Category: Lean Thinking

Leaders in Continuous Improvement gaining popularity

With the semester more than half way over, Leaders in Continuous Improvement is gaining popularity and momentum throughout campus with the help of some on campus resources. The Lode, Michigan Tech’s student run newspaper, featured Leaders in Continuous Improvement in the Student Org. Spotlight of their latest paper which was released Friday, November 1st. You can read the article here. The Student News Briefs have also featured Leaders in Continuous Improvement in their recent writings. To read what they had to say about Leaders in Continuous Improvement click here. If you’d like to know more about Leaders in Continuous contact the LCI President Megan Johnson at

Start, Stop, Continue

Although not a Lean specific concept, “Start, Stop, Continue” is one way to gain quick feedback on process improvements and rapid experimentation.  Typically “Start, Stop, Continue” is done in a group or team environment and involves open discussion.  The goal is to take a look at something and determine how it is performing.  This could be a process, a strategic vision, or even an individual’s performance (in a one-on-one setting).

Participants are told to write down their ideas on what should be started, what should be stopped, and what should continue.

For example:

  • Start: utilizing visual controls to reduce errors, holding daily team meetings to increase open communication, or addressing problems that have begun to occur since the last review of a process
  • Stop: holding meetings that have no clear purpose, doing something because “that’s the way it’s always been,” or not listening to employee’s ideas on how to improve
  • Continue: ensuring every customer has a positive experience, seeking ways to improve, or coaching teams effectively

After everyone has done some brainstorming on their own, the group can come back together and prioritize action items.  This can be done by an affinity diagram or any prioritization method.  Overall, the “Start, Stop, Continue” method lends itself to quick discussions that can focus on anything from a company’s strategy, to coaching an individual employee.

Socratic Questioning in the Classroom and Lean

The Socratic Method, or Socratic Questioning, is a type of questioning used to encourage critical thinking, analyze assumptions, determine knowns and unknowns, and help stimulate open discussion.

There are six main types of Socratic questions:

  • Clarifying the question
  • Challenging assumptions
  • Evidence as a basis for argument
  • Alternative viewpoints
  • Implications and consequences
  • Question the question

As a student, I have frequently experienced Socratic questioning firsthand in the classroom. Using Socratic questions furthers understanding by helping us as students think more deeply about what we’re learning, challenge the concepts, and be more involved in discussion.

For example, let’s say a professor is explaining an equation used to model a phenomenon; perhaps the flow of blood through a vessel or analyzing the forces acting on an object. Often when modeling a behavior we make assumptions about variables that we can neglect to simplify the equation, and these assumptions can lead to Socratic questions:

  • Why are we assuming we can neglect this variable? (Challenging assumptions)
  • Can we always neglect that variable? When can’t we neglect that variable? (Asking for evidence as a basis for argument)
  • How does that variable affect the model? (Implications and consequences)
  • Why is learning this model important? (Question the question).

While Socratic Questioning is a useful practice in the classroom, it’s also a great tool for problem solving in Lean processes. Using Socratic Questioning can help a kaizen team with opening up problems, analyzing the process, and engaging in discussion.

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Tour of Nationwide Insurance IT Department

I recently had the opportunity to tour the Nationwide Insurance IT department in Columbus, OH.  Their empowered culture and commitment to continuous improvement stood out the moment the tour began.  We walked into a large open room and could see all of their employees surrounded by floor to ceiling whiteboards.  The IT department is broken into “pods” of work stations so that natural work teams can form to work together.  There are no assigned work spaces, cubicles, or corner offices.
There was a high level of employee interaction and communication.  The company even pumps in white noise so that as working teams form, they do not disturb others.  And their were Nerf guns and Gongs – they had quite a bit of fun too.
It was very interesting to me that this IT department had so many visual metrics and project statuses displayed on whiteboards, not within their computer system.  As they progressed on their “Lean Journey” it was stated that they began to see the value in putting more and more information on whiteboards.  It was an engagement piece for their staff to huddle around and talk problems through.  They found tickets (work requests) were completed sooner when they were visually displayed on a whiteboard and are addressed at their daily huddle.  Problem tickets that might have taken weeks were down to days due to the increased visibility and group communication.
Ticket Response Metrics:
Ticket Response Metrics
Tickets with visuals of those working on resolution:


PDCA is a common term used when practicing lean. The acronym stands for Plan-Do-Check-Act and is also known as the Deming wheel. PDCA is an iterative four-step management method used in business for the control and continuous improvement of processes and products.

