Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Vital Few - Focus is Everything


Given all of the rapid changes and increasing distractions organizations face today, individuals must be able to focus on those things that offer the greatest advantage to the organization. The clearer the priorities, the easier it will be for people to focus their energies on what really counts.

If I had to take one lesson from my business experience it is without focus you are lost.  Infinity is not available to us in this life.  Time and money are limited and as such we must utilize these limited resources effectively.  I can see no way to achieve our objectives other than to utilize discretion, prioritization and selection.  For after all, some things are simply more critical and more important. 

The most effective leaders are those who can cut through the clutter to focus on what is most important. When individuals and teams are confronted by multiple issues, they often try to take them all on… at once. Because they are overwhelmed, they make progress on none of them. The result: inertia and a lack of change.

The job of management is to steer the focus of their organization towards those few vital priorities that will keep or bring the organization into alignment with the demands of its customers. Once these are identified, employees can then pinpoint the group, division, factory, department, or project gaps that must be closed to stay aligned with the strategic direction of your organization.

From your long list, identify the top three to four and focus all your energy on those. When one is complete, pull another up to the top, but hold no more than four at a time. You will find that you get more done (and at a higher quality) by working on only four priorities at a time than you did when you tried to juggle ten or twelve.

Focus is also about learning to say no. Identify the things to stop doing in order to focus on the vital few. These 'must stops' require leaders to let go of their favorite projects, stop wasting valuable resources, and focus their own time only on the chosen goals.

You can’t do everything. So you have to focus. Since you can’t do everything and if you ever could, your customers wouldn’t believe you anyhow, then you need to focus on something that you do well, that people want.

You get results based on the things you focus on most intently. Regardless of how many things you want to accomplish, you must focus on the most important and let other things — which in the right context may be very good things — go by the wayside.

Pareto's Principle, the 80/20 Rule, should serve as a daily reminder to focus 80 percent of your time and energy on the 20 percent of you work that is really important. Don't just "work smart", work smart on the right things.

If everything is important, then nothing is important. Do fewer but better things. Because the person who tries to achieve everything ultimately accomplishes nothing. Focus. Focus. Focus.

Subscribe to my feed Subscribe via Email LinkedIn Group Facebook Page @TimALeanJourney YouTube Channel SlideShare

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Guide to Lean Leadership


When you hear the word “leadership” what comes to mind? There are numerous definitions of leadership. For me leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen. Effective leadership comes down to people. It is about the ability to successfully engage and maximize all human resources for the attainment that vision.

Lean organizations need leaders who know how to serve their people. A servant leader -- one who wants to serve first and lead second -- strives to create a work environment in which people can truly express these deepest of inner drives. Servant leadership entails a deep belief that people are the greatest asset any organization has, and to nurture their individual growth becomes the basis for all organizational development. That growth goes far beyond the limited dimension of financial benefit -- it dives into our core motivations as people.

People want to be engaged and also have some level of control over their environment. A servant leader recognizes that the people doing the work generally have the best ideas about how to improve the processes they participate in. Through tools like rapid improvement events and PDCA (Plan Do Check Act) suggestion systems, servant leaders practice participatory decision-making, empowering employees to be innovators and co-creators in positive change. Such leaders are also enablers; they spend a significant amount of time at the workplace, making direct observations, and then striving to create systemic improvements that add value to the work of their employees.

Leaders are nothing without people. Put another way, people will make or break you as a leader. You’ll either treat them well, earn their trust, respect and loyalty, or you won’t. You’ll either see people as capital to be leveraged or humans to be developed and fulfilled. You’ll either view yourself as superior to your employees, or as one whose job it is to serve them, learn from them, and leave them be better off for being led by you.

The best leaders don’t put people in a box – they free them from boxes. Ultimately, a leaders job isn’t to create followers, but to strive for ubiquitous leadership. Average leaders spend time scaling processes, systems, and models – great leaders focus on scaling leadership.

A leader must be a good teacher. Leaders must be able to be good teachers to share insights and experiences. Leaders can inspire, motivate, and influence subordinates at various levels through the use of teaching ability. Obviously, one must be a good communicator in order to be an effective teacher. Without the ability to clearly and effectively communicate a message, goal, story, or philosophy, it is impossible to lead.

