Category: Lean Thinking

Integrating Lean into Student Organizations on MTU’s Campus

One of the initiatives that the office of continuous improvement has for fiscal year 2015 is to incorporate more Kaizen events into student organizations. As president of Michigan Tech’s American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) student chapter I was having frustration regarding the current state of our process of supporting the annual Student Design Competition (SDC). In this process a group of students builds a robot to go through an obstacle course. Trouble lied in communication and failure to compete in the competition even after thousands of dollars was vested in the activity. It then struck me that I could integrate my two activities, my work at the Office of Continuous Improvement and also ASME to be mutually beneficial.

To help launch the Lean mindset in the student organization I invited Ruth Archer, Manager of Process Improvement,  to introduce at a very basic level some tool they could integrate into their daily life. This helped show the members common industry practices of Lean, and continuous improvement. Ruth also spoke to them about how Michigan Tech works to make sure that there are continuous improvement efforts being done on current processes through the office of continuous improvement. This gave the students new insights into how the university was working at improving their experience as students of Michigan Tech.

A few days after this presentation the pre- meeting for the ASME  SDC team Kaizen event. I was put on as the team leader with Laura Henry and Jim DeRochers acting as co- facilitators and Kaylee Betzinger acting as the student process improvement coordinator. The current state was outlined and can be seen in the image below. Items included the lack of definite rolls and lack of time.

Current state photo


A week later the actual Kaizen event was held with the team members of the design team, the executive treasurer of ASME, as well as all support persons  facilitating the Kaizen present.

Some images of the current state were taken from the Kaizen event and can be seen below.

Start of p-map



The competition took place on April 10th and I look forward to seeing how integrating Lean practices helps the team in years to come as the most use from this event will come in this years preparation for the competition. One of the major outcomes is that Kaizen communication has been streamlined between the team and the executive board and an increased amount of documentation though Google Drive.

If your student organization is having trouble with a current process contact the Office of Continuous Improvement at: 906-487-3180, e-mail or request a Process Improvement Event here


Continuous Improvement of Annual Events

During Michigan Tech’s Winter Carnival event, I started thinking about how continuous improvement works with events that have a really long time between them. The preparation work for Winter Carnival has a flow to it. There are always things like the free chili from The Library restaurant, broomball games with free hot chocolate, and most importantly the creation of some amazing snow statues. This epic event couldn’t happen without a flow and organization through standardized work. One very key part of standard work for projects with a long time frame between events is the reflection from year to year by the committee heads on what was done well and what can be improved for the following year.


Last year the Blue Key Honor Society, the group who organizes Winter Carnival, reached out to the continuous improvement office, and the office facilitated an event to help them organize their workflow. From this event not only were Lean practices introduced into the organization, but also Lean knowledge was shared with students who can take the knowledge they learned into other activities they participate in, both on campus and off.

If you’re an advisor for a student organization or a student member who has a process you’re responsible for and would like some coaching to create standard work, feel free to contact the office of continuous improvement at 906-487-3180, e-mail or request a Process Improvement Event here. We can show you how to use things like knowledge folders, process maps, and 5S, or facilitate a Kaizen event to improve your process.

Annual events around campus like orientation week, semester break and Winter Carnival can be greatly aided with Improvement events. However, they aren’t the only time to apply Lean principles to a process. Let’s not waste any time finding areas to improve and work towards making 2015 the best year yet!


Developing Students, Improving Universities

This post was originally published at The Lean Post. Our own Theresa Coleman-Kaiser, Assistant Vice President for Administration, is the author. 

Today, lean thinking in higher education is uncommon. As a rule, institutions that teach lean continuous improvement in their academic curricula or that have centers or institutes to educate the public struggle themselves to be practitioners in their own administrative processes. There’s the challenge of teaching lean thinking and the challenge of practicing it ourselves in the administrative processes of a university system.

In 2008, when Michigan Technological University’s own lean journey began, President Glenn Mroz introduced the principles of lean thinking to his administration and asked that a transformation begin at the university. Mroz knew what Balzer pointed out in Lean Higher Education (2010), which is that institutional processes link to the overall success of universities and directly benefit all constituents, particularly students. Our intent was to begin this journey by first using lean thinking in our everyday operations and also begin exposing students to lean principles through participation in improvement events. This directly aligned with our directive to “prepare students to create the future.” It also aligned with our strategic intent of distinctive and rigorous, action-based, experiential learning, responding to the needs and challenges of the 21st century.

