Team building, problem solving take center stage at 2016 COE summit

The Center for Operational Excellence’s flagship annual event has more than a few things in common with the fast-paced racing world featured in the kickoff to the fourth-annual Leading Through Excellence summit.

In the span of three years, COE’s April Leading Through Excellence summit has grown to a gathering of nearly 400 process excellence leaders from around the world: 50 companies, a dozen workshops and tours, 20 breakout sessions, four dynamic keynote addresses, and countless insights across three days aimed at helping organizations harness the power of process improvement.

Here’s a look back at the event:

PIT action

Leading Through Excellence began with a bang as nearly 100 attendees plunged into the high-paced world of pit crew racing, guided by Mooresville, N.C.-based training ground Performance Instruction & Training (PIT). The session’s focus on handoffs, coordination and standard work drove home the importance of having a high-functioning team for Cheryl Cole of KeyBank, which sent 17 employees to the conference. “We can all benefit from what we experienced from PIT,” she said. “Teams tend not to be aware of the significance of being in sync.”

PIT team
Team-building emerged as the heart of Leading Through Excellence, where a number of companies brought upwards of 15 employees. “Getting a team together, you start bouncing ideas off each other,” said attendee Linda Schaefer of COE member Clopay. “You get more people involved, the excitement builds, and great things always come of that.”


Operational excellence isn’t bound by the Japanese words that make the foundations of lean. Author Dan Markovitz (A Factory of One, Building the Fit Organization) in his workshop offered a jargon-free look at continuous improvement that’s at the heart of his own passion to break down barriers to understanding. “If we could speak to them using analogies and metaphors that make sense to them, all the sudden we don’t have to go uphill,” Markovitz told COE in a pre-summit interview.


Longtime COE member Cardinal Health Inc. hosted a “train the trainer” workshop hosted by Luis Loya (pictured, middle) that modeled the health-care company’s own best practices in teaching lean practices.

Off-site tours during Leading Through Excellence ranged from a trip to Anheuser-Busch InBev’s massive Columbus brewing facility to a trip through the production line at COE member Abbott Nutrition. Here, Ohio State’s own Spine Research Institute demonstrates its trailblazing work in studying back problems, a hugely costly yet widely misunderstood workplace ailment.

Ben Cook
After hosting two high-paced rounds of pit crew training simulations on the first day of Leading Through Excellence, Performance Instruction & Training’s Ben Cook took to the stage to kick off a full day of breakout sessions. Before a crowd of nearly 400 people from 50 companies, Cook illustrated PIT’s “think inside the box” philosophy, that’s hinged on driving precision from a highly functioning team and reducing human error as much as possible. “The problem is the human element – that’s what happened with us as pit crew members. If we break down, then we lose the race; the car’s not gonna lose the race for us anymore.”

True leaders don’t bark answers – they ask questions that help dig to the root of the problem. Attendees practiced asking effective questions in a packed session hosted by lean expert Margie Hagene.

More than half of all breakout sessions at Leading Through Excellence are hosted by industry leaders, sharing stories of what worked, what didn’t – and how we can all learn from it. Pictured is Guru Vasudeva, SVP and Enterprise CTO at COE member and summit sponsor Nationwide, who shared his own “day in the life of a lean leader.”

The balance of the breakout sessions at Leading Through Excellence are hosted by Fisher College of Business faculty members sharing their own research. Pictured is Prof. Aravind Chandrasekaran, who offered insights he gleaned from working with high-tech manufacturers facing sudden – and potentially cataclysmic – shifts in project scope.

Matt Dumas (pictured, above) of COE member Honda R&D said the summit is “a great event for a team. To have more of the organization thinking about lean and understanding these principles makes it that much easier to take it back and work together to apply it.”

Lead summit sponsor gave attendees a hands-on taste of process design principles with a catapult workshop that had participants taking a “MacGuyver” approach and facing off in friendly competition.

Longtime lean leader Joe Murli in his keynote address offered his decades-in-the-making perspective on the lean management system. Of the summit, he said “this isn’t just leading-edge thought, but edge of the envelope thinking here. It’s little things that we can pluck off the tree and bring back to put into what we’re already doing. That makes it much more powerful.”

Connecting an organization’s purpose and mission down to day-to-day work can be a formidable challenge for any company. David Kalman of Root Inc. in his popular breakout session showed attendees how visuals can help close that gap.

