jidoka does), the “Team Leader” of the Natural Work Group immediately responds. If the problem is beyond his/her capabilities or responsibilities, the “Group Leader” is notified and responds immediately. If the problem is also beyond his/her capabilities or responsibilities, he/she has the authority to call whomever in the organization he/she thinks can add value – and that person must respond immediately. And in this process, everybody learns – which is the ultimate goal!

And this process goes on every minute, every hour, every day. Problems are not hidden, problems are cherished – that’s how everyone learns – and that’s how everything improves. But it all starts with the Natural Work Group. …And it works!

Art Byrne sums this up beautifully:

“People are your only asset that appreciates with time”

Art knows this. Toyota knows this.

Do you?

2 thoughts on “Teams are “Us” – Part 7: OK, Now What?

  1. Bill,
    Another good article. I have several comments on specific points you discuss, as follows;

    -“We’ve always done it that way” is frustrating to hear, I agree, but “If it was such a good idea someone else would have done it before now” is even worse, in my book. With trying to get my employer to adopt MCT I ran into this refrain time and time again. It took an academic endorsement to start getting my colleagues and bosses to accept that we needed a standard metric for lead-time, and that unless someone had a better idea, we should use MCT.

    -It’s been a long time since I’ve heard Joel Barker cited!

    -“Continuous Improvement vs. Discontinuous Improvement”. I think you’ll like my next Industry Week article on leadership which aligns very much with what you lay out. I will say, however, that Continuous and Discontinuous improvement both need to be worked on, which I lay out in that article.

    -Rother’s quote “no-one has ever blitzed a Lean production system into place” is so true. I think that the second biggest travesty of today’s “all the rest” (vs. expert) Lean practitioners (the first being a lack of focus on MCT reduction, of course!) is that they come into a company and almost immediately start running isolated Kaizen Events thinking that make their client Lean-ner. Most of the time this results in only “local” impacts.

    -As I’ve said before, your entropy analogy may be original thought that provides a tremendous insight into manufacturing effectiveness. I hope you can get to a wider audience — perhaps through a book.

    -A focus on lead-time reduction is critical to Lean implementation. But lead-time is a concept — not a measureable metric. MCT is a metric that quantifies that concept. And, by the way, Natural Work Groups are almost always successful in significantly reducing MCTs, which gives then a true feeling of success as the end of their project. The sustainability you talk about can be achieved through making MCT an ongoing, visible metric using, say, MCT Critical Path Maps updated weekly and posted within a department. This also, by the way, ties the team’s work and impact to the overall MCT reduction strategy, which also ties and hi-lite’s a team’s accomplishments to the overall “Big Picture”.

    -I’ve heard the Shook quote before and I think it points out one of the gaps in Lean. How? Because I think it has been misapplied. Specifically, Lean does not have any tools in its tool-kit for doing detailed analysis. This is because I believe the Lean powers-that-be (whoever they are) have taken Shook’s quote to imply that tools that can’t easily be understood (by the masses) should be applied to Lean. Besides being elite-ist This has dumbed-down Lean practice and led to no development work on more sophisticated tools. For instance, you’ve now seen MPX. My experience is that Team’s easily a.) Learn what data is needed for a MPX model; b.) Gain a general idea of what the program’s queuing theory algorithms do with that data, and; c.) Understand the program’s output charts. How many tools like MPX do you see being used in Lean implementations today?

    -Good luck on getting today’s corporate world to value its people. Workforces in today’s corporate world have become anorexic, not Lean. This means that very few corporations have people on an ongoing basis working on”Discontinuous” improvements. What I mean by this is that today, most job’s today are directly tied to impacting the next quarterly financial report, which means they primarily are composed on tactical activity. Because of this today’s employees — both salaried and wage — are being technicians rather than creators.


    1. Paul,

      Thank you very much for your detailed, well thought out comments. I really appreciate it. I’ll cover most of them one at a time.

      • “If it was such a good idea someone else would have done it before now” is another typical statement that shows that we are stuck in a paradigm. It is “inside the box” thinking” at its best. It is what demonstrates the difference between a leader and a manager. Unfortunately, managers seem to outnumber leaders by a very wide margin. Kudos to you for starting the revolution that broke the paradigm. You brought in someone “outside the box” to get it done.
      • “Discontinuous improvement” is necessary to break the paradigm. “Continuous improvement” is necessary, first to prevent “continuous deterioration”, and then to follow that PDCA cycle to further heights. I look forward to reading your next IW article.
      • Yes, Kaizen Events have their place but cannot be the sole strategy for becoming “Lean”. They can be a method to break the paradigm, but all too often they are just for show, with no thought given to improving the system as a whole. Woe to the organization that measures Lean progress by the number of Kaizen Events held.
      • Thanks for the kind comment about my use of entropy to describe organizational effectiveness. I know it works for me but I wasn’t sure it would make sense to others. I’m glad to hear it works for you.
      • I’m not sure I follow you when you say: “But lead-time is a concept — not a measureable metric”. I have been using lead time as a measurable metric since I began my Lean/TPS journey. The lead time data I presented in this post was generated over 20 years ago. You just need to define the time interval you are going to measure.
      • The quote from John Shook is referring to his experience with Toyota and TPS. He worked for Toyota for 11 years in Japan and then was part of the Toyota Supplier Support Center (TSSC) in Kentucky. The tools he is referring to are the tools of Taiichi Ohno and Toyota, not the so called “Lean Toolbox”. The JIT/jidoka interaction makes problems visible (poke yoke, andon, etc., makes flow stoppage immediately visible), makes problems easy to solve (will see problems in real time as they occur so root cause is more visible) and facilitates learning from mistakes (results of mistakes and/or bad countermeasures show up in real time and can be corrected). The masses can see and understand in real time. The TPS “tools” are designed for the masses (see “Respect for People System” in 1977 Toyota paper). The “Lean Toolbox”, not so much.
      • I’m sure you are correct in your assessment that most corporate entities do not properly value their people. That was never the case in my plants and most of the other organizations I visit are also on the Lean/TPS journey. So, I guess I have been sheltered (snow flake?). But I firmly believe Art Byrne’s statement: “People are your only asset that appreciates with time”. Corporate entities that believe this will eventually succeed, those who don’t will eventually fail. The big question is: how long is “eventually”?

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