I don’t often get to tell my story of how I got started with Lean, but more frequently I’m asked about how I’ve gotten into and what I’m doing with sports. I get it, it’s a little more flashy and sexy and catchy, plus most folks associate themselves with sports at a very early age while they may never click with continuous improvement. As I was perusing information about a couple upcoming projects, I ran across Mark Graban’s long and winding road to where he is today with continuous improvement. That certainly got me thinking about my own journey.
To tell you the truth, my involvement with Lean and sports both really happened by accident. Oddly enough, my start in Lean is a little more unusual so I’ll begin there (my start in sports is covered here).
I’ve never truly had a Lean mentor, and quite often I’ve had anti-mentors who were more obsessed with rank-and-file or my-way-or-the-highway than Kaizen. It’s common to have had a boss or director who has significant experience with Lean implementation and process optimization, or who genuinely applies a Kaizen-based mindset for problem solving. However, I have not been so fortunate and I’ve had to piece together the Lean concepts and apply them on my own. Despite all the independent study and training I’ve collected over the years, spotting waste and generating strategies for reducing or eradicating it to meet customer expectations is something that still does not come naturally to me, but it’s probably more ingrained in my daily life than it is for others. Independent study is a double-edged sword.
Most of my early career was spent in high stress corporate and manufacturing environments (such as the automotive industry in metro Detroit) where obedience and deference to management was of higher value than thinking for one’s self, so most of what I’ve learned over the years has been done independently or with a lot of trial-and-error. Basically, I was working with Lean because it made a lot of sense to me.
I have a BS in chemical engineering from Tri-State University (now called Trine University) in Angola, Indiana. I was a manufacturing engineering intern for Pontiac Coil in Clarkston, Michigan one summer during college. On my own, without ever having heard the term “lean”, I was conducting line balancing studies on the assembly of test clutch coil armatures and was reducing wait time for operators using test fixtures for a clutch coil line that had been experiencing unusually high defect rates in the field. I really had no idea what manufacturing engineering or industrial engineering was, but I was applying Lean concepts and tools and I didn’t even know it.
My first engineering job out of college was with Plastic Engineering & Technical Services, a hot runner injection system manufacturer for the automotive industry out of Auburn Hills, Michigan. This was the first time I heard the term “Lean” but it was in a far different context – during my orientation the company general manager explained to me that “this company runs very lean.” This can be loosely translated to “we work long hours and we plan for understaffing.” I don’t think this is untrue of any company in the automotive industry, though.
Because we were a manufacturer and a service supplier, I found that we were quite often missing customer expectations because we weren’t collecting the right customer requirements data. I generated tools and processes for us to collect all the requisite data before starting projects so that we could minimize having to redo work because of missing information. This helped reduce rework and defects, and improved our customer service since we were doing it right the first time more often. Again, I was optimizing a process without being aware of the eight Lean wastes or any of the Lean tools – I was just doing whatever it took to make my job easier.
I had heard the term Lean thrown about by colleagues, but I first got to closely examine it while as an MBA student with Dr. Robert Jacobs at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. Dr. Jacobs taught us some core concepts about operations management, and Lean and process optimization was part of the curriculum (albeit a small part). This was my introduction to the value of process optimization by way of the Lean tools and waste activity reduction.
After graduating from Indiana I joined Eaton Corporation‘s Global Leadership Development Program, a rotational program for MBA graduates consisting of two one-year assignments. My first rotational role was as the Global Pricing Processes Manager for Eaton’s Truck Group in Kalamazoo, Michigan where I had two large-scale global pricing processes to optimize.
I had the chance to sit in on a presentation by Eaton CEO Sandy Cutler as a GLDP participant. He talked about the future of the business and indicated that Lean and continuous improvement were going to be the vehicles for Eaton remaining competitive in their diversified industrial businesses. As a result of his speech and my prior experience as an engineer, I elected to find a Lean-related role for my second GLDP assignment.
Fortunately I found one with Eaton’s manufacturing plant in Sumter, South Carolina where they produce large-scale electrical panelboards and switchboards. My role was as the plant Lean Coordinator. This is where Lean finally started to click with me. The idea of trying to make things better, identifying root causes and remedying them, and simply not going through the motions was astounding, and I was completely sold on continuous improvement.
I really wanted to stick with Lean instead of trying to find another type of role in the global company that took me away from it. I landed a position as the plant Continuous Improvement Engineer with Thomson Plastics in Thomson, Georgia, where I ran projects and trained for both my Six Sigma Green Belt and Six Sigma Black Belt through the American Society for Quality. I wanted to follow the Six Sigma path not because I wanted to step away from Lean but because I wanted to learn more about another form of continuous improvement.
Life circumstances took me to Ohio, where I became the Performance Optimization Engineer for The Dannon Company. Here I learned about yet another “brand” of continuous improvement – autonomous management. AM is a formalized program for machine maintenance and upkeep – I tried to push a similar program through at Thomson Plastics without having an actual name attached to the program.
This is where I met Mark Fougerousse, a consultant with Solving Efeso and fellow Indiana University fan. He became my first real continuous improvement mentor. He is the first strategic thinker for continuous improvement I’ve had the pleasure to work with. The way he asks “What do you think?” when someone proposes a problem or solution to him for making things better helps empower the employees and managers and genuinely gets them thinking for themselves. He even says he doesn’t have all the answers and wants to simply help guide others to generating answers on their own. His devil’s advocate approach is a great template for Lean thinking.
At all of my stops I ran into continuous improvement thinking that I consider improper – attempts to “just go do Lean” without strategy (affectionately known as L.I.N.O., or Lean In Name Only or L.A.M.E. – Lean As Misguidedly Executed) or not implementing problem solving and optimization from the top levels, or even jumping to conclusions without properly defining the problems ran rampant.
As a result, I found an opportunity in a niche market where I could focus more on problem identification and application of the proper tools (Lean, Six Sigma, Autonomous Management, etc) and really help cultivate the Kaizen mindset.
That’s where I am today. Here is Part 2, about getting my start in sports.