Mike Taubitz on Lean and Safety, Dr. Deming, General Motors and Paul O’Neill



My guest for podcast #175 is Mike Taubitz of the firm Sustainable Lean and FDR Safety. Mike is a retired GM employee (including a stint as Global Safety Director)  and we met at the Michigan Lean Consortium conference in 2011. We quickly discovered our shared interest in Dr. Deming, Lean, and, most importantly, safety improvement.

I hope you enjoy our chat about his background and lessons from his career, the integration of Lean practices and safety improvement, lessons from Paul O'Neill and other great topics. Like my dad, Mike is a graduate of the then General Motors Institute (now Kettering University).

Some key quotes:

  • “It's not just what you do, but why.”
  • 5S is not just neat, clean, and organized – it's about team identifying waste and developing standards
  • We are “a nation of solution seekers” instead of working on “foundational thinking.”

For a link to this episode, refer people to www.leanblog.org/175.

For earlier episodes, visit the main Podcast page, which includes information on how to subscribe via RSS or via Apple Podcasts.

Download and listen via Stitcher.

If you have feedback on the podcast, or any questions for me or my guests, you can email me at leanpodcast@gmail.com or you can call and leave a voicemail by calling the “Lean Line” at (817) 993-0630. Please give your location and your first name. Any comments (email or voicemail) might be used in follow ups to the podcast.

Automated Transcript (Not Guaranteed to be Defect Free)

Announcer (1m 2s):
Welcome to the Lean Blog podcast. Visit our website www.leanblog.org. Now, here's your host, Mark Graban.

Mark Graban (1m 13s):
Hi, this is Mark Graban. Welcome to episode 1 75 for May 16th, 2013. My guest today is Mike Taubitz of the firm Sustainable Lean. He's located in Michigan. Mike's retired GM employee, including a stint as their global safety director. We met in late 2011 at the Michigan Lean Consortium Conference, and we quickly discovered our shared interest in passion for the work of Dr. W Edwards Deming for the methodology and most important safety improvement. So I hope you enjoy our chat about Mike's background and lessons from his career, talking about how to integrate lean practices and safety improvement, his lessons and inspiration from Paul O'Neill, my guest in Podcast 124, and some other great topics.

Mark Graban (2m 0s):
So to find links to Mike, to the Paul O'Neill podcast, to other info, you can go to the page for this episode leanblog.org/175. Mike, it's a pleasure to talk to you after meeting at the the Michigan Lean Consortium event. Thanks for being a guest on the podcast today,

Mike Taubitz (2m 20s):
Mark. Thanks for having me. Any chance to talk about some of my passions as an opportunity?

Mark Graban (2m 27s):
Yeah, I'm glad you can share that with us today. Can you start off by talking about your career and your work at General Motors?

Mike Taubitz (2m 34s):
Sure. I spent over 43 years in General Motors, started out in engineering and ended up migrating through some HR positions of labor relations and training, and ultimately ended up in safety. Late seventies. It was a period when management was beginning to wake up at the fact that there are a lot of things in OSHA that were tactical, whether guarding or noise control. And that kind of put my current motion. I moved from a plant to the Chevrolet Division and then the old CPC group, and then down to corporate safety, ultimately co-managed the uaw GM Center for Health and Safety.

Mike Taubitz (3m 17s):
Got to start my passion, which had always been my career passion, was to create engineering for health and safety. And then lastly, ended up as a global regulatory liaison where I went around the world seeking out emerging global issues that would impact the manufacturing environment, trying to make sure that all of our strategies and our designs were aligned with what was coming. That's kind of it in a nutshell.

Mark Graban (3m 44s):
Quick follow up question on, on the time of gm, it seems like you and I, I know from my time working there, even though it was only two years, not 43, it seemed like, you know, for with the contentious, you know, relationship that was there, sometimes it seemed like safety should have been something that, that the UAW and and and GM could have cooperated well on. What, what was your experience in that regard?

Mike Taubitz (4m 8s):
Well, interestingly, we did, we, we had some school of hard knocks over technical issues and things like zero energy lockout in the early eighties. Probably a, a biggest issue that finally came together is when top operating management took direct personal responsibility for occupational safety in the mid 90s. And that really was an outgrowth of Paul O'Neill, who was then chairman of Alco and on the GM board, came on and asked some very insightful questions to top management. And when folks got through to people like me, I just said, look, safety is a staff function and it must be run by operating management.

