Author: Dominique Aleo

Farewell, Dominique!

I am saying farewell to Michigan Tech as I graduate and move on to medical school at Michigan State University  in pursuit of my M.D. (Go Green!). My time in the Office of Continuous Improvement has been absolutely fantastic, as I was part of something bigger that makes an big impact.

For the past year and a half, Lean and Continuous was not only part of my job; it became a part of my life. The lessons that I have learned, and continue to learn, are lessons that I apply everywhere. The Lean Principles are now ingrained into my own thinking, and I will continue to learn and apply them.

As I continue in my career, I will be an advocate and implementer of Lean, wherever I go. I especially look forward to being its advocate someday in the hospital setting, as a doctor.

I am so extremely grateful for the opportunities I have had to learn and grow here in the Office of Continuous Improvement. Thank you to everyone I have worked with for making it such a great experience. It has been a privilege to work with everyone.

Thank you, and wish me luck!

Visual Management and Finding What Works

A personal project of mine that I have been working on is to implement Visual Management around my home. Too often I was finding myself with priority things needing to be done all at once. I would have loads (at least two) of laundry to do at time, chores piled up, all along with homework and readings to be done for class. The thing is, I was trying to do most of these things at the last minute, and it all needed to be done NOW.

I decided I wanted to change my situation, and in a Lean way. I mean, I implemented Lean and tried different experiments often at work, why should it be any different at home?

My current situation was that things just weren’t getting done, even though I was “using” tools such as Google Calendar and setting aside specific times to do things. I tried other uses of Visual Management such as putting together a large kanban board, making a huge (yet complicated) whiteboard calendar, detailing my Google Calendar Further, etc. However, none of these stuck. The kanban? I never took the time to use. The whiteboard calendar? It was over-complicated and took a lot of  time to update. Detailing my Google Calendar? That didn’t help because I didn’t look at it beyond classwork once I was home. Overall, it just seemed like I wasn’t using anything and nothing was sticking. I liked the work of putting together a board that looked nice and was filled with all my tasks, but then it became daunting, and then I didn’t use it at all.

I began to see a trend of over-processing and no sustainment. The over-processing happens when I make a tool that is supposed to be helpful, so complicated that it no longer is. My whiteboard took more time to update than it did to look at anything, making it neither efficient nor helpful. I didn’t stick to taking five minutes out of my day to add a sticky note or two to my kanban, so I didn’t sustain it and tasks were forgotten. Recognizing these things didn’t make me feel bad (it happens!) but it did fuel my resolve to keep trying to find something that does work for me. Sometimes we find that our Visual Management has morphed into something that is more work than help, and that’s okay. PDCA and try a new experiment in another way.

So that’s what I have been doing, starting fresh with a new, simple kanban board. Funny thing is, I’ve done the same thing at work! I’ve also been experimenting with different types of Visual Management: putting a line across the hamper to trigger when a full load is, being messy with reminder notes, and making separate calendars for things such as homework and readings. Visual Management may look different between two people, so experiment with finding what works for you.

Do you use Visual Management in a different way? Are there certain tools or exercises that you use to help you? We’d love to hear more from you, feel free to share in the comments below!

Sustaining A No Blame Environment

Over and over we revisit the phrase of “Blame the process, not the people,” and how this concept plays such a big role in Continuous Improvement. It’s very  critical in that it allows us to ask the right questions and to make headway as a team to figure out problems and solutions, but sometimes we can get slowly sucked back into old ways. It’s not our fault, we’ve been trained to associate abilities with mistakes, but Lean and Continuous Improvement strives to change this. Here are some tips to help ensure that you are cultivating and sustaining a work space free of blame.

Put the spotlight on the process, not the people– The very first thing to do is to stray away from blame by asking the reason why a person did something a certain way. Stop searching for who did what wrong. Instead, invest time and energy dissecting a process and seeing in what ways it allows for ambiguity and mistakes. You must turn away from the idea that someone did something wrong, but rather look at that the process as wrong and that there’s an opportunity to correct it.

