The Ultimate Productivity System: Zen to Done

Leo Babauta is the founder of one of the most popular blogs around called Zen Habits (almost 60,000 subscribers as of this article).

While he doesn’t write about lean manufacturing, per se, he does touch on many lean philosophies like achieving goals, productivity, being organized, simplicity, etc.

When I first came across his site I decided to buy his ebook, Zen to Done (ZTD), which basically summarizes his entire philosophy.

Not only is the book one of the most visually pleasing things I’ve ever layed my eyes on, it is chalk full of wonderful tips and advice all continuous improvement practitioners – and really anyone looking to improve their lives – should know.

What is ZTD?

Simply put, Zen To Done is a system to get you more organized and productive, and keep your life saner and less stressed, with a set of habits. ZTD teaches you:

  • The key habits needed to be productive, organized, and simplified … and no more than that.
  • How to implement these key habits … tips on forming a habit.
  • How to organize these habits into a simple system that will keep everything in your life in its place.
  • How to simplify what you need to do.
  • Minimal ZTD. Also includes an even simpler version called Minimal ZTD.

I’ve read the book, which costs $9.50, and highly recommend it. Click here for more information.

Full Disclosure: I do earn a small commission if you purchase the book from the links above. As always, I will re-invest 100% of these earnings into LSS Academy in my attempts to provide a better product for you, my fine readers.

Buy Now

Oranges, Pebbles, and Sand

In this video my daughters and I demonstrate how meeting an objective is just the beginning to improvement.

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Shadows or Reality?

cave.jpgOne of my passions in life is to learn. As such, I have begun the year by ditching books about leadership, lean, and six sigma (for now).

In their place I have decided to study philosophy which may make you want to yawn… but I would be less than truthful if I didn’t admit to finding the topic fascinating. 

Plus if you study people like Taiichi Ohno (chief architect of Toyota Production System) you will notice his teaching is rich with philosophical thought.

So tonight I want to share one of Plato’s famous allegories as I see a tremendous relationship between it and the many challenges we as continuous improvement practitioners face.

The gist of the allegory goes something like this.

Imagine a Cave

Plato asks us to imagine a cave. Inside the cave are people chained to the ground. These people cannot move and are only able to look forward at a wall. Directly behind them is a fire burning which subsequently shines light into the cave.

Shadows on the Wall

Now then, as people on the “outside” walk by the cave shadows are cast onto the walls. The cave inhabitants have seen the shadows all of their life and as such believe them to be reality.

In fact, they believe these shadows are all there is to life. And since the shadows are the only thing the cave inhabitants have ever seen who could really blame them.

Unshackling the Prisoner

Plato then asks us to imagine someone from the outside world entering the cave and unshackling one of the prisoners. The prisoner is then allowed to exit the cave. The bright light of the sun almost blinds the prisoner and they quickly run back into the cave completely shaken with fear.

Eventually, the curious prisoner ventures back outside and realizes that what he thought was reality was in fact only shadows on the wall. The person then attempts to explain this new amazing reality to the other cave inhabitants.

Sadly the other inhabitants don’t want to hear anything about some fantastic outside world. They have grown comfortable with their life and don’t appreciate this excited person’s attempt to destroy the only reality they have known.

What about You?

So, let me ask you a few questions. As you move forward with your life – 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 reality?

Group think and attitudes like “this is the way we have 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, if we should choose to accept it, is to unshackle these modern day prisoners showing them a far more excellent reality.

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The Highest Form of Human Excellence

“I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.”


When someone asks me a question I typically respond with an immediate answer. There are many issues with this including:

  1. I may give the wrong answer.
  2. I am not helping the questioner learn how to solve problems; instead I am only enhancing their reliance on others.
  3. I am not growing as a leader whose job is to develop people.

Instead of answering the person I would be far better served by countering their question with a question of my own. Even a simple, “What do you think?” response could be an extremely powerful learning opportunity.

The Slave Boy

The great philosopher Socrates once used this questioning approach to help a young slave boy solve a complex geometry problem by asking a series of questions. Socrates offered no assistance aside from making the young boy think. The kicker was the boy had never studied geometry a day in his life prior to this.

While this “Socratic method” can at times frustrate those who simply want an answer, it is the only way to really help a person grow as a problem solver.

Question Yourself

Finally, I think it is important we question ourselves. When we feel like we have come to a conclusion we should ask, “How can it be better?” or “What am I missing?”

If the true spirit of kaizen is to never stop improving I conclude we should never stop asking questions of ourselves and others.

