Lean Interview with Erica Lee Garcia on Navigating Change, Suggestion Programs, and Much More


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My guest for Episode #485 of the Lean Blog Interviews Podcast is Erica Lee Garcia, a perfect blend of problem solver, leader, and entrepreneur. Join us as we explore her unique journey, from running a suggestion program to establishing her own business in 2011 across varied sectors, such as the automobile and mining industries. Witness the determination and tenacity that shines through Erica's professional and personal life.

From the days of her early engineering career to the excitement of her problem-solving journey, Erica's story is indeed an adventure. Whether it was solving infrastructure-related issues or discovering a new trick in complex problem-solving, she embarked on each work role with a unique mindset and an unmatched zeal to know more. Together, let's unravel the fascinating facets of Erica's career, her love for engineering, and the magic of problem-solving.

Questions, Notes, and Highlights:

  • Your Lean origin story?
  • Role models and mentors? The Master Black Belt
  • Running the suggestion program for 2.5 years – Lessons learned?
  • Why shift to mining – new industry and new company?
  • Simon Sinek – Start With Why
  • Engineers Without Borders participation
  • Waste for Life organization
  • The journey to starting your own business? In 2011
  • The Artemis Project
  • Engineers of Tomorrow
  • Giveaway — “Navigating Change Roadmap

The podcast is sponsored by Stiles Associates, now in its 30th year of business. They are the go-to Lean recruiting firm serving the manufacturing, private equity, and healthcare industries. Learn more.

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Automated Transcript (Not Guaranteed to be Defect Free)

Mark Graban: This is episode 485 of the podcast for September 20, 2023. Our guest today is Erica Lee Garcia. You're going to learn more about her in a minute, but we have a great conversation here today. We talk about, among other things, her time running a suggestion program for two and a half years, her lessons learned from that, her shift to mining not just a new company, but a new industry.

Mark Graban: We're going to talk about the journey to starting her own business in 2011. So there's a lot to talk about here today. Erica is a problem solver and a leader and a business owner now. So I'm excited to have her here on the podcast to learn more about her. All of her work links to her website and more, look in the show notes or go to LeanBlog.org/485.

Mark Graban: Well, hi, everybody. Welcome back to the podcast. Our guest today is Erica Lee Garcia. She does a lot of things.

Mark Graban: She is the founder and managing partner of Onward Business Mechanics. She is the chair of the board of directors for an organization called Engineers of Tomorrow, and she's the lead of the Canadian chapter of Artemis Project. Erica has a bachelor's in materials and metallurgical engineering from Queens University. She's joining us from Ontario, Canada. So.

Mark Graban: Erica. How are you?

Erica Lee Garcia: I'm doing excellent. Thank you so much for having me on the podcast, Mark.

Mark Graban: Yeah, well, it's great to have you here. We're going to talk about a lot of things today from your career and start off and hear different pieces of your progression. Starting off, though, with the question I tend to ask people to get things rolling. What's your Lean origin story? Like, where, why, how did you get into all of this?

Erica Lee Garcia: Love that question. Thank you. It started with a broken furnace belt. So I was working as a manufacturing engineer at the time. I had just graduated and honestly, my confidence was pretty much as low as it could be.

Erica Lee Garcia: I had gotten my butt kicked academically in engineering. I really enjoyed the social aspects and I really hoped at some point that I was going to be able to use my analytical skills for good just to help the world. That was kind of my rough picture when I signed up for engineering, and I wasn't sure if it was going to work out. I was working in this automotive factory. We were making these little geroders that go inside the water pump for cars.

Erica Lee Garcia: And I was so excited to be out in the world and I really wasn't sure if I'd found the place for me. Lo and behold, the furnace belts in the centering furnace. It was a powder metal facility, broke one night and they kept breaking and it happened every other day for a few weeks. And as you can imagine, every time those centering furnaces, they're about 90ft long, and every time the furnace belt breaks, you lose everything that's inside, and you have to take the temperature down from 400 degrees fahrenheit down to nothing, and you have to start all over again, basically patching the belt. And this is very stressful for the people that work there, and it's bad for the business side of things as well.

Erica Lee Garcia: We were about to get some serious containment penalties slapped on us by our customer. And so I was a junior eager beaver engineer ready to help out, and we started collecting data. We started collecting samples of the furnace belt, which was basically a whole bunch of little metal links like this. And we took some samples of the cross section. Got to use a little bit of my metallurgical knowledge to figure out what percentage of the cross section was degraded.

