Shooting the breeze, patterns & case-by-case (#20)

First up, an apology for the diehards amongst you who persist in reading this blog. A month has passed since I last rambled publicly, an interval caused by picking up a couple of new clients and a working trip to Japan with another client (More on that next time). On the plus side my self-shredded piriformis continues to heal up nicely. Today's blog is about the trapdoor of trying to do lean-transformation-by-numbers.

I've been reflecting on a conversation I recently had with a client, we'll call him Jim to protect the innocent-ish. Jim owns and runs a small manufacturing group turning over £8m and is, in the best way possible, a character.

In conversation with people like Jim I used to skip over the niceties or early chatter to get to the point. My reasoning being that their time is scarce and they're paying handsomely for my time so I'd best add "lean" value with every word. It took a long time to grasp that sometimes they just want to shoot the breeze and reflect openly with someone leak-proof and agenda-free, and that this constituted value way beyond lean transformation guidance. Now I tend to relax into these conversations and add value a different way to these people occupying lonely spots in the working world.

Jim's opening gambit was "everything I've read in books and was taught about business was wrong". My ears perked up at this point as Jim runs, after a rocky start, a successful and growing business. He went on to explain that he followed none of the business book recipes (as his situation was always different to the one in the book). Instead, he allowed the knowledge to soak in and then did what felt right. This, of course, is what Toyota have been telling us all along "Understand our approach in the fullest sense and then do what's right, not what we do" ...and this, as it turns out, is how I make a living.

"Do what's right" is exactly what Jim meant. The prime skill is in diagnosing which ailments in the business to address first. Writing the correct prescription, whilst important, follows later. This makes perfect sense when I consider every one of the businesses I've supported. They have different histories, customers, shareholder desires, contexts, products, processes, skills capabilities, market challenges etc and can't be treated as copies of each other.

A fortnight ago, unable to sleep, I turned on the TV in Japan to watch a baseball game that had started an hour previously, between two teams I didn't know. I knew nothing about league position, batter/pitcher/fielder skill, intention of the coach, franchise aims, strategic nous, the opposition. I could see that the bases were loaded with two batters out, but this only informs the immediate, obvious problem. You have to understand the context before defining a path out of the darkness.

During the darkest days with my Toyota sensei it felt like "case-by-case" was the only English phrase he knew. I was tired, desperately seeking clear guidance and in no mood to appreciate the benefits of learning to think clearly.

The good news: It gets easier over time as repeating patterns reveal themselves, but with this prize comes the danger of cognitive bias (especially confirmation bias). Anyhow, in deference to Andrew and Steph who helpfully point out the weaknesses in my blogs, here's the point:

1) If you're a lean queen like me, it's ok to be led in conversation by whoever is running the show. By letting them speak freely you're still adding value.

2) If you're running the show, don't trust a lean queen who offers you an off the shelf solution. Copy and paste rarely works sustainably. They should be willing to spend an hour or two understanding context and challenges, before walking around the business, before talking proposals and solutions.

3) If you're running the show, find someone you can trust outside of the reporting structure and "open the kimono" but test them thoroughly before you do.

Have a good weekend. I hope that, come Monday, we're still a part of the World if not Europe.


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