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  • Writer's pictureTilo Schwarz

Making Smaller Steps Part 1/2

by Tilo Schwarz | Tips for the Kata Coach | Episode 23

Ever struggled with the next step being too big and taking lots of time before we can see the outcome? Not a good situation for progressing by experiment and finding a path in unknown territory. In this and the following episode, I would like to continue discussing this challenging situation for the coach.

Imagine asking your Improver, "what is, therefore, your next step?". As you hear the answer, you get more and more worried. Your brain tells you: This will take a long time to conduct! You hit the brakes and hesitate to ask about expectations and due date.

Sometimes, in a situation like that, the actual problem is not the time it takes to conduct a step. Changing the process, getting a new tool or getting a new data entry mask programmed, can take some time, and there is no way around it. What really worries us is the uncertainty, whether that is the right step. What if we spent all the time and budget, conduct the step, and then find out it's not working?

In one of the early episodes, we discussed the concept of the "five phases of a coaching cycle" with the Coaching Kata questions being the stepping stones or quality gates. One of the tips was: If a coaching cycle gets difficult, the cause often lies in the previous phase. Realizing that the next step might take too long and feeling uncertain if it's the right step at all often happens in phase four of a coaching cycle.

This episode takes us back into phase 3 to discuss how we can prepare for better steps before going to phase four. Usually, this will lead to several small steps until we end up at the experiment that involves implementing a solution and therefore takes time.

Task for the Coach: When reading this episode, take notes about the tips and tricks you find to help prepare for better steps already in Phase 3.


Episode #23

Over the Christmas holidays, Denise went to work for two days. She had the habit of using the quiet days between the years for her ‘Christmas cleanup’ as she called it. Denise emptied her email in-box, sorted the files on her Laptop, and threw away what was no longer needed.

When the cleanup was complete, Denise took out the notebook she called ‘My Personal Management Handbook’. She used this book to take notes about her learnings during the year, especially from the coaching cycles with her team leaders. Denise browsed through the pages and reflected on the notes she had taken over the past year.

For Phase 3 of a coaching cycle, investigating the Obstacles, Denise realized she had written a lot. Flipping back and forth in her notebook Denise counted seven deepening questions that she regularly used when coaching. She opened a new page in her notebook and started to put these question into an order.

(1) Which process parameters influence the [process metric]?

(2) Which unwanted effect on the [process metric] occurs?

(3) Where does the problem occur?

(4) When does the problem occur?

(5) What exactly happens (in the process), for the problem to occur?

(6) How should the process run correctly?

(7) How can we reproduced / simulated [the problem]?

Then Denise started thinking in which questions these situations had been helpful How about the first question, she pondered: Which process parameters influence the [process metric]?

Denise often used this question when the person she was coaching didn’t come up with specific Obstacles. "We are not reaching the target for the process metric" or "the process is very unstable" were typical examples.

The deepening question about the parameter was very helpful in this case. Sometimes she used a simplified version by asking: “What influences the process metric?” In most cases, that question revealed the threshold of knowledge, and the next step was to take a closer look at the influencing factors.

Denise remembered a coaching cycle with Mark. It was about reducing the set-up time at a particular workplace when switching between products. In her mind, Denise recapped the conversation.

Denise: "Mark, what Obstacles are preventing you from reaching the Target Condition?"

Mark: "The set-up time is just too long."

Denise: “Which process parameters influence the set-up time?”

This had led to a closer observation of the set-up process by Mark. As a result, he had divided the total set-up time into four steps. Mark had sketched those steps in a block diagram and noted the time for each of them underneath (see Figure 2). The overall set-up time was equal to the sum of the individual times for each step.

Of course, the time for each step varied. Mark had done another observation measuring several cycles. This allowed him to create a run chart for each step. In the end, he had added the average time for each step into his block diagram.

Denise went through her list of deepening questions for phase 3 again. She realized that she often used the 6th question on the list, as well.

How should the process run correctly?

Or in a more general setting: - What should happen correctly? - What would you like to happen here?

In the situation with Mark, that had led him to develop a desired sequence of steps for the set-up process. He had sketched another block diagram with the times needed for each step to meet the Target-Condition.

Denise realized that she often used these two questions as a tandem. Especially whenever they started working on a new Target Condition. Comparing the current process pattern with the desired process pattern made Obstacles visible. Often that led to eliminating certain steps or re-arranging the order in which steps were conducted. Focusing on one change at a time made discussing the Obstacles a lot easier and very specific.

