Are your meetings a waste of valuable time?

itln crowd

McKinsey & Co. Partner Krish Krishnakanthan shared a number of sharp insights about the application of lean principles to the world of information technology, but what seemed to resonate the most were his thoughts on how we view two very important features of any organization: Meetings and managers.

krishnakanthan mckinseyMeetings, Krishnakanthan (pictured) told a crowd of 80 at last week’s IT Leadership Network forum, often serve the function of an all-hands-on-deck “firefighting” session. Here, issues that could be resolved on individual team members’ time instead are tackled en masse, contributing very little value or eroding what value there is.

“Staff meetings truly have become problem-solving meetings, not status-reporting meetings,” Krishnakanthan said.

Check out photos from the event here.

Where organizations often fail to contain much-dreaded waste in processes, he said, is in firmly establishing objectives among individual team members and leveraging “huddles” or meetings for valuable communication – not triage.

This same attraction to firefighting, Krishnakthanthan said, has seeped into the role of managers. These leaders, he said, should find themselves coaching their teams to develop the skills they need to solve problems – not solve the problems themselves.

“Most managers, though, would love to just solve the problem,” Krishnakanthan said, “and they get rewarded for this. A reward system must be built to reward really good problem solvers, not crisis managers.”

The key, he said, is to be a leader who knows how to ask the right questions, not jump to provide the answer.

Krishnakanthan was the featured speaker at COE’s sixth forum in its IT Leadership Network series, which began with a visit from Lean IT co-author Mike Orzen in April 2012. Check out for a look at past speakers and our upcoming events.

Fisher prof’s pharma research highlighted in ‘U.S. News’ article

As pharmaceutical recalls continue to hit headlines, an ongoing focus of research for one Fisher College of Business professor is taking on a new urgency.

John Gray Fisher College of Business Ohio State
Prof. Gray, speaking at the Center for Operational Excellence’s April “Leading Through Excellence” summit.

Fisher Prof. John Gray and two co-authors of an unpublished paper recently wrote an article featured in the online edition of U.S. News & World Report that highlights the ongoing challenges pharmaceutical manufacturers face in maintaining quality, particularly when production has been outsourced or offshored. U.S. News published the article just days after GlaxoSmithKline announced a recall of asthma drug Ventolin and several months after dozens of people died because of quality issues at the New England Compounding Pharmacy in Massachusetts.

Gray, along with Prof. Aleda Roth of Clemson University and Associate Prof. Brian Tomlin of Dartmouth College, took a close look at the performance of pharmaceutical plants run by firms that own the brands, versus those run by contract manufacturers. There was not an overall difference, but their research did indicate less-experienced and less-regulated contract manufacturers had a higher risk of quality issues.

“Our research provides empirical evidence that drug manufacturers are hard-pressed to consistently maintain high quality operations even in their own domestic facilities,” Gray and his co-authors wrote, referring to multiple research papers. “This challenge is magnified when production is performed in offshore and outsourced plants.”

The challenging business of making and supplying safe pharmaceuticals has been a topic of interest in Gray’s research for years.  In 2011, he co-authored a study published in the Journal of Operations Management that found drugs produced in offshore manufacturing plants – even when run by an American company – pose a greater quality risk than those produced stateside. They attributed this result to differences in language and culture between the plant’s personnel and those at headquarters.

Gray told us then that “just one quality error that hurts customers or leads to a recall can be extremely costly to a company responsible.”

What makes Gray’s research with his co-authors so resonant these days is the underlying truth that goes beyond organizational borders and language barriers: Successful quality reforms come from far-reaching culture change across the entire supply chain, a feat that isn’t easy, cheap, or quick. For any industry, defeating a culture of silos, miscommunication, and blame is a hard-won battle.

It’s an urge in the pharmaceutical industry, and countless others, to turn to technology – buy Gray and his colleagues write in the U.S. News article that the solution, instead is in people and day-to-day processes.

“Absent such an organizational mindset,” they write, “quality failures will occur even with the best technology.”

MBOE recap: Tying it back to principles

Fisher Senior Lecturer Mrinalini Gadkari is breaking down a recent week in the life of Fisher’s Master of Business Operational Excellence program. Stay tuned this week for more. 