Harvard Business School researcher and professor Francesca Gino, author of the book Sidetracked, guided attendees through the wild world of decision making, where our hard-wired instincts often stand in the way of the right calls. “We are human beings,” Gino said. “Often we start with a plan, a clear goal, and we take the time to come up with a clear action plan. When we look at the outcome, we’re often a little bit off target.” Knowing how to counteract the unconscious biases and instincts we possess, Gino said, can lead us to better decision making, she said.

The behind-the-scenes action at Leading Through Excellence was fueled by more than three-dozen Fisher College of Business undergraduate students, graduate students and staff members, who served as volunteers and introduced speakers throughout the event.

Accidental Creative founder and acclaimed author Todd Henry closed out Leading Through Excellence, urging the audience to ask: “How are you bringing yourself to the table every day as a leader? A brilliant idea is not enough – in order to succeed, you have to develop your voice as a leader and you have to help your team develop its voice.”

Want to see more? Check out the full album of summit photos on our Flickr site. And mark your calendar for Leading Through Excellence 2017, April 11-13.

Registration opens for 2015 Leading Through Excellence summit

Time and money are in short supply these days for companies seeking to build a long-term problem-solving culture and keep up with a frenzied short-term workload, but sometimes it’s necessary to hit “pause” before launching forward.

The Center for Operational Excellence once again is offering a low-cost, high-value opportunity for companies around the country to bring their teams together and take a deep dive into best practices and industry leading research: The third-annual Leading Through Excellence summit, set for April 8-10 in Columbus, Ohio.

scaling up excellenceRegistration for the summit is now open for individuals and teams looking to attend, with the best early bird savings opportunity running through Dec. 31. Here’s just a glimpse at what’s available at LTE next year:

  • A dynamic line-up of keynote speakers that includes David Marquet, retired Navy captain and author of Turn the Ship Around!; Huggy Rao, bestselling co-author of Scaling Up Excellence; and Rich Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations and author of Joy Inc.
  • An optional, all-day tour of manufacturer Crown Equipment on Wednesday, April 8, along with half-day tours of Rolls-Royce Energy Systems and the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio.
  • Half-day workshops on cause mapping and supply chain management, along with a hands-on, half-day session hosted by keynote speaker and Menlo CEO Sheridan.

More workshops, tours and breakout session speakers will be announced through January 2015, but don’t miss your chance to sign up now as the event once again is expected to sell out.

Learn more and register at

Decision making takes center stage at COE’s ‘Leading Through Excellence’ summit

We live and work in a world of decisions, from the small ones that spark almost imperceptible changes in our daily lives, to the massive ones that can lead to breakthroughs – or catastrophes.

But if practice makes perfect, why can even the most experienced leaders make bad decisions – and what can we do to change it?

Bestselling author Chip Heath
Bestselling author Chip Heath

The challenge of decision making emerged as the running theme of the Center for Operational Excellence’s three-day Leading Through Excellence summit, an annual April gathering of nearly 250 process improvement professionals driven to sharpen their leadership and problem-solving skills. Chip Heath, a Stanford University professor and the bestselling co-author of Decisive, Switch and Made to Stick, served as the featured keynote speaker for the summit, which enlisted nearly two-dozen Fisher College of Business faculty and industry leaders for breakout sessions and workshops.

Decisive, released last year, looks at decades of psychological and business research into a wide range of decisions and decision-makers, from teenagers to top-level executives. It comes to the conclusion that the same methodical approach applied to many other functional areas of an organization is applied far too seldom to decision-making.

“One of the ironies of organizational life is that we think a lot more about the process on the front lines where decisions may involve thousands of dollars, than at the top of organizations where decisions may involve tens of millions of dollars,” Heath told the crowd.

Statistics alone paint the picture. One survey of high-ranking executives, Heath said, found nearly two in three saying bad decisions were as frequent as good ones at their organizations. Some of those bad decisions appear to involve C-suite hires, as another study discovered roughly 40 percent of these placements – crucial strategic decisions for any organization – survive beyond 18 months.

Perhaps most jarring, Heath said, is a study that found the rate at which merger and acquisition deals actually create lasting value to be less than 20 percent.

Driving this slipshod track record, Heath said, is an impulse that worms its way into most humans’ brains during their teenage years and appears to be hard to shake: The desire to frame decisions as a do-it-or-not proposition, instead of a range of choices. Dropping the “or not” impulse and examining multiple options, Heath said, not only leads to better decisions, but faster ones, a notion that seems almost counterintuitive.

“Your role as a decision maker, as a designer of processes, is to widen your options,” Heath said.

