Where Did I Start with Lean?


I love it when I have a chance to meet Lean Blog readers and Twitter followers in the “real world.” In the past few weeks, I've finally met, in person, @flynncraig and @bryanlvt (at the Dan Jones Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit in the UK).

Last night, I had a chance to meet (in Boston) long-time reader Ralf Lippold (@RalfLippold), from Germany. Ralf has always commented and contributed to the blog, particularly helping to tie Lean and system dynamics fields together.

Before dinner, Ralf asked a simple question that I often ask of my podcast guests… where did you get started with Lean? I think he said, “Was it because a boss told you to learn learn?

Ah, I haven't thought about that in a while. So I reflected and told a few stories. Although it might be bad form to blog about myself, I'll share a few of the stories and images that help shape my view of Lean and the world I'm trying to improve.

As a kid, our family visits to the grandparents took me to outside of Youngstown Ohio and Flint Michigan.

As we approached my grandparents' house outside of town, the scenes in Ohio were of empty, rusted, closed down steel mills in the valleys we drove past.

I thought, “how sad.” Why did these companies have to crumble and decline? Why were the surrounding towns so bleak?

Flint was, even at that time, a decaying GM town. The sign on I-75 coming into Flint used to be a huge proud “Buick City” sign. Now, it's an ad for a casino. These images of crumbling, decaying factories stick in my head. No business is permanent and entitled to success forever.

Yes, I went to the failed AutoWorld attraction. Twice, I think. It's been 25 years since it failed, as highlighted by Forbes recently.

Indeed, the rides weren't thrilling and sometimes didn't work – literally. Two rides, the Humorous History of Automobility and The Great Race, shut down on AutoWorld's second day because of malfunctions.

My dad, who worked for GM for 40 years, came home from work in 1987 or 1988 or so, when I was still in high school, talking about Dr. Deming and his four-day seminar. It stuck in my head that Dr. Deming was an important figure. (Post continues after ad)

In undergrad days at Northwestern, I learned from Mark Spearman and Factory Physics that, in a nutshell, “MRP bad, Lean good.” Lean meant, basically, pull systems and kanban and flow. I didn't really understand it as a management system, although Spearman and Hopp covered that a bit. I was a big nerd and read Deming's Out of the Crisis on my own and it all seemed to make sense, even with my limited workplace experience at the mall selling Nintendo games. Deming's quote, It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory” really resonated with me (see above, Flint and Youngstown).

I chose to work at GM because the Powertrain division and the Livonia Engine Plant made the pitch that they had learned from Dr. Deming and operated under what they called “The Livonia Philosophy” that included strong cooperation between management and union. I quickly learned the so-called philosophy was nothing but a bunch of large posters on the wall. Dr. Deming would NOT have appreciated that irony, I'm sure. In fact, I'll dig up my old Livonia Philosophy documents and maybe I can post some of that. Can the “Old GM” sue me for that?

So that plant was NOT a lean environment. Typical traditional “management by yelling and embarrassing people” when things went badly. And badly they went. Quality was poor, costs were high, productivity was low, and morale was terrible.

I heard everything:

  • “They want me to check my brain at the door.”
  • “They hired me for my back, not my brain.”
  • “I want to stop the line to do my quality checks, but management says keep the line running.”

It was sad. Not at a “the buildings are empty and crumbling” way, like Youngstown and Flint, but in a more micro level, as in “Why is it that people hate coming to work?” level. I re-read Deming. People should be allowed to have pride in their work. Management needs to quit destroying people over the course of their 30 years of UAW work, needs to quit making people miserable.

I saw the pain caused by bad management. And I vowed to do better.

The plant had a very talented team of internal consultants who had been hired from Toyota suppliers, Nissan, and other companies that were much more Lean than GM. But we couldn't say “Lean” due to union politics. These Lean Thinkers were hired by Powertrain corporate… but the local plant management wanted NOTHING to do with them. The consultants were banished to a far corner of the plant and ostracized, basically.

So, the young engineer who wanted to learn, combined with bored mentors looking to teach… I learned a ton. There was plenty of waste to see first hand. Plenty to talk about in terms of how things SHOULD be done. They invested a lot of time in me and taught me a lot.

Then, after a year of horrible performance, we finally got a new plant manager, Larry Spiegel, who was NUMMI trained and he was great. I finally saw what good leadership looked like. The internal Lean consultants were turned loose and we started training and coaching people. We started fixing things. I learned a lot of great leadership and change management lessons… and I was hooked.

So my motivations for believing in Lean and wanting to promote it are pretty personal and pretty deeply felt. Even though I'm an engineer and a recovering MBA, Lean is not strictly logical to me. It's as emotional as it is logical. That gets me in trouble sometimes, but that's me.