When you become a manager, supervisor, or team leader, the game changed.  You're now held to a higher level of accountability than before.  In fact, everything you do is exaggerated; you are under a magnifying glass.  And when you're down, they're down.  When you're up, they're up.  You set the tone... you shape the environment in which all can be successful.

Your employees expect you to lead without excuses.  The leadership you display and the decisions that you make contribute more to the success of your employees than all other factors combined.  Everything you do counts.  Make it count.

Good leadership is not reflected in the leader’s actions, it is reflected in the impact and effect of those actions on the team. A leader should adapt to the environment and what the team needs today without losing sight of what will be needed tomorrow and always preparing for that moment when he or she will no longer be there. Guaranteeing the growth and sustainability of the team and the individuals that comprise it beyond the leader’s time is the ultimate trait of a great leader.

While there are people who seem to be naturally endowed with more leadership abilities than others, I believe that people can learn to become leaders by concentrating on improving these leadership skills.

Lean success requires a change in mindset and behavior among leadership, and then gradually throughout the organization. So it follows that success in Lean implies a change in what leaders reinforce—a change in leadership behaviors and practices. Change begins when leaders start acting differently. It’s that simple (but not that easy).

Subscribe to my feed Subscribe via Email LinkedIn Group Facebook Page @TimALeanJourney YouTube Channel SlideShare

Friday, April 18, 2014

Lean Quote: Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

On Fridays I will post a Lean related Quote. Throughout our lifetimes many people touch our lives and leave us with words of wisdom. These can both be a source of new learning and also a point to pause and reflect upon lessons we have learned. Within Lean active learning is an important aspect on this journey because without learning we can not improve.

"A ship is safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.— William Shedd

Ships aren't built so they can sit there in a harbor. Ships are built for sailing and adventures in the sea. There may be risks, but hey, that's what the ship was made to do. Much like a person can be safe and comfortable with status quo, but that's not the point of improvement. The point of continuous improvement is to explore and challenge our understanding, not to mindlessly accept what we have always done.

Leaders need to challenge their employees to move out of their comfort zone. You can’t move forward if you don’t grow and you can’t grow if you never leave your comfort zone. When possible, give your employees challenging assignments. Help them prepare by providing them a safe environment to learn from the mistakes that they are bound to make.

Moving beyond our comfort zones is how we can best learn and grow. The challenge is to resist our normal human instinct to seek comfort rather that discomfort. The key is to continually push beyond the comfort zone and drive continuous improvement to develop and strengthen your Lean thinking.

So when it comes to getting outside your comfort zone, don’t mistake magical outcomes for magical processes. Adaptation takes time, effort, strategy, and determination. But with a solid plan in place and the courage to take it forward, your results can be extraordinary.

Subscribe to my feed Subscribe via Email LinkedIn Group Facebook Page @TimALeanJourney YouTube Channel SlideShare

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: Strength-Based Lean Six Sigma

One of the aspects of being a vocal Lean practitioner I enjoy is the frequent request for editorial/book reviews. I find great value in continuously learning.  I want to share a recent review with you.

Strength-Based Lean Six Sigma: Building Positive and Engaging Business Improvement is a valuable and insightful book written by David Shaked.


Most application of Lean Thinking and Six Sigma assume there is a “perfect state” for each. The strength-based approach to process improvement has a different focus. Instead of focusing on what is broken and inefficient, it helps management and staff identify what is already working efficiently and generates value in existing processes and systems. They then define ways to grow and expand those parts and implement good practices everywhere. This focus on the search for and growth of existing efficiency enables new ideas to emerge and supports implementation of process improvements by raising confidence and energy levels.

This book starts with a brief overview of Lean and Six Sigma as well as some historical developments that led to the creation of these two popular approaches. Then they build the connection between the two approaches. He shares some ways to apply this thinking at different levels of the organization and improvement initiatives.

In short this book approaches improvement from the value added side of the equation instead of the waste elimination side. I am not sure you can do one without the other however the positive value added approach is powerful.

He organizes his material within five Parts whose titles correctly suggest an on-going process that begins with "Define," continues with “Discover, Dream, and Design,” and concludes with "Deliver/Destiny."

At 230 pages it is a pretty easy read.  There are a number of case studies to reinforce concepts. Each chapter ends with a summary of learning. The book includes a few graphics to support key learnings.

The author claims this book is for business leaders, improvement champions, trained practitioners and facilitators, and consultants. However, there is an assumption that the reader is already familiar or experienced with these methodologies. Strength-based Lean Six Sigma provides ways to bring them together and expand their practice.





