Category Archives: Lean Thinking

Nothing Else Matters

During my freshman year of high school I ran cross country. For those unfamiliar, high school cross country strictly consists of running 5K races (3 miles). I myself cannot claim to be a quick runner, especially not as a freshman; however, at our school we did have one senior whose both speed and endurance could only be described as completely bananas. He won almost every race he ran in, broke half the records at our school, and still managed to be a moderately modest individual. During the car ride to a particularly large meet, he gave me an edition of a running magazine. I am not one to read magazines, much less magazines devoted to running, but I suppose his legendary status caused me to at least skim a few pages in the magazine. The only article I recall from the magazine was one discussing “flow”, and how getting in a state of flow can help to knock a few seconds off of one’s race times.

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One may ask, “What is ‘flow’, and what does it have to do with anything?”. The term “flow state” was officially coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the 1970s, and characterizes a mental state of complete focus. Colloquially a flow state can be thought of as being in the zone, or having such focus on a task that nothing else matters. Having such focus on a task can amplify the results or decrease the time required of various tasks.

In his article “Create a Work Environment That Fosters Flow”, Steven Kotler discusses the science behind flow states and how to consistently get in a flow state. The complex details behind the neurochemical processes that go on when one is in a state go far beyond my limited knowledge of biology, but the general idea is that during a flow state the brain releases five chemicals each having different effects on our physiology. Some of these chemicals block out pain or discomfort, others temporarily boost one’s creativity, and further still some chemicals temporarily increase one’s happiness. All this combined lead to studies showing that an increase in time spent working in a flow state to 15%-20% of one’s time can lead to roughly double the productivity. One example cited in Kotler’s article was military snipers who reported being consistently in a flow state trained 230% faster than their counterparts. Typically flow is primarily discussed within fields requiring intense physical activity; however, Kotler discusses how to achieve a flow state in the office. Simply put, in order to get to a flow state, one needs to start a task slightly more difficult one is capable of, 4% more difficult being a loose rule of thumb, Kotler suggests. Taking on a task that is too simple leads to boredom and lack of focus, while taking on a task that is too complex leads to one burning out quickly.

Whether at work, at home, on the track, or in a gym recognizing when one is in the zone and fostering this feeling can greatly improve both one’s efficiency and happiness. In order to get into this state, find and seek out tasks that seem mildly out of reach, and get in the mindset that nothing else matters.

Reference: Steven Kotler’s Article.

Farewell, Rylie!

Like Dominique, my time in the Office of Continuous Improvement comes to a close as I graduate and embark on my next Journey in Indiana. My time here in the office has been one of profound growth – both for me as an individual and a professional. These last three years have opened my eyes to the importance of change and networking. The greatest part about this job is the people that I may never have met otherwise.

Nearly two years ago I put out a simple question on LinkedIn, and since then I’ve referenced this experiment numerous times. This question I asked of Lean practitioner’s everywhere was “What is Lean to you in a single word?” The outpouring of responses was overwhelming. In 5 hours I had 150,000 views and over 400 comments from practitioners all over the globe.

Not only did the response volume shock me, so did the responses themselves. These 400+ people chose their single word as it applied to their own experience, their own journey with Lean. This experiment taught me the importance of gaining buy-in from others, of ensuring all voices have been heard, and the importance of having an open mind to hear what others have to say.

I made a word cloud from the responses – I encourage you to not only glance it, but try to dissect it yourself. Try to imagine the world that these voices have come from; what could have possibly lead up to that single word? Challenge yourself to see why YES, these words do apply.

Early in my time with the Office my boss, Ruth Archer, challenged me to develop an elevator pitch for Lean and Continuous Improvement. She said it would help me share with others what Lean and CI was in a nutshell. Honestly, I’ve tried to accomplish this task, but as I continued to learn more about CI, the task of creating an elevator pitch became more daunting. Now that I’m in this phase of transition, I’ve decided to contribute my word to the word cloud – my elevator pitch for what Lean is to me, and what it’s becoming.