People should be able to enjoy their work. It's about that simple.

When I started working in hospitals in 2005 and started hearing the same things… people were miserable at work, didn't feel listened to, not appreciated… I almost felt like I was re-living aspects of 1995 to 1997 as I went through 2005 to 2007, except I was in hospitals instead of a factory.

Lean is not easy work, but the motivation remains!!!

What's your story?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Great post Mark. And I'm glad Ralf asked you that question (he's a great and inquisitive guy).

    No one thing helped my get my start, but I'll share this. Before graduating college I was doing some part-time project work doing programming and projects for Weldon Machine Tool in York, Pa. One of the projects was to automate the machine code generation for the CNC grinder. The client was doing lots of prototype parts on the grinder and drawings would sit on an engineers desk for up to 6 weeks before they got around to it, because they were busy doing other stuff. I wrote the code so that the machinist could read the print, enter certain parameters, and generate the code automatically in 6 minutes. So we took it from 6 weeks lead time to 6 minutes.

    I learned two things from that experience.
    1. Never assume that because other smart people have looked at it a problem, that it's done being solving. There is always opportunity to dig deeper or think creatively.
    2. The real waste was not in generating code faster, but in by-passing 6 weeks of sitting on a desk. The real waste is not in the obvious place.

    Those were important lessons for me, and set me down a path that helped me appreciate some of the finer points of lean.

    I hope others share their stories. I love asking this question of people, as Ralf did. Thanks Ralf and Mark.



  2. My family owns a small furniture manufacturing company in Holland, Michigan. We manufacture wood furniture primarily for libraries.

    In 1990, when I was pursuing an engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, my father called me up one day and said "You MUST read this book called 'The Machine that Changed the World'. I said "Dad, I'm taking 21 credits at an engineering school, I don't have a lot of idle time to read." He said "You MUST read this book!" So I did. I didn't think much of it at the time – I was young and had no experience, but I formed a lasting impression of "Wow, there is something going on at Toyota."

    Fast forward 12 years, and I joined the family business. I never thought I would, but I did. We were (and mostly still are) a typical batch and queue shop. Long lead times. Poor quality. We survive only because of the incredible fire-fighting talents and dedication of a core group of employees. Not ideal.

    In the summer of 2006, for whatever reason, I decided to pick up "Lean Thinking". I was hooked. I finally found a way for us to survive long term. I started to work on transforming our company.

    We are a work in progress. (Aren't we all?) But we are going. I find looking backward isn't too useful, but there are days when I wonder what happened between my Dad's enthusiasm for "The Machine" back in 1990, and 2002 when I joined the company. What a waste of potential.

    Well, now it is my job to help us achieve our potential. I like our odds.

    Sidenote: My father-in-law worked for GM for 38 years before retiring around 2004. About 4 years ago I asked him "What is your 'plan B'?" He didn't understand what I was asking. He couldn't fathom GM not being there with his pension, etc. I'm afraid to ask him now, as his 'plan B' may be to live in my basement.

  3. Mark,
    Great story and not too different from my own.
    I grew up outside Detroit, the next town over from Mark. My dad was a Ford engineering veteran who retired with 37-years service.
    I don't remember him speaking of Deming, but he did speak of Don Petersen, Ford's CEO during the 1980s who, I found out later, was a major Deming disciple.
    I visited family near Akron, Ohio and drove through towns like Monroe, Michigan and Toledo during those same years, past the same rusty factories that give the region its name.
    My first job out of college was with Yazaki North America, the American branch of Toyota's keiretsu, recently purchased from Chrysler. I worked as a design engineer supporting the Jeep product lines during the hey-day of the SUV.
    I quickly discovered that the compelling part of the automotive industry isn't designing new products. There's not much innovation or challenge there. The challenge is building 100 or 300 thousand per year, perfectly. I recognized quickly that continuous process improvement was the heart and soul of a product industry.
    I discovered Lean when I moved to Boston where my wife was at MIT and had friends in the Lean Aerospace Initiative. I read "The Machine" and "Lean Thinking" and it took off from there.
    I'm still looking for a good mentor, reading everything I can get my hands on, and making the most of the experiences I'm getting.
    Learning and improving everyday.