Mike Taubitz (4m 51s):
And when that happened, the joint process actually gelled in a better manner.

Mark Graban (4m 57s):
Well, and Paul O'Neal, you know, was a previous guest on, on this podcast. He played a very similar role coming into healthcare, asking some of these, you know, pointed, pointed questions. You know, talking about the important role of leadership in, in taking responsibility for safety. Let's talk, well, we'll come back and, and talk about some of, you know, the GM experiences and how you got exposed to Dr. Deming, but you're by no means retired after those 43 years at gm. What, what are you doing today? Tell the listeners about that.

Mike Taubitz (5m 29s):
Yeah, I'm way too hyper to retire afraid that my wife would kill me if I stuck around home too much. I am in consulting actually through two separate companies. One, I do a great deal of expert safety work. I've worked for a, I contract out to a large safety consulting firm in Nashville called FBR Safety, the owner of whom is Fred Rein. I'm gonna have to learn what his middle initial is. But the other part, I just formed a another company last year called Sustainable Lean, and that was with a, a young man whom I had hired into the old engineering for health and safety activity. He was a Michigan Tech graduate, and we had so much fun doing a lean contract with Michigan Tech University all the way up in Houghton, Michigan, that we decided to pool our resources and see what we could do to better spread the message of lean and lean thinking in, in non-traditional areas that it works, whether it's in a university and it works, whether it's in healthcare or a dental shop, a restaurant.

Mike Taubitz (6m 39s):
I, I think that's one of the bigger challenges for leaders to understand that lean thinking does not mean a factory floor.

Mark Graban (6m 48s):
Well, that's, that's, that's certainly very true and that, you know, safety should be, I think we would've be in violent agreement. Safety should be the first and foremost kind of underlying condition of operating anywhere. Right?

Mike Taubitz (6m 60s):
Sure. The But the other part of that, Mark, and, and you and I've had past discussions on this, I, I find I'm very critical of the safety profession actually, along with many other staff functions, is that we operate in silos, safety, people come along with their professional certifications, and they're OSHA language and things that don't merge well with how someone running a business runs the business on a daily basis. But I'm equally critical when we kind of put quality into its own silo or environment or hr, all of it. Yeah. I is about making things really run well, and our goal should be to bring those things together for operating management.

Mark Graban (7m 42s):
So maybe that's a good transition to talk about Dr. Deming. So you're, I I, I agree with you that, you know, one of the problems we have, and, and Dr. Deming talked about this a lot, was, you know, the silos in, in an organization instead of viewing things and operating things as a system. So I'd be curious to hear some of your history where you got exposed to Dr. Deming and, and his ideas in teaching.

Mike Taubitz (8m 6s):
Sure. Back in the early 80s, I'm an engineer. I'd like things to be organized. I'd like to think I'm a systems thinker. We started hearing about this, this Deming guy who'd been around Ford and was bounced around General Motors. And so I read his book, actually ended up spending several years in, in the mid and late 80s meeting every Wednesday night for several hours with union people having pizza and trying to figure out how we could better make use of his 14 points and all his teachings to integrate into what we were doing.

Mike Taubitz (8m 49s):
And I, I came away with, you know, I, I love the guy and I got it. I, you know, drive out fear and bust the silos, but it was really hard to implement it. It seemed like there are these great foundation principles and philosophy, and if you got it, oh, that's good, but what's my next step to begin to implement, especially across an organization as large as General Motors was at that time, what were the tactical tools that we, we could use? And I have to admit that probably for almost a decade, some of the passion waned as some of the union people moved on, I moved on to different assignments.

Mike Taubitz (9m 37s):
And it really wasn't until the late 90s when I was in General Motors, North American Industrial Engineering and had a chance to learn 5S as taught by NUMMI people. That, for me, my own personal aha moment finally went off the flickering 40 watt bulb finally came on, and I began to see some things.

Mark Graban (10m 2s):
And, and how did you, you know, how did that aha moment with lean tie back to, you know, what you'd learned originally from Dr. Deming?

Mike Taubitz (10m 13s):
As I reflect on it, it wasn't so much what you do, but how and why At, at the time that I went through the fives exercise in the late nineties, my boss's boss had told all the GM manufacturing tech center executives that we were gonna get in blue jeans to go learn this thing called 5S. Now understand, the kind of irony of this is that I was the executive overseeing what we call the GM Productivity Lab that taught 5s and all of the lean tools to hourly people and people on the factory floor. And we knew how to do that.

