Blog Archives

What Direction Are You Heading?

It’s really hard to get anywhere if you don’t know where you are heading.

Every organization needs a direction.  A true north.

True north is why the organization exists.  It is it’s purpose.  When everyone in the organization understands aligns to that purpose it becomes very powerful.  Everyone pulling towards that true north creates better, faster results.

A true north is not something that changes annually or  even every few years.  A good true north is something that doesn’t change for 20 or more years.  The graphic below is from Joe Murli.  It shows how true north guides your business.


To develop a true north, the organization has to understand what and how it’s customers, employees, investors and community view the organization.

Ask, “What do we aspire to be that will differentiate us in the marketplace?”

That marketplace could be the consumers or it could be another internal department that is served.

Is everyone in your organization heading in the same direction?  What is your true north?


Toyota: Deliver the highest quality, lowest cost automobile in the safest manner while demonstrating respect for people and society.

Internal department of a company from my past: Internal manufacturing is the supplier of choice for product A and product B.



Always Be Improving

“If it’s not improving, it’s degrading”
— Toyota

This is a quote that I found a few years ago from someone at Toyota. I find this to be a very powerful quote.

The quote implies there is no status quo. As an organization, a process or a person, you are either improving or degrading.

Some will make the argument that their metrics are holding steady and haven’t moved; therefore, they are holding in a constant state or in status quo. And that may be true, but while you are holding there are others that are improving. This is degrading your status.

A great example of this is GM. The maintained what they were doing for years, while Toyota kept improving, slowly degrading GM’s status over time until Toyota passed them.

We should be working to improve at all times. Being satisfied with where we are at does nothing but cause problems down the road.

How are you pushing to improve everyday? Every year?

When Standards are in Place, Everything is an Experiment

A huge take away from some of the studying of Toyota and case studies I have seen is that everything they do is considered an experiment.  Every cycle on the assembly line.  Every product development project.  Every meeting.  Everything is a test to see if they got the expected results from the process.  If not, why?

It may seem excessive but it isn’t.  If a process is designed to deliver certain results then we are doing ourselves a disservice if we aren’t stopping to ask if the process did deliver the expected results.  If not, why?  If so, why?  What can we learn?  Positive or negative.

This can be applied to all work.  Many studies state that having an agenda and a plan for a meeting is important to making meetings effective.  If that is the case (and it has been in my experience) then afterwards we should ask if we accomplished what we had on the agenda and did we stick to the timeline?

A person example is the agenda I use to conduct improvement (or commonly called kaizen) events.  I have a detailed 3-day agenda that is my standard work.  Each time I have timing information for every phase of the agenda.  During the event, I note the time that I move on to the next phase.  After the day is over, I reflect to understand if my experiment is working or not.  If something took more time I try to understand why.  If it went quickly I try to understand that too.

Approaching each improvement event as an experiment that is testing my standard process has allowed me to learn and create new ways to approach different phases of my agenda.  I have discovered quicker and more effective ways to accomplish some of the tasks.

To truly learn and improve a person has to look at everything as an experiment testing our standards.  People need to be open to learning with everything they do.

Four Most Influential Lean Books

Recently, I reviewed The Lean Turnaround by Art Byrne.  The book was excellent and really struck a cord with me.  So while writing the review, I paused for reflection about what are the lean books that have influenced me the most and why.  I came up with a distinct list of four books.  Below is the list in order that I read them and why it had such an impact on me.

  • The Toyota Way By Jeffrey Liker – This was the first book on lean that I read.  Of course, right?  It is the foundation of everything else.  All the principles clicked instantly with me.  The book showed me that others are doing it a better way.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean By Jamie Flinchbaugh & Andy Carlino – I read this book after learning and implementing lean for about 4 years.  The book took everything I had read from the internet and been implementing and organized it in a way that really made sense to me.  The principles allowed me to organize my thoughts and actions.  This allowed me to become a better coach/teacher/trainer.
  • Better Thinking, Better Results By Bob Emiliani – This book was a great case study of how you can transform every aspect of a company.  Not just manufacturing, but HR, Sales, and Finance.  It showed how using lean to become more efficient can free up cash to grow or pay down debt.  Great case study that really reinforced that lean can be done anywhere and should be.
  • The Lean Turnaround By Art Byrne – This book reinforces what I learned from “Better Thinking, Better Results” but Art also laid out actions to be taken to have a successful lean turnaround.  Art stresses and demonstrates the importance of having the top leadership engaged in the work and not just supporting the work.  It was the first book I read that is designed for executive leadership.

