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?

GA 015 | Lean Healthcare in Tanzania with Mike Grogan

In ActionToday’s guest is Mike Grogan, who works for CCBRT, a medical relief clinic in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

This episode is particularly inspiring…Mike’s answers stayed with me long after our conversation was over.

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:

  • How Mike got started in continuous improvement (3:15)
  • Mike’s favorite inspirational quotation (4:30)
  • Why Mike moved to Tanzania (6:05)
  • What it is like to teach lean in the developing world, particularly in healthcare (12:07)
  • The impacts of lean that Mike has seen to date, and the one Mike is most proud of (15:20)
  • The biggest challenge Mike has faced (19:45)
  • Why Mike feels he is meant to be in this line of work (22:30)
  • Mike’s description of “what Africa does to you” (28:00)
  • What you can do to help in your own community (if you can’t move to Africa) (31:40)
  • Mike’s definition of “Respect for People,” or as he puts, “Respect for Humanity” (35:18)
  • The one problem Mike is currently facing (38:05)
  • The best advice Mike has ever received (39:34)
  • Mike’s personal productivity habit (40:59)
  • Mike’s powerful final words of wisdom (50:53)

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Full Written Transcript

 GA 15 Mike Grogan

Announcer: You’re listening to Episode 15 with Mike Grogan.

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 the show. We truly do appreciate each and every one of you. Today, I’m excited to welcome Mike Grogan to the show.

Mike, as you’ll learn is doing some incredible work in Tanzania, Africa where he’s primarily working with hospitals. As you’ll soon hear, Mike is extremely passionate about the work he’s doing, and is without question an incredible example of what it means to truly respect people.

Next, I wanted to point out that we’ve recently formed a new partnership with If you’re interested in downloading a free audio book, definitely check this episode’s show notes out for all the details. These show notes can be found over at, which is 1-5. It’s

Finally, I truly believe in being as transparent as possible, even when mistakes are made. Unfortunately, I didn’t follow my own standard work when it came to recording this episode. Specifically, we use Skype to record these interviews.

Within Skype, you have to select a microphone that you’d like to use. We’d just gotten done with our morning Gemba Academy team Skype call, where I used my Mac’s Thunderbolt monitor, the microphone in the monitor, so all the other folks in our studio can talk to our colleagues around the country.

Guess what? I didn’t reselect my fancy studio mic that I’m using right now for the podcast. I was actually using the Thunderbolt microphone, so my audio quality isn’t quite as good as it normally is. I apologize for that, but my part of the show isn’t as important as what Mike shares.

We’ll just chalk it up as an excellent lesson learned and move on. Enough from me. Let’s get to the show.

All right, Mike. Thanks so much for coming onto the show. Where are you calling in from today?

Mike Grogan: I am calling in from sunny Tanzania in East Africa.

Ron: I think that you definitely win the award for being the furthest away to do a podcast so far with us, so fantastic! We’re going to explore why it is that you are in Africa here in a bit, but before that, talk a bit about your background, who you are, Mike, and your experience.

How you got into this whole continuous improvement thing. You do have an interesting accent, so maybe you could talk about that as well.

Mike: I’m originally from Ireland, which is the give-away for my accent. I was first exposed to lean thinking continuous improvements back in 2006. I worked for a local pharmaceutical company for seven-and-a-half years and they were going through, or experimenting with lean thinking.

That company was Merck. I spent three years with them in the UK. I did another three-and-a-half years with them in Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania. From there, I decided to move on to take the vast body of knowledge that I learned, and to join a not-for-profit healthcare provider here in Tanzania.

In a sense, I’m a child of manufacturing, Lean Manufacturing, and in the last two years I transitioned into spreading this thinking into healthcare, and in particular, in the African healthcare system. I feel very fortunate to get exposed to this in my career.

Ron: We’re going to really think that’s obviously the whole spirit of this episode. Before we get into that, Mike, we like to start all of our shows with our guest sharing a quotation, perhaps it’s Lean or leadership, anything that’s related to that kind of side of the world that inspires you. What quotation inspires you, Mike?

Mike: For me, if I had to pick one, I would say, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I first heard that from reading John C. Maxwell’s material, but Theodore Roosevelt was the originator of that quote, or whatever originator means.

For me, it is a powerful sticky quotation that has stayed with me in my career in terms of the importance of relationship, and trust in a leadership, or coaching role.

Ron: Let’s just get into it because I’m dying to learn more. By the way, just so all the Gemba Academy customers know, Kevin Meyer, my business partner and co-founder of Gemba Academy, was recently in Africa with his family. He met up with Mike and they actually shot some video together. That hasn’t been released yet.

This podcast will definitely be out before that video is released. From what I understand, I haven’t actually even seen it yet, Mike, but from what I understand it’s some powerful stuff. First of all, thank you for doing that, Mike, and opening your doors to us and our video cameras.

Let’s just start, Mike, with at a high level why are you in Africa? What are you doing there? Are you part of an organization? Are you there on your own? Just give us a little bit of background.

Mike: Yeah, this is the same question my mother asked me. What am I doing here?


Mike: First of all, I’m a huge fan of this podcast. I’m not saying this because I’m trying to impress anyone but I’ve listened to all of these podcasts. Actually, the podcast you had with my good friend Steve Bell…

Ron: Yes.

Mike: …was the reason I found out that Kevin was in Africa. I asked Steve to reached out to Kevin.

Would you believe he came in for about six hours, him and his wife, to our facility? We got to do some video footage which was beautiful. It really was.

To answer your question of why I came here, I first came to Africa as a tourist back in 2010. When I lived in England one of my roommates was Tanzanian and his sister was getting married. He invited me as his friend to come to that wedding. For me, I was a child of the west. I had never left Europe or North America.

It was the first time out of that comfort zone. I certainly stuck out at the wedding. I was the only non-Tanzanian at the wedding. [laughs] So you can imagine what the photos looked like. For what really took out for me…What made that trip special and very impactful? It was the first time I saw women and children in poverty. The consequences of not having the opportunities that you and I and more so our listeners were blessed with. I never really appreciated that to that level, and what I saw with my eyes and heard the stories, it just devastated me.

It left something imprinted inside me that I needed to do something. It took me a while to finally know that that something was to actually quit the US and move full time to Africa. I went a year later for two weeks to volunteer. Then I went another year after that for five weeks to volunteer. The experience was the most, was the greatest work I’ve ever done in my life, and a sense of fulfillment and a sense of purpose.

Ron: Let’s go back to that first trip that you went on as a volunteer. What did you do on those first few trips? What kind of activities were you doing?

Mike: [laughs] When I reflect on it now, I laugh about how ineffective I probably was.

In a sense, I did primarily PowerPoint. “Death by PowerPoint” as I sometimes joke about. I essentially tried to focus on one topic and it was just introducing what I introduced to them as scientific problem solving. Different names, Deming, Kaizen, PDCA, however we wanted to phrase it, the scientific method of problem solving.

Ron: So you did start with guns blazing, if you will, with continuous improvement?

Mike: Yeah, I went straight in and introduced how you could. It was all theoretical because of the limit of time we didn’t get to use this theory on an example. But the feedback I got…half the time was classrooms and the other half was one-on-ones. But the feedback I got from the colleagues in that short two weeks was that this was useful.

Ron: Who were you teaching? Who were you working with?

Mike: I got connected to a small not for profit hospital in the city of Dar es Salaam. It’s bizarre how these things work, but a friend of mine in church who is Tanzanian, her cousin was a professor in Dar es Salaam. One of her students was the CEO of this healthcare provider and essentially through that connection my invitation letter got sent to him.

He was excited. We did a two-week experimentation and the feedback was, “We want you back.”Actually, on my last day there, he offered me a full-time job. To be honest, I was too scared to leave. It took me a year later procrastination and self-doubt to finally realize that was the right thing to do.

Ron: Do you remember the first improvement that you guys ever made?

Mike: The first improvement that I always involved hands-on with was in my second trip. Learning the lessons from my first volunteer trip, the second one trip was focused on issue on procurement. Essentially, with another colleague of mine, Emily, together we did facilitate an improvement event, workshop, whatever different names we have for us.

As well as doing training on this time, I introduce them to the management systems with…I focus less on training and more hands-on work with them on the application of problem solving in procurement issue.

The problem they had was a stuck out, essentially good. Application with scientific method, we help them address that problem. Essentially, one of the biggest takeaways that I got from feedback from the colleagues was that concept of gold seat just to help them in how to see ways and how to see the gaps, both in the operational standards and then the management standards.

That gave me a lot of satisfaction from that event we did. It was a big two-week event that the tangible improvements can’t prove enough, just improvements that change the processes but of course the greatest improvements. Maybe that’s planting a seed for a change and thanking and potentially inhabits.

Ron: At high a level, what’s it like teaching Lean in a developing world, especially in the world of healthcare in the developing world?

Mike: Notice expect to my manufacturing colleagues was I’m a child of Lean manufacturing. What healthcare gives me, let me just answer for healthcare, is that extraordinary sense of contribution, because we’re so close to patient.

When I worked in pharmaceutical manufacturer, yes, I was proud of the healthcare system but very much off-string in terms of back scene and talent manufacturer. In healthcare, every single day, we have work in a disability hospital and we’re building maternity hospital to see…knowing that your work is contributing to adding a better quality, better quality and a safe outcome for that child or a mother, it just gives you extraordinary job satisfaction. I think that that feedback loop is more apparent in the healthcare industry.

Ron: What about the developing world side of things? Obviously, working in a hospital in Dallas, Fort Worth is going to be different than [laughs] Tanzania, right?

Mike: Yeah. Many Westerners may answer this question very differently. I reflected a lot on that. Even my answer a year ago would have been…My answer today is very much different than my answer a year ago.

The key thing is meeting people where they’re at. It’s so easy to come here. Just like Kevin a few weeks ago and compare our hospital here with a hospital in North America, if you get into that comparison trap, it’s very dangerous, because there’s so many gaps. There were so many gaps. In terms of quality, we just even pick one metric of maternal debts.

In some cases, it’s 500 times what it is in a hospital in North America. It’s tragic and heartbreaking.

I try and help meet people where they’re in. Always remember, it’s not that people I work with have less time with me. Absolutely not the case at all. I was coached for two years. I would’ve said I had worked for big multinational company that poured so much into my own development.

I’m so fortunate, and that you are not at a higher level, I have two great parents, the best gift I ever got in my life. Not everyone would get those luxuries whether they’re at home or their career development.

Many people who are asked and helping them with their thinking. As long as people who just, and leader, keep that in mind, you still can be very successful in developing more context.

Ron: You’ve talked about some of the initial improvements that you made there. What are some other successes that you’ve realized over your time there so far?

Mike: People ask me about the successes or the impact question, this being called generous continuous improvements. Thinking is making. I split my answer into two. There’s the visible piece and there’s the invisible piece.

The invisible impact is obviously a lot easier to see. What I mean by that is improvements with med in terms of reducing the safety risk for staff, reducing wait times for patients. We’re taking steps out of procurement processes. Taking steps out of various documentation processes.

Probably I could spend the next hour giving example after example of improvements the teams worked on.

Ron: Let’s dig in a little. Tell me one that you’re extremely proud of? Let’s put it that way.

Mike: [laughs] Hopefully I’m not diverging away from…

Ron: No, don’t worry. We’re just having a conversation.

Mike: I’ll share one that was some of the proudest moments that I had. Some of the proudest moments that I’ve had is when I saw the student become a teacher. That, for me, was [laughs] beautiful.

One of my heroes, Dr. Brenda, met her to a podcast last year with a mutual friend, Mark Graban. This woman is the most passionate woman I’ve ever met. She deeply, deeply cares about the mothers that are losing their lives and massive risk by giving birth into the African healthcare system.

Just to see her so passionate about developing herself, becoming a better leader, and coaching her colleagues, that gives me the extraordinary sense applied knowing that I’d played a part in her development.

My answer truly is seeing her shine and her call to others on this improvement rather than a Pacific improvement that we met on the ground. Hopefully, I didn’t diverge.

Ron: No. That’s beautiful. I can even sense in your voice that this is a deeply, almost an emotional topic for you and something that you’re deeply passionate about. This is not about me, but a side story that I can relate to you. Back when I worked in the industry, I worked at a company. I was actually in the UK. We were visiting a facility, and saw a young man.

He was working the night shift. He was, I don’t know, 25 years old. Big smile, I’d never forget the look on his face.

Walked up to him before we were leaving that evening and shook his hand, and asked him what he was going to be doing. He told us some of the things that he had planned for that evening. There were just a few folks working that evening. The next morning, we pulled up. There was closed-circuit TV all over the place and police everywhere. Come to find out that there was an accident. I won’t get to any details, but he passed away because of his situation. It chokes me up, thinking about it today.

There were things that probably could have been done better from, say, a continuous improvement perspective, whether it’s standard work or whether it’s just various processes that could’ve been improved. I personally feel some responsibility for that, because I was part of that leadership team that we’re putting these programs in place. Make no mistake that the work that we do as continuous improvement practitioners can have life and death impact, not just in a hospital, in a factory or wherever it might be.

I can hear that in your voice, in how important the work that you’re doing. Keep it up. I know the next thing I want to transition into is some of the challenges that you’re feeling and that you face. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that, Mike?

Mike: First of all, thanks for sharing, Ron. I don’t want this podcast to be exclusive about healthcare or Africa. Some of the lessons I’m learning here and we’re sharing here and discussing are very applicable in our communities where we live throughout the world.

Once again, about a year ago, I may have answered differently. A year ago, I may have point this to the obvious, which would be the lack of resources, the fact that I’m the only Lean coach or healthcare provider of 450 so people.

I would point that things that are people as biggest challenges. Where I am now, I am very proud of this answer of what my biggest challenge truly is, and it is me. We have found the enemy, and it is I. The biggest challenge is me. The biggest reason why this organization hasn’t developed as fast enough on its continuous improvement journey is because of me, because of my limitations as a coach.

There are advantages and disadvantages to that realization. Realizing that my own development and the fanatically developing in myself will allow me to contribute better to the organization and drive the organization forward is something that’s within my control. It’s very easy to point outside, but the biggest challenges are my own limitations.

Me and you and others listening to this may be perceived as experts, but I’m certainly a lifelong student of continuous improvement. The day I say that I master this is the day I stop learning and the day I stop leading and stop influencing others. There’s so much in this body of knowledge that we call continuous improvement.

The better I get at this, the more effective I can be at supporting some of the managers and doctors that I work with on a day to day basis.

Ron: Sometimes I feel like the more that I learn, the more that I realize I don’t know. It’s funny you say that, because Kevin and I were joking the other day. Even within Gemba Academy, we do our very best to practice Lean principles throughout our company and documentation and standard work and so forth.

We have struggles. We’re not perfect. We’re not invaluable. It’s like, we can teach other people, but it’s hard to do it yourself.

Just something that I wanted to ask you is, and you led onto this a little bit earlier. Why are you doing this, Mike? Obviously, you’re a talented young man who could be doing also additional incredible work. You’re obviously doing incredible work now, but you could be doing incredible work anywhere in the world.

Mike: I spent a lot of time reflecting on this. At different stages of my life, I had a different answer to this, just like my last answers. I’m going to use this opportunity to share my faith, my faith and God. I believe that it’s God’s purpose for my life to be here at this season of my life. I believe that He created this opportunity to see people in tremendous suffering.

As a part of my mission here on Earth, He wants me to do something about. The more I give, the more I get back, in a way.

I mean that all respect to my fantastic colleagues that I work with in North America and Europe. Tomorrow, I’ve got a coaching appointment with my one of my favorite people, Dr. Fatima. She goes through so much adversity. She works in one of the government hospitals and helping coaching clinical skills on maternal health.

This woman sees death every single day, another tragic loss of a child, of a mother. 99 percent of the cases, avoidable, avoidable, avoidable. I’m one of the very few resources that she has, that she can talk about these things. I help with her with the various challenges she has in trying to influence others.

This woman is my hero. She goes through so much challenges and adversity in her week. Knowing that I somehow helped her in her journey to be more effective or more efficient just gives me strong satisfaction.

The one-liner is why I’m here, I believe, and I won’t know until I die, but I believe this is part of my own destiny, part of my own vision. For this season of my life, I’ve been so lucky with the times that I’ve been given and the development I got today, and I’m still growing, but this season is to give back and to contribute.

There’s massive challenges living in this part of the world, but it’s still the best — definitely, in terms of career, the best, and spiritually – decision I’ve ever made.

Ron: That’s beautiful. I know there are people of many different faiths and traditions listening to this. This isn’t meant to be a sermon or anything like that but I couldn’t help but think of when you said that, the words of Jesus in Matthew. He said, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you do for one at least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did to me.”

I think you’re truly living those words there. I really admire you for that, Mike, and hope you’ll continue. How long do you plan to stay? Do you have any ideas?

Mike: [laughs] The same question my mom asked…

Ron: Me and your mom got to get on the phone, man, and hook up, did you talk a little bit, chat about Mike and his life. [laughs]

Mike: I don’t want to let CCBRT down. The CCBRT, the hospital I work with here, I think failure on my end if I don’t leave them with habits whenever I do this item, that if the senior leaders, those key, talk and the directors, the heads of departments, those key people, a few people I influence.

If they don’t have change of habits, those continuous improvement habits, after I leave, I think I failed. In addition, if I haven’t set them up with other support, whether it be from people listening to this podcast or other people that I connect with last year and a half or so, almost two years, then I’ve also failed.

If it dies after I leave, that’s a sign of failure. I think that that’s important. I can’t leave until I put them in a place where they can continue on this journey. I don’t fully know the answer, but I can say with a bit of certainty that I’m not ready to go back to the developed world.

If I do leave Africa or leave this particular assignment, I would like to stay in a developing world context, whether it be somewhere in Asia or elsewhere in Africa, just because that I get so much satisfaction out of seeing people grow and develop and contributing to someone that’s bigger than self, advancing society. This is still a question mark. Sorry, Mom, if you’re listening to this.

Ron: I can imagine how incredibly proud she is of you, though. Goodness gracious. What do you do for fun? What does a Friday night look like?

Mike: [laughs] I just had lunch with some friends today, or discussing what Africa does to you. Three of us came to the conclusion that Africa, or this life that we’re living here as expats, it exposes things of your character that you never knew existed. I’ll be totally honest. This is one of the most challenging seasons of my life.

I have been at very many low points, but at the same time, it is the greatest spirit of growth in my life. I’m going back to what I said earlier. I do not regret for an instant what I’ve done.

Essentially, I thought it was loneliness at first. I will repeat it back later to you. It’s an important message to share. I thought it was loneliness at first, but it really wasn’t loneliness that I was suffering from. It was essentially that I didn’t know how to manage being on my own.Yes, when you do come to places like this, you get a lot of down time on your own. There are many dangers that come with that. In those times, you get to figure out what’s most important or figuring out so much stuff about yourself.

I really feel this experience is going to be back so much more than I can give back in terms of learning about myself and understanding what’s most important, putting first things first.

I’ve certainly matured. Probably, more so in this year and a half than the 10 year before that. Maybe I didn’t answer your question, but certainly, there are absolutely so much avenues. There’s still a big expat population here. Even though I’m recovering from food poisoning the last few days, I do play soccer about two or three times a week. I got some great friends both at work and outside of work. It’s certainly different. It’s not like a night out in Philly.

Ron: We’re recording this right now in the middle of July. It will be released a few weeks later. The World Cup is in full swing, and we have our final now with Argentina and Germany. Are you guys following the World Cup?

Mike: Oh, yeah. It’s fantastic to see how passionate the Africans get over football. I’m sure they were very disappointed when their representatives didn’t progress further, but yeah, it’s a beautiful sport. I used to get depressed about sports. [laughs] I’m sure a lot of listeners do when their team doesn’t get through, or whatever disappointment. But this experience in Africa has shown me, it’s perspective.

Ron: I’m a big baseball fan, and my Texas Rangers are in last place. They just lost to the horrible Houston Astros, got swept. Then I was just thinking I’ve got six healthy kids and a wife that loves me, and a great career, so things could be worse. [laughs]

Mike, the last question I have for you in this section is, what can people do that are listening to this right now? I can’t imagine if someone has listened to this point of the show, that they’re not touched by your words, and the work, and your mission that you are doing over there. What can people do to help?

Mike: I’ve thought a lot about this, and previous answers would have been come to Africa. Quit your job, move your kids over. I know, I’m realistic here, I know for 99.99 percent of listeners that’s not possible. Maybe my message is not necessarily to my cause here in Africa, but maybe is the higher level cause, that sense of contribution to society.

Yes, of course maybe we’ll share details of that foundation in North America where people can contribute to it. I would love, like when Kevin was here and many others. We have John Tucson from the center for healthcare coming here later in August, and many other visitors have come. I open up those doors to people to directly contact me if you want to spend some time here. But for those who can’t spend time, or can’t quit everything and move over, I will ask them to reflect on their own communities and organizations. Because this continuous improvement thing is pretty special. It’s golden. We know it works. How can we give back?

Ron: Are there websites people can visit to learn more? We will link to everything in this show notes. I don’t want to call out the show notes number right now because I’m not exactly sure what those will be. I will have those in the intro and the outro of this episode. But where can people go to learn more?

Mike: Obviously the CCBRT website which I’ll give, the Kupona Foundation websites. I’ll give my personal website, I’m on LinkedIn.

Ron: Go ahead give one right now, at least. Just call it out for someone who is listening to iTunes on an airplane.


Ron: Spell that.

Mike: Hopefully I won’t butcher the spelling, because it’s one of my strengths.

Ron: Type it into your browser. We can edit this pause out. Don’t worry.



Mike: I’ve written a blog on it as well. It’s our presence in North America.

Ron: What’s your website, your blog website?

Mike: My personal website is It’s probably best to connect with me via LinkedIn.

Ron: We’ll have all those links in the show notes, so that’s fantastic. Let’s go ahead and transition now into the quick fire section. We’re going to keep digging in and learning more about who you are, Mike. The first question, and we’ve spent a lot of time talking about this already, but I want to keep exploring it because it’s such a powerful topic.

We lean practitioners, we spend a lot of time talking about the importance of respect for people. It’s one of the pillars of what we do here as lean thinkers. But if you were to explain what respect for people is or define it, it can be tough. What does that mean? What does respect for people mean to you, Mike?

Mike: I could spend the next hour. This is my favorite principle of lean thinking, respect for people. Because without it, nothing is sustainable. Actually, my good friend, a fellow interviewee that you interviewed, Joel Gross.

Ron: Yes.

Mike: On his fantastic web page, I was a guest blogger, a writer on that. I wrote a more detailed answer.

Ron: I’ll link to that, but I’m going to put you on the spot now. You’ve got to give us an elevator speech on respect for people.

Mike: Here’s the 60 second elevator. I prefer the phrase respect for humanity.

Ron: John Miller actually explained that’s better, as you heard on that episode.

Mike: Yes, John Miller.

Ron: A better translation.

Mike: Fantastic lean thinker, John. It really goes back, you’ve really got to care about your people. You really must have the belief that the greatest resource in your organization is human potential, and that you really must be conscious and look at this from a manager perspective, how your actions and behaviors have an impact, a direct impact on the quality of life of your employee.

