It’s That Season Again – the 2009 Lean Conference (Networking) Marathon


By Adam Zak, Adam Zak Executive Search:

From now through early November we’re on the road again, meetin’ and greetin’ our Lean colleagues from around the country.

Morning mail brought a reminder that it’s that season again. Yes, time to hit the Lean conference circuit until you can’t stand (afford?) it anymore. Not to single out AME (Association for Manufacturing Excellence) for any particular reason, but it was AME’s 12-page color brochure which outlined five key benefits I would receive (and you too!) by attending their 2009 Lean Conference. Of the five, networking only placed third. Hmm?

Quoting AME (emphasis added) on the benefits of networking:

“Building a social network of like-minded people is an important part of the Lean journey. It’s well established by over 30 years of scientific research that the best performers and the most profitable companies invest in social capital. In the world of Lean, establishing relationships is the catalyst for success. A company with rich social capital produces outstanding business results – higher sales, better quality products, more satisfied employees and greater profits. To accelerate your Lean efforts you must continually meet new people, leverage trusted resources and build stronger relationships. Having the right people included in your sphere of influence will help you cut your way through all of the noise about Lean and provide not only ongoing support but the right support. It’s not just what you know and who you know that counts – but also who knows you that is important to your success.”

I’ve got to find out who writes their advertising copy! As an executive search guy who specializes in recruiting Lean Executives for the Sustainable Lean Enterprise, I couldn’t have said this better myself. Networking makes major sense for every Lean Executive, including you.

Incidentally, the AME flyer specifically did NOT mention that networking is an ideal way to position yourself for long-term career advancement. Sure, your current employer may not be struggling with layoffs, salary reductions or other recession-induced issues – now. More about this below. Just remember, “who knows you ‚Ä ¶is important to your success.”

So, how to maximize the benefits to you from conference networking? A few observations and suggestions. Not by any means a comprehensive list, but maybe enough to get you energized.

Plan. Before getting on that plane, think about why you’re attending the conference. What is your purpose? What objectives and expectations do you have? What outcomes do you hope to achieve? I personally believe that in today’s world of “The Brand Called You,” building your personal network should be a key purpose in and of itself. But beyond that, is it professional development? Is it soliciting input about a specific business issue you’re facing, and information about how others have tackled similar problems? What will you need to accomplish at the conference so that you receive true value-added for your time and your employer’s financial investment? Get clarity on this.

Prepare. Who do you think you’ll want to meet, and speak with, and why? What will you say to them? Think about what insights and perspectives you can offer your prospective conversation partners. What ideas might you be able to share about Lean, your company’s business challenges and successes, yourself personally and professionally? You don’t need a prepared “sales pitch” but make a few notes in advance. Most effective of all, think about some questions to ask of the people you’ll meet. Powerful conversation starters. Have some.

Bring tools. As the Amex folks say, don’t leave home without‚Ä ¶business cards! Your business card is valuable currency because you can exchange it for the other person’s business card. That way you’ll have contact info so you can follow-up after the conference. And you’ll want to do that. I am absolutely amazed at the number of people I meet at virtually every event who don’t have a business card. Why did they bother showing up?

Show up; no‚Ä ¶really, show up. You’re at an off-site for a reason. If not for that reason you could have spent less time and money at a Webinar instead. That reason does not include responding to emails and phone calls from colleagues back at the Gemba; or fine-tuning a future-state map; or sneaking out for a round of golf. Go on the plant tours and to the workshops you signed up for. Attend meals, coffee breaks and cocktail hours. Come early, mingle, and chat (see below). Stay late. Yes, you can eat too. But only with other attendees.

Mingle. AME indicated that Northrop Grumman is deploying a team of 30 to this year’s conference. Wow, 30 people! Here’s some advice for those NG participants and you as well: Don’t all sit at the same table. Networking isn’t about dancing with the partner you brought; it’s about learning new steps from the guy or gal snapping their fingers to an unfamiliar beat out there on the dance floor. So meet and talk to people you don’t already know. Then, you’ll get to know them, and they you.

Say hello. Take the initiative to start a conversation with the unknown colleague sitting next to you at the supply chain workshop or a few of the Medtronic folks lining up at the salad buffet across the room. You might ask the person walking alongside you on the Miller Brewing tour why they chose it instead of the one over at Proctor & Gamble. Or, even start a chat about the weather (just kidding) with that executive over there wearing a name badge from a customer’s or competitor’s plant. What might you learn? What else might you learn? Go ahead, engage.

OK, I know what else you were thinking about‚Ä ¶ If you are indeed actively seeking a new position, stay below the radar. Even if you followed my advice and you’re NOT sitting at the same table with the gang from back at the office. Latest statistic I find from the Department of Labor is that 64% of all jobs found last year were through contacts. You’ll be making good LeanConnections, but be discreet about your job search. That dance is a three or four-step affair, not the one-step typical at professional conferences. It’s unlikely anyone you’ve met will actually be able to offer you a job. Contacts will lead you to information, other resources and still more contacts. There’s a time and place for everything. For job search discussions that would be during your post-conference follow-up. More about how to do that in another post, coming soon.

