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Show Respect, Psychological Safety and Social Neuroscience

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The focus of our work and teaching in recent years (Mindful Coaching, Helpful Coaching, Leading with Respect, Humble Inquiry Questioning, Coaching for Development) has led us to three questions we believe are critical for the Lean/ Continuous Improvement community to consider:

  1. Why would a practical business leader like Fujio Cho make “Show Respect” the third part of his advice to leaders?
  2. What is “Psychological Safety” and how does “Show Respect” help create it?
  3. What does Neuroscience research indicate about the link between “Show Respect” and “Psychological Safety?”

1)  Why “Show Respect?

Mr. Cho urging leaders to “Go See” and “Ask Why” makes sense as part of basic Toyota problem solving thinking. You want to grasp the actual conditions rather than assume you know, and you want to dig down to the underlying causes of problems rather than put band-aids on the symptoms. But why is “Show Respect” so important for Mr. Cho? Is it just because he’s a nice guy? (The team members at the Georgetown Toyota plant in Kentucky certainly felt he was when he was president there.)

We believe there is a practical business reason why Mr. Cho stresses the importance of leaders showing respect for employees. And it goes beyond the focus Toyota puts on the employees who do the work that creates value for its customers. Remember that when Mr. Cho was President and CEO of Toyota Motor Corporation (all of Toyota world-wide) he led creation of the first authorized description of the Toyota Way. Images such as the one shared above are often used to illustrate the key elements of the Toyota Way.

In most depictions of the Toyota Way, the fundamental values or pillars are the same, Continuous Improvement and Respect for People.

Mr. Cho was being very practical in his focus on “Showing Respect” as a critical management and leadership practice. If Continuous Improvement is the pursuit that helps a company solve problems, improve performance and adapt to challenges of change, Respect for People is the key to engaging employees in continuously making and sustaining improvements that makes it work. A company cannot afford enough managers, supervisors and specialists to address all the small things that need to be improved to maintain smooth flow and effective operation. The employees who do the value creating work have to willingly take on that responsibility. Employees who do not feel respected for their knowledge, capabilities and contributions are not likely to make the effort to go beyond assigned tasks and responsibilities very often.

Many in the LEI community who are involved in trying to overcome the obstacles in the cultures of their companies and engage employees in continuous improvement as part of their jobs have intuitively recognized the importance of leadership “Showing Respect” for their efforts. But we have not been successful in demonstrating to leaders and executives how their traditional management thinking and behaviors undermine their desire for the benefits of employee engagement. We hope to provide a first step toward making the case with this article.

2) What is “Psychological Safety” and how does “Show Respect” help create it?

The freedom to be yourself without fear of judgment is, in our opinion, the most significant obstacle to creating a culture of deep learning and continuous improvement.

In virtually all organizations, physical safety is a given. Most governments protect workers from the risk of accidents by enacting laws and regulations covering building codes, fire safety, ventilation, hearing and eye protection, gloves, hard hats and steel-toed boots. And most companies have programs that stress the physical safety of their employees. But there is another kind of safety that is just as critical as physical safety. It is psychological safety and we believe it has an incredible impact on an organization’s culture and the way people behave and think about their work, their colleagues and the interdependent aspects of their jobs.

In her new book The Fearless Organization, Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking. The concept refers to the experience of feeling able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions, or concerns.” This quality is invisible, seldom managed well and, when neglected, highly influential on employees’ understanding of their role and place in their companies.  The critical question is, do employees feel it is a reasonable personal risk to speak up or not just go along?

Why is psychological safety so difficult to foster and maintain? There are many factors, but perhaps the most significant one is the way our brains are wired. Most people crave positive recognition and appreciation while avoiding criticism. We tend to be very concerned about what others think of us. We are often overly reactive to negative feedback and those who disagree with our ideas. (More on why this is so in Part 3: What does Social Neuroscience research indicate about the link between “Show Respect” and “Psychological Safety?”)

For people to engage at a much deeper level, they must feel instinctively comfortable being themselves and sharing what’s inside (ideas, concerns, ambiguities, unknows, uncertainties, hunches, etc.). This may seem obvious, but when we cannot be ourselves, we expend most of our attention protecting our image rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue! We are careful with our words, don’t talk about mistakes and withhold information – all with the purpose of managing what others think about us! This takes an incredible amount of energy and focus. The effort drains us of the spark we need to be creative, be open-minded, hear dissenting ideas and process tough feedback.

