by , on 17 Aug 2008 03:27 pm
The Journey

What Do I Do?

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I got a chance to take advantage of summer last week and heading back to the east coast for a family reunion.  I have a large family with a lot of diversity, from all parts of the country working in all types of industries.  Really smart people which meant a lot of good conversations and debates.  Thus I had a chance to spend a lot of nights drinking beer and sharing stories.  And boy did I get a chance to give a half dozen different versions of a Lean elevator pitch.  Almost everyone I talked with asked me what it is that I do.  I never realized how hard it would be to explain Lean to a group of smart folks that have never heard of it.  

Each of the conversations went something like this:

I tried to desribe to them that it is my job to support leaders in the improvement of the management processes of the organization and got back blank stares.  I then talked about my coaching work with executives and when asked what I coach them on I often was stuck with saying “almost everything.”  Once again blank stares.  Then I would talk about my work to realign the organization around it value streams and realized I was really losing them.  I would finally give up tell them that it was my job to help leaders improve their processes through the application of quality improvement tools, which I would often get a reply back of “oh yeah, we did that at my company, but it never really worked.” 

I am wondering if other Lean practitioners have had a similar challenge in discribing what they do?   Why is it so hard to explain what we do? 

The learnings and principles of Lean are so broad that they cut across everything that an organization does.  The thinking runs so counter to what people have been taught that trying to explain it is close to impossible in a single sitting. This is why love working in Lean, it is so broad and comprehensive that the learning will never be complete.  It takes years just to master a small part of what there is to know.  After several failed attempts at an explanation to family members it was easy for me to describe a couple of tools and pass it off as what I do for a living. This was really unfullfilling to do.  I felt like I was selling myself short, and selling Lean short.  I spend a lot of time teaching leaders that lean is not just about tools, but I am quick to tell my family just the opposite.  An interesting challenge I don’t have an answer for. 

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9 Responses to “What Do I Do?”

  1. on 18 Aug 2008 at 9:30 am 1.Chris Radford said …

    When asked to describe Lean in a short statement, I too have struggled. I tried the humorous approach – “I help change paradigms” and quickly pull a pair of dimes out of my pocket to help ease the confusion of those who didn’t know what a paradigm is. I have tried the simple – “I help eliminate waste,” which met with the response “are you one of those people that helps reduce headcount?” It is scary that some people see eliminating people as removing waste. The answer I give that people seem to understand best is ” I help people and companies create more value for their customer; be it faster, safer, or better product or service.” I know this doesn’t paint the whole picture, but people quickly catch on to the “value for the customer.” Everyone has been a customer and has at some point wanted a better value. That is what I say I do.

  2. on 18 Aug 2008 at 11:18 am 2.Paul Cary said …

    I have also been in social situations in which I have the opportunity to explain what I do and over the years have refined my response because I have had the same experience as you. When I am now faced with explaining what I do, I reply, “I am changing the face of manufacturing in america by changing the way people see and think about all things that impact manufacturing”. I then go on to explain that “lean thinking” is a philosophy that must be embrased almost religiously by everyone in the organization starting at the top. Once I have got people seeing and thinking differently they are able to transform there entire organization by continuously using a set of tools that improves all processes by eliminating waste.

  3. on 19 Aug 2008 at 11:23 am 3.Kyle Adams said …

    I have been working in our Kaizen Promotion office for 5 months and I still have a hard time explaining what I do. My uncle gave me the advice to “explain what you do in 3 sentences”. So I uses that criteria and came up with one sentence “I observe and analyze processes in order to help the management of those processes utilize their resources to the fullest extent.” I don’t think it is completely adequate but it seems to work. It does bring about more questions but then I get to dive into more of what I do. Some people pick up on Lean and how “their company tried it and it didn’t work” then I get to explain how it is not some gimmick that can be just “tried” and how lean is a long term commitment and investment. I can’t count the times I have said “It’s lean not mean”. But I work in a hospital not in a manufacturing plant and our work is to benefit the patient’s safety and satisfaction; that fact alone can initiate a new conversation on ‘How can Toyota principals work in a hospital’

  4. on 19 Aug 2008 at 3:53 pm 4.Mike Lombard said …

    While extremely simplistic, I find this analogy to work okay: “Lean is building muscle and trimming fat.” Think of the lean body of an Olympic swimmer. In order to flow through the water (deliver value), she needs powerful muscles (engaged people) and a slim bodyline (efficient processes). We don’t want skinny, and we sure don’t want obese. Our job as Lean specialists is to be the swimmer’s fitness trainer. She has to put in the hard work, but we can guide them down the right path.

