GA 28 | How Toyota Leverages Lean in the Front Office with Jeff Miller


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Today’s guest is Jeff Miller, the Chairman of the Global Best Practices Group for Toyota Financial Services. A long-time Gemba Academy customer, my favorite thing about Jeff is his humility. Despite the prestige that comes with a job at Toyota, he’s always trying to improve.

In this episode, Jeff and I zone in on how and why continuous improvement practices are so effective in an office environment. We also discuss the role that the traditional Japanese lingo plays in the North American Toyota headquarters.

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

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In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Jeff’s background, including his now 23 years at Toyota (4:11)
  • Why “best practices” immediately become standards (6:20)
  • The quote that most inspires Jeff (8:29)
  • How Toyota’s continuous improvement principles apply to their offices (10:17)
  • A concrete example of lean in the Toyota mailroom (12:30)
  • Why all of the Japanese terminology isn’t an issue (17:53)
  • The challenges Jeff faces in regards to Toyota associates (18:53)
  • How online training has helped Toyota (20:32)
  • What was holding Jeff back at the beginning of his lean journey (23:36)
  • The best advice Jeff has ever received…you’ll be surprised! (26:02)
  • Jeff’s personal productivity habit (28:33)
  • Jeff’s final words of wisdom (38:00)

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Full Written Transcript

GA 28 | Jeff Miller

Announcer: You’re listening to Episode 28 with Jeff Miller.

[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 and I’d like to welcome you to another episode of the Gemba Academy podcast. We’re humbled and honored that you’re taking time to listen to the podcast. We also want to thank all past, present, and potentially future customers of Gemba Academy for their interest and business.  We definitely appreciate each and every one of you!

Now, today, I’m excited to welcome Jeff Miller to the show.  Jeff is the Chairman of Global Best Practices Group for Toyota’s Financial Services group which some refer to as TFS.  Now, I’m humbled to say that Jeff and his TFS colleagues have been customers of GA for several years so I’ve had the chance to meet him.

Now, the thing I love best about Jeff is how humble he is… I mean, Jeff works at Toyota and obviously has access to best lean thinkers in the world and it would seem like one in that position could become easily complacent and maybe a little comfortable, but as it turns out, Jeff’s constantly trying to learn and grow.

In fact, the last time I visited Jeff at his office in Torrance, CA he was reading all kinds of lean and leadership-slanted books and was even excited to share some new websites and blogs he had been reading.

So, in today’s episode Jeff and I explore many things including how TFS is applying lean thinking to the office area and why lean, most definitely, isn’t simply for the manufacturing folks. Jeff also talks about whether the Western Toyota associates are bothered by the use of Japanese words like Kaizen or Genchi Genbustu.

Show notes for this episode can be found at  All of the links for this episode can be found there and you’ll also find information on how you can save 10% on the registration cost for the upcoming AME conference in Jacksonville, Florida in the middle of November 2014. Gemba Academy will be there and we’re even holding an after-conference networking event that Tuesday evening of the conference with free drinks and food… so if you are planning to attend the conference we’d love to hang out with you!

So, again, visit for all this information.

OK, enough for me, let’s get to the show.

Ron: Jeff, thank you so much for taking the time to visit with us today.

Jeff Miller:  Thank you, Ron. I’m excited to have this opportunity.

Ron:  Where are you calling us from today, Jeff? What part of the country?

Jeff:  Ron, I am in our North American headquarters here in Torrance, California.

Ron:  What all happens out of that Torrance facility there at Toyota?

Jeff:  Here, obviously, is our sales and marketing headquarters for North America. Toyota sales is headquartered here, as well as Toyota Financial Services of which I am a team member of. We also have our North American Parts Organization is here, our logistics team, our University of Toyota folks, accounting and finance.

It’s larger now. It’s like a college campus here.

We have approximately 20 buildings, thereabout, that are spread out among this campus, staffed with Toyota associates.

Ron:  How many folks work there, Jeff, total, approximately?

Jeff:  I would say, 5,000 to 7,000.

Ron:  It’s a beautiful campus. I’ve been there, and really, really nice place there.

Jeff, why don’t we start things off, won’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, including your background and how you came to learn about continuous improvement?

Ron:  I’ve been with Toyota now, starting my 23rd year. I’ve spent my entire career with Toyota Financial Services on the Financial Services side. I started in the field. I moved my way and eventually ended up here at our Corporate Headquarters around 1994. I’ve had a lot of operational roles and responsibilities within the organization.

But approximately 10 years ago, actually about 12 years ago, with the growth on the Financial Services side globally with our organization and moving into different markets around the world, our group in Japan realized that we were growing so fast and we needed some kind of expertise.

They formed, what they refer to as, functional committees. These functional committees were assigned the responsibility of globalizing our operations. They spread across risk and IEP and those types of business functions.

The group that I became part of was originally started out as a process management group and evolved into, what we refer to as, the Global Best Practices Group. That is to globalize our best practice operationally within our Sales Finance Organizations internationally.

I’ve been with them since the start. The last couple of years, I’ve actually have evolved into the, what they refer to as, a chairman role. I oversee all of our process improvement activities and also our [inaudible 07:02] as it relates to sharing best practices across our growing international network of sales finance companies.

Ron:  When you say “best practices,” are you really focused more in on what we would consider today Lean, continuous improvement, or is it any kind of best practice?

Jeff:  That’s a good question, Ron, because best practices is a misnomer because if you take a best practice, somebody’s doing something and you look at that process, for example and you say, “Hey, that’s fantastic. That’s a best practice,” and you adopt that best practice, then it really is no longer a best practice, is it?

Ron:  It’s a standard, right?

Jeff:  Best practices are a combination of innovation and creativity. It’s taking things that you see, whether it’s process or tasks or activities, and you say, “This may work in our environment. It may not work in our environment, but let’s tweak it. Let’s be creative and see if we can improve it.”

That continues improvement, starting out as best practices. From Toyota’s perspective, that’s what sets us apart from our competitors. That makes you competitive in the marketplace. It gives you a better position and a good place.

It’s based upon that. Those are the things that we oversee. It’s not really adopting or adapting a best practice and saying, “OK, this works in Germany, so it’s going to work in Switzerland, it’s going to work in the US, and it’s going to work in Mexico.”

No, that’s not what we’re saying when we say we want to adopt that best practices. What we want to do is we want to find out what’s going on out there, whose successful at what and share that among all of the different markets.

Then determine, “Hey, what will work in your marketplace? What has to be adapted?” In other words, we’re not reinventing the wheel, but rather maybe shortening the lead time, for example.

Ron:  Before we get into the teeth of the interview, Jeff, we like to ask all of our guests to share a continuous improvement or leadership quotation that inspires them. What quotation inspires you, Jeff?

Jeff:  Obviously, coming from Toyota, we have a rich history of quotations and what have you. I look at Taiichi Ohno, the founder of TPS, Toyota Production System. He had a lot of famous quotes.

I think the one that we try to incorporate into our vision, into our mission, as we go out into these different countries and talk to associates and train associates, and that quotation is, “No problem is a problem.” In other words, there’s always a problem that’s out there.

That’s the genesis of continuous improvement. Because if you say that there are no more problems, then that’s a problem, in and of itself, because then you’ve stopped your continuous improvement efforts. You’ve stopped looking.

You’ve said, “We’re as good as we’re going to be.” That’s the gist of what Taiichi Ohno was referring to.

Ron:  That’s an excellent quotation and I definitely love the wisdom of Mr. Ohno. Let’s get into the teeth of the interview now, Jeff.

Much is, obviously, written about how Toyota leverages, what we call, Lean or Toyota Production System in a factory setting. But what about the front office? Do the same principles apply?

Jeff:  Absolutely. In fact, probably one of our biggest challenges when we first started this journey, 10, 12 years ago, and that is that the comments that we would get is, “Well, that’ll work on the factory floor, but in our environment, in the knowledge worker’s environment, that’s not going to work.”

We said, “It’s problem solving. That’s what we’re trying to teach here. You may have to look for it a little bit harder than you would on the factory floor. It may not be as visible, but it’s there. You may have to take a different approach.”

That journey has allowed us to look at problems from a customer’s perspective, taking the voice of the customer and then back‑tracking through the process to find out, where is the problem occurring? What’s the point of occurrence, if you will?

In other words, what are we trying to deliver to the customer? Is the customer satisfied? How can we improve that customer experience?

If they’re not satisfied, if there’s no value for the customer, then let’s go back through the process and find out, where is that non‑value occurring? Can we eliminate it? Or, can we minimize it?

That’s the approach that we’ve taken the last 10 or 12 years or that’s the approach that has come out of it from all this continuous improvement in the Lean journey that we’ve been on. The fundamentals are the same as what we do on the factory floor. It’s just that the process that we go about identifying it is a little bit different.

It’s a little bit harder. You have to really look for it than you would maybe on the assembly line, but problem solving is problem solving whether it’s at PDCA or here at Toyota. It’s practices, but it’s critical thinking. That’s what we’re trying to develop our associates into is problem solvers.

Ron:  Can you share maybe a specific example of a time when improvements were made by the front office? What was the problem? How was it approached and what was the result?

Jeff:  Let me just think about this for a second. We have a lot of administrative tasks, to put it kindly, that are transactional.

Transactional are probably the easiest things that you can do to make improvements. I remember when we first started out, when we went to our service center, we have a big mail room. In the mail room, there’s a lot of visualization that takes place, but we were doing so many tasks. We were crisscrossing associates back and forth from delivery to receive mail, stapling stuff, and unstapling stuff.

Just to watch, it was like watching the “Keystone Cops,” to be honest with you.

That’s not to say anything against the associates, but we just didn’t have a standardized process in place. We were like, what worked today, maybe it didn’t work the next day.

That’s where we started, “Let’s look at the mail room. How can we make improvements?” Associates who do the work are the ones that are best at identifying how they can improve their work because they want to make improvements. They know what’s wasteful and what’s value‑added.

What we ended up doing was we took some duplicate mail documents, for example, and created a flow process and put that in place.

What we did was we would take checks, for example, and we would just write check on it. Then we would route it through the service center to see what the timeframe was from receipt of that check, for example, that mail document, to its final destination.

Each person that touched it would write their name and the time that they got it and the date, so there was a date stamp on it. We found out that sometimes, things would come in the mail and it would take a day to two days before it got there.

We deliver mail multiple times during a day. That was a concern for us, obviously, especially when you’re dealing with funds. How can we make that improvement? That was an eye opener for us, is all the number of times that it touched people and the time that it took to get to its final destination.

Obviously, from that, we were able to make some huge improvements, reduced the times from a day or two days down to just hours. That was a tremendous improvement.

We streamlined the flow of mail as it came into the mailroom, we put up Kanban ‑‑ I’m sure your audience is aware of Kanbans ‑‑ in here and they were color coded. We set up delivery carts and placed priority importance on those delivery carts and on where they would be wheeled throughout the building.

There were a lot of improvements that came out of just that process improvement space.

Ron:  In that example, who lead the improvement initiative? Was it like a Lean expert, which is a general team member? How did you go about that?

Jeff:  The first thing we did was we set up teams. Then we trained them, obviously. We gave them some basic skill sets and then what we did was we basically went down to the gemba and said, “Let’s see what we’re doing here.”

We did some observations. The teams that we had, they all had team leaders. Then they would come back. We would map the process, figure out, “Is that right? Is this wrong? What does policy and procedures say?”

Then we’d go back down the gemba, map it out again, so there was a constant “Genchi Genbutsu” at the gemba that was going on until we defined what the process was and then we stood back and said, “Where can we remove the waste?”

These were associates that were doing it. I was there. I was maybe a facilitator or just overseer and leading them in the right direction, but we were all learning in the process, especially the associates.

But the associates were involved. They were doing the work. They were making the changes. They were documenting the results and they actually delivered the final presentations, the report‑outs, if you will, to senior management and made the changes.

Ron:  Just a random question, you mentioned Genchi Genbutsu, which for those that don’t know that means, quite literally, to “go and see” for yourself with your own eyes at the gemba, or “the place” the work is done.

One thing that we come across from time to time is companies, when they might have associates who get a little bit annoyed when Japanese words are used. Now, obviously, Toyota is a Japanese company, but you, obviously, have a lot of non‑Japanese associates. Do you ever run into an issue with, “Oh, I wish there weren’t so many Japanese words”? Or, is it just not an issue for you guys?

Jeff:  Actually, it’s not an issue for us. We’ve done a good job of defining the terminology over the years. Associates get it here at Toyota.

We’ve done a better job of actually putting some of the words into practice over the last couple of years. You could throw out these terms of kaizen and genchi genbutsu, and all this, but here, associates understand what they mean.

In the beginning, a lot of our teams were actually called a lot of these terms. They would say the “Kaizen Boys,” or the “Kaizen Girls,” or the “Team Genchi Genbutsu.” A lot of the terminology was actually used as team names in the beginning.

Ron:  Jeff, what are some of your current day challenges when it comes to continuous improvements and how do you plan to overcome them?

Jeff:  Some of our challenges, obviously, are getting all associates involved. I say that because we have vision and mission statements for the group that I had. To put it succinctly, what we try to do is get as many associates engaged in adding value or creating value for our customers.

That’s basically what we’re trying to do. Right now, we’re doing a good job, but we’re not at 100 percent. In other words, not all associates are engaged. By engaged, I mean participating in kaizen activities, whether it’s as an individual or whether it’s part of a team.

What we want to try and do is get as many associates and we would love to be able to have a hundred percent, but we don’t force it. A lot of this is associates who are excited about doing process improvement.

We continually look at ways to improve that culture, to grow and sustain kaizen and continuous improvement for the long term. Probably our biggest challenge is getting more and more associates involved.

Ron:  I know this is going to sound like a commercial for Gemba Academy and I truly don’t mean it to be, but you guys have been a customer of Gemba Academy’s for several years now. I’m just curious if you could maybe share. How has that…?

I know it’s helped you because you’ve told me that, but can you give an example of how online training or virtual training can help organizations like Toyota?

Jeff:  For us, we look at Gemba Academy and the online courses and, you know this, when we first started, you did not have the library as such that you have today. We looked at the courses online as both a benchmark for us to see what’s out there and to look at the format of a video facilitation as opposed to a textural facilitation.

Of course, in a perfect world, the classroom advantage may be the best type of learning, but logistically, it’s not feasible for us. But with the video series that you have, it is a lot more value‑add than creating some documents and texts or static e‑Learning courses.

There’s a lot of value in the format itself. Of course, the accessibility and availability of the courses on the Internet is especially valuable for us on an international basis because associates can access it.

We also use a lot of the courses for advanced learning. We have an internal certification process and we use some of the advanced learning for those candidates as they move up, so that we don’t have to create our own learning.

There’s a lot of value there with the interview series that you’ve added and, of course, a lot of the Gemba visits that you’ve added over the last couple of years. Those series, in and of itself, are very valuable to see best practices, see whose doing what, what’s working out there and you start to create that network.

That’s a real valuable addition to the Gemba Academy archives.

Ron:  Thank you for that. What’s incredible for me to hear, and I’m sure for many of our listeners, here’s the guy from Toyota talking about learning from other organizations. What always struck me about Toyota is your humility and your willingness to learn from others, that you don’t know everything.

Sometimes, people think, “Toyota, they’re so great. What do they have to learn? They’ve already made it.” But, obviously, you guys are still improving yourselves and trying to learn from others. That’s excellent.

Jeff:  Thank you.