While many people have heard of or practiced PDCA, far less have heard of PDSA, Plan-Do-Study-Act. By replacing the Check with Study, we can better understand that we should study the results of one’s experiment and then make adjustments based on the results from the countermeasure(s) put in place to test the hypothesis. According to Karen Martin, people often mistake check for making sure that everyone is following the new process rather than checking the results of the experiment and adjusting the countermeasures accordingly. To read why Karen prefers PDSA check out her guest blog post from Mark Graban’s blog on lean.

Which cycle do you prefer?

Book Review: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Recently in my Senior Design class the instructor recommended that we all read the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.  The book is a business story centered on Kathryn, a new CEO to a failing high-tech company, DecisionTech.  Throughout the story Kathryn works her way to the root causes of the executive team’s failures that made me think about lean philosophy.  Although the book never specifically refers to lean, many of the principles presented are similar.

Although DecisionTech’s product was great, and there was plenty of money from investors, for some reason the company was failing miserably.  For this reason the Board of Directors hires Kathryn to be the new CEO.  Kathryn has previous executive experience in the automotive industry (there is a reference to a joint US-Japanese automotive plant in California), and she is older than everybody else on the executive team.  For the first two weeks after being hired Kathryn has the previous CEO (who still works for the company) run the business as usual for Kathryn to observe.  Kathryn walks around talking to employees at all levels and attends as many staff meetings as possible.  When I read this I immediately thought about Gemba Walks and the importance of going to see problems at their physical location.

The book goes on to discuss the five dysfunctions of a team, which are:

  1. Absence of trust (shown by a individuals thinking they are invulnerable)
  2. Fear of conflict (shown by a team creating artificial harmony)
  3. Lack of commitment (shown by ambiguity in team functions)
  4. Avoidance of accountability (shown through holding low team standards)
  5. Inattention to results (shown by individuals focusing on status and their ego more than the team’s goals)

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

All of the dysfunctions tie in with each other, and although none are explicitly lean they can all be related to some aspect of lean philosophy.  “Respect for people” is one of the cornerstones of lean that encompasses all five of the dysfunctions.  For instance, a team that respects its own people would have no problem with healthy conflict and problem solving.  Kaizen events may have intense discussions during root cause analysis or four-step problem solving, but as long as the discussion is “hard on the process, easy on the people” a team can show each other respect.

Overall the book was a quick read that provides a new perspective on teamwork.  Patrick Lencioni does not specifically call out any lean principles or tools, but many of the same thought processes are evident throughout the storyline.  Finally, the storytelling method focusing on Kathryn keeps the book fast-paced and lively resulting in an enjoyable reading experience.

Lean Overview

Why an overview? Sometimes after you’ve been doing something for a while, it’s easy to forget the basics. For example, if you play the piano and you never practice your scales, you might forget them or get a little rusty. Lean isn’t any different! Sometimes it’s good have a refresher on what it’s all really about, so that’s why this week I’ve decided to do a brief Lean overview.

First off, what is Lean? Lean is a continuous improvement philosophy. It’s based upon respect for people, customer focus, and having stakeholders at all levels be involved in the improvements—especially the frontline workers who “live” in that process every day! Lean practice focuses on identifying and eliminating waste to improve value from the customer’s perspective.

Some key concepts of Lean are:

  • Value is defined by the customer
  • Identify the value stream for each product
  • Create flow in your process
  • Pull from the customer, and
  • Continual pursuit of perfection.