At Michigan Tech, we’ve found many compelling reasons to seek out a continuous improvement methodology we can use as a foundation upon which students could build academic and career success and that would also be effective in improving our own administrative processes.

                             Value Stream Mapping
                             Fishbone Problem-Solving

Here’s where we’ve focused our energies:

  • Accreditation. The University’s accreditation is dependent upon demonstrating continuous improvement in both academic and administrative areas. We’re working on creating and sharing demonstrable methods for improving administrative processes. Demonstrating and measuring improvements builds our credibility and strengthens the assurance argument necessary for university accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission.
  • Cost of Education. As is the case in many states, Michigan has experienced shrinking state allocations for higher education. To keep the resulting rise in tuition costs as low as possible, employing lean continuous improvement methodologies help contain costs. Cost savings that can be used to offset tuition increases have been generated through a variety of improvement events ranging from reducing days of inventory on hand in our dining services to reducing fuel costs at our golf course by adjusting mowing patterns and frequencies.
  • Quality. Improved administrative processes elevate and strengthen the student experience. This is done by saving time, reducing waste, and avoiding cost while delivering the expected service to students. This helps Michigan Tech retain students.
  • State Initiatives. Since 2010, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has supported service and process optimization and lean practices through the Office of Good Government. As a state institution, at Michigan Tech we’ve aligned with these efforts.
  • Universal application. Lean thinking and practice have daily application in all aspects of the business and academics of the university. Part of our work has been about simply spreading this thinking throughout administrative and academic offices.
  • Pull. Companies recruiting Michigan Tech graduates have told us they are looking for students with exposure to and proficiency in lean continuous improvement. We’ve worked to share this information with students through employing students in our Office of Continuous Improvement, by including students in kaizen events, and by sharing lean knowledge through our Leaders in Continuous Improvement student organization
  • Academic curricula. Most importantly, adopting a continuous improvement methodology integrated with an academic curricula is what makes a difference for students’ overall learning experience. Currently, we have 22 quality-related courses on different aspects of lean and continuous improvement being taught as part of a diverse curricula on our STEM campus.

Successes So Far

Michigan Tech’s lean transformation has its foundations in a network of over 20 trained improvement facilitators from all areas of campus. These volunteers range from hourly employees to executives who work to facilitate improvement events requested by departments. Initially the university engaged outside consultants to provide facilitator training, some of which was funded by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services through a labor/management-focused grant. Currently an Office of Continuous Improvement is staffed by a Manager and a team of student Process Improvement Coordinators that provide training and support the lean efforts on campus.

A student organization called Leaders in Continuous Improvement was formed two years ago and continues to grow in size and interest. Over 650 university employees have been exposed to lean thinking and over $250,000 in savings have been identified through formal improvement events.

Ongoing Challenges

The culture of higher education poses challenges when rolling out a lean transformation. Some are unique to higher ed and others are more universal. Here’s what we’ve experienced:

  • Unwillingness to view students as “customers”
  • Difficulty translating lean’s manufacturing history into knowledge work
  • Discomfort in learning as you’re doing
  • Focus on the visible use of tools instead of the underlying thinking
  • Oversimplifying Lean as the application of just one or two tools (5S and visual displays)
  • Push back on standard work as “dumbing things down” and wringing out creativity and intellectual freedom

What’s Next

We plan to continue designing courses to prepare lean-certified students who are ready to work in industry. This will require the endorsement and participation of academic leadership, as well as continuing to also practice lean improvements in the administrative processes of the university. Our goal is to serve as a co-curricular learning laboratory for students, teaching lean thinking while also assisting in the university’s success.

We’d like to hear from you. Do you think that higher education can provide students with an immersive experience that brings together both the academic curriculum and the co-curricular companion piece of administrative processes and extra-curricular activities? Tell us your thoughts in the comments. We’re particularly interested in hearing success stories that we can learn from!


The Quarter Pounder

During a recent Auxiliary Services Report Out, Bob Hiltunen gave an incredible teachback demonstrating the benefits of one-piece flow over traditional batch and queue. He was able to do this through an exercise we call “The Quarter Pounder.” One-piece flow refers to the concept of moving one work piece at a time between operations. This may also be referred to as the OHIO method (only handle it once).

To learn more about The Quarter Pounder activity, read a previous blog post by fellow Process Improvement Coordinator Nate Hood by clicking here.

The group of participants really enjoyed this fun, hands on exercise. It was great to see the mental light-bulbs going off when each participant saw the difference between batching and one-piece flow.


