Manufacturing buffers help to smooth over problems at each stage of production. The project management tool “honesty buffer” is when someone holds back reporting issues and problems to make things look better than they are. Reducing or eliminating such buffers quickly exposes problems and enables rapid process and quality improvement.
In The Toyota Way, Jeffrey Liker talks about how in the creation of “one flow” and “lean” processes you have to examine all those protective buffers. The buffers between steps in a process serve to handle the give and take of problems or productivity. If the next station in the line has an issue (i.e. can not run for a while), you continue to produce at your station and just put your output into their buffer (e.g., holding area). If you had an issue at your station and had to rework your part of the product, you could just stop. The station after you had plenty in their buffer from your previous work to work on while you handled your errors. The buffers serve to insulate each station in the line from the imperfections in each other station’s process.
However, in The Toyota Way, they try to remove as much of these buffers as possible. The fact that this will expose the problems at one station to everyone, everyone shuts down when we shut down, is seen as an advantage. It forces us to deal with the problem, forces everyone to deal with the problem. As the problems get worked out, products begin to move very rapidly from station to station, with very few issues and with little or no buffering required. This increases process quality, and as shown in “Focusing On High Quality Gives You High Productivity At No Extra Cost” increasing quality can skyrocket productivity and reduce costs.
It should be clear that such a technique is not for the faint of heart. Many folks would question the wisdom of taking a technique that is working – helping things to run smoothly – and removing it just to find other ways to fix the same problems. However, such buffers – especially what I call “honesty buffers” in project management – clearly hide issues that need to be exposed.
Project Management Information Is Often Buffered
How many times have you or someone else felt compelled to tell a bit of a “white lie” or to put a “positive spin” on information to the boss or to a customer about how things were going? In If Nothing Else, Honesty Is Just More Efficient, I illustrate how a company regularly said “we can still do it” even as they fell further and further behind. This is often done with the notion that we can solve the problem, so there is no need to mention it and worry anyone.
Many times, as a project manager, I took in status only to have another manager ask me to not report some issue. The promise was always “we will just fix it quietly, no one needs do know about it.”
I’ve never seen such a problem go away because it was not reported. Instead, they generally festered for a long time. I’d explain to the manager that if they are really going to fix it quickly, that we can report it. It will be quickly fixed, and in the next status you can report you completed the fix. It will make you look good, finding and fixing issues quickly. The problem was, of course, that it was not going to be fixed quickly. They just wanted to paint a good picture and “hope” that everything would work out eventually.
I had a COO once respond to the report of a problem having been fixed with “and this with NEVER happen again, will it?” I told her she could not AFFORD a solution that provides such a 100% guarantee. She looked shocked. No one had ever pushed back on this kind of statement from her. Her insistence that a problem “never” happen again, encouraged folks to create huge “honesty buffers” and to make up reasons for problems.
In another similar situation I had a manager ask me not to report a particular problem but to come up with a different one to explain why something took longer than expected. The reason was because we had reported that problem last month, so we needed a new problem this month as the cause of our delay. He said “I’ll support whatever you report, but don’t report the same problem twice.”
Having the need to tell the boss what they want to hear, and not what are the real facts is just buffering the problem. Some folks hope that in buffering their problems, someone else’s problems will be exposed first. This will allow them to quietly fix their issues while someone else gets the searing attention of senior management.
Well, implementing The Toyota Way in this situation would be to eliminate the buffers to information honesty. By simply telling it like it is, problems and all, we are no longer buffering accurate information. The implied “everything is great” is a buffer saying “we have problems, but hope to fix them before they impact anyone.” Well, the buffer in a product line serves that same purpose. So if we wish to reduce the buffers, we should just report information with “brutal honesty.”
1. If we are behind schedule. Just say we are behind schedule.
2. If we don’t know the status of a certain part of the effort, just say we don’t know the status of a certain part of the effort.
3. If we have problems that we don’t yet have solutions for, just say that.
4. If someone reports they have problems, thank them for it.
The purpose of this brutal honesty is three fold:
1. It makes reporting very easy and low cost. Just report what is true, to the best of our ability. No more hours of preparation and practice to deliver a song and dance that tries to show everything is just fine in a project.
2. It gives out the most accurate information you have, which is more efficient for everyone else who is trying to do their job. The downstream departments can adjust their efforts, for example, to the fact we won’t deliver for another month.
