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Mentors Are Important – A Tribute to My Mentors

The lean community and Toyota talks about everyone having a mentor (or sensei).  A lot of people may understand this as having one mentor for most or all of their career.  I don’t believe that has to be the case.  Having several mentors can be a good thing depending on what you are trying to learn and what point in your career you are.

I have been fortunate enough in my career to have had three great professional mentors at different stages of my career.  They all have taught me something different.  This post is a tribute to them and what they taught me.

As a college intern and then very early in my career out of school, Michael Hunt taught me confidence and humbleness.  RCA had a lot of interns come in throughout the year over many years.  Mike was the leader for the interns in our group.  While most interns worked on very small projects, Mike gave me very meaningful projects and instilled confidence in me to be able to handle them.  As a 21-year-old college student, he selected me to work with him and 2 others on a confidential project to design the layout a brand new manufacturing facility.

Mike always treated all the interns with respect and as if they were his own kids.  Even meeting with us outside of work to play golf or shoot some pool.  We were his equals in his eyes.  His humbleness was genuine.  I was too young to realize this until a few years later.  I don’t think Mike realizes the impact he made on me during those 3+ years (I did an internship there every 3 months for 4 years).

A few years later, I met Dennis Mouser.  Dennis was a retired Shainin Red X Master.  My company hired Dennis to mentor myself and two others in using the Shainin methodology.  Dennis taught me the importance of adhering to a process.  If I trusted the what I believed to be a very good process then the results would come.  And they did.  I ended up solving problems that had been in existence for nearly 40 years.  Another engineer and I solved a problem that no one else could.  They were looking in the wrong spot.  The defects weren’t created in our process but from a leaky roof thirty feet in the air.

Dennis also started to show me how to mentor others.  He taught me how to teach others a process and then get them want to follow it, not force them to follow it.  The lessons I learned helped me understand how using standardized work can give people the framework to think of unique and creative solutions on their own if we give them a chance.

Last but not least, Jamie Flinchbaugh.  I met Jamie about 4 years ago when I was developing the lean program for Trane -Residential.  If you know Jamie, you probably can see his influence in my lean thinking and I have mentioned him a lot on the blog.  I am not trying to sell his services, but it is hard to not mention him with all the mentoring he has given me.

Jamie has taught me how to think of lean as a set of principles and behaviors and how to recognize them wherever I may be.  He has helped me to understand where my customers are and how to deliver to their needs while still trying to push them forward a step or two in their thinking.

At Trane, he helped me learn how to influence leaders at higher organizational levels than where I was at.  I have become a better teacher, coach and leader because of Jamie’s mentoring.

All three really influenced my thinking and it very different ways.  All three were the right person at the right time.  To them I say, “Thank You!”

Always keep your mind open.  You never know where or when you will find someone to mentor you.

The Importance of Respect for People

Sometimes lean thinking and behaviors are being used without being known.  Common examples are Subway or Zappos.  But it can happen in our own work too.

I have been implementing lean for 10+ years now and just this morning it hit me about a time when I was putting good lean thinking to work and had absolutely no idea.  Fifteen years ago, I was a 21-year-old college student doing an internship with RCA.  At the time, I had heard of Shingo and read his book The SMED System, but I had never heard the term lean.

I was put in charge of running a production area for a couple of months.  My team consisted of 10 union employees.  The management – union relationship in this facility was terrible.  On my first day, I gathered the team together and laid out our production goals and time frame.  I asked how they wanted to set up the area for the best production.  We spent the first day or two experimenting and getting our process down.  By the third day, the team was really doing well.  The team’s production numbers weren’t that good the first week because of the experimenting that we were doing at the start of the week.

In very traditional management fashion, I never saw my supervisor the entire week until Friday afternoon when he came out to let me know not hitting our goals was unacceptable.  I tried to explain the setup but he didn’t want to hear it.  I think the only reason I got some latitude was because I was an intern and he would only have to put up with me for a few weeks.

The next week the team was familiar with the process they had designed and executed very well.  We hit our goal on the nose, so I didn’t see my supervisor at all that week.

The following week they came to me and wanted to tweak the process.  I thought that was a great idea, so they did.  And boy did they.  For the next 4 weeks they exceeded the weekly target by close to 30% each week.  I could not stop praising them during that time.  Every morning and afternoon, I made sure to let them know how much I appreciated their work.  I brought in donuts for them a couple of times and one afternoon, I let them have an hour break.

Of course, my supervisor is now coming out wanting to know what I am doing to get this productivity.  It was the highest productivity the area has ever seen.  I said I was doing nothing.  The team designed and executed the work and they even started holding each other accountable which I have never seen in a union environment.  While the team was really working hard, I would take care of the odds and ends.  For example, they forgot to put a remote control in one of the TV set boxes, so I grabbed some tape, ran out to the finished goods area, opened the box, put the remote in, and taped it back up.  I would also help carry parts in so there wouldn’t have to be so many trips.

WHOOOPS!!!!  These things were a HUGE no-no in a union shop.  I had a union shop steward come out and just light into me right in front of the team over these things.  Being young and dumb at the time, I got right back in his face about yelling at me in front of the team and so on and so forth.  It got to the point my team (all union members)  jumped in and defended me to their shop steward avoiding a grievance being filed.

The team finished the work 2 weeks faster than any team had done it.  This was something they gave a lot of interns so they had quite a few years to compare it with.

I’m not bring this story up to say, “look at how good I did.”  I bring it up because I did what I just felt was right and treated everyone with respect.  OK maybe not the shop steward.  But as I think about it now, it highlighted the importance of the Respect for People pillar of lean.  By respecting the team’s talents and knowledge and letting them use it to define the process the results came.  The time I spent working with the that team is one that I reflect on quite a bit.  It was a huge learning experience about lean before I knew anything about lean.

There are a lot of companies that respect and engage their people.  They just may not call it lean.  It may be just the way they do business.  As lean implementers, shouldn’t our ideal state be the word ‘lean’ is never used again because it is just the way all companies do business?