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Idea Spread, Culture Change, and the Coaching Kata #09 OE Newsletter

The questions companies bring to us today generally converge on one primary theme—culture change.

  • “We’ve been ‘doing lean’ for years, but it hasn’t really taken hold across the organization.”
  • “We have a few people who ‘get it’ but we can’t seem to replicate that enthusiasm in others.”
  • “We make improvements in an area during a kaizen event, but months later we find that we can’t sustain the gains.”

Why is it so hard? That’s a complex problem, but most people recognize at some level that the answer rests ultimately with leadership. What can we do about it? We can start by understanding some basic concepts about how and why some new ideas spread quickly, and what can stand in the way.

The surgeon and public health professor Atul Gawande has long been known for his work reducing errors, improving safety, and increasing efficiency in healthcare. In The Checklist Manifesto, Gawande made the case for applying checklists, a simple technology he lifted from aviation, as a way to manage complexity in operating rooms. In his most recent article, “Slow Ideas,” he examines why some innovations spread quickly, why other equally or more compelling ones do not, and whether anything can be done to speed change. His observations apply well beyond healthcare.

Why do some great ideas spread rapidly, while others can’t get off the ground?

Gawande tells the story of two medical breakthroughs, anesthesia and antiseptics, and how these new ideas spread. Ether gas was first used as an anesthetic in 1846; in just a few months, it had been tried around the world and, despite some laggard resistors (including some who thought pain was a “necessary evil”) within seven years it had been adopted virtually everywhere. Anesthesia solved the immediate and highly visible problem of the agonizing pain of surgery. It made operations a vastly better experience for both patients and surgeons, in real time.

Meanwhile, infections caused the majority of post-operative deaths. In the 1860s, antiseptics were shown to dramatically decrease infections and improve survival rates. That research was published and disseminated. But it took decades before antiseptics were widely adopted, despite their lifesaving benefits. Germs are invisible, the problem of infection is not one that is experienced in real time in the operating room, and using antiseptics made life more difficult for surgeons.

These examples from healthcare reveal two key points about idea spread:

  1. It’s more difficult for breakthroughs and improvements that attack “invisible” problems to take hold.
  2. Changes that could make life enormously better for end users (in this case, patients) tend to resist spread if they make life more difficult, tedious, or uncomfortable for workers (in this case, clinicians).

How can we get from “good new idea” to “the way we do business”?

So what do we do when we want a good idea, a new best practice, a new way of thinking to spread, even when it does not provide immediate gratification? That’s frequently the case in companies, where the problems solved may be “invisible,” where employees are often not connected directly to the experiences of end users, and where changing work habits can be uncomfortable—for frontline workers and leaders alike.

Lean “tools” such as kanban and visual workplace can help bring systemic problems to the surface and make them more immediate. But when it comes to changing behaviors, leaders most commonly attempt that essentially by asking or telling people to change. Companies use training and educational campaigns along with penalty or reward systems that are designed to reinforce compliance.

That helps to some degree, but as Gawande points out, “neither penalties nor incentives achieve what we’re really after: a system and a culture where X is what people do, day in and day out, even when no one is watching.” That’s really what we’re looking for when trying to shift a company culture.

Gawande says the key lies in understanding what gets in the way of adopting change, understanding the barriers individuals face, and committing to one-on-one, mentoring where the work happens for as long as it takes to see change actually take hold. That all sounds messy. People prefer a technological “turnkey solution”—and that preference is a problem that continues to plague the lean movement. We know it’s really about leadership, but as Gawande put it in an interview with Charlie Rose, “Everybody thinks that leadership is ultimately not scalable.” Scaling efforts requires technology—an app of some sort, right? Yet in the case of people adopting change, it usually doesn’t work well at all. What does make a lasting difference is a network of people that grows through consistent one-on-one contacts over time.

Think of it is a “door-to-door sales force” that touches its audience repeatedly. The goal is to earn trust, and to work with people directly to help them understand the changes and overcome obstacles in their daily work.

Lean translation: the coaching kata

How do we translate this into lean lingo? This is what the coaching kata is all about: a coaching routine or “kata” that spreads good ideas and makes leadership scalable.

As Mike Rother codified it, the coaching kata is “the repeating routine by which … leaders and managers teach the improvement kata to everyone in the organization.” (Toyota Kata, p. 18.) And that’s not built on systems of rewards or penalties, vague forms of encouragement, or periodic campaigns. It’s an ongoing process of giving learners procedural guidance that makes them successful in overcoming obstacles on their way to their target condition. And it happens in the gemba (the actual place where work occurs).

We highly recommend giving Gawande’s article a read. It’s a fascinating story. Then read our single-page FAQ sheet Improvement & Coaching Kata and think about these questions:

  1. In the daily work of employees, how visible and immediate are the big problems you’re trying to solve in your company?
  2. Do new ways of working make life easier or more difficult, especially at first, for employees?
  3. Do your lean initiatives rely mainly on technological changes, awareness-raising, and asking/telling people to change?
  4. Where are you in the process of establishing a coaching kata in your company, and what are your next steps?

Ask the Consultants

Q. In last month’s issue we asked people to chime in about the extent to which their companies have adopted total productive maintenance (TPM). Turns out that while organizations have been at work on lean initiatives for several years or more, most are still novices when it comes to TPM. They ask, how can we get started with TPM, and where does it fit in when it comes to an existing lean initiative?

A. Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) is actually fundamental to a lean transformation. Ellis New calls it the “bedrock” of lean, but says many companies have bypassed it. He gives his 45-second overview in this video, and explains more about TPM and gator eggs (yes, alligator eggs) in a recent posting on the Lean Enterprise Institute’s blog.

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