What is my single word?

My word is gateway.

Lean is a gateway into opportunities that you will likely never get elsewhere.

It is the gateway to introductions of people you may never meet anywhere else in the world.

It’s a gateway into ‘why’

  • Why do we do it this way?
  • Why did I feel or respond to that thing that way?
  • Why can’t we do this thing instead?

It’s a gateway into ‘how’

  • How did we get here?
  • How do we move forward?
  • How should this be instead?

Lean is a gateway into ‘where’

  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to go next?
  • Where do we want to end up?

Lastly, Lean to me is a gateway into tomorrow. Lean supports us with what we need for success by allowing us to improve today so we can be a little better, a little more perfect, a little more ready to take on tomorrow.


When I took this job back in the spring of 2016, it was just a job. I was a broke college student who wanted to work on campus. As I began training my confusion was through the roof – I couldn’t believe this whole world of Lean could exist without me ever knowing it. As I completed training and began taking on projects, I began to learn more about myself. I learned that seeing waste and implementing countermeasures was second nature to me. I learned that I love to help people and restore things so that they can be the best that they can be. Lean and this job has provided me with the autonomy that I needed to be able to find myself and prove to myself the potential that I have as an individual. Lean will come with me wherever I go, its become so much more than just a job.

I’m thankful everyday for the experiences I’ve had with the Office of Continuous Improvement and its employees; I can’t wait to share these experiences with the rest of the world.

To all of the Michigan Tech faculty and staff that I’ve had the privilege to work with and get to know, thank you for a great three years!

Thank you to all of the volunteer facilitators on campus, you may not always know or feel it, but the selfless amount of energy, time and knowledge that you give up and offer to those you may not even know amazes me daily, and has made me strive to be better myself for the benefit of others. Thank you.




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!





Summer Adventures

This summer I made the decision to stay in Houghton, take classes, and explore the Keweenaw during the warm weather before I start my last year here at Michigan Tech. With the Keweenaw and the U.P. in general being such a beautiful place during the summer I started to think about all the things I wanted to do and see this summer and I began to become overwhelmed by all the possibilities. I knew there was so much to do and I didn’t want to leave out anything so I thought, what is the best way to make sure I remember and accomplish everything I want to this summer? In the end I decided on an affinity diagram.

An affinity diagram is a tool that is used by groups to gather and sort ideas, opinions and issues when brainstorming. When creating one you first pick a topic; in my case summer adventures. Then you and whoever else you want to be involved, in my case my friends, each take a stack of sticky notes and write each idea on a separate sticky note. You then put them all in a central location and then categorize them into groups based on similarities. This way you have a chance to write down all of your ideas before deciding if they fit in with everything else.

I decided to use this tool because I figured as the semester progressed every time my friends or I thought of an activity we wanted to do this summer we could write it on a post-it note and stick it on a piece of poster board. This way we won’t forget anything we think of and we can see what everyone is interested in. At the end of the semester we will look at all the ideas and categorized them by which are similar and then rank them to figure out what we are going to do first. This will help ensure we have a fun productive summer.

As you can see affinity diagrams can be used for things as simple as summer adventures or things much more complicated. I love taking the opportunity to use lean tools outside of work and in my personal life. It helps me to see the real value of lean and continuous improvement. I hope you guys take the opportunity to use lean tools in your lives too!

Image result for affinity diagram

Welcome Paul!

Joining the team in the Office of Continuous Improvement is a new student Process Improvement Coordinator (PIC), Paul Rayment. Paul is a first year student pursuing a degree in Computer Science. It is with great pleasure that we welcome Paul!

He will now take over and introduce himself.


My name is Paul Rayment. I was born in Seattle, Washington, and at the age of two I moved to a small town in the thumb of Michigan named Harbor Beach. I am currently approaching the end of my first year here at Michigan Tech. It has been an interesting time up here, with most of my time filled up with progressing through my classes. In my spare time I love to play a little soccer, play a bit of euchre, play a few songs on a cheap keyboard, and maybe even spend some time programming a few small programs.

