Month: March 2013

My Local McDonald’s Thinks Customer

Like any large, medium, or small, and residential, commercial or industrial area in this country, we have a McDonald’s near our house.  I won’t say we mcdonald'sgo often, but every once in a while we pick something up from the golden arches.  (self-confession:  I’m addicted to Sausage McGriddles, but I haven’t fallen off the wagon in over a year!)  As they continue to offer more and more healthy options, including things like yogurts, oatmeal, and apple slices in the Happy Meals, they move a little higher up on the frequency list.  Plus our dogs usually request a cheeseburger or two.

My daughter is getting to the age where she appreciates the toys she gets from Happy Meals, and will tell you if she likes them or not.  The past two times we have gone through the drive through and gotten her one, we got a toy that wasn’t advertised, and seemed like it was from a previous promotional toy run from months ago.  Our initial guess was that they had a lot of inventory of the older toys and wanted to get through them before handing out the new toys.  Although far from the most frustrating thing we’ve ever experienced in our lives, two times in a row made us want to let McDonald’s know how we felt about our experience.

We found their comment system online and emailed them, a very nice note letting them know of what happened, and that we also liked the new Fish McBites and were happy they were trying new menu items.  The very next morning, my wife got a call from the regional manager in charge of all the stores for our area.  He said he understood where we were coming from because he had a young child himself, apologized, and then said he wanted to drop by our house that morning to bring a toy to make up for it.

And so he did.  He brought the entire display board for the latest promotion, including all the ballerinas and all the hex bugs.  A completely unnecessary gesture, but we McDonald's toyswere very impressed with that level of response.  In addition, he chatted with my wife and said that the location in question was actually one of their better performing restaurants, and they typically ran through the latest promotional toys quickly, so they sometimes have to supply them with whatever inventory they could find so they have something to give out!

My first response was, wow, what an impressive focus on your customers!  There was no discussion of, well, what would you like in compensation, no $1 coupon coming in the mail, no free happy meal.  There was simply a quick effort to make a positive impression on one of your billions of customers.

I think a key learning is how important a quick feedback loop on a comment system or a kaizen card system can be in the eyes of those giving the input.  I suppose we expected our comments to go into a database, perhaps be looked at, maybe categorized and if it was one of the highest frequency items, maybe they would look into it someday, but we probably wouldn’t hear back from them.  Our comments would essentially be heading into a black hole as far as we were concerned.

Instead we got response, correction beyond our expectations, and additional information about the situation within 24 hours.  Because of this, we’ll be more likely to use their comment system again.  Not because we expect a rack of toys every time we send an email, but because we now know our customer input is reviewed and valued.  In fact, if you removed the toys and personal touch from the equation, I think we would have been happy even with an explanation of the toy supply chain situation at that location.  We also recognized that we are much more likely to get a response if we include details of the situation, our opinions, and a conversational tone rather than the “you guys stink!” mentality.

Because of this we will now have a very positive experience to share with our friends and family vs. a negative one, something that will stick in our minds for years to come.  How many of your comment, kaizen, or complaint systems are set up with a primary goal of delivering positive experiences to your customers or the submitters to the system – whether internal or external?

The Neverending Story: Capability Building

I was sitting in a meeting and the leader decided to do a quick refresher for his team on quality tools.  Someone mentioned to me, “I guess this might be a little redundant for you.”  Have I heard the material before?  Sure, several times.  I’ve even taught it several times.  But I value going over the fundamentals time and time again, because every time I go through them there is always something new to take away due to new experiences, new applications, or new thinking learned in another area.

This particular time my mind honed in on the Fishbone examplefishbone diagram.  I reflected on my capability and decided I didn’t truly know the proper way to use and apply a fishbone diagram; I’d really only used it as a trigger when thinking about direct causes in problem solving.  And from all accounts, using it in the right way is a big help in determining cause.  So I made a note to myself to do some research and get better at it.

There are clearly many different paths to implement lean in a company.  It ranges from tlean six sigma levelshose that will have a very specific timeline, objectives, and return on investment they try to hit, to some (although few) that will just commit to the transformation and let it take them on a journey, having faith that this is the right thing to do and good things will come of it.  In either case, you typically need some form of a plan of how people will be taught the thinking and the tools so that they can begin to use them to improve.  Whether you have consultants come in and teach classes, send them to Lean Six Sigma Green Belt training, assign them books to read, or have everyone discuss what they read on lean blogs, there has to be some form of an actionable plan to move forward.

