Category: Lean Thinking

Neil deGrasse Tyson Doesn’t Like The Idea Of Superheroes… And Neither Should Your Organization

The other day I listened to a great discussion on a podcast from The Forward, with host Lance Armstrong.  The guest was Neil deGrasse Tyson, popular astrophysicist, (6.74M Twitter followers for an astrophysicist? wow!) Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and host of The Cosmos. (Lance refers to him as a “rock-star” astrophysicist)  Neil commented on a variety of topics, from cosmic perspective, to the future of NASA, to science in schools, to what drives innovation, to the influence of his parents, and on how there are a higher number of microbes in one linear centimeter of your colon than the number of total human beings ever born.

I found his take on these and other topics to be humorous, logical, warm and inviting, and grounded in a long-term vision vs. knee-jerk short term reactions.  Science in schools?  He didn’t want to prohibit a state like Texas from teaching creationism if they chose to do so, he just wanted to make sure that state’s choice didn’t automatically proliferate throughout the rest of the country without it being their choice as well, and to make those responsible aware of the potential long-term economic impact that choice may have.

One discussion caught my ear from a Lean standpoint.  At 40:00 in, Neil has been discussing his father and family upbringing, how his parents nurtured their children’s interests, and then Lance asks “was he your hero?”  Neil responds “I tried not to have heroes, because a hero – what is a hero… I like what Carl Sagan said about superheroes one day – he didn’t like the idea of superheroes, because they make the rest of us complacent – oh, there are problems in the world, the superhero will take care of it, i’ll sit back and watch that happen…. a superhero allows people to not have to take responsibility over their fate.

This next statement may be an over-generalization, but I’ve seen it discussed enough I feel it is broadly applicable:  Employees in larger organizations have historically been rewarded for being the superhero.  They come through in the clutch, they bring knowledge and experience no one else has, they get results.  Oh, we have a difficult quality problem?  Bring in the specialist.  She’ll help us solve it.  Oh, that machine isn’t working right?  Call in Jim, he’s the only one trained on how to get it back up and running, he’ll know what to do and help us save our production numbers this shift.  These organizational superheros get the praise and recognition, get the most high-exposure assignments, and tend to get the highest performance ratings and promotions.  So… what’s wrong with this model?  Why wouldn’t I want to assign the most important projects to the people that tend to get the best results?  Why wouldn’t I want to reward my high performers so they want to stick around my organization, continuing to drive great results?

There isn’t technically anything wrong with that concept.  Many organizations have done (and still do) just fine with that model.  Wrong isn’t the right word to use.  A more complete description would be that it is your current state, but that the organization could evolve to be more efficient overall, could realize a higher potential utilizing all of its resources to their maximum capabilities, and be built to deliver and sustain results over time.  In an organization where superheros can thrive, it is as Carl Sagan (possibly) said – the rest of us can become complacent.  We may see a problem, and just say oh, Robert will be able to solve that for us, let’s just wait until he has some time free up.  We wait.  And while we wait, the waste caused by that problem continues.  Perhaps it grows. Perhaps it festers.  The benefit you would gain from improving the problem has been delayed.  And perhaps specialists like Robert get tired of operating in a crisis or high-pressure mode all the time and leave for another company environment.  What do you do then?

What’s the alternative?  An organization where everyone solves problems.  A community of scientists, a community of problem solvers, an organization where everyone drives improvement, from the shop floor to the executive office.  Instead of waiting for Robert, anyone can take on the problem, or the team can work on it together. No need to call in a specialist – let’s improve the situation now.  What does it take to build this type of an organization?

  • Balancing rewards equally between building capability in team members and achieving results
  • Rewarding solving problems to root cause vs. quick temporary countermeasures that make you feel good in the short term
  • Setting the expectation that everyone will learn to solve problems – and following it up with leadership modeling those behaviors
  • Asking questions rather than providing solutions or instructions, which empowers the team to think rather than simply to execute

So Neil’s comment about superheroes should really ring true with those who are in the midst of lean transformation.  And by all accounts, Neil is a pretty smart guy.  It isn’t about creating Lean Superheroes.  It is about studying your current organizational superheroes – what skills and knowledge do they have that enables them to consistently deliver results?  What about those capabilities can we extract from them and move from tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge that anyone can use?  How can I build those capabilities into the rest of the organization?  And most importantly, how can I enable my team to evolve into a community of scientists?  What obstacles are holding us back?

Take the time and reflect – do you have an organization that looks to its superheroes to solve problems?  If you do… is it possible this part of your culture is a reason your transformation is being held back?


To Strive For Perfection Or Not To Strive For Perfection… That Is The Question…

Mornings at my house aren’t chaotic, per se, but they are quite busy.  Our two little school age kids still need a lot of help getting dressed, fed, and ready.  Waffles are their preferred choice of breakfast food.  Everyday.  With butter, syrup, and whipped cream of course.  And we all like our sleep, so we get up with only the minimum amount of time necessary to get everything done before we head out the door to school and work.

So it is not unheard of for a mistake to be made, between preparing breakfasts, packing lunches, making sure outfits match, getting on the snow pants, making sure the right earrings are in, making sure the library books are packed (oh, and we didn’t read it in the past week?  By all means, let’s read it right now)…. you get the idea.

One of my duties is to make sure both kids have water bottles filled and packed.  Not a difficult task.  But for some reason, sometimes it is hard to remember to get it done, catching it at the last minute before we get in the car.  99 times out of 100, they have their water bottle. But I missed one morning, completely forgot.  Before you scold me too much, of course they have drinking fountains and cups available at school… they survived.  But I still felt bad.

So I began wondering… how can I prevent this from ever happening again?  What system can I create, what checks can I put in place?  A dry erase task list on the door to the garage?  A reminder that pops up on my phone?  Ask my wife to do a double-check?   Five sets of water bottles, with a circle labeled M-T-W-R-F under them so it is clear if today’s bottles have been utilized?  Ask the kids to learn to take responsibility themselves? (You’re right… silly thought…)

Nothing I was brainstorming appeared to be simple and also immune to human fallacy.  With all my ideas, there was still a chance I would forget, walk by the reminder without noticing because my brain was focused on the big meeting I had that day, still a chance a defect would get through.  And I don’t think my budget request would be approved for RFID chips in backpacks and water level sensors in water bottles and a connection to the car that wouldn’t let it start unless full water bottles were detected to be in the vehicle…  (I tested that hypothesis… it was correct… budget request denied)

Then I began thinking about an important question…. did it matter?  If a mistake was made and I missed the water bottles every once in a great while, should I care?  The kids weren’t unhappy… the teachers didn’t send any nasty grams home… I didn’t get yelled at… much… it might only happen two or three time a school year.  Really, the only thing driving me to attempt to improve here was my standard desire to eliminate defects and strive for perfection in anything and everything.  So I chose to let it go.  This time.

