Category: Lean Thinking

Using Lean for small practices

It’s about that time of year again when members of the Office of Continuous Improvement are getting prepared to attend the Michigan Lean Consortium conference. At the conference members of our office will have the opportunity to hear from other Lean practitioners and learn about their Lean journey. In addition, the Office of Continuous Improvement will also be displaying a poster board to showcase how we have implemented Lean here at Michigan Tech.

When we practice Lean we often think of an effect that will benefit a large group of people or an entire process. However, Lean can be used in the most simple of processes, like creating a poster board for the MLC conference.

When we made the poster for the MLC conference, we used the 5 whys tool to decide what information we should include. As a result, it allowed us to narrow down our topic to include information that we believe the customer (other Lean practitioners in this instance) would value most.

After we came to a common agreement on the topic we did an affinity diagram to figure out how we wanted to display the information. An affinity diagram is where everyone in the group writes down ideas on sticky notes and then the notes are filtered into categories for organization. This allowed everyone to have a voice in the discussion and organizing the thoughts into categories allows everyone to be on the same page.

As a result of using Lean tools, we were able to effectively collaborate to get the poster done in a timely matter.




We wanted to create a lasting impression for those that will be encountering our board so we came to the agreement to include some of Houghton’s Iconic structures. We did this to draw the audience’s attention while also including information that we thought they would find of value. As a result of using some of the Lean tools, this simple process of making a poster became an even simpler process with an even better end product.


Lean at Girl Scout Camp

Time and time again I am amazed by the flexibility of lean and its endless applications outside of the office. It seems that no matter what sort of process I have going I can always improve it in some way. Whether it be how often I perform regular maintenance on my car, how I stock my pantry, or how I prioritize my chores for the evening. The most adaptable part of lean is the use of people. Not a single aspect of lean was designed for one person and one person alone to complete a task, but rather to be easily used in a team.

Being a college student there are many times that you get put into a group of total strangers and you are expected to get the task done. However, each member goes into the group with a different set of priorities, expectations, and values that they carry with them- whether they know it or not. This is true going into a marriage, a summer camp, a new job, or even something as simple as a group project for school. The question I began to ask was, “How can you accommodate the different values and expectations before a diverging trait breaks lose?” and, “How can you have a plan for when disagreement arises?” The answer is by implementing a team charter.

What is a team charter? A team charter is developed in a group setting to clarify the teams direction while establishing boundaries, it is used to encourage a common understanding and shared voice among all group members.

I recently had the opportunity to practice a team charter in a unique setting with nine 9-11 year old girls in my cabin at girl scout camp. This charter was developed by the girls in my cabin on how we planned to take care of cabin, how we were going to treat each other, and how we were going to treat ourselves. To make sure that all of their voices were heard without making these preteens uncomfortable, I opted to use an affinity diagram with them. We took a few minutes to make three affinity diagrams (one at a time), after this we collaborated, laughed, and successfully agreed on our game plan.

One of the older girls working on her sticky notes. This one puts lots of thought and effort into her ideas. It was fun to watch her become so invested in the cabin.
affinity 4
One of the girls thinking about the ideas and helping everyone to brainstorm categories.
affinity 2
The girls working together to group their ideas.
affinity 3
Finally some rearranging and getting close to the end.

Sadly, I don’t have an after picture of what we came up with, I was a little too excited that the idea even came together in the first place (In my time as a counselor I have learned that you never know what the middle school girls are going to bring). However, the game plan we formed was visible all week long and in several instances I noticed the girls taking a look at it, holding one another accountable to it, and sometimes asking for buy in to add a few more items to our plan. All in all it was a great week, and I was thrilled once again with the malleability of lean.

Perks of having a Kaizen

Changes are always being made campus-wide; some so small they’re hardly noticed, others are unavoidable, and not all of these changes happen through our Office of Continuous Improvement. We actually have a large number of Lean Implementation Leaders campus-wide who are focused on improving aspects of their department on a smaller level. However, there are some clear advantages to having a Kaizen with the support of our office.


Each time we left the Kaizen having learned something new. We found creative ways to think and work functionally and efficiently, now everybody is less stressed.

