My Articles

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.

Recruitment and Farming

The work week is officially over and I would like to reflect on the 7 day progress that has occurred in my organization.  Please stay the course because this will be a lengthy post, a lot has transpired and I really am excited.  Now this blog theme is Lean Transformation but you will also find details about my personal and professional growth in a new environment and opportunity.  As stated in my first post I recently moved to this region and began the job as operations manager of a facility that is well established and has been “working” without me.  Just like many of you we are given a chance to do something we may have not chosen but the celestial and supernatural predetermined coordinates say otherwise.

I find myself seeking assistance from anyone within earshot that can help transition me into the daily grind of the job.  Administrative tasks out of the way now I begin the daunting mind memorization of trying to learn your name and what you do here.  There is one of me and more of you so the advantage is in your court.  We’ve all been there, “This is Jim he cleans the tile with toothbrushes, nice to meet you Jim I’m Leroy and I’ll be the new manager.”  So on and so forth until Jim is as distant as what you had for dinner two weeks ago.  The handshake kiss baby shuffle happens for the next few hours.

The challenge now is trying to assess how people size you up.  What presence did my predecessor command, did they build teams and trust where everyone wants to talk to you or did they micromanage and minimalize your capability to inflate their heroics and ego?  Everyone hopes the former but only time and gemba will tell you the place you fit according to all that surround you.

Enter Gemba.

I didn’t even situate my desk, I put my stuff down, grabbed my legal pad and went to the floor.  Sitting down where value is created I tell people I’m new and just want to see what you do so I can understand how things go so I can begin helping.  Tensions eased about the new “boss” (coach and mentor is my goal) sitting next to them I begin observing the current value stream.  The wise man I alluded to in my first blog told me to ask questions like a toddler, not to be combative or annoying but rather to get to the genesis of the process.  Simply put, ask WHY.  Not knowing the VSM I do just as advised, why do you use that?  Why do you ask them those questions?  Why do you write that down?  Why do you put that paper there?  Why do you ask that person for help?  Why don’t you do it yourself?  Annoyance is cloaked behind professionalism but ever present.  I continue digging, Where does that come from?  Who puts that there?  When do you do x, when do you do y?  I start to get answers and see the value our customers need and how we are currently providing it.  As you already predict with accuracy there is shoulder high muda punching me in my face.  I change my approach by rotating between sitting with people creating value and the echelons above that also create value.  Often giving them a break from what seems like an interrogation I simply stand and walk around observing and taking notes, deflecting glares and handing out smiles and handshakes.   Being the FNG, simply the new guy is a daunting task for any person.  You have to show people that you are part of their team, one of them.  You have to show that you have empathy but most important you are the funnel they desperately seek for their frustration relief.  This relief will come through proper understanding of everyone and what they do, what they think they should do, what they aren’t doing and what you can do about it.  Too often lip service is paid when a new person with opportunity to influence change hypes but doesn’t deliver.  Lean is about ridding that stigma and leveling the playing field.  Teach people how they can see the waste and how they, yes how they can rid their environment of it and improve job satisfaction while satisfying consumption on a once and done philosophy.

Armed with a wealth of information and a quasi-value stream map I now go to the office where my colleagues and Lean hopefuls also reside.  As stated before I’m not new to the Army so I am not naïve, I don’t jump into the swim lane head first.  I put my toes in to test the water.  I tell them I am getting my bearings about the organization so I can be successful.  Luckily for me one person only has three weeks tenure on me and the other is eager and willing to receive us both.  He has been keeping the lights on and saving the ship from sinking (maybe not so dramatic but still chaotic.)  I tell them what I have been doing and that I will continue but I actually just begin speaking about Lean.  I tell them that I don’t want to tell people they are doing things wrong but I want to see where we can eliminate unnecessary steps in a process to ensure our survivability in variable influx of work.  Being senior professionals they immediately pick up what I put down and commit their support.  Energy, Synergy, Collaboration; these are the terms to describe how I feel we are getting along.

Enter KanBan

The first technique I describe to both colleagues is KanBan, one has heard of it and the other has not.  I show them a friend’s KanBan (mentioned him before) and how his team uses it daily.  It was like an ember in a desert, it ignited and went full blaze.  Of course I didn’t see this when I was talking about it but the very next day one of the guys in my office left his computer logged in while he got up from his desk.  I happened to walk by and see his personal KanBan displayed to my utmost satisfaction right in front of my face.  As my Jack Nickolson smile stretched my face I also see that he has a book from multiple reading lists (including mine) sitting on his desk.  Not only has he implemented KanBan but he bought The Phoenix Project.  I know for sure I have a solid support cell to help me see the dream of lean to fruition.