I am in the process of training to be a student Process Improvement Coordinator, and I am learning the principles of Lean and all things related. Thus far, the material has been interesting, and I look forward to the experiences here at both Michigan Tech, and at the Office of Continuous Improvement.

Welcome, Sarah!

One of the new members joining our PIC team this year is Sarah Smyth. Sarah is a first year business student here at Michigan Tech. She is very excited to learn more about the lean culture and implement lean into her own life while helping to promote it around campus. Now Sarah will tell you a little bit about herself!


Hi! My name is Sarah Smyth and I am training to be one of the new Process Improvement Coordinators.


I am from Rochester Hills, Michigan and I am a first year Business major at Michigan Tech. I love to make things and create art. My favorite things to create are necklaces and paintings. For the last two years I have ran my own jewelry business where I sold my necklaces in local festivals. I am so excited to be here and join the Office of Continuous Improvement. Previously I have interned at a accounting firm and had the opportunity to work with payroll accounting and quarterly business taxes. I loved that experience and look forward to learning as I go in the Office of Continuous Improvement. While my experience with lean is limited, I am sure I will pick it up soon from my co-workers!


Now I will admit, I can be forgetful and scatterbrained but with lean I can keep better track of what I need to be doing. Some students may know me from around campus as the Douglas Houghton Hall Treasurer, and the Women’s Leadership Council treasurer. I love those clubs and I know that for me, lean can help me plan out my work so the clubs can have a better time. My favorite project in these clubs so far has been the ability to plan and do the fundraising for a trip to a an expo in Chicago in the fall of 2019. I loved having the ability to plan everything as well as perform a cost analysis per person to see the most affordable dollar range to bring. Opportunities like becoming a Process Improvement Coordinator and running events has reaffirmed that I was right in my decision to come to Michigan Tech. I know that this is the place where I can grow into the person I want to be.


Lean can be Simple!

The more I learn about Lean and Continuous Improvement the more I realize how many different topics and tools it entails. Because there are so many tools and topics it’s easy to get caught up in all of them and forget about the simple aspects of Lean and Continuous Improvement. There are many simple tools and concepts you probably already use on a daily basis but, have never thought about them as tools. One tool I find myself using often without even realizing it, is the 5 why’s tool. This is probably one of the simplest lean tools out there. 5 why’s is a questions-asking method used to determine the root-cause of a problem. It prompts you to continue asking the question why until you have found the underlying cause of the problem.

I actually recently used this method when helping a friend figure out why they can never find the papers they are looking for. The conversation went something like this:

Friend: “I can never find my papers when I need them in class,”
Me: “Why can’t you find your papers when you need them in class?”
Friend: “Because I don’t know where I put them,”
Me: “Why don’t you know where you put them?”
Friend: “Because they are never in the same place,”
Me: “Why are they never in the same place?”
Friend: “Because I don’t have a location to put my papers for certain classes,”
Me: “Why don’t you have a location to put your papers for certain classes?”
Friend: “Because I never established one,”
Me: “Why did you never establish one?”
Friend: “Because I never bought folders for my classes.”
Me: “Oh, well let’s go purchase folders so you have a place to put your papers.”

       As you can see from the conversation, there was an easy solution to his situation but, my friend needed a little help mapping his way to the solution. The 5 why’s is a good tool to use when you don’t have any supplies to draw out a diagram and all you have is your brain and a problem. There are many lean tools that are just as simple as this one that can help make using lean in your everyday life simple!


Being Coached on how to Coach

Hello everyone, I know that this isn’t what we usually do with our blogs–this is more personal. Let me introduce myself. My name is Mitchell Carpenter, I am a second year here at Michigan Tech, and I have been working in the Office of Continuous Improvement for about a year now. One of my co-workers, Rylie Kostreva, recently wrote a blog about how she was going through a coaching process. Since then she has begun to take me through the process as well. Explaining to someone about the process of being “coached on how to coach” can be a bit confusing, so try not to get lost!