Respect a (person)’s capabilities– In order to have a blame-free environment, you must have respect the person, this includes respecting a persons capabilities. If an outcome is not desired or expected, searching for someone who is “guilty” is not respecting them in their role, nor is it respecting their capabilities to perform in their job. It is jumping to conclusions that they are inefficient or not “up to snuff.” When you look to the process first when there’s an issue, you are letting others know that it is not them and that you trust their capabilities.

Culture responsibility and accountability– When we are in an environment where we feel we do not have to protect ourselves with excuses, it becomes easier to feel more accountable and take responsibility when something does go wrong. Taking responsibility no longer becomes a burden because it no longer is seen as a reflection of one’s performance, which makes people more willing to pointing out areas of trouble, or mistakes that are made.

Engage others and their opinions– The way we shape and ask our questions when confronted with a mistake or issue gives people a feeling of where we place our blame. It’s important to ask questions that have to do with the process. Ask what they felt may have been ambiguous or confusing, or in what way could we have made the information more available or clear?

Remember, experimentation means just that, experimentation!– Sometimes when trying to solve a problem that seems similar to one before it, we get expectations for the results we want to see. Having expectations for our result doesn’t mean we question what someone “did” if the expectation is not met.

A no blame environment takes time, but it is do-able if it is made a priority! Strive to create a workplace culture that doesn’t look at someone as what they did wrong, but rather how a process allowed for that result and how the group can make improvements!

Changing Resistance

Change within the work place is supposed to be vital and natural, as the saying goes “change is the only constant.” So if change is supposed to be a natural part of our jobs and business, and it’s meant to be beneficial, why does resistance come with it?

There are many valid reasons why employees may be resistant to change, and the biggest factor has to do with one’s past experiences and the definition that “change” takes on for them. If changes were implemented without good communication, resulted in added stress or hassle, consisted of a lack of trust in higher management, or resulted in downsizing- then employees may associate change with negativity due to what they experienced.

Overall, change is associated with instability, and we tend to be weary of what has the potential to affect our jobs and what we are used to. In Lean and Continuous Improvement one very important aspect of implementing successful and sustaining change is the support and understanding of those involved. Lean and Continuous Improvement integrates respect for people, communication, and purpose into its process of change in order to help the transition from “comfortable” to “unknown.”

Respect for people is one of the pillars of Lean, and respecting the people you work with includes listening and respecting concerns they may have with changes to a process. Understanding these concerns allows you to support them, validate them and let them know the ways that change is going to impact, them in a good way.

Communication is always key, especially for when experimenting with improvements. Communication allows for everyone to be on the same page about how the change is being implemented, as well as what their own role will be in the changed process. This establishes control for one’s own role and helps to mitigate any worry about what change means for their position, keeping one empowered.

Purpose is what drives continuous improvement as we try to give a result with utmost value. Establishing the purpose behind a change and “Why” it is valuable to those involved, helps to drive the wheels of improvement. Believing, understanding and being unified behind a purpose allows everyone to understand and conduct change in a way that supports one’s purpose as well as an organizations.

The likelihood that every person you work with will be comfortable when confronted with change and new implementations are not very high seeing as there may always be a degree of resistance. However, when implementing change in a Lean and Continuous way, you try to find the reasons for resistance within your group and then address those concerns. Maybe then, the next time change comes about, you’ll be met with a little more excitement and less resistance.

Welcome, Rick!

Welcome Rick Berkey: Faculty Fellow in the Office of Continuous Improvement

This year, Rick Berkey joins us on a special assignment through Michigan Tech’s Faculty Fellows Program. In this role, Rick will be focusing his efforts on broadening and strengthening continuous improvement in the academic units.

Good morning everyone! I’ve been fortunate to get to know many of you across campus in my role as Professor of Practice and Director of the Enterprise Program in the Pavlis Honors College. Some of you also know me through my involvement as a Lean Implementation Leader, where I have facilitated several Kaizen events going back to 2010 when Michigan Tech began investing in a more formal Lean and Continuous Improvement (CI) initiative. I have been at Michigan Tech since 2006, when I transitioned to academia following a successful industry career that spanned 12 years, three companies, and numerous roles in engineering, product development, program management, operations, quality, and continuous improvement.

