Archive for category Lean Learning

When the Student’s Lens Changes

As a lean coach, it is always rewarding to witness the change in a lean learner’s “lens” – when the student sees things in a different way.

Or suddenly sees things that they never saw before.

It means that the student is thinking in a different way…in a leaner way.

Sometimes this drives interesting behavior. Like following a car that has a license plate containing what perhaps has a lean message. Then, finally tracking the car within a side of the road parking lot and snapping a picture of that license with their cell phone.

Several relatively new lean practitioners did just that. They believed that this particular license plate had cleverly captured the lean axiom of, “no problem is big problem.”

Pretty cool, huh?

Of course, they later determined that the license plate was really about P = NP, a major unsolved problem in computer science.

Hey, it’s the thought that counts.

And, of course, it was funny as heck.

Related posts: Another Classic Lean Question – “Do You See What I See?”, Line of Sight, Employee Engagement, and Daily Kaizen


Undercover Hospital Sensei’s Diagnosis – “Healthcare is Broke” [guest post]

Normally, I introduce the guest post author at the conclusion of the post. However, this one needs a little pre-post explanation. Believe me.

First the introduction. This post was earnestly written by my friend, Jeff Fuchs. He is Director of the Maryland World Class Consortia, a lean non-profit assistance organization in the mid-Atlantic. He is also president of Neovista Consulting, working with large and small organizations on lean, leadership, and organizational change. Jeff has participated in the development and expansion of SME/AME/Shingo Prize/ASQ Lean Certification.  He is Lean Bronze Certified and serves as Co-Chairman of the Lean Certification Oversight Committee.  Jeff received his B.S. in aerospace engineering from West Point.  He is a veteran, and a member of the Shingo Prize Board of Examiners.  His current projects are in lean for personal time management, job shops, and lean government.

Now the explanation/background. At the moment, Jeff is the instructor for three lean training programs.  Recently, a trip to the emergency room interrupted one of his training sessions. Subsequent to the “interruption,” Jeff sent out an apologetic and, ever the sensei, instructive email to his session participants. He also shared the email with some other folks. Unfortunately for him, I was one of those folks. Jeff has graciously agreed to let me post his email (with some slight editing) within Gemba Tales. I think his entertaining letter drives home some of the not insignificant opportunities within health care, the importance of customer focus, and the power of direct observation (even when wearing something lent to you by the hospital). That, and Jeff managed to read a great lean book during his “incarceration” and then give it a plug.

The subject line of Jeff’s email –“I’m just fine!” Wish I could say the same for health care in this country.


Dear Class,

“Rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated.” Please accept my sincere apologies for throwing your day off last Thursday. Unfortunately, I had to bring my body into the shop for some unscheduled maintenance.

As we all heard Sir Ken Robinson observe on Wednesday’s video, some of us just view our bodies “as a way of getting our heads to meetings.”  Proper upkeep falls by the wayside from time to time, and this is what happens.  A bit of detail is in order.  I was up to answer nature’s call at 4:15 a.m. on Thursday, and instead of the usual heartbeat, “thumpita-thump, thumpita-thump, thumpita-thump…,” what I felt was more like “thumpita-thump, eeerrk! thumpita-eeerrk! thumpita-thump…errkk!…”

I grabbed my keys, wallet, cell phone, and a good book and drove to the emergency room.  You may have missed your day of training, but let me tell you that “class was in session” at the Baltimore Washington Medical Center ER when I showed up for school at 5 a.m.  Four hours later, (Let me say that again, “FOUR HOURS LATER”) we were still monkeying around with forgotten paperwork, twice redone blood draws, shift change meetings over my bed, staff that was making three trips to my room to restock inventory, and rolling me through a series of three “patient inventory” transactions between some lab and back to my ER bay of “move, wait, process, wait, move, wait” for X-ray, sonogram, and ECG, respectively.

I told you folks.  I TOLD you to your face!  “When I am through with you, if I am successful, I will make you as miserable a human being as I am.  You will see broken processes all around you.”  Welcome to my world.  Behold, the sad customer/piece of meat-inventory:

Now seriously, don’t he look sad?  Pity the poor victim of broken process.

Naturally, in a case like this I couldn’t resist going into Consultant Mode.  In spite of being hooked up to the monitor, IV, oxygen, etc. like a marionette, the monitor kept losing my continuing thumpita-errk heartbeat, so the nurses had to keep walking back to the main desk an average of every 11.3 minutes (but who’s counting) to see if I was dead yet and to reset the monitor.  How thoughtful of them to give me an ER bay where I could see their goings on.  Their wasted motion, their absence of mistake-proofing or visual controls, their failed attempts to communicate with each other, failed service opportunities, excessive patient transportation, and more.  How very thoughtful.

