My Articles

Azimuth Check – Am I still going the right direction?

Change has taken hold in the form of responsibility and recognizing roles that are necessary for forward progression, ultimately lean principles.  I came into my organization as we all do, the new guy or gal.  The outside person that doesn’t know how things are done here.  But if you are the new person with lean vision it is a blessing in disguise for those opposed to your unproven acceptance.  This was a little more than I anticipated, bringing emotions and attitudes to a boil perhaps at the necessary time, but also should it have been necessary at all?

My last post was about the covert operations taking place and the isolated silos of effort that were leading us to nowhere, definitely not success.  I personally started to withdraw from rejection and ignorance and just a lack of persistence in the face of oblivion.  But one senior leader faced me and challenged me to draw on these perceptions and emotions and provide candid feedback.  This opportunity proved to be more rewarding than I could have imagined.  The one drawing me in to this match showed immense maturity and foresight in building solid teams.  We discussed the problems that were both real and one-sided and came out a much better team, one with mutual understanding and acceptance.

During this tumultuous event I reached out to my friend and mentor, Nick.  He always has great advice and insight and had me read a short story about toxic culture and reality by Russ White.  The theme in this article is about recognizing what you can truly influence, in spite of the influence you think you command.  Mr. White also talks about looking at small incremental influences, if you can talk to even one person and make positive change then it is a success.  Basically some things will always be out of your control and others you can chip away at if you have the persistence to continue in the advancement of lean and positive change.

What both of these events did for me was help me realize that I need to be forthright and candid with those around, and also accept what I can and cannot change.  Exactly what the Serenity Prayer outlines.

I feel like I’m on the right path and have the right level of support in my challenge and endeavor to learn lean and practice in my organization.  There will surely be more challenges that appear to derail any lean principle but also revelation that there are those willing to listen and also lean right next to you. 



White, R. (2017). Toxic Cultures and Reality. Retrieved October 22, 2018 from:

Swimming with cinder blocks around your legs.

A few posts back I hastily wrote about demolishing the silo walls that prohibited others from adding their value and seeing what everyone is doing.  I took steps to start this progress but it has quickly been pulled back and built even higher than before.  This blog is about lean and trying to learn and implement in the United States Army.  However I am learning that all the reading I’ve been doing doesn’t discuss the organizational norms and challenges that can derail lean progress.  Most lean books talk about challenges in defining VSM, getting buy-in, creating flow, removing muda and striving for perfection.  One thing sorely lacking is the story of the change agent trying desperately to implement lean for the betterment of the organization, team and customer while constantly being backstabbed, derailed, left-out, hijacked and simply ignored.  This is my story

Walking the gemba is the prime tool for defining value and identifying muda, and it also shows the lean thinker the personalities and roles that they will encounter along their journey.  So far I’ve encountered mostly highly skilled professionals, thus the reasoning for breaking silos and establishing collaboration to involve everyone in defining and creating value.  With this comes the personalities, I’ve withheld these observations from my writing because I didn’t want to portray my subjective view.  In the organization (definitely not a team) we have a lot of silos with some of the following characteristics.  We have superman, the wicked witch, characters from the Mean Girls (lots of gossip and whispers when you walk by), Hulk and without popular culture identity we have people that have no vision, local optima superstars, legacy minded anti-change saboteurs and an overall theme of self-gratification and personal highlights.

What a mouth full, isn’t it?  I put that there because daily I learn lean and work to implement but equally I am pushed to the side like a lunatic that doesn’t understand the way things are here.  Secret meetings, blatant lying, cloaked discussions to pollute and plain avoidance are all I’ve learned from everyone that could help in making positive change.  In a room full of leaders I proposed these changes about two months ago, with some grumbling but I did have the senior leaders in the local organization to at least publicly agree it is a necessary change and offer their support.  Fast forward two months, no progress and I publicly bring the idea to the spotlight in front of the same audience and they acted like they didn’t know what I was talking about and we need to begin these discussions.  Absolute lip service

Then secret meetings are held to discuss their agenda and their vision of change without any awareness on my part.  To be honest this is some serious gut check right now.  Learning lean and trying to implement is difficult but being stifled by those that should support you is even more demoralizing.  I obviously can’t resign or change jobs so I am stuck in this position.  A chance that could be exciting and very rewarding but there are serious challenges that make me feel like I’m scaling Mt. Everest with no Sherpas.  Or like I’m doing laps in a pool with 25 pound cinder blocks tied to each leg.  Nonetheless there is no support to change the incredible toxic and broken environment that I unfortunately find myself a part.

