Using Lean to Make Real Change In Your Continuous Improvement Role

Using Lean to Make Real Change In Your Continuous Improvement Role
May 16, 2017 Paul Serafino
Lean Continuous Improvement

My name is Paul. I grew up in the northeast part of the United States, and have spent most of my life here. I went to college in New York and landed my first job right out of school as a process engineer in the Boston area.

That was 17 years ago.

Today I’m a Continuous Improvement Coach, helping young continuous improvement professionals apply their skills and knowledge to teaching, improving processes, and leading change throughout their entire organization. I help them to overcome the dreaded “lack of buy-in, support, and resources” so they can get to work solving problems, making the jobs and lives of everyone around them better. I show them how to become a trusted continuous improvement expert – the person everyone goes to for guidance on change, which boosts their credibility with older, more experienced people, and sets them on a path to advance within the company and in their career.

But I didn’t always know how to overcome the obstacles and challenges associated with  continuous improvement, or how to make a really big impact through my role.

(Actually, it took me over a decade to figure that out.)

I spent the first 12 years of my career learning and practicing what the most recognized Lean and CI experts were teaching. I thought I knew everything I needed to take a small company’s “improvement initiative” to the next level; to really make a difference in an organization.

When I came across an opportunity to go do that, I jumped at it. A few months in, I still wasn’t getting any traction. People weren’t listening to me. They weren’t using the tools I was teaching them, and they stopped following new processes I helped put in place. They really weren’t getting involved in change or improvement at all. No one seemed to care about a continuous improvement culture or Lean thinking. There was no buy-in. No shift in mindsets. No change in the culture.

I started to realize that everything I had learned and practiced for years just wasn’t enough to get the outcome I wanted: to lead a real transformation.

Something big was missing, but I had no idea what… Until I hit a major turning point, where I discovered exactly what I was missing (what almost every Lean and Continuous Improvement professional I’ve met in the last 5 years is missing).

At that moment my whole perspective shifted, and I realized that the experts had only taught me WHAT to do, a little bit about WHY, but not HOW. And HOW is really the key!

I want to share that story with you because you might be missing the HOW as well, which is the real the differentiator between just going through the motions, or becoming the go-to expert in the company. It isn’t anything I found in a textbook or Lean training presentation. It has nothing to do with getting belts and certifications, or using the best tactics and tools. It’s much more powerful, very simple, and anyone can learn it.

I was able to apply it right away, which changed the way people responded to my ideas, how my role was prioritized in the company, and boosted my credibility with the most influential people. I want to share the story of the Aha! moment I had, because I think you’ll have one too. It took place about 5 years ago, in a diner up on the north shore of Massachusetts, in the most unexpected way. It’s the story about how the whole game changed for me…

…the story of how I met Albert.

IT ALL STARTED OFF PRETTY NORMAL

I always had a knack for math and science, and followed a pretty typical technical path through college and into my first job as a process engineer at Intel Corporation. Early on I was exposed to the idea of continuous improvement, which to me really meant “process improvement projects.” (I didn’t know any better at the time.)

Being a high-tech, multi-billion dollar operation, we focused a lot on saving money and cost reduction.

  • Reducing consumption of material.
  • Reducing parts on-hand inventory.
  • Reducing supplier contracts. Reduce. Reduce. Reduce.

There were cost reduction opportunities everywhere: second-sourcing parts, qualifying new chemical vendors, scrap and rework reduction, and even going paperless in the office. Then we started learning some new improvement methods like workplace organization (5S), total productive maintenance (TPM), and quality response (Jidoka). We began incorporating Lean principles across the organization.

  • Pull product, don’t push it.
  • When you see a defect, stop the line and problem solve.
  • Find the smallest batch size to increase throughput.

We were trained by technical experts in all the Lean tools and techniques, from 5-Why to Visual Job Aids to A3 Planning. The company spent a lot of time and money structuring a program that focused on training everyone. It started paying off as we saw improvement in production velocity, quality, and safety, but mostly we proved everyday that the tools and techniques really work. I liked what Lean was all about, so I studied up a little bit more, and hunted around for a job where I could apply what I knew.

I found a Continuous Improvement Manager position reporting to the VP of Lean Programs at a small company in Boston I never heard of before. They had about 200 employees, and a long history in the printing industry making plastic products like credit and gift cards. Everything about the opportunity screamed GO FOR IT! This was my chance to really showcase my experience and help a small company become something great…the Intel of gift card manufacturers. I got the job, and in 2012 I left Intel to become a Lean Engineer, ready to use my expertise and knowledge to transform a small, traditional manufacturing company.

