10 December 2009

The Red Green Show

I recently came across this article about "lean metrics," which basically makes the case that reporting a status of Green ("things are good") is unacceptable, because it gives the lean guys nothing to do. The only good value for a metric is Red ("things are not good"), and if anyone reports a Green status, you should "send them back to the drawing board." Wow, I disagree with it so completely.

Yes, whitewashing (green-washing?) a program is bad. It's not helpful to report that everything is good simply because you haven't dug deep enough to find the actual problems. Deliberately hiding problems is even worse. But this article stinks of a hammer in search of a nail. "If you are green, they don't know where to focus improvement efforts." Um, isn't it possible to be green because you DO know where to focus your improvement efforts? Maybe the status is green because you know what you're doing and things are actually going well. Let's not assume that a set of green metrics can only be produced by dishonest or superficial assessments.

The article also makes Toyota's Mr. Watanabe come across as a monumental jerk. Sure, it's possible he responded to a set of Green metrics by saying "no problems, must need no managers" with an unmentioned twinkle in his eye. Maybe he was trying to be funny. For his sake, I'm going to assume that's the case. I'll just ignore the writer's commentary about how his comment "devastated" the managers who had previously been "excited and proud." There's something to be said for challenging people's assumptions and encouraging them to leave their comfort zones, but there's no excuse for devastating them. I wonder how effective they were after this meeting. I'll bet their metrics turned quite red for some time to come.

Bottom line - red-washing a metrics report is just as bad as green-washing it. Good metrics are accurate, timely and actionable. Green or red isn't the question. The real quality of a status report is based on whether it's honest, not what color it is.


Gabe said...

After reading the article, I totally agree with you here. Unfortunately, the CPI model still reaks of a mechanistic approach to solving an inherently organic phenom better addressed by modeling values. It seems the author is trying to impart that values are important but they require instillation by force. I don't think employees should fear bringing problems forward. But his explantion swings too far to the opposite side encouraging people to look for problems that just don't need to be fixed. The hammer and nail indeed.

So why can't this whole thing be as simple as "Do your tasks the best you can. If you have an idea for a better way to do something, then do it of find somebody to help you do it. If I as the manager need to help you do it, let me know." Why do we need formal programs like CPI, Lean, 6 sigma and the like? My opinion is that these programs exist to undo all the bad programming introduced by Darth Taylor and his industrial era cronies. Before people became robots in factories, they coordinated their work pretty effectively...at least 70% effective.

Craig Brown said...


Without referring to the orginal -

When I start a project at a new company one of the first things I check is the ‘lessons learned’ register or read recent project post closure reports.

Some companies have good track records. Many don’t. The failure reasons or challenges cited all align to what industry reports; too much complexity, no engagement with the sponsor, misalignment of goals, etc.

Project status reports indicate the likelihood a project will come in on target.

So, if you know that you have a 10% success rate, surely your project status starts red until you fix everything that needs fixing?

In fact, you could assume an industry average or a company average result on budget, schedule and scope and report against that.

And given the state of the enterprise projects context I work in that means all projects start red, with a list of issues and an action plan for each of them.

It is an awkward approach for an organisation that doesn’t know how to run projects, and has failed to reflect on their problems effectively. And it can be very awkward for you, the guy who turns up at the first status report and says “We are already in trouble” – but if that’s the state of play, well, that’s the state of play.

As an ethical person, who speaks the truth and who wants to engage your sponsor to help manage away external problems, who do you do?

The Dan Ward said...

@Craig - I concur with your approach, and agree that when we start a project, we're heading into an area with a lot of unknowns. It makes sense to identify as many of these as possible.

Over time, as the project progresses (or as the operation matures), we both improve our understanding and our ability to perform... well, that's what we'd hope to do.

But regardless of the period of time, our metrics should be accurate, timely and actionable. Any apriori preference for one metric value over another is just asking for trouble.

Mark said...

Ok, here's a metric: no candy should get past this workstation unwrapped.

If it wasn't in black and white, I'm sure we would have seen the boss lady reporting a bright green metric to her superiors.

And to be fair, *that* metric was indeed green! But it also appeared to be the *only* metric.

I think part of what Lean thinking brings to these situations is the assumption that a)perfection is the goal, and b)the status quo is *not* perfect. Therefore, a sea of green might mean you have satisfied *those* metrics, but you are probably overdue in challenging your organization to either raise the bar on those metrics or find new, tougher, areas to focus on.

Unless you are truly perfect. In that case, well, congratulations.

Mark said...

@Gabe - did we read the same article?

"Why do we need formal programs like CPI, Lean, 6 sigma and the like?"

"If it takes a formal program to bring ideas to light, you aren't a lean organization."

Lean isn't a Program - it is a way of thinking... a value set, if you prefer.

David said...

This goes to the heart of a metric: What is it, and what does it do? Does it measure something real, or something made-up for the purpose of having a metric? The TQM/QAF fiasco in the 90's left me with a skeptics view of metrics: The less aligned with a measurable outcome, the higher the likelihood that you've created a self-licking lollypop.

If the purpose of a metric is to recommend improvement, even when real performance metrics indicate none is needed, management needs to take a long look at the desired outcomes of the program.

LookingUp said...

The way my brain interpreted the article is that green meatballs trap people into the status quo. In my organization, where’s there’s green, there’s also a leader saying, “That’s good. Keep doing the same thing with that.” Then all spotlights zoom in on the red meatballs. Now, generally red means it’s something that needs attention, but that doesn’t mean we have to ignore the green stuff. What if there’s a better way to do things? Can’t we keep tweaking? Can we make that green thingy even better?

I’m in concurrence with Gabe – things like Lean and Six Sigma just develop checklists and boxes for ways to improve things. Those philosophies hone in on the problem areas, which is great, but we shouldn’t forget to keep improving the things that ARE working. Why can’t there be an organic method of working to improve everything—green, yellow, and red meatballs?


The Dan Ward said...

@Carol - right on! You light a light in my brain, re: the author's comment that "If you are green, they don't know where to focus improvement efforts."

I think the original article is missing the point of Continuous Process Improvement. Just because something's green doesn't mean we can't make it better, right? I'm not a huge CPI guy, but even I know that. The point is to continually improve everything, across the board - even the stuff that's going well (i.e. Green).

So a bunch of Green indicators just means we're doing well, meeting our goals, etc, etc. It emphatically does not mean we can't improve.

Mark said...

Dan and Carol,

You both nicely summarized the main principle of Lean.

"An organic method of working to improve everything..."

Yep, that's it!

I'm sorry that the experience of Lean is too often a "formal program" or "bunch of checkboxes". If that's what you have been told, then those who told it to you have seriously missed the point.

The Dan Ward said...

@Mark - thanks! And I can attest that the Lean gurus I've heard from (yourself included) tend to talk about it as a lifestyle, a value set, and an organic, internal discipline & practice rather than a set of checklists.

What I've seen in practice doesn't always live up to that, but that's neither shocking nor unique to Lean. Not a big deal.

But this guy's article portrayed a callous disregard for the people involved, along with the belief that is is unacceptable to report something is going well ('if you're green you don't know where to focus'). This sort of mentality seems to run counter to both Leanness and Rogueness (not that the two are always orthogonal).