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We're Ernie and Tracey Richardson: Ask Us Anything

by Ernie Richardson & Tracey Richardson
February 11, 2015

We're Ernie and Tracey Richardson: Ask Us Anything

by Ernie Richardson & Tracey Richardson
February 11, 2015 | Comments (29)

Hello, we’re Ernie and Tracey Richardson. We’re married and we work together as lean coaches, combining our unique experiences throughout our careers to teach others lean thinking and practice. Both of us have first-hand experience working at Toyota (TMMK plant in Georgetown, KY and TEMA headquarters in Erlanger, KY) in hourly production roles as well as management positions. Ernie worked 25 years in Manufacturing and Human Resources. Tracey worked 10 years in Manufacturing and became a Human Resources training and development instructor. Together, we have 54 years combined years of experience living, breathing, teaching, and translating the “thinking” behind the Toyota Production System. 

These days we’re working on:

  • How to evolve lean thinking to be more about people development than just “tool talk”
  • How to sustain lean thinking past an “event” or “training session” and embed it as part of a team’s daily activities
  • How to create a problem solving and “leading and learning” environment that allows leadership to learn from employees 

But what would YOU like to know from us about the challenges of developing an organization of problem solvers? What problems are you working on with your lean culture change? This is your chance to ask us anything! So, go ahead, ask your questions in the comments below and we’ll respond here on the Post!

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  leadership,  management,  Toyota
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29 Comments | Post a Comment
mike sparks February 11, 2015

We are an IT startup, selling software specific for contractors. The business is established enough, we have a definite presence in our space. However, having come from the automotive world, and being heavily involved with implementing LEAN at a well established automotive manufacturing facilility, things are completely different here, and make it challenging to get LEAN principles in motion for several reasons, a few of which I've listed below:

1) Most people here don't truly know what LEAN is, or haven't even heard of it

2) I'm not a supervisor

3) The overall thought from the investors, I believe, is taking on any "big initiatives" is just adding cost, so proposing something like this could be tough

How can I show the investors that implementing lean, if only in a few needed processes, will help get the desired value of our company here SOONER, not just add another cost?

To your success!


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Ernie Richardson February 11, 2015
2 People AGREE with this reply

thanks Mike for your question..your question is one that we hear from time to time with other companies. The first question is what problem do you have that Lean is going to help solve and how does that connect to the true north. How does the lean tools fit into the mission and vision...

Some people so see any "additional" programs as cost.. usually  they dont have a unerstanding of how it will help the company. We hear comments like "why do  we need to change, we already make profit" " this is the way we have always done it'. People need to make the connection of Lean and what in it for me and have the understanding that its not working harder, it working smarter.

here are some thoughts about your question

 Look at ways to develop people in the understanding of Lean. This can be done at any level and may require coaching upward as well. Coaching and developing people in continous improvements is key to promote change within a company. The more they understand the purpose for the change the more support they will give. Focus on a area that is having a problem and start using the tools. Select the tool that is most needed for that area, train and develop the people, use discilpine and accountability, and track the process KPI (leading Key Performance Indicators)  to show the results (lagging). At this point you will have good information to show investors the impact. Exectives and investors need to see and understand how this impacts the company, so they will need to see results. It is important for a company to understand the need for continous improvements to stay ahead of their competitors. As we say keep them in the rearview mirror..

Every chance you get continue to teach and coach..Keep spreading the word.

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Emmanuel Jallas February 11, 2015

Thanks for sharing Tracey and Ernie,

Can you describe the slow step by step process you've gone though under the supervision of your Japanese Senseis and Senpais to become problem solvers? How long did it take? How many times did you try on each problem until they were satisfied?

Warm regards


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Tracey Richardson February 11, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Hi Emmanual, thanks for the question.  Having a Japanese sensei was a challenge in many ways, I often jokingly described it as a blessing and a curse <grin>.   What was unique is they conditioned us slowly to think in a different way that what we were used to.   For example in problem solving, we were taught to ask questions before we looked for solutions.   

Going to the gemba (where the work was happening at the process) was first and foremost and engaging with the primary process owner/team member to ask many questions of current state versus ideal state.   They were always looking for us to determine a measurable gap.    They would often say "no measure-no do".  That was their way of saying if you cant properly measure a problem its very hard to determine the effectively of your countermeasures.  At first it was difficult because we had to learn to track the right information and do this regularly. 