  Subscribe to my feed Subscribe via Email LinkedIn Group Facebook Page @TimALeanJourney YouTube Channel SlideShare

Monday, April 14, 2014

Getting the Most Out of Your Conference Experience


ASQ’s annual World Conference for Quality and Improvement (WCQI) will be held in Dallas, May 5-7. In preparation for the conference this year I thought I would share some tips on making the most out of your conference experience.

1. Before the conference.
As Dr. Stephen R. Covey (author of the international bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) would advise: “Start with the end in mind.” Make concrete connections between the value the conference represents and your personal and professional goals. Outline several detailed goals that you are committed to and keep them in mind throughout this process. Explore the conference schedule. Be selective and strategic about your planning schedule. Begin by focusing on areas relevant to your interests.

2. Attend the sessions, listen, and learn.
Remember the focus of the conference. Whether it’s to meet new people with common interests or take advantage of being in a learning environment. Come prepared to learn. Listen to peers in conversations. Attend and participate in sessions. Soak up what you hear and learn to improve your business or yourself.

3. Network, Network, Network.
Conferences are a great opportunity to meet new people who have your similar interests, new and different ideas and great feedback for your business. Have a positive attitude, a stack of business cards ready to mingle, strike up conversations and start meaningful relationships.

4. Distill every talk down to one key takeaway.
Every presenter at a conference has his or her own style. Some people tell a story, sometimes there is a video or set of images, and sometimes there is a full slide presentation. Given our short memories and the great amount of stimuli, it is important to distill each presentation down to a central point. After each presentation, ask yourself what struck you, what did you learn? Perhaps there was a specific tip that you could adapt in your own work - or some piece of counter intuitive advice that really resonated. 

5. Follow-up.
Organize any materials that you collected at the conference. Make a list of the new things you learned at the conference and write down one strategy for each idea that outlines how you’ll incorporate what you learned in your daily work. Write up a summary of what you learned at the conference and share it with your supervisor. Offer to present a session or workshop on a particular topic to your co-workers. Follow up with any new contacts you made at the conference to continue the discussion.

Lastly, you should review the conference. While it is fresh in your mind, consider what worked well and what didn’t. Think about what you’d do differently if you attended again. Make a few notes for yourself that you can refer to when planning to attend again.


I’m part of the ASQ Influential Voices program. While I receive an honorarium from ASQ for my commitment, the thoughts and opinions expressed on my blog are my own. 


Subscribe to my feed Subscribe via Email LinkedIn Group Facebook Page @TimALeanJourney YouTube Channel 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Lean Quote: Go to the Gemba

On Fridays I will post a Lean related Quote. Throughout our lifetimes many people touch our lives and leave us with words of wisdom. These can both be a source of new learning and also a point to pause and reflect upon lessons we have learned. Within Lean active learning is an important aspect on this journey because without learning we can not improve.

"Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're 1,000 miles from the corn field.— Dwight Eisenhower

Get out there, go to the Gemba. I say this to executives and to people on-the-floor alike. They must start their Lean journey with a trip to see what Toyota calls the three reals - the real place, the real data and the real problem. They must go and see for themselves, not just take the advice of a Lean committee!

Management must go to the Gemba to practice Lean thinking. Gemba is roughly translated from the Japanese as the real place. The idea of the Gemba is simple: go to the place, look at the process, and talk with the people. Gemba walking teaches us to see in new ways what we have failed to see before. So what do you look for and how do you see it? All management should learn to ask these three simple questions:

       1) What is the process?

       2) How can you tell it is working?

       3) What are you doing to improve it (if it is working)?

Nothing sustains itself, certainly not Lean manufacturing or Lean management. So, establish and stick to a routine including regular visits to the Gemba, check the status of visual controls, follow-up on daily accountability assignments, and ask the three simple questions everywhere. Lean management is, as much as anything, a way of thinking.

Going to the Gemba has become popular for the simple reason that it is powerfully effective. But there is more to it than getting up from your desk, as even this simple explanation attempts to demonstrate.

Subscribe to my feed Subscribe via Email LinkedIn Group Facebook Page @TimALeanJourney YouTube Channel SlideShare

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: Jim Womack’s Gemba Walks Expanded 2nd Edition


My good friends at the Lean Enterprise Institute sent me Jim Womack’s newest book Gemba Walks Expanded 2nd Edition. In a significantly expanded second edition of his popular Gemba Walks book Jim Womack illustrates the power of rooting improvement efforts in deliberate visits to the “gemba,” a Japanese word for the place where value is created.