I internally debate how I can begin planting these same seeds in the workforce without a mass presentation or mass anything, where I’d lose 98% of the audience as soon as I began.  Considering our work structure and method of delivering value content to our customers I have to finesse these principles before a dramatic shift in culture and structure.

Enter the Dry Erase-Board


What is it?

Why do we care?

What can we do about it?

I don’t know if it is the culture in which I was reared but I love white boards, I enjoy the smell of the marker, finding one that still writes dark and legibly and the dynamic creation of collaborative ideas changing into a solid way forward.  What is your idea, GO, what is your idea, GO…Until at the end we have a board with barely visible scribble scrabble beneath the lucid reflection of the genius we as a team have created.  This is my initial delivery, find a working (yah it is federal government) white board and place it in an obstructive corridor with lean breadcrumbs to provoke lean thought and conversation.  I wrote what is above about Muda, nothing more to explain the purpose or even direct participation.  It took two days to even get one person to engage because I think they are not used to being asked what they think.  The dry erase effort is still one that needs an ember but I know it will ignite.

Someone identified Muda.  One person loosely said what we can do about it.  SUCCESS.  Two people engaged the effort, took initiative and conducted research and provided valuable feedback.  Celebrations are due because we got people to take their time to see what is going on around them in the Lean world and the seeds were planted that show them they are ultimately in charge of their happiness no matter what.

Enter Empowerment

I casually tell people to look at the board and engage, provide answers in your own thought process and terminology.  I purposely remain ambiguous because I don’t want to just tell them what Lean is and why I feel it is important.  My approach is take time to let them think and grasp concepts, then when I come fully engaged with Lean Principles in our organization the light bulb will turn on and the WHY will become evident to those that sought information.  These professionals will become my other colleagues and advocates in the effort to implement Lean Thinking in the United States Army.




Beginning to think Lean –

I write this post with a lot of new beginnings.  Writing this is a first because I’ve never blogged or even cared to share my information other than the circles of trusted advisers who listen or Soldiers that I feel want to hear, and my poor wife who has to listen to my ups and downs as I go from Ah Ha excitement to expletive setback.  Nonetheless I carry on and never let my mind idle, which most veterans who lie awake can relate.

I on the other hand am not new, I am 40 years old and have been in the Army almost 17 years.  I am a Warrant Officer and transitioned from Enlisted to Warrant in 2007, so I’ve been at this for a little bit.  By “this” I mean the Army and not lean.

I just moved (7th time in the Army) from the North East to the South East, a Permanent Change of Station or PCS as green suitors call it.  While at my last assignment I was lucky enough to be introduced to quite literally the smartest and wisest person I’ve ever met (will dime him out in a later blog for sure).  Among many things I learn from him, Lean Principles has got to be the most exciting and also personally intriguing .  So this year, 2018 I began my discovery of what it is he was talking about using Japanese terms, talking about Toyota and GM, removing waste and seeing the obvious counter effects to problems.  I’ve got audio books downloaded and my favorite, the never out of style paperback and hardback in my hand, on my night stand, in my office and in my backpack.  Please see my reading list in the site contents that I will continually update throughout my journey.

The three most prominent terms that resonate in my head since first hearing about this powerful philosophy are muda, kaizen and gemba.  Not only do they just sound cool but in my opinion they are the pillars of lean transformations.  Now back to me moving, today is only my fourth day on the job but so far I’ve walked the gemba and noticed quite a lot of muda that can be eliminated with kaizen.  Walking the gemba is not a complete journey because due to the environment I am in I have to often wait (muda) for an opportunity to walk.  And as practitioners we know that walking the gemba is something that should never end but be your number one tool for a lifelong learning expedition to improvement.

I feel that I have a few people already familiar with the concepts and are willing to be teammates in this process.  Everyone else around will need to be gradually introduced and mentored, such as I was, to the obvious life changing thinking of lean.  I began planting small seeds and will continue to water and farm so we can all learn, understand and practice a technique and set of principles that I know the Army cannot do without.