Mike Taubitz (10m 53s):
I mean, we could pick up these tools and make everything run the way it was supposed to, but transitioning that into an office or business setting was the thing that confounded not only me, but but others. And so when newly came out, and I remember clearly Mark looking out of group of us, and they said, you've all spent your careers trying to get rid of non-value added. Of course, we noded our ads and cutting costs Yep. And eliminating waste. Yep. And I remember the looked around and they said, well, name the seven forms of waste. I went, gosh, all my readings and Deming, and then a kind of Elihu Goldratt, Theory of Constraints, and you name it.

Mike Taubitz (11m 34s):
And they said, well, look, we're gonna put you through this 5S exercise, and you probably think that the goal is to make things neat, clean, and organized. They said, that's just an outcome. This is a method that will force you to come together in teams to learn how to identify and eliminate waste, to then develop standards for work that was not previously standardized so that you can sustain it. And in the process you're learning consensus. That doesn't always come easy to those of us in, in North America. And ended up in a, a project with a, an executive conference room. And just like I said, the light bulb came on that it was simple, but it wasn't what we were doing, but how we went about it and why, and it was the educational cornerstone that I needed that for me then began my own personal passion that I wanted to put lean into office and business systems for any kind of organization.

Mark Graban (12m 34s):
And now I'm, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on what you've seen as some of the biggest challenges in getting people, leaders, organizations to adopt lean principles. I know from my time growing up around Detroit and being in General Motors, there was certainly, you know, kind of a gut level resistance to adopting things from, from Toyota. I know when, when I was there in the mid 90s, we couldn't call it Toyota anything. We couldn't call it lean. So I know that that was, I'm curious if you have thoughts on that or just, you know, kind of general hesitation or challenges that, that people in organizations have about Lane

Mike Taubitz (13m 14s):
Mark. You're right, kind of the old Detroit paranoia, what would we call things? But apart from that superficiality, I find something much more challenging with my, my clients today. And, and that is, I think that we have become a, a nation of solution seekers. So when I take clients back, and I, I usually start with folks of what came before lean, and even people who are seem very immersed in it, kind of look like the deer in the headlights. And it really is, well, just Toyota and other Japanese companies following the teachings of Deming, Deming didn't teach lean. He taught continuous improvement based upon his principles.

Mike Taubitz (13m 57s):
Plan due check actors, the closest thing to a model got a problem, get together, assess your current state, make a plan. The due is kind of a pilot. Check yourself, either act on it, adjust it, or abandon it. Critical thinking, we were immersed and, and I now reflect that as I'm old enough, I can you grow up from 65 to 85, we didn't have Six Sigma, which is really a branding for statistical process control taught by Deming. We want tools, I want fives, I want value stream mapping, I want kanban, I want flow, I want, so manufacturing, we have missed the foundational thinking that Deming was trying to get people to do.

Mike Taubitz (14m 41s):
And what I find Mark, and, and I'm really wrestling with this in my mid sixties, is to go back and unlearn things that I learned. And here's a case in point, this has nothing to do with automotive or anything else. An engineer, we've got a project, all right, we're gonna sit down, we'll assess what we have to do, we'll set the markers in place, we'll start the project plan, here's what we're gonna deliver. One year from now, as I reflect on what Lean and Deming have helped me with is you get two steps into the project and what you thought was a current state isn't. Hmm.

Mike Taubitz (15m 21s):
There's more variation than we recognized. And the only way that you could find that variation is to begin by doing something in, in a case of plan, do check act. I made a standard why I went out, well, gosh, why did my standard work here? Well, that one machine that I thought was identical for a task to its other machine wasn't because of a difference in part or weight or anything else. All of those things impact, safety, quality, the whole operational performance. So my bottom line is this. I'm finding that there is a perception that Lean is a factory floor, that, gee, where's my immediate solution that if I implement the solution as a leader, can I just train other people and have them go do it?

Mike Taubitz (16m 9s):
As opposed to now trying to get top level leaders to understand that they must understand and personally practice and lead the lean culture because it is a culture change and it's hard to unlearn that which we have learned in our formal education and business practices.

Mark Graban (16m 30s):
Now, curious to your, some of your thoughts, since you've done work with Lean and and safety, what are some of the, you know, kinda integration points or some of the good things that are going on today, or even things with sustainability, you know, the lean and green, how, what, how do you see some of those connections? What are some of the good things that are happening or that you hope would happen out there?

