Lean Talent: Agility to Meet Sustainability

Remember the feeling of relief you got when you passed an exam with the grade you wanted? Or, when you handed in a project you had been working on for a long time.

In contrast is the time when you did not get the grade you wanted on the exam. Or, when you failed to hand in the project. You felt tension and discomfort.

To be agile is to respond timely to one’s environment. You need to train your capacity to heighten all your senses and thinking to adapt to your situation. So that you position your behavior and your language, consciously shifting your course of action. Agility is easy to grasp when you consider sports. But now let’s preview the models available to understand it from the mind perspective.

In 1960, research psychologists Miller, Gallanter and Pribram developed a planning and problem-solving strategy. They formulated it in term of feedback loops, called TOTE. This stands for "Test-Operate-Test-Exit". The authors used this to explain the mechanism of self-control. In pursuit of your challenge, you do operations and observations to check whether you have reached your stated challenge goals (or not).

The premise of TOTE is that the main problem-solving algorithm in a complex system is to test:

1. Where the system currently is: Test1;

2. Then, start operations to produce the desired change: Operate;

3. Then, retest. Test2; If the Test2 criteria are not met, repeat the Operate step. You do this until you get a satisfactory answer, meaning the criteria are met: Exit. At this point the process is complete and terminated.

This is when you breathe a sigh of relief and wonder what to do next.

You can use this model in many disciplines where iterative methods are applicable. These include engineering, artificial intelligence, and cybernetics. In psychology NLP Practitioners leverage iterative steps to accelerate individual change by accessing a sequence of steps—thoughts and behaviors-- that underly outcomes. For change, understanding the individual’s current sequence of steps that are not fostering a desired outcome, and replacing those steps with a sequence that will enable the desired outcome.

Another useful method was created by the statistician Walter A. Shewart, and further developed by management consultant W. Edwards Deming: “Plan-Do-Check-Act “(PDCA). Since the 1950’s PDCA has become one of the world's best-known methods for guiding continuous improvement.

The PDCA method is also a useful iterative process. It’s helpful to figure out complex systems, based on many feedback loops. It is particularly known and utilized in manufacturing and service industries to create continuous improvement. More recently, total quality management practices have become widely used in medical settings, providing metrics and confirmation of consistency and quality in key practices.

Even though neither the TOTE or PDCA models explicitly sets a goal, the implicit value of the models is to enable successful achievement of a goal defined by the user. Goal setting is the key to continuous improvement in a complex system. Setting a goal and utilizing one of these iterative models for a clear direction, then the challenge is becoming or making something better and better. A complex system is more than a piece of technology that behaves in a linear fashion. It has aspects of nonlinearity and chaotic behavior. Identification of patterns which underlie behaviors makes it possible to achieve desired goals previously unachievable. Once the ineffective patterns are identified, they can be strategically replaced with a pattern crafted for successful goal accomplishment. In nonlinear relationships, changes in the output are not directly proportional to changes in inputs.

Obviously, we are living in a complex system and we want to have positive impacts and influence ~the ~outcomes. Simple cause effect approaches are likely to fall short or fail completely. A different process is needed.

To have a complete process for successful change you need to develop 3 pillars:

  1. Goal setting;

  2. Gaining sensory acuity; and

  3. Practice flexibility

TOTE and PDCA stand on these foundations. We can see that to test we need a difference. This difference is the gap between the current situation and the desired, or target situation. In the PDCA model we set this up in the Planning step. We identify central causes, recognize and rank areas and opportunities for improvement. In this way we clarify the current situation in contrast to the perceived target or desired situation.

Then you follow with the Operate or Do step. This is when you put in place the planned changes on a small scale or through small pilot projects. In the case of personal change, the Do step can be a 'step into the future' mental exercise. For each proposed change, you test the idea. Then collect the data to support the next phase giving you ‘before-after’ comparison.

The Check step in the PDCA model you will see sometimes called the Study Stage. The Check as well the second Test step in the TOTE model are key processes for drawing out lessons learned. The Check and Test steps serve to verify how close you have moved to the proposed target. This is the step or stage where learning takes place: where you derive knowledge from experience.

The Final Act step is a process of deciding whether to continue the loop. Or adopting methods of change. Or abandoning the process. It coincides with the Exit step in the TOTE model.

Both TOTE and PDCA can work as “double-loop” iterations. In fact, this is the true power of the TOTE and PDCA models—when repeated after a key change is introduced, one can verify if that change was the key to attaining the desired or improved outcome. Human beings are prime examples of complex systems. We can also be seen as a complex system nested within a larger complex system. In real life situations people seek results in both the individual human system, and in the larger environmental system of the individual. Change in the individual may cause planned or unplanned change in the complex environmental system. With skillful planning and these iterative processes, the desired change can be manifested in both of these complex systems. We can achieve both a sense of personal accomplishment as well as a sense of accomplishment of purposeful change in the business environment. Hence the “double loop” makes possible intentional change at the individual level and at the level of the system in which he or she works in.

When working toward our goals we need to handle the internal states as well as the external results. We try to achieve them through a series of scientific experiments. This is because at each iteration we get a new set of data. Based on specific data, we create new meanings and algorithms. So, the actions that determine each Do step in creating the results (external) depend on the human state (internal). Because we are dependent on the human state, we have another improvement cycle to consider the discovery of the human process. In this discovery you are learning the key success factors that are infinite in your own internal state and you discover how to change in a continuous improvement process. And, not just doing improvements in the outside world, you have accomplished a double loop process which might lead to sustainability. Engaging in challenging initiatives with this mindset is our aim in developing organizations and businesses toward a vision of system sustainability.

To recap, we propose to focus on the first loop in developing ourselves in an agile manner in the context of traditional continuous improvement during a project. So, while we do continuous improvement of the business processes, we are connecting change at the individual level and reinforcing the business process. In this way we amplify our impact and increase satisfaction of being effective and creating positive change. Additionally, the mutually reinforced change is sustainable, as the dual changes are in concert, rather than having resistance from one source or the other. Furthermore, the experience of this individual change is an experience of human agility, and the experience of creating change in the larger system empowers the individual to value their own ability to make strategic changes and to quickly adapt.

In Lean Talent Systems we have the technology to transform the above concepts into practical application with digital support.

1. Direction: The three levels digital companions for Vision, Goals and Challenges.

2. Acuity: Over forty business relevant business questionnaires to identify the most relevant mindset and behavioral pattern using potential evaluation program developed by Swiss company IMDE.

3. Agility: “Agile Companion” a tool for daily observation and intentional training of behavioral and cognitive development. It provides ultra-fast cycling feedback as well as innovative insight into the dynamic complexity of one's own change process.

About the Author, Cătălin Zaharia: M.D., E.C.P., B.Eng., Professional Coach

Since 2004 has worked with the principles of TOTE and later consulted with board members and coached top management teams in using PDCA in continuous improvement initiatives. He has an extensive background in organizing training and coaching programs for 100’s of managers in being more effective in Lean projects. Cătălin has graduate degrees in Health Care Management and BioMedical Informatics and completed his medical degree with a residency in Psychiatry. Currently, Cătălin is practicing, teaching and conducting research in neuro-linguistic psychotherapy, and is a business consultant and coach.