If people don’t appreciate that, that’s the first problem to solve. If they don’t make that link, I’d even push people as far as if you don’t feel that you care about your people, you don’t think that people are your greatest resource, then maybe you’re in the wrong job.

Maybe you have to deeply reflect, because I know we have assets, we have machines, whatever it may be, but if it’s people that leave a legacy, not the buildings or equipment. One of my favorite writers or thinkers on human development, human models is Tony Robbins. I’m addicted to his stuff, but he talks about the six human needs — certainty, variation, significance, connection/love, rules and contributions.

I think that there’s a beautiful link there to respect for humanity, in terms for the manager, and of course be aware of those human needs and to do actions that add value to those needs, and not detract from them. I can talk for hours and hours, but that’s the gist of it.

Ron: That’s excellent. Everything you said so far, we’ve been talking for 30 minutes or so, it’s all about respecting people, what you’re doing over there. That’s fantastic.

Mike, what’s one problem that you’re currently trying to solve?

Mike: I’m looking introspectively, and I think the problem I’m trying to solve is how can I become more effective at Gemba with dialogues with the senior executives that I’m working with? I’m really reflecting on how I learned that continuous approval is always the most effective way, and I really believe that the most effective aha moments and experiences came from one on one with my sensei at the place of work.

I’m trying to master those times I have with those leaders. Some of those experiments, I’m very excited because they create a pull where they want to meet me more frequently. Some, I haven’t got as much pull, so I’m trying to master, how can I develop a standard work for those kind of jobs, so that a leader finds they get this certain value.

At a very high level, essentially I’m asking three questions all the time, and that is the process. What is the operation standard? How do we know if it’s working, as in what is the management standard, and how are we improving these standards? I do want to master the standard work and become a more effective coach in those kind of work, so I am doing a lot of self reflection on that.

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

Mike: “Michael, the more you talk, the less they learn.”

Ron: Who told you that, your mom?


Mike: I’m sure I did too much talking when I was a kid. I actually credit this to a guy named Ron Webber, a master black belt in a former company. Ron was a fantastic LSS teacher, and the most impactful advice was, maybe I’ve got better advice, but this advice was the single most stickiest advice I’ve ever got.

Because it made me reflect, and there’s not an instant where I teach, whether in a classroom or in a one on one, where somehow the words come back to me. “No Michael, you need to listen more, you need to listen more, you need to sympathize more, you need to empathize more.” I know the problem many people have, and maybe now I talk too much, the sound of my charming Irish voice is not what everyone wants to hear all the time.

Ron: Your accent is definitely cooler than mine, so I’d rather you talk to me. Somebody told me a long time ago, I don’t remember who it was, that God gave us two ears and one mouth, use it in that proportion. [laughs] Wonderful.

Next question. Do you have a personal productivity habit that others might benefit from?

Mike: Yes. Many, many. But because you’re asking, the most impactful ones, I would say it’s the application of data and getting things done has had an extraordinary impact on my productivity. There’s a great book by Charles Dewey called “The Power of Habits,” and in the book he talks about keystone habits.

In a nutshell, keystone habits are certain habits that have a fertilizer impact on other habits. So for getting things done, there are loads of great things in the getting things done system. But if there are two keystone habits that really drive productivity is never, ever keep anything in your head for the rest of your life, and emptying your inbox every 24 to 48 hours.

Sometimes people laugh at me, because I’m always walking around with a pen and paper. Sometimes, when I used to drive to work, if an idea came into my mind, I would pull over and write the idea down into my iPhone or whatever tool I had at the time. It is the worst place you can store things, in your mind.

Ron: I use my voice recorder on my iPhone. I hit the record button while I’m driving, and I will talk into it and remember it that way.

Mike: I’ve got two more things. From an effectiveness perspective, I also encourage people to study habit number three of the seven habits, putting first things first. That’s part of the material. I really believe that the application of that material has changed my life. To highlight one thing out of it, the importance of the “not to do” list.

It was Peter Drucker who said us coaches we had a tendency to tell people what to do, where instead we should be focusing on what not to do. So for me, I have a very active “not to do” list which I often add to through my reflection sessions. But knowing what not to say no to is an extraordinary sense of power, because you say “Yes” to what’s most important.

Ron: Mike, if you could recommend one book related to continuous improvement or leadership, what would it be and why?

Mike: “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” I’ve read it probably eight times. I’m not trying to boast, but I think people need to. A good friend of mine said recently, I’m in the habit of reading a vast amount of material. Which is good, but there’s still a huge gap between what I know and what I do. It’s essentially one of the biggest gaps in the world, between knowing and doing.

I’m trying to get into the habit of those few key books, to go back and maybe every year, every six months for certain books, to go back and re-read. I have another couple of books that I recommend in particular, continuous improvement books.

Regardless of where you are, and I’ve had friends who are nurses, to pastors, to doctors, coaches, podcast interviewers. Wherever you are at a stage in life, the seven habits is just an extraordinary amount of material in that. The application of it has changed my life, in that I know listening to previous people who give interviews, they’ve been tortured by this because they’ve got so many. But apart from that, I’d like to.

Ron: Go ahead, no problem.

Mike: In the classic continuous approval world, number one is two books that fundamentally changed my thinking. “Toyota Kata,” there’s enough written about that by your previous interviewees, so I won’t add to it anymore. You have to read it, people. And number two, some book that hasn’t got as much attention, but it’s a book called “Creating a Lean Culture” by David Mann.

That book is focused on management systems, and I really believe when I look back on the many lean transition failures, or failed results, that it links back to the absence of a lean management system. Leaders not having the tools, and not knowing what behaviors they need to do.

That book is fantastic, and I really have gone back to it maybe six or seven times, reading it, reflecting on it and trying to use that as a base to be a better coach. Sorry to interrupt, for our friends in healthcare the David Mann book is very biased towards manufacturing. Our colleagues that are in healthcare, our good friends from the Pedicare Center for Healthcare Value, Kim Barnas released a fantastic book that has the same kinds of principles that David Mann talks about, but the application here is in healthcare, and that’s the book “Beyond Heroes.”

For those listeners that are in healthcare, maybe David Mann’s book would be useful, but I hope people are not turned off by the manufacturing examples. But if you want a pure healthcare industry example, Kim’s book is fantastic. “Beyond Heroes”, I want to add that as well.

Ron: Not to put you on the spot. This isn’t even a fair question, I shouldn’t even ask it, but I’m going to anyhow. Do you think “Toyota Kata” might be the best lean thinking book ever written?

Mike: I’m going to steal a phrase my good friend Joel said, Joel Gross, and it depends where you are in your journey to read a book. If it’s the first book you read, I don’t think you may get as much value. Just like I’ve never done an MBA, but from speaking to people who have done MBA, they are grateful they’ve done it after they have a certain amount of years in the industry, they reflect on it.

Why “Toyota Kata” was so powerful for me was because I could reflect on all of my failures, and all of the time of success and failures, whatever it may be. Because of that, I took so much out of it.

Ron: That makes perfect sense. So yeah, maybe have a bit of a journey and then go to it. Yeah, excellent. Last question, Mike. Imagine that you’ve been hired as the general manager of a company that’s struggling with quality, productivity, hourly, it’s just a mess. You were hired because obviously your incredible background and experiences and past success.

As it turns out, the CEO that hired you is giving you complete operational control and trust, yet you are going to right the ship. So with this said, what would your first week on the job look like? What would you do, and why?

Mike: I listened to all the answers of all the previous TSO people that you’ve interviewed, and part of me thinks “Do I say the same thing, or do you want me to try to come up with something different?” In a nutshell, things previous people have answered about the goal set mindset, sympathize, empathize, observations, talking to clients, staff and stakeholders.

If I were to pinpoint what I would try to do in the first week, I would try to get as much one on one time with my direct reports as I could. One on one time would include both in the office and in the Gemba, because I really want them to know who I am.

Spend less time introducing myself, and more time listening to their frustrations. My old sensei introduced me to something called the 10-question challenge, which was essentially 10 questions but asking the same 10 in terms of what are your frustrations, what are your challenges? So, really listening, listening, listening. Going back to that phrase, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Some previous interviews have said the power of empathy. My sensei told me “Michael, do not underestimate the power of empathy. Empathize, empathize, empathize.”

I would spend much time with not just direct reports, but other frontline workers, as much time learning and listening in the first week. Outside of that first week, I would as best I can try to develop models. What I mean by that is an inch wide, mile deep experiment on a lean management system focused on a business problem. Maybe that lean management system may be with my team, maybe that’s in a particular department, but doing my best to show what good looks like, in terms of not just systems, but the behaviors that go with it. That would be one of the key things that I would do in the first week.

Ron: Mike, thank you so much for coming onto the show. Just let me say, on behalf of everyone listening to this, perhaps they would like to say this to you. Again, they can send you an email, but thank you for everything that you’re doing for the people over there.

You’re doing work that truly matters, and so I’m really inspired by you and what you’re doing there. Why don’t we wrap this show up, Mike, with you sharing some final words of wisdom? Then tell people again how they can connect with you via your favorite social media outlets.

Mike: In terms of final words that I would share with people, perhaps one of the reasons that people listened to this podcast was that all of us have got something in common, and that’s our passion for continuous improvement. But I don’t want people to listen to this because of, perhaps, the interest in my story, of some guy who quit his job in the corporate world and moved to Africa.

I really don’t want people to have that takeaway that this was about me. I really want them to reflect to themselves about their story and to get spiritual or to get really deep, but it’s essentially what are you going to do with the rest of your life? If we’re brutally honest, the vast majority of people do not have a great life.

The vast majority of people do not reach their potential. The vast majority of people do not fulfill their destiny. Now, I want to make a clear definition between yeah, people may be successful, but there’s a huge difference between being successful and reaching your potential.

So many people towards the end of their life live with so many regrets. A study was done some time ago about what the three biggest life regrets. They said the three biggest life regrets can be categorized into I didn’t take enough risks, I didn’t reflect enough, and I didn’t do enough things that would live on long after I’m gone, a legacy. This podcast was not necessarily about encouraging people to quit and move to Africa.

I really want people to reflect on the gifts they’ve been given. They can act. There is so much time, and there is time to act. The two actions I ask people to reflect on is growth, your own personal growth. The greatest investment you can make in life is yourself, as Benjamin Franklin said. Expanding your capacity, expanding your capability, your understanding of this beautiful thing of continuous improvements that we are so fortunate, because the more you can invest in yourself, the more you can give back, the more you can contribute to society, to advancing society.

Especially in developing people, and history has shown us so much, there’s so much data to show, that it’s the greatest way we can advance a society, whether that be our children or our communities. The heartbreak that’s happening in Africa right now is by developing people. That’s proven time and time again. These goals that we have of continuous improvement, the world is in desperate, desperate need for it.

Once again, I’m not asking people…I welcome people to connect with me if they’re interested in coming for a period of time.

Look around in their own communities, whether it be their local churches, local not-for-profits, their library, whatever it may be. Opportunities are, some of them even in their own company, to mentor, to share, to share this knowledge with, to experiment on ways that they can give back.

I really believe to have a fulfilled life, to live the purpose, we must grow and contribute. That really is the ingredients or the formula a great life of reaching your potential and setting your destiny.

Ron: You mentioned earlier LinkedIn was the best way to get you?

Mike: Most people are on LinkedIn.

Ron: It’s Mike Grogan, right, or is it Michael?

Mike: It’s both. I put both in, in case you mis-search me. Mike Grogan or Michael Grogan, you’ll be able to find me, as well as I’ll give a link to my own personal website, Mike Grogan Consulting, and the component website, CCBRT website, and my own personal email, which I’m sure have the show notes. These are many ways to connect with me.

Ron: Thanks again, Mike, for everything that you’re doing. Again, Gemba Academy customers, keep your eye peeled, because we’re going to bring Mike to life in video here. Probably within the next month, we’ll have some footage up of Kevin’s visit with you there in Africa.

[background music]

Ron: Keep up the good work, my man. Keep fighting, keep doing the work that you’re doing, because it truly is incredible. You really do inspire me.

Mike: I appreciate it, Ron, but I’m very humble the way I am. I’m so lucky to get this opportunity. I feel very fortunate, and I appreciate your comments.

Ron: Be well.

Mike: 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

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GA 014 | Lean Leadership with Adam Zak

This week’s podcast guest is Adam Zak, a Lean Executive Recruiter.

With a diverse background in lean thinking, accounting, finance, and management Adam uses his unique perspective to share some truly powerful advice.

If you’re looking to hire someone to jumpstart your company’s lean journey, this episode’s for you!

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:

  • How Adam got into lean recruiting (2:20)
  • Adam’s two inspirational quotes (4:25)
  • What being a “Lean Leader” really means (6:11)
  • What companies need to do to be strong lean thinkers (12:07)
  • The two mistakes companies make when hiring lean specialists (18:20)
  • Adam’s one-word solution for middle level associates struggling to prove the power of lean to their bosses (20:53)
  • Adam’s interpretation of “Respect for People” (23:58)
  • The best advice Adam has ever received (25:18)
  • Adam’s personal productivity habit (26:23)
  • Adam’s three final phrases of wisdom (33:10)

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Full Written Transcript

Announcer: You’re listening to episode 14, with Adam Zak.


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, welcome to another episode of the Gemba Academy Podcast. As always, thank you so much for taking time to listen to the show.

Now, one quick Gemba Academy tidbit I wanted to share is that we’re now offering a free, full access, three day trial to our School of Lean and School of Six Sigma. To be honest, we found our best sales tool is to simply let people have a sneak peek at what we have to offer and then let them make a decision on whether they want to buy or not.

If you’re not a Gemba Academy customer and are interested in learning more about what we have to offer, please head over to and request a three day trial. You’ll see a link right there on the home page. If you’re already a Gemba Academy customer, thank you so much. We truly do appreciate your business.

Today, I’m joined by a gentleman named Adam Zak. Adam is actually an executive recruiter who specializes in the Lean thinking space. But as you’ll quickly notice, Adam isn’t your normal executive recruiter since he has an incredibly deep understanding of what authentic Lean Leadership is all about.

During the show, Adam and I focus on the topic of Lean Leadership, including what makes strong companies successful. The show notes, including links to everything Adam and I talk about, can be found over at That’s 1-4.

Enough for me, let’s get to the show.

All right, Adam, thank you so much for taking time to visit with us today.

Adam Zak: Ron, it’s really a pleasure to be here with you today. Thank you for having me.

Ron: Yeah. Where are you calling in from today, Adam? What part of the country?

Adam: I’m in the Midwest, just outside of Chicago in the Northwest suburbs. The little town I live in and have an office in is called Barrington, Illinois. My family still thinks that I actually live out of O’Hare Airport.

Ron: Yeah, OK. [laughs]

Adam: What can I say?

Ron: All right. Let’s get things started. Just tell us a little bit about yourself, Adam. What do you do and maybe a little bit about your continuous improvement background and how you got into all this Lean thinking stuff.

Adam: Sure. I’ll keep it to a thumbnail sketch, sort of. A lot of people don’t know this, but I actually began my career as a CPA and a consultant with KPMG. That led to a number of financial and then general management roles in a few companies on the West Coast. One of those included a startup.

Eventually I wound up in a small venture capital firm for a few years. That’s where I helped build leadership teams for startups. That’s really what led to my entry, eventually, into executive recruiting. My executive search focus has been primarily operations. I conducted my first, what I’ll call, Lean recruiting project way back in 1996 for Robert Bosch Corporation.

Then more Lean executive searches followed soon after that. Today my work is all focused on Lean and split about 50/50 between line and staff rolls in both manufacturing and service companies. It’s fun. I get to create an impact on every company I work with, and I really love what I do.

Ron: The whole Lean tie-in thing, how did you get first exposed to that? Was that just at your previous companies?

Adam: I actually started doing continuous improvement pretty early in life. It seems I was always looking for better ways of doing things, even in the part time jobs I had in high school and college. In my junior year I heard about a company called Nightingale-Conant.

They used to record and sell these personal improvement tapes from speakers like Zig Ziglar, Dennis Whaley, Tom Hopkins. I was really conditioned to that message, and, of course, I’ve been trying to improve my golf game for many, many years. That hasn’t worked out real well. When I read “The Machine that Changed the World,” that just made perfect sense, so here I am.

Ron: Very cool. Adam, something that we like to do with all our guests to start the show is have them share a leadership or continuous improvement quotation that inspires them. What quotation inspires you, Adam?

Adam: I’ve actually got two that I’d like to share with you, but they’re very closely related and sort of the foundation of my thinking on executive leadership. The first one is by John Quincy Adams. He said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, then you are a leader.”

Peter Drucker expanded on that theme when he wrote, “Leadership is not magnetic personality. That can just as well be a glib tongue. It is not making friends and influencing people. That is flattery. Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”

I just want to add onto that, what I find interesting about those quotes is, first of all, they do not presume that leadership is only available to certain select individuals. I hear a clear message that anyone can be a leader at any level of the organization.

I also notice this external emphasis, it’s that focus on inspiring others to achieve, to improve, exceed expectations. I see a real direct correlation with Lean culture there.

Ron: Yeah, no I do, I love that. Adam, you’ve obviously been in this business for many years, like over 20 years. You’ve been recruiting Lean executives and whatnot. At a high level, what do you think, if you were to define a Lean leader, what is it? What do you look for when you’re recruiting these folks?

Adam: I’m going to tell you what it’s not. It’s not “Kaizen Kowboy.” That’s a term I actually coined back in 2004, you can Google that. It shows, actually, shows up in a book that productivity press published called “Lean Culture.” But it’s not about kaizen and it’s not about tools. It’s really about mindset and behavior.

Let me just give you some highlights, maybe four or five, six things. First of all, we look for system and process thinking, the ability to see processes as they underlie business activity. Then combining that with the belief that most systems, in fact, can be systemized and then improved. That’s probably the first thing. Again, that’s at the macro level.

Connecting directly to that is, I think you have to understand that the systems support the culture and then the culture, in turn, drives the system and the improvement to that system. That’s where the catalyst or the engine for growth and innovation turns into positive outcomes. People who can do those kinds of things really are at the top of their game.

I like this word, humility. A lot of people misinterpret what that means. I think humility is just knowing that you don’t know everything. Because if you assume you do, that really closes the door on any possibility that you’re going to learn anything new.

Executives who come to their roles with this attitude of humility really understand that they know very little about the whole enterprise and that their success will come only when they’re willing to tap into that great body of experience and expertise that’s flowing throughout their organizations. I think that’s a pretty important concept.

I got a couple, maybe three more I’ll touch on.

Self awareness, this is interesting, because it takes most people a long time to actually develop a keen sense of self awareness. It starts way back when your parents first ask questions like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Goes back to how and why you selected the college, major, first job, place to live. It’s about who you are, what do you like, what are you good at, what do you want. Those are all very tough questions.

But we used to think that that was one of those soft skills. What’s interesting is that there are a number of studies that have been done, and they clearly demonstrate that this one particular soft skill turns out to be one of the strongest predictors of an individual’s overall success. They mean that in terms of their life as well as their professional success.

The Oracle of Delphi, I don’t know the Greek for it, but the Oracle of Delphi said, “Know thyself.”

Vision, vision is, again, very important. That’s pretty simple, I think, to explain, difficult to actually address. But it’s pulling forth a structure from chaos. Then we talk a lot about future state and so helping define that. Then you’ve got to connect all those things to a business strategy, to design a process and to implement it.

You know what? None of those things are going to work without these last two, and those are heart and grit. Heart just means an open and sympathetic person who really relates to the needs of the team and understands their difficulties. It’s not just about business. People come to work every day with issues. They’ve got stuff going on in their lives.

The leader who understands that, and then works with them, and makes them comfortable with that, is much more able to really build the kind of teamwork and move the organization forward. Of course, grit, that’s discipline. Set the metrics, measure performance. Just go, “They’re willing to work hard, get stuff done, and drive towards the goal.”

Ron: I really like the one, heart. That really resonates with me. I interviewed Matt May a few weeks ago. He talked a lot about the importance of empathy, from a leadership perspective. I think there’s a lot of parallels with empathy and heart, and just really listening to people. That’s something that many folks don’t do very well.

Adam: I tell you, I’ve enjoyed every one of Matt’s books, and I think he’s one of the guys out there in our world who really gets that. I want to mention one other thing. None of these characteristics, by the way, show up on a resume. There’s no way to see that on a resume. Again, when I look for someone, on behalf of a client, I’ve really got to dig in.

I invest a huge amount of time in conversations with people, to get an understanding at a very deep level about the things they’ve accomplished and the how and the why. At the end of the day, that is how and why they’re going to either relate or not relate to the needs of that organization. Just important to consider.

Ron: Let’s turn tables a little bit. That’s a lot about on the individual, but what about on a company level? I guess we could look at it of, “How does a company attract and retain the best Lean leadership?” But on the flip side, what does a company need to do to be a strong, Lean-thinking, learning organization? What does that look like?

Adam: As I think about your question, what I don’t want to answer, from the standpoint of “What are the characteristics of a Lean organization?” What I would prefer to answer is, “What do companies need to put on the table? What do they need to be like or look like to make themselves attractive for a top-notch Lean executive?” Would that be OK?

Ron: Absolutely.

Adam: [laughs] Let’s talk about this one and get it out of the way, right up front. Money. Money is very important. Interestingly, however, it’s never the number-one reason why people join a company or why they leave a company. People, obviously, they’re working for a living. They expect a reasonable package.

They also want those rewards for the performance that they’re delivering, and maybe just a little bit more, if they get exceptional results. We’re done with money.

The other four key points are probably more in line with what’s…I guess we’re talking about meaning in work. The first of those would be good people want to do inspiring work. Maybe that’s too ambitious.

Daniel Pink, a very well-known author, writes about designing jobs which give people autonomy, mastery, and purpose. To me, that sounds a lot like incorporating that concept of respect for people, and then empowering them through how the position is designed. That’s really the target companies need to aim for when they’re creating these positions within the organization.

An organization has a right to ask people to succeed, but it also has an obligation to give them the tools and the development opportunities to do that. Again, that’s at every level, from executive level to middle managers to the people who actually do the real work. [laughs] The second major point, I think, is I call it enlightened leadership.

Again, from the CEO on down to that shift supervisor, most people don’t quit jobs because…Actually, there’s a lot of reasons why they quit them, but most people do quit jobs because they have a lousy boss. I think it boils down to that, more than any other reason. People need real-time feedback. They need sincere coaching, and they need opportunities to develop and grow within the organization.

If they don’t see those things, at some point, they are just not being satisfied. They’re not being fulfilled. Since that’s what companies look for when they want to hire a new person, wouldn’t it stand to reason that a company should already have people like that, who think that way and act that way, in the existing organization?

Next would be, just like we’re trying to improve our golf game, I think we’re always looking for other ways to improve our lives, professionally and personally. A company needs to offer a vision of a better future.

There’s just that certain excitement that inspires people to do their best work, when they know that they’re valued and that their excellent work can open doors and paths to a wide variety of interesting and challenging projects, assignment, positions in the future. Not just talking about promotions, by the way. It could be rotational opportunities into another function.

It could be a new geography, a new country. It could be another business unit. The challenge of that exposure and of adapting to new situations, solving new problems, is what keeps people going. It’s one of the strongest drivers of employee engagement at all levels. I have seen CEOs who have been so disengaged with their companies that they’re basically retired on the job.

