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The “Power of Negative Thinking” Meets the “Sustainment Problem” #04 OE Newsletter

In his just-released new book The Power of Negative Thinking: An Unconventional Approach to Achieving Positive Results, legendary college basketball coach Bob Knight lays out his bottom line for winning: “Victory goes to the team that makes the fewest mistakes.” That simple statement explains the essence of “negative thinking.”

It means understanding what can go wrong and why, and then working to prevent those things from happening. “Always worry,” is one of his mantras, “and if you can’t think of a thing to be worried about, worry about being overconfident.”

Knight draws plenty of criticism for his personal style and hot temper, but his philosophy about coaching to win is worth a read. In Knight’s world, “hope” is a dirty word; work is what’s needed. As he puts it, “Having the will to win is not enough. Everyone has that. What matters is having the will to prepare to win.” And that, in turn, means removing obstacles in a systematic, disciplined way:

“Think of a game strategy the way a great sculptor looks at a slab of marble. He or she wants to scrape away the unnecessary bulk until the proper contours of the figures emerge. Negative material is eliminated to create a harmonious work of art.

As I looked ahead to every game and every season, my first thought was always: What vulnerabilities do we have and what can we do to minimize them, to get around them, to survive them—and give ourselves a better chance to win? In effect, how do you eliminate the wasted energy and unnecessary mistakes to build a cohesive and successful team that can play within its strengths?”

Sound familiar?

“Negative Thinking” and Lean Improvement

For all of us working to implement lean changes, much of what Knight says sounds as if he could be writing about a strategy for business transformation and leadership.

“Negative” is certainly a provocative word. The thinking could just as easily be called “proactive” (but that wouldn’t sell as many books). Anticipating problems, getting out ahead of them, practicing what Knight calls “last game, next game”—prepping for the next game even while the current game is going on—all qualify as proactive strategies.

That mindset helps when it comes to sustaining a lean transformation. In Knight’s world, it’s all too common to see a team pull off a great upset victory, only to lose the next game to an inferior team. Complacency is the enemy. And it’s up to the leadership of the coach to keep the team from becoming complacent—to shift focus ahead to the next game. The same holds true when it comes to sustaining lean.

Get Beyond “Event-Driven Improvement” to Sustain the Wins

In the world of lean transformation, a type of complacent behavioral pattern emerges around kaizen events. As Jim Vatalaro points out in his most recent blog posting, “Solving the ‘Sustainment Problem’,” many organizations fall victim to event-driven improvement:

“Most all kaizen events that I’ve seen or been told about are deemed to have been successful, in that they’ve resulted in a change to a process that benefits the organization, at least in theory. However, once the event is completed and the kaizen team returns to their day to day responsibilities, there is often no one formally charged with the responsibility to shepherd the improvement to maturity. Like a newborn, improvements left on their own almost always die.”

No one is charged with thinking about the “next game” or perhaps even the next play. In order to get that to happen, Jim outlines a “3 Legged Stool Approach” that encompasses:

  • The formal improvement event—an important and necessary approach to catalyze major improvement.
  • Developing people to be leaders at every level of the organization.
  • Bottom-up kaizen, or change that happens outside of formal kaizen events.

In Jim’s experience, development of front-line leaders is crucial. Many organizations fall short on that front, and perhaps that’s a key reason that the question “how can we sustain lean” is the most common one Jim hears. To take a good shot at that problem, first come to terms with the importance of the front-line leaders’ role. Then take an objective look at the strengths and weaknesses of your team—and work proactively to develop their strengths.

Just hoping that improvements will sustain themselves is a losing proposition..


Ask the consultants

Q. How does Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) fit in with a Lean transformation? Is it necessary, and if so is it a first step, a later-stage element, or a separate initiative?

A. TPM is a grassroots process that’s essential to ensuring the equipment reliability needed to achieve lean goals. Although it’s never too late to launch a true TPM initiative, we think it’s best to start TPM practices early in a lean transformation. Read Ellis New’s pragmatic advice in his latest blog posting.

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