GA 024 | Lean and Green with Keivan Zokaei


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Today’s guest is Keivan Zokaei, a UK-based author and consultant. Keivan is a pioneer in the lean and green movement. In this episode we explore what exactly “lean and green” means, and how to bring environmentally-friendly practices to your workplace.

To hear the podcast just press the “Play” button at the top of this post. An MP3 version is also available for download here and a downloadable PDF transcript of the interview can be found here.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Keivan’s lean and continuous improvement background (3:21)
  • The quotation that most inspires Keivan…think Deming (5:23)
  • Why lean is not innately green (5:55)
  • What it takes to make your business lean and green (8:26)
  • Practical examples of lean and green in action (9:45)
  • Why many companies don’t adopt a lean and green philosophy (14:27)
  • How you can learn about the lean and green movement (17:31)
  • Keivan’s definition of “Respect for People” (19:51)
  • Keivan’s take on the phrase “Kaizen Culture” (21:30)
  • The best advice Keivan has ever received (22:17)
  • Keivan’s personal productivity habit (24:25)
  • Keivan’s final words of wisdom (30:41)

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Full Written Transcript

GA 24 Keivan Zokaei

Announcer: You’re listening to Episode 24, with Keivan Zokaei.

[background music]

Announcer: Welcome to the Gemba Academy podcast, the show that’s focused on helping individuals and companies achieve breakthrough results, using the same continuous improvement principles leveraged by companies such as Toyota, Del Monte, and the US Department of Defense. Now, here’s your host, Ron Pereira.

Ron Pereira: Hey there, this is Ron Pereira with Gemba Academy, and I’d like to welcome you to another episode of the Gemba Academy podcast. As always, thank you so much for taking time to listen to this podcast, and for watching our videos over at I do want to give one quick Gemba Academy update.

We’ve recently released the second edition, if you will, of our Gemba Live episode over at FastCap. If you’re not familiar with FastCap, you really need to at least check out some of the free videos that we have available on FastCap, just an incredible company. Paul Akers and his team recently moved into a new facility in Bellingham, Washington.

There are no walls within this facility. It’s an open facility, it’s gorgeous. We were able to get some incredible footage.

We were using drones, and all kinds of interesting techniques to capture the footage. Paul and his team just blew us away with their passion, and their drive for continuous improvement. If you’re a Gemba Academy customer, definitely go to the Gemba Live! section of your subscription and check out FastCap. It says 2014.

There’s another series, FastCap 2012, where we were in FastCap’s old facility, so you can check that out as well.

Now then, in today’s podcast, I’m excited to welcome a guest to the show. This is a new guest, is Keivan Zokaei. Keivan is based out of the UK, and he specializes in this Lean and Green movement. It’s a really interesting topic. Something that I’m ashamed to say, I don’t know as much about as I should, and something that I personally want to grow in and learn more, because it’s an area that Gemba Academy needs to explore down the road.

In any event, today what we talk about is how Lean and Green play together, and why so many companies actually struggle to adopt a sustainability, or more of an environmental approach. All the show notes for the things that Keivan and I are talking about can be found over at Again,

Enough from me, let’s get to the show.


Ron: Keivan, thanks for coming onto the show. Where are you calling in from today?

Keivan Zokaei: Thank you, Ron. Good morning or good afternoon to you. I’m calling you from London. It’s a beautiful London afternoon. It’s very good to be with you, guys.

Ron: I love London. It’s been many years since I’ve been there, but I especially love the double decker tours. I’m sure you don’t do those, but… [laughs]

Keivan: You see, if you live in London, you rarely do that. You rarely get to do that. I’ve done it once.

Ron: Keivan, why don’t you start by giving us a little bit of history on your background, maybe how you first came to learn about Lean thinking, and then what are you up to these days?

Keivan: Thank you, Ron. My background, I started being introduced to the concepts of Lean and continuous improvement when I was doing my master’s degree at Warwick University in the UK. At the end of my master’s degree, I decided to do a dissertation. I decided to do Lean and green as the topic of my dissertation, or my thesis, if you’d like.

It was interesting because even then I had two choices. I was in two minds between strategy or Lean and green. They were quite different fields, and I had two very good professors to pick. Eventually, I decided to go for the Lean and green, but every since I’ve been involved with both of them.

Ron: What do you do? Are you a consultant now?

Keivan: I am a consultant now, but as soon as I finished my master’s degree, I was fortunate to be head-hunted into the Lean Enterprise Research Center at Cardiff University. I was tenured academic for a number of years, for about six or seven years. I benefited from working with a number of leading edge Lean thinkers, from whom I’ve earned a lot at Lean Enterprise Research Center.

That center doesn’t exist anymore. Also, the people who work there left it.

A number of years through my academic career, I decided to become a consultant and try my hand in being a change agent.

Ron: We’re going to explore the whole Lean and green topic here in a bit, but, Keivan, what we like to do with all of our guests when we start these episodes is have them share a quotation that inspires them. The quotation can be related to Lean or leadership or really anything. What quotation inspires you?

Keivan: Ron, Dr. Deming himself famously said, “A bad system beats a good performer almost every single time.” I really do believe a bad system drives behavior. No matter how hard we push in a bad system I don’t think we have a big chance.

Ron: Love Dr. Deming. All right, Keivan. Let’s go ahead and get into the topic of Lean and green a little bit. The first question I have is a general question. Is Lean in itself green?

Keivan: Probably not, to be very honest. It depends how conscious you are about the green aspects of it. Companies, such as Toyota, who are extremely conscious about the environmental performance are also very sustainable. We were fortunate to have access to some Toyota executives and Toyota data not so long ago.

We carried out the benchmark of Toyota against other car manufacturers. In fact, let’s say we carried out the benchmark of the volume auto production. The results were remarkable because the environmental performance leak almost matched the economic performance leak. The best performance economically and quality-wise was also the best performance from an environmental point of view, which was quite remarkable. This just shows us that you will be also green if you have environmental consciousness.

Ron: I’m curious, your initial reaction was that Lean wasn’t necessarily green. Why do you think that is?

Keivan: The reason for that is that you will only become green if you are extremely conscious and aware of your green performance. Otherwise, your performance, your environmental performance, is not likely to be that great. The reason we see companies such as Toyota also putting cars such as Prius out — or they are very soon going to launch the fuel cell technology — is they’ve been working at it for maybe best part of 20 years.

Ron: What’s interesting about a company like Toyota…When you think of a Prius obviously that’s a very green car but the way they’re actually producing all of their vehicles, I reckon, is also extremely green just within the four walls of their factory. Is that fair?

Keivan: That is fair, yes. That’s what our benchmark proved with hard facts, yes.

Ron: What does it take to make a Lean and green business?

Keivan: I would say pretty much Lean itself. In order to create a Lean and green business, companies need to adopt a holistic approach — a systematic and holistic approach — towards Lean and green. The same way that adopting Lean tools does not guarantee creating a Lean company, adopting Lean and green tools will equally not guarantee creating a Lean and green company.

What is required is to have the tools, the processes, the leadership, the strategy, and the supply chain. In fact, I call that the Lean and green business system model.

Ron: Give me some examples. Back when I worked in industry, I remember seeing some events that were done where the maintenance department went around and they figured out that there was all these air fittings and so forth that were leaking. That’s maybe not necessarily a green activity, but there were examples like that that I can remember back from my industry.

There wasn’t a lot of focus on those types of initiatives.

Give me some more examples of what a Lean and green company is doing, some very practical, put-your-hands-on-it examples.

Keivan: Let’s put two examples out, just quick ones. There is a famous global retailer by the name of Marks & Spencer. They are not very big in the US, but they are well-recognized in the US. They are predominantly a British retailer of clothing and groceries. They have launched a scorecard. This is probably the main information that we can share with your audience.

The scorecard is quite remarkable. It covers three areas — environmental, ethical, and Lean. Those are the three pillars of sustainability, by the way — environmental, social, and economic. They have all of the supplies to go through the scorecard, understand how they’re performing, and give themselves good targets in terms of improvement, and go on a journey of improvement.

That’s why. They’ve taken the entire supply base on an improvement journey. Not only they are improving economically every day but they are also improving environmentally and socially or ethically every day.

Ron: What are they doing? I’d like to push my guest a little bit here so I apologize in advance.

Keivan: Sure.

Ron: Give me a practical example of what that company did. In a Lean tool way, we can say, “I just did some value stream mapping and I reduced my lead time from five weeks down to five days.” That’s a nice Lean improvement. What are some practical examples of some green improvements that that particular company has made?

Keivan: In the case of Marks & Spencer as a good example, what they’ve done, they have worked with a number — maybe tens of if not hundreds — of their key supplies. If you like, yes, you’re right, those supplies will begin some lead time reduction initiatives, some inventory reduction initiatives. They will reduce some of the waste.

Let’s take the grocery supplies as an example. If you reduce your food waste of course it is some Lean improvement. Of course it is some economic improvement. Coincidentally, food waste is also one of the biggest contributors toward global warming. That, coincidentally, is a huge environmental footprint that has been eliminated.

In another example, recently we worked with, in fact, the largest sandwich factory on Earth. We managed to reduce 1,000 tons of food waste, most of which was bread. In that case, bread was a baked item. Because it was baked, it consumes a lot of energy and it emits a lot of CO2. By eliminating all of that food waste, you have eliminated a huge amount of CO2 as well as saving a lot of money.

Ron: My wife would love that. She’s gluten free so she hates bread. [laughs]

Keivan: There you go. Yes. Exactly.

Ron: What about within an office environment? You’ll hear stories of don’t print anything anymore or various things to preserve paper. Are companies like Toyota, do they have practices like that in place?

Keivan: Absolutely. Toyota do ties into the environmental footprint. They do it not only on the shop floor in the manufacturing, but they also do it in the offices. Everybody. It doesn’t matter where they are in the company. Everybody will have environmental indicators to perform against.

This goes back to the earlier point about having a systematic way of implementing a Lean and green business. In fact, I should say creating a Lean and green business because you cannot implement Lean and green. It’s not a tool to be implemented. In fact, it can only be created.

Toyota, following the Hoshin Kanri, which in English you might translate as policy deployment or strategy deployment, following that everybody is given indicators. Everybody is given targets and measures to perform against. That includes all of the office staff.

Ron: Why do you think so many companies don’t adopt a Lean and green business philosophy?

Keivan: Here is the million dollar question, Ron. Actually, many companies are still unaware of the potential synergies between the two. When I go around — I don’t have a number to put on it — let’s say, roughly, more than 95 percent of the companies that we come across have a separate Lean team and environmental team.

There is a continuous improvement department in an economic sense. That is the Lean department, Six Sigma department, CI department, whatever brand is being given. Then there is a separate environmental department. There is the EHS or green office or sustainability program, whatever you’d like to call it. Of course, all the big corporations have it and many smaller, medium-sized companies also have it. At least there is an EHS officer in these companies.

There are two continuous improvement offices within these organizations. One is economic continuous improvement and the other one is environmental or social continuous improvement. Sadly, I find out nearly 95 percent or more of these companies never create any cross-fertilization between the two. These two departments hardly are aware of each other’s existence let alone being in touch and working together.

This is probably going back to the fact these companies are not aware of the potential that exists in creating the synergies between the two.

Ron: Yeah. What’s interesting, even when you talk about companies that have so-called “Lean departments” or “continuous improvement departments,” that in and of itself is a very dangerous situation. Then it’s all here comes the Lean people. Whereas, when you go to a company like Toyota or Danaher, some of these ultra so-called Lean companies, they’re all practicing it.

There’s no Lean department, per se. Sure, there might be a few guys who do some training or whatever it is, but everyone is practicing. Go to FastCap. 50 people. All of them are crazy for this kind of thinking, this business improvement mindset. It almost seems to be the same situation on the green side of the world.

If you have one little department of five people there’s only so much they can do. Everyone has to get involved.

Keivan: Absolutely, Ron. You bet. That’s exactly the case. In fact, as early as today I was talking to an environmental manager out of Germany, and she was saying exactly the same thing. She was saying in her organization she was perceived to be the environmental person so she will go and sort it out. Let’s not worry about it.

As you rightly said, of course that’s not the case. It’s the same with Lean. There is a danger that we have turned these things into departments. We’ve turned them into silos rather than a way of life.

Ron: Yes, exactly. If someone wants to learn more about this Lean and green topic what can they do? Are there books or workshops? Hire you to come in and help them?

Keivan: [laughs] That would be the best option. Short of that, Ron, there are loads of good references out there. In fact, there is a lot of free material off the Web. I am using a site — I hope it’s OK for me to reveal that URL.

Ron: Absolutely.

Keivan: That is a free source of information that people can go there and download case studies or papers or articles or even some videos from various people there. Also, there are loads of good books on the subject. Of course, I’ve written one so I would recommend my own book.

Ron: What is it called?

Keivan: My book is “Creating a Lean and Green Business System.” We were honored to be awarded the Shingo Prize in 2014. It was a great honor. Again, I’m not saying definitely that’s the resource. There are loads of good resources out there.

Ron: Let’s do this. We’ll link to all of your websites and your books here in the show notes, which people can find at Let’s do this. Gemba, I want to buy 10 copies of your book and then somehow get you to sign those. Then we’ll give them away to Gemba Academy, the audience here, Gemba Academy listeners or whatnot. We’ll figure out a way to distribute them.

Let’s work offline and figure out how to get you to sign those books and we’ll get those distributed. How’s that sound?

Keivan: That sounds great, and I might as well chuck in a couple of free copies in there if that’s the case. Absolutely. Let’s do that. Maybe you want to have a draw and send out a couple more.

Ron: Let’s go ahead now and transition, Keivan, into what we’re calling the quickfire section. This is where you get to share your personal thoughts and wisdom, which obviously you’ve been doing, but now we’re going to focus in on you. We spend a lot of time in Lean talking about respect for people. It’s one of the pillars of the whole Lean body of knowledge.

It can be hard to define respect for people. What does it mean to you to respect people?

Keivan: That’s one of my favorite topics, actually. Ron, making people anxious by overburdening them…

Ron: That’s interesting.

Keivan: No, I was going to say that is the opposite of respect.

Ron: [laughs] I was going to say no one said that. [laughs]

Keivan: [laughs] I hope not because I was going to say that’s the opposite of respect. Let’s say what it is not first. That’s what I meant. Overburdening people with worry or overburdened with too much anxiety — a zone of anxiety, if you like — that is the opposite of respect.

On the other hand, under-burdening people with too little to do and not respecting their mental or physical abilities — especially, of course, people need to be respected for their mental abilities — is equally not respect of people. You can call that the zone of frustration.

Somewhere in the middle is business as usual. Again, business as usual is probably not respect for people. Something slightly more than business as usual which you can call the zone of slight stretch — not too much stretch — that is, for me, respect for people. Where people can maximize their potentials.

Ron: I like it. When you hear the phrase “kaizen culture” what comes to your mind?

Keivan: I would say, again, somebody in some organization, some CEO, decided to change something from the top. That is one thing that comes to my mind from a sliding negative point of view. From a positive point of view, of course, it’s all about having a culture of continuous improvement. That is, I’m sure, what people really mean by saying a kaizen culture.

Continuous improvement, again, going back to the previous point goes back to stretching people but not too much. Not overburdening people. Maximizing people’s potential.

Ron: Keivan, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Keivan: [laughs] I must say this one I received not so long ago. I learned this from a good Ted Talk. The subject of the talk was that you do not try to make things perfect from the beginning. Take them into iterations. I must confess that one of my many flaws is that I am perfectionist, and that sometimes slows me down from doing things. Therefore, it takes me a long time to take the first step sometimes.

This was great advice for me. Do not try to make it absolutely perfect. Just take it into iterations. There is a famous challenge on the Internet. You can follow it yourself by the name of Marshmallow Challenge. This is a challenge where you bring people in to big workshops, and you get them to make a tower using spaghettis and to put a marshmallow on top.

They’ve got a certain amount of time. Let’s say they’ve got 20 minutes. Most people spend time doing politics and power struggling in their groups and they’re planning and designing. Guess what? At the end they put something together and they put the marshmallow on top and it crumbles down. [laughs]

The interesting point here was that graduates of business schools were not actually performing very well in this challenge. However, graduates of kindergarten were performing quite well. I’m sure you’ve seen the Marshmallow Challenge yourself, Ron.

I’ve learned from that, of course, the kindergarten kids know something and that is they have to take the first step. Over the years, maybe through obsessions and compulsions of life, we push back from that.

Ron: Yes. No, absolutely. People ask me, when we’re talking about the tool 5S they say, “Which one is the hardest S?” I always say with a smile, “Start.”


Keivan: That is very true, yes. I like that.

Ron: Do you have a personal productivity habit that others might benefit from?

Keivan: I try to write down a to-do list of the things that I need to do. Again, that was another way for me to remember to get things started and to get them done, as well. My inhibitions were mostly around starting so I keep a to-do list. I keep a handwritten short list of things that I need to do every week. Every single week.

I must say that has significantly helped me a lot.

Ron: We’ve talked about your book already. Again, we’re going to link to that in the show notes. If you could recommend another book related to continuous improvement or leadership to someone who was interested in learning more about Lean and continuous improvement what would it be and why?

Keivan: I very much am in love with “Out of Crisis” by Dr. Deming. I’m sure you’ve read it, Ron, and I’m sure many of your audience have read it. Still, I refer back to it time and time again. It’s an excellent read.

Ron: I’m going to change this last question up a little bit on you just with your unique background. The question is really centered on you’re a Lean thinker who has just been hired as the general manager of a company. We’re going to keep that part, but I’m going to make the focus of this question is that you’re a Lean thinker who has a tremendous amount of Lean and green experience.

Now you’ve been hired as a general manager of a company. They need to improve all aspects of their processes, everything from their efficiencies, the traditional Lean stuff, but obviously their environmental side of their business is totally out of control.

Unfortunately, the situation is that you’ve discovered that many of the senior leaders that you’re dealing with aren’t really so enthused about all of this Lean and especially all of this green mindset and the ideas that you have. With this said, how would you approach that situation as being the new guy on the block who’s really been tasked with trying to get this stuff to take root? What would you do?

Keivan: First of all, let me say do not lose heart. I would not let the negativity to get hold of me. I would stay positive about it. I am a great believer in something called positive intelligence. It’s not just about how much you understand process or how much process intelligence you have. It’s also about how much positivity you have.

People who ooze positivity, we’ve all seen them. We all know that those guys will get it done eventually. That’s the number one thing I would try to do is psych myself up, if you like, to make myself believe that I’m going to make it happen. Second thing is maybe it’s a good strategy to create some small wins. I’m sure we’ve all seen this.

Big events have very humble beginnings very often. If we can grab confidence of people, if we can win people’s confidence through small wins here and there, if we can do a kaizen workshop or something similar that has got some tangible benefits and we start doing it, this is another good strategy.

Thirdly, I am also a great believer of having a road map. No matter how much resistance is out there, you have to have a road map and navigate your way through. These are the quick three steps that comes to my mind.

Ron: I like it. We’re actually in the process of creating a new course here at Gemba Academy. It’s focused on how to build a culture of kaizen, that type of thing. We’re working in a lot of different aspects such as Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit” and how habits are actually developed. There are so many fascinating things about how our minds work and what you just said about taking things in chunks and developing so-called keystone habits, as they call it.

I’m reminded of the story of the company where the CEO was hired and he basically attacked safety and that was it. Safety. They were like, “What is this CEO of this billion dollar company talking about safety?” The fact of the matter was it was a habit, and he knew that if they could excel at safety then eventually everything else would come into alignment and it did. It’s very similar to what you just said.

Keivan: Absolutely, and that’s a great book, by the way, “The Power of Habit.” Great suggestion there, Ron. Another example, very similar to this one, comes to my mind. A CEO we worked with. Guess what he did. He actually tackled the toilets. He ordered the toilets to be painted. As simple as that. That was his strategy into winning people’s minds and hearts, starting with very mundane, down-to-earth areas such as the WCs.

Ron: I don’t know if you’re familiar with our friend Paul Acres at company FastCap. I’ll send you a link to this video that we did with him. He has a company where they do tours on a regular basis. The bathroom is the first place that he brings. If you’re the president of a company, it doesn’t matter if you’re a billion dollar company or one million dollar company.

It doesn’t matter. You all have to go to the bathroom and see how they practice Lean in there. [laughs]

Keivan: Absolutely. That’s true. Very true with this. Very interesting. I was not aware of that. That’s an interesting example.

Ron: Thank you so much for coming onto this show. It’s been really fun, and I look forward to reading some more of your work over on your website. Again, we’re going to link to everything at

Why don’t we finish up with you sharing some final words of wisdom, Keivan? Why don’t you tell people how they can connect with you via social media?

Keivan: Thank you. It’s been a great pleasure to talk to yourself, Ron, and to speak to your audience. I would, again, dare to share another quotation from Dr. Deming. He, again, famously said, “Survival is optional. No one has to change.”

It is not mandatory to survive, but we all obviously want to go on a continuous improvement journey and push ourselves into better and better positions. In terms of being in touch with myself, I am available via LinkedIn and also available via SA Partners’ website.

S A Partners’ website is You can easily reach me there. There is a contact page. Also, you can easily Google my name, and you will find my LinkedIn. I’ll be very happy to hear from people who have any Lean and green questions.

Ron: Again, Thanks again, Keivan. Hopefully we can meet in person one day. Perhaps, we’ll do another interview down the road.

Keivan: I very much hope so, Ron. Well done for you for your Gemba Academy work. It is an exciting website, and I wish you ever more success.