With a Kaizen it is easy to bring in outside eyes, people who are not yet familiar with the process, these people are often a key part in identifying problems or waste and suggesting improvements for the process since they will inherently ask different questions and think about the issue from a different point of view. Depending on the department the “outside eyes” come from, they may come up with a completely new potential solution for the problems at hand, even if the team may think they have already considered all possible solutions.


The most helpful aspect of the Kaizen was being able to interact with our customers and hear feedback directly from them. We found a lot of them had similar issues and when talking about experiences the conversation would just continue as they all shared stories.

Kaizens also require multiple facilitators, these people are trained to identify wastes as well as to help guide the group to find answers for themselves. They bring along necessary tools and will also offer suggestions or just help keep the group on track. We have a large pool of facilitators from all different backgrounds and departments and they are all people who enjoy what they do and genuinely want to help make Michigan Tech a better place. One way to reach this goal is to keep improving the processes that we already have in place or continue creating new ones, and then adjusting and sustaining them.


You do not know what else is out there unless you embrace change and ask.

Kaizens also provide a platform for many people from different parts of the university to meet up together to focus on resolving specific issues. It also makes it easy to interact and get direct feedback and input from customers or co-workers. Kaizen teams are often made up of people close to the work as well, and it is a good opportunity to empower employees to make improvements in their own processes. The involved employees feel that buy-in and they invest more effort into improving their work as a result, and often find they enjoy their work more after. So next time you stumble upon some waste or find a process that could use improving, consider having a Kaizen, you will find you get more out of it than you may expect.


Welcome Matt!

Joining the team in the Office of Continuous Improvement is a new Process Improvement Coordinator (PIC), Matt Chard. Matt is a local student who just graduated this spring prior (May 2017), making him a first year student pursuing not only one, but two degrees. Although Matt is only a first year, we are happy to have some fresh eyes not only for our office, but also in terms of the Michigan Tech campus. Just like he has provided for our office in his short time with us, we are positive that Matt will have a great impact on the university, his keen personality and curious mind make him a natural in the lean world.

Matt will now introduce himself and tell you a bit about him and his lean journey this far.


My name is Matthew Chard, I am the newest Process Improvement Coordinator in the Office of Continuous Improvement.

I was born and raised in the Houghton area. I graduated from Houghton High School this last spring. I look forward to continuing my education here at Michigan Tech next fall where I plan to dual major in Engineering Management and Mechanical Engineering Technology.

Off campus I spend most of my time outdoors. I enjoy mountain biking, disc golfing, hiking, fishing, skiing, and just about anything where I have the chance to explore or learn something new. When I am not outdoors I enjoy working in my shop where I do metal working.

Before taking on the position as a Process Improvement Coordinator I heard a lot about the positive effects of lean but I never really understood the underlying concept. Now that my training is wrapping up and I can grasp the concept of lean, I look forward to incorporating it into my life and seeing what affects lean has on me and the rest of the university.

Matt Picture


Parade of Nation’s Kaizens

On May 31st of this year, we officially closed out THREE kaizens pertaining to the community based event, Parade of Nation’s (PON). These three kaizens consisted of improving the fundraising, Multicultural Festival, and Parade aspect of PON.

What is the Parade of Nation’s? PON is a community event that is hosted by a committee, mainly consisting of members from the Michigan Tech faculty and staff. The event is going on its 28th year and its mission is to promote worldwide culture and national awareness in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula through an annual event that includes a parade and a multicultural festival, serving approximately 3,000 people.


When our team initially met in October, we identified four kaizens, but once we got started the Team Leader was able to solve one of the problems, allowing our teams to divide their focus on three instead. Before I get too much further I’d like to introduce the teams, the problem statements, and the targets that were identified for each kaizen.

For the fundraising kaizen the team was:

  • Angela Kolehmainen – Facilitator
  • Linnea McGowan-Hobmeier – Facilitator
  • Vienna Chapin – Team Leader
  • Rylie Store – Process Improvement Coordinator (PIC)
  • Stephen Butina – PIC
  • Bob Wenc – Member
  • Cassy Tefft de Munoz – Member
  • Laura Givens – Member
  • Briana Tucker – Member

Problem Statement: The method for requesting sponsorship’s from local businesses isn’t the most efficient method and it creates a lot of work for those responsible for it. 