In her numerous studies of high performing teams Edmondson learned another fundamental aspect of psychological safety: it’s primarily local.  The social environment in teams and groups can vary widely across organizations. The overall culture in an organzation is a factor but it is the sense of safety within a group that is the main influence on how willing members are to speak up and speak out. And the greatest determinant of the sense of psychological safety in a group or teams appears to the behaviors and assumptions (i.e. leader knows, decides, tells) of the leader. What the leader does, does not do, expects and will not accept sets the time for the team. Edmondson’s findings are supported by a two-year Google study of performance and work environment of a 180 teams (Project Aristotle). The local leader is the primary source of members’ assumptions about the balance between fear versus safety that infleunce their sense of what is and is not a reasonable personal risk.

Continuous improvement is more difficult than anyone seems to want to admit because it’s continuous! This requires amazing reserves of drive, passion and stamina to persevere through the inexhaustible challenges, countless iterations of trial, discovery and learning, and the inevitable failures that must be embraced if we are to learn, improve and make meaningful change.

Without psychological safety, a team, a department and an organization are severely handicapped because they are deprived of the full contribution each person has the potential to provide. With psychological safety, people share everything they have to give, and everyone – and the company reap the benefits.

3) How are “Show Respect” and Psychological Safety linked?

In keeping with basic lean thinking let’s look beneath the outcome of Psychological Safety for the human processes that create or destroy it.

Neuroscience research has made significant gains in understanding the things that happen in the structures of our brains during different human activities. Using functional MRIs available since the 1990s it is possible to observe what happens inside the brain during both cognitive processing and social responses. Functional MRIs show movement of blood in the brain which indicates neural activation. In other words, neuroscientists scientists can now see which parts of the brain are engaged in specific brain activities. These insights demonstrate how respect and trust contribute to a sense of psychological safety and how their absence makes us afraid of taking risks in social situations.

Physical pain and painful social situations activate the same pain neural network and in much the same way. When we have physical injuries or experience social pain such as rejection, humiliation, embarrassment or criticism our brain reacts to them with similar physical sensations and emotions. That means we experience emotions and social pain in and with our bodies.

As an example, please close your eyes and think of a particularly embarrassing or humiliating moment in your teen years. How does your body respond? Most people experience a physical reaction such as a tightening stomach, flushing, tingling or tightening in the face, a feeling of distress. Many jerk their heads or bodies to try to shake off or get away from the feelings. The later is a flight response because your threat network has also been activated also and you experience the memory as a danger to you socially. Also consider how we describe the impact of such social situations: “I was crushed.  She broke my heart.  It was a real blow.”

Outright rejection of us or our ideas; angry or harsh criticism (especially in public), exclusion from an ingroup or inside information, the humiliation of a public put down, being discounted, disregarded or taken for granted, and being bypassed through favoritism all trigger some form of pain reaction in our bodies and some degree of feeling unsafe or threatened. Over time, experiencing these “social injuries” or seeing them inflicted on others creates impressions of “that’s what to expect around here.” Over time those impressions become unstated assumptions and form our unconscious recognition, and that of our group, of the culture of the company or organization.

Such an implicit understanding of our work environment is critical because it leads to other assumptions about whether it is safe to speak up, make suggestions, point out problems, disagree with management and your peers.  If we do not feel we can risk speaking up, stepping up, reaching out, pointing out and suggesting it is very unlikely we will commit much continuous time and energy to addressing problems and working on improvement.  If we do feel safe and respected and valued for our capabilities it is much more likely we will see it as a reasonable risk to exercise discretionary effort (meaning to go beyond what can be required or demanded) and willingly engage in continuous problem solving and performance improvement.

There is another important aspect of the brain activity related to our social lives. Pleasant physical and social experiences also activate the same reward network in our brains. That means when we sense we are included, valued, useful or given meaningful responsibility it is not just an idea, it is also a pleasurable and rewarding physical experience. Think of expressions we use to describe these moments: “Helping him warmed my heart. It gave my spirit a real lift. I felt 10 feet tall when she handed me the award.” The implication is that what we are experiencing is both physically and socially rewarding. Our human need to feel connected and accepted is being met. This makes it much more likely that we will feel safe exercising our discretionary effort and willingly take responsibility for contributing and making things better.

