Thursday, February 6, 2014

Continuous Service Improvement: The power of reflection

Today's post is by one of Lean Sensei's recent Blackbelt graduates, David Cresswell, Associate Director of Strategic Practices in I.T. Services at British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) in Greater Vancouver, BC ( ).  

The following is an article that was originally posted to BCIT's internal Lean collaboration site. 

Without learning – we can’t improve…..and without looking back, we miss a huge opportunity to learn.
I recall someone telling me many years ago in a Leadership workshop that “great leaders pause and reflect on a regular basis”. It seems to me that great leaders often need to find the wherewithal and energy to sometimes ‘renew’ themselves daily. True self-reflection, and the ability to make changes based on that is a skill that requires inquisitiveness, humility, optimism and persistence.
You have to be willing to ask the “what” questions (“What is, and what isn’t working well?”), as well as the tough “why” questions (“Why is it like that? What could I do differently to improve the situation?”). You need to be willing to put ego aside and take a good hard and humble look at your actions and interactions for opportunities to improve yourself. When something isn’t going well – always ask yourself “what part of this do I own?”. And you need to do all of that without feeling overwhelmed or dejected. Instead, like a prospector, mine those moments and reflections for the “gems” that you can work with and go after those with a renewed vigor and optimism. And then, on a regular basis, do it again. And again. And……

Additionally, they need to often be prepared to adapt and even reinvent themselves and/or their whole organizations – based on situation, circumstance, and again, largely through those insights and self-awareness of “what’s working, and what isn’t”. To quote from an article I was reading by Margaret Wheatley ( “Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, often creating more unintended consequences that intended and useful ones”.
Reflection is definitely a form of learning. It is a form of learning that is very personal, and that can have significant impact on our actions and outcomes. Unfortunately, when we are busy, and under pressure to meet deadlines and deliverables, it is one of the things that is too easy to give up. A great deal of emphasis is put on the ability to make quick-decisions and react fast to changing environments. While no one could argue that this isn’t a valuable skill, when used on its own it too can result in unintended consequences. Leaders at all levels of an organization need to consciously put aside enough time to reflect not only on current decisions their department or organization needs to make, but also to review past decisions to learn from that experience. I believe that if people consciously make time for it, they are likely to discover that regular time spent in reflection will bring greater perspective and clarity, and help guide their decisions and actions to new levels of continuous improvement.

By relearning how to use your reflecting skills as a tool in your toolbox, you can increase your ability to see possible challenges early, and seek alternative solutions before you are forced into a corner. You become proactive. Making time to reflect on past decisions and outcomes, both good and bad, and allowing yourself the opportunity to learn from it, is a critical step to continued growth and development.
So what does this have to do with Lean and Continuous Service Improvement (you might ask)? One critical tool in the Lean practitioners’ toolbox is something called “Hansei”. Hansei is a Japanese word that means to “look back”. When visiting a number of very advanced Lean organizations in Tokyo and Nagoya in late 2013, it was clearly evident that Hansei is a cornerstone of Japanese culture and behavior. In Japan, it is practiced inherently and in almost every walk of personal and professional life. It is a simple exercise, but needs to be practiced with rigor in order to fully assimilate it into our culture so we all reap the benefits of this powerful methodology.

Hansei has to be based in a ‘no blame’ environment, and requires everyone to accept a level of humility so they can not only reflect on what the team or workgroup could improve upon, but also legitimately ask themselves “what could I have done differently to have improved this (project/outcome/customer service interaction/ etc). Hansei doesn’t need to be an onerous task – in fact, it should be designed to be quick and easy. A five minute stand up meeting with your work group, department, project team is all that is required – but do it often. Have someone “own” the Hansei process. Have them facilitate the 5 minutes. Rotate that responsibility around the group. And ask those 3 simple questions, encouraging everyone to be brave and to truly reflect deeply on the situation.
Always start with the positive: “what went really well today?”. Encourage participation. Ask the quiet ones to speak up – often they are by nature reflective and may have some real gems! Next, ask “what didn’t go as well as we hoped or planned?”. Remind everyone that this is a no-blame exercise. It is ONLY about finding opportunities for improvement. Mature companies like Toyota, who have been practicing Lean for decades and have matured their practices to expert levels still do this, and still look for improvement opportunities.
And finally, ask “what can we (or what can I) do differently to improve the situation?”. Don’t struggle to find huge transformative ideas. Look for small things that could make a difference. Share the ideas in the group and ask for feedback. And ask for commitment to try to implement the ideas. Together, those simple actions, repeated on a regular basis will result in continuous improvement over time. And each small improvement is compounding the benefits realized by all of the prior small improvements.
Reflection is about learning. Learning from the past. Learning about the things that worked, and the things you may want or need to do differently. Try to make room in your day, or in your department, or in your project for this to happen on a regular basis. It’s about changing habits for most of us. You need to practice the new behavior a lot before it becomes a “new habit”. Go ahead – give it a try.
There is a reason the past is often clearer than the future. It's because you have already been there – so use it to help guide your journey forward.

David Cresswell, Associate Director of Strategic Practices in I.T. Services at British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) in Greater Vancouver, BC ( ).  

As part of his portfolio, David and his team are responsible for identifying, incubating and introducing new methodologies and practices to benefit the Institute.  Lean is one of those methodologies that is being implemented through the Strategic Practices portfolio.   
David can be reached at  

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