  4. I am a new follower to this blog. I first want to thank you for you incredible posts about your experiences in lean. I am a recent college graduate of the University of Dayton. I studied operations management and the Toyota Production system while earning my MBA. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to learn from Dr. Joseph Castellano who is a dedicated advocate of the Lean Philosophy. He got me reading all the books and consistenly applied the concepts to our everyday problems. My last semester at grad school we had the chance to accompany him to a trade school in the area and work with their staff to implement lean. It was incredible to witness the transformation of this not for profit school.
    Ever since meeting Dr. Castellano I have been extremely fascniated by Lean and its possibilities. Although I am now an aspiring CPA in Chicago I am constantly looking to find a Lean mentor(s) because no matter how much I try, the Lean bug won't escape me.


  5. I have been lucky that in some way I have always been attached to doing lean……not necessarily lean thinking. Much of my learning followed the way the US was learning about lean.

    I took a job in college as a co-op for Thomson Consumer Electronics (RCA). There my manager introduced me to Dr. Shingo's book on SMED. We used tools like SMED and line balancing often. I even helped design a plant for JIT pull (what a disaster that was). I even learned a little about DFT.

    I then went to work for an auto supplier. We were 20 minutes from a Toyota plant and were trying to gain their business. Our new President said we were to "do lean", so a buddy and I read everything we could (that is when we found this blog….thanks Mark) and started experimenting on our own. We were fortunate enough to have a boss that let us run wild with our implementations and plans. This is when I also started learning about the management and people system that lean is about and fine tuning my problem solving skills.

    I then moved on to another company in HVAC to learn how to implement lean as a company strategy. I was very lucky that I met and worked with a great coach (thanks Jamie).

    Now I work for Hallmark Cards and working for a group digging deep to really teach the company about lean principles and thinking as I continue to grow my own learnings.

  6. How’d I get started? I got laid off. True story. After 9/11, my company, Rockwell Collins, had a large layoff due to the temporary collapse of the aerospace industry. I was fortunate to get back on a couple months later into the Lean group. My first assignment was to create a class on change management, since we were struggling with sustainment (sound familiar?). I then learned the tools and philosophy from some great teachers, especially related to office applications. I moved to healthcare in 2005, both as a practitioner and as an advocate for continuous improvement.

  7. Brad –

    You could try the LEI's connection center at lean.org to find another lean thinker near you to possibly be a mentor.

    Also, please email me mgraban (at) yahoo dot com as I have some questions for somebody who's just out of college and interested in lean.

    Looking to form a little focus group of sorts.

  8. Brad – you can also check out SME's Lean Connections:


    We (the lean community) has pushed very hard to get lean into the undergraduate and graduate curriculums through North America. However, we haven't done much of anything to help recent graduates engage and apply those skills. That's a miss – shame on us – something that we need to think about.

    Jamie F

  9. Great blog, I love it. Very thorough, considered and practical. I’m very happy to have found such a great resource that isn’t all about consulting and the Silver Bullet. Truly lean, in an information & communication sense!

  10. Hi All,

    I am Mikkel Smith and the most active (nearly the only) Lean blogger in Denmark, Europe. You can find my blog at http://leanforum.wordpress.com (in Danish – sorry).

    As a Lean blogger I have of course read quite a lot of Mark’s blog. And it was good to read Mark’s way into Lean.

    It sounds like we have quite the same approach. I perhaps have a more emotional than logical approach to Lean.

    Like 5S. Naturally I am an untidy person running my own Lean-consultancy business. But logical I know that I can not be successful in business if I do not work strictly with 5S.

    I often train others in 5S and Lean and often people ask me how it is in our home. Then I tell them that we struggle with 5S in our home like many other families. That surprises them. But I guess I am good at introducing other to 5S because I do not TELL THEM TO work with 5S but I MOTIVATE them to work with 5S (like myself).

    Btw I also have a Danish website on Lean in private homes (planning, 5s, shopping etc. – it has given me quite a lot of press stories :-)) (www.familienplus.dk – sorry in Danish)

    I have now worked with Lean for 11 years and I still feel very motivated to make others feel about Lean like myself.

    This month I have opened a new Scandinavian website on Lean courses (http://lean-kursus.dk) and the coming months I will open new ways of Lean networking in Denmark. If you have any inputs to Lean networking I will appreciate (how to make networks that helps companies who already work with Lean). Thanks :-)

  11. This has been my first experience with “Lean” and I can honestly say I’m not sure how I even stumbled across this blog. I won’t say that these ideas are “revolutionary” because they have obviously been around for a long time, but it is certainly a completely different spin on management. I am starting to implement some of this stuff into my own business. Thanks for the push.

  12. Many thanks Mark, sharing your own story on how lean became your life passion.

    Looking back in time four years now, only one thing has changed for me:

    I still, and even stronger believe in the lean attitude that has the power to create the value in life we all seek for!!!

    Cheers from Dresden


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