They’re just not functioning because they don’t see a better future. It’s like a dead-end job, and boy, is that a disaster.

Ron: Are you familiar with Richard Sheridan and Menlo Innovations?

Adam: I am. I actually met Richard’s partner when I spoke at the last Shingo conference. They attended. I think they had won a prize of some kind. I’m not exactly sure, but yeah, I know a little bit about the company.

Ron: We’re actually visiting them next week. We’re going to visit Menlo there in Ann Arbor, Michigan to do, again, the live shoot. He wrote a book called “Joy, Inc.” I’m reading it right now, in fact. [laughs] It’s how he built a workplace people love. Part of what they really stress there at Menlo is they work in pairs. It’s software, so it’s a little bit different than your traditional, say, manufacturing company.

At the end of the day, their whole point of being is to build a workplace that is all about joy. It’s like, “Wow,” when you think about that. If you have that, the profits and everything else, they’re just going to follow naturally.

Adam: It’s interesting. I’ve read a lot about satisfaction, fulfillment, purpose in life, just because it relates to why people do the things they do. So many things you cannot pursue directly. They come only as a result of something else. That’s why we often say that the company that focuses its attention on profit will never become successful, because the profit is not, in and of itself, attainable. It is only the result of doing so many other things well that leads to that profit. I get it.

Ron: In your opinion, Adam, what are some of the biggest mistakes companies make when they try to recruit people for these, let’s say, Lean management roles?

Adam: There are really two that come to mind. They’re inter-related. The first one would be a lack of clear direction and agenda for a Lean initiative. Then, connecting to that would be the lack of a clear vision and metrics for the position in which someone needs to perform to make that happen. Let me back up and explain a little bit.

I think organizations can also suffer from a version of what I would call poor corporate self-awareness, or at least an inability to clearly articulate strategy and purpose around Lean. If the company’s unclear about how and why it wants to drive its Lean transformation, and what the expected outcome should be, it’s not really going to be able to zero in on exactly who would be the right individuals, the right leaders to bring into that situation.

One of my biggest recruiting challenges with these organizations is to help them understand what’s possible and what it’s going to take, from a leadership perspective, to get them where they want to go. Some companies also, then, have difficulties in laying out specific and clear requirements for the executive position, for the person they want to hire.

A lot of them will use a traditional fallback approach, where they’ll write a position description. They’ll talk about, “What college should this person have gone to? What degree should they have? What should be the companies that they’ve listed on their resume? What are the position titles?” and so on. Instead, the position profile really should be much more of an action-oriented document. It’s built on, “What is the person in this position going to need to accomplish? Against what tricks? Within which time frames?” It’s like building a house, in a sense. If a blueprint is inaccurate, or it’s incomplete, who knows what the house is going to look like? Assuming you can even begin construction once that thing is finished.

Again, I want to invest a lot of time up front, a lot of energy, in helping clients get that blueprint right. Get it as accurate and precise as possible before we ever launch a search.

Ron: Adam, my next question is — I really want to take a slightly different angle for this question — let’s say that we’ve got a middle manager or maybe even a practitioner-level associate who’s practicing Lean and practicing continuous improvement, and they’re really fighting the good fight.

Let’s say they’re on an airplane right now, and maybe they’re a little bit discouraged that their leadership, while they maybe have some support, it’s not real, deep authentic support. But this person is trying. They’re trying to fight that good fight. What advice do you have for that middle manager or that practitioner? What can they do to maybe manage up a bit? What advice do you have for that person?

Adam: I believe there’s really only one answer that actually makes practical sense. It’s one word. It’s data. Just data. In my experience, most of the Lean initiatives that actually succeed and last for more than a few years are led top-down, where the senior leadership team gets it.

In your case, in this particular situation, I would say to that person, “Look, if your senior leadership team understands data and they can be persuaded by your business case for Lean. Now you’ve got to have a lot of ammunition there. You’ve really got to do your homework. But if you can demonstrate a business case for Lean, then you have a shot at getting their attention and support. It needs to be a very clear, unambiguous business result. It’s got to be backed up by solid numbers, which I’ll add is very difficult in a traditional cost-accounting environment. You’ve got to be creative about how you help them interpret and understand those numbers. To have any chance of swaying opinion in your favor, that’s what you’ve got to do.”

My sense is that every company would like to achieve the benefits that a Lean transformation can offer. The problem here is that most just don’t want to do the hard work that will make that happen. They’ll use a shortcut to cut their way through activities. They won’t change the underlying system.

Ron: They want the five steps to being Lean that they can do in the next 30 days. [laughs]

Adam: Sometimes, they’ll want the 12-step program, but then they’ll say, “Let’s be Lean and cut it to six.” How’s that going to work out? Quite honestly, the other piece of advice I would have, if they’re running into that brick wall, maybe they should just send me their resume. [laughs]

Ron: You joke about that, but I also interviewed Bill Waddell recently, and that’s basically what he said. At the end of the day, if you come to a point in your career where you’ve done everything that you can and you’ve done it the right way, sometimes, certain companies, sadly, they don’t get it.

Realistically, if they don’t, the chances of them being around in 20 years are probably pretty slim, anyhow. [laughs] In today’s environment.

Adam: Makes sense.

Ron: Adam, let’s go ahead and transition now to, actually, 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 obviously, you’ve been doing. But now we’re actually going to focus in a little bit on Adam. [laughs]

The first question that I have for you is we spend a lot of time in Lean talking about respect for people. It’s one of the pillars of continuous improvement, but it’s hard to put your finger on. What is that? What does respect for people mean to you?

Adam: I have a very personal definition, which I will typically share with clients, because they have that same question. Everybody reads about this, but what does this really mean? It has to be internalized. For me, it means recognizing individuals as they are and not as we would wish them to be. And then helping them attain as much of their potential, professionally as well as personally.

It’s not one of those soft things that business-people refer to at all. Of course, in the broader context, broader definition, we could start talking about all the pieces that go into that, that make that up. The transparency, the trust, responsibility, accountability. Really, it’s those values that connect back to that golden rule. Lots of things, but the core really is quite simple.

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

Adam: There is a — I guess I’ll use the word “maxim” — a maxim in real estate development known as “highest and best use.” What basically that means is if you have a hot piece of property, piece of land in San Francisco, the highest and best use for that land is more likely to be a Trump Tower and not a Sonic burger joint, as much as I love Sonic burgers.

Here’s what I would say to every individual listening. Your time and energy, right now at this moment, are infinitely more valuable than that piece of real estate. Periodically, during the day, stop yourself and ask, “Are you using that time and energy in the best possible way? And what could you be doing instead that would be more powerful?”

What could you be doing with the greatest possible impacts that you are capable of delivering? You do that, and you’ll find that throughout the day, things will just go that much better for you.

Ron: Very good, Adam. Can you share maybe one of your personal productivity habits that others might benefit from?

Adam: Yes, here’s one I’ve been using now. I’m not sure if it’s almost three years, possibly. I call it “reflect and record.” Immediately after every phone call, interview, meeting, any significant interaction. I’m not talking about just taking notes during the interview, for instance.

I’m talking about immediately after that significant interaction, I take just about a minute to reflect on and think about, “What were those key issues?” Then, I write those down. It forces me to decide what was important about that event or communication, and why. I want to make sure I write that down, too.

Over the years, I find that, as I do this, I’m getting better at evaluating and interpreting key points, setting priorities, and then deciding on next steps or plans of action. I look at it almost like a micro, personal PDA thing for my productivity throughout the day. It’s been very helpful.

Ron: Do you write it down, like pen and paper or electronically?

Adam: Yes, I write it down. Actually, I keep a notebook for just those reflections.

Ron: Nice. Do you ever go back and review those from years past? How does that work?

Adam: I’m glad you asked that question. I do. [laughs] I think you have to have a system. Probably for the last few years, since I’ve been involved in Lean, I’ve applied those principles to how I work. Sometimes, my personal life, as well. I do have a systemic approach as part of my standard work to go back and through those.

What’s interesting is that over time, you begin to see correlations. You begin to see patterns. That’s the base, the foundation, for learning and changing behavior. That’s why I think it’s a great system, because it’s beyond just the moment. It really begins to connect things over time. Again, those patterns are very important to recognize.

Ron: Last question, Adam. Here’s the scene. You’ve decided to go back into industry a little bit, and you’re not going to recruit anymore. You’ve sold your recruiting business for a billion dollars. Now, you’ve recently been hired, Adam, as a general manager of a company. This company is struggling. They’re struggling with quality, productivity, poor morale. Really, they’re a mess.

You were hired because the CEO believes in you and your background and really feels that you’re going to be able to right this ship. They’ve given you complete operational and P&L control. This is your baby. With this said, Adam, what would you do in your first week, and why?

Adam: First of all, I’ve got to tell you that this absolutely has to be a trick question, because there’s no way anybody’s going to buy my business for a billion dollars.

But having said that, many of us would recognize, right off the top, that a new executive coming into an unfamiliar organization, I don’t think you can really expect to roll out some sort of a 90-day turnaround plan, after just meeting and greeting the team in the first week. What I’d like to do is share a brief story about a client situation to what I think demonstrates something that’s just infinitely better. I was retained to do a search for a company’s new vice president of Lean supply chain. The CEO had actually been with the company for just over a year. He’d come to the realization that the supply-chain part of the business just wasn’t working.

Coaching, mentoring didn’t help. The VP was just not up to the job. I got the call, but here’s the thing. I didn’t get the call right away. That CEO personally moved the VP aside and then took the job himself. He took on the supply-chain role for the next six weeks. During that six-week period of time, he did everything. He was digging into supplier delivery issues, incoming quality problems.

He was reviewing supply contracts, looking at pricing variances. He went out to qualify a new vendor, outsource a deal. You name it, he did it. He had some help. He’s got a small staff there, but he dug into and touched every nook and cranny of that organization’s supply chain.

Ron: How big was his company, approximately?

Adam: About $250 million in revenue.

Ron: Wow. OK.

Adam: At the end of six weeks, he knew exactly what problems needed solving and what it would take to make that happen. Connecting back up to how we talked about how companies sometimes have a hard time pulling together a position profile, after that experience, boy, could he write a clear, concise profile for what he needed, specific metrics, time frames, why. That’s when I got the call.

I guess the lesson there, you’ve got to walk deep into the gemba to listen and understand and only then can you begin to act.

Ron: You know what’s fantastic about that, and also sad at the same time is that it’s great that that person did it. But gosh, it would have been even better if it didn’t take a crisis to get leaders to do what that person did. I often wonder why more leaders don’t just go to gemba more just to experience what their folks are dealing with. Because when they do, things like what you just described can happen before, like I said, a crisis occurs.

Adam: Let me address that in this particular case, because this CEO, again, was relatively new. He had come in, taken a look at the areas of the organization where he needed to prioritize issues. Initially, his time had been spent on operations, on manufacturing and other things. Guess what? It’s that case where you start lowering the level of the water running through the creek and something else shows up, the other rock.

What he had done initially is lowered the level on the operations side, the production, the manufacturing and the quality issues, and found that they needed fixing, and they did that. The minute they fixed that, all these supply chain problems became apparent. That’s when he jumped into this.

Ron: I got it, OK.

Adam: Logically, that worked. But you’re absolutely right, sometimes over time, we get lulled into a sense of security that things are going well. We need to not do that. We need to go back and revisit and revisit and revisit, because that’s the only way we can tell.

Ron: Excellent. Well, Adam, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to visit with us.

Why don’t we wrap up the show here, Adam, with you giving us some final words of wisdom? Then why don’t you tell people how they can connect with you through your website, in any social media outlets that you’re active on.

Adam: OK. I have three, actually, they’re very short phrases. I’ll tell you what those are and then I’ll just spend a moment on each explaining what that means.

Number one, no shortcuts. Number two, no assumptions. Number three, no excuses.

Shortcuts, you can interpret that in two ways. Anything important that you want to achieve and sustain means hard work and takes time. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book in which he popularized the notion that 10,000 hours of practice is what’s necessary to achieve mastery of something. There’s a lot more to it that that, but that’s a topic for another podcast.

I’d say during the course of my search career, for instance, I’ve invested probably several years worth of time just in interviewing clients and candidates. I’m finally starting to get pretty good at it.

The other interpretation is that you can’t cut corners and also expect great results. That’s a really good argument for standard work and checklists, for instance. I know that the one time, somewhere down the road, if I forget to check a reference for the top candidate, we’re going to find out that that person never really did earn that rocket science degree from Stanford.

No assumptions. I think this is very difficult to do. This goes back to what we were talking about, how you’ve got to revisit and revisit and revisit areas. You cannot assume that things are working well. But that’s very difficult to do, because we’ve conditioned ourselves to rely heavily on past experiences and learnings. That’s now the framework, the lens through which we view and assess new situations, new people or issues.

Often enough to make it hurt, we assume something is like something else we know about and it’s not. That’s when you get into trouble, so that’s a bad habit. Don’t do it.

Finally, no excuses. Excuses are just a way of transferring accountability for something that you did that didn’t work out and you transfer it to another person, a place or a thing. You don’t learn a thing from shifting that blame and because you don’t learn anything, you’re just more likely to repeat that poor result again in the future. Don’t do that.

What’ll change when you don’t make excuses is you’ll like yourself more and your friends will like you more, too.

Ron: Maybe your significant other, too. Right?

Adam: Maybe that’s true, too.

All right. Social media. Easy enough. On LinkedIn, I’m Adam Zak, A-D-A-M-Z-A-K, all run together. On Twitter, I’m LeanThinker, and my newly updated website is

Ron: LeanThinker. How did you get that one? Man, you must have jumped on that quick.

Adam: I did. I did.

Ron: That’s awesome.

Adam: Or you could just Google Adam, A-D-A-M, Zak, Z-A-K, and you get like five pages.

Ron: You are like the Lean recruiting guru, man. If anybody out there is in the need of Lean related work, and I always send people to your website when people ask me. Because I’m obviously not in that part of the world. But I have a lot of people, made a lot of contacts over the years who, unfortunately, sometimes fortunately, they’re looking for other opportunities.

Adam: I thank you very kindly for that. I appreciate that.

Ron: Yeah. All right, Adam, thanks again and perhaps we can hook up again and do another interview down the road someday.

Adam: Awesome. We’ll find a new topic and do it again. It’s been my pleasure.

Ron: All right. Thank you.

Adam: Thanks.

[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?

What is your personal definition of Lean Leadership? What makes a great Lean Leader?

GA 013 | Lean and Six Sigma in the Service Industry at West Texas A&M with Bryan Glenn

2014-05-glennI’m thrilled to welcome Bryan Glenn as today’s podcast guest. As the Director of Purchasing and Inventory Services at West Texas A&M University, Bryan is responsible for the implementation of the school’s lean initiatives.

I think you’ll find Bryan’s story and the way things are changing for the better over at WTAMU pretty interesting, I know I did.

To hear the podcast just press the “Play” button at the top of this post. An MP3 version is also available for download here.  You can also view a video version below or by clicking here.

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Bryan’s favorite quote… it’s one of ours too! (4:28)
  • How WTAMU uses lean and six sigma across the campus (5:16)
  • How Bryan and his team reduced student hiring time from 90 days to 3 days (7:22)
  • A few of Bryan’s less successful projects (12:06)
  • Bryan’s view on why lean and six sigma applies to higher education (13:05)
  • What “Respect for People” means to Bryan (14:12)
  • The best advice Bryan has ever received (15:06)
  • Bryan’s personal productivity habit…think kaizen (16:30)
  • The next step on WTAMU’s lean journey (21:21)
  • Bryan’s closing words of wisdom (22:12)

Video of the Interview

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Full Written Transcript

Announcer: You’re listening to episode 13, with Bryan Glenn.

Announcer: [background music] 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. Welcome to another episode of the Gemba Academy Podcast. Hopefully you’re having an incredible day and week. As always, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to listen to what we’re up to here on the podcast. And also with our videos on Gemba Academy. We truly appreciate each and every one of you.

Today, I’m really excited to welcome Bryan Glenn to the show. Bryan is the Director of Purchasing and Inventory Services at West Texas A&M, which is located in Canyon, Texas. This was definitely a fun and very unique episode to record since it was the first podcast interview that’s also being produced as a video.

In fact, Bryan visited us here in our studio in Keller, Texas. We decided to run an experiment to see how producing both a video and podcast at the same time works out. We definitely want to hear your feedback. Needless to say, if you want to check the video out, please head over to where we’ll have this interview available in both audio and video format.

In any event, during this episode Bryan and I discuss how West Texas A&M is practicing continuous improvement to improve the way the university operates. In full disclosure, West Texas A&M is a long-time Gemba Academy customer, so we do also talk about how they’re leveraging our training videos.

I do want to thank Bryan and West Texas A&M for their business as well as their willingness to share their story with the world. It’s our hope that it will inspire other higher education institutions, and really anyone who works in a service-focused industry.

Again, show notes in the video version of this episode can be found over at Enough from me, let’s get to the show.

Hey, there! Welcome back. I am here with one of Gemba Academy’s customers, Bryan Glenn. Bryan, thank you so much for coming. What we’re doing here folks is, Bryan was in town, and so we said, “Come on over to the studios here.”

We’re going to make a video here, obviously, but we’re also going to try to convert this into a podcast. If you are listening to this through our podcast, you can actually come over to the Gemba Academy website and watch us on video as well. Brian, especially, is pretty handsome, so it’s probably better to look at the video than the podcast.

First of all, seriously, thank you for coming. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your school?

Bryan Glenn: I’m with West Texas A&M University. We’re located in Canyon, Texas. We have been around for 103 years.

Ron: 103?

Bryan: 103. We joined the A&M system in 1995. My real job is Director of Purchasing and Inventory Services. I was tapped about two years ago to roll out Lean Six Sigma and to hire out across the campus.

Ron: That’s great. How long have you guys been a customer of Gemba Academy?

Bryan: A little over 18 months, almost two years.

Ron: I don’t know if you know the story, but you were telling us, before the video started that your assistant said, “Hey you got to go check out this Gemba Academy, is that right?

Bryan: Actually it was the the president’s assistant, and our CEO. We were trying to find the perfect training tools and we couldn’t. She called me up one day and she said, “Hey, go check Gemba Academy and I did and I thought, “Man, this is perfect.”

Ron: Thank you to the young lady.

Bryan: Her name is Tracy Joss.

Ron: Tracy, thank you. [laughs]

Bryan: She will see this.

Ron: That’s great. What we’d like to do, Bryan, is start off with a quotation that inspires you, either leadership, Lean Six Sigma, doesn’t matter. What inspires you, what quotation?

Bryan: One of Deming’s, “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” You guys use it. I really like that one.

Ron: Why do you think that’s so powerful?

Bryan: When you look at Lean Six Sigma, Lean, our Six Sigma, it’s about constant change. If you’re not changing, you’re dying. You have to change and evolve.

Ron: I love that. What we’re going to do here, Bryan, is we’re just going to talk a little bit about your program at West Texas A&M. It’s not meant to be a commercial for Gemba Academy, but obviously Gemba Academy plays a role in it. Tell us a little bit about your program in general. What are you guys doing? How are using Lean and Six Sigma in the higher education format?

Bryan: I sent a letter on email out to the campus-wide at the start of each semester asking staff and faculty who would like to sign up. So far, I have had 18 Green Belt candidates complete the course. We meet Wednesday afternoon for two hours and use the Gemba Academy training tools.

Then, we have several process improvement exercises we have developed and also a DOE exercise at the end. Once they complete Gemba Academy they have to take a test and pass it, and then they have to come to me with a project. They have to complete the Green Belt project using Six Sigma.

Once they complete the project, then they are ordered a Green Belt. We also are working with developing a Black Belt program and again, we’re using your resources to do so.

Ron: One thing that I want to point out is something that we talk to a lot of our customers about, is that Gemba Academy, we do offer our own certification program. We’ll mentor the person and so forth, but we are extremely excited when people are doing what you’re doing, which is using our content, and then using your own internal experts, such as yourself and other folks, that are experienced in this kind of stuff, and running your own certification program.

I think that’s fantastic. I’d love to hear of more companies doing this. Sure, we’d be happy to have people go through our certification program, but we don’t exist for certification, right?

Bryan: Right.

Ron: We exist to train people and to help organizations grow.

Bryan: Part of the process, once they are certified, the President/CEO wants to sign off on that certificate because he has total buy-in to what we’re doing. You have to have that top-down trickle.

Ron: That’s powerful. Let’s dig into it a little bit, though. Give us an example of one project that you can think of that was done and was successful.

Bryan: Being in the university, we have a lot of student workers. We got to examining what was going on, on hiring the student workers. It was taking anywhere up to 90 days to get a student worker onto payroll. Part of the reason, the approval form would sit in somebody’s email box, or on somebody’s desk.

Once we started using your tools, we found out that the piece of paperwork actually traveled a half a mile across campus. We used the process, we had the student employment people, and the payroll people meet and we came up with a process improvement. The form is now electronic, and it’s down to three days, which was the target our customers, the students, and the hiring managers wanted.

Ron: What was it before, again?

Bryan: Up to 90 days.

Ron: 90 to three.

Bryan: 90 to three, also made us compliant with federal and state regulations on having the paperwork in place.

Ron: That was a Green Belt project?

Bryan: Yes sir.

Ron: Walk us through that project. What kind of tools did they use, mapping, spaghetti diagrams, things like that?

Bryan: We started off with values training, then we process mapped. They actually walked the paperwork through.

Ron: Became the thing, right?

Bryan: They became the thing to see how long it took. The two departments just sitting down and talking, they understood that there were things that were not needed and not necessary. The huge factor was no one knew what the student, or the internal customer expected, and they were blown away at how three to five days was it.

Minor soft savings was $100 per hire. Hard savings, those students could go to work right then, and not just wait, and wait, and the semester is over and they can’t go to work.

Ron: How do you guys handle the whole savings things? I understand that you look at both hard savings and soft savings? Talk a little bit about that.

Bryan: Since we’re a service industry and most of our customers are students, we’re looking at increasing customer satisfaction. We want the students to have an enjoyable experience, and recommend us to others to go there, that we get what they need, it’s difficult on the soft saving part because we’re mainly dealing with customer satisfaction. There are minor savings, but we’re not saving millions of dollars. We never will.

Ron: I don’t think that’s your objective.

Bryan: That’s not our objective. It’s to make students want to come to West Texas A&M. We want to understand what they need.

Ron: Which by the way, ultimately, probably is worth millions in the long run.

Bryan: Yes.

Ron: You know what I mean? You can’t measure that, necessarily.

Bryan: I would like to take credit for our enrollment increase this past semester. We say that it was because we streamed on some processes, but I can’t. You never know.

Ron: Over the course of the next 20 years, it’s obvious that these things are going to be impacting that.

Bryan: We had a project that looked at residential housing. What students wanted, to find a dorm room. Before, it was all a paper process and it was very cumbersome. Through the process, we said, “Why don’t we go to a software company?” They can see the rooms online, and they can register online.

It tells them what paperwork they’re missing, and they’re not waiting on correspondence going back and forth. It’s increased the process, and made the students a lot happier.

Ron: Give us one more example.

