Home > Knowledge Center> Developing a Problem-Solving Culture at Herman Miller: An Interview with Lean Practitioners George Mason and Dan Bos

Developing a Problem-Solving Culture at Herman Miller: An Interview with Lean Practitioners George Mason and Dan Bos



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In December, lean practitioners and continuous improvement professionals gathered in Orlando, Florida, for the inaugural Lean Coaching Summit presented by the Lean Enterprise Institute and Lean Frontiers. On day two of the summit, lean practitioners from leading companies shared their lean transformation stories and coaching models in highly interactive learning sessions. George Mason, a Herman Miller Performance System (HMPS) manager, and Dan Bos, an operations manager led one of the most well-attended sessions called "Coaching Coaches: Cultivating a Culture of Coaching at Herman Miller." We followed up with George and Dan to learn more about Herman Miller's history with lean thinking and practice and hear their thoughts on problem-solving and leadership.


LEI: Tell me about your history with lean at Herman Miller?

George: I got exposed to lean in 1995. I was at our IMT (integrated metal technology) plant, which at the time was a wholly owned subsidiary and our only union facility. We were about to lose 40% of our business, so we decided we needed to fundamentally change the way we did business. We had a true business need. If we didn't change things, a lot of people would have lost their jobs.

That's where our journey with lean began as well as our relationship with TSSC (the Toyota Production System Support Center). Originally, we requested help from TSSC and they very graciously declined our requests. But we were determined to use the Toyota Production System, so we sent a couple of people (Matt Long and Larry O'Keefe) out to a company that was using TPS. This was a local automotive supplier, and it turned out that they were one of TSSC's project companies. Matt and Larry spent six months there. When they got back we began implementing lean. After about six months of working on our own, we invited TSSC to come in and observe our approach. Mr. Ohba eventually visited us and saw that we were dedicated students. He gave us our homework and we began working on it right away. I've been working in and around lean in different roles throughout Herman Miller ever since.

For me, lean resonates with who I am, my core beliefs, and the things I do for fun. I'm a coach, that's what I do for fun. I've been coaching sports for nearly 30 years now. Lean thinking is all about coaching and developing people.

Dan: My journey with lean started about 18 years ago. We didn't know lean it was at the time, but we loved problem-solving and wanted to make our jobs easier. I was a manufacturing associate when I started at Herman Miller and worked my way up through the ranks. My current work with lean started about eight years ago in the Aeron department. It's been really hands-on. It's been about getting our hands dirty and trying to solve problems. I was out on the floor doing PDCAs myself trying to get waste out of the system in order to free someone up to help out. We worked with George and his team and eventually freed some people up to begin problem-solving on the line and then lean took off from there. We're excited. We're really pumped up about it.


LEI: What is the Herman Miller "Bridge" program?

Dan: At the Greenhouse (HMI Greenhouse Seating Operations) maybe six or seven years ago, we started developing facilitators, who are really the improvement engine for Herman Miller. This is an hourly position one step above a manufacturing associate. They each have responsibility for five to seven manufacturing associates. Many companies call these people team leads, but we call them facilitators. We offered a small, quick program aimed at getting these folks up to speed on lean. Eventually we turned it into a much larger program. Early on we focused on the tools of HMPS (the Herman Miller Performance System) and now we're more aware of the soft skills of this work. We know now that the soft skills are the critical part of this whole process. Lean tools can be taught to anybody. Today the Bridge program focuses on both the tools and soft skills associated with lean thinking. It's a 13 week program with a lot of hands-on learning. We have two programs, the Facilitator Bridge and the work Team Leader Bridge.

George: One of my team members, Tom Ellis was an engineer turned HMPS coach. He was a really good problem solver and he practiced PDCA well. He was assigned to the Greenhouse, to work with Dan and the other operations leaders. He took the best lean learning model we had at the time and began to design and develop learning experiments around how to effectively train and develop people and measure whether or not learning had actually taken place.

We could see that learning was occurring in Dan's area and people were getting good results. Other areas were trying to do what Dan's area was doing and weren't getting the same results. Our struggle was around "how do you measure learning?" We didn't want to just do some kind of formal assessment like a written test. Tom came up with a structured way to challenge people on a topic. He then asked people to demonstrate their approach to meet the challenge (more of a "practical" exam versus a written test). After the challenge, Tom asked them to reflect on their learning and their struggles. This approach is used for multiple topics within the bridge program. This approach brought along the rest of the organization. So now, Dan's area is not the only area that can effectively train people. We now have a model where we can measure and transfer learning. We're confident that when somebody's done with the Bridge program, they are prepared to move into their next role as a facilitator or work Team Leader within their area.