Ron:  Jeff, we’ve come now to my favorite part of the show, which we’re calling the “Quick Fire” segment. Basically, this is where you get to share your personal thoughts and wisdom, which you’ve already been doing. But, now, we’re going to really focus in on Jeff. Are you ready?

Jeff:  Absolutely.

Ron:  When you first started down your continuous improvement journey, what was holding you back from being successful?

Jeff:  For me, obviously, there’s a lot of budget stuff and those types of things were holding me back. Language is tough. We’re in multiple countries with multiple languages. For me, I always, “How am I going to deliver this on a global basis?”

That’s challenging because the assumption always is that everything’s in English. This is the way that the US does it. That wasn’t the approach that we wanted to take.

We knew that there are a lot of associates out there who were thirsty for anything about Toyota. Here in the US, we take it for granted because we have all the…We have robust IT platforms and we have access to all kinds of resources.

But in other countries, they don’t have that. For me, it was, “How can I deliver this content without sacrificing any of the substance?” if that makes sense at all. It’s still a challenge today because a lot of our associates, in some countries, they don’t have access because of regulations within their country.

That’s a challenge for us. How can we get that material to them so that they’re on an even playing field with associates in other countries? That has probably been one of the biggest challenge for me, personally, was whenever I think of an idea or delivering something or facilitating a workshop or a content, I always stand back and I say, “How can I deliver this in another country where English is not the primary language?”

It’s a different type of mindset to have when you’re always looking at it from a global perspective.

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

Jeff:  The best advice I’ve ever received and it’s hard to think back all the years that I’ve been here, but I do a lot of traveling and a lot of my traveling is international. For me, the best advice I got was to travel light and how to…once you get to the hotel. I hang all my shirts up in the bathroom, turn on the shower, get the steam going, so I get all my stuff steamed and cleaned.

That’s one aspect that I don’t have to worry about for the week that I’m at the hotel.

I try to be comfortable when I’m traveling. Really, over the last five or six, seven years that I’ve been doing a lot of international travel, it’s really helped me a lot. I have access to phone numbers. I have alternative routes. I have standard documents that tell me when I take the trains, do this, do that. I try to make myself as comfortable as possible, almost like I’m at home, when I’m traveling.

Ron:  That’s the Lean thinker in you. I do the same thing with my shirts. I hate ironing, but they’re all wrinkled in your suitcase, so throw them up and crank that shower up on hot and close the door. In 20 minutes, your clothes are unwrinkled. It’s an incredible tip and advice for folks out there that do travel.

Jeff:  I know and your audience is probably thinking, “What are these guys talking about, traveling and putting shirts in the bathroom and stuff?” But I’ll tell you what, from a business perspective, after 15 hours on a plane and you open up your luggage when you get to the hotel. No matter how you put your shirts in the luggage, they’re wrinkled.

To be able to put them in the bathroom…You can iron them all or you can send them back down to the laundry and pay the costs for that. But doing that and having all those shirts and my suits, everything, come out nice and straight and pressed after putting them in the bathroom with the steam shower, it’s a load off your mind.

You hate to go to work or show up at a meeting or a dinner or something like that and your shirt looks like…You look all disheveled.

Ron:  [laughs] That was a productivity habit, but let’s dig in a little bit more. Can you share one of your maybe personal productivity habits, maybe electronic habit or something like that, that others might benefit from?

Jeff:  I’m a big journaler. I don’t know if you’re aware of the journaling aspect, but I like to write everything down like a diary. I’m a big journalist. I have a journal. I have one book where I document everything, whether I go to a meeting, or whether it’s an idea, or whether it’s a list of books I want to read. I put everything into one notebook, if you will.

Ron:  Is it you literally write it or you type it?

Jeff:  I write. Some things are still left unsaid and writing things down, for me, is still the easiest. I enjoy that as opposed to typing it. If you type it, then you’ve got to have the instrument in front of you. You’ve got to have the computer, or whatever, the Word document in front of you. It looks so standardized. For me, writing things down, that’s un‑standardized. I’ve gone off the map on that.

I believe in journaling. I’ve been doing it for probably 10 years now. You asked me earlier about some advice and that was an advice actually that I got from some our executives over the years is they carry around one book and everything that goes on during the day, they write it down and they review it, do some reflection at the end of the day, prepare their to‑do list for the next day, and move on.

That’s the way that I operate. I find it very easy, very effective, and very efficient. That’s probably one of my productivity habits.

Ron:  This is going to be a tough one for you, because I know you’re a major, major reader. But if you could only recommend one book related to continuous improvement or leadership, what would it be and why?

Jeff:  That is tough, because I am a voracious reader. Sometimes I don’t read word for word. I look at the table of contents, and I go to chapters that I think are important, and I read those chapters. Some books I’ll read cover to cover.

Believe it or not, I’m not a big fiction reader. I like nonfiction. I like true stories, biographies, things that, to be honest with you, are going to help me, either grow as a person, professionally, or personally.

I read a lot of those types of books. Over the years, I’ve read a lot. Just recently, I read a lot of…Karen Martin just came out with the “Value Stream Mapping” book, which is good. Before that “The Outstanding Organization,” which I thought was really a good book.

But to change the topic a little bit, probably one of the best books I’ve read recently was “The Exceptional Presenter,” a book on presentation. I’m always trying to improve my presentation skills.

One of the reasons I read that book…what I learned from it was to organize your thoughts, and to be able to think clearly and rationally, and to be able to present that to your audience. The tips that are in that book are fantastic tips, actually things that I wasn’t aware of as a presenter. But I thought that was an excellent book.

From that book, I’m currently reading “How to Deliver a TED Talk.” I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the TED forum.

Ron:  Oh yeah.

Jeff:  There are some fantastic topics. If you ever go online to TED, and just look at some of the presentations and the skills. If you’re trying to improve yourself, those are the things that I’m interested in.

For me, Exceptional Presenter was one of the best books that I’ve read, probably in the last six months or so.

Ron:  It’s funny. First of all, Karen Martin’s a good friend of Gemba Academy and of mine. In fact, Karen’s coming here this week to our studio here in Fort Worth. We’re going to shoot a little interview. But we actually interviewed Karen recently about her Value Stream Mapping book, so it’s a small world.

But something else that many people don’t know, and I don’t think you know this, Jeff, but that book that you referred to, “The Exceptional Presenter”, that and there’s another one called “Presentation Zen.” Those two books were probably the most impactful books that influenced the way Gemba Academy courses have been developed and delivered for the last five years, because we learned from those books very early on about how to tell a story and how to get content out.

I’m very happy to hear that you found that book. It’s been incredibly valuable for Gemba Academy as well.

Jeff:  Actually, I just purchased that Presentation Zen book. I bought the second edition, because he just updated it. But the author, I think he’s done a couple TEDx presentations. I’ve seen him on there.

Ron:  Yeah. Garr Reynolds is his name.

Jeff:  He’s out of Japan.

You’re actually right. How to deliver a presentation and how to speak to an audience and just how to do your slides, that’s why…earlier when I talked about the value the Gemba Academy doing these videos presentations for your learning is so much more valuable than a static screen with a bunch of bullet points on it.

That comes from The Exceptional Presenter and Presentation Zen, how to deliver the content. Why should somebody speak and say exactly what’s on the screen? You’ve learned that, as you’ve just stated. I didn’t know that, and I think that’s probably the understated value of your video series.

Ron:  Thank you. Thank you for that.

Jeff, last question. Imagine that you’ve recently been hired as a general manager of a company that’s struggling with quality, productivity, poor morale. They’re just a mess.

You are hired because of your continuous improvement experience and your past success. As it turns out, the CEO that hired you is giving you complete operational control and trusts you to right this ship. With this said, what would your first week on the job look like? What would you do, and why?

Jeff:  Obviously, the first thing I would do is get to know the staff. Obviously, you want to know who’s working for you. What are their skill sets? Those types of things. You want to start to get people on board with your thought process. That engagement is key from the beginning.

I think understanding who my resources are, who’s my staff, is important. That would probably be one of the first things that I do, and that’s just from a personality perspective. But then what I would try to do is ask, is there any voice of the customer? Who’s our customer, and what are they saying about us or about what we’re delivering?

Then as a subset of that, what are we delivering to the customer? What is it that we produce? Is it a product? Is it a program? Is it a service? Those are things that I would look at.

Then I would try to find out in the first week, what’s our standard? Do we even have any standards? Are they documented? If not, then that would start the process. The first thing we have to do is look at our standards, and if they’re not there, then we have to create those standards. We have to document those standards, because from that is where you start to make your continuous improvement.

If you don’t know what’s going on, then you can’t make improvements. You can’t move to a desired state or a future state or an ideal state, if you don’t know what the current state is. And so, that’s where I would start in that first week. I think that would probably take up a good portion of that first week.

But it goes back to talking about Lean. It’s understanding and drafting the current situation. Your approach may differ from organization to organization, but I think from a Lean journey perspective, understanding the current situation is key to making any type of continuous improvement efforts. And so that’s how I would start in that first week.

Ron:  You mentioned Mr. Ohno earlier in the interview. My favorite quote from him ‑‑ I believe he said this ‑‑ is, “Without standards, there can be no Kaizen.”

Jeff:  He’s got a lot of good quotes.

Ron:  [laughs] Indeed he does.

Jeff, thank you so much for coming on to the show. I know you’re extremely busy. Why don’t we wrap things up, Jeff, with you just giving us some final words of wisdom? Then, why don’t you tell people how they can connect with you via social media.

Ron:  My final words of wisdom are that the Lean journey is a lengthy process. I think the key, for us over the years, has been to create an engaged culture. As I stated earlier, our mission is to get as many associates as possible involved in creating value for the customer.

And so however you go about that, it’s going to be a big plus for the organization, either way you look at it. You’re going to have continuous improvement efforts. You’re going to have efficiency. Productivity is going to improve. If you keep that mindset, and you move in that direction of creating value for the customer, you have to define who the customer is, nothing but good can come from that.

Those are my words of advice for anybody out there who is starting a Lean journey. You’re going to run into obstacles. You’re just going to have to step back and try and find a way around or over or through those obstacles, because they’re going to be there in whatever form you can imagine.

That would be my advice that I would give anybody that’s starting out on this journey. If you have any questions, I’m not on any of the Twitters and Facebooks and stuff like that. You can simply email me.

Ron:  Are you on LinkedIn, Jeff?

Jeff:  No, I’m not on anything.

Ron: That’s probably why you get so much work done. [laughs]

Jeff:  I guess I’m still a simple person, especially when it comes to efficiency. If you just email me, then I only have to look at my email. If I’m on Facebook and Twitter, then I’ve got to make sure. I have to keep going to all these different accounts to see who may be communicating with me.

But I guess sometimes the old school may be the best school, or maybe I’m just outdated. But if you just simply send me an email, I get my emails, and I’ll respond.

Ron:  Jeff, thanks again. Hopefully I can get back out to Torrance, and we’ll do some more videos out there at the Toyota facility out there in California.

Jeff:  I look forward to it, Ron. It’s a pleasure working with you and knowing you. I mean, Gemba Academy’s comes a long way since we initially signed up, and it just keeps getting better every year.

Ron:  Thank you again, and take care, Jeff.

Jeff:  All right, Ron.


Presenter: 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

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In what ways does lean apply to the factory floor AND the office environment?

GA 027 | How Our Brains Impact Performance with Ron Pereira


Press the play button above to listen to the episode. If you’re reading this via email or RSS click the image below to listen to the episode.

GA27_Brain_KaizenWe really changed things up in this episode. Instead of hosting, it was my turn to be the guest and answer all the questions. Our own Steve Kane hosted and we discussed why  lean is a people-centric methodology, and how brain chemicals like oxytocin play a big role in a Kaizen Culture.

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

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While I’m definitely biased I think you’ll find we give away some of the coolest “swag” at the conference!

We also plan to host an after hours “networking” event on Tuesday evening… free food and drinks!  More details to come on this.

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In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Ron’s background and how he got into continuous improvement (3:27)
  • Ron’s favorite quotation (6:15)
  • What Gemba Academy’s upcoming Culture of Kaizen course is all about (7:03)
  • Why “Respect for People” should really be “Respect for Humanity” (9:16)
  • What endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, cortisol have to do with performance (10:50)
  • Why this concept is only now being discussed in the lean community (21:53)
  • What “Respect for People” means to Ron (23:30)
  • Aesop’s Four Oxen Fable and what it has to do with the phrase “Kaizen Culture” (25:04)
  • The best advice Ron has ever received (26:13)
  • Ron’s personal productivity habit (27:41)
  • Ron’s final words of wisdom (33:28)

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Full Written Transcript

GA 27 | Ron Pereira

Announcer: You’re listening to Episode 27 with Ron Pereira.


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 edition of the Gemba Academy Podcast.

As always, thank you so much for taking time to listen to the show and for watching our videos over at Now, today’s episode is a little bit different since…I’m actually being interviewed for the first time.

Steve Kane, our Direct of Sales and Marketing at Gemba Academy, comes on and actually takes over the role as host, and I’m the guest. I go through all the same questions that all of our other guests have gone through.

It was really fun, and really the point of the discussion today is about something that we’re covering in pretty great detail in our new Culture of Kaizen course that we’re developing. An important aspect is our brains, which sounds a little bit weird, like brains and Lean, but there are actually a lot of important things that we need to know about various chemicals in our brain, like dopamine.

What is that? Why does that have an important impact on how cultures are created within organizations and even within our families and communities in general?

We walk through that a little bit. It was really fun and interesting, because I had never really had to prepare for some of the quick-fire questions. I hope you’re going to enjoy this show. I do want to say that it’s early October 2014 right now when we’re recording this.

We have partnered with AME. We’re happy to say that we are offering a 10 percent discount to anyone that wants to sign up for the AME Conference that’s coming up in mid-November, 2014.

To get all the information, the best thing to do is go to our show notes, which is Again, 2-7, You’re going to go ahead and get all the information for how to save 10 percent on registration for that AME Conference. We are going to have a booth there again.

We are also, we’re working on and planning it right now, going to do an after-hours networking event there in Jacksonville. It’s going to be on the Tuesday of the conference.

It’s going to be free drinks and food. All the Gemba Academy team is going to be there. We would love to have everyone listening to this that comes to the conference come and hang out with us and spend some time networking.

Again, go to for the show notes. That’s enough from me. Let’s get to the show.


Steve Kane: Ron, thanks very much for coming on the show. Tell us where you’re calling from today.

Ron: I am in Keller, Texas at our studio here. It’s great to be on the show, Steve. [laughs] It’s fun being on the different end of the microphone today.

Steve: It’s a new thing for me, as well. Ron, share with the audience a little bit about your background and how you first came to learn about continuous improvement.

Ron: I guess I first started to explore continuous improvement back at Motorola where I first worked out of school. I worked there building cell phones.

If anybody remembers the StarTAC, the famous StarTAC, that little, I think it was one of the first flip phones ever made.

Gosh, I remember being in the new product introduction area, and we were sneaking a look into the cages and all that where they were all stored. I first cut my teeth on, mainly, I would say, it’s more Six Sigma slanted tools, control charts. There are a lot of Lean things that we were doing, but designing experiments and different more advanced statistical type stuff. I did that for a while.

After that, I moved to Nokia, the big competitor of Motorola. That’s actually where I went through formal Six Sigma training, Green Belt, Black Belt, Master Black Belt, so forth. We were pretty much a Six Sigma house. There was a little bit of Lean sprinkled into our training, like you see in most traditional Six Sigma training.