I leave you with a story from Eddie Obeng that he delivered with his TED talk “Smart failure for a fast-changing world.”  Enjoy

“An experimenter puts 5 monkeys in a large cage. High up at the top of the cage, well beyond the reach of the monkeys, is a bunch of bananas. Underneath the bananas is a ladder.

The monkeys immediately spot the bananas and one begins to climb the ladder. As he does, however, the experimenter sprays him with a stream of cold water. Then, he proceeds to spray each of the other monkeys.

The monkey on the ladder scrambles off. And all 5 sit for a time on the floor, wet, cold, and bewildered. Soon, though, the temptation of the bananas is too great, and another monkey begins to climb the ladder. Again, the experimenter sprays the ambitious monkey with cold water and all the other monkeys as well. When a third monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys, wanting to avoid the cold spray, pull him off the ladder and beat him.

Now one monkey is removed and a new monkey is introduced to the cage. Spotting the bananas, he naively begins to climb the ladder. The other monkeys pull him off and beat him.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The experimenter removes a second one of the original monkeys from the cage and replaces him with a new monkey. Again, the new monkey begins to climb the ladder and, again, the other monkeys pull him off and beat him – including the monkey who had never been sprayed.

By the end of the experiment, none of the original monkeys were left and yet, despite none of them ever experiencing the cold, wet, spray, they had all learned never to try and go for the bananas.”

Does Lean have the potential to do harm?

We are all students, the final element of lean is to achieve perfection.  As my middle child always says, “there is no such thing as perfect.”  The point of perfection is to continually practice kaizen and always improve the way we deliver whatever it is we deliver to our customer.  This has been the premise of my journey, map the value stream and eliminate muda and chase perfection.

When you encounter a place with local optima so prevalent that everything is unraveling and falling apart but nobody wants to do anything about it you know there is plenty of room for lean.  I’ve been observing through my gemba and discussions with everyone that works here.  There are many different areas to focus lean and I’ve been focusing on many areas at once.  Delivering the product to our customer is my main priority.  In doing this I’ve revealed a devastating effect we caused ourselves, allowing a strict silo of work to keep others from contributing their expertise to the value production.

I’ve been pushing, and will continue to push to break down the silo and allow everyone to participate in the value creation (see last week’s post about demolition).  This effort is becoming more formalized with leadership getting involved and giving their input and buy-in.  A large discussion occurred this week to get a smart way ahead to break down the silos and integrate everyone in doing the jobs that create the products our customers need.  This is a good news bad news story because this meeting was very fruitful and gave us a clear way ahead, one that will phase in the personnel and ultimately get us to our goal.  The bad news…

The personnel currently in the silo have a metric applied to their work to quantify what they do, how much work they do and how well they do it.  The big concern right now is if we break their silo and allow others to do what they do then their quantity of what they do decreases because more people are doing the work and therefore scrutiny will ensue as to why they actually are required.  Basically, everyone is scared I’m trying to eliminate their jobs.

Of course I don’t want any job to go away, I never would be ok with taking away someone’s livelihood and capability to support their family.  I want everyone contributing to the value that we provide and make our organization a smooth operating machine that can function when work is predictable and variable.  But this got me thinking about my journey, in the world in which I live there are certain functions outside my influence and control.  If we hire people based on metrics that say “how much work you do depends on if we keep you” and I lower the amount of work they do, they could ultimately be let go.