Bryan: One more example is we print vouchers every year, and each voucher is a different color so we understand what year it was paid in. There’s a color code key there.

Ron: Vouchers, explain vouchers.

Bryan: A voucher is a check, a form of a check. The business office would have to order all this colored paper, and they may or may not use it in that given fiscal year, so they would be stuck with all this paper. We experimented with single printing of a voucher on one piece of paper, and it worked.

They pass the State of Texas, and met all the criteria, so they print them as they need them now. That’s about a $12,000 savings.

Ron: Nice. Lots of success, but not to put you on the spot here, but have there been any struggles or failures?

Bryan: There have been several failures. We were trying to develop an e-procurement system, and we were about to roll it out, and all of a sudden the system office said, “Nope, we’re going to do our own,” so we had to stop that one. There have been others where we get started, and we look at the scope and we say, “Man, we don’t want to boil the ocean. We need to back off and look at something a little different.”

We had one transcript from students coming into the college, we had to actually break it off into several different sub-processes to get it fixed, but it worked in the end. The gentleman that was running that project, he was trained in the Navy on their Lean Six Sigma so he had a very good understanding of it.

Ron: Great. Last question for this section, Bryan, Gemba Academy, we get a lot of phone calls from a lot of different types of companies, and honestly there’s a lot of higher education folks reaching out to us asking about how these things called Lean and Six Sigma can be applicable to their world.

What do you have to say to them? Are you a true believer for that Lean and Six Sigma should really be more involved in higher education process?

Bryan: Yes, definitely. Since introducing into higher ed two years ago, I have come across other institutions that are looking into creating a Lean Six Sigma program, are wanting to copy our model because they have seen the success.

The trouble is most of the Lean Six Sigma concepts have been built around manufacturing, and adapting them into the service environment. There’s some changes and some alterations you have to make, but I’m a true believer that it can work in the service industry, and we have made proof of it.

Ron: Yes, that’s fantastic. Let’s now transition, Bryan into what we’re calling the quick fire section of the podcast, but again, we’re going to do this on video as well. The first question is in lean we talk a lot about respect for people. It’s a key aspect of the whole lean body of knowledge. What does it mean to you, respect for people?

Bryan: When I conduct my Lean Six Sigma classes, that’s one important point that I try to make to the trainees, is that people are not the problem, there’s something else. You don’t go identifying a single person and singling them out, and saying, “It’s your fault. You’re the problem.” You have to have respect for the people.

That’s something we’ve learned. We have to actually comfort people when we introduce a project that we’re not going to take their job away from them. We are there to help them, and improve the way they do their job.

Ron: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received, Bryan? Any advice.

Bryan: When I first started into the quality program, and that’s why it gets me back to the Deming quote. If you stop changing, stop growing, and stop learning, you’re dying. You see that around with companies all the time. They stick with, “This is the way we do it. It works, it’s not broken, why fix it?” and they ignore what’s going on around them.

Ron: I don’t know if you have listened to them, the Matthew May podcast that we did, but when we did that we were talking about the story of ice. Matt was talking about how ice 1.0 was you had the lake around you, and that’s how you got your ice when it froze.

Ice 2.0 the guys were hauling it around, and in ice 3.0 where there are factories and so forth. Problem was the guy that did ice 1.0 he wasn’t involved in 2.0 because he was so enthralled with his 1.0 process. I think it’s very similar to that, that we’ve got to keep our eyes open in moving forward, or you will perish, right, like that Deming says.

Bryan: Exactly. Just seeing it with the students, it’s amazing.

Ron: Do you have any personal productivity habits, Bryan, that you think others might benefit from?

Bryan: I tend to Kaizen everything I do, including kitchen cabinets, the pots and pans, desks, my desk is that way. Once you are a part of Lean Six Sigma you think in that realm. Does that make sense?

Ron: Yes, I know! [laughs]

Bryan: I mean it’s truly a different way of thinking and that’s something I tell the trainees, you’re going to start thinking a little differently. It’s amazing. Once the light comes on…

Ron: Yes, you can’t stop it.

Bryan: No, and you see them moving forward. You can tell the ones that get it.

Ron: I remember back when I worked in industry I visited a plant in Springville, Utah, I think that was the name of it. First, we were going to be running some events. We had a big quick changeover initiative where there were a lot of problems with changeover and these equipments.

The first event we did, oh my goodness, we had about 10 people arms crossed, and sour look on their faces, and by the end, they were totally on board. What happened was, the second and third time we came in there, we are walking through, and people were giving a dirty looks. We thought, oh great they hate us! But what it was, they were mad that we weren’t working in their area that week. It was like wow, what a change! It didn’t take long that they saw what was happening over here in these other areas, and they wanted some, right? So eventually, they got it as well.

Bryan: That environment has taken over at university also. I’ll get phone calls, “Can you fix this? Can you get this done?” and people see things that they want to take care of. We had the boards outside the elevator telling who had what office, and they were the Old felt, whites, number type. Well, now we’ve gone to digital, and that was one of the phone calls I got is can you find somebody to fix these, get these up to date, become some of these departments don’t even exist anymore.

Ron: Could you imagine that you would have had that two years ago? People calling you asking for improvements? That’s incredible. Imagine what it’s going to be like in five years if you guys keep going.

Bryan: Oh yeah,

Ron: It’s going to be incredible.

Bryan: You can tell the culture has definitely taken root.

Ron: That’s great. Bryan, if you could only recommend one book related to continuous improvement or leadership, what would it be and why?

Bryan: There is a book called “Lean Six Sigma for Service.” The author is…


Ron: I think it’s Michael George. We’ll look it up and put it in the show notes.

Bryan: Very good if you’re looking at introducing Lean Six Sigma in service. Not only does it cover higher ed, it covers hospitals, and even the office environment.

Ron: Great, well we’ll link up to that one. Last question, here’s the situation. You’ve been hired as the general manager at a company, and this company, Bryan, is struggling. They’ve got bad quality, bad productivity, morale is terrible. It’s just a mess. And you were hired, because they heard how incredible you did at West Texas A&M. West Texas A&M, he’s not going to leave, this is just a story.


Ron: This is a hypothetical story. But you’ve been hired, because of your past results. As it turns out, the CEO has giving you full operational, and P&L control. You are running the ship, OK? What would you do your first week and why?

Bryan: One of my other favorite books is the “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.”


Bryan: It talks in there about team-building,

Ron: OK.

Bryan: You can’t go in and massively change things at once. You’ve got people that are experienced that know their job There may be some underlying factors for why they’re not happy. First, get to know what’s going on, understand the situation. Use some of Six Sigma’s Lean tools. Hopefully they have a program in place already. If not, use those tools to understand what’s going on. You’re not going to quick fix it at once. That’s going to be impossible. It’s going to take time, and it’s going take learning. That’s what I would do.


Bryan: First you’ve got to get an understanding and implement something to initiate change to turn things around, and stay the course.

Ron: Yeah, so the last question, just kind of off the standard work here, but what’s next for West Texas A&M? What’s on the Lean and Six Sigma front?

Bryan: We have a candidate that wants to become a black belt, and we’re developing a black belt program. She came to me and asked what needed to be done, and I said go use Gemba’s checklist. It’s perfect. She’s working on ten projects, and she got the tools and information back using your check list. Hopefully, I’m wrapping up next week the next class that will graduate, and then in the fall we will offer it again. Hopefully I will have 15 like I did the first time around.

Ron: Nice, so the last thing is, go ahead and just wrap up with some final words of wisdom just for anyone that may be in the service industry, and then tell people how they could connect with you for social media, LinkedIn, Twitter. What’s the best way to get a hold of you?

Bryan: What was the first thing?

Ron: Final words of wisdom.

Bryan: Final words of wisdom. Don’t reinvent the wheel. You guys have the package. It’s easy, it’s presentable, it’s affordable. The students like it. Take it and adapt it to your own format, your own style. It’s real easy, very simple.

Ron: Are you on LinkedIn?


Bryan: Yeah, I’m Bryan Glenn on LinkedIn. You can also go to

Ron: Say that again, w…

Bryan:, and in our search, we have a Lean Six Sigma page that has all the information, all of our projects that we worked on and how we used DMAIC Model. You can just search for my name, Bryan Glenn, B-r-y-a-n G-l-e-n-n, and it will pull up my contact information there.

Ron: Great. Is it OK for other folks contact you?

Bryan: Yeah. People can contact me who want to know how we’re doing it. If they need ideas or help, I’d be glad to.

Ron: Great.

Bryan: Networking is also key in this, because other people have other ideas and listening to how they have input is key.

Ron: Not to put you on the spot, but man we’d love to pack up these cameras and head on over to West Texas A&M and do a Gemba Live episode one day. So let’s talk with the powers that be…

[background music]

Bryan: Come on.

Ron: …and make that happen.

Bryan: I’ve got people that would love to do it.

Ron: Fantastic! Thank you for coming in.

Bryan: Thank you sir, no problem.

Ron: Be well.

[background music]

What Do You Think?

What other ways can lean and six sigma be used to improve the service industry? How have you seen these methodologies used, either at your workplace or elsewhere?


GA 012 | Fostering a Culture of Continuous Improvement with Mike Thelen


Today’s podcast guest is Mike Thelen, Senior Lean Consultant at the Kaizen Institute.

Mike is a great guy with a contagious passion for all things continuous improvement.  His advice on getting colleagues, managers, and industry professionals excited about lean is invaluable.

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:

  • Mike’s early interest in continuous improvement…think toy cars! (1:47)
  • Mike’s favorite inspirational quotes (3:20)
  • How Mike got into consulting (6:25)
  • The key ingredient to starting your lean journey, according to Mike (8:02)
  • How to prove the power of lean to company leaders and decision makers (10:50)
  • Mike’s definition of an “active leader” (13:40)
  • The most thorough definition of “respect for people” we’ve had so far (16:05)
  • The best advice Mike has ever received (20:25)
  • Mike’s personal productivity habits (21:40)
  • Mike’s extreme experience with an Ohno circle…40 hours! (26:37)
  • Powerful words of wisdom from Mike (30:24)

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Full Written Transcript

Announcer:  You’re listening to episode 12 with Mike Thelen.

[background music begins]

Recording:  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, welcome to another episode of the Gemba Academy Podcast. As always thank you so much for taking time to listen to what we’re up to. Today I’m joined by Mike Thelen. Mike is a senior lean consultant at the Kaizen Institute where he helps companies improve their way of working.

[background music ends]

Ron:  During this show Mike and I talk about the keys to success as it pertains to developing and fostering a deep culture of continuous improvement.

Show notes, which will include links to everything Mike and I discuss, can be found over at, that’s 1‑2, Enough for me. Let’s get to the show.

Thank you, Mike, for taking the time to visit with us today.

Mike Thelen:  My pleasure, I’m glad to be here.

Ron:  Where are you calling us from today, Mike?

Mike:  I am actually in Northwest Iowa, outside of Sioux City.

Ron:  How’s the temperature these days?

Mike:  A couple of days ago, it was gorgeous. Today, it’s rainy and cold. [laughs]

Ron:  The last time I saw you up in Iowa, it was brutally cold. [laughs]

Mike:  [laughs] [inaudible 01:36] for our January conference, and it was definitely eye‑opening, then.

Ron:  [laughs] We were real quick to move our stuff in and out, I can tell you that. Hey, Mike, why don’t we just start the process here? Tell us a little bit about your background and how you first came to learn about continuous improvement.

Mike:  Sure. It’s kind of funny. My mom would say that I was this way when I was little. I used to line my matchbox cards up along the wall of my bedroom by size.

Ron:  [laughs]

Mike:  You could say I was kind of early adherent to [inaudible 02:08]. I actually went into college and decided to go into management. I started with education, believe it or not. I was going to be a teacher and coach and then changed [inaudible 02:03] mind. My last year, I got into a course called, “Industrial management.” It happened by accident because they only offer it once every three or four years. I had a professor that used his own book that he’d written. This book was called, “Total Quality Management.”

Back in those days, that was the precursor to what Lean became. It stuck.

It was like, “Wow, this makes sense to me.” I was doing it on my own when I was in sales, straight out of college.

Then, about three years out of college, I went from sales manager of a large hotel to a third‑shift production supervisor at a small company. That was a pretty big transition.

We had an engineer there that had read a couple of books and he wanted to do this thing called, “Kanban” and liked this thing called, “Cellular flow and layout.” That was in the mid to late ’90s and that’s how it all started.

From there, I worked for some really good companies. I’ve been blessed with some really good mentors and it took hold. I’ve run with it ever since.

Ron:  Mike, one thing that we like to do at the start of every interview is to ask the guest to share one of their favorite quotations related to continuous improvement or leadership that inspires them. What quotation inspires you, Mike?

Mike:  Wow, there are so many. I’ve read so many books and so many things stick out.

I used to do a lot with Mark Graban from the “LeanBlog.” He’s got a great collection of quotes. I put a few on there myself.

I always like what John [inaudible 03:53] said, “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught,” because I believe a big part of what we need to do as leaders is coach and mentor. Einstein’s comment that, “You can’t change today’s problems with today’s patterns of thinking, because it’s today’s thinking that’s created those problems.”

Probably, the two that I go to the most often, one is by Shigeo Shingo. I forget what book it was even, but he had said, “It’s the last quarter turn of the bolt that tightens it.”

I thought, “Man, you know, I’ve done so many setup reduction projections and watch them tighten in bolts of five different lengths for no reason whatsoever.” That one is really powerful to try to explain how simple things can be when you stop and look.

Ron:  It’s so much more than just quick changeover, isn’t it? It’s that, “Wow, you’re right.” Why do you even use a bolt?

Mike:  You look in office practices and, boy, there is so much paperwork and it’s always that last signature. Why do we have seven?

Ron:  Because it’s the big boss over there who says, “Yes” or “No” anyhow. The rest of us, why are we even doing it, right?

Mike:  Then, I use a personal one, one that I’ve twisted from other people that I’ve read and heard. A lot of times, when I do an event with a team, I will step back and about the second or third day and say, “OK, how do we get from ‘We can’t because’ to ‘What we would have to do?’”

That’s a big one, because it’s so easy that second or third day and say, “OK, how do we get from ‘We can’t because’ to ‘What would we have to do?’” That’s a big one, because it’s so easy that second or third day, it seems like, for people to say, “Well, we can’t do this, because this is false. We can’t do this because the server name’s obsolete. We can’t…” on and on.

That’s a big challenge, too, is to get people to go, “OK, forget why we can’t. Think of what we have to do to make it work.”

Ron:  I know this interview’s not about me, it’s about you, but I can’t help but think. You just reminded me of I was in the whole P90X movement a few years ago and that crazy guy, Tony Horton, or whatever his name is, he has probably one of the best quotes ever that I ever heard.

It is, “Don’t say you can’t, instead say I presently struggle with.” I love that. It’s like; I tell my kids, “Never say you can’t. You just say you presently struggle with.”

Mike:  That’s great.

Ron:  P90X wisdom there.


Ron:  Let’s talk about what you’re doing now. You recently moved into the consulting world. Is that correct?

Mike:  Yeah, when I got out of college, I went into sales. I had done sales through high school and college. I went into manufacturing in late 1997, ’98, somewhere back in there.

Just in January, I left the manufacturing arena and moved into consulting with a [inaudible 06:46].

Ron:  What’s been the biggest change for you, aside from being on airplane a lot more, probably? Other than that, what’s it like?

Mike:  Interesting. I’ve worked for large multi‑national companies, publicly held. I’ve worked for small privately held companies. I’ve always worked for companies where they heard about this or read about this and thought it’s been something they should do.

They said, “Hey, you’ve got some experience in this. Come do it.” Never had the moment and the ability to mentor at that high level executive and sit down and say, “You know, this is what you have to do.”

Being that peon that works below them, they blow you off as soon as you walk out the office door. As a consultant, it’s different, because they’re bringing you in and, frankly, they’re writing a check for you to come in and help them.

They’re much more receptive to listening to what you have to say and trying to take what you have to say and put it into action. That’s the big change I see is you walk into a facility and they ask you questions and they want to learn.

Ron:  They want you there or you wouldn’t be there, so that’s great.


Ron:  From your experience, Mike, even before consulting, and now as a consultant, what do you think are the keys to really success of making this stuff work and this stuff being Lean?

Mike:  Somebody in the organization has to be a zealot. They have to be nuts. They have to get the bug, read a book, want to learn more, go to a conference, and find a mentor. They’ve got be somebody who engulfs themselves in this, because you need that role that says, “This isn’t the Lean thing to do,” and puts the brakes on the organization.

We saw how easy it is to get cost focused. You need that person that says, “Now, wait a minutes. What’s this doing to quality? What’s this doing to safety? How’s this affecting our on‑time delivery?”

That zealot can be anybody. It can be internal or external, but you’ve got to have that power, that passion about doing this. You’ve got to have leadership engaged.

They’ve got to be out there visible. They can’t be the type to say, “We got this Lean leader we just hired and he’s going to do all the Lean stuff on the floor for us.”

Ron:  Let’s dig a little bit more about Lean zealot, so they could be internal or external, you said. Is it better if that zealot is a senior person, obviously? Or, can it go from grassroots up in your opinion?

Mike:  There are advantages and multiple ways. It’s funny. I just had a conversation with a plant leader about this the other day. We talked about the need for internal versus external.

I said, “The important thing is you’ve got one. It’s whatever you can do.” If you have an internal, that internal has to have knowledge.

If they don’t have knowledge, they’ve got to go actively get it. They’ve got to go and latch on to everything they can get to learn it and understand it.

The advantage of an external is that they’re usually someone who has that knowledge. You don’t get them that knowledge, and they’re not viewed as a prophet in their land as an internal likely is.

But you really have to be that person that’s the six‑year‑old who’s lining his Matchbox cars up along the wall. It’s got to be somebody that it’s just natural, and they believe it in it. I’ve always said when I was an internal guy that I have to be willing to lose my job.

Whether I’m that low‑end guy that’s trying to do grass‑roots or whether I’m a leader in the organization and I’m on a senior staff or a higher level, if you are the Lean guy and you’re the one that’s passionate about it, you have to be willing to stick to your guns when the company wants to move and do things that aren’t bad and be willing to risk putting your neck out there.

If you’re going to bow down every time they say, “Cost is the only thing we’re caring about,” then you’re not the right guy for the job.

Ron:  Well, what advice do you have for someone listening to this right now? Maybe they’re not a senior leader. Maybe they’re just a practitioner‑level internal Lean practitioner, and maybe they don’t have top‑level senior support.

Talk to that person right now. What encouragement can you give them, or what advice can you give them? Do they just need to pack up and go, or are there things that you think they can do internally?

Mike:  I’m trying to think. I think it was Jeffrey Liker. It was either Jeffrey Liker or Steven Spear. One of the two said, “You’ve got options. You can make the best with what you’ve got. You can go find greener pastures. You can make that decision.” Speaking as someone who’s been through some organizations, the pastures really are never greener. They’re just a different shade of green.

If you’re going to do this and you like this, and you’re going to go after it, you have to step up and go to the leadership. Pitch what you’re trying to do, go on the floor, and show the results. You’re not going to accomplish anything by sitting in a conference room or hiding in a cubicle.

You’ve got to get out, go take some risks on the floor, and prove how [inaudible 12:10], how [inaudible 12:11] flow, how the Lean principles do help, do matter, and do reduce costs as well as increase delivery and increase safety. Just really show them what it is and how it works. Think about it. You can certainly go somewhere else, but it doesn’t matter because you cannot give up. You’ve got to just keep pushing.

Ron:  I love that. In my last corporate job I would say that I was a director, so I was a pretty senior guy. At the end of the day I had bosses who, honestly, to them some of them were very sales‑focused. The fact that we had to make anything was more of an annoyance to them I think. [laughs] They were like, “Just sell it.” “Well, we actually have to make something, guys, here, too.”

That was a struggle for me, but what I found was eventually to your point I didn’t give up. I just went after it, tried to make things better, and then presented them real results, tangible results that hit the bottom line. They loved that, and soon they were huge zealots. They were not necessarily zealots, but they were on fire for it. They wanted more results.

They didn’t really even care how we got them. There was Lean, Six Sigma, whatever it might be. It’s like continuous improvement. Just keep making things better. Gosh, it was a publicly traded company, so they got to tell the street every quarter what they were doing. It was good for that as well. I love that advice. “Don’t give up.” I’m glad you said that. [laughs]

Back to the whole Lean zealot, you mentioned also a topic of leadership and active leadership. What do you mean by that though? What is an active leader?

Mike:  There’s a whole bunch of information on leadership, and there are so many different angles that people go and pursue. The funny thing is, when you look at what’s been made out as really good leaders whether it’s Peter Singh or other people who’ve written about it, it all comes down to the same principles.

That is, those people get out. They’re not chained to their desk. They get out on the floor. They listen. I think it was Jim Womack that always said, “Go. See. Ask why. Show respect.” Get out there. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Don’t just blow them off.

The hardest thing for us as we become higher‑up leaders is we got there because of what we know and what we’ve done. It’s hard to go back out on the floor sometimes and ask the entry‑level hourly guy how he can make this job better because we think, “Well, gee. We’ve been through that. We’ve learned from that. We know how to make it better.”

The toughest thing about what I call servant leadership is that we have to learn how to get them to see by asking the right questions. We can give all the answers we want, but if we give answers we don’t learn. The key is, go out. Go see. Be out on the floor. Ask questions. Even though you know the answer, ask the right questions for them to find the answer themselves.

I’ll be honest with you. From a leadership perspective you’ve got to be humble. You’ve got to have humility. You’ve got to be willing to listen to your zealot or your consultant or whatever you’re doing to bring in that power, that drive, and you have to remember that sometimes these people know more about things than you do.

I used to say leaders were Jack of all trades and master of none. That’s how we get to be leaders. Sometimes you need to listen to the masters who tend to be your zealots, your consultants. I don’t like the term “experts” because we’re never experts. I’ve been doing this for 15 years or more, and I learned something new last week.

You’ve got to listen to those people who are specialists in the area and can offer things that you might be seeing with your experience.

Ron:  Excellent. All right, Mike. Let’s transition now to my favorite part of the show, which we’re calling the “Quick Fire Section.” Basically what we’re going to do here is you’re going to keep sharing some of your wisdom, which you’ve been doing obviously, but now we’re going to transition. We’re going to talk about Mike. [laughs] OK?

The first question is in Lean we talk a lot about continuous improvement, and we also talk about respect for people. Many times when we say, “Well, what is respect for people?” no one can really put their finger on it. If someone were to ask you, “What is respect for people?” what would you say?

Mike:  Oh, wow. Believe it or not I have a list.


Ron:  OK.


Mike:  A few years ago we were sitting down, and a couple of us were jotting down ideas and what it is. Then I’m a techno‑freak, and I’m out LinkedIn quite a bit, which I probably shouldn’t be. Sometimes that can be a disastrous trap, but I get out on LinkedIn and get into some of these discussion groups.

I once posed this question to some people with Toyota experience, people with Lean experience, far more experience than I have to see what their answers were. Remarkably we all have very similar traits, and we also all had things that none of the others had thought of.

