Learning by Writing… by Hand

By Kevin Meyer

I’m an early adopter tech geek at heart, and generally am among the first to embrace a new technology. I may not go to the extreme of standing in line for a new iPhone, but I will pay to upgrade to the latest model even when I have difficulty describing the changes, let alone increased value, from the previous model.  I’ll admit I was even once an owner of an Apple Newton.  Remember the summer of 1993?  Probably not.

Vinci_-_Hammer_2A-500I love my gizmos, but there’s one area where I’m still decidedly old school. I prefer to write… by hand.

I’ve tried electronic planners and journals, but they just don’t work for me.  Instead of having to open my iPad, turn it on, select the right app, and then start writing in a somewhat clumsy manner, I just open my Moleskine and start scribbling.

Each morning before I start work I write down my top three tasks for the day and I take a moment to record some gratitude – it’s amazing how that creates focus and changes your perspective and outlook.  During the day I’ll take notes on calls, ideas, and to-do’s.  And at the end of the day I’ll review – hansei – my top three to see if I accomplished what I set out to do, and if not then why not and how I’ll improve.  I’ll record any final thoughts, which at my age is starting to be a necessity so the next morning I’ll remember where I left off.

Journaling is an incredibly powerful tool – Robin Sharma also talks about the power of journaling in this video.  But there’s another aspect of journaling that gives it power: handwriting it vs typing.  Mark Gavoor dug into this as well.

Yet, there is something more intimate and old school about hand writing.  It is a different mind, eye, hand, pen, and paper interaction and interface than the mind, eye, finger, keyboard, and screen interaction and interface.

This is also why I regularly harp on the advantages of scribbling on whiteboards over typing into “the machine” and then coercing that data onto reports or electronic displays.  When you write a production number, metric, or problem on a white board you own that number, you visually see the relationship between it and the numbers next to it, you recognize patterns and trends, and you may have to even explain it to peers standing around you.  Action can be taken immediately to change an unfavorable situation.

Typing into a computer?  Not so much.  Somehow that data is mysteriously transformed into other numbers and analyses that you may see a week or even month later and the linkage, understanding, and ownership of that relationship is lost.  You end up with a bunch of folks trained to feed the machine, and a different bunch of folks trained to supposedly interpret what the machine spits out.  The problem – and opportunity – is obvious.

The psychology behind the learning advantage of handwriting is starting to be understood.  Last week Carol Holstead wrote about an experiment where she banned laptops from her college lectures, instead requiring students to take notes by hand.

I use PowerPoint in my visual-communication course but only to outline the lecture and show examples of designs. I told students they would need to listen to what I said about each slide and selectively write down the important points. I said I believed they would remember more of my lectures by taking notes on paper.

It turned out my theory was right and now is supported by research. A study published last year in Psychological Science showed that students who write out notes longhand remember conceptual information better than those who take notes on a computer.

From that study,

The researchers, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer, wanted to learn if students could recall more factual and conceptual information from notes taken longhand or from those typed on a laptop. Mueller and Oppenheimer did a series of studies using 327 students on three campuses.

Students tested right after a lecture tended to answer factual questions equally well regardless of how they took notes, but students who handwrote their notes did consistently better on conceptual questions. What’s more, when students were tested again a week later, the longhand note takers performed consistently better on both factual and conceptual questions.

There’s more detail on that and similar studies at Science Daily.

Yes there are downsides.  Handwriting is hard to search, repurpose, share, and archive.  Whiteboards are great, but difficult across multiple sites and complex (perhaps unnecessarily complex?) operations.  If I had a dime for every process I’ve come across that was supposedly too complex for a simple whiteboard and required a high-powered MRP system, where a little lean simplified the process to where a whiteboard was more than sufficient…

Is the purpose to record data and observations, or to learn?

The process of writing by hand creates understanding, ownership, reflection, and thus learning.

Write it, don’t type it.  You might be surprised with what happens.

