Discovering the Inner Merton

By Kevin Meyer

If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.
― Thomas Merton, Love and Living

Sometimes there are dots just waiting to be connected…

thomas-mertonI was rather surprised when Pope Francis mentioned Thomas Merton in his address to Congress a couple weeks ago.  I have learned a lot about Merton over the last decade while on a random intellectual quest that has included other seemingly unrelated modern day folks like Hernando de Soto and Mario Vargas Llosa – a Nobel prize winner who I happened to meet many years ago.  Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude is one of my favorite books.

More on Thomas Merton in a bit. First some background.

People close to me know that for over two decades I’ve had an annual goal to “do or learn something radically different.” From this I’ve learned to windsurf and dive, ran a full marathon, rebuilt a ’73 Triumph Spitfire (which, admittedly, is like working on a lawnmower…), and skied five different countries over six consecutive days.

In the mid-90s I taught myself HTML programming which turned into various projects that eventually helped create Gemba Academy. As I’ve become older the annual projects have become less physical and more intellectual, including a year-long immersion into Buddhism, with a trip to Bhutan.  Just one of the 65 countries my wife and I have been to.  Go and see… and learn.

Perhaps to assuage the concerns of some family members who were concerned about that particular intellectual odyssey, this year’s goal is a deep dive into Biblical history. Not the stories and history IN the Bible, but a secular investigation of the history OF the Bible. I’ve read probably a dozen books written by respected scholars – from multiple perspectives since the historical accounts are far from settled.

What an unexpectedly fascinating journey! Humor me for a couple paragraphs while I expose my inner geek.

There are over 200,000 variants among 5,700 ancient Greek Biblical manuscripts alone, not even counting translation issues derived from them, created by the copying processes of amateur and professional scribes that were in some cases an attempt to please their benefactors and in others just plain sloppy. Most are minor and fairly inconsequential, but some aren’t, for example the last twelve verses of Mark and John 7:53-8:12 which are not found in any of the oldest manuscripts and are now assumed by scholars to have been added by scribes.

Compounding the intentional and unintentional copy and translation errors was the process of deciding what went into the Bible. From hundreds of potential texts, through lists developed by high profile folks including a disingenuous ship merchant in the second century (a great story itself), to the synod of Hippo and councils of Carthage, Nicaea, and Rome in the fourth century where in some cases the politics of church control outweighed what was effectively an exercise in hindsight called the five guidelines of canonicity.

Just when things seem settled, for better or for worse, there were the discoveries of the Muratorian fragment in the Vatican archives in 1740, the Nag Hammadi texts in 1945, and the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947 to both confirm and throw doubts on some of those early decisions.

History, perhaps especially religious history, has a way of being filled with more intrigue and drama than any novel written by even the best writer. Without getting into off-topic details, I will say that this year’s quest has actually reinforced my own faith.  Finding errors, and especially the process to understand the source of errors, can create authenticity.

So let’s get back to Thomas Merton and the interesting connections between the dots – yes, eventually including Lean.

Thomas Merton and Dalai LamaI first came across Thomas Merton during my deep dive into Buddhism a few years back. I was surprised to discover a large number of Christian scholars and Catholic priests, like Merton, who openly embraced components of Buddhism. Merton went further than most, with deep study into the Zen tradition, which he discussed in Zen and the Birds of Appetite, as well as a book he co-authored with none other than the Dalai Lama, The Way of Chuang Tzu.

At the core of Merton’s interest was his belief that most Christian traditions had become so focused on ritual and dogma that they had forgotten about the quest for understanding and a true personal relationship with the ultimate source of that knowledge.

He embraced, both in his writing and his own spiritual journey, the fundamental Buddhist concept that there is no single, perfect path, and that each of us has to learn and understand ourselves before creating our own unique journey.  That does conflict with many Christian and especially the Catholic traditions.  But, as we’ll soon see, not all of them.

Hence why it was remarkable that Pope Francis lauded Thomas Merton, a Catholic priest that believed in multiple paths to salvation and once said “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity. I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.”  Wow.