After three hours of fear, boredom, and frustration cocktail, I used a pen left behind by one of the nurses and began sketching out a nurse/patient spaghetti map of my morning on the back of an IV wrapper I found on the floor, along with a crude value stream map.  (There are a few things wrong in that last sentence.  Please use a black or blue ink pen to circle them.  We’ll review your answers next session.)  The ER staff found my doodles and efficiency ravings…amusing.  I’m sure they did not have much time to be interested in the “bored consultant in room six” at the same time they had to deal with the cut up guy the cop brought in handcuffs, the construction worker who just fell off a scaffold, the guy sleeping on a gurney in the hall who nobody knows where he came from, or the other poor folk who needed their full attention.

The attending physician diagnosed me with “atrial fibrillation,” an eminently treatable condition.  We’ll see in a couple weeks what the follow up says.  They admitted me for observation, where I was subjected to other process design and systems management horrors which I shall not relate to you with at this time.  Suffice it to say, I got an education in that fourteen hours.  The lesson for me: Healthcare is broke.  It’s broke bad.  I mean, if I had a clone army of a thousand Lean Jedi Knights, we’d be swinging our Lean Lightsabers for decades trying to unhose healthcare in this country.  Lean Facilitator Certification Program students, your future in this industry is secure.

By the way, one final note on my lean healthcare field trip.  The “good book” I mentioned that I snagged on my way out the door was Toyota Kata, the one I described with such admiration on Tuesday morning, lamenting that I had not had the time to read it.  Well, there you go.  I plowed through half of it.  Would have gotten further, but had to watch a really good Jerry Springer and eat my tasteless hospital food (Overcooked mac and cheese, gray asparagus, canned pears, and a drink that arrived completely frozen solid.).  So, remember what I said: “A true lean leader is a lifelong learner.”

Put your left hand on the computer screen, raise your right hand, and repeat after me: “A-true-lean-leader-is-a-lifelong-learner.”

Here’s me “enjoying” my incarceration:

Pick up a copy of Toyota Kata.  Will change your life.  It’s an easy and interesting read.  You can finish it in a weekend.  Or two bad Emergency Room visits.  Whichever.

Related posts: Beyond Toast Kaizen – Lean Breakfast Concepts, Circa 1937, Lean Management Systems and Actionable Empathy…or, “How Was Your Day?”

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Guest Post – Minarai: apprentice, beginner; learn by observing

As I ready myself for a new mentoring relationship in a few weeks, I’ve been pondering roles and approaches. What will I do the same, what will I change as I help facilitate a new lean transformation?

My job, as teacher and coach, is to assist the organization make change. Their chosen strategy is to implement lean and six sigma. The knowledge transfer approach I prefer is see one, do one, teach one.

At first the apprentice just watches me do my thing – plan the calendar, roles, objectives; do the training, explain the principles, and run the events; check the metrics and take everyone’s pulse; act on what I see. Usually I don’t explain what I’m doing; I just run the kaizen event; form subs teams, hand out assignments, train-and-do.

After a time, the student is called upon to perform some of the routine activities, give some of the lessons,  and apply some of the tougher tools. Then comes the day when the roles start to reverse; the student tries to run a kaizen and the teacher observes, intervening off-line, giving feedback quietly, and asking questions, checking comprehension. As confidence and experience grow the student becomes the teacher.

Asked the other day, “What’s the difference in your approach and Shingijutsu?”  I was reminded of something James Womack once wrote. It’s a lengthy, but insightful quote,

We’re now trying to write down all of the techniques you need to actually become lean. The Toyota teaching method is what we would call sensei-deshi, with the sensei being the great teacher and the deshi, the student. Basically, here’s how it works at Toyota: The kids get out of the university and join the company. Then they’re told, ‘Okay, you know how to do math, and you know how to read. Forget all the rest of the crap. We hope you had a lot of party time because now you’re going to be working long hours for the next 40 years, and we will teach you what you need to know. We’ll start by having you stay right here and look around for waste—muda in Japanese— and we’ll be back in a few hours.’ When the teacher comes back, he’ll ask the employee to tell him all about the waste he sees. It’s an empirical teaching method in which the sensei simply asks questions: ‘What do you think about this operation?’ ‘Why aren’t you looking over here?’ ‘Over there?’ ‘Why is something happening this way?’ They start with applications, and let you figure out the principles. Generally, the way we teach in the West is to start with principles, and then let the pupil to work out applications.

Which way is better?