Why do lean transformations fail?  Why are they abandoned, sometimes after several years, even with wins and excitement early on?  Of course there are many, many factors, endlessly debated in books and blogs and conferences and online forums, and every situation is different.  But I think a key one is in the title of this post.  Are you as a company, as an organization, committed to striving for perfection?  Whatever your version of perfection is?

As your organization becomes more competent in identifying waste, identifying problems in your processes, the amount of opportunities you could work on begins to outweigh your capacity for actually working on them.  And as the water is lowered, and more systemic, complex, and multi-functional problems and opportunities are surfaced, developing simple solutions that are easily implemented gets harder.  People begin to ask – do we really need to spend time on that?  I’m busy – can it wait?  That seems hard… I’m not sure we will see the immediate benefits of this effort for a while – I’d rather focus on bringing in the quarterly numbers.

Selecting the right things to work on and improve is not always easy for large organizations, and lies somewhere between having an onerous improvement idea/initiative prioritization process that stifles the very spirit of making problems visible in the first place, and simply choosing to work on whatever problem we see today and never solving things through to root cause.  What are the one or two most important things you must accomplish to achieve your business plans?  Improve those processes that will help you deliver them.  Kaizen those obstacles that sit in your path.

If you have developed a clear understanding of what perfection is for your organization, and if you are committed to achieving it, then those questions should become easy to answer.  Does improving this process help you along the path towards your goal?  Or said another way, are the problems you see preventing you from achieving those goals?  If so – the answer is yes, you should spend the time and energy to improve.  If you don’t have that vision of perfection, or if you aren’t committed to it, then the questions and debate will continue to swirl.  Less-committed team members will see lack of clarity and commitment and begin to drift back to their old methods and ways of doing work.  Highly-committed team members will continue to want to improve what they believe makes sense, but will become frustrated when other team members, leaders, and functions are not coming along with them.

Vision – Commitment – Alignment – Discipline.  These are keys to continued progress towards your goals of perfection.

If you’re wondering, yes, it did happen again, several months later.  And the kids survived, and nothing bad happened, and heck, the boy seems to prefer having no water bottle… but for a moment I still wondered what I could have put in place three months ago to have prevented the miss.  The moment passed, and then I made another waffle.

Only Death Will Drive Action. Reactive vs. Proactive Safety Metrics

I sat about 12 cars back from the intersection, in the middle of a line of stopped vehicles, wondering “what happened ahead of me, was everyone alright, what if I had left work 15 seconds earlier today?”  I texted my wife while parked… “gonna be a little while, looks like a bad accident at Oakridge and CB.”  And then I searched in my head for the right word… ironic?  destiny?  tragic?  prophetic?  I couldn’t settle on one.  I wanted to convey how disappointed I felt that just days earlier a neighbor had posted a petition on to show the local town and county leaders that their residents wanted this intersection improved with traffic controls.  And then I thought the worst:  “I hope no one had to die today in order to prove the point that this was a dangerous intersection.”


Unfortunately someone did die in that accident.  And two people suffered severe injuries in the other vehicle.  And it isn’t the first death or serious injury at that intersection.  One petition signer comments that there were 3 deaths in the past 9 years.  And accident records another neighbor obtained from the Sheriff’s department showed 23 accidents in the past 3 years.  It is a 2-way stop, with several turn lanes to add complexity, and visibility in some directions is poor due to a small hill just before the intersection on the south side.

I myself signed the online petition just days before the fatal accident occurred.  In my comments, I stated that “Of all the intersections I drive through, this is the one where I see the most near-misses…”  The owner of the petition mentioned that he started it because “A representative from the county told me that in addition to the technical analysis of the intersection, the thoughts and opinions of residents and neighbors can be valuable when it comes to justifying upgrades.”

Later on our local TV news sites, I saw comments from the sheriff’s department and from County Highway Commissioner Ernest Winters.  Surely they would call out how tragic this was and how something needed to be done to improve safety at this intersection.  With all the angst shown in comments of people who signed the petition, I assumed they knew all about this intersection and wanted something done.  But that’s not what I heard.  I heard “people just have to drive more carefully” and “frankly, it doesn’t meet our thresholds for accidents”.  How insensitive.  How short-sighted.  How terrible for the next person who gets in an accident there.

My first question was, are these bad people who are in charge?  Probably not, not really.  Do they have an inadequate process to use when it comes to identifying, studying, designing, and implementing change?  Well, it is the government…. so, probably.  I set out to get more information, and began to dig into meeting minutes from my Town website.  From there I saw more names and committees, and checked out their minutes on the County website.  My original goal was to paint a picture of this intersection vs other intersections discussed for safety, and see if it was an outlier for action not being taken, or if that was a common occurrence in the town, the county, or other towns and counties in Wisconsin.  I was not able to get to that level of detail with other intersections yet.  But what I did find was a disappointing story told over several years of bringing up the problem and brushing it aside because it did not meet thresholds: brushing aside studies due to cost, brushing aside calls for action by the Town, and a lot of back and forth between committees. Here are a few highlights:

  • “There are significant traffic concerns at… CB and Oakridge” (Jan 2013)
  • He stated that “while safety is very important, the purpose of an arterial is to move traffic, not stop frequently” (Mar 2013)
  • “One possible solution would be to temporarily install stop signs and program the installation of a roundabout for the future” (Sep 2014)
  • Listed in minutes as #3 on “Most dangerous intersections in Winnebago County” (Jan 2015)
  • “Supervisor Egan stated that this committee is responsible for the safety of the traveling public” (Jun 2015)
  • “The speed spy findings were that speed is not an issue and this is not considered a dangerous intersection” (Jun 2015)
  • “Supervisor Albrecht stated he thinks this committee must take the approach that something has to be done at this intersection” (Jul 2015)

One of the most disheartening things I saw was the publication of the March 7th Highway Committee meeting minutes, the Monday after the fatal accident.  The intersection was not on the agenda, and from the minutes, it was not discussed.  Looking ahead, it appears to be on the March 21st agenda.  Can you imagine a manufacturing company waiting two weeks to discuss a fatality in one of its facilities and what should be done about it?  OSHA would come down upon them like a sledgehammer.