No matter who is participating in this activity, the results are always the same. By eliminating the batching and implementing one-piece flow, the team is always able to decrease the total process time, and the time it takes for the customer to get their first item plummets. During this round of the exercise, the team was able to decrease total processing time by 289%!! How can implementing one-piece-flow in your organization benefit you?

Fire Prevention Is the Key

Do you spend your day putting out fires at work? Running from one emergency to the next? Trying to contain the damage? This is an exhausting way to live, and unfortunately, all too common. You might be the hero for the day, but another emergency is just around the corner. Fear of failure is always looming. What if I told you there’s another way to do things?

During the Michigan Lean Consortium‘s annual conference, I attended a breakout session called “Making Improvements Soar with Value Streams” presented by Rob Pease and Brad Brown. Rob and Brad were Lean champions for the Grand Rapids Fire Department.

Rob and Brad introducing themselves at a breakout session for the Michigan Lean Consortium’s annual conference, last summer.


As they were introducing themselves, they talked about how firefighting has evolved. Initially the work involved running from one fire to the next (real fires, for them!). However, fire fighters soon realized they could spend less time fighting fires if there were fewer fires and if they were able to put them out more quickly. Fighting fires is risky business–the less time spent fighting fires, the less personal exposure to danger. In addition, fewer fires means fewer injured citizens. As a result, fire departments work hard to find new ways to prevent fires (attack the root cause) and provide the best possible training. The Grand Rapids Fire Department’s Residential Safety Program won the 2013 Leland Gayheart Prevention Award from the University of Michigan Trauma Burn Center.

This is where Lean comes in. Finding the time to search for the root causes of workplace emergencies and applying problem-solving techniques can result in a permanent reduction in the number of “fires” you have to put out. This will reduce your exposure to possible failures. You can begin an upward spiral of reduced stress and more time for planning and prevention.

If you’re ready to move into fire prevention, click here, answer a few short questions, and we’ll work with you to find solutions and improve your processes.


Defining and Creating Customer Value

At the heart of Lean is a focus on the customer and a spirit of continuous improvement. In this post, I want to discuss the concept of customer value.

Many people think they have a firm grasp on the concept of value, but in reality understanding how value is created, applied, measured, and translated is a difficult task. This is because each and every person has their own perception of what constitutes value and this belief of what value is changes over time. Though it may prove difficult, identifying what creates value for the customer is the very first principle of Lean; it’s a task that must be completed before beginning any process improvement efforts.

Upon the completion of this task, not only will you know what your customers value, you’ll also have a basis for defining your day-to-day activities. Having that level of definition will help answer 3 important questions:

  1. What should I be doing?
  2. How should I be doing it?
  3. Why should I be doing it?

Everything we do on a daily basis, no matter how small, should create some kind of value for our specific customers. Defining said value forms the foundation upon which you build Lean processes to deliver that value and satisfy your customer. For an activity to be value added, you must meet all three precise criteria:

  1. The customer must be willing to pay for the activity.
  2. The activity must transform the product or service in some way.
  3. The activity must be done correctly the first time.

If an activity does not meet all three value-added criteria, then it’s deemed officially to be non-value-added.  In Lean, non-value-added activities are further broken down into two types of muda (or waste):

  1. Type-1 waste includes actions that are non-value-added, but are required for some other reason. These are typically support activities that allow those critical value-added activities to take place.  These forms of waste usually cannot be eliminated immediately.
  2. Type-2 wastes are those activities that are non-value-added and are unnecessary. These activities are the first targets for elimination.

Many activities may seem as though they’re necessary or value-added, but on closer examination, viewing them through the eyes of the customer, they’re not. For example,  if you are completing paperwork to pass on to another department, or creating reports for your supervisor, the first order of business should always be to define what information is of value to the person receiving the documents you’re creating. You may find that a portion of the information you’re collecting or reporting is of no value to your “customer,” and therefore collecting and documenting that information only serves to create waste in the process. 

Identifying customer value and seeking out and eliminating waste takes effort — it’s a journey that begins with challenging the status quo. If you’re ready to accept this challenge and begin your journey, call the Office of Continuous Improvement at 906-487-3180 or email us at We will work with you and give you the tools you need to get you headed in the right direction.

     — You are welcome to check out this book and others from our Lean Library.
Sayer, Natalie J., and Bruce Williams. Lean for Dummies. 2nd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2012. Print.

