“6.5 out of 10.”

Such was my answer to the question ‘how do you think it went?’. The ‘it’ being a massive gathering of people coming together to solve a problem.

This event had been in the works for 3 or 4 months. A sleeper problem – one I had only peripheral knowledge of up to that point – needed solving. The proportion of women in a customer-facing part of our business was much lower than the rest of the company, and no-one knew why. Well, maybe someone knew why, but if they did, they hadn’t been able to change it. So. What to do?

Someone, somewhere, sometime, said “how about we have a HIKE?”. Someone else said “let’s give it go”. Who all these people are, I still don’t know. What I do know is that I got a call, as a gun for hire, to find a way to make it happen. Where I work, a HIKE is a ‘High Impact Kaizen Event’, a facilitated gathering that uses lean six sigma (ish) tools and multiple teams representation to solve the hairiest, scariest problems.

We’ve embraced Kaizen problem-solving methodology, most famously used by production-line leviathans Toyota and Boeing, for 10 years. It is understandably a process-focused methodology, great for mapping and analysing the way goods and services are produced and delivered. In their simplest form, the tools are dead-easy to learn and use. I’ve run short training courses on it for 5 years, but for some reason (not my lack of enthusiasm) it has taken a really long time to be fully absorbed into the day to day way people go about their work. Or, should I say, their operating rhythm.

The thing is when it is learnt and used, it produces stunning results. Part of the methodology is to clearly quantify the opportunity cost as well as benefits. This makes telling stories of success really easy, and it means senior leaders can make quick decisions on the imperative for change and the implementation of recommendations. In short, it help them directly sponsor improvement.

The aspect of Kaizen that has always most appealed to me is the direct empowerment of the everyday worker. Someone mired in a problem, possessing the intimate familiarity of being the direct giver or receiver of a bad customer experience, can initiate, contribute to and implement solutions to it. Kaizen – stripped back – is freedom.

So why today did I find myself facilitating a room of 80 people, using Kaizen to solve a diversity issue?   First answer is that Kaizen is now an internal brand that represents rigour and results. Second answer is I only used 2 Kaizen tools out of a suite of 10. Third answer is I needed the control that the methodology gives. My situation was not only having 80 people in a room, but also having them for 2 hours, and not a minute more.

The 2 tools used were the Fishbone and 5 Whys. The Fishbone is a way of gaining holistic, visual expression of what a problem looks like. Each ‘bone’ of the fish represents a random topic (I tend to use ones like ‘people’, ‘environment’, ‘transport’ and ‘method’). The 5 Whys is kind of what it says: you continually ask why something is as it is, until you reach a point where it makes no sense to ask why any more. This delivers you a suite of root causes, and maximises the effectiveness of any solution ideas subsequently generated.


The prep for this HIKE has been 3 or 4 months. The problem has remained unsolved in that time and will remain unsolved for some time yet. This is OK though; it is the pace of the business, the time required to build advocacy amongst leaders and for resources to be released. Just as it has taken 10 years for Kaizen to be an enabler of and within our working culture, it will take time to see this inherently cultural gender diversity problem to be extinguished. I have the patience that any 20 year employee has to see this through.

It is against this backdrop that the session design process has snaked. A teleconference here, a meeting there, emails everywhere… the design has been fleshed, amputated and re-sewn. 2 days ago I was still adding bolts to this Frankenstein, and at 1am this morning I was applying lipstick to it (OK, Prockey markers). By the time the session kicked off at 9.30am, the Frankenstein session plan was looking pretty damn good, because it was go-time and no further correspondence was being entered into.

…and I really mean that. The session plan had been meticulously matched to the requirements, subjected to necessary rigour. I knew it wasn’t just the experimental fancy of my facilitator brain, it was endorsed. It wasn’t changing. Certainly not for the 10 table captains either, briefed 36 hours earlier on their duties of delegated facilitation. The structure was set and all the visual aids, handouts and timing set to it. Clarity for all beckoned.

What clarity delivered was something that looked a hell of a lot like peer-to-peer learning. Each table captain had a topic. That topic was an aspect of the wider problem, for instance ‘job security’ or ‘remuneration’. Great care and internal consultation was applied to the generation of these topics, rather than the usual randomness. A simple kaizen tool had been applied with white gloves on. The participants had all registered their attendance within hours of advice of the sessions being advertised, with waiting lists in tow. As they walked towards the front doors this morning, they were greeted by signage inviting them to choose the table-topic that they were most passionate or knowledgeable about. Only intermittently interrupted by debriefs to the entire room, they saw their topic right through symptoms expression, root-cause analysis and ideation. The owned it, and learned from each other in the process.

“6.5 out of 10.”

So what stopped 3 or 4 months’ preparation from delivering a perfect 10? A non-Kaizen experiment, that’s what. After the root cause analysis and solution ideation, our final 30 minutes were allocated to reshaping the root cause-specific ideas into standalone master ideas. The premise was to utilise the facilitation techniques of spatial anchoring and movement with purpose, but to have the participants do it (up to that point, the participants had been table-bound). The flow went something like this:

  1. The first table captain was asked to verbally share to the room an idea from his/her group.
  2. The person/s on that table who had originally thought of that idea were to then grab the relevant post-it, stand and move to an open space in the room.
  3. Everyone else was to listen assiduously, and determine if their original idea/s on their table were similar. If they were, they too were to stand, and take their post-it/s and join the first person to have moved into the space.
  4. Then, the first table captain was to share the second idea from their table, with steps 2 & 3 being repeated as well. As new, separate ideas were shared, those idea owners were to stand and find their own space; to be then joined by those with similar ideas.

By the time we got to the fourth of ten tables, 80% of participants were standing, in about half a dozen different ‘master idea’ groups. Technically it worked, but in truth it was too elaborate and too dependent upon multiple subjective judgements. My intent was a state-change: a dramatic departure from being seated, focused on the familiar and spoon-fed a tight structure. This state-change was to create a mood of vigour, new horizons and buy-in; a leveraging of the collectivism built. As with many untried facilitation approaches, it was worth the punt but missed the mark. Confusion took bites out of the frisson of the physical movement.

Would I use that approach again? Hell-yeah. I will tomorrow in another city (the plane has just landed), but this time with amendments. I’ll add a layer of control to it, creating new buckets for ideas to be lumped into, such as ‘people leadership’, ‘training’ and ‘budget’. I’ll ask everyone to take the ideas that they own and move simultaneously to pre-designated physical spaces for the idea buckets. Less confusion, more time for next step action-planning. It is good to have a second crack at this so soon; in fact it is a rare luxury.

Tomorrow will be a 10. We will solve this big problem together.

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