This page provides transcripts of my podcast.
We like to have options. Whether it’s expressed as alternatives to choose from, or cash in hand, or ability to change, options are important to us. We aren’t meant to be confined.
If you really investigate your own feelings about options, I bet you’ll uncover a few things. First, the idea of having options is more important to us than actually having that potential for change, or for free choice. We overvalue having options available to us, in a lot of situations. And the fear of losing the options we imagine we have matters more to us than it probably should. This isn’t just about loss aversion. It’s the idea that we are clinging to things that were illusory, or didn’t have much value, to start with.
People spend so much time keeping their options open, spend energy examining and choosing between alternatives, that it gets in the way of doing good and being good. It’s like the Liverpudlian philosopher said: “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” So the trick is to preserve options—but not to let the upkeep and maintenance of too many options become a kind of distraction, or cost, or other waste. When you go too far the other direction—and get into a mode of just pursuing one idea at a time, getting on that mule and riding it until it falls over dead in the dust, and then swapping it out for another one, doing that over and over—you’ll have too many false starts and dead ends.
What does all this mean when it’s time to work together to make things and do things as a group? How do we fit these characteristics of how we deal with options into a continuous improvement mindset?
Well, if you’re designing products or services, set-based design is the way to go. Set-based design. This is a key lean method that is often overlooked because it’s about design, not production. However, I often see people take continuous improvement frameworks for maintaining and improving production activities and try to apply them to design and development of new products. This is the underlying mistake of most “agile” practice in software development. So if you want to do this right, I suggest look into set-based design, which is a way of managing trade-offs and exploring options in an organized way as part of product design and development. You’ll start with a larger set of options, and then shrink this set of options through experimentation and prototyping eventually narrowing down to the one or two options that everybody can live with and that you’re going to proceed with. It can help you develop consensus, avoid expensive rework or mistakes, and explore riskier, longer-shot ideas alongside less interesting, more conservative, options. The go-to book here is Lean Product and Process Development by Ward and Sobek. Make sure you get the second edition, it’s got some good case studies and so forth. It’ll give you everything you need to get started.
As humans, we value options. I think we probably overvalue options. But that’s OK—we can make it work. And one critical tool I’d love for you to take a look at is set-based design.
What is a bottleneck? Simple enough, but linger with me for just a moment. Imagine an hourglass. You got sand or whatever in both bulbs. And in the middle, the neck gets skinny, and that’s where the sand falls through.
But this image of the hourglass contains everything you need to learn about queuing theory from operations management in order to use it for continuous improvement.
The rate at which sand passes through the neck is controlled by the width of the bottleneck. That’s the difference between an hourglass and a tube with sand in it.
The length of time it takes for all the sand to fall from one side to the other is a function of two things: the rate at which the sand can pass through the bottleneck, and the amount of sand. If you get these balanced correctly, you have a perfect three-minute egg timer.
You can’t make an hourglass flow faster by yelling at the sand, or by pouring more sand into the top. Instead, you gotta pay attention to that bottleneck.
OK, I’ve got two key points for you about bottlenecks.
First key point, there is always a bottleneck. In continuous improvement, the goal is never to eliminate the bottleneck, but rather to know what it is and where it is and to design things around it. If you try to eliminate the bottleneck entirely, all you’ll end up doing is pushing it somewhere else in the process and causing chaos.
Alright, let’s bake a cake. Assume we have all the junk we need in our imaginary well-stocked pantry. We’ll bake our cake together by preparing ingredients, mixing a batter, pouring it into a pan, baking it for 30 minutes, and then removing it from the oven and letting it cool for 10 minutes.
While we wait for this cake to cool, think with me for a moment. What’s the bottleneck in this process?
Yeah, it’s the half an hour bake time. If your goal is to get a cake as quickly as possible, you know that it’s going to take at least half an hour. Even if you could figure out how to bake a cake without breaking a few eggs, you still have to cook the damn thing.
If you could come up with a method to pressure-cook the cake thereby baking it in 5 minutes, you’d still have a bottleneck—your 10 minute cooling time.
Of course, you could cool the cake faster by dragging your instant pot to the North Pole, cooking it there, and then tossing it onto the frozen waste to cool.
You’d still have a bottleneck, whether it’s cooling time, cooking time, or something else! That’s the first key point: no matter what you do to your process, there’s always a bottleneck.
Second key point, look for the critical path.
This becomes more important when you don’t want to bake just one cake, but bake a series of them. Let’s get back to the kitchen.
There’s going to be some prep work before we can bake any cakes at all—gathering flour, eggs, sugar, preheating the oven, and so forth—and some work after a cake is cooled, maybe plating it and serving it or storing it for later.