My journey through this process began with Rylie asking me a simple question: “Hey, do you want to be coached on how to coach?” At first I wasn’t too sure what she meant, but from what she was telling me about her own journey it sounded interesting. I agreed, and we scheduled a launch meeting. The launch meeting was interesting; she handed me a stack of papers, and we went through what our normal meetings would look like and how I would have some homework to do before each meeting with a reflection to write after. I didn’t know why I was doing any of it; it was just something to do. It very quickly evolved into something that I enjoyed doing; it got personal and helped reveal some things that I didn’t even know about myself.

One of the major things that Rylie had me do was create a leadership statement–a statement that describes who I want to be as a leader and how I want to coach people. I started the process by asking people who are important in my life the question of who I am to them. This helped me better distinguish between what I am doing already and what I want to do in the future. My statement was, “Help people through the labyrinth of life as a friend.” Rylie pointed out that I could have ended it after the word “life” but I didn’t, and that last bit is what made the statement mine. The next task was to make an illustration to go along with my statement. When I did, it didn’t feel complete. Rylie suggested that I do a card activity where I laid out a bunch of pictures and narrowed it down to 5-7 cards. After doing so, a trend emerged, a trend of loneliness and calm. After analyzing this I was able to come up with an illustration that fully captured my statement.

My illustration shows two people, myself being represented as the one in back. This describes my statement because I see myself as being a leader behind the person I’m leading. My focus is to let people lead their own lives, but I’ll help guide them through it, be there for them when they need me, and give them space when they need it. That is who I want to be, a friend first and a coach second.

Rylie then suggested that I go deeper with my analysis of the pictures, so I did. I found that to me loneliness isn’t always bad, it can be needed, but it can also be terrible. It’s something I have experienced a lot in my life and have been afraid of at times. Calm also has a significant role in my life, especially in today’s world it is important to be calm in order to be the voice of reason. Both of these things are important for me to help lead as a friend. I want to keep people from feeling lonely and being afraid of being lonely. As a friend I can help people remain calm in times of distress and make the right decision for them.

My next step is to meet with different people in order to get an outside perspective on my coaching process and possibly have them reveal different aspects of it that I didn’t see. I am looking forward to this next step and can’t wait to see where coaching leads me. This journey has meant a lot to me personally and I am very grateful to Rylie for asking me if I wanted to go through it with her.

Why Didn’t You Just Say So?

During the winter months, not only am I employed in the Office of Continuous Improvement here at Michigan Tech, but I’m also employed at our university ski hill, Mont Ripley. At Mont Ripley I’m a certified professional ski instructor and instruct two advanced PE classes throughout the week. Last week I was working on helping my students to learn how to pole plant and the importance behind it. This is a lesson I’ve taught many times to many students with highly variable demographics. Normally I would start this lesson by relating to down hill skiing to other sports, I would segway into asking if anyone has heard of a pole plant, then I would explain how to go about pole planting and why it is we pole plant, then I’d do a demonstration and move the group into an activity to practice for themselves. For this particular lesson I followed my regular lesson plan progression, except I unintentionally left out the piece about why pole planting is important.

This single, simple slip-up made such a dramatic difference in the flow of this lesson compared to all of the others in the past, while also making my job incredibly hard to succeed with on this particular day. We were 50 minutes into our 90 minute lesson when I was scratching my head in confusion, “was it because this group was international? Have I lost my touch? Where did my deployment fail?” I honestly couldn’t figure out what was missing. Until one of my students asked me, “What is the point of this lesson? Why are we learning this?” Ah! Why hadn’t I said that in the first place?! I finally figured out what I was missing. The funniest part about this whole lesson was that as I was going through the flow of my lesson in my head, I did “mention” the importance of pole planting, but I never verbally communicated it. I may have demonstrated its uses and applications implicitly but I never broke it down and communicated it explicitly – so the value of the first 50 minutes of my lesson was lost. Luckily I had 40 minutes left and I was able to apologize and answer the questions I meant to display earlier.