Bowling Should Be Unnecessary


By Steve Kane

We often hear or read about work/life balance.  It’s as though work is thought of as not part of one’s life but as a countering force.  The very notion of balancing suggests conflict.  After all it is conflicting forces that keep a scale in balance.  Work, though, is a part of life.  And, it should enhance a person’s life instead of weigh against it.

Could the notion of work/life balance really be the desire to compensate for something that is missing–to fill a void?


A job offers us the basics for survival and security in modern society: a paycheck.  With this we buy the material things we need.  However, it takes much more than this to satisfy our needs.  Maslow established his hierarchy of needs as survival, security, significance (love and belonging), esteem (prestige and feeling of accomplishment), and self actualization.  The paycheck addresses the first two.  Employment (ideally) addresses the others.

People often join sports leagues to have some fun outside of work.  They seek involvement with others.  People want to belong and want to make a contribution.  But, why outside of work?

Our emotional needs of significance, esteem and self actualization are essential.  We’ll satisfy these needs however we can.  If we don’t fill these needs in one place, we’ll look in an other.  Of course this means if we don’t experience this sort of emotional fulfillment at work, we’ll look outside of work.

The Void

Work can’t fill all of our needs.  Love and intimacy are perhaps best kept out of the workplace.  What about or other needs?

The only way for an employer to get the very most of an employee is to provide the very most to the employee.  More money won’t do it.  Money relates to the fundamental needs of survival and security.  Once these needs are met, the contribution of money becomes less effective at filling needs.

Employees need to have their emotional needs met.  They need to belong–have a sense of community.  They need prestige and a feeling of accomplishment.  And, they need to make a significant contribution.  Work, it seems, is the ideal place for this.

When these emotional needs are met, people have a greater capacity for creativity, collaboration and accomplishment.  People  have more to give.

We expect people to leave many aspects of their personal lives out of the workplace.  At the same time, there’s not much of a chance that work can stay out of the personal life.  After all, work pays for the personal life.  The experience of work, good or bad, comes home with the employee.  When people feel important and accomplished at work, they tend to feel that way outside of work.  I think the opposite is also true.


I’ve been fortunate enough to see this in action at work.  By giving employees more responsibility, autonomy, trust and respect, I saw operational performance improve.  Workers were treated like professionals and they rose to the occasion.  It seemed the employees stood a little taller.  They were happy when the came to work in the morning and happy when they left in the evening.

Sure, the employees still bowled and played softball after hours and on the weekends.  It just wasn’t as important to have their needs met that way.  They just didn’t feel the need so much to try to balance their lives with work.

Just Own It

By Kevin Meyer

In addition to having implemented lean in several companies, I’ve been fortunate to have been able to visit a large number of unique organizations where continuous improvement methods have taken root.  Although for the most part they’re all different, they also have a few things in common:

  1. A strong yet humble leader that enables and respects people by teaching new concepts and letting them try ideas, with failure seen as a valuable part of the learning process.
  2. A methodical process that truly analyzes the current state, envisions the future state, and identifies the appropriate changes necessary to improve.
  3. An ability to identify new tools and methods, then modifying them for their specific circumstance, thereby engraining them into culture and making them their own.  Owning it.

The first point on respect for people is critically important, but is often forgotten or not understood.  In my opinion it is the primary reason lean transformations fail, which is also why Gemba Academy has recently released the Culture of Kaizen series of videos.

The second and especially third points are what then create success.  Instead of simply adopting tools, which is the danger of benchmarking best practices, they dig into their situation to truly understand the problem or opportunity.  Only then do they look for tools and methods, and even at that point they know they need to customize those tools.

Great continuous improvement organizations don’t just implement tools.  They go through a process:

  1. What is the problem or opportunity?
  2. What is the underlying root cause or reason?  Really dig into it.  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?
  3. What are some potential tools and methods to create improvement?
  4. How will those tools work in our environment? What needs to change?
  5. How will they be implemented?  By who, with what resources, knowingly de-prioritizing what other activities?