(Or so I thought…)

THE BOOKS AND TRAINING ARE NOT THE REAL WORLD

I memorized the Black files cold. I read all the books on jurisprudence, the rules of evidence and discovery. But one look around the courtroom, and I know I haven’t even been born yet.

-Rudy Baylor, The Rainmaker, 1997

When I first joined the new company I inherited a project list with Gantt charts and project plans in Excel and about 18 months of emails “attached.” They were all focused on internal problems:

  • Scrap is too high.
  • Work instructions aren’t documented.
  • Final inspections take too long.
  • Cycle times aren’t accurate for planning.

I was buried before I even started, but ready for the challenge (“I got this…I was trained by INTEL!”) But shortly after I got there, people were not that interested in what I had to say. They constantly debated against changing the way they did things, undermined what little authority I had, and “put Lean ‘on hold’ until things were less busy.”

I stuck to the fundamentals, what the experts had trained me to do. I tried new and creative ways to teach the same tactics and tools we used at Intel. I even did small projects myself just to prove they really work! There was so much low-hanging-fruit improvement opportunity everywhere! But people weren’t listening to me.

It was still early, and these things take time. Continuous improvement lasts a lifetime, and change doesn’t happen overnight (that’s what we’re taught…that “Lean is a journey”). I pressed on. I wanted to prove that my last 12 years of experience meant I knew what I was talking about.

 I just couldn’t stop thinking I had missed something critical along the way.  (Why didn’t these people care about having a continuous improvement culture?)

My new manager Mike was great. He liked to brainstorm, be creative, and make things happen. So I still felt I had made the right move, that I was well-equipped to handle the challenge. I just needed to give it more time. (More time to do more of the WHAT that I had learned and practiced for 12 years.)

It was a “they” problem, not a “me” problem. Afterall, I was on top of my game – I thought I had continuous improvement all figured out.

Then I met Albert.

THE BREAKFAST THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING

Now, when Mike first hired me he had mentioned Albert a lot. He was this Lean consultant working for our biggest customer, and we were going to get involved so I needed to meet him. I figured that would be a good chance for me to demonstrate my skills. I knew all the tools and had recently passed the SME Lean body of knowledge exam, well on my way to getting the Lean Bronze Certification. I had 12 years of experience solving problems and saving millions of dollars at Intel. I had a list as long as my arm of low-hanging fruit, money-saving project ideas. I was ready to blow this Albert guy’s mind.

One morning Mike called and said he wasn’t in the office and that I needed to meet him for breakfast. He was with Albert. When I arrived at the diner, they were sipping coffee and tea, and having an animated conversation about the oil industry, and how the big players control consumer behavior. I politely interrupted, introduced myself to Albert, and tried to join in the conversation.

We were easily the oddest looking bunch in the whole place. Me in my early 30s, dressed like I was still trying to impress people after already having the job. Mike, the wise owl, an Italian man in his 60s but with the energy of a 20-year old, always grinning because he’s seen what life has to offer, and enjoys watching others finding out for themselves. And then Albert, a Jamaican man in his 40s who’s all heart and 100% personality, who gets very animated when he tells a story, and very still when he listens. He’s extremely intelligent, so you can sense his mind is always racing 10 or 20 steps ahead of where you are.

They told me to order a coffee, finished up their oil conversation, and then Albert said this:

So Paul,” (he starts almost every sentence like that with his Jamaican accent, really emphasizing your name).

What is Lean all about? What are you trying to do with it?

For some reason I got really nervous (even though I had 12 years of experience, traveled the world, and graduated with honors in engineering). I felt like I was being interviewed all over again, for the job I already had. But I was confident. I knew this stuff.

Well, we need to focus on reducing our costs to improve margins. There’s a ton of waste I see so we can save a lot of money in a really short time. I think with the right training the whole team will start to really click and…

Albert held up his hand as if to say ‘stop because I have another question’.

So Paul, what would be your maximum result that you could possibly get with that plan?

I must have looked confused or surprised by that question (actually, I was both).

“Paul, let me help you out with that. I can see you’re not sure where I’m going with it.

Pause.

Is 100% the best you could do? In theory, could you reduce 100% of the cost and save 100% of the money? In theory, is that the limit?

I responded, “yeah…yeah. I guess so. I guess that would be the theoretical limit.

Good! Now Paul, what would that mean? What would happen if you are successful?