Many times that plan will involve “levels” of capability, fskydiverom novice to expert, green belts to black belts, bronze to platinum, student to sensei.  There are usually some criteria, classes, activities, or experiences you need to have to move from level to level.  Much like prerequisites in college curriculums.  Or, one analogy I always use is, “I want to teach you how to skydive before I push you out of the plane.  The outcome is usually better.”

I am in favor of having these types of capability plans.  I think setting expectations for progress is important.  I’m not always on board with setting expectations for specific results targets early on in the journey, other than seeing some level of improvement, either quantitative or qualitative.  The one caveat I have with this fairly standard approach is that some people will work hard to “check the box” on the list of requirements, and then proclaim, “I am now done with my lean training!”  The problem is when they ask, ok, what’s next?  Sometimes there is no next class to take, there is simply getting better and building on what you have learned.  One thing most companies do not outline is what life looks like after your initial training.  What does sustaining your capability look like?

I like to relate capability building to the game of Tetris.  When you first start the game, the pieces come down slowly.  You have time to analyze the best possible place for that piece, because you can see what piece is coming up next, and you have plenty of tetristime to twist it around.  Mistakes you make are easier to remedy.  Then you begin to realize that you get more points when you complete more lines at the same time.  So you begin building a structure that saves a space for that special piece that will allow you to eliminate 4 lines at once.

As you complete more and more lines, the game begins to speed up.  Pieces come down faster, and you have less time to rotate them and fit them perfectly.  However, since you learned the fundamentals at a slower speed, you are able to adapt to the new speed because you really don’t have any new concepts to learn about the game, you simply see the opportunities faster and move the pieces to the right places faster.

To finish connecting my analogy, I see building up the lines on the screen as reaching those initial capability targets your implementation program has set up.  You feel pretty good about putting the structure together.  Then, as those special straight 4-block pieces come along to blow away several lines, those are your “ah-ha moments” when you realize you only thought you knew what you were doing, or that you recognize you really weren’t solving to root cause at all, or when you say “oh that’s what they meant.”  And this process, much like the game of Tetris, simply continues – build up the structure, take it down with your ah-ha moments, and build again, even faster, on what you now call your ever-strengthening foundation.

As you progress and you reflect on your journey, you realize there was much you did not know at the outset.  There was much you did not know after 5 years.  And there is still much you do not know after 10 or more years.  But take solace in the fact that with every new experience you know more than you did the day before.

How Broadly is Lean Thinking Taught in Higher Education?

For my undergraduate degree, I studied chemical engineering.  I learned skills like how to size reactors, calculate total process flow with a recycle loop, determine how far and wide a chemical plume might spread, and chemical plantdesign the right number of trays for distillation columns.  I’m coming up on 12 years removed from graduation, and because of the type of industry I ended up in, I can’t say I’ve done any of that since!  But if you were to start a conversation with me about one of those subjects, I could probably pull out one of my old textbooks, and at least on a basic level we could communicate, because I’d learned it once, heard the words, and understood the context.

I like to say that college did not train me how to do a specific job out in the workforce.  Rather, college taught me fundamentals in my field, trained me how to think, how to learn, how to find information, and how to solve problems.  One thing I did not learn about in college was lean thinking.  It simply wasn’t offered at the time.  But as I look retrospectively thinking brainon the way I approached problem solving and how I viewed the value or importance of aspects of our business prior to the beginning of my lean journey, I wish I had learned many of the fundamentals back then.  Even if out of college I was entering a company that was not “lean”, there’s still a good chance I would have found the occasion to eliminate some waste, think about something from the eyes of the customer, do some better process mapping, or put better systems in place to sustain improvements.

I think about the amount of time we invest in training team members in the fundamentals of lean thinking and tools.  It can take a very long time for someone to really understand what it means to go after the root cause of a problem rather than the direct cause.  It can take even longer for people to understand that only a very small percentage of their work is seen as value-added in the eyes of a customer, especially if they’ve been around the company for 15 years or more.  There is a lot of cost associated with that training and with that learning curve:  hours of training, hours of practicing (and failing/adjusting/learning), and months before you are working on truly beneficial kaizen activities vs. small problems to cut your teeth on.