But I knew there was a lot more, I started reading and buying books. I stumbled upon this website called I had no idea who this guy was named Jon Miller. Clicked around and came to find out he had a consulting company called Gemba Research.

We actually brought Gemba Research into our Nokia facility. They helped us do some value stream mapping, training. That was the big buzz around that time was value stream mapping and flow and pull, and all this stuff.

That’s where I first met Jon Miller, our partner here at Gemba Academy. That’s really where my lean training I guess, formal training started. Then, I started following John closely, all of his writing and reading his work. Then, I started a blog.

Jon and I actually became pretty good friends. One thing led to another. We ended up making a video around 2008 kind of time frame, on stuffing envelopes, and so forth. That’s how all of this Gemba Academy to fruition is meeting Jon at Nokia there.

I did work at another company after Nokia as a Director of Continuous Improvement, then, right before leaving the corporate world for Gemba Academy. I don’t know. That’s my history in a nutshell.

Steve: Can you share with us a quotation that really inspires you?

Ron: I’m going to drop some incredible knowledge here. This is probably the most incredible philosopher of our time, Steve, that’s been here for us. is Yoda from Star Wars.

It’s one of my favorite quotes of all time. Yoda told young Luke Skywalker, he says, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Steve: Love it.

Ron: I love that quote. It’s really how I try to live my life. It’s how I try to teach my kids.

I tell my kids that, “You never say you can’t do something. Instead you just say, “I presently struggle with.” Just having that mindset that there’s really nothing we can’t do if we try hard enough and put enough effort into it.

Steve: Fantastic. You’re working on a new course, “The Culture of Kaizen.” What’s new in this course, and how is it different than the existing “Kaizen Way” course?

Ron: I’ll tell you. This course is really, really exciting to me. Something that it’s taken me a long time. I’ve been practicing lean for gosh, 15 some years, and continuous improvement even just in general longer than that.

I’ve learned every tool there is to learn. Maybe not every tool, but I’m pretty knowledgeable on the various tools of Lean and Six Sigma. I’ve had some incredible teachers over the years. It hasn’t been until really running my own company here at Gemba Academy, that it’s really come to me that lean really truly is about people. Some people are like, “Ah duh,” But it really is.

It’s something that no one really talks about, including Gemba Academy. We do talk about respect for people and so forth, but they’re just words, “respect for people.” Like, what does that mean?

It’s why one of the questions that we have here in the podcast. That’s why we ask. The Kaizen Way course is a great course. It really talks about Kaizen events, and how to facilitate change.

There is some kind of philosophical stuff, that Kaizen is a way of life, and it’s a mindset, which it is. We do kind of touch on that, but we don’t get into the people side of things. That’s what this Culture of Kaizen course is all about. We’re just really getting into, “What makes people tick?”

It doesn’t matter if you work in a factory, or a hospital, or a call center, or you’re a stay-at-home mom. It really doesn’t matter. We all have certain things about us, our bodies, our brains. That’s something that we’re going to really study in this course and talk about is some brain science stuff, like what makes us tick. That’s what different about this course.

Steve: Great. On the respect for people side. I listened to the Lean Round Table recording that was hosted by Paul Akers at FastCap. You mentioned the respect for people being a bad translation. Can you talk to us about that?

Ron: Yeah. This is again something that I learned from Jon Miller. Jon, as many people know, was actually born in Japan and raised in Japan.

His parents were missionaries over there. He speaks and understands the language at a deep, deep level. Basically, he goes way over my head sometimes when he’s talking about all the characters of the word and really breaking them down.

The gist of it is it would have been better translated as respect for “humanity” instead of “people.” I think there’s a very important difference there.

Humanity is all of us, our whole being. And then everybody around us, not just the people we work with, our suppliers, our customers. The people that we meet in a grocery store, that’s humanity. That’s really what Toyota and these original thought leaders, they’re really getting at. It wasn’t meant to just be the people that you work with in the cubicle next to you.

Steve: Right. You mentioned something about going into the way the brain works in this new culture of course. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Ron: Yeah. This is what has probably got me the most excited. I can safely say that Jon Miller and I, we have worked together on really all of our courses here at Gemba Academy, and obviously, you and Kevin Meyer also help us in reading the scripts, and seeing what we are up to. But something that Jon and I are really diving into here is how our brains work and the various chemicals, and so forth.

Because in the end, all the tools of Lean and Six Sigma, they’re very important. We have over 600 videos here at Gemba Academy talking about the tools, because you do need to understand the tools and how to do that.

But in the end, if you don’t know how to work with people or influence people, I don’t care how good you are at value stream mapping, you are going to be a colossal failure. You will not sustain any kind of excellence. No one will follow you, you will be a terrible leader.

And so, what we are really doing is we’re almost taking a step back and covering something that I don’t think it’s ever been covered within the Lean world, is the various chemicals in our brain and what they do to us, and how they’re triggered and the various emotions that people go through, and what happens when you do certain things to certain people.

What’s going on inside of their brains? And then, once we understand that, how can we leverage that and use that to our advantage to build this culture of Kaizen. In the end, there’s a lot of discussion of this type of topic in this course.

Steve: Right. What are these chemicals and how do they impact us?

Ron: We’re going to go into far more detail in the course. I’ll just give an elevator speech here on the podcast.

The first one is endorphins, and endorphins exist to mask physical pain. I don’t say they necessarily have a lot to do with what we are doing, and we’re building a culture of continuous improvement.

But it’s important to understand what they are. When you go on a run, if anybody’s a runner and they’re starting to really struggle, and the next thing you know the pain is overcome by this euphoria or this runner’s high they talk about. That’s endorphins, that’s an endorphin rush covering your body and allowing you to push through that pain.

We also have endorphins when we laugh. If there’s ever been a time when you are cracking up, somebody is killing you with a joke or something, they keep going and you are just losing it. You’re laughing so hard and you’re like “Oh gosh, please stop, it’s starting to hurt.”

It’s hurting because the endorphins are starting to go away, and now the pain of you laughing in your chest and what not is really starting to impact you. Yeah, that’s endorphins.

Steve: Wow.

Ron: The next one is dopamine, and dopamine is what we get, it’s that feeling of accomplishment. You get a dopamine rush if you have a to-do list. I know you’re big on your to do list, and when you have a to-do list and you get to cross something out, you feel good, right?

Steve: Right, absolutely.

Ron: That’s dopamine. Dopamine is being released in your body when you do something that makes you feel good. My kids play sports, and so my daughter Brenna is a stud little soccer player and she scores the winning goal, guess what?

I actually get a dopamine rush when I see my child succeed. If you’re watching your favorite team play sports, and they win, you are going to get a dopamine rush. Another one about dopamine, you’ve got to be careful, and we cover this in great detail in the course.

It can become addicting, and this is bad, right? Probably the one that we are all familiar with is our smartphones. We carry these little blocks around in our pockets and our hands, and I don’t know, Steve, if you’ve ever been driving and your phone is in your pocket and it buzzes. You get an immediate feeling, right?

You’re like “Oh, what is that, who is that, who’s trying to get a hold of me?” And you’re tempted to pull it out and check it, but you being the former policeman, I know you would never do that while you’re driving.

Steve: Never, never.

Ron: But that’s dopamine. You get this dopamine rush when your cell phone buzzes in your pocket, so it can be addicting and that’s not a good thing, obviously.

That’s where you’ve got to have a balance with dopamine.

After dopamine is serotonin, and they call that the leadership chemical. Serotonin is pretty fascinating, and it’s released in a number of different ways. One of the most common ways as it pertains to the culture of Kaizen is when you give public recognition to someone.

I always like to think of when you do a Kaizen event, at the end of the event, when the team comes together and they give their report out to the leadership team or whoever it might be.

And they do a great job, and the leadership team claps and says, “Great job.” Giving this public praise, these Kaizen event team members, serotonin is actually flooding throughout their body, and that makes them feel good. Dopamine and serotonin are actually called neurotransmitters, and so, they actually make our bodies work, to be honest with you.

They connect cells within our brains, and so forth. That’s why they’re both this feel good neurotransmitter that make us do what we do on a daily basis. That’s dopamine and serotonin.

The next one is oxytocin, and oxytocin is actually a hormone.

It gives us, someone say this is the best one at all, that it makes us feel good. It makes us feel safe. It makes us feel loved, and allows us to trust people around us. It’s the warm and fuzzy feelings, feel good moments in our life. That’s oxytocin. Now, oxytocin is actually the easiest way to trigger this and release it in someone else, is to actually touch them physically touch them.

That’s why if you have kids and your child falls down, they skin their knee, what do you do? You run up and you go to hug them.

You say, “There there, that’s OK” and you’re patting their back and all that. It’s a natural reaction to comfort them, but it’s also releasing oxytocin in that child’s body. They’re starting to feel safe, and they’re starting to feel better from skinning their knee. I’m a big baseball fan, huge baseball fan.

My Texas Rangers, they stunk this year, let’s be honest, but I still love them. The pitching coach for the Rangers, his name is Mike Maddux. When the pitchers are doing badly, which unfortunately happened a lot this year, he goes out to the mound to talk to them. If anybody has ever watched a Texas Rangers baseball game, they’ll notice that Mike Maddux does something.

I don’t know if any other pitching coach does this. He actually takes his hand and he puts it on their shoulder. He grabs the pitcher’s shoulder, and he’s talking to them. He’s almost shaking, moving the pitcher a little bit.

I’ve heard him say that he does this sometimes to feel the tension throughout their shoulders, but I don’t know if he realizes this, what he’s also doing is I can guarantee that he is releasing oxytocin in that pitcher, which is, again, calming them down, making them feel more comfortable and more centered, hopefully, able to pitch better.

Yeah, that’s oxytocin. The last thing I want to say about oxytocin, which is very important, is that it can actually strengthen our immune systems. It’s not just a feel-good thing, it can help you be healthier if you have a healthy amount of oxytocin running through your brains and then our bodies.

It also helps us become better problem solvers if you have a lot of oxytocin. It only makes sense, right Steve? If people are walking around an organization and they feel good, and they feel comfortable and trusted and able to experiment and make mistakes, they’re going to be better problem solvers, right?

That’s oxytocin. The last one that we talk about in the course is what they call the big C, cortisol. We save this one for last, because it’s probably the most serious of all, and it can be the most dangerous of all, especially, as it relates to building this culture of Kaizen. Cortisol is released in someone when they are stressed out, or they have anxiety, or they’re scared or nervous, paranoid.

Cortisol is like in the African safari, if these gazelles are out in the middle of the field, and all of a sudden they hear the rustling in the bush, and it’s a lion coming out to eat them. The first gazelle that sees that is going to have a burst of cortisol throughout their body, its fight or flight.

The other gazelle didn’t even hear it, but they saw their friend is freaked out, they’re also going to get a cortisol release, even if they don’t know why, just because their friend is.

That’s why if you see someone in your company who’s stressed out, or they are worried, or whatever, that can be almost contagious. That’s why you have the so-called bad apple, where someone has a bad attitude, that attitude can be spread throughout the organization all through this cortisol.

The most dangerous part of cortisol is that it is actually in oxytocin inhibitor. In other words, if you have enough cortisol running through your body, your immune system can actually be compromised. That’s why some people who are always stressed out and they never feel good, they get sick.

It’s cortisol, that’s doing this. Yeah, those are the main chemicals. There are a few other things that tie into the course, and how those same chemicals how habits can be formed, and other characteristics that we get into. For me, it’s some really fascinating stuff, and I’ve really enjoyed researching it with Jon to create this.

Steve: Great, I’m actually looking forward to learning about this, and watching the new module. Ron, why do you think the Lean community hasn’t focused on this before now?

Ron: That’s a good question. We are part of that community, so we are pointing a finger back at ourselves. The easiest answer is that tools are easy to teach. I can teach anybody how to do 5S, I can teach anyone how to draw a value stream map.

Even some of the more common problem solving methodology and what everybody sees these days that are really popular and really good. But at the end of the day, they are cookie-cutter. Do this, do this, do this, and good things are going to happen.

Which is fantastic, but unfortunately, again, we come back to the point of I don’t care how good you are at value stream mapping, or whatever it is. If you understand why people aren’t on board with you, or you don’t understand what makes people happy or sad, you’re not going to be really effective. And so, I don’t know. I think dealing with people is hard. At the end of the day, the human person is a complicated being.

Steve: Sure.

Ron: And so, it’s not easy. I think it’s a natural evolution for Gemba Academy. Again, we’ve covered the tools at great length and it’s time that we got back to the roots of what makes continuous improvement successful, and that’s people.

Steve: All right, Ron, well it’s time to switch gears a little bit. We’re going to go to the quick fire section of the podcast. Are you ready?

Ron: I am.

Steve: I’m sure you never heard these questions before, but here they come. What does respect for people means you?

Ron: It’s funny, I was preparing for this earlier, and I don’t normally prepare. But these are tough questions, and this first one is something that obviously I am passionate about.

For me, respecting people really just comes down to one thing, and that’s really caring about people, and giving a damn about people. And my wife will yell at me now for saying this.  If my kids are listening, don’t say that. But that’s really what it’s all about, Steve. It’s about caring about people. And if you do that, again, it doesn’t mean that you’re always nice or whatever.

We’ve heard all those answers before, but it just means genuinely investing in people and caring for people, and treating them like their brain is so important to you.

I don’t mean brain science things, I mean their ideas and the things that they can bring to the table. These companies that just look at people as a cost or an expense on the P & L, they don’t get it and they probably never will. I don’t know, that’s what respect for people means to me, caring about people.

Steve: Next question. When you hear the phrase “Kaizen Culture”, what comes to your mind?

Ron: I’m actually going to take a little bit different angle on this than some of our previous guests have. The thing that I think about, when I think about this Kaizen culture, Kaizen is like Aesop, who wrote the fables back in the day.

There is the famous fable of the four oxen. The gist of it is when they are out and being attacked, those four oxen all back their tails together. When the lion or whatever it is is attacking them, the lion always faces the horns, he can’t kill any of the oxen. But eventually, something happens, a fight or whatever, and these oxen get mad at each other and they all go their separate ways.

Eventually, the lion is able to easily kill each of them on their own. As the old saying goes, we’ve got to hang together or we’ll all hang separately. To me, that’s really what a Kaizen culture is. It’s one that sticks together, and fight together, and wins together and loses together. That, to me, is what a culture is all about.

Steve: Great. Ron, tell us, what’s the best advice that you have ever received?

Ron: I actually mentioned this in the podcast about my father, the podcast where we talked about Dale Carnagie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

My dad, who was a professor at the University of Manitoba for many years, extremely educated, he used to always tell me and all my siblings that we had to get that stupid piece of paper, that’s what he used to say. The degree or whatever, he said that’s important, because it’s going to help you get your foot in the door.

But at the end of the day, it’s all about people. He said the people that are able to work with others and influence others, he said it’s human engineering is what he used to tell me.

He said those are the people that are going to succeed in life. I’ve seen, and I know many highly, highly educated people. I’m talking about some of the best schools in the world. And you know what? These people struggle. They’re either always unhappy, or they’re complaining about everything, or their businesses aren’t that great. I don’t know, they never find any peace.

What I find is that these same people really struggle to work with others, and that’s what it’s all about, is your ability to work with others. Unfortunately, that’s not taught in many MBA schools.

Steve: Right. The next question, can you share one of your personal productivity habits that others might benefit from?

Ron: Yeah, my favorite habit is that I work standing up now. I’ve done that since we built this new studio here about a year ago.

