Degrees of Pressure

Here is a response I gave to a question issued over on the Lean Edge. The question pertains to highlighting problems and increased pressure on workers

I am not sure that this particular question is really about “Lean”. I think this is mainly a question about performance in general and why certain groups excel in the long run while others slowly enter the gravitational field of decay. In the following paragraphs I’ll offer up some general perspective on what I consider the reality facing most organizations, describe various degrees of pressure, and highlight what successful organizations tend to do.

For starters let’s reflect on various situations in life in general and step back from the whole “Lean” term. As I often jokingly point out “Lean” is a four letter word that rhymes with “Mean”.  Could we pick a worse name in terms of negative connotation?

Most readers of this site can probably relate to sports, academic achievement, and organizational performance. Of course there are large differences between these fields however there are some very relevant similarities as well when it comes to the topic of pressure. A key similarity is that in competitive situations we “keep score” somehow as a way to measure success and provide feedback real time. In sports of course there is 1) a championship at stake, 2) records of wins and losses are kept, 3) there is a score at the end of every game, and there is a score kept during each game. Because there is an end goal and a scoring mechanism there is some resulting pressure which is usually self-induced. Without a score there is not much interest in the game or outcome. It would merely be an exhibition at best or indifferent practice.

In academic life there are some interesting parallels for students. They are not professional athletes and students often have to pay large sums of money to study at top institutes. In these situations there is 1) a goal of graduation with top honors, 2) a report card for each period leading up to graduation, 3) a report card for every student in each class at the end of the semester or quarter, and 4) scores on tests and homework assignments giving you an idea of performance at the moment. Without tests or grades you will not get the same level of effort or achievement in most cases (exceptions of course exist!). We would be back at the indifferent practice level for most people.

In any organization that has to compete some form of score is kept and regular feedback is provided as well. Scoring at the financial level is dictated and not really an option in many cases just like it is not up to the participants in sports or students to decide how they want to be scored. In an organization of course there are many types of goals and metrics kept. Organizations strive for 1) some type of market or brand leadership position, growth, customer service and profits. Otherwise you won’t be in business in the long run. 2) Organizations report financial and operational metrics like cost, quality, delivery, safety, etc. at prescribed intervals for regulatory purposes and internal needs. 3) Most organizations keep more frequently updated monthly and weekly metrics as well in order to manage performance. And 4) most organizations believe it is both respectful and vital to provide feedback and development to individuals in terms of performance.

In this latter regard my time spent at Toyota was quite remarkable. Of course the company kept financial and operational metrics. One thing they were noted for in a distinctive sense was in the area of providing real time feedback on performance in production. The production plan was clear each day and “plan” versus “actual” performance was measured real time. This mechanism caused employees to understand more clearly when things were on plan or when there was a problem. In other ways this plan versus actual spirit was mirrored in terms of quality and other important areas. Did I personally feel any “pressure” from this type of management? Yes I did however the result was positive and not a negative one. It drove a spirit of creative challenge and had nothing to do with dreary meetings to exhortations or to read and standardized work charts. Let me fist explain by clarifying what I term as the “Degrees of Pressure” below.

Some organizations exhibit what I term as either apathy or complacency. You might argue there is no pressure in these companies however I don’t really believe it. Companies with these employee or management attitudes are normally rife with problems and dissatisfied customers. The organization either is not aware or rejects the claims and does not address real problems. The seeds for eventual decline however are already planted in these organizations. It is just a matter of time and what the competition does.

In the worst cases the companies which exhibit apathy and complacency eventually experience decay and fall into the orbit of extreme problems and extreme pressure. Because they did not measure performance in a way that lead to problem awareness and action on the root causes of problems they get into truly uncomfortable situations. Now the twin problems of stress and fear come into play in very negative ways.  This is the price paid for not solving vital problems early enough.

I don’t like either case of apathy and complacency or the hard edge of stress and fear. That level of pressure (weak or strong) does not work very well in the long run. In the middle is what I call healthy and ordinary pressure. This level of feedback on actual daily performance combined with comparison to some meaningful standard (not just standardize work charts) highlights problems. With awareness and purposeful urgency people are more likely to take action to fix causes and prevent them from recurring. This level of “pressure” if you want to call it that is quite healthy and useful in life. Without out you run the risk of hiding from problems and then entering into the orbit of protracted decay. Some organizations never recover once in this orbit and people lose jobs, etc. That in my opinion is real stress and something to be avoided.

A few closing quotes also come to mind on this topic. In Toyota it was often commented that without standards (basis for comparison and feedback) there could be no kaizen or improvement. I very much agree with this statement and reality of life. Thomas A. Edison insisted that “necessity was the mother of every invention”. Notice that he did not say that complacency or apathy was the mother of every invention! The great UCLA head basketball coach John Wooden won 10 NCAA championships in basketball in a twelve year period – a feat that has never been duplicated. Coach Wooden was known to tell players “be quick but do not hurry”. We have to embody that fundamental spirit in our jobs and problem solving routines if we want to be successful. Andy Grove the former CEO of Intel Corporation commented that “only the paranoid survived” in the competitive arena of his industry. I agree to the extent that by paranoid we mean healthy levels of awareness and purposeful urgency as I outlined above. Lastly Albert Einstein commented that “repeating the same process over and over and hoping for better results” was tantamount to insanity. In other words with no measurement and no corresponding change in methods improved results would not occur. Just following standardized work is not enough. In that sense I put forth that organizations which don’t respect employees enough to involve them meaningfully in work by use of standards, plan versus actual, feedback, problem solving and coaching are indeed “insane” and likely candidates for decaying into mediocre performance at best and eventual decay. The choice is up the company regarding what type of “pressure” they want to face in the long run.