It was disappointing, yes.  And it may not be uncommon at all, I cannot comment on that yet.  But what I do see are several major process deficiencies.  First, the metrics they use for triggering action are clearly inadequate when viewed from the standpoint of improving safety.  The metrics mentioned include traffic volume, speed of vehicles, and accident rate.  What I don’t see are metrics related to the severity of accidents, the complexity of the intersection in terms of numbers of lanes, sight paths and visibility concerns, anything related to “near-misses” (almost an accident but avoided), a lack of clarity for what the path to improvement is at the resident, town, and county levels, and a meeting cadence that does not support effectiveness or efficiency.  And I think the most important information they were lacking was the voice of the people who drive through that intersection every day.  In addition, the design of the intersection did not appear to be listed as a potential factor, rather “driver error” is constantly cited by those county leaders.  I’m going to delve deeper into a few of these items.

Near Misses

I’m lucky enough to work at a company that takes safety very seriously, and I’ve also been lucky enough to have been trained and been involved in our safety programs over the years.  One key mentality that has been present there as long as I have been employed is the concept of the safety pyramid.  At the top of the pyramid is injuries.  Next on the list are accidents (that don’t meet the company or OSHA thresholds for reportable injuries).  And on the bottom of the pyramid are near misses and unsafe behaviors.  Addressing causes that are found towards the bottom of the pyramid would be proactive work to prevent injuries from occurring in the first place, while the closer you are to the top of the pyramid, the more you are working with reactive metrics.

The theory behind the pyramid, which makes plenty of logical sense, is that for every injury you have, you have likely seen a number of accidents, and on top of that, you are even more likely to have seen an even larger number of near misses.  In addition, if you have lots of near misses and lots of accidents, but haven’t had an “injury” recently… There’s a high probability you’ve simply been lucky lately and are about to have one.  It can be summed up simply as “where there’s smoke there’s fire”.

For the Oakridge/CB intersection, I know from personal experience that near misses have occurred.  I have been in a car that had to swerve around someone who darted out into the intersection too early.  I’ve slammed on the brakes at least 3 times in recent memory.  My wife tells me about near misses she has.  My neighbor, living nearby for only a year, says his wife has already had two close calls.  When I read through the comments of those who signed the petition, many more personal experiences are described.  So… why doesn’t this drive action? As you read through them, you ask, how can anyone not think and know this is a dangerous intersection?

Now it is time for personal reflection.  How many times have I ever taken the time to call in anywhere and comment to anyone that I felt there was a dangerous intersection present?  Never.  How about my wife?  Never.  How about my friend’s wife?  Never.  How about my friend who was driving us all back from lunch one day to work?  Nope.  Have there been people who call in?  Sure, a few, one person I know says he calls the commissioner once or twice a year (and hears the same rhetoric again and again)  But I’m guessing the switchboard wasn’t exactly lighting up at the county highway commission for the past 3 years.

So why not?  Why don’t people call in and report it?  First… Do I know they want feedback?  Do they ever ask, or communicate, or seek it out?  Any signs advertising a request for reporting?  Second.. Do I know who to call?  Town?  County?  Other county committees?  State?  All of them?  Third… Is it easy?  Is there an Internet form to fill out?  Is there a phone tree choice?  Can I get it done in a few minutes or will it take an hour each time?  Fourth… Is my feedback welcomed with open arms and thanks?  Or is it met with skepticism, political rhetoric, and disdain?  Fifth… Do they do something with the information?  Do they use it to drive change?  Or will it just sit and gather digital dust?

These feel like key criteria of a process to gather critical information from the public to help predict where accidents may occur and where to spend our resources. And the data produced by such a system should be richer and more valuable than a byline on accident statistics.  This is a critical juncture in this discussion – what should the strategy be for counties to make improvements?  Do you want to wait for accidents and deaths to occur to tell you where to spend your resources, and be a reactive organization?  Or do you want to identify, cultivate, and data mine predictive measures that help you identify problems before someone is critically injured, or even dies?  The second method is harder.  The second method takes more processes, systems, and analysis.  And in a way, you are still guessing at the highest priorities – you just hope them to be well informed decisions, and better than you would have made without the information.  But the second method prevents injuries.

Is it so hard to predict the future?

Predicting the Future and Crowdsourcing

We recently had a speaker address a large group at my company.  The speaker’s title was a “futurist”, from the firm Ogilvy and Mather.  What does a futurist do you ask?  Well… They are paid to predict the future.  Where will trends go?  Where will people spend money?  What technologies will the future embrace, and which will they discard?  She gave a wonderful and thought provoking speech on millennials and the trends associated with the younger generation.  Things I had never thought about and didn’t know about the behaviors and habits of the younger generation wowed me, interested me, and made me think about how we would need to adapt and adopt over time.

In the Q&A afterwards, someone praised her knowledge and then asked a great question.  “How do you predict the future, what is your process?”  So she told us.  A bulletin board and push pins.  There it was, amazing cutting edge technology, used to predict the trends of the future.  She said they simply monitor social media and news stories for things that are trending and that invoke ideas different than the current norm.  Then they print them out, and pin them up on a bulletin board.  When you start to see a big cluster, there’s a good chance there is a trend there.  Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

Do I expect our Wisconsin County and Town government committees to be on the cutting edge of technology?  No.  Simply put, no. OK, so they aren’t going to set the direction the rest of the country will follow.  But is anyone out there living this future already?

I did a search for crowdsourcing intersection safety.  Several states and cities came up.  But it is not necessarily driven by vehicle safety.  The main driver appears to be for bicycling and pedestrian safety.  In many applications you can add a location where traffic was going too fast, almost hit by a car, tough to turn due to visibility, etc.  You can drop a pin and leave information on the map for others to see.  From what I have read, users of the maps can check their planned route for areas to avoid, and reroute accordingly for a safer ride or commute.  A noble use, but not likely something that will change driver behavior.  And it won’t get after the root cause of why an area of road is not safe, it just removes you (if you use it) from the danger; you avoid it.  Until you forget.  Or are in a hurry and plan a shortcut.  Or you are new to the area and you don’t even know an unsafe condition exists.