When I look at respect for people and the list that I have, which I’ve added to from my learnings and from my sharing with other people on LinkedIn, some of the big things, have passion. If you’re going to have respect for people, you’ve got to be passionate because nobody cares about the guy who’s got the monotone voice that’s just selling a number. It’s a lie.

You have to empower those who work for you. If you are too afraid to hand over responsibility, too afraid to give them a chance to succeed or fail, then you’re tightening the reins on them. You’ve got to give people the chance to go out and improve themselves, and that’s even at the hourly level. Give the folks a chance to make some improvements.

You don’t know what’s best for them. Challenge them. Challenge people. That’s the greatest thing. I’ve seen tremendous results when I’ve challenged people to come up with something, as opposed to yelling at them and telling them that they’re wrong.

You have to be willing to forgive. If they’re trying hard, and they make a mistake, and they fail, you’ve got to forgive them. You’ve got to pick them back up. Help them get there.

Some things that I see from place to place, both as a practitioner and now as a consultant, one thing is, what I call say do. If you say you’re going to do it, do it. Don’t say you’re going to do it and never get back with an answer.

To me that is probably the most disrespectful thing a leader can do is say, “I’ll look into that,” and three weeks later still you’re asking about, “What’s the deal with this?” because they don’t give you any feedback, any response.

You’ve got be willing as a leader to teach and mentor. You cannot just do the job for people. You have to coach them on how to do it.

I’ll throw one more out there that’s pretty heavy to me. You have to provide the right tools and the right opportunities. I can’t tell you to go do a setup reduction but not give you the tools you need to do a setup reduction, and I see that so much.

I remember one of my first events when I got my mentor, I got a mentor about half way through my career, which once I got him I couldn’t believe how much more I learned. I couldn’t believe how stupid I was; because I thought I knew what I was doing for the first eight or nine years.

I remember we were doing to the event, and I got a machinist that says, “You know, this would be easier if I had a 22 mm wrench that I could just leave at the back of the machine.”

I’m a farm kid. My dad was a farmer and a mechanic. I grew up working in the shop, and I knew all the part stores in town, and I said, “Well, let’s just go get one.” And the guy says, “We can’t. We’ve been trying to get one for months, and the production manager can’t find any.”

I drove out across town, used my company credit card, bought a 22 mm combination wrench, brought it back to him, 20 minutes after he asked for it

He was in shock. He’s like “I can’t believe you found that,” and I’m like, “Dude, I grew up on a farm. I know where to go buy tools. I’ve done that.”

That’s the case, if we don’t provide them with the right tools and the right opportunities. They’ve got ideas. They just can’t do anything if we don’t help them out.

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

Mike:  My mentor, I got him eight or nine years into the process. I thought I knew all this stuff. Then when I got to pair up with him, I realized that everything he did was good advice. To learn from a mentor was phenomenal. There wasn’t any specific piece of advice he gave me, but just the ability to learn from him was fantastic.

I always have to fall back on, I came up in a small town in the middle of the plain states and played sports, did all that, and my basketball coach had a saying. He put it out in front of us constantly in practice, and it was, “Don’t let what you can’t do keep you from what you can do.”

That’s probably, if I’m looking back over my entire life, that piece of advice is probably the best advice I ever received.

Ron:  I love it. There’s so much that we can learn from athletics and sports. That’s a great one. You grew up in Iowa right? Is that where you grew up?

Mike:  I grew up in South Dakota believe it or not.

Ron:  Oh I didn’t know that, all right. What about any personal productivity habits? Do you have any that others might benefit from?

Mike:  I use my computer like a filing system, and I am pretty much digital. I hardly do anything in paper anymore. I would suggest that when you do training material, I do a lot of training material on PowerPoint because it’s easy, and I use the note section, so that I’ve got my information down there to remind myself.

I write a personal A3 each year. I try to drive that and use that as my guide for what I’m going to do for the year, which I think is a big thing to sit down and say, “What do I want to accomplish this year?” in that A3 format, because it’s that, “What’s my current condition? What’s my future state?” and it helps keep you focused.

From a productivity standpoint, I have a goal of no more than 10 emails in my inbox by the end of each day.

Ron:  Let’s stop there. How do you do that? How do you accomplish that?

Mike:  [laughs] When I get them, I go through them, and if it’s stuff that I need to take action on, I try to take action on it. If not, it stays in the inbox until I have the action complete. If it’s stuff that I don’t need, I delete it. If it’s stuff that I want to keep for reference, then I file it. Again, I use my Outlook like a filing system, like a filing cabinet.

It takes discipline. I’m not going to, I get an email, go, “Ah gee, I don’t feel like doing that.” We all do that, “I don’t feel like doing that right now,” so I’ll set it off to the side. But, it is my goal that if I’ve got 11 or 12, and they’re all things that I’ve got to go do, then I’ve got to pick 2 or 3 and get them done, and get them down, so I’m below my 10 on my inbox. I try to manage that way.

It’s definitely a little different being a consultant now. It was a lot easier when I was a practitioner.

Ron:  Yeah, you’re not always by your email now, so you check at the end of the day, and it could be out of control on you.

Mike:  [inaudible 23:32] consulting isn’t something that you just go out to the floor quick and do it today. “I’ve got to meet with that client. I can’t meet with them until three weeks from today.”

I didn’t read the book first. I was this way naturally. But when I did find the book, it fit in with the way I do things. That is Dan Markovitz’s book, “A Factory of One.”

Ron:  Yeah.

Mike:  A short read, but that’s a great read for office people for dealing with personal productivity.

Ron:  Dan’s a good guy. We’ve had him on webinars. Yeah, it’s a fantastic book. So speaking of books, and you can’t use Factory of One now, if you could only recommend one book to someone maybe getting started with continuous improvement or leadership, what would it be and why?

Mike:  I answer that question all the time, and it’s a horrible answer, because it’s a struggle. My personal library here in my office is probably, I’m up over 200 books now, and I’ve read 85, 90 percent of them. I’ve got a reading list that really needs me to go fly somewhere so I can sit on a plane and read.

There are probably 10, 20 books in that group, that are really my go to books. If you’re going to pull the trigger and say I could only come up with one, the Bible that I use, if I’m going to use a term, the one that I always reference, that I look back in that matches what my mentor taught me the most, is probably “The Toyota Way.”

A lot of people are familiar with that book. A lot of people like “The Toyota Way Fieldbook,” because it’s easy. It’s a practical how‑to from the Toyota Way.

I do some teaching at the local community college, and I use The Toyota Way Fieldbook as one of my reference books for that class, because it’s easier for the class to read.

The Toyota Way is definitely my number one, although there are some other books that I would strongly urge people to read. “The Hitchhikers Guide to Lean,” by Jamie Flinchbaugh is very similar to what [inaudible 25:42] from my mentors.

One of the books that probably gets the least amount of attention that I’ve had the most success sharing with supervisors and managers is, “How to Prevent Lean Implementation Failures.”

Ron:  I’ve never read that one.

Mike:  My library is 20 feet away from me, on the back wall, but I believe it is by Larry Rubrich. It’s a real simple, digest size book. It’s maybe 140 pages. It’s small. I read that book, let’s see, it would have been 2006, so how long ago was that?

It’s a long time to look back, eight years ago, and I can still read that book, and not only can read it and go, “Oh yeah, there’s Ron, and there’s other people that I can see. Oh wait, that’s what I do. Oops,” that’s the power. It’s such a simple little book, but if you read that book and don’t see something that you yourself do, you’re not being honest with yourself.

Ron:  Awesome, last question, Mike. Imagine that you’ve decided to get back into the private sector, and you’ve been hired as the general manager of a company, and this company is struggling with lots of things, the quality, productivity, morale, they’re just a mess.

And you were hired because of your continuous improvement experience and past success. As it turns out the CEO that hired you has given you complete operational and P&L control and trust, that you’re going to right this ship. With this said, Mike, what would your first week on the job look like? What would you do, and why?

Mike:  It’s pretty easy what I’d would do the first week, and it’s probably contrary to what most people would think if they’re going to be a general manager. The most I ever learned, and the best way I ever learned, as torturous as it was, was when my mentor put me in an Ohno Circle for 40 hours.

Ron:  Go ahead and describe an Ohno Circle for those that might not know what you’re talking about there.

Mike:  My experience was we were on the production floor making electric motors, and I had a specific part of the line. He drew a circle on the floor, put me in it, and told me to stand there until he came and got me, which was eight hours later.

At the end of the eight hours, he asked me what I saw and those kinds of things, no guidance, no nothing. I shared what I saw, which apparently wasn’t what he wanted me to see [laughs], and the next day we do it over again. We did it for forty hours.

That was a full week, five days of standing out there for eight hours. The only time I left the circle was when the employees went to lunch. That’s why I had to take my lunch and be back when they were back up and running the line again.

It was amazing, because to start with I didn’t know what I was looking at. Then I started looking at the wastes, the standard seven wastes. Then I started looking at movement, and I started looking at how materials and how things came to the line and left the line, and it started making me realize that you can see so much when you just stop for a minute.

The power of it is, we do it a lot in manufacturing, but I’ve done the same in a customer service area, and in a design engineering area. I’ve sat and just watched for eight hours, and watched the paper flow, and how the phone rang, and how people flowed in and out, and you look and see how much time people spend going back and forth for things. It’s amazing.

My first week would be probably a day in each department, just standing in the middle of the department, trying to watch how things work, and capture what’s going on. And try to get a basis for what kind of waste we have and what kind of opportunities with flow, and, “How do we improve our flow, and do we improve our work process?” and not do anything to make changes.

Just observe. Just watch and learn for that first week. From there start laying out a plan with the leadership team, “Here’s what I saw. Let’s go to each department, and let’s talk to each group. Let’s see what they see, if they see the same thing I see.”

It’s amazing. I remember sitting through a customer service group, and I saw a lot of wasted time where they’re on hold waiting for one of the other departments to get back to them, or waiting for this, waiting for that. They had simple things like, “We’re going to change the length of a shaft from three inches to two and half inches.”

“Well that’s got to go to this guy to be approved. I can’t approve that.” Take all that stuff out, so if they can just respond to the customer while they’re right there on the phone, it was huge for us. It was powerful. If we wouldn’t have stopped to just watch that process, we’d never have seen it.

Ron:  Excellent. Mike, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to visit with us today. Why don’t we wrap things up with you sharing some final words of wisdom, and then why don’t you tell people how they can connect with you on social media?

Mike:  My final word of wisdom is, “Don’t let anything stop you.” You’ve got to keep driving. I know it’s frustrating.

Sometimes that’s the joy of having a mentor. I remember calling my mentor from time to time even though he wasn’t on the clock when I called him on the phone and, “Hey, this is what’s going on,” or “this is how I feel.” “Man, what do I do here?”

Having that person who’s been there, who can guide you through it and coach you through it, is really powerful. But the big key is you’ve got to keep moving forward. Don’t let things bring you down. Don’t let things stop you from moving forward.

With that, I’m always open for questions, comments, advice, discussions. I’m on LinkedIn more than I should be because I get into discussions…


Ron:  LinkedIn. Are you Michael Thelen?

Mike:  I’m Michael D, middle initial D. So I’m Michael D. Thelen.

Ron:  Thelen is T‑H‑E‑L‑E‑N for those that are just listening.

Mike:  It’s correct. We’re having a [inaudible 31:37] on LinkedIn in discussion groups. I only participate in the Lean discussion groups. You won’t find me in, “How to increase your sales by 80 percent,” and all that kind of stuff.

Then, you can also find me on Twitter. I don’t do a lot of tweets, but I do tweet here and there. You can find me there @mdthelen, that’s M‑D‑T‑H‑E‑L‑E‑N.

Ron:  Great. All right, my friend. Thank you again. It’s always great catching up with you and hopefully we can go out and do another conference together. Maybe we’ll get you over here to [inaudible 32:09]. We’ll put you on video and make you a movie star.

[background music]

Mike:  There we go.

Ron:  [laughs] All right. Take care, Mike.

Mike:  Thanks a lot, Ron.

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 School of Lean and Six Sigma over at

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What Do You Think?

What did you think of this episode?  Do you have additional thoughts on how to go about fostering a culture of continuous improvement?

GA 011 | The Role of Employee Ideas in Continuous Improvement with Dr. Greg Jacobson

I’m excited to introduce this episode’s guest, Greg Jacobson, Chief Product Officer and Co-Founder of KaiNexus.

Also an emergency medicine practitioner, Greg brings a unique angle to the subject of continuous improvement. I think you’ll find what he has to say both engaging and practical.

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:

  • How and when Greg learned about continuous improvement (2:16)
  • Greg’s three pillars for continuous improvement (4:17)
  • Greg’s three favorite quotes (5:44)
  • How Greg defines a culture of continuous improvement (7:30)
  • Why traditional suggestion boxes don’t work, in Greg’s experience (9:07)
  • How to create a better, more efficient suggestion system (11:14)
  • Practical tips to engage your frontline staff (14:13)
  • Greg’s powerful, one-word definition of “Respect for People” (19:40)
  • The best advice Greg has ever received (21:40)
  • Greg’s personal productivity habit…think meetings (24:00)
  • Greg’s two favorite books (25:20)
  • Why being “too busy” isn’t a good reason to avoid continuous improvement (32:06)

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Full Written Transcript

GA 011 | Greg Jacobson

Ron Pereira: You’re listening to episode 11 with Greg Jacobson. [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: Hey there. This is Ron Pereira with Gemba Academy. I’d like to welcome you to another edition of the Gemba Academy Podcast. As always, thank you so much for taking time out of your week to visit with us.

A special shoutout to those folks who are listening in their cars or perhaps, you’re traveling on an airplane and you’re listening to us that way. We really appreciate you. I just hope you guys are having a great week.

Today, I’m excited to introduce a friend of mine and also a really incredible person. His name is Greg Jacobson, and he is the chief product officer and co-founder of a company called KaiNexus. Greg, as you’ll here in the episode when he introduces himself, also has got another job.

He’s an emergency room doctor. [laughs] It’s not everyday that you see emergency room doctors dialed into the whole lean thinking side of the world, but Mr. Jacobson definitely is.

Today, Greg and I are focusing on the topic of engagement, specifically how engaging your front line staff is really the only way to truly develop this deep culture of continuous improvement.

I think Greg brings a lot of valuable insight just from his work at KaiNexus but also I think on his own journey on how lean is applied in his own industry, the healthcare industry.

All the show notes can be found, for this episode, over at Again, that’s Enough from me, let’s get to the show. Greg, first of all, thanks for taking the time to visit with us. Where are you calling in from today?

Greg Jacobson: I’m giving you a call from Austin, Texas, our office here in Austin.

Ron: Why don’t you just kick things off, Greg, by telling us a little bit about yourself and your background and maybe just how you first came to learn about continuous improvement?

Greg: Sure, that would be great. I am the chief product officer and co-founder of KaiNexus. My background is, I’m an emergency medicine doctor, learned about continuous improvement when my chairman.

When I went from being a resident to a faculty, felt that an area of research that would really resonate with me would be learning about continuous improvement. He handed me Masaaki Imai’s book “Kaizen.”

Ron: When was that?

Greg: It would have been back in 2004.

Ron: Wow.

Greg: Transformed my life and put me on the trajectory that I’m on today.

Ron: Right. Tell us a little bit about KaiNexus. What do you guys do?

Greg: One of the things I like to do when I’m trying to describe KaiNexus is talk a little bit about why we exist as a company and what some of our core beliefs are.

KaiNexus is a software platform that really allows an organization to engage their front line staff, so everyone in an organization can participate in improvement work.

We believe that in order for an organization to develop a culture of continuous improvement, that every single person in the organization needs to be able to participate in that activity.

That’s a little bit about what KaiNexus is.

Ron: Yeah, and it’s software, really, it helps you track improvements and that thing, quantify benefits and whatnot. I mean, that’s at a high level.

Greg: Yeah. At a high level, it is a software platform that allows an organization to organize all their improvement work. In the big scheme of things, we really feel like that, in order to develop a culture of continuous improvement, you need three pillars.

One of those pillars is leadership. Right? I mean, you have to have a strong leadership to be driving this. I like to refer and I think of the image as beating the drum.

Then you need a methodology. Whatever methodology that is, we really feel like, without a discipline and without some problem solving rigor that people often times won’t come up with the better answer.

Whether that methodology is Lean or Kaizen or PDSA or Six Sigma or using the DMAIC, whatever type of methodology, you use it.

But I think the key third component is something that I think explains why a lot of organizations really struggle with going from, hey, we recognize that we need to do improvement, to being able to doing it in a really scalable and systemic way.

The technology is the piece that weaves everything together and make sure that everyone can collaborate and there’s visibility and accountability. Most of all, reporting on the impact and letting people know what the benefit is.

Ron: I’m going to ask all kinds of questions about engagement here in a little bit, but before we do that Greg, we like to start all of our episodes here with our guests sharing a leadership, or continuous improvement quotation that inspires them. What quotation inspires you Greg?

Greg: You prepped us a little bit for that question, and I couldn’t come up with one, so if it’s OK I’m going to give you three.

Ron: All right, no problem.

Greg: Ones that really popped out as I was thinking about really great quotations is one by Stephen Covey. “If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’re getting.” I think that’s just a really great take home message.

The second quote I want to toss out there is by Masaaki Imai, and I mentioned that he was my introduction to this body of knowledge. He made a comment that says “The starting point for improvement is to recognize the need.” That’s, I think, another great point.

The last one and I don’t know if anyone’s given credit for this, but it’s something I live my life by, “The enemy of good is better.”

Ron: That’s great. Thank you for that. Mr. Imai’s got so many quotes that I don’t even know how you come up with…Just like Mr Ono. How do you come up with just one, right? [laughs]

Mark Graban, your business partner there, he’s got all kinds of quotes over on his I don’t know if you have ever seen those, but he’s got…I don’t know. There’s hundreds in that thread. That is incredible.

All right. Today Greg, we’re going to talk about engagement, and specifically how engaging your front line staff is really the only way to develop a true culture of continuous improvement.

My first question, just to level set, is how do you define a culture of continuous improvement? What does that look like?

Greg: That’s a great question. My feeling is that a culture of continuous improvement is a feeling, and something a tiny bit more abstract than anything concrete.

I think that if you are in an organization that has that type of culture, then there’s just certain behaviors, and patterns that you see. I don’t think that there’s any metric, or number, or certification that would indicate that.

When I think of a culture of continuous improvement, I’m thinking of an organization that has put the customer at the center of the equation, and then has built an organization where every single person is being asked, and is contributing to improving whatever the work that’s being done.

And everyone really feels like they are able to raise their hand and talk about problems, give ideas, and partake in the improvement process.

It’s not just lip service. Truly anyone in a organization that has a culture of continuous improvement is able to change the process for the better. That’s what comes to mind when I’m thinking about a culture of continuous improvement.

Ron: What’s the deal with suggestion boxes? What’s your opinion? Do they every work?

Greg: That’s a great question. When I think of suggestion boxes in the traditional sense, we haven’t found many examples where they work. When we say that, and at KaiNexus we talk about suggestion boxes, I’m thinking more of the system, and the thought process behind it.

But the traditional suggestion boxes, someone writes their name down, maybe it’s anonymous, maybe it’s not anonymous, and puts their idea on a sheet of paper, and tosses it in a box.

And then through some regularity those ideas or suggestions are reviewed in a committee types setting, and they’re voted up or down, and potentially the person that put in the suggestion is notified, and potentially not, but most importantly.

The percent of ideas or suggestions that are implemented end up being very small. The question, I think, really asks, “Have I ever seen or do I know of a traditional suggestion system that’s worked?” I think the answer is no.

Ron: Let’s just say that were in charge of a business, and KaiNexus wasn’t around, didn’t exist, and you had to make a suggestion program work. What would you do different?

Greg: The way I’m going to answer this really has to do with a lot of the way in implicit design of KaiNexus. While I describe some of the important design elements, these elements can be done with, really, any type of mechanism, which is a matter of how do you scale or make it easy.

I think that they key points to developing a, whether you want to call it a kaizen minded or a kaizen style or a suggestion system that’s going to promote sustainability and continuation is one that the origin of the person putting in the suggestion is really just the starting point.

I guess I should even back up before there. First, everyone should be able to engage in the suggestion system. It should be very, very visible, very active. People in leadership should be talking about it and making it very easy for folks to identify suggestions and ideas.

Then with a little bit of guidance. I think a suggestion system where the leadership just says, “We want your ideas,” and then doesn’t give any type of coaching or training or thought process of what they should be is often going to result in a lot of ideas that are really difficult to implement.

Giving some directions and saying, “We’re looking for low-cost. We’re looking for low- risk. We’re looking for problems. We’re looking for if you’re frustrated at work. We’re looking for if you weren’t able to get a customer or a patient the best experience or care, we want to hear about those.”

When that suggestion goes into whether it’s an electronic system or paper system, there has to be a feedback very quickly. It can’t sit there for 30 or 90 days. Even, I’ve heard of stories with it being over a year. When that feedback starts, that’s really the…I like to refer to it as working to implement.

That’s just the beginning. That’s not the end. We’re not going to vote on it. We’re going to take a look at the suggestion and see where is the pain point, what’s the problem. This is where that methodology comes in.

Then I think another key element is that next step where when you’re completing the suggestion or that unit of improve work, you need to somehow record the benefit.

Quite frankly, if you’re doing work and change and “improvement,” you need to be able to somehow log or quantify what the benefit of that is, whether it’s related to safety or satisfaction or cycle time or time savings or if it’s a pure financial benefit.

You should be able to discuss that in a manner. Then that broadcast the, “Hey, Ron had a suggestion. These people all work on it collaboratively, and we completed it. It’s awesome. Our emergency department, our shop, our manufacturing, factory, it’s better because of it.”

Ron: Outside of suggestion system, let’s say that we have a leader of people listening to this podcast right now and they’re curious about how to better engage their front-line staff. What are some practical pieces of advise you could give to that person?

Greg: To answer that question, what’s the most practical thing you can do, Mark Graban and I gave a webinar on your’s Gemba Academy Webinar Series. I believe it was back in November.

What we did was we talked about 25 leadership behaviors that leaders can do, whether that leader is a middle-line manager or a senior leader or a C-level leader, things that they can do and start doing a discipline of that behavior.

Which will ultimately translate into promoting a culture of continuous improvement. I think that the easiest one to think of is simply to ask everyday all the time, to make sure

that every single front line staff are extremely that their ideas and their contribution is valued.

There’s about 24 other different characteristics on that.

Ron: Give me a couple more. Not everyone have seen that webinar. Can you think of a couple more? I obviously can’t go through all 25.

Greg: Sure, sure. Another one that I really love is have an example. Don’t just ask for them, give an example. As a leader, if you’re asking people to think about continually improving, you should be doing action as well. I love the example of the manager carrying around her key chain.

On her key chain, she had identified each one of her keys with one of those plastic colored cylindrical identifiers in keys, because she realized that it would take her four or five or 20 seconds every time she was having to unlock her office or another door, because all the keys look the same.

That was literally a 25-cent solution that saved her several minutes everyday. Giving that simple example to people when you’re asking for that type of feedback and that type of contribution from your front line staff can really make a world of difference.

Ron: Let’s flip the table now. Let’s assume that we have a front line, Lean, or Six Sigma practitioner, just necessarily in leadership position, they’re front line, and they’re listening to this podcast right now and are thinking.

