In my last Lessons from the Road column, I introduced the the idea that culture is the most important element of lean transformation. I was fortunate to have the opportunity early in my lean journey to see just how important the correct behaviors would be, regardless of how well you designed the system. If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you read Building Behaviors Bedrock of Lean Success.

I follow that piece, with my model for how you actually build culture. People become baffled by culture change. Admittedly, it is hard. But the baffling is not because it is hard, but because we seek the silver bullet, the one giant lever that we can pull to change culture. Culture change requires deliberate design and deliberate action, as I introduce here:

Lessons promo

But how do you build a culture? Most cultures are not just the accumulation of “human nature.” If that were true, then all corporate cultures would be the same. A company’s culture is the product of people’s shared experiences. The problem is, most of those experiences are not designed to create a deliberate culture. Instead, the result is an accidental culture.

You have it in your power to create new experiences to build that deliberate culture. To build such a strategy, we utilize a framework of Learn–Apply–Reflect, which connects the head, hand and heart towards a new set of behaviors. I will focus here on many of the free tactics that enable Learn–Apply–Reflect, although none of them are easy.

You can read the rest of the column, and my advice (at least the part that fits into the size of a column) can be found in the latest edition of Lessons from the Road. Please read Build Culture Deliberately here. For more on the subject, come visit us for the Leading Lean course.

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For my latest column, I set out to write about culture change. I barely got through the introduction and realized I’m already out of room. Such is the restriction of a 1-page column. So, the introduction became the column.

Lessons promoYou can read the latest installment of Lessons from the Road, and here is an excerpt, part of my storytelling to make a point about the importance of principles and behaviors:

The system design was fine, but it was only truly understood by a few in the plant. People were only taught the procedures of the system, as was I, during the system introduction. People knew what following the procedure meant, and when encouraged or forced, their compliance with the system increased. But because they weren’t taught the thinking behind the system, any deviation from those procedures seemed trivial to them. But the consequences were often dramatic.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that a pull system is in many ways fragile by design. Small problems and deviations result in problems, albeit small ones. This is by design, making small problems visible so that they can be fixed.

The next installment will focus on tactics to create that culture change. And, I’m always interested in other ideas that you all have for my topics, so comment or email me your quetsions and ideas.

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A presentation on innovation

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on January 31, 2014 · 1 comment

Today I am giving a presentation on behalf of the Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center and hosted by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.

I believe innovation is not just something a few insightful people do in a special innovation department. It happens at every level. And you don’t know where the next innovation, big or small, might come from. Three capabilities become important. First, problem solving. Second, purposeful learning through experimentation. And third, a deep empathy for the customer.

These slides may not mean as much without the discussion to go with them, but here they are:

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Ambiguity of expected outcomes generates unneeded waste

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on January 22, 2014 · 2 comments

“Clean your room”

“I did”

“It doesn’t look like it”

Did they or did they not accomplish the task? It depends on who you ask because there are differences in the expected outcome. One person’s version of “clean” and another’s version are different.

Ambiguity in outcome expectations, whether for a small task or an entire process, leads to waste generation.

Here’s an example. As many of you know, I travel a lot. I’ve achieved some level of preferred status in 3 or 4 different hotel chains, and as a result I get to see a lot of the differences in how they operate. Most chains have clearly defined expected outcomes for processes such as room cleaning and check-in. As an outcome, I get the same result at a Courtyard in Oregon that I do at a Courtyard in Florida.

PhotoRecently, in a non-chain hotel, I had an experience that was both unique and baffling. First, I noticed that the glass of water I almost finished wasn’t discarded. Instead, they left the last sip of water and just put a coaster on top of the glass as a form of cap. I was confused. Then I turned around and saw my running shoes which had been thrown in the corner. Not only were they placed neatly side by side, which I understood, but the laces had been tied. They tied my shoes…without my feet in them. Now I was baffled. How did this benefit me? What kind of standard would have the housekeeping crews tie my shoes?