This post was authored by Larry Loucka, a lean six sigma coach and Certified Supply Chain Professional. He has extensive industry experience in supplier development, global sourcing, logistics, outsourcing, warehousing, integrating MRP and Kanban, logistics network optimization and modeling, demand management, visual workplace, kaizen, quick changeover, operational analysis, supply chain strategy, and accelerated change management. Larry is the founder of, and principal contributor to, Lean Sigma Supply Chain Blog and is the principal of Resource Systems Group, LLC.

Related Posts: Two Cents on Lean Certifications…and a Cow Named “Fuku”, Lean Leadership – Lessons from My Dog Obedience Sensei


Guest Post: Staying Power

We all have clients or know of companies that are losing their struggle to sustain Lean. Just yesterday, I was contemplating one such company as I strolled through downtown. As I walked, looking at everything and nothing in particular, a bright flash of color caught the corner of my eye from a slight downhill distance. Turning my head to get a better look I thought, “Wow, that’s beautiful,” only then realizing it was the side of an old building entirely plastered with graffiti.

As I frowned and contemplated what it must cost to clean that stuff off, I noticed what looked like a conventional signature in the lower corner of the wall. This I had to see. When I got closer I was able to read the following (from Da Vinci),

“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.”

Toward the middle of the wall, a less dismissible version of that thought came as an accusation –

“Stay Dum!”

And my first unfiltered expert thought was…You talkin’ to me?

Later that day, still ruminating on that same client’s sustainability issues, I came upon someone’s recent description of a “lean learning formula” and how to apply it as an “effective teaching method.” Eager for a clue to my own question, I read on though suspiciously.

I’m a bit uncomfortable whenever a set of deliberately adaptive principles or practices accruing over many years are pinned to the wallboard, so to speak, and labeled Veritatis Rei (specimen). Alas, it’s in our nature to try and pin down unwieldy phenomena with words. How else to clarify, analyze, promote, handle, reassemble, and…teach? Littera scripta manet, as the Latin goes – the written word survives. Pretty convenient.

That convenience, however, can be costly. Codifying – in words – the amorphous experience of teaching and learning is problematic, and over the ages has left just as many chewing their pencils as tasting the truth.

The formula in question went something like this:

1.      Make a commitment to learn.

2.      Assess performance gaps.

3.      Acquire new knowledge.

4.      Build competency through practice.

5.      Integrate the newly gained skill into daily practice.

Despite great intentions to apply the new knowledge, the author continues, we fall short when it comes to conscious practice and integration. “This is where the learning process falls apart.”

Hmm, something just doesn’t seem right about both the simple formula and the throwaway conclusion. What do you think?

The success (or, more accurately, failure) of such standard “teaching methods” is a perennial source of debate. Rightly so. This approach to teaching/coaching is still the so-called standard in spite of the fact that – as many of us know firsthand – it consistently fails to produce lasting, sustainable changes in behavior.

Notice that I didn’t say the teaching method fails to produce new knowledge. It often does. However, the ultimate goal in personal (and corporate) transformation is a change in self-governed behavior, not merely understanding. As our daily lives demonstrate constantly, new knowledge alone rarely causes us to change persistent habits of thought or action with which we have become comfortable. This is especially true when the habit is the result of a stressful emotional, psychological, or perceptual issue as opposed to a factual misunderstanding. These types of behavior, personal and institutional, are coping mechanisms and they persist stubbornly even when tangible rewards for change are offered.

For example, I know that I should not bite my fingernails. It has been explained to me many times over the years by well-meaning folks of every sort: parents, teachers, doctors, spouses, friends, children, and counselors. I trust and respect the knowledge and opinions of these people. I know that biting my nails makes me feel bad (self-conscious, low confidence, pain and potential infection, etc.) The benefits are clear too (improved self-image, new-found confidence, better health, etc.) What’s more, I really want to change.

But although I succeed temporarily in “practice,” I fail when it comes to the full and permanent integration into daily life. The improvement isn’t sustained. Why?

The entangled reasons for this failure in private behavior change are many, and the reasons are just as numerous and profound when institutionalized behavior (change at work) in public is the goal. And this is my point: admonitions to “be disciplined, practice daily, and do better” – though logical and necessary – are insufficient on their own. Nor do they undermine the foundational paradigm or worldview of which the negative behavior is just one small expression.

But the individual/company is “on-board.” Their brain/boardroom is thinking and actively engaged. Commitment to the overt steps toward change are being sincerely embraced. Permission and encouragement from stakeholders is plentiful. And yet change is short-lived; the preexisting – though ineffective- equilibrium returns. Pessimism creeps in.

So what gives here?

Before we start to argue about why this is so and how to achieve better results, it is paramount to first acknowledge that – yes – what’s been described above is in fact what results from most training and coaching in our industry.

