Three Ways to Accelerate Your Lean Journey

I spent two days in St. Louis last week at the Global Lean Leadership Conference. It’s a small conference—only about 150 people—consisting of companies that have embraced Paul Akers’s 2 Second Lean philosophy. Companies that wanted to join the conference were required to have the president attend (although there were many other people from those companies as well).

The tone was dramatically different from any other conference I’ve been to. People weren’t just interested in lean or practicing lean—they were rabid about it. Lean wasn’t just a job for the attendees or a way to run a company. It was a way of life. Attendees and presenters continually spoke about how it had improved both their work lives and home lives. They talked about how lean made them better workers, better husbands/wives, better people. How much they loved the autonomy they had and the creativity they were free to use. How everyone looked out for each other in the workplace. How everyone felt safe enough to show their problems and ask for help. “Respect for people” is a big topic in the lean community these days, but these companies really have employee development at the core of their existence.

It probably sounds a little cultish. . . and honestly, it was a bit. But at the same time, I didn’t hear any of the usual griping about how it’s so hard to change the corporate culture, how people won’t embrace lean, about how the leadership team isn’t really supporting it, etc. etc. The common phrase I heard was that “our people are on fire with lean.” The difference in mood between these participants and those at the larger lean conferences was stunning. It was nothing but excitement and passion, not frustration.

A few caveats: these are smaller companies with dozens or hundreds of workers, not tens of thousands. They have simpler supply chains and less complex manufacturing processes—they’re definitely not building fighter jets. They’re self-selected—the owners and presidents have chosen to embrace lean fully and go to this conference. And they’re all still early in their lean journeys, making relatively simple improvements and getting a lot of low-hanging fruit.

But still. Continuous improvement was woven into the DNA of every one of these companies. They were living Masaaki Imai’s injunction that kaizen is about “everybody, everywhere, everyday.”

I noticed three areas in particular that I think the larger lean community can learn from:

1. Use of (simple) technology. Everyone at this conference used videos (made on their iPhones) to spread ideas, share improvements, and build internal and external connections. Making videos of improvements and showing them at morning meetings is standard practice. (And every company swore that videos made all the difference in creating a lean culture.) But they went further: the customer service staff at one company answers questions on video and sends it to customers. The HR team at another company replaced the annual hour-long open enrollment meeting with a four minute video. Field service staff at that same firm send videos to engineers and front line workers showing issues they’re dealing with. And another company actually sends its customers videos of the quality inspector with the customer’s product as it goes through final inspection. The reliance on email in most other companies feels like a horse and buggy next to a Ferrari.

2. Bias for action. The companies at this conference don’t waste time forming teams to make variations on the Toyota house of quality, or some other transformation model in four colors with circles, arrows, and pyramids with bullet points in 5 point font explaining what’s going on. . . and that then has to be vetted by the leadership team in a few months. By the time most companies have printed out, laminated, and posted the graphic explaining their lean business system all over the office walls, these guys have implemented 300 improvements. They’re not wrapped up in creating fancy models. Instead, they’re passionately, relentlessly, obsessively focused on daily kaizen.

3. Community. I’ve always felt that the lean community is pretty close. People are generous with their time and always willing to help. (God knows, I’ve been the beneficiary of so many people’s assistance over the years!) But this group astonished me with the intensity of their collaboration. Many of them communicate daily on Voxer. They share videos—of successes and problems—with each other for joint celebration and problem solving. They have multiple WhatsApp groups where they can exchange ideas. The velocity and volume of knowledge exchange (not to mention the emotional support) in the larger lean community is thin gruel compared to the bonds formed and nurtured within this community.

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If you want to get a feeling for what this passion looks like, check out some of Paul Akers’s videos from FastCap, and then follow links to the videos of other companies in this community. Many of them aren’t elegant, but the passion eclipses the production values. And wait till next year—the 2018 conference will be live streamed.

Reprinted with permission

Dan Markovitz founded Markovitz Consulting to help organizations become faster, stronger, and more agile through the application of lean principles to knowledge work. He's worked with non-profit and governmental organizations and a diverse roster of corporations such Starkey Technologies, W.L. Gore & Associates, Abbott Vascular, Clif Bar, Hydro Flask, and CamelBak. 

He has keynoted conferences and delivered seminars at the Lean Enterprise Academy Summit (UK), the Lean Island Conference (Iceland), the Lean Transformation Summit (US), the Rome Confluence Conference, the Outdoor Industry Association Rendezvous, the Printing Industry Association Continuous Improvement Conference, and numerous Association of Manufacturing Excellence events. He's a faculty member at the Lean Enterprise Institute and teaches regularly at the Stanford University Continuing Studies Program. He may be reached at