So, if you don’t mind me asking, what do you think?

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Walk Slowly

Do you aspire to be a better leader in 2008? If so, you may consider walking slower through your office or shop talking to folks more than you do today.

In lean speak we often use the phrase genchi genbutsu which basically means to go to the floor to see what is happening. In other words, problems are not solved in conference rooms – instead they are solved on the gemba – or the place the actual work is done.

Along this same spirit I believe it is equally important we as leaders take the time to head to the gemba and simply talk to people. Get to know them. Ask them about their kid’s baseball game. Let them know you are a decent person with a heart and soul just like them.

Once you build a solid personal and professional relationship with these folks improvement will come much easier and be far more enjoyable.

Of course this does not mean you have to be best friends with everyone. Further, a leader must be careful to not cross the line (especially after hours at the bar). But if you are viewed as a high and mighty outsider you are in for tough sledding.

The best leaders I have known walk through the office or shop and literally get bombarded with smiles, hellos, and high fives. Interestingly enough these same leaders consistently meet or exceed their operational goals quarter after quarter.

Why is this? I believe it’s partly due to the fact they have taken the time to connect with their employees on both a personal and professional level. A simple concept yet far more daunting than most realize.

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Management Improvement Carnival #27 (Best of 2007)

John Hunter asked me to write the latest Management Carnival.  Normally, bloggers look at the previous month and share some links of their favorite posts.  Since we are at the start of a new year I thought I would change things up a bit and offer a few links from some of what I thought was the best in 2oo7! 

Unfortunately I don’t have time to read many blogs each day.  But there are a few “staples” I check out on a very regular basis.  These blogs have helped me so much over the years.  I am better at what I do for a living because of these blogs.  And I am blogging to you today because of many of these blogs!  So without further delays let’s get to the best of 2007.

The Best of Gemba Panta Rei in 2007

Standards, Abnormality and the Ideal: The topic of warusa kagen led to some interesting further thought. The following statements are all true…

10 Common Misconceptions About Lean Manufacturing: 1. Lean production = volume production. In Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management he suggested that the Toyota system was ideally suited for low volume production, and not as well suited for the higher volume production that Toyota was shifting towards. In chapter 20 after describing the successful efforts at Toyota do Brasil to reduce lot sizes through changeover reduction, Ohno states…

Intuition, Information and the Toyota Production System: There are quite a few things that are counterintuitive about the Lean management system known as TPS. They are all fairly simple things, but hard to do since they feel wrong to people who have not been swimming in the waters of TPS for years.

TPS & the Tao: Some time ago a woman who was studying Taoism and also reading Taiichi Ohno said, “The more I read Taiichi Ohno’s book The Toyota Production System-Beyond Large-Scale Production, the more I believe that his philosophies are based in the teaching of Tao Te Ching.”

Ten Topics for Hansei After Kaizen Event: For better or worse, the 5-day kaizen event is a generally accepted and standard approach for rapid process improvement as part of a Lean implementation. There are both pros and cons to the 5-day kaizen event, of which more later. The more people learn about the broader definition of kaizen and other ways of doing kaizen as part of daily work and daily management, the more the limits of the 5-day kaizen become evident.

The Best of the Lean Blog in 2007

L.A.M.E. = Lean As Misguidedly Executed: We need a phrase that describes these “bad” or misguided attempts at Lean, things that give Lean a bad name.  How about: LAME: “Lean” As Misguidedly Executed.

Lean Thoughts on “Sicko”:  I’ve been asked a few times by blog readers about the movie “Sicko” since I work in the healthcare world.

Preventable Medical Error Cases: I heard about this story this morning, this horrible tragedy where a 35-year old woman, Darrie Eason (pictured), from New York was told she had cancer and had a double mastectomy done on her, only to find out she really didn’t have cancer.

No, Not Spongebob!!: “Who’s covered in lead and lives under the sea? Spongebob! Squarepants!

Lean Cannot Be Measured by Inventory Alone: It might be true that having tons of inventory means you are “not lean” but does having very little inventory on the books prove that you are lean?

The Best of Evolving Excellence in 2007

Rube Goldberg Takes On Supply Chains:  About four months ago Bill told you about this beastly contraption created by Boeing.  A heavily modified 747, it actually has three times the cargo capacity of a typical 747 freighter and is called the Large Cargo Freighter. 

Heavy Heads of Consultants: But a lot of bloggers are consultants, and lately I have found that there’s one characteristic that is very common among consultants: they feel the need to support their heads with their hands.