Before that, I did sit at the desk, and I tried standing up in the past, but I couldn’t get it to work. I gave it another go, and I just fought through it. It was hard, Steve, I know you stand up, as well. It’s hard in the beginning. Your legs hurt, and your feet hurt, and you’re constantly pivoting left foot, right foot. But now, I can’t stand to sit down. And so, I would really encourage anyone to give that a shot.

And again, realizing that first two to three weeks, it’s going to be painful. You’re going to want to quit. What we did here when we built a new studio is we bought some new desks, some new stand up desks. They said “Do you want a chair?” And I said “I don’t even want a chair.” I don’t even have a chair I could sit in if I wanted to, that’s been a fantastic improvement for me.

Steve: If you could recommend only one book related to continuous improvement or leadership, what would it be and why?

Ron: It’s not your traditional lean thinking book, there’s tons of good ones out there. But one of my favorite authors as Malcolm Gladwell, and he wrote a book called “The Tipping Point.”

It’s probably one of my favorite books of all time, and it’s all about how epidemics are started, good and bad. The book actually starts with the story of hush puppies, the shoes, and talks about how back in the day hush puppies were very popular, but they eventually got out of style and nobody wore them anymore. And then, a group of teenagers, or somebody in New York City, they started this deal where they started wearing them.

Next thing you know, this epidemic of wearing hush puppies tipped, and hush puppy sales shot through the roof. That’s how something tips. But there is bad ones, as well, in the book they talk about a young man, I believe it was a young man who lived on this island.

I can’t remember where it was, it’s been a long time since I read the book. But his girlfriend did him wrong, and he was very upset. She wrote a letter, and then he committed suicide. I think it was the first suicide that they ever had on the small island. But then what happened was, some other young people were not feeling good, and they did the same thing.

And so, this epidemic of committing suicide tipped, and so, there’s good tipping points and there’s bad tipping points. I think, for us, from a continuous improvement perspective, obviously, we want to get our cultures or whatever to kind of tip, to get to that point to where everyone is thinking this way, doing it. It’s just a way that we work.

It’s not longer a program or an initiative, or “Here comes the Lean guys or the Six Sigma police,” or whatever. Everyone is on board, and this thing is tipped. That’s why it’s one of my favorite books of all times.

Steve: Now, I have a hypothetical for you. Imagine you’re a lean thinker. You were just hired into a company as a General Manager. You were brought into improve processes and improve the way the company is working.

Your senior leadership staff, they’re not really as excited or enthusiastic about Lean thinking as you are. With this being said, what do you do and why?

Ron: I thought a lot about this. I hate to do this, but I’m going to steal a little bit of an answer from one of our past guests, and it’s Matt May. One of my favorite people in the world, Matt May.

When I asked him this question, he talked about the importance of empathy and really empathizing with the people that you’re dealing with. I know in this situation, this hypothetical situation, with these people not on board, there’s a reason why they’re not on board. It’s not that they’re probably bad people or negative people, or don’t want to see the company succeed.

They’ve probably been, back to their brain chemicals, they probably have cortisol dripping through their veins everyday. They don’t feel good. They’re not happy to be there. Really, trying to understand that, and trying to understand, “Why don’t you feel good?” Forget lean at this point. It’s back to that people and that human relationship, respect for humanity.

It’s trying to really understand what’s going on with these folks, and why are they resisting. Why are they scared or nervous? That’s probably what I would start with is just really trying to understand at a human level, “What’s going on with these folks?”

Again, once I got them over that, I would pop-in some Gemba Academy videos, and we’d be off and running, right?

Steve: Right.

Ron: But before that, before we start watching any videos, or reading any books, or going to any conferences, we’re just going to talk. We’re going to try to understand each other, and try to understand what’s going on at the human level.

Steve: That’s great. Ron, it’s time to wrap up here. Maybe you can share some final words of wisdom, and let people know how they can get a hold of you.

Ron: My final words of wisdom come from Sir Winston Churchill. He famously said, “To never, never, never give up.” To me, I guess what I’m passionate about is learning. I don’t mean come to Gemba Academy and learn from us. Yeah, sure. We want you to do that.

I don’t ever want to stop learning. That’s why I’m so excited about this course. I’m learning so much about things that I have not known in the past.

Again, Jon knows a lot about this brain science stuff. He’s been teaching me, and I’m reading. I’m fascinated to constantly learn new things. I think that’s what makes people tick. If you’re not learning, you’re probably slowly dying inside. I would encourage everyone. First of all, don’t ever give up, discontinue some improvement battle.

You may be by yourself. Maybe you’re the only one who believes in your company. Don’t stop. If anything, do it for yourself. Maybe you’ve got to get out of that company eventually, but if you stop learning yourself, you’ll let that cortisol or that bad energy kind of overtake you. Then, it’s going to impact you for the rest of your life.

That’s my final words of wisdom. As far as getting in touch with me, That’s the easiest way. Just go over to the contact page. That will eventually get over to me.

Then from a social media perspective, probably, the best one to use for me is LinkedIn. I do have a Facebook account, but that’s really more for family and close friends, that sort of thing. I keep that a pretty small list. LinkedIn is the best way to get me. It’s just Ron Pereira, P E R E I R A. Yeah, that’s it!

Steve: Ron, thanks so much. It’s been a great time talking to you.

Ron: Thank you. Great job, Steve.

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What Do You Think?

What are the important elements of a Kaizen Culture? Is it brain chemistry or something else?

GA 026 | How to Conduct a Gemba Walk with Michael Bremer


Press the play button above to listen to the episode. If you’re reading this via email or RSS click the image below to listen to the episode.


Today’s guest wears many hats. Michael Bremer is a blogger, author, and President of the Cumberland Group. He is also an AME volunteer and the Co-Managing Director of the Chicagoland Lean Enterprise Consortium Group.

In this episode we explore why Gemba Walks matter and how to make the most of them. Hopefully Michael’s advice will take your Gemba Walks to the next level.

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

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10-JacksonvilleMachinesToolsBannerAdSeries298x248NetworkingIf you plan to attend the upcoming AME conference November 10-14 be sure to stop by the Gemba Academy booth to say hello.

While I’m definitely biased I think you’ll find we give away some of the coolest “swag” at the conference!

We also plan to host an after hours “networking” event on Tuesday evening… free food and drinks!  More details to come on this.

Finally, if you haven’t registered for the conference and plan to be sure to use the coupon code GEMBA10 in order to save 10%.

AME is definitely our favorite conference to attend so we hope to see you there!

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Michael’s background and how he came to learn about lean (3:32)
  • The two quotes that inspire Michael (8:55)
  • Michael’s definition of a Gemba Walk (11:25)
  • Why you should do them (13:02)
  • The problems people encounter during them (15:13)
  • The three steps to a successful Gemba Walk (16:51)
  • Why there should always be standard work for your Gemba Walks (21:38)
  • Roughly how long your walks should be and how often you should do them (24:48)
  • What “Respect for People” means to Michael (31:43)
  • What comes to mind when Michael hears “Kaizen Culture” (36:44)
  • The best advice Michael has ever received (38:04)
  • Michael’s favorite personal productivity habit (39:54)
  • Michael’s final words of wisdom (51:45)

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Full Written Transcript

GA 26 | Michael Bremer

Presenter: You’re listening to Episode 26 with Michael Bremer.

[background music]

Presenter: 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 edition of the Gemba Academy podcasts. As always, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to listen to the show and for watching our videos over at We definitely appreciate you.

Today’s episode is going to be pretty exciting. I have a gentleman named Michael Bremer on show. Many of you are familiar with Michael’s work. He’s a blogger and author. He’s done some really good work across the Lean community.

Today, what we’re going to talk about is gemba walk. Michael’s recently an e-book that he talks about, focused on how to go about doing gemba walks, really, at kind of the shop floor level, the supervisor level, not just from kind of an executive level.

I think you’re going to really enjoy this show. We talk about what gemba walks are, the different types of walks and how to go about them yourself.

Now, Michael is the president of the Cumberland Group out of Chicago and he goes ahead and talks a little bit about that business and what he does on a day to day basis in the episode. But Michael is also a pretty key volunteer for the Association for Manufacturing Excellence or AME.

As many people know, AME puts on a massive conference each year. This year, the conference is going to be in Jacksonville, Florida, from November 10th through the 14th.

Gemba academy attended the conference last year, we had a booth. We’re going back this year. In fact, we have two booths put together this year, just so that we have a little bit more room. If you are planning to be at the AME conference this year, please stop by to say hello. We’ll have lots of goodies to give away and we’d definitely love to say hello.

I also want to say that AME and Gemba Academy are working together this year. We’re happy to say that you can get a 10 percent discount on the price of admission to the conference by using a certain coupon code.

What I wanted to do is, if you’re interested in going to the conference, if you haven’t signed up yet, be sure to go to Again, that’s, and the coupon code is going to be there as well as all the information that you’ll need to kind of get signed up.

Again, it’s a fantastic conference. I think it’s probably one of the best if not the best Lean-thinking-centered conferences in the world, so be sure to check that out if you’re interested.

The show notes for this particular episode can be found over at That’s 2-6, so All right. Enough from me. Let’s get to the show.


Ron: All right, Michael. Well, thank you so much for taking time out of your day to come onto the show. Where are you calling in from today?

Michael Bremer: I’m calling in from Chicago my favorite time of year. It’s fall. It’s just beautiful outside, a great day.

Ron: Very nice, very nice. Your Bears are off to a good start I guess, right?

Michael: [laughs] Yeah, the Bears had an amazing win yesterday.


Ron: All right.

Michael: It was the luck of the draw. It could go either way.

Ron: Exactly, exactly. All right, Michael. Why don’t you start things off by telling us a little bit about your background and how you first came to learn about Lean thinking?

Michael: My background’s a tad eclectic. I’ve been involved in this field of performance improvement for more than 30 years. Originally with a Fortune 30 company that no longer exists, but it’s not my fault.

Ron: [laughs] OK.

Michael: I was given the responsibility in the 1980s of creating a company-wide improvement effort under the productivity banner for Beatrice Foods. When I was doing that, I spent time with a guy named Edward Deming and Joseph Juran.

Ron: [laughs] Yeah, OK.

Michael: I only wish that I could spend time with those guys now because I certainly learned a lot when I spent time with them at that point in time. Now I know enough to really learn a lot. [laughs] Now it was pretty fabulous.

I started doing that in the days of total quality management and really became introduced to Lean in the mid-1990s through some degree of Womack’s writings, but we were doing some work with Pratt and Whitney. Pratt was one of the early adapters of some of the Toyota Lean methodologies, so we learned about kaizen.

At that point in time I thought Lean was kaizen and just the rapid improvement team sort of thing and then just gradually came to have a deeper and much more holistic understanding of it over the last I guess 20 years now.

Ron: OK, so what are you up to these days?

Michael: I’m doing a couple of things. We manage a consortium group here in Chicago called The Chicagoland Lean Enterprise Consortium. It’s a group of manufacturing companies. We do no consulting with them, but we facilitate their learning from one another and had that for about five years.

I almost feel like a proud father when I go in and look at these organizations, how well they’ve progressed today versus where they’re at. We’re talking about starting one for service organizations. I’ve had a couple of large service organizations in Chicago that have approached us with the idea of doing it there.

We still continue to consult, although at the age that I am right now I’ve not been promoting that a whole lot. A lot of what we’ll do is, if an organization would like to take its improvement activities IT and take it up to the next level of maturity to elevate what it is they’re doing, that’s the focus of a lot of our writing, a lot of our work, and certainly a lot of my passion today.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of time but what does an organization need to do to elevate its level of improvement maturity. We’ll still do that.

Ron: Now I also understand that you are pretty involved with AME and their conferences. Is that right?

Michael: I am. Sometimes my volunteer work for AME almost seems like a part-time job.

Ron: [laughs]

Michael: I’ll give them 20 to 25 percent of my time. One of my personal responsibilities is I’m in charge of the AME Manufacturing Excellence Award programs, and we’re just finishing up that cycle. We had 15 people that applied for the award this year. We did 10 site visits, and four of those companies ended up being manufacturing award recipients.

We’ll be recognizing them at the annual conference that’s coming up in Jacksonville this November the 10th to the 15th. I’d say some people call it a Lean conference, but I really think it’s more about performance excellence. What does an organization need to elevate again its level of improvement effectiveness?

The key thing about AME is much of that is practitioner-to-practitioner learning. We allow consultants to do some things on Monday and Friday during the conference in workshops, but the presentations that take place during the week are all from practitioners.

Then there are also tours. There’s a ton of activity that takes place during a conference, and anybody that wants to learn more about this I’d encourage them to find out more about AME. It’s a great organization.

Ron: Well, Gemba Academy, just a small plug, [laughs] is going to be at the AME conference this year in Jacksonville. We did a double booth this time, so we have a little bit more breathing room. We definitely hope all of our listeners check that out.

Just to help drive people to that website, and we’re not compensated at all for this — we just want to drive people to the website because we think it’s a great conference — just go to That’s going to bring you right to the Jacksonville AME 2014 Conference page there.

I’ll tell you the one that I’m most excited about. There are obviously tons of great speakers, but Simon Sinek is one of my favorite guys. I don’t know if he would [laughs] call himself a Lean thinker per se, but golly, his “Why?” video, that famous TED Talk video, is one of my all-time favorite videos. I’m so happy to see him.

Michael: He’s all about engaging people and more meaning in the work activities that people do, which totally fits with what we’re trying to accomplish from a Lean perspective.

Ron: Yup, so we’ll be there. I’ll come find you, and Michael, we’ll make another video or something. [laughs]

Michael: That sounds great. We’ll actually have an award booth in the exhibit area this year for the first time.

Ron: Oh, great.

Michael: We’ll definitely have time to chat. We’re going to be staffing that with some of our assessors that are doing this. It’ll be fun. It’s a great conference.

Ron: Very good, very good. All right. Well, Michael, what we like to do at the beginning of all of our episodes is have our guest share a quotation that’s maybe focused on leadership or continuous improvement that inspires them. What quotation inspires you, Michael?

Michael: There are actually two of them that I could talk too quickly. There’s my favorite all-time quote. I’m not certain if it’s attributable to Satchel Paige, who was a pitcher in the Negro Leagues for many years, or to Will Rogers. I’ve seen several sources attribute these words to both of those individuals.

The quote goes, “It isn’t what you know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you think you know that just isn’t so. [laughs] That whole idea just seems to mesh so much with the things that we’re doing with Lean and performance improvement. It really does go down to the words that Shook and Rother used in “Learning to See,” and it’s much more than value-stream mapping.

A lot of this is letting go of how you think the world works and seeing what it is that’s really going on. In that quote so much captures that. Then there’s a guy named Thom Hartmann, who’s been president of a couple of business units. He’s done a number of things for Autoliv. It’s a company that is at least at a Toyota level of improvement effectiveness, and Thom has a quote. It’s a formula for success.

What he shared, it’s so simple. If I can get more people adding more value — and more value in the way their skills, their capabilities, their collaboration, their general knowledge — so more people adding more value and doing it more frequently, Thom’s formula is that equals a perpetual improvement machine.

Again, that captures very much what it is that we’re trying to do with these activities of developing as many people as possible to actually live a more fulfilled life, in many ways, and to be able to contribute more at work, and hopefully have a better life outside of work.

Ron: Nice. As I mentioned in the intro, you haven’t heard that yet, but the intro to this episode, Michael, we’re going to focus on gemba walks, and just really explore that. You’ve written an e-book focused on this topic that I’ll explore here in a little bit, as well.