Prof. Gary Butler at a recent MBOE session

Prof. Gary Butler emphasized the importance of creating a link with lean tools, systems and principles in creating and sustaining culture change. Most companies, he said, are great at implementing lean tools, but unless they’re tied to strategic company goals and a system exists that nurtures those changes, it’s impossible to sustain lean change – or any change, for that matter.

As an example, a company might implement 5S to organize multiple work areas to improve workflow and create a safe environment for the operators. In a few weeks, however, things tend to go back to how they were. This is often because the 5S process wasn’t tied to a deeper strategic goal. Often there’s a lack of a system where operators and managers can have first- and second-level daily meetings where problems, if any, are signaled to upstream operations. Managers who don’t go to the gemba to see the actual state of the flow are unlikely to have a sustained 5S environment as well.

Here are some key takeaways from Butler’s lecture:

  • Operational Excellence requires a vision of the future state
  • It requires a plan for gap closure between the current and future state
  • No strategy can be executed successfully without communication throughout the organization
  • Day-by-day perseverance is required to take small steps toward the future state vision.

Inside look: Nationwide’s lean IT management

This edition of Think OpEx features a guest blogger: Tom Paider, an AVP and build capacity leader at COE member Nationwide Insurance. Paider, also a graduate of Fisher’s MBOE program, will give an inside look at the lean transformation that took place in Nationwide’s IT division.

You’ve probably heard talk about the need for management to change when undergoing a lean transformation. The principle is simple: How can we expect our staff to change if we as managers don’t change as well? While the principle is simple, the implementation of the principle isn’t so simple. Many managers believe they’re where they are because they know best how to direct their subordinates They believe their role is to assign tasks, monitor progress and assess performance.

Culture, Values and attitudes, What we do
Focus on what behaviors you want people to exhibit, then design processes around those behaviors. It’s much easier for people to act their way into thinking than think their way into acting.

How, then, do we transform these managers to a lean mindset focused on coaching, problem-solving and empowerment?

In my experience at Nationwide, this management transformation follows the same general pattern as staff in lean transformations: Changes to daily behavior used to change thinking over time. It follows the pattern outlined in John Shook’s MIT Sloan article “How to Change a Culture: Lessons from NUMMI”. Shook surmises it’s much more difficult for an organization to think its way into acting than to act its way into thinking. By approaching transformation from a daily behavior standpoint, the change is baked directly into the DNA of the organization and backslides are much less likely.

When we first deployed a lean framework to Nationwide’s Application Development Center, our managers were supporters but ultimately didn’t change the way they worked. This caused confusion within our teams as staff moved toward collaboration, empowerment and problem-solving while the management team still operated in a command-and-control hierarchical style. A management team that didn’t understand how to channel the enthusiasm of the staff quickly snuffed out the initiative of our associates.

So how did we do it? We put in place processes that reinforced the behaviors desired: A focus on coaching staff instead of directing them, building problem-solving muscle throughout the organization, and getting them out of their offices and to the gemba.  We focused on daily accountability through tiered standups, visual controls and visual workflow for the work of management, and leader standard work that governed the expected behaviors.

In a subsequent blog post, learn what each of these looked like and how we implemented them. Stay tuned…

Culture counts – inside and out

Depending on your level of skepticism about the intangible in work and in life, the notion of culture being as important – or more important – than process and strategy might ring true or completely hollow. Culture itself became an important aspect of the past two events the Center for Operational Excellence has hosted, and the arguments for its impact on building a team and dealing with the outside world are enough to convert a non-believer.

In late May, we hosted Quicken Loans President and Chief Marketing Officer Jay Farner at our quarterly professional development seminar. In a compelling look at how Quickens’ culture has driven its success, Farner said the nation’s No. 1 online mortgage lender doesn’t really talk mortgages much in its hours-long employee organization. 

Jay Farner
Quicken Loans President Jay Farner

 “We’re a technology company, we’re a marketing company and we just so happen to do mortgages,” Farner said.

 Instead, it’s all about the kind of company the employee is joining and what maxims – they call them “isms” – they need to live by. It’s this focus on “isms” such as “Every client, every time, no excuses, no exceptions” that have helped Quicken win honors for being one of the best places to work and for having one of the best corporate IT infrastructures around.

“When people join an organization, if they don’t understand what they just joined, they can’t become a part of the family or understand its philosophies,” Farner said. “How can they be expected to excel?”

 What better way to foster a sense of ownership – a do-or-die ingredient to driving process improvement – than getting everyone on the same page culturally?