Target: Focus on applying for grants and large/corporate sponsors and/or grants. Create less work while bringing in more money and still maintaining relationships with the local businesses.

For the Multicultural Festival kaizen the team was:

  • Angela Kolehmainen – Facilitator
  • Vienna Chapin – Team Leader
  • Stephen Butina – PIC
  • Rylie Store – PIC
  • Bob Wenc – Member
  • Cassy Tefft de Munoz – Member
  • Scott Austin – Member
  • Joseph Schutte – Member
  • Briana Tucker – Member

Problem Statement: 3,000 people are crammed into a very busy venue that isn’t configured to hold so many people at one time. There is lots of chaos and safety concerns in regards to the amount of people present. On another note, the setting up and tear down of the tables, chairs, and booths take up so much time and people in the form of the volunteers.

Target: To provide customers with a new experience that is safe, entertaining, relaxing, and can still accommodate a large amount of people. Want to reduce the amount of time spent setting up and tearing down while also using volunteers appropriately in other areas of PON.

And finally the Parade kaizen team was:

  • Linnea McGowan-Hobmeier – Facilitator
  • Vienna Chapin – Team Leader
  • Rylie Store – PIC
  • Brianna Tucker – Member
  • Laura Givens – Member

Problem Statement: Due to many locations the registration forms for floats, flags, and walkers get lost which creates a great deal of turn around time and inaccurate information which increases the stress on everyone. There is a lack of communication between the PON committee and the community in terms of how the parade is organized. There is a lot of stress associated with the day due to the lack of flow and organization of the event.

To begin the process on all of these kaizens we used Swimlanes to help us understand the process and to see the flow/lack there of. Once these swimlanes were done we went through the process and identified the areas of waste and assigned them a kaizen burst. Once this was done, the nature of the bursts helped us to determine what our next step was, whether it was another tool or if we could start brainstorming some potential solutions. We almost always opted for another tool.

This is a picture of the fundraising swimlane.

After completing the swimlane for fundraising the team decided that the next best thing to do would be to create an affinity diagram; one consisting of all of the types of sponsors. After that the team used a decision matrix to decide what type of sponsors they wanted to focus their time/energy on the most. The end result was that they created deadlines to apply for grants from larger sponsors, to send emails out to the local businesses, and as a thank you they provided each sponsor with a window decal to put on the window of their business (free advertising bonus as well!).

Some of the team members pondering the fundraising affinity diagram.
The decision matrix that was created after the affinity diagram.



The Multicultural festival team working on their swimlane.

The multicultural festival team created a swimlane and after that they moved into a SIPOC and Spaghetti Diagram. These three tools paired closely together to help the team understand who’s responsible for what at the venue and then what is the current flow of the venue. The result of this was that the committee decided to use a different vendor for all of their tables, chairs, and booths.  As a result they were provided with an outdoor tent which will utilize the outside space more, the inside space was freed up, and for about the same price they were provided with some other great bonuses such as table cloths and decorations. The other perk to using a different vendor is that the vendor will do all of the setup and tear down, allowing PON volunteers to be used more effectively in other aspects of PON, such as the parade. The most important result? Now the venue is being used safely.

The Parade team discussing the kaizen bursts identified in the swimlane.

After starting the swimlane for the parade, we quickly realized the extent of the waste in this particular process. This swimlane turned into a much bigger process than we had ever imagined, nearly eight pages long of steps and details. However, after carfeul conversation, we were able to decide that most of the areas of waste were a result of poor visual management. By brainstorming visual management solutions for each are of waste, we were able to increase the communication between the PON committee members and the community. The action items that came out of this kaizen were plentiful but overall we believe that the flow of the parade will increase and the waste will decrease. To help with communication we found there wasn’t a shared understanding of who was responsible or accountable for what, so to help with this area the team completed a R.A.C. I. chart, which is being shared among the PON committe and volunteers, so that everyone has a shared understanding.

