Image Credit: http://www.shmula.com/about-peter-abilla/what-is-andon-in-the-toyota-production-system
When my wife was seven months pregnant with our first child, we moved into my parents’ spare bedroom. We had just rented out our house, and we were six weeks away from closing escrow on our new home where we would go on to raise our little family. While we were living in the spare bedroom, we had to quickly adopt some survival skills. This was a great adventure, mainly because of me. I am not only a super-sensitive person, but I also think that I am funnier than I actually am...
To survive this six week adventure, my wife and I quickly realized that we needed a special “stop” signal that either of us could invoke without angering the other. We needed an alert system that, without words or sensationalism, indicated "feelings are about to be hurt." Living in such a small space with so much external stress, we needed to ensure that effective communication and systems were in place to end teasing, nagging, questioning, or eye-rolling before the point of no return. The signal? If one of us were about to experience hurt feelings, we were to extend our arms and close them shut, like the jaws of an alligator. This signal means, without question, hesitation, sarcastic remark, or huffy sounds, that everything was to stop. Immediately.
Almost a decade later while reading the book The Lean StartUp (2011) by Eric Ries, I was fascinated to learn about a mechanism at Toyota that worked in radically the same way. It is called the "Andon Cord." The Andon Cord is a cord that any worker along the assembly line is expected to pull if a problem or concern is seen. Pulling the cord is not something determined by rank or seniority. Pulling the cord illuminates a series of immediate responses by supervisors that may or may not actually stop the entire line of production. Ries (2011) explains that it "allows any worker to ask for help as soon as they notice any problem, such as a defect in a physical part, stopping the entire production line if it cannot be corrected immediately" (p. 187). Without naming it, in How (2011) by Dov Seidman, he explains the power of this concept as "it (quality) became the responsibility of every employee at every level of the task. Power shifted from the top of the hierarchy down to its base; anyone, at any stage of the process, could stop the line" (pp. 211-212).
This is much like what my wife and I had developed to get through our in-between-houses-time, and in fact we still use the signal today. Frankly, much of the success of our marriage has been forged by this strategy that puts the responsibility on both of us for acting and responding appropriately in a predetermined and understood fashion.
I was speaking to a visitor touring our school in the spring of 2017, and he took the story of the Andon Cord as a quality control tool and superimposed it as a strategy for ferreting out instruction that didn't meet “his” standards. In fact, he quite-excitedly gleaned that this proven concept from industry empowered him to be more direct and quicker to make note of low-grade instruction at “his” school.
So bothered by his interpretation, I was inspired to write this post. I told him that I thought the transference of the concept of the Andon Cord from manufacturing to education was more to do about empowering all people in the organization and flattening the hierarchy, aka, culture. It was not immediately about quality control on instruction. I told him that, in fact, I thought the story taken in the context as he processed it was actually damaging. Whether he wanted to hear it or not, I continued that, 'from my perspective, the power of the Andon Cord idea speaks to...'
Travelling is one of my favorite things to do. I enjoy the adventures of a new journey - both the joys, stresses, memories and the learning that happens every time I venture out into something new.
On a recent journey, I stopped at the Concierge’s Desk to get advice on local eats. I was visiting New York City, and I was overwhelmed with the quantity of Yelp reviews, travel website suggestions, and other “noise” that was creating inner stress for where I should eat.
While standing in line, I listened to the Concierge help a couple that was in town for the first time. They only had one night free in their trip, and they were desperate to see a “terrific” show. The Concierge took the time to ask questions about the couple’s preferences. Did they want a musical, did they want more of a traditional play, did they know that there are a number of uniquely spirited “Off Broadway” productions that may be enjoyable. The couple left, with tickets in hand, with clear directions about how to get to the theatre, and even a recommendation for a coffee/gelato shop for after the show that will give a 10% discount by showing the ticket stubs from the show! Wow!
Next, was my turn. I love the theatre, but that wasn’t my concern at the time. I wanted the real story on where I should get some good food. I mentioned a few “celebrity chef” and “tourist joint” places that I had heard about. And on my own, I would have just gone to one. But the Concierge looked at me and said, “Those are good choices, but you only have so much time in New York, you should really get something authentic. Do you like Italian food?” I do, and I left with a suggestion for a great “Mom & Pop” restaurant out of Times Square, where the locals ate. I left the Concierge’s Desk with exactly what I wanted, even though it was unexpected, and with reservations made for me. I also had detailed directions of which subways would get me there in about 20 minutes. I was off on my journey for the night!
As I was wrapping up the conversation with the Concierge, a woman had stepped up next to me to a second Concierge. She had just gotten to the hotel after a long flight with weather delays, she had checked in, gone to her room, and realized she didn’t pack a toothbrush. She came to the Concierge’s Desk for help on where the nearest convenience store was. The Concierge, not only gave her explicit directions and explained that it was a 5 minute walk down the block, but he reached under his desk and pulled out a travel-sized toothbrush and toothpaste. He said, “Here, this will take care of you for now, how about you just stop at the convenience store on your way back into the hotel.”
What I realized in this moment is that the role of a Concierge is to meet the specific needs of individuals, for wherever they are at in their journey, because all travelers are on a continuum of need. The similarities of the travelers is that they are all away from home, they are all seeking temporary residence in the hotel, and each of them is on a journey. The role of the Concierge is to be empathetic, to listen, and to hear for and act on the things that a person doesn’t say as much as what they do say. The suggestion for an Off Broadway Show, the tip about ticket stubs getting 10% at a coffee/gelato shop close to the theatre. Providing tickets in hand for the show and detailed directions to get there. For myself, directing me away from what was known to something authentic - and providing directions, and reservations being handled. Then lastly the woman without a toothbrush. All she wanted was directions to a convenience store, but the Concierge knew he could do better than sending her back out into the city after a long day of travel.
Each of us who came to this desk in the short span of time were on a journey. We were at different points in the journey, and we had different needs & interests at that time. The Concierge’s job is to be human-centered, lead with his ear, and meet the stated needs of the users at the desk, as well as listen deeply to understand some unstated needs. Everyone who comes to a Concierge’s Desk is on a continuum in their journey. A Concierge is in a human-centered profession.
This makes me think about being a school leader in an era of drastic change and even uncertainty. There is much said about “leading innovation,” building culture, and change leadership. I also hear a lot of people talk about how they are “servant leaders,” which roots back to work by Robert Greenleaf in 1970.
As we lead in an era of uncertainty and change, this idea of the Concierge Continuum is useful for me to conceptualize theory to action. Good practice establishes that we use a theory of action when building more innovative, more personalized, or more creative learning experiences for students. But it is the theory to action that gets things done. We spend too much time “talking” and too much time sharing theories to explain behavior. Let’s be more biased towards action. Let’s be more human-centered, and let’s DO!
And to effectively do so, I contend that we need to work like a concierge, where we intentionally take the time to recognize that everyone on our team will always be at a different level of implementation - they exist on a continuum in their journey. Our job as a leader is to listen, to be mindful, and find out where each person lies, and what needs exist that we can meet, to help them advance up the continuum - towards progress of our intended outcomes.