Erica Lee Garcia: Turned out that was the KPI that we needed to crack the case. And we were able to change up the loading pattern and change up the atmosphere inside the furnace to make the belt stop breaking. And I got to say, I was hooked. It was so exciting to get to be part of that team, to get to collect the data, think strategically about it, and come up with a solution that actually made people's lives better in the very immediate term. It was exactly What I was hoping for.

Erica Lee Garcia: Like I said When I signed up for engineering, so fast forward from there, I had the opportunity to put my hand up to get a six Sigma black belt. I did it. I did the work. Again, I wasn't sure I was going to make it, but it really kind of culminated in a cross functional effort. It wasn't something I did on my own.

Erica Lee Garcia: I was able to work with the mechanic, with the supply chain guy, with the electrician, the quality people, myself. Everyone was kind of looking at me, and I'm the youngest and least experienced person in the room, and I still had A lot of value to give, because I was the one that knew how to take those statistical tools and use them to crack the case. So I guess I love being a detective is kind of what I discovered. Sure. I always knew I was interested in solving physical problems.

Erica Lee Garcia: Like, I'm of the vintage where we had rabbit ears on the top of the TV. I grew up in the country, and I was always the one that was able to fix the TV reception. And I think there were only about three or four channels back then, but I could dial it in. And I see what I was doing back then was exactly what I ended up doing as a grown up, which was figuring out, of all the variables in this room, what are the critical few that are going to lead to the positive output that I want to see? So I just feel so lucky, frankly, that I had the opportunity to try that.

Erica Lee Garcia: I think a lot of people that come into engineering, maybe women and minorities more so than others, that don't necessarily have that automatic sense of belonging in engineering, don't always get that chance to prove themselves and get an assignment. That's just the right amount of a challenge. Right. It's not so hard that it shuts you down, but it's enough that it makes you grow and helps you thrive. And I talk about it sometimes as it's like being on a surfboard.

Erica Lee Garcia: Eventually you start to feel like you belong above the waves, and it starts to be fun. That's as far as my origin was. I think I was pretty hooked. By the time I got my black belt, I was pretty much convinced of my value to myself, and I was able to sort of get out there and do some jobs, first in manufacturing, then in mining. Later on, starting my own business, where I'm just like, this is it.

Erica Lee Garcia: This is my jam. Solving incremental problems, managing change. It's so much fun. As you can tell, I get pretty excited.

Mark Graban: That's good. That's great. You tell us about that problem solving challenge. I'm sure there were technical aspects of looking at the parts, looking at the belts and the process. How much of that was, would you say, engineering problem solving or being at an auto supplier?

Mark Graban: To what degree a lean culture, or was Toyota a customer? Were they an influence? How would you describe the environment that you were working?

Erica Lee Garcia: Right, yeah. At that mean, that organization wasn't really embracing lean or improvement culture or anything. It was really a matter of necessity to keep us from getting heavily penalized by our customer. And it was an engineer. I'll never forget him.

Erica Lee Garcia: Andrew was the one who led the efforts and sort of organized us all to say, hey, let's focus in on this degradation of the belt, and let's take samples and let's follow up. And I think engineering at the end of it is analysis and execution, right? If it's just analysis, if it's just knowledge, that's science, right? That's insight. Taking action on it, getting the people involved, getting the physical realities to line up the logistics, all of it.

Erica Lee Garcia: I think that all of that is engineering. I think that's actually what makes our jobs so much fun, is that it's the intersection of those technical or sort of physical realities and the way that humans are in the world. In this increasingly complex world, there are so many different problems we can solve. Right? So this was actually just a taste that was a little bit out of sync with the overall environment.

Erica Lee Garcia: I didn't grow up in a mecca of lean or anything like that. I've actually never had that experience, per se. When I look at my career, I've always been the one trying to create that change and trying to create buy in for that improvement culture from my own specific area of influence. And I used to feel a little bit insecure about that, like, oh, I've never led change. I've never been a manager or a vice president or anything because I went out on my own as an entrepreneur.

Erica Lee Garcia: But I had someone say to me recently, you're among the minority that can lead without that title, that can make change happen. And I love the scorekeeping. I guess everybody does, right? If you're a sports fan or a lean person, I gave a talk a couple of summers ago about the difference between lean and Six Sigma. I get that question a lot.