One of my favorite things about down hill skiing is the chair lift rides. After every run, you are granted a minimum of three minutes to reflect – whether that be on your lesson plan, your skiing, your day, even your life. Last week I reflected heavily on leaving out that one piece of information, I reflected to try and identify other pieces of inherent knowledge that I possess but may not have communicated because it was so inherent to me. I also reflected on where I’ve experienced this sort of thing before.

Being a student employee for the Office of Continuous Improvement has allowed me to act as outside eyes on a lot of kaizens. Each time I’m in a kaizen I find myself listening to the current state of the process and intentionally visualizing the steps, trying to catch areas of vagueness, this is my trigger to ask a question, “Is there something more happening here that’s second nature to you?” I have trained myself to ask questions of team members to challenge their implicit knowledge into communicating it explicitly. I like to think I’m good with this skill, but last week reinforced a few ideas on this topic of inherent knowledge:

  1. Communication is hard, but just like skiing, there’s always room for improvement
  2. When we leave things out, even one thing, we can hit a wall that we can’t progress beyond unless we communicate the things we didn’t say.
  3. Inherent knowledge that isn’t communicated plants a seed for assumptions, this allows five people to leave a conversation with five different understandings of what the conversation was.
  4. Communication must be open and mutual, I knew I was missing something in my lesson last week but I wasn’t able to correct it until my student brought to my attention what I left out.

Who Doesn’t Love Spaghetti?

Who doesn’t love spaghetti? It’s one of the most iconic pastas out there! Spaghetti is easy to make and tasty to eat, what could be better? Here at the Office of Continuous Improvement, not only do we like our spaghetti in pasta from, but even more so in diagram form: a Spaghetti Diagram!

Ever do something every day and suddenly realize it takes you way longer than you expected to, or that it took longer than it should? I came to this realization the other day while packing my backpack up to leave for school. I recognized it was taking me 10 minutes to put some binders, pencils, and other common school supplies into my bag, when really it should only take about 5 minutes. I thought what better way to map out my process then a Spaghetti Diagram!

A Spaghetti Diagram is a map that used lines to show the different paths you are taking when you are completing a process. At first glance a Spaghetti Diagram sounds strange and chaotic, but it is actually a very helpful Lean tool. You first map the normal process that you do every day, then you look at the paths that over cross or are unneeded and change them or take them out. This results in a streamlined process. Below you will see my first spaghetti diagram of the steps I take to get my backpack ready on a normal day.

  1. Open backpack
  2. Grab supplies such as pens, pencils, and notepads
  3. Put these supplies into backpack
  4. Grab books and binders from book shelf
  5. Put these supplies into backpack
  6. Grab water bottle and lunch from fridge
  7. Put those into backpack
  8. Grab coat and shoes from closet and put them on
  9. Grab backpack from hook
  10. Leave for school

After looking at the diagram and the steps I take every morning, I could see that by carrying my backpack around throughout the process and not returning to it every time I retrieved something to put in it I would save multiple steps. Below is the updated diagram and steps.

  1. Grab backpack
  2. Grab supplies such as pens, pencils, and notepads and put them in backpack
  3. Grab books and binders from book shelf and put them in backpack
  4. Grab water bottle and lunch from fridge and put them in backpack
  5. Grab coat and shoes from closet and put them on
  6. Leave for school

As you can see the steps in the process reduced from 10 to 6, and all I needed was a little help from the Spaghetti Diagram to see the root cause of my problem. By mapping out my steps and the process, all the extra work became visible. This lean tool and many more can be very helpful in situations not only at work but also at home! And who doesn’t love spaghetti?