Tools for Leaders

Regaining Focus Part Two: Three Ways to Systematize for Focus

Regaining Focus Part Two: Three Ways to Systematize for Focus

In part one of this two-part series, I started the argument that to regain focus, you needed to simplify. I mentioned colleague who described the programmatic junkyard of artifacts strewn about over the years as she and her team pursued various forms of continuous improvement. In this installment, I want to make the case that to systematize is to focus.

Deming was pretty clear on the contribution that the system makes, at least in the negative sense:

“I should estimate that in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to the proportions something like this: 94% belongs to the system (responsibility of management) and 6% special.”1)

If you are experiencing unfocused movement, your continuous improvement efforts may lack systematization. Great, so what is that?


Systems are made up of components, which are parts of the whole by definition. It’s a Latin word that means put together. Components are parts, so they each have a function that serves the whole. Systemized parts – components – won’t function properly apart from the system. Your heart is a pump, but a heart with no lungs doesn’t do much for me.

When you apply this thinking to a continuous improvement management system, you begin to realize that having a standard problem-solving method apart from having a way to prioritize problems gets suboptimal results. You solve problems, but they may not be the right problems. Solving the wrong problems degrades your organizational focus.

Complementary Components

For the components to yield optimal results, though, they have to be complementary: they should have good synergies and blend into one another. Having a problem-solving method that doesn’t mesh with your problem prioritization component just confuses.

I’ve worked with clients who have – in the past – put so much emphasis on what they were calling strategy deployment or hoshin planning, without having a component in their system to aim for the long term or to learn what their annual improvement portions were. They’d plan projects and rapid improvement events – tying up many people and a lot of resources – without knowing whether that specific improvement was needed. Instead of having a long-range plan for improvement and learning what to improve over daily, weekly, monthly and annual cycles, they’d stop once a year, speculate what would be needed the next year, then scramble everyone to do rapid improvement events. The only thing focused about rapid improvement events is the time and attention of the folks working on them…until they’re not working on the rapid improvement and they lose their focus to day-to-day problems that sap their energy.

If components don’t complement one another, they are more like tools in a toolbox. They are helpful at the moment, but like so many other continuous improvement concepts, we use them episodically and for a limited purpose. Limited, part-time, use isn’t focused.

Connected Complementary Components

A socket wrench and a crescent wrench may be complementary, but when they are rattling around in toolbox, waiting for someone to use them, they are hardly connected.

Complementary components have to be connected to gain focus. The walls of my house are incredibly useful, defining the space we live in and protecting from the elements. They provide pathways for wires, and pipes and they frame the windows that let in light and fresh air. I love walls. The roof of my house is useful, too. It keeps us dry and shaded.

At the core, my walls and my roof are entirely complementary. They both are made of the same materials, more or less. They both protect and define the space of our home.

Imagine, though, that my roof was laying in the yard beside my house, disconnected from the walls. It has the potential to protect my family, but because it isn’t connected, it doesn’t.

We can build components of systems that are very complementary, but not connected. Every component in a continuous improvement system obeys four rules: the pdCA cycle, defined responsibilities by role, visual management, and standardization. Each component is related and complements the other. But, when I connect them, the system comes to life to do what it’s designed to do. When I have a daily meeting and limit the conversation to problem-solving, it creates outputs that connect into other components: learning what’s important to solve, elevating problems that can’t be solved, and even learning how to help my team. Without problem-solving, a daily meeting is just another discussion, a transaction amongst thousands that create a cloud of ambiguity and sloppy execution.

Leader: Your Call to Action

Leader: systematized components define world-class operations. Think of a well-oiled machine humming along. Think of a team that’s playing championship ball or an orchestra that’s playing every note correctly. These are examples of many parts working as a whole, systematized components that align and focus your precious time and resources. If focusing better is what you need to reset or recenter your continuous improvement journey keep it simple and systematize.

Until next time, pursue #better and stay excellent my friends.


1. W. Edwards Deming Quotes. (2018). Quote by W. Edwards Deming. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Mar. 2018].
Stop the Chaos! Start Here: Replacing Your Non-Standardized Management System

Stop the Chaos! Start Here: Replacing Your Non-Standardized Management System


In one of my recent posts, I argued that an organization’s most significant process variability lies in your management system, not in your production processes.