Five years into my career, I was selected to participate in Honeywell’s Six Sigma Black Belt program, an intense 160-hour training program involving the use of CI methods and tools to improve business performance and success. My certification project was the development and launch of a new product line (still in production today – the FRAM Xtended Guard oil filter). Looking back, my Black Belt experience was career and life-changing for me — the tools and methods “clicked” and just made good sense, and more importantly the corporate culture embraced continuous improvement as a key enabler for achieving its strategic goals and objectives. This experience opened up many doors for me professionally, and in fact my corporate Six Sigma training and Green Belt mentoring activities played a large role in my decision to pursue a career in higher education. Like many of my peers, I find great reward and satisfaction in my interactions with Michigan Tech students — whether it be in my two Six Sigma courses, helping to ignite that same “spark” I felt in my early career; in my advising role to the Supermileage Systems Enterprise; or in the periodic interactions I have with the hundreds of students enrolled in our signature Enterprise Program. Our students are our future, and from what I can see it’s look pretty bright!

This year, I “raised my hand” to get more involved in Michigan Tech’s continuous improvement efforts through a part-time faculty fellow appointment. One of the goals I have is to lead by example to show how it can be applied more strategically and successfully in our core academic value streams: teaching, research, and service. Admittedly the language of continuous improvement can be confusing, the tools can be misapplied, and skeptics can and do question its relevance to their work. However, I think CI is quite simple and it really boils down to some key elements that should resonate with employees in any organization:

  1. Continuous improvement is a culture…it’s a mindset that strives for perfection and recognizes that you’re never fully there. It rewards calculated risks and embraces change.
  2. Quality starts and ends with the customer…it’s about knowing your customers, and striving to deliver the quality and value they (and their customers) expect from your products, processes, and/or services. After all, there is always competition and choice in the marketplace.
  3. Customer value is created through processes or value streams…these can be transactional/service as well as manufacturing/product-oriented. Organizations define the processes they use to create and deliver value, meaning they also have the ability to change these processes in order to improve performance.
  4. Waste is anything that doesn’t directly create value for the customer…most processes have significant amounts of waste, and learning to identify and minimize waste in its many forms is a core strategy of a successful CI program.
  5. Continuous improvement is really about building and freeing organizational capacity, not cutting costs and people. Capacity gives organizations agility and options, whether it be investing in new growth, reallocating existing resources to higher value activities, and/or sustaining competitiveness during downturns and market contractions.
  6. Respect for people is the foundation of any successful CI initiative…fundamentally this means empowering employees, harnessing their knowledge, actively involving them in improvements, and avoiding blame (focus on the process, not the person). It also means developing empathy for your customers and their experiences with your products, processes, and services. Finally, it’s also about celebrating the successes achieved together through continuous improvement.

I have experienced first-hand how continuous improvement can fuel the growth and success of an organization, enabling it to not only adapt, evolve, and stay relevant, but also to lead in dynamic market conditions. This is what motivates me to take on my faculty fellows assignment this year. The timing couldn’t be better — as we embark on the University’s Tech Forward initiative, I firmly believe our continuous improvement culture and tool-set can and will help us achieve the goals we’ve outlined for our institution’s future. Fortunately we have a good start already, and I’m excited to play a more active role and look forward to working with more of my colleagues. I will be reaching out to many of you soon as I begin working on the initial opportunities we’ve identified. Likewise, I welcome your input and thoughts on areas where you see CI being used to improve the success of our great University.  –Rick

Sustaining Improvement

Sustainment is arguably one of the most challenging parts of a Kaizen, or more, the most challenging part of Post-Kaizen. It can sometimes be very easy to drop a new process when there is stress, even though the old process was stressful as well. However, the old process brought along stress that you became conditioned to, it produced a level of stress you were used to, versus a new stress. This tends to negate all the hard work you put into the Kaizen itself. Processes can be broken down, the improvement measured through its results, but what happens when you revert to old ways as soon as there is resistance? How does one keep themselves from back-sliding after making new improvements?