The False God Opens a New Front: Well after many months of retreat, and even battling among themselves the false gods have opened a new front: document and compliance management software.

Dabbawallas, UPS, and FedEx: Mumbai residents rely on an intricately organized, labor-intensive operation that puts some automated high-tech systems to shame.

Yes, U.S. Manufacturing Can Compete: The bottom line? If you’re not working as hard as you can at improving, you will soon be facing enormous competitive pressure and the chances of survival are not good.

The Best of shmula in 2007

The Gemba is the Dojo: Today, I want to explicate on the Toyota notion of how the Gemba is the Dojo. 

Hansei — What is Really Important?: My neighbor down the street is Bob.  He has Alzheimer’s Disease and other ailments, and I feel bad for him.

Reacting to Visual Cues: The Toyota Production System makes effective use of visual cues to mark location in time and space, boundaries, and to answer the question “How am I doing” in a production setting. 

There are many other excellent lean and six sigma blogs I am leaving out.  Please look at my Blogroll to the right for more links to some excellent material. 

Lastly, please submit your favorite management posts to the carnival for future reference.

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There are a plethora of books on leadership. I have read many such books and seem to gain something from each of them. I don’t always agree with the authors but in the end I feel better for studying these folks.

But if I were to summarize what it means to be a good leader of men and women I would put it something like this:

  1. Go and see. The Japanese words “genchi genbutsu” mean to “go and see” for yourself. In short this means you cannot manage and lead from a board room or office. You must go to the “gemba” which is another Japanese word for the place the work is actually done. Now, if you work for a radio station like my big sister this means something totally different than for me who works for a manufacturing company. But at the end of the day both of us are better leaders when we go and see what is happening in our respective gemba’s.
  2. Lead by example. One of the most powerful pictures (see above) I have ever seen was of a company president on his hands and knees cleaning the floor before work started. This was part of their daily 5S program. This is the type of example that causes people to go to battle for a leader. This is the type of leadership that earns allegiance rather than demanding it by intimidation.
  3. Expect results. A good leader is not a push over or happy go lucky all the time. Just read about Taiichi Ohno (father of Toyota Production System) and you will hear about a man who got after people when they were not doing their best.  A good leader also develops a “results based organization” versus an “activity based organization.” The contrast between the two is huge.
  4. Be an enabler of knowledge. A good leader must also be able to assess his or her organization’s stengths and weaknesses. With the strengths the leader must find a way of leveraging them even more than today. For the weaknesses the leader must find a way to close the gap. This may be accomplished by benchmarking others, attending courses, self study, or hiring consultants in order to gain the necessary skills.
  5. Learn. I recently discussed the importance of having mentors in your life. I also believe it is important for a leader to continue learning him/herself. For me, I love to read and learn this way. I also love to ask a million questions of others. So many people feel admitting you lack knowledge in a particular area is a form of weakness. I don’t. To me it demonstrates humility and respect for others which is the last trait I want to discuss.
  6. Respect others. The ability to respect others is actually embedded in all of the topics I have discussed so far tonight. I think the whole phrase “our people are our best assets” has sadly become bastardized by so many people wanting to say the right things. So if you are a leader and don’t walk through the halls saying hello to everyone you see or simply stopping by the operator on the line to ask how their day is going I think you have work to do in this area. I am far from perfect with this aspect of leadership but continue to strive for improvement.

If you study past leaders I think you will see they exhibit all of these traits (and more). Some leaders that come to my mind are Jesus, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Pope John Paul II, John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Taiichi Ohno. So if you are interested in another book on leadership picking one up about one or more of these people may not be a bad place to start.

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Who is your mentor?

No matter what you do for a living or your vocation in life I believe it is essential to have a mentor… or even better mentors. 

Paging Jory

Around 13 years ago, I began my professional career after college working at Motorola in heat of battle – production.  This is where I met my first mentor, Jory Feustal. 

I was trained to work on a down machine for 15 minutes.  If I made no progress I was to call another colleague for help.  If after 15 more minutes we were unsuccessful we called Jory.

With much humbleness I will admit to having to call on Jory many times early in my career.  We had pagers back then and simply put in the code (I think Jory’s was 5 if I remember right) and our location and he would come. 

When Jory arrived on the scene we were all in awe.  He would ask us a few questions… assess the situation… and then fix the problem immediately. 

After getting the machine up and running he would train us and explain what he did.  He never made us feel stupid or unworthy.  This is not to say he wouldn’t get on us if he thought we should have been able to fix the problem ourself. 