In Mark’s case, with the set-up time, he intended to have everything needed for the set-up prepared before the changeover started rather than when the machine had stopped.

Comparing current and desired pattern for a process made it easy to see where obstacles needed to be removed to run the process in the desired sequence.

Denise realized another approach for identifying obstacles. Comparing the differences between the actual and desired time needed for each step indicated which steps had to be improved time-wise. Denise often used the second question on her list to dig deeper in that direction:

Which unwanted effect on the [process metric] occurs?

When discussing that she had the obstacle formula in her mind:

Obstacle = Unwanted Effect x Cause.

The difference between the time currently needed for the step and the desired time being the ‘unwanted effect’. Their first description of an Obstacle in that case often was something like ‘Step 3 takes 12 seconds too long’. Of course, that was not exactly an Obstacle but helped the Improver analyze the process in more detail. One level deeper as Denise often thought of it. This was a great way of applying the ‘Zoom In’ trick (see Episode 15). Denise smiled and thought: ‘Whenever we don’t know, we have to zoom in.’

Zooming in often led to defining a smaller next Target Condition, like a sub Target Condition to the original Target Condition, Denise remembered. Exactly what had happened in Mark’s case with his Target Condition of reducing the set-up time.

As a first sub Target Condition, he had worked on preparing everything needed for the set-up before the line was stopped. The total set-up time became the outcome metric. The process metric was how often team members had to leave the machine during the actual set-up to get tools or perform activities that they could have prepared.

After reaching that Target Condition, Mark had worked on reducing the time for removing the fixtures needed for the previous product.

Next he worked on time needed to mount the fixtures for the new product. Right now Mark worked on reducing the time needed to adjust the parameters until the first good product was produced.

The time needed for the specific process step Mark was working always became the process metric for each Target Condition. The outcome metric, however, always stayed the same, the total time needed for set-up.

Denise remembered another situation she had used the ‘Zoom In’ technique. That was when Mark had been working on reducing the time for removing the previously used tools and fixtures. As a result, he had found the following sequence of steps:

‘Get wrench’, ‘Remove first tool’, ‘Remove 2nd tool’, ‘Remove glue from nozzle’, and ‘empty material feeders’. Once again, he had sketched the current pattern and defined the desired pattern. By comparing the time differences for each step, he had recognized the areas to work on.

Flipping through her notebook again, Denise also realized that she had often asked about the ‘unwanted effect’ whenever her Improvers quickly jumped to assumptions and countermeasures. Denise remembered a coaching cycle with Joe in which this had been especially helpful. At the time, Joe was working on reducing the time needed for attaching the housing.

Denise: "Joe, what Obstacles prevent you from reaching the Target Condition of 50 seconds to mount the housing?"

Joe: "The problem is that we do not have electric screwdrivers with torque monitoring. With the current air powered screwdrivers, we are never sure if the screws are tightened correctly. Therefore team members always go for a second round on all screws, and that takes a lot of time."

When Denise had asked about the ‘unwanted effect’ of tightening the screws a second time, Joe had reached his threshold of knowledge. Denise and Joe had agreed on observing the process more closely to determine the loss of time caused by the repeated tightening of the screws.

In doing so, Joe had noticed that re-tightening did not take place as often as he had thought. Much more time was lost by inserting the screws into the holes and positioning the lid.

Asking about the ‘unwanted effect’ of an Obstacle often guided the Improver to a more detailed observation of the process. That was usually enough to get back on track, from jumping to conclusions to analyzing the root cause.

Reflecting further on the ‘unwanted effect’ Denise noticed another pattern she had recognized in her coaching cycles. Whenever the ‘unwanted effect’ of an Obstacle was unclear, asking about the expectation regarding the next step, question 4, often led to rough estimates. Definitely not a specific and measurable expectation. In the beginning, she had been easy going. Especially when her Improvers were undertaking only small changes in their processes.

However, this meant that her team leaders preferred trial and error when an experiment was easy to conduct and only needed a little budget. They tended to analyze the cause of an Obstacle rather superficially and preferred to start implementing their ideas immediately.

This also often meant that they forgot to measure the effect of their idea on the process indicator during the experiment. It either worked or, more often, didn't.