In his first book Jim shared a decade of learning from Gemba Walks. He thought he was done but that wouldn’t be Jim. He kept walking and learning. In 12 new essays, ranging from the provocative to the practical Jim reflects on the past 30 years of lean, and assesses the current state of lean today.

The new essays tell the origin of flow going back 100 years to Ford and the discovery of Lean as told by those who were there to see it. To this he adds a reflection on the last 25 years of Lean that while not perfect and easily fragile has been a significant vehicle of innovation for the world’s managers. He discusses Lean in other industry sectors like Government and Healthcare where the challenges are no less demanding. Jim reviews shoring or as he calls it Leanshoring as many companies return to the US.

Jim reminds us that despite the growth of adoption of Lean Thinking (and in many other industry sectors) there are still large amounts of waste.  He challenges us to continue learning to see, Gemba walking, and learning together.

I am sure this will not be the last we hear from Jim and frankly I would be happy with that. It is a pleasure to be able to learn from Jim Womack’s experience. Gemba Walks Expanded 2nd Edition is eye opening, though provoking, and completely informing. This is a must read for all business leaders at all levels in all industries. Start your endless journey today by Gemba walking.


The following was my previous endorsement of Jim’s first book on the subject Gemba Walks from 2011.


Gemba Walks is Jim Womack’s newest book from LEI. In Gemba Walks, Jim Womack a pioneer in bringing Lean to the world, shares a decade of learning that will have a deep resonance for both the Lean community and for anyone seriously engaged in improving any value-creating activity.

The life of lean is experiments. All authority for any sensei flows from experiments on the Gemba [the place where work takes place], not from dogmatic interpretations of sacred texts or the few degrees of separation from the founders of the movement. In short, lean is not a religion but a daily practice of conducting experiments and accumulating knowledge.

Over the past decade, he has shared his thoughts and discoveries from these visits with the Lean community through a monthly letter. In Gemba Walks, Womack has selected and re-organized his key letters, as well as written new essays providing additional context.

Gemba Walks shares his insights on topics ranging from the application of specific tools, to the role of management in sustaining lean, as well as the long-term prospects for this fundamental new way of creating value.

The most productive way to walk is to follow a single product family or product design or customer-facing process from start to finish. As you do this you look at each step with the eye of the customer and from the perspective of creating values and asking how this can be done with less. This process Jim summarizes by the phrase “Go see, ask why, show respect.”

In one of his newly written sections Jim reflects on a decade of walking by sharing lessons he has learned from all these Gemba Walks.

Lesson 1: The critical importance of the simple act of walking. When you get bogged down, distracted, or even discouraged rediscover the power of going to see.

Lesson 2: Never walk alone. What is the benefit if only you see the current state and think of a better way to create a future sate? Always walk the value stream with the people who touch it. It will be their efforts who are needed to improve it.

Lesson 3: Expand your focus. Many look primarily at the steps in the value stream and ask how to remove the waste. You must ask about the support processes to get the right people to the right place in the value stream at the right time with the right knowledge, materials, and equipment.

Lesson 4: Reflect first on the purpose of the process. Focus on what problem the customer is trying to solve and ask whether the existing process, now matter how well, run, can effectively address their problem. Pay special attention to the way people are engaged in the operation and its improvement.

Lesson 5: Make work fulfilling. There is nothing worse than seeing good people trapped in an unfulfilling process that they lack the power to improve.

Lesson 6: Stability before full panoply of lean techniques. The process must be capable (able to produce good results every time) and available (able to operate when it is needed).

As John Shook says in the introduction Jim has a remarkable ability to frame issues in new ways, asking why things are as they are, causing us to think differently. Something he referred to as “intense noticing”. Jim inspired all of us by simply seeing and communication lean best practices. He encouraged others to try new things or to try old things in different ways. Offering others the courage to try truly embodies showing respect for people.


I recommend Gemba Walks to anyone serious about making improvements where humans create value. Reading this book will reveal to readers a range of lean principles, as well as the basis for the critical lean practice of: go see, ask why, and show respect.


Subscribe to my feed Subscribe via Email LinkedIn Group Facebook Page @TimALeanJourney YouTube Channel SlideShare