Involvement: One vital part of maintaining improvement is engagement of your entire team, the entire workforce involved with the process. Sustaining improvements isn’t the job of one, but it’s accomplished through the work and perseverance of many. When everyone is involved with a process and the completion of that process, then you have many people invested in its sustainment. When there is only one or two out of the whole who are invested in improvement, it becomes easier to revert, as everyone is not on the same page.


Metrics/Data: Evaluating your improvements and its progression is also important Post-Kaizen. The data and metrics collected through the Kaizen show the improvement itself, and go on to show the improvements growth afterwards. Data and metrics can help with sustainment in that they will show you where improvement is falling-off, or where adjustments need to be made. Part of the services our office provides was implementing a 2,4,6 month check-in for Kaizens, which go over the improvements that had originally been made and the data and metrics collected along the way. This allows everyone to visually see how the metrics flux, and whether the metrics values have gone up or down due to lack of adherence to the sustainment plan, or because the new process needs some PDCA.


Evaluation: Sometimes,  having many action items to complete Post-Kaizen contributes to a lack of sustainment. If one person becomes bogged down with many different tasks to complete, or if many tasks are put into place and later found in need of adjustments, the wheels for back-sliding may have already begun to turn. Having action items completed before the end of the Kaizen gives you time to collect metrics and data for the changes made, and therefore gives you time to evaluate the effects of those changes. If  a large amount of the changes don’t get made, or the changes didn’t have the desired effect, it becomes very tempting to want to go back to the familiar “old-way”. Lean is all about testing the changes made In Real Time, so it’s important to give yourself time to evaluate the changes that are being made, their effects, as well as seeing that implementation doesn’t spread one person too thin. If it appears that one person is overburdened with action items, its okay to take it one item at a time, or to disperse the items in a different manner.


Incorporation: Along with involving everyone in a process who has a say, you should also have a plan for incorporating this new improvement and knowledge into everyday culture. When approaching improvement and sustaining it, it’s helpful to have a mindset that revolves around continuous improvement. This allows for new ideas to be given, received, and applied in reaction to results. To help keep the thoughts from, “well, this isn’t working, lets just go back to the old way,” it’s more positive to think “if this doesn’t work, we can find something to try next.” When improvement is blended into one’s daily routine, it becomes easier to train someone who’s new to the process, as well as to hand-off the information down the road. This makes sure that improvements are not only sustained by those who were first involved, but those after as well.


Continuous Improvement: Last but not least, improvement rarely is spot-on the first try, meaning Post-Kaizen improvements may not always go smoothly. There may be stress on the new process, unforeseen road bumps, or even resistance to something new. Remember that just because you spent time creating a new process, it does not mean that the new process is set in stone, and it will more-than-likely need improvements of its own. Never be afraid to make tweaks or ask, “how can we make this process even better?” Incremental improvement is just as effective as all other improvement efforts, don’t feel like it all has to be done at once, take the time to make improvements at a sustainable pace.


Sustaining improvement is a tricky thing, but it’s a challenge well worth the fight! After all, you’re trying to become more effective in the service and value you provide. I have a lot more to say on the subject, however I will save that for another time. Please feel free to comment with any thoughts or experiences that you have with sustaining improvement!

Lean Style; Empowering Employees

Almost every Monday, the Office of Continuous Improvement gives a short presentation during Michigan Tech’s New Husky Employee Orientation where we talk about Lean and it’s involvement on campus. Most employees do not have much, if any, experience with Lean so they are very surprised when they find continuous improvement is a requirement in their job description. Why is it important for employees to know about and be involved in Lean? Why isn’t it enough just to have management or supervisors experienced with Lean and its tools to use around the work space? Why is this so important to Michigan Tech?

The reason is that Lean does not work when it’s just one person making the decisions and changes. It’s not about a manager or supervisor controlling the situation, but instead about guiding others and seeing to it that Lean is being applied appropriately.

Lean is not just about its tools, processes, and methods, but it is its own culture. It’s this culture that allows for tools, processes, and methods to aid in creating an environment of continuous improvement. A large part of developing this culture is giving everyone the same opportunities and tools to make improvements, and this is what we explain to the newcomers. We explain that through Lean and coaching from those around them, they develop problem solving skills that give them autonomy within their jobs to implement improvement.