Why don’t we just start at square one here, so to speak? Tell us what is a gemba walk, and then perhaps explain how it’s different than the old school method of managers simply walking around through the office or the factory.

Michael: Yeah, the old Tom Peters thing of just management by walking around. I actually think the intention of management by walking around was do what we talk about in gemba walks, but I don’t think at the time they had really thought through how to give that much structure or focus. They were thinking, “If you just went and you looked, you learned.”

What a gemba walk is, of course, the expression, it’s another one of these Japanese terms. I try not to use too many of those.

Ron: [laughs] Gemba’s a good one, though, Gemba Academy and all that. [laughs]

Michael: It fits with another Japanese term called Genchi Genbutsu. I looked at a Toyota website as we were writing the e-book. On the Toyota’s website, it defined this as going to the source to find the facts, to make correct decisions, to build consensus, and to achieve goals. That’s a pretty comprehensive statement. That’s actually not a bad way to live life.

I love the slang expression for this, though, which is to get your boots on and go see the reality of what it is that’s really happening. A gemba walk is really helping us to avoid making assumptions about what it is that we think is happening, things that we only know from a distance, and going to see with our own eyes so we’ve got a deeper understanding of what it is that’s really taking place.

Ron: That’s what it is, but why should anyone do them?

Michael: When I wrote the e-book, I’ve had this good fortune to have met many people around the world. One of the people that I shared what we were writing with was Dr. Jeffrey Liker, who of course has written a lot about Toyota and Lean. One of the things that Jeff was saying to me as to why do one is he thinks the way a lot of people do gemba walks is it actually is like the old management by walking around.

People go out. They want to set some direction with challenging targets, and so they want to go out and share that, and they do want to see more effectively what it is that’s happening. But the people that do this the best actually elevate what’s happening there, and I think it’s a key reason for doing a gemba walk.

You want to be able to go out, and you want to teach associates, the people that you work with, to develop their ability to perform and to fix, and to improve their processes, and to be more comfortable coming forward with things that it is we need to improve.

If you’re out there having these conversations, it’s an opportunity to build trust, which is very difficult in organizations throughout the world. It’s not just a North American problem. Most organizations, there’s not a lot of trust between the people that are doing the work and the people that are leading the organization.

As leaders, it takes a lot of tenacity and a lot of discipline to elevate what it is you’re doing to the level of a Toyota. The discipline with which they go about doing this is simply amazing.

The gemba walks are one of the things that, as you’re out there getting in touch with reality, you’re in a position to be fine-tuning what it is we need to do. After the walk, a lot of what happens when people don’t sustain the gains, is they’re not adjusting what we at Cumberland call the support system, so the way we do planning, the way we measure performance, the way we communicate.

If I go out and get this firsthand feedback from what’s happening inside my organization, I can adjust those support systems so that they’re more in alignment with what it is that we’re trying to accomplish, and make it happen.

Ron: What kind of problems do people typically encounter during these gemba walks?

Michael: It fits some with what we’ll talk about with, “What does an effective walk look like?” The first thing is there’s no clear purpose. I just decide I’m going to go on a walk. [laughs] You’re waltzing through the park, and, “Oh, that looks nice.”

There’s different walks. I can be doing a walk to look for waste. I can be doing a walk to look for, “Do people really understand what’s going on?” I can be doing a walk for coaching purposes.

A first line supervisor would typically do a very different walk from what an external executive’s doing when he or she is coming in to visit a plant and see what’s going on there.

Problems arise when people think there’s one type of gemba walk. We just go through and we do this. Another problem might be that people try to do too much in one walk. That you’ve got all this stuff that it is you want to accomplish, and you want to change the world.

This is one stroll through the organization. It’s a small step, as Neil Armstrong said in stepping on the moon. But that step was the product, or the end result, of many steps that had been taken prior to that.

Gemba walks, as you do these, you gain experience. You’re in a better position to do a more effective walk each time that you go, and so not trying to do too much as you’re out there.

The biggest problem is the lack of a clear purpose, and why we’re doing this. What are we hoping to accomplish?

Ron: Give me an example of what a well done gemba walk could look like. Maybe start at a front line supervisor. What’s it look like?

Michael: We say that there’s three steps, so before the front line supervisor is going out, just defining a purpose for, “Why am I doing this walk?” Let’s just say that there’s two purposes that the supervisor might be exploring.

The first purpose might be a waste walk to go and find where are we doing things that create waste inside the organization, so you work the classic Eight Wastes.

Another, a little bit more focused, is to just get an understanding of standard work practices of what it is that’s going on inside the organization in terms of standard work, and do people really understand what that is.

It’s a waste, but it’s a different perspective on what it is that you’re doing. Determine, “Why am I doing this walk?”

When I’m doing the walk, I really want to go through and have no judgment. I simply want to understand and start to have conversations with people.

You want to go see with an open mind. I want to go with as few beliefs as possible, understand what it is that’s happening. When I see what’s going on, I want to be talking about asking “Why are you doing it this way?” to develop a deeper understanding. I’m probing.

A lot of people who jump right to define whys, but sometimes you want to understand the whats first, so that a very well framed, humble question. “What is it you’re doing? What are the performance metrics that it is you’re working toward?”

Then I can go to the whys. “Why are those the metrics? Why is this happening? Why are you doing the work this way?

Ron: Very Simon Cynic-y whys I would say.


Michael: Absolutely, totally from that.

There was a neat story that Dan McDonald who was working for a large Fortune 50 company at the time shared with me. They were doing a gemba walk. There was a plant manager was doing the walk. They’re going through, and they’re looking at an old line manufacturing company. What they see is that the people are taking the parts they’re working on and they’re grinding it to make to make it fit. They simply ask, “Why are you grinding this?”

The answer is, “I’m grinding this to make it fit.”

Another why is, “Why didn’t it fit?” There was never a clear answer, so they left a couple of questions with the folks on the line for operator and the supervisor. They came back at the end of the day to revisit it again.

Since they work in the Five Whys, until they did the walk the next day, they didn’t discover the root cause, but what they found was the specifications that they were working for, the drawings that they were using to do this particular part, were 40 years old.

What had happened is there had been sort of this tolerance stack-up that had taken place over the years. So for 40 years whenever the operator would get a piece that didn’t fit, they grind it to make it fit. Now they’re doing tack time so it causes them to miss their tack time.

Nobody ever asked why. A lot of what it is, the supervisor can do is you go and all of a sudden you see these things and you just whack yourself in your head and say, “Oh, my gosh. I had no idea this was going on.”

You see that. The third component to doing the walk is showing respect for the people that are there. Because you’re there doing the walk and you’re the manager, let’s just assume for the moment that you’re smart. What you want you want to do though is not show how smart you are. You want to be developing the people that you’re working with. You want to be improving their critical thinking skills. So if you can ask these questions and show respect as you’re doing that, you can really help the people that you’re working with to develop their capabilities.

The third component of the walk, so we can prepare for the walk, I’m actually doing the walk and the third step is there should be a periodic debrief after the walk of assessing how it is we’re doing. In the case of a first-line supervisor, what that person should be doing is she should be meeting with her leader and the other first-line supervisors periodically to talk about the effectiveness of their walk.

What are we doing well? What is it that we can improve? What is it that you’re learning? What are you doing that’s allowing you to more effectively engage with the people that are in your area? And begin to share that knowledge and get more people operating that way as they’re doing it.

Ron: What about standard work, Michael? Should there be some standard work developed for these gemba walks?

Michael: Absolutely there should be standard work for doing the gemba walks, but the more important standard work is there should be standard work that the people are doing [laughs] that I’m going to be observing.

Just think about it. If you want to go through and do a gemba walk, and let’s just say you’re going to do a daily walk, and I go through and I see what’s going on today. I go through a different section to my operation tomorrow, and I’ve got people that are doing the work in varying ways.

I’ve learned that people do the work in varying ways, and that’s a neat insight. But in terms of improving and stabilizing what it is that were going on, there’s so much variation that’s taking place in an environment like that from the different ways that people operate that being able to do a highly effective gemba walk is a challenge because there’s so much variation.

With all that variation any changes that it is that you’re talking about doing, you have no idea of what the impact is going to be in the changes that are made because of all the other variations taking place, if that makes sense.

Ron: Yes.

Michael: I think in early walk if you start see that we have ineffective standard work practices, it’s more important to start standardizing the work that people are doing than it is to be doing gemba walks. You really want to stabilize the processes.

Once you’ve got the processes somewhat stabilized, you can take another tool, another thing that it is that we’re doing, these gemba walks, and I can begin to use those elevating further increasing the effectiveness of what it is that we’re doing.

There’s a best practice for doing just about anything. Best practice in Company A may differ from what Company B is doing given their level of maturity, given their situation, given their market. But within those organizations, we want to continually strive to find what is the best practice for doing this? I determine the best practice by going back and having a clear purpose on what it was we were talking about.

Very much with Mike Rother’s writing in Toyota Kata, what’s the target that it is that we’re trying to accomplish? It’s great language for doing a gemba walk. I could take Mike’s Kata language and use that for doing my gemba walks.

What’s the target we’re trying to hit? How am I going to measure if we’re progressing toward that target? With the gemba walks it’s the same thing. What’s our target? How are we measuring our progress of whether we’re doing this effectively or not? And what is it we need to be doing to elevate the walks across the board?

Once I get the processes somewhat stabilized, there’ll always be some stuff that comes up that you start to look for the exceptions. At O. C. Tanner, and certainly at Toyota, there are exceptions that happen all the time. It’s just in an organization like that that the abnormalities that arise on a daily basis are much fewer than happens in most organizations. Most organizations the entire day [laughs] is a set of abnormalities that take place in individual problem solving that happens that one after the other. These elite organizations have done a lot to stabilize the environment.

Ron: One question that I had is, I know that there’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all, but do you have any suggestions for how long a gemba walk should last and how often they should be done?

Michael: It is situationally dependent, so let’s talk about two types. If I’m the first-line supervisor, I probably want to do two or maybe even three walks during a shift. I’ve seen some places where they’ll go through and they’ll do this even on an hourly basis. But I say most of the time if I’m doing them two or three times a day, I should be pretty in touch with what’s going on.

What I’m doing is I’m establishing this pattern. People know that I’m going to be coming through the area to look and see what it is that’s going on. I would do a walk like that probably in about 15 minutes.

You scope how much can I get done effectively in 15 minutes? I may not be looking at the entire operation. I might be looking at pieces of the operation on a walk. Or if I’ve got just one cell that I’m responsible for as a lead person, then I’m doing that walk. It might a 10-minute walk to quickly go through and see what is happening.

For example, one of the things that they’ll do once a month in their walks is they’ll look at their operational equipment effectiveness, the OEE metric, their first pass yields of the equipment it is they’re using. They don’t look at that daily, though.

I think the first week of the month, that’d be one of the activities that I do on my walk when I’m doing the walk. By walking the second week might have a slightly different focus of what it is that we’re looking at, but I’m doing it quickly.

If I’m the plant manager, I’m probably going to spend an hour. I would hope that they’re doing that walk at least once a day. I’m probably covering quite a bit of the facility that it is that we’re in. It might take me a week to get through an entire large facility. But the plant manager is going through to get a deeper understanding of what it is that they’re tapping into things that are going on.

An external executive that’s coming in from the outside instead of spending an hour or two hours inside a conference room where they’re looking at financial results, which is sort of the traditional model. Instead those outside executives really should be spending time walking through the facility to get a deeper understanding of what’s really happening in the organization. Those walks could be an hour or two depending on the size of the business.

Ron: I remember from past lives and other companies that I had visited, there was situations where these executives the closest they came to the Gemba was that Power Point doc at the end-of-month review. If they showed up for one time a year, it would be this huge shock [chuckles] to the plant that the big boss was walking through.

Gosh, if these people would just take the time to visit the places where value is added, businesses would just thrive. I’m convinced of it.

Michael: There was a great story that Steven Spear wrote in his book. He was originally changing the rabbit. I think he changed the title to “High Velocity.” The story that’s in there is powerful.

What you had at the Toyota Georgetown plant is you had a supervisor that had come to work for that plant that previously had worked for General Motors. The President of Toyota at the time was Fujio Cho. Fujio was coming to the Georgetown plant to do a visit.

The supervisor, knowing how the typical General Motors executive came to visit, was in the process of trying to find the perfect car so that if they stopped by his area, he could show him a car that had no defects. He wanted to fence this car off. Of course, he’s trying to get his people to go through extra scrubbing and get the area all cLean and that sort of stuff.

His manager came over to him during the day and saw that he was doing this, and he had this car with ropes around it. [laughs] He asks the question, “What’s going on?” The guy explained the story that I just shared.

The manager said, “That’s not what Mr. Cho is going to want to see when he comes through.”

The guy looks at him and says, “What’s Mr. Cho going to want to see?”

The plant manager closes his eyes, turns in a circle, and randomly points at some car somewhere in the line. He says, “He’s going to want to see that one.”


Michael: The guy is sort of shocked. He told the guy, “Why would he want to see that one?”

He said, “He’s going to want to see that one, and he’s going to want to know everything that’s wrong with that car. Then he’s going to want to know what are you doing to address the issues that are there?”

They turned around from having this perfect car in this pretend world. The thing at GM, is we all want to pretend like the world is working the way we wish it existed.

The other thing that’s going on there is you as a manager are responsible for getting these problems fixed and not bothering the people above you with these problems you are trying to get fixed. It’s a simple statement, but that’s the culture that’s there.

What this guy didn’t realize is, “Wow, here at Toyota they want to know what’s really going on. Isn’t that a novelty?”

What he did with the car is he took this random car that they had selected and they put Post-its all over the car where there was a scratch, or where there was a blemish, or whatever was going on with the automobile. When Fujio came through and saw that, he spent a bunch of time talking about this car and talking about what’s going on to resolve the problems that it is they’re coming up with.

You just want to bang your head against the wall and say, “Why would somebody want to operate in this pretend world when if we knew what was really going on, we could do so much about it and make so much happen.” I think those people want to do the right stuff.

Ron: It’s fear. That’s why. Let’s be honest. It’s fear. So many of these traditionally-run companies, if you make a mistake, you get a trouble or you get reprimanded of some sort so whereas a Lean-thinking company, and Toyota is not the only one out there, as you know. Pull the cord if there’s a problem. Stop the line, almost celebrate it for doing that versus being in trouble.

Michael: Absolutely.

Ron: Michael, let’s go ahead and transition now into what we call in a quick fire section. This is where you get to share your personal thoughts and wisdom, which you’ve obviously been doing but we’re focusing a little bit on Michael now, OK?

Michael: OK.

Ron: The first question is, we talked a little bit about this already in this conversation, but we Lean thinkers spend a lot of time talking about the importance of respect for people, but it can be hard to put your finger on what exactly does it mean. What does respect for people mean to you, Michael?

Michael: It really means trust. One of the job responsibilities I had when I worked for Beatrice Foods. I had done this improving thing, and then they promoted me to the director of the information systems group. I had had some IT experience when I worked for McDonald Douglas when I was in college and going to school and they found out I had that. They said, “You can be the director of information systems. You know about the suburban stuff. This organization needs to be fixed.”

My problem was I was a technical idiot at that point in time. The IT world changed so much from what I knew. I never realized what control manager I was. Now I had 100 people that are working for me. I had 10 direct reports. I totally needed to trust these people. It was funny, because to the old manager, the IT department was pretty much operating as the police organization. We place things. We were Dr. No. We would tell people, “No, you can’t do that. Here’s the reason why.”