Um. I’m not sure. I don’t know. I’m not sure what you’re asking.

Paul, just think about it. If you take away all of the cost and ‘save’ (he used air quotes) all of the money, what will you have left?

I glanced at Mike, who was just grinning back at me (at the whole situation really).

Well, I guess you’d have nothing left?

BINGO! YES PAUL! You got it. You’d have nothing. Now Paul, why would that be the goal?

Um. Well, I dunno…I guess it wouldn’t?

Exactly Paul. Exactly. If everyone worked on that plan eventually they would run out of things to work on. There would be nothing left. One hundred percent success would mean zero percent of anything left.

Pause.

So Paul, tell me what you’re thinking. Ask me a question.

Ok. So, if it’s not about saving the company money, what IS it about?

Paul, one word: Value.

Crap, why didn’t I say that? I knew that!

All the books talk about it. It’s basically on page 1 of Chapter 1 in all of them. It’s the first Principle of Lean. What was I thinking?

Paul. What’s on your mind? Ask me a question.

I’m not really sure what to ask. I mean, I knew that. I know that value is important. I get that.”

“Good. Ok. I can see you’re stuck. The question you should be asking is, ‘what’s the theoretical limit of how much value you can create?’ Get it?”

“Right. Ok. I get it. Yes, that’s the question. And I guess I’d say in theory that it’s infinite. Right?”

“BINGO PAUL! Yes. Now how long would it take to create infinite value?”

“Theoretically? It would take forever.”

“Yes. And more practically if you think about creating value as having some limit much greater than 100%, it would take a really long time to reach it. You would need to work at it continuously.”

Long pause.

“If I wanted to do 100% cost reduction, that’s easy! I could do that right now and just shut the place down.”

(His hands waving around, laughing as if he said it like the punchline of a joke.)

“So that’s obviously not the point of business. We do those things because they’re easy. People can grasp saving money by reducing consumption. But the ultimate result would be zero consumption, and we know we can’t make anything if we don’t consume anything.”

Pause. Letting it sink in.

“So Paul, really what I’m trying to say is, Lean is about creating value. It starts by understanding what that is, and then changing how you do what you do so you can deliver more of it.”

We were in that booth, in that diner, drinking coffee for another 3 hours.

Me, asking lots of questions, my head practically exploding. Mike, studying the menu, grinning, listening. And Albert, teaching me about creating value: the most important part of Lean that most people never get.

That’s how I met Albert. And that’s how I learned what Lean is really about, and what continuous improvement actually means. That meeting was game changing for me… Life changing.

PAUL, CREATING VALUE IS REALLY PRETTY SIMPLE. -Albert

That conversation over breakfast changed my whole perspective about what I had learned and done throughout my career. Intel was an incredible company to work for, but I had been spoiled by a well-established structure around me. When I left in 2012 I figured I knew everything there was to know about continuous improvement and Lean.

My view of the world was that in order to improve a company, you had to improve profits by reducing costs, which meant waste elimination and process optimization projects, and getting other people to participate –  everything the Lean tools are used for. But what Albert taught me is that “continuous improvement” is not a structured set of projects to improve metrics like “number of kaizen events” or “employee participation in training.” And it’s definitely NOT just about cost reduction!

It’s actually a set of skills you constantly build on, refine, and develop throughout your career.

  • Creating trust with coworkers and peers.
  • Facilitating team health at work.
  • Analyzing the business markets you serve.
  • Coaching the executives you answer to.

Skills that none of the Lean workshops or Lean Sigma Consultants are teaching you.

You start by learning one method of improving one process, and build up to leading a company through profitable transformation.

It’s like driving a car. You start off in a parking lot seeing how it feels to steer and brake. Then you get your license, proving you’re qualified (but still nervous). You get a little more comfortable driving around town, picking up your friends on the way to school. Then the day comes when you need to go on the highway. It’s scary, but fun, and it changes everything about what you thought you knew. You’re constantly exposed to new situations that challenge your thinking and understanding, and really test your current skill level. So you need to adapt and learn, always.

Continuous Improvement is the same: you start to take on bigger and bigger problems to solve, or get involved with areas you’ve never worked in, like Sales and Finance. You’ll continue to encounter new situations.

To succeed you need to keep learning and adapting, and building new skills.

People will follow you once you have the skills to lead them.

Albert also taught me that Lean is not just about waste elimination and saving the company money, managing metrics and getting everyone “involved” in projects.

Lean is really a strategy for improving a company by creating more and more value for the people and businesses that company serves.