I’ve now heard several recently-hired engineers say that they took a course in college which taught them lean fundamentals.  As they see how we are working to transform into a lean organization, they are able to relate to the training much easier than those who had been with the company for several years.  And the simplest answer I can think of to the question “why” is because they’d already heard the words before.

My nephew is looking to enter medical school soon.  The other night at dinner as it was being discussed, many of Mark Graban’s posts on lean in health care came to mind, and the teacher in me said, hey, wouldn’t it be fun to teach my nephew about lean thinking as he goes through med school so he can be a future lean leader when he enters the healthcare workforce?

Throw all of that together and it got me thinking – is there even anything offered in med schools these days, or nursing schools, or healthcare management degrees that teach students lean fundamentals?  I decided to do a little internet search to study the current state of lean teaching in higher education in the US.  First, I looked into several engineering schools, and searched for the term “lean” in their course descriptions.  (There’s probably a bit of a Midwest/Big Ten slant to my choices!)  Then I tried picking several medical schools, nursing programs, and looked for healthcare management programs.  For good measure I added a few business school programs to the search as well.

Michigan TechOne of the recently hired engineers I mentioned was from my undergrad alma mater, Michigan Tech University.  I was proud to find four courses offered, mostly at their Enterprise level, something accessible to all their engineering disciplines.  Highlights include Lean Manufacturing and Production Planning, and Service System Operations.

The next place I checked out was Engineering at the University of Michigan, home of Toyota Way author Jeff Liker and Toyota Kata author Mike RotherumichI was not surprised to find five courses offered, including Lean Manufacturing and Services, Measurement and Design of Work, and Global Manufacturing.

Then came MIT, which had 4 offerings including a summer course from Steven Spear.  They also have a program called the Lean Advancement Initiative, which brings together lai mitstudents from Aeronautics, the School of Engineering, their Sloan School of Management, and System Design and Management to work to accelerate the transformation of complex enterprises.

Ohio State topped the list, with 6 class offerings found, an initiative called Teaching Lean, and several programs including Lean Manager Certification in their Fisher school of businessosu fisher I also checked out course listings at Purdue (0), Penn State (0), Cal-Berkeley (2), Virginia Tech (1), Georgia Tech (0), and Stanford (1).

I seshingo prizearched at Utah State, home of the Shingo Prize, and wasn’t able to find any specific courses, but of course at the Huntsman School of Business there is a heavy focus on lean in several of their programs of study.


In summary for the engineering discipline, it seems that several universities are offering courses that prepare students in Lean principles, but it is not yet widespread.  What you can find, however, is a plethora of continuing education, or executive/professional education programs offering one to three day workshops, several-week immersions, and certification programs in Lean and Six Sigma.  I even found a listing for degrees in “Lean Mastery”.  (I don’t think it is a lifelong commitment though!)

It was more difficult to search course descriptions at medical schools, but I tried my best.  At Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Penn, Stanford, Washington University, Yale, Columbia ajohns hopkinsnd Duke, the course searches turned up zero results.  (Although at Johns Hopkins I found a Lean Six Sigma initiative in their Center for Innovation in Quality Patient Care)  For nursing, I visited the sites of The University of Colorado-Denver, California – San Francisco, North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Oregon Health and Science University, yielding no lean course sightings.

One area I did find interesting for Lean Healthcare Education was in the Purdue Distance Education Program.  It offered courses in Lean Basics, Workshops, and Yellow, Green, and Black Belts in Lean healthcare.  Again, it is more in the category of continuing education vs. standard education, but it’s a start.

I looked through healthcare management programs at Minnesota, Alabama-Birmingham, Virginia Commonwealth, and Boston University, and MBA programs at Harvard, Dartmouth, University of Virginia, and The George Washington University.  Minnesota had one course offered, and the Darden Business School at the University of Virginia had one course and one elective area, Operations, that called out lean as one of the learning areas.  I had trouble navigating to the School of Public Heath website at the University of Michigan, but have to assume that being next to the Health Management Research Center  means there must be some lean thinking going on!

In summary for my search of health care education, it seems that lean is sometimes a part of research but not necessarily prominent yet in actual course offerings.  I figured that even if my course description searching skills were inadequate, I would have found something that might have pointed me in the right direction.  Finding nearly no mention of it though, I have to assume that there are very few offerings out there at this time.

I’ll have to set a reminder on my calendar 3-5 years from now to repeat the study and see if the number of lean course offerings are expanding, stable, or decreasing.  I hope expansion is imminent!

