The High-Velocity Edge was given to the attendees at the Lean Software & Systems Conference this year, as Steven J. Spear was one of the keynote speakers. I just finished it over the winter break. I enjoyed the book and have dog-eared pages and underlined throughout. I knew I would appreciate the book from my "operational excellence" point of view, but I was pleasantly surprised to connect with the book from the knowledge management perspective as well.
Spear's main story throughout the book is his 4 Capabilities of High-Velocity companies (wording from Chapter 1). He varies the wording throughout the book, but the core message remains the same. Notice how much knowledge shows up throughout:
- Specifying design to capture existing knowledge and building in tests to reveal problems.
- Swarming and solving problems to build new knowledge.
- Sharing new knowledge throughout the organization.
- Leading by developing these capabilities.
The book is roughly split into sections that reference each of these capabilities. Of course, there are framing chapters and chapters that provide more detail on elements within these capabilities. There are familiar examples from Toyota - Spear has some interesting direct experience within Toyota as part of his research. There are examples from many other organizations as well, emphasizing that it is not only Toyota and the direct acolytes of the Toyota Production System that are able to become high-performing companies. It was particularly interesting to read some anti-examples of organizations that were failing in some (all) of these aspects. Even more frustrating is seeing that many organizations have beliefs and practices that are built around exactly the opposite of these capabilities.
There are some deep connections between Spear's thoughts about the High-Velocity organization and organizational learning / knowledge management. He describes these organizations as always seeking to learn from what they do. They don't simply apply the tools (terminology soup: kaizen, heijunka, kanban, constraints, capability, …) to tweak the process when it goes awry. They seek to know the process, using the scientific method to test their understanding of the process, and then checking the results against what they expect when implementing changes. Even in the mechanism that they use to improve the process they seek learning opportunities for the people in the organization, for it is these people who will be there when the next hiccup occurs, and they should be as knowledgable as possible on how to respond.
I also enjoyed the juxtaposition of the "slow-velocity" organizations that claim to do things right-first-time, or that design a process once under the assumption that it will work correctly. These organizations sweep minor hiccups under the rug and develop work-arounds for problems that occur because there is no acknowledgement that we don't know everything. The high-velocity organizations look at their slower cousins with a cynical eye, knowing they are never going to be perfect. But they also strive to improve over-and-over-and-over. Spear provided examples of organizations that were continually making tweaks, sharing that information with their colleagues, and tweaking further, all at impressive rates. And all the while growing past any competition.
There isn't a lot of step-by-step directions on how to build the Capabilities in an organization. He provides plenty of examples, and encouragement to get something going. And while a fully-functioning High-Velocity organization needs participation from the top to the bottom, that isn't required to get something started. Spear provides several examples of people who wanted to improve their department or division and created the capabilities that expanded and expanded.
Of course, this gives me a lot to think about, particularly as I look to continuing to help organizations become better and better at what they do. I am particularly interested in how I ensure that I leave people with the capability to learn from what they do when I am not there to ask questions.