Erica Lee Garcia: And I totaled up all of the projects that I've either led myself or I've been a part of supporting someone else to do. And it's a total of $364,000,000 of value creation. So I'm like, that's pretty good. I can feel pretty good about the contribution that I'm making and excited to see where the next two or three or 500 million comes from.

Mark Graban: Yeah. So we'll come back, and I want to hear about the business that you started, the work you do now. But as we kind of go back through more of that progression, I was going to ask you about Six Sigma. Was that within the context of the auto supplier, when you had that opportunity, tell us a little bit more about was it their sponsorship or was it your initiative to say, hey, I want to go do this? Was that something they were embracing as a company?

Erica Lee Garcia: Correct. Yeah, it was very much what they were implementing at the time. And, I mean, thank goodness. I don't think I would have voluntarily signed up to do more statistics at the time. I was quite turned off by statistics.

Erica Lee Garcia: I thought it was tedious and pretty boring. And once I got the opportunity to learn it in this context, though, where we do a week of training and then a month of application. Week of training, month of application again, I think I was one of the youngest, and I just loved it. I love the opportunity to go out, and it's almost like being a double agent because I'm doing my regular manufacturing engineering job. I was running the suggestion program at the plant I was working at at the time as well.

Erica Lee Garcia: And then I had this change mission. Right. I had this other thing that I was doing, and I had to get people on board with it, and I had to collect data, and I had to corral people. That didn't work for me. Right.

Erica Lee Garcia: But I was bringing them together, usually bribing them with donuts to get them to my meetings and get things done. Right. Now, I was the one leading that sort of detective mission, and it was very much of the company's doing, and I didn't really know. Again, I think that was a little bit of my confidence, my bravado that I had fallen into by that point was just to say, yes, I got this. I want to do it.

Erica Lee Garcia: And I wasn't sure if it was going to happen. But I did end up getting the two projects complete for my black belt. And it was interesting because we did one on an assembly line was to do with the push press, and we did another one on the washer that was taking the chips out of the machined housings. We're making water pumps for cars at that point, and it was really inspiring to see how you can take things that honestly felt pretty natural to me. Like, of course, you're going to have to change up the X's to test out which one is the correct Y and use that to make a major impact on the business.

Erica Lee Garcia: It was really neat to see how, hey, this is actually something not everybody knows how to do, and I can help open doors for other people, too.

Mark Graban: So you've shared a little bit around some of this journey through two words come to mind, like gaining confidence, gaining confidence in your work. How much of that were there particular role models or mentors for you? If so, was it a woman, or did you have to figure out your own path by doing things and getting better at it?

Erica Lee Garcia: Yeah. Do you mean while I was a manufacturing engineer doing my Six Sigma stuff.

Mark Graban: During that phase where you said it sound like early on, you said you weren't sure if this was going to work out, and it started working out.

Erica Lee Garcia: Yeah. That tipping point. Yeah. I had the master black belt that I was reporting into at the time and just loved the way that he had that nitty gritty skill set, right down to the statistical tests we were learning about, right up to the multimillion dollar business case for the company as a whole. And I think I really loved how he could pull together both those pieces because that turned out to be something that I really like, too.

Erica Lee Garcia: One of my strengths, finder strengths is connectedness. Like, I really love seeing that big picture and how it all fits together and the business case, the money outcomes, the nitty gritty technical part of it, and also the people side that all has to fit together and be dialed in in order to be successful. Yeah. Who else was a role model? I don't think there were any women on the scene at that point.

Erica Lee Garcia: I hear a lot. You can't be what you can't see, and I think absolutely you can. It's just you have to go your own way. And not everyone is as stubborn as I am, maybe to do that, and maybe that's why we see some of the underrepresentation that we do these days. And I think it's great that we're starting to see more and more change leaders, more and more women in engineering, women in Mining is a group that I'm paying attention to now as well.

Erica Lee Garcia: And it was the love of what's going to happen next. I just wanted to see I just got curious. I got hooked in. And my curiosity kind of overrode my self doubt until we actually started to get somewhere. And I'm convinced to this day that that formula will work for other people.

