People Systems that Trigger Team Achievement

Virtually anyone with experience in Lean Enterprise or the Toyota Production System have used one of its core tools known as “pull systems,” to manage how processes respond to changes in demand. On a Lean factory floor, “pull” is most simply defined as – make nothing until an external customer or downstream process (an internal customer) requests or takes one (‘pulls’ it).

Applied correctly in a sequential processing environment, “pull” systems make for remarkably efficient processing, with minimal work in process, little wasted effort, higher quality, and production output that is closely linked to real demand. This is the exact opposite of a push system, which consumes precious materials and resources (labor, capacity, and time) in a way that’s out of sequence with customer needs, making timely supply of true market demand difficult or even impossible. Push systems produce what, how much, and when they want – regardless of what a customer actually demands, and they always generate waste!

The leaders and implementers of Lean in manufacturing and service businesses understand that no matter how simple the Lean tool kit is kept, difficulty always arises in building sustaining behaviors. Sometimes this occurs because all of the necessary tools aren’t in use, exploiting one tools co-dependency on another and causing them to break down. In every environment, sustaining the use of the tools is a real challenge. I say this based on over 20 years of experience implementing Lean and more than 30 years implementing many of the tools (Just-In-Time manufacturing, continuous flow, and others). This experience has taught me that the most difficult aspects of implementing Lean is in getting an organization to understand the following:

  • Many of the various Lean tools have inter-dependencies that benefit from mutual implementation.
  • If you’re spending more time fixing problems than you are working on improving the business, you have entered what I refer to as the “death spiral,” and you’re losing the game.

In recent years we’ve seen an understandable shift in the focus of Lean implementation, away from a tools only based approach to include managing the behaviors needed to implement and sustain improvements. How does an organization aspiring to cash in on the enormous benefits of a thorough Lean implementation, instill these behaviors in order to make its investment in time and training sustain at the operating level?

My answer to that is a simple one;


But not the kind of pull systems that move product or services along the delivery route to satisfy a customer, but a different kind!


“Behavioral Pull” systems apply some of the basic principles of Lean Pull systems, combined with Standard Work, to the performance of your work teams. But even its simplest form it’s more complex than just making and using something. Behavioral pull mimics the essence of the Lean Pull “need-respond” sequence by elevating the organization’s ability to recognize the differences between normal and abnormal process performance and then uses Standard Work to provide the appropriate response.

The first step in establishing behavioral pull is to clearly define normal versus abnormal for a given process or activity, because it isn’t always obvious. Next, it’s necessary to identify the organizational actions (behaviors) required to maintain a properly performing manufacturing or business process as well as the responses necessary to correct specific abnormalities. Finally, processes are redesigned to include built-in visual and instructional cues that will request needed maintenance behaviors as well as the corrective problem responses. In order for behavioral pull to work in the same way Lean Pull does, a request–to-response sequence should be broken down into separate components. These include the following Request (a need trigger), Provide (a trained, disciplined response to the defined needs) and Guide (visual and other instructions that support the correct response).

Blame ME, Please!

Nobody says that, do they? Pull behaviors are all about engagement and empowerment, but blame-oriented cultures represent a strong undercurrent to successful empowerment. The ‘reaction’ of assigning blame to a situation invokes fault and immediately overrides the more correct assumption that most associates are trying to do both a good job and the “right thing” in the course of performing their work. When something goes wrong, the “who” involved can be an important data point in the pursuit of the root cause, but it’s commonly feared because of the negativity of being associated with “what went wrong.” In real life, most problems result from a blend of circumstances that unfortunately place the individual at the center. Improper training, poor preparation, and preventable or unanticipated process problems, are at fault more often than are carelessness or malicious intent. Blame cultures will seek the person too quickly, and might pursue the other causes afterward, or maybe they won’t!

To begin moving your culture away from blame orientation, two things must happen. First, take assertive steps to separate blame from accountability, because it’s possible to hold people accountable without invoking blame. Second, it’s important to delay the assignment of responsibility for a problem until you’ve looked thoroughly at all of the underlying facts – especially when they aren’t immediately apparent. Begin constructing the “what,” (as in what happened) in painstaking detail by starting at the point that the problem surfaces and use a technique such as “5 Whys.” Even when some of the causative factors point to an individual, avoid jumping to the “who” until after all of the “what” data suggests that you should. Once an individual’s performance is actually determined to be a primary cause, the corrective action should focus on process construction, training, and error proofing before performance! These are viable techniques to eliminate the potential for human error without defaulting to the person (see chapter 7 – Jidoka and error proofing).  You’ll have to give people breaks to develop a cultural bias toward the relentless pursuit of root cause, in order to begin winning over them over and turning off the “blame-throwers.”

Logical problem-solving techniques support blame elimination by discouraging what I call “jumping to contusions;” hasty/incorrect presumptions of cause that end in pain and difficulty, and that slow the evaluation process through misdirection. These techniques can further subdue defensiveness through disciplined root cause work, and with it go the barriers and apprehension that might impede the corrective actions, making the rest infinitely easier. Using work teams to pursue and eliminate the specific cause(s) builds “forward ownership” in the solution, as well as a team-based environment that engenders behavioral support for the corrective process changes.