“Yeah, that’s great. I sure wish my leadership would engage me or whatnot.” Let’s just say that they’re fighting the fight but perhaps, it’s a bottom up fight right now for this individual, and that’s just the reality.

Unfortunately, that’s the reality in a lot of organizations, as I know, you’ve probably see. What advise do you have for that person who isn’t in a leadership position but is trying to fight to fight? What can they do?

Greg: I’m reading Alan Robinson’s book right now, “The Idea-Driven Organization.” He quotes numerous studies that show that 80 percent of an organization’s improvement potential resides in the front line staff.

If you think about that for a second and you, all of a sudden, wrap your head around that and you think, “Wait. If you’re not doing that as an organization, you’re leaving out four out of five improvements.”

So to speak, that the vast majority of how much better your organizations would be, you’re leaving it on the table. I think when you start translating those types of numbers and start showing the impact of what this can do, you’re going to start getting some, at least your time from leadership.

Ron: Greg, let’s transition now to 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 obviously been doing, but now, we’re going to focus in a little bit on Greg. [laughs]

Actually, I’m dropping a new one on you. We didn’t discuss this in the pre-interview. This is live Greg here. We lean thinkers, we talk a lot about the importance of respect for people and we’ve talked a little bit about that already.

Sometimes, when you really try to define what respect for people is, it can be hard. In your opinion, what does respect for people mean?

Greg: Validation is the first concept that comes to mind. When I say the word “validation,” in order to validate somebody, it means you had to have listened to a person.

You have to know that they can sense something, but then you’ve acknowledged that whatever insight or observation or feedback that person gave was valid.

I think oftentimes, when I see patterns from leaders not giving respect, it’s because someone says, “What about this?”

They immediately say, “We can’t do that because of XYZ,” where I think that the respect would’ve come from simply saying, “Tell me more about why that’s a problem or what made you think of those areas in.”

Then you’re at least starting to get to the root of some of these issues. I think once they’ve been validated, I think you can start working through, are these things practical or not practical? Off the cuff, I think validation’s a really big component of respect.

Ron: I love that. I’ve asked many people that question, and that’s the first validation angle but I think that’s so good, it’s so powerful. Thank you for that. Greg, what’s the best

advice you’ve ever received? It doesn’t have to be related to continue, just the best advise you’ve ever received.

Greg: That’s an interesting one. I think I want to take a different answer on how to answer that. The best advise, I think, I ever received was to read Masaaki Imai’s book, “Kaizen.” I say that, because it was a pivoting point, if you will, in my life.

I was really going to be an ER doctor. Being introduced to the fact that there are all these improvement principles, the endless body of knowledge that existed out there. It was really an eye-opening experience for me.

It’s funny, because the person recommended that I read the book because I was always the guy that was asking, “Why do we do it this way? Wouldn’t it be better if we were doing it that way?”

I was doing process improvement even back when I was helping my mom in her tuxedo shop in middle school and high school.

Ron: You were doing Lean before it was cool, huh?

Greg: Exactly. In fact, I think I was doing Lean before they even had the term “Lean.”

Ron: [laughs] You’re dating yourself now. Careful, careful.


Ron: One thing that just popped in my mind, I don’t normally talk to ER doctors who practice Lean. One thing that things.

Thankfully, I’m not sure I’ve really been in the ER room with needing major work done or anything, thankfully. I’m always struck by how I foresee that process as being pretty lean.

All the tools point at you, so you got people hand these stuff. Isn’t it? That’s a pretty Lean process, isn’t it, just from a process perspective?

Greg: I would say that, that’s the movies. [laughter]
Ron: Like I said, I’ve never really been in there.

Greg: Emergency departments are, huge opportunities for low hanging fruit. Certainly, when we get things right, things go very smoothly. I didn’t make this my life packed, because emergency departments that I have to improve. How does that sound?

Ron: Fair enough, fair enough. Greg, can you share one of your personal productivity habits that others might benefit from?

Greg: I was thinking about this question, and I don’t really know of any particular habit I do, per se, but I will tell you one of the things that really makes me anxious are meetings. I try to have as few meetings as possible.

Instead, what I like to do to schedule people are work sessions where we have a fine amount of work that we’re going to accomplish during the 30 minutes or 60 minute that we’re going to do.

Obviously, that doesn’t work well with, maybe, external meetings. Certainly, the external meetings here, there are going to be a lot of communication as the primary “work” that you’re doing.

But I think internally, I think shifting your thought process from having a meeting to having a work session has been a real big productivity booster for me.

Ron: I like that, I like that. You’ve mentioned Mr. Imai’s book, “Kaizen,” several times, so I’m going to call you on it and say, you’re not allowed to use that for this next question.

Greg: Fair enough.

Ron: If you could only recommend one other book in addition to “Kaizen,” obviously, related to leadership or continuous improvement, what would it be and why?

Greg: I’m not really one to follow rules. [laughter]

Greg: I’m going to give you two, just like you asked for one quote. I’m going to give you one book that I finished and a book that I’m currently reading.

Because so far, what I’m reading, I think it’s really making it into the top books that are influencing my thought process on that.

One is my co-worker, Mark Graban’s book, “Healthcare Kaizen.” I think it is just such a strong example of how Kaizen principles, which we all know you came from manufacturing, can be applied in another industry.

What I love about books in general are when they are really practical and they give examples instead of being really abstract. That would be one book I would certainly recommend folks to take a look at if they are wanting more knowledge and continuous improve in healthcare.

Then the other book, as I mentioned briefly before, is Alan Robinson’s “The Idea-Driven Organization.” I just started this book, but it’s funny. I’m reading it. Now, it’s just discussing it with one of my co-workers. It’s almost like Alan has been into what we believe here at KaiNexus.

He’s just adding some nice richness to some core beliefs we have here at KaiNexus. For example, the fact that there’s actual really good data that shows that 80 percent of the improvement potential in organizations are in the front line staff.

Based on my beginning chapters of that book, I’m going to toss that one out there.

Ron: I’m not familiar with that book. Is he a Lean thinker? Is he just in another part of the productivity niche?

Greg: No, actually. That’s other thing. I love when people talk and either just put out a blog post on this or about to, but I love when you see Lean or process improvement or continuous improvement in places that you’re either not expecting it or they’re not calling it that.

I had the benefit of having a really nice conversation with Alan. While he hasn’t mentioned Lean or Kaizen anywhere in the book so far that I’ve gotten to, and I’m just at the beginning of extremely knowledgeable and process improvement in Lean and Kaizen.

I think when you can talk about these things without talking about them, it really shows a mastery of a topic. I think that’s going to be a key for a lot of organizations to really focus on the action and the concepts versus terms and definitions.

Ron: That’s one of the goals of this podcast. So many people have access to podcast. I hope there’s someone listening right now who has no idea what this Lean stuff’s all about or Kaizen or anything like that. They’re interested in making things better, their life better, their business better.

Having a better time at work, or even their personal lives. I think hat’s the problem we Lean thinkers sometimes fall into. It’s such a small little part of the world when you think about it that there are so many other people out there that need this.

Greg: That probably have some of these natural tendencies, but if they were exposed to this body of knowledge, they would be able to just rapidly accelerate their natural tendencies.

It’s like finding someone that has a talent to run, putting them with a trainer that can really teach them how to run, that huge boost.

Ron: The last question I have for you, Greg, is this. Imagine that, I don’t know, you sold KaiNexus for $1 billion down the road and now, you’re looking for something else to do.

You’ve been hired as the general manager of a company, and this company is struggling with quality, productivity, poor morale. They’re really a mess.

You are hired because, obviously, of your continuous improvement experience and background. The CEO that hired you, he’s given you complete operational control, full P&L responsibility, and trust you to ride this ship.

With this said, Greg, what would your first week on the job look like? What would you do and why? You got $1 billion in the bank, so don’t worry.


Greg: I’m not sitting on the beach?
Ron: No. That’s too boring. You need the action, man. You need the action.

Greg: This is fortunately one of those one due you gave me an opportunity to think about. As I was visualizing what I would do, I was finding myself not sitting in the office at all and going out and not necessarily interviewing people.

But certainly going and informally having conversations with folks. That might have a little bit to do with that respect, but I think the best way to influence people is first to get to know who, and what is going on.

I think by going in, and talking to the CEO, and talking to the administrative assistants, and talking to the people that are doing the work on the front lines for whatever the company is.

And getting to know them, they’re going to start really quickly talking to you about what barriers they’re having in doing their job, and what problems they’re experiencing.

I think once you develop that respect you can start saying “OK, well I see where we’re at now folks,” and that probably isn’t going to be in week two.

But you’ll probably be doing quite a bit of that at the beginning before you’re really able to, from a meaningful place I think, improve, or help that organization.

Ron: Then you get to practice your validation exercise again, right? Greg: Exactly.

Ron: Love it. All right Greg. Thank you so much for taking the time to visit with us today. I know you’re super busy.

Why don’t we close the show with you sharing some final words of wisdom, and then why don’t you tell everyone how they can get in contact with you via social media, or really any other way?

Greg: Absolutely. Closing thoughts are I always cringe whenever I hear people say “We’re to busy to think about continuous improvement,” so I would always just give people pause whenever they make that comment.

There is no better time than today to start improving what you do because the ultimate cycle that folks who say comments like that are in is that they’re just going from fire, to fire, to fire. We’ll never be able to start putting out fires by simply going to fires, or preventing fires I should say.

That would be my comment. Start improving today, and the best way, and the easiest way to improve is to open up the potential of your front line staff by engaging them.

Anyone that wants to reach out to us, there’s a ton of information on our website about what we do, which is, and that’ spelled My direct email address is, so just simply

Ron: Now are you a Twitter guy Greg?

Greg: I am a Twitter guy. I just started tweeting, and it’s been a lot of fun. What’s interesting about tweeting that this will be the first time I’m verbalizing it, is it really helps me refine my thought process because you only have 140 characters.

Ron: That’s why kids are so good at it, because they’re like C, the letter C, U, the letter U. They get all these words in with just single letters, right? [laughs]

Greg: Exactly. My Twitter is Greg H Jacobson.

Ron: We’re going to have all this information in the show note, and everybody can listen to the outro here that we’ll record after, and we’ll tell you the episode, and where to go to find all these links to Greg’s information. Again, Greg, thanks again.

Hopefully we can do this again. I know we’ve got some webinars coming up with you guys. Everyone can go to, and check out our webinar schedule. Greg, and Mark, and the KaiNexus team do awesome webinars, so check those out.

All right, Greg. It’s a Friday here when we’re recording this. Have a great weekend, and we’ll talk soon.

Greg: Thanks so much for having me. It was a lot of fun. Ron: All right.

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What Do You Think?

Do you agree with Greg’s take on continuous improvement? How would you encourage employees to provide feedback?


The Secret to Lean Success in One Sentence

Secret to Success Road SignI was working on an office value stream map module for the refresh we’re doing to our Transforming your Value Streams course.

During this module we share several questions that can be asked as team’s work to create an improved future state value stream map in office or transactional environments… there are 9 questions to be exact.

But, at the end of this section, we sum it up with this statement.

“In the end, if we could summarize how to go about creating excellent future state value stream maps we’d simply say to focus on two things… respect your associates and focus on making value flow.  If you do this good things will no doubt result.”

After I read it I wondered if that simple statement was the true essence of what lean thinking, and really continuous improvement, is all about.

Respect your associates and focus on making value flow.

What do you think?

GA 010 | Using Lean to Help NGOs with Steve Bell

Steve-Bell-Tight-Cropped-200x222This episode’s guest speaker is Steve Bell, a longtime lean thinker. While his background is in the IT and Agile spaces, Steve’s passion is using lean to help NGOs and nonprofits.

I think you’ll find Steve’s ability to improve lives truly inspiring…I know I did!

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:

  • Steve’s alternative to a favorite quote (4:26)
  • Why Steve started Lean4NGO, and how microfinance played a role (6:00)
  • How every microentrepreneur is a lean thinker (6:57)
  • About Steve’s “most amazing” Gemba Walk (9:27)
  • The two specific things Steve taught to agricultural workers in Uganda (11:30)
  • Why lean principles suit NGOs (14:45)
  • The biggest challenges NGOs face when adopting lean (17:13)
  • How you can contribute to the mission of Lean4NGO and other nonprofits (21:33)
  • Steve’s take on “respect for people” in terms of helping those in absolute poverty (28:02)
  • The best advice Steve has ever received (31:55)
  • The importance of visibility in improving productivity (33:30)

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Full Written Transcript

Ron Pereira: You’re listening to episode 10 with Steve Bell.

[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: Hey there. This is Ron Pereira with Gemba Academy, and I’d like to welcome you to another edition of the Gemba Academy podcast. As always, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to listen to what we’re up to, and a special shout-out to all the Gemba Academy customers out there who are with us and watching our videos and trying to really improve their businesses and ways of life. Thank you to everyone out there.

Today, I’m really excited to welcome a gentleman named Steve Bell to the show. Steve, as you’ll hear, is a longtime lean thinker. He does a lot of work in kind of a lean IT space and does some work in the Agile space.

But that’s not what we’re going to talk about today. In fact, we’re going to talk about I guess what Steve would define as something that he does on the side but he’s obviously extremely passionate about it and that is some non-profit work, or NGO work as it’s referred to. Basically, he’s working in places like Uganda, and less fortunate places than most of us listening live.

He’s going over there and he’s helping these folks apply lean thinking principles to their way of life and, perhaps if they’re farmers or whatever it might be, to really try and improve folk’s lives, and to help people make enough money so they can send their kids to school and feed and clothe their children.

So, some really, really powerful stuff. Steve shares some extremely powerful stories in this episode. It really touched me and I hope it touches you. I do want to really give a shout out to Steve’s website. We’re going to mention it in the episode several times. It’s Again, All the show notes for this episode — there’s going to be some important links — can be found at So,

Enough for me, let’s get to the show.

Steve, thank you so much for taking time to come on to the show today.

Steve Bell: Thank you for having me, Ron.

Ron: What part of the country are you calling in from today, Steve?

Steve: I am calling in from Portland, Oregon, which is on the west coast, and we’re having a beautiful sunny spring day today.

Ron: Steve, we have a unique topic today I’m really excited about. Before we dive into that, why don’t you just give everybody a little bit of background on who you are and how you first came into this whole continuous improvement world?

Steve: My area of specialization is applying lean thinking to the domain of IT, information technology. I’ve spent about the last 25 or more years working with lean in terms of ERP systems. I started in manufacturing, but I do a lot of my work nowadays in financial services and other types of services, and spent a lot of my time working with IT professionals helping them to drive continuous improvement and innovation within their organization and through the business.

That’s my day job. That’s what pays the bills that funds my real passion, which is bringing lean thinking into the word of nonprofits and NGOs, as they’re known internationally — nongovernmental organizations — and the under-served populations around the world.

Ron: That is going to be the topic of the podcast today. But before we get into that, Steve, we always like to have our guests share a quotation. It could be leadership or continuous improvement slanted, whatever you’d like, that inspires you. What quotation inspires you, Steve?

Steve: You shared with me you were going to ask that question and I have really pondered it, and I’ve had a hard time landing on any one particular quotation because there have been so many thought leaders in the lean world for the last several decades that I’m going to go a little off script here and say it’s not a quotation from any one particular individual. What I have learned in my decades of practice with lean is the key is to make any situation you’re working in visible.

If you get people up at a whiteboard with pens and sticky notes and butcher paper, and really sorting out a problem or a process, they get beyond their emotions, they get beyond what they think the problem is and they really get into visualizing what really is. That’s when people become teams and start solving problems for themselves.

My own quote is make everything visual.

Ron: Yeah, I love that. I love that. Let’s get into this lean NGO world. So your organization goes by Lean4NGO. Is that right?

Steve: Right. The website is

Ron: We’re going to link to that in the show notes which everyone can find over at What inspired you to start this organization, and how does it work?

Steve: First of all, what inspired me. For many years I was involved in humanitarian activities, volunteering activities, and my passion for many years was something called microfinance, which has been around for about 30 years now. Many of you may be familiar with, which is a consumer site that allows you to fund budding entrepreneurs worldwide.

The notion behind microfinance is that poor people are resourceful, they’re innovative, they’re hard workers, but they lack access to capital.

For just a few dollars, a very poor person can start up a business and feed their family and put clothes on their kids and send them to school. These, by the way, are mostly women that are doing this. There are millions and millions of these loans out there every day all around the world.

When I saw those on the ground, when I’d actually go out into the field and see these micro-entrepreneurs working, I saw so many similarities to lean principles of innovation, of continuous improvement.

A couple of years ago when “The Lean Startup” book was published, I realized that every microentrepreneur anywhere in the world is a lean thinker and can benefit by those practices. I became very passionate in that.

My wife and I started what is a very modest organization which primarily consists of a website,, and a LinkedIn group, lean thinking for NGOs and nonprofits. The intent behind that group is to bring people around the world, and the membership is very global, together who are practicing lean thinking in their non-profit organizations or even taking lean thinking out into the field to the people they serve and sharing tools and case studies and videos.

Anyone in the non-profit world that is really intrigued by lean can get a good start at least by visiting this organization and starting a dialogue with its members. It’s free, by the way. There’s no charge whatsoever to this. I’m just putting it out there.

Ron: Now is it a 501(c)3?

Steve: At this point, it’s not. That may be in the future. You start a 501(c)3 so that people can make contributions that are tax deductible, but right now my wife and I are just self-funding it. The proceeds from my last book that I published I dedicated to supporting this. For the while, that’s all it really requires.

Ron: Let’s dive in a little bit on Lean4NGO. Maybe some success stories or some things that you’ve actually done that you’ve accomplished. When did you start it, by the way?

Steve: It’s been in the last three years or so that we started it, and it has grown at a surprisingly steady pace since then. I’ve done a number of non-profit activities, some pro bono and other at a reduced fee, with various organizations both locally and around the world. The one that I’m most proud of…there’s actually a video posted on a site you could see of a presentation I made Grameen Foundation in Kampala, Uganda, where my wife and I spent a week last June in Uganda, went out in the field for a Gemba walk. It was the most amazing Gemba walk out into the fields.

Grameen, which is affiliated with an organization that basically is attributed to creating microfinance in the first place back in the ’70s, Dr. Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh. This organization is experimenting with something they call the Community Knowledge Worker Program, which is an agricultural extension service that puts mobile phones and coaches into the field in the agricultural-rich areas, in this case, in Uganda, bringing knowledge and collaboration into the field with some amazing results in terms of productivity, crop yield, economic social improvement for the families who are participating in these activities.

It’s just amazing, the results, when you bring just a little bit of empowerment and knowledge into the hands of these people who are in the field and spend a week there with the organization, teaching lean, a little Agile and Scrum practice on a software development side, and really helping them to improve their productivity. It was an amazing experience.

You’ll find a link to that video on the LinkedIn group, and it may also be posted on the linked site within the

Ron: We can work offline, and I’ll get a link to it from you and we’ll put that in the show notes as well. I’m curious, though. I’m going to push you a little bit here, Steve. Give examples. What did they do? You said they improve productivity. What did you teach them? You teach them 5S with the seven ways word? Did you value stream map? What did you do?

Steve: Two things that we did that I feel were the most powerful, we started out in a day with the leadership of the organization, in a room together, around the table. I did some basic lean orientation, principles and practices of lean, and then we broke out for about a two-hour exercise on leadership Kanban.

For those of you readers who are lean people, I’m not talking Toyota production system Kanban where there are parts moving at the factory floor, I’m talking more the Agile software development view of Kanban, which is take a piece of paper, put some sticky notes up on the board to manage your demand, manage work in process, make sure you’re not trying to do too many things at once, make priorities and problems clear.

I had each one of the leaders of this organization make their own Kanban to manage their own work. That exercise took only about two hours, and then they reported out to each other. The results from that single exercise were amazing. When you ask somebody to actually make their workload and their demand visible, it gives you new insights into maybe why you’re not able to get your work done in a day and better ideas about prioritizing.

When all the leaders were able to see explicitly what their peers were doing and were not doing, that was extremely powerful. To this day now, not only all the leaders are maintaining their Kanban boards but many of the development teams have their own Kanban boards as well. That was very powerful, and that was on the first day. Days three and four. Actually, I’m sorry. The first day was the Gemba. We went out to the field. That was day two.

Ron: When you said “the field,” what do they got in a field? Are they making stuff, growing stuff?

Steve: Yes. The field are thousands of villagers in remote parts of Uganda. Uganda is a heavily agricultural economy. We all got in a bus. It was a Toyota bus, by the way, because that’s the most dependable. We bounced around for nearly two hours and went way out into the jungles and the fields of Uganda where we visited basically two stand-up meetings with two villagers with a community knowledge worker there, with a mobile phone, with cellular coverage.

Because even in remote Uganda, they have signals. You’ll find that something in the developing countries, cell signals are very present and they’re high-speed.

The idea of developing knowledge into the hands of remote villagers is actually quite practical, and saw the results in the field, meeting the villagers, meeting the leaders of the villages, and really hearing the stories about how problem solving was helping them increase productivity.

One woman stood up and said, “In the last six months, I’ve doubled my yields and my corn crop, and I bought a goat.” What that means is that woman now has an asset. She has a financial asset that puts her foot on the first rung of the economic development ladder. Those kinds of stories are just powerful.

Ron: That’s incredible. Why do you feel lean principles and practices that we lean thinkers do on a regular basis, why are they so suited for this NGO environment?

Steve: Let me answer that in the form of a response to what we did on day three and day four. We had amazingly intelligent, resourceful, passionate people at this NGO who were working their hardest everyday to deliver these services out into the field.

As in for-profit organizations, many of them didn’t understand what the other people were doing. What we did in day three, day four, we didn’t exactly do a value stream map, I would call it more of a swim lane process map. There, we had everybody standing up with sticky notes and pens in front of a big wall covered with lecture paper where the various responsibility centers of standing up a program in a new part of a field, getting it going, and supporting it, and making it self-sustaining.

For two days, everybody was up there saying, “Here’s what I do here, here are the problems I’m experiencing.” At the end of those two days, they were an energized team. They understood better than they ever had before what they were trying to do collectively and the things that were getting in their way.

When I left them at the end of that week, when my wife and I left them, because we were both facilitating this workshop, they had a list of problems that they were working to solve. As a result of that, by the way, through Lean4NGO, I found a lean coach in Toronto who was willing to go to Uganda, his expenses paid but no revenue for six months.

That just energized the whole organization. There are people out there who are at a point in their career or maybe they’re a coach within a corporate organization who has a partnership with an NGO who would love some experience in the field, doing something like that, not necessarily for six months, maybe for a month or maybe even for a week or two.

The experience you get in the field, doing something like that, helps them, it helps you, and it helps bring some real life hands-on experience back into your organization. It’s a win-win-win for everybody.

Ron: What are the biggest challenges for NGOs right now, especially as it relates to adopting lean?

Steve: Every challenge you will find in a for-profit organization, you will find in a non-profit organization, with one exception. Anybody who’s been in a lean transformation journey in any for-profit company, name all of the challenges you had to overcome and you will find them in an NGO. The one thing you won’t find is a lack of passion and a lack of shared purpose.