Reflecting back I truly believe they let us fail quite often to learn valuable lessons from those moments, it wasnt always a fun moment but in the end they ensured we were able to understand the purpose of the lesson and how we would work hard to ensure it didnt replicate. 

It was a nice environment to work in after getting over the fact they werent just looking over our shoulders, but they were mentoring us for the future--knowing they wouldnt be there forever.   It was a great learning process for me and what I pull from as a trainer today.   

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Emmanuel Jallas February 11, 2015

<<we were taught to ask questions before we looked for solutions.  >>

Can you remember one example?

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Tracey Richardson February 11, 2015

During our start up phase we would have some repetitive issues.   As a novice at that time our first instinct is to say something like "ah we saw this yesterday, it has to be____!!!"  In my mind I knew the answer based on what I saw before.  Well the trainers would not let us get by that easy and prompt us to prove that is wasn't.   Sometimes asking why into each step of the process can often shed a different light on the matter.   What we often think it is based on tribal knowledge or past experiences could be masked as something different if we dont ask questions.   They can be:

Are the process specifications within standard? 

Is the person following the written standard?

Are there any environmental variables?

Is there a different person on the process? (individual knacks)?

Is there a vendor part involved? (asking similar questions about their process)

These questions can go on and on to get to "What is it" and "why is it?

Emmanuel Jallas February 11, 2015

"they let us fail quite often to learn valuable lessons from those moments"

Can you remember one of these "hard" moments?

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Tracey Richardson February 11, 2015

There are several lessons that come to mind for me, one I tell in my training sessions to bring to life a point about waste and how easy it is to overlook it.

So not long after I was promoted into my salary position in managing a group I had a trainer come down and pay me a visit at the process.  In my mind I was doing really well with all the expectations they asked of me (meeting standards, maintaining my KPI (key performance indicator) boards, and being at the process.)  Sometimes we can get so wrapped up into the "results" that we don't always look closely enough at our processes.

So the trainer came down one morning and walked/paced one of my areas, he seemed to be studying and watching several members of the team.   He then we to my KPI board, gave it a scan, then went back out to the process.  He did this for about 45 min, so in my mind I felt perhaps he didn't find anything and I was doing an awesome job.  :)

Well after he was finished with his go and see he summoned me into the breakroom and said he had a "challenge" for me.  I was intriqued yet a bit nervous of what he was going to say.   He reminded me I had 10 people in "parts painting" team and asked me nicely to please do with 9.  He told me to "go thinking".   After my initial shock of what that meant (rebalancing a line to be more efficient), I had realized there was waste I was accepting as the norm everyday.  The lessons were great in this example but the main one was as a leader it was my responsibility to begin to see this myself and also develop my people to see it just as he was with me.  

It was an interesting 4 month kaizen and with rebalances we never ("get rid of people") that would be the wrong use of lean, instead we would use them in other places that needed manpower so we wouldnt have to hire a new person.   We also would use folks in offline groups for learning opportunities.  In the end it was always about developing people as well as myself as a leader.   Priceless moments to say the least!

Mel Wilhelm February 11, 2015

Hi Ernie and Tracey

Can you please elaborate in the six sigma training and how it supports lean. Also the ratio recommended for Black and Green Belt training base on the size of the company? Thanks.

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Tracey Richardson February 11, 2015

HI Mel, thanks for your question.   This is always one brought up in sessions within various industry.  I will admit in our time at Toyota we didnt have this specific labeling but it didnt mean we didnt have specialists trained in that area to support our daily problem solving activities.   In the ideal state we felt we were always trying to attain a high level of problem solving skills at every level of the organization.   We wanted everyone to have a level of problem awareness against a standard as well being able to go through the PDCA process.   When we would need specific analysis or detailed information about a process we would go to our quality/process engineer to look deeper into aspects of the problem.   So I guess you could label some of our engineers skills as six sigma in those days.   They were a support to problem solving not always the only source if that makes sense.   

I think six sigma is necessary with certain levels of problems to see through to root cause and countermeasures, however if we have an entire workforce of problem solvers and begin to develop that muscle in an organization it allows for E3--Everybody Everyday Engaged.    When this happens you can see that everyone plays a role in problem solving and working towards improving the processes within each functional area in the organization that creates your order to customer value stream.   