I imagine some point in the future, when I am viewing 10 resumes and college transcripts for an open position, if half of them have some form of lean education or experience listed, there’s a good chance it might sway my vote.  Not just because I really enjoy lean, but because I would see value in having the decreased cost of a shorter learning curve, shorter lead time towards having a fully effective employee, and quicker realization of improvement contributions than if I hired someone without that experience and understanding.  If we expect our operators to be able to learn the fundamental principles of lean and problem solving, surely we can expect our undergraduate students to be able to handle the material?  Can you imagine a future where all your new hires begin their careers with a focus on preventing problems from ever occurring again as opposed to simply containing them and hoping they don’t come back?

I think of all the extracurricular “clubs” on a college campus.  Are there any out there that are related to lean?  What type of activities might they do, and list on their resumes?  “Led three kaizens on final exam grading with a small group of professors and grad students, created and tested 4 new standards, resulting in 20% fewer errors and a 15% reduction in time spent grading.”  Or perhaps, “Through value-stream mapping, created a kanban system connected with textbook suppliers that helped reduce lead time from order to delivery by 2 weeks, helping the Campus Bookstore reduce working capital by 30%.”  These are the kind of statements that will pique my interest, or tip the tables in your favor.  But don’t get me wrong – I still very much want to discuss your leadership experiences in that Habitat for Humanity project!

So… do you have “president of the local Lean Thinkers Society” on your college resume?

Perhaps all our focus on lean transformation in the thick of industry, at the point of application, is itself focused on a direct cause rather than a root cause – an inadequate system for building lean thinking into our workforce from the outset.  Countless times have I heard that for many years Toyota never needed to write down how they think, because it simply happens as a part of their culture – they’ve just always thought that way.  Perhaps we should be more focused on teaching lean further upstream in order to build a future where lean is simply the way we think vs. having to work to transform our thinking years after we’ve started our careers.

Vow of Silence

I was under the weather the other week, but decided to push through and ensure a couple of key training sessions I was giving occurred as scheduled.  By the end of them, I had lost most of my voice and was considerably worse off than when the week had begun.  So I decided that my first priority was to rest my voice, and so I took a self-imposed “vow of silence” for a 24 hour period.

This was an interesting experience.  First of all, it was difficult to even remember not to talk sometimes!  Cesar MillanBut it also reminded me of how much we rely on words to get our points across or get things done vs. other methods.  For example, when the dogs went to go bark at the mailman, you couldn’t yell at them to sit and be quiet.  You had to find another method not involving your voice that they would understand.  Usually, it was a much calmer method than yelling.  Cesar Millan would be proud!

Also, it meant when sitting at the dinner table I was able to simply listen to the conversation between my wife and kids, instead of trying to think about how I was going to respond.  Or when we were playing a board game I could just sit and watch as the kids took their turn and enjoy how much they were learning and growing instead of trying to make small talk.

How does all this relate to Lean thinking?  Well as I sat there in my small world of silence and ridiculous hand gestures, my mind drew parallels to two concepts – standing in the Ohno circle and listening to the Voice of the Customer.

Standing in the Ohno Circle

As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching”.  Early on in my lean journey I remember reading about or hearing about the concept of standing in the Ohno circle until you were able to see waste and come up with improvements to eliminate it.  WhOhnoen we were first learning about what waste was, we went out to the machines and observed what was going on, coming up with examples of all the types of waste.  We were developing our capability to see, and there were plenty of waste examples to go around.  But you didn’t interject yourself into the process, didn’t go fix something you saw right then and there without understanding the cause – you simply observed and built a deeper understanding of how the process functions.

It is a little bit harder to stand in a circle in an office environment.  If you draw a circle in the hall, you’ll probably write down lots of examples of copier waste, walking back and forth between meetings, having to get up to get a drink of water or hit the restroom… things that may not be all that useful for driving results with lean transformation.  But I’ve found it very effective if I actually sit in with someone in their office and simply watch them do work and have them describe what they are doing, asking “why?” every once in a while.  Even simple tasks such as observing them writing an email and asking why they need to write it to get information they should already have reveals gaps in the business process.  Or perhaps you shadow someone for a few hours, sit in the meetings they sit in, and record all the forms of waste you see, including how many meetings don’t result in any actual actions or decisions.