When I took it over, we could guarantee with 100 percent reliability, we would not give you what you asked for and we will give it to you late. [laughs] My mission was to turn that around. I had a vision of where I wanted us to end up, but I had no idea of how to get there. I shared that with the people that were my direct reports. Of course, this was before I knew about gemba walks and that sort of thing, but I did know something about performance improvement.

I really just went around, trying to get an understanding of what people were doing and the problems that they were wresting with. I really had to trust their judgment. Within two years, we totally transformed this thing into an organization where our customer community hated us, wanted nothing to do with us, to where people were coming and knocking on our doors.

I think there was one thing that I did that was pretty powerful that I don’t know if this good manager or bad manager, but I told my direct reports that if a customer called me with a complaint, that when we had our staff meeting, we had a weekly staff meeting at that point in time, I was going to embarrass the person who had this responsibility.

That may not have been a mature manager. I would probably do that differently this day that I did it then. What I wanted them to do is I wanted my direct reports to start talking to our customers. After I embarrassed two people over two weeks, I never ever got a complaint call from many of our customers.

I didn’t do it in a demeaning way. I focused in what she was. What I really wanted to do was to get them talking to the customers. That’s what they did. When they started talking to our customers, of course, they learned, our customers learned. Our processes began to work much more effective. It was one of the most important things that we did in making this shift.

Ron: Knowing what you know today, if you had that same situation instead of, say, embarrassed would not be too respectful, what would you do different in that situation?

Michael: I would do the five Ys. I would do the five Ys of why did this happen, what’s going on here, get them to start working down and thinking more critically about what it is that’s going on. That would have been a more mature way to have done it.

Unfortunately, I had done a number of things at Beatrice that had worked pretty well, and I worked with quite a few people throughout the organization where things had gone well. I think my staff gave me some space and allowed me to do some silly things. [inaudible 35:32] to figure it out together.

Ron: What’s interesting about that situation, sure, you can say, you shouldn’t embarrass people, that’s not being good. I think on the flip side, sometimes, there’s this misconception that respect for people means that, “We hold hands, stand in a circle, hymns together, and things like that,” where your people were not doing what was respectful to their customers, meaning communicating with them, talking to them.

Something needed to change and to jolt at them somehow into action for them to ultimately be respectful to their customers, meaning communicating with them, talking to them. Something needed to change, and you jolt at them somehow into action for them to ultimately be respectful to your customers, right?

Michael: Absolutely. “Jolt” is a good word, because “jolt” was really what I was trying to cause to happen. Whatever it is that we do, you can always think of better ways after you’ve done it. It worked. We had a couple of people that left shortly after I came in. The feedback from the rest of the team was, this is a good thing. Man, [laughs] I couldn’t believe how good these people were. They were outstanding.

Ron: Great. Michael, when you hear the phrase “Kaizen culture,” what comes to your mind?

Michael: People get anxious when you use the word “culture.” Sometimes, we try to directly go after changing the culture. Really, what the organization’s culture is culture are the things we do, the way we operate. If I have a Kaizen culture, what I have, I love the strict definition of the word “Kaizen,” which is improvement. If I got a Kaizen culture, what I’m doing is I’m creating an environment where we’re improving all of the time.

To me, what a Kaizen culture is I got an organization that really realizes there is no one best way to do anything that even taking our manufacturing excellence toward recipients. They’ve reached a certain level of excellence that it is they were recognizing, but they still have a journey. If they didn’t do anything else to change for the next three years, their competitors are going to catch it.

That Kaizen culture realizes that indeed, this is a journey, we’re learning, we’re constantly trying to do a better job of walking the [past way of doing the journey, but we’re open to learning. I think in a Kaizen culture, there’s a lot of humility with the leadership team to create that space for the people to go.

Ron: Michael, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received.

Michael: [laughs] It’s funny. This is another Beatrice experience. I went into a meeting with the executive team in an important project for the organization. It was really one of the first big significant projects that I had led. It was one solution that we believed in. We thought it was a good solution, but we got pushed back from the leadership team on what it was that we were recommending.

I was thinking the leadership team was resisting this change. I was putting the burden on them rather than accepting what my responsibility was for the situation. After that was over, my manager came to me. I’ve learned a lot from it. I’ve remembered it ever since.

He said he didn’t want to see me to ever come into a meeting again where I had only one solution. He said there is always three ways to do something. When you’re getting this resistance in a meeting like this, there certainly could be some resistance to change, but another thing that’s going on is that you’re getting feedback.

You need to listen to that feedback and understand it and not do this in a confrontational way. It really changed the way that I approach everything. It changed me. From my professional life, it changed my professional life to where I was much more flexible. I think as I worked with people, it’s much easier for me to listen to people who had their ideas to see what it was that could be learned. I think I’ve done a better and better job of doing that over the last 30 years, doing this.

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

Michael: That’s a challenging question, it is much easier to get advice than give advice. If you go into your room and you asked people, do they have a goal, most people will say, “Yeah, I got one.” Then give the second half of the question, you say, “Is it written down?” My experience in doing workshops is most people do not have written goals of what it is that they would like to accomplish. When you don’t have that, what happens is you — it’s easy to waffle. As time goes by, it’s easy to rationalize. Your goal gets a little bit sloppy as you justify whatever is transpired during the last 30 days, the last six months, and the last year.

Writing down what it is that I’m trying to accomplish, I’ll typically have two or three longer term goals that I’m working toward at any given point in time.

Ron: What’s interesting about that is that I recently interviewed our mutual friend and my business partner, Kevin Meyer. Kevin is big on writing. In his case, he likes to write three of his most important tasks for each day, but he says that at least for him, apparently there’s lots of brain and science behind this, which I have read a little bit about, that writing something literally triggers a different part of your brain than, say, typing into your electronic notepad, if you will.

There’s something, I don’t know, some dopamine levels or whatever that are released when you actually write something down and then actually achieve that goal that’s been written down and cross it out.

Michael: It really does. It provides a focus. That’s just the daily goal of what it is you’re doing there with what are the key three things I need to get done today, because it’s so easy to get distracted with what is going on, and do something that you think is meaningful. Occasionally, it’s appropriate to shift from what you’re three were, but every day when it is inter-shifting from what your three were…

It’s just so easy to let this stuff drift. I’m just amazed at the discipline that elite organizations have for what it is they’re trying to accomplish. I think writing it down, as you’re saying, for a variety of reasons, is a good idea.

Ron: This next question, I want to change up a little bit. We’ve talked about gemba walk earlier. You have written an e-book. I want you to just tell us a little bit about that. Then the second part is, in addition to your e-book, can you maybe share one of your favorite continuous improvement or leadership books that you’ve read along your journey?

Michael: I could. It’s funny how we wrote this e-book, because when you do a Google search on gemba walk, there’s a bunch of stuff that comes up. I got a lot of respect for the writing Jim Womack has done and some others. Jim’s got his book that he wrote about doing gemba walks. We were running a workshop for A&E, that organization we were talking about earlier.

One of our consortium companies was hosting the workshop. We had a bunch of people from around the country that were coming in to do this. When my partner, Brian, and I were putting it together, we looked on the web to try to find something we could use to tell people how to do a gemba walk, because when you read the Womack book, it works for the external executive that’s coming through to see something, but it does not work for what a first sign supervisor would be doing or daily walk activities.

We couldn’t find anything. We wrote this e-book. It’s only about, I don’t know, 60 or 70 pages, but we ended up writing it so that we could give people a tool that they could use for doing the walks. There’s half a dozen different types of walks that it is that you could be doing, depending on the walk you’re doing, what are some questions that are appropriate to address, those three steps that I walked through on preparation of doing the walk and debriefing the walk. Of course, in the e-book, we get into more detail are how do you make those things happen.

Just giving people a structure and then you can take that, and you can create what it is that you need to be doing, but you get a running start from what we’ve laid out in the e-book. We had a couple of people who review people. We needed more people that read it, reviewed it, especially if they liked it, but the feedback from those folks that have read it has been very positive, both those that post it on Amazon and people that have just told me about it.

Ron: We’re going to go ahead and link to where folks can go and check out that e-book at, 2-6. If you’re interested, go ahead and check that out.

The second part, Michael, is in addition to that, what is one of your favorite single continuous improvement or leadership books out there.

Michael: It’s one of my leadership books I think I would point to. I just went back and looked at this. I probably read this maybe 15 years ago. It’s Nelson Mandela’s autobiography. It’s called “A Long Walk to Freedom.” It’s a large book. One of the things that impressed me the most about Mandela was this person had been clearly discriminated against.

He was in prison for 25, 30 years. That’s a chunk of one’s life. When he came out of prison, I’m so amazed that this person came out of prison as a holistic person. As I started to learn about Mandela probably 20 years ago, I think that autobiography had come out around then, I just wanted to read about it to learn more about somebody that could survive such a trauma like that.

When you look at that, the qualities of this guy as a leader, he’s got a ton of humility. He is willing to listen. Even when he goes and he writes about the violent acts that they did, he wasn’t them to do crazy violent acts. There was a rationalization. One can argue with it or not. There was rationalization that went there for what it was they were doing. His longer term goal, of course, was to get freedom for his people.

Clearly, he influenced making that happen. I like reading about people that are like the Mandela one. I forget the one about Ghandi. The Ghandi biography was also a very, very powerful book when you look at people that are just strong. When you think about performance improvement like Lean, it’s amazing how few companies are truly elite in terms of doing this.

So many organizations do it, but the way they do it is very similar to where everybody else is doing it. Company A implements Lean or TQM or Six Sigma or whatever. A competitor in the industry, Company B, is doing the same thing. They both do get somewhat better.

When you do these things, you almost always get somewhat better, but I don’t get better enough to different from what my competitors are doing. The last book that we wrote was called “Escape the Improvement Trap.” It was really about that conundrum of “We got better. Why didn’t anything change?” You didn’t go nearly far enough.

The thing I like about books like the Mandela one, what we’re asking people to do here isn’t all that complicated [laughs] but it is not easy. It’s hard. It takes a phenomenal amount of discipline. I find a lot of inspiration from reading books by competent people, what they did to be able to make that happen.

Ron: Michael, the last question I have for you is, I want you to imagine that you’ve gotten back in the industry and you were hired as the general manager of a company. This company is needing to definitely improve their processes and way of working but unfortunately, once you’ve gotten on board, you’ve quickly discovered that many of the senior leaders that you’re dealing with and really, some of the front line folks as well, they just aren’t as enthused about your Lean-thinking mindset and ideas as you are.

With this said, Michael, what would you do and why?

Michael: I would do a lot of listening, which is certainly different from what Michael would have done when he was 20 years old. Michael in his 60s would listen. I would start with our customers. First of all, I would go and do visiting with the customers to get a feel for what’s really happening with this organization in the market place, what it is that’s going on.

When you come back into the organization, it will be pretty natural for people to feel that way. Some strangers then brought that if the organization gets better, the stranger is going to take all the credit. They’ve been trying to do the right things. The old leadership or leader wouldn’t allow them to do it. It would be very common, I think, to find degrees of what it is that you’re talking about.

A lot of what it is you need to do over this first 30 to 60 days is listening, not judging but going through and getting and understanding, probing and starting to show some recognition that you hear what it is that people are saying.

I think then they’d begin to build some credibility. There’s going to be a myriad of stuff that’s there. You need to start to figure out a way, how can we get a handle on starting to work on some quick changes that there is that we can make that are going to make some difference in the day-to-day basis of what it is that’s going on, that idea of starting to work towards some degree of process stabilization.

The other thing that you need to start tearing over the first couple of months is to begin to formulate a vision of where it is we’re trying to go, but it shouldn’t be your vision. What you need to do to get that leadership team on board is you need to start to work with that leadership team to jointly create a vision of where we’re going to go and try to accomplish.

Then the proof of the pudding is going to be, do you walk the talk? Are you there really? Do you deliver what it is that you say you’re going to do? Any room that you make, you better keep and stay focused. My experience is an expression that my partner, Brian, likes to use that reasonable people, equally well-informed, seldom disagrees.

The problem in that initial environment is we’re not all equally well-informed. We got a lot of biases and strong opinions. What that new person coming in needs to do is to start getting people to be more equally well informed. If you do that, then you treat people decently. They’re pretty amazing.

Ron: Yeah. Exactly.

Michael: You can make it happen. That would be my approach.

Ron: OK. Very good.

All right, Michael. Well, thanks so much. Why don’t we wrap this show up with you sharing some final words of wisdom. Then, why don’t you tell people how they can connect with you on social media, things like LinkedIn or twitter, or whatever you might be hanging out on these days.

Michael: If you really start to get an understanding of what these Lean principles are about, you see what it is that’s going on.

I think you’ll only do that through participating with organizations like The Association of Manufacturing Excellence, AME, where you can get out and go see somewhere else, where they’re operating differently from the way that you operate.

It’s almost impossible to make these changes until you start to modify your ability to see what it is that’s going on, and you go to places to do that.

My first thing to do for learning is to go out and see some other places, see some things that are operating differently, and then start to think about the possibilities.

It’s really pretty phenomenal when you do this, almost intoxicating.

One of my first experiences with Kaizen, I was doing some work for a global technology firm, pretty much when my understanding of Lean was still Kaizen’s. I’m working with the factory that’s in Louisiana, and we had done a couple of Kaizen teams.

We’d made management presentations. It had all gone well. We’re in the room. The end of the week I’m going to fly back to Chicago from Shreveport. I asked everybody that was under one team, “What did you get out of this week?” because I’m always kind of curious.

We’re going around that room and people are talking about it. We come to this one woman. Her name is Pearly. Pearly said, “I’ve worked for this company for 25 years…” and she paused. Then she said, “…it’s the first time they’ve ever asked me to think…” She paused again. Then she said, “…and I really liked it.”

It’s almost intoxicating because, when you do what it is you’re talking about here, you can see people grow before your eyes. It is a phenomenal experience of the way that this takes place. I would encourage anybody to be doing it.

I’m all over the social media. If you did just a search for Michael Bremer on Google, I typically come up several times in the first page. I’m available for people to connect with me on LinkedIn.

I do some Twitter. I’m not a regular Twitter poster. I keep getting additional people that follow me on Twitter and I wonder where they’re coming from because I might not have posted for 30 days.

Ron: They’re robots, Michael. Just breaking it to you. [laughs]

Michael: I use LinkedIn on a regular basis. I found that to be a very good site for connecting people throughout North America and to some degree throughout the globe.

Ron: Yes.

Michael: Our website in the organization is Cumberland, like the Cumberland Gap. would get you to our website. Of course, if you did a search on Amazon on how to do a gemba walk, you’d find that particular e-book. There’s a couple of other things we’ve written.

Ron: Yes. Again, we’re going to have links to everything that Michael and I have been talking about at the show notes, which people can find at the Then, for those interested in AME conference that we talked about earlier, that’s Michael, thank you again for taking time out of your day to chat with us and I look forward to seeing you in Jacksonville and perhaps we can connect again and do another podcast down the road.

Michael: Absolutely Ron, I really enjoyed it. Thank you very much for taking the time to do this. I appreciated it and it was a lot of fun.

Ron: All right. Take care.

Michael: You too.


Presenter: 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?

How do you do your Gemba Walks? What works for you and what doesn’t?

GA 025 | Defeating Complexity By Leveraging People with Kevin Meyer


Press the play button above to listen to the episode. If you’re reading this via email or RSS click the image below to listen to the episode.


Today’s guest is Gemba Academy Co-Founder Kevin Meyer. Kevin wears many hats at Gemba Academy and has a lot of great insight into team management, business strategy, and technology, not to mention lean and continuous improvement practices.