In regard to the ratio, thats a tough one to give a direct answer to because there are many variables that can change this.   The skill set of primary process owners being one, also your current ratio of leaders to people.  At Toyota our team leaders had 5 people they were responsible for and this 1 to 5 ratio (on avg) was how it was all the way through to the President.  So with a few of those things being said you can do an assessment of current knowledge and determine how many people are necessary for support from the six sigma side.    At TMMK we had close to 8000 people.   So a process/quality engineer depending on the complexity of the process/product--skilled versus non skilled as well as job scope plays a role.   A rough guess without knowing all your variables involved maybe 1-100/150. 

If your six sigma process  are CI trainers only and they are developing people and not responsible for another role, that number can be more per person again depending upon your current skill set of team members.  A lot of times I ask the question, what problem are you trying to solve with six sigma?  Is it about development of people, or just to solve the problem at hand analytically without involving everyone?  Hope this is helpful. 

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Tom Ehrenfeld February 11, 2015

Hi Tracey and Ernie!


Can you talk about how relevant lean/TPS concepts in one's personal life? Where do you two apply TPS to your non-work lives? And where, say, should one NOT apply lean?



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Tracey Richardson February 11, 2015

Hi Tom, 

This is a good question for Ernie and myself because we truly try to practice what we teach not only in a work sense, but also in our personal lives.   It's amazing when  you stop and think about all the relationships to lean thinking we do everyday there seems to be little sessions everywhere.   

I would like to reference a column I wrote for the Lean Post last year about this very question.   Here is the link http://www.lean.org/LeanPost/Posting.cfm?LeanPostId=75  It allowed us to share a bit into our personal lives how we intrinsically practice this almost daily.  

For example each time Ernie and I take are vehicles to the local car wash, we will begin to discuss the entire value stream.  We will point out waste or rework we see.  We notice bottlenecks being created and also everyone following a different standard.   So instead of just sitting there relaxing while our car is being cleaned, we go into "lean thinking" mode and notice abnormalities, it's quite comical to be around us in our off time.   We also have a very efficient process for grocery shopping with how we load and unload the cart for a speedy checkout process. 

It's really hard for me to think about NOT applying lean, I've been so conditioned to always be thinking of a better way and to me it always exists and it's evoluntionary.  One example comes to mind that we all are probably guilty of, so lean is trying to be more efficient, right?  Sometimes people think they can be more efficient when they drive to work for example--I can drive faster because there may be less traffic on the road.   When driving faster "could" be more efficient but its also potentially breaking the speed limit law.  If you get pulled over for not following the standard then in fact it can be a slower (and more expensive) process to get to work :).  

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Emmanuel Jallas February 11, 2015

Where did you learn lean? In a classroom? For what lessons? or on the shopfloor, doing your job?

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Tracey Richardson February 11, 2015

Good question Emmanuel!   So we were learning "lean" before the term was actually coined.   Because of the timing back then and being influenced by our Japanese trainers there were many lessons learned at the process (gemba).  The best learning is through go and see versus assumption based thinking so its always good to get the facts and engage with the process owners.    

Many of our lessons were about respecting and developing people each day.   I was told by one of my trainers after I was promoted that 50% of my time during the day should be developing people at the process asking questions like --what should be happening and what is currently happening? (Plan versus actual).  It was their role (our trainers) to coach and mentor and ours eventually to one day (without trainers) to be able to "lead and learn" simultaneously during our careers no matter what level we were.  For me that has never stopped, Im thankful for that.

Our classroom time was our internal curriculums developed by the Toyota Institute and the University of Toyota that allowed us to understand many aspects of the Toyota Production System (TPS)--we call it the "thinking production system" today.  This particular curriculum had embedded our Toyota Way values, 8 step problem solving, on the job development, standardized work, A3, visual management, hoshin Kanri, and many other granular pieces that support TPS as a whole.   So we were taught some of the skills in the classroom but we also had to demonstrate knowledge of it at the process and link our actions to our key performance indicators so we can begin to see the needle move in the direction it should to have a measure to a soft skill some would say.  

So to answer your question, I feel its was a combination of all, but meant to be practiced and fine-tuned at the process(gemba).  

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Emmanuel Jallas February 11, 2015

"Many of our lessons were about respecting and developing people each day."

How did they teach you to "respect people"?

One can think it is a basic know how to respect people, learned home, at school and everyday.

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Julie February 11, 2015
2 People AGREE with this comment

Hi Ernie & Tracey!

How important is it for executives or senior management be on board with lean activities or continuous improvement activities? I can't seem to get "engagement."

