Apologies and Prayers from Customer Service

Customer Service Representative: "We can pray." Customer (me): "What?"!!!!!!!!

Customer Service Representative: "Well, I'm sorry.  It seems that I can't track your package all the way to your house."

Me: "That's because it is not at my house."

Him: "Yes, I know.  I can track it right up to Chicago and then....."

Me: "It is in the bottom of a deep,black hole."

Him: "Exactly!  So, you can see now why I have nothing left to offer but apologies and prayers."

Me: "Grrrrrrrr, ummmmmmmmm, ..."

And so it went for me and many others as the last 48 hours before Christmas 2013 counted down.  Who knew that thousands of customers were clutching phones connected to sleep deprived Customer Service Representatives, hoping that what they were hearing couldn't possibly be true: "I am so sorry but no, it won't be there in time for Christmas."  The Representative assigned to me, the one with the strange, sarcastic sense of humor, was just icing on the cake for me.

Disappointment, frustration and  more disappointment.  I couldn't believe that I had let this happen.  Sure, I ordered the gift two weeks before Christmas but I thought that was a very cushy, no worries lead time.  The promised arrival date came and went but I was extremely busy with work, family holiday things and ordering other gifts with really iffy delivery promises.  Bottom line--I didn't check to see where the gift was until it was too late.  It was all my fault.

Later, I learned it wasn't just one thing that tipped the Missed Delivery Boat but many factors.  I am morbidly curious to know what went on behind the scenes; so many systems, processes and variables, colliding.  At some point, I realized my interest had gone over the line when I started using newspaper articles to put together a "what could have happened" fishbone diagram.  That's just not right.  I blame it on the side of me that works passionately to eliminate on-time-delivery issues (as a part of my profession).

As I put the fishbone away,  I  thought of the one gift that didn't make it to my house and the one guy that was willing to represent his company and the snafus that were happening across an entire order to delivery system.  Words are inadequate here.  Willing isn't strong enough-he showed courage.  Represent isn't even close.  He showed respect for me as a customer for telling me the truth as he knew it and listening openly to every word I said.

He showed grace to suggest some way that his customer could spend the hours before Christmas with a hopeful heart.  Now I know that his communication was not sarcastic at all.  I also believe that he took a moment to pray for my package to arrive at my house before Santa.

Even though the gift was late, my husband swears it was worth the wait.  Lucky for me but we sure don't want to depend on that goodwill. [contact-form][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][contact-field label='Website' type='url'/][contact-field label='Comment' type='textarea' required='1'/][/contact-form]

One Small Voice

I have been struggling lately with the value of blogging--not everyone, just me.  There is so much out there already that I have justified my reluctance with many good reasons (or excuses maybe). See what you think of these: 1) How can people wade through the thousands of blogs on topics related to the Toyota Production System (TPS) to find my one small voice?

2) What do I have to say that is unique in the world of continuous improvement?

3) I am not a promoter of me, so I don't know how people would even know that what I share comes from any unique experience?

4) As the professional me developed, my mentors encouraged humility, self-reflection, responsibility to play a position for the organization vs. a personal role for career developmentturtle

…and the list goes on.  These concepts connected with me and now I see blogging as an activity that goes against my grain.  Right?

As I consider my so-called reasons they do look more like excuses--if I consider the intent of blogging.  There are probably as many reasons for blogging as there are bloggers. But, I think I have finally found the reason that might get me to post to my blog on a more regular basis (as my boss has so kindly requested).

First, I have been lucky to learn the Toyota Production System from mentors who worked with Mr. Ohno, the official developer of TPS.  As I have learned-by-doing from them I see that TPS is unique.  These mentors took their time, energy and a bit of their own sanity to pass some level of competency to me.  It is my responsibility to do the same.  Often when I feel that my sanity is a bit touch-and-go on a project, I am reminded of my duty and passion to pay-it-forward.

Second, I learned an important lesson from one of my early mentors while I was working at the Toyota Supplier Support System (TSSC) that sticks with me today.  After leading a workshop with top executives, I was visibly disappointed.  I didn’t like my boss to see me like that because I felt he deserved managers who could stand up to the challenges of helping others see the light (not much humility there).  Nonetheless there I was with my private pain when he appeared.  He often stopped by for casual conversation at the end of the day, but I think this time was telepathic.

We reflected about the workshop.  It took approximately 95 seconds for him to ask if I felt that we had been successful.  I looked at him as if he had 3 heads and told him NO.  His next question was why.  Well, I thought, he is a smart person so what is he trying to get me to discover.

I searched my mind-vault and came up with the first thing I saw; a group of leaders who weren't convinced that TPS would work for them.   After sharing this with my boss, he shook his head politely and asked the next question; "How many people out of 25 did you expect to be convinced through this experience?"  His question stumped me but I finally came out with a rough guess of 10.  He looked surprised so I asked him the same question and his answer was 1.  I couldn't believe it. Why would we put so much time and energy into a workshop if we only expected 1 conversion?  He explained that people who are "convinced" in a workshop are either miraculously in the right place at the right time or their epiphany won't stand up beyond the enthusiasm of the training experience.

I still didn't get it. Why all the effort? He patiently explained that if we really do convince 1 top leader, that means that all the people in the company will benefit.  He asked if that was enough benefit for me and I responded, "of course". He looked at me with yet another challenge in his eyes and shared that the 1 audience member was not even the whole, real reason we invested our energy.  What in the world could it be? "You" he said, "the development of you and our team".

Okay, humility aside, I have had unique mentors and experiences.  I continue to have them now.  So, I have decided to blog on, with my one, small voice.  I will hope each time to reach at least one person who is hungry to learn what I have to share.

Lesa Nichols June 19, 2013

It takes a lot to see

091211_cellphoneI remember when I couldn't see much either,and sometimes it's still hard for me. I remember the first time we tried to see together. Now that was really hard.