Ron: Thank you. Take care.

Keivan: Take care. Thank you. Bye-bye.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to the Gemba Academy Podcast. Now, it’s time to take a free, no strings attached, fully functional test drive of Gemba Academy’s School of Lean and Six Sigma over at

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What Do You Think?

Do you or your workplace practice lean and green methodology? Why or why not?

GA 023 | The Lean Roundtable with Paul Akers and Friends


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Lean RoundtableToday’s episode is jam-packed with amazing lean conversation. FastCap’s Paul Akers invited me to join his monthly Lean Roundtable, during which he and other lean leaders check in with each other and discuss a specific topic related to continuous improvement.

In this edition, we discussed what we’re struggling with in terms of lean. To say I learned a lot is an understatement.

An MP3 version is also available for download here

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • How the Lean Roundtable got started and who the participants are (3:06)
  • How Ashley Bailey of Klime-Ezee is struggling with engagement and vision (7:05)
  • How Greg Glebe of Xylem Design is struggling to connect with employees (11:40)
  • How Loren Jones of Xylem Design is struggling to set a consistent lean example (13:28)
  • How Michael Althoff of Yellotools is struggling to keep lean practices top of mind (16:46)
  • How Nick Koceljl of Walters & Wolf is struggling to sustain lean changes (21:32)
  • How Glenn Bostock of SnapCab is struggling to identify areas to improve (30:34)
  • How Bruce Ennis of BE Quality is struggling to inspire and engage employees (33:59)
  • Why lean is hard…is it the message or the methodology? (48:10)
  • How Paul Akers of FastCap is struggling to help improve employees’ personal lives (53:50)
  • How Ron recently understood what lean is really all about (59:31)
  • Final comments from the participants (1:03:40)

Video Version of Lean Roundtable

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GA 022 | Leading with Respect with Michael Ballé


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Michael_BalleThis episode’s guest is Michael Ballé, co-author of popular lean novels like “The Gold Mine,” “The Lean Manager,” and “Lead With Respect.”

Michael and his father Freddy Ballé make lean literature engaging and accessible to readers of all backgrounds and levels of expertise.

To hear the podcast just press the “Play” button at the top of this post. An MP3 version is also available for download here and a downloadable PDF transcript of the interview can be found here.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Michael’s background and how he became interested in lean (2:00)
  • The quote that inspires Michael (6:32)
  • Why Michael and his father decided to write in the novel format (9:30)
  • A short summary of “The Gold Mine” (13:06)
  • A short summary of “The Lean Manager” (14:17)
  • A short summary of “Lead With Respect” (14:58)
  • How Michael balances challenging others with respecting their wishes (16:32)
  • Why you don’t have to go to a factory to see lean in action (19:17)
  • Why Michael can’t pick a favorite book of the three (24:27)
  • What “Respect for People” means to Michael (27:46)
  • What “Kaizen Culture” means to Michael (29:43)
  • The best advice Michael has ever received (31:31)
  • Michael’s alternative to a personal productivity habit (32:56)
  • The advice Michael has for anyone at the beginning of their lean journeys (36:18)
  • What’s next for Michael and his father Freddy Balle (39:25)

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Full Written Transcript

 GA 22 Michael Ballé

Announcer: You’re listening to Episode 22 with Michael Ballé.

[background music]

Announcer: Welcome to the Gemba Academy Podcast. The show that’s focused on helping individuals and companies achieve breakthrough results using the same continuous improvement principles leveraged by companies such as Toyota, Del Monte, and the US Department of Defense. Now, here’s your host, Ron Pereira.

[background music]

Ron Pereira: Hey there, this is Ron Pereira with Gemba Academy. I’d like to welcome you to another episode of the Gemba Academy Podcast. I’d also like to thank you for taking the time to listen to the show and for watching the Lean and Six Sigma training videos we offer over at

Today, I’m really excited to welcome Michael Ballé to the show. As many of you likely know, Michael is the co-author of some of the best Lean thinking books available.

Specifically, Michael and his father, Freddy, wrote “The Goldmine,” “The Lean Manager,” and most recently, “Lead with Respect.” During this show, Michael and I have a fun chat about all three of these books, including some interesting information on why they chose the novel formats.

All of the links Michael and I talk about can be found at Again, that’s Enough from me, let’s get to the show.


Ron: All right Michael, thank you so much for coming onto the show. Where are you calling in from today?

Michael Balle: I’m in Paris.

Ron: Paris, all right. What’s the weather like these days in Paris? Is it nice?

Michael: Is that gray and raining. When it’s nice, it’s very nice for the season.

Ron: No, I love Paris.

Michael: When it’s spring and lovely and the fall, and pretty grim in the winter.

Ron: [laughs] Yeah, I know. Michael, let’s start things off. Why don’t you just tell us a little bit about your background and maybe just tell us how you first came to learn about Lean thinking.

Michael: Complete serendipity. It was a complete accident. At the time, I was doing some research for my doctoral work, my PhD. I was working on mental models. I was working for an area where people would see the same things but see it differently. It doesn’t happen that much.

Most people, although they think they disagree, they tend to share the same world view and work. One time I mentioned this to my dad who, at the time, was a Lean pioneer. My dad said, “Oh, God, why don’t you go in and have a real job?” I said, “Thanks, Dad.” He said, “But if you really are interested in stuff like this, there are these two other guys who are doing some incredible things in the shop floor for us.”

I said, “In the plant, Dad? Me? Are you kidding?” That was off to a good start, but I wasn’t…I did go. I saw what the Toyota guys were doing with the supplier and I completely fell off my chair. It was just amazing. There was nothing in management theory that I had read that could describe or explain it, and that really hooked me on to Lean. I recognized that I was seeing something pretty unique.

I studied this for a while, doing my PhD, and then at some point one of the guys from Toyota told me, he said, “Listen. If you really want to understand this stuff, you’ve got to do it. You can’t just study it.” I was starting to become a professor of organizational science. I don’t know if there’s such a word anymore, but it was organization development, I think, at the time, and I started doing workshops with the consultancy.

I would run the workshops, the Kaizen workshops, which were all the rage at the time, and I could see it wasn’t working too well.

Don’t take me wrong. The workshops were really fun. Do you remember those early days where we used to move two-ton robots in the middle of the night, and see what it would look like in the morning, and nothing ever worked? It was exciting, but I thought, “Is this really the way to do it? I don’t think so.”

We started doing this with…my dad, the kind of programs…he’d done very large programs for automotive suppliers, first as an industrial VP, and then as a CEO, and then when the company got purchased, he was VP again, so these big systems, so we said, “Why don’t we do this for other companies and why don’t we try to teach them Lean the way he’d been taught by his sensei at Toyota?”

I started working with him in automotive, and we did these very big programs, and it was very interesting, but automotive, you’ve got to…it grows on you, but it’s not my…it was really tough. I started working progressively with the smaller companies and this is what I do now is that I coach COOs about…I would say from a 10 million company to a 300 million company. It’s very different role. I actually do what my father told me to do is how to coach a COO in creating Lean culture.

Ron: You do a lot of work with Lean Enterprise Institute, correct?

Michael: They’re my publisher. We’re on different continents. The beauty of the Internet [laughs] world…Again, I can write here on my desk in Paris and they post in the States. I think the way to say this, I always thought I would be the first guy of the new generational Lean thinkers but it turns out I’m probably the last guy of the first generation of Lean thinkers. Do you see what I mean?

Ron: Yeah, yeah.

Michael: I wouldn’t say I work with them very often.

Ron: Fair enough. Michael, we always like to start our shows with our guest sharing a Lean thinking or leadership-slanted quotation that inspires them. What quotation inspires you, Michael?

Michael: That’s interesting. There’s so many of them. I love this Ohba quotation that you can build the Buddha image but you have to put the spirit into it. I just learned recently that nobody ever heard him say this.

Ron: Yeah.

Michael: There’s another. One of the things that inspire me is a Taiichi Ohno quotation in his first book. He says something about the fact that in Japan they have this proverb that says that “even a thief is right one-third of the time.” Ohno’s take on it is that if a thief can be right a third of the time, then the average person should be right half the time. It seems to him that you should accept that we’re going to be wrong the rest of the time.

It’s going to be seen either, it’s like the optimist sees the glass half-full, the pessimist sees the glass half-empty, the engineer sees the glass twice too big. To me, this is really inspiring, this hang onto the fact that no matter how certain you sound on it, you’re still wrong half the time and fight several half life and everything changes. To me in my research, this has been a driving thinking.

Ron: Most people know, and as I mentioned in the intro, you and your father, you’ve written three books. You wrote a book on your own, right? I believe in 1996. Is that right? A systems thinking book. Is that accurate?

Michael: Yeah. I wrote several books. My first book was on systems thinking. My second book, I wish we could do a recall on books. We can’t, but…it focuses on re-engineering and then I wrote a book which has a lot of albums being called about revitalizing organization. I was already looking for part-Lean that at the time was not very fashionable but is starting round now, which is the whole dynamic, how do you revitalize an organization to Lean.

It’s very easy to see it in the startup element, but how does this apply to various established organizations? Then I wrote the “Goldmine” with my dad.

Ron: The first question I have, though, is really related to the three most recent books, the “Goldmine”, “Lean Manager,” and now “Lead With Respect”.

What’s interesting about those books is that you chose to write them in a novel formats. I have to say that I personally love the novel format. I’m curious on why you guys decided to go that route.

Michael: Accident, we didn’t intend to. When my father retired, he had all these experiment. This experience it’s like the guys you read about the Lean thinking, you’re OK at Lancaster and Berlin.

My father has a parallel experience in Europe with a slightly difference of tradition, because he didn’t have the same senses, and I thought we should write it up. I started writing it with him, a manual, like you’d write a business book, and he was so bored with it. He was nice and said, “Yeah, sure, do what you want,” but every time I’d send him something he was bored with it.

That was the first problem. The second problem was that it’s a system, so when you try to put it linearly, all of this never fit quite well. Do you see what I mean? They’re all connected to each other, so because I write novels on the side, I thought, “Why don’t we write it up as a novel? It’s a lot less boring.

Because of the conversation between the characters you can show, you can demonstrate the system element to this.

Ron: Speaking of the characters, are their real life inspirations for these characters? And, if there are real life inspirations, do the people that you’re attempting to represent know they’re famous in your writing?

Michael: No, they’re really ours. They’re our characters in their own right, but they popped out, and they’re a mix and match of people.

Ron: OK.


Michael: Yeah, there was this movie with Paul Newman, an aging Paul Newman, a silly movie, but it was such a strong character, this is Bob Woods, you know?

Ron: Yeah.

Michael: What this movie enabled me to do, which I didn’t expect, is to convey how it feels to be on the show forward being named. I’m in plants, or offices, or in companies, about three days out of five. There’s one thing about talking about these Lean principles, but it’s all about people.

And people are emotional, and people have moments, and it feels very different from what you read in the books. I think that was really good with a novel format, that you try to share how each…You know how the Prius engineers solved this problem, they wanted a silent care. At some point they realized that the feeling of silence is not the same thing as the absence of noise.

The feeling of luxury in a car is not the same thing as putting stuff in, so I think this is what we did with the novel, is how you capture this feeling of doing Lean.

Ron: I love that. What I want to do now is have you step through “The Gold Mine,” “Lean Manager,” and “Lead with Respect”, and just give us an elevator speech for those folks that haven’t read it. We’re going to link to all these books in show notes at Let’s start with “The Gold Mine.” Give us an elevator speech for what “The Gold Mine” is all about.

Michael: Come on, Ron, I wrote an entire book…

Ron: I know, I’m going to force you to an elevator. You’re on an elevator. You’ve got 20 seconds. Go. [laughs]

Michael: “The Gold Mine” is a Lean one-on-one. It’s trying to put the tools, and it does talk about the tools, and seed them in the system. That’s really what it is. “The Gold Mine” is you get into this company as desperate situations and it says, “This is the way to go at it. There was an ideal way, but right now we can’t even go to the ideal way, so we’ll do the simplest thing, we’ll just look at the flow and see where the gold.”

That was the whole idea. I was coming back from India, and this image of gold really stuck them over there. The gold gets stuck and we need to get the flow going and see what comes out of it.

This is a really a hands-on book in terms of the first step into Lean. Just go at it. Just start hitting the bat and see what comes out of it.

Ron: OK, The Lean Manager.

Michael: “The Lean Manager” is a more mature book. It shows Lean as a full measuring system. It’s more novelized. There’s more story in it, because I wanted to show, “Why Lean?” to an entire plant, and entire companies so now you have consistencies just to show you have an entire content and technology.

“The Lean Manager” is more about showing the full system of Lean and how to show a transformation of a plant as opposed to just doing it. It’s a more complete book.

Ron: Last, but certainly not least, what about “Lead with Respect,” this elevator speech, and I’m going to dig in a little bit. I have a few more questions on this book, but…

Michael: “Lead with Respect” is again a more reflective book. We’re talking about guys who’ve done it several times. I’ve been trying to teach it to somebody else, and we all know how hard it is, and it really is about how Lean changes you as opposed to how you change Lean, but what Lean contributes to you as a person and to your leadership style.

What we’re working towards is first, “The Gold Mine” is, “How do I learn Lean? What is Lean?” “The Lean Manager” is, “How do I use Lean to transform my company?” “Lead with Respect” is “What does Lean teaches me about leadership and management.”

It’s the all the way around, how we can have a new, completely…the underlying idea Freddy and I had is, “What does management mean in 2014 and beyond?” Everything we’ve been taught about management is so 20th century, so where are we going. This is what we wanted to explore. I don’t think “Lead with Respect”, the Lean tradition is the only answer to that question, but it is a time-tested, validated, proven answer with a lot of documentation. We wanted to put this answer together.

Ron: I have a few questions on “Lead with Respect,” a little bit more detail, but one of the seven elements you write about in the book is challenge. My question is how do you balance this concept of challenge and challenging others with people who maybe they just want to do their job, or maybe they don’t want to be challenged, or they don’t want to grow? Where do you find that balance?

Michael: [laughs] With great difficulty. I’ll risk a risque joke. You can edit it out.

Ron: OK.

Michael: How do porcupines mate?

Ron: Uh-huh?

Michael: Very carefully.

Ron: [laughs]

Michael: It’s a strange question, because I’ve never experienced it in those terms. As it shows in the book, to me the real thing about Lean thinking is that you start with visual control.

The big fight — and this is indeed a big fight, is to get middle management to realize, to put in visual control, and take care of it. This is a straightforward, “Please do it,” “No, I don’t want to,” “Please do it,” “No I don’t want to,” kind of a fight. OK, fight.

Once you get visual control, which is a visual way to show the difference between what we’ve planned and what we actually do. I’ve never found any resistance from the operators and the employees to actually solving problems. I must say it’s never happened. The resistance doesn’t come from here.

The challenging bit is that the CEO has to put in the energy of asking the question and being interested in the response, and also showing how these very detailed problems relate to the bigger issues that we have in the company.

That part of it, it always works. People want it. It’s tough not in terms of a conflict, it’s tough because we really have to think about it. It’s hard work to get the gray matter going, but there’s never a problem there.

While we do have these fights and these struggles that people make so much a case out of it, is not there, is getting management to accept visual control and to accept problems first and not to shoot the messenger. Some people are not guilty. Not to coo-coo difficulties and to actually face obstacles and get it done.

Ron: The next question I have, I found it interesting how CEO of the software company, again, in “Lean With Respect,” she did a lot of her learning by going to the Gemba, and particularly a manufacturing Gemba, where her customer coached her up.

My question is, is it necessary to see Lean in a factory? Even in their case it was a software company. Or could your CEO have gone to Menlo Innovations or someplace like that where it’s another software or service company?

I guess my question is, do we need to go to a factory where they’re producing widgets to see Lean in action?

Michael: Absolutely not. Poor Jane, she hated it. [laughs] No, it’s not about the…It’s not about company, it’s about people. It’s all about the sensor you have. One other thing I have to share about the writing of this book is that Andy Ward is not such a great sensei. Actually he is not a very good sensei at all.

He’s been thrown in that situation by his boss and he’s barely surviving. This is the story of his life. He’s doing OK. He has a great result, but he’s not very confident at all as a sensei. I give thanks to Tom Ehrenfeld and the LEI guys because they edited most of Andy out of Andy.


Michael: He sounds a lot more confident than he was at the beginning. The truth of that, it just happened. The normal format is funny because the characters talk to you. What really I wanted to show is how you had a relationship that appears between Jane Delaney software and Andy doing this. But you’ve got to be doing engineering. You’ve been doing anything else.

The other reason that it happens this way because most Lean guys that experience in the factory, I wanted to have a common reference point. These days most of my work, when I work with CEOs, is engineering because that’s where the money really is. That’s where the impact really is.

I thought about going more into engineering. Andy has a lot of engineering problems, but I use the shop floor examples because this would be common ground for a lot of Lean guys. Does that make sense?

Ron: It does, it does. The beauty I think of the novel format and Andy, as you said, is a slightly flawed sensei if you will. But aren’t we all? That’s the real world.

Michael: It was always a bit of a tussle with the editor because my deal has always been to be as authentic and as honest as I can. The editor would say, yeah, but for our audience we need to have more of an ideal…

Yeah, I think we found a nice balance. You don’t have a whole soul searching where Andy has to go through…Yeah, I think we’re all flawed. I don’t think of it as flawed. I think we’re all works in progress to be honest. I also think that this is a good thing.

Here’s the thing, Ron. I work with people over five, six, seven, eight years. The five things of Lean that people seem to insist on is really in the beginning, but it really disappears really quickly. What gets exciting is after a while is when I try to show in the second part of the book is people really surprise you with their initiatives and their creativity and their suggestions. Really we want to get their as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately these big Lean programs that the big companies do doesn’t take you there. It’s all about static efficiency. It’s not about the dynamic aids. Unfortunately this is a bad image for Lean because if you do these big road map programs, you just cash out. You never get to the fun part, which is what is my daily life. We have problems. Nobody knows the answer. The guys who do these things get involved and they open doors we never imagined.

This happens to me all the time in engineering. A contractor has a different idea of something, we decide to do open source. This is where you get the real excitement of people joining in where the company is going through their work.

I really would like to emphasize that part of the book, which is towards the end of the book. It starts to happen in the software company. It’s so funny because in fact Jane Delaney gets there so much quicker than Andy Ward does with his own plant.

Ron: The last question I have, and this is not even close to a fair question, so I apologize in advance for this. Michael, if you had to choose, which of these last few books is your favorite?

Michael: Wow. I’m a Libra. I can’t choose. My wife dresses me because I can’t even choose clothing. To put it another way, I would always wear exactly the same thing.

It’s very hard to answer this. I think they touch to a very, very different spirit. The goal of mine is I really…It’s like your firstborn. It has a rawness and it goes straight to it. I think this is a great book.

If you want to forget all the noise about Lean, just go straight through it. I’ve read it again recently. It still has its quality of going straight through it.

“Lean Manager” — there’s an element of vanity here, but I really like it as a novel. The characters are developed. What happens to them is the experience that I’ve found is that you do Lean transformation through time. Through time, things happen to people. They change, they grow. Some do, some don’t. This is where you see the Lean managers, that you learn to work with some people and you learn not to work with others.

“Lean With Respect,” that’s the last one. I love this book. One thing I love about this book is that it’s not at all what I had in mind. I had an even shorter and simpler book in mind. I had long fights and discussion with Tom Ehrenfeld, my editor. To his credit he was absolutely right to make it more grounded to a physical experience.

We really achieved a really good balance in “Lean With Respect” between the novel and the manual. I think we’re really there. I really like what came out.

Sorry, cop out. I wouldn’t know how to.

Ron: That’s fair. It’s like which is your favorite kid. It’s like, ah, you got to be careful.


Michael: Yes.

Ron: You like them all for different reasons, right?

Michael: Yep, exactly.

Ron: Let’s go ahead now, Michael, and transition into what we’re calling the quick-fire section. This is where you get to share some of your personal thoughts and wisdom, what you’ve been doing, but now we’re really going to focus in on Michael.

Michael: Please no. Please don’t. I’ve got this wall of being 50 staring at me. There are some words I will not go into. Wisdom is definitely not. I want to reclaim my prior name, unwise.

Ron: OK, share your un-wisdom with us. There you go.

Michael: I’m very happy with “un-wisdom,” absolutely. I’ll share all the un-wisdom you want.

Ron: Got it, got it. We’ve touched on this a little bit, and obviously your book’s touched on it a lot. What does respect for people mean to you? We talk about that a lot in Lean. It’s one of the pillars. It’s like, ooh, continuous improvement, respect for people. But putting your finger on it can be difficult.

What does it mean to you to respect people?

Michael: To me it’s to listen until it hurts. Here’s the thing. To me, understanding doesn’t mean agreeing. The first step to respect is really I will try very, very hard to understand. I’m not necessarily going to be nicer to you about it, or actually not less dogmatic or not strong in my arguments, but I will commit to understand where you stand.

In very specific ways I will hear the obstacles you face. Even though I believe these obstacles are in your mind, are not real and not that important, I will hear, I’ll force myself to hear that you consider this an obstacle. To me, that is the first thing of respect.

The other part of respect I would say I keep people safe from injury and harassment. They don’t go to work to be hurt or bullied. Progressively, to respect peoples’ autonomy, to engage and involve people in developing their capabilities and to utilize them fully, not to get them to do silly jobs.

