At work as a Quality Manager, I use Lean continuous improvement methodologies. I love this aspect of my job, as Lean methods fit right into my own natural way of thinking. In the US, Lean is often defined as the “elimination of waste,” but this definition focuses only on the results and not the methods, where the true genius lies. To convey Lean thinking, I like a story I read in the Toyota Way Fieldbook that goes something like this. An American executive goes to a Toyota site in Japan to learn about Lean. After walking around the facility and talking for a while, struggling somewhat to convey Lean to the American in English, his Japanese counterpart walks up to a dry erase board and draws a simple set of stairs. He indicates just one of the steps and says “every day, a little up.”
This is Lean. We honestly assess ourselves and embrace our imperfections, so that we might all work together to improve them, by digging down to find the true root of the issue and focusing on changing the things we can control. When we want to improve an area, we look for a small bite-size piece that we can easily change for the better - even if each small change only improves the area a little bit, the sum of these small changes for the better over time makes for amazing results. We form cooperative teams of employees at all levels, from in and outside of the work area in question. And instead of focusing on a giant, looming goal, we feel a sense of accomplishment when we make the change that we had planned, and it indeed improves things. In the end, we’ve scaled the huge staircase, but along the way each step was carefully done and its own achievement.
Another bit from the Toyota Way Fieldbook is a critique that American managers tend to "Ready, Fire, Aim" in problem-solving - basically shooting from the hip. In Lean, it's more like "Ready, Aim, Aim, Aim, Fire." More time and effort are spent before an action is taken, to ensure that this action will "hit the target." The actions themselves may be dreadfully simple, but if they are sure to make a positive improvement in your desired result, then they are better than a thousand expensive, expansive actions that miss the mark. But next to a flurry of firing and re-firing without thinking, all of that thoughtfulness can seem lackadaisical. It's important to remind ourselves that the process that generates these dramatic and amazing positive changes over time can look peaceful, quiet, and reflective at each step.
I am not into stalking employees taking notes on my clipboard about their mistakes, though this is what people typically think of when they hear my job title. I spend little time as a Quality Manager focusing on our error rate, and analyzing our mistakes. I find that if we spend our time ensuring people are doing the right things every day, small things that are under our control, then quality automatically follows.
Sometimes, I think I seem like I am not very serious about my dog training, and do not care about the results, that I am a dabbler without high aspirations. This is true, and it isn’t. It’s true I spend very little time thinking about titles and accomplishments, and that I favor versatility over perfection in one sport.
But my dogs often attain just as much, if not more, success as others – certainly not reaching elite levels, but they compete quite respectably alongside others who seem to be far more serious about the individual sport. For the amount of time I put into training on a given canine sport or activity, I have a pretty high return on investment. I’ve been thinking all along that Rowdy is just an exceptional dog, bright and willing and versatile. Which is true, but as I embark on teaching Brutus to do basic weave poles in the one month remaining before the CPE trial (so that he and Paul can move up to Level 2), without even a doubt as to our eventual success, I have to admit this is not all that’s going on. In the two months I have had Seelie, she has grown tremendously, and in our agility class yesterday it became obvious that she will quickly surpass other dogs’ skills who have been working with their owners for years. My dogs’ most fluent skills of course reflect the things I hold most important – to willingly give their all toward any request I might make of them no matter how odd, to be able to easily understand what I want of them, and to be the kind of companion I enjoy most. I am far from a perfect trainer, but I have to admit that I think I’m on to something.
I spend a great deal of time learning about training methods, and I choose my methods carefully. By the time my dogs and I are actually working on something, the serious part has already been done. When I train, it is lighthearted and fun for my dogs, but rather than indicating a lack of seriousness, it is an integral part of the methods I’ve chosen. The methods are solid, and I work hard to implement them correctly. My goal is to spend all of my energy on the journey – enjoying it, being in the moment, and also ensuring the quality of that journey. In each training session, I focus on improving just one or two small things as a team. It must seem like I have low expectations at times, since all I ask is that my dog and I complete the exercise of the day. I am almost always satisfied with whatever performance my dogs give me, because I know that the methods I’ve chosen will bring forth from them the very best performance they were able to give that day, according to the job I did as a trainer that day. Over time, this choice to focus on small, achievable training goals in each session has paid off. I choose to work first and most on the underlying foundations of our relationship and communication - this results in exactly zero impressive tricks or titles, but I find it to be serious and important work though an onlooker might think we’re just playing. I spend a good deal of time quietly assessing and re-assessing my training plans – but rather than having huge game plans and lofty goals, I really just want to build quality into the next session. And then the next. Every day, a little up.