Deeper reflection leads me to recommend reading these books in this order for anyone that hasn’t read any of them.  It has a nice progression to understanding what lean is and what are some guiding principles to understanding how effective lean is when done throughout the entire organization and finally the need for executive leadership and how to lead a lean turnaround.

What lean/business books have influenced you?

Whitepaper – Comparing Lean Principles & 14 Toyota Principles

In 2010, I segmented a whitepaper (part 1, part 2, part 3) I had written comparing the Lean Principles I have learned from the Lean Learning Center to the 14 Toyota Principles.

The whitepaper explains how the 14 Toyota Principles bring to life one or more of the Lean Principles.  It breaks down each Toyota Principle and shows which Lean Principles are brought to life and how.

The whitepaper is available fore download in the Downloads section of the Beyond Lean.

Toyota Just Really Good Problem Solvers

Through the years of learning and implementing lean, I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from Toyota.  At first, it is easy to get really excited about the tools (kanban, 5S, flow) and how well they use them. After the initial excitement the understanding of how to use the tool with people systems starts to gain clarity.  This is great, but it is still what is best for Toyota and not necessarily what is best for someone else.

Dig deep enough and what Toyota is really good at is problem solving.  Toyota really understands where they are and where they want to go and develop a countermeasure that helps them close that gap.  Toyota looks at both the technical and human side of the system when solving the problem.

Toyota didn’t develop 5S to straighten the place up.  They realized by putting things in a designated place they could see and understand the problems they were having at a glance.  This allows them to address the problems quickly.

Kanban was not put in place to reduce inventory.  Toyota had a problem of not enough cash or space for lots of inventory, but wanted to be able to have enough inventory on hand to build what the customer wanted when they wanted it and also make visible any problems in flow they were having.  The kanban was a countermeasure for this.

Years later others have the ability to learn from Toyota’s lessons.  Instead of understanding the problem trying to be resolved, other companies just copy the solution from Toyota without understanding why or if it fits their needs.

Organizations need to become really good problem solvers and if needed learn from Toyota’s lessons, not copy them.

Need the Mental Toughness of a Navy SEAL

Recently, I have been reading a book by Marcus LuttrellA Lone Survivor.  Marcus was part of Navy SEAL Team 2 that came under attack in Afghanistan.  Marcus was the lone survivor of the six man team.

The book is very well written.  One of the interesting sections was about Navy SEALs BUD/s training.  Essentially, the weed out trials for the SEALs.  Marcus goes into detail the physical and mental pain they were put through.  Looking back he realizes it wasn’t to just weed men out of the group to keep the best of the best.  It was to prepare the elite fighting teams to be able to work, think and react under extreme pressure with the precision of a fine tuned instrument.  The SEALs would no be distracted from the physical pain and their surroundings.  They would think and react as they had been taught.  This mental toughness was what would get them through anything and make the SEALs stand apart.

This made me think of some of the legendary stories of Taiichi Ohno.  Stories of him leaving a guy standing in a circle to observe with no break until he came back.  Or calling in a team leader to his office and then berating them for leaving their team on the line.  While on the surface this seems very harsh, at least that is the way I reacted, he was driving home his points.  Taiichi Ohno was getting his people to be able to think and react under the pressure of delivering product on time in a cost efficient way and at the highest quality.

As lean implementers, we have to be able to think and react under the pressure of senior to middle management to shop floor employees questioning what we are doing.  We have to be tough mentally.  Not willing to quit if we are going to eventually change their minds and see the waste.  We have to be prepared for any question or situation that may come our way and react calmly and swiftly.

