Guest Post: Book Chapter on VIBCO and “Captain Karl”


Mark's note: Today's guest post is an excerpt from the book Remarkable by Toby LaVigne. Toby's bio can be found at the bottom of this post. In this chapter from the book, Toby writes about a good friend of mine and of this blog – Karl Wadensten, the President of VIBCO. You can watch or listen to a podcast I did with Karl a few years back or listen to a public radio story about them

By Toby LaVigne:

As the founder of Lotus sports cars once said, “Add Lightness.” Lean is about “Adding Lightness,” which, as you know, is really not about “Adding” at all, but about SUBTRACTION. But subtraction is trickier than addition, especially in a society that loves its pills and bandaids. So how do you get employees who are continually soaking in the bandaid paradigm to shift their attention to subtraction?

The word that comes to mind is “Pull.” You can't push water, and you can't push people, but you can create a vacuum that draws them toward you. And that vacuum is something I call Remarkability. I'd like to offer this case study on Vibco from my book titled Remarkable as it paints a beautiful picture of the “Pull effect.”

The ‘Pull Effect' leads people to embrace the challenge of transforming themselves from clock punchers to experts at “adding lightness.”


It's 8 AM and I'm standing in the lobby of VIBCO Vibrators, a commercial vibration equipment manufacturer, participating in the ‘morning stretch meeting.' Karl Wadensten, President of VIBCO, is facilitating a ‘stand up and stretch while you update each other' staff meeting.

“Ok, what's on your plate for today?” Says Karl through his ever-present unlit cigar. The updates and discussions continue around the circle, “Ok, now stretch your shoulders… now arms across the chest”…

On paper, VIBCO Vibrators is a run-of-the-mill manufacturer of industrial vibrators with a machine shop, an assembly area, engineering, and front-office operations. You might think there's nothing special about a business like that. You'd be wrong. Very, very wrong. VIBCO Vibrators is actually a canvas for Karl's highest values; Being of service to others, personal growth in Karl's ‘Dream Big, Go Big' style, and a heavy dose of showmanship.

“You might think there's nothing special about a business like that. You'd be wrong. Very, very wrong.”

Maybe you wouldn't be surprised that the President of an industrial manufacturing company would be a guy with a cigar in his mouth – it's a tough business, after all. But you would never guess that behind the persona, Karl is all heart and is not afraid to put himself out there. Karl dresses in bright colors, typically jeans or brightly patterned pants and his trademark Lily Pulitzer shirts, a style that makes a statement whenever he enters a room.

A number of years ago, Karl faced the same dilemma that practically every U.S. based manufacturing business has experienced. “How do we keep our jobs here? How can we compete and stay in business?”

Most people accepted the conventional wisdom; move manufacturing overseas. That's the ‘management mindset' answer. Karl went with the ‘remarkable' answer: “Let's carve a niche and become so good at what we do that our labor cost is no longer an issue. Let's do something novel, something truly remarkable, let's focus on the customer AND the employee!”


The ‘niche' that Karl and his team selected was “Same Day, Next Day”. The traditional approach to manufacturing- the management mindset – says something like this; “Once you get a machine set up for a certain part, run it for a long time and make enough parts to justify how long it takes to set up the machine. Build inventory even if you didn't need it, because those machines are expensive. They need to be up and running.” This mentality was born from one simple constraint, the time it took to set up the machine.

At that critical time for VIBCO, not only were the company's labor costs too high, but they had a constant surplus of some inventory parts and a near-constant deficit of other parts. When a customer needed a product fast, VIBCO Vibrators could only deliver if they got lucky and the customer wanted what they had on the shelf. For the rest, well, “we'll be making a batch of those sometime next week.” This was not the right answer for an on-demand world.

The only way to provide a better answer was to reduce machine set-up times from over 2 hours to under 10 minutes. The only way to do that was nothing less than a total organizational commitment to lean manufacturing.

If you have any experience with implementing quality improvement methods and/or programs, you know that the talking and planning is easy. The doing? Not so much.

Fast forward through a few years of relentless and remarkable leadership to find VIBCO Vibrators actually living process improvement. They made gigantic improvements in every area of their facility. It was not easy. 95% of companies fail in their lean management implementations because they mistakenly believe that lean is a management initiative to control human behavior.