The equation for Discretionary Effort is simple but getting it to add up is difficult:  Respect + Acceptance + Trust = Psychological Safety.

Mr. Cho was right about the importance of RESPECT. Rodney Dangerfield complained he couldn’t get any. Aretha Franklin demanded it. According to researchers, acceptance, trust, respect and being useful were originally critical to our survival because they meant inclusion – and safety – in the family or social group. In our brains they are still essential in our new “families” and “communities” – our companies and organizations. Without this social “security” we don’t feel we can take the risk of contributing aswe are able. When respect is not demonstrated and a sense of psychological safety is not part of the culture, we are destined to see struggles such as many companies are having engaging employees in continuous improvement activities and sustaining their involvement.sustaining their involvement.

A collabroation with my good friend David Verble.

The Third Way of DevOps: Stacking the Cards in Your Favor

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This post was written for DevOps.com

In the first bit to this  post, “The Third Way of DevOps – From Knowing to Being,” we shared our thoughts on effectively applying knowledge to put the Three Ways of DevOps into practice. This blog explores a complementary dimension: How to build confidence when faced with a seemingly impossible task.

This is the all-too-familiar setting. You’ve seen an opportunity to improve things and genuinely want to do something about it. But you soon feel the clarity and anticipation draining out of you. First there’s the pressure of the day job. Then there’s the inertia of your co-workers, who are oblivious of or indifferent or hostile to your ideas. And finally, as if these concerns weren’t enough, you’re faced with the difficulty of unlearning old habits and developing new ones. In short, you don’t take action on what you have learned and know.

Self-efficacy

Expressed in the somewhat abstract language of the theories of Planned Behavior and Reasoned Action, there’s a gap between behavioral intention and actual behavior. A plausible explanation for the gap is low self-efficacy, defined as the conviction that one can successfully execute the behavior required to produce desired outcomes. It’s the belief we have in our own abilities, specifically our ability to meet the challenges ahead of us and complete a task successfully. This is a crucial precondition because investigations have shown that peoples’ behavior is strongly influenced by their confidence in their ability to execute that behavior.

If-Then-Else

So why doubt your ability to change? Well, when a change seems large, the gut reaction is to feel the need to come up with a project plan. Because a plan creates the confidence that when the steps are taken, the desired results will be achieved. Without a plan, we’d be irresponsible risk-takers. That’s how we’ve been taught to think. And rightly so—at least, in a predictable environment, where you can determine which steps will have which effects. If you work with IT, you are likely to think in terms of If-Then-Else. This is how we would like to believe IT always works. Predictably.

If-Then-Maybe

However—and this might be the biggest “however” you’ve come across for a while—things are not always predictable. Not unpredictable in the sense that it should have worked but something just went wrong because we didn’t do enough homework; unpredictable as in simply unknowable. Unpredictable as in possibly seeing a pattern of behavior in hindsight, but never having been able to predict it, let alone control it. Unpredictable as in “complex adaptive systems,” as they are referred to in the world of complexity thinking. It’s no longer If-Then-Else; the name of the game is If-Then-Maybe.

Complexity Thinking 

Complex adaptive systems are all around us but if you’ve been used to thinking that things are—or could or should be—predictable, you tend not to see them for what they are: one of kinds of systems that exist in nature. The Cynefin sense-making framework describes systems in terms of five domains: obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic and disorder. Obvious and complicated are both predictable domains, where something in the complicated domain needs a bit of work to discover the predictability than when it is obvious. Complex and chaotic are unpredictable domains, the main difference being that something chaotic is dangerously unpredictable and therefore needs direct action. There is a fifth domain: disorder. You are in this domain when you don’t know which of the other four domains best describes the current situation. A word of warning: People’s cognitive bias will often lead them to think that they are in their usual domain, in which they feel most comfortable.

Step by Step 

The way to introduce changes in complex systems successfully is to take it step by step. Because you can’t predict the results of a step, you have to closely monitor what effects—both desired and less so—each step creates. Then, based on your assessment of the new situation, you determine which next step to take. Rather than moving in a straight line toward a “to be” end state, you move each step to the “adjacent possible.” You make good use of the disposition of the system; in other words, where the energy is tending to flow.