But then I realized…there was no standard. There was probably an ambiguous statement, something like “provide each guest a level of service above and beyond their expectations” or something that sounds really, really good. But at the same time, that so-called standard provides no clarity for what successful accomplishment looks like. If you asked someone “how do you know that you’re doing a good job?”, could they answer that question clearly?

I was observing a team clearing brush away from a railway line. There was a standard, or expected outcome, of how far back they should clear. However, there was no means to compare the result to the expected result. If you look back across their work, sometimes they were too close, likely leading to future rework, and sometimes they cut back far too much, which greatly reduced their productivity. Having a clear expected outcome is not enough. You also have to define a means to evaluate whether or not you are successfully meeting that expected outcome. To my opening room cleaning example, this would be the equivalent to “I’ll tell you when you’re done” because the person can’t self-evaluate successful completion.

The lack of clearly defined outcomes generates tremendous waste. How often have you put time into a report or presentation only to find out it didn’t meet the expectation? Maybe you didn’t do enough, and now you have rework. Possibly worse, you did more than was expected, and the extra invested time cannot be reclaimed.

Every process needs a clearly defined outcome. Without it, you cannot manage and you cannot improve.

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The waste of the “reverse” flat organization

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on January 17, 2014 · 1 comment

I recently wrote about whether “flat” organizational designs are flat or not, along with Zappos decision to eliminate managers. There are many reasons that they are not. But I’ve also encountered a different organizational design that I call the “reverse flat” organization.

In a flat organization, each manager has many direct reports.

In a “reverse flat” organization, you have many bosses.

Reverse flat orgThis is not the same thing as a matrix organizational, where you have bosses of different aspects, usually one for content and one for method. While a flat organization isn’t lean or not lean, but a reverse flat organization is decidedly not lean. It almost guarantees ambiguity. You will receive competing objectives, metrics, priorities, communication, feedback, and coaching. Many employees in this mode spend more energy, if not time, on managing the inherent conflicts than they do on delivering on their objectives.

So if you have this practice, stop.

If you do not have the power or authority to break this practice, then you need to put in place structure to manage the inherent conflict. Here are what I consider the two most essential elements of that structure:

1. High agreement

You must contract with each of the bosses about your role and your deliverables, and make that visible across the full set of businesses. Establishing a shared high agreement of both what will be delivered, and even how it will be delivered (down to the amount of time you spend on each “boss”) reduces ambiguity and the resulting confusion. Most of the time that people do contract in such a way, they treat them a 3 or 4 (or more) separate contracts. Instead, I suggest putting them all together a single framing of the role, and showing that to all the related parties. When someone sees the whole picture, they are more likely to help make it workable.

2. Conflict resolution

Regardless of how well you establish high agreement, you will still have conflicts and problems. Two of your bosses make requests with the same deadline that can’t both be fulfilled. You need a mechanism to resolve these conflicts, defined before the event occurs. This might be that when you trigger the mechanisms, two of the bosses discuss what is more important for the organization, or establish criteria that allows the decision to be made cleanly, or define a third-party that resolves conflicts. There is no natural mechanism because its not a natural design, but you want these mechanisms to exist before you need them.

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Lean means getting rid of managers, developing a flat organizational structure, and abdicating all responsibilities to the front line employees. Right?

Too many people just read that without twitching. But it’s wrong. That’s not lean at all.

Before going too far, lean also doesn’t mean adding organizational layers. There is no “right” organizational design, but more on that later.

Writing about this topic today was inspired by two recent readings. First, I was working my way through Creating a Kaizen Culture, a new book by my friend and fellow blogger Jon Miller and his co-authors Mike Wroblewski and Jaime Villafuerte. I will post a more thorough review of this book shortly, but a particular passage caught my eye because I wholeheartedly agree and yet it flies of the face of most lean “conventional wisdom”:

One of the greatest misconceptions made by modern management is placing unquestioned virtue in flatter organizations. On the surface, a flatter organization, because it has fewer management positions, would appear to have lower costs…there is nothing inherently better about an organization with fewer layers of management.