There’s this big debate with the unions here saying, well, in the factory where somebody can’t find something and has to cross the factory, it’s a good time to relax, have a coffee and talk to your other people so that they break this informal rhythm of where they have it. I find that very disrespectful. I find that utilizing people’s precious time in doing something that is not needed, is disrespectful.

Everybody has different ideas about this.

Ron: Yeah. What about the phrase “Kaizen culture”? What comes to mind when you hear the words a “Kaizen culture”?

Michael: Kaizen culture? What about military music? Math and science? I don’t know. Happy marriages? Come on! I’m not so sure what it really means. I have a doctorate in sociology. Everybody always talks about culture. It’s become like it’s a part of the management tool vocabulary. The professionals of culture cannot really know what culture means.

It’s one of these strange words.

Ron: I’m going to push you. What’s it mean to you? Not what everybody else thinks. What’s it mean to you, Michael?

Michael: To me, I’d say it’s habits. Yeah, I could talk about Kaizen habits. I can talk about the fact…Here’s the thing. I can talk about the fact…You don’t do Lean. You teach people Lean thinking. The habit to look at every process, to look for ways, to ask yourself how this could be improved and then how can this be improved with the people who are not against them would be Kaizen culture.

Don’t do this at home! Do not do this at home! Keep playing at work. Do not bring this at home. That’s a recipe for disaster. It’s the habit of looking at work in terms of seeing the waste and thinking about how we could get these people together to come up with another way of working and to keep this moving. I’m sorry. I’m not making much sense. I’m very uncomfortable with this over notion of culture.

Ron: That’s fine. What about this one? What’s the best advice that you’ve ever received, any kind of advice?

Michael: Received or listened to?

Ron: [laughs] I don’t know. You tell me.

Michael: I’d say it’s go and see things for yourself. I remember learning this stuff from my father. He was a CEO of pretty big companies. Then, on the shelf, was incredible. He was just bored with all discussions. He’d say, “Listen, let’s go and see.” Every time we did, we realized something else was going on.

This is a thing that Freddy really caught. At first, go and see for yourself and always in greater detail. Then, you discuss the big picture. It’s like he goes from incredible detail, and then to the big picture and the strategy of a company and everything.

Still to this day, when we’re in a shop floor together, he loses me in the details. He sees things I don’t see thinking of processes, and then he loses me in the strategy. To me, there is a magic trick here. When you go back and forth, back and forth from the really detailed gemba, what people tell you and what they do, and the big picture, you start to learn incredible things.

Ron: Do you have a personal productivity habit, Michael, that others might benefit from?

Michael: Productivity? I’m a writer, productivity? I don’t think that way. I try to be effective, not efficient. I’m constantly worrying…when my work…again, my work with CEOs, people get it rolling. I’m not teaching them anything. We work together on difficult problems, particularly engineering and product problems.

My obsession is are we doing the right thing? I’m very worried about are we doing it right, the right way. I think people are pretty smart this way. Are we doing the right thing? That’s a much larger question.

In terms of quirks that I have, I have some Lean approach, which I’m very fond of. What is good is seven theories about everything, something I learned from some old time sensei. I don’t remember when. The thing that when we’re going to problem solving or when we have opinions, we go through seven theories.

Once your opinion of is there life after death, well, seven theories. The first three theories are very quick to come because it’s just a reaction of memory. Then, usually, four and five, you start cheating. You start renaming something you’ve already said. By the time you look for the seventh, then you start really being creative.

Ron: We spent a lot of time talking about various books, in particular books that you’ve had a part in writing. What about if you could recommend another book, in addition to your books, related to continuous improvement or leadership or something like that? What would it be and why?

Michael: Leadership, it would have to be “The Lean Turnaround,” Art Byrne’s book.

Ron: Why do you say that? You like it?

Michael: It is it. It’s not only in thinking. It’s not Jeff’s book’s upgrade. There’s something to me that goes with that. This is raw experiences. It’s a very great book. In terms of continuous improvement, my favorite book remains Taiichi Ohno’s “Workplace Management.” I keep going back to this book.

This is a very peculiar way that every sentence is a mix of a technical advice and a kind of naïve psychology. Ohno never distinguishes technique on one side and people on the other. He always puts it altogether. “Workplace Management” is a very surprising book and so relevant even today. This is the book I read and re-read and re-read.

I find incredible things in it. For instance, one thing I found recently and I’m trying to write something about it with Dan Jones and Jacques Chaize is how much Ohno saw Lean system as a teaching system. It’s pretty explicit in the writings, except that we’re so blinkered that we don’t see it. Definitely going back to Ohno’s books it’s always interesting.

Ron: The last question I have for you, Michael, is let’s say that there’s someone listening to this right now who is maybe a younger person, starting their career and they’re just getting started with Lean in general. What advice do you have for that person? Should they read books? Obviously read your books, but what advice do you have for them to get going?

Michael: That’s a tricky one. I don’t believe you can succeed in Lean without a sensei. I think that’s definitely one of the skeletons in the closet of Lean is that we have a sensei issue. We don’t have that many sensei. They’re hard to find, pain in the ass, expensive, all those things.

I remember Pat Lancaster of Lantech, many, many years ago, he said, “Hey, find a sensei you can work with, start from the top and go to the gemba.” That’s the same advice I would have now. Now, the difficulty is how do you find a sensei?

A lot of the books I wrote were about, this is to describe to someone what’s the relationship with a sensei. Then, I would say, it’s like kung fu or tai chi. You first go into the park with everybody else. You got to the conference. You read the books. Probably first you read the books and you go to the conference.

Then, you go to the private study group. Then, you got to the instructor and say, “Would you instruct me.” At some point, the instructor says, “Well, now, you’re so good, you have to go up the mountain and find the master.” Do you see what I mean? It’s a very personal journey.

Every time someone tries work around a sidestep, to find a quicker way, they end up doing something interesting, but they end up disappointed. This is not quite what they thought. I don’t think Lean is for everybody. I think Lean is for people who are seriously committed to a competitive edge. Strangely and one of the big surprises in my career is that very few people are really serious about it.

The people who are serious about it will read the books, will go to the conferences, will learn who is who, will find a sensei. They will do it just because they’re interested. Somebody who says, “I want to do Lean. I’m a young manager. I want to do Lean for my company.” The one thing I would say is, “Are you sure? Are you really sure? What do you want to do?

Pretend Lean, to have an alibi, Lean alibi or do you want to learn Lean thinking?” If you want to learn Lean thinking, that’s just like if you wanted to learn tennis. What would you do to give yourself the best odds to learn the best tennis possible? Do you see what I mean?

Ron: Yep.

Michael: The advice is how will you draw your own learning curve, your own learning path to learn Lean thinking?

Ron: Love it. What’s next for Michael and Freddy? Are you guys planning some more books or is it secret? What’s the…

Michael: Do you mean apart from winning the lottery and retiring on the beach somewhere? There’s two books. Somebody asked me recently, “Hey, what happened to Amy?” I don’t know if you remember, Amy is a character in the first two books.

What happened to Amy? Amy, I can tell you, is struggling. Amy, she was this really bright kid, who got at everything in “The Gold Mine” and who left before she got to the interesting things because she was too quick. She got to be a consultant. It turns out Amy has got all the wrong Lean experience. She’s got all the easy stuff, but she’s never got the Lean with respect stuff. Do you see what I mean?

Ron: Yes.

Michael: Because she knows Bob Woods, she’s his daughter-in-law, because she knows Phil so far, at some point, she wants to do it for herself. Amy is currently in the process of buying a company with Phil’s money. Phil has retired. He’s now running an investment company. She’s in the process of buying a technical company, Phil’s money.

She is about to fail, as they all do because she’s about to fix all the shop floor problems, but discovered that she has an engineering problem that she doesn’t know a squat about it. That’s what’s happening to Amy.

Ron: We’re going to hear more about this, I guess, down the road.

Michael: You never know about inspiration. I’m not ready to write it yet, but this is what’s been on the background.

Ron: When’s the screenplay coming? That’s what I want to know. Didn’t the guys that wrote the, the TOC guys, Goldratt and them, didn’t they try to make some cheesy movie on “The Goal” or something? I think I saw that one time.

Michael: I don’t know. People keep telling me about “The Goal.” The truth is I read it after “The Gold Mine” because people told me about it. I was not aware of it. I know likely where did things work out.

The other very interesting project I’m working on is with Dan Jones and Jacques Chaize, here in France. We spent 20 years teaching people how to do Lean. We’re saying, “Do Lean, do Lean, be Lean pioneer, do Lean.” You’ve been part of that crowd. We tried to think how do we do Lean right.

We’ve gotten quite a lot of experience of people who have done Lean right. We’re asking ourselves the question the other way around, which is “What does Lean teaches us about leadership and management? What is the management model coming out of 20 years of experience with Lean?”

That’s a very interesting, intriguing question. That is incredibly intuitive. He’s got such insight into it. We’re struggling. I have to admit. We’re struggling. We’re exploring this, but that’s another big project is not worry about doing Lean, start asking yourselves the reflection question, the hansei. After 20 years of teaching Lean thinking, what does it tell us about running companies?

Ron: Can’t wait to see what you come up with next, Michael. I really enjoy your work.

Michael: Thanks.

Ron: To wrap this thing up, this episode up, I would ask you to share final words of wisdom, but I’m not going to do that. I want you to…

Michael: I’ve been very good up to now. Can I make a very loud noise or something?

Ron: [laughs] Yeah.

Michael: [shouts]

Ron: Why don’t you tell people how they can connect with you on social media or maybe your websites or whatever is the best way to get in touch with you?

Michael: The best way would be or LinkedIn. I’m pretty easy to find on LinkedIn. Incredibly, how do you say this, “I’m tweeting or I’m twittering?”

Ron: You’re tweeting, I think, yeah. Tweeting.

Michael: It feels more like twittering sometimes.


Ron: Twittering your wings maybe. [laughs]

Michael: Twittering. I’m @Thegembacoach on Twitter.

Ron: I like the feature you’re doing over on, “Ask Me Anything,” that’s pretty cool.

Michael: That was a strange experience. That was an interesting experience. Was it? Did you…

Ron: I didn’t ask anything, but it’s interesting to see. There’s quite a dialogue going there.

Michael: I thought it was interesting questions, not at all what I expected.

Ron: You never know with the Internet, right? You just put it out there and see what happens. [laughs]

Michael: Exactly. The great thing about the Internet is nobody knows you’re a dog.

Ron: [laughs] We could go off tangent here, but we won’t. We’ll keep it on the tracks here. [laughs] All right. Michael thanks again for taking the time and thanks for writing the books that you’ve written. They really move us forward here in a Lean world. I know they’ve helped me tremendously. Keep up the great work.

Michael: Thank you. It’s a lonely work to write and you don’t hear that very often. It’s lovely to hear that people actually read the books. The one thing I would say is the other very lonely thing I do, and I don’t know if you ever read it, is the Gemba Coach Column.

Ron: I do read it.

Michael: Sometimes I feel I’m the last shop floor guy remaining in Lean. It’s a very bizarre experience. Everybody’s talking about Lean in such strange terms and I say, “Well, we still have to reduce change over time now.”

Ron: It’s interesting that you say that because so much of the challenge with have with the academy is people are so, “Oh, what tool should I learn first.” At one point, we’re like, “Well, what problems are you trying to solve?” That’s where we want it to start is what problems do you have.

At the end of the day, it’s not about the tools, not about the tools, everybody says that, but I think it’s a slippery slope. We can go too far and say, “You got to have some tools.” We can talk about respecting people and all this kind of stuff left and right, but…

Michael: That’s so strange about it. I’m a told to guy. I think it’s like the Zen story. There’s a Zen story that before you study Zen, you see the mountain as a mountain. You study Zen and the mountain is no longer a mountain. Then, you get Zen and the mountain is a mountain.

I feel the same about tools. Before you study Lean, it’s all about the tools. You get to a strange point where it’s about problem solving and I don’t know what. Then, you get Lean, it’s all about the tools. Of course, it’s all about the tools.

Ron: I think it’s a process. For some people, it just depends on where they’re at. Even, to you point of a novel, the character, that person’s inside of them. Some people are very analytical. They need to get the facts. Other people, they need to empathize. Matt May, Jacques Chaize, one of his biggest things is to show empathy for people.

I think it’s different for each person. But yeah, the tools, obviously, you got to have them. Like you said, if you don’t know how to do quick changeover, then it’s going to be difficult for you to be an effective…

Michael: Lean your entire company. One thing I would love is people were less hesitant to comment on the Gemba Coach Column and ask questions. This Gemba Coach is great discipline for me because it forces me to go back to the essentials and write. I’d love to hear questions from everybody out there. What are the obstacles they’re facing today? Is there anything in the Lean tradition that can help them?

Ron: We’ll definitely link to it here in the show notes for this episode. Everybody, go over there and check it out. The last thing is, and I’ll go ahead and I’ll mention this when we record the intro for this, but we do want to give away some of your books as Gemba Academy’s gifts. We’re going to work with you somehow to get you to autograph them somehow and, I don’t know, mail them over to us or something.

We’ll figure that out, but what we’re going to do is…

Michael: It might be logistically a bit complicated.

Ron: We can figure it out. We’re Lean thinkers.


Michael: The French post office at some point.


Ron: It can be the worst of…

Michael: Think about it.

Ron: We want to do that as well, so hopefully we can get that worked out and get some of your books out to folks that haven’t been able to read them.

[background music]

Michael: Brilliant, thanks. What you’re doing, guys, it’s absolutely great. I love it.

Ron: Thank you. All right, Michael, you be well and we’ll talk again soon.

Michael: Bye.

[background music]

Announcer: Thanks for listening to the Gemba Academy Podcast. Now it’s time to take a free, no strings attached, fully functional test drive of Gemba Academy’s School of Lean and Six Sigma over at Gain immediate access to more than 500 Lean and Six Sigma training videos free of charge at


What Do You Think?

Have you read any of Michael’s books? What did you learn?

GA 021 | Shadows or Reality? Plato’s Cave Allegory with Ron Pereira


GA021_ShadowsThe more I study lean the more I realize its deep philosophical roots… Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is a great example of this.

As such, in this short episode, I’d like to invite you inside a dark and dreary cave where we’re challenged to determine what’s real or simply shadows on the wall.

To hear the podcast just press the “Play” button at the top of this post. An MP3 version is also available for download here and a downloadable PDF transcript of the interview can be found here.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • A brief summary of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (2:32)
  • How this allegory relates to continuous improvement (6:34)

Podcast Resources

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Click to Subscribe in iTunes

If you enjoyed this podcast please be sure to subscribe on iTunes. Once you’re a subscriber all new episodes will be downloaded to your iTunes account and smartphone.

The easiest way for iPhone users to listen to the show is via the free, and incredible, Podcast app.  You can download it here.

CLICK HERE to subscribe to the Gemba Academy podcast on iTunes. You can also subscribe via Stitcher which is definitely Android friendly.

Full Written Transcript

[Ron] You’re listening to episode 21 with Ron Pereira. [background music]

[Announcer] Welcome to the Gemba Academy Podcast, the show that’s focused on helping individuals and companies achieve breakthrough results using the same continuous improvement principles leveraged by companies such as Toyota, Del Monte, and the US Department of Defense.

[Ron] Hey there, this is Ron Pereira from Gemba Academy and I’d like to welcome you to another episode of the Gemba Academy podcast… as always, I definitely want to thank you for taking the time to listen to the show and for watching our continuous improvement videos over at

Like we did a few weeks ago… I’m going to be flying solo today.

We do have many more guests lined up but we plan to mix some shorter solo shows like this one in from time to time to keep things fresh and fun!

Obviously, your feedback is very important to us so please let us know what you think of our approach to these podcasts… if you prefer one style over another or have new ideas please do me a huge favor and leave a comment at the bottom of the show notes for this episode which can be found at And that’s 2-1 for twenty-one. So,

Now then, during this episode I do plan to get a little philosophical but don’t worry… since the things we’re going to explore are immediately applicable to any continuous improvement practitioner.

In fact, even if you’re not a practitioner of continuous improvement I’m confident the lessons will resonate with you as well. So, let’s get to the show.

[music transition]

[Ron] One of my passions in life is to learn new things. And while I definitely enjoy reading books focused on continuous improvement I also enjoy studying philosophy.

And what’s even more interesting is the more I learn about people like Taiichi Ohno the more I realize their teaching is extremely rich with philosophical thought.

And for those that don’t know Taichii Ohno is one of the chief architects of the Toyota Production System which is where the Lean Thinking concepts we know and love find their roots.

In any event, today I want to explore one of Plato’s famous allegories since I see a tremendous relationship between it and the

many challenges we, as continuous improvement practitioners, face.

Now, this particular allegory is written as a dialogue between Plato’s brother Glaucon and his mentor Socrates.

The gist of the allegory goes something like this.

Plato asks us to imagine a cave. Inside the cave are people bound by their feet and neck and, as a result, are only able to look straight ahead at the wall in front of them.

Behind these people are steep steps that have been cut through the cave and lead to the outside world.

Above these steps is a large crevice that’s been cut into the cave wall where a large fire burns.

And, as a result of the light of this blazing fire, the prisoners can see their own shadows on the wall.

Next, we’re told there’s a walk way built in between the prisoners and the fire. You might imagine this walkway looking like a modern day mezzanine or catwalk built up around a factory.

The key to this walkway is that it’s placed directly between the prisoners and the fire. Additionally, there’s a wall on this walkway that people can walk behind without being seen similar to the way puppeteers work behind a wall.

And, as it turns out, people do in fact walk behind this wall while holding up various puppet like shapes and figures which, due to

the light of the fire, cast additional shadows on the wall. You can think of this as one of the first cinemas ever built!

When all combined these various shadows, along with the echo’s of the people talking on the walkway, create the only reality these shackled prisoners have ever known.

In other words, the only thing these prisoners believe to be “real” are the shadows they see on the walls and the echoing voices of the people moving along the walkway.

And, to be fair, since these shadows are the only thing these cave inhabitants have ever seen who could really blame them?

At this point, Socrates asks Glaucon to imagine someone from the outside world entering the cave and unshackling one of the prisoners.

Initially, the now free person turns around and is immediately overwhelmed… he sees the steep steps, the incredible fire, the walkway, and the puppet like shapes being held up behind the wall.

The prisoner is now totally conflicted and struggles to make sense of what’s actually true. In other words, the freed man wonders what’s real… these new objects he’s never seen or the familiar shadows on the wall?

At this point in the story we’re told the person is then drug from the cave and forced to go outside.

And, as you can imagine, the bright light of the sun nearly blinds

the man… but, once his eyes adjust, the newly liberated person is completely overcome with emotion.

The freed man is now blown away and desperate to share this incredible news with his fellow cave dwellers… as such he goes back to the cave and attempts to explain this new amazing reality to the other shackled prisoners.

Sadly, the other inhabitants don’t want to hear anything about some fantastic outside world.

You see, these people have grown comfortable with their life and don’t appreciate this excited person’s attempt to destroy the only reality they’ve ever known.

And, believe it or not, since the freed person now struggles to even recognize the old shadows on the wall the shackled prisoners actually mock him explaining how this new amazing world of his has actually caused him to lose his edge.

And, as incredible as it may seem, the shackled prisoners go so far as to warn the freed man that if he dare tries to release any of them they’ll do everything in their power to kill him.

With all of this said, the story concludes with Socrates explaining to Glaucon, that the freed person must return to the cave in order to share their enlightenment with the shackled prisoners, even if it results in death.

So, let me ask you a few questions. As you move forward with your life – both personally and professionally – how many shadows are you mistaking for reality?

And as it pertains to continuous improvement how many cave inhabitants are battling you as you attempt to unshackle them and show them a new, improved, reality?

Put another way, group think and attitudes like “this is the way we’ve always done it” and “you wouldn’t understand… our business is different” may in fact be nothing more than shadows on the wall.

Our challenge as continuous improvement practitioners is to never stop learning or seeking better ways of working. Additionally, we should do everything in our power to enlighten as many people as we can with the good news that is continuous improvement.

And, if we do happen to encounter modern day cave dwellers who have never seen, or experienced, how powerful – and life changing – authentic lean thinking can be, we must be willing to unshackle them and drag them along even at the risk of being mocked and ridiculed.

And, while it won’t be easy… imagine the incredible impact each of us can make if we’re even mildly successful.

Again, thanks so much for listening to our podcast… I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this episode… so please head over to and scroll to the bottom of the post and leave a comment.

Specifically, I’m truly interested to hear your take on this famous allegory. I’d also love to know whether you’ve encountered so- called cave dwellers? Or perhaps you were once a cave dweller yourself and found a way to break free.

No matter your story I’d really enjoy hearing from you.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to the Gemba Academy Podcast. Now it’s time to sign up for a free Gemba Academy preview subscription over at

Gain immediate access to more than one hour of free Lean, and Six Sigma training at

What Do You Think?

How do you interpret Plato’s Allegory of the Cave? Have you encountered any Cave Dwellers?

GA 020 | Developing People Through Autonomy with Steve Kane



Today’s guest is our own Sales & Marketing Director, Steve Kane.

Prior to joining us at Gemba Academy, Steve served as Vice President of Operations at Specialty Silicone Fabricators.  With many years of real – hands on – lean experience, Steve has lots of lessons to share.

In this episode, Steve and Ron explore the topic of autonomous teams.  Specifically, Steve shares how to develop people through autonomy and why doing so can revolutionize any business no matter the industry.