My first argument seemed to resonate with many of you who agree that standardizing a management system – the system of navigation, logic, decision-making and action-taking pathways that govern how you do what you do to deliver to your customer – is a necessary and first step to stabilizing your organization.

For years, lean and six sigma thinkers have guided those making improvement to drive variability out at the process level and remove waste.  Recently, those in the “lean” community have come around to the idea that you need “lean” tools and a reinvented management system, one that involves keeping track of performance and aligning daily cadences with the pdCA cycle. Some even now argue for using a standard approach to team problem solving. For example, in a 2016 interview, John Toussaint MD, CEO, ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value and CEO emeritus, ThedaCare, said this:

… just like with “traditional lean” we have seen a lot of tool-based approaches at first. Since those led nowhere, people hit a wall and started to call us to say, “lean doesn’t work,” when really they just hadn’t done it properly. You need to establish the principles that build the systems that change the behaviors, rather than simply rely on the lean toolbox. It’s all about the management system, which people are starting to understand a little better.

Gary Kaplan MD, CEO of the Virginia Mason Health System in Seattle similarly adds in a British Medical Journal | Quality and Safety article:

To successfully facilitate system transformation toward higher quality care at lower cost, Lean tools must be part of a comprehensive management system, within a supportive institutional culture, and with committed leadership.

Agreed:  we need to have tools and a management system (and integrated leadership culture).  However, I would (and have since I started doing this work in healthcare) reverse the order.  So, my second argument will probably rub some of you the wrong way: you have to standardize your management system and the leadership culture that uses it execute before you try to do any other improvement work, especially at the process level.  Here’s why:

1.   Workarounds Wreak Havoc and Cause Chaos. The standardized management system smooths the variability caused by team leaders who work around, rather than solve problems.  Working around a problem will perhaps give some temporary relief.  Carefully redesigning your management system, however, to “stop” to fix the problem – careful, I didn’t say stop your processes – will allow your team to apply both containment and countermeasures.  Deep lean thinkers and those who study Deming know that waste at the process level is a result of unevenness and overburdening, both of which originate in your management system. Workarounds create management process unevenness; let’s just call that chaos.

2.  Direction: Which Problems Need the Cross-Disciplinary Teams. As your problem-solving machine – your management system – spins up into action, problems that are unsolvable without study bubble up to the top, giving senior leaders direction for attacking your most significant systemic problems. They never set aside the problem-solving standard; they just add a few study steps to the front end to break these significant phenomena into smaller contributing problems.  A system of linked daily meetings  – a criticial component in a standardized, problem solving centric management system – creates the channels for that information to flow and find it’s home at the appropriate level in an organization, one that is best equipped to convene and resource solving complex problems.

3.  Human Change Takes the Most Time – Get Crackin’! Before they tackle complex issues, your leadership team needs to learn a new way of thinking about problems.  A unique and novel leadership culture has to emerge, one that changes mindsets by changing the daily experience around problems.  Heroes – once revered for their ability to swoop in and solve everyone’s problem (i.e., get a workaround in place, cause unevenness and never really solve a problem) – have to become a thing of the past, even frowned upon. Teams – the great human unit for winning – have to collaborate to solve problems, but everyone –  first – has to learn how to address them.  This very human endeavor requires time, leadership and much practice.  The day-after-day rhythm of pdCA – checking to see if we encountered a problem, acting (containing) and analyzing (finding the root cause), planning countermeasures, doing the actions to get the countermeasures in place –  cuts a new groove into your leadership team psyche and your team members’.  This social change is the more difficult transformation. Cutting a groove takes a sharp edge and some pressure.  Modifying a process is easy in comparison.  If you delay the human change, you just put off to tomorrow what is essential for today.  Better to get to work on the harder work as soon as possible.