  5. on 21 Aug 2008 at 9:50 pm 5.Meikah Delid said …

    I’ve been there, too. And yeah it’s not easy describing what we do to people who are not into quality improvement initiatives.

    Often, I’d mumble something like, “we’re into some methodologies that help companies reduce or eliminate defective products.”

    Somehow this gets through to them. I think because everyone of us can relate to a defective product, and no one wants to have it.

    Or in the case of Lean, I would say, “we’re improving delivery delays…”

    Again, they can relate to late deliveries, so they get interested and the conversation becomes more interesting. :)

  6. on 25 Sep 2008 at 4:04 pm 6.Tom Schaaf said …

    I start with their experience: waiting in the doctor’s office, waiting for results, paying for medical services that didn’t get them much value… I help the doc and the clinic understand what brings value to the patient (and what doesn’t). I then teach how to analyze and then redesign their practice to make it easier to get great care without wasting the clinic staff’s time or the patient’s time and money. Last but not least I give them tools to continue that analysis and redesign on an ongoing daily basis.

    Further questions requires additional beer, but the “respect for people” angle does strike a positive chord.

  7. on 09 Oct 2008 at 6:00 am 7.Lajos Hajdu said …

    I like Mike Lombards formulation about building muscle, trimming fat. Will use o photo of the Swedish swimmer Therese Alshammar (see the link) to shake up the audience.

    Lean is just continuous rationalisation of the production. Simplification, improvements on a participatory way.

    Cheers: Lajos

  8. on 01 Dec 2008 at 11:52 pm 8.Oscar Chavez said …

    I find it hard to explain as to what I do.. My take on this is that we analyze the vehicle a company has to achieve their vision and the road their taking to get there… but when I explain it like that I normally tend to open a can full of worms.. questions, questions and more questions. I have a meeting with some potential customers over seas and if anybody has a better answer I will love to hear that.

    Cheers: Oscar

  9. on 27 Dec 2008 at 1:15 pm 9.Todd McCann said …

    I am a complex problem solver and an influential countermeasures provider. LOL.

    I enlighten people to see work entirely different to benefit the individual first and then align the new learning to helping the business improve.

    What is the definition of INSANITY?
    Doing the same thing over and expecting different results. Stop doing that, LOL…

    Others have described me endearingly as an Improvement Zealot, a Sensei, a pure process thinker….The dude with the magic bag of tools and tricks that creates value at every turn of thought, a thought transformer, someone that makes my head hurt by applying contradiction and paradox. Again LOL

    What do we really do?
    In the youthful Western World, we are viewed as Overhead – you must earn your way and pay for yourself (short term and limited from my point of view), to the aged and wiser Eastern World we are deeply respected for what our eyes see (we are special), our drive, our innovation and creativity, respect, humility, and seen as Leaders that should be immediately plugged into succession planning (Long term and supportive with a solid foundation).

    2 diametrically opposed yet interesting perspectives.

    I am a Student/Teacher first.
    Learning from Others and Teaching individuals, to Learn to See waste anywhere and everywhere, at work and at home. Once they succumb and see they are positively inflicted for life. As all of you know Seeing Waste, drawing waste, measuring waste, verbally describing waste is a curse and a blessing at the same time.

    My Belief:

    The difficulty in explaining what a Lean Thinker does is based on the sometimes backward mental models that the recipient has produced over time of what “true” continuous improvement is all about. I have heard, Oh we tried that before, my reply why did you stop? As Chris stated above one must change Paradigms to become more enlightened about the religion of Continuous Improvement.

    My Background: I am a scientist based on academia.

    I try not to explain what I do, my approach is to lead folks to what I do by asking questions of them; Introspective Questions. Paradigm Shifts occur at various rates based on the roots of their current thinking processes. Again, Change comes slowly for some for others once they Learn to See they are positively impacted for Life!

    Don’t forget the Adult Learning Model – Hands on GO SEE Learn by Doing.

    Take those who ask the question Genchi Genbutsu, Go See the “operations / mechanics” of what is going on at the Gemba for yourself.

    Learning by Sharing: I ask them to describe what they see and then describe what you see. Every time the points of view are entirely different, 180. But most will respond I never looked at it that way before. Ever experienced this phenomenon?

    Those DEEP LEAN THINKERS out there should be aware that there are others who see waste, and see it very well.

    As I was taught and will always remember,

    Never throw the Ignorance Card, Seek to Understand, Learn / Teach by Doing through involvement, Suspend all Assumptions (Senge)- In God we Trust please show me the data!

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