Now I have so many areas to focus lean and process improvement which leads to value creation, but I have to do this all with the real measure of what is important – OUR PEOPLE.  I think my true goal is improving the organization to create better value to customers while never letting anyone go from the staff.


A major undertaking is occurring in my organization to enable lean principles to be leveraged by everyone.  This week we broke down vertical walls of authoritative control, or should I accurately say illusion of control.  We have only been in business for eight years, and through the tenure a deep local optima has become prevalent.

The way I have learned through gemba and also have been told is there are certain groups of individuals that do certain portions (the majority) of our work.  Nobody else has challenged this practice nor questioned the effectiveness of such vertical process.  It “works” but I know it doesn’t work the most optimal way, which is including everyone that can contribute to the value creation and products we deliver.  But as we all learn through our lean journey is not everyone understands that we need to look at value from our customer perspective.  In doing this we have no choice but to walk the gemba and actually see what we are doing, how we are doing it and how can we do it better.  Human nature is to continue doing what is comfortable, what we know how to do and the path of least resistance.  This is contrary to lean development, as lean managers we need to be conducting experiments and continually refining them to find perfection.  Plan, do, check, act; repeat.

My role that I feel I officially assumed this week is operations manager.  Like many our characters we read in lean books I have inherited an organization that is forced to do better.  In our readings nobody tells someone how to do better, just get it done or else you’ll go out of business.  My circumstance is a little different, nobody told me anything because we don’t make money but we still deliver products.  And nobody told me to do better because the way it has always been is the way it will always be.  Let me highlight some clues that were revealed that blatantly told me to improve the way we perform our value creation.

Nobody could clearly show me in any form of writing how we perform our work.  In the military we have something called Standard Operating Procedures or SOP for short.  In my organization we have an SOP but it doesn’t mention anything about our largest portion of what we do for our customer.  So what is in the SOP, clearly tons of muda.

No two people could tell me what each other do to create value.  If I asked Jim what Travis did he could vaguely tell me but not clearly and vice versa.  This was in the group of individuals that were performing the majority of our work.  When I sought the same information from the other groups they were even blinder by the lack of knowledge about how people perform their functions.

I couldn’t get a clear answer from anyone about anything.  Too often I would get an answer to my interrogation level “why” questions with an answer similar to this, “we have that but it really isn’t what you think.”  Or, “we do it this way but that isn’t truly the way it should be.”

Clearly I was on a gemba reminiscent of the wall of mirrors we apprehensively navigated as children because we were afraid what we were looking at wasn’t real and we would get lost.  Well I was getting completely lost in my house of mirrors because nothing was real and I kept bumping into the mirror.

Enter Demolition

My gemba has begun and will continue until after I depart the organization in the years to come, as all us military are forced to do.  But I have learned enough to know now is the time, I need to take a wrecking ball attached to my crane and smash the walls down.  Today I arrived at work in my crane.  In the previous weeks I’ve eluded to lean principles with my white board / dry erase marker board with cue words for interested and curious people to research.  I’ve talked to some people on the side to explain what is going through my mind and what I am studying.  Today was the time to pull the curtain back and that is exactly what I did.  I enforced a new way of doing business by merging the two groups of value creating personnel together.  I told the group that does the majority of our work (group A) that they will have the other group (group B) shadowing them starting today to learn exactly what they do.  I told group B that they will absorb and take copious notes on what group A does so they too will soon be able to create the same value.  Group B is essentially mapping the value stream for our product delivery.

Went off without a hitch right, completely wrong.  Everyone was taken aback and some were vocal in their displeasure and rock solid protest.  However, in my position I have the authority and ability to influence change regardless of popularity or agreement.  This is what leadership comes down to, making the best decision you feel will create the best result.  I know lean principles, team building and cohesion, horizontal standardization and continual value stream mapping and muda removal will give our customers the world class service they seek and deserve.

Initial constraint of vertical silos are officially removed.