The illusion of inclusion

helen turnbullAnother keynote speaker at this year’s COE summit focused on the decisions we make unconsciously in our everyday lives. Helen Turnbull (pictured, left), a nearly 30-year veteran in the field of organizational behavior, explored the notion that many companies fail to unlock the potential of their work forces because of sometimes imperceptible biases, not just on race and gender but on age and socioeconomic group, among others.

“We’re all looking at the world through the eyes of our expertise, but the problem is we don’t know what we’re not seeing,” Turnbull said.

The problems these biases can create in organizations extend beyond simply creating an environment some employees deem unsafe – it can hamper that crucial act of decision-making as well, Turnbull said.

“Sometimes we manage companies to such an extent that people learn what they need to do to fit in,” she said. “In doing that, they stop speaking up, stop telling you what they’re really thinking, and they start complying to such an extent that you’re no longer being told the truth about what’s actually happening.”

The first step to stopping this “illusion of inclusion” that damages so many organizations, Turnbull said, is to look not outward – but inward.

“It’s not OK to think, ‘I’m pretty good at this (diversity and inclusion) stuff,’” she said. “We need to accept that we’re not as good at this as we think we are.”

Turning points

Good decision-making – after a rash of the opposite – is what brought one of the final keynote speakers to the stage on the closing day of COE’s Leading Through Excellence summit.

cameron mitchellCameron Mitchell, the namesake of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, traced his beginnings as a “bitter young guy” who barely graduated high school to the wildly successful leader of a restaurant chain with 20 locations and nine different concepts spread across several states.

While Mitchell’s company has brought in more than $1 billion in revenue after 20 years of business and created thousands of jobs, he said it’s not the pursuit of profit that’s at the heart of its day-to-day operations.

“The most important thing we want to do is not to make a profit,” Mitchell said. “Our goal is to maintain our culture and our values.”

That culture includes a relentless focus on training employees to provide consistent and outstanding customer service – look no further than a motto that reads “The answer is ‘Yes;’ now what’s the question?” – and a drive to ingrain those values into everyone in the organization.

“We want to teach people how to think,” he said, “not what to do.”

This commitment to culture and its communication is not only a key facet to the success of Mitchell’s chain, but a key lesson to any kind of leader.

“The biggest mistake leaders can make is to allow ambiguity to permeate the business,” he said.

Leading Through Excellence closed with an address by Lawrence Funderburke, a former Buckeye basketball and National Basketball Association star who made his own life-changing decision in recent years. Today, Funderburke is the leader of the Lawrence Funderburke Youth Organization, a nonprofit that helps at-risk children and teenagers with education and financial literacy.

A graduate of Fisher College of Business, Funderburke made a lasting mark at Fisher and at The Ohio State University in 2001 by establishing a $100,000 endowment, half of which was earmarked to support disadvantaged Columbus natives attending the college.

For a look back at the full summit, check out our Flickr page.

This article appears in the April 2014 edition of COE’s Current State e-newsletter. Have a colleague who should be receiving this e-newsletter? Contact Matt at

Featured summit tour: LeanCor trip to highlight visual management, employee engagement

lean fulfillment

Need to get out of town for a while?

The Center for Operational Excellence has expanded the scope of the April 9 plant tours offered as part of our three-day Leading Through Excellence summit to include a trip to LeanCor in Florence, Ky., in the Cincinnati metro area. Unlike the five other plant tours we’re offering Wednesday afternoon, this is an all-day experience that heads to two different operations LeanCor runs, both of which are models of enterprise-wide lean application.

The lean-focused third-party logistics provider supports 44 plants, five cross-docks, 1,700-plus suppliers, and 1,200-plus outbound shipping locations. In any given week, they coordinate the movement of 17,000 tons of cargo.

The exclusive summit tour is taking attendees to LeanCor’s control center for tactical transportation management, where visual management is used not just to track the movement of cargo but highlight problems. Brad Bossence, a LeanCor vice president, tells me the tour also highlights how leaders are engaged in problem-solving.

After lunch, the LeanCor tour heads to a 110,000-square-foot in-bound replenishment facility (pictured, above) the organization runs nearby, which supports a number of major automakers. Here, you’ll see how LeanCor has implemented visible metrics for tracking the engagement of the 100-worker team hour-by-hour, painting an agile, accurate picture of how workflow is moving.

We all stare down complexity day-in, day-out. LeanCor offers a compelling, multifaceted playbook for tackling it.

The LeanCor tour already is 50 percent booked. Check out details on this event and others we’re offering by visiting the official Leading Through Excellence site or registering.