This is the R.A.C.I. chart that was created for one task.

In the words of the team leader: she was happy with the kaizens and she enjoyed gaining insight into new perspectives. “Each time (I) left with something new, I always learned and found creative ways to think, work, and function efficiently. These kaizens reduced stress for EVERYONE.” After her involvement in these three kaizens she’s formed some advice for those going through an improvement event, and it is, “Don’t be afraid to try something new. You don’t know what else is out there unless you embrace change and ask questions.”

We look forward to attending this years PON as community members and to support the teams we formed these past eight months. Our extensive time really brought a new meaning to the word community in terms of Michigan Tech’s campus, the Houghton County and surrounding areas, as well as between each other.

Lean at Home

When I last visited home, something in the relationship dynamic I have with my dad shifted; not only did I occasionally treat for coffee, but we had conversations about work. This is not to say we never talked about work prior to this trip, but the conversation was significantly less one-sided and lasted easily ten times as long. Until recently our work never really overlapped, he did his job and I did mine in completely separate worlds, Lean is what bridged the gap.

Becoming immersed in Lean Culture has actually filled many gaps throughout my life. Starting to take part in Lean around campus reminded me of the “Chores Board” my parents used to assign my sister and I tasks well before I could even say the word “Kanban”, or my dad’s tool board in the garage with clear spots for all of his tools. Lean was all around me before I even knew what it was, and upon telling my father of this revelation I had he laughed briefly and said something to the effect of: “of course, because Lean just makes sense.” He was right, it makes sense to organize different tasks somewhere you can see them so that they actually get done, it makes sense to keep things near the location they will be used at, and it makes sense to organize your work space and reduce excess so that you can easily find the things you need and increase your productivity. It turns out that Lean had been ingrained in my home life in a way I never really noticed.

If you walk into the Office of Continuous Improvement here on campus, it is easy to initially feel a little overwhelmed by all of our visual management systems and you can pretty immediately tell there is something different about the culture here compared to most office environments. Our office has five full whiteboards that help keep us on track, and that’s what many people think of when they think of where they would see Lean Culture; they think of work.

My home growing up had elements of Lean Culture all around without most people noticing it, and it still does. My apartment seems pretty normal, maybe a little more tidy than necessarily expected of a college student, but otherwise normal. Underneath the appearance, are all of those Lean principles that have silently guided my life thus far. Everything in my apartment has a place, and if it does not yet, it will shortly. This goes to show that practicing Lean does not necessarily mean having bright post-it notes everywhere or giant kanban boards, it can be as simple as using 5S in your garage, or using visual management to help your kids keep track of their chores.

Having Lean principles implemented around me during my life has definitely helped me develop into a better organized, more productive person, and to me it makes sense; it can to everyone. Likely you have already practiced some element of Lean either in your personal or professional life, just maybe without realizing it, much like I did.

Leaning Away from My Fear of Change

How can just 6 letters be arranged to create one of the most powerful words in our language? This word can strike fear into the hearts of some, and empower others. Change is a powerful word, and even so, a more powerful tool. I will be the first to admit that I am afraid of change. For most of my life, I have run from change, only to have been dragged back kicking and screaming into its path. It was only recently, as I began to learn and embrace LEAN culture that I also learned to embrace change for what it really is, a powerful tool that can change my life for the better.

I haven’t always been able to embrace change for what it is. When I first learned about LEAN I thought it would be a good way to hide from change. LEAN would be my shelter, protecting me from the winds of change. Inside my shelter I would learn all of these life saving tools and battle techniques and emerge from the darkness as the hero that would defeat change once and for all. I would build standards and processes that would allow me to justify my need to do things the same way everyday. These standards would be the walls that kept me safe.

It didn’t take me long to realize how wrong I was with my vision of LEAN. LEAN was not a sword to be used to defeat change. LEAN was, and is, a language that can help us communicate through change. LEAN and change are a pair of tools helping me continue on my path of improvement.

