A Lean Thanksgiving

Your family is gathered for Thanksgiving. The usual mix of relatives is there, and not everyone gets along. After a couple of hours, nerves begin to fray and tempers start flying. What is there to do? Family run-ins during the feast are almost as traditional as the turkey! Well, you can try practicing the Lean Fundamentals–and I don’t mean eating less!

dog eating turkeyThe two Lean fundamentals are respect for people and humility. Respect for people is more than just using your manners. In the workplace, it’s about valuing individuals and their knowledge about how the process actually works, coaching others to develop their problem-solving skills, and solving problems by focusing on the process, not the people. Humility comes when you admit that you don’t know how to solve every problem. This drives you to seek out the ideas of all the people involved in doing the work. Together these fundamentals create a blame-free environment where continuous improvement is the norm.

Now, think about how your relationships might shift if you apply these fundamentals around the turkey table. Instead of challenging your know-it-all cousins on everything they say, you can simply ask them about their expertise, learning more by using phrases that begin with What, How, and Tell me more. Instead of criticizing the meal planners for forgetting the cranberry sauce or burning the pie, you can ask them about what happened that caused the problems and coach them on finding solutions for next year. You get the idea. Changing how you approach the family gathering can alter the entire dynamic. Give it a try!

Do you look forward to Thanksgiving with mixed feelings? Please share with us how you think Lean could improve your Thanksgiving experience.

Measuring Success

I recently facilitated a Kaizen project  for Dining Services that involved their student hiring process. A lot of good ideas and improvement plans came out of it, and the team was very excited about the opportunity to make this process more efficient. What stood out for me, however, was a new process step that we incorporated at the end of the Kaizen called “Measuring Success.”

As Lean practitioners we understand that metrics and data collection are pivotal to the success of any implementation initiative. However, sometimes we forget the benefits of putting these numbers on display for all to see; this group did not. We decided at the end of the day to put all of our success metrics with their respective goals and deadlines on a flip chart for each member of the team to display in their office. The motive behind this was to ensure that every day, with every decision they make, they are focused on reaching these goals.

I thought this was a fantastic idea and one that should be used in all of our projects in the future. A big part of Lean is engagement. Setting clear goals and expectations is a big factor in increasing employee engagement. When everyone is united and working toward a common goal, the opportunities for improvement are endless.

Measuring Success Flipchart
Measuring Success Flipchart


Newspaper Flipchart
Newspaper Flipchart


Lean and S.W.E.

I just got back from the national Society of Women Engineer’s (SWE) conference held this year in Nashville, TN. I was pleasantly surprised because there were three different sessions being held on continuous improvement. I was able to attend two of the three and really enjoyed them.

The first session I went to was titled “Shark Tank! A Creative Approach to Drive Continuous Improvement” and was given by Jennifer Walsh, an Engineering Program Group Manager from Medtronic. In the talk, Ms. Walsh presented some creative approaches to continuous improvement that I thought were great. An example was by using social media to convey ongoing continuous improvement techniques that were being used around her business unit.


The second session that I was able to go to was titled “The People Side of Lean” held by Kimberly Sayre, PE from the University of Kentucky’s College of Engineering. Ms. Sayre, the Lean Systems Program Manager, talked about Lean as a systematic method for eliminating waste within a process. She explained “Lean was developed at Toyota (internally called the Toyota Production System), and the People Side of Lean is a critical piece of sustainable Lean transformation. Organizations first implement the tools, improve efficiencies and eliminate waste, but then reach a plateau until they are able to gain full employee buy-in.” Ms. Sayre went on to explain this “natural struggle point” in getting improvement throughout the whole system. This talk helped me navigate through this phase of my Lean journey, and she even included a hands-on exercise about communication skills. I especially loved how she was from an academic setting and saw how this could relate to Michigan Tech’s campus.

The last session that talked about Lean was held by Claribel Mateo, the HR Director at Turner Construction Company. Her talk, entitled “Using Technology to Build Better Buildings through Efficiency and Visualization,” talked about how Turner implements BIM (Building Information Modeling) and Lean Construction principles and practices on projects from early design to construction, to enable the project team to drastically reduce field requests for information and change orders while enhancing quality and compressing construction schedules.

Overall I had a great time at the conference and look forward to implementing what I learned back here in Houghton, as well as in my life after graduation.