The key is creating value, which Albert defined as providing what the market actually needs and is willing to pay you for. It’s really pretty simple.

The trick is figuring out your customer’s biggest problem, what it’s worth to them to solve, and creating a direct connection between what YOU are making and what THEY are doing with it.

What problem are they using it to solve, and is it working? Once you learn that, then Lean acts as a framework for producing more of that value in ways your company will benefit and profitably grow, which is game changing!

Continuous improvement is the set of skills you need to lead the charge and make it happen.

ONE CRITICAL SKILL YOU NEVER KNEW YOU NEEDED

If continuous improvement is the set of skills required to lead game-changing value creation, then it stands to reason one of those skills is talking to customers. (Yes, you read that right!)

Something I never thought during my first 12 years working in continuous improvement was that it was MY job to talk to the customers. After my big Aha! moment the day I met Albert (and 5 years of experience doing things the right way since then), I realized it was. And I need to tell you it’s yours too.

At Intel, it was a given that someone else was talking to the customers and taking care of bringing in sales. Probably a few thousand people actually. When I left, I took that mindset with me. I wasn’t going to work in a Sales position. I was going to work on fixing all the problems in operations and engineering, to do 5S and 5-Why, 7-Step and 8D Root Cause Analysis, reporting metrics and scheduling orders…all that stuff.

The stuff people blog about and teach through courses and workshops…everything you’ve learned up to this point in your continuous improvement career…

None of it matters in the real world, not at first!

Think about it like this: if you make a perfect, waste-free value stream, with 5S galore and kanbans til the cows come home, but you get ZERO orders, you’re out of business.

If you assume Sales will always be there, you’re in trouble!

Customers don’t buy 5S programs or Suggestion Boxes…they buy solutions to their problems.

The real point of your job is to first determine the real problems worth solving, and second, guide your organization through the process of solving them.

It’s your job to create so much value that profitable growth becomes the main objective of your company, which all starts by talking to your customers – which means you need those skills.

That’s how you establish yourself as the true continuous improvement expert in the company, and rise above obstacles like “no buy-in or resources,” or the constant pushback because “Lean won’t work here, we’re not like Toyota.”

Instead of chasing people down to work on improvement projects, they’ll be coming to you with ideas and asking for your help. Training requests will be sent to you, not from you. You’ll become a trusted advisor to influential people in the company who want to make big impact changes, like better customer support and response, quality system overhauls, even new product evaluations. Before you know it you’ll be getting involved in strategic planning sessions with the CEO and other Executives, or advising Sales and Marketing on what direction to lead new customers.

That’s really how you make a difference in the company (and your career). Believe me. That shift in my own thinking led to some amazing things.

PROOF THAT IT WORKS…FROM THAT TIME I WENT TO CANADA

While I was the Continuous Improvement Manager, I went to Toronto with a customer on a site visit to talk to their client. The topic was new gift card designs to increase business in their 350 restaurant locations during slow times. We got to their office over an hour early, so we decided to check out the gift card options at their flagship restaurant across the street. When the hostess seated us, she didn’t mention anything about gift cards. Nothing in the menu or promotional materials on the table mentioned them either. We asked our server what they sold for gift cards, and he didn’t know. So we asked the hostess if we could purchase one. She had to go look for them, and returned 10 minutes later with the only option they had: a design from 4 years ago.

We headed back to the main office for our meeting with the VP of Design and Marketing of this $950 million dollar restaurant chain. She presented a list of new features they wanted on their gift cards to set up off-peak promotions and loyalty discounts. We agreed we could produce what she was asking for, no problem, but mentioned we had gone to check out the program in action across the street…and then shared what we learned.

She was horrified! (And admittedly embarrassed.)

After a short discussion, we concluded product design wasn’t the solution she really needed. It was in-store sales that had to be fixed. We pitched some ideas on the spot that she loved. Although we’d have to change A LOT in our plant’s process to make it happen, I knew it was all possible (enter, Lean tools!).

The solution was worth a lot more to her (and us) than new features and flashy designs.

That’s what it means to create value!

When I got back I shared the story with Sales and Operations. They couldn’t believe it. All along they assumed that every card we produced (all the blood sweat and tears) was on prominent display somewhere out in the world. Now I had their attention. That was my chance to discuss the drawbacks I had observed since I started there: too much inventory, bulk distribution, and our feature-focused sales method.

They were finally listening! I was finally able to educate them about Lean and the ideas I had for improving our process. I went from being the new guy who “doesn’t understand all the variables in this business,” to the Lean expert who knew more about the business than they did. I could tell they valued my opinion based on my experience of that one-day trip…more so than on the prior 12 years.