That led Denise to develop a habit of always first determining the ‘unwanted effect’ of an Obstacle before starting to remove it. Or from the coaches' perspective, to use question two on her list: “Which unwanted effect on the process metric occurs?”

Denise remembered a coaching cycle with Michael when he had joined the team. At that time, Michael had worked on reducing the time for attaching a muffler.

Denise: "Michael, what Obstacles are preventing you from reaching the Target Condition?" Michael: "Attaching the muffler simply takes too long."

Denise: "And what exactly is the problem?" Michael: "The muffler often gets stuck when we try to attach it. I think that is caused by the way the team members put the muffler on the tube. If they place it at an angle, it jams and cannot be put on all the way. Then it has to be loosened and completely removed. And then they have to start all over again. That takes a lot of time." Denise: "So what's your next step?" Michael: "I'll discuss with the team how the muffler can be attached without problems. Maybe we need a special fixture for that." Denise: "And what do you expect?" Michel:" That we can attach the muffler without any problems. That would be a lot faster."

Denise: "What does that mean in numbers?" Michael: "I think that we can easily win 30 to 40 seconds here."

☞ Pause for a moment and consider:

· What is the problem with Michael's answer?

· Where did the problem start in the coaching cycle?

· What mistake did Denise make as a coach?

At this point in the coaching cycle, Denise had noticed that Michael’s expectation was based on assumption. Both, cause and ‘unwanted effect’ of the Obstacle, were unclear, and therefore, Michael could not come up with a precise expectation. Denise had realized that she had jumped too fast to asking question four about the next step. That was where the problem had started.

In the coaching cycle, realizing that, Denise had gone back and asked Michael again.

Denise: "What is the ‘unwanted effect’ of jamming the muffler on your process metric?” Michael: "I do not know exactly, but at least 30 to 40 seconds, I would say." Denise had ignored the estimate and continued: "Don’t worry if you don’t know. What is, therefore, your next step to find out?" Michael: "Well, I have to take a closer look at the process and measure the time we need when the muffler jams compared to the time when it attaches easily."

Looking back, Denise realized that they had ended up with taking a step exactly at the threshold of knowledge. That’s how it should be. Checking on that was a good trick for the coach, Denise thought.

The next step should always match the threshold of knowledge.

As Denise wrote that trick into her notebook, two examples came to her mind. She noted them as well.

Scenario 1: Obstacles are unclear. The Improver wants to do something arbitrarily.

Scenario 2: Cause and effect of the obstacle addressed are unclear. The Improver immediately wants to change something and jumps to a quick solution based on assumption.

☞ Pause for a moment and consider:

· Locate both scenarios on the Kata Cycle (Episode 12)

· What type of experiments is the Improver proposing in these scenarios? (see Episode 10 for the 3 types of experiments)

· What type of experiment should be conducted in each of the scenarios?

· How would you react as a Coach for each scenario?

Denise starts writing into her notebook again.

Helpful questions for scenario 1:

· Specific: Which obstacle are you addressing with [proposed next step]? Trick for the Coach: Go back to Obstacle

· General: Which process parameters influence the [Process Metric]?

Helpful questions for scenario 2:

· Which unwanted effect on [Process Metric] does [Obstacle addressed] have?

Trick for the Coach: Effect first

· What exactly is the problem with [Obstacle addressed] Trick for the Coach: Go back to Obstacle + Root Cause Funnel

With these deepening questions the Coach could help the Improver to clarify the threshold of knowledge regarding obstacles, effect, cause or solution, and plan a next step to find out rather than taking a trial and error approach or jumping to conclusions too quickly.

Denise remembers how the coaching cycle with Michael had continued.

Denise: "And what do you expect?" Michael: "That we can attach the muffler faster."

☞ Pause for a moment and consider: What is the problem with Michael's answer in this case?

Next week we’ll review which tricks Denise uses are helpful for preparing better steps already in phase 3 of a coaching cycle. Stay tuned and bring your notes form this episode.

If you like this post, forward it to a friend or colleague right now because they will appreciate getting helpful tips from you.



For new readers: Every week, I share hands-on tips for coaching with the Coaching Kata. This episode is part of a series of articles about Denise, who has taken on her first management position as a department manager at PowerPump Inc. Denise intends to develop her team through coaching. Read Episode 1 to get into the story.

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