Using team-based logical problem-solving techniques to clearly identify root cause, and supporting them with structured process-improvement tools to implement sound solutions, will assist you in cleansing blame from your culture. Keeping the organization focused on physical remedies as opposed to individual responsibilities also produces more sustainable solutions. To help you understand this better, I’ll recite a key concept in Lean Error Proofing; if a (process) defect has a statistical possibility of occurring, then it will occur. I’ve always referred to this as “pollution in the stream,” because although the problem may be so small that you may never be able to see it, the statistical potential for its existence means it is or will be there at any point in time. The sustainability of your solution depends on the extent to which it can eliminate every possibility of the problem occurring.

Recognizing Abnormalities

An associates’ ability to provide a response is highly dependent on his/her ability to discern the difference between normal process operation and abnormal performance, as well as the factors that create each condition. Complex processes may have many contributing factors which, when performing abnormally or below expectations, can require different responses. Each issue must be defined, and resolved with a specifically trained response to sustain normal process performance.

Your processes should be redesigned so that the existence of an abnormality is visually apparent, and an associates training should enable them to recognize problem that the trigger is associated so they can respond to it with a containment or corrective action. As noted above, normal process operating limits should be visually identifiable as well as the response trigger points. The corrective actions necessary to return performance to target are covered both in the visuals and the standard work.


So let’s look at how behavioral pull employs a “trigger” to request a specific “response” to any of a group of identified process abnormalities. The process is designed in such a way that a visual cue exposes the problem as quickly as it occurs, hence the name “trigger.” The trigger design requests intervention from someone responsible for the process with a corrective or containment action that is supported by their training. Using an example from a payables process; an abnormality caused by the accumulation of too many pending accounts payable, initiates a response request. The “trigger” designed by the team is a simple physical height gauge next to the payables inbox which visually indicates the number of invoices waiting in cue. Once the stack reaches a height indicated by a color coded mark on the gauge, additional associates who are also trained to process payables, respond by shifting to the process – adding capacity and reducing the backlog.

Another example is in a manufacturing process where production activity is controlled by visual locations on the floor that instruct associates to start or stop the process based the presence or amount of inventory in them.  If the locations are filled, no product is to be produced, but if they are emptied and the markings are visible, their color codes (red, yellow, green) visually instruct the process operators as to how much product to make as well as how urgently the response is needed. Yet another example might be a customer service process (you’ve seen this in large retail stores) where the number of people in line (possibly identified by markings on the floor or the wall or by the position of a hanging sign) will trigger customer service associates to respond by moving from other activities to open additional lanes for the process that is backing up.

The common element of these behavioral requests is their use of visual or audible cues to specifically request action from those associates assigned to the process, to respond as they are trained. A trigger must clearly expose the problem and explain the need for a response, with training that guides associates to provide the type and quality of response needed to resolve associated the specific issue. Finally, as we’ll explain in the Guide step, if the problem cannot be resolved by the assigned associates within a given time period, they should elevate the problem to the next level of process management.


With the abnormalities identified, the corrective actions defined, and the behavioral responses targeted, training is necessary to enable associates to recognize and respond correctly to a specific type of “trigger.” The extent of the training required depends on the process complexity, but it’s important to point out that both training and response-abilities should be layered across the organizational levels to provide “tiered engagement” by everyone associated with the process. Whether the person is charged with operating the process and recognizing the existence of the issue, or supervising the area with responsibility to support and reinforce the response, it’s this combination of training, the layered responsibilities, and the visual controls that makes the organizational response to a process issue “reflexive.”

By “reflexive,” I’m referring to a response that becomes “subconsciously automatic” from the respondent. You can’t accomplish this kind of response in a single event, but you will build it with a combination of training and standardization that’s sufficiently clear, thorough, and so well reinforced that the correct response occurs without external intervention. The more complex the process and the response required, the more frequently it should be reinforced. My own personal example of “reflexive” came from a time when I was wrestling for a Division 1 university. Our coach would drill us on certain techniques until we were literally sick of them. At the time it seemed to be more punitive than beneficial, until I returned to the sport several years later to coach my own sons. Even after so much time away, my ability to react to live situations with the correct technical responses surprised me. It had taken me that long to learn and appreciate that he’d trained us so thoroughly that our physical responses had moved beyond a conscious decision to a subconscious response I call “reflexive.


Once your process controls are established, they should be integrated visually along with their respective abnormality responses. User training is necessary to be capable of associating the proper actions to their visual cues. Making the process control elements visual is a fundamental of principle of Lean, and by default, of behavioral pull as well. The visuals support and strengthen the value of the training, helping to semi-automate a reflexive and repeatable response when a trigger activates. All of these contribute to your ability to sustain normal process performance.

With triggers that are designed to visually communicate as much information as is possible about the existence and nature of the issue, other process visuals will help to clarify the nature of the problem and request the appropriate response.  Again, the visuals are intended to solicit and support associate intervention for all aspects of process performance. This includes normal functions, flow controls for quality and rate of output, and intervention actions to counteract abnormalities, involvement, the timing or urgency of the response, and more.