The overall benefit of employee empowerment is that it helps to form a Lean and Continuous Improvement culture that morphs processes through team work and communication into their most effective and efficient form, producing the most value for the customer. That is the goal of Lean and Continuous Improvement at Michigan Tech; to involve everyone in the process of producing the most value to its customers.


PIC Summer Projects

Written by Rylie Kostreva

We’re almost half way through the summer, and boy has it been a busy one. We PIC’s like to use the summer months to dive into projects and practice our lean thinking outside of the kaizen realm. This summer we’ve been working on a total of seven projects, all with one center subject, alignment. From better improving our personal task flow, to creating new processes to aid our lean practitioners on campus. We’ve been challenged, and inspired, to take our processes and align each towards one another, as well as to the goals of the Office of Continuous Improvement.

The first lengthy project that we’ve been working on is one that was initiated back in March and has just reached completion. We titled it, “Professional Writing Workshop.” This project was launched after recognizing that all the PICs wrote in a different format and had a different understanding of what “professional” writing meant. On day one we sat down and started our workshop with an affinity diagram, answering the question, “What does professional writing mean?” This helped us to identify our current state, where we all aligned, and where we were different. Then we researched professional opinions on what it actually means to write professionally. From there we evaluated our historical standards, made changes, executed a kata run, and finally decided on a new standard.

Professional Writing Workshop

The second project that we’ve been working on as an entire office is the Lean Lending Library. This was initiated back in February and was our first project that strives to practice incremental improvements. This brand new resource is a library of activities. Ones that our office has hosted in the past, and are available to be checked out by other people to host the activity themselves. The library consists of an activity instruction sheet that guides the borrower through the entire activity by providing preparation considerations, materials, and instructions. We completed an inner-office kata run and now we are in the process of having a handful of volunteer facilitators run through a kata.

Activity Instruction Template 3_Page_1Activity Instruction Template 3_Page_2

The third big project that is on-going, is really two that became sisters, PIC board Breakdown and PIC standards. After noticing some disturbances in flow that kept repeating, we decided it was time to reevaluate our PIC processes, these processes were homed by two whiteboards. Dominique and I sat down for a few hours one day and walked through all of the pieces of the board, taking careful note of areas that we identified as being difficult, unclear, or unnecessary. From there we asked, “What items would be better? What things do we do regularly practice that aren’t captured here?”  Then we drew up specific things we’d like to add and ideas we wanted to explore. We requested a single, larger whiteboard to create a more friendly canvas and rearranged our board categories into a more thought-out way. The items we look at daily were moved to eye level, our metrics became the center focus, the items we look at monthly moved slightly above eye level, and we created a larger area to note action items. This dissection of flow lead into questioning our current standard practices, and from there we followed a similar process to that of the professional writing workshop and have been working on developing better, more accurate written standards of the PIC duties.

PIC board Breakdown

These are just a few of the projects we’ve been working on this summer to create a better experience for the employees and the guests of the office of continuous improvement. Not only has the process become more effective and efficient, but there’s also been an unexpected, yet positive, result from it. Our communication skills amongst one another have increased drastically and our comradery has grown immensely.

The Principles of Lean in Action

In 2005, Dr. Nick Ellis founded a completely Non-Profit organization called MEDLIFE in order to battle the constraints of poverty world-wide. MEDLIFE stands for Medicine Education and Development for Low Income Families everywhere, and has been highly successful in not only terms of finances, but in the fulfillment of their mission as well. MEDLIFE is an organization I have been highly involved in the past three  years, and now as my Lean journey continues to allow me to grow, I see different principles implemented in MEDLIFE that correlate with Lean Principles. It goes to show that the principles of Lean are applied anywhere and have a good impact, whether it’s done knowingly or not. That along with the caring mindset of the individuals that work with MEDLIFE is what allows them to be so effective.