No Big Answers, Just Little Questions

So, it’s not a case of looking for the big answer. It’s about a series of small questions. The Toyota Kata approach recommends asking ourselves (and others) these questions:

  • What are we trying to achieve?
  • Where are we now?
  • What obstacle is now in our way?
  • What’s our next step, and what do we expect?
  • When can we see what we’ve learned from taking that step?

A key concept is that we should work towards the next “target condition.” This is an interim goal on the way to whatever we want to achieve. It just describes where you want to be next, not how to get there. It labels the future set of circumstances that lie just beyond our current level of understanding. It will typically have to be achieved between a relatively short period between a week and a few months; otherwise, it will be ineffective. How we will get there will emerge though the process of experimentation.

Stack the Cards in Your Favor 

So the next time you feel inspired to make a (little) difference, don’t be discouraged by the prospect of having to think everything through in detail. This is often even contra-productive. The liberating realization that you can take things step by step, is good for your self-efficacy, increasing the chances of actually achieving results.

This article was co-authored by Mark Smalley.

7 Things Coaches Need to Get Over

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Over the years, I have noticed some common misperceptions about coaching effective problem solving skills and developing lean thinking. Here’s a few:

1) It’s not about being smart (and it’s not about you). Good coaching is not about your intelligence and ability to solve the issue the learner (e.g., person you are coaching) is attempting to address. The more we focus on our own skills and the problem to be solved, the less we focus on the learner’s thinking process and their development.

Good coaching is about centering on the other person’s pattern of thinking as they work to develop potential countermeasures. In fact, when you have no bias and don’t actively engage in solving the problem, it becomes easier to be an effective and helpful coach. The learner is the writer, producer, director and actor: make your coaching all about them.

2) Fake it until you make it is not a sound approach. To be a good coach you don’t have to an expert in the subject the learner is exploring. In cases where the topic is specialized or highly technical (for example, chemistry or IT) and you know little about the subject, be 100 percent transparent! Pretending to be someone you are not will only erode trust between you and the person you are coaching. The supply the subject matter expertise and provide the coaching.

3) It’s not about what you would do. Redirecting the conversation in an attempt to get the learner to think a certain way steals the learning experience from the other person and is disrespectful. As a coach, your role is to gently expand the learner’s problem solving skills by asking open-ended questions that do not lead the witness. Leading the witness is doing the thinking for the other person, putting ideas in their head, cross examining them, giving direct advice (as in “this is what I would do”), or otherwise taking over solving the problem. Your problem-solving expertise is irrelevant as it relates to your playing the role of problem solver. It is very relevant as it relates to your role of coach: the better you are at applying the Plan-Do-Check-Adjust(PDCA) cycle, the better you will become as a coach if you stay clear of engaging directly in solving the learner’s problem!

4) Your stories don’t always help. Telling stories that provide clues or suggestions based on your experience often influences the direction of thinking the learner is pursuing and detracts from the value you provide as a coach. The effect is similar to leading the witness but can steal even more time and focus away from the learner. Storytelling can seem like an appropriate element of coaching but often negatively impacts coaching by making the dialogue all about you (see #1 above).

5) It’s not about asking standard questions. With the popularity of Toyota Kata, many people equate the five coaching questions as everything there is to know about lean coaching. While the Kata questions can be very effective when used appropriately, they are not the end-all be-all to good coaching. Recitation of questions read from a card (or memorized) can detract for the authentic connection which needs to be fostered between coach and learner. A great coach is constantly scanning the learner’s thinking to see where they are in their understanding and application of PDCA. Don’t allow the Kata questions or any list of coaching questions distract you from the active listening and concentration required to accurately sense and respond to the learner’s current level of understanding.

6) Evaluating the learner is harmful. In coaching, judgment can limit our effectiveness. When we place labels of the learner’s thinking, we limit our view of the other person. A great coach sees the other person as having the ability to solve their current problem as well as become a better lean thinker than they are. In fact, that’s your job: to support the other’s development to be the very best they can be and sincerely desire that they exceed your skill set. We might call this practice “coaching with humility.”