These type of maps can add visibility to and greatly enhance the story of where local government can take action, and can help speed up decision making.  Think about it – which of these two maps is likely to drive you to action and help tell you where to apply your resources?  The one with just a few accidents located at various points?  Or the one with several clusters of near misses?  Or from another standpoint, the near miss data can complement your accident data and help you prioritize.  More data helps you look with your eyes wide open, instead of with blinders on.

Washington DC Crowdsourcing Map

Here are a few of the areas and websites connected to the crowdsourcing for better safety near miss data concept. states it is a “Global Tool for Collision and Near-Miss Mapping”.  New York had a map open for public comments as part of their Vision Zero initiative.  The Oregon Dept. of Transportation initiated a study on the use of crowdsourcing as a data collection method.  Seattle requested residents to help them identify unsafe spots near school.  Washington DC has a map as part of their Vision Zero initiative.  Microsoft is also “testing predictive intelligence, developing software to analyze video footage, and writing algorithms to look for potential collisions and near misses in order to identify dangerous intersections and roads.”

Here’s the rub.  You can have all the data you want in the world, making problems visible to you, your committees, the public… You can produce graphics, print and bind reports, distribute them electronically, via snail mail, hand out flyers in front of Starbucks, get airtime during the news…  Not one shred of it will matter a lick if no one is prepared to use it.  If no one agrees that action is needed.  If no one can make action happen.  If no one cares.

The Process of Improvement

Ok.  So now we have made the case that data is useful, and we have gathered some good data.  And we want to take action.  What next?

Here’s what I gleaned from the meeting minutes.  Sometimes residents call in to complain.  Sometimes they call the county, sometimes their town or city leaders.  Sometimes an accident or fatality triggers a discussion in a meeting.  Committee/Board members ask for more data.  Were there any old studies?  Should we do a new study?  Who will pay for it?  Many different towns use this road.  Do they all support any changes?  We should ask them. What did the speed study say?  It doesn’t meet our criteria? Let’s just keep an eye on it for a couple of years, see if the problems come back or go away.  Let’s take this up to the board meeting.  Board meeting members want more information.  A month later information comes back.  Is there state funding available?  We need a study for that.  Let’s do one.  Come back another time with estimates for the study.  The study costs too much.  I don’t think it is a dangerous intersection.  Something should be done, but not a roundabout, it isn’t justified.  Let’s do a study to see our other options.  Send it back to committee to investigate further.

The pathway is not clear.  Clearly.

Meanwhile… Nothing has happened.  No design has been created.  No study has been done.  No funds have been requested.  If people ran their businesses this way…  My logical mind is frustrated.  Enough people have called it a problem that it is clearly a problem.  But Patrick you say, this is how government works, this is how our great country was founded, get used to it.  Bullshit.  I refuse to accept that ineffectiveness should be the norm, or that history says America is great because of our government inefficiencies.  How does that sound rolling off a candidate’s tongue?

There needs to be vision at all levels of government to make safety a priority.  I really like this article about Boston’s Vision Zero program, and the listing of its 6 key principles, especially numbers 1, 2, 3, and 6.

  1. Traffic deaths are preventable and unacceptable
  2. Human life takes priority over mobility and other objectives of the road system.  The street system should be safe for all users, for all modes of transportation, in all communities, and for people of all ages and abilities.
  3. Human error is inevitable and unpredictable; the transportation system should be designed to anticipate error so the consequence is not severe injury or death.
  4. People are inherently vulnerable and speed is a fundamental predictor of crash survival.  The transportation system should be designed for speeds that protect human life.
  5. Safe human behaviors, education, and enforcement are essential contributors to a safe system.
  6. Policies at all levels of government need to align with making safety the highest priority for roadways

Imagine if there was the vision for Wisconsin to have zero deaths on our roadways, and it was made a priority.  We averaged 509 fatalities per year (2009-13).  Winnebago County itself averages 9 per year (2011-15)  And we know to make improvement happen we are going to need resources – money, skilled people, time.  So, we set aside these resources each year and give them the mission to make as much improvement happen as possible.  I think the first item on the agenda might be to create action plans for the “5 most dangerous intersections in the county”.  And there should be a clear weekly update on progress and obstacles.  And there should be accountability – someone checking to ensure they are staying on track, that they have the resources they need, and helping to remove obstacles for the team.  (Does this sound like a lean management system with a true north and leader standard work?  Shocking that I would suggest that, I know) And there should be someone helping the team drive improvement to the processes they use to go after that most precious of resources – time waste.  Like the cadence and connection of meetings.

Here’s what I found when I looked at the calendar for upcoming town and county meetings.  (Accident occurred March 4th) Next town board meeting March 14th (Every 2 weeks).  Next highway committee meeting was listed for May 4th.  Just now I saw an extra one added for March 21st, and the intersection is on the agenda). Next County board meeting April 26th…  I’m sure that action happens outside of these meetings.  But from the minutes, it seems like those meetings are where decisions are made.  At this rate, I’m sure funds won’t be authorized for a study again until June!  Here’s the thing.  If you wanted action to occur on a priority I’m guessing they could do design and installation beginning in a month, if you cleared the slate of work for capable people and made it their only task.

Intersection Design

Ok.  So now we have figured out how to make problems visible.  And we have figured out how we are going to take action against those problems.  How do we decide what countermeasures to put in place?  For the Oakridge CB intersection, the discussion always comes down to a few options: stop signs, traffic signals, reduce the speed limit, cut down the hill for visibility, and of course, the ever-polarizing roundabout option.

Diagram: Roundabout with arrows to Bicylce Lane treatement, Pavement Markings at Entry, Counterclockwise circulation, Circulatory roadway, Splitter Island, Accessible pedestrian crossing, Landscape buffer, Apron, Central island and Sidewalk or shared use path

Half of the time spent discussing the intersection in committee meetings is around what countermeasure to put in.  And some of the studies discussed (that never happened) were to help with a recommendation for which one to do.  Here’s the thing: if your mission is to drive closer to zero deaths, the choice is clear.  Roundabouts.