While people may understand the lean concepts, not everyone puts them into practice.  Part of it is because you have to mentally tough to go against what others are  doing.  Day after day.  Sometimes it feels like you are beating your head against a concrete wall, but we can’t quit.  We keep pushing and eventually things will break through.  And that will be a great day.

Note: By no means do I think lean implementers go through what Navy SEALs to, but the story got me thinking about the mental toughness it takes to make change happen.

Guest Post: John Wooden Quotes Relating to Lean

Joe Wilson has worked in a variety of continuous improvement, problem solving and engineering roles in manufacturing and distribution functions  in the automotive, electronics, and food/grocery industries. He was responsible for site leadership of Lean implementation during the launch and ramp up of becoming a supplier to Toyota and was able to work directly with their personnel and the Toyota Supplier Support Center.   His training background includes courses in Lean/TPS through TSSC and the University of Kentucky’s Lean Systems program.  He is a Six Sigma Black Belt and a Shainin Red X Journeyman in addition to training in Kepner-Tregoe problem solving techniques.  Joe also has a BS degree in Engineering Management from the University of Missouri-Rolla.  

I have spent the first part of 2011 with my John Wooden “Page A Day” calendar taking up real estate on my desk.   It’s filled with quotes, stats, and other random info about  the former UCLA Men’s Basketball coach who was about as successful and universally liked and respected of a person as you will ever find.  (I’ll skip the full bio, but a quick Google or Amazon search will show the extent of his influence.)  Here are a few of the gems that have popped up so far:

“No matter how fine a person is at anything, he can always improve.  No one ever reaches maximum potential.”
“A good banker isn’t careless with pennies; a good leader isn’t sloppy about details.”
“What is right is more important than who is right.”
“A player who makes a team great is much more valuable than a great player.”
Wooden’s Four laws of learning:  Explanation, Demonstration, Correction, and Repitition

Pretty much any of those could have been just as at home in a Lean text.   In addition to the similarity in phrasing to lean texts, I’m struck by the similarities in those who emulate the behaviors.  There are bunches of companies ‘working’ on Lean, but very few approaching the level of success of a Toyota.  Similarly, you can find hundreds of coaches and managers who claim to utilize Wooden’s principles, without replicating his sustained success.  Some have tried to piecemeal add aspects to their own way of doing things without understanding that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Some have tried to copy other people’s visible actions without the understanding of why things work.  Surely others have latched on to a ‘brand’ because it was a trendy thing to do.

I think there is another piece of the puzzle that seems to be left out.  Ultimately there can be no way to document everything that goes in to making someone or something successful.  There is also no way to codify the reasons for all of the visible aspects of a system.  There is no way to look in the rear view mirror and make sure you have accurately weighed the impact of the ‘little things’ that altered the paths.  Even if we think every aspect of a history has been written about, it still doesn’t mean that the right things were weighted correctly.  That is true no matter who’s story is being written.  The best we can do is study success stories like Coach Wooden and Toyota and use that knowledge as pieces of the puzzle as we set out to write our own story of greatness.

Guest Post: The Value of Benchmarking

Joe Wilson has worked in a variety of continuous improvement, problem solving and engineering roles in manufacturing and distribution functions  in the automotive, electronics, and food/grocery industries. He was responsible for site leadership of Lean implementation during the launch and ramp up of becoming a supplier to Toyota and was able to work directly with their personnel and the Toyota Supplier Support Center.   His training background includes courses in Lean/TPS through TSSC and the University of Kentucky’s Lean Systems program.  He is a Six Sigma Black Belt and a Shainin Red X Journeyman in addition to training in Kepner-Tregoe problem solving techniques.  Joe also has a BS degree in Engineering Management from the University of Missouri-Rolla.

Lean teachers have taught us things like “go see”, “ask why”, and “thoroughly understand what is happening at the gemba”.  Enough practice with these mindsets can teach you how to quickly and effectively evaluate current states and identify where our gaps may exist on the way to our ideal state.