To hear the podcast just press the “Play” button at the top of this post. An MP3 version is also available for download here and a downloadable PDF transcript of the interview can be found here.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Steve’s career background… think motorcycles! (02:24)
  • Steve’s role at Specialty Silicone Fabricators (4:00)
  • The quote that inspires Steve (5:16)
  • What working at SSF was like before implementing autonomous teams (6:40)
  • The definition of autonomous teams (10:10)
  • How Steve learned about autonomous teams (11:58)
  • The bold method Steve used to implement autonomous teams at SSF’s Michigan plant (16:40)
  • Some of the challenges SSF faced those first weeks after implementation (22:54)
  • How Steve brought this same concept back to the Paso Robles plant (31:30)
  • What Steve would’ve done differently (33:56)
  • How to learn more about autonomous teams (38:08)
  • Steve’s definition of “Respect for People” (39:42)
  • Steve’s definition of a Kaizen Culture (41:37)
  • The best advice Steve has ever received (42:57)
  • Steve’s personal productivity habit (43:28)
  • Steve’s answer to the new lean leadership scenario (45:00)
  • Steve’s final words of wisdom (47:57)

Podcast Resources

Download a Free Audio Book

If you enjoy listening to podcasts chances are you’ll also enjoy listening to audio books.

And if you’ve never listened to an audio book today is your lucky day since you’re able to download a free audio book over at our favorite audio book provider – Audible.

Simply click this link to claim your free audio book.

Please note you will need to sign up, which includes providing your credit card, but if you’re not happy with the service you can easily cancel the subscription after downloading your free audio book before your free trial expires.

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Click to Subscribe in iTunes

If you enjoyed this podcast please be sure to subscribe on iTunes. Once you’re a subscriber all new episodes will be downloaded to your iTunes account and smartphone.

The easiest way for iPhone users to listen to the show is via the free, and incredible, Podcast app.  You can download it here.

CLICK HERE to subscribe to the Gemba Academy podcast on iTunes. You can also subscribe via Stitcher which is definitely Android friendly.

Full Written Transcript

 GA 20 Steve Kane

Announcer: You’re listening to Episode 20 with Steve Kane.

[background music]

Announcer: Welcome to the Gemba Academy Podcast, the show that’s focused on helping individuals and companies achieve breakthrough results using the same continuous improvement principles leveraged by companies such as Toyota, Del Monte, and the US Department of Defense.

Now, here’s your host, Ron Pereira.

Ron Pereira: Hey there. This is Ron Pereira from Gemba Academy, and I’d like to welcome you to another episode of the Gemba Academy Podcast.

As always, thank you so much for listening to our show and for watching our Lean and Six Sigma training videos over at

We definitely appreciate each and every one of you. I’m extremely excited to welcome Steve Kane to the show today. The reason for this excitement is because Steve recently joined the Gemba Academy team as our Director of Sales and Marketing.

Now, long time customers of Gemba Academy will remember Steve from a previous Gemba Live! episode and a webinar.

For those that don’t know him, Steve is an extremely talented lean thinker with many years of lean leadership experience. Before joining Gemba Academy, Steve was the vice-president of operations for Specialty Silicone Fabricators in Paso Robles, California.

Now, during this show, Steve and I talk about the topic of autonomous teams. In fact, Steve walks us through the exact process he and his leadership team followed at SSF in order to implement autonomous teams across three different plants.

If you are not familiar with autonomous teams, don’t worry. Steve explains what they are and how they may be able to add tremendous value to your company. Now, show notes which will include links to everything we talk about can be found over at Enough for me, let’s get to the show.


Ron: Steve, thanks so much for taking time to come on to the show. Where are you calling in from today, Steve?

Steve Kane: I’m calling in from Paso Robles, California.

Ron: I mentioned in the intro just now, Steve, that we welcomed you to the Gemba Academy team, officially on the podcast, welcome and we’re happy to have you on board.

Steve: Thanks. I’m super excited to be a part of the company.

Ron: Let’s go ahead and just start with, why don’t you just tell us a little bit about your background and really how did you first come to learn about this lean thinking world that we live in.

Steve: Sure. It started many years ago. I was working in the motorcycle industry at a BMW motorcycle dealership.

We had a really good web presence. This was the early days of web retail. I was the manager running this organization, where I had parts and goods coming in through a single door everyday, we were sending out dozens and dozens of shipments everyday.

I came to realize that I really needed to improve flow through this department. It was a small space. Multiple people working in there. I had this idea that material should flow like water, and we should keep things as smooth as possible.

I just started exercising that idea and made some incremental improvements, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when I went into the medical device industry, where I began to understand that this whole idea of flow and reducing waste…there was actually a science behind it, and there were people who devoted there careers to this idea.

That’s where I learned that lean had a name, and there was some real serious thinking behind it. It seemed intuitive. Then, when I learned about it, it really validated my thinking, and I really got excited and started studying it.

Ron: All right. Tell us a little bit about…your most recent position before coming onto Gemba Academy was Vice President with Specialty Silicone Fabricators, which is great friends of the show and the Gemba Academy.

We’ve done videos over there and everything. Tell us a little bit of what you did there.

Steve: Yeah. That was a great experience. I started on the production floor making silicon components and moved into sales a couple of years later and, eventually, went to our Michigan facility. SSF is based in Paso Robles, California, and I had an opportunity to go to a satellite factory in Northern Michigan.

I spent three and a half years there as an Operations Manager and, eventually, came back to the Paso Robles plant as the Vice President of Operations.

Ron: Nice. That’s a very strong lean thinking organization thanks to you and your predecessor, Kevin, who’s also on the board with us here at Gemba Academy.

We’re going to talk more about SSF here in a bit, but what we like to do at the start of all of our shows, Steve, is have our guest share a quotation related to continuous improvement or leadership that inspires them. What quotation inspires you, Steve?

Steve: It’s a quote from Vincent Lombardi. “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”

Ron: What does that really mean to you?

Steve: Regardless of where anybody is in life, position at work, position socially, things at home, the quality of your life is in direct proportion to you being truly excellent at whatever it is that you do.

Whether it’s being a good spouse, a good baseball player, a good student, give it your best, and you’ll get the best out of life as a result of your contributions.

Ron: I love that. My father used to say stuff. He said, “If, one day, you’re a street sweeper, you be the best street sweeper you can be.” Right?

Steve: Right.

Ron: No matter what you do. That’s great advice. The topic of our show today is autonomous teams. We’re going to dig in to what they are and all the rest of it sharing some stories of how these teams positively impacted and currently impact SSF.

Before we get into that, why don’t you talk a little bit about the workplace at SSF before autonomous teams were put into place.

Steve: Sure. For me, it really started at our Michigan plant. I went in as the Operations Manager, and I was from California, not only did I not know the people there in the plant, I was not familiar with the culture in Northern Michigan, and what is work like for folks in Northern Michigan.

When I went in and got to know people and some time went by, one of the things I noticed was that people were not really happy. They didn’t really seem to enjoy coming to work, certainly, didn’t enjoy the end of the day like they felt like they really had gotten something done. They weren’t smiling when they left…was really the impression.

It was enough of an issue that my leadership team and I…I had a few supervisors on the leadership team with me, and we noticed that we had to have this weekly meeting just to navigate through the interpersonal relationship problems on the floor. Employees wouldn’t want to work together, couldn’t stand next to each other in the same line.

One person wouldn’t like the way somebody else did something. There was an atmosphere of negativity, and I couldn’t figure out why. One other things was I came in and replaced the first Lean manager of that plant. A manager, rotated in from Paso Robles, was there for two years before going back to Paso Robles, and he got Lean going there.

He started with 5S. The plant really looked great. He started with One Piece Flow, which was surprisingly difficult to implement. One thing I noticed was out on the production floor, people would do this One Piece Flow in the assembly process, and then, when I’d leave, they’d go back to batch processing.

In this plant, keep in mind, we manufactured small surgical components. These are things that are just a few inches long and a fairly simple assembly. It’s assembled half by machine and half by hand. It’s easy to put 30, 40, 50 of these things in one hand at a time and do some assembly, but we really insisted One Piece Flow, and we’d show it’s faster, it’s easier, it’s better quality.

We’d show all the data behind it, but, for some reason, it just wouldn’t stick. “What in the world is going wrong?” I scratched my head “Why?” It was really easy to come down as the leader and say, “You must do this, and we’ll discipline anybody who doesn’t.”

While that did have some effect short term, it didn’t last. Still, we struggled. “Why can’t we get it to stick?” That’s kind of what the culture was like when I got there.

Ron: Let’s get into, at a high level, before we learn about your experience with autonomous teams at SSF, what are they? What are autonomous teams?

Steve: The most important part is team. Everybody in the organization is a team. Every single person not only identifies with the team, but they understand the team’s role in the company, and how it connects to the company and the customer.

Each member of the team serves the team and works to make sure that the team is successful. The autonomous part is that the team runs itself.

Ron: When you say a team, is it like a value stream team? You will have a whole value stream, and they’re one autonomous team?

Steve: Actually, smaller teams within that. I kind of describe it as a football team. You can say we’re all one team, but within that, there’s offense, there’s defense, there’s special teams.

You break it down even further. The offensive line. They go off and practice. The backs will practice together. Then, eventually, everybody comes together as a whole team.

Similar thing where a value stream may be large enough that you could have dozens of people and several smaller teams that are more focused on certain steps along the value stream. In the Michigan plant, we had a few basic processes, and we set up teams by process. It just so happened that these processes required about four people, five people per team, so that just happened to work out for us.

Ron: How did you learn about autonomous teams?

Steve: SSF is really forward thinking. We insisted that five people throughout the company go to AME throughout the year. I think this was in 2010.

One of the people who went in 2010 was one of our supervisors. She was actually in charge of supply chain and everything that supported production, but she had a background in human resources.

When she went to the AME Conference, the international conference, she focused on the culture, value stream, of training at AME. She’s very much into the leadership and the people side of the business, that’s what she focused on. She sat in a one hour talk that was presented by Larry Davis, the President of Daman Products in Indiana.

He talked all about culture. The culture at Daman Products. He referred to it as a customer focused culture. This is where everybody in the factory…you don’t work for your boss. You work with your team to help your customer be successful. One of the bigger concepts there is that the people who actually make a product, they’re the ones who run the factory. They’re the ones who run the business.

The leader’s job is to teach, coach, mentor, inspire. Nikki learned about this. She was really excited. She came back, and she said, “Hey, I think I found what we’re missing. The missing link is this customer focused culture.” Of course, I’m really excited about it. “Tell me about it.” She said, “Well, yeah, essentially, what we need to do is let the operators on the floor run the factory.”

Those weren’t her exact words, but that was the idea. I was thinking, “Are you nuts? I can’t get these people to do One Piece Flow without direct supervision. How can I trust them to run the factory?” Later found out that was exactly the flaw in my thinking. We’ll get back to that in a minute.

That’s how we learned about it. As we go through our weekly human resources meeting…all of our internal conflicts, and the problems we were having with quality. The problems we were having with delivery and overtime. Nikki would very carefully mention, “The customer focused culture. This kind of a problem would work itself out, because the people on the floor would figure out how to solve the problem rather than the manager deciding how to solve the problem.

Later, with hindsight, I realized that I was really the classic, conventional manager resistant to Lean. “We’re special.” “That doesn’t work here.” I had all of these excuses for that. “No way, I’m not going to hand over running the plant to the operators. That won’t work.” I was just convinced of it.

She was very, very tactful. She was very persistent for a few months. She would just bring up these things, and she would show how this would work. “Here’s an instant where customer focused culture would have a positive effect.”

After awhile, quite frankly, I got a little tired of hearing this, I said, “Fine. What do we do? What’s our next step?” She said, “Well, the President of Daman Products said that…he invited us over. It’s only a four hour drive. We can go visit and learn more about it.” “OK, set it up.”

She did. She set up the hotels, all the scheduling. I drove down there with my team of supervisors. After listening to him speak for about 30 minutes, I felt like this light went on over my head. “Oh, I get it. I completely get it.” I think the big thing that I learned was people tend to perform the way they’re treated. Thinking back, “How have I been treating people?” That is what drove me to learn more.

Ron: You’ve learned what it is. Nikki has inspired you and persisted, it sounded like. [laughs]

Steve: Right.

Ron: …to keep pushing this forward, because she believed in it so much. You went to a company, and you saw how they did it. Now, you have an idea what it’s all about. The next question is how did you go about implementing it, I guess, in your Michigan plant, right? That’s where you started.

Steve: Right. We, as a team, spent half a day there at Daman Products really learning about it. We talked to operators, supervisors, engineers to really get a feel for the culture. It’s this culture of a very high level of responsibility.

The thing is people were engaged. They were satisfied. They were motivated. They improved things on their own. We just thought we really wanted our people to be able to feel that day in and day out. Driving home from Indiana, we were thinking, “If we’re going to do this, we really need to plan it out right and make sure we do this correctly.”

As we’re talking about it over four hours, plus the time it took us to stop for dinner, and strategizing, we came to the realization that we’re not experts on this. We really can’t come in with this master plan, step-by-step, and this is how it’s going to work.

We decided the best plan that we’re going to have is we’re just going to get everybody together and say, “Hey, look, here’s the vision. This is what we really want for everybody here. We want you to be engaged. We want you to enjoy your work. We want you to have a rewarding experience at work. We want you to smile on the way in and smile by the time you leave.”

We had this vision, “To start, we’re going to share the vision with them, and we’re going to just figure it out, one step at a time, as we get through it.” We went back to the plant, and that following day we called an all-employee meeting in the afternoon.

This is a plant of about 30 people. The size of the plant was pretty significant in how we were able to launch this. We just got everybody together, and we started off by acknowledging, “Raise your hand if you really enjoy your work.” Nobody did.

“Raise your hand if you feel like you really accomplish something by the time you go home at the end of the day, or you feel like you had a really rewarding day. Raise your hand if you feel like you’re in control of your career path and you feel like you’re growing.”

We pointed some of these things out, and I just mentioned, “Hey, you know, I’d really like that to change. I would love for everybody to really enjoy their work.” We went into a lot of detail about all the positive benefits that we’d really like people to get out of the workplace.

We told them, “Hey, look. Starting tomorrow morning, you are going to be in charge of the plant. You’re going to run this plant. You’re going to be the operators on the production floor. You’ll be responsible for on time delivery, you’ll be responsible for quality.

You’re going to be responsible for scheduling all of production, sourcing your raw materials, bringing that in. You will be responsible for job assignments, scheduling, time off, all of these things. All aspects of the workplace are going to be your responsibility.”

Of course, people were looking back at me, their eyes as wide as saucers, and they had the same response I had with Nikki, originally, “Are you nuts?”


Steve: I told them, “There’s nothing different between you and me as far as professional responsibility goes, but there’s this expectation that the manager is going to hold you accountable for following the rules.

I’m not going to do that anymore. That’s going to be your job. You’ll hold yourself accountable. Team members, you’re going to hold each other accountable. We all perform at the same professional level, we all know the rules, we know our policies, we know how to do things.

Also, I’m really not the master of running this factory. The reality is all of you are, and you do it every single day. The only thing that’s different now is you’re going to understand that it’s your responsibility to do this. It’s going to be your choices that make us successful.”

Ron: What if they didn’t know how to do something? What if they didn’t know how to source materials, or they didn’t know how to do some financial reporting, or whatever it is, that needed to be done? How did you handle that?

Steve: We told them, “You will do all of these things. When you don’t understand what to do, I will be out on the production floor along with all the supervisors. We’ll be here all day as long as you need us.

When you have a question, I promise you I will not answer your question for you.


Steve: The look I got from people…a kind of disbelief, confused…I just wanted to explain, “Hey, look. I can’t spoon-feed information to you and show you how to do things, and have you retain it.

When you come to me with a question, I’m going to respond with a question because there’s a good chance that you or other people around you may already know, and you might just need some coaching along to help you. The idea’s that if there’s something that you’re not familiar with, I want you to truly learn it so, then, you can also teach it.”

That was the method we had. Something that was really important about this was that the supervisors and I were truly in lockstep. We believed in this, we knew it was the right thing to do, and we trusted each other. We said, “No matter what, we back each other up. We will be available to the people on the floor all day, as much as they need us. If we have other office work that needs to get done, we’ll do it after-hours if we have to. The people come first.”

That was a really fundamental and important element that we were truly in lockstep, in that regard.

Ron: You’ve got these things in place now. Some operators are wide-eyed, unsure, but they’re going to fight through it. For the first few months of practicing this concept, how did it go? What were some of the struggles? Let’s start there.

Steve: I described it as a few weeks of chaos, really. Remember we said, “Starting tomorrow, you’ll decide when to come to work, you’ll decide job assignments and all that. The supervisor is not going to do that anymore.”

We actually even took the supervisor off the production floor to create some distance for the purpose of having the teams work the problems out on their own before coming to anybody, to the supervisor, for help. We were there, we were available, but we were just a little bit separated to let people struggle enough to come up with the good questions.

The folks were having some issues with these responsibilities. There was a little bit of disagreement on job assignments, “Hey, it’s up to you. You’ve got to work it out, who’s going to do what.”

One of the things we told folks, “When you’re making these decisions, whether it’s a critical quality decision, just a job assignment decision, or anything in between, here are three questions that you need to ask yourself, am I helping the customer be successful? Am I helping my team be successful? Am I doing the right things for the right reasons?

If you’re doing all three of those things, you’re probably heading down the right path and things are going to work out just fine, but you’ve got to work it out with your team.”

We had people not agreeing on job assignments, when to bring materials to the floor, how to go about doing the administrative tasks. We had one particular employee who really enjoyed running the automated floor polisher, the thing with the big tank and the scrubbing wheel…

Ron: I’ve always wanted to drive one of those [laughs].

Steve: They are fun, actually. We had this great polished floor in the warehouse and a lot of empty space. He enjoyed running that thing. We’re super busy, working really hard to get a shipment up, he’s out in the warehouse polishing the floor.

I go to talk to him, “Hey ya! Tell me what’s going on.” “Well, you know, I’m polishing the floor.” I go, “OK. Great. Does that really need to be done right now?” And he says, “Well, it’s good to keep the floor clean, and you said I can do whatever I want. It is my decision to pick my work assignment.”

“Yes, that’s true, but remember, I also said you have to ask yourself if you’re helping the customer be successful, if you’re helping your team be successful, if you’re doing the right thing for the right reasons.”

And he stopped, scratched his head a little bit, and he said, “Ah, yeah. OK” He went back on to the production floor and started helping out. We had those kinds of issues. What we found was the less leadership got involved in that the more sustained the improvements were. People worked problems out for themselves, and the team were holding each other accountable.

“Ray, hey. Your break was supposed to be 15 minutes. That was 20 minutes ago, you need to be back on time.” Those kinds of things. When the teammates were saying these things, the message really stuck. In the past, where the supervisor said it, it didn’t.

We had a few weeks of this turmoil. Then, it was like we turned the corner and things started to really smooth out. The people were getting along better. After three months, I remember talking to the rest of the leadership team and asking, “What do you have going on, today? I’m really not all that busy.” They were saying, “Yeah, me too. I feel like I don’t have so many tasks to deal with.”

We looked at our agenda for our HR meeting that we had over the week, and we shifted from conflict to ideas like, “When are we going to have our next pizza party? When are we going to do something to celebrate this accomplishment?”

It turned from being an agenda of dealing with challenges to an agenda of dealing with successes and celebration. That’s when it hit us, “Hey. Wait a minute. This is actually working.”

There was a really rewarding moment of, “Gosh! We really hit a home run here, we really did something right.” We called an all-employee meeting, and we talked to everybody who wanted to give some feedback on how things were going.

They acknowledged that we had some struggles, but things seemed to be getting better. I told everybody that, “First of all, I’m just truly impressed with the professionalism that everybody brings to the team, and the way that the team is performing.

Honestly, I had no idea what to expect in such a short period of time. I had dreamed that, hopefully, we could get to this level in about a year, but it only took about three months.” Once we hit that point, then it was like the momentum, really, just picked up, and the performance really improved.

Ron: Somebody’s going to sit back, be skeptic, and say, “Oh, yeah. That sounds great. Now, the managers should be sitting back planning pizza parties.” What was going on with the leadership, then? Once this thing’s really moving, it’s a well oiled machine, what’s the role of the leadership then?

Steve: It’s really easy to think that the supervisor’s or the manager’s job is either simple or almost nonexistent at that point. If you’re not telling people what to do, what are you doing?

The leader’s job is to teach, coach, mentor, and inspire. The coaching that goes along…we talk to everybody in a pretty short period of time, just how to run things day-to-day. The reality is most of the knowledge which is out there is a matter of cultivating it and getting it out.

That was happening. Then what? We’re doing one piece flow. How do we improve upon that? What does the customer need from us? Some of the Lean concepts I was trying to teach in the past. In Takt Time, for instance, I would ask people, “How many parts do you need to manufacture today?” “I don’t know. I work a 10 hour shift, I just come in, I make parts, and then, at the end of my shift, I go home.”

Here’s how you figure out how many parts need to be made in order to deliver on time to the customer, what your production rate is, what the difference is, how much overtime you will need to work today if you’re not on target? Again, something I couldn’t get to stick because I was forcing it on.

After we made this change and told the team, “Hey. You’re responsible for on time delivery. It’s going to be up to you to make sure that you get quality products out to the customer. Then, the operator started asking, “I have x number of days to get this order finished. How many parts do I need to make in a day?”