Roundabout Public Sentiment Graph

Here’s the kicker(s).  They are sometimes more expensive than the other options.  They are unpopular with many people.  Why?  Because people think it slows them down.  Because they argue that accidents still occur.  And that’s true.  But roundabouts were not designed to prevent accidents from occurring.  They were designed to reduce the severity of accidents, so that you only go home with a fender bender instead of a date with an emergency room doctor.

The Federal Highway Administration has an excellent page describing the benefits of roundabouts.  There is a plethora of available studies and information listed in their references section.  There are a lot of relevant quotes.  Here’s one of my favorites:

Most significantly, roundabouts REDUCE the types of crashes where people are seriously hurt or killed by 78-82% when compared to conventional stop-controlled and signalized intersections

Verticle image

They are not the be-all end-all solution.  Bad accidents can still occur with a roundabout in place.  But we are a long way yet from universal self driving cars that merge into traffic and avoid collisions with each other. (And even then Tom Cruise can still screw up your day).  Until that day comes in Winnebago County Wisconsin, I suggest we stick with the best way we know today to prevent deaths and severe accidents, the roundabout.

This brings us back to the other kicker.  Roundabouts are sometimes more expensive than other, less safe options.  I’ve offered a lot of criticism and improvement ideas for the government.  Yes they make the decisions.  And yes they control the money.  But what do we the people say when they raise our taxes?  We raise hell.  We tell them we’re going to elect someone else to do their job that won’t raise taxes.  We ask for cheaper solutions.  The fact is, we cannot have it both ways.  We cannot drive to zero deaths without making a commitment to that vision ourselves.  You want safer roads?  You must be willing to tell our government leaders that you are willing to pay for it.  Now, transparency and communication from the government, especially around trade offs, would help greatly in these situations and discussions on funding.  But you cannot have the improvement you want without the support of the people.

To Conclude

There are many root causes at play in this failure, this travesty.  And not all can be fixed by one person, one committee, one county, or one Town.  And it cannot be fixed simply by changing those who are in office and who make the decisions.  It will take time and effort to improve those processes.  But it can be done, no question.  There is room for improvement here, they have not hit their limit of what is possible and practical.  But I’m guessing there will not be a champion who steps up to take it forward.

At the beginning of this post I stated that I had texted my wife about the accident.  While I was sitting there, I leaned over and saw that one of the vehicles was a gray minivan.  I looked at the window profile, and noticed it might be a Sienna.  And I hoped…. hoped… hoped… for a quick text reply from my wife.  I was getting anxious, getting ready to get out and run up and see, getting ready to call instead of text… Luckily a text came back.

But someone else wasn’t so lucky.  Someone’s daughter died that day, someone’s friend, someone’s co-worker.  And in the other vehicle, someone’s father is still in the hospital nearly 2 weeks later, and someone’s mother cannot get around without assistance yet.  Thank goodness their two young kids were ok.  But life as they know it has now changed immeasurably.

How many deaths, how many severe injuries must occur before someone triggers change?  4?  7?  14?  How dare anyone even put a number to it.  I submit that no more accidents, no more deaths need to occur, the path forward is clear.  Nothing should be prioritized above safety, especially not “traffic flow in an arterial”.  How fast you can get home from work or school doesn’t matter if there’s a chance you won’t make it home at all.  Your parents won’t care.  Your children won’t care.  Your spouse won’t care.  They will just look at the empty spots in their home and wonder why their loved one was taken from them.  It’s not because it was their time, or because it was God’s will, or any other belief you have about destiny and inevitability.  It is because people and processes didn’t work as well and as hard as they could and should to prevent it from happening.

One accident more is one too many.

Keeping It Simple At Target Optical

Although my wife may roll her eyes when I point out lean principles in everyday life, it must be starting to sink in because while traveling last month, she noticed this sign and figured I’d like a picture of it. And as is typically the case, she was right!

I love the simplicity in this visual tool at Target Optical. You don’t need to wait in line to talk with someone just to find out if they have an appointment available for you today. You just look on the sign for a green dot and decide if that time slot works for you.

I love seeing a tool like this. It makes me reflect on the complexity of tools we have developed and how we might be able to get to a simpler state, and still obtain an outcome satisfactory to the customer.

Great Scott! Potential Sighting of Lean Product Development!


There’s a scene in Back to the Future 2 where Doc and Marty McFly are trying to figure out how they have come back to a completely different 1985 than they remember.  Doc has a simple timeline up on a chalkboard, trying to outline to Marty how there has somehow been an alternate future created due to Biff getting a hold of a history of sports outcomes, taking the DeLorean back to 1955 and giving it to a young Biff, which is why Doc and Marty can’t travel back to the future from this reality to stop Biff from stealing the time machine because they are in an alternate reality and it won’t happen there…

Ok, you’re right, we’re already getting off-track.  The point is, Doc’s very simple timeline reminds me of how a mature company who gets introduced to lean product development might tend to think:  How can we go back in time and design our products so that all these years they would have cost us less money, taken less work and resources to produce and distribute and innovate against, and provided more value to our customers and our consumers?  Wouldn’t that be nice?

Applying lean concepts in a manufacturing environment, at least to me, seems to be much more straightforward and logical to understand.  The world is more transactional, has shorter cycle times, and tends to already have a plethora of process measurements to pull data and analyze from.  And there are numerous success stories to help sell the thinking and tools (and sometimes just the tools).

When we move to apply lean in the product development world, it always feels like we are starting from scratch.  How good are we at delivering on innovation?  How well do we understand our consumers needs and wants?  How would we even measure the health of our product development process?  Knowledge-based development?  Don’t we already do that?

There is a very good reason why it is important to get lean in the world of product development.  I’ll paraphrase from Ron Mascitelli – No matter how lean you make your factories, if you fill them with fat products, you’ll never realize the full potential of how profitable your product line can be and how much value you can deliver to your customers.  You will always be limited by the waste that is built into the product design very early on in the development process.