Leaders in Continuous Improvement Visits Pettibone

The Leaders in Continuous Improvement (LCI) student organization had the opportunity to visit Pettibone, LLC on Tuesday, October 13th. Pettibone, located in Baraga,MI, manufactures various “big” machines that aid in the construction of railroads, residential homes, and forestry projects.

Throughout that past 10 years, Pettibone has implemented lean principles in many different areas of their business. It is extremely prevalent throughout their shop floor. The moment we walked through the doors we could see visual cues and signals; from the floor under our feet to the red “Fire” flags hanging all over the walls. The floor is marked with three different colors: yellow, green, and blue. Blue indicates a meeting space (where they have their daily huddles), Green is a walkway for employees and visitors, and Yellow representswhere the work is being done (or where the machines are being built). You can easily see the different colors in the photo below. Pettibone has a great space dedicated for their daily huddles where they discuss all of the production related items. The boards are easily readable to anyone and are colored coded (red=bad, green=good) so at a glance anyone can see how things are going.


These are just a few examples of how Pettibone utilizes lean principles in their every day work.

Overall the trip was a great experience for all the members of Leaders in Continuous Improvement. I would recommend a trip to Pettibone to anyone who is interested in learning more about Lean and Continuous Improvement.

Group Photo



A Calm Mind, Ready to Learn

One of the main ways we create value here at Michigan Tech is educating students. Our goal is to get the student in the classroom with a calm mind and ready to learn. Anything that gets in the way of that is an opportunity for improvement.

John ODonnell and LCI

We used to think our job was to just take care of the person in front of us. But we’ve discovered that what happens before they get to us and after they leave us impacts that person as well. Think of when you go and see a doctor. Maybe you were supposed to come early to do some paperwork. Or maybe you weren’t sure if you really needed medical attention, so you waited too long to make the appointment. Or maybe the waiting room is crowded with sick people. Then you see the doctor. Afterwards, you might not have enough money to pay for the prescription. Or you didn’t really understand the doctor’s instructions. Or you don’t agree with the doctor’s diagnosis, so you don’t do what she said. The aim of the system is a healthy patient. Even though the doctor did her job perfectly, these before and after things can have a negative impact on achieving that aim.

In the same way, what happens to a student before they get to the classroom and after they leave the classroom impacts the ability of faculty to educate that student. If students are worrying about their financial aid, they aren’t in the classroom with a calm mind, ready to learn. The same goes for problems getting an appointment with their academic advisor during registration, having long lines at the dining hall, or not understanding their homework instructions. These are all examples of opportunities for improvement using Lean principles, because they affect the students’ ability to fully participate in their education.

The next time you see a frazzled student leave your desk, call the Office of Continuous Improvement. We can coach you through a process improvement in your area.

If our objective is students with a calm mind, ready to learn, what are some other ways we could identify areas that are opportunities for improvement?

Rare Super Blood Moon and Continuous Improvement

Earth’s moon along with the Sun’s gravitational pull are what cause tides on our earth [1]. In the past, coastal cities used the tides as a way to tell the time of day. This past week the “Super Blood Moon” was out, and for all those who gazed up at the sky with me in the Houghton area, I’m sure you can agree with me that it was a majestic sight to see. The awe I felt was only heightened with the knowledge that the phenomenon last occurred in 1982 and is not expected to occur again until 2033 [2]. As I reflected on how amazing it was watching the super blood moon, and seeing the moon change from its normal white color to an amazing orange hue over the course of a few hours, I couldn’t help but think about how time, the moon, and this rare occurrence all relate back to continuous improvement.

Super Blood Moon [NASA]

One can get used to how things are going, and when something out of the ordinary takes place it can set the whole system into shock. For example, an increase in job responsibilities as an employee, or for students, a disruption in their schedule like fall career fair. These times do not need to cause anxiety and worry. Such events don’t happen on a daily basis, and it is good to take time and recognize them as they are and then trust that the systems set in place will work as intended. If the rare shock to the system does take place leading to an upset in the way the system behaved before, it could be an indication that the previous system was not as effective as it could be. This is a great time to implement Lean tools, and if needed a whole Kaizen event! Taking time to gather key people and utilize an appropriate Lean tool to get back in the rhythm of things can really be helpful. That’s what Continuous Improvement is all about!

Relating back to the blood moon example, Beijing was unable to see the blood moon because “a choking blanket of air pollution covered Beijing” [3]. This caused anger among residents and was a time that the pollution problem was brought to national attention once again. This shows how sometimes extraordinary events can actually be a call to action, a way to set the wheels in motion to make a positive change.