Usually if you are standing in a circle on the shop floor, there is room somewhere for you to be out of the way and slightly more inconspicuous than if you are sitting in a cube looking over someone’s shoulder.  It can be a little uncomfortable at first, both for you and the employee.  But this is where the work is done, this is where the time is spent, and this is where the waste occurs that you need to be identifying and striving to eliminate.  So maybe it should be difficult and uncomfortable – if it was easy to see, someone probably would have already improved it.

Listening to the Voice of the Customer

What is value-added through the eyes of the customer?  Knowing this is what drives us to improve our processes, because everything that is not value-added in the eyes of the customer is waste – and why would we want to keep producing that?  It isn’t always easy to hear the voice of the customer, because we don’t always listen when they talk to us.  Many times I have seen people receive feedback from a customer but during the discussion defend the way things are done currently, tell them why they can’t give them what they want, offer potential band-aids to some of their concerns, and even direct the problems back onto the customer and try to blame the problems on them and their demands!

Is some of that justifiable?  Sure, maybe, in some sense.  But the key here is that obtaining the customer’s feedback in order to understand what they are thinking, what they value, and what they wish you could deliver to them shouldListening be the objective of the conversation.  Shelve the notion that you need to deliver a solution to them that very minute.  Shelve your pride and try not to defend why things are the way they are.  Try not to interject yourself into the conversation other than to steer it and to ask questions that probe deeper into their needs.  Remember that your goal is to listen, to hear, and to understand, and to take that feedback, reflect on it, and determine if there are reasonable things you can do to improve on what the customer values.


It’s nice to have my voice back now, but maybe I’ll have to schedule myself to take a short vow of silence every once in a while just so I remember how to listen.


Inspirational Quotes and Reflection

Tom SelleckI watch the show Blue Bloods, with Tom Selleck as the police commissioner of New York City.  He is portrayed as a very deep and wise thinker who does a lot of hansei, or reflection.  During a recent episode, he and several members of his family all seemed to know a particular Teddy Roosevelt quote, and it was one I didn’t know but as I heard them say the words I decided it would be one that I would look up and keep for future reference.  The particular quote was:

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

Teddy Roosevelt

I suppose many people could infer many different things from this quote.  One reflection I took away from it was to push for excellence, push for greatness, push for improvement.  Many times during a lean transformation people discuss things in terms of “sounds nice, but we’ve never done it that way” or “wow, that would really help a lot, but when would we find the time?” or, “ok, let’s move forward but in small steps so we aren’t too disruptive.”  The kicker is, many of the “visions” people shy away from implementing or transforming into are countermeasures to the very reasons they hesitate: It is a new way, but it would be better; this would help free up time for improvement activities, the time you say you don’t have;  the move would be disruptive but would prevent disruption in the future.

The gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat” To me that is just an analogy for maintaining the status quo, for continuing along the same path you are already on, too hesitant to get your shoes dirty, step off the sidewalk, and walk through the field to try out the welcoming trail you see.  The bottom line is, if you see an improved future state, you should be moving towards it with purpose and vigor rather than hoping to eventually get there.  Sometimes you need to cut a new path through the weeds in order to reach that other trail across the field.

As I searched for the Roosevelt quote, I ended up looking through several other quotes from various sources.  I came across one I liked as well, one that I thought connected well with themes from a great book I am reading from and teaching from this year, “The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership” by Jeff Liker.  The quote was:

“As kids, we’re not taught how to deal with success; we’re taught how to deal with failure.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  If at first you succeed… then what?”

The theme I thought it connected well with was around reflection and self-development.  Whether you have just reached the end of a very successful project that made a lot of money and improved the quality of your product or service, or whether you just had a major quality issue arise that threatens your market share and reputation, you would approach each of these situations in the same way: deep reflection to understand how you could improve.

In so many cases we do not study and learn from our successes, we only do an autopsy when there is a failure.  Studying and learning from successes can be just as, if not more, powerful and valuable.  When we succeed we must ask why we were successful.  What really worked well?  What, even though we succeeded, could still be improved the next time we do this?  We must take these learnings and lock them in for the future, be disciplined to them, adopt them as the new best-known way to do things, share them with others… and continue to improve upon them.  Do what makes you successful, do it often, and then do it better.
Charlie Sheen

So I loved that quote, and then I was surprised at first when I looked down at the author.  Who other than the venerable Charlie Sheen.  Wisdom coming from a place I might least expect it, as least in recent months.  Thanks Charlie!