Their thinking quickly changed.

More questions were asked about product performance in the field. New ideas like “merchandizing” as a service, or direct-to-store distribution were tossed around. I got pulled into a team of developers by our Chief Information Officer to provide guidance on a new business intelligence portal for our customers to use. I was on every conference call, and created the presentations to explain how it was going to work (all new to me, so I had to learn fast!).

That one little trip to Toronto exposed me to new situations I’d never imagined, like hearing a customer’s problem straight from their own mouth, and then using that to steer high-level conversations towards a solution.

Learn and adapt.

It was all part of building my continuous improvement skills. The key was creating value, and it was so simple.

THE GAME CONTINUED TO CHANGE FOR ME (AND IT CAN FOR YOU, TOO)

I reevaluated my portfolio of “Lean” projects and realized they didn’t mean much. They were good projects with decent results, but they weren’t creating value (based on my new definition, as validated by the Toronto trip).

They weren’t changing the game for the customers, for the company, or for me.

I shifted my focus away from the low-hanging fruit approach I had brought with me from my first 12 years of experience, and started digging deeper into what our business was all about…

Who are our customers, really, and what problems do they actually have?

I developed a relationship with our biggest customer. They came to do quarterly supplier reviews, and my boss always had a line item about continuous improvement in the presentation… Mostly lip service though, since he didn’t really understand it. So I started making the slides for that item, and presented them myself. I directly engaged the customer in conversation and established open communication by email and phone. I got close with the Sales reps on the account so I could stay involved with conversations beyond operations.

The more I listened, the more I learned. And the more they began to trust me.

One of their main sticking points with us (causing them to miss customer commitments) was the overly complex communication and information sharing in the ordering process.

Instead of trying to get my own organization to “practice Lean Office techniques” – which just made people defend their cubicles like a bear defends her cubs – my job was now helping them change a process everyone agreed was painful, on both sides of the table.

With a major customer willing to work with us, people were more open to trying new things.

The improvements we needed to make became very clear. The plan was a much shorter list of “projects” to work on…more of a roadmap, with objectives that made sense. Getting the effort resourced and prioritized was easier. And the results were game changing: same day processing vs. multiple weeks of nonsense.

The “Lean project status meetings” I had with my boss, the VP of Operations, and our CEO were no longer agonizing resource requests for training, or cost justifications for new hand tools.

Instead we discussed strategy and big picture improvement ideas. I even presented a cash flow analysis at one point. (I’m not an accountant, I’m just an engineer…what am I doing?!?) But I had the CEO’s and CFO’s attention now, and I knew that was my window of opportunity to show them the financial risks I saw…the “money left on the table” throughout all our processes (in Lean terms: waste; in real world terms: running the wrong products, ignoring market trends, and price wars with competitors). So I had to figure out how to show all that with numbers, with math (I could definitely do math!).

I asked around, got pointed to the right information (a row of about 12 accounts payable file cabinets), and googled a few things. After a few weeks tucked away in a corner reading electric bills and material ordering contracts, I had a 12-month cash flow analysis that showed some major weaknesses…but more importantly, some big-time opportunities to grow profits with our biggest customers.

I created a spreadsheet, made some easy-to-read graphs, and put together a presentation for the CEO and CFO (both accountants, by the way). It wasn’t that hard to do, but I was really nervous about showing it to them (what if I screwed something up? What if they throw me out of the meeting?)

I presented my analysis, calm and confident (even though my palms were sweating), and they were nodding and listening! They validated most of what I showed them, and wanted to hear about my ideas to change it. (They wanted to hear about Lean…they just didn’t call it that).

Learn, adapt. Repeat.

I had the same feelings I had after getting back from Toronto, like I was respected and seen as an authority figure. I felt like the executives were including me because I was on their level.

The biggest win for the company, and for me…

In the course of about a year continuing to make improvements with our major customer, we figured out a better way to produce and ship products to their biggest client, a massive retailer. It was so successful that the supply chain was awarded a full-year contract for guaranteed volume. (That had never happened before. Ever. All I kept thinking was, “holy crap, this is what a ‘Lean transformation’ looks like. Not 10% cycle time improvement at one step in a process, or 2 kaizen events completed every week. None of those project-based improvements matters compared to an outcome like this.”)