I’ve seen a lot of great organizations over the past couple decades, and they have reinforced to me that there is no one “right way.”  I know there are many purists out there that insist we must follow “The Way” with regards to which tools, in what manner and order, following the teachings of Ohno or whoever.  Don’t get me wrong – the historical context is very valuable.  But it is also just an input, and every situation is different.

Here are just a few examples from Gemba Academy’s Gemba Live! series – where we go out to unique organizations to bring you their stories.  Each one is different

Techno Aerospace, where the entire organization is geared toward supporting their hoshin plan, including incentives, visual methods, and defined processes.

Menlo Innovations, a software development firm where every activity is focused around adding joy to their team members and customers.

Aluminum Trailer Company, a manufacturing company that leverages Training Within Industry (TWI) throughout, and even outside, the organization.

Specialty Silicone Fabricators, a medical device company where coordinated, cascading standup morning meetings and visual accountability systems at all levels of the multi-site company ensure alignment, execution, and focus.

FastCap, a company led by Paul Akers, where associates are encouraged to practice “two second lean” – making small improvements each day, every day.  The compounding effect of those improvements is incredible.

There are several more examples at Gemba Live!, and in a couple weeks we’ll be releasing videos from another company that has taken autonomous teams to an incredible level.

While in Japan a few years ago I also visited some innovative companies:

Toyota’s Kyushu factory, at that time it’s most efficient auto manufacturing facility in the world, yet there were almost no robots or computers on the shop floor – just an amazing example of manual kanban and the compounding effect of thousands of ongoing small improvements.

Saishunken Cosmetics, where almost all 1,000 employees worked in one large open room, with no walls, with the president and executive staff at a conference table in the middle.  The agility created by the ability to communicate rapidly was a game-changer.

An electronics company where a dedication to 3S, not 5S, turned the company around and made it successful.  You’ll even find the president scrubbing the floors in the morning.

There have been others even before that trip.

Sun Hydraulics in Florida, where a company of over 1,000 people had no job titles, except for the “plant manager” that was in charge of watering the plants.  An incredible story – and also some difficulties as they contemplated growth.

And last but not least…

American Apparel, a company that fascinated me for a long time and I was lucky enough to visit.  They could design and manufacture clothing in Los Angeles, outcompeting Asian sweatshops, even with the burden of a CEO that had “other interests.”  The story is great, unfortunately the CEO not so much.

Don’t just “do lean” by value stream mapping, holding a kaizen event, or even 5S.  Take the time, as a team, to truly understand the problem or opportunity, and even then don’t just slap a tool on it.  Modify it and change it to ensure it works with your situation and culture.

Own it.

Keep Calm & Improve On – Free Desktop Wallpaper

Keep Calm & Improve On - Lean Six Sigma

Our design team just created some pretty cool desktop wallpaper with the words: Keep Calm & Improve On!

If you like it, and want to use it as a friendly reminder to “improve on,” please feel free to download the images and set as your wallpaper background.

Download the Wallpaper Here

We created different resolutions for different monitor sizes.  The 1600×900 version looks awesome on a 27″ iMac!

Simply “Right-Click” any of the links below to download the image to your computer.  You can then set it as your background/wallpaper or use it in any other way you’d like.

Please share this article with anyone that may be interested!

Should We Use a White Background?

Finally, what do you think of this wallpaper?  Do you like it?  Would you prefer a white background with green letters?  How would you improve it?  Should we make this into a poster?

Introducing the Gemba Academy School of Six Sigma

Gemba Academy School of Six SigmaFor the past 6 months I, along with my Gemba Academy colleagues, have been extremely busy developing what we now call the Gemba Academy School of Six Sigma.

I’m obviously extremely biased… but I have to confess… I’m quite happy with the result.

The School of Six Sigma consists of 200+ videos covering topics ranging from Project Selection to Advanced Response Surface Design of Experiments.

We’ve also included several of our most popular, and critical, School of Lean courses such as 5S Workplace Productivity and Practical Problem Solving.

The Gemba Academy Difference

The thing I’m most excited about is the fact that both the School of Six Sigma & School of Lean follow the traditional Gemba Academy “site based” subscription model.