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Ernie Richardson February 11, 2015
2 People AGREE with this reply

Hey Julie

it is very important for the senior team to be on board with the continuous improvement in their company..there are different ways for that to happen.. the best case is where the senior leadership understand the concepts and benefiits of continuous improvements.. They are the mentors and seek to develop people. Understanding that having problem solvers is the vision of how we do our work and that having problems is a good thing... in some companies this is just not the case..

another way it can work is for the senior leadershp to not become road blocks for CI (continuous improvement). Meaning they may not totally understand the in and outs of the changes but can open up ways to support it... in the furure they will learn more in detail as they see the results from the process. They will want to understand the process and how they can become the engaged leader.

In some cases the leadership team has a several responsibilities that can keep them from being engaged. This group will see Lean and CI as a added burden with no understanding of the long term outcome. They will need continous training and development a little at a time. Over time they will become more invoved in the activities and more supportive...

one strategy to think about.... select one senior leader that is open for change, educate and engage that person to learn more about Lean and CI..show how the process works in a certain area to gain knowledge for that person. Then with that persons help break down any barriers that may be in the way..

CI and Lean is a way of thinking... the way we do business every day..  the culture.. look for little changes every day

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Sabrina February 11, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

What advice can you give someone just starting their lean journey? It feels like you have to be a lean practitioner before you can even be considered by companies practicing lean. Convincing the organization one is currently working with to try lean through even small initiatives is often an uphill battle.

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Tracey Richardson February 11, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Hi Sabrina, just know that you are not alone in your question, there are many out there wanting to make change that have similar barriers you describe.  

To start lean thinking I don't feel there needs to be a prerequisite status to begin a lean journey.  I think having an open mind and the willingness to learn is a good start.  Also knowing sometimes as we start along the path we have some instability a long the way and iniatitives "seem" to get worse before they are better.   This can be true with many things.  With that being said I think small steps can be important to lead to small visible successes.   For example:  

If I was having a quality issue that seem to come and go and our current countermeasures may not be addressing the root cause.  I would engage the people at the process in questions regarding the standards (do they have any? are they valid to the customer? Who set them and when?  Are they repeatable? etc).  This sparks some thinking about what they may view as the expectation and are there differences.  This can be the beginning of problem awareness.   The awareness of a problem can lead me to identifying what Im actually solving about a discrepancy in the process.   If we condition people to think about these basic, yet often difficult aspects of Lean then it can create the basis for developing people.   If we set a new standard based on the findings of why we had a quality issue then it gives us a baseline to see gaps and also allow improvement.    If you can measure improvement in those granular ways you can begin to slowly move the needle in how people think about lean.   Lean, to me, is about developing people to think about what should be happening and what is currently happening at all times.    As I mentioned in a statement in a previous post, that if you are leading and learning simultaneously then you are not only raising your own bar, but everyone else's too.  You just have to be willing to be one step ahead as a leader.    Here is a previous column I wrote in 2013 about "leading and learning" at the same time.   http://www.lean.org/LeanPost/Posting.cfm?LeanPostId=25 ;

So try to focus on what you really want to measure and what process indicators will you have in place to do so.   Also if you start to make a cost translation to your actions in regard to cost, safety, productivity, quality and morale, then you can begin to perk the ears of the folks that may not be bought in just yet.    

Remember is always best to engage everyone in lean by going to their process and asking questions together, than to convince them about it.   Engagement allows them to be a part of it!   

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Sam February 11, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Hi all. Did you all have Japanese trainers at Toyota? If so, what were the challenges associated with this, if any? 

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Ernie Richardson February 11, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this reply


Yes we did have trainiers at Toyota. I was one of the lucky ones to have a trainer work directly with me for several years in production, then getting working with coordinators during my years in Human Resources. During the early times language was the biggest challenge. Most of us thought it was a huge barrier at the time but looking back, it was not that big. It made us communicate in very effective way that was non verbal- which was "go see".

In the early years their roles were to condition us to think about all the processes we were involved in.  In many cases my trainer would ask me why I made that decision. This was his check of my thinking process. I didnt fully understand this until some time later as it became my time to be a trainer and coach. How to ask the right questions to get to the correct thinking.

They took us down a path of understanding the process by showing and teaching, then prepared us to be teachers and coaches, next how to develop people and finally how to plan the strategy.  This helped me so much as I moved from production to Human Resources being able to develop standards in non production areas and then being able to teach and coach people to the process. We even worked with our direct contractors to develop the same kind of thinking 

I think the biggest challenges were with the trainers themselves they had to spend quite a bit of time away from their homes and families to be with us that was quite a commitment.