Here’s the concept on it, “Actually, let’s go to Gemba Academy. Here’s the video on Takt Time.” We would tech this concept and then…the question, “Here’s Takt Time. How many parts do I make in an hour?” “I really don’t know. Let’s time it.”

These fundamental parts of Lean were really starting to come out. They were organic. People needed these tools.

Ron: They had a problem.

Steve: If they had a problem to solve, exactly. Then Lean really started to kick off, because people needed to do this to be successful. They implemented day by hour report. We would ask people to stand in the Ohno circle for half an hour. The past, they would just stand there and daydream, presumably.

But after, they would stand and they would really watch and they’d come up with an idea. Then, they created the Kaizen Newspaper and tracking these ideas, and how to fix things. Again, the momentum just really got going.

Ron: Love it. The Michigan plant was off and running. I understand you also then took this concept to the California plant, right? Is that accurate?

Steve: Right. Yeah, it is. Just before I moved to the Paso Robles plant, there was this initiative to abolish performance appraisals company-wide. SSF has three factories. We had people from all three factories involved. We want to abolish performance appraisals, but how do we do it?

That’s where we in Michigan said we implemented this idea of autonomous teams. This has been the result and we feel that the appraisals really aren’t appropriate, because the feedback in the moment and it’s usually effective. We started getting up all rolling throughout the company.

Then, I moved back to Paso Robles where I became the vice president of operations. I was in charge of manufacturing at all three of our factories. We really drove this idea home at that point. It really started to spread.

Our task in plant was about twice the size of the Michigan plant. Again, the customer focus culture, the autonomous teams, it took off quickly and they really tried with it. In the Paso Robles plant, I actually learned a lot trying to implement that this is a factory of 150 or so people, several managers, several supervisors.

It came to them with, “Hey look, here’s this great idea. Isn’t it wonderful? Let’s do it.” That was a fatal flaw in my thinking that I really…I didn’t do what was critically important that we did do in Michigan, which was the leadership team was on the same page. We all thoroughly understood it. We believed in it and then together, we launched it.

It was a top down mistake that I made in Paso Robles. It took longer to gain some traction with it, but we did it. We were very persistent with it. It just took a lot longer to get going. In Michigan, things were just stellar in three months. In the Paso Robles plant, the mistakes I made really slowed things down, but we did get there.

Ron: If you had to do it over again in Paso Robles, what would you have done differently? Would you have brought them out to Michigan maybe to show them? What do you think?

Steve: Actually, that I would not do because we did have some people go to Michigan. I really encouraged them to, “Hey, really pay attention to culture. Bring back some ideas.” That actually kind of put in with some responsibility on them and then also, it’s a comparison which we don’t like being compared to others, right?

It’s just saying Michigan’s wonderful, but Paso Robles really needs to improve, which isn’t the case.

In retrospect, what I should have done, and what I would do again if I were to take on a similar role, would be to spend the time and get to understand the challenges that leadership faces, and also, the challenges of folks on the floor face and take the time to get all the leaders in on board with a the autonomous team’s idea, and really make sure that we’re all together on it and that there’s a real sense of unity on the idea before launching it.

Also, in a very large…larger organization, larger than 30 people in Michigan, those of us with office jobs and other assignments — we had a few engineers, supervisors — we could afford to spend all of our time on the production floor for a while. In the larger plant, there’s so much going on that we couldn’t do that. We couldn’t ask our quality team to do that.

They’re busy with audits and documentation and so many other things, and the customer care group. They’re so busy with other things. It’s really difficult to get absolutely everybody on board doing the same thing at the same time. We have to develop a better strategy for that, but it’s really just a shift in thinking and that takes a lot of discussion.

One of the things that I did with this one, I implemented the idea in Michigan along with my leadership team that we decided that we were not going to ask for a permission to do this. We could have…I could have run it by the company president, who was Kevin at the time, by the way, or the director of HR. There are a couple of reasons for that.

One was that Kevin really supported people taking rests, calculated rests that it wouldn’t hurt anybody, but experimenting and trying things and learning from it. I knew if I went to the rest of the management team, it would just be a huge obstacle to overcome just to get it going. I rationalized my thinking with communicating the fact that we will change policies.

We will not change any of our eyes of documentation. We follow our policies. We follow our quality system to the letter as we always have. We’re going to shift our leadership style and that’s really what it’s about. It’s not this monumental shift to the company. It’s just changing the way you interact with people.

Ron: Love it. We’re recording this right now and the early audios. We’re going to be doing…you’re going to be doing, I should say, Steve a webinar here with Gemba Academy on August 20, 2014, titled Empowering Employees with Autonomous Teams. This is going to be free.

If anybody listening to this and is interested in checking that out, I got to double check when we’re going to release this episode. Even if it’s after August 20, that’s not a big deal because that webinar will have it up for free for 30 days. I could definitely encourage people that want to learn a little bit more about this concept to check that webinar out.

There’s something that Steve and I, and Kevin, we’ve been talking about this possibly doing a formal course on this topic of autonomous teams. Beyond that, Steve, if someone wants to learn more about this concept, what advice do you have for them?

Steve: If you’d like to learn more about it, of course, the webinar is the first step. In that webinar, I will discuss the fundamental principles involved. It takes a little bit of time, so we weren’t able to get into it during this podcast. But there are some key principles there and that would certainly help.

Also, if anybody wanted to contact me to get some tips or pointers on it, I’d be really happy to talk to them about it. But there are plenty of books out there, similar to this. The Servant is one that comes to mind.

Just really believing that the idea is that a leader’s job is to lead…the leader’s job is to teach, coach, mentor, and inspire. I mean that is a fundamental philosophy. I think it’s going to send you in the right direction. I encourage the webinar and of course, you can look me up, as well.

Ron: Yeah, awesome. Let’s go ahead and transition into the quick fire section. As I mentioned in the intro, we are…we’ve actually changed up the quick fire sites in a little bit and we’ve added some new questions and taken some questions out. We actually got some feedback that folks wanted to change that up a little bit.

I thought that was an interesting idea. Actually, Steve, I’ve actually added one that you and I haven’t been talked about. We’re going to keep this thing extremely real. I’m going keep you on your toes. The first question, Steve, is what does respect for people mean to you?

Steve: That is an incredibly deep subject. Respect for people, it’s so much…it goes so far beyond being professional and polite and kind to people.

It’s about making sure people are sufficiently challenged that they have a rewarding experience at work, which I believe it really comes from being challenged that they have the resources they need to learn and to grow, that they are brought into the organization.

Not just to perform the task at their fingertips, but that they’re really truly treated as an important part of a company. They are involved with the company’s success and information is shared with them. They’re not asset…I have trouble with the idea that people are best asset. It implies ownership.

Something about respect for people tells me…it just makes me think that there isn’t any ownership there. We have to remember people are not obligated to work for us. We need to create an environment where they want to be here. They want to succeed and they want our customers succeed. I think Richard Bronson said something along the lines of, “Train your people well enough that they can lead and treat them well enough that they don’t want to.”

Ron: Nice. I like that. Here’s a new question for you. This came to me as we were talking earlier. When you hear the phrase Kaizen Culture, what comes to your mind?

Steve: To me, that’s improving something really every day. If you’re going to work with a thought process of what am I going to improve today and it doesn’t have to be the big earth-shattering change, but that small incremental change that is going to be better for the customer, better for your team, better for the company, and ultimately better for you as the worker.

Ron: Yeah. We just got back…as you know, Steve, we just got back from our friend’s at FastCap there. We visited their new factory and Paul Aker is the president of that company. We were visiting…we were doing a walk-through Monday morning and he said, “Yeah, I’ve got a bunch of tours today.”

We were in there videotaping all kind of stuff. He said, “I actually came in last night to do my improvement because I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get it done today.” I was like, “What do you mean you did your improvement?”

He said, “My two second improvement.” Everyone at FastCap including Paul, the president and owner of the company, makes a two-second improvement every day. I’m like, “Wow. That’s a Kaizen Culture.”

Steve: That’s absolutely a shining example.

Ron: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Steve: “Don’t underestimate what people are capable off.” It’s really easy to do, particularly on a factory floor, where somebody is doing one particular task and then an opportunity comes up. The question is who do we want to do this? Don’t discount people because of any preconceived notions. Let people prove their abilities.

Ron: Yes, nice. Steve, do you have one personal productivity habit that others might benefit from?

Steve: I really try to sustain five S of the workplace. The thinking is that my desktop reflects my thinking or my state of mind. It’s really easy for the desktop to get cluttered. When that happens, the same thing is happening in my thought process. Keeping things clean at the desktop, it’s the same reason we teach 5S, right?

The same reason we do it in the factory floor that it’s not only that I can reach what I need when I need it, but it’s about that clarity of thought and that I can stand cast because I have this highly organized workplace. My suggestion is take time at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day to stay organized.

Ron: You’re also a stand-up desk guy too, is that right?

Steve: I am. I’m standing right now, actually.

Ron: Me too. I love it. I think that’s actually in a very similar vain. It’s like if I sit down, I get all comfortable and relaxed. It’s OK when you’re reading a book, but standing up and then working, I find standing is definitely better for me, at least.

Steve: Yeah, it certainly keeps me moving.

Ron: Here’s another new question. Thanks to Steve for helping me kind of craft this, but I think this is going to be a good one for future episodes. Here’s the back story. You’re a Lean thinker, Steve, who has just been hired as a general manager of a company.

This company needs to improve their processes and ways of working. As it turns out, you’ve now discovered after you’ve been hired that many of the senior managers that you’re dealing with, they aren’t quite as enthused about your Lean thinking background and ideas as you are. With this said, what would you do and why?

Steve: First thing that comes in mind is language. If you want to understand somebody or you want somebody else to understand you, you need to speak their language rather than having them try to learn your language. Going into things, I would focus more on what resonates with the other members of the team, rather than using the Lean lingo and do it the lean way and try to force ideas on other people.

You can share the ideas without getting hooked or too attached to the Lean terminology and show how improvements will benefit the company. If you’re dealing with the CFO, for instance, and you’re talking about continues improvement, the CFO might ask something along the lines of why are we spending time dealing this, when are we going to see the results in the financial statement?

Being able to explain, this is getting incremental and we’re can do this little by little and we won’t see the financials improved because this is one of that. But having the culture of this type of improvement is going to improve flow, improve or reduce the amount of labor per part, and start speaking the CFO’s language. Then it starts to resonate a little bit more.

It can start focusing on things like on this blind item of the financials, I want to improve this. I want to get our cost down. In order to that, I’m going to implement these steps. With human resources, I may talk to be more concerned about retention and employee engagement and satisfaction and talk about respecting people and some leadership things, and maybe trying to pull the HR executive in that way.

It’s about…again, it’s about speaking their language and touching on the things that really resonate with the other members of the team and the company as a whole, and keeping focus on what is it we’re trying to accomplish as a company.

Ron: Nice. In the CFO, you’re going to also kind of sneak in Jean Cunningham’s book “Real Numbers,” right?


Ron: Yeah, very good. All right. Steve, thank you so much for coming on to this show. We are so excited to have you on board here at Gemba Academy. Why don’t we just wrap this thing up, Steve, with you sharing some final words of wisdom and then why don’t you tell people how they can connect with you?

Steve: Sure. The final words of wisdom, if you think about the House of Ling — I think it’s from Toyota — the two pillars of Ling being continuous improvement and respect for people. Just really remember that those two pillars need to be a bit more strength. Their continuous improvement, the activities in the Lean tools on one side.

But remember that the strength of the respect for people side has to be at least strong. It’s really the people who make the tools work. Make sure that everybody is getting the support and attention they need to use the tools. To get a hold of me, you can get me at I’ll be happy to correspond with you.

Ron: Yeah, fantastic. Again, depending on when this comes out, we’re going to…Steve’s going to do a webinar on August 20th that’s free to anyone. You don’t have to be a subscriber to Gemba Academy on Empowering Employees with Autonomous Team. Even if this episode comes out after that, don’t worry.

The recorded version will be available for 30 days after that. I definitely encourage people to check that out. Steve, we’ve been talking for almost 45…little bit longer than 45 minutes, I guess it’s time for us to get back to do some other work here. But thanks for taking the time again. I’m sure we’ll have you back on the show again down the road.

Steve: You’re welcome, Ron, and thank you so much.

Ron: All right, take care.


What Do You Think?

Have you ever been a part of an organization that utilizes autonomous teams? Did you feel it was effective? Why or why not?

GA 019 | Leveraging Lean as a Business Strategy with Jean Cunningham



Today’s guest is Jean Cunningham, one of the original Lean Accounting thought leaders. Jean is an incredibly knowledgable and insightful consultant and it was such a privilege to interview her.

To hear the podcast just press the “Play” button at the top of this post. An MP3 version is also available for download here and a downloadable PDF transcript of the interview can be found here.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Jean’s career history and background (2:30)
  • The quote that inspires Jean the most (4:24)
  • Why Jean believes that lean is a strategy, not an initiative (5:44)
  • What financial results you can expect from implementing lean (7:55)
  • Jean’s elevator speech on Lean Accounting and its role in an organization (14:01)
  • What organizational development has to do with lean (16:50)
  • Jean’s definition of “Respect for People” (20:54)
  • The problems Jean is currently trying to solve (22:02)
  • The best advice Jean has ever received (24:17)
  • Jean’s personal productivity habit (25:30)
  • Jean’s final words of wisdom…think Toyota (30:11)

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Full Written Transcript

 GA 19 Jean Cunningham

Announcer: You’re listening to Episode 19 with Jean Cunningham.

Welcome to the Gemba Academy podcast, the show that’s focused on helping individuals and companies achieve breakthrough results using the same continuous improvement principles leveraged by companies such as Toyota, Del Monte, and the US Department of Defense.

Now, here’s your host Ron Pereira.

Ron Pereira: Hey, there. This is Ron Pereira with Gemba Academy. I’d like to welcome you to another episode of the Gemba Academy podcast.

Now, if this is the first time that you’ve listened to this show I’d like to welcome and thank you for checking the show out. And for our long-time listeners I would also like to thank you for your continued support. We definitely appreciate it.

Now, I do have one quick Gemba Academy update. We’ve recently released an incredible Gemba live episode where we featured Menlo Innovations, a software development company in Ann Arbor, Michigan. While I’m obviously a little biased, I do think the episode turned out great.

If you’re not a Gemba Academy customer and want to take a sneak peek at this episode, while also exploring the more than 600 other Lean and Six Sigma training videos we have, all you have to do is visit and signup for a three-day full access trial subscription.

Today’s guest is Jean Cunnningham. Jean is one of the original Lean Accounting thought leaders of the world. In fact, the first accounting book that I read on Lean Accounting called “Real Numbers” was written by Jean.

While we do touch on Lean Accounting during this show, Jean and I spend most of our time talking about how Lean is actually a business strategy and not simply an initiative.

Show notes, which will include links to everything Jean and I talk about, can be found over at, which is “19.” Again, that’s

Enough from me, let’s get to the show.


Ron: Jean, thanks so much for coming onto the show. Where are you calling in from today?

Jean Cunningham: I live in Evanston, Illinois, one of the best suburbs of Chicago.

Ron: Home of the Wildcats, right?

Jean: That’s right. That’s right, yeah.

Ron: Mark Graban’s old stomping grounds, right?


Most people listening to the podcast will know of your background, but for those that don’t; why don’t you tell a little about yourself, your background, Jean?

Jean: Sure, I’d be glad to. I have been a CFO for two manufacturing companies that adopted Lean and I was exposed to the Toyota production system in the early 1990s at a company called Lantech. Lantech went on to be featured in the book “Lean Thinking” that Womack and Jones wrote.

I was there 13 years. While I was there we deployed the concepts of Lean in every part of our company, including, of course, the accounting and finance areas, and ended up changing a lot of how we used cost information and used financial information in the company so that we eliminated it as a barrier to our improvement efforts.

That got a lot of interest. Along with Orest Fiume who was the CEO at Wiremold Corporation, we together wrote a book called “Real Numbers: Management Accounting For a Lean Organization.”

Later I went one and wrote second book, “Easier, Simpler, Faster: Systems Strategy for Lean IT,” which was about the role of IT in our Lean organization, sharing our stories in both books. Both books did go on to be recognized with a Shingo Prize.

Now, after a corporate career, I help companies with applying Lean beyond manufacturing.

Ron: Yes, and I’m a big, big fan of your work. I think your Lean Accounting work is the first stuff that I had ever read on the topic. It’s fascinating, so it’s an honor to speak with you, by the way.

Jean: Thank you.


Ron: The way that that I like to start all of our shows, Jean, is with our guest sharing a quotation, maybe it’s leadership or continuous improvement slanted, that inspires them. What quotation inspires you?

Jean: There’s one by Nelson Mandela that I’m particularly excited by. It was in an article that he did for “Harvard Business Review” years ago about leadership.

He said, “A leader is like a shepherd letting the nimble run out ahead, knowing that others will follow, all along leading from behind.” I think that it really speaks to how important it is as a leader to create the opportunity for all of the people in the organization to contribute to the improvement, and the strength, and the success of an organization.

Even though different people might have different skills, some may be more nimble, running forward, and seeing, and advancing the cause, and pulling the rest of the people who have a common interest into that future.

Ron: Just to level-set everyone that’s listening to this, Jean and I have been collaborating a little bit on what questions we were going to kind of go over the meat of this interview. Jean sent a bunch of questions in and what I’ve done is I’ve kind of mixed them all up and she has no idea what I’m about to ask and in what order. Let’s see how it turns out here.

The first question, though, Jean is we talk about Lean as perhaps a business strategy or perhaps it’s an initiative. What’s your opinion? Is Lean a business strategy initiative, and maybe what’s the difference between those two approaches?

Jean: Right. I definitely believe that Lean is a strategy, meaning it is a strategy of leadership and management. However, I think that to get interest in this strategy in this different way of managing, you usually have to start with getting people interested.

As an initiative, it would not at all be uncommon and perhaps not a bad way, in my opinion, to introduce the concepts of Lean to the organization, where you can do some things, have some improvement events, improve a particular process that’s troublesome and begin to let people see, oh, there’s a different way that we could improve the work that we do, there’s a different way that we could look at the work that we do and get interest.

But eventually, the real success with Lean concepts is when it really becomes the way that you do everything. You may have an initiative to introduce a new product. You want to use Lean concepts to do that as quickly and as effectively and with voice of customer as possible.

You may have an initiative to improve capacity within a particular part of the organization that is constrained. Well, using Lean thinking and problem solving and engagement of people and the different tools that we have with Lean bring it to that problem.

Your initiative might be to implement a new ERP system. In other words, the initiatives are things you want to get done, and the strategy is the methods and methodologies that you use to achieve the initiatives that you have selected that are the most meaningful to take your company into the future.

Ron: I got it. What about the financial impact of Lean? Maybe some organizations are very bottom line driven, ROI driven, whatever it might be. What can folks expect to see in terms of financial impact?

Jean: I base my opinion based on my experience. I’m sure different people have different experiences, but to me, when I first was in my very first improvement activity that we had at our company and I saw how, in four days, that we could transform how we made — in this case, it was conveyors — from a long drawn-out process to a very constrained, concise process that we could make conveyors one at a time, that’s when I knew as a finance professional that this was completely different than anything we had done before.

My experience was that there was no other activity, strategy, point of view that I had ever been exposed to that could result and improve business performance than what I saw in this one week period of time.

Say that is that if you fundamentally change how you do things and you do them more quickly with less resource and at a higher quality, you cannot help but have better financial results.

Now, the financial reports themselves might make it hard to see because of the traditional of general accepted accounting principles, things of how we deal with cost and inventory. But taking that aside, there’s no question in my mind at all whether you’re a manufacturer or you’re not a manufacturer, that if you are in fact making things more quickly with less resources at a higher quality, there’s no way that your company’s financial results cannot be improved.

And in fact, I’ll go a step further and say that if you’re applying Lean principles and you’re doing Lean activities and you are not seeing financial improvement, there’s something wrong with your strategy and how you’re applying it.

Ron: Yes. You’ve a finance professional background. What’s your opinion on tracking financial benefits when it comes to continuous improvement activities? Should people be trying to quantify the benefits of their kaizen event from the previous week? What are your thoughts there?

Jean: Trying to track on an event by event basis financial impact is a complete and utter waste of time. In fact, it should be the ninth waste. It’s just not. The benefit does not come at one point in time. It’s a cumulative effect.

There are corporate realities, however. Many corporations are not yet to the point that they’ve truly adopted Lean as a strategy. They still look at it as an initiative. In order to keep that initiative alive long enough for the real benefits to be released, many organizations do have to do some tracking on events.

We should see it for really what it is. It is a stop-gap measure for organizations to use because they’re not yet fully experiencing the dynamic power of Lean thinking within the organization. Once they see it and feel it, the need to track it is dramatically diminished.

The other part of tracking, though, I do think is important, but not from a financial point of view, the tracking of what’s happening with the improvements that we’ve made. We can’t just make an improvement and walk away. That is not a Lean strategy, that’s just hit-and-run activity.

You really do have to incorporate into your management practices that, as you make improvements, you’re constantly monitoring, doing PDCA to say what’s happened, what we need to do next, what we learned from this last experiment. That kind of tracking I do think is particularly important.

Ron: I remember back when I worked in industry, I won’t name names of the guilty, but I remember being a young practitioner of continuous improvement and spending as much time quantifying the benefits of our project work as we did the actual project.

It was just a pity that we had to waste so much time when we could have been out making other things better. Instead, we were using multiple regressions to demonstrate [laughs] how to save as much money over the next five years…it was a mess! Your words resonate with me.