Without centering all management activity and leadership thinking on the problems – the daily things that are eating your lunch –  you are merely crawling forward.  For many years those who follow what I call the Georgetown Pathway, put an all-out attack on the management system at the frontline of the battle plan and demand that leaders lead, keeping them accountable for execution.  Following what they learned from their Toyota mentors, who learned it from their mentor, Deming,  you must balance the human and the operational.  You must drive out variation to improve quality.  The quality of the output of your management machine depends on the quality of the management processes in your system.  At this point, the watchwords are patience and passion.  You are on the steepest climb, one that – even later – is at the highest risk for collapsing except for your constant, vigilant, pdCA.

Up next: Stopping (your management process) to fix the problem…


When in Doubt, It's All pdCA

When in Doubt, It's All pdCA

It’s all PDCA! My long term mentor and friend Rodger Lewis would often get to the end of his patience with me and conclude our lesson with this simple, true and profound exclamation.  It is all plan, do, check act.  What did he mean?

First, what is pdCA? The plan, do, check, act cycle (or plan, do, study, act cycle for the purists out there) is what W. Edwards Deming called the cycle of continuous improvement.  The Deming Institute says, “The PDSA Cycle is a systematic series of steps for gaining valuable learning and knowledge for the continual improvement of a product or process. Also known as the Deming Wheel, or Deming Cycle, the concept, and the application was first introduced to Dr. Deming by his mentor, Walter Shewhart of the famous Bell Laboratories in New York.” (my emphasis added).

Look, it is pretty simple.  Make a plan.  From problem-solving thinking, you could think of the plan as what should (or shouldn’t) have happened.  It might be a target condition (all the patients discharged by noon), or it might be a target (complete five gas masks every hour, today).

Now, do the process to hit the plan.

Now, check to see if what you did met the plan.  If it didn’t, act: adjust the process so the next time around, you hit the plan. In other words, improve the process.

My mentor, Lewis, made a point to teach us that while the pdCA cycle is never-ending, you often have to start somewhere.  Somewhere was at eleven o’clock, which meant, if you are facing a flat pdCA cycle, you start somewhere between act and plan.  We called that starting point “Analysis,” which pleasantly started with an A and meant that we didn’t have to modify the pdCA cycle heretically.

The question is, what do you do at eleven o’clock? How do you analyze before you plan. Leader’s Standard Work should activate analysis as part of the coaching cycle. As the transformation begins, what leaders do on a daily basis begins to change, radically.  Part of the leader’s job is to go and see to get the facts so he can grasp the situation.  Lewis called this the “three G’s” – go and see, get the facts and grasp the situation.  It is directly related to Taichi Ohno’s practice of direct observation.  Once the leader grasps the true nature of a situation or – even better – a problem, he can formulate adjustments to the process, improving it, giving it the very next best shot at hitting the plan or the target.

The thing about pdCA is that it really might be part of the DNA for the rest of the operational excellence strategy.  Every component in every level of the system has pdCA designed into the way it works.  Without it, each component would bring only limited help to the others.

  • Problem-solving: what should have happened (the plan), what did happen (do and check), how can we contain what happened, so it doesn’t get any further (act), why did it happen (analysis), now what should we do so that doesn’t happen again (adjust).


  • Innovation (suggestion) system: that doesn’t work real good (check), what if I make a quick change (act), what was the effect of that (analysis), it worked (plan do), let’s make sure it keeps working (check)

Gary Convis, former president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, North America once said that after working at Toyota for ten years, he was just beginning to understand the plan, do, check, act cycle.   Like my CEO friend says: looks simple, plays hard. Lewis, wizened and salty, knew pdCA deeply and knew that the “all” in "'s all pdCA..." meant that every part of the system must obey the pdCA cycle.  He also knew that at the end of every proverbial rope – when patience was gone – drag it all back to the pdCA cycle and begin again. It’s all pdCA!


Three Excellent Reasons to Move as a Team

Three Excellent Reasons to Move as a Team

Teamwork’s ubiquity makes it hardly worth debating.  That we need teams to do world class things seems inarguable. When to apply teams has been vigorously discussed.  My go-to on this subject is former McKinsey director, Jon Katzenbach. Katzenbach has written extensively on the topic of teaming.  One of my favorite articles is The Discipline of Teams, where he says:

We found that there is a basic discipline that makes teams work. We also found that teams and good performance are inseparable: You cannot have one without the other.