Allow me to add another dot. For most of the current era the Gnostics were more commonly known as “those crazy Gnostics.” Strange rituals and beliefs, loosely associated with Christianity, their scriptures quickly discarded by the early Vatican councils and not included in the traditional Biblical canon. Then the Nag Hammadi texts were found in 1945 and fully translated a couple decades later (interestingly with financial support from none other than the noted psychiatrist, Carl Jung), suddenly supporting some of earliest known manuscripts that had been deemed too controversial by the early church.

Contrary to the prior perception of Gnostics, these newly-discovered texts described a spiritual belief system far more aligned with traditional Christianity than originally thought, with one of the major differences being they did not insist that everyone must believe as they did.

To the Gnostics, faith is an inner experience, still generally aligned with classical Christianity, but one that does not have to be the same for everyone, and is grounded in individual investigation, introspection, reflection, and circumstance – as opposed to ritual. It is a dynamic process of seeking truth, not arrogantly declaring it.  Starting to sound familiar?

And this, finally, becomes the tie back to Lean.

Almost daily I come across articles, questions, and comments about the “true path to Lean” – and the supposedly correct sequence of tools performed in the singularly correct fashion to accomplish a transformation. That misconception is what, along with not understanding the respect for humanity pillar, causes most Lean failures.

Like the spiritual journeys of Buddhists, Gnostics, and many Christians like Thomas Merton, when on a Lean journey you must first seek to learn and understand, contemplate and reflect on how it applies to your circumstance and beliefs, and only then apply what makes sense to create your own path.

Learn about Lean, create a relationship with the underlying knowledge of Lean, and apply it based on circumstance, data, and beliefs. Don’t simply accept what others say or copy what others do.

Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new. Thus life is always new.
― Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

Learn and experience new things.  Live.  Create dots.  If you create a lot of dots, sometimes interesting connections can be made.

Discovering the Value of People

By Kevin Meyer

Big news in the business world:

Wal-Mart is famous for keeping costs down, including employee-related costs. In Joplin, the company is testing a new approach: investing in workers through higher wages and training, on the theory that this will pay off all around—for customers, the company and employees.

Yes, at just one of their 4500 stores, Wal-Mart has discovered skills training.  If it works they plan to roll out this innovative program to the other stores.

That isn’t a story from 1975 or even 1995.  It’s from this past week.  September, 2015.  Good for them, though, even if they did take a few decades to realize the potential value of people.  A concept that many other companies in many other industries have leveraged to create competitive advantage for a long time.

Pretty much every organization has a mission statement, often gathering dust on the wall in a corner of a conference room, that says “our employees are our most valuable asset.”  Really?  How is that demonstrated?

I bet Whirlpool had a statement like that, as they were laying off thousands of highly experienced people at their Fort Smith plant to chase “cheap” labor to a new facility filled with new inexperienced people in Ramos Arizpe, Mexico, while hiring at their nearby Clyde plant, and then only a couple years later they started looking for people to refill a plant they had closed.  You can’t make that stuff up.

But that’s what happens when you run a company based on traditional accounting methods, where labor is purely a cost and there is no offsetting P&L or balance sheet line for the value of people.  There’s a benefit to reducing cost, there is no balancing benefit to preserving the value of brains.

It takes a strong manager to realize that those brains are creating value that more than offsets their cost, even if it isn’t directly shown on the financial statements, and to buck the questions of their bosses and financial folks.  It takes an even stronger and more capable leader to invest in, develop, and mentor those brains to really tap into the potential value.  Organizations that have such leaders understand the problems with traditional accounting.  As a side note, you can learn more about those problems, and get to know some of those leading organizations, at the Lean Accounting Summit next month.

Truly empowered high-performing people can have an impact far beyond improvements in productivity and quality.  Consider your perception of the Chipotle brand after reading this article about a fatal accident that happened in front of one of their restaurants.

She [Chipotle shift leader] appeared to be in her early 20s – not much older then her direct reports or the victim of the accident. Yet, she acted with the compassion and appropriateness of a far older leader.

The next day, I called the Chipotle restaurant to offer my appreciation to the store’s manager. I told the leader how supportive, flexible, and respectful the Chipotle crew was to all in attendance.

As our phone conversation drew to a close, I said, “I know that our presence last night was not what you expected. We no doubt hurt your business.”

Before I finished my thought, the store manager responded, “There are a lot more important things in life than making our numbers last night. I’m just glad we were able to be there.”