Let me be the first. Personally, as a “lean champion” with my reputation on the line, I profess this unfortunate state of affairs is true. Furthermore, I would add that most individual and corporate patrons of coaching/training also know this is true but are ashamed to admit it. They’ve been paying dearly for this guidance from an experienced expert after all. Their head office has mandated Lean Training. Also, in a sinister twist, clients are often taught implicitly that they are primarily responsibility for any failures in reaching the stated goals. “These are proven methods,” we remind them dutifully. “Look at Toyota.”

Sounds like a full-blown case of The Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome, doesn’t it?

But if that’s not our goal as coaches and mentors, and that’s not the goal of our students and clients, then it’s time we reevaluated the typical “lean learning formula” as it is currently practiced here in the US.

Specifically, what dimension(s) is missing from the Lean Journeys we claim to lead?

It seems appropriate here to use the The 5 Whys approach (I don’t think it’s broken) as our tool to examine the primary symptom confronting us: individuals and companies are not sustaining the beneficial changes we have worked with them to accomplish. It’s axiomatic: If, in spite of clients’ best efforts and properly established conditions, they do not succeed, then we have also failed somewhere.

As a way of putting us in the right “12-year-old” mindset for this inquiry, I’ll repeat a conundrum described by Dr. Jeff Liker, author of The Toyota Way and 8 time recipient of the Shingo Prize, in an interview with Mike Wall on RadioLean ( Liker says that upon realizing our Lean accomplishments are being lost, we panic and resort to pushing even harder on the technical, quantifiable components in the system namely, processes. Our perceptions narrow and we lose sight of the people. “When that happens,” Liker continues, “you start asking questions like ‘What are the tools for sustaining lean?’ [At that point] this is really a meaningless question.”

This post was written by Zane Ferry, president of ADP Services. Zane has 20 years of experience with the Toyota Production System beginning in Japan where he worked for 10 years. He helps companies in many industries improve by adopting TPS principles and methods that transform how people improve processes for people. In addition to this work, he is also a Japanese-English interpreter for Shingijutsu, a pioneering consultancy founded by members of Taiichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System implementation team. Zane lives in the Seattle area and can be contacted at

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Two Cents on Lean Certifications…and a Cow Named “Fuku”

A colleague of mine recently shared a story about the renowned Chihiro Nakao, student of Taiichi Ohno and founder of Shingijutsu. Seems that a client once asked Mr. Nakao if he granted any black belt certifications. The question was relayed via a translator. It didn’t translate.

The questioner was asked to repeat the query. Mr. Nakao laughed and then said something along the lines of, “I’ve been studying this for 50 years and I am only now beginning to understand it.” Wow!

So, here’s my personal belief. Certifications are the form. The required learning and experience is the substance. Sometimes the substance is not very substantive, so choose wisely…and understand the limitations.

Full disclosure – I have helped develop some of the SME/AME/Shingo/ASQ Lean certification exam questions. I have a six sigma black belt from the Juran Institute, a CPA and a couple of APICS certifications. Yes, I’m over-certified and still feel that I have a bunch to learn. The more I learn, often the less I feel that I truly understand.

I firmly believe that a lean certification is an excellent thing for lean practitioners. Here, I am NOT talking about those certifications that are so frequently furnished by so many consultants.

I am talking about the SME/AME/Shingo/ASQ Lean certification. It provides a very credible roadmap for study as encompassed in the Lean Certification Body of Knowledge (based largely upon the Shingo Prize criteria) and recommended reading and  knowledge objectively tested in the exam portions.  Perhaps most importantly, the bronze, silver and gold certification levels, require meaningful and relevant application. The experience portfolio requirements drive real-life “doing” (no gemba, no learning) and prompt self-reflection. For silver and gold certification levels, the portfolio also requires the candidate to mentor others. That’s unique and so very important. Mentoring others is a responsibility.

The successful pursuit of certification reflects a seriousness on the part of the candidate. It requires study, action and application. Certification provides an objective measure of some level of knowledge and experience.

That said, it is a beginning. Certification is not the objective anymore than a couple of maps are the objective of value stream analysis. Real world experience and the inevitable failures (and successes) are the stuff of learning. Lean is not a elitist thing managed in rarefied air by a handful of highly credentialed individuals. It is a holistic set of principles, systems and tools that should be accessible and applied by the “masses.” [Six sigma certified folks take note!]

To the Lean certification I would consider adding a six sigma green belt certification from a reputable group. Perhaps a black belt later. But, again it’s NOT about the certification, it’s about effectiveness.

By the way, the “certification” in the picture is from a Japanese restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah. Seems that even fancy cows (this guy’s name was Fuku Kitugumi) get certificates. Of course, to earn this particular certificate, complete with nose print (!?), it requires the recipient to become  steak. Keep that in mind.