As career fair is now over, and the super blood moon has passed, I look forward to making sure my systems can handle such fluctuations in time demands, and I reevaluate their past true effectiveness.

If you want to know more about continuous improvement feel free to reach out to the Office of Continuous Improvement either by phone, 906-487-3180, or email improvement-l@mtu.edu


[1] Oceanservice.noaa.gov, ‘Why does the ocean have waves?’, 2015. [Online]. Available: http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/wavesinocean.html. [Accessed: 30- Aug- 2015].

[2] P. Video, ‘Progress Cargo Ship Racing Towards ISS After Nighttime Launch | Video’, Space.com, 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.space.com/30718-progress-cargo-ship-racing-towards-iss-after-nighttime-launch-video.html. [Accessed: 30-Aug-2015].

[3] USA TODAY, ‘China’s smog smothers ‘blood’ moon’, 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/10/08/china-smog-blood-moon/16903549/. [Accessed: 30- Aug -2015].


Are You Making Excuses or Solving Problems?

“When we find barriers that prevent us from closing the gap, are we a victim that makes excuses or a leader that solves problems?”

This the closing statement from a talk given by Mark Graban at the 2014 Lean Transformation Summit. He discusses some of the major issues clouding the creation and development of a culture of continuous improvement within organizations. 

Mark asks, “When we are facing challenges about creating this culture of continuous improvement, how are we reacting? What are we doing about it.” He discusses a few of the most common problem statements or excuses given to push back against lean initiatives and gives insight on how to overcome these obstacles. Some of the common problems statements or excuses he highlights are:

  1. Staff don’t have time to do Kaizen
  2. Managers: “I don’t have time for Kaizen”
  3. Working on Kaizen hurts our productivity numbers

The talk ends with a general discussion about change. Graban elaborate on how successful change in any setting – small or large – hinges on three 3 things:

  1. The will to do it
  2. A methodology for how to close the gap between where we are and where we want to be
  3. Execution and discipline to actually make it happen

Without the will to create a culture of continuous improvement; the ideas, tools, and methodologies for closing the gap; and the support from upper management to execute the plan, we are developing a workforce of victims and not leaders.

Check out Graban’s talk here: Lean Talks: Are You Making Excuses or Solving Problems?

Mark at the 2014 Lean Transformation Summit

Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized expert in the field of “Lean Healthcare,” as a consultant, author, keynote speaker, and blogger. Mark is also the Vice President of Customer Success for the software company KaiNexus.

Storytelling = Stealth Lean

We are pleased to present this guest blog post by Cayce Will, Director of Information Technology for the Vice President for Administration at Michigan Technological University.

At the 2015 Michigan Lean Consortium Annual Conference, I attended a session titled, “Jane & Jack–The Story of Transformational Leadership” by Ms. Christine Coyne, Manager of Global Continuous Improvement at NSF International.  The description for “Jane & Jack” was intriguing to me–it promised to discuss how to facilitate positive continuous improvement behavioral changes in your organization through two things: the use of a fictional story and NOT mentioning Lean.  This sounded crazy, and like something I wanted to hear about first-hand. How could a simple story contribute to becoming a transformational leader?

There are innumerable aspects and elements to being a good-leader-going-on-great, and one of them is the art of reflection.  It is advisable to make, take, or borrow sufficient time to reflect on one’s leadership journey.  Charging ahead without pause to review your course is a sure way to get lost, fast. To start the session Ms. Coyne gave us the background leading up to the writing of the story, background which is pretty critical and, I think, a fairly common situation most Continuous Improvement leaders experience.  Ms. Coyne recounted her rollercoaster ride bringing Lean concepts to management with high hopes and excitement over the great potential Lean had for improving their business.  The tracks dipped a bit when adoption rates were much lower than expected and management didn’t seem to get it.  “More training,” said Ms. Coyne, and round two began. Less excited, more determined, more training and yet again Lean wasn’t taking hold. Ms. Coyne couldn’t quite understand, after all the great training, the clearly laid out benefits, the shiny new tools, why management wasn’t jumping all over Lean and utilizing it everywhere. But, true to the tenets of continuous improvement, she reflected on her situation and decided that a new approach was necessary.