Here are a few main principles I have noticed in MEDLIFE:

  1. Value is Defined by the Customer– When MEDLIFE goes to a community who needs help, they do not just show up with materials for a mobile clinic, or a garden, or a staircase. First, they listen to what the community members say their needs are and then get the materials required to solve the need, instead of bringing in what they think the community needs. MEDLIFE ensures that the community defines the value of their help, whether it be building materials or doctors and medical supplies. This allows them to spend finances on what is required, and produce an end result that brings value to the community.
  2. Find the Root-Cause– MEDLIFE’s work goes far beyond showing up and slapping on band-aid solutions that only help the problem momentarily. In every community, they work to understand the root-causes introduced by poverty and then they take action to come up with sustainable solutions. Many communities are without medical attention or medical centers due to lack of representation as well as government regulations: MEDLIFE builds hospitals, does follow-up care with patients with long-term issues diagnosed at mobile clinics, and works to get them land titles so they may vote and be eligible for health-care. Some communities get water every two-weeks and store water in empty chemical barrels, causing sickness and leading to health issues: MEDLIFE engineers and developers come together to build a legal community water pump that will ensure them accessible and clean water year-round. MEDLIFE works with the communities to solve the root-causes and provide high-quality solutions that are sustainable.
  3. Continuous Improvement– MEDLIFE is always looking at better and more efficient ways to provide services to a community in need. For MEDLIFE, they’re continually working so that they are always working to provide communities with high-quality services and not services that are just good enough or a little better than what they currently have.
  4. Safety- Part of  MEDLIFE’s mission is to provide safe and homes and communities. Staircases are built so that the community has safer means of travel up and down large hills. Electrical systems are set up so that others aren’t trying to make Jerry-rigged and extremely dangerous power lines. MEDLIFE also puts out street lamps that help reduce crime and injury during the night.

Overall, I found it very interesting to sit down and look at the different correlations in general. I’m sure that the more I’m submerged in Lean Culture, the more I’ll see these correlations in many areas and aspects that I hadn’t before.


MEDLIFE, MEDLIFE Movement 6/22/18

Preemptive Improvement

Most often, the trigger for PDCA is when you come across a barrier or an issue within a process. The signal to step into action and begin PDCA is once your current state no longer reflects your trajectory to the desired target state. So, what happens when you reach your target state and there is nothing left to improve?

Trick question, there is ALWAYS something to improve! Recently within the Office of Continuous Improvement, we have been going through our own office standards and procedures. This week, during our second monthly office standard meeting we came up with a purpose statement for our meetings. One of the criteria for the purpose statement is that we needed to capture the importance of continuous improvement towards perfection, and not just the kind improvement that occurs after an issue is identified.

Currently, we’re reviewing the standards that we have found issues or road bumps with, in order to correct the issue as soon as possible. However, the monthly office standards meeting is also supposed to be a preemptive measure against road bumps for the future. Now that we’ve started to make improvement in the areas that need immediate attention, we will regularly check in and PDCA all of our processes.

Instead of waiting until something is wrong with a process before working on it, our goal is to continually improve each standard we have implemented. This way, instead of needing a trigger, it’s already part of our on-going process.

It may seem as though this is a waste of time, fixing something when it isn’t broke. However, we believe that taking the time to look over something before an issue arises, not only gives you more control over the situation, but it can also help alleviate any stress that often accompanies issues.

For example, let’s say that you regularly check the fluid levels of your vehicle. If you notice the break fluid is extremely low, you now have a hint that something is wrong and because you take the time to check your vehicle regularly, you very well have just avoided an accident. Would it have been a better use of time if you had just waited until the brakes light came on? Or perhaps if your brakes blew out on the highway?

In terms of safety and well-being, taking a few extra minutes here and there actually saves you time and stress later on, for your future self. That is the same with preemptive improvements. When you look ahead in anticipation of possible issues or areas of stress and take corrective measures beforehand, then you don’t have to deal with the crisis state. Overall, it’s helpful to remember that it’s important to look at what you may improve now, even though there may not be any foreseen issues yet. It’s not about what’s broken, but about whether or not there’s something that we can do to make sure it doesn’t break at all later, and in turn we get another step closer towards perfection in doing so.

preemptive improvement