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!


Rozsa Rentals Improvement Event Part 1

Last week, The Rozsa Center for the Performing Arts held a kaizen event to improve their rental processes. The current process is inconsistent and very confusing for all parties involved including the client, rental staff, administration, production staff, Ticketing Services, and Catering. In order to see what the current state of the process is, the team decided to map out the process by way of a swim lanes process map. Before the team began creating the process map, Bob Hiltunen-Director of Auxiliary Services, provided some great process mapping guidelines that really helped the team. They are:

  1. There is no right or wrong way to map
  2. You don’t learn how to process map, you process map to learn
  3. Process map what is, not what you would like it to be

With these guidelines in mind the team was able to create a process map that included each department/area that the process touches and all of the process steps from start to finish (see image below).

Swim Lanes Map


With the initial map created the team was then able to move forward in creating an “ideal state” process map. The ideal state captures the process in a perfect world with all the necessary resources available. The team was able to look back at the current state map to compare steps and people involved with the ideal state map. The team will continue to work on their ideal state in the next few weeks and then form a plan to move from current to the ideal. Check back to see the final results in a future post.

Lean in Their Own Words

This is the third installment of Lean in Their Own Words. At the April graduation ceremony for our new Lean facilitators, the graduates each said a few words about what Lean means to them. Many of them have given me permission to share their thoughts with you. This week, we’ll hear from Todd Van Valkenburg, Senior Programmer/Analyst in IT’s Enterprise Application Services. 

Todd Van Valkenburg graduation“What does Lean mean to me now that I’ve gone through Lean facilitator training? At the end of every class day, and much to my dismay, Ruth had each of us get in front of everyone and give a quick presentation of what resonated with each of us. At the end of that first day, what popped into my head was the adjective “HEALTHY,” as in a healthy problem solving process. And that word has stuck with me throughout the class.”

“The Lean approach to Continuous Improvement is HEALTHY because: 1) At its core, it’s a non-blame, respectful approach to problem solving. Contributions are taken seriously and all voices are heard. 2) The process encourages people from different departments, backgrounds, skill levels, and experiences to come together to work on common objectives. 3) This approach relies on teamwork, learning from each other, and developing skills that each participant can bring back to his/her own department to share. And finally, 4) we are addressing problems/opportunities head on by carving out the time to really look at them instead of dealing with them later or hoping that they will just go away.”

“I’d like to conclude today with some imagery that also represents what Lean means to me. First, imagine that I’m working alone on solving a complex problem that impacts a few departments on campus. I am NOT using the Lean principles of continuous improvement. Now, further imagine that the challenges, obstacles and constraints I face are gusts of wind pushing against me causing me to literally lean. I could lean too far one way or the other, lose my balance, and fall right over. Now here’s the second image. Instead of working alone, imagine that I’m working right alongside a few others folks in those departments trying to solve that very same problem. This time, we ARE using the principles of Lean. We interlock arms and form a circle. Now, as these gusts of wind hit the group, some of us may lean but the others in the team provide the support and counter-balance to spring us back upright and put us right back on track. To me, this imagery demonstrates that working as a team and applying Lean principles is a very healthy way to solve problems at Michigan Tech.”

Todd working on a training exerciseTake a look at the list of our campus facilitators. Any one of them would be happy to talk with you about Lean and continuous improvement!

Lean in Their Own Words

This is the second installment of Lean in Their Own Words. At the April graduation ceremony for our new Lean facilitators, the graduates each said a few words about what Lean means to them. Many of them have given me permission to share their thoughts with you. Here is what Gina Goudge, Manager of Business Operations and Student Employment for Career Services, had to say.

Gina Working on a Training Exercise“When I asked my boss, Steve Patchin, if I could sign up for Lean Facilitator Training, I thought I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. Lean was all about organization, right?  I’m organized, I create checklists, I already know all about Lean!

This will be a breeze, I thought…maybe I’ll pick up a few new tools!  Well, I was so wrong, because Lean is so much more.

As I embarked on my Lean journey (and it has been a journey!) I quickly realized Lean was going to push me, force me to move outside of my comfort zone, force me to work on my presentation skills, to face my fear of public speaking!

So as I stand here, facing my fear, I’d like to present my elevator speech…what I believe Lean is and is not.

Lean is NOT about being skinny or “cutting to the bone.”  Lean IS about having the right resources to ensure we are providing the best quality product or service.  Lean IS a way of approaching and thinking through any problem, system, or situation.

Lean is NOT just a few tools to use.  Lean IS an entire toolbox of management practices to help you Gina Receiving Her Lean Facilitator Certificatestreamline a process and continuously strive for improvement.

Lean is NOT mean.  Lean IS respectful toward everybody–a no fault/no blame game that locates the flaw in the system when an error occurs rather than the individual.

This is why I’m so excited to become a Lean Facilitator.  I get to share with others a new way of thinking, a new mode of operation, empowering them with the Lean tools and strategies to constantly question their status quo, inspiring cooperation, respect, change and growth both personally and professionally.”

When you see one of our Campus Facilitators, be sure to ask them about Lean!

Lean in Their Own Words

Pattie working on a training exercise
Pattie working on a training exercise

At the April graduation ceremony for our new Lean facilitators, the graduates each said a few words about what Lean means to them. Many of them have given me permission to share their thoughts with you. In the first entry of this series are the comments from Pattie Luokkanen, Manager of Resource Access and Discovery Services at the Library, and trained Lean facilitator.

Pattie said….

“One of my early encounters with Lean was when I took part in a 5s Blitz.
I was new and didn’t really know what it was all about. I was so surprised to find that the people in the workshop all had some messes to clean up, like cluttered supply cabinets and messy desks. Here we were confessing that we had a problem, but then we were shown how to clean up the mess and keep it that way! We were assigned a coach to help us with this. My coach was Kathy Wardynski. She was a great coach, not only guiding me through my clean up project but also Pattie Luokkanen graduationtelling me other things that can be done with Lean on campus. It was a great experience for me and opened my eyes to other possibilities with Lean and left me wanting to know more.

What I like most about Lean is that it is positive. It’s a positive approach to problem solving. I believe that you can inspire great ideas and creative problem solving in a positive environment. I love the fact that an important ground rule for continuous improvement events is that it takes place in a mutually respectful, blameless environment. That is powerful!”

Visit the Campus Facilitator page on our website to see all of the facilitators here on campus.