Most organizations that try to implement lean don't engage the best parts of their employees. They don't engage because the culture doesn't support engagement – it takes away autonomy and mastery, and there isn't a widely understood' bigger purpose' to the initiative. It's perceived to be only about profit and cost savings.

The management mindset is why so many people are feeling disengaged, which is a key reason why we are losing so many manufacturing jobs in the US. Labor expense is just a convenient excuse for not creating meaningful enough products and work environments.


With lean and many other commitments in life, hesitation kills. It has to be an all out sprint to the other side. Spend too much time in no man's land and your chances of success start dropping… quickly.

Karl and his team needed nothing short of a full commitment. This had to become an organizational passion. Enter Karl's personal values; Being of service to others, personal growth (Dream Big, Go Big style), and a heavy dose of showmanship.

Through Karl's value lens, he didn't see Lean as a management tactic to improve operational performance; he saw it as an opportunity to bring the whole Karl to work AND to improve operational performance. Implementing lean is tough and not necessarily exciting in and of itself, but implementing lean in the name of personal growth IS very exciting for Karl.

What Karl did was a stroke of personal and professional genius. It embodies what being remarkable is all about; he combined his passion with his business. By making lean about fulfilling his highest values, his MISSION, he tapped into the unlimited reservoir of energy that he would need to succeed as the leader.

This was Karl's chance to share his passion of personal growth with his entire manufacturing family. He saw this as much more than an organizational necessity. Karl saw lean as nothing less than a golden opportunity for his entire family to grow personally and professionally.

By creating a cause that was bigger than manufacturing industrial vibrators, Karl gave himself and his team a reason to come to work, a reason to do the hard work, and a reason to persevere. By making lean about individual growth, Karl tapped into a cause that everyone loved and could sustain – their own personal growth and that of their teammates and families.

Implementing Lean Manufacturing requires that team members learn and develop so many skills that are simply not required in an assembly line manufacturing environment. Lean challenges our skills as observers, communicators, problem solvers, conflict resolvers, public speakers, writers, presenters, teachers, and project managers… just to name a few.

One of the reasons that I feel so passionately about Remarkability is my belief that we can change our society by changing how and why we go to work. 75% of our workforce feels disengaged at work. A similar percentage feel that work is just a continuation of the same disregard for their talents as in their school experience.

I believe that remarkable project leaders will transform our society by transforming the experiences of their teams at work. Give your team a bigger reason to go to work, make their work place one that fills them up rather than depletes them, and watch the world and your bottom line change for the better.

There are many moments at VIBCO Vibrators that have inspired me and literally brought me to tears. One of those moments was when a VIBCO manager told me this story about his work prior to the company's (and more importantly his) lean transformation.

“Work was stressful. It was like we were constantly failing to deliver. We could never have the right parts in the right quantities, and I was always in the middle; Sales and customer service yelling at me on one side and work teams that dreaded my demands for us to work faster on the other side. It was a total lose-lose situation.

I took the stress out on my team and I took it home to my family. One day while I was at work, my family went on a day trip. When I got home, my son gave me this hat with a crab on it. He said this is your crabby Daddy hat. It hurt to hear my son say that.

I wanted out of that environment so I went to school with the intent to improve my resume and go somewhere new. Meanwhile, we began our lean journey and I had an epiphany. I could have control and we could meet customer demands.

I learned all sorts of interpersonal skills that I feel have made me a better leader, father and husband. I don't go home stressed now, in fact I love my job, and talking about it at home is source of happiness.

Now when I go to work I feel like I am a part of something bigger than myself. I feel like I belong to a great team. I feel like what we do matters to customers, and I feel like I am an important part of making it all happen. And you want to know something crazy? My son is 18 now, and he wants to come work at VIBCO.”

Think about that for a moment. Picture a typical ‘factory mindset' work environment. Your picture could just as easily be an office, or a restaurant, or a retail store. Just picture it. Now picture how those workers feel about their work, and imagine how that shapes their views of society, of humans, of trust, policy, politics, fairness, opportunity and meaning.

Now imagine how they view the world. Do they go home and tell stories of hope to their children at the dinner table? What stories do they share with their friends? What issues do they vote for? Or against? How do they escape? Do they use food, alcohol, drugs, TV? Engagement changes everything.

You have incredible power as a leader to affect how people think and feel and live. Your opportunity to be remarkable is not just a great business strategy; it also has unimaginable side benefits. Imagine the power of thou- sands of leaders like Karl Wadensten and Dr. Stephen and what their collective impact is on society. Now imagine what YOUR impact will be.