Trend Prediction

Hello, this is Elizabeth, one of the student process improvement coordinators at Michigan Tech. This semester one of the classes I am taking within the department of mechanical engineering is “Engineering Design Process.” Within the class we are charged with designing a way to change the landscape of the moving luggage industry. Innovation is one of the main objectives. I decided to look at how I could integrate my course work and job. Taking advantage of the Lean Library in the Office of Continuous Improvement  I checked out the book The Innovators Toolkit.


The book starts off with having the user define the opportunity. It stated that, “Taking thousands of shots at an undefined target (unfocused ideation) won’t result in any innovation goal”.  From here the book is broken up into four parts; defining the opportunity, discover the ideas, develop the designs, demonstrate the innovation. Within these four parts there are different techniques to be used. I chose to focus on part two – discover the idea and more specifically technique 16: trend prediction.

In this age of rapid change and a push towards innovation it is important to be able to accurately predict where future trends will be in order that one’s invention matches the needs and wants of those trends. After searching around online I found that a lot of the organizational templates used in the book are available to the public for free. I would encourage you to look at them and use them to your advantage



Let’s Ditch the Report Out

We are pleased to present this guest blog post by Robert Hiltunen, Director of Auxiliary Services at Michigan Technological University.

What did you say? Ditch the report out? Are you crazy?

Reporting Out 3A normal feature of organizations that use lean methodology is the expectation that projects regularly “report out.” A report-out event allows the organization to recognize and celebrate the achievements of the various project teams and their members. Perhaps more importantly, others are able to learn from what the project teams have accomplished. In this way, we continuously improve our systems, share and build on knowledge, and reduce duplication or “re‐inventing the wheel.”

After some deep reflection about a blog I read by Dave LaHote entitled “Say Goodbye to the Report Out,” I came to realize that there are different types of report outs. With this headline I am talking about the report out that is elicited from people closest to the work during my gemba walks, when I ask “How is it going?” For those who know me, the first thing that comes out of my mouth is “How’s it going?,” “How’re you doing?,” or “What’s happening?” Of course, not using open, probing questions causes the employee to naturally report out what is going on. Then I will ask how I can help, and the response is “I’m fine; no need for help.” This type of report out causes a transition of problems from the employee to me, and I then offer suggestions that might help solve the problem.

Instead, I should be asking about a specific observation which would lead to follow up questions that would increase my understanding and help coach the employee to solving their own issue. So I must learn to ditch my report-out eliciting questions and take a deeper dive into the real issues at hand.

Easier said than done, so if you see me asking an employee at the gemba “How’s it going?” please remind me that this is not the time or place for a report out.

Reinventing ICE?

We are pleased to present this  guest blog post by Megan Ross, Business Analyst in Auxiliary Services and campus Lean Facilitator.

As a Business Analyst I have many “projects” that come across my desk, my work.  Some of these so-called projects are really just things that I need to do and be done with while others require a lot of time, effort and need some further prioritization.  I have been tracking “What’s Happening” in a Smartsheet, which I have been using as a kind of overall personal kanban.  I can see what things I have on my plate, what department it is for, when the work started and some notes about where it is currently at.  My boss and I also began using Trello for kanbans on bigger projects that show all of the little tasks, due dates, etc.  This still didn’t help to prioritize all those things on my plate in the Smartsheet.  What work should I be spending my time on?

The next phase in the evolution of my personal kanban was to add in a status column on Smartsheet.  Great!  Now I can see if I am actively working on it, it is just an idea, someone outside is working on it, it’s not started yet, or I’m waiting for a reply.  I also put in a column with a follow up date and set up a reminder based on that date.  This eliminates the need for me to constantly review everything on the sheet.  I just need to wait for the reminders on the Waiting for Reply or Outside Work Happening statuses.  But I still have all of the Active work and Not Yet Started Work.  What do I work on now?


I started playing around with assigning a type to each piece of work.  My first thoughts were categories ranging from “Just Do It” items which would be simple tasks that I could just work on to “projects” which were some vague amount bigger in scope and outside involvement.  I took all of the current things on my list, put them on sticky notes and tried to put them into these categories, but it just didn’t work.  The categories were not quite right and some items didn’t fit in any or fit in more than one.  Then it hit me…there were two criteria that I was gauging each item on, but I was trying to combine them into one!  This started a brainstorm session with my boss.  We spent about an hour hashing things out and then fitting those sticky notes into my new matrix.

The first criteria is how much involvement, effort, or work the item is for me personally.  Is it just day-to-day tasks that I need to work on, a request I need to make on someone’s behalf, doing a little bit of investigative work, collaborating with others, or an in-depth analysis of something?  The second criteria is how much outside engagement is needed for this item from none to basic to advanced.  Now I have a matrix!