So now to the sighting of lean product development.  I don’t even know that this company is lean, knows what lean or lean product development is.  They could simply be very creative!  But what I observed seems to be a great illustrative example of end to end waste reduction through product design.  And I wish I took more pictures to share with you…

We recently finished the inside of our garage, and of course we said, let’s get some nice new cabinets to go with those freshly painted walls!  My wife found a great online deal on a set of NewAge metal cabinets, so we ordered them.  Within a short period of time they delivered a pallet to our garage with two large boxes on it.  Just one pallet, for something that would measure several feet long and tall.  As I looked at the box, I only wondered how much work I would have to do in order to assemble all the different cabinets.  I imagined something similar to a typical piece of Sauder furniture – all the flat side, back, bottom and top pieces nicely tucked into to the boxes with minimal space, but plenty of assembly hardware included.

Garage Cabinets in PalletOne morning I decided to open everything up and calculate how many hours I would need to commit to getting these up on the wall.  I opened the first large box only to find one giant single cabinet inside.  I was concerned – were there several other pallets on their way with other cabinets?  I opened up the doors on the large cabinet and found that inside were several other of the smaller cabinets.  They fit perfectly inside with minimal packing materials.  I moved on to box number 2 and found the same thing – one large cabinet with the other small cabinets inside.  I was very impressed (and happy) – this entire set of cabinets all compressed into one small area on a pallet, and I wasn’t even going to have to assemble them!

I realized with conventional thinking, your cabinet design paradigm might be that all the cabinets had to be the same depth so they were flush with each other and looked nice.  So all you would be able to do is box them individually, or break them down into multiple pieces that the consumer would then need to assemble.  If a conventional product development process designed these cabinets, then it may have taken up several pallet spaces on a delivery truck, multiple SKUs in a warehouse to keep track of, and extra inventory of each of those SKUs.  And if a company wanted to take cost out of the product or process, there is a good chance they would turn to thinning out the materials, squeezing the supplier for alternate lower-cost materials, do their best to eliminate waste in the manufacturing process, use cheaper fasteners, and so on.

Garage Cabinets unpackedThis is where the wish for the alternate timeline comes in.  What if at some point in the past they had designed a cabinet that consumers wanted but didn’t need to ship in separate boxes or be assembled by consumers?  What if they were able to design something that could be sold as a package and only took one SKU in the warehouse, and only one pallet space on the truck?  Surely this is a more desirable reality than the conventional one.

It seems to me that a designer or design team somewhere along the way asked the question of whether keeping the faces of the cabinets flush with each other was a true consumer need.  And if not, what if we reduced the depth on the smaller cabinets so they could all fit inside the two larger cabinets?  And put it all on a single pallet?  The result in this case was a very happy consumer and impressed lean thinker.  I can only assume it also resulted in a happy company and a profitable product.

So how would a company ensure that they didn’t just get “lucky” with one great design idea?  How can they constantly work towards the best product design possible that creates the most value for the company and the consumers?  The answer lies in the fundamentals of lean product development, from set-based concurrent engineering to evaluating risks to 3P and beyond.

Garage Cabinets

How do you begin this transformation?  Decide that’s the direction you need to go, get educated, get a capable teacher, and try!  Read a book: A Ron Mascitelli or an Allen Ward book are excellent and complementary to each other.  Based on my experience, it’s likely to be a long transformation, so that makes today a better day to start than tomorrow.

Patrick, Remember: Focus On The Pizza Process, Not The Pizza People

I’ve been pretty happy with Pizza Hut for a number of years now.  For me, it has been hard to beat their $10 any large pizza deal for value and quality, and I’ve also enjoyed their dinner boxes.  I like others too – Domino’s, Papa Murphy’s, and a great local place called Stuc’s.  But in a pinch we tend to rely on Pizza the Hut.

So the other day we ate from Pizza Hut, and at the bottom of my receipt I noticed a question posed to me from them.  It said, “Were you WOWED today?”  The answer to this was no.  No I was not.  Here’s the flow of what happened:

IMG_0909 b

We were at a friend’s house and had decided to get pizza, and since we were starving and needed several pizzas, we picked Pizza Hut.  Quick and good value.  We popped online to see their deals, found some that we liked, and my friend gave them a call to place our order.  She was on the phone, told them the name and price of the deal she wanted, went through all the toppings we wanted, added on some sauce, was just about done… then it seemed there was a problem with the deal we wanted.  The employee on the phone said she couldn’t find it, and that it must be an “Online Only” deal.

Now, I had watched as we scrolled through the deals on the website, and yes I had seen some deals listed as “Online Only” but this was not one of them.  My friend smiled and sarcastically asked, “What, do you really want me to hang up and submit it online?”  The employee said “yes thank you” and hung up on us abruptly.  We were a bit taken aback, but said, alright, fine, let’s do this online.

So we pulled it up again, looked for the deal, it still did not say online only, but we went ahead and built our large 3 topping pizza and our dinner box.  I went to add one of the toppings we asked for over the phone, but it wasn’t available online.  What now?  Well, I called them back, asked them how to add a topping that wasn’t listed, and made sure they had the green olives the kids wanted so badly on their pizza.  So now we have two calls in to the store with no pizza ordered yet.  It wasn’t until the final checkout page that anything indicated that the deal we chose was an online only deal.

My wife mentioned that this recently happened to her when she was home with one of her sisters.  They were driving and called the Pizza Hut on the way to place an order, but were told it was an online only deal.  So they had to drive until they had a cellular network that they could hook their smartphone browser up to, pulled over and did the deal online.  In addition, while they were in the store waiting to pick up their pizzas, someone walked in, wanted an advertised deal, and was told it was online only.  The person walked out of the store, and they looked to have lost a sale.

I chose to go pick up the pizzas.  On the way over in the car, I was a dormant volcano of lean thinking ready to erupt on the manager when I asked for them, spewing nuggets of wisdom around focus on the customer and number of order touches before actually beginning to create my pizza and waste and frustration and surely this enlightening information would get back to corporate and they would change their policies…

When I walked into the store, I saw four employees and no manager.  I looked each one over, and determined that none of them would be remotely interested in hearing about my frustrations and good advice to become better, and that I would quite possibly waste a lot of energy and potentially make a scene.  Instead, I paid for my pizza, waited about two minutes and out came my order and I was told to have a nice evening.  And so I did.  I brought that pizza home like the hunter-gatherer that I am, and the two families chowed down and were full and satisfied.  And there were leftovers.