7) Eat your own dog food. To effectively connect and coach another you must be authentic. To become a good coach, you need three things: a good coach to coach you, practice, and perseverance. If we don’t practice what we preach – PDCA, continuous improvement, lead with respect, reflection, go & see, life-long learning, etc. at work and in our personal life, then we are frauds. Positioning ourselves as coaches while espousing lofty ideas but failing to apply them to us personally will become obvious to those we are coaching. If we’re not leading by example, then we’re not consistently practicing and learning – we won’t be able to make a connection with the person we are trying to coach.

Let me know your thoughts on this subject. Are there other misconceptions that get in the way of effective coaching?

How Lean IT can help drive growth

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The lean process improvement principles that have driven transformational change in areas such as manufacturing, accounting and supply chain management are making big waves in yet another sector: information technology.

Today, many companies are actively seeking the benefits of “lean IT,” seeking to drive out process waste and streamline workflow, turning to lean icons such as Toyota and Honda for inspiration. At The Ohio State University Center for Operational Excellence, for example, an entire community has formed for IT leaders seeking to drive efficiency and effectiveness through lean practices.

The stakes are simple but high: When IT stops, the business stops, and when it flows, it positions the business for success. But the sector – with its complexity, cross-functional interdependencies and conflicting priorities – presents a “perfect storm” of distinctive obstacles for leaders. Moving forward with a transformation, particularly in IT, requires a clarity of purpose, an alignment of people, and a sharp focus on the processes that create value for customers.

Accomplishing all of these takes more than just a set of lean tools – it requires a shift in behavior, driven by leaders equipped to change a culture.

All transformations begin with a look at purpose. A shared purpose is essential to create and drive a common intention, alignment and commitment. Everyone in the IT organization (as well as the business) needs to be very clear on why we are in business, why we are transforming and where we are vs. where we need to be. Without a widely understood and collective purpose that people can clearly see within the context of their daily work, everyone is left on their own to identify what matters most and determine what they should do (or not do) about it.

The next component is people. While clearly a central ingredient in building a highly effective organization, people also are the source of the uncertainty, disengagement, mistrust and political gamesmanship that can plague a workplace. When we treat people with respect and create systems and processes that position them for success, we cultivate trust, engagement, teamwork and high levels of performance.

In the hands of our people are the processes that represent the work we do to fulfill the mission of our organization. When processes are undefined, unclear or not consistently followed, the effort required, the time it takes, the quality of the outcomes and the frustration of staff and customers all become highly unstable and inconsistent.

Too many organizations fail to step back and examine these elements of the bigger picture, which ultimately serves as the “True North” in the lean transformation process. Companies that have “pockets” of improvement – islands of lean in a sea of waste – often lack understanding around a shared purpose, for example.

To truly keep momentum moving, organizations need fearless leaders at the core of their process improvement teams. If they stop leading the charge, improvement work and the underlying transformation immediately begin to taper off. If they succeed, the possibilities are endless.

Why we (almost) did not write the Lean IT Field Guide

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After writing the book Lean IT in 2011, we were amazed by the the response: a great deal of “pent up demand” and interest in applying the principles, methods, and tools of lean to IT operations. This lead to speaking engagements all over the world, webinars and papers, and a number of major opportunities to deploy lean IT in both large and medium-size companies. Like any lean experience, it was journey of trail and discovery with both success and setback, and much was learned.

As I met people in the US, Europe, Asia, and Australia, I heard a common request, “I loved the book and it has changed the way I view the function and purpose of IT and the people I work with, but… [it is always what people say after the but that is most critical!]. What followed was always some form of, “but how do we actually do it?” or “What are the steps we take to introduce and mobilize Lean IT throughout our organization?”

For several years I dismissed this request because I had been taught that people learn lean by going through the often-painful process of trying something, getting knocked down, reflecting, and trying again, until they come to understand that all of lean is a learning system based on the Plan-Do-Check-Adjust method. If we were to direct people in what to do and the sequence to do it, two problems would transpire: 1) without knowing in detail the distinctive challenges of their organization, we were not in a position of understanding to suggest a course of action, and 2) by providing such a roadmap for transformation, we would rob them of the hands-on learning experience essential to lean thinking and effective change.