Great people, led by great leaders, create great companies.  As Richard Branson says, “Clients do not come first.  Employees come first.  If you take care of and develop your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

I was thinking about a sandwich for lunch, but I think I’ll head down to Chipotle for a veggie burrito.

Owning Numerical Ignorance

By Kevin Meyer

Earlier this year I discussed the value created by writing by hand.  By writing on whiteboards or scribbling in a notebook, ownership, learning, and understanding is created.

Similarly, truly understanding numbers creates ownership, learning, and understanding – thereby creating the potential for action.

I’m not talking about statistics or the interpretation of statistics.  We all know that different perspectives can be “created” from otherwise accurate data to tell any story.  Just ask anyone in Washington – from any side.

I am talking about numbers that don’t accurately reflect underlying conditions, or numbers that don’t relate to the reality of the process owners.

gas price in CaliforniaAs one example, here’s a photo from my local gas pump here on the central coast of California, just today.  As my brother in-law remarked while visiting from Michigan last week, “that’s not per gallon, right?”  Yep, per gallon, typical for all gas stations around here, and yes far more than most other parts of the country are paying.

Most Californians are used to it, most U.S. visitors from outside of California just look wide-eyed, and most visitors from Europe still go “wow, that’s cheap.”  But how many understand that while everyone pays 18.4 cents in federal gas taxes, each state is radically different in terms of state gas taxes… taking California’s gas tax to over 60 cents a gallon, among the highest in the country?  How many understand that California requires a special gas formulation in the summer, produced only at in-state refineries, reducing scale and increasing risk from at-capacity refinery downtime, contributing to nearly an extra dollar per gallon in cost?

My point isn’t whether this price is too high or not – perhaps our air is cleaner due to special gas and perhaps our roads are better due to higher taxes (my brother in-law actually thought so) – but having the basic information in order to analyze that value relationship.  In order to create simplicity, a laudable goal, critical information and knowledge is lost.

Another example: home water use is typically measured in “units.”  Here’s one article from last Sunday’s paper on water usage here in California, obviously a popular subject.  What the heck is “25 units of water?”  To make matters worse, a “unit” is different in different parts of the world.  Here in the U.S. it’s typically 100 cubic feet, or 748.5 gallons.  Elsewhere it’s a cubic meter, or 220 gallons.

But who relates to a “unit?”  Here in California, where we’re being asked to reduce water usage by 25%, how do we relate to the numbers we see on our monthly bill?  I’m being asked to reduce water use from 10 to 7.5 “units.”  Whatever.  But ask me to reduce by 1871 gallons a month and I start to think about shorter showers, low flow toilets, changing from grass to a more natural drought-tolerant landscaping, and so forth.  Especially if my cost for those 2.5 units is about to skyrocket.

I understand it, I own it, and I can learn how to improve.

One final example: individual income taxes.  Romney stepped into it a bit during the last election cycle by stating that 47% of taxpayers pay no federal taxes.  A little misleading as all except for 14% (primarily the elderly) do generally pay federal payroll taxes for Social Security and so forth – just no direct federal income taxes. Still, the point that nearly half of taxpayers don’t contribute to a general expenditure bucket they have voting control over and receive benefits from is an interesting point outside the scope of this post.

But how many of those 47%, and even the rest, really understand how much taxes are being paid and especially how they are being used?  For the vast majority of people taxes are simply lines on their pay stub, generally ignored, and an annual reconciliation effort where they are often excited that they gave a loan to the government and now get it back, without interest.  Probably even more so now that paper pay stubs are becoming a rarity, and people have to take action to log into a system to review an online pay stub.  How many really do that?  How many can tell you how much they pay every two weeks in federal, state, Social Security, disability, and other taxes?

The net amount becomes the reference value.  Just like the gross amount is the reference value for gas prices.

Those of us who are self-employed or own companies are a little different since we have to actually cut a physical check to the Feds (and state) each quarter.  Ouch!  Now it becomes reality, and you start to be very interested in how much it is and how it is used.  Although it would be a bureaucratic and compliance nightmare, perhaps everyone should have to physically write a check, withdrawing real money from your account, instead of simply accepting the net deposit?  If you have to give up the equivalent of a vacation, a dinner, or even a beer to make that payment, it becomes real.

Ownership, understanding, and learning is created.