Traditionally, Six Sigma has been seen by some as an “elitist” methodology where only a few “chosen” people are selected to attend training.

Our sincere hope is that our site based subscriptions – which start at $1,295 for a one year subscription – will enable anyone interested in learning about Lean & Six Sigma the opportunity to do so.

For those interested, we’re also offering a certification option which will require both project work and the passing of an 80 question exam.

To be sure, we are not interested in becoming a certification mill where people essentially buy their certification.

Lean vs. Six Sigma

lean vs six sigmaAdditionally, another aspect of Continuous Improvement we hope to impact relates to the Lean vs. Six Sigma debate.

As many of you know, there are some “lean thinkers” who have less than kind things to say about six sigma.

And, to be sure, there are hard core “six sigma practitioners” who think lean is nothing more than laying tape on the ground and drawing value stream maps… which is obviously flawed logic.

True Knowledge

Socrates once said, “To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.”

It’s with this same spirit that we sincerely hope to spread the good news that is Lean & Six Sigma to as many people around the world as possible.

And by doing so we hope to bridge the divide between lean and six sigma since, in the end, the two methodologies can work together in harmony.

Sneak Peak

Here’s a sneak peak at one of the videos from the DOE section of the course. If you’re reading this via email or RSS you may need to click through to the site.

To preview other lean & six sigma videos please be sure to create a Free Preview Account (no credit card required).

How would you explain what Lean is to a 7-year-old?

Yesterday afternoon while driving home from a soccer game (and before I smashed into a Ford truck and obliterated the right side of my little Toyota… but that’s another story) my 7-year-old daughter (the swimmer and stud soccer player) asked me a great question, “Daddy, what do you REALLY teach people in Gemba Academy videos?


Now, to put this into perspective, my children know all about Gemba Academy and also understand many aspects of what lean is about.

This particular daughter even stars in our Gemba Academy Kaizen Overview video (she suggests moving the silverware tray closer to the dishwasher) at the 7:01 minute mark.

So, with this said, I knew I couldn’t offer a basic answer. So I paused. I pondered. What could I say to my 7-year-old daughter who already has some knowledge of what lean is about?

After a few moments… I replied, “Daddy tries to teach people how to work faster and make less mistakes. And, most importantly, we also try to teach people to be nice and respect each other… that way everyone can do their very best.”

As with anything related to continuous improvement I felt like my answer could have, and should have, been better.

What would you have said?

So, how would you have answered?  How would you explain what lean and six sigma and continuous improvement in general is all about to a 7-year-old?

5 Critical Control Chart Characteristics You May Not Be Aware Of

No matter if you call yourself a “lean practitioner” or “six sigma practitioner” or some combination of the two… one “tool” you should have a deep understanding of is the control chart.

I’ve written about control charts before so if you’re not familiar with what they are I’d suggest you check these articles out before pressing on with this article.

With this said, what I’ve discovered is that there are a few “details” related to control charts that many lean and six sigma practitioners aren’t aware of.

As such, I’d like to discuss 5 of these details in this article.

1. Collect 100 Data Points Before Calculating Control Limits

First, the “power” of any statistical test is directly related to sample size. The greater the sample size the greater the statistical power.

So, in order to ensure your control limits – which are calculated at +/- 3 Sample Standard Deviations from the mean – you should collect at least 100 data points.

If you don’t have at least 100 data points you can still calculate control limits but you should consider the results preliminary.

2. Study MR Chart Before I Chart

Next, when working with the I-MR or Xbar-R Charts we should always study and interpret the MR and R Charts before the I or Xbar Charts.

The reason this is so critical is because both the I and Xbar Control Limits assume the variability in the process is in statistical control.

So, even though the MR and R charts are shown below the I and Xbar charts we need to look at them first.

Furthermore, if we see any special cause variation in the MR and R charts we should seek to understand and counter the root cause of that variation before we take any action on the I and Xbar charts.

3. Start with Special Causes Tests 1, 2, and 7

Most Statistical Software packages, such as Minitab, allow you to test for 8 different types of special causes.

