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One Man’s Lean Journey: If You Follow the Process, The Results Will Come

One of the most valuable lesson I learned while working in the automotive industry wasn’t about the industry or people or even myself. The most valuable lesson I learned was having a great process will yield predictable results. I didn’t learn this from a manufacturing process. Instead I learned this from a problem solving process.

The automotive supplier I worked for was part of the Chrysler Supplier Quality Program. As part of that program, I got to learn different methodologies for problem solving. One was Shainin’s Red X methodology. I followed the methodology stringently. The benefit was repeatedly achieving great results.

One example was the with the electro-plating line. This is a large vats of chemical baths that produced a chrome finish on plastic parts. The line was operating at a 84% yield. Any defects that came out of the line had to be trashed. The parts could not be salvaged. We were throwing away approximately $40,000/week in scrap. I was asked to problem solve the scrap and get the yield up.

I knew squat about chemistry then and I still don’t know squat. In fact, I needed a tutor in college to get me through freshman chemistry. But that was my task.

Following Shainin’s Red X methodology and never wavering from the process, within in two years the plating line was running at a 96% yield. The line had never ran above 91%. Scrap dollars were down to $10,000/week.

I learned that I didn’t have to know anything about an area to achieve significant results if I followed a good process. It is something that is stated repeatedly in the lean world, but until you have the experience it is hard to truly understand the power of this.

I was accused of “always being right”. I never said anything of the sort but when I was accused of that I would say, “Yes, because I follow the process not because I know anything.”

Have you experienced a good process that is predictable and repeatable?


  • A good process is more powerful than hero employees
  • You don’t have to be an expert in an area in order to produce significant results
  • It is easier to stick to a process when you are unfamiliar with the area, because you can’t rely on your “expertise”

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.

Basics of Problem Solving

Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have been certified/trained in many different methods of problem solving.  Some of them include Shainin Red X, Kepner-Tregoe Is/Is Not, the basics of Six Sigma and DMAIC, PDCA, SPC, and the list goes on and on.  Quite frankly, I have lost track of all the problem solving methods and tools I have used.

After many years of using all of these techniques, I have boiled problem solving down to just 4 basic steps that can be used/seen with any of the methods I mentioned above.

1. Identify Current State

2. Identify Ideal State

3. Analyze the Gap between Current and Ideal States

4. Attack!

Identify Current State: I firmly believe that you have to know where you are and what is happening before you can think about improving.  I have seen people throw everything out and just do step 2 and 4.  I don’t understand this, because they have almost always re-created some of the same headaches that they currently have or had in the past and then have to re-fix these issues.  You have not gotten where you are because everything was bad or wrong.  So what is good?  What is value added?  What is non-value added?  How does the process work?  Understand these things about your current situation and you will learn a lot about the process.

Identify Ideal State: I see some people want to identify the future state instead of the ideal state.  That can work, but I prefer the further sighted ideal state.  You won’t necessarily get to the ideal state by solving just this one problem, but you want to make sure you are heading in the direction of the ideal state.  You don’t want to create a countermeasure to a problem that is heading in a different direction than your ideal state.  Have you ever had a future state that isn’t aligned with your ideal state?  Do you want to start working in one direction only to be redirected later?  Define the ideal state, even if it is just bullet points, so you know that any countermeasure you put in place is directionally correct.

Analyze the Gap between Current and Ideal States: Now you must understand what it will take to get from where you are at to where you want to get.  How do we close the gap?  It may not fully close the gap but we are making progress towards the ideal state.  Sometimes you may find that you have to do a major process redesign or a big project.  Sometimes you may need to do smaller more manageable tasks to get there.  It is OK to not close the entire gap in one jump.  Just make progress.  If you make progress and have a plan, my experience has shown that you will get a lot of understanding.

Attack!: Now it is time to implement.  By implementation, I mean try out the countermeasures, verify the results, and make adjustments base on what was learned or make the new countermeasure part of the standards.  Basically, the Check and Act of PDCA.

This approach can work for simple problems like needing to reduce walking in a process.

1. Identify Current State – I walk 10 steps between my desk and the fax machine, 20 times per day = 200 steps.

2. Identify Ideal State – I don’t want to walk at all to the fax machine

3. Analyze the Gap – 200 steps per day is the gap, I can’t get a fax machine for my desk (not in the budget), but I can move the fax machine closer but I need to talk with others to make sure I’m not making more work on them.

4. Attack – Others are OK with me moving the fax machine.  I move it.  I am now walking 5 steps per trip, 20 times per day = 100 steps.  50% reduction.  That is the new standard now.

It also works for complex problems like creating single piece flow

1. Identify Current State –  A common tool used here is a Value Stream Map

2. Identify Future State – Create a future state Value Stream Map

3. Analyze the Gap – What projects and kaizen events do I need to do to reach my future state.  Develop an action plan.

4. Attack – Implement action plan.  Reflect on results and process of implementing and make adjustments as necessary.

I know this boils it down very simply, but there is a lot of work that has to happen in each step.  There are many tools/concepts that can be used to complete these steps, but remembering these four steps is a great start.