So be careful with simplifying numbers.  While simplification is a great goal, too much simplification may remove knowledge and create dangerous ignorance.

You’re Good When You Think You’re Bad

By Kevin Meyer

Well over a decade ago I created my first lean enterprise assessment, just as a tool to help me understand gaps in my organization.  I’m generally loathe to use such tools as they are often misinterpreted, gamed, or whatnot – but so be it.  It’s a tool and just a tool.  Coincidentally that first assessment tried to measure the use of lean tools, which led us down the toolhead path – and smack into a wall.  We learned our lesson, and began asking “why” and then “how” before choosing the appropriate tool for the problem.

Over time that assessment morphed into something that tries to measure behaviors and perspectives, not tools.  It’s fairly lengthy, but still very well-received.  And scary, as it is virtually impossible to receive a high score unless you have implemented lean from your suppliers through to your customers, and truly created a culture of continuous improvement.  There are forty questions in four sections: respect for people and community, creating customer value, leadership and alignment, and accountability and results.

Note: If you’d like a free copy of the assessment, just sign up for a Gemba Academy 7 Day Trial.  In addition to being able to preview all 750+ lean and six sigma training videos, you’ll receive a link to download a PDF of the assessment.  

Gemba Academy subscribers receive access to an editable version, deployment and analysis tools, and the accompanying Lean Enterprise Strategy Kit.

But my point isn’t to pander those tools.  Along the way, both in my organizations and in the hundreds of others that have used the assessment, I noticed a common trend:

  • First assessment: high score
  • Second assessment (generally 1 to 2 years later): much lower score
  • Third assessment: static to even lower score

Most people wouldn’t consider that to be progress.  How can you get worse?  But think about what’s happening.  And that’s fundamentally why the assessment is just a tool – it helps you prioritize areas to work on.  Nothing more.

Before starting down the lean journey, most organizations think they’re pretty good.  Inventory?  Helps buffer issues obviously caused by suppliers and anyone except ourselves.  Obviously.  Waste?  Comes with the territory because our products and processes are more complex, different, inherently unstable, “artsy,” etc. (pick one).  People?  Can’t be trusted.

So they look at the assessment, especially the first one that didn’t try to point out such fallacious fantasies (!), and skew it higher.  In their own minds.  Or consider it an impossible utopia.

Then, if they have a solid lean leader, they start to learn.  They visit other real lean organizations, attend seminars, workshops, conferences, and perhaps even training programs by the likes of Gemba Academy.  And they start to realize how far down the totem pole they are.  That’s fine, as long as they start to improve.

As they learn, they discover even more areas for improvement.  As they drain the inventory swamp they uncover more problems.  As they train their people – and learn to respect their brains – more opportunities arise.  And they feel even worse.

They try a lot of tools.  Perhaps judiciously, but probably without a lot of forethought.  Many of those tools fail – but they were tried.  And over time as appropriate problems and opportunities present themselves, they remember and apply them again with success.

Nearly a decade later the organization sometimes feels horrible – almost like a failure.  There are so many issues, so many problems, so many opportunities.  So many tools have been tried and abandoned.  But let me tell you about one such organization – and I know because it was the one I ran for over eight years, and I’m damn proud of those people.

That organization trains on lean, has a solid 5S program, uses manual and visual systems to manage production across three facilities instead of shop floor MRP, has reduced lead times by 90%, has morning standup meetings in all key departments, is rated best-in-class for quality by its major customers, and outcompetes its “low cost country” competitors – on price and quality – from the not-so-cheap state of California.  TWI is used extensively, autonomous teams have been deployed, and ridiculous budgeting processes have been eliminated.  It hosts tours and workshops by AME, local and state business groups, and in all cases there’s a big “wow!”  It was even successful enough that it built a new 120,000 sq ft facility – in California in the middle of a recession no less – that leverages massive reconfigurability concepts.

But in their minds, they have so, so far to go.  The journey seems to get longer and longer.  They don’t want to apply for prizes or awards – there just isn’t the time because there are so many issues to work on.  Certifications?  A rainbow of belts?  Nowhere.

The more you learn and the more you improve, the more you understand how far away perfection really is.  The depression of excellence?  Until you remember those days long ago, when you smugly thought you were great.