These tests were originally developed by Walter Shewhart and are sometimes referred to as the Western Electric Rules.

As it turns out, the statisticians at Minitab have done extensive testing and discovered that tests 1, 2, and 7 are the most useful for evaluating the stability of the Individuals and Xbar charts.

  • Test 1 checks to see if any 1 point is greater than 3 standard deviations from the mean.
  • Test 2 checks to see if there are at least 9 points in a row on the same side of the mean.
  • Test 7 checks to see if there are 15 points in a row within 1 standard deviation of the mean.

Of course you’re definitely free to use any of these 8 tests but, as a starting point, we’d encourage you to at least start with these 3.

4. Rational Subgroups Rock

Next, while the I-MR Chart is extremely powerful it is limited since each data point is created from a sample size of 1.

So, if we’re able to collect more than one sample we should since doing this will allow us to minimize any noise, for lack of a better word, within each subgroup while maximizing our ability to spot any signals, or special causes, between subgroups.

And this is where Rational Subgroups come in.

Formally defined, a Rational Subgroup is one in which multiple samples are collected so that the chance for variation due to special causes occurring within a subgroup is minimized, while the chance for identifying special cause variation between subgroups is maximized.

5. Choose the Correct “Variation” Chart When Using Rational Subgroups

Finally, if we’re able to collect data in Rational Subgroups the “variation chart” we choose depends on the size of the subgroups we collect.

  • Xbar-R Chart: We should use the Xbar-R (Range) Chart when our Rational Subgroups are less than 8 but greater than 1.
  • Xbar-S Chart: We should use the Xbar-S (Standard Deviation) Chart when our Rational Subgroups are greater than 8.

Now, since the Xbar-S chart uses the Standard Deviation it is more powerful than the Xbar-R chart which simply uses the Range.

Want More?

If you’re interested in learning much more about control charts and any other lean or six sigma topic I’d encourage you to check out the Lean and Six Sigma Training we’re continuously developing over at Gemba Academy.

Process Improvement and Rock & Roll

In 1967 Eric Clapton bought a ten-year-old Fender Stratocaster in London for £150. He nicknamed it “Brownie.”

3 years later Brownie was used to record “Leyla”. Even if you hate Rock and Roll you will have heard “Leyla.”

At the close of the 20th century “Brownie” was sold at auction by Christies in New York for $450,000. That is a lot of money for a guitar, particularly a rather old and beaten up guitar, even if it did have a bucket full of provenance.

What’s so special about the Stratocaster?

When most people hear the words “electric guitar” the first name that flashes through their minds is Fender Stratocaster. It is to rock and roll what Stradivarius is to classical music. Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend all played them.

Why did they all play the Stratocaster?

The guitar was developed Leo Fender after the Second World War. Leo wasn’t a guitarist, but he realised that the way to make a great guitar was to listen to guitarists and understand what they wanted.

  • The Stratocaster has a curved body so it is comfortable to play and doesn’t dig into the musician’s ribs.
  • The Stratocaster’s electric chord plugs into the front of the guitar, not the bottom so it is easy to connect to an amp.
  • The Stratocaster has 6 tuning pegs in line on the head stock rather than three on the top and three on the bottom, making it easy to tune.

But Leo didn’t just focus on the needs of the guitarist; the Stratocaster also has a modular design so it is easy for people to repair. Given the efforts Leo went to, to design the world’s most user-friendly guitar, it is hardly surprising that it went on to become a huge commercial success and a rock and roll legend.

“My first wife said, ‘It’s either that guitar (Strat) or me’, you know – and I give you three guesses which one went” ~ Jeff Beck

What can Leo Fender teach you?

The Stratocaster works because Leo listened to his customers and repairers problems and then solved them. He made it easy for them.

Do you design your processes with the same focus, giving customers what they want and making things easy? If you don’t, what could you change?

About the Author

James Lawther gets upset by operations that don’t work and apoplectic about poor customer service. Visit his web site “The Squawk Point” to find out more about process improvement.