Jean: You really bring up a point that is also relevant when we think about Lean and the role of the finance function. Like your example of where you are being really pushed to evaluate the financial impact, you may or may not have had the financial skills, the knowledge of how the accounting system works.

One of the things that I do think has a very valuable role for finance professionals and Lean organizations is, actually for the finance folks, to be part of the Lean efforts in other parts of the company so that they can have a firsthand understanding of the benefits and figure out how to help the organization with understanding what’s going on, where they see it in their financial statements so that they can get some feedback.

I consider improvements really experiments. You think you know what’s going to happen by making this change, but you don’t really know until you actually have made the change and lived with it. I consider that an experiment, a scientific method.

The finance professionals, I really feel, can play a very active and valuable role to partnering with the people who are making changes in the organization to get that reflection back of what’s going on.

Ron: The next question I want to transition into, Jean, is…Gemba Academy customers know that and maybe have seen Jean with my business partner Kevin. They did a great interview, and Jean was waxing poetic about all of the things of Lean Accounting.

What I want to do now is just transition into accounting a little bit, in more particular, and talk about Lean Accounting. Maybe some folks at a high level have heard of it, but they’re not exactly sure what it’s all about. Give us an elevator speech on what this whole thing called Lean Accounting is really all about and maybe what role it plays in an organization’s Lean Journey.

Jean: Excellent. I’d love to. I’m passionate on this topic. I always love to talk about this. Trying to keep it at the right level, the first thing to know about Lean Accounting…there are really in my view two parts of Lean Accounting.

One is applying the Lean principles and concepts, two the accounting function itself, how to take waste out of the operational work that accounts to things like paying bills, collecting money, closing the books, et cetera.

That’s very valuable work. Really, just like every part, every other function within a lean company should be learning about and applying Lean principles, accounting should, too.

The other part of Lean Accounting is what I would call accounting for Lean, which is basically how we can ensure that the financial information that you provide in an organization is simple to understand and supports the Lean behaviors that we’re really driving for, in the factory.

If we’re driving for producing at the rate of customer demand, we certainly don’t want financial information that is rewarding building as much as you can. Where this gets complex and where people are interested in really learning about it is really the cost methodologies, in most manufacturing companies.

Many manufacturing companies use standard cost accounting, and they think they have to or they’re not sure why they do. Really, Lean Accounting is an alternative way of thinking about how we present cost information while continuing to comply with generally accepted accounting principles.

Ron: If you’re interested, Gemba Academy covers it, and again we’ve interviewed Jean. At a minimum, I want to really recommend your book, “Real Numbers.” It’s a fantastic book. If you’re a leader of people in a business and you’ve not read that book, you really need to get it. We will link to it in the show notes of this episode.

The last question of this section, Jean, that I have for you. I know that you spend a lot of time in your consulting work, talking about how Lean can be leveraged as a method of organizational development. Is this like an HR thing? What’s it all about when we talk about organizational development in Lean?

Jean: Good question. My view on organizational development in Lean really aggregates a variety of different things that we might attribute to a particular function within an organization. I see it as really holistic.

Here’s how I put this in context. People of course, human relations departments, are responsible, in larger companies, for making sure they have the right people in the right seats at the right time. People are also one of the largest costs of most organizations. It’s what we spend a lot of money on — maybe material more — but people certainly a lot.

Lean is about uncovering capacity within the organization. This capacity could be in the form of something as straightforward and traditional as production capability and capacity. It also is about capacity of people, that we’re not having people do things that our customers don’t care about, which is what we call waste in Lean terms.

Now if you take those three concepts together and you say, “We want to create capacity in people so that the real important work that customers want done that we can use our people on those things and not things that are waste.” If you do that, what happens?

One, you don’t have to hire as many people because you have people whose freed-up capacity exists. You don’t have to train them. You don’t have to hire them. You don’t have to re-teach them about this crazy thing called Lean. You have people.

Ron: No turnover.

Jean: Pardon me?

Ron: There’s no turnover? Things like that are very little.

Jean: Far less turnover. If you’re really engaging your workforce, why would they want to go somewhere else? If you’re really elevating. The next thing that happens from that, of course, you don’t have to hire as many people and you can do more. Guess what? You make more money. This is a really good idea if you’re a business.

Last of all, you create the capacity to focus on the key initiatives that you have as an organization. If you have done a strategic deployment plan and you’ve identified the key initiatives, who do you want to have do those things? You want your key people to do that.

You want people to be able to dedicate time, not just do it along with everything else that they do every day, but actually be able to pull people out of the organization, give them extremely meaningful developmental activities as well as pushing your company forward with the most important initiatives that you have.

In my experience, the companies that do that are going to see tremendous improvement in profitability. They’re going to tremendous improvement in capacity creation. Business growth is going to be better. It all completely fits together. It’s fully institutional organizational development thinking.

Ron: Nice. Love it. All right Jean. Let’s go ahead and transition now into my favorite part of the show which we’re calling the Quick fire section. This is where you get to share your personal thoughts and wisdom, which you’ve been doing, but now we’re going to focus in on Jean a little bit. OK? [laughs]

Jean: [laughs]

Ron: In the Lean community, we spend a lot of time talking about the importance of respect for people and how it’s equally important to really anything out there, if not more important. Really defining what respect for people is can be difficult. What does respect for people mean to you?

Jean: Respect for people to me is not about being kind and nice. Respect for people is about realizing that every single person in your company has something to offer. You have to create space for people to offer something other than just having their head down, doing what they did the last 10, 20, 30 years.

Creating a space for them to work on where your company is going, whether that’s managing for daily improvement, daily huddle boards, whether that’s Kaizen events, whether that’s training, cross-training opportunities, switching up jobs with other people. It doesn’t really matter which things you do. The ultimate respect for people is realizing that every single person has something to offer to your company that you have not yet figured out what it is.

Ron: The most common question we get, again, by the academy, is where do we start? In our case, what video should we watch first or whatever it might be. The question that we try to ask back as much as possible is, “I don’t know. What kind of problems are you trying to solve”? A question that we like to ask our guests is, “What problems are you trying to solve right now maybe in your work or with a client or anything like that”?

Jean: I have another book I want to write, and I’m trying to get it written.


Ron: That’s a problem, capacity management maybe.


Jean: I’m very fortunate. I have lots of folks that I get to help. The time to stop and write down interesting learnings, things are challenging for me, to be honest. I get done with a client, an event during a week, or I’ve done a speech, or we’ve done some coaching. Quite honestly, I’m tired at the end. It takes a lot of work. You’re on your feet all day, airplanes, and you’re traveling.

It’s not always the best time to go, “OK. What was this real insight that I got this week that I could leverage over to other people”? My husband is very involved with our business together. He does the back office. He’s always saying to me, “Jean, you’ve got to write that down. What a great story.” I get home. We take a walk a lot. We have this wonderful neighborhood we live in in Evanston.

We do a lot of walking. I’ll be telling him all about what’s happened. He’ll say, “Oh, Jean. You have to write that down.” I think that’s my personal challenge right now, just writing this down. We do learn from each other. As much as I knew when I left the corporate world, I know so much more now. By interacting with other people is how we learn from each other.

Having cross-functional activities within your company where you can really learn from each other, it’s far more powerful than we could ever first think that it would be.

Ron: I’m trying to find on my iPhone here, I use this from time to time, the little recorder, the voice recorder. Next time your husband says you need to do it, the voice recorder, turn it on your smartphone and talk into it. That way, at least you’ll have it in audio format.


Jean: [laughs] Thanks for that suggestion.

Ron: Potential counter measure.


Jean: There you go.


Ron: Jean, what’s the best advice that you’ve ever received?

Jean: Don’t always feel like you have to talk first. I’m a high energy, type A person. I got some really good guidance one that said, “Vary your style a little bit. Sit back sometimes, let other people go to the forefront at different times.” That Nelson Mandela quote that I started with really touches me in that way. We do have different times. Sometimes we need to be nimble and going out ahead.

Sometimes we need to follow. Sometimes we just need to be creating in the environment for others to do that. I learned a lot when my eyes were opened to that feedback.

Ron: I actually just interviewed a gentleman names Mike Grogan. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Mike, but he’s in Tanzania, Africa, right now working in the hospitals over there. When I asked him a similar question, he said, “Talk less, listen more.” That’s what he wanted to do. Talk less, listen more, and empathize more, he said.

I really like that. Very similar answer. Do you have maybe a personal productivity habit that other might before from?

Jean: I have a Macbook Air, and I love the sticky feature. I use the sticky feature a lot. I have different sticky notes for different things. I have one in particular which is what I have to do this weekend once I get home. What are the business things I need to do? I keep on another sticky the books that I want to read next so that I can get them onto my Kindle.

If I have my Kindle with me, I’ll just put the books that I want to read in samples, right away, right from the newspaper. That way, I can do a little sample read before I decide. I had to put it on another piece of paper and put it on a sticky. I get it directly into my Kindle is another good one. Just having a really consistent place where you put the things that you really don’t want to forget about, I find that helps a lot.

Ron: I’m a big Mac user as well, but I’m more old school, I’m like, these are my stickies [laughs] opposed to notes.

Jean: They used to be. I’m on the road all the time. My office is my laptop now. In fact, when we bought this house, I had to have an office and all this sort of stuff. To be quite honest, now with the Macbook Air, I sit in an easy chair a lot of the time and do my writing. I do write every month.

I have a newsletter, and so I write for my newsletter. That is one of the ways I try to capture my experiences. That’s a little bit of a counter measure as well. It forces me to write something every month.

Ron: I love your newsletter, too. I get it.


Jean: Thank you.


Ron: Jean, if you could recommend one book related to continuous improvement or leadership, and it can’t be your own book, we’ve already plugged that one, what would it be and why?

Jean: I don’t want to offend any of my author friends.


Ron: [laughs]

Jean: I have a lot. I will say that I’m particularly entranced right now with Art Byrne’s, “The Lean Turnaround.” I read it right after it came out. I really feel that Art’s voice as a CEO and repetitive CEO is very straightforward. It’s a great book for CEOs.

In fact, I’ve told my clients that if the CEO and the CFO read it, they get a little discount. [laughs] If you’re a CEO and you read Art’s book and you don’t do this, you’re not paying attention.

Ron: Give the name of the book again.

Jean: “The Lean Turnaround.”

Ron: “The Lean Turnaround.” We’ll link to that in the show notes as well.

Jean: That would be great.

Ron: The last question. Speaking of CEOs, imagine that you’ve sold your consulting business for a billion dollars and now you’re bored. You go back into industry, and you’ve been hired as the general manager of a company who was unfortunately struggling with quality, productivity, morale. Really, they’re just a mess. You were hired because of your continuous improvement background, your experiences and success.

As it turns out, the CEO has given you complete operational and PNL control, so you are totally in charge. With this said, what would you do on your first week on the job?

Jean: I would be looking for a good pilot. I would be looking for a part of the business that’s important, not something off to the side, not something trivial, a very important part of the business. I would create a pilot that would go all the way from the whole order generation side all the way through to after-market.

I would begin a pilot that would include not only the application, training people what to do in the application, but it would be a full pilot that would include the non-manufacturing components as well. We’d probably start out with a very high level value stream map of that pilot area.

The first week is to find that pilot area and to find a couple of pals, people that can come together. They’ll be there in shadow and really start to see and to begin, right from the beginning, leveraging the knowledge and the way of looking at things.

Ron: Love it. Thank you so much for coming onto this show, Jean. I know you’re super busy, and so we really appreciate your time. Why don’t we wrap up the show with you sharing some final words of wisdom? Tell people how they can connect with you on social media.

Jean: Sure. I’ll be glad to. Words of wisdom. The Toyota production system has really changed my life, not just my business life, which it certainly has. When I was in the corporate world, it completely changed from struggling to being way out ahead and that, but it also has changed my life in the ability to really touch people.

When I have the opportunity to work with clients, it’s great when I see results, but there’s nothing like someone who comes up to you afterwards and says, “I had just about given up, and I’m ready to come back and work at this some more,” or “I never thought it would be possible,” or “I never thought that person would listen to me.”

When I hear that people have been touched by and renewed by thinking about this kind of strategy and how it can work within their company. I feel like I get the opportunity to touch people, and it’s incredibly rewarding. It’s very personal. I have a lot of passion for this work, and I get to work with so many other people who do. That’s really beautiful.

In terms of connecting on social media, I have a website, I post different things up there but also can get to my newsletter that I publish through the website. Anybody can sign up for it, and I’d love for you to do that. There are some links to other videos.

I’m on LinkedIn. I don’t use LinkedIn a lot, but I am on LinkedIn. My website and the newsletter are my predominant way of communicating with people. You can send me an email through the website as well, with a question. I’m more than happy to get them.

Ron: Fantastic. We’ll link everything up in the show notes.

[background music]

Ron: Thanks again, Jean, for coming on. I need to interview you in person. We’ll do some more videos and all that kind of stuff. Kevin can’t take all the credit for all the great videos with you.


Ron: I’ll get on there as well.

Jean: Good.

Ron: All right. Thanks again, and take care.

Jean: Thank you.

Announcer: Thanks for listening to the Gemba Academy Podcast. Now it’s time to take a free, no strings attached, fully functional test drive of Gemba Academy’s School of Lean and Six Sigma over at Gain immediate access to more than 500 Lean and Six Sigma training videos free of charge at


What Do You Think?

Is lean a business strategy, or an initiative? Why or why not?

GA 018 | Lean Product & Process Development with Jim Morgan


GA018_Jim_MorganToday’s guest is Jim Morgan, President of the EMC Network and Senior Advisor at the Lean Enterprise Institute.

With an impressive and diverse career, including ten years at Ford where he worked directly with CEO Alan Mulally, Jim has an abundance of lean knowledge to share with us including how Lean Thinking applies to Product & Process Development.

Specifically, Jim shares why Lean Product & Process Development is such a powerful concept and how, at its core, actually revolves around people.

Lean Product & Process Development Exchange Conference

Lastly, as you’ll hear, you can save $100 by using the coupon code “Gemba” when registering for the Lean Product & Process Development Exchange.  

This conference really excites me… especially since Dave Pericak, Chief Engineer Ford Motor Company, will speak about the 2015 Ford Mustang’s product development process!  You can learn more about this conference here and be sure to use the coupon code “Gemba” to save $100.

To hear the podcast just press the “Play” button at the top of this post.

An MP3 version is also available for download here and a downloadable PDF transcript of the interview can be found here.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Jim’s background and lean history, including his time at Ford (3:13)
  • Jim’s favorite inspirational quotes (7:43)
  • What kind of experiences Jim has had as a lean researcher (9:03)
  • How Jim would go back and improve his book if he could (12:17)
  • Jim’s definition of Lean Product & Process Development (13:45)
  • How and why LPPD is people-centric (16:12)
  • The many benefits of LPPD (18:14)
  • The challenges of LPPD, and what it takes to overcome them (19:42)
  • What leaders can do to discover and implement LPPD (21:18)
  • Jim’s definition of “Respect for People” (23:17)
  • One problem Jim is trying to solve (24:26)
  • The best advice Jim has ever received…it involves Jiu Jitsu! (25:23)
  • Jim’s simple but powerful personal productivity habit (27:51)
  • Jim’s final words of wisdom (31:19)

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Full Written Transcript

 GA 018 | Lean Product & Process Development with Jim Morgan

Ron Pereira: You’re listening to episode 18 with Jim Morgan.

[background music]

Announcer: Welcome to the Gemba Academy podcast. The show that’s focused on helping individuals and computers achieve breakthrough results using the same continuous improvement principles leveraged by companies such as Toyota, Del Monte, and the US Department of Defense and now, here’s your host, Ron Pereira.

Ron: Hey there, this is Ron Pereira from Gemba Academy. I’d like to welcome you to another episode of the Gemba Academy podcast. As always, thank you so much for listening to this podcast and for watching out Lean and Six Sigma training videos over at

Today’s guest is Jim Morgan. Now, Jim is the President of EMC Network, a research and consulting firm specializing in engineering management in both product and process development. Jim’s also a senior advisor at the Lean Enterprise Institute. As you’ll hear during the show, Jim has an amazing background including having held senior leadership positions at Ford, where he worked directly with CEO Alan Mulally.

Now, during the show, Jim and I talk all about lean product development. Well, specifically we talk about what lean product development is and how it’s so very different from the more traditional product development approach many companies take.

As you’ll hear during the show, Jim is also the conference chair for the upcoming Lean Product and Process Development Exchange, which is being held September 23rd through 24th, 2014 in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina. Now to learn more about this conference, simple go to and use the promo code “Gemba” in order to receive $100 discount.

Now I will say that this conference looks really good. Folks like Jim Womack are going to speak and additionally the chief engineer of the new Ford Mustang will also speak, which is incredibly cool, if you ask me.

So, again, go to to learn more and use promo code “Gemba” to save $100. Full disclosure, Gemba Academy isn’t being compensated at all for this recommendation. We’re just really excited about the work Jim and his team are doing.

The show notes for this episode, including links to everything we talk about can be found over at which is 1-8. So again, Enough from me, let’s to the show.


Ron: All right, Jim, well thank you so much for coming onto this show. So where you calling from today?

Jim Morgan: It’s my pleasure to be here. I really appreciate this opportunity. I’m up in Traverse City, Michigan today.

Ron: Nice. Well, right before we came online, we were kidding about all these Michigan guys taking over the lean world and everybody who’s followed me for a while knows that I’m a big Ohio State guy. We just won’t go into college football or anything like that, I guess. [laughs]

Jim: We’ll call a truce.

Ron: There you go. All right, Jim, why don’t you go ahead and start things off by giving a little bit of a history on your background and maybe how did you first come to learn about lean thinking?

Jim: Sure, I recently retired from Ford just last year. I’m currently working with the Lean Enterprise Institute who has major initiative in lean product and process development. I’m also working a bit with LPPDE, the Lean Product Process Product Development Exchange, helping them with their conference.

Before this, as I mentioned, I worked at Ford as the Global Director for Body, Safety, and Stamping engineering. Prior to that, I worked at a major tier one global automotive supplied called, “TDM.” Of course, you mentioned the University of Michigan connection already.

Ron: Tell us a little bit about Ford was where you were at the longest, I’m assuming, am I right?

Jim: It was a mix. I spent the last 10 years at Ford. The first two, as the director of their global product development system and then the last eight, as I mentioned, as the global director for body, safety, and stamping.

Ron: You were able to work with some of the top leadership of Ford, am I correct in that assumption?

Jim: Yeah, I was really fortunate to work for some great leaders including Alan Mulally, who was just phenomenal leader. I had an opportunity to learn a lot from him and several other people along the way at Ford. They’re just incredibly talented organization.

Ron: You’ve written a book. Tell us a little bit about your book, Jim.

Jim: The book is called, “The Toyota Product Development System: Integrating People, Process, and Technology.” It’s a book I co-authored with Jeff Liker, based on the research I did at the University of Michigan, when I was working on my engineering PhD.

Ron: Nice. You mentioned earlier, you made mentioned to some conferences that you’re involved with. Talk a little bit more about that and maybe some details, and some specifics. It’s the middle of July, when we’re recording this. It will be somewhat dated, but go ahead and talk about what you got going on for the next year or so.

Jim: Yeah, a couple of things. One, I mentioned a work that I’m currently doing with Lean Enterprise Institute.

One of the things that we’re doing, I think, that’s really interesting is we have a group of partner companies from a number of different industries that are working together to improve their product development systems. Both based on the things that I’ve learned and others have learned in research and in practice but also in working together on a number of projects so that we’re learning together.

At the same time we’re improving their systems, we’re also advancing the state of lean product development knowledge. It’s really exciting. The other thing is there is a conference in September at Raleigh-Durham, September 23rd and 24th. It’s called the Lean Product Process Development Exchange which is just that.

It’s a where a number of practitioner companies from almost every industry you can think of comes together to share their insights and experiences in product development and improving their product development systems.

We also have a great lineup of keynotes like Jim Womack and Jeff Liker. We have vice presidents from Goodyear and from General Electric. We also have the chief engineer for the Mustang Program, as a plenary, a group. The Mustang is particularly interesting this year, of course, because it’s the 50th anniversary. It’s just an incredible car. Dave Pericak, who’s the chief engineer and a good friend of mine, just has some great stories and experiences about how chief engineers work to deliver value to the customer.

Ron: Very cool. We’re going to have links to everything, your book, all the conferences that you’ve been talking about over at the show notes which can be found at

All right, well Jim, what we like to do to kick off all of our episodes is have our guest share a quotation. It could be leadership, lean, produce development; it can be anything that inspires you. What quotation inspires you, Jim?

Jim: There’s a couple. If I can share two?

Ron: Yeah.

Jim: The first one has to do with organizations and individuals and their relationships with each other for high levels of performance and continuous improvement. It comes, it’s an old chord from Kipling.

“The strength of the wolf is in the pack and the strength of the pack is in the wolf.” I think that’s really a profound way of looking at that relationship and how each can strengthen the other. Then, a personal quote is from Epictetus, who was a stoic philosopher and that is, “No man is free who is not master of himself.”

Ron: What does that mean to you that last one?

Jim: That means not getting caught up in things, not getting on the hook as Epictetus talks about all the time. Whether it’s fads in management or whether it’s other things that take away from your personal freedom like substance abuse and things like that.

Ron: All right, very good. As I mentioned in the intro, we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about lean product development here in this episode. It’s the theme.

You have an interesting background, Jim, with lean product development as an executive but also, as a researcher in the field. Why don’t you just share a little bit about your experiences both as an executive and researcher?

