Ever planned an event, dinner party, or vacation? If you have, then you know something in your plan is bound to go wrong. Planning workshops and conferences are no different.
In 2006, I began working in the Education value-stream at The Lean Enterprise Institute, assisting with the planning and logistics for LEI’s public workshops. With so many moving parts, it was easy to forget things and make mistakes. I forgot to pack pencils once, I entered the wrong zip-code on a package another time (which then caused a delay). Then there was the time I decided to purchase new labels for attendee registration folders, only to discover after I shipped them out that the labels had peeled off upon arrival.
My previous bosses (prior to working at LEI) seemed only concerned about knowing I could manage the kind of scramble associated with dealing with problems like this. They would want to know if I could find a local office supply store to purchase replacement pencils or go get new labels. They would make it clear to me that it was better for me (in terms of keeping my job) and my reputation to keep mistakes to myself. It wasn’t until I started working at LEI did I realize that openly documenting, tracking, and reflecting upon problems was the best way to improve the work, improve my experience at work, and ultimately, improve the business.
Three months after starting my position as the Education Coordinator, my boss took me into one of our conference rooms. A white board, which took up an entire wall of the room, was divided into four columns, each with one month of the year as a header. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that my boss had written out all of the errors I had made in the preparation process over the past four months. I didn't say anything at first, but inside I panicked. Once we were seated, my boss asked me what I saw.
I blurted out, “Mistakes! So many mistakes. Am I being fired?”
“Fired? Why would you be fired?” he asked.
“Because I made so many mistakes!” I said.
What followed was an hour-long conversation about process and problem solving. Looking back I see the benefits of the exercise were two-fold. First, after my fear of termination subsided, I was able to see how fixing the problems that recurred each month would lead to a better experience for our customers. I saw how I did not have a clear understanding of each of the steps involved in the workshop preparation process, nor of the timing associated with each of those steps.
Until then little to no standard work had existed for LEI workshops and conferences. For example, if we had to print one participant manual for each person, what were all of the activities that needed to happen before that person had that manual in his/her hand? The problems people experienced at workshops were about the lack of a clear process, not about me. It’s easy to forget to pack the pencils, especially if there is no standard process telling you to pack the pencils.
To this day, I’m surprised how often as workers we keep trying to “fix” the same problems, instead of stopping to ask ourselves what changes can be made to keep our problems from happening again, and then updating our processes.
By asking me to document and share problems, my boss fostered a problem solving culture at LEI and began to inspire this problem solving focus in me. I was finally able to use problems to both improve my job and make the end product better for others.
In 2009 I left my role as Education Coordinator at LEI, but lean thinking, which for me means a willingness to look at problems and wrestle with them, is something that will always stay with me. Since leaving my full-time position at LEI, I have launched two companies, one media organization my former business partner and I eventually folded, and a successful networking organization for women professionals, Wonder Women of Boston. Although these businesses had different purposes, in both projects I’ve worked with team members to solve operational problems, listen to customers, and improve the customer experience. When I think about it, so much of my perseverance in both of these projects comes down to one really good conversation I had a long time ago with my boss.