Overall I would say that the trainiers were great teachers and understood the level of involvement at all times to get the correct message across.

I became really good friends with my trainer. We still keep in contact and continue to share our learning.  As long as I am training I will always consider myself a sponge taking it all in from my past trainers as well as people we meet today.  I was truly blessed to have this opportunity in my time at Toyota.


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Arjun February 11, 2015

If there's a burning platform, many businesses find the motivation to learn lean! But without a huge business problem, if a business is doing well or leading in its industry, how do you make an effective case for teaching lean thinking throughout the organization?

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Tracey Richardson February 11, 2015
2 People AGREE with this reply

This is a common theme across many successful organizations.  Why change?  Why disrupt the harmony?  Why change?, we often hear.

Ernie and I often respond to this with an analogy.   We ask:

"You were willing to change in your personal lives but not at work, why"?

They look at us funny and say "what do you mean?"

We ask, "how many people have the same TV you had 20 years ago?"  "Wasn't it working for you at the time?"  A small percent may say "No", but a large percent made the decision to change.  

We ask, "why did you change?"

They say, "because of new technology, better pictures and more features offered". 

We ask, "wasn't the old TV working though"?

They answered, "yes, but we wanted an improved one"!

Imagine that from a customer :). 

We bring this up in order to bring to life concepts we overlook in our work life but willing to change for our personal lives.   I often say to folks, if Toyota was selling a 1995 camry in the market today would there be much demand?  Maybe , maybe not, Im guessing, not!  Options and technology has changed in this market as well.  Some cars dont even have keys.   

When we think about Lean and its ability to push us to be a better organization we must embrace that because I can assure you that your competition is doing it and with most companies we need to keep them in the rear view mirror. 

So even when your doing well for the sake of long term growth and sustainability everyone needs to be thinking of the market and how it's every changing.    Several companies I could name that are no longer with us today, who probably thought they were doing really well, but not thinking far enough ahead and the competition passed them by and took them out of the race.   Always be thinking about tomorrow.   I always felt at Toyota we were doing business as if a crisis were taking place tomorrow, we learned to value 1 second of time.   Go here to read how important 1 second can be. - http://www.lean.org/a3dojo/DisplayObject.cfm?o=1995

Always be thinking, and never maintain for too long--raise the bar on yourself!! 

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kevin kobett February 11, 2015



Since this is a lean forum, I assume it's okay to chime in. I like your answer. It reminds me of my story.

I am easily bored. I need a challenge. When kaizen came around, I jumped at the opportunity. I loved it. My coworkers didn't. Some tried to stop me; most just mocked me. It did not matter. I continued, mostly alone.

My passion off the job is upland bird hunting. I covet the teamwork between man and dog. Brutal weather decimated the quail population. My pack had to chase a different bird. A much smarter and larger bird. The change was difficult and frustrating. My lean skills saved the day. Soon we had limits of pheasants and a new product for the consumer market. My passion is now my occupation.

In other words, lean will make you happy.


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Tracey Richardson February 11, 2015

This is a great story Kevin, thanks for sharing it with us all.   The more and more we can relate Lean to everyday life situations I think the easier it translates to everyone.   It's really the thinking that is the essence, and it can be very contagious!  I agree with you, lean can make you happy!   Love it!!! #greatstuff

kevin kobett February 12, 2015


Thank you for listening and the kind words.

My comment was a summary of my almost finished manuscipt, Leantrepreneur.

It is a short and easy read. I will prepare a short summary tonight and send a copy tomorrow via the connection center.

Here is my product:


Thanks again.

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Tracey Richardson February 12, 2015

This is really cool.   I will look forward to it!   

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Justin Anderson February 16, 2015


What is the make and model of the vehicles you drive?  Why did you choose them?


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Tracey Richardson February 16, 2015

So I actually have on order which is in production at the Tahara plant in Japan as we speak, a 2015 Lexus IS 350 Lux/Tech package.   I love sports cars, technology and performance so this is a great car to get to experience all of those.  Love the lines of the new IS. 

Ernie owns a 2012 Rock Warrior Tundra 4x4.  He is a truck guy always has been so it gives us versatility having two different type vehicles which comes in handy from time to time, and we love a little 4 x 4 time on the beach in the sand ;).   No more snow, we live in FL.  !! 

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