Kevin is also a big fan of simplicity and utilizing the full potential of his employees and colleagues. I think you’ll find what he has to say both refreshing and relevant.

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

In this episode you’ll learn:

  • Kevin’s diverse career background (4:48)
  • The two quotes that inspire Kevin (8:38)
  • How complexity impacts businesses (10:22)
  • Why fancy technology isn’t always the answer (12:55)
  • How Gemba Academy battles complexity (14:46)
  • The qualities Kevin looks for in executives (16:09)
  • Kevin’s definition of “Respect for People” (18:18)
  • What comes to mind when Kevin hears the phrase “Kaizen Culture” (20:41)
  • The best advice Kevin has ever received (22:13)
  • Kevin’s favorite personal productivity habit (24:04)
  • A quick Gemba Academy update…stay tuned! (32:43)
  • Kevin’s final words of wisdom (37:31)

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 Full Written Transcript

GA 25 | Kevin Meyer

Announcer: You’re listening to Episode 25 with Kevin Meyer.

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 would like to welcome you to another edition of the Gemba Academy Podcast.

As always, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day to listen to this show, and for watching our videos over We definitely appreciate each and every one of you.

Today, I’m especially pumped up to welcome my good friend, my business partner and one of the co-founders of Gemba Academy, Kevin Meyer to the show. Kevin and I have really gotten to know each other, obviously, very well over the last really five, six years since we’ve been thinking about doing Gemba Academy, and then, starting it and now running the company.

Jon Miller has been on the show before. Jon is also the third partner of Gemba Academy.

Jon, to give a little bit of a background, some people know this, some people don’t, but Jon and I spend a lot of time on the content side of things. Golly, Kevin pretty much does everything else or has his hands in everything else, everything from managing the teams that take care of our website to doing lots of work on the sell side.

Really, Kevin is a technology expert, and he would probably shudder if he heard me say that, which he will when he listens to this intro. Kevin really is on the forefront of technology.

On the flip side, what makes Kevin such a great business partner is that he’s really passionate about the concept of simplicity and focus. We talk about this in the episode, but we don’t really pull back the curtain. I’ll give you a little insight into how Gemba Academy operates. I’m the crazy guy on the videos, and I’ve got all these ideas.

I’m constantly thinking of new things, maybe new ideas that we can explore down the road. Kevin is constantly reeling me back in, and saying, “Don’t make me say the f-word, which is focus.”

It has been such a great partnership that we push each other because we are on the forefront of innovation and whatnot, we are trying new things. But at the same point, we’re constantly coming back to, “What is our focus? How do we take care of our customers, and what do we really need to be doing today and tomorrow?”

With that said, during this episode, Kevin and I explore the evils of complexity. Kevin’s going to talk about how complexity and battling it has been an instrumental part of his career even before Gemba Academy.

Kevin’s also going to explore things like what he looked for and what he currently looks for when we hire executives here at Gemba Academy, and also, in his past life, and some of the attributes of the good leader.

The last thing — we kind of did this on the fly, we hadn’t planned to do this, but since Kevin really leads all the technology improvements here at Gemba Academy, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity towards the end of the show to allow Kevin to give an update on what we’re up to at Gemba Academy and some of the improvements that we’re going to be making from our technology.

And really, listening to the voice of the customer and respecting our customers — some of the improvements that we have coming down the road. It’s not really meant to be a sales pitch. It’s really meant, honestly, for current Gemba Academy customers, they know what to expect.

Now, all the show notes for this episode can be found over at That’s two-five. OK, enough from me — now, let’s get to the show!


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

Kevin Meyer: Actually, from the Gemba Academy West offices, which happen to be in a nice small fishing village on the central coast of California.

Ron: It’s a tough place to visit, I tell you. [laughs] No, it’s beautiful. What’s the city?

Kevin: Morro Bay, California.

Ron: Morro Bay, California. Yeah, that’s beautiful.

Kevin, I told everybody in the intro that obviously you’re affiliated with Gemba Academy, and we started this company together and whatnot, but why don’t you just tell everybody a little bit more about your background and how you maybe first got exposed to this Lean thinking stuff that we dabble in?

Kevin: It’s been quite a while. My background is actually in chemical engineering, although, I never really used it for much.

I made light bulbs for several years, wanted to do something a little bit more meaningful, I moved out to California back in the late ’80s and did medical devices for over 10 years there in Salt Lake. My exposure to Lean was actually when, as a newbie, they said, “How would you just like to transfer out to Salt Lake and run a facility out there?” At that stage in your career, you’re like, “Sure. Why not?” Without asking any questions.

When I got out there, that’s when they told me that this was a 24/7, 365-day-a-year molding operation with about 50 heavy presses that was loaded at about 120 percent of capacity and was six weeks behind schedule.


Kevin: What do you do then? That’s when I started calling around a little bit, and I came across an organization called AME, the Association for Manufacturing Excellence.

A couple of great guys there, Doc Hall, Dan McDonnell and some others, pointed me to Quick Changeover. It was amazing. We took the time to actually look at our changeovers, went through the classic Quick Changeover tools. In the meantime, the company is pushing me to order as many of these quarter-million-dollar presses as I could, and those had three or four-month lead times.

In that space of those three or four months with Quick Changeover, we were able to get back on schedule. By the time the first couple of presses were coming in, we were actually retiring some of our old presses. It’s amazing how fast some of these tools can work when you do them correctly and really put the commitment behind them.

Ron: Nice. Then, what did you do after that? Because obviously your last role before Gemba Academy here was at Specialty Silicone Fabricators.

Kevin: Right. I moved back out to California.

I was in Salt Lake at the time and moved back out to California, jumped into Telecom at the exact wrong time, which was around November 2000. Those of you that were around back them know that the entire market collapsed about a year later. I started with a hyper-growth adding as many engineers as we could find operation.

Within a year and actually it was on September 10th, 2001, I announced that we were closing the facility and laying everyone off. That wasn’t a fun week in my life, but after that I started and later sold a very small contract manufacturing operation, went into consulting.

One of the consulting arrangements I had was with a local company, Specialty Silicone Fabricators, that also does medical devices. Went into that and within a few months [laughs] they convinced me to come on full-time as the president was retiring. I spent eight years there leaving in 2012.

It was a great situation, because the owners gave me a lot of freedom to do whatever needed to be done. We went through a great Lean transformation at a very difficult time in the economy, which just also proved how powerful the concepts were.

Ron: Absolutely. Very good. Like you know, Kevin, you’ve listened to our podcasts, but what we like to do is start every show with a quotation. What quotation inspires you, Kevin?

Kevin: I’ll actually give you two. One I came across a long time ago, Peter Drucker’s “Follow effective action with quiet reflection, and then from the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.”

That’s something maybe I’ll talk a little bit more about later, but reflection is a very powerful tool. The other one is from Marian Wright Edelman. She’s a civil rights activist and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She said, “Learn to be quiet enough to hear the sound of the genuine within yourself so that you can hear it within others.”

The combination of those two is something I’ve really taken with me as I try to become more self-aware as a person and as a leader, and then, leveraging reflection to also become a better leader. I think reflection and self-awareness are probably the two most powerful tools in a leader’s toolbox.

You become self-aware. It leads to authenticity. It drives humility and a servant attitude, and that creates trust. That’s the core of the mindful leadership concept that the likes of Bill George have really started to champion.

Ron: Excellent. All right, Kevin. Really, the theme of our show today is the evils of complexity, I guess just to generalize that.

Maybe that’s what we’ll title this, [laughs] but you’ve obviously been blogging and writing over on Evolving Excellence. That’s what it used to be called, Evolving Excellence, your original blog. You’ve spent a lot of time talking about the evils of complexity. Why don’t you elaborate a little bit on how complexity can impact a business?

Kevin: I think the concept started to take root with me as I moved into more leadership roles, especially, those that had P&L responsibility.

You start looking at cost and you realize in a traditional cost accounting world that you have the three buckets, labor, material, and overhead.

Leaders are trained to look at each of those three buckets and try to reduce labor, reduce material, reduce overhead. Something that started to strike me is that the largest cost in business and pretty much in any organization is not necessarily those three items individually, but unnecessary complexity. I’ll emphasize “unnecessary.”

Complexity can be a good thing in some ways, but unnecessary complexity is obviously an evil. Especially, in a manufacturing environment, when you get down to the nuts and bolts, manufacturing and business are really not all that difficult. We just make it so. We do that by not understanding and rooting out unnecessary complexity.

Instead, we like to oftentimes just slap a technology solution on top of it without getting to the root cause. Lean teaches us to take a step back. We’re supposed to take a step back, look at the process, just observe it, deconstruct it, reconstruct it with just the value adding components. When you do that, you’ll be amazed at what you find.

Those of us that have gone through a lean transformation journey see that, how much complexity is there, how much it takes to manage that complexity. That is what translates into the overhead and so forth that you have the cost associated with.

Ron: With that said, how have you leveraged this kind of thinking in your business career?

Kevin: In some ways, it’s been a struggle. I’ll admit that I’m a tech geek. You and I were talking about iOS 8 and the iPhone 6 this morning.

I’m very close to one of those crazy guys that will go down to the Apple store, three days ahead of time, and stand in line for a phone where once I get it, I’ll have to struggle to find what the improvement was. Because I like technology.

I’ve learned that technology is often just a band-aid and we’re too quick to try to slap a technology solution onto some things. One example that I’ve seen used a lot and we used it at Specialty Silicone was we had a very complex manufacturing environment. It’s multi-site. We did semi-custom type components that went through multiple value streams and a lot of different custom processes.

Like many true Lean companies, we found a way to not use MRP and ERP to manage the shop floor. We obviously used it to manage aggregate planning, and so forth, but on the shop floor, we simplified enough that we got down to just using a handful of whiteboards. That proved very effective for multiple reasons, one being that the operators had control over the process.

By writing on the whiteboard and understanding the process, they truly understood the process. I don’t want to go too deep into it, but there’s a lot of science on how learning and understanding and commitment comes from physically writing something, not typing into a computer. Too many companies like to type it into a computer, even to have it on an electronic display, but you’re losing out.

When you actually scribble a number on a whiteboard, you start to see and feel the relationships.

Ron: You spent a lot of time talking about manufacturing, but at Gemba Academy, we’re obviously not a manufacturing company.

We’ve also spent a lot of time trying to reduce complexity in our business and how we present our product to our customers and potential customers.

I’m trying to make this into a Gemba Academy sales pitch, but I think this is an important conversation for people that are listening right now who say, “Yeah, that’s great, but I don’t manufacture anything. I’m in a service industry.” Or “I’m in health care” or something like that.

Why don’t you talk a little bit about how we at Gemba Academy have tried to combat complexity, even from the examples of our website?

Kevin: We spent a lot of time on that.

Especially, when you’re starting a new company and you’re trying to get customers, to be honest, especially, in the first couple of years, there’s a lot of shiny balls and a lot of comments out there. When you listen to the customers, you hear a lot of things and you have to work hard not to chase all the shiny balls.

Something I know you and I have had many long conversations on is the concept of focus. What are we truly providing? What provides the most value? Then, what is the most effective way to deliver it? It does shows off across multiple ways on the website. What is the easiest way to deliver the maximum amount of value to our customers?

The types of content we look at, what is the most value out there? We’re hearing things from customers. Which of those is the most valuable and how can we test for that? It becomes very difficult.

Ron: Back to the angle of complexity and simplicity and what not, when you think about this, what do you look for when you recruit executives or what did you in the past and what do you look for now at Gemba Academy as it relates to people that get this concept of how to reduce complexity?

Kevin: We need people that are very inquisitive and like to figure things out.

As I’ve gone through my career, I’ve had to recruit a lot of people at increasingly higher level manager and executive roles, including replacing me as president at Specialty Silicone. The path a lot of people take on goes along looking at background and experience and making the phone calls and seeing what they’ve done.

I’ve come to notice that probably the best predictor of executive success is someone that is very inquisitive, someone that has an insatiable thirst for new knowledge, wants to learn, and then, discover new things. It doesn’t have to be even in the field that you’re operating in, like medical devices. It’s just overall someone that wants to learn.

Then, something that aligns with that is you want to be able to learn, but also, understand that knowledge. How can you distill it, analyze it, learn to apply it becomes very important. Then, as a final step — this goes to the respect for people side of Lean that unfortunately a lot of people forget about — is the ability to teach it.

A great teacher becomes a very great leader, someone that can grab the knowledge, teach it, and teach it effectively, which means challenging people, but still being able to do it in a very humble manner.

Ron: All right, Kevin. Let’s go ahead now and transition into my favorite part of the show called the Quick Fire Section. This is what we’re going to do now. We’re going to drill into who Kevin is and what’s inside of your brain.


Kevin: Hysteric.

Ron: The first question, Kevin, is on that concept of respect for people. We spend a lot of time in Lean talking about that and how important it is. What does it mean to you?

Kevin: Respect for people, I think it’s one of the two key pillars of Lean, along with continuous improvement.

I think it’s the one that is usually forgotten or at least misunderstood. In the Lean transformations, I’ve been part of and that I’ve witnessed, probably the primary reason for failure is not understanding respect for people.

Respect for people means leveraging the brains of people. People doesn’t just include the ones within your organization. It’s the entire value stream. It’s your suppliers, all the way through to your customer and even the end customer. How do you leverage that knowledge?

I see way to many companies, and this is driven by our traditional cost accounting type of mindset or standards, that think of people as the cost of a pair of hands. You manage your organization based on the cost of the pair of hands and you completely forget about the brain that is attached to that pair of hands. The brain is not really reflected on a traditional P&L or a balance sheet.

I’ve seen some interesting things along those lines. In most organizations it’s not. That leads to crazy decisions of laying off 5,000 highly experienced people to shift manufacturing overseas to save a buck. What have you lost? You gained a buck, but what have you lost in value, even if it’s not on a traditional balance sheet?

I want to go one step further on that and it’s something that has impacted me. Respect for people also means respecting yourself. I think that’s critical for a leader that you have to understand yourself. Caregivers learned to effectively care for others you must first care for yourself. I think that goes for leaders and leadership as well.

Ron: That’s a great point. No one’s ever mentioned that, but if you can’t take care of yourself, then, how are you ever going to lead others?

Kevin, when you hear the phrase “Kaizen culture” or “a Kaizen culture” what comes to your mind?

Kevin: I think it ties directly into our last point. It’s leveraging people to create continuous and ongoing and never-ending improvement.

There’s a lot of Kaizen tools. How to do a Kaizen, how to do a Kaizen event, that type of thing. What I think a lot of organizations miss and a lot of training misses is the people side of it. How do you tap into the brains of people across the entire value chain to create a culture that enables improvement?

Ron: Yeah. Kevin obviously knows this, but we are working right now, as we speak, on a new course.

It’s not meant to be another commercial here, but it was Kevin’s idea. Instead of calling it “a Kaizen culture,” as Jon Miller’s book is titled — we’re leveraging John’s book heavily — we’re going to turn it around and call it “a culture of Kaizen.” You came up with the idea, Kevin. Why did you choose that?

Kevin: I think the sequence denotes the importance. You want to create a culture that leverages people. Kaizen is one output of that. Kaizen creating continuous improvement, ongoing improvement is one output of that. But leveraging people and a culture of leveraging people pays so many rewards.

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

Kevin: The best advice was probably also part of my downfall, I think.

Early on in my career…and you realize that when you can look back 30 years and you can still see the look on your boss’s face, but I had my boss come up to me. I forget the context, but he poked his head in my office and said, “You know, you really need to sweat the details.”