Mike Taubitz (16m 54s):
Well, interesting question. I just got off the phone with a, a steering committee for the National leanand Safe Network. And that's a loose group that's been in existence since 2007 of passionate, mainly safety people who believe that everything we do in safety can be improved by using lean principles and thinking, hmm, by using lean concepts, management systems, et cetera. It is a group that still struggles to really get a toll hold with the thinking. But here's the bottom line. Everything that we do in safety can be fully integrated with lean and quality concepts.

Mike Taubitz (17m 41s):
Injury and illness is, are just other forms of waste. When I marry 'em to the seven forms of operational waste correction and, and overproduction and access, motion and material movement, waiting inventory and process. Why, when I'm looking at improving a job, wouldn't I go, Hmm, I wondered if somebody could be injured here. What are we doing about air, water, solids and energy, if we get back to critical thinking and integration. So the bottom line is that everything in safety can be improved by applying these quality concepts to, to me come from management system kind of approach, built upon plan, do, check, act, kind of foundation, applying all of the lean tools.

Mike Taubitz (18m 25s):
When we talk about safety, good housekeeping is a cornerstone. Well, 5S is nothing more than a system that is, I call it good housekeeping on steroids done properly. So there is that opportunity. I am seeing opportunities for integration and, and that would lead me to, to maybe something that I, I've just done with a client and, and I personally think is kind of exciting. And that's the use of safety methodology that is now going to be piloted to be used as a continuous improvement tool.

Mark Graban (19m 2s):
And, and I'm curious to hear more about that. I mean, how, how does that, how do you see that playing out?

Mike Taubitz (19m 8s):
Well, the methodology very different than traditional safety tools, was developed with lean thinking. And it's called task-based risk assessment. And task-based risk assessment actually started with General Motors and the UAW working with our workers in the late nineties to begin to develop safety standards around robotics, traditional safety approach. As we get professionals, we get on the floor, we get a team, we look at the safety issues of a job, and that's what we come back with. Jsa, job safety analysis, job safety work practice, there's six different names, doesn't matter, but it only deals with the safety or the hazard issue.

Mike Taubitz (19m 54s):
Task-based risk assessment, on the other hand, completely ignores all hazard or risk and has a worker walk through every step of what a given task is. And it's very critical to scope that. If it's, if it's an operator running a part, we may run it for a specific part or group of parts, but that may be separate from what they do for tool change or setup on the machine. But the worker walks through every little step in detail, then going back with management and the experts on this and marrying up the hazards and risks and coming up with a level of risk.

Mike Taubitz (20m 37s):
In the case of the one client whom I'm working with, it's a, it, it's a manufacturer of brass rods and they have a finishing machine that straightens the rod and finally forms it, cuts it, bans it for shipping, and they have what they call pre straighteners taking this product that's in a coil to take it through the final operation. The company had some very excellent job safety work practices with pictures of the hazards and issues. And on the pre straightener for these finished machines, they identified three main issues. When we took the methodology of task-based risk assessment down with management and the workers, I asked an experienced worker, how many steps do you think we're really gonna have?

Mike Taubitz (21m 29s):
He thought for a few seconds, he said six after 40 minutes we showed 17. And in that 17, the old devil is in the detail. There was some hazards that might have been overlooked, but just the methodology of open discussion on the factory floor and asking questions about what goes wrong, highlighted quality issues and other things. When we had a debrief the following day with all the top operating execs and the hourly people and the CEO of the company, it was great. The, the hourly guy looked, the CEO and he says, you know, I guess I just take for granted all the things that I do, mark, we all multitask.

Mark Graban (22m 12s):
Oh, it's right.

Mike Taubitz (22m 13s):
Anybody who goes through and we we're doing two and three things at once. And the problem is it might overlook, again, safety or quality issues. I always picture it this way, I'm a new worker, show me the right way to do this job so that I can do it flawlessly without error, without a safety issue, meeting production demands, et cetera. If we miss these detailed steps, then we've done a disservice to that person. The bottom line is this company is now in the process of we've modified task-based risk assessment really to be an integrated task assessment.

Mike Taubitz (22m 56s):
So that using the same approach, approaching the worker with respect on the factory floor, and now we're gonna capture all the issues around safety, quality and production so that they have an integrated methodology and they're now even gonna use it to drive ISO 9000. So it's kind of exciting. This is a synergy when we broke down the silos that a safety methodology could improve what we were doing for quality and continuous improvement.