By continuing to work with the customer directly (more and more like a partnership) I led improvements in our own process that allowed us to sign up for a significant portion of that volume, worth 20% of our annual revenue – basically our biggest sale ever. Operations could “level-load” and use a “kanban pull system” and set up “visual management” to run the process. I had their “buy in” because they understood we might fail if we tried to run all that volume the old way.

All the things the books and consultants teach now made sense to do (the WHAT), but only because I had first figured out what the market needed and was willing to pay for (the HOW).

The night after we got the signed contract for 20% of the volume, I was walking out of the building with the VP of Operations, who had been the biggest source of “resistance to change.” He shook my hand and said “hey, that was great. I only wish you and I had wrote in a commission for ourselves on that order!” That was the first time he directly acknowledged that it was my accomplishment, that I made it happen. That made me feel like I was his business partner, or the “hired gun” brought in to make big deals.

It was a better feeling than any promotion or raise I’d ever had. The game had changed.

EVERYONE ELSE MUST BE DOING THIS STUFF ALREADY…RIGHT?

As I continued to focus on customer and market needs, trying to understand the relationship between “what we make” and “how they use it,” I discovered something disturbing: Nobody else was. In the blogs and websites I was reading, people weren’t talking about creating real value.

Workshops and conferences I attended were still all about tactics and tools, and things like “culture and empowerment” and “number of monthly kaizen events.” They were still teaching WHAT to do. There was no real instruction on HOW: how to understand what your customers actually value, how to connect and develop critical relationships, or how to turn that all into profitable growth.

I wanted to change how people were learning Lean and continuous improvement because I believed they were ready for the HOW, but just not aware of it. I knew that all the other people in those Lean workshops and conferences were capable of leading a transformation…if I could do it, so could they. They just needed the right teacher.

So I left to go work for a small non-profit organization with a big mission: help small and medium manufacturing companies grow and thrive through continuous improvement. I figured that was a great place to start teaching what I now knew about Lean. As I went into different companies, a pattern was very clear. The owners, CEOs, and middle management were all saying things like this:

We’re doing Lean and it’s amazing – check out the great labeling in our warehouse.

Everyone’s been through the 2-year training and now we’re ready to start putting in kanbans and doing 5S…once things slow down a little.

“The first group to get their Green Belts has some great projects to save about 6% this year.”

“Change is hard, people are resistant. But the change management certification I’m getting should really help transform the culture here.”

Most of them purposely exclude their customers from discussions for fear of looking bad or incompetent, or sharing something proprietary about their process that could get leaked. (Yet they are all certain they’re doing Lean and Continuous Improvement the right way.)

Across dozens of these companies, no one is talking about creating real value for the customer.

They’re focused on tools, tactics, and projects. But they all have at least one young, talented person who really wants to make a difference, who knows things could be done better…they just aren’t sure how. They have titles like Continuous Improvement Manager, or Lean Engineer.

Working with them I can see they’re a little bit lost. Some of that’s because they are surrounded by an old-school, stubborn mentality that Lean is just a side project for the C.I. Department.

But most of it’s because their education and training has misled them.

They read all the same books I used to read. They’re working to get the same certifications I got. They listen to the same key note addresses I listened to, attend the same workshops and conferences I’ve been to. And they all have tons of ambition, integrity and drive, like I do. But they aren’t focused on creating value…not in the sense of this new definition.

It’s not their fault. They aren’t purposely trying to ignore what matters to the customer, or avoiding asking what they need or struggle with. They’re just doing what they were taught in school, in certification programs, at conferences, or in books and blogs.

They’re working really hard to make the tools and tactics they’ve learned generate an outcome that tools and tactics cannot generate: a transformation.

It’s not their fault – they never learned what I learned over the last 5 years.

The education, training, and even consulting companies that claim to help them, all make their money by keeping them on the wrong path, steered towards tactics and tools, and preaching how “small incremental improvements eventually add up to something amazing…it just takes time.”

As I meet more and more of these like-minded individuals, I want to uncover what they know and how they learned it – and what they struggle with – so I can understand where they were steered wrong and help them correct their course.

I’ve interviewed and chatted with about 50 of them. And I recognize they are a lot like I was when I left Intel to become a Lean Engineer, going to fix a small company, knowing everything I thought I needed to know about continuous improvement.

I can see they’re in the same place I was before my big Aha! moment…before I met Albert.

They have most of what it takes to make a serious impact in their companies, but they’re missing that one critical skill of talking to customers. Not because they aren’t capable…it’s because they don’t know they need it! And without it, they’ll continue spinning their wheels, trying to figure out how they fit into the big picture…trying to guess which projects Operations will resource, or which training topics people will make time for.