You might mix the batter while the oven is preheating. You might make one giant barrel of cake batter and portion it out into separate cake pans. However you do it, if you think about the customer experience—the experience of a single cake, there is a critical path: it has to get prepped, it has to go into the oven for 30 minutes, and then it has to cool for 10.
That’s the critical path for one cake. And right on that cake’s critical path is its bottleneck: that 30 minutes in the oven.
No what this means is that if you have to bake 10 cakes, you should plan to be in the kitchen for 5 hours and change. Where did that number come from? Each cake will need to bake for half an hour. Every half an hour, you can remove a cake and insert the next cake. The operations management name for this 30 minute pace is “takt time”. T A K T, German word for pulse, like a heartbeat. Get this pulse or takt time down and we’ll get through our day of baking hell. You can crack eggs as fast as humanly possible or simply as fast as you need to have the next cake ready to bake by the time the previous cake comes out of the oven. In fact, you might have some idle time or downtime between each cake. You might not appear super busy at every moment, but you’re minding the takt time and getting those cakes cooked as quickly as possible with the equipment and the kitchen we have.
OK, so our first key point was: there’s always a bottleneck. Whether it’s baking or cooling, something will take the longest, and that’s OK.
That’s the second key point: we want to laser focus on the critical path, and don’t worry about everything else, for starters at least. When it comes to continuous improvement, there’s no point in hyper organizing your system for measuring flour since that’s not on the critical path and it’s not the bottleneck. We could make improvements there, it might make us happy, but it’s not going to affect the overall system.
That’s all I have for you today! If you want to take this into practice, I encourage you to look up Little’s Law—that’s a simple three parameter formula, published nearly 60 years ago, that will get you started with problem-solving around the relationship between your work in progress, the system’s throughput, and cycle times. Sometimes it may be important to minimize customer wait times above all else. Or sometimes you might want to improve throughput, to keep things moving for your system. And you can lay out a couple simple numbers and models using Little’s Law that will help you think through the likely effects of changing your system before you actually give it a shot. And that’s how you can take some of these ideas and start using them to drive continuous improvement.
Thanks. Speak to you again soon. Be well.
0022: A field guide to learning from failure
This is a free, short little guide I put together and I’d love for you to download a copy and kick the tires a bit. Let me give you the intro.
If you google around you will find various of sets of “wastes” that lean consultants, trainers, and other folks will use to help make problems visible. The closest you can get to a timeless classic in this genre is DOWNTIME, a set of wastes some of the old school lean shops use. DOWNTIME stands for: defects, overproduction, waiting, not using everybody’s skills, transportation, inventory, motion, errors. I presented the “DOWNTIME” wastes back in episode 9, and you could do worse than start from here. It’s what we used at my old gig.
However, I enjoy working with groups who do complex knowledge work and service work. In that kind of setting, some of the DOWNTIME wastes can seem redundant or a stretch.
The best example, the one I’m most tired of having to explain, would be transportation as waste versus motion as waste. They’re different things, but the distinction becomes less meaningful once continuous improvement left the shop floor and came into the office.
For me, when it comes to continuous improvement,
- half of the game is about people, and
- half of the game is about process.
So I mapped out a set of 6 wastes, which roll up into the acronym MISSED. After all, what is waste but a MISSED opportunity for improvement? The first three have to do with people—memory, inconsistency, and stress. The second three have to with process—work started but not finished, errors, and delays.
It doesn’t take a lot of specialized training or complicated systems to get started with continuous improvement. (Although there’s a place for both down the road!) I wanted to have something I could share and use to help folks practice looking for waste with a drop-dead simple method—a simplified waste walk—and a set of wastes that really points to what happens in knowledge work and service work.
Once again, I encourage you to get a copy of this field guide and work through it. I’ve also started a twice-monthly email newsletter which you might like to sign up for. You get both of these things – either for yourself or for a colleague, friend, or nerd who you might want to share them with – at the link in this episode’s description, or by hitting your ol’ web browser and going over to improvesomething.today/field-guide.
Thanks for listening. Have a great day.
0021: Not knowing
Over the past two years or so, I’ve developed a meditation practice and have spent a lot of time sitting. Now most of the methods and techniques that have benefited me, and some of the people I learn with, come from Buddhist traditions, and increasingly that’s put me into a weird and totally self-imposed position. You see, I found I had a lot of pride in thinking of myself as a humanist, somebody who doesn’t have a lot of time for superstition or ghostly stuff. I’ve held the position that the world is busted, but not for any particular reason, and that we — I’m talking the big “we”, humanity — have the opportunity and the resources to make it a wonderful place if we can get our act together.
