Category: Lean Thinking

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

Welcome Sophie!

Joining our PIC team this year is our newest addition Sophie Pawloski. Sophie is a third year, Mechanical engineering student here at Tech. She is very excited to learn more about the lean culture and implement lean into her own life while helping promote it around campus. Now Sophie will tell you a little bit about herself!



My name is Sophie Pawloski. I was born and raised in a small town in downstate Michigan called Durand. This is my third year here at Tech working towards my Mechanical Engineering degree and it been some of the best years to date! You can probably find me at most Tech sporting events cheering them on with the dance team. In my free-time I also enjoy snowboarding, hiking, and just exploring the Keweenaw.

I was introduced to lean the summer after my freshman year at my first internship working at Magna. They were very involved in lean manufacturing and focused heavily on it at their facility. During my few months there I was able to participate in Kaizens, 5S during change over, and implement many lean ideas, which they called lean thinkers, into the assembly processes there. After this I was able to see the impact lean had on not only the company as a whole, but individual workers as well. In lean everyone’s opinion is valued which can really boost the morale of a company! After this experience lean had me hooked.

Since I’ve started the training process in the Office of Continuous Improvement I’ve learned so many new lean tool that I’m beginning to implement into my everyday life, like how I organize my planner or putting up a whiteboard in my room. I’m so excited to continue this journey and see not only how lean affects Michigan Tech but also how I can implement it into my own life!


Thank you!



Lean Hospitals

If you listen to the news, you aren’t going to hear much on car crashes unless there has been a very bad one, or it is just a slow news day and they have nothing else to report. Plane crashes will be on the news whether it was a relatively minor incident, or a major one. This shows the two ways we can view a defect or a problem, either as a car crash, an inevitable incident that is bound to happen, or as a plane crash, a zero tolerance policy.

I recently watched a video that showed how these two different lines of thinking can have an enormous impact on someone’s life. This video was called “Do No Harm” by VOX on YouTube, and it outlines how treating an infection as a “car crash” or a “plane crash” can determine the life and death of patients in hospitals. During the video, an interview is conducted with the mother of a little girl named Nora, who had been born with an underdeveloped lung. Because of this defect, Nora had to have what is called a central line implant: a tube that is inserted into a vein that leads directly to the heart and is used for the speedy delivery of medicine and easy blood draws. An infection of this line can be very serious and extremely life-threatening.  Nora had four of these infections.  Because of these infections, she passed away just before her fourth birthday. Nora’s mother wrote a letter to the hospital where she was treated, outlining what she had seen and offered feedback. The hospital responded with a letter that stated “… We understand and recognize your feelings regarding Nora’s care and we apologize that you were dissatisfied with your experience…” This hospital treated central line infections like car crashes, an unavoidable risk, instead of something that could be prevented.

Central Line

The second hospital shown in the video had a team of nurses who experienced many central line infections a few years back, and they decided to do something about it. They asked themselves if having zero infections was even possible, but one of the RNs at the hospital leading the project stated “You cannot accept good enough, you have to eliminate those [infections]…” The team used two books to aid them in their mission:  “The Toyota Way” by Jeffery Liker and “Toyota Kata” by Mike Rother. With them, the hospital was able to adopt some aspects of Lean and Continuous Improvement, and together, the nurses developed practices that minimize the chance of exposure to something that can infect the central line. The team implemented a zero tolerance policy towards central line infections and this hospital went seven years without a single infection.

Lean books

The video ends with the team going to talk to an expert on central lines and how to prevent infections in them. The expert stated that their first step in preventing infections was treating every infection as a defect, finding the root cause of the problem, and finding a way to prevent it from happening again.

Treating problems in this way is Lean Thinking, and this is a real-life example that shows the way we approach problems can have a real impact on the outcomes. Before, manufacturing had been the go-to example for implementing Lean, but this video is an amazing example of how Lean and Continuous Improvement can be implemented in all kinds of areas, and what the results can look like when it is.




Welcome, Alexandra!

We are pleased to welcome Alexandra Holmstrom to the team in the Office of Continuous Improvement. 