They’ll be stuck wondering if they’re supposed make changes, or just hit the numbers; teach new methods, or just make the current methods work better. Most days they’ll feel like they’re doing a lot but getting nothing done, nothing accomplished.

A [COMMON] CASE IN POINT

Recently I met a Continuous Improvement Engineer through some LinkedIn networking. He’s in his mid to late twenties with some impressive projects listed in his profile. We were talking about the challenges he faces in his role, and he said he’s never quite sure what to work on. He would like to do more training, and sometimes nudges Operations a little, but they have their way of doing things and don’t listen to him. I asked him what project he would do first if he was given total authority for a month, and he said he wanted to focus on the way things are moved around the plant. But his biggest obstacle was getting people in a room to do training.

If I train them on Lean, maybe that’s all they need to start doing and thinking differently.

I asked how he identifies opportunities for improvement that the training would be useful for, and he said he wasn’t sure. He mostly followed Operation’s lead. So I asked if he had talked to any customers to find out if there’s something his company isn’t doing well, or something more they could do.

He was a little surprised, and said “I never thought to talk to a customer.”

I explained that if he talked to them, the opportunities to create real value would jump right out at him. Opportunities like which quality issue really needs to be solved, or which product groups could be packaged and shipped better. Or even which delivery dates actually matter. Starting with those kinds of ideas is how you build up to the things customers will pay you more to do, but step 1 is talking to them.

He said he actually learned all about “voice of the customer” in school, but never actually thought it meant calling the customer and asking them what they like, dislike, or need. With all the training and education, the most basic aspect of “VOC” had been over-complicated and under-emphasized, so much that he never thought it was a simple thing anyone could do.

(Confession: Five years ago, I didn’t know it was simple. I had seen “VOC” presentations that lasted 2 hrs, with charts and graphs and tons of slides. It seemed really complex, and I thought it was some intense statistical tool used by Sales and Marketing.) I have my own new definition of “Voice of the Customer” now: what your customers actually say when you ask them about their needs and wants, struggles and pain. But nowhere in my first 12 years of Lean and continuous improvement training did anyone teach me that I’m supposed to talk to customers, or more importantly HOW to even do it. Voice of the Customer was reserved for other people, not Lean people.

Lean people eliminate waste, do value stream maps, and use all the tools in the toolbox. (At least that’s what was being taught then…and still being taught today.)

When the Lean books and experts talk about “go and see where the value is being created in your company” (the gemba walks), they’re only half right. You need to first go and see where the value actually IS: where (and how) your customers are using what they buy from you. It’s that simple.

THE CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT PARADOX

The super-critical idea about creating value for the market in order to fuel profitable growth is lost among this group of young, smart, driven continuous improvement professionals. Out of the 50 or so CI and Lean Managers and Engineers I’ve interviewed, only a couple mentioned it as “part of their job.” Others were aware of the first principle of Lean: “determine value through your customer’s eyes.” They just hadn’t connected that to the words, thoughts, ideas, and emotions of the customer.

But it’s not their fault. Chapter 1 in all the Lean books talks about it, but Chapter 2 never explains HOW to do it. Those books get into improvement tools and tactics to such detail that their perceived importance becomes greater. And training and consulting companies push the tools because they’re easy to teach. So how to understand what your customers really value gets pushed aside, reserved like VOC for “other people”…not Lean people.

I might seem like I’m oversimplifying “creating real value” and “voice of the customer,” but my own real experiences for the last 5 years have proven that they are simple (it just took a major Aha! moment to point me in the direction that got me here). So many small and medium sized companies are so focused on selling what they make that they stop paying attention to what the market is telling them.

Chaos ensues: price bidding wars lead to cost reduction “initiatives;” customers complain or leave, so Sales goes after quantity over quality; one-off features and customization requests creep in and take over, causing operating “efficiencies” to drop. Everyone in the company has to react, always a step or two behind the chaos. They invent their own systems and solutions that make themselves feel comfortable.

Continuous improvement becomes an afterthought, a nice-to-have that only gets attention when business is slow (which, by the way, occurs as result of ignoring the market).

As the continuous improvement person you’re left wondering what to do, what to work on, how you fit into it all.

You end up chasing people around, begging them to finish their action items from 3 weeks ago. Or getting pulled in to troubleshoot the same problems you saw a week ago – “can you just throw together a solution to get us through the weekend? Email it out to everyone!”

You quickly get swept up into the chaos, or forgotten and ignored.