The Value of Uber and Airbnb

By Kevin Meyer

The following is not an advertisement, even if it sounds like it. I will admit I am a big fan of Uber and use the service pretty much anytime I travel. Now that they’re in my relatively small town, I might start using the service instead of paying for airport parking, especially on longer trips.

After dozens of rides I have yet to have a negative experience. The cars are new and clean, the drivers well-dressed and polite, and the cars arrive on time and within minutes of being requested. In Seattle a few weeks ago the car was a new Tesla, a few weeks earlier in Jacksonville it was a BMW 7 series. The convenience of having the financial transaction handled by the app eliminates the need for cash and negotiation. Sound like any taxi ride you’ve had? Ever? Nope. Welcome to disruption.

This misnomer of “sharing.”

Services like Uber, Airbnb, and others are often called the “sharing economy.” That’s an incorrect characterization. No one is sharing – both parties are out to obtain value. Micro-scale demand is being matched with micro capacity. Such demand and capacity has always existed, however it took real-time computational power to match them in a dynamic fashion that creates value for both parties.

Instead of a batch of taxis prowling the streets in search of fares, a single limo driver with an hour to kill between assignments can now fill that gap – that capacity. Hence why you often get nice rides like Teslas and BMWs with drivers in suits. At peak times fares go up, incenting an increase in capacity to match the increase in demand… instead of making the demand wait for hours in the rain.

The value to our environment.

The impact of this micro-scale demand and capacity matching is huge – and one that should be embraced by capitalists, socialists, and environmentalists alike. Uber, as of six months ago, is providing one million rides per day (yes, per day).  Airbnb has over one million rooms in its portfolio, and is doing 37 million room-nights per year of bookings. More that some of the world’s largest hotel chains.  And that’s last year’s data.

How many fewer cars, guzzling gas and expelling fumes, are on the streets because of the short-term capacity of unused limos and even private vehicles being freed up?  One million rides a day equates to a lot of cars.  How many fewer hotels, consuming utilities whether empty or full and contributing to urban heat islands, have been built because of the micro capacity of unused private rooms being freed up?  37 million room-nights is a lot of hotels.

The value is growing, but isn’t all roses.

New such services are being created every day.  You’ve seen all of those cranes and other pieces of construction equipment that sit idle for days at a time?  No longer, thanks to Yard Club.  Tutors, house cleaners, private aircraft. You name it.  Have a short term availability?  Match it to someone that needs it now.  Sometimes it can go even deeper, such as with same-day delivery services partnering with the likes of Uber and Lyft to further improve their efficiency and reach.

Sure there are issues, although many of those are more political than real.  Uber’s background checks are more extensive than taxi drivers… except in some key states  and countries like California and South Korea.  Airbnb does pose an issue for cities resting comfortably – until now – on hotel room tax receipts.  Those problems will eventually be resolved, just like they have been in the past when innovation disrupts the status quo.  Sometimes it won’t be pretty, at least for a while.

The potential value to you and your organization.

But let’s take the concept of matching micro capacity and micro demand to an even more immediate, direct level.  Where do you have a few minutes of potential capacity in your day that can be filled by creating value – recognizing that value is sometimes the mindful pleasure of just sitting on a beach or enjoying a long lunch?  Where can what seems to be larger chunks of demand by a group in your organization be divided and filled by smaller chunks of capacity?

How do most meetings, CYA policies, ego, and lack of training or even trust affect your ability to match internal organizational demand with capacity?  Does your organization look like a batch of beat up taxis driving around in search of demand, or smartly-dressed drivers in BMWs efficiently filling a few minutes of available time with a person willing to pay above par for that value?

Slow… or Just Observant?

kathmandu-durbar-beforeBy Kevin Meyer

The recent earthquake in Nepal has led me to reflect a bit on the importance of observation.  Just over a year ago my wife and I were in Nepal, visiting various locations in the Kathmandu valley as well as Pokhara and Begnas Lake.  It’s a beautiful country with a beautiful people that work hard every day to scratch out a living.

kathmandu durbar square earthquakeWe got to see many of the numerous UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country, including Durbar Square in Kathmandu.  I’m glad we did – here’s the photo we took, and what it looks like now after the earthquake.  A heartbreaking loss of culture, architecture, and history.

We went, we observed, we learned the other stories, and, as often happens on our travels to what are now over 60 countries, we were humbled.