I am Alexandra Holmstrom, the new Office Assistant in the Office of Continuous Improvement. I am very excited to be working at Michigan Tech and especially with all the highly dedicated and talented members of the OCI team!

I am new to Lean but as I learn more, I am realizing that I have been practicing many of the principles all along! I have always looked for ways to be more efficient and effective, thinking of ways to improve customer service, reduce costs, and remove unnecessary steps in day-to-day tasks.

There is much to learn and accomplish during my training, and I am eager to use all the newly acquired knowledge and skills. In the few short days I have been in the office, I have learned what Kaizen, PIC, PDCA, and Kanban stand for. If you are wondering what these words and acronyms mean, come see us in the office or visit us on our website.

I look forward to meeting and working with everyone on and off campus!

Thank you!

Welcome Mitchell Carpenter


Welcome Mitchell Carpenter

A newcomer to our team of PICs is Mitchell Carpenter. He is from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is currently a Second year Materials Science and Engineering major here at Michigan Tech. He is returning after having finished his training at the end of last semester, but has already started to integrate parts of Lean culture into his everyday life.

Mitchell will now tell us a bit about himself!

Hello everyone, I’m Mitchell and I am from Ada, Michigan, which is just East of Grand Rapids. I went to Forest Hills Central High school and graduated there with the class of 2017. I have been in contact with the Continuous improvement team here at Michigan Tech since the summer of 2017  when I met them at a Lean conference in Traverse City. I was there with the director of Continuous Improvement at a company I had an internship with called Nucraft Furniture. This is where I was first introduced to the concept of Lean and Continuous Improvement.

The philosophy behind Lean and Continuous Improvement has fascinated me ever since I was introduced to it. The fact that there was actually a name for a culture around striving to make things more efficient blew my mind since I have enjoyed problem solving and efficiency since childhood.

I am excited to be a part of the PIC team here at Michigan Tech. I was a part of this office for about three weeks before the end of last year and I can already tell that I am going to like it here. I am thankful for this opportunity and I look forward to learning more about Lean as I continue my career here in the office of Continuous Improvement.

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!




The Gembas Role in Data Collection

Data collection can be a tricky thing, especially in a Higher Education setting. We tend to have to get creative in identifying what data would be helpful in representing improvement, as well as how we can collect the data using the resources we already have. This need for creative thinking skills tends to make brainstorming a collection plan seem ambiguous and maybe even insignificant at times.

We can easily generate a process map for the current state and future state and then count how many steps were eliminated, but what if five steps were removed, and one was created? It would appear (numerically) as if four steps were removed. Which is true, but how can we account for the process change in the new step? How can we measure that the new process adds more value than the old process? How do we represent the waste of five steps versus one new step? This is where our creative thinking ends and we decide that removing four steps is “good enough.”

In a video I recently watched, Mike Wroblewski, a senior consultant from the Kaizen Institute, shared a little bit about all the things we should consider before we create a data collection plan. The part that really stuck with me was his emphasis on going to the Gemba, the place where work is done, and asking questions. Wroblewski’s video showed me, that you can’t fully grasp the current state until you immerse yourself in the environment of the user, even if it is only observation. Once you’ve gone to the Gemba, it becomes more clear what the steps in the process are. From here you can identify metrics that represent the frequency of an event, such as the number of corrections to file, or that represent importance. For example, how critical is it that this step be in the process at all.


By now you’re probably thinking, “this is all great, but why do we even care about metrics?” Results. When you think of a research project, you want to know the results. When you missed the ending of a baseball game, you want to know the results. When you hear of someone applying for a new job, you want to hear the results. We as humans are hard wired around, “what happened next?” Lean and Continuous Improvement is no exception to this. When an improvement event is initiated, we soon begin talking about data collection before and after a kaizen so that we have results to showcase the work that was done. Metrics can be the difference between a department hypothetically getting $500 towards improvement efforts or $50,000. Metrics and results drive more people to put in the energy to improve their work from good to great.

This outlook and approach towards data collection is one that our lean practitioners here on campus have been trying to implement more and more, as well creating a more systematic approach towards getting numbers easily, accurately, and that will also provide meaningful data.


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