Chasing the Rabbit by Steven J Spear

December 17, 2013

“The preponderance of what is written for managers about management is bad theory and should not be trusted (…) But this is probably the most insightful book about quality and process that has ever been written” (Clayton Christensen)

When professor Christensen states that a management book is insightful, it might be difficult to argue with him : it actually is a wonderful book, the first that abstracts Lean management out into 4 four core principles that can be found in other thriving companies, which are not actual Lean companies (Alcoa, Southwest Airlines …). However, rather than defining it as a book about quality and processes, I would rather position it at the intersection of processes and organizational learning.

Beyond the great academic work, what separates Chasing the Rabbit (How Market Leaders Outdistance the Competition and How Great Companies Can Catch Up and Win) from the rest is that the author, Steven J. Spear, has been working on the shop floor in different companies during the preparation of this book. This in order  to make to make sure he fully understands what he writes about and he asks himself the real questions : what is the job ? what is the product ? what is the process ? how does the company practically deal with problems ?

This approach protects his perspective from preconceptions and the Halo Effect : this is the whole point of going to see on the Gemba to make sure he writes about actual facts. (A virtuous approach Scott Berkun has also put in practice while preparing his latest best seller The Year Without Pants …)

An essay #hypertextual could not help but writing about …

Decoding Toyota DNA

Steven J. Spear has published this book in 2009 but he has been studying the topic for a long time. He co-authored a very influential paper 10 years before (Decoding the DNA of Toyota Production System) and this book comes as the result of his thinking, doing, learning and understanding of the subject.

According to the author, companies that are and that remain one step ahead of the competitors are the ones who show the following capabilities :

  1. Designing systems with built-in tests so that problems are made visible as soon as they happen
  2. Solving problems as they happen to build new knowledge
  3. Sharing the knowledge throughout the organization
  4. Leading by developing the capabilities 1, 2 and 3

The main point here is that these are capabilities you can find in other companies, not only the ones practicing Lean management.

Designing incorrect systems

“Many organizations that I have studied (…) believe that they manage system of works in a purposeful fashion. But in fact they don’t. Rather they manage individual functions and specialties with these pieces coming together through hard work, goodwill and improvisation.”

This is one of the main idea of the book : no matter how much effort there is in designing a system it is impossible to make it perfect and what the author calls high-velocity organizations fully recognize that. However, they put their people in a situation whereby they can discover these great systems and keep discovering how to make them better.

Pockets of ignorance and nuggets of knowledge

So how do you discover a great system ? By making sure the system makes problems visible as soon as they arise and, most importantly, by making space for people to investigate them on the spot. Thus, the information required to think the problem through is still there, it has not yet vanished. The MIT Senior Lecturer sees problems as pockets of ignorance and the solving process as a transformation of these pockets of ignorance into nuggets of knowledge.

Rather than having problems accepted as unavoidable, high-velocity organizations see problems as clear signals. In a splendid metaphor, Spear presents the system of work as a living organism, telling when a problem arises “There’s something important about me that you don’t know about, but if you listen I’ll tell you”.

From never ending plague to never ending guide to improvement

Likewise Taiichi Ohno, Spear is adamant that problems solving using the scientific method are the way to help organizations to learn and, in the long run, to thrive. Thinking about the root cause and solving the problem obviously is an important part of the learning. But it’s not all of it. Another important part of the learning process lie while making predictions and comparing the actual result with the predicted one (regardless if it’s better or worse). The inaccuracy of our prediction distinguishes what was understood from what is not understood.

Solving problem in any way is not learning. The author thus makes it clear that high velocity organizations do not encourage or admire workarounds, firefighting and heroic measures. They want to understand and solve problems, not put up with them.

Walking the process backwards

There is a great story about a Toyota General Manager of Support Center visiting a computer equipment plant. Rather than taking the usual tour, the Toyota manager started with the end of the process, the shipping stage. He then asked the person doing the loading how much of which products was shipped on that day, to whom and at what time. Then he walked back to the packing station asking people what they were doing and if they get what they needed. Each time the gentleman asked if the day was successful and how people could tell. Lastly he asked what was the signal telling the person to begin their next piece of work.

Walking the process backwards shows how and in which order a Toyota manager deciphers a system of work :

  1. The system output
  2. The pathway design (flow of materials information etc …)
  3. Connection Design : linkage between adjacent process steps
  4. Methods for individual task activities

Benchmark your own organization

This is one of the most enlightening management book I’ve read. A very rigorous approach which provides the reader with a great way to benchmark her own organization : how fast your system of work makes a problem visible ? What is your team priority to solve it ? How quickly do you investigate it ? How do you actually solve it ? How often does it come back ? How is the created knowledge then shared ? How are the leaders and managers helping their teams to solve these problems ?

In the Lean IT Summit 2012 conference Mike Orzen told us that the problem solving system is probably the most important one for an organization : a strong statement that this book correlates.

Last but not least, Chasing the Rabbit makes it clear that it is simple to fix your organization. Simple does not mean easy and the analogy with playing golf is spot on. Golf is simple : you just need to put a ball into a hole. But it takes dedication and courage to practice, again and again to succeed while making it look easy. How often does your organization practice scientific problem solving ?

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2 Responses to “Chasing the Rabbit by Steven J Spear”

  1. Yves Caseau Says:

    Thanks for the book review ! I have added it to my reading list :)


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