Which leaves you (the Lean and Continuous Improvement Managers and Engineers) with 2 options:

  • Work on helping operations fulfill orders quickly, without errors (help them survive the chaos, sidelining any improvement projects you had started, getting sucked into the very same firefighting you’ve been trying to teach them how to avoid)
  • Work on finding out what your customers will reward you for creating – what they value – and invent ways to do that flawlessly (creating profitable growth…your real purpose, the reason you’re in continuous improvement)

Both options are real, and happening every day.

Once the chaos gets a firm grip on everyone, Option A becomes almost impossible to avoid. An entire sector of the consulting world exists to help you work inside the chaos, and the education world is better preparing you to handle it with tools and tactics! But the real reason your company hired (or assigned) you into a continuous improvement role is to steer them back on course, away from the chaos…they just don’t know it anymore!

As the Lean or continuous improvement person (with whatever title they’ve given you) it’s up to you to choose Option B.

That’s how you can help your company thrive, and grow up to be like Intel: profitable and growing (learning and adapting!). That’s how you fill a room with people who come to you for help, asking to be trained. That’s how you earn the respect of older, more experienced employees. People will treat you as an expert with more to offer than just a few tricks. They’ll trust you and follow you. Managers will support you with the time and resources you need. That’s how you get the stubborn VP of Ops to shake your hand, letting you know you’re important to the success of the entire company, and that you’re doing great work!

Option B is the differentiator between spinning your wheels and long-term career advancement. It’s how you gain authority and become a leader, putting game-changing improvements into motion. It all starts with picking up the phone and calling your customers. It’s simple… It’s your job.

WHAT YOU CAN DO RIGHT NOW TO GET A HEAD START

I know when you’re in the day-to-day and things are busy, management is concerned about resources, end-of-month numbers, and forecasts. Those are tough habits to break. But you have the choice. You can either work within those constraints forever, running up against the “resistance to change,” and being pushed back into the Lean sandbox to play while the “real work” gets done by everyone else.

Or you can take the lead on customer research and discovery, break away from the old-school stale mentality trap, and make big things happen…for the company, and for you. Take that trip to Toronto, or Denver, or wherever your customers are. Have a look around. Ask some really simple questions, listen to what they say, and really try to learn about what they need. Sift through their wish list of features and price points, and listen for their struggles and pain points…then turn those into improvement opportunities for your company.

People will be excited about doing things differently because it will make sense, which makes them feel good, and makes you their leader… Even if your box on the org chart has no boxes below it.

That’s how you create change… A real transformation.

That’s how you change the game.

When I took that leap back in 2012, hoping to put my knowledge and skills to better use, I was totally unprepared for the real world of continuous improvement. If it hadn’t been Mike who hired me, I might have ended up somewhere spinning my wheels, working on cost reduction projects and tackling low hanging fruit, too scared to get on the highway.

And I would have never met Albert. I got lucky.

Today I work off referrals, helping companies change their thinking by digging deep into what their customers and market truly value. It’s amazing the opportunities we uncover when they do. Now the most rewarding work I do is teaching individuals what I’ve learned that got me here.

But luck is not a strategy. Don’t just hope for a chance encounter with someone like Albert, and wait to figure out that you’re really stuck on the path of Option A, heading further into the land of tactics and tools. (Twelve years goes by fast!)

If that’s where you feel like you are, or think you might be heading, you can do something about it right now.

Be strategic about your career, and your real purpose: choose Option B and change the game!

If my story has helped you in any way or taught you something valuable, please share it with anyone else you think will benefit too. Comment below and ask me any questions. Let me know how this post specifically helped you: what was the most valuable thing you got out of it? I’ll personally respond to every single comment.

If you prefer direct communication and would like to share your story, maybe even bounce some ideas off me, just send me an e-mail: paul.serafino@gmail.com

I’d love to hear your story and see if I can help you.

If it wasn’t for Albert, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now. The last 5 years would have gone very differently for me. We still talk often. He continues to coach me. We help each other complete big ideas and explore possibilities. Mostly he keeps me grounded on the principle of creating value.

Everyone needs that: someone to help focus their energy, ideas and direction. Everyone needs a coach. Everyone needs an Albert.

By Paul Serafino

Continuous Improvement: Paul Serafino

Paul Serafino is a value creation expert and advisor to Lean and Continuous Improvement processionals. He focuses on helping them accelerate their ability to create amazing value for customers through meaningful change, and to overcome the day-to-day challenges they face in their roles.

Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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