Help Wanted – Inquire Within (before you get drafted)

I didn’t make my timely post for this discussion, I suppose I’ll blame it on the tumultuous events of Florence wreaking havoc in the East and continuing to leave her wrath in the form of floods and washed out roads.

What has been weighing heavy on my mind is my last post where I talked about lean thinkers needing to be innovators and strategic thinkers.  I honestly believe that in my organization we lack the experience around to see the need for the boundary to be pushed.  No blame, if given a job to perform most will do so to the utmost of their capability and capacity.  Here is the dilemma, not everyone in the position to lead at the time has the capacity to desire progression and leverage lean thinking to assist.  In a chaotic and unsteady environment it is easy to become a hero and dawn your cape to save the day.  Why wouldn’t you?  Nobody wants people in their organization to struggle so if you can provide continuous immediate resolution you will, and perhaps should.  I’ve done it numerous times, when I was gaining experience and knowledge in my profession.  The cost of promptly stopping the bleeding is we don’t take the opportunity to assess the cause of the impalement.  If you are always giving immediate answers and alleviating the pressures of those around, you fail to grasp the genesis of the accelerator.

Change is something we unconsciously and consciously resist, especially when it appears that we either may reveal a weakness or risk irrelevance.  Luckily for the lean community this is the exact opposite outcome, sort of.  We want to expose weakness or better ways of doing business but not to the peril and irrelevance of anyone.  Defining value from a customer perspective has been my main goal, then mapping the value stream.  I believe I have accomplished both, the latter needs more refinement and quantitative analysis to help others see where we are and where we can go.  However I unquestionably know what our main value to the customer is and how we should be providing it better.  Trends are showing that our customer demand is increasing at a dramatic, yet predictable rate.  The mass production answer that we immediately see rise to the top is “hire more people and make them do more.”

What lean teaches us is that the knee jerk reactionary answer to large batch solutions is definitely the wrong approach.  Work needs to be standardized, work needs to be formalized.  Lead times and takt time need to be calculated, we need to know what our nominal WIP needs to be.  All of these outcome will help in formulating a scientific response.  As we have read, doing everything right doesn’t mean we are doing the right thing.  But don’t forget about people.  Local optima is the change we are consciously rejecting, if it is working for you and this is how it is done why question it, right?  WRONG!

I’ve looked around my organization and find that our staff is mighty, in numbers and aptitude.  I find disappointment in value providers because they aren’t leveraging their potential and I find bitterness and anger in others who are over utilized and restricted.  The answer has been looking at us for years, break down the vertical silos and let others see and participate in the way we as an organization create value for our customer.

Nobody cares about Superman, we don’t need a superhero.  We need a team of teams.  My ultimate goal and one in which I believe I am close to starting is having everyone work together to learn the entire value stream and be able to provide value where needed, not where told.

I have proposed a dramatic and life changing way of seeing how we provide value to our customer.  It goes against everything that our organization has done since inception but I ultimately know it is the path we need to choose.  There are some discussions to be had about my direction and I will surely post to the progress.  If you don’t try you will never know and always question yourself.

Being inquisitive is the fuel to grow.

Never questioning is the shackle and all you need to know.

From the Fish Bowl to the Ocean and Back

This week has been a huge success in Lean thinking and “P”, in Plan Do Check Act.  So many different events have occurred spanning an array of topics.  I’ve been involved with identifying takt time, mentorship to empower value creators, identifying muda and one opportunity that is frequent where I work but I gave it a different spin.  In this discussion I will focus on the different spin and the organizational challenges presented last week and the perspective that the ocean has revealed, not necessarily in that order.

I will start with the perspective of being able to see a bigger picture (ocean), something that I feel is inherent in lean thinking.  A lean thinker or manager needs to be an innovator, someone that knows how to focus but more important take the blinders off and widen your focus.  Most people in all walks of life want better, a better paycheck, a better car, a better job, and a better anything.  Without giving much thought we all have the internal aptitude for kaizen, striving for continual improvement and perfection.  But don’t quit your day job just yet, there is vast difference in aptitude and fortitude.

