Ryan McCormack’s Operational Excellence Mixtape: February 24th, 2023


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Insights about improvement, innovation, and leadership

Operational Excellence, Improvement, and Innovation

From the Archives: The Lean Mail-Order Food Company

Lean only applies when demand is steady and stable right? Zingerman's, a mail-order artisanal food company in Ann Arbor, Michigan generates 50% of its revenue in a 4-week period. 

Tom Root shared how Zingerman's applies lean thinking and systems thinking as an enabler to ramp up production and train employees in a short time without compromising quality and delivery on Gemba Academy episode 73. 

I visited Zingerman's in 2012, and their approach of gentle, never-ending pressure as an improvement philosophy made a lasting impression.

 Tom Root and Eduardo Lander teamed up with Jeffrey Liker to share Zingerman's story with Lean in a High-Variability Business: A Graphic Novel about Lean and People at Zingerman's Mail Order.

“How might we” execute with design thinking?

In the 2010s, innovation labs and empathy maps popped up around corporations everywhere as design thinking and “innovation engineering” was popularized. While workshops led to many collaborative and creative experiences, they favoured ideas over implementation. We still have to make stuff and make stuff happen. Design thinking was supposed to fix the world. Where did it go wrong? | MIT Technology Review

Nursing staff shortages aren't going away

Nurse shortages are nothing new, but they are being exacerbated by working conditions post-pandemic and more and more clinicians are ready to quit their jobs due to burnout

Operational excellence practitioners tend to be wary of “hiring more staff” as a solution approach, but you can't run an operation above rated capacity forever. It creates a compounding negative cycle of poor performance and overburden. 

What's the solution? It's complex and throwing everything at recruitment campaigns and incentives will only provide short-lived relief. But improving the ways of working and the systems people work in can't hurt. “No amount of pleading and wishing or browbeating will affect the necessary change. We must work on improving the ‘system of care' through work,'” Dr. Shannon told Becker's. “We ask our front line-team members to attend to sick patients. It is the job of leaders to address ‘sick systems' in which these teams work.” The “hard truth” about staffing shortages: they aren't going away.

Creating a Culture of Improvement

Prescribe your people a good manager

I once heard the irascible Tom Peters declare that a good manager can save more lives than a good surgeon. At the time, I thought that was a bit of hyperbole, but Scientific American now declares that the best way to boost workers' mental health is to give them good managers. 

Another good idea goes mainstream – and gets diluted

“Psychological safety” is being bandied about in most corporations as a new silver bullet for increasing engagement. Like many good ideas that go mainstream, the goal of creating an environment where people are “unafraid to disagree with the boss and point out others' mistakes because we care more about the customer, the patient, the quality of the work than about our ego in the moment” is being misconstrued and equated to unrelated concepts such as job security and “creating safe spaces” free of candid feedback. The Financial Times discusses psychological safety: the art of encouraging teams to be open with Amy Edmonsdon

From X to Y

The battle between classical management and a more human-centred approach has been at the heart of organizational culture wars for decades. A shift from “Theory X” (classical management) to “Theory Y” (participative management) has long been desired by many employees, but it requires a fundamental shift in assumptions about human motivation. Easier said than done. The Modern-day Relevancy of Theory X and Theory Y

Tribute to Edgar Schein

Edgar Schein passed away in January, leaving behind a legacy as one of the foremost thought leaders in organizational culture. His work profoundly influenced my own thinking and practices related to culture, improvement, and consulting. Below is a very sample of his ideas that have helped me develop my skills as an improvement practitioner:


Schein wrote many books. Here are three that I routinely re-read:

Organizational Culture and Leadership. The book that defined the field. I return to it often.

Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help An invaluable perspective on the dynamics of helping. I recommend to any consultant or servant leader.

Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling

Videos & Podcasts

Skip Steward graciously shared an excellent collection of videos featuring Edgar & Peter Schein discussing humble inquiry and culture with Baptist Memorial Healthcare

I also highly recommend Baptist Memorial Healthcare's podcast Connecting the Dots: Humble Inquiry & the Physician featuring Edgar and Peter Schein.

Schein shares 20 minutes on Humble Inquiry.


Schein's ideas have proven useful to integrate with lean problem-solving tools and methods. Practical Guidance for Using Humble Inquiry for Problem Solving.

MIT Sloan School shares  5 Enduring Management Ideas from Edgar Schein

Coaching – Developing Self & Others

Are we all just making it up as we go?

“Impostor syndrome”, that feeling that we are undeserving or unworthy and that we will be exposed as frauds, has become an increasingly popular topic over the last few years. The New Yorker features the origins of this phenomenon and questions whether it is really a syndrome and whether it has ceased to become useful, in Why Everyone Feels Like They're Faking It

Relax – life is one unfinished project

I'm a “list” person. Always have been. I've tried every hack to “get more done”. The problem? You never get caught up.Productivity hacks are still helpful, but I became less anxious when I accepted that there is no endgame. The Brutal Truth You Need to Accept If You Want to Stop Feeling Constantly Overwhlemed

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Ryan McCormack
Ryan is an operational excellence professional with over 18 years experience practicing continuous improvement in healthcare, insurance, food manufacturing, and aerospace. He is an avid student of the application of Lean principles in work and life to create measurably better value.


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