What’s the value stream? All Lean thinking begins with a value stream! It includes all steps and activities in a process, from beginning to end. Value streams can be used to identify wastes (non-value added steps) to identify areas for improvement.

A Swimlane Value Stream Map from a kaizen in the Geological & Mining Engineering & Sciences department kaizen. (Click for full image)

What’s the difference between value added and non-value added steps in a process? The value should always be looked at from a customer’s point of view, so a value-add step in the process is quite simply something your customer finds valuable, or something that they are willing to pay for. If it is a non-value added activity, it means your customer doesn’t see that step as a valuable part of the process. A non-value added activity is considered waste.

Some steps in a process may be non-value add, but necessary. These steps might be required by legislation, might be a quality check, etc. It is not a step that the customer necessarily views as valuable and feels they should pay for, but it is something that must be done regardless.

How do we define waste? Waste is anything that does not add value in the customer’s eyes. There are three forms of waste: unevenness (variation or inconsistency in a process), overburden (excessive stress or strain on people/equipment), and non-value added waste (see our Waste Quick Point in the Tools & Templates section for more info on waste).

ICE Rap Part II

A few months back, there was a similar blog post on a new lean creation called the ICE Rap. Since then, a voice over of the rap has been recorded, edited, and completed.
With lots of hard work from Megan Ross (the editor of the voice over) and Mason Raguse (the talented voice behind the lyrics) we are proud to introduce the Michigan Tech Lean ICE Rap for your listening pleasures. You can listen to the ICE Rap here.

Leaders in Continuous Improvement: Update

Recently the Leaders in Continuous Improvement were able to participate at K-Day as well as hold their first official meeting!

At K-Day many students walked by the booth inquiring about continuous improvement, and what the new student organization will be about.  Additionally there was a ball “game” that was used to demonstrate the importance of standardizing work.  Players of the game had to sort balls into five different buckets, representing each day of the work week, as quickly as possible.  Then, the players standardized one day – meaning that they no longer had to sort their work (balls) for that day.  This exercise resulted in almost 30 additional data points for the student Process Improvement Coordinators to further improve the exercise and show the importance of standardization.

During the first meeting, The Student Process Improvement Coordinators, Kaylee, Megan, and Mike presented a Lean Overview as well as a little bit of the future goals for the organization.  There was free pizza and an atmosphere of excitement.  Leaders in Continuous Improvement will hold their next meeting on Monday September 23rd from 7:00-8:00pm room 101 of the ROTC building.  At this meeting Industry speakers from Caterpillar and Target will be speaking about their improvement journey.  This will be a great opportunity to not only gain insight into how continuous improvement is done in industry, but also to network the day before the career fair.  We hope to see you there!

Leaders in Continuous Improvement: A New Student Organization

The Student Process Improvement Coordinators (PICs) have been busy over the past few weeks in preparation for a new student organization revolving around continuous improvement.
The goals and purpose of our organization, named Leaders in Continuous Improvement, are to:
• Educate and develop our members and the community on Continuous Improvement tools, principles, and culture,
• Practice hands-on Continuous Improvement principles and philosophy,
• Promote Continuous Improvement on campus and within the community,
• Create a network of connections that could lead to future internship or career opportunities!
We are hoping Leaders in CI (Continuous Improvement) will give our new members the same benefits and experiences that we as PICs have gained while working here. We’ve gained real life experience and knowledge that we find irreplaceable. We have also had the chance to network with faculty and staff on campus as well as community members who also work with continuous improvement in their areas of business. Besides working on continuous improvement events throughout campus, Megan Johnson and I have both had internships as a result of working with Lean and continuous improvement. It just goes to show you how valuable the skills you acquire when working with continuous improvement really are. Employers today look for something that really makes you stand out, and we believe this student organization will do just that.

If you are interested in learning more about Leaders in CI you can contact myself, Kaylee Betzinger at, or the organization’s President Megan Johnson at We are also having an information session on Wednesday September 11th in Fisher Hall with more information and FREE pizza!