You, hiding behind your cell phone to avoid interacting with me. We can laugh about it now, but I wasn't smiling then.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - assumptions are seriously dangerous. I assumed you thought you were too busy to be wasting time looking around the shop floor.

I know better now. You work hard at what you do and it's not easy once you have reached the top to let people see what you don't know. So it was easier to hide - behind the phone, in your office...

But now you have a different view; More open to explore the operations with respectful questions and genuine interest.

We walk together now, stopping to see, what's needed for people to excel at what they do. I see you are proud of the people here making products that are filled with value.

And all the unseen improvements that have made the customers happy and coming back for more. No need to hide now, you can put your cell phone in your pocket and lean in to get a better look at how the work is done.

Focused, intent, curious... we almost bump heads. We see a lot more - and better too now that we are looking and listening, together for the barriers in the way of adding value so we can break through them, one by one.

Who knew "seeing" could be so much fun?

Overcoming the Mystery of Gemba Walks

During my many years in Toyota’s 'TPS' world, I never heard the term Gemba.  What I did hear was “Go and See” and “Genchi Genbutsu”.  So what is the difference and does it matter?

Genchi Genbutsu

This is Toyota’s term for what the rest of the world knows as Gemba.

First, the pronunciation:

*Gen (as in 'again')


*Gen (same as before)
*but (as in 'boot', not 'butt')
*su (as in 'sue')

Second, what does it mean?  In English, it has been diluted to “Go and See”.  But the key question is go to see what?  We are going to see the reality that is happening- the “genjitsu”.  The words are limiting so don't get caught up in them - for example, the original Japanese means “the real spot, the real thing” and doesn't in any way say to “go” do anything.  It is implied. 

Perhaps a better explanation is go... and observe.  (It's hard to tell, I was once told that there are more than 40 words for “look” in Japanese.)   The words compel me to try to understand how to deeply observe the real work being done in the real worksite.  More importantly perhaps is to consider, when I am there, what am I trying to find?

I am certainly not a Japanese language specialist but my interpretation of this concept is Go with Intention to where the real work is done and observe deeply what is actually happening.

Third, the most important thing to me is to show respect to the people doing the actual work and not fall into the trap of being a tourist looking around generally without some idea of what I expect to see. 

So, how do you do this?  This is the million dollar question Hundreds of books have been written on this topic. Common advice is to pick a theme: 5S, inventory management, cells and flow, value streams, employee involvement, etc.  All of this is interesting but I would offer that it is more important to know what you want to accomplish.  Of course, this varies depending on your role in the organization.

If you happen to be a member of top management with considerable decision making authority, I would ask you where is YOUR biggest source of pain?  Is there a way that you can show it to me in the worksite?  Let’s go there, where the work is done, with a sense of curiosity and ask the people doing the work, what is THEIR pain?  Listen and observe carefully, ask respectful, thoughtful questions and take some notes of the key things that make an impression.  Then back off to examine the connections between your pain and your employees' pain.  When we have some ideas about that, try to figure out what you can do to help them get their jobs done with less pain.  Good for the people, good for you and most importantly, good for the customer. 

There are various techniques to asking good questions and to grasp what is happening in the worksite without being tourists.  At the management level, we have a responsibility to break through barriers so the organization can move at the speed you expect.

So, before you hit the worksite, ask yourself - "what do I need to accomplish with this walk?  How will I know if it is successful?" And then, you'll know : )

Best Regards,
(Comments welcome, don't be shy)

"Which Do You Prefer, Coach?"

This week I was working at a client site with a newly formed team of future coaches. This was the second meeting in a series of several aimed at developing coaching skills and TPS know-how.

During a break in the action on our first day, I sat quietly with a member of the team named Kevin, enjoying a companionable silence. I was taking a few moments to clear my head so I could direct our “learn by doing” efforts without allowing head-based learning to idle our hands.

When Kevin spoke, I wasn’t surprised to hear his voice but rather, his words were startling. His question was simple - what did I preferred to be called; a teacher, trainer or maybe something else. I responded that I saw myself as more of a coach. I didn’t have to explain much more before I noticed a light of recognition in his eyes. He quickly shared that my answer made a lot of sense to him. He pointed out that I was working with them at the worksite so that they could become coaches too.

He then asked if I had a preference for working with people new to TPS or fairly seasoned. I replied that the “seasoned learners” were a bit easier because they already had pretty strong ideas about TPS and would challenge me sooner. I explained that in my experience this speeds up the learning process. He nodded and at that moment the other team members started gathering around us. The moment was lost.

Later, when I had taken some time to think about my response, I was disappointed because I hadn’t considered why he might have asked that second question. I guessed that I might have accidentally taken him from being highly motivated to questioning why he had been selected to become a coach-- given that he was new to TPS.

The next day I revisited the conversation with him and concluded that while he might be trying to let me off the hook I had probably put the wrong type of thoughts (self-questioning) in his head. He proved throughout the day though that he was putting it behind him as he asked one good question after the other. As we finished up this leg of the coaching session I realized that his behavior demonstrated exactly what we (the company and I) aimed for in the selection process for the coaches:

  • Willingness to keep an open mind so that a 360 degree learning process can continue
  • Straight forward communication to resolve potential barriers in newly forming relationships
  • Persistence to keep moving even if you periodically question your own effectiveness as a new coach
  • Asking questions that illuminate a bright path for speedy self-development
  • Posing those same questions in an appropriate setting for good dialogue
  • Forgiveness of mistakes without caving in to lower expectations

Of course the list is much longer but, with these basic characteristics, coaching skills can be developed. I hope I modeled other important characteristics to Kevin; like willingness to admit when you are wrong or just not living up to your own expectations.