I have been arguing for a higher order of teamwork with several executive teams, lately.  Katzenbach also famously wrote in The Myth of the Top Management Team,

But walk into almost any organization and ask anyone about the “team at the top.” The immediate response is likely to be a knowing, skeptical smile, followed by a comment along the lines of “Well, they are not really a team, but…”

But team at the top is a badly misused term that obscures both what teams can actually accomplish and what is required to make them work. The terminology is important: when we are undisciplined in our language, we become undisciplined in our thinking and actions. Real teams must follow a well-defined discipline in order to achieve their performance potential.

A perplexing kerfuffle emerges: the gaggle of folks allegedly leading are more than likely not a team (according to Katzenbach’s definition), yet -alarmingly – “teams and good performance are inseparable.”

My argument is that the key word here is “performance.”

Team performance (note the distinction between team and individual) at the front line is tangible, measurable.  What does team performance look like at the top?  How can you measure team performance, especially when our systems and management zeitgeist are set up to measure individual effort at the top?

For example, we see how quickly a public board will act to remove a CEO for poor earnings per share. What role did the team play in the poor performance? Indeed, everything rises and falls on leadership, especially in our Western way of thinking. But, what if the whole team was accountable for success?

In our operational excellence system, the top executives share a set of common targets.  Most executive level groups have difficulty conceiving of shared targets.  Stuck in their stovepipes, they nod and smile, but entirely fail to grasp that the team must move as a team.

Here is a list of three things that movement as a team does to improve team performance:

 The Crucible of Shared Crisis. Many world class companies’ intense focus on problem solving causes them to keep the taste of crisis on the tip of their collective tongues. When team members share in a crisis, they drop their local agendas, stop behaving badly and pull together to do amazing things.

Knowing Each Other Leads to Deeper Trust. When a group moves as a team, friction is natural and conflict occurs. It isn’t until a team begins to conflict that truth comes out.  When truth arrives, it is like a bright light shining in the dark. Once we get used to the jarring effect of it, we can see details more clearly: the facts emerge and trust increases.  Facts de-escalate the emotions of conflict.

Navigating Conflict Together Improves Respect. When a team member takes a stand, the team gets to see the very essence of that team member.  Agree or disagree, respect for a well-argued opinion is natural.

If you live “at the top” of your organization, you work with a group of people who got there because of their ability to work independently. World class performance, however, requires the interdependence of the team. The sooner you get there, the sooner you move – as a team – to sustained performance.

Stay excellent,


Reduce Variability | Attack Your Management System

Reduce Variability | Attack Your Management System

The most variable processes in your organization are the ones in your management system. Let me start by defining a management system: it is the set of processes and logic your leaders use to make decisions, influence your team and navigate obstacles to produce whatever it is you produce for your customers.   The problem with approaches that I’ve seen to continuous improvement is that leaders think the thing to do is to attack processes to reduce variability.  Lean practitioners attack the waste in a process (often without addressing the uneven demand on the process first).  Six Sigma practitioners root out variation in production processes.

Why don’t we attack the variability in management processes first?  Well, for sure, it is the tougher road to hoe.

Here are a case and point.  How does your organization manage meetings?  Is there a standard for planning the meeting?  For agendas? For record-keeping?  If any of that is standardized, does it apply to all your meetings or just project-based meetings?  Imagine implementing a standard for all your meetings – what kind of push-back would you get?

What is the effect of variability in your management system?  I’d hazard a guess that if you did some time-based cost analysis that your non-standardized management processes cost you a heck of a lot of money.

The countermeasure, at the macro level, is to standardize your management system.

Lean thought leaders have pointed out to me over the years that our system – the one that places cultural transformation by creating a standardized management system ahead of team-based problem solving – lacks attention to “standardization.”   They suggest that the origins of lean thinking require standardization early in the transformation citing “without a standard you can’t have improvement.”

I don’t disagree: our approach is to standardize the management system first. Many look past the management system to the process because that is what the current take on continuous improvement would have you do.  Some look at the management system and accept that it is necessarily variable.


Do you want a transformed culture? Attack the daily experience found where your management processes intersect the people trying to make or deliver for your customer.

You may even find that a significant amount of the variability that you see in your production process has its root in your management system.


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