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Davis Balestracci


Connecting the Big Dots to the Little Dots—Without Math

And then follow your path of yellow-brick dots

Published: Monday, March 14, 2016 - 17:23

This article is based on some ideas from my respected colleague Mark Hamel. Despite the lean framework, these ideas apply to any improvement approach—all of which come from the same theory, lean included.

During the past 35 years, quality has evolved from the necessary evil of quality control to what can easily be considered a self-sustaining organizational improvement sub-industry. Leaders still try to inspire people with passionate lip service in scheduled, cliché-ridden speeches (or videos) about committing to excellence, becoming world class, and dazzling customers. But in reality the leader’s commitment yields—predictably—vague results that stem from the naive hope for improvement in general (and perhaps, increased cultural cynicism).

Once again: the case for built-in improvement vs. bolt-on quality

Most bolt-on improvement approaches persist in current organizational cultures, which many have discovered guarantees an exhaustive battle against the status quo—you know, the “real work.” Because this type of improvement process seems to be perfectly designed to incite a battle, then (using our very own improvement language), isn’t it time to consider another process?

True excellence demands a transformation to a built-in improvement approach that must begin by eradicating the status quo of tolerated executive and managerial behaviors that do not visibly support it.

The big dot/little dot synergy

The rationale with which Hamel approaches lean stems from Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek’s concept of two types of knowledge:
1. Aggregate knowledge
2. Knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place

Aggregate knowledge (big dots) is macro-level data and financial and operational performance information. These data usually occupy the realm of top leaders and enable them to absorb the big picture, set direction, and formulate strategy.

Hamel makes the point that even a sufficient aggregate of such knowledge in the hands (or head) of leaders will have limitations if they lack a key lean ingredient—humility—a fundamental state of being for transformation to true excellence.

“If humility is beneath me, leadership is beyond me.”
John Miller (the QBQ! guy)

There is a distinct danger in relying solely on aggregate knowledge; it can create the illusion that leaders know best. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “You know, farming looks easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”

And if improvement leaders aren’t careful, they can easily fall into this trap. (Mea culpa!)

Knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place (little dots) is derived from real-life, consistent immersion in the actual daily work. People who possess this knowledge do the actual work at the actual place and are grounded with an astute, conscious awareness of the daily realities of their environment.

Note: Not all people sufficiently grasp the reality of their situation. Their lean (or improvement) thinking may be immature, or perhaps they’re not interested in acknowledging reality. It’s up to the leaders to help this along.

In any event, with proper coaching and a good lean management system to facilitate problem identification and the targeting and flow of ideas, the people with this second type of knowledge are the proper and most effective force to conduct kaizen (continual daily incremental improvements). More about this in my next column.

Go see, ask why, and show respect

The best lean teacher emphatically insists that leaders should religiously go see, ask why, and show respect, which should also transpire for any serious improvement approach. To be ultimately effective, these must be formal components within the context of mandatory, well-developed leader standardized work. Where will the time come from to do this? See Chapter 2 of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2009). Up to half of leadership time spent in routine meetings can be freed up! Click here for a summary of the book.

Participate in kaizen activities with stakeholders

Leaders need to periodically participate in kaizen activities firsthand with the stakeholders. This will force leaders to go directly to the gemba (the actual workplace where the value is added), rigorously observe reality, earn some of the necessary insight, and only then, share in local plan-do-study-act (PDSA).

Similarly, the frontline “particular knowledge folks” should obtain a least a modicum of aggregate knowledge to expand their line of sight. The incorporation of frequent, regular visual process performance metric reviews—measures related to people, quality, delivery, cost, and rate of continuous improvement—should become part of their natural work team huddles.

It’s all about formally addressing the need for balance, but...

Hamel emphasizes that one type of knowledge is not better than the other. Every organization needs both to survive and ultimately thrive. Like most things in life, there needs to be a balance.

Here’s Hamel’s humble advice to the aggregate people: Set policy and create alignment; establish the lean ecosystem vis-à-vis lean management systems; model lean leadership behaviors; challenge, encourage, and coach the “particular folks”; and in a large measure, get out of their way.

Establishing an atmosphere of true kaizen is a most nontrivial matter and isn’t as simple as telling everyone that they are empowered to implement good ideas. Such an effort needs to be anchored in a strong, everyday lean (improvement) culture (partially addressed in “Getting Real With Rapid-Cycle PDSA.” Hamel’s suggestions for a robust framework to do this will be the subject of my next column.


About The Author

Davis Balestracci’s picture

Davis Balestracci

Davis Balestracci is a past chair of ASQ’s statistics division. He has synthesized W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy as Deming intended—as an approach to leadership—in the second edition of Data Sanity (Medical Group Management Association, 2015), with a foreword by Donald Berwick, M.D. Shipped free or as an ebook, Data Sanity offers a new way of thinking using a common organizational language based in process and understanding variation (data sanity), applied to everyday data and management. It also integrates Balestracci’s 20 years of studying organizational psychology into an “improvement as built in” approach as opposed to most current “quality as bolt-on” programs. Balestracci would love to wake up your conferences with his dynamic style and entertaining insights into the places where process, statistics, organizational culture, and quality meet.