Erica Lee Garcia: If it worked for me, I think it can work for, you know, I talk to some of my clients now and say, if you can get people just curious enough, just get them hooked. Like the next episode on Netflix. They want to know what's going to happen with next week's data or getting to the next level on a video game. My gosh, our dopamine receptors are so happy right when we have the opportunity to tune in for another chapter of something. So I really think there's something special in the game of change, whether it's Lean or Six Sigma, operational Excellence, continuous Improvement, all of these different flavors, whatever you're doing just to keep people interested and get them hooked on change, that's such a free source of energy within companies that I think a lot are not tapping into.

Mark Graban: Yeah. And you mentioned earlier, running a suggestion program, that's one of those things that a company that can either go really well, whether we're labeled we give it continuous improvement or a suggestion program. And then there are workplaces where the suggestion program is illustrated, represented by that box that sits on the wall that people aren't really putting anything into. And if they do put something in there, it sits forever before being looked at. But what did you learn about change regardless of how that suggestion program was working in that environment?

Erica Lee Garcia: Yeah, I mean, one of the lessons was definitely be careful what you wish for. Be careful what you ask for. If you put the box on the wall and I'm of the vintage, we're doing an online suggestion system was quite innovative at the time. So we had that and the box, two modes of entry here, and it was launched and we got, I think, 150 suggestions within a couple of weeks from 400 people in that plant.

Mark Graban: That's a good problem to have.

Erica Lee Garcia: Yes, and it was a challenging problem because to then have basically you need a process. Obviously you need the infrastructure to process those suggestions. So that's when I ended up coming in. At that point when we had a backlog, we had a little bit of a deficit to overcome because people were starting to get a little bit where's my response? You told me you wanted my ideas.

Erica Lee Garcia: Now what? That can feel very personal to people. Right. So I had a little bit of a comeback to make there. And happy to say we got all of them processed.

Erica Lee Garcia: We caught up, and we were able to really get into a sweet spot over the course of, I guess, how long did I run the suggestion program? I guess it was about two and a half years. We were able, by the end of it, to get up to a point where people's ideas were generating value. And I know that's maybe common knowledge to someone that's grown up in a Toyota environment or something, but it was kind of an AHA to me that it's not even necessarily about the ideas. Sometimes it's just about having people be heard and be appreciated.

Erica Lee Garcia: And if you come back to them, I'd sometimes come in on the midnight shift to talk to people that had submitted an idea and say, okay, thank you. Thank you for they'd have a diagram on there, three or four pages of scrawled writing, and I'd say, look, here's why this particular idea would not be possible to implement. However, thank you for the suggestion. You still get points for participating. They go back sometimes and they refine their idea and they do it again, or they just are happy that I came to see them and thank them for their idea.

Erica Lee Garcia: So I think that was I assumed that we would be failing if we couldn't implement everything. And what I found was there was actually a lot of success just in the process of the conversation in giving people that appreciation. We're listening to you. And a general manager that I worked for at the time, I'll never forget he was this very well dressed Austrian man, and he stood in front of 400 well, wouldn't have been all 400 of us, but stood in front of many of us in the cafeteria one day, and he said, you know what? No one is more important than anybody else.

Erica Lee Garcia: We all just have different responsibilities. And something in me just really sang to that. I'm like, yes, that is what I believe, too. I believe everyone has value. We all have intelligence, we all have things to bring to the table.

Erica Lee Garcia: And even if there are people that don't have a lot of structural power or don't have a lot of experience working in Canada or working in the States or wherever they happen to be at that point, they still have things to contribute. There's the democracy of a good idea, and I love how systems like it doesn't matter, really, if it's a suggestion program. Continuous improvement teams, improvement circles, these are all ways to bring people's insights in and help them participate, feel valued, and have their voices heard, whether they're at the top, so to speak, or not.

Mark Graban: Yeah, that's all so important. You make a lot of great points there. And I think the one piece all vouch for and emphasize is you have to close the loop. You have to keep people informed, not just at the end when there's some sort of decision or action or resolution. But this is where I think, forget the suggestion box, whether it's a bulletin board or whether it's a technology.

Mark Graban: I'm wearing my Kinexis polo shirt today. I'll think a plug kinexis is one of those technologies where you keep people in the loop. You provide transparency and visibility that a suggestion box process never provided. And people might not like hearing no, but I think you touched on it. You either have to explain why and followed up with, well, okay, well, what else could we try?