Photo Credit: 1

4 Cloud Based Tools That Have Dramatically Increased my Personal Productivity

As a business owner, husband, and father of 5 amazing children time is not something I have a lot of.

As such, being able to stay focused and productive is extremely important. A few months ago I realized I was not being as effective as I needed to be.

It wasn’t because of a lack of effort… I was working very hard. But there were certain things really holding me back.

So, after some personal hansei, I made some changes that I’d like to share in this article.  Oh, and as an aside, there are no affiliate links in this article.


The first change I made centered around better managing my daily tasks.

To do this, I started to use a free web based tool called KanbanFlow.

KanbanFlow allows you to keep track of tasks you need to do, plan to work on today, and are currently working on.

The Pomodoro Technique

There is another tool built into the KanbanFlow site centered around something called the Pomodoro technique for time management.

The Pomodoro technique promotes working with full focus for 25 minutes before taking a short break. Then work another 25 minutes followed by another break.

The big breakthrough for me was a simple one. During a Pomodoro cycle (which I am in now) I turn off email and any other application that may distract me.

Once 25 minutes is up (man it goes fast when you’re really focused) I accept the break and check email and tend to any urgent matter that may have come up. I also allow myself to sneak a peak at some of my favorite bloggers, or maybe check out my Facebook page, or read about my beloved Texas Rangers.

But, once the 5 minutes is up I do my very best to close everything back down while beginning a new Pomodoro cycle.

I’ve not perfected this and still need more discipline but I’m getting better.


At Gemba Academy we have LOTS of projects going on.

We’re working on things such as the launch of a formal School of Six Sigma, redesigning our website, and even experimenting with subtitles in Hebrew, Chinese, and Arabic!

Historically, we’ve done OK with project management by email communication and using things like Dropbox to collaborate and share files.

But, as of a few months ago, we officially hit a point where we just had too much to manage.

Enter Basecamp by the guys over at 37 Signals.

Basecamp is cloud based project management website that allows users to keep track of projects, assign tasks, and have discussions with team members.

With Basecamp, there is no need to “discuss” things via email… it can all be done in Basecamp allowing you to revisit a discussion you had 3 weeks ago quickly and easily.

I love, love, love Basecamp and can’t imagine how we ever got anything done without it.


Another cloud-based tool, also produced by 37 Signals, we just started to experiment with is called Highrise.

Highrise is a “simple CRM” tool that allows us to keep better track of customers we talk to and need to follow back up with.

We have used some other CRM tools in the past that were far more complex than they needed to be.

The power of Highrise and Basecamp is in their simplicity. They allow you to do the things you need to do and nothing more.

Organization & Focus

Really, when I step back to think about it, the theme of all the tools I’ve mentioned is is organization and focus.

By staying more organized I, and my Gemba Academy team members, are better able to focus. And by staying focused, we’re able to stay better organized!

So, hopefully this article has given you some ideas on how to improve your own personal productivity.

What Tips do you Have?

Since I’m always on the look out for better ways of working I’d love to hear your advice on how you stay organized and focused.

What tips and tricks do you use to manage your work?

A Factory of One

If you missed our most recent webinar called “A Factory of One you can watch a replay of it here.

It was excellent and I highly recommend you take the time to check it out.

It’s free to view until May 15, 2012.  After that it will only be available to subscribers of Gemba Academy’s Complete Lean Package.

You can watch the entire, hour long, webinar by clicking here.

Here is a description of the webinar.

Most people spend all their time applying lean tools to external processes and systems. But what about the fundamental machine of production: you? How can you reap the benefits from applying lean concepts to your own work?

Indeed, you can apply lean principles and tools such as visual management, flow, pull, 5S, and kaizen to your individual work to improve efficiency, reduce waste, and link yourself ever more closely to customer value. While it’s true that applying lean at the individual level won’t lead to an overnight revolution in organizational performance, it can lead to success stories that make you more effective, and can get your leadership to sit up and pay attention.

Dan Markovitz will share specific strategies from his new book, A Factory of One, that will help you use lean principles to make yourself and your teams more effective.

Watch the webinar by clicking here.