Mike has had the amazing opportunity to apply lean IT at a number companies including Nike, Con-way, ANZ, Aggreko, Nationwide, and Motorists. After over twenty years of learning and struggling to be a lean thinker, it became apparent that we could share the essential elements of successful lean IT deployments in a way that would not violate either of our concerns. By keeping the roadmap at a level that would be universally applicable, there is ample opportunity for adaptation, experimentation, discovery, and learning so the reader can still experience the journey of lean IT! In fact, many of our readers have emailed to say that the book is equally effective in others areas of the business including the front office, HR, purchasing, Finance, transaction-based processing, analytical work, and even manufacturing. This is not surprising to us – these ideas are based on timeless universal principles which apply well beyond IT.

Applying our roadmap, Tom spearheaded the lean IT transformation at Nationwide with incredible success. In its seventh year, lean IT has delivered a new culture of performance, transparency, and more productive, better quality, and lower costs!

We hope that The Lean IT Field Guide inspires your journey in IT and beyond!

Accountability: Not What You Think it is…

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Accountability. It’s a word often feared in society for being associated with the blame game – being singled out when things go wrong, even if the reasons are beyond your scope of control. It seems we are always hearing about the importance of creating a culture of accountability.

Unfortunately, when managers and associates hear the term, they often flinch! Expressions such as “We’re holding you accountable” are often seen as code for “You are liable and will be blamed if things do not go as planned!” This is a major problem for any organization that is serious about creating and sustaining a lean transformation.

If we consider the lessons of LEI’s Transformation Model (shown above), we see that the entire foundation rests on the basic thinking and fundamental assumptions (both overt and unseen) that drive current culture. For leaders who wish to transform from a command-and-control culture to a more participative one, a key assumption is that, when treated respectfully, people will align to a common purpose, deeply engage in both doing the work and improving the process, and assume higher levels of accountability.

The image includes employees taking on tasks without being told to do so, showing initiative to improve quality first and efficiency second, and genuinely caring about their customers, team members, organization, and community. This basic assumption that is so central to a lean transformation becomes null and void when accountability is seen as a liability that management assigns, rather than a self-assumed role that people undertake of their own volition.

When there is evidence of intentional avoidance of accountability, it suggests that people don’t trust the intentions of the organization, leadership, or even fellow teammates. They may be avoiding the risk of potential conflict that comes from taking on a task which the outcome is uncertain. This is true problem solving and it can be scary enough without the fear of being blamed if things don’t work out well. It is interesting to note the role that trust plays in all this.

Creating a lean environment is essentially creating a learning environment. In a learning environment, we move away from experts who tell others what to do and towards learners who run experiments (rapid PDCA cycles) to better understand root cause(s) and validate effective countermeasures. Accountability must be self-imposed in order for people to truly grasp the concept, take ownership, and take on appropriate levels of commitment.

But this can only be done when the fear and apprehension most people associate with words such as accountability are openly addressed. When reflecting on your own organization, here are a few questions to consider:

  1. Do we blame people when things don’t go as planned?
  2. Do people self-assume accountability or do we assign/delegate accountability?
  3. In our current culture is there fear, anxiety or hesitation around accountability?
  4. Do we ask people to be accountable before asking if they are capable?
  5. Do accountability and authority always go together? When should they?

To learn more about creating a culture of accountability and respect through effective leadership, sign up for Mike Orzen’s pre-summit workshop, Lead with Respect: Practicing Respect for People to Enable Engagement, Teamwork & Accountability, at the 2016 Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit this June. Learn more about Lead with Respect and other Summit workshops on the summit webpage.

Note: this article also appeared in the Lean Enterprise’s Lean Post in February of 2016.

Applying the Principles of Lean IT to Data Management – Part 3

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In this final installment of this 3-part series, we look at how the practices and principles of Lean IT provide the approach and tools needed to eliminate data quality issues at the source. See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

For a practical example of Lean IT and data management, see the webinar Lean IT: Driving SAP Continual Process Improvement.

Lean IT as Part of the Solution

In lean, all improvement starts with the people. The first step is to engage with your employees by leading with respect, creating a meaningful challenge, and fostering a workplace where excellence is the norm. When you engage with people respectfully, they respond in ways you never could have dreamed plausible.

Bad data entered into high-performance IT systems produces what one CEO described as, “Crap at the speed of light!” Even if we successfully create a lean application development environment, bad data will efficiently yield inaction-able information and over time, people will disengage and lose trust in their leaders, as well as the ERP system. The resourcefulness and genius of most workforces lies dormant beneath layers of distrust, uncertainty, and unreliability of the systems they are forced to contend with.