A different angle on culture took center stage at COE’s June 1 forum “Business in Brazil: An Insider’s View.” A group of about 60 COE members and guests joined to hear from a trio of experts on the challenges in doing business in and with the South American country, one that’s on fire economically these days but not the easiest to navigate. Sean Corson, an international sales exec for Ohio’s Cast Nylons Ltd., gave a look at import export challenges, while David Wilson, of counsel at Kegler Brown Hill & Ritter, helped the crowd scale legal hurdles. 

Closing out last Friday was Atila Noronha, a Brazil native who’s now an executive at McDonald’s Corp. Noronha gave a lively look at the key cultural differences between the U.S. and Brazil and how they might come into play while striking a deal. 

Atila Noronha
McDonald’s Corp. executive Atila Noronha

Think the “American way” is the best route? Tell that to a Brazilian and see where your transaction goes, Noronha said.

When it comes to driving change for a group based on “my way,” that same caution might be useful.

Stop playing dodgeball

Growing up, one of the many games I played with my friends was dodgeball. It’s also a sport many of us haven’t given up – particularly in the workplace.

Reactions to organizational change can at times resemble a game of dodgeball. (Photo courtesy

On each side of the “gym” are functional teams that represent different departments and work on departmental goals and priorities. If a new initiative is launched, they try to dodge the responsibilities because they don’t align with priorities or most of the time they don’t know how they align. One fine day they hear from the CEO the new change needed to be implemented. People do everything to resist the change – think bullet-dodging a la The Matrix. This resistance sometimes comes in the form of excuses wrapped in the plausible explanation of having too much on the plate or not having enough resources to take on the new challenge.

Why do people resist? One thing we all know is that change is difficult. How many times have you made New Year’s resolutions? Another reason is there is not enough emphasis on why the change is being made and how it aligns with the mission and vision of the organization.

One other key reason that leaders forget is the need to have a candid discussion with people who will need to implement the change. In a game of catch-ball, you have to look at the person to whom you are throwing the ball and strategize such that he/she does not drop it. The catcher has to pay attention as well. The Toyota leadership style involves the catch-ball process for communication. The leader shares the vision with his/her team. The team converts the vision in actionable items and presents the challenges of implementing the vision to the leader. The leader may stick to the vision but he/she listens, empathizes and proposes how the hurdles can be overcome. Based on the feedback from the team the leader might also adjust the vision to make it more realistic and practicable. The team and the leader agree on what’s possible and what’s not and how it can be implemented. They check in with each other from time to time to ensure progress.  It’s win-win situation.

If you have been playing dodgeball, now is time to switch. Play catch ball. Get your team on board. Make them want the change.

Trust me, I’m a doctor

How do you define a good doctor? Is it one known to have never made mistakes or one who made them, learned from them and got better?

This came to mind as I was watching a video where Dr. Brian Goldman, an emergency room physician in Toronto and host of CBC Radio’s White Coat, Black Art, discusses the shame and embarrassment doctors feel when they make mistakes. They can’t share this with colleagues because it makes them uncomfortable and they can’t share it with patients over fear of getting axed or sued.

In the video, Goldman says a baseball player with a 400 batting average is a legend, but if you applied that 4-in-10 success rate to a surgeon, what would they be called? There are no statistics to denote a good surgeon or doctor.

While a problem-free health-care experience is an ideal for all of us, in the Toyota Production System whose principles are making their way into hospitals, no problem is a problem. With a problem at hand, you can find out the root cause(s), developing countermeasures and mistake-proof the process so it won’t occur again. This goes for living, breathing human beings, too. It’s even more important that we talk about mistakes without any guilt or shame. The more we talk about them, the more we’ll be able to understand the reason behind our mistakes and fix the problem by cutting to the root cause.

Surgical Errors
Surgical errors, while formally reported, remain a hush-hush matter in the medical profession

Many hospitals have started having nurses report any errors they make during their shifts anonymously or openly into a reporting system. The nurse manager then works with a risk manager to address the incidents. Medical and surgical errors are addressed to a certain extent in the peer review and morbidity and mortality forums, but this is still a hush-hush affair.

Doctors get their education in one medical school but eventually work in a new organization with completely new systems, equipment and culture. A resident might not want to wake up their consultant in the wee hours, instead dealing with it on his or her own, but if the right decision isn’t made, there’s fear nurses and other ancillary staff may be judgmental. Doctors are expected to be perfect – patients choose those they haven’t heard anything bad about. That’s likely the case, however, because no one has ever reported anything.

