In Lean manufacturing setting up feedback loops is considered a critical part of the operation, so much so there is a term for this – Andon – a system to notify management, maintenance, and other workers of a quality or process problem.
The principle is that it gives the worker the ability, and moreover the empowerment, to stop production when a defect is found, and immediately call for assistance. Workers are encouraged to use this feedback mechanism freely. Common reasons for manual activation of the Andon are part shortage (dependency), defect created or found, stoppage, or the existence of a safety problem. Work is generally stopped until a solution has been found.
Loosely translated an Andon is a Paper Lantern – To shine a light on a problem.
Sounds great in principle, any worker is empowered to give feedback to management if they have concerns over safety quality or even a weakness in a process, but for it to become culture it needs to be adopted in a no-blame manner and used frequently, lack of utilization of an Andon is a serious problem and is addressed in Lean.
If a feedback mechanism is not triggered regularly then the settings are considered too loose. The threshold for triggering an Andon would continually be made tighter and tighter, quality is expected to be higher, time for a task is squeezed and so on until there is an increase in frequency of Andon being used.
The aim is to get a regular feedback of actionable information, too little and the feedback loop has failed, too much and you cannot see the problem so it needs tuning and adjusting slowly.
What does that mean to us in a non-manufacturing environment?
We have got pretty good at retrospectives and giving feedback locally, but feedback to management is largely absent.
The difficulty in many organizations is that senior management hide behind an open door policy. “Employees can talk to me any time, my door is always open”. It is very easy to pretend you are open to feedback but much harder to actually be open.
“Employees can talk to me at any time, my door is always open”
– the unapproachable manager
In many cases the open door is actually an invisible barricade: fear of retribution, fear of not being supported, fear of being ignored, fear of the messenger being shot. In many cases the fear is justified, but even when it isn’t, it doesn’t make the fear any less real to those with genuine feedback to share.
Creating Feedback Loops
Just like with Andon, this is feedback that should be sought and encouraged and your measure should be how frequently you are given constructive feedback from your employees, if you are challenged regularly and respond to it regularly then it is working, but if you are not getting regular feedback (from those outside your inner circle) then it is likely your “open door” is not that open.
Has someone in the last week given you critical feedback without being asked?
If on the occasions you do explicitly ask for feedback are you bombarded with hostile questions? Do the questions catch you by surprise? Do people seem dis-satisfied with your responses? Do you only ask for feedback when people quit? If yes then perhaps you are not asking for feedback often enough, or are not responding to the feedback you are getting.
Feedback is not passive
Feedback is generally not passive, you need to invite it, create forums where feedback is invited and expected, be open to the feedback and when you are not willing to change be prepared to explain yourself, and be prepared to repeat yourself.
It really comes down to whether you truly are a feedback culture, if you are you have to work for it.
I am an Agile coach, currently working for Asynchrony Labs in St Louis. I have 20 years experience in software development, working on projects in both the UK and the USA