As I look at this situation I am reminded not to focus on the employees at the stores, possibly not even the managers.  They are clearly handed down policy around online only deals from a regional or corporate office, and their systems probably do not allow them to make what you and I would see as logical adjustments to that policy.  My hypothesis for why this policy exists is that their goal is to eliminate waste on their end and streamline the pizza ordering process to bypass an employee needing to be on the phone taking an order when they could be creating pizzas.

However, I would argue that this is likely not their tightest constraint to creating more pizzas.  In times when they are backed up beyond 15 minutes (say, halftime of the Packers game) my guess is that they simply do not have enough room in their ovens to cook as many pizzas as are ordered, not because they are taking too many orders over the phone and not making pizzas instead.

So while I applaud their efforts to focus their employees on more value-added work, I must criticize the method of driving customer compliance, by punishing us for using the phone and wanting to talk with a human.  If you are going to go this route you must make the system so simple, easy, and possibly fun, that it will drive customers to go there instead of picking up the phone.  A system that did not highlight an online only deal, did not have the toppings I wanted and knew they had, and caused me frustration does not meet those criteria.

The bottom line is that I got my pizza eventually, for the price I wanted, and it was tasty.  And yes, I’ll continue to order from them.  But I’m going to check a little more carefully for those two words “online only” in the future.

pizza the hut

An Ah-Ha Moment With A Simple PDSA Flowchart

Recently I saw Karen Martin post a PDSA flowchart on Twitter.  The graphic does a wonderful job of outlining the steps of problem solving and PDSA thinking, highlights the importance of defining your problem and how much time you might need to spend before moving forward in the process, and covers the question of “what does adjust really mean?”.  There’s a good chance printing this out and handing it to my leadership team in our next capability building session will generate some rich refresher discussion.

Karen Martin PDSA Flowchart


But there was one line on there that really sparked something in me as I read through it.  Line 3 says “Set a Target Condition”.  Seems simple, seems in line with most problem solving training… so why was I so interested?  What sent my brain off racing to analyze this line?  This line really resonated with me because many recent kaizen events I’ve been involved in struggle and bog down at the point of discussion about the target, especially if they are trying to go somewhere they’ve never been before vs. getting back to a level they’ve obtained sometime in the past.

Yes, the problem is the difference between target and actual, and understanding the target condition is critical – you have to know where you need to be in order to understand why you aren’t there.  But this is not always easy, especially in fledgling lean organizations.  I believe manufacturing environments in a company attempting to go through a lean transformation are able to understand and articulate a target condition much faster than those in the office or product development organization.  That’s still not saying it’s easy!  But they tend to have more historical data, understanding of their manufacturing process and where defects occur, where their problem modules are and where to focus, and how quality, cost, and production rate have trended.  Many times you can go back several months or even years in the data and say, “oh, we clearly have trended downwards from where we once were”, or “oh, we clearly made an acute shift in June, you can see it right here on the timeline”.  It’s much easier to do this step when you have relevant data available, and when you have people who know how to mine it.

But take for example people in an organization dedicated to innovation, who are attempting to do a kaizen event.  Many times the most difficult question is “what should the target be?” because you don’t have a database telling you what the health of your innovation process is, or how many defects that process produced over the past 3 months… or even a clear definition of what a defect is!  The same holds true for most office processes:  there simply is not a plethora of data to sift through in order to identify targets and potential causes.  So in these types of kaizens, either as prework or as a part of the kaizen itself, sometimes the group must develop a system to measure what is going on in order to even understand if they really have a problem!

So back to step 3 – “Set a target condition”.  I just like the meaning of the process behind this so much better than something along the lines of “What is the target condition?”  Asking “what is it” implies that there IS one out there in your organization and you either don’t know it or can’t find it.  The concept of “setting” a target condition seems to empower the group to define what that target should be:  either because they know what it should be, or because they decide to set a target that corresponds with some level of improvement from where they think they are.  And if they are able to do that, they are able to move to the next step!

I haven’t put it into practice yet, but I believe sending that strong message of empowerment to a kaizen team will enable them to align much more quickly in an event, and move forward to defining causes and countermeasures rather than arguing over what the target actually is.  Because no matter what – you’re in that room because something was not up to snuff, and the bottom line is that is doesn’t even matter what the target is – all that matters is that you are not yet where you need to be.

See a great guest post by Karen on Mark Graban’s blog about PDSA vs. PDCA, and another spirited post by Mark himself on the subject.

Lean Comes To A Local Classroom

Back in April, I was watching the local news (NBC26) and was just about ready to turn it off and head to bed.  As they were transitioning to commercials, one of the teaser trailers for upcoming stories caught my eye, because in the lower left-hand corner I recognized a book:  Everything I Know About Lean I Learned In First Grade, by Robert Martichenko.  So of course I hit the record button on the DVR!

The story was about a learning program in one of the local schools, which throughout the year allowed students in the program to do things like shadow health professionals, visit local manufacturing locations, and get a taste of what life is like in the real world of business and healthcare.  Local professionals also come to the classroom to participate.  During this particular story, they appeared to be having a bracelet-making workshop with the students.

Images of the students putting small beads on strings, passing the pieces from station to station, counting inventory, all with flipcharts in the background were overlaid with quotes such as:

  • “The activity focuses on continuous improvement and lean”
  • “Learning about what we do in the real world, in manufacturing, is not much different than making these bracelets”
  • “It is about teaching them to see how things flow in a process, identify the waste, and eliminate it.”

I was excited to see lean concepts being brought into a local classroom environment. I think if schools are educating their students in fundamentals of continuous improvement, then we’re on the right track as we move towards the future.  A statement by one of the school program leaders was along the lines of “we are preparing the kids for what employers look for today – working in teams, collaboration, communication – it’s not just about solving equations.”

The story caused me to pull out my Martichenko book and refresh myself on how simply yet powerfully he connected many lean fundamentals to an environment (1st grade) nearly all of us have experienced and can translate easily.  Great strides can be made in reducing the lean learning curve in organizations when you can move people past the initial fear and resistance to the unknown, into a zone where they are interested and curious to learn.  I mean, if you still fear the unknown after having “Orlo the Owl” drive home the key learning points of each chapter…

We need to remind ourselves of the fundamentals once in a while, because without discipline to them we will stray and begin to complicate things again rather than focus on simplifying them.  Here are a few of my quick favorites, taken directly from the book:

From the introduction:  “We do not need to overcomplicate lean principles.  Successful lean journeys are achieved by organizations that understand that the complexity of lean is in its simplicity: to have a plan, do the plan, check the plan, and then adjust to improve upon the plan”

On visual management:  “The ability to tell at a glance what the work is and the status of each step is called “visual management”.  Making work visible is the first step toward being able to understand and improve it.”