One of the first lessons I learned taught me that LEAN is not an excuse to justify current state. In fact, the LEAN culture actually seeks to remove the justification of current state and see our current state for what it actually is. LEAN culture wants us to find the problems with our current states, without placing blame on each other. My fear of change stems from the justification of my current state. If my process isn’t broken, then why should I fix it?  I learned the answer to this question when I started learning to collect metrics. Metrics can come in any shape, but they all have one thing in common. Metrics show where a change was beneficial or where it wasn’t. For me, this system of metric collection helped me embrace change; I could see that change can help rather than hinder. The LEAN culture has helped me to see that change isn’t something to be afraid of.

I still have a long way to go in my relationship to change. I can admit that I still have trouble jumping right into a new idea without fear. I know that I can embrace change. Now that I have a language to help me communicate with change, I can use it to further my path of improvement.

PIC Training & Diversity

The last time that you heard from me was when I introduced the word cloud, pictured below. I was able to generate this cloud from a plethora of individuals, worldwide and via LinkedIn. The topic of the word cloud? Lean and Continuous Improvement summarized into a single word.


Naturally (also fairly), I chose a word as well. My word? Diversity. Throughout my time practicing Lean and CI, I have been faced with several challenges, and yet one of the greatest is still summarizing lean. This is because it is SO diverse!

Now Diversity can mean a million different things, and can be applied anywhere and at anytime. Diversity is what gives the word “unique” life and it’s what gives meaning to the idea of being receptive.

I chose diversity, not because I wanted to select a word that wasn’t used by my comrades, but rather because if you place “Lean and Continuous Improvement” into the sentence above, in place of “Diversity,” you will have an equally true statement.

Recently I have finished designing a training course for our new Process Improvement Coordinators (PICs) and every step of the way I ran into lean’s diversity. I ran into it when I had to organize the lesson plans and orders, I ran into it when I had to decide what topics should be elaborated on and to what extent, and I ran into it especially when the new employees began asking questions. Last time I focused on the idea of DNA, people, perspective, respect, empowerment, etc. Today I want to cover how other words tie lean to diversity and they are: evolution, focused, prepared, better, purposeful, helpful, and flow.

The first word, evolution was chosen because the training course has certainly evolved since I went through it. The training that our most recent hire is going through is technically revision 3 of the course. Just like the content and existence of the training, lean is always evolving towards perfection, towards improvement. Without evolution we have no Continuous Improvement, only Lean, but the two go hand in hand. They’re sister pillars, if one falls so does the other. This is a lesson I learned while designing the training course. I believe that in order to grow, evolution or improvement must be made.

In sense of the training, in order to make sure the training was in fact having a growth spurt, the lessons had to remain focused, prepare the student for their job, it had to be better, each piece had to serve a purpose and help, and all of this had to flow together.

The above ideas all tie to the thinking of lean. In order to make helpful changes, to enhance the flow, and to achieve the goal of a better process, the thinking must be focused. The thinking must concentrate on the current state, and future state. After this happens then the thinking must become purposeful and deliberate. Every step concerning bridging the gap between current and future state must be principle. How do we ensure that all of this is happening? It’s easy, you must be prepared. To be prepared is to plan, if there isn’t enough time or effort put into designing a plan then the “Doing” will be futile. All of these concepts go hand in hand, making improving anything more complex, more diverse.

When I started designing the PIC training course the objective I had in mind was to create a flowing, helpful, and better training course for the incoming PICs. However, I had never anticipated that while I was constructing this course, I too was learning a great deal. The lessons I learned in planning this training were ones that actually apply to understanding lean in general.


Welcome Ari Laiho!

Hi Everyone,

My name is Arianna Laiho, or Ari, and I have recently completed my training to become the newest Student Process Improvement Coordinator here in the Office of Continuous Improvement.

I was born in Midland, Michigan and spent large parts of my life living in Switzerland and most recently California, where I graduated from Clayton Valley Charter High School in 2015. I decided from there to attend Michigan Tech, my dad’s Alma Mater, initially as a Chemical Engineering student but my passions redirected me and eventually led me to switching majors to Biomedical Engineering last fall.