Mark Graban: To me, that's a difference. That's one of the key differences between kind of the old dusty, literally dusty suggestion box system and a healthy continuous improvement or Kaizen culture. Like we're driven to solve the problem, not just say yes or no to the suggestion.

Erica Lee Garcia: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's a very concrete example of switching from an either or mentality to a yes and mentality, and it opens up so many more possibilities, for sure.

Mark Graban: So speaking of other possibilities, so you made a shift from manufacturing into mining. I'm curious what prompted that? What did you find there in terms of the environment, the readiness for lean or continuous improvement or six sigma?

Erica Lee Garcia: Yeah, well, I guess from a personal decision making point, it wasn't so much a strategic decision. I know some people are very like, I have a five year plan and I have it all mapped out kind of thing. For me, it was more I'd applied to become the leader of the manufacturing engineering group, and I didn't get it, and I wasn't sure what other growth or development opportunities existed there for me. I stopped seeing down the road, I guess, and I could only see a little bit in front of me in the manufacturing facility. And I ran into a friend of a friend who said, look, you got your black belt, right?

Erica Lee Garcia: And I said, yeah. She said, well, there's this mining company. They're looking to set up an improvement program. There's a bunch of us ex automotive people sitting inside the company, and you might be a fit, see what you think. And I decided to apply again with the massive impostor syndrome because I was going to go work in this fancy big company at the head office downtown.

Erica Lee Garcia: Everyone's wearing suits, and I got my steel toe boots on, and I was still wearing my Girl Guide uniform pants as my manufacturing uniform. So I had some up leveling to do on a personal confidence level. Again, once I got there, though, I found everyone so open minded and so supportive, and there was opportunity to travel, and it was just kind of how would I say? There was low hanging fruit all over the place. The manufacturing organization I'd been working in had been at the improvement game for a while.

Erica Lee Garcia: So to find $150,000 project or a $75,000 project, $75,000 a year project was a big deal. And we moved over to this company that was just setting up some improvement standards and processes and tools for the first time, and it was so much fun. Again, there was just opportunity all over the place. We faced a bit of a cultural challenge in getting the mining people to see, to not do that well. It wasn't built here, so we don't want it kind of a thing.

Erica Lee Garcia: Maybe healthcare did a bit of that pushback as well in the early days, and really, we had to just work with them and be very patient around saying, well, okay, so tell us, what are your challenges? What are you looking at now? And in the end, we developed this sort of four piece framework that I kind of use to this day around. Have you identified what your challenges are? Have you captured those challenges, closed the gap between potential performance and current performance, and then have you sustained have you really locked it down so it's going to stay there even when you turn your back?

Erica Lee Garcia: And then have you scaled it across your organization? And this particular company at the time, it had 27 different mines in four different geographical regions around the world. There's a lot of amplification potential there. Right. You go fishing for ideas, as I had done with my manufacturing plant, and you find all of these great wins, and you get to celebrate them and then start to cross pollinate those ideas.

Erica Lee Garcia: Yeah. So that was one of the earliest projects I worked on. Among other things, I was sitting at the corporate office originally. From there, I was deemed that I needed more operations experience, and I chose South America as my relocation. So I did a year in Peru supporting the mines up in the mountains, and learned how to do my job in Spanish.

Erica Lee Garcia: MEJORA quintinoa. So it was hands down the best thing I've ever done, and so rewarding from a personal and practical standpoint. I really think that my world got bigger when I did that, and I still, to this day, really love facilitating in Spanish.

Mark Graban: Wow. So the gemba there was quite halfway down around the world from downtown Toronto.

Erica Lee Garcia: Correct.

Mark Graban: Wow. So that was quite an effort to go to Kempa, and if you're going to go, be there for a wow.

Erica Lee Garcia: Yeah. And I think I was just so fortunate to be welcomed with open had, you know, a lot of knowledge because I helped develop those standards in Toronto, and then I brought them into the regional office in Lima and got to help implement them. So I got to be my own what did I say? Like, my own customer, my own stakeholder. I've read things about engineers being sent into manufacturing plants to say, okay, you go ahead, you designed it.

Erica Lee Garcia: Now go ahead and put it together, and how that can generate so many great AHA's, designing for manufacturing. I had a similarly humbling experience with realizing just what everybody's going through to execute on these ideas that I'm busy dreaming up from my comfy office on the 33rd floor.