Form follows function

One of the key lessons we teach about organizational design in our HR’s Lean Transformation course is that you first have to determine the work, the process, before you design an organization around it. In a lean organization, people development is a high priority. If managers take on that responsibility for themselves, then it’s very hard to do that if you have 87 direct reports. As Miller et. al. continue:

There is a correlation between group size and the ability of a teacher to effectively develop the students…Far too many supervisors and team leaders have teams that are so large that they have no time for training, improvement, planning, and the more adaptive behaviors that make teams and organizations successful. The first step is to change our thinking from span of control for a leader to span of support.

This doesn’t mean that only have 5 direct reports is also the right thing you do. You have to first develop your intentions and objectives before deciding what kind of organizational design you want. As with much of architecture, form should follow function.

Zappos eliminates managers

Zappos made some headlines by announcing that they will eliminate managers. Now, before I get all of the Zappos fans rushing to defend them, I am not saying that Zappos won’t be successful with this endeavor.

Here’s a description of their design:

The unusual approach is called a “holacracy.” Developed by a former software entrepreneur, the idea is to replace the traditional corporate chain of command with a series of overlapping, self-governing “circles.” In theory, this gives employees more of a voice in the way the company is run.
According to Zappos executives, the move is an effort to keep the 1,500-person company from becoming too rigid, too unwieldy and too bureaucratic as it grows.

First, this is hardly new. I’ve seen a few organizations with similar designs, just with different names, some dating back nearly 20 years. Second, it doesn’t always work out. In one example, the “circles” became groups that sought consensus without a mechanism to force consensus. As a result, there was essentially veto power for any 1 individual, because it prevented consensus. The organization wallowed in indecision, ultimately leading to crisis that lead to reverting back to a traditional organizational design.

The circles weren’t wrong, and Zappos isn’t wrong. But it isn’t enough to change the organizational design. For Zappos to be successful, the behaviors must be in place to enable the decision making culture they are looking for. Based on their track record, I think they will be successful because they know exactly how important the behaviors are.

My concern isn’t Zappos. It’s all the organizations that read about Zappos and decide to copy them without understanding why they are copying them, or what needs to be in place to enable this. Is this right for Zappos? Is this right for your organization? Those are two very different questions. It may be very right for Zappos, but more unlikely than likely that its a good idea for your organization.

Fundamentally, organization design should never occur as a vacuum. It is not the strict purview of Human Resources. It is one piece of a complex puzzle towards building the kind of operating system you design.

Operating System

LLC consistencyAs we write about in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean, an Operating System is your template for how you work. It is the integration and aspiration of your Principles and Behaviors, Systems and Processes, Skills and Tools, and Evaluation and Metrics. But the hidden dimension of this is that all 4 of those elements must be Consistent with one another.

Poorly thought out organizational design can be one of the biggest threats to that consistency. And organizational design fads are threat to the stability and success of any organization that follows them as a fab.

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Situational leadership: change your style based on the need


Leadership is not universal. Someone being a good leader in one situation will be the wrong leader for the next situation. My own history with Chrysler is an example of this. There is little question that Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler in the 1980s. He was a visionary, a heroic leader, a phenomenal salesman, and he […]

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A3 Problem Solving ebook converted to Prezi by a reader


Darrell Damron, Enterprise Lean Consultant from the Office of the Governor for the State of Washington, generated a Prezi presentation of my ebook, A3 Problem Solving. You can find links to the book here. Since he shared it with me, I thought I would share it with you, so here it is:  

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Integrity…don’t leave home without it


“Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence, and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.” – Warren […]

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Startup CEO – learning is a key to success


I just completed reading Startup CEO by Matt Blumberg, CEO for the successful startup Return Path. Overall, this was an excellent book for a first-time CEO. For someone with more experience, there will be many sections of the book that is unnecessary. But beyond the more tactical advice, there is an excellent broader perspective shared […]

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