Sharing and building Solution Focused practice in organisations

I’m astonished by the parallels between Solution-Focused practice for organizations and our work with Improvement Kata & Coaching Kata and hope to learn more by posting here.

Much of “Lean” consulting in business focuses on eliminating problems and “wastes,” whereas we’re guiding teams to focus on striving iteratively in small steps toward a new, desired ‘target condition.’ Funny, we even use something like the Miracle Question to help set challenges in a 1-3 year out time frame, though until recently we had not heard of the Miracle Question.

There are differences of course. For example, we don’t use the word “solution” for the desired state because we found people then just trying to implement rather than iterate. We’re using the word “solution” to describe things done to overcome obstacles along the way.

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Comment by Mark McKergow on January 19, 2013 at 12:00

Hi Mike

Perceptive thoughts here - many thanks.  We think of it as an effective way to gather people and indeed know-how around 'what works here' - which includes many aspects.  And then seeking to build on that, rather than analysing the problem.  It's almost always not simply recycling what's already known (though that does happen) - more a way of looking at things.  If you examine the problem, you become an expert on the problem. If you examine what helps you move in the desired direction, you become an expert on that - and the 'problem' fades away.  Yes, of course the path to better is as yet unknown - if it was know, you'd just have to do it. :-) SF is definitely a way of working with tough and complex situations, where things either seem very stuck or very messy/complex.

Comment by Mike Rother on January 15, 2013 at 3:47

Hi Mark,

Thanks again for taking the time to comment and explain. BTW, we're making our routines as clear as possible as we're experimenting with principles of deliberate practice, or 'kata,' as a way of developing new habits.

Interesting to have people look at what we know about what makes the machine run reliably? Is it, then, a reaction to a problem (machine not running reliably, set-top boxes returned) coupled with an assumption that a solution already exists? Does this in any way relate to benchmarking?

A team using the Improvement Kata practices a creative routine (kata) to typically stretch beyond the current threshold of knowledge and strive for a target condition to which the path is as yet unknown.


Comment by Mark McKergow on January 7, 2013 at 18:58

Hi Mike,

Thanks again for all this useful input - admirably clear. 

An SF approach to the machine with frequent breakdowns would be to gather people around and look at what do we know about what makes the machine run reliably?  This is a different inquiry to what makes it break down - in conventional logic these are opposites, but in SF logic they are simply different.  That might include: periods when the machine ran well, particular shifts/crews where it runs better, other examples of the same machine running better, other people using that machine with more reliability... and then how come?  What do we know that helps?  Then, build on that with small steps that 'do more of what's working'.

As an example of this kind of situation, one of my colleagues worked with a UK satellite TV company who were suffering many returned set-top boxes which turned out to have no defect on inspection - clearly a waste of resources.  However, with an SF consultant, they noticed one region of the country with dramatically fewer returns of this nature.  It turned out that the phone operators were using a slightly different process before asking for the box back...

This is not simply an effective way to change, btw - it also has a very different impact on those doing it (particularly those who don't yet run the machine reliably!).   

Comment by Mike Rother on January 5, 2013 at 21:17

Hi Mark,

Thank you for the additional info and sorry for my delay in responding. I like your blog post a lot. It’s a great fit with what we’re doing and I forwarded it to some colleagues.

To your question about next steps, here’s a quick answer though as you know there are subtleties. Once a direction has been set (we often call it a “challenge”) a closer-in “next target condition” is established, which describes a condition you want in place on a defined date (it’s not just a target or a number, although it should be measureable in some aspect.).  The target condition typically lies between 1 week to 3 months in the future; closer in for beginners.

At this point the first step is free. We don’t use Pareto or a plan to determine it. Sometimes as a first step we propose, “as an experiment let’s try it the way you describe it in the target condition and see where it doesn’t work,” which of course tells us what to work on next. After the first step now there’s a “chain of PDCA cycles,” where what's learned in one step leads to the next step (there are exceptions).  We try to make the steps (experiments) short and frequent. Here's a sort of visual summary from the online Improvemet Kata Handbook:

The further out a target condition lies, the more there is a need to make some sort of plan. What we teach managers then is to plan carefully but then to view the plan only as a hypothesis. The actual steps will spring from the PDCA cycles, not the plan, and you don’t look too far ahead (except to reference the target condition). In these cases when we get to the target condition date we reflect on what was planned and what really happened along the way, which allows the learner to improve their thinking/planning next time.

It’s hard for us to accept that “plans are things that change” but I think we better learn it if we’re going to navigate our way to meeting the big challenges that I know we can meet... if we practice a good meta method. I’m heartened by your efforts and those of SOL.

Have not yet met David Shaked.


Comment by Mark McKergow on December 29, 2012 at 11:21

HI Mike

Thanks for the extra links - very nice presentations and very clear.  I like very much your ideas about small next steps in the right direction of course, and the key aspect of getting real-world experience as opposed to sitting around and theorising.  I have written about a philosophy of working with constant change - 'rutenso'., which might interest you.

I'm wondering about the way in which these next steps are arrived at. You mention lost of PDCA cycles (which is a good thing of course) - but what kind of PDCA cycle?  :-) If we look at the automated machine with frequent breakdowns (slide 11 of The Wrong Kata) as an example... - faced with this machine, how would you figure out some next steps? 

BTW have you ever experienced SF work in action?  I'd love you to have the opportunity, wonder how we could make that happen.  And have you heard of David Shaked?  He is working on a book about strength based Lean/6 Sigma and would be interested to hear from you.   

Comment by Mike Rother on December 28, 2012 at 15:53

Hi Mark, Thank you for your further comments. Not sure which of our materials you've studied so I'm not sure where your view on the Improvement Kata is now coming from. If you have time you could review the two following short items (the first is a SlideCast... turn on your speakers and click the 'play' button). I will be eager to hear your comments.

Thank you for the link to your video, which I watched a few times. Nice job, btw! It only seems to confirm a high degree of commonality in our approaches, which is exciting. Reproducible results -- replication of discoveries -- is prized in research. Like you, we are working with organizations to move them from habitual overreliance on the logic of problem solving toward habits of a logic like SF.

Comment by Mark McKergow on December 28, 2012 at 14:00

Hi Mike, Thanks for the update, though it leaves me little further forward in deciding what is Sf about the process aside of focusing on a desired state and taking small steps. The way your diagram starts at 'current state' and then features 'barriers' makes it look a lot like problem solving to me.  I and many folks here would distinguish between problem solving and solution building - video at makes the distinction. 

The Toyota thing came from Japanese consultants working with Toyota at a conference in Tokyo a couple of years ago.  Koto Cho was one of them. 

Comment by Mike Rother on December 22, 2012 at 21:22

Hi Mark,

Thank you for the note and comment.  The words under the video are the ones I added following Jesper's suggestion.  Am interested in the Toyota comment you mention.  Any further info on it?

Comment by Mark McKergow on December 22, 2012 at 12:28

Hi Mike

First of all, welcome to the SF world, and thanks for posting these videos.  The iterative element of SF is a key part imho, and often overlooked.  I couldn't work out which were the added comments etc... could you elaborate please for an ignorant Englishman?  Many thanks.

BTW I have intelligence that even parts of Toyota are now using SF ideas along with everything else - they use SF 'when nothing else works' according to my contacts in Japan.

Comment by Mike Rother on December 20, 2012 at 16:03

Hi Jesper,

Thank you for your comments and question.  Darn, I was hoping it would be more obvious.  But this is great because it forces some deeper exploration.  I added some comments to the videos and a few of the photos per your suggestion and look forward to further questions!





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