On eliminating waste:  “…picture your organization as a boat navigating down a river.  The river represents the business environment.  Just below the water are many rocks.  These rocks represent the problems in the value stream.  Building on the analogy, inventory is the water level of the river.  As we flow down the river, we are very cognizant of the rocks (problems) below.  When we see a rock, we can do one of three things:

  1. Try to navigate around the rocks – the equivalent of fire fighting each and every day.
  2. Raise the water level (inventory level) to ensure that we float down the river without hitting the rocks
  3. Eliminate the rocks permanently, making the river void of problems”

(Image found at LeanIsGood, by Bruce Baker)

There are an abundance of similar nuggets in that book.  Refreshing myself on them triggers reflection on work in my current group – are people creating visual management to surface problems in order to eliminate them, or just to check the box on their lean learning plan, or perhaps because their manager told them they need to?  When people show me their personal visual management boards, and then tell me they don’t get much value out of it, I tend to tell them to take them down and create something they do believe is valuable.

Refreshing, reflecting, refocusing, rejuvenating, remembering… several great reasons to pull a book like that out once in a while.

Just Teach Already!

I’m not fully self-aware of all the factors that contributed to my nearly year-long delinquency between posts.  Therefore I’m not aware of what may have shifted within me to trigger a new one.  And I won’t bore you (or myself) to death with a deep reflection analysis.  The one thing out of many that I can put a high degree of certainty on is that I think I missed teaching people.
I had the opportunity the other week at work to teach an Introduction to Lean class to a group that was just beginning their lean journey.  (Yes, at least 7 years in from initial pilot areas and we still have groups just getting started!  It’s a big company and a long journey…)  We covered many of the basics – from waste to mindsets to standard work to visual management to 5S to problem solving.  We had a wide mix of lean experience in the class.  What I loved about that mix was that the newbies learned by hearing the stories from their colleagues, and the more experienced folks learned by teaching the newbies by answering their questions themselves, and throwing in a war story here and there.
c-s-lewis teaching quote
I also enjoyed preparing for the class.  Typically I review the teaching deck, highlight key points I want to drive home, write down probing questions to ask them about the material, note a few war stories of my own to share, and really think through the process of the exercises we will put them through.
That’s one of the most challenging tasks there is – how do you design an exercise that can be controlled to fit in a short amount of time yet still allow creative thinking, drive home key learning points through experience, and have a little fun so they remember it, it sticks, and they want to apply it in their daily work?  I’ve been a part of a few of those over the years, and I’m grateful to the teachers I had who either put the effort in to design such an exercise or were just plain talented enough to make it up as they went.
Einstein teaching quote
The intro class reminded me of how much work there is to be done, not just in my company but beyond, in order to continue to wage a relentless war on waste.  And it reminded me how much fun it was to begin to open up people’s eyes to both see those wastes for what they are, and to begin to teach them how they can attack them.
So I think what this means for me is a foray back into the world of blogging, creating content that hopefully creates a spark of interest in learning more about lean thinking in someone, and teaching again.
Have you taught someone recently?  If not, remember to take on the next opportunity that presents itself.  Every interaction with someone is an chance to teach!
krzyzewski teaching quote

“Respect For People” Shines Through In Sandy’s Aftermath

My friend Dave shared a wonderful video with me today that I felt really exemplified Toyota’s concept of “respect for metro logopeople”, especially in connection with doing something good for the community.  The video shows how employees of Toyota’s TSSC team went to work with Food Bank of New York and Metro World Child, creating an initiative called Meals per Hour.  Over an 8-week period, they applied several fundamental concepts of lean in order to get more food to more families faster.  They worked on identifying and eliminating waste, and creating continuous flow in both the packing and distribution processes.

What I loved most about this story was that there was no discussion of cost.  No questions about “what kind of return might I get on this investment of time” or “does this save us any money”.  All I heard was that they wanted to try to improve in order to make the job of the volunteers easier, to ensure more families were fed, and to improve the speed at which they provided service to the families.  In the end it states they were able to feed 400 additional families in half the time it used to take.

1 view 1 mealI checked on Toyota’s news release area and found that in addition to improving the process, for every view of the video on YouTube they would donate one meal to the families, up to 250,000.  The response was so high that they increased their donation limit an additional 1,000,000 meals – and it looks like as of today they have already surpassed the million views mark.

I noticed another video about Toyota and the TSSC (Toyota Production System Support Center) partnering with the Tree of Life Clinic in Tupelo MS to apply lean concepts to improve conditions for patients and volunteers.  tree of life clinicThe clinic provides free healthcare to those with no insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid.  Top problems identified were long waits for patients and long workdays for the volunteers.  Patients might have arrived as early as 6:40 in the morning for a clinic that opens at 4:30 pm, to ensure they are seen that day.  And volunteers were staying as late as 10:00 at night in order to get as many patients through as possible and to complete all the paperwork.

By applying several tools and lean concepts such as 5S, process flow mapping, standard work, and eliminating waiting waste between doctor/patient interactions, they were able to improve in those top problem areas.  The results showed an average decrease of 24 minutes per patient, increasing the number of patients seen in a day from 80 to 90, while reducing the volunteer’s workday by around an hour each day.

Tree of Life results

On the Meals per Hour website, there are several more small videos and blog entries by authors brought in to document and add awareness to the issues and impacts on community members.  I only clicked on one entry so far where Vera Sweeney discusses what she took away from TPS principles – “Change your Thinking and Change Your Life”.  She relates a story about a Toyota employee attempting to improve a restaurant’s order accuracy and how she applied a TPS concept or two at home with her family to improve their morning routine.

I think all these stories illustrate and confirm how much waste exists out there in areas where lean thinking is not being applied yet.  There are a lot of gains to be made to improve the quality of life for people and communities – both the workers and the customers, no matter what the business or venue.  And when you consider how long it takes (in years and decades) to build capability in people to see and eliminate waste themselves on an everyday basis… isn’t it time we got started on that journey?

long journey