Jim: Happy to. I talked a little bit about it in the beginning but I worked in the industry for about 10 or 12 years before deciding to the University of Michigan to get my PhD. I ran into just a hotbed of lean zealots.

L. Ward was there, Jeff Liker, John Shook, and by extension, Jim Womack. It was a real epiphany for me, because of my discussions with them; I decided to do my dissertation on product development at Toyota.

I did about a two and a half year comparative study of Toyota product development with a number of their competitors. I found, not only that they were far better, far more successful with regard to lead time, cost, quality, transaction prices, almost every element of product development, but that their system was profoundly different than what their competitors were using and what we had seen quite honestly anywhere else in industry.

We sort of organized what we saw into a socio-technical model and identified what we thought were key attributes that made their system so powerful. That socio-technical model is really what provided that basis for the Toyota Product Development System book that I later wrote with Jeff.

After I finished the book, instead of staying in academics or doing consulting, I actually went to work at Ford, where I had this incredible opportunity to work with just some phenomenal people in their product-driven revitalization. If you recall at that time, sort of seven or eight years ago, Ford was in a really bad place. Allen joined the company, probably about a year and a half after I got there, maybe a year after I got there. He really focused the entire organization on creating products that our customers would want and would pay for. In order to that, we had to completely reinvent the development system.

We had to change our organizations and of course, we had to completely reinvent the entire product portfolio. That was just a powerful experience for me. As much as I learned my time at researching Toyota, I learned so much more trying to implement what’s exactly right. I learned from my colleagues at Ford as well.

It was a great experience. As I mentioned, I retired last year and now have an equally unique experience to work with guys like Jim Womack and John Shook at the Lean Enterprise Institute. Also, this group of partner companies that we’re working with to sort of take all these to the next level.

Ron: You wrote the book then you kind of add some experiences there at Ford. If you had to go back and change anything in the book, would you?

Jim: It’s funny, I’ve been ask that question a couple of times. I think it’s a great question. I think there are probably two things that I think would improve the book.

One is there’s not nearly enough focus on product. It’s a product development book that doesn’t talk enough about product, believe it or not. It focuses on the system and how to deliver great products. But the role of product in bringing the entire enterprise together the drive for product excellence, I think that could be clearer in the book. Then of course, because I hadn’t really been experienced in implementing it, there wasn’t enough in the book on how to go do this.

It’s an observation. We try to describe as accurately as we could what we saw and what the differences were some of the specific practices. We hadn’t gone out and actually sort of worked on transforming an organization before we wrote the book. I think that’s another thing that would strengthen it.

Ron: Very good. Let’s take one step back here. At a high level, kind of an elevator speech level, what is Lean Product Process Development? How is it different from traditional or other types of product development models out there.

Jim: Like any lean system, it starts with deeply understanding the customer, understanding the environment and the unique value that your product can actually deliver. Until you understand what the product really needs to be and how it delivers value. There’s no point in going any further. It really stresses this idea of immersing yourself in the environment.

There are great stories about the Sienna minivan chief engineer who spent a year driving around North America. There are lots of stories about Dave Pericak in the Mustang Community. It’s way more than just sort of asking your customer, that’s certainly part of it. But having this deep understanding and design is about context. Understanding that context, experimenting using a set-based approach where you look at multiple design solution alternatives as opposed to rating on a single one. The chief engineer concept paper that allows you to communicate this vision with the rest of the organization and get aligned around what it needs to be and who’s going to do what in order to deliver it, that’s crucial upfront.

Once you understand that, it’s about creating flow. Sound familiar to you for Lean and precession and speed getting to market. There are a number of different techniques and tools and methodologies that you can use like compatibility before completion to minimize rework, synchronizing activities across function so you can really do concur in engineering in a powerful way.

A system of standards that allows you to not reinvent things that I need to program. I really focus on learning a knowledge creation, longer term, how to use design reviews, how to attest failure in order to learn. I mean it’s just so many things that really make up this portion. But more important than anything else and I think what really differentiates lean product and process development is this focus on people. It’s a people-centric system. It’s focused on developing people and product simultaneously in different ways to do that.

It’s all about creating a sustainable system for developing great people and great products so that you can have profitable values streams as outward used to say. It’s a system that continues to build on itself because it is focused on developing people. I think that’s missing from a lot of other approaches to product development.

Ron: Being a Michigan man, I’m assuming that you’re aware of a gentleman named Richard Sheridan and he’s at Menlo Innovation there in Ann Arbor. Are you familiar with those guys?

Jim: Absolutely. Rich is actually a really good friend of mine. We’ve had a lot of interactions and we’re very aligned as you probably can tell.

Ron: Yeah. I mean we just got done visiting them. We’re actually editing the footage. Just how you were talking about adding contacts to your products and understanding the end user and just a way that they go about it with their high tech anthropologist, I mean it’s incredible, right?

I mean, I think that’s exactly what you’re talking about here. It’s really understanding what the customer wants and needs and drawing pictures and cartoons and whatever needs to do. You need to do to make that happen. But so many people like this in a tradition sense maybe don’t do that, right?

Jim: That’s exactly right. Whether you use high-tech anthropologists or the cheap engineer, you really need to have this vision for what the product needs to be. It makes all the difference in the world if you’re creating this for somebody, as opposed to just creating it. That’s the big difference.

Ron: You’ve talked about some benefits of this. Maybe expand on that a little bit more? Aside from Ford, are there any other companies out there that had success with this type of an approach?

Jim: We talked about that deeper understanding that you achieved with this, which is really powerful to create better, more successful products, clearly improved quality, no matter how you measure it, lower cost, and more manufacturable products, certainly, because of the collaboration that is just fundamental to this approach, faster lead times and, actually, on time delivery is something that a lot of product developers struggle with.

It’s also a way to bring the entire organization together. Product development isn’t an engineering thing. It’s an enterprise thing, where you need to bring engineering, industrial design, marketing, and manufacturing finance purchasing altogether.

The product of that company is the one thing that they all have in common. It’s really a powerful lever to bring the organization and to do serious work around creating a lean enterprise.

Ron: I’m sure it’s not all roses with lean product development. What are some of the challenges when you try to implement this type of program?

Jim: Clearly, achieving high levels of collaboration can be tough in some organizations. Some organizations have been walled off for so long it can be difficult to break down those barriers.

I know at Ford, the combination of being in a bit of a crisis, quite honestly, for the company and having leadership like Alan’s, John Fleming’s, and others’ allowed us to break down those barriers. If you don’t have that kind of leadership commitment, it can be very challenging to implement something like this.

Also, getting access to actionable knowledge. There’s a lot of information out there, there’s a lot of different consultants out there, who may or may not be very knowledgeable about theory, but don’t have a lot of hands-on experience.

Also, companies tend to hold their product development information really close to the vest. It can be difficult to get information to get started on this journey. Those are two key challenges that people have when they start to go down this path.

Ron: Like you said, product development is an area that a lot of companies are going to hold very close to their vest, for obvious reasons. It’s their livelihood, if you will.

Let’s say that there’s an executive or a leader, right now, listening to this episode who we could define as traditional in their product development approach. What can they do to learn more about lean product and process development? What can they do to go about implementing it in their organization?

Jim: Just as a starting point, there are some good books, “The Toyota Product Development System” that I mentioned before. I guess I have a little bit of a bias there.

There’s also the “Lean Product and Process Development” book that LEI’s published. It’s based on work by Al Ward and Durward Sobek. Then, Taka Fujimoto, who’s a Professor at the University of Tokyo, has also done some great work in high-performance product development.

To get beyond books, things like the learning partnership that we’ve set up at the Lean Enterprise Institute is really a powerful hands-on way to learn and expand the scope of your learning group by working with these other companies. Then, of course, the Lean Product and Process Development Exchange Conference that’s in September, where are companies from pharmaceutical software, hardware medical devices, appliance, automotive are all coming together to share their experiences.

Ron: It sounds wonderful. Obviously, you don’t have to be in manufacturing to practice this type of thinking. [jokingly] Look at Menlo, they don’t make widgets.

Jim: That’s exactly right, Ron. The principles are the same. They do cross boundaries and they’re very powerful. Figuring out exactly how to adapt them to your particular environment and how they manifest themselves in terms of specific practices, that’s the challenge. The principles are pretty powerful.

Ron: Yes. Very good. All right, Jim. Let’s go ahead and transition now into my favorite part of this show, which we’re calling The Quick Fire section. This is where you get to share your personal thoughts and wisdom, which you’ve already been doing, but now we’re going to really focus in on Jim. We’re going to put a magnifying glass on you.

The first question is, we, lean thinkers, spend a lot of time talking about respect for people and how important that is to an authentic lean thinking approach. Putting your finger on what respect for people means can be difficult, if not impossible, to some, in your opinion, what does respect for people mean?

Jim: There are two important elements. The first one is just acting with integrity. Say what you’re going to do, do what you say. Being that way in you interactions with people is important. Then, treating people as highly capable professionals, holding them to the same high standards that you hold yourself to. Those two things will go a long way in your interactions with people.

Ron: Nice. What’s one problem you’re trying to solve right now, Jim?

Jim: [jokingly] Just one?


Jim: For me, right now, time management is a bit of a challenge. I, as I mentioned, just retired from an environment that was highly structured. We had a very mature cadence. The workload was tremendous, but there was a cadenced way to deal with things.

Now, in a more independent role with just incredible demand, I think I underestimated the level of demand for lean product development; I’m struggling a bit with time management.

Ron: What are some counter measures you’re thinking about? You have any in mind?

Jim: Yes. I’m working to create a similar cadence to what I’ve worked to in the past. When you have a lot of outside entities you’re dealing with, the cooperation level can be mixed, I guess is the best way to put it.

Ron: [laughs] To be polite, right?

Jim: Yes, exactly.

Ron: Jim, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Jim: I’ve received a lot of great advice. I’ve been very fortunate to have a number of wonderful mentors, including Alan. The best advice I ever got actually came from outside of industry, and that’s “Leave your ego at the door.”

I’ve been practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for quite a while, which I think we talked about.

Ron: Yes. My son does it as well. Fantastic!

Jim: It’s great. One of the most important things I learned there, and also learned in leadership, is to leave your ego at the door. You can really get frozen. It can freeze you up, it can stop you from progressing. That was pretty good advice.

Ron: Just to talk a little Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu because I’m fascinated by it. I grew up as a wrestler. I didn’t do Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but…similar concepts. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is such a humbling experience! I don’t care how good you are, you’re going to tap, eventually. Right?

Jim: Absolutely! It’s unforgiving. You can’t rationalize it away. You tap to get over it. Business industry can be a lot the same way. It can be very humbling. If you spend a lot of time rationalizing things away, you don’t make progress.

Ron: Conversely, you are going to submit. When I say, “Tap,” some people might not know what we’re talking about. In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, if you get someone in a hold or a move and you’ve got them and they can’t get out, and you’re going to hurt them, potentially, if you continue, they’ll tap on your back, and then the person stops.

What I love about that concept, Jim, is…even watching my son, he’s seven years old, he will get submitted and he’ll tap. He’ll bounce up, he’ll slap hands, knuckle up, and then he’ll go again! Then, he will submit someone, but there’s no bragging about it. It’s like if you get submitted, OK, if you submit, OK. You just carry on and slap hands and knuckle up, and go again.

There are tremendous parallels to the business world that we are going to win and we are going to lose. It’s how we react in both situations that is going to tell our stories. Right?

Jim: That’s exactly right, Ron. That’s why I think it’s so powerful. That’s why I continue to huff and puff, and continue to roll even as an older guy.

Ron: Nice! I love it. Do you have a personal productivity habit that others might benefit from?

Jim: I think focus. I think deciding what your priorities are, what you’re going to do and what you’re not going to do is really critical. You can really get caught up in a lot of stuff. There’s a lot of stuff. You can find out that you’re working really hard and not making any progress unless you’re really focused on what it is you’re trying to accomplish.

Ron: My business partner, Kevin, is going to love you for that because his biggest mantra for all of us is to stay focused and not get distracted, which is so easy to do. Right?

Jim: Yes, exactly.

Ron: We’ve talked a lot about different lean product development books and so forth. Can you recommend, maybe, another book on leadership or continuous improvement that you’d recommend folks check out?

Jim: There are so many. I’m an avid reader and it’s just almost unfair to pick. Lately, I’m a big fan of the Peter Drucker stuff. He was way ahead of his time. He had some incredible insights that still ring true today.

I’ve done a bit of fooling around with Mike Rother’s “Toyota Kata” stuff. There are elements there that are important. I think the Jeff Liker book on Toyota leadership is a good book, and John Shook’s “Managing to Learn.” There are a lot of books. If I had to pick one, it would be the Peter Drucker stuff.

Ron: Nice. The last question, and I can’t wait to ask you this because you come to the table with an incredible amount of real executive leadership. Let’s imagine, Jim, that you’ve got the itch to get back into industry and you’ve been hired as the general manager of a company who’s struggling with quality, productivity, really they’re just a mess in.

You are hired, obviously, because of your background, your experiences, and successes. As it turns out, the CEO that hired you has given you complete operational and penal control and trust that you’re going to ride the ship.

With this said, Jim, what would your first week on the job look like? What would do and why?

Jim: Just like with product development, the first step is always to work to deeply understand, to go to the Gemba and see what’s going on, to go to the factory floor, the engineering spaces. Talk to people, review the data, meet with people both inside and outside the organization, especially customers and suppliers, or third party people that look at the industry.

The big thing is to really understand what’s going on because you can’t diagnose, let alone prescribe before you examine the patient. I think that first week would be spent trying to deeply understand what’s going on.

Ron: All right, Jim, well, thank you so much for taking time. I know you’re super busy, so I really appreciate you taking some time out to talk with us.

Let’s go ahead and wrap this show up with you sharing some final words of wisdom and then why don’t you tell people how they can connect with you via social media?

Jim: I think I’ve expounded all of my wisdom.


Jim: I’m really passionate about this topic, almost all topics Lean, but especially Lean product development. I’m always happy to exchange with people.

You can reach me at, is probably the easiest way and also through the Lean Enterprises Institute I can be contacted. Again, this is a topic I’m passionate about, I’m always happy to talk. Thanks for inviting me today, Ron.

Ron: I’m sure most people listening to this know that but is going to get you to the LEI website, right?

Jim: That’s correct.

[background music]

Ron: Well, thanks again, Jim. Hopefully, we’ll get to meet in person one day. Your work really inspires me. So, keep it up and thanks again.

Jim: Thanks so much, Ron. I hope we get to meet but not in Columbus.


Ron: OK. Take care.

Jim: Bye.

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What Do You Think?

Are you familiar with Lean Process & Product Development? How would you define it?

GA 017 | Winning Friends and Influencing People with Ron Pereira

Me and My Dad

Me and My Dad

Today’s podcast is a little different from any of our previous shows since, well, I’m flying solo!

My family and I recently took a 3,600 mile road trip which afforded me the opportunity to listen to some audio books.

One of these books is something I’ve long wanted to read but never had… and that book is “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie.

Initially, you may wonder what this book has to do with continuous improvement… but, I contend, this may be one of the most important books you could ever read if you hope to truly make an impact with continuous improvement or really any aspect of your life.

And, as you’ll hear, this trip was very special to me for a deeply personal reason since my Father passed away shortly after we visited with him.

My Dad taught me so many things… but, perhaps the most significant thing he taught me was that our success in life largely depends on how well we can get along with and influence others which is exactly what this book is about.

So, I am dedicating this episode to my late Father, Dr. Ronald Roy Pereira.  I love you, Dad!

To hear the podcast just press the “Play” button at the top of this post. An MP3 version is also available for download here.  

We’ve also consolidated this episode into an eBook that can be downloaded and read online or offline.  

Here is an outline of the episode broken down by parts and chapters.

Part 1: Fundamental Techniques in Handling People

  • Chapter 1: Fundamental Techniques in Handling People (5:18)
    • Principle: Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.
  • Chapter 2: The Big Secret of Dealing with People (7:00)
    • Principle: Give honest and sincere appreciation.
  • Chapter 3: He Who Can Do This Hold the Whole World with Him.  He Who Cannot Walks a Lonely Way (9:12)
    • Principle: Arouse in the other person an eager want.

Part 2: Ways to Make People Like You

  • Chapter 1: Do This and You’ll Be Welcome Anywhere (11:22)
    • Principle: Become genuinely interested in other people.
  • Chapter 2: A Simple Way to Make a Good Impression (12:38)
    • Principle: Smile.
  • Chapter 3: If You Don’t Do This, You’re Headed for Trouble (14:11)
    • Principle: Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
  • Chapter 4: An Easy Way to Become a Good Conversationalist (15:29)
    • Principle: Be good listeners while encouraging others to talk about themselves.
  • Chapter 5: How to Interest People (16:33)
    • Principle: Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
  • Chapter 6: How to Make People Like You Instantly (17:22)
    • Principle: Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.

Part 3: How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking

  • Chapter 1: You Can’t Win an Argument (18:53)
    • Principle: The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
  • Chapter 2: A Sure Way of Making Enemie— And How to Avoid It (19:51)
    • Principle: Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say “you’re wrong.”
  • Chapter 3: If You’re Wrong, Admit It (20:48)
    • Principle: If you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
  • Chapter 4: A Drop of Honey (21:54)
    • Principle: Begin in a friendly way.
  • Chapter 5: The Secret of Socrates (23:30)
    • Principle: Get the other person saying “Yes, Yes” immediately.
  • Chapter 6: The Safety Valve in Handling Complaints (24:36)
    • Principle: Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
  • Chapter 7: How to Get Cooperation (25:28)
    • Principle: Let the other person come up with, and implement, his or her ideas!” 
  • Chapter 8: A Formula that Will Work Wonders for You (26:50)
    • Principle: Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
  • Chapter 9: What Everybody Wants (27:36)
    • Principle: Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.
  • Chapter 10: An Appeal that Everybody Likes (29:01)
    • Principle: Appeal to the nobler motives.
  • Chapter 11: The Movies Do it. TV Does it. Why Don’t You Do it? (30:26)
    • Principle: Dramatize your ideas.
  • Chapter 12: When Nothing Else Works, Try This (32:02)
    • Principle: Throw down a challenge.

Part 4: Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment

  • Chapter 1: If You Must Find Fault, This is the Way to Begin (35:40) 
    • Principle: Begin with praise and honest appreciation.
  • Chapter 2: How to Criticize — and Not Be Hated for It  (36:22)
    • Principle: Call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly.
  • Chapter 3: Talk About Your Own Mistakes First (37:34)
    • Principle: Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.
  •  Chapter 4: No One Likes to Take Orders (38:09)
    • Principle: Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.
  • Chapter 5: Let the Other Person Save Face (38:48)
    • Principle: Let the other person save face.
  • Chapter 6: How to Spur People to Success (40:52)
    • Principle: Praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be “hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.”
  • Chapter 7: Give a Dog a Good Name (41:42)
    • Principle: Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.
  • Chapter 8: Make the Fault Seem Easy to Correct (43:47)
    • Principle: Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct.
  • Chapter 9: Making People Glad to Do What You Want (44:23)
    • Principle: Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest.

Podcast Resources

Download This Episode as an eBook

We’ve converted the transcript for this episode into a downloadable eBook.  Simply right-click here and save the file to your computer.

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If you enjoy listening to podcasts chances are you’ll also enjoy listening to audio books.

And if you’ve never experienced how incredible an audio book is to listen to today is your lucky day since you’re able to download a free audio book over at our favorite audio book provider – Audible.

Simply click this link to claim your free audio book.

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What Do You Think?

Have you read this life-changing book? If so, do you think the things Carnegie taught so many years ago are applicable today?  Lastly, did you enjoy the format and style of this episode?

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What’s Faster: One Piece Flow or Mass Production? Watch This Envelope Stuffing Simulation To Find Out!

OPFWe recently re-shot the first video I ever created back in 2008.

Specifically, this video shows the difference between one piece flow and mass production.

I first learned of this simulation many years ago while reading the book Lean Thinking.  In the book, James Womack writes about how he asked his children how they’d approach the stuffing of envelopes.

He wrote how his kids, like most of us, were initially drawn to mass production but later learned how one piece flow was, in fact, superior.

So, check the video out and let me know what you think.  Is it smoke and mirrors?  Perhaps I was working “faster” during the one piece flow part of the simulation?

I’d also encourage you to do the simulation yourself to see if you get the same results.

So check out the video and let us know what you think.

GA 016 | Developing Lean Leaders with Jamie Flinchbaugh


jamie-flinchbaugh-2010-170This episode’s guest is Jamie Flinchbaugh, who has over 20 years of lean transformation experience. I’ve followed his work for years and was so excited to finally connect with him on this episode.

Jamie is such a down-to-earth guy… I’ll think you’ll enjoy listening to us talk about everything from Lean Accounting to our kids’ soccer teams.

To hear the podcast just press the “Play” button at the top of this post. An MP3 version is also available for download here.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Jamie’s lean career history (2:42)
  • The quote that has inspired Jamie for over 15 years (4:08)
  • Jamie’s definition of a Lean Leader, and why it’s a verb, not a noun (6:07)
  • Why Lean Leadership is often overlooked (9:05)
  • How Lean Accounting fits into Lean Leadership (10:14)
  • The best way to coach leaders, in Jamie’s opinion (13:43)
  • How lower level practitioners can succeed without leadership support (15:56)
  • What “Respect for People” means to Jamie (19:13)
  • The one problem Jamie is really trying to solve at the moment (20:51)
  • The best and most unique advice Jamie has ever received (21:52)
  • Jamie’s simple but effective personal productivity habit (22:49)
  • Jamie’s final words of wisdom (28:58)

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Full Written Transcript

 GA | 16 Jamie Flinchbaugh

Announcer: You’re listening to Episode 16 with Jamie Flinchbaugh.