As I gained more experience I found myself calling on Jory less frequently.  Eventually, after paying my dues and working very hard I found myself helping younger technicians solve problems much like Jory did for me.

To this day I still see Jory as a mentor and will never forget all he taught me. 

My Big Brother

I have other mentors in my life as well.  My big brother, Tony, is without a doubt the smartest person I have ever known.  He is also a great husband and father and man of God.  He has taught me how to be a better man.

Spiritual Mentors

Others in my life, like Frank Laux, Larry Sandoval, and Scott Cook are spiritual mentors to me.  They have helped me grow in more ways than words can explain.

My friend Jon

Professionally, in addition to Jory my mentors include people like Jon Miller.  I first met Jon when working at Nokia.  We hired Gemba Research to help us deploy lean.  To this day Jon answers any question I ask of him over email or phone and never once asks for a dime.  There are no, let me repeat no, consultants that have treated me as kindly as Jon has.  More than a consultant I consider Jon a very good friend.

My wife

Last but not least my wife is my mentor.  She helps me grow as a person and kicks my rear end when I need it kicked.  I love her and my kids beyond words and strive to be the best I can be because of them.


I am not sure where all this rambling has come from.  This post was not supposed to take this shape… but my fingers and mind had a different plan tonight. 

I have been blessed with many mentors and am leaving so many out (like my Dad who taught me to work my butt off and study hard and my Mom who taught me compassion and how to love others) but my point is that my success as a person and professional is the result of lots of help from others.  I have worked very hard to get where I am today but I would be dishonest if I didn’t give credit to those who have helped me along the way.  In fact, I am forever in their debt.

To succeed in life I feel it is absolutely critical to learn from others. If you find yourself feeling as if no one can teach you or you are above everyone else I caution you.  Take a step back and humble yourself.  You can and must learn from others.  It’s how this world of ours works.

So, let me ask you, who is your mentor?  Feel free to leave a comment or just ponder quietly in the silence of your mind. 

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Liquor Stores and Churches

They say there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. Here’s an example of why this is sadly true in many cases.

It’s been proven that there is a strong correlation between the number of churches and liquor stores in a community.

Some conclude then that the key to keeping the number of liquor stores down is to stop allowing all those churches to go up! If all you did was look at the graph of these two variables it would be hard to argue the fact.

But the key to unlocking this mystery is to understand the difference between correlation and causation. Two things can be correlated strongly, liquor stores and churches for example, without causation. 

This is to say that even though there seems to be some relationship between two variables we need to stand back and ask if the results make sense.

In the church and liquor store example further probing would lead you to learn that the growing population of the community is the true reason there are more churches, liquor stores, hair dressers, donut shops, etc.

So the next time some fancy statistician tries to sell you on how two things are correlated just remember they may be right but before turning down a nice preacher wanting to build a church do your homework and confirm there is causation.

For more details on this correlation, causation, and even a little extrapolation fun check this post out.

Lastly, no disrespect meant to my Baptist friends with the picture… but it was too good to pass!  Credit to the picture goes to this site.

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This past Sunday the readings for Roman Catholics around the world centered on the theme of humilty.

The pastor of my parish gave an excellent homily on the topic and I wanted to share some of my own thoughts as it relates to the those of us working to make things better for our companies or clients.

Let’s start with some words from the Good Book itself.

My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.  What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not (Sirach 3:17-18,20).

The last sentence initially caused me difficulty since seeking solutions to problems no one has been able to solve (i.e. what lean and six sigma is all about) seems to fly in the face of the recommendation by the Old Testament writer. But after some thought I think what is really being discussed is how we, as leaders of change, should humble ourselves enough to realize that we need others to help us solve problems.

I am guilty as anyone when it comes to the idea that I can do this better than anyone so why not just do it myself. But the thing I am missing is that while this attitude may get us by in the short term I am not building a long term culture of improvement.

On a deeper, more spiritual level, this reading means that we cannot go at life alone. We need the support and assistance of a higher power. For Christians this higher power is the triune God.


Humility does not mean, as some seem to think, we should feel unworthy or weak. Instead, what it really means is that when we run a kaizen event or complete a black belt project we can, and should, celebrate our success. But this celebraton must be tempered in such a way as to say we can still do better. Interestingly enough, temperance is one of the four cardinal virtues.

Isn’t it interesting how we sometimes think the philosophies of lean and six sigma are less than 100 years old… when in fact people figured this stuff out thousands of years ago.  They even wrote it down in a book!  How cool is that?

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