This process of learning from and engaging in a religious tradition felt like a huge step backward for me. I knew this feeling wasn’t correct, I knew it wasn’t very kind, but I couldn’t quite tell what do with it. Was I strip-mining a beautiful religion for parts? If that’s what I was doing, was that OK? Surely the world would be better off if we finally got rid of religion, but here I was learning from one – and learning things that made my life demonstrably better. Well, what about the cultural angle? Is it cultural appropriation to pick up these books and practice from them and keep the parts that make sense to me, ignoring the rest?
I didn’t know.
And what I’ve increasingly come to discover is that it’s good to not know, or more precisely, it’s good to not pretend to know.
I see this with clients, when engaging in the uncertainty that can come with changing processes or undertaking a lean transformation. Nobody ever got in trouble for saying “yes” (at least at the time they said it). Some people figure out how to say “no”, and those people tend to be more effective. But it takes a lot of backbone for somebody to answer questions like “how will this affect our jobs?” or “will this change make things better or worse?” or “We’re already running way behind, will this help us catch up?” — to answer some of those questions with the real answer, which is often: “I don’t know.”
Making it OK to not know the answer, and to try to discover the answer together, is a basic expression of lean and continuous improvement principles. When I coach and otherwise help people through continuous improvement activities, it’s in large part about exploring and being OK with uncertainty, first by understanding it as much as we can, and then by using it to make things work better.
But for some reason I wasn’t able to connect that insight with the part of my life that is oriented around meditation and introspection. And I recently read a book that made the connection for me between the value of saying “I don’t know” to complex questions in complex workplaces and the value of agnosticism more generally. The book is called “Buddhism Without Beliefs”, by a teacher called Stephen Batchelor, and I’d like to share a short passage with you now. In this passage, Batchelor mentions the 19th century British biologist T. H. Huxley. If you’ve encountered Huxley before, it might have been associated with his nickname “Darwin’s bulldog.”
OK, here’s Batchelor in “Buddhism Without Beliefs”:
The force of the term “agnosticism” has been lost. It has come to mean: not to hold an opinion about the questions of life and death; to say “I don’t know” when you really mean “I don’t want to know.” … For T.H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through “the rigorous application of a single principle.” He expressed this principle positively as: “Follow your reason as far as it will take you,” and negatively as: “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” This principle runs through the Western tradition: from Socrates, via the Reformation and the Enlightenment, to the axioms of modern science. Huxley called it the “agnostic faith.”
First and foremost the Buddha taught a method (called “dharma practice”) rather than another “-ism.” The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do. The Buddha did not reveal an esoteric set of facts about reality, which we can choose to believe in or not. He challenged people to understand the nature of anguish, let go of its origins, realize its cessation, and bring into being a way of life. The Buddha followed his reason as far as it would take him and did not pretend that any conclusion was certain unless it was demonstrable. Dharma practice has become a creed (called “Buddhism”) much in the same way that the scientific method has degraded into the creed of “Scientism.”
And it’s Brian again. This passage – and indeed the entire short book – gave me a lot of comfort. Agnosticism – the respite that comes from following one’s reason as far as it’ll take you, but no farther, and not worrying about it overmuch – is a way of thinking that makes me want to get moving and keep moving and learning and getting better.
So itt’s good to know. It’s OK to not know. And it’s great to want to find out, and to rest when you’ve discovered as much as you can.
Knowing, not knowing, and being curious about the rest. This works for understanding the systems we use every day. It works for understanding ourselves.
Well, that’s what I know about this topic. What’d I miss?
Thanks. Talk to you again soon.
0020: Bought and sold and bought again
Reading: ‘No Thanks’.
That was ‘No Thanks’, a poem by Nven Mrgan , who describes it as “A poem made up of ad-closing link text.”
I’ve been thinking about storytelling lately. We’re wired for stories, aren’t we? In the ‘No Thanks’ poem, we can instantly recognize the inauthenticity in these ad pitches. The story doesn’t sit right. We can see where it’s going but we don’t follow to the end.
So what about the cultures of fear and hierarchy we create and perpetuate in our organizations? Made out of stories. Same goes for the culture we swim in, or drown in.
The philosopher Richard Rorty said it. “The world does not speak. Only we do.” If there’s hope in anything, it’s the idea that we can change these stories.
Think of people as individuals – as selves – who are going through this process of being selves, rather than as completed, final, static things. We’re processes, not souls. We’re on the train, experiencing the ride of being ourselves, and the stories we hear and repeat are the landscapes flitting by past the window in patterns of light and shadow and detail. If we find stories that we can tell and believe in, we can change the world.
I give the last word to Arundhati Roy, with a little excerpt from an essay in her amazing book, War Talk: “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness—and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling—their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”