It Shouldn’t Be This Hard

by Ken Snyder

I have often heard that “Lean takes 10 years minimum,” or “Where you start depends on where your organization is at,” or “Implementing Lean is an art, not a science,” and other excuses for why a transformation should take an inordinately long period of time. While I believed some of these excuses earlier in my career, I am increasingly convinced that these are really excuses for not having a scientific methodology for shortening the lead time in a Lean implementation. I also strongly believe that shortening the lead time will result in higher levels of achievement in the long run.

 

These excuses remind me of the excuses made for explaining the elite performers in sports, music, chess, etc. The common excuse was that any high performer in any of these areas was “naturally gifted,” thereby implying that normal people can’t do it if they don’t have the right genes. These excuses have been proven wrong in every field studied. There are scientific ways to shorten the development time, and, ultimately, raise the performance level. Having a number of piano players in my family, including a daughter who was a piano performance major in college, I have witnessed first-hand the deliberate practice habits that lead to ever-improving skill levels and better and better performance levels. Piano training has become much more scientific – i.e. the practice regimens that lead to a higher skill level have been proven by trial and error over the centuries, and can be taught in a systematic way. I think the same can be true of Lean implementation, but we haven’t looked at it in a scientific way, nor have we developed the practice regimen.

 

I first got the idea that there must be a way to shorten the effective implementation of Lean when reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. In his book, Gladwell cites research stating that 10,000 hours of practice can lead to expert level performance in just about anything. Since reading that book, I have read several books by the psychologists who have done research in this field. The books include:

  • Peak by Anders Ericson
  • Grit by Angela Duckworth
  • Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

And some additional application-oriented books on the topic:

  • The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
  • Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

 

After reading these books, here are some things I think in applying these lessons to the Lean community:

  • Naïve Practice. Too many Lean people follow the practice of just doing Lean without a clear purpose, and in a hit-and-miss fashion. They put in the hours of practice but a lot of it is not guided by purpose or by a sensei. Using Ericson’s terminology for this, he calls it “naïve practice.” The progress is much slower than it could be with expert, scientifically-based instruction. Naïve practice can help to a certain level, but after that it does not help one improve. The performance reaches a plateau. This is the equivalent of the piano player who learns to play favorite songs and then keeps playing those same favorite songs over and over. They may practice/play a lot, but they don’t get any better. And the skill level never advances to the level required to play songs that require more advanced skills.
  • Purposeful Practice. Ericson describes the next level of practice as “purposeful practice.” This level is characterized by people that have done it well whom we can learn from, but the techniques are not yet encoded into a scientifically-proven methodology. There are a few sensei who can teach what they did personally, but there is no consensus on the methodology. People who purposefully practice can learn the techniques of a particular sensei, but there is no broad codification of best practices. This makes it superior to “naïve practice,” but still not scientifically-driven “deliberate practice.” With that said, I think we have enough good examples that we can start applying it to shortening the lead time of Lean implementation. I see the Toyota “kata” work as an example that can help us start the process of codification. The Shingo Institute helped cause a big leap forward toward “purposeful practice” with the introduction of the new Shingo Model principles in 2008. But we need to go further.
  • Deliberate Practice. The highest level is what Ericson calls “deliberate practice.” This is a regimen (or standard work, if you will) of how to implement the best training and practice techniques to advance skills and performance as rapidly as possible. I don’t think the Lean community is at this point yet. I believe it is possible to get there, and I hope our research will lead to this. I think both the Insight survey tool currently offered by the Shingo Institute, and the Onsight assessment tool under development, have the potential to help us create a normalized data set that can help us to identify the best practices in methodology.

 

It doesn’t have to be this hard!

One thought on “It Shouldn’t Be This Hard

  1. Absolutely brilliant, Ken! I think our journey at O.C. Tanner took too long to get to our current position because of naive practice. And a couple of weeks ago as we did a gemba walk here with with Bruce Hamilton we learned so much that I can strongly recommend a good sensei.

    Deliberate practice is what is needed. Great call to action.

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