It’s about time that we accept that doctors are human beings and we can, like everyone else, make mistakes. Create an environment where we can openly speak about our mistakes so that it will help with the greater good, helping patients become healthy and lead a quality life.

COE member Giant Eagle gets national TV spotlight

If any of you watch CBS Sunday Morning and live in Columbus, chances are you paused mid-coffee sip this past edition during a five-minute segment on the capital city.

The five-minute piece, which you can watch in its entirety here, starts with a look at how Dublin-based Wendy’s tests its new products, pointing to the Columbus area as a perfect place for product testing for a diverse population that creates “a near-perfect cross-section of the country’s consumers.” That’s thanks in part, of course, to Ohio State University and its international student contingent.

Along with tips of the hat to restaurant upstart Piada and the Jeni’s ice cream empire and a brief appearance by Center for Operational Excellence member Nationwide Insurance, the piece broadens into a look at the uniqueness of the city and what makes it tick.

Make it to about 3:13 in the videoand you’ll recognize another COE member: Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, whose Market District concept in Upper Arlington was dubbed by the segment as “the mother of all grocery stores.” If you’ve been there and seen the store’s blend of restaurant-quality meals on the spot, wide selections in every category and the biggest sweet potatoes and onions you’ll ever see, it’s hard to disagree. 

Giant Eagle’s Market District
“Giant Eagle’s Market District location in Upper Arlington is a jaw-dropping shopper’s paradise.” Photo courtesy

Giant Eagle is just one of our many COE members making waves with innovative new concepts, driven by an underlying focus on operational excellence. Whatever lean thinking led the chain to try selling wine by the glass in the Market District store to allow sipping while you shop, well – keep up the good work.

5S: More to ‘shine’ than the surface

Regardless of where you are in your lean journey, it’s likely you’ve heard of 5S, the set of five words that serves as a methodology for organizing the workplace. In English, they’re Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize and Sustain. That’s derived from the Japanese origin of Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu and Shitsuke.

Detractors might say 5S is simply a “spring cleaning” activity where trash is discarded to make room for more, but it’s a great deal more than that. When you sort, you separate and eventually throw away items that are unneeded. You set in order items according to the frequency and sequence of use. You get rid of dirt, dust and any leakages and shine the workplace. Once you organize the items, you standardize their location and level of use. To sustain that organization, you create paperwork that operators or managers can use to reach that goal. 

If it all works so well, then, why do some still consider shine a dusting and cleaning activity? Some say it’s played a part in saving lives. Ever heard of the controversial “Broken Windows Theory? It posits that simple disorder can increase the tendency for crime in urban areas – if more trash isn’t removed, more will pile up. The New York City Transit Authority in the 1990s applied this to stop an increasing graffiti problem on subways, scrubbing down trains each night before resuming service the next morning. Over time, they got rid of the problem as other initiatives were put in place around the city, contributing to a remarkable decrease in vandalism and the crime rate.

When you ‘shine’ the workplace it has a positive impact on the operators working there. A dirty workplace tends to cause distraction and reduce employee morale and doesn’t convey a positive message about the company. With items in ready-to-use condition, working is safer with dust and dirt gone along with slipping and tripping hazards.

In short, a clean and safe workplace begets a safe and clean workplace.

What’s in a name?

In a recent session for Fisher’s Master of Business Operational Excellence class, we had the pleasure of hearing James Hereford, COO of the Palo Alto Medical foundation. While discussing lean deployment in the health-care sector, he touched on using Japanese terms for the tools and methodologies of the Toyota Production System. It’s Hereford’s preference to use the original terms. His succinct defense:

“When you go to a Japanese restaurant, do you order sushi or do you say something like, ‘Please get me raw fish rolled in a leaf and rice?’”

Photo by Mrinalini Gadkari

What is in a name, really? If we’re doing what the words mean, does it matter if they’re Japanese or English? For many words in lean there isn’t even an exact translation. The closest translation of a simple word like gemba, for example, would be “actual place where the value is created” (Google it for many others).

So is it necessary to expend energy inventing words that convey the meaning instead of using the original words, especially if the tools and methods will be used regardless? Many people tell me, however, that in process improvement they get better buy-in when not using Japanese terms. Whatever works!

Have you had to deal with a divide in using Japanese terms with lean?