You engage with people because they really are your most valuable resource; in fact, people are your only appreciative resource! It is those who are closest to the work (as well as closest the problems) that most deeply understand the challenges and are best positioned to develop effective countermeasures.

In lean, we engage those closest to the work to define a target state, determine our current status, measure the gap, and identify roadblocks and obstacles. We run a series of experiments to strengthen our understanding of cause and effect and validate which countermeasures effectively move the dial and achieve measureable results. This cycle of learning and discovery (referred to as PDCA – Plan-Do-Check- Adjust) is a process that is frequently repeated until it becomes embedded into daily work routines. Although it seems straightforward and relatively simple, it is wickedly difficult to accomplish!

Figure 2 illustrates the PDCA cycle – an educational cycle of trial and discovery. The initial step of the process is Plan which starts with going and seeing where the work is performed in order to fully understand the current situation from the perspective of customers, end users, and those doing the work. Emphasis is placed on facts (data) over opinion and discovering potential obstacles that threaten the attainment of a target state (where we need to be in terms of quality, delivery time, productivity, cost, and customer satisfaction). As we tighten our grasp of the situation, we develop experiments to validate our understanding.

In the Do phase, we run the experiment and compare outcomes with our expectations. Again, we place an emphasis on measuring what matters most to customers, end users and those doing the work. In Check, we reflect on the results of the experiment and learn. If the results are what we anticipated, we have validated our understanding of cause and effect and demonstrated that the countermeasures intended to spark improvements actually work! If the results show a gap still exists, then we still do not fully understand, and need to consider alternative approaches.

Finally, in the Adjust phase, we determine our next step on what we learned during Check. If we have identified a working solution, we make it part of the standard work process. On the other hand, if we have not discovered an approach that gets us to where we need to be, we enter another cycle of learning and discovering by repeating the PDCA sequence. The cycle is repeated until we attain the results required.

The power of PDCA or lean problem solving is in its scalability, neutrality, and methodology. PDCA works well with relatively simple challenges as well as complex enterprise-level problems. It is domain neutral and functions effectively in any discipline, be it IT, supply chain, finance, manufacturing, service, healthcare, science, or other fields. The structured methodology supports a way of thinking and mental framework of how we approach problems that drive higher quality analysis and more effective responses.

So where does technology fit into lean IT? The answer may surprise you: it fits in last! First we engage the people and provide the tools, training, and support they need to drive improvement to core business processes. Those people in turn focus on the process to enhance quality at the source and flow of value to end users and customers. Then and only then, do we implement new technology and/or reconfigure our current systems to enable and automate redesigned processes that focus primarily on effectiveness.

This is not easy work, but the payoff creates new levels of performance, a cultural shift, and a competitive advantage that are almost impossible to match. Happy people do great work. When people experience the positive feeling of solving problems at the root cause level (rather than repeatedly working around chronic problems), they experience radical shifts in performance, personal growth, and teamwork. When they have the tools and information they need to succeed, that’s where the magic happens. When it comes to technology, it starts with quality at the source and that means accurate, complete, and timely data.

If you want to succeed, data quality is not an option, it’s a necessity. The quality of your data will determine the quality of your information, which plays the defining role in the quality of your work. Lead with respect by creating work systems and processes that produce great work!

So Now What?

So what can you do to effectively address data quality problems and leverage lean IT to extract greater value from SAP?

Learn: start your lean IT journey by reading our first book Lean IT, Enabling and Sustaining Your Lean Transformation, and by pre-ordering the “How To” book The Lean IT Field Guide (available November 2015). Pre-order the book here.

Connect: engage with your employees by going to where the work is done to better understand the challenges they are experiencing and to see things from their perspective.

Involve: introduce lean process improvements by applying the PDCA cycle of experimentation.

Automate: only after you have engaged your people and improved core work processes, should you consider new technology and/or reconfiguration to automate and streamline newly improved processes.

As we discussed earlier, lean IT is all about engaging people, improving processes, and leveraging technology – always in that order. The sooner you begin to address the issue of data quality, the sooner you begin to realize the impact of high-quality actionable information.