Reflections & Learnings from Continuous Learning Event

Kaizen and Continuous Improvement

Last week, we co-hosted an event with Mark Graban. We had the pleasure of spending two days with forty individuals focused on looking at continuous learning and improvement.

We previously posted on why we were excited about the event. Now that the event has passed, we wanted to share our "A-ha" moments.

Seeing and Hearing the Andon Cord

The Toyota Andon Cord is famous in the lean and agile communities. The Andon cord is a cord that anyone on the manufacturing line can pull to "stop the line" to correct a production problem. Two powerful realizations surprised us about the Andon cord. First, the frequency of the pulls was much higher than we expected. Second, the sound played when somebody pulls the cord is cheerful music! We were expecting a sound more like an alarm. The cheerful sound celebrates finding and fixing an issue before it becomes costly.

I compare this to what we commonly experience in software development. When we encounter an issue we tend to focus more on keeping delivery going and not on "stopping the line." (How many of you work with teams where the whole team stops current work to address a build failure?) We want to meet deadlines and don‘t discuss small friction in real time. The easiest time to fix this friction is when it's happening. What if we celebrated discovering issues earlier as a way of fostering continual improvement? Dojos focus on this through early single piece flow.

Suppliers on Site

We imagine the numbers are public since we were on a public tour of Toyota, but it was astonishing that of the workforce at the plant we visited, over half were from suppliers. Yes, they were there supplying (manufacturing and fixing) the parts that Toyota uses. Read that again. Over half of the workforce on site were suppliers. With this setup, parts are literally arriving "Just in Time." There is no risk of shipping delays from suppliers, no need for heavyweight logistical inventory management, and no need for constant negotiations over contracts devoid of the context of work in progress. And it makes Toyota have a beautiful symphony of construction.

In our world, how possible is it to have suppliers be part of our construction? The organizations we work with have an advantage over Toyota. Most times the  "suppliers" are employees. Yet we often confuse activity for progress. Everyone is moving as fast as they can. They must stay busy! This comes at the cost of delivering value. This is an easily solvable problem. Dojos help magnify this constraint.

Experimenting, Learning, and Safety

We also visited Garrison Brothers distillery to see how they apply continuous learning and improvement. We had a wonderful conversation with their head distiller. He shared stories of how they experiment with improving their product and develop new variations (including a honey infused bourbon).

He shared one example of a bourbon he wanted to make with a certain taste profile - his experiment. Guess what? It didn’t work. He had to tell the owner that a large batch ($50K in potential sales) wasn’t up to snuff and that it would have to be set aside to evaporate. Which they did. Because it was the right thing to do. They don't release products they are not proud of.

And they continue to experiment in an environment where it's safe to be wrong. Otherwise, they know they won't get better.

A beautiful story for a small distillery.

You Can't Teach Everything...and Shouldn't

Our group also asked the head distiller what he teaches the other distillers and what kind of consistency he expects from them in the distillation process.

His answer was more profound than our words will capture, but let us share the key thoughts.

He can teach the process - the ratios, the mixes, the times, the temperatures - but he can’t teach the taste. And he doesn’t want to because everyone’s pallet is different. Some character comes from the ‘white dog’ (raw whiskey), but the majority of the flavor comes from the aging process. He learns the characteristics of how the other distillers' bourbon ages. This knowledge can help him later on if he is blending barrels. But - he isn’t looking to change anyone’s taste - or teach them his taste.

That comment tied directly into the session that we led on Thursday around tacit vs explicit knowledge. (We'll explore this topic in more depth in an upcoming post.) Dojos acknowledge both types of knowledge and coaches work to foster knowledge creation both tacitly and explicitly. 


Both tours were great experiences. The attendees also shared their stories and knowledge. The topics were numerous - lack of stress even with low tak time, the visible enjoyment in work, lack of visible goals while still delivering quality with volunteers, differences between volunteering to work and being "driven" to work, respect for people… and so much more. And sharing the experience with the diverse group of attendees elevated the quality of the event.

If you joined us, please share some of your key learnings. If you missed out, we are already thinking about the next event that combines experiences with sharing and learning from each other. Stay tuned!

Mark’s Thoughts On The Event

Mark Graban also shared his thoughts of the event on his blog: