LEI led a lean learning tour rooted in Michigan and Indiana, a place that locals call “Michiana.” LEI’s Josh Howell, a native Hoosier, recently sat down to explain the goals and underlying thinking behind this learning experience.
Q: Can you share some of the thinking behind the tour, Josh.
A: The idea behind the US Lean Leadership Learning Tour is to spend a week exploring the journey and the process of Lean Transformation. We’re going to frame that up at the start of the week, using LEI’s Lean Transformation Framework (LTF), and spend the week exploring various “case studies.” Not in a presentation sense, but in a tactile, gemba-based way, asking the LTF’s five questions at each stop. We will ask: what did we learn at this company in terms of its stated purpose? What problems are they trying to solve and how are they going about that? What are their unique capabilities such as problem-solving? And then how are they managing that process at various intervals? Annual, monthly, weekly, daily, whatever, and then certainly we want to explore their underlying culture, or the basic thinking that guides their actions.
So on day one, we will convene the group in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the afternoon. On the first day our goal is to frame things up, to orient the group around the process of transformation, not only the end result. In other words, we aren’t visiting perfect companies and saying, “This one’s perfect, emulate it. It’s to say, “These organizations are at whatever place they are in their transformation journey. Let’s experience that together and then talk about how they got there and where they’re headed and how.”
When I think about the idea of “all Lean is local,” I think about the fundamental entry point question for any Lean thinker in any situation asks, which is: “what’s the problem to solve…here…and now?” And if we start with that question then already we’re thinking locally.
Then on the first day of the actual tour, we’re going to go to two companies. We’re going to go to Zingerman’s Mail Order for a visit led by its managing partner, Tom Root, who is kind of a Lean zealot, and then Menlo Innovations, to spend time with its founder, Rich Sheridan, and his team. There’s so much to see there, exploring their stated culture of joy. Rich has given many talks on how they operate, and we will get a chance to witness it first-hand.
Zingerman’s is incredible. With Tom at the helm, they have developed a complete lean system that begins with the order-taking process. Whether that order comes in online or through a phone call through a sales rep, they’ve got an amazing visual display in their call center that shows how many calls are coming in, how the sales results are doing in any given time, who’s talking to who, how that’s going, where there might be capacity. There’s a team leader in the sales room who deploys calls when there might be capacity and also helps team members through a kind of kamishibai, in getting tasks done during down times, which they inevitably have. It’s a really impressive, visually managed, highly productive, value-added sales operation.
Then we’ll go into the fulfillment center, where products are packaged and replenished based on Kanban. The operation is set to a handful of different tasks which dictate the flow of the line, the number of resources deployed, so on and so forth, to make sure that they ship the necessary quantity on time, with good quality. There’s a fair amount of technology built in to the process that Tom created from scratch. So it’s a really cool example of technology, automation I guess, data processing, built in support of the teams, not in a way that creates burden but in a way that relieves burden. Tom’s been expanding Lean into all aspects of that business, including marrying Lean thinking up with Open Book Management, which they practice and are quite well known for. They even apply lean thinking to their hiring process which is super challenging given the seasonality of their business, spiking in December before the holidays!
On Wednesday we will have Sensei Jeff Smith take us through a simulation-based learning experience that’s deeply rooted in TPS, diving into the fundamentals of work improvement, i.e. lean transformation. Jeff will take the group through the process of transformation quickly from a traditional push manufacturing system to one based on pull, breaking down the transformation process along the way.
Wednesday night, then, we’ll take a three hour drive to northern Indiana so that we can visit the Aluminum Trailer Company (ATC) on Thursday. ATC is a standard and customized trailer engineering and manufacturing company. They have two factories that are across the street from one another. One that makes their standard products – high volume with low variety. And across the street is their high variety, low volume factory. So we’re going to see how on the production side of things Lean has come to life in two very different factory settings. Steve and the team have not just focused on production but built into the entire business architecture—supporting business functions like finance and accounting. A complete lean business system. Cool!