Some of the sections still have a lot of sticky notes in them, so I still needed a way to refine them.  I realized that each one comes with some kind of priority or impact level assigned either by the requesting department or myself.  This could be a multiplier added into the mix.  That was when it hit me.  I just recreated the ICE prioritization tool in my own words!  (For those of you without a Michigan Tech login to view the Quick Point, ICE is a lean tool normally used to prioritize countermeasures.  You rate the countermeasure on the Impact it will have, the Control you have over it, and the Ease of implementation, multiply the numbers together and get a ranking.  You can also check out the ICE Rap that one of our former student employees made about a year ago.)  For my matrix, my level of involvement or effort relates to the ease – how easy is it for me to get done, control is the level of outside entity engagement and the impact is that priority multiplier.  I am now moving forward with refining my prioritization and learning what the numbers actually mean.

Sometimes you have to work through it on your own and in your own language to really understand something.  The other lesson I learned is that the tools and methods we learn that we call Lean or Six Sigma or any other title you give it can be applied in many different ways.  Just because you learn about ICE as a tool for prioritizing countermeasures doesn’t mean that is where its application ends.  I certainly wasn’t thinking of how to prioritize my work as a “Lean” project!  It is about the way of thinking and applying that learning in all kinds of other ways that really has value.

4 Major Pitfalls of Process Improvement Initiatives

I came across an article a few days ago discussing some of the key reasons why Lean initiatives are unsuccessful. Anyone on a Lean journey has probably encountered one or more of these problems at some point. I wanted to share four of the pitfalls discussed in the article that I see most commonly in my work in process improvement. The article includes the author’s thoughts and suggestions on ways to avoid these pitfalls.

This is an excerpt from Paula Riley’s article, Ten Pitfalls to Avoid in Process Improvement Initiatives.

Pitfall No. 1: Lack of upper-level management support for process improvement initiatives

This can have a number of causes, including lack of understanding of the potential value, a poor implementation process, insufficient sustain controls, inadequate validation process, or loss of focus on the bottom line.

There are a number of things that can/should be done to minimize this. For example, you can schedule an orientation session with upper management. Or better yet, encourage them to become trained and run a project. Routine project reviews should include participation, not only from the process owner, but also from those over him/her. Ensure that improvement initiatives always maintain their focus on the business’ bottom line.

Pitfall No. 8: Team make-up not including all relevant functions

This problem has a variety of causes, including resource constraints, siloed functions, and the failure to recognize the value of other functions in obtaining an all-encompassing view of the process. As a result, a narrow view of process results in narrow improvement plan and minimal results — or none at all.

The key is to ensure that all functions affected by the process are involved in the project. That being said, team size can be an issue. An ideal size is from six to 10 members. Any less may cause one to wonder if all appropriate functions are included. Any more can cause the team to be difficult to manage and result in a loss of focus. Therefore, where appropriate, some resources can be supporting team members, rather than full-time team members. This will allow them to be brought in to the improvement process when they are needed, but keep the team size manageable and allow them to focus on their other duties when not needed. Whether a full time team member, or supporting team member, all should be copied with minutes and other team documentation.

Pitfall No. 9: Not walking the process and involving the operators

Every project should start in the work area where improvement is expected. As improvements are implemented, additional visits to the area are in order to ensure that employees in the area understand and benefit from the improvements. At the end of the project another visit is needed to ensure that the control plan is fully implemented and effective.

Bonus: Ineffective control plan

Unless something is put into place to prevent returning to “the way it has always been done,” the process will slide back to what it was. The tendency is to put in more instructions, signoffs, control charts, etc., in an attempt to control the process. But this is not the way to go. The new process must be easier to run than the old. It must make the operator’s job simpler, better, faster. It must make going back to the old way undesirable or hard to do and the new way pleasant and a joy. This requires careful thought and ingenuity from the team, and close involvement and feedback from the workers in the process. But please don’t jump to an engineering solution involving capital. There are other, cheaper, ways to accomplish this — you just have to dig them out.

Looking at these various pitfalls, it seems that they are often inter-related and linked. As a result, like a set of dominos, one problem leads to another, leads to another, often exponentially. If you need to improve your process improvement process, make it a project. Get a team of the right people together, charter the project, and use the tools to make improvements. Look at potential (or existing) problems as opportunities for improvement — and go after them.