This is really hard to write, as I was stunned and saddened by the recent passing of a good friend and colleague, Chris Burnham. Word had started to spread on LinkedIn and I feel bad about having to share this news here.
You can read his obituary here:
There will be a celebration of life event on Sunday that I will be fortunate to attend. Chris was, most recently, the Senior Director of Lean Strategy at KaiNexus, a company I have been involved with since 2011. Many of his colleagues will also be there to pay our respects, to honor him, and to support his loved ones.
Listen to Mark read the post (subscribe to Lean Blog Audio):
I say this with all sincerity that Chris was one of my favorite people in the Lean community. I appreciated his positive and thoughtful approach to Lean and to our work. We shared a love of discovering new Bourbons to share and discuss, which then lubricated the social fun and work discussions.
Chris and I got to know each other in early 2015 when he invited me to be the first guest on his Lean Leadership Podcast.
As he shared with me, these were his goals for starting the podcast — to be of service to others. He wasn't the type who did these things to draw attention to himself.
“In my experience, leadership has been the difference between success and failure in successful lean/continuous improvement implementation. That is the niche in the Lean world that I want to focus on and serve.
My goal and mission is to equip other continuous improvement agents of change with the experiences and setbacks of the lean leaders who have had a positive influence on my career. It is my hope that the stories resonate with the listener and enables them to breakthroughs.”
In 2018, Chris was working for a company that became a KaiNexus customer. This meant we had opportunities to compare notes and hang out at the annual customer user conference. I always sought him out and enjoyed our time together very much.
His father is a surgeon, so we always had a lot to discuss — not just about Lean or Lean Healthcare… but about healthcare and the challenges there, in general.
During that era, I hosted a KaiNexus webinar that Chris presented in June of 2019.
It's nice to have these things saved for posterity and I know I'll want to revisit them at some point…
Chris was also a guest host of an early episode of the “Lean Whiskey” podcast with me in 2019:
Then, I was thrilled when Chris joined the KaiNexus team as an employee and leader. He hired two Lean Strategy team members, including Linda, pictured to the right of Chris in this photo from the 2022 Catalysis Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit:
And here's a photo from the 2022 AME Annual Conference, with Matt and Kym from the KaiNexus team and our mutual friend, Deondra Wardelle.
Chris loved working at KaiNexus. Chris passed away a few days before our planned mid-annual all-employee meeting. During the week, and especially during an evening remembrance event that we held, almost everybody in the company (all 40 of us) had some sort of story about how Chris had positively impacted them in some way — large or small.
Chris had serious goals, but always had a way of being positive and upbeat, lifting others up, including myself. I don't remember him complaining or being cynical about anything, while being mindful of the real challenges we all face. He loved dad jokes — and being a dad.
Here is a video we did together about why he joined the KaiNexus team:
As we prepared for that event to honor and remember Chris, our KaiNexus CEO Greg Jacobson had a great idea — that we should scroll back through text message histories to find pictures and fun things we had shared.
Here are some of those collected photos:
Those photos included a few bottles of whiskey:
Those of you who know whiskey will realize that the bottle to the right, Blanton's Bourbon, is not easy to find at retail stores. It's especially hard to find at anything near its MSRP.
Well, wouldn't you know, as I stopped at a random small liquor store in Austin, to bring a bottle of Bourbon to the event… there was a single, lone, dusty bottle of Blanton's on the shelf. And for just $70, which isn't that bad of a markup compared to most stores.
So I bought it. And we shared it at the event as people shared stories, memories, and songs. Chris would have appreciated that. I think he made sure that bottle was there for us as we tried to be there for him.
As I went through photos of Chris, I found this photo that really illustrates his humble, continuous improvement-driven spirit. I've shared this photo in a few presentations, with his permission… also sharing this story that ended up in my book. I'm going to share the excerpt below.
From The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:
“Psychological safety doesn't just appear. Leaders at KaiNexus very often, and very visibly, behave in ways that create the conditions for employees to decide they can feel safe speaking up. In some settings, admitting a mistake can feel risky, if not dangerous, if people think leaders will punish them. But leaders can create conditions where that risk seems very low or non-existent. When leaders admit mistakes, with a focus on learning, that's the first step in cultivating psychological safety. The second step is rewarding and not punishing employees who do the same.
One of those leaders is Chris Burnham, the senior director of lean strategy at KaiNexus. During a biannual meeting, Chris candidly told the entire company, “I made mistakes.” He reviewed what had gone well in the first half of the year and what had gone wrong–a standard that everybody follows in giving updates.
Chris explained his mistakes, what he learned, and how he planned to adjust–a decidedly positive view of mistakes. Chris told me, “I make mistakes every day, some big, some small. But I own them all. Mistakes are how I learn and gain experience.” Chris believes his transparency helps his teammates feel comfortable bringing him problems they can solve together.”
I found the podcast questions that Chris had sent me in early 2015:
Greg Jacobson, a KaiNexus co-founder and our CEO, was also a guest on Chris's podcast.
To honor Chris, Greg and I are going to do a series of discussions on the KaiNexus podcast where we go through and answer those questions, as Chris would have asked us…
I have one final memory of a time Chris shared an Opportunity for Improvement with me. It was the second time I was experimenting with an “audience view” approach with Zoom Webinars, as I blogged about.
In that iteration, I had some KaiNexians, including Chris, set up as panelists. The presenter could see them, to have smiling and nodding faces to speak to. But the attendees couldn't see them, since I locked their view as “speaker only.”
But during the Q&A, I wanted the attendees to see “gallery view,” which meant I had to ask the selected “audience” panelists to leave before the Q&A — and I clicked to remove Chris.
I thought I had explained the plan clearly, but Chris was confused. Afterward, he candidly shared that he wasn't happy that he couldn't get back in. He wanted to hear the Q&A live.
I realized that the problem wasn't “I hadn't communicated the plan clearly.” The problem was actually “kicking out the audience panelists wasn't the right approach.”
Thanks to the feedback from Chris, I adjusted the approach for future webinars — allowing the audience panelists to remain and leaving the attendee view as “speaker only” during the Q&A. That was a more elegant solution.
Chris spoke up — in a direct, candid, yet respectful and constructive way. That was Chris.
I still can't believe that he's gone. I send my most sincere condolences to all who knew and loved him. We can continue to enjoy the recordings of Chris — continuing to absorb what he had to share… and how he shared it. We're all better off for having known him.
As he ended most conversations… “I love you, brother.” And now, I miss you.
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