In my career I have been exposed to the lowest and highest levels of leadership and organization in the Army.  The revelation for me in jumping out of the fish bowl and into the ocean was when I moved from one specific unit to the next, against my will I should add.  I called my assignment manager and begged not to go to this unit because in my words I told her “it wouldn’t be a challenge.”  This was my inexperience and lower level thinking where I gained invaluable experience and thought I knew better.  Kind of like when we were new teenagers and knew better than our parents, “what do they know they are old and don’t understand.”  Being in the Army my displeasure and protest proved to be absolutely fruitless and low and behold, I moved to that new assignment (kicking and screaming the whole way).  This assignment was an incredibly higher level organization than anything I ever experienced, so while I thought a challenge would be absent I was all too naïve.  The challenge presented was like all character shaping events we don’t solicit, I now needed to learn to remove my narrow microscope and see how I can now actually influence a much larger spectrum.  I was given the opportunity to see waste that impacted many organizations, not just one, and how I was able to practice lean concepts before I knew that is what I was doing.  I learned how to learn and facilitate kaizen from the top down.

This was definitely one of my most rewarding assignments, “mom” did know best and come to find out I had no idea what I was talking about when I said there wasn’t a challenge.  Luckily for me (again not knowing the gift before me) I moved to another assignment even higher up the echelon.  The learning curve this time was exponential, like skipping from fifth grade to graduate school.  My focus was forcibly pulled open so wide that any hint of light burned my retina.  I had no idea that people had to concern themselves with processes that affect tens-of-thousands of people, with catastrophic and worse outcome if done carelessly.  This is truly where I learned to swim among the largest fish in the ocean; the decision influencers and makers that can change and shape the world, literally.  I learned what strategic and innovative truly are, but nothing is perfect so I got to see the obstacles.  Nonetheless, the biggest take away is there is a huge world out there and you aren’t the fulcrum or axis.

I tell you this and relate it to seeing waste from different levels of perspective to contrast how I learned to swim in the ocean to only be removed and put back in a fish bowl.  My fish bowl is a complex paradox, our breadth of value provision is vast and our level of understanding of the bigger picture is contrary.  Most everyone in my organization is very junior in their knowledge and experience, which isn’t a ding to them personally but a reflection on the human element involved.  It is my opinion thus far that we lack the insight and innovation around to contemplate lean thinking and why it would pay dividends to our customers and ourselves.  We are conditioned to march to a beat provided us, and most haven’t learned to play the drums and write their own music.  In today’s world and military we need people that have exposure and experience, people that know where we’ve been and most important where we need to go.  Outside of the normal rhythm of traditional concepts, lean needs to become a sought after skill in leaders of all echelons in the military.  We need to be able to humble ourselves and accept that where we are isn’t perfect and nobody yet everybody is to blame.  Our leaders need to challenge status quo and be willing to walk the gemba daily and put their neck on the line to remove the waste.  This is the only way to provide true value to our customer, my customer; the people who kill bad guys around the world.

To wrap this up my last point is about a frequent event in my organization that I put a little spin on recently.  Our customers often visit our site and receive a high level “this is who we are” PowerPoint brief and site tour.  What I feel is lacking is the true intent and value of these meetings.  Everyone agrees they are ultimately for collaboration between customer and provider, in which I echo the sentiment.  But I feel they can reveal deeper value from the customer perspective.  This is lean thinking objective number one, specify the value provided from the customer point of view.  While in the room full of customers their senior representative asked us what he can do to help?  I chimed in and flipped the question around, I asked him what our organization is producing that is valuable to him and his organization?  I told him don’t hastily answer but rather reflect and give me candid feedback.  I told him I want to know what it is he would pay for and what he wouldn’t pay for.  In the world of providing value we are only in it for one true objective, make our customers want to continue doing business with us.  While I did receive some feedback I hope my question resonates and causes some restless nights to both him and us.

