From the Fish Bowl to the Ocean and Back

This week has been a huge success in Lean thinking and “P”, in Plan Do Check Act.  So many different events have occurred spanning an array of topics.  I’ve been involved with identifying takt time, mentorship to empower value creators, identifying muda and one opportunity that is frequent where I work but I gave it a different spin.  In this discussion I will focus on the different spin and the organizational challenges presented last week and the perspective that the ocean has revealed, not necessarily in that order.

I will start with the perspective of being able to see a bigger picture (ocean), something that I feel is inherent in lean thinking.  A lean thinker or manager needs to be an innovator, someone that knows how to focus but more important take the blinders off and widen your focus.  Most people in all walks of life want better, a better paycheck, a better car, a better job, and a better anything.  Without giving much thought we all have the internal aptitude for kaizen, striving for continual improvement and perfection.  But don’t quit your day job just yet, there is vast difference in aptitude and fortitude.

In my career I have been exposed to the lowest and highest levels of leadership and organization in the Army.  The revelation for me in jumping out of the fish bowl and into the ocean was when I moved from one specific unit to the next, against my will I should add.  I called my assignment manager and begged not to go to this unit because in my words I told her “it wouldn’t be a challenge.”  This was my inexperience and lower level thinking where I gained invaluable experience and thought I knew better.  Kind of like when we were new teenagers and knew better than our parents, “what do they know they are old and don’t understand.”  Being in the Army my displeasure and protest proved to be absolutely fruitless and low and behold, I moved to that new assignment (kicking and screaming the whole way).  This assignment was an incredibly higher level organization than anything I ever experienced, so while I thought a challenge would be absent I was all too naïve.  The challenge presented was like all character shaping events we don’t solicit, I now needed to learn to remove my narrow microscope and see how I can now actually influence a much larger spectrum.  I was given the opportunity to see waste that impacted many organizations, not just one, and how I was able to practice lean concepts before I knew that is what I was doing.  I learned how to learn and facilitate kaizen from the top down.

This was definitely one of my most rewarding assignments, “mom” did know best and come to find out I had no idea what I was talking about when I said there wasn’t a challenge.  Luckily for me (again not knowing the gift before me) I moved to another assignment even higher up the echelon.  The learning curve this time was exponential, like skipping from fifth grade to graduate school.  My focus was forcibly pulled open so wide that any hint of light burned my retina.  I had no idea that people had to concern themselves with processes that affect tens-of-thousands of people, with catastrophic and worse outcome if done carelessly.  This is truly where I learned to swim among the largest fish in the ocean; the decision influencers and makers that can change and shape the world, literally.  I learned what strategic and innovative truly are, but nothing is perfect so I got to see the obstacles.  Nonetheless, the biggest take away is there is a huge world out there and you aren’t the fulcrum or axis.

I tell you this and relate it to seeing waste from different levels of perspective to contrast how I learned to swim in the ocean to only be removed and put back in a fish bowl.  My fish bowl is a complex paradox, our breadth of value provision is vast and our level of understanding of the bigger picture is contrary.  Most everyone in my organization is very junior in their knowledge and experience, which isn’t a ding to them personally but a reflection on the human element involved.  It is my opinion thus far that we lack the insight and innovation around to contemplate lean thinking and why it would pay dividends to our customers and ourselves.  We are conditioned to march to a beat provided us, and most haven’t learned to play the drums and write their own music.  In today’s world and military we need people that have exposure and experience, people that know where we’ve been and most important where we need to go.  Outside of the normal rhythm of traditional concepts, lean needs to become a sought after skill in leaders of all echelons in the military.  We need to be able to humble ourselves and accept that where we are isn’t perfect and nobody yet everybody is to blame.  Our leaders need to challenge status quo and be willing to walk the gemba daily and put their neck on the line to remove the waste.  This is the only way to provide true value to our customer, my customer; the people who kill bad guys around the world.

To wrap this up my last point is about a frequent event in my organization that I put a little spin on recently.  Our customers often visit our site and receive a high level “this is who we are” PowerPoint brief and site tour.  What I feel is lacking is the true intent and value of these meetings.  Everyone agrees they are ultimately for collaboration between customer and provider, in which I echo the sentiment.  But I feel they can reveal deeper value from the customer perspective.  This is lean thinking objective number one, specify the value provided from the customer point of view.  While in the room full of customers their senior representative asked us what he can do to help?  I chimed in and flipped the question around, I asked him what our organization is producing that is valuable to him and his organization?  I told him don’t hastily answer but rather reflect and give me candid feedback.  I told him I want to know what it is he would pay for and what he wouldn’t pay for.  In the world of providing value we are only in it for one true objective, make our customers want to continue doing business with us.  While I did receive some feedback I hope my question resonates and causes some restless nights to both him and us.

We need to start thinking this way every opportunity we get, in our daily operations and especially when we interface in our own backyard with our customers.  What do they consider valuable and how are we providing it?  Mapping the value stream based on feedback is the next crucial step, then we identify and remove muda, create a pull flow and practice kaizen.

It is going to take more than one!

Author: TheLeanArmy

I am a student of Lean, on the journey and most challenging opportunity to introduce and implement Lean principles and thinking in my portion of the United States Army. * Completely unofficial and all information is my sole opinion, not endorsed by the government and for personal use.

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