LEI: Tell me more about how different parts of the organization learn from each other.

Dan: It happens a few different ways. We go and see. So if Spring Lake, a different plant, has something going on that we need to learn, we go and see how we can bring that learning back to our site. And it happens the other way around. People at other plants come and spend time with us. We have a one-week development program at my plant, for example, that we set up so people can come in observe our work and work with us before returning to their area.

George: Also, all of our continuous improvement people across Herman Miller come together every quarter. These are our coaches from the Bridge program. People come together and share their experiences as coaches, the struggles they experience with students. They share and ask questions like How do you help somebody see something? I have a student struggling with x, y, or z… Have you run into something like this before? So we bring this group together. We also have our corporate HMPS team where one of our missions is to spread lean learning throughout Herman Miller. Our whole team will get together about five times per year. We share our learning and then the expectation is that we keep each other informed. So if I'm aware of something good going on in Spring Lake, I tell Dan, "You really need to go and see this." Part of my job is to make sure learning is being shared throughout the organization.


Herman Miller Facilitator Dawn Lowry works on problem-solving at her station near the Aeron chair line.

LEI: Why do you think lean has been successful at Herman Miller?

Dan: I think it has a lot to do with our founder, D.J. DePree. D.J. talked about how everyone is extraordinary. It's extremely important to us that we're helping people move in the right direction and be successful.

George: Our organization has always been people-centric, and our leadership has been fairly consistent. Ken Goodson (Executive VP of Operations since 2003) was the division president at ITM when we started on this journey. Ken and his executive team made the decision that we're going to start down the lean path. Ken has been unwavering in his commitment to implementing a TPS-like system. When you look at the values of Toyota and the values of Herman Miller, they're very similar.

There was a period of time where a portion of Herman Miller had more of a "kaizen event" approach to lean. You see, there were two groups within the organization: a group of us who were working with Toyota and some other folks who had read Lean Thinking and said This is the greatest thing since sliced bread and so they went and hired a person who used to work as a lean consultant. This person took an event based approach to implementing lean. The "kaizen event" approach didn't fit well with the Herman Miller culture. People were used to having a say in things. It felt like the "kaizen event" teams would come in, rearrange everybody's work, and leave.

Dan: Of course when everyone left, they put their work back the way it had been.

George: Exactly. The improvements didn't stick. The approach was to have people from around the company participate in kaizen events in order to "get trained". At the end of the event, they would get a 30-day assignment. But no one ever completed their 30-day assignment because they felt like they had to go back to their real jobs. There were no resources available to support this kind of work on an ongoing basis. It really came down to resources. Now we have resources embedded in the process and people are doing problem-solving daily. I hear people out there say they have a kaizen culture that is event based. They might have six or 12 events in a year. I tell them, "That's great! You should strive to have 280 days of kaizen every year." This is how Dan's team works. Every day kaizen is taking place.

Dan: One of my work team leaders, Ben, came to me the other day and said, "One of my facilitators did 18 PDCA cycles today! 18!" People go through the problem-solving process over and over again. That's what it's all about. Our people want to take care of their employees, take care of each other. In our breakout session we talked about meeting customer needs through the engagement and development of employees. This is something we take to heart. It's extremely important to us that our employees are engaged in moving the company forward.


LEI: What does Ken Goodson's leadership look like in practice? Can you tell me more about his leadership style?

George: There's no question with Ken regarding our mission. He's clear when he gives you a direct assignment. In one the videos on our website you can hear Ken talk about our journey. At the end of the video he talks about our commitment to our customers; Ken says "We just don't miss." And that's true. The expectation is that we meet our customers' needs exactly through the engagement and development of our employees. In other words, the expectation is that we deliver our products on time and complete with perfect quality. Those are our performance expectations. Ken has this same level of commitment to the approach we use to achieve results, which is HMPS. He's dead serious about it. He also creates a positive competitive environment, and he's consistent in his coaching.


LEI: How do you get people comfortable talking about problems and doing daily problem-solving?