There’s probably something I had done wrong there that was detail-oriented, because I was moving too fast. But I remember the look on his face. It had a tremendous impact on me. It’s simple advice. I’ve often received other advice more directly tied to Lean, and so forth. Sweat the details tied to me.

The reason it was my downfall is I think I took it too much to heart and I’ve become even a little bit of OCD on details, especially, when it’s travel related. I have to work hard to find an appropriate balance of what are important details. It ties into getting to know yourself, too.

Ron: Yeah. When we do any kind of company outing, we’ve got folks that help us with travel, but Kevin is always involved. [laughs]

Kevin: It’s one of my things. I can’t trust anyone else on it, because I’m the one that will look up, what is the on-time arrival percentage at some airport and make sure we have the random out of…lay over there to achieve it. It’s worked out. My wife and I travel tremendously. We just hit our 50th country.

There’re sometimes when you put far more effort into managing the details and managing a situation if something happened. I need to be more aware of that myself.

Ron: I know you have tons of productivity habits, but why don’t you share one of your favorite personal productivity habits that others might benefit from?

Kevin: Something that I started many years ago, when I started especially Silicon, was thinking about what I was going to do each day.

That came from…I had a pretty long commute, maybe not for some people, but it was about 45 minutes. It’s a beautiful commute. It’s the nicest commute anyone in the world could ask for.

We’re in a small town. There’s no traffic, which seems to conflict what most people think about California. I drove up the California Coast and then inland through vineyards for 45 minutes. I would often not even see another car. I got in the habit of completely turning off the radio, listening to the sound of the wind and just thinking about my day.

Something that I started doing was identifying three key tasks. Then, when I got to work, I’d write them down. What are the three key things I wanted to get done that day. Then, on the commute home, I would do the opposite. I would do Hansei. I would think about those three things.

Did I get them done? What happened? What influenced that? Why didn’t I get them done? Then, probably most importantly, what would I change?

I still do that. Even though my commute now is far shorter, each morning I take the time to write down three key tasks and then, in the evening, think about those three tasks. Summary to what I’d mentioned before, the act of writing them down into a notebook. I’ve tried electronic books and that kind of thing. It doesn’t work. I keep a journal now and writing down the three things.

Then, in the evening, what three things did I get accomplished and what do I need to change. If you get just three things done a day, it’s amazing how much you can get done.

Ron: If you could only recommend one book related to continuous improvement of leadership, what would it be and why?

Kevin: Coming up with just one is very difficult, because you have different aspects of leadership.

There’s “The True Lean Leadership,” “The Lean Manager,” some of those gold mines, some of those books. As I’ve gotten older, and then, to leader into my career, I’ve focused on becoming aware of myself and how that influences leadership.

A few years ago, when I was going through a particularly stressful time, both in terms of professional leadership and personal leadership, and how to handle personal leadership in a stressful professional leadership environment, struggling with that, to be honest, I came across Matthew May’s “The Shibumi Strategy.” It’s a tiny book. It’s very quick read. It’s very short business novel.

I’ve become really good friends of Matt May as a result of this. He’s got some other ones on the laws of subtraction, and so forth. “The Shibumi Strategy” is about a guy that was in a very similar situation to me and how he took a step back, leveraged some concepts like spending some time alone and thinking about things to become more self aware, and how that turned him into a better leader.

I have recommended that book I don’t know how many times and given copies to people. It has changed people’s lives because it helps you re-center, discover your trust authentic self. As I mentioned before, that authenticity is critical to leadership.

Ron: It’s an excellent book. It’s maybe an airplane and a half ride kind of read, or depending, if you’re coming from California…

Kevin: Not even.

Ron: Maybe California is half way there to Texas.

The last question I have is imagine that you got back into industry and you’re hired as a general manager of a company that needed to improve their processes and their way of working. Unfortunately, once you were hired, you discover that many of the senior leaders that you’re dealing with, they’re not quite as enthused about your Lean thinking mindset and ideas.

With this said, what would do in this situation and why?

Kevin: It’s the situation I’ve been in a couple of times from different perspectives.

I mentioned the one at the larger medical device company, where I ran the molding operation. I was going through the journey with them, I guess, and learning about quick changeover. Something that struck me was the quick early win.

When quick changeover has turned around what seemed like an impossible situation very fast, within two or three months, that got the entire organization pretty enthused on what else is there that we can leverage.

We used a lot of tools after that. Perhaps more relevant was, maybe more recently, I went into an organization and it was a lack of enthusiasm, But it wasn’t because of a negative attitude toward it. It was just a lack of knowledge.

That’s a fairly easy one to turn around, thankfully. They were simply unaware of the power and potential of Lean. Seeing examples becomes very critical and very empowering then. Something we did was we sent some of the executive staff and then people that were passionate throughout the organization on tours. There’s various ways you can do that.

I know out here in California AME puts on a Southern California Lean Tour. In fact, I heard, I think it was just last week or maybe it’s this week, where you visit several organizations that are well on their journey, a wide variety of organizations. That was very powerful. You see Lean in action and see what incredible things it can do. People come back very enthused.

There are Lean tours also at the AME conferences. There’re stories of transformation at other conferences like the Lean Accounting Summit, where real practitioners talk about their transformations. When I do that and we continued to do that, even after the organization was on a solid Lean path, but I’d always give them an assignment. It comes back maybe even to respect for people.

“I’m going to give you this opportunity, but come back and present to the staff and to the company the top three things we should do immediately and the top three things that are pretty cool that we should keep on our radar.”

Of course, we can’t do all of those things. It forces people to think and to analyze what they’re looking at, to distill it and figure out what we should be working on [laughs] .

I don’t want to turn into a plague either but, seeing Lean action is also the concept behind our Gemba Academy, give my life scenery, where we go out to real companies and see some pretty, incredible Lean things. Across multiple industries that it really sparks some thought.

Ron: Yes, very good. What’s funny about your example there, our own Steve Cain, who works for you especially at telecom fabricators, as well, tells us a story of how they first went to AME, Learn about autonomous teams and they went to, was it Daemon products the company?

Sought and action and came back and did it. That’s a perfect example of that cycle, right? Of how powerful seeing others practicing something can how it impact the company.

Kevin: Yes, we have to be sort of careful. It’s just because there’s a lot of cool things out there. You need to figure out what works best for you. [laughs] This is something for an entire plague cast maybe.

The downfalls of benchmarking, there’s too many companies that go out there try to find the best. I think they have to do those things. You have to really figure out what works for you.

Ron: Yes, exactly. Before we wrap the show up, Kevin, since we have you on here, we have tons of Gemba Academy customers listening to this right now. We didn’t plan to do this.

You got to think quick on your figure. We got a lot of stuffs on the works right now from like a technology perspective. Some of it’s well in process. Some of it’s haven’t started yet. Why don’t you give a quick update on the technical side of Gemba Academy? What are Gemba Academy customers can look forward in the coming months?

Kevin: You’re right. We have a lot in the works. There’s sort of goes back to what we talked about in the beginning of listening to our customers. That’s still trying to maintain our focus on key priorities.

I think we’ve done that especially now. We have a very large and diverse customer base. Something that might surprise a lot of listeners is almost lot of our customers are not in manufacturing. That points to the power of the Lean like you can go across healthcare, military, and consumer products. We have charitable organizations, and so forth. We’re trying to find ways to make our content more usable.

That was really gone to a large number of videos. We’re well over 650 videos right now. How we organize that and present that becomes critical to our customers.

Otherwise, it’s just simply overwhelming. We’re investing some technologies. Some are becoming online on very short order and by that before the end of the year. Ways to organize and reorganize a large number of videos plus associated quizzes and that type of thing.

Also, allow customers to individually reorganize that so that it better suits their own environment. That’s a very complex product that’s different than what’s been done before. I think it’s very exciting. It gives the power to our customers to use our material how best it’s met. Probably the second one, to stretch on this one briefly is we’ve got a very dynamic community, link community, a very dynamic group for customers.

They saw the amount of interaction we do with our customers. I think that’s what really sets us apart, how we listen and talk to our customers and put them in contact with each other. I think we want to leverage that even further by enabling those connections between customers within customers, between the public and our customers to create improvement, to dynamically create content and to create solutions for our customers.

I don’t want to go into that too much further. There’s some very exciting things along with lines that we’re working on.

Ron: Something is that, Kevin and I, it’s funny that we’re doing a podcast, because we normally talk about eight times a day every day, weekends.

Our Gemba Academy and team members would roll their eyes and we’re constantly experimenting and coming up with crazy ideas over the weekend.

Kevin: That you can drop on everyone else by Monday morning.

Ron: Yes [laughs] . One of the things that we spend a lot of time talking about is how, sure there’s a lot of people out there who are coming up and starting to make videos.

They’re just trying maybe potentially compete with us which is great. The more people in a market, they’re better. What we’re trying to do is eventually one day Gemba Academy hope to say, “You know what? They also have awesome videos [laughs] .”

Like, be known as a place where you can go to get pretty much anything you need around continuous improvement and leadership. Not just Lean either, not just six sigma just continuous improvement in general.

I think all these things that you and your team are working on are really going to take us to the next level. Of course, we’re going to keep trying to make awesome videos. We’ll never stop doing that and going back and refreshing old ones. Videos are the only aspect I think to our learning solution.

Kevin: I think it really ties into our discussion and respect for people that’s why our customers see something a little bit different in our videos is that, it’s a different style of teaching.

It’s respecting people and how their ability to learn and then apply. I think we’ll see even more that moving forward on the respectful people’s side. Then, content and how we do things.

Ron: Yes, exactly.

Kevin: I just want to throw once again that if you look at respectful people, you should look at our culture code that we created for Gemba Academy. It’s radically different than you see in other companies. We really try to practice what we preach.

Ron: Yes, and we’ll link that up in the show no tear, as well.

Kevin, let’s go ahead and wrap up. If you have any final words of wisdom that you want to share, go ahead and do that.

More importantly, once you tell people how they can connect with you on social media, your Gemba Academy website, whatever is the best way to get in touch with you.

Kevin: I think my passion’s have probably come out [laughs] . The simplicity side and the respect on people side, I really think we’re doing a little bit something different.

That’s actually my passion for Gemba Academy was giving back to an industry in the Lean world that has given me so much. That’s the reason I do this. To connect with me obviously through Gemba Academy is an easy one.

We have a team page on our website and the about section that shows how to connect with us on LinkedIn, and so forth. I still try to blog when I have time which, thanks to somebody’s project, we’re just talking about isn’t too often these days.

Ron: It’s not one of your three main things each day [laughs] .

Kevin: It’s usually the fourth. It doesn’t get active on very often. I do try to write it. The sense of simplicity, I consolidated evolving excellence into just my own personal site,, a few months ago.

Occasionally, who knows? It might be something new there.

Ron: Yes. Fantastic. I suppose as soon as we hang up we’ll probably call each other back as we have some other things to talk about.

Kevin: We get to talk frequently, at least a few times an hour.

Ron: Yes, I think it’s good to have you on a few times a year. If anything, just keep your Gemba Academy customers updated on what’s going on, what’s going around the corner.

Anyhow, thanks, Kevin for taking the time and I’m sure we’ll chat again soon.

Kevin: Thank you.

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What Do You Think?

Does complexity help or hinder your life? How so?

GA 024 | Lean and Green with Keivan Zokaei


Press the play button above to listen to the episode. If you’re reading this via email or RSS click the image below to listen to the episode.
Today’s guest is Keivan Zokaei, a UK-based author and consultant. Keivan is a pioneer in the lean and green movement. In this episode we explore what exactly “lean and green” means, and how to bring environmentally-friendly practices to your workplace.

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

In this episode you’ll learn:

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

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Full Written Transcript

GA 24 Keivan Zokaei

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

[background music]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keivan: Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

Keivan: There you go. Yes. Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron: Absolutely.

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

Ron: What is it called?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron: That’s interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I must say that has significantly helped me a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron: Thank you. Take care.

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

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

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What Do You Think?

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

GA 023 | The Lean Roundtable with Paul Akers and Friends


Press the play button above to listen to the episode. If you’re reading this via email or RSS click the image below to listen to the episode.
Lean RoundtableToday’s episode is jam-packed with amazing lean conversation. FastCap’s Paul Akers invited me to join his monthly Lean Roundtable, during which he and other lean leaders check in with each other and discuss a specific topic related to continuous improvement.

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

An MP3 version is also available for download here

In this episode you’ll learn:

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

Video Version of Lean Roundtable

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

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

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What Do You Think?

What are you presently struggling with? Is lean hard, easy, or neither?

GA 022 | Leading with Respect with Michael Ballé


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

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

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

In this episode you’ll learn:

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

Podcast Resources

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

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Full Written Transcript

 GA 22 Michael Ballé

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

[background music]

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

[background music]

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

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

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

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


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

Michael Balle: I’m in Paris.

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

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

Ron: No, I love Paris.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron: Yeah, yeah.

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

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

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

Ron: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron: OK.


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

Ron: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron: OK, The Lean Manager.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron: OK.

Michael: How do porcupines mate?

Ron: Uh-huh?

Michael: Very carefully.

Ron: [laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Michael: Yes.

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

Michael: Yep, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean to you to respect people?

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

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

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

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

Everybody has different ideas about this.

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

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

It’s one of these strange words.

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

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

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

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

Michael: Received or listened to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron: Yep.

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

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

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

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

Ron: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael: Thanks.

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

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

Ron: [laughs] Yeah.

Michael: [shouts]

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

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

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

Michael: It feels more like twittering sometimes.


Ron: Twittering your wings maybe. [laughs]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron: I do read it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael: It might be logistically a bit complicated.

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


Michael: The French post office at some point.


Ron: It can be the worst of…

Michael: Think about it.

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

[background music]

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

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

Michael: Bye.

[background music]

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


What Do You Think?

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

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


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

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

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

In this episode you’ll learn:

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

Podcast Resources

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Click to Subscribe in iTunes

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

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

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

Full Written Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[music transition]

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

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

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

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

many challenges we, as continuous improvement practitioners, face.

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

The gist of the allegory goes something like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do You Think?

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

GA 020 | Developing People Through Autonomy with Steve Kane



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

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

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

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

In this episode you’ll learn:

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

Podcast Resources

Download a Free Audio Book

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

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

Simply click this link to claim your free audio book.

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

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Click to Subscribe in iTunes

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

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

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

Full Written Transcript

 GA 20 Steve Kane

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

[background music]

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

Now, here’s your host, Ron Pereira.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron: What does that really mean to you?

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

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

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

Steve: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron: How did you learn about autonomous teams?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron: They had a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve: That’s absolutely a shining example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve: Yeah, it certainly keeps me moving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron: All right, take care.


What Do You Think?

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

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



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

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

In this episode you’ll learn:

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

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Full Written Transcript

 GA 19 Jean Cunningham

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

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

Now, here’s your host Ron Pereira.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ron: Home of the Wildcats, right?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean: Thank you.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron: No turnover.

Jean: Pardon me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean: [laughs]

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


Jean: [laughs] Thanks for that suggestion.

Ron: Potential counter measure.


Jean: There you go.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jean: Thank you.


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

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


Ron: [laughs]

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

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

Ron: Give the name of the book again.

Jean: “The Lean Turnaround.”

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

Jean: That would be great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[background music]

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


Ron: I’ll get on there as well.

Jean: Good.

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

Jean: Thank you.

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What Do You Think?

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