[background music]

Announcer: Welcome to the “Gemba Academy Podcast,” the show that’s focused on helping individuals and companies achieve breakthrough results using the same continuous improvement principles leveraged by companies such as Toyota, Del Monte, and the US Department of Defense. Now, here’s your host, Ron Pereira.

Ron Pereira: Hey there, this is Ron Pereira with Gemba Academy. I’d like to welcome you to another episode of the Gemba Academy Podcast. As always, thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to listen to what we’re up to.

Today, I’m excited to welcome a guest to the show named Jamie Flinchbaugh. I’ve followed Jamie’s work for many, many years. He’s been blogging and writing and doing other kinds of lean thinking activities out there. But, I’ve never had the fortune of actually meeting Jamie, so I was really excited to finally get to talk to him a little bit on this episode.

Jamie has written a really good book — we’re going to talk about it in the episode — called the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean.” It’s one of my favorite lean thinking books and actually, one of the earlier books that I read on my journey. He’s a really good guy. He’s very active in the consulting, especially the C-Level of organizations.

We’re going to have links to all of Jamie’s websites over at the show notes, which you’ll find at

During this interview, Jamie and I really focused on the topic of lean leadership and how to go about developing lean leaders within organizations. We talked about all kinds of things and everything from our experience as soccer coaches to lean accounting and what practitioners you might not have seen your leadership support should do, what they can do to improve their parts of the world.

I think you’re going to enjoy this show. Again, the show notes can be found over at Enough for me, let’s get to the show.

All right, Jamie, thank you so much for coming on to the show. Where are you calling in from today?

Jamie Flinchbaugh: Ron, thanks for having me. I’m calling in from my home office in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Ron: Nice. How’s the weather in Pennsylvania?

Jamie: Well, it’s pretty hot today, I’ll tell you.

Ron: My family and I just took a big road trip and we were up through Canada, then over to Ohio and Michigan and all that. We got to experience good old midwestern weather. It was actually beautiful when we were in that part of the other world there. It’s very cool.

Jamie, tell us a little bit about yourself and your background and your company and what you do these days.

Jamie: Well, I’ve been working on lean transformation for over 20 years, a lot of time inside companies like Harley-Davidson, Chrysler Corporation, DTE Energy. Co-founded with Andy Carlino the Lean Learning Center 13 years ago now, and worked with clients all over the world and spend most of my time with executive coaching and also a transformation strategy.

Ron: One of my favorite lean books is something that you had a part in and that was “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean.” Tell us a little bit about that book.

Jamie: When we wrote “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean,” this was Andy Carlino and myself, we really tried to look at what we thought was wrong with lean journeys. We also looked at topics nobody was writing about. At the time, nobody was writing about lean principles or lean leadership.

So, this became the centerpieces of what the book was about. A lot of it is just a collection of our advising experience, hence the name. The experience we gathered throughout our travels from both inside and outside companies.

Ron: We’ll link to that for everyone over at We definitely recommend that book if you haven’t already read it.

Jamie, so the way that we like to kick off all of our shows is with our guests sharing a quote that maybe it’s related to lean or leadership or continues improvement that inspires them. What quotation inspires you, Jamie?

Jamie: One that I’ve actually carried with me for probably 15 years now, maybe even longer, is by a guy named Frank Tyger and it’s “Experience is not what you’ve been through, it’s what you take from it.” I always loved that because there’s two ways to go through life — I mean they just go through statically or you learn from every moment. It is about how you learn through all your experiences.

Ron: I love that. I was actually going through your website a little bit today, your blog and digging in. As far as much as I care about everyone and I’ve been following your blog for a long time, but I saw something that it was interesting. I never knew this about you that you’re a big soccer guy and play it and enjoy it with your kids. I’m guessing there are lots of lessons that you’ve learned from sports as well, right?

Jamie: Well, absolutely. I coached travel team for the last couple years. I think the two things that I’ve learned the most is that both from a process standpoint and from a people standpoint, all the pieces have to work together. On the team, I coach, which is my daughter’s team, we worked a lot on team harmony and cohesion and team spirit. We worked a lot on the interaction on the field as well, the mechanics and the process of a team. You can have all the great stars you want. But unless the team works together, you don’t accomplish anything.

Ron: How old are the girls?

Jamie: The team I coach is now moving into under 13.

Ron: Nice. I’ve also coached my kid’s soccer team, so I quite enjoy it.

Jamie, the topic today, as I mentioned in the intro, is kind of lean leadership. What I wanted to start with is what is a lean leader and how would you define this role for lack of a better word?

Jamie: For one, I’d start with defining it as an act. Meaning that lean leaders and the job that we do, it’s not a person in a leadership role in a company that’s doing lean. That’s just simply the role that you have.

Lean leadership really is a process. It’s an act. It’s a verb. So, it’s how you show up in the organization. There are lots of new answers to defining it but to me, the single word is engagement. There are a lot of people that I meet that are highly supportive of their company’s lean journey, highly supportive of their team.

But if you actually said show me the things that you personally do to enable the lean journey, it’s hard to say. They write checks. They show up advance. They kick things off. They encourage. But they don’t really do lean themselves. There’s a big, big gap between support and engage.

Ron: Back when I worked in industry, I was always blown away if we were doing an event somewhere. Next thing you know there was one particular gentleman. I think he was a…I don’t know, senior vice president. He’s very, very senior in the organization. This guy showed up on Monday morning in blue jeans and a t-shirt and he joined us that week, like the whole thing. He wasn’t just there for a little bit, crawling around. I’ll tell you, people were blown away by this guy actively engaging. Like you said, he wasn’t there just to kick it off or there for the report at the end. Is that kind of what you’re talking about with the active engagement or is there something else?

Jamie: I think that’s a good example. Of course, there are more ways than one to be engaged. Showing up to kick it off and then showing up to the report at the end, that’s a fantastic way to support. But actually to participate, there are two sides of it.

One is the support you show the team that is more than just the support you show up by kicking things off. But more importantly, I think you’ve wholly get what it takes for your people to go through and make an improvement because you’re doing it too. You are part of the process. You actually see that it’s not so easy, that there are real barriers, both cultural barriers and political barriers and procedural barriers and focus barriers, these all sorts of barriers.

You get to understand that far better if you’re actually trying to do it too versus simply just encouraging others. I think there are a couple sides of it. But whether it’s the day to day improvements, whether it’s real A3 or 5Y problem solving, whether it’s participating in workshop events like that, I think it’s during the work, not just encouraging it.

Ron: Why isn’t leadership development a bigger part of most people’s lean road maps?

Jamie: I think the biggest reason is that too many of the road maps are led by individual contributors or other people that don’t know what it takes to do that role. They don’t even know what to ask for. They know that they’re not getting lean leadership from their executives and leaders and managers, but they don’t know what to look for. They don’t know what to ask for.

As a result, they kind of know that they’re not getting it and they’ll be vocal about it. But they don’t know what to actually ask for. The limits of what they’re asking for falls into the domain of support.

They never actually ask their leaders to learn a new behavior, change how they spend their time, change how they solve problems themselves. I think often because they don’t have an empathy and insight into what it takes to actually do that executive or leadership role.

Ron: I’m curious on your thoughts. Something that we’ve talked about and covered recently here at Gemba Academy is the topic of lean accounting. How do you think that fits into the whole concept of lean leadership?

Jamie: Well, that’s interesting. They’re coming up on the tenth anniversary of the Lean Accounting Summit. I helped kick off the first one, and one of my premises, early on, is that…I would hear a lot of complaints that we can’t do the right thing, because the accounting systems don’t let us.

It always bothered me a great deal. To me, the premise was that if there’s a leadership that knows what the right thing is, and their accounting systems don’t quite reflect the right thing, and they still don’t do the right thing, they no longer deserve to sit in that chair.

If you know what the right thing is, but you’re not going to get rewarded for it financially because your accounting system is, you’re no longer a leader. I don’t think you deserve to have that chair anymore. If you know what the right thing is, you should do it at whatever the cost.

To me, that’s one of the most important intersections between lean accounting and lean leadership. Lean leadership is making the decision. Just because your accounting systems don’t support it, you still have to make the right decision.

Now, we want our accounting systems to be better. That’s the other part of lean leadership. Let’s transform how we do things, but we can’t use it as an excuse.

Ron: Right. Do you think it’s possible for private companies, publicly traded companies, just companies in general to be extremely effective with the whole lean enterprise, lean thinking concept, without traditional cost accounting, if they are doing traditional cost accounting? Can they succeed?

Jamie: Yeah. I’ve seen them succeed, so I think so. I think it’s easier in the private companies. Just because as long as the family or the owners of the company…Whether it’s private equity or it’s a family held business, and we’ve worked a lot with both.

They can simply make the decision. They aren’t held hostage to a dogmatic view of the organization based simply on a set of numbers. They can establish a vision. They can say, “We know what’s right. We think this is the right direction, and we choose to go there.”

It’s harder in a public company, but it’s still by no means…leadership is leadership and shareholders recognize it. They sometimes will challenge it, but as long as you can tell people where you’re going, which you at least have an obligation to do, they can make a decision whether they support that direction or not.

I think it’s easier if we have numbers that better reflect the true process, better reflect the true cost and not just the transactional cost. I know this is sort of an impossible vision, but I still support Tom Johnson’s long standing view of lean accounting.

Our main goal is to get accounting out of management. I think it’s still an important tool. It’s still a part of the process, but, again, we shouldn’t be held hostage by just looking at a number.

Ron: Back to leaders here. What about the process of coaching leaders? What’s the best way to go about that?

Jamie: I think the two biggest mistakes that I see people make when coaching leaders, one is that any true coach is in it for the other person. If you find a good sports coach, for example, you really are there to help that other person succeed.

They’re there for the team. They want the team to do well, and the individuals on the team to do well. Too often, I see coaches “coaching.” People call it coaching, but it’s really their agenda, and not the person-they’re-coaching’s agenda.

It’s one thing to have a vision that supersedes or is elevated beyond the person you’re coaching. There’s nothing wrong with that. Making it about what you want versus what the coachee wants. Making it about your success versus about the other person’s success. That’s a recipe for failure.

Ron: Yeah. Along the same lines, being in the youth sports world, I see that also with parents. The bad leadership parents, if you will, are the ones living vicariously through their kid. The kid obviously isn’t passionate, but mom or dad sure is. It can go both ways, right?

Jamie: Absolutely. I could hijack this conversation with stories just about that topic, but I won’t.

Ron: Exactly.

Jamie: I think the other thing that I think is the second biggest mistake is just not having a process for coaching. People go in and say, “Yeah, I share my wisdom, and I do what I call drive by coaching. I pop in a few comments here and there.”

But, they don’t really have a process, a plan. They don’t really practice “Plan, Do, Check, Act” within their coaching. I think that’s critical. I think you need a process. You need a technique. You need a methodology. Without that, just like any process, without a process, very unlikely to get to your destination. I think that’s true of coaching as well.

Ron: The last question. I’m going to kind of turn the tables a little bit. We’ve been talking about lean leaders and so forth, but what about if someone is, maybe, a frontline associate. They’re passionate about lean. They’re fighting the good fight on a daily basis.

But, they’re not a supervisor. They’re not a manager. They’re not in, technically, a leadership position, if you will. Let’s say that this practitioner doesn’t have senior leadership support.

Maybe, like you said, there’s folks that…They’ll turn up then take off or something like that, but they’re not really behind these practitioners. And when the going gets tough, oh, we don’t have time for that lean stuff or that continued improvement stuff.

These practitioners who want to succeed, but they don’t have that leadership support, what can they do?

Jamie: I think the whole idea is that they don’t have the decision rights for stuff that is larger than their domain. But, they do have decision rights for their domain.

I remember one of our very first classes when we opened the Lean Learning Center. We had a supervisor from a large tractor company. He said, “What can I do? I’m just a supervisor of 11 people.”

All right. Take 11 people and the decisions that you own, and go apply lean. Go do a good job. If you’re doing it to drive performance, as long as you’re not trying to change other people’s worlds where you don’t have the decision rights, nobody is going to hold you back.

Now, you’re not going to change the company that way, but you’re at least going to do a better job. Quite frankly, if you do a better job regardless of whether you put a name on it or not, you’re more likely to get promoted. Now, your decision rights are broader.

It can be frustrating that there’s lots of things going on around you that aren’t headed in the right direction and aren’t supportive and aren’t part of lean. But, take the ones that you can control and do a good job with that and support the people you do support.

Ron: I love that. I love hearing the stories of how the guy was a machinist and worked his way up. Now, he’s the CEO. He probably did exactly what you just described. He made his job better or her job better. The next thing you know they move up and move up. The next thing they’re running the company.

Jamie: Even when you get to that point, everybody things that eventually we need to get the CEO on board when I can get the CEO. CEOs have bosses too, between banks and shareholders and customers and regulators who all put restrictions on them.

I’ve met CEOs who thought they were finally ready to rule the roost, and they spend 60 percent of their time on regulators, banks, and boards. They have very little time to actually run the company. You take the hand you’re dealt, and you take the constraints you have. You work the best you can within those boundaries.

Ron: Excellent. Let’s transition now into my favorite part of the show, which we call the Quick Fire section. This is where you get to share your personal thoughts and wisdom, which you’ve been doing, but now we’re going to really focus in on Jamie a little bit.

We lean thinkers spend a lot of time talking about respect for people and how important it is to always do that. To put your finger on what does respect for people mean or look like, that can be difficult. What does respect for people mean to you, Jamie?

Jamie: Let me start by saying what I think it isn’t. I think it isn’t about being nice. It doesn’t mean you have to be mean. That’s not the heart of it, even though I often see people thinking that’s the heart of it. To me, the heart of it is really around developing people and the fact that I want the people around me to be better off, to be more capable, to have more ownership, whatever that might be, than they did before I found them.

I want people to grow. That, to me, is respect for people. Sometimes it involves coaching. Sometimes it’s about giving them opportunity. Sometimes it’s about giving them degrees of freedom. Whatever it is that helps those people develop and take more ownership over their lives and develop more capability, that, to me, is the ultimate respect for people. Sometimes doing those things means you won’t be their friend and they may not like everything you’ve done, but they’re still better off for it.

Ron: Exactly. One of the most common questions we get at the academy with videos and what not is, “What video should I watch first?” Our response is normally, “What problems are you trying to solve? What ails you, if you will?” I’m always curious. What’s one problem that you’re trying to solve right now, Jamie?

Jamie: I think related to the topic, I’m really trying to solve the self-development of leaders, helping leaders find ways to manage their own self-development. I spend a lot of my time coaching people. Bandwidth becomes the biggest problem. I only have so many hours to go around and work with people. They can only pay for so many visits.

I’m really trying to find ways, techniques, methodologies that really get leaders to take significant ownership over how they manage their own learning cycle and their own development. Of course, time management becomes a big part of that, because that’s a big constraint on everybody’s plates today. That’s one of the problems I’ve been trying to solve of late.

Ron: Jamie, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Jamie: I think the best advice is more unique. There’s lots of generic advice that’s always very good. Make every career decision based on learning first. I’ve twice taken pay cuts specifically because what I was going to go do next I was going to learn more in.

Whether it’s joining a board of directors, I recently joined the board of a 120 year old company. The sole reason was I wanted to learn how they did that. That’s really cool, 120 years. To make every career decision, the first factor is, “What are you going to learn?” I’ve really tried to apply that in every career decision I’ve made. I think it’s served me pretty well.

Ron: Jamie, do you have a personal productivity habit that others might benefit from?

Jamie: The thing that works for me is I have weekly standard work. I call it control point standardization. Others might call it leader standard work or even manager standard work. I have one sheet of paper that really lays out my routine of what’s important each week.

Mostly, it’s things that I don’t naturally do, that are easy to get distracted from. It changes over time based on my priorities changing or based on me developing good habits, in which case I don’t need good reminders anymore.

I have a part of it that’s the same every single week. Part of it is about laying out my priorities each week. Part of it is based on reflection. Part of it is just based on capturing actions. I have standard work that I practice each and every week.

I’m not inherently built for discipline. When I commit to a process, I can be disciplined, but if I don’t have that process, it’s very easy to lose focus and get distracted by the shiny object. That’s what’s worked well for me.

Ron: How do you monitor how well you’re doing? Do you check things off?

Jamie: It’s each week I have the things I do every single week, and I have the things that I plan to do that week as priorities. I just look at how many of those standard things I actually got done and how many of the priorities I actually got accomplished.

They’ll be really bad weeks because of a combination and lack of focus. I got very few of my top priorities finished. Well, that’s a good lesson. Figure out why and do better the next week. I don’t turn it into a metric, but it’s pretty obvious at the end of the week whether I was focused or not.

Ron: If you could recommend one book, and “Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean” is obviously something that we recommend, but in addition to that, if you could recommend one other book related to continuous improvement or leadership, what would it be and why?

Jamie: I think the book that has had the biggest impact on me, and it’s not exactly an easy one to recommend because it is hard to read, is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl. It’s a pretty powerful book. It was written while Frankl was in the concentration camps.

It really is about purpose and man’s search for meaning. What is our purpose? Finding your purpose and having that be the driving force in all that you do, your decisions, your behaviors, and your focus, just creating meaning to overcome all the adversity.

Adversity without mean to overcome it is a horrible way to exist. Adversity in the face of a purpose is very tolerable. The way it was written, the context in which it was written and, of course, the message itself, it’s just been a very powerful book. It’s been a long time since I read it last, but a very powerful book for me and several others that I know that have read it as well.

Ron: I’ve not read it. Why do you say it’s difficult to read? His writing style?

Jamie: Some of it is the writing style, but some of it also is just the fact that it’s written from the confines of concentration camp. The context under which it’s written…I wrote half of my book sitting at a coffee shop. He didn’t quite have the same nice conditions for thinking through his message and his research and everything else. That became really what made, I think, the message so powerful is that his life’s purpose is what carries him through.

Ron: Last question, Jamie. Imagine you’ve been hired as the general manager of a company that’s struggling with quality, productivity, poor moral. Really they’re just a mess. You were hired because of your experience and your past successes.

The CEO that hires you is giving you complete operational and P&L control. They trust that you’re going to right this ship. With this said, what would you do on your first week and why?

Jamie: I think I have to first cautiously answer that by saying that if I had a pat answer for that under all conditions, it would probably be the wrong one. I think you have to read each situation and develop a unique plan. I think in a general sense, my base plan going into a situation like that would be to really spend the entire first week getting a deep sense of current reality.

I’d probably start with the customers, going off visiting as many customers as possible. Of course, it varies greatly if it’s a consumer products company than if it’s a three client business to business company. I’d want to first get an understanding of what’s the clients are saying about us. What is their opinion? What is their perspective? What is their experience? What do they value?

I’d then want to understand the employee side. What’s their context? Do they feel appreciated, under appreciated, engaged, unengaged?

Third, I’d want to understand the process. I’d want to go from beginning to end and walk the value stream basically.

Fourth, and again, logistically, it never quite works out in a linear way, but fourth I’d want to understand the strategy and the management and how the strategy affects management, meaning does everyone know where they’re going, do they not know where they’re going? Do they have a work plan to get there? Are they just reacting to what’s in front of them? How does management do their work and how clearly connected are they to the strategy of the company? In a week’s time, you can get a good baseline on each of those and at least know where to dig in a little bit deeper next.

Ron: Very good. Thank you so much for taking time to come onto the show. Let’s go ahead and wrap it up with you offering some final words of wisdom. Then why don’t you tell people how they can connect with you on social media or any other outlet that you prefer?

Jamie: Certainly. My most important advice that I’ve been finding lately is ownership. People have to take ownership over their situation. I get a lot of people who talk to me about, “I can’t get my boss to do this. My situation isn’t right. I can’t make these things happen.”

Those are just problems that we have to own and say, “I’m part of that problem, because it does surround me. Just the fact that I haven’t found a way yet makes me part of the problem. I’ve either solved it, or I’m part of it. I can’t detach from it.”

Invest yourself in where you need to go. Really ask yourself how far you’re willing to go to make your own personal vision happen. If you think you need to turn left, what is it going to take to turn left? What are you willing to sacrifice, give up, risk, or take on and persevere with to make that, achieve that outcome? We can’t sit around and wait for things to happen for us. We really have to take that ownership.

Ron: How can people connect with you?

Jamie: I think the easiest place is on my blog, I’ve been writing there for awhile. I intend to get back to writing a little more frequently than I have been. Hopefully, I’ll have a fairly steady pace of content, but also you can reach me directly through the website.

You can also find me on Twitter at @flinchbaugh. You can find me at as well. Those are probably the easiest places to find me or just to follow me.

Ron: All right, very good. It’s July 2nd, today, when we’re recording this. We won’t release this for a few more weeks, but happy fourth of July. Good luck with your daughter’s soccer team. Do you guys enter into your year change right now? Is that how it works there?

Jamie: Well, our year change, but we’re also, you know, tournaments, practice, and already time to get ready for football.

Ron: Very good. All right. Thanks again, Jamie. Be well.

Jamie: Thank you. Same to you.

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What Do You Think?

What does it take to develop a solid lean leader? Is it a role, or a process?