Tag: Fundamentals

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.

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.