Mark Graban (23m 24s):
Well, it just goes to show, like you say, I mean the, the benefits from that come from breaking down silos and, and getting people to work together to work more systemically. One, one other thing I'd like to touch on maybe before we have to wrap up. You know, you talked about earlier, you talked about, you know, experts with, with their certifications. We've, we've traded some emails talking a little bit about, you know, lean certification, which is sometimes a, a controversial subject. What, what are your views on, on certifications there or even in the safety realm?

Mike Taubitz (24m 0s):
Well, I personally am not a certified safety professional. I'm, I'm reluctant to get in to do that. It's, it's just become, in my mind, a big business. We've got certified safety professionals, certified industrial hygienists, certified hazardous material managers. Certified environmental managers. And I can go on for the litany as I tell people, as individuals or companies who think that there's real value, then fine, go for it. But I personally believe that it detracts from critical thinking and its attempt again, to have some superficial solution to something that can often be a complex problem.

Mike Taubitz (24m 42s):
And again, many times drives a wedge into this what's needed for integration. So I, you know, where folks really want it, that's fine, but I personally don't advocate it

Mark Graban (24m 58s):
Well, yeah, like you said, I mean there's that, that solution seeker mindset, the, the quick fix idea, you know, Dr. Deming, you know, would say that, you know, there, there's no instant pudding. I dunno if if organiz if individuals think, well, if I get the certification that makes me an expert, as opposed to maybe being a starting point for ongoing learning and ongoing practice, that can be a problem. I, I see sometimes organizations I think shortchange themselves by only looking to hire a quote unquote certified lean person. Where I know a hospital here in Texas who's hired a couple really great people outta Toyota, and I guarantee you they're not quote unquote lean certified. Yes.

Mike Taubitz (25m 39s):
That, that's right. You know, Mark, you mentioned something earlier, just quickly on the term of concept of sustainability. Sustainability is the triple bottom line. I call it people, profit and planet. The only approach I know to take, and it's, it's one of my passions that's probably another entire podcast, but it's the integration of, of lean principles and thinking with green there, there's already tremendous effort with EPA for recognizing that lean and green is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, safety is left out. Of course we turn to osha and that's, but the integration of Lean Green and Safety are footsteps in the path of long-term sustainable growth of doing the right things inside the organization for the community.

Mike Taubitz (26m 25s):
Yeah. And certainly that applies for healthcare as well as anything else. And I just triggering one last thought for healthcare. I went up with my colleague from Sustainable Lean and worked with a, a friend of ours who'd actually been in one of my lean classes last year, and he's in healthcare. And we went up and chose a task with a knowledgeable nurse, and she chose let's check blood on a diabetic patient. And she guessed that they'd have 30 steps in this task methodology showed 77 and we highlighted some issues that might even get into patient care Yeah. For how we actually recorded the data that we took and was it accurate.

Mike Taubitz (27m 8s):
So the bottom line is to, and what you and I are both on the same page, it's all about integration. It's all about critical thinking and using simple methods that help people discover their own aha moments.

Mark Graban (27m 24s):
Well, I agree with you. And to wrap things up, do you have any, any final thoughts you'd wanna share or any ideas about the lean movement or, or safety or how this all comes together?

Mike Taubitz (27m 35s):
Well, I would hope that, again, we would just step back to basics that I, I see lean as the enabler for many kinds of things as long as we open ourselves that lean does fit for safety and it does fit for environmental and quality, but it's a mindset of teamwork and consensus and developing standards that are very different than what I learned in engineering schooling, what I practice. And I think when we get there, if we wanna stay open to things that, for this country, the, the future is very bright because this is the pathway to bring jobs back and grow this economy.

Mark Graban (28m 17s):
Well, I agree with you and, and I hope there are good things ahead for my home state and Michigan in terms of bringing jobs back and increasing competitiveness. And I know the Michigan Lean Consortium and other efforts back there are, I think having a, a nice impact and hopefully leading to a lot of success for, for the state. So again, our guest has been Mike Taubitz. Thanks so much for being a guest and Sharon, some of your thoughts and experiences, Mike.

Mike Taubitz (28m 47s):
Well, thanks for having me. I've really enjoyed it and I hope this has been of value to the listeners.

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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. I am a student at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan and helped audit the training that Mike was consulting on. I have a new appreciation for continuous improvement and safety thanks to Mike and his consulting partner Larry Osentoski.

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