One prerequisite to succeeding at lean is to allocate a lot of time and resources to the task. Not an easy thing to do when labor costs are already too high! So how do they pay for it?

VIBCO Vibrators has two unique ways that they fund their greatness. The first is their culture which creates the necessary environment and generates the necessary energy to continue to improve. The second is by using their culture as a marketing tool. At VIBCO Vibrators the line between culture and marketing is blurry.

When I first learned about Karl's Lean journey, it was through a workshop event he was running at VIBCO Vibrators which I wasn't able to attend. I had heard about how great it was, so I asked Karl if I could come down to his plant in Rhode Island and see what he was up to.

Karl, in his usual enthusiastic and gracious style said “Absolutely! And bring your team too; you're not going to want them to miss this. We're doing some really great stuff here; you just have to see it.”

So I rented a van and we went on a road trip to VIBCO to take a tour. Lean at VIBCO Vibrators begins at the reception desk and ends at the shipping dock… it is EVERYWHERE. We toured the plant in a couple of groups. “Wait a minute” I thought, “you do this every day?”

Our tour went from workstation to workstation. We spoke directly with the line operators, not Karl or a slick marketing tour guide. Each worker explained their personal lean journey, the incredible results they had achieved, and the effect it had on them personally.

At Lucy's station we heard her talk about how many steps, yes Lucy counts her footsteps, it took for her to make a part, and how she was trying a new experiment that she thought would take 5 seconds off her build time. Yes, 5 seconds. In fact at every station the operators spoke of their latest ideas and the seconds they would save.

Lucy shared her story:

“You have no idea how hard my job used to be. When I got home at the end of the day my body and brain just felt used and tired. I barely had the energy to make dinner and then collapse in front of the TV.

Now when I get home I have energy to spare! I went from leaving myself at work to having myself at both places and not having to choose. At first my husband didn't know what to make of it. Especially when I organized all of his tools and labeled all the drawers, but I think he appreciates it now. I really like my job because I feel this sense of accomplishment that I get from solving problems. I'm a happy camper now.”

What Lucy didn't say explicitly (but was obvious) is that she used to have a factory job in a factory. She had to stand at a station and make parts till the day ended. It was monotonous and provided little if any ‘nutritional' value. Lucy used to be disengaged at work and now she has become engaged.

With the advent of lean at VIBCO Vibrators, she has a dynamic, thinking, intelligence-based job… in a factory. She has the responsibility to think about how and why she does what she does, and to also help others do the same. Today Lucy is no longer an economic agent; she is a valued member of a cause that is bigger than her.

Score another point for Remarkability!

I found inspiration in an environment that almost everyone would write off. I was already a believer in Remarkable as a method for building a business and a better world, but I was totally blown away to see Vibco's application of it.

After visiting with Lucy we headed back into the center of the building to Karl's office – a room with an almost 360 view of the entire company – located next door to the studio of The Lean Nation, Karl's former radio – now web television – program.

Today, I and a few of my teammates are going to be guests on Karl's show. This is the routine. Take people on tours, show them what lean is all about and invite make them to be guests on a radio program that is broadcast around the world via live web stream, and of course, throughout the VIBCO plant.

Karl has turned his efforts into a marketing platform. If you want your customers to believe that your quality is the best you have several options. You can claim it in some marketing copy in a brochure or on your website, or you can train your sales staff to say it. But nothing can come close to the impact of turning your company's quest for excellence into a live reality show.

Karl is leading his company the same way he lives, right on his sleeves and right on the edge. How cool is this!? This guy is changing lives, growing personally, promoting his company, making stars of his team, and becoming a celebrity all in one step. Using his creativity and his values, Karl has carved a place for himself on this earth where he gets to be Karl 24/365. And everyone around him wins. How can you not want this kind of life and legacy?!

About Toby LaVigne

Toby has been a CEO of technology-enabled services companies for nearly all of his 25 years of business experience, which included the creation of, the world's largest commercial cloud print service.

Toby coaches business owners to authentically position themselves as the experts they are in order to elevate their brand above the commodity noise and accelerate growth.

Toby lives in Jupiter, FL with his wife and two girls where he is realizing his dream to build a school that fills the tremendous gap between what school teaches and how the new economy really works.

Find Toby on Twitter.

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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.


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