I have a long list of places I still want to see, and the earthquake in Nepal has added a sense of urgency lest something similarly unfortunate happens.  One of our other favorite places, Puerto Varas in southern Chile and across the Lakes Passage to Bariloche in Argentina, is currently dealing with the Calbuco volcano.

But urgency can be dangerous, especially to observation.

When I was first starting my career someone told me to “walk with purpose” – strong and quick.  It projected authority and created confidence.  Who knows, perhaps it did help.  I rushed here and there, and climbed the ladder.   The years flew by, never to be experienced again.

Then one day I learned about the Ohno Circle and I paused.  I stood, watched, and learned.  I realized how much I was missing by moving quickly.  I began to move slower, taking care to observe.  I also began to plan observation.  What was I going to observe?  How?  What is the problem or purpose?  What would I do with what I learned?

Outside of work I soon developed a habit that has become my favorite daily activity: a nice slow kinhin – walking meditation – on the beach a couple blocks from my house.  One step per breath, slow and deliberate. It’s amazing what you notice – both about your surroundings and about yourself – by moving slowly.

According to my wife I also began to drive slower or, in her words, became a “grandpa driver.”  Is there truly a rush?  Usually not.  We’re just socially predispositioned to want to go fast, to compete, to get someplace faster, regardless of necessity.  What are you missing?  You may not know.

So think about that slow driver ahead of you, causing you to speed and swerve and bolt ahead to probably just meet again at the next batch-creating stop light.

Is he old and senile, or happy and aware… and observing?  Or maybe that’s me in front of you.  Slow down and observe, otherwise you might think you’ve arrived but not know where you’ve been or the interesting things you’ve passed.

Find the Other Stories

By Kevin Meyer

I recently came across the following TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie where she talks about the “danger of a single story.”  From growing up as a kid in Nigeria to studying in the United States and into adulthood, she describes how both herself and others, having only heard a single story about a certain situation, critically misunderstand the person or circumstance.

We all experience the power of the single story, often without realizing the danger.  How many of us get our news of the world, and thereby form opinions, from just a single news source?  Or even worse, from news sources that we believe already reflect our opinions, thereby denying us the need to have to think about other perspectives, resulting in an increasingly polarizing form of confirmation bias?

How many of us as leaders simply listen to the single story told to us by our staffs, or perhaps even just a computer system – both of which may be predispositioned or programmed to conform to our existing perspective?

The single story may be an incomplete picture of the situation – or even dead wrong.

This is the power of genchi genbutsu – go and see.  Go to the real place to truly understand.

My wife and I both lived overseas as kids, and experienced the danger of the single story when interacting with friends and family back home.  Perspectives and opinions were sometimes just plain wrong.  This is why we love to travel and have visited over 60 countries.  With each new place we try to learn about and understand the overlapping tapestry of stories to get a true sense of the people and place, which is almost always very different from what we expected from the single story we’d read or heard about before visiting.

In Laos, one of the few remaining hardcore communist countries, we learned about the vibrant undercurrent of capitalism that has put a TV in the middle of many Hmong grass huts – often showing western shows such as [shudder] The Real Housewives of Orange County.  In Tanzania we ventured outside the game parks that most tourists stick to to see how a group of dedicated people are fighting an incredible infant mortality problem – which was documented in a Gemba Academy video series.  In Panama last Christmas we left the relaxing beaches and spent a day at a women’s shelter in the very dangerous city of Colon.  We’ve been to the slums of India, animal rescue organizations in Nepal, broke bread with villagers in a small hill town in Italy, witnessed the social impact of an entire generation of men murdered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and walked through the vibrant township of Soweto outside the nearly abandoned and squatter-filled inner city of Johannesburg in South Africa.  Every place has many stories.

That tapestry of multiple stories is the real picture.  Not the single story that you read about in the paper or hear about on CNN, let alone entertainment channels like Fox or The Daily Show.

As leaders we must do the same.  We can’t rely on a memo from our staff or a report from an MRP system.  Those are single stories, and will invariably be an incomplete picture – or just wrong.  Just as a single story can give us a potentially dangerous misunderstanding about geopolitical events, so can it about situations within our organizations.

Go and see.  Observe, ask questions, challenge, and reflect.  Learn the many stories to understand the true situation.

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.