People work for NGOs, because they believe in it passionately. They’ll work excessive hours for low pay under tremendous circumstances. Particularly, when you’re in the field in a developing country, conditions on the ground change every day, so you got highly dynamic, often unstable situations to work in. With all that said, people are passionate, because they can see the results of their efforts.

You don’t have that challenge, but what you do have is the challenge of heroic efforts. People will often just give until it hurts until they absolutely burnout. You see a lot of that in the NGO world. What I will also see, and for the sake of not offending people, I’ll try to be careful on how I say this, but less of an awareness of process and process excellence and process discipline.

People in the NGO world are all about what can I do, how can I jump in and fix this. Sometimes, it’s hard to pull them back and say, “Now wait a minute. Let’s look at this as a process. Let’s look at this as learning journey and invest a little time up front.” To help people get over the hump, what you have to do is help them understand that if you do this, it will increase your effectiveness. It’ll increase your productivity. What that means is more kids getting fed every day, more kids going to school, more mothers getting adequate healthcare, societal benefits that are just extraordinary.

If you can help make the lean journey connect with these people who are passionate about what they’re doing, that’s the best way to overcome that form of resistance.

Ron: One question I have for you, Steve, kind of off-script here a little bit, I hope it’s OK to ask this. We can always edit if we need to. [laughs] You’ve mentioned several times now that you’re really impacting the female population of Uganda. Why is that? I don’t know how I should say it. Where are the men? [laughs] What’s going on there?

Steve: For anyone that’s interested, there is a tremendous book written by two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists called “Half the Sky.” If you read this book, you’ll understand that in most cultures around the world, half of the population is not being heard from is under-utilized, and that half of the population is the women.

Women are nurturing, they’re innovative, they’re very hardworking. Now, for the sake of offending people, I’m going to say this anyways, because research, decades of research, shows that in developing countries, in any culture — it’s not just Africa, it’s not just Latin America, it’s not just Asia — in developing countries, the men are more likely, if they find they suddenly have a dollar in their pocket, they’re going to go spend it on themselves.

The women, if they find a dollar in their pocket, they’re going to spend it on their kids for food, for clothing, for education. I’m sorry to say, that’s just the way it is. That’s why when you really want to move the needle on development in developing countries, you focus your efforts on the women. That is certainly not to say that all men are unreliable and aren’t worthy of the investment. It tends to work that way. That’s just how it is.

Ron: Thank you for your honesty there. What can people do if they want to support your work for NGO or just non-profit work like this in general? What can they do? Can they volunteer their time? Can they send money? What can they do?

Steve: First of all, what you can do to help the mission of Lean4NGO is just to visit the website, look around, join the LinkedIn group, look at the conversations, join in any conversations or start a new one, send to me case studies or examples, because the real impact at Lean4NGO is when we get more examples and more people willing to share what works and what doesn’t work.

It’s a resource to help people who really want to go down this path. There are some amazing case studies, videos, examples already there. That’s all I would ask.

As far as what you can do, I have found that most people who are in the lean world are already very open, very generous, many of you already volunteer your time in your local communities doing whatever, habitat for humanity, rolling up your sleeves in any way. Think about searching out a non-profit organization in your local community and approaching the leadership and say, “Hey, I’d like to take some time, learn about you, share this lean thing with you, and see if it makes sense.”

Don’t force it on them. If they’re not interested, then don’t push it. Really, think about engaging with the leadership and saying, “Let’s do a pilot. Let’s do an experiment. Start it slowly. Make it experimental and see where it goes.” Use your professional expertise.

If you’re a corporation and you have a lean transformation program on their way, chances are you have some coaches that would benefit by going out in the community, either your local community or your global community, and through your corporate social responsibility effort, give those coaches some experience in the field. Then bring them back and let them tell their story and share what they’ve learned so there’s a win-win-win on the corporate side as well.

Ron: Something that is just really moving me right now, hearing what you’re talking about, and we haven’t even talked about this at all, offline, and it would need tremendous planning and thought. I wanted to throw it out there right now here on the show is Gemba Academy, obviously, we make training videos.

In fact, we have customers in Africa using our videos. I want to find a way, and I don’t even know…we’re not going to figure it out here on the call, but I want to find a way for Gemba Academy to get more involved and how we can support it.

I’ll tell you what. We do these things called Gemba Live, where we go to companies. In fact, we’re going to Menlo Innovations next week to shoot some stories with Richard Sheridan and his team over there.

Steve: Say hi to Rich for me. Tell him to wear his Viking hat.

Ron: I’m so pumped up for this Gemba Live. I can’t even tell you how excited I am. Anyhow, we do these. Why are we not, Greg, our videographer, and myself, jumping on a plane with you and flying to Uganda and spending a week, and teaching them, and bringing visibility to them that way? I would love to do something like that with you down the road.

Steve: That would be great. I would love it. Tell a story.

Ron: I definitely want to do that. I don’t know how we’re going to do it or what we’ll do, but we’ll figure that out, especially since you said they have cell coverage out there. We get them some iPads and there they go. They’re watching Gemba Academy videos from their field as long as they have a cellular connection.

Steve: Absolutely. The powers of online learning and the powers of storytelling are huge. The big missing piece is you’re unlikely to be successful in the long run in a sustainable way unless you have a coach who’s there helping you from time to time. A lot of examples out there, people who give an hour a week or a little bit of time, over Skype, coaching people remotely is a really powerful thing. It’s really engaging.

Ron: I’m not a fan of him or anything but this Brian Kelly guy with the Eagles — I don’t know if you follow the football or not — this guy is out there on his iPad, on a little rope. He can’t be out there on the practice field, but he’s there on his iPad. That’s brilliant. Why are lean consultants, these guys, traveling 350 days a year?

I’m like, “Why?” Pull your iPad out and you can coach 10 people in a day instead of one company. Sometimes, I don’t get my lean consulting brothers’ [laughs] methods very well sometimes. Just be smart and use technology as it’s available.

Steve: Just like the Khan Academy single-handedly redefined the whole world of global education idea. I think lean consultants and coaches have that same opportunity. There is no substitute for the Gemba. I would say that everyone who ever coaches non-profit in the field remotely, at some point, needs to see it. It will be one of the most rewarding things that I’ll ever do.

Ron: Let’s talk offline. My business partner, Kevin Meyer…I don’t know if you know Kevin.

Steve: I know Kevin.

Ron: Kevin’s going to Africa later in June. I’m not sure where he’s going. We need to talk about this offline.

Let’s keep the show going here. Thank you for all that. It’s, and we’re going to have that information in the show notes. We actually have a schedule of podcast. I’m going to move this one up in the line, because this is so good. We’re going to have to go back and re-edit. I don’t want to give out the URL right now as far as where the show notes are going to be, but we’ll have that in the intro and the outro [laughs] of this episode.

Let’s jump now, Steve, into the quick fire section. This is where you really get to share personal thoughts and wisdom, which obviously you’ve been doing, but you’re going to really share them about Steve now. We’re going to drill in on who Steve is.

The first question, Steve, is we lean thinkers, we spend a lot of time talking about continuous improvement, obviously, but then we also spend a lot of time about respect for people. We hear those words a lot. Sometimes, it’s hard to put your finger on. In your opinion, Steve, what does respect for people mean?

Steve: I will phrase this from the perspective of Lean4NGO. I will say that there are various ideas that people have — notions, biases, whatever — about what it means to be poor. I’m not talking about relative poor, which you have primarily in this country, relative poverty, but absolute poverty where people are living on one or two dollars equivalent a day.

Where they don’t know where their next meal comes from, where they don’t know where the roof over their head is going to be that night, where they’re constantly under a threat in so many ways.

This is, by the way, how about 80 percent of the population of the world lives. What does it really mean to feed your family and keep them safe and try to help the next generation to escape that? When you see it on the ground, when you meet these people, you realize anybody who’s living under such desperate conditions has to be incredibly resourceful and innovative and community-spirited in helping each other out.

When you really see that firsthand and when you see what I see with the amazing things that giving, or not giving, lending $50, for example, to a woman in Africa to buy a sewing machine and some fabric or lending $10, literally, to a woman in Nepal so that she can buy scissors, comb, and a mirror, and start feeding her family by cutting people’s hair, that she could not afford that.

Now that she has that vital asset, she can repay the loan in a matter of a few months and now, she has an asset and she has a business.

You realize that these people need so little that we have to give including our expertise. That’s what it means to me.

Ron: What’s one problem you’re currently trying to solve, Steve?

Steve: The coaching problem. Lean4NGO has been very successful in reaching people in Africa, India, Asia, Latin America, for example, with stories, with tools, with books, with guidance. But you still need a one-on-one coaching relationship for an organization that really wants to make this work in the long run, because you can’t just practice lean out of a book.

And so, that’s what I’m hoping ultimately Lean4NGO will do is become a clearing house where people who say, “I want to be a coach. Can you fix me up with someone who needs my coaching services?” I would love for Lean4NGO eventually be able to do that.

Right now, though, all I can do is encourage people to go out in your own community or reach out and, say, find an organization that resonates with you and find some way through on-site, through Skype, through phone, whatever. Get a cadence of a relationship going with them where they can count on you for a while to help them through the initial learning journey that they so desperately need your help with.

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

Steve: The best advice that I’ve ever received — go see, ask why, show respect. Because whatever idea you have in your head about what those you are trying to serve need is liable to be wrong or at least incomplete.

The people who own the process and who own the solution need your help, but you can’t presume you know what they need. So show a little humility and meet them where they live.

Ron: Yeah, a secondary theme I think of this whole episode has been, in addition to helping people, bringing visibility. You kept talking about those visual controls in the beginning, but you have to see. You have to go to Gemba. The place that work is done. You have to go and you have to look with your own eyes and not depend on secondary stories and whatnot, even though they’re powerful. I’m moved by your words, but I’m sure it would be 10 times more if I actually experienced it with my own eyes and my own feet on the ground.

Steve: Hopefully Kevin will write up some of his experiences.

Ron: I’m sure he will.

Steve: By different countries and he’ll share that with us.

Ron: Yeah. Steve, do you have — on a different angle here — a personal productivity habit that you think others might benefit from?

Steve: Yes, it’s that same Kanban technique that I shared earlier, which is to try to make my commitments and my demands and what I’m working on visible. It’s not always easy. It’s a discipline that requires constant attention but it really pays off.

Ron: Right here next to my desk — it’s a podcast so you can’t see it — I have a big whiteboard. I’ve made it work for my situation. With all the videos we shoot, webinars, podcasts, and whatnot, the schedule can get crazy in what’s edited first, second third or fourth. We’ve got a whole bunch of sticky notes over here on what’s on the tap for today and what we’ve got coming up next week and so forth.

Without having visibility, you really start to go nuts. You become overwhelmed. But when you get it all up in front of you, it might still look overwhelming, but you at least have a plan.

Steve: The moment you can see where the problem is, whether there’s too much work or not enough processing of prioritization of demand, at least it gives you a fighting chance to do something about it.

Ron: Something that we like to do, I don’t know if this is in the Agile rule book or not, but all the completed items we do, we have it all in one little row over there with a whole bunch of sticky notes. It makes you feel good that we’ve gotten a lot done over the month or so.

Steve: Something to celebrate.

Ron: Yeah, very good.

Steve: One of the Agile tenants that I like is to ask yourself, what does “done” mean really? Move that little sticky note into the done column. Are you really done?

Ron: Yeah, that’s a good point.

Steve: Have you put whatever you’ve delivered into the hands of somebody or have you actually validated that it’s delivering the value it was intended? That’s a big difference.

Ron: That’s a great point. Even our situation, we might edit a video, might release it, but then we may go back to it and get some feedback and tweak it or update ever so slightly. So that’s a great point.

Hey, Steve, if you could recommend one book, and I’m sure you’ve read many, many books. But if you could recommend one book related to continuous improvement or leadership, what would it be and why?

Steve: There are so many in the last few years, but I don’t have a problem answering this question. “Toyota Kata” by Mike Rother. I read it and reread it three or four times now. I come out with something new every time. I see it being discussed everywhere. It is a book that is not only popular in the lean community, but is popular in the Agile community as well. It’s really brought us together.

It’s such a simple set of practices, but it’s really the thinking process. So that’s my one.

Ron: We’ve done…I don’t know how many episodes we’ve done now, but Toyota Kata is definitely running away with as being the most recommended book. In fact, we did a whole episode with Michael Lombard, who’s a huge Toyota Kata believer and uses it in his hospital. So good stuff. Mike Rother’s a great guy.

Steve: He is.

Ron: Last question, Steve. Let’s imagine that you’ve been hired as the general manager of a company that’s struggling with quality, productivity, poor morale. Really they’re just a mess. You were hired because of your background and your experience and past success. That CEO that hired you has given you complete operational and financial –you have full P&L control — and the CEO trusts that you’re going to right the ship.

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

Steve: I would go see, ask why, and show respect. I would try to learn firsthand on the ground as much about the situation as I possibly could before making any decisions or imposing any of my ideas or my will on anyone.

Now, in the rare case that there was literally a crisis, if there was something where an intervention were needed in order to stop a bleeding, I would get the whole leadership team in the room and do a thorough problem analysis. Pull out an A3 and do a problem analysis and make an intervention if it was necessary. But in most cases, I would resist that and I would just go learn, because most often you’ll find that it’s just a communication problem. It’s a problem-solving problem, and to step in and throw your ideas on top of everybody else’s without really understanding what’s going on, you’re just going to introduce more noise into the situation and you’re going to disempower a whole lot of people.

Ron: Steve, thank you so much for taking time out of your day. I’m really moved by this episode. I really hope it resonates with the folks that are listening to this right now. I want to call out your website again, I want to just close the show, Steve, if you could maybe share some final words of wisdom and then tell people how they can connect with you through your website and any other social media outlets that you might be active on.

Steve: Wisdom, that’s a big word. I think, hopefully, have shared a little bit already through this section but I would say just learn. Be curious and always ask why. There’s a whole lot of learning to be done on this journey.

As far as reaching out to me, you can get to me indirectly through, but if you want to reach out to me directly, my website is

Ron: We’ll put a link to that in the show notes,

Again, thank you so much, Steve. Hopefully, everyone will go visit your website and support the work that you’re doing. I do want to say thank you for everything that you’re doing for those folks and I look forward to figuring out a way that Gemba Academy can be more involved in the work that you’re doing, and I really do mean it about someday going over there and getting on the ground with you and supporting you guys however we can.

Steve: Let’s go. Ron, thank you for your time and your enthusiasm. I appreciate it.

[background music]

Ron: Take care, Steve.

Steve: Bye now.

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?

Did you enjoy this episode?  What are your thoughts on using lean for social good?

If you’re already involved in these efforts, I’d love to hear your stories.

Gemba Academy Culture Code – A Guide to the Way of Life at Gemba Academy

Culture road sign. High quality and resolution 3d imageMy business associates and I have been busy creating what we’re calling the “Gemba Academy Culture Code.”

We’re sharing it with the world since we hope it gives everyone a better idea of what we’re striving to be.

I say “striving” since we’re far from perfect and are constantly experimenting, learning, and pivoting as needed.

One tip: Click the little full screen symbol in the lower right corner of the presentation… this makes the text much easier to read!

Please feel free to share this slideshow within your organization.  And, most importantly, if you have comments, suggestions, or questions related to what we’ve come up with please let us know in the comments section below.



GA 009 | Applying Lean Thinking at Home to Improve Your Family’s Way of Life with Joel Gross

lg-65Do you practice lean thinking at home?

And I don’t mean simply 5Sing your garage… I mean really practicing the tenets of what authentic lean is all about.

Well, today’s guest, Joel Gross, most definitely does and I’m excited to share his story with you!

During this episode Joel gives some specific examples of how he and his family leverage lean thinking principles to continuously improve their lives.

And, as you’ll hear, this goes far beyond simply 5Sing your garage.

Finally, be sure to check out the images Joel has shared… I think you’re going to enjoy them!

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:

  • How Joel got started with his blog and how my blog strongly influenced my personal continuous improvement journey
  • Why Joel decided to practice lean thinking in his home
  • What a day in the life at the Gross household looks like including the systems and routines they follow
  • How the Gross children (who can’t tell time yet) leverage visual controls every day
  • How Joel and his wife identify their family’s “True North” which includes the “4 L’s”
  • Why our children may be the most misunderstood people on earth
  • Some practical advice someone can do right now in order to make an improvement in their home
  • Joel’s favorite quote… think Walt Disney!
  • What respect for people means to Joel
  • One problem Joel is currently trying to solve in his home
  • The best advice Joel has received
  • One of Joel’s personal productivity habits called the top 3 board
  • Why lean is both a social and technical methodology

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Full Written Transcript

Ron Pereira:  You’re listening to episode nine with Joel Gross.


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. Welcome to another edition of the Gemba Academy podcast. First of all, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to listen to what we’re up to. We just finished an interview with a gentleman named Joel Gross. It’s probably one of my favorite interviews that I’ve done so far.

I stumbled across Joel’s blog, and we’ll talk about that in the episode. It’s called It was very well‑written, and I really enjoyed reading his articles, so I approached him to see if he wanted to do a podcast. It ends up, he’s a long‑time listener of the show and whatnot. Anyhow, we did it.

We were brainstorming a couple different topics to do. One of the topics that Joel was pretty passionate about was how he has been applying these lean‑thinking, continuous improvement principles in his home. I have a big family, and I also try to ‑‑ my wife would maybe not agree ‑‑ practice some lean‑thinking principles as much as possible in our house and with our children.

I was really fascinated with what Joel was up to. That’s really what we talk about in this interview, how he’s applying lean principles with his wife, and they actually homeschool their children, and how they go about everything from their pantry to the mission statement, if you will, of their family, and their true north as a family. I think that you’re really going to enjoy it.

Even if you don’t have kids, I still think you’re going to find value. Perhaps you have a niece or a nephew or something like that, that you’re trying to influence in a positive way. Joel has tons of enthusiasm and passion, and I’m really excited to get this episode out there.

All the show notes ‑‑ and actually, Joel talks a lot about some very specific things in his house, so he’s promised to send pictures ‑‑ we’re going to have all those linked up in the show notes over at Enough from me. Let’s get to the show.

Joel, thank you so much for taking time to visit with us today.

Joel Gross:  Thanks for being here, Ron.

Ron:  Where are you calling us from today, Joel?

Joel:  I am in the tropical beaches of eastern Pennsylvania right now. [laughs]

Ron:  What’s the temperature these days?

Joel:  Not as hot as I’d like it to be. I think we’re hitting 60s, maybe getting into some 70s.

Ron:  That’s not too bad. I was getting my hair cut last night, and a young lady was telling me about her mom, who’s in Colorado, and they got snow and all this. We’re here in Texas.

Joel:  No, thanks.

Ron:  Why don’t you just start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your background and really, how did you first come to learn about continuous improvement?

Joel:  If we start at the beginning, most of my continuous improvement career, the theme is serendipity. I was in the right place at the right time. Continuous improvement may not have been what I was looking for, but it found me, one way or the other. Actually, I had my first exposure to continuous improvement when I was a freshman undergrad, studying chemical engineering at Lafayette College.

My professor and I were talking about career development, and what did I want to do? He just happened to be a master black‑belt in Lean Six Sigma. He gave me my initial exposure, talked me through what it’s about, what are the career opportunities for it, and then hooked me up with a local business that was looking for some Six Sigma project help, and mentored me through my first project, as an intern, after my freshman year.

After that, I was basically hooked and tried to steer my career towards that. I was fortunate that I got into Merck for my first job at about the same time that they were starting up their Lean Six Sigma program within their manufacturing space. I was able to convince one of the most influential leaders in the area to take a chance on a young guy, a young engineer.

He got me in on the ground floor of the program, and I spent my first seven or eight years in the industry helping to deploy and really mature the Lean Six Sigma program at Merck. Starting off more on the Six Sigma side, and then having the good fortune again to transition more into the Lean space, and get to practice alongside some great coaches and mentors with some real first‑hand Toyota experience.

That’s what really took my understanding and my knowledge of Lean, specifically, to the next level and really fueled the fire that I have today. Eventually, my time at Merck, I elected to come to an end, in order to pursue some different experiences.

I ended up with another major company in the pharmaceutical world, but this time, starting a Lean program from scratch. Outside of manufacturing, we’re actually, just right now, gearing up to deploy the new Lean program within their global shared service division and looking to get some experience outside of just the manufacturing realm.

Ron:  Tell us about your blog, Joel.

Joel:  [laughs] I have this deep passion for lean and, over the years, have really developed a fire within me for helping to pass on the knowledge that people were kind enough to give me to others. One day, it dawned on me that, “Hey, if I want to reach more people and be able to pay forward what was given to me, starting a blog and trying to get the message out there would be the best way of doing that.”

Earlier this year, I started up as my way of helping to advance lean thinking, whether it’s in business and whether it’s in life, in hopes of helping other people find and start their own lean journeys.

Ron:  Go ahead and spell that.

Joel:  [laughs] It’s a play on Kaizen, but it’s spelled KaiZone is K‑A‑I‑Z‑O‑N‑E.

Ron:  We’ll go ahead and we’ll link to it in the show notes, which everyone can find at It’s a great blog. In fact, Joel, as I you know, I came across your blog and I contacted you. I was really impressed with what you’re doing over there. That’s why we’re taking on this podcast, because I sought you out, man.


Joel:  I appreciate it. You might have been the first.

Ron:  No. It’s great stuff.


Ron:  I’ve told the story in previous articles and whatnot. But starting my old blog, which was at that time called LSS Academy, I did it sitting on my couch one night. I was just like you, passionate about this stuff. I just started writing. Next thing you know, someone besides my mom left a comment. I was like, “Oh my God, there’s people reading this.”


Ron:  That’s how I’m where I am now with Gemba Academy ‑‑ is because of that little blog. Good for you.


Joel:  That’s a great story. That’s great motivation for me. [laughs]

Ron:  Absolutely. As I mentioned in the intro ‑‑ you haven’t heard that, Joel ‑‑ we’ve got a unique angle today. We spend a lot of time talking about lean in the business world, whether it’s in manufacturing, or health care, or whatever it might be. But there’s also this movement of us lean practitioners who are brave enough ‑‑ I don’t know brave’s the right word ‑‑ but…


Ron:  Crazy, maybe.


Joel:  Crazy, perhaps.


Ron:  …Often try to take these principles that we call lean into our home life, right?

Joel:  Absolutely.

Ron:  With our children, and our spouses, and significant others, and whatnot. What inspired you, Joel, to get things started with applying lean outside of the business world and in your home life? Why did you do that?

Joel:  Really two factors. First, I’m big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers,” and I just got done reading the book. I realized, maybe for the first time, the real importance of getting the level of practice with anything that you want to be an expert in. I developed this passion for lean. I saw myself.

I wanted to be an expert. Maybe I wasn’t going to be the Beatles, but I’d settle for The Who. They weren’t a bad band. I was looking to try to search for ways that I could get practice in a diverse amount of scenarios and really take my practice of lean beyond what I was getting just with somewhat repetitious practice that I was getting at work.

Coming home and applying those same principles in the home life was my initial way of increasing my ability to practice and try to get up that experience curve a little bit faster.