3. It highlights the problem we are having. Everyone can help at finding solutions so similar problems decrease with time.
Reducing Buffers Quickly Confronts Organizational Bad Habits
I’ve often said that it is hard for an organization to improve if they are not brutally honest. The humorous part is that the pain to the company is still there (loss of market share, profitability, credibility to the customer, etc.), but just being a bit more honest makes it less painful for the individuals. Otherwise, as the company spirals downward, everyone is talking “happy talk” about how everything is being improved rather than dealing with the brutally honest situation. Making the change to brutal honesty often requires the most senior managers to take the first step.
The other main competitor to brutal honesty is the game of finding a scapegoat. In an environment where unrealistic promises have been made, many people and tasks will be unsuccessful. This gives managers a fertile environment to say “see, look at those problems over there, that is the real problem.” So reducing “honesty buffers” is not about being brutal to individuals. A bad estimate is just a bad estimate. Survive it and make a better estimate next time. Just acknowledge that fact, in public.
Being brutally honest to reduce buffers is one of the hardest things some people will ever have to do. It is often easier to go over cost, to miss a schedule, to expertly spread the blame, than it is to tell a customer, or boss, that something will take longer or be more costly than wanted. We often reward the person who “goes for it,” not because they can make it, but because they promise to fix our pain. Even if they fail, THEY failed and buffered the problem from us.
I’ve never known a customer to object to brutal honesty. I’ve had some of our biggest customers at various companies say such things as “you are too nice – you don’t push back hard enough on our demands.” I’ve never seen a customer say “OK, if you are going to take that long, we’ll buy from someone else.” This last situation is probably the scariest. I do believe there are some times where we just have to go for it and try to hit a delivery window, especially when the first product that arrives establishes a standard or makes significant money. Yet the vast majority of the time this was not the situation. When we had a great quality product, our market share and profitability would go up even if we didn’t deliver it first.
If our competitor is delivering faster and with better quality, why would we think promising to deliver faster but never making it, would help us with our customer? I’ve never seen where making a promise we couldn’t meet ever helped a company grow sales. I’ve never seen where telling a customer “it will take a few months longer than you requested” – and we deliver it exactly when we said we would – had ever caused a customer to tell us they didn’t want to work with us anymore. Customers need accurate, unbuffered, information to manage their own businesses.
Brutal Honesty Won’t Save The Day For Fundamentally Flawed Projects
When I’ve introduced “brutal honesty” to an organization, nothing really changed at first – except we were recognizing our situation rather than denying it. This then made it easier to pick and choose the right things to do at each point in time. If we have a project that is not going to be delivered when promised, because we were not brutally honest in making our estimate, then that is still the fact. It will not be delivered as promised. Everyone still does their job, often working long hours, but they now do it in a environment of brutal honesty and increasingly accurate information. It is amazing how hard a technical staff will work if you just tell them “yep, we made a real bad promise — we are now doing the best we can to get it done as fast as possible.” This is in contrast to the often typical “Why are we having all these problems? WHO caused that last problem?” all of which were caused by the unrealistic schedule that was imposed upon the team.
This last example about an unrealistic schedule is an important one. A bad schedule will cause ripples of problems throughout the entire duration of the project. Insisting on “perfect solutions to every problem” when the core problem is of such a fundamental nature is just foolish (and not being honest about what is possible). When things go wrong, fix them as they happen and acknowledge the source. (See also: Get The Schedule Right!.)
Selecting good solutions, rather than buffering bad news, will rapidly drive improvements into your organization. These improvements will rarely save a fundamentally flawed effort (i.e., unrealistic schedule, cost, etc.). They will put a floodlight on the fundamental flaw and put in place practices that help ensure the flaw is not propagated into the future. The earlier in a project the buffers are reduced, the sooner you will see the increase in productivity and quality, and the better the chance the current project will not have to be “saved.” (For more ideas, see Nine Ways To Eliminate Honesty Buffers.)
Implementing The Toyota Way in a non-manufacturing environment can include the notion of reducing the “honesty buffer.” The goal is to achieve total and brutal honesty to energize improving quality and increasing productivity. In manufacturing, there is often a physical reason to still require a small buffer. In management, eliminating the “honesty buffer” is a powerful project management tool that works.