Dan: Problem-solving is something we talk about daily. If you hear something over and over again, you're eventually going to buy into it. As long as people see that there aren't negative consequences to me talking about my problems, for example, they're going to keep talking about theirs. We encourage it and we ask people to do it. After "How's it going?" one of the first questions we ask is, "What are the problems you're running into?" If we're not seeing problems, we have a problem. It's about lowering the water. Our culture is a critical one. If you go out onto my floor, the critical approach you see and hear is about getting problem-solving going and getting people engaged. When we bring people in and do development, we tell them they're also responsible for company culture. Our people create that culture of problem-solving.

George: And it's about being consistent and having a cadence. I liken it to diet and exercise. If you want to be healthy, it's really pretty simple, right? Eat well, exercise, get good sleep, life is good. The problem is that when cheesecake appears in front of you, you grab a piece of cheesecake. With lean, it's not that it's hard. It's that it takes discipline to actually practice all the time. The challenge is having the discipline. I tell my people I'm like your personal trainer who knocks on your door at 5am to say "Hey, let's go for a run." And people are going to say, "I don't want to run today. I'll do it tomorrow." Well, I'm here to run, and run every day. With Dan's team, they're going to get up and run with or without me. I know they're going to do what they say they're going to do. Other teams need some help getting out of bed to go run every day.


LEI: What's next for Herman Miller and lean learning?

Dan: Something we've been looking at a lot lately is how to spread learning better throughout Herman Miller. How do we bring new learning in, develop people, set people up to take that learning out and make it their own, take it back with them to their areas

George: The kind of coaching I see happening in Dan's plant is currently the best coaching example we've got in operations. I pull people in to see what they're doing. I tell people, "I want you to be a part of this..." So, what's next for me? Follow up on the learning some of my business partners have gotten. You see, I've gotten a significant number of the folks I support through the Management System Experience with Dan's team; and now I need to ensure that they utilizing their learning. So, are people putting together plans? Are they executing those plans? Are they reflecting on the results of their plans? If they're following the approach they laid out, is this approach yielding the results they expected? And so on.

Dan: This reminds me. Early in our journey, we had folks doing all of this great work making improvements on the IMT ped (pedestal) line. So the organization took all the leadership from that area and spread them across Herman Miller, and that area took a few steps backwards. We're trying something different now. When there's a successful area, let's bring other people into that area instead of taking every leader within that area and spreading them out. The key is, don't strip your leadership.

George: This has been a huge learning for us. If you talk about lean's success within Herman Miller as a whole, I look around and see a consistency of leadership. Ever since we began following the Toyota model, our president and CEO Brian Walker and Ken Goodson have been steadfast in their support. They support us in what we call our first mile, where we work with suppliers, and our last mile, where we work with dealerships. Those are parts of the value stream we don't own. So, on the surface you'd ask, what's the benefit of reaching out to those independent companies? The benefit is to our extended value stream.

In the first mile, it's not just about cost savings; it's about making sure there's longevity in our supply base, helping them be successful. With most of our supply base, we're not their only customer, so as they learn, they can become more profitable and more competitive. If they lower their costs, they pass on cost savings to us and their other customers, and they can improve their own margins. In the last mile, if our dealers are able to reduce their costs, they become more competitive and can win more business. This creates a "win" for all within the value stream.


LEI: What's the value of coming to an event like the Lean Coaching Summit?

Dan: Teaching really helps us gain clarity about what we're doing. This has also been a valuable development opportunity. It's been a different kind of opportunity around teaching and coaching. And it's great to hear what others are doing. We're excited to take that back to Herman Miller. I've got some great notes.

George: Whenever I teach, I probably learn more than my students or the people I'm talking with. As we've gone through hours and hours of video to share as part of our learning session, we've talked about how we should probably continue to videotape some of our coaching sessions because it really allows us to see ourselves differently. This was a great challenge from LEI, asking us to come present at the summit. It's challenged us to take a look at what we're doing, what our approach is, and think about how to communicate it. It's like writing an effective A3. In order to write an effective A3 you really have to know your subject well. We can see we've still got a lot to learn about coaching. We've received some very helpful feedback here at the summit and we take it seriously.

I personally went to a lot of the BeLikeCoach sessions and gained a lot from those. I learned things that relate to my coaching both inside of Herman Miller, and outside of Herman Miller. It's been interesting. I've gotten a lot out of the summit. And we really want to thank everyone for coming to our session. To have so many people in our session, and for some of the people request a follow-up session in the open space has been an honor. We're truly grateful for the opportunity to share our story.