What turned it for more than maybe a couple of tool applications here and there, let’s say, if I wanted to learn about 5S, I’d come home, and take a hard look at my pantry and try to reorganize that, or if I wanted to study pole systems, I’d set up con bonds between my refrigerator and the grocery store.

What took it from more than simple practice to a necessity was the start of our growing family. We had three kids, our first three children, in less than four years.

Ron:  Good for you, man. Congratulations.


Joel:  Thank you.

Ron:  That’s awesome.


Joel:  Thank you. We’re still not at six yet, but maybe some day…


Ron:  [laughs] Keep going, man.


Joel:  My wife and I met when we were 13 years old, been dating ever since, always talked about having a big family. People aren’t having big families a lot these days. There’s a reason for that. It’s hard raising and managing a big family, life’s complex. There’s way more demands in our time now than there were in the past.

Rather than looking at that as a barrier, what my wife and I did was basically sit down and say, “How do we solve this problem? How do we start, raise, and have a happy family without essentially going insane?”

What I was able to do was bring my experiences from work and learning this lean way of thinking, introduce it to my wife, and bring it into our family life so that we could, basically, eliminate the waste from our life, and be able to spend what little time that we’re given here doing the things in life that we really love and enjoy. That was really the start of it all.

Ron:  Can you give us some examples of what a day in the life of the Gross household looks like? How have you incorporated lean in your life?

Joel:  It’s tons of fun. Ask my kids and my wife!

Ron:  Tons of fun for you or for them?

Joel:  A bit of both! In our house, most of what we have, most of the hours that we spend, most of the things that we do, the stuff that we have is all part of a system or routine. Those systems or routines are really designed to help us make the most out of the time that we have.

A couple of examples…I’ve got, unfortunately right now, about 1.5 hour commute to work every day. I think that one of the things that adds value to my life is being able to sleep and be awake for most of the days. What I try to do is sleep in as late in the morning as possible and still get to work on time. I’ve developed a very precise routine for how I get out of the house in this least amount of time every morning so that I can sleep in as long as possible.

My wife’s got three kids that she’s either in the process of or will be homeschooling, in addition to a house to run. She’s got a daily routine, for the activities that they perform day in and day out, that they all follow to try to make the best use of everybody’s time, and balance all the work and the chores with being kids and having fun.

We’ve also got a visual management system set up in the home, in the background, that helps us keep it all running and going smoothly. We’ve got visual routines or a picture base that the kids can follow so they know…

Ron:  Let’s dig into that. I want to paint a picture now for everyone listening. It’s 8:00 AM, the kids are up, mom’s ready to go, and dad’s running out the door…what’s going on? Visual control is like…do the kids have a Heijunka board on the wall [jokingly] or what?


Joel:  We don’t go that far but we do, actually, have a chart on the wall in their playroom, which is where they spend a lot of their time. It’s where they actually do have all their toys and do their home schooling, so they spend most of their time there.

Posted up on the wall, we have a color coded chart that says, “By the time of the day this is the routine that you’re going to follow, this is when we eat, this is when study time is…”

Ron:  It is a Heijunka box! What are you going to call that? That’s awesome!


Joel:  I’m not sure how effective it is at level loading, but yes! It’s standardized work/Heijunka for their day. What it is is the time. They haven’t learned to tell time yet. My wife’s the master timekeeper, but they can follow along with the pictures.

She can say, “Hey, what’s the next picture and what should you be doing?” If it’s the picture of an apple, they know it’s time to start getting ready to eat breakfast. They’ll go get their plates out of the drawer, they will get their forks out, and get ready to eat. Then, they know the next picture would/might be a picture of a toy truck, so they know it’s time to clean up from breakfast and now it’s playtime, and so on and so forth.

What that does is makes them a little bit self‑sufficient. They get to manage their own time, and my wife can be doing the things that she needs to do to keep the house running, in the background, while all these things are going on.

Ron:  Would you mind snapping a picture of that, maybe we can put it in the show notes? I think that would be really cool.

Joel:  Absolutely!

Ron:  Everyone, make sure you go to and we’re going to see pictures of Joel’s house, here on the wall. That’s great! By the way, we didn’t talk about this but we actually homeschool our kids as well.

Joel:  Small world. [laughs]

Ron:  You’re doing lots of stuff. Would you say one particular approach or concept’s been more impactful than another?

Joel:  Absolutely. If you look at the lean world, there are a lot of tools, techniques, routines, and thinking out there. The one concept that has the biggest impact on our lives, though, is the concept of True North.

For anybody who has not heard of True North, True North really answers the question, “What does ideal look like?” When we define ideal, we define a space that we might never actually reach, but it’s something that always provides us direction for where we’re trying to get to.

In manufacturing a process, the True North for a process might be zero defects, 100 percent value add, one piece flow, in sequence, and on demand. It took us a while to nail down exactly what that looks like for a family, and how do we use that to steer the direction of where we want to take ourselves and our children.

We were able, after a lot of thinking and a lot of discussion, to find that the things that add value to our lives, the things that we want to spend our time doing fall really nicely into four buckets. We call those buckets our four Ls ‑‑ living, loving, laughing, and learning.

What we try to do, and this provides direction for the mission and vision statement of our families, is we really put a pretty intense focus on doing the things that fall into the categories of the four Ls, spending our time doing that, and eliminate all of the things that don’t add value, all the waste in life, in order to basically get the most out of our time that we have.

Ron:  I love that.

Joel:  The True North is something that we always latch on to and come back to time and time again to say, “Is this taking us closer or we’re getting farther away?”

Ron:  In other words, if we’re doing some activity that doesn’t fall within one of these Ls, then why are we doing it?

Joel:  Exactly.

Ron:  I don’t know about your kids, Joel, but mine are quite unpredictable, at times. I’m curious on how this whole Lean thinking and parenting plays together. What are your thoughts on that?

Joel:  They are unpredictable. I’m going to make a statement. I think kids are the most misunderstood creatures on earth, at least from their parents’ perspective. I’ll give you an example. Kids are born natural lean thinkers. If you haven’t had this conversation before, stop me because I think every parent can relate.

Yesterday my daughter asked me a question, “Daddy, why does this happen?” I gave her the answer and then she said, “Why is that?” I answered that question and then she says, “Why is that?” We kept going and going and going until that round of questioning ended how it always ends with, “Because I said so. Now, go away.”

Kids are masters of root cause analysis, the five whys, and lean thinking in general. It’s because the way they learn about their world is through experimentation. They try things out and find out the consequences. What we do as parents is say, “Hey, don’t touch that. Get that out of your mouth. Stop asking so many questions.” We drive that natural curiosity out of them.

What we’ve tried to do in our house is take the lean thinking model that says, “Hey! Experimentation is how we’re going to learn and solve problems,” and applied that to our kids. Instead of saying, “Hey, stop that. Don’t touch that,” unless they’re going to hurt themselves or others, we let the natural consequences play out.

When something bad does happen, that’s our opportunity to coach them through the problem solving process so that they can learn how to keep it from happening again. We feel passionate about really drilling good problem solving skills into our kids because it’s not a major emphasis within school curriculums, to the extent that it needs to be.

My wife’s a third generation educator and speaks from experience on this one. When kids solve problems in school, they solve a lot of problems, but they’re always given the methods, the context, and the problem and learn to apply the one to the other. It’s sometimes more memorization than it is learning.

What we are really trying to drive in with our kids is how do you learn to solve problems in the real world, where you’re not handed the context, you’re not handed the problem? What we do is we’ve built a routine and a strategy around that with our kids. Whenever there is a problem, a negative consequence that occurs, we get out a modified version of an A3 that’s nice and kid‑friendly, and we, actually, will sit down with our kids and walk them through the problem solving process.

I have the form that we actually use posted on the website under my free download section if you’re interested in practicing this at home.

Ron:  We’ll link to that.

Joel:  Instead of it being the typical blocks that you’d see on A3, they are five very kid‑friendly type of questions that’s designed to steer them and walk them through the problem solving process. We’ll actually sit down and they’ll get to draw pictures of what happened, talk about what should have happened, why did it happened, how do we keep it from happening again, and how do we know if what we did worked.

Instead of problem solving and negative consequences giving them a fear that they did something bad, that they have to not do again, what they start developing is that problem solving becomes fun and, maybe, when they mess up, it’s not such a bad thing.

An anecdote. It was so fun the first time I walked through this process with my older daughter. We were looking at how do we keep her from spilling her drinks when we go out to dinner. My younger daughter saw her drawing and having such fun with me she actually went and threw her cup of water over the floor so that she would get to solve a problem, too.

What we’re doing is teaching kids, “Hey, it’s OK to mess up.” It’s how you respond and how you think about that. That’s going back to my favorite quote, “That’s how we keep them moving forward in life.”

Ron:  As you just realized, I’ve messed up on my own standard works, so this is real life ties in here. We’re going to get to your quote. I’ll move that into the quick fire section right as we go. We’re going to come back to that because I’m totally boxed at. I apologize to all the listeners who are waiting on your quote. That’s coming, so be patient.

Joel:  No problem.

Ron:  The last question of this section. We’ve got people listening to this right now, perhaps they have children, perhaps they don’t. Do you have some practical advice of what someone can do right now to make a positive impact on their lives?

Joel:  Sure. I can give you a potential solution, a potential idea that any of your readers can do, whether they have kids or not, that’ll take them maybe an hour and will save them a bunch of time and maybe even some money. One of the first major projects to incorporate lean thinking into our household that we performed here was we took a good, hard look at our pantry.

I haven’t met a whole lot of families that have a really nice, clean, well organized pantry that’s out there or maybe even a refrigerator. What we did was…when we were learning how to best incorporate this into our lives, we basically took five real simple steps in about an hour. We knocked out a whole bunch of time and saved a whole bunch of money.

I’m going to lay out what those five steps might be that your readers can follow. Maybe they can do the same with their pantries or their refrigerators, and see how easy this stuff really can be. My guidance is go get some masking tape, get a permanent marker, and set aside about half an hour. Take everything out of the fridge or the pantry and sort it out into groups that make sense for what the items might be, like vegetables, fruits, cereals.

Then, take those different groups and, one by one, put them back on the shelf. When you put them back on the shelf, just take some tape and outline where they go on the shelf. On that tape write what goes in that space. Do that until you’ve got everything back on the shelves. Then, every time you go in and out of that pantry, every time you open that refrigerator, all you have to do is put the things back in their location per the label.

You would not believe how much time you save because you no longer have to look for something in your pantry when you need it. Determining what you need to buy at the grocery store is a lot easier because you can see very easily how much of everything you have. You don’t have to try to figure out, “Do I need this? Do I need that?” Because you’ve segregated the specific section, that tells you how much you need.

Instead of having to look for and determine whether you have it or not, it’s going to save you money because you’re not going to buy something you already have enough of. That was our first step on our journey, and I’m encouraging everybody out there, maybe, think about making that first step on your journey.

Ron:  We need a picture of your refrigerator. Can you do that as well?

Joel:  I can give you one of my pantry, absolutely.

Ron:  We’re going to have that in the show notes. It’s going to be the most popular show notes we’ve ever had. [laughs] Let’s go now and transition Joel into my favorite part of the show, which is the Quick Fire section, where you get to share your personal thoughts and wisdom, which you’ve already been doing. Now, we’re really going to focus a little bit more in on just you

The first one is from earlier, when I should have asked you…we do like to have all of our guests share a continuous improvement or leadership quotation that inspires them. What quotation inspires you?

Joel:  I’ll give you the one that I have hanging up in my office at home or my office at work. It’s actually a quote from Walt Disney. It has nothing to do with lean, but I think it applies pretty universally. Having three kids at home, Disney channel is mostly what I get to watch any more. There was a quote that really stuck out at me in one of the Disney movies I’ve seen recently, from “Meet the Robinsons.”

Essentially, that movie ends with a quote that actually inspired the movie. The quote was from Walt Disney. What he said was, “Around here, we don’t look back for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” It’s a mouthful.

There are two real parts of that that to me are the basis for, not only success in lean, but maybe even success in life. That’s having that persistence, that sense of grit, for lack of a better word, to keep moving forward in the face of setbacks and failure, and also to have a natural curiosity about life, and have that drive and that passion to keep pursuing new things and learning new things.

To me, that’s the difference between people who fail and people who succeed. It’s people who use their natural passion to keep them moving forward and keep them getting closer to their goals or even to their True North.

Ron:  I love that. Joel, what does respect for people mean to you?

Joel:  I have a slightly biased perspective. I’m going to cite one of my former mentors on this one, “Respect for people, to me, means allowing them to do the work and to get the things out of the life that they were put here to do.” One of my coaches would always ask the question, “Why do you have humans doing the work? Why do you hire humans to work your processes to make your products?”

The answer he was trying to steer you to was always, “Because humans are the only things that we can put in the process that can think. They’re really the only things that can get better over time. Machines, facilities, everything else depreciates and falls apart with time and needs maintenance. Because of the human and the person’s ability to think, they actually can improve and get better over time.”

What respect for people means to me is taking advantage of the fact that the people who do the work and who make the products have this innate ability to think, solve problems, and improve. We need to harness that energy, harness that power, and put it to good use, allowing people to improve the work that they do. That is showing them the ultimate respect.

Ron:  I love that. My business associate, Jon Miller, we did an interview. Jon, as you may know, grew up in Japan and speaks Japanese. When I asked him the respect‑for‑people question, his response was that it’s actually really bad translation from the original Japanese. It’s better translated as respect for humans than it is for people. It really ties in with exactly the humanness of people.

Joel:  Absolutely.

Ron:  I have a new question here. I like to keep my guests on their toes a little bit. I’m not sure you’re prepared for this one.

Joel:  That’s OK!

Ron:  Let’s see how good you are in your feet. The most common question we get here at Gemba Academy, with 500 some videos, lots of different tools, techniques and philosophies taught is, “Where do I start? What video should I watch first, second, third? What’s the roadmap?” Our response almost always ends up with a question and it’s, “What problem are you trying to solve?”

I’m curious, if you can share with maybe one problem that you’re currently trying to solve, whether it may be at home or in your professional life. You don’t have to go into great details if it’s a professional problem. What’s one problem that you’re trying to find a countermeasure for?

Joel:  I absolutely am ready for that one. I may have mentioned it earlier, at least in the week when we were speaking, I’m sitting here talking to you with quite a number of stitches in my head, after sustaining a fall down the steps after carrying some wash up the steps the other day. I joke about it in hindsight, but I’m taking a brand new look, a fresh perspective on routine safety in my house.

The problem I’m looking to solve is, “How can I make my house, and my family more safe as they go through the routine activities of everyday life?”

Just by taking that more holistic view, instead of saying “Well, how can I keep myself from tripping over my own two feet?” and instead say, “Well, how can we make this a more safe place to live?” We’re finding all kind of things that we never really realized were ever a problem before in our house.

One specific example is if you look at…We have a crib in our infant’s room, and oftentimes we’re tip‑toeing through that crib in the dark. There’s a throw rug that tends to pile up on itself that sits in the middle of the room. On more than one occasion, we’ve nearly tripped over it trying to get the baby to sleep in the dark, and possibly barely avoided an injury in another way, shape, or form, so now that throw rug’s gone, and we have a clear path plowed, and maybe we’ll think twice about tip‑toeing through the room with the lights off.

There have been countless other opportunities where we said, “Hey, we can really improve the safety of our family just by taking a few small steps, and solving a few small problems.”

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

Joel:  [laughs] I’ll give another shout out to one of my former mentors. I believe I can attribute this quote to him, although I’m sure he picked it up somewhere. He gave me the advice very, very early in my lean career. “It’s better to act yourself into a new way of thinking, than to think yourself into a new way of acting.”

What he was trying to convince in me, or instil within me is a bias for action. We can sit here, and we can read all the books, and theorize all we want, and often times that doesn’t drive a bit of changing into the things that we actually do, and the actions that we actually take. The point was if we take action now, that’s actually a more effective way of changing our thinking, than our thinking is in being successful in changing our way of acting.

What that really instilled in me is this bias for acting now, and then reflecting in order to allow my thinking to catch up to the results.

Ron:  I love that. I coach one of my daughter’s soccer teams. Actually I coach two different of my daughter’s soccer teams. My oldest daughter’s a really strong player, and I’ve always told her ‑‑ her name’s Brenna ‑‑ I said, “Brenna, Daddy wants you to play very hard.” That’s all I ask of my players, is play hard, do your best.

I said, “But if you make a mistake, I want you to make it going fast, baby. Make it going fast. What I don’t want are mistakes where you were going slow.” I love that advice.

So many folks…and sadly I see in some continuous methodologies. There’s some tendency for what I would call analysis paralysis, and it’s so dangerous.

Joel:  I started in maybe one of these other methodologies. That’s where I cut my teeth. That was always my feeling, is I can spend days making this pareto chart, or I can spend days, and maybe I won’t pick off the number one bucket, but I’ll get darn close if I just start acting.

Ron:  Go draw a circle in the ground, and stand in the circle for an hour. That’s better than any analysis that you could ever do. With that said, there is a place obviously for analysis, but there’s a place for taking action, so I love that advice, so thank you for that. Can you share…You’ve shared tons of different types of habits, but do you have maybe one specific, personal productivity habit that others might benefit from?

Joel:  One thing that both…I use it in my work life, and my wife uses it here at home. We call it our top three board. What we found was we get ‑‑ going back to the topic of analysis paralysis ‑‑ we have all these great ideas, and improvements that we want to make. Me at work, and here at home, my wife certainly here at home, and we almost get lost in the mountain of different ideas that we have.

There’s a tendency to start one thing, and switch to another, and never finish it, and switch to this, and switch to that, and then you never get anything done. The little tool that I’ve created to get around that is we have a big board, and it has all of the ideas, and all of the improvements that we would like to do, but we only allow ourselves to work on what we consider the top three.

We have three smaller boards above that, and in order to do any work, or to make any improvements you have to actually physically put one of the sticky notes with an opportunity on to one of the top three positions. It’s only when one of those things gets done, and comes off that board that you can then move on to the next spot on the board. What that really helps do is make sure that we’re working on, and focusing on the right things in our lives.

Ron:  I’ve got to be truthful. I don’t know I’m going to be able to release this podcast because my wife may get a hold of it, and next thing you know…


Joel:  I’ll give you my phone number. She can call my wife, and have a great chat.

Ron:  Next question, if you could only recommend one book related to continuous improvement, or leadership, what would it be, and why?

Joel:  [laughs] Just one book, Ron?

Ron:  Everybody says, “I got three,” or whatever. That’s fine. [laughs]

Joel:  I know one of these has been said on the podcast, so I’ll say it, and then I’ll move on. I think “Toyota Kata” is the best book on lean and continuous improvement I’ve ever read. I probably don’t need to gush about it because there is a whole podcast that I know you’ve done, dedicated to it, so I’ll switch it up.

The book that’s had the most impact on me from a leadership, and a continuous improvement, and just a basic living perspective is a book by Daniel Kahneman called “Thinking Fast and Slow.” Daniel Kahneman was actually a psychologist who, a few years back, won the Nobel Prize in economics for the works that are in the book.

What this book does is it takes a really hard look at…If we say that lean is all about changing the way that people think, and it’s a thought process, it’s pretty important to know how do people think ‑‑ especially at that intuitive level ‑‑ how do our brains really work, and what are the implications of that?

Daniel Kahneman, throughout his career established countless ways, and common mechanisms that have to do with our neurobiology, and our evolution as a species, that cause biases, and essentially errors in judgement in the innate patterns of thought in our brains.

What he basically has done is he’s laid out a road map that says based on the way we think as a species, and based on the way we were designed, these are the common pitfalls in the way that we think that can lead to errors in judgement, and for us to not perceive the world quite as it actually is.

By knowing what errors that we’re likely to make in our thinking we can make them more visible, and do a better job of understanding where we might not be perceiving the world quite accurately, and where we might need to slow down, try to seek other opinions, try to seek out the right facts, and make sure that we’ve accurately assessed whatever situation we might find ourselves in.

Ron:  What was the name of that book again?

Joel:  That book was called Thinking Fast and Slow, and the author was Daniel Kahneman.

Ron:  We’ll go ahead and link to that over at the show notes. Last question, Joel. Imagine that you’ve recently been hired as the general manager of a company struggling with quality, productivity, and poor morale. Really, they’re a mess. You were hired because of your continuous improvement, and past success.

As it turns out, the CEO that hired you has given you complete operational, and PNL control, and trust that you will right the ship.

With that said, Joel, what would your first week on the job look like? What would you do, and why?

Joel:  The first thing I’d do is I would buy myself a very, very comfortable pair of shoes. I’m thinking something with a nice steel tip, and what I’d do is I’d try to get out to where the action was happening. Where is the actual work going on because what I’d like to see…My first priority is seeing firsthand the dynamics of the organization.

I’m going to take a little bit probably different approach from there. One of the coaching that I got early on in my career, a very common saying from one of my mentors was lean is a social, technical system in that order, and oftentimes as lean practitioners we focus so much on the technical ‑‑ specifically what the processes are doing ‑‑ we tend to overlook the social aspect of things.

Priority number one for me, in addition to just getting out on to the floor and making my presence felt, would be to start to meet the people, and observing the social dynamics that are at play because you can accomplish a lot technically ‑‑ you can put the best technical systems in place ‑‑ but if the social aspects, the people side of things is not addressed they’re probably not going to work real well.

Priority number one for me is going to be to go out, walk the floor, have a whole bunch of conversations up and down the value chain, and start building some trust with the people, so that we can get the social part of the house in place as we build the technical improvement.

Ron:  No one’s ever mentioned anything like that on this question. That’s why I like this questions, is that a lot of people said go to Gemba, and talk to folks, but no one’s ever mentioned the social side of things, and that’s so important because at the end of the day, back to the respect for people, the humanness side, that’s a very important part of human nature, is the social side of the world, so excellent.

Joel, why don’t we finish up this interview? I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you, by the way.

Joel:  Thank you.

Ron:  Why don’t we just finish up with you sharing some final words of wisdom, and then maybe tell people how they could connect with you via social media, or really any other outlet that you have out there?

Joel:  I’m going to go back, and pull another quote out of the box, a Henry Ford quote this time. It always resonates with me. It’s short and sweet, so I’ll get to the point. Henry Ford was quoted as saying “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Believe in yourself. Take that first step on your lean journey. You won’t be sorry that you did.

As far as connecting with me, obviously the best way to keep in touch with everything that I’m doing is to subscribe to my blog over at You can also follow me on Twitter. I’m fairly active on Twitter these days @thekaizone, just like the blog is spelled. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn under Joel Gross.

Ron:  We’re going to get linked to everything over at

Joel, thanks again for taking the time. I know you’re super busy. Good luck with your family. Keep going. I can’t wait to see your pictures. We’ve actually explored the concept of doing another podcast, this one a little bit more analytical, if you will, talking about how our brains work, and stuff like that. That might be a little sneak peek, and maybe you can be a repeat guest on the show down the road.

Joel:  I’d love to do it again. I had a great time, Ron.

Ron:  Well, take care, and thanks again for joining us.

Joel:  Thank you, Ron.

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What Do You Think?

Did you enjoy this episode?  Do you practice lean at home?  If so, how is it going?

If you don’t practice lean at home I’d be curious to here your thoughts on why this is.