We need to start thinking this way every opportunity we get, in our daily operations and especially when we interface in our own backyard with our customers.  What do they consider valuable and how are we providing it?  Mapping the value stream based on feedback is the next crucial step, then we identify and remove muda, create a pull flow and practice kaizen.

It is going to take more than one!

Come See Where I Work

As another week winds down and I reflect on my discovery and progress of lean management an image of a painting keeps popping into my head.  You know how sometimes you see something that stays in the back of your mind and you don’t know why but later it reveals itself as to why it lingers?  Well there is a painting sitting on the floor in my room against the wall and it keeps calling me.  So while I ponder what to write in this journal entry I decide it will be my attempt to paint a picture of the environment in which I will be challenged to implement lean philosophy.

My organization is fairly new, existing now around a decade and many people who stood the place up still reside and work today.  We have a conglomerate of professionals in our facility, young, old, middle-aged (me), retirees working on another pension, people supporting different contract positions and of course the leadership.  There are people who worked here as Soldiers and now they work as civilians in different capacities.  I say all this to show that there is a presence of status quo, often the answer to my WHY inquiries are “because this is how it has always been done.”  While working with a person that has been here since the building opened he was showing me the process for one particular task.  During the task I asked a question and he told me it has been that way since the beginning.  The picture you need to see is a facility that has pride because they started the joint but blindness to the evolution of the industry that has occurred around them.  Now for the paradox of leadership.

Leadership is what steers the ship in either the right direction or all too often directly into the storm.  You probably assume that the leaders of the organization will be the ones to support lean efforts and be able to enforce some true change that has been status quo since the concrete finished drying and the lights were turned on.  With much dismay we are the ones that rotate out of here rather quick because of the military lifestyle but the civilian workforce is ever lasting.  By the time new leaders are immersed into the operations and begin improving anything it is time to pick up and relocate.  Unfortunately people only have to wait us out and humor us then we’ll be gone.  I’m not saying that I have a problem with civilians in the military workforce.  I’m saying that in my organization the civilians are running the operations and have been and are set in their ways by contract.  My challenge is two-fold, I have to learn to be lean and practice what I preach while straddling a line with the civilian management that are absolutely opposed to change.


Fired up one morning and full of the new guy vigor that all too often diminishes through defeat, I am having an exciting conversation with two other Soldiers that are my direct teammates.  “We can put a KanBan right here on the wall, identify WIP and make swim lanes.”  “Yah great, we can also get our Soldiers to start learning the process of moving this thing over to that thing.”  (Apologies for the ambiguity but I will not reveal exactly what we do)…KA-BOOM…this is the hand grenade that is becoming commonplace anytime we discuss initiative in the office.  “Sir, you cannot do that because this group does it and it is locked in by contract.”  So now you are telling me that in my operations I cannot do something because of legality that grants exclusivity to a group of people to continue doing what they do and worse, the way they do it.  Being a professional and knowing that I need allies and not enemies I bite my tongue, literally hold my breath for a few seconds and say I will look into that further.  The one who threw the grenade turns back to work with a pleasant relief that they showed me whose boss.  I investigate this further to discover the harsh reality in which I now belong; I need to improve the organization to standardize and level work, create a single piece flow for value delivery and prepare the personnel to be able to accommodate variable influx sans heroics all the while not being able to formally change 75% of our process because of law.  Which scene of the Titanic do you see, the one where Jack is on the bow of the ship “flying” or the one where he is in the water freezing to death!?  Either way it is the Titanic.

Nothing worth doing is easy, right?  Learning and applying lean principles is a daunting and worthwhile effort in itself, but doing so in the most adverse conditions will make it even that much better.  I know through continuous gemba and opened ended questions and discovery we will get a solid understanding of the situation in its entirety.  I have a vision where I want to be, knowing exactly where we are will show me the direction we need to go.  I feel this will be one of my toughest assignments ever but probably the most rewarding.  I’m lucky to have a mentor coaching me and the teammates supporting me because I’m going to need all the help I can get.