She prepared a story of two people, a thought leader within the organization named Jane and an operational leader on the plant floor named Jack.  Their story described business and operation issues they were running into in their daily work and their approaches to addressing their issues. Nowhere was Lean mentioned in their story.  But the beneficial results of their choices were obvious and it was clear that their Lean based choices were good choices.  At the end of each of Jane’s and Jack’s chapters the reader was asked if they would be willing to try processes and procedures similar to what Jane and Jack tried.  Only a fool snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, and after being presented Ms. Coyne’s story, her management began quickly adopting and approving behaviors that earlier were deemed “Lean” and shunned.  Success.

I like this approach.  It reminds me of a phrase I might have coined–Stealth Lean or Lean by Ninja.  Essentially, avoid lean terminology (it just gets in the way) and teach everyone the practices you want them to follow. Show them the improved results they could sustain by changing their processes.  Don’t call it Lean. Sneak process improvement in without drawing attention to it. As I thought about the message Ms. Coyne’s story conveyed, it occurred to me that we should never be “doing Lean.”  Day-to-day, aren’t we all truly, simply, “doing business?” Perhaps through more storytelling we, too, can positively influence our workplace culture and do our business better.  I’m willing to give it a shot, how about you?


Lunch and Learn at the Lean Enterprise Institute

This summer I had the great fortune of being a mechanical engineering intern at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory. While in Cambridge, John O’Donnall, Executive Director of the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI), was kind enough to reach out to me and invite me to visit the office. Mr. O’Donnall and I had the chance to meet on campus last year when he was the keynote speaker at the 2015 facilitator graduation.


Lean Enterprise Institute located in Cambridge, Massachusetts


While there it just so happened that they were also having a guest speaker come in and talk about Lean in the civil engineering world and how much waste happens at construction sites because the main currency is the amount of time it takes to complete a project. Although I had to leave before the whole event was over I found her talk to be very interesting. It really opened my eyes to the need to integrate Lean practices into the civil engineering world the way mechanical engineering has integrated it into manufacturing. Below is a picture of the talk from an outside view.

Presentation on integrating Lean principles into civil engineering projects


I also got to meet with James P. Womack the founder of the LEI, as well as some of the M.B.A. summer interns who were in the office. Every summer the office hired a few M.B.A. students from the area to work with them and learn in an immersive experience about Lean principles. John O’Donnell and I mused about the possibility of bringing in Michigan Tech M.B.A. students on as summer interns and I think that it could be a mutually beneficial experience for both parties. 



Elizabeth and John
Selfie with Mr. John O’Donnell


Before leaving John showed me around the office and I was pleasantly surprised with how much our own Office of Continuous Improvement here at Michigan Tech resembled the  Lean Enterprise Institute. A picture of their office can be seen below.



Snapshot of the open floor plan office at Lean Enterprise Institute


I had a great experience there meeting up with Mr. O’Donnell, Mr. Womack, and meet some of their M.B.A. summer interns.  


Sharpen Your Ax

At the Michigan Lean Consortium‘s annual conference, I attended a session on A3 Thinking for All Seasons by Brian Vander Weele. Brian began his session with a compelling story:

A young man approached the foreman of a logging crew and asked for a job. “That depends,” replied the foreman. “Let’s see you fell this tree.” The young man stepped forward, and skillfully felled a great tree. Impressed, the foreman exclaimed, “You can start Monday.” Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday rolled by — and Thursday loggerafternoon the foreman approached the young man and said, “You can pick up your paycheck on the way out today.” Startled, the young man replied, “I thought you paid on Friday.” “Normally we do,” said the foreman. “But we’re letting you go today because you’ve fallen behind. Our daily felling charts show that you’ve dropped from first place on Monday to last place today.” “But I’m a hard worker,” the young man objected. “I arrive first, leave last, and even have worked through my coffee breaks!” The foreman, sensing the young man’s integrity, thought for a minute and then asked, “Have you been sharpening your ax?” The young man replied, “No sir, I’ve been working too hard to take time for that!”

Sometimes we get so involved in getting our work done, we forget to look around to see if there’s a better way. Using an A3 form is a simple, structured method for improvement. It’s a terrific tool to reinforce understanding the problem before jumping to solutions. It makes the problem and proposed countermeasures visible, and encourages experimentation. But it’s not the form itself that holds the power–it’s the thinking and the process. Lean processes, methods, and tools can be used to create an environment where continuous improvement is the norm.

Tell us about your favorite Lean tool!