Let’s look at an example of a visually controlled customer service process:

In the above example, visual cues are lighted (lane lights) or an audible trigger (intercom) may be added. Each level of the organization is trained to provide a different response based on the type of cue.

Now, let’s look at an example of a visually supported manufacturing process:


In this example, the cues include lighting and color-coded staging areas. The staging locations are designed to accommodate a limited amount of moving material with the requirement that, should they be filled, the process must stop. The general design of each of the cues and triggers is standardized across the organization, however, the cues vary by both the process and the type of problem, and response requests will typically be specific to them.

The management task associated with behavioral pull is to engage associate input and participation in the design of the visual controls, the responses, and also the training.  This helps them to contribute valuable knowledge and also commit more fully to the program through the rules of response. On a day-to-day basis, management supports continuous improvement through timely resource allocation, priority management, and consistency of expectations. This is most critical, because if the management expectations of the process become variable or you allow priorities to change excessively, your assosciates ability to make good decisions will break down and the consistency of results will be lost. Like the rest of the organization, managers should be trained thoroughly in the use and meaning of the visual controls, their ongoing role in day-to-day reinforcement of them, and how to establish expectations which are consistent with the desired response. From a support perspective, the set of expectations must also require full participation in training from all levels of associates.

As a Manager, you can better establish a culture to support Pull Behaviors by doing the following:

  • Remove the drudgery from an associates work (using Autonomation). Automating or eliminating the most repetitive job components allows them to shift their focus toward more critical process indicators – I call it “elevating their line of sight from the watching stripes on the road go by to seeing the road ahead.” This elevated viewpoint makes their jobs more value added by virtue of the additional responsibility.
  • Facilitate their awareness of process abnormalities, allowing them to be as proactive as their new capabilities will permit. While it increases organizational stress on the need to train, it also frees associates to “see and respond” reducing the impact of those issues.
  • Involve them in the creation of the visual systems or triggers needed to operate the environment. Their participation will facilitate ready adoption of the techniques and the end result will be a culture that begins to embody the concepts of continuous improvement.
  • Avoid Blame! Create a culture of response instead, with clear definition of the actions needed in each situation as well as the time requirements for them.

Now, in truth “Behavioral Pull” does simulate a basic stimulus and response environment, but the reality is that the stimulus is in a sense automated by the visual arrangement and friendliness of the environment, while the response is the result of thorough skills training associated with specific conditions and by engaged associates.

While we’ve generally been focused on manufacturing and services environments, the usage of this process isn’t limited to strictly those kinds of businesses. “Behavioral pull” can be employed anywhere that a repeatable customer response protocol is needed, and the results at the customer level can be astounding.


So, the visuals engage by exposing the problem, requesting intervention, and guiding the response. The training enables associates to reflexively provide the correct support to the trigger’s request. Management commitment is demonstrated through support for the investment in training, the establishment of consistent expectations, and the monitoring of key performance indicators. The cultural impact of all of this is “pull behavior.”  Converting it back to the “Success Equation” R=A+D; the correctly trained response is the desired result that comes from your approach to training, with responsibilities deployed to the appropriate associates for corrective action. Implemented thoroughly and with due patience, behavioral pull systems will improve response and engagement, paving the way to more timely problem resolution, and sustained higher levels of performance.

As is often the case, to get there you should start small and build up. Beginning at the line management level helps you to attack a “hinge-point” where your successes frequently break down and sustainment fails- the transition from vision into concept and execution. This is where the process of changing embedded behaviors in others will be supported or thwarted, so leveraging ownership by initiating your process improvements with them can be transformational. Once your line management has mastered their own response behaviors, they are ready to support movement to the next level, and so on level by level. In all cases, the Lean tools will provide clarity of expectations, elevate the visibility of issues, and assist in the establishment of guidelines for correction.  In the final stages of implementing “Behavioral Pull”, the existence of a problem should be obvious even to an outsider, with the need for and the type of corrective response, understood and provided by all internal associates.

But, what does it take to break it all down? The common mistakes made when trying to enlist engagement include: 1) underestimating resistance by failing to understand its origins within the involvement group; 2) trying to go it alone, or involving too few associates in the process design – flying solo ignores the teams knowledge, prevents their buy-in and reduces organizational momentum; 3) trying to solve the problem with only a technical solution, which rarely works when there is heavy influence by the human element; and 4) failing to celebrate success at the same pace as the achievements. Too little celebration suggests a lack of appreciation while excessive celebrating can create the appearance of unwelcome hype.

While many organizations attempt to Implement Lean, they fail to understand the application and inter-relatedness of the tools. To make matters worse, they assign responsibility for deployment to a few individuals whose influence fails to extend broadly enough across the organization, and they struggle to generate and sustain improvement. The use of “PULL BEHAVIORS” to engage more associates in providing a guided response to problems affecting the flow and quality of their work, WILL be the differentiator between a successful Lean implementation and an attempt which merely looks lean.

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