When I am not on campus, I spend a large portion of my time at Mont Ripley as a Ski and Snowboard Instructor and Ski Patroller in the winter or enjoying the local mountain bike trails when the weather permits. I also enjoy playing Trumpet in the Pep Band, and Jazz Band when my schedule allows.

I ended up applying for this position through a recommendation from one of the Facilitators and another PIC, without really knowing what I was getting into I jumped right in and realized pretty quickly that although I was unfamiliar with the terms being given to different Lean practices I was somewhat familiar with the principles. Without realizing it, I had spent my childhood surrounded by lean thinking and processes because of my dad who I recently discovered has been a Six Sigma Black Belt since 2002. This has not eliminated all the confusion of taking on Lean but I have so far enjoyed the on-boarding process and am looking forward to jumping into events in the next week or so here!



The More You Know

I recently put out a post on LinkedIn asking anyone familiar with lean to share their one word descriptor of lean, CI, and even some on Six Sigma. All of the words below came from 103 different people, and about 95 of them I never knew existed until I started this blog post, yet every single one of them has provided me with a single word to describe Lean and Continuous Improvement. There’s a story behind every word in the word cloud below, and I can promise you that I can’t tell you what the stories are that went into choosing these words. This is the Ah-ha moment that I’d like to share with you.


Trying to describe lean in a single word is not an easy one, in fact it’s quite hard to even conjure an elevator pitch to present when an opportunity arises. It may seem that it was unfair of me to ask for one word, but the motive behind my rambling and asking such a question was exactly this, the picture above. Just for adherence, the picture above is a word cloud (thank you captain obvious), and in that word cloud there is a compilation of 103 words… ONE HUNDRED and THREE! However, what I have come to realize is that no matter how developed your elevator pitch, no matter the extent of your knowledge on Lean and Continuous Improvement, you will NEVER be able to express every aspect of lean, on your own, and hardly with 103 people.

Was that a bold statement? I hope so.

There are a few words that I’d like to pull out of this cloud and they are: People, Respect, Value, Empowerment, and DNA. The first that I’d like to mention is DNA. This previous semester I was enrolled in a genetics course and the one thing that stood out the most was when my professor asked, “How many years would it take you to count every gene on every DNA strand in your body?” I thought this was a ridiculous question to ask, It’d be a complete waste of time, and being lean I’m not a fan of wasting time. To no surprise, my professor had a purpose for his opening statement and it was, “Of course you don’t know, nobody has done it.” He said if the oldest person to have ever lived (122 years old) had started counting from the moment they were born, they would have been counting every second of their life. In metrics, that equates to reading every name and every phone number in a New York phone book, everyday for 122 years. Tying back to DNA as an adjective, every person has a perspective and these two act as the fundamentals of the Lean DNA.

The people are the DNA strand, the backbone. Their perspectives are the genes associated with the strand. Each word above was shared by a person, and each person brought a different perspective in the form of their word. The questions I’ve been asking as I read the comments on my post are, “What motivated them to choose that word?” “Where are they from?” “Where do they work?” The answer to these questions (plus life experiences) factored into their word choice. Without people, there is no Continuous Improvement. You need people to do the lean thinking, to succeed, to achieve value, and to eliminate waste. In order to ensure that value is added, the people must be empowered and in order to be empowered there must be RESPECT. Respect for the people and respect for the perspective that they contribute. Without respect, then we have untapped knowledge, and then we will have waste.

My single word is Diversity.

As I complete this blog, I have come to a greater realization than when I began. The Ah-ha moment for me was the reality of diversity. Diversity is defined as being composed of differing elements. Without diversity we have no differences to distinguish us, without differences there isn’t a connection to others, and without a connection there is no collaboration among the different perspectives and there is no respect. Without diversity, the word cloud above would be absent, and this post obsolete.

Considering this blog is about people and respect, I feel that it is only appropriate to give credit to those that helped me form the word cloud. This cloud is a compilation of all of the first names that shared a word with me, at the time this was written. Thank you!

For more blog posts associated with this word cloud, be sure to subscribe to our blog so that you won’t miss any part of this series. Have a single word you’d like to share? Comment on this post, and be sure to share the train of thought behind selecting your word!