Then on Friday we’ll ask everybody to turn their focus towards their own situation. We will lead them through an exercise that will prepare them to apply their learning. In other words, to learn by doing. What can they bring back to their individual or organizational transformation that can give it a boost?
Q: How are they going to think and act differently as a result of observing these companies and participating in these exercises?
The promise is not to show you perfect lean examples to copy and paste. The promise is more about studying examples of organizations undergoing Lean transformation, trying to learn from their experience, and reflecting on that—and then reflecting on our own situations to say, okay, what might we bolster, what might we stop doing, what might we just tweak, modify, in our own approach that will help accelerate our journey from here to better.
A: One answer would be that it will depend entirely on where they and their organization stands today along their transformational path. But I guess the better answer to that is, we’re all going to spend time learning to think through individual and organizational transformation. Tackling questions such as: what are the components of organizational transformation? What are the key questions to address regularly to be successful along that path?
We’ll use the LTF to help equip folks with a thinking construct to more effectively lead their organization, from whatever they are today to where they need to be tomorrow. Whatever level you might be in your organization, we want to help broaden your perspective on how you think about where you are and where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. And then send you back to your business so that you’re well equipped to put that thinking into practice, solving today’s critical business problems. The promise is not to show you perfect lean examples to copy and paste. The promise is more about studying examples of organizations undergoing Lean transformation, trying to learn from their experience, and reflecting on that—and then reflecting on our own situations to say, okay, what might we bolster, what might we stop doing, what might we just tweak, modify, in our own approach that will help accelerate our journey from here to better.
Q: It appears that there are principals of lean learning that are embedded in these tours; are you and the folks at LEI doing experiments to kind of teach Lean in different ways?
A: Yeah we are. We’re reticent to offer learning tours that are traditional industrial tourism. Like let’s go look at the blinking lights and the andon boards and the standardized worksheets. We will see those things for sure, but we really want to frame it in terms of the underlying thinking and the journey, I guess, for lack of a better word. The process for improving business outcomes—improving results that customers give a shit about.
Lots of learn by doing, lots of going to see, lots of interactions with folks that are doing the work. To hear from them directly and to hear them speak frankly. We are also coming at this with kind of a fun little question: how can I up my improvement game?
Q: It’s interesting. You’re doing three tours, only one of them is traditional manufacturing. Does having a diversity of companies and diversity of industries enable you to help people see common patterns, common ways of thinking, common approaches?
A: That’s right. The commonality can be that each of these organizations had a problem to solve that led them to experiment. The commonality can be the questions that they’ve asked along the way. Versus the commonality being all, oh I don’t know, that all of them use Kanban, or standardized work. I think we’re going to see a lot of diversity even in workplaces where there might be similar operations. Zingerman’s and ATC both have customer call centers—more or less the same function. But there are also differences. One business is massively seasonal in the form of a food-based mail order business, while the other is less seasonal. Learning how to explore those in a consistent way that participants can learn from is where we’re relying heavily on the Lean transformation framework to be a lens through which we’ll study these different examples.
Q: Another way of framing that thought is a say that all Lean is local. Not saying this because you are a Hoosier yourself. But saying that it feels like the thinking behind this tour (and beyond) frames Lean as a set of universal principals that take root as it were in the vernacular of local business?
A: When I think about the idea of “all Lean is local,” I think about the fundamental entry point question for any Lean thinker in any situation asks, which is: “what’s the problem to solve…here…and now?” And if we start with that question then already we’re thinking locally. Right? It’s not a question that leads me into a broad based-exploration, it’s a question that forces me to reckon with the place where I’m currently standing, and with the people who are there and the work they’re doing—the problems they might be trying to solve. So in that sense, I think Lean is by its very nature about local practice. About local thinking.
And so yeah, for me you know it’s exciting to return to where I was born and raised, to where I went to college. I’m kind of tickled by having the opportunity to return home 15 years after leaving to begin my professional life. Those 15 bookend my entire Lean learning, my own personal Lean transformation. This is an occasion for me to reflect on how my worldview has changed. Let’s just say that I grew up in South Bend with more of a solution mindset than a problem-solving mindset. And I believe this shift has been key to my own personal transformation.