If you are like me, you probably really enjoy touring other people’s operations or even watching shows like “Ultimate Factories” or “How It’s Made” on TV to see how other people do what they do.  You’ve also probably tried to copy an idea or two that you’ve seen doing one of those things.  I know I’ve tried several tips, tricks, or notions that I’ve picked up through these observations.  Some have been fantastic.  Some have been total, immediate failures.  And some others may not have worked right off the bat, but have triggered discussions that have led to some really great solutions.  Those types of activities aren’t really what I think of when I picture benchmarking.  I would put those in the same group as reading a book or taking a class and applying an idea from one of those.  Great places to get a seed to plant or to identify rough milestones, but you shouldn’t really be finding blueprints in them.

The danger in a benchmarking mindset from some circles comes from looking at similar processes or industry data and working in a “We should do it just like they do” mindset.  Don’t get me wrong, it is extremely valuable to have an understanding of where the competition is or where the bar is set at.  One of my favorite examples of this in lean lore is how, in the early days, Toyota believed that German manufacturing was 3 times as productive as Japanese manufacturing and the Americans were 3 times as productive as the Germans.  Toyota then determined they had to become 10 times better than they currently were to be better than the best manufacturers and compete on a global scale.  This scale wasn’t used as an excuse to copy American manufacturing, it was used as a line in the sand to set a goal.

Another mantra that I continually remind myself of comes from statistics/data analysis guru Dr. Donald Wheeler who says “No statistic has any meaning apart from the context for the original data.”  All of our observations or industry data studies or side by side comparisons of plants only work if we can phrase them in terms of the context.  If they lack context or we don’t understand the context well enough, we may not get any valuable information from which to build.  In the wrong hands, this can lead to a tremendous waste of time and resources to try to be like someone else.  I don’t think that’s why we do what we do as Lean thinkers.  Our greatest abilities as lean leaders don’t lie with our ability to recognize and copy someone else’s answers.  Our greatest strengths come from our ability to thoroughly understand our own states and solve our own problems.

Toyota Fails Due to Earthquake…Not Lean

I will warn you this post is going to be a rant.  One that I can’t help and I feel is necessary to do.

A couple of days ago I found an article on Bnet.  The title was “Lean Production: Another Casualty of the Japanese Quake?“.  The title caught my eye so I decided to give it a read.  I would have been better off not reading it.

The first part of the article had some good information and was informative, but then came this paragraph:

When complex systems break down, they really break down

The old model of having a plentiful supply of components on hand was costly and inefficient, but it had one big plus: It made it easier to recover quickly from an economic downturn or a natural disaster that disrupted business. In a nutshell, it was durable, if dumb.

My jaw hit the floor from shock when the author mentions that traditional supply chains are costly and inefficient but defends them again because it is quicker to recover from a natural disaster.  What!?  Can you imagine sitting in executive meeting that goes like this:

Person 1: “Are supply chain is really working well.  The costs are down and we are delivering great value to the consumer.”

Person 2: “But what happens if a once in a lifetime 9.0 earthquake causes a tsunami that knocks the earth slightly off its axis?  Will our supply chain work then?”

Person 1: “Great point.  We should triple our inventory immediately.”

The lean model allows for an automaker like Toyota to produce better cars and adjust more nimbly to fluctuations in demand. But because it’s accordingly more complex and required more brain- and communications power to operate correctly, it’s vulnerable to the type of catastrophic breakdown we’re now witnessing in Japan.

Where is he even hearing about lean?  In all my time studying and learning about lean, I have never heard that lean is complex and requires significant communication power to operate.  If someone understands that lean at the basic level is about eliminating waste then how can you draw the conclusion that it is more complex?  At the fundamental lean is the complete opposite of this statement.  It is about making things simpler, including communication.

There is more but I just can’t stomach it.  Plus, a lot of it has already been said very well by some of my counter parts in the comment section of the article.  I really appreciate Steve Martin from theThinkShack kicking off the comments.  Also, Mark Graban from the LeanBlog, David Kasprzak from MyFlexiblePencil, and Joe Dager from Busines901.

I encourage you to go and read their very thoughtful insights and your own if you would like.  I didn’t have an account and as upset as I was I didn’t want to take the time to sign up for the free account to post something and then never use the account again.  So, I decided to use my blog as my forum for this one and didn’t want to rehash some of the great insights from others.

I appreciate your patience on this rant and now I will return your to your regularly scheduled program.