Oh, and don’t bring resumes; almost no one bothers with paper any more, and it’s the very definition of not being discreet.

A final conference thought. Many conference promoters invite you to bring along a spouse and even schedule “significant other” activities. OK, if it’s winter and you, like I, live in Chicago, and the conference is in Maui, well‚Ä ¶ But I’ve been attending conferences for almost 20 years now and for pretty much every situation other than the Maui thing I have one word of advice: don’t. Focus on your purpose, avoid distractions. And treat your significant other to a great dinner upon your return home.

Post-conference follow-up. Much as Lean must become part of your company’s corporate culture in order to deliver sustained benefits, networking must fuse with your DNA to live up to its greatest potential for you.

Decide who you want to reach out to after the conference, then do it (rule of thumb: sooner is better, later may as well be not at all). Who will you call? Who will you email? Who would it make sense to meet with in person? After that initial connection, how will you continue to stay in touch?

Remember that networking is a long-term process which leads you into building mutually beneficial relationships. But not in just a few days. You have to work at it continuously and, eventually, you’ll form the networking habit, along with an awesome professional network at your disposal. That’s how you’ll wind up getting the inside info on all the best Lean ideas, innovations and industry trends before you read about them in Industry Week or Manufacturing Engineering. Not to mention those great career opportunity leads.

A final, final note. I’ve just been Googling on the words “conference +Lean +Six Sigma + TPM” +‚Ä ¶(well, you get the idea) and count at least 16 in the US alone before Thanksgiving. Get crackin’ and happy networking!

Adam Zak
How are you changing the world today?

Subscribe via RSS | Lean Blog Main Page | Podcast |

Please check out my main blog page at

, , , on the author's copyright.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleRevisiting Handwashing, Time, Systems, and Blame
Next articleNokia, Just Call Them "Layoffs"
Adam Zak
My name is Adam Zak. I help companies recruit truly exceptional Lean leaders. I had been doing retained executive search work for a number of years when I decided to break out on my own and create Adams & Associates International in 1990. Working for a few years with a couple of the very largest search firms had convinced me that I could add significantly more value and provide infinitely better service and quality to my clients from a smaller and more focused and responsive platform. Plus, even as a big-firm partner, I had never really felt much like my own boss. That changed when my name – today Adam Zak Executive Search – went on the door.


  1. Nice post Adam.

    I hope that learning was at least listed in their program before networking.

    I like you point that you must show up. It is so easy to get distracted by visiting another town, going out with your buddies, and enjoying the night. It is a little disappointing to see companies send people who show up late, leave early, and don’t really give the topics and the people their full effort. Remember why you are there. I think Plan and Prepare are critical steps. From a learning standpoint, I think people should know what they are trying to learn while attending. If you don’t have a plan, you may miss your purpose.

    I’ll only take exception to one point. While I understand why you don’t want people bringing their spouse to a conference, I will say this. I’ve never regretted being distracted by my wife once.

  2. Brilliant article! Well written Adam. These are great nuggets of wisdom in the networking insights as well as the have-a-purpose theme. This is a great overall recipe for job searching as well. I will share with friends!

    Learning AND networking are both valid purposes as Jaimie suggests. Love the spouse comment!

  3. Great post!

    I have to also disagree on the point of not taking your spouse (as Jamie did).

    This especially true with AME conferences which have EXCELLENT programs for spouses.

    My wife really enjoys these programs and has created her own network that has actually been synergistic with my network. She looks forward to seeing her friends each year and meeting new ones.

    Take your spouse with you!

  4. Adam – thanks for the great post.

    It’s funny that you mention AME and their conference. Stay tuned next week when I’ll have a podcast with Joe Rizzo, the chair for the AME conference, where you’ll hear more about that event specifically and why you should attend.


  5. Adam;
    Great post! I would also add that lean networking at times seems to fulfill a higher purpose in serving others. The part I like most about lean is the ability to interact with others in making their daily lives better and many times more enjoyable. This seems to be a common denominator in a good percentage of the lean networking folks. Simply said, I like to network with those who are making a difference for others through lean. All the other noted information is excellent also.
    My wife still distracts me daily and I love it. :-)

  6. I’d very much like to know when and where the conferences are happening. Is there a resource to find out this information?

  7. Mike,

    The AME conferences are week long events typically held annually towards the end of October.

    This year’s conference will be held in northern Kentucky, close to Cincinnati, from October 19-23, 2009. You can find more information at

    There are also shorter more intimate AME regional conferences. There is one in Charleston, SC to be held from May 20-22, 2009.

    Let me know if you need more info.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.