Mark Graban: Yeah. And then, just out of curiosity, was that mining upstream in the extended value stream of the powdered metal process at the auto supplier or different metals altogether?

Erica Lee Garcia: It was a different metal in that particular case, yeah. I think it was a nice shout out back to my metallurgical roots. I didn't really work in the field, per se. I did end up sort of leveraging a bit of what I knew. And yeah, I think being an engineer opens doors.

Erica Lee Garcia: Having that Six Sigma Black belt, that credibility, that really opens doors, and having the opportunity to help other people and being able to sincerely stand in front of people and say, look, this is the best thing I've ever done, this improvement stuff, you're going to love it. And even if you don't love it, it's going to be valuable for you. You can use these methods at home to organize your schedule, and you can use them in your job to make yourself more consistent at whatever you're trying to do. And so that kind of personal value proposition, if you will. I always lead with that.

Erica Lee Garcia: I say forget about what the company wants you to do, that's great if they want you to do this, and I want you to do it too, but don't do it for me, do it for yourself. Because there really is such an amazing opportunity for you to grow into this more effective version of yourself by using these principles.

Mark Graban: Well, I think people tend to fall in love with these principles or tools or however we're going to describe it, when there is benefit to them and the work they're doing, or benefit to them growing as an individual. I think that's when it seems like the spark tends to hit sort of back to you telling your story about the problem solving with that belt. There's that sense of accomplishment and participation as opposed to times when you can just tell when people are being forced to implement lean methods and they're doing it because they're told to do it. I don't think that leads to the same sort of spark and passion to me. I think that's very understandable from a change.

Mark Graban: You have this passion for engaging people and helping them with change. I'm just curious to hear what are the stories or reflections you have about connecting to the purpose of the people you're helping? What are they trying to accomplish?

Erica Lee Garcia: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, when start with Why came out the Simon Sinek book, I went, yeah, of course. I feel like that's kind of how I operate, and I kind of assumed everybody did of it sort of bewildered me that he could write a book about it, because I just thought that that's how everybody thought. Anyway. No shade to Simon sinek.

Erica Lee Garcia: I think it's brilliant. And I do know when you were saying earlier about how people sometimes go through the motions and they just. Do the lean thing because they're being forced to. I would be very curious back to my thing about being a business mechanic. I would pop the hood on that resistance and say, well, why aren't they excited?

Erica Lee Garcia: Because I think this is where my bias kind of comes in handy. I'm like, this is cool. And if everyone is not thinking it's cool, then I need to know why, and I want to deal with what's going on there. Are they afraid of losing their job? Are they feeling unheard undervalued?

Erica Lee Garcia: Are they just sick of this problem because they think it's somebody else's fault and they actually just want someone else to go fix it, whatever that is? This is the ideal situation, right, where we can work through all of that, get it out on the table. There really is like a cathartic thing that happens, and then that's where the magic starts. That's where the good stuff that, well, you know, here's what I actually think, or here's what I actually know. So I feel like I get to be a little bit of a therapist and a cheerleader at the same time.

Erica Lee Garcia: When I'm getting to know people, I come in and I hope that I'm a positive source of energy and validation for people, whatever they're coming from, whatever they've been up to. And it just gets all that other stuff out of the way and lets us focus on, look, how are we going to get from here to here? We all share that purpose. And if we're not sharing that purpose, then let's talk about that and let's get there first, because I think, yeah, getting to that why it's at the heart of what we do at Engineers of Tomorrow as well. And I guess talking about my own story, I can go back even further than the furnace belt, right to me digging trenches in the driveway as a kid.

Erica Lee Garcia: I got my rainboots on and I'm taking the mud puddles and connecting them and stuff and fixing the rabbit ears on my television, as I said, and getting into high school and seeing the periodic table and just being blown away by the fact that everything in the universe is right there and just having a genuine sense of wanting to help people. Like, I was a Girl Guide, and I did a lot of volunteering and stuff, and the dots all connect backwards. That's why I'm an engineer, is because I'm someone who loves physical technical problems. I love solving things. I love helping people, and I'm fascinated by what stuff is made up of.

Erica Lee Garcia: Maybe that's why I chose materials and metallurgical. And so what I just did there was got into a little bit of my why as an engineer and to the rank and file population that may or may not even know what engineering is. That can be very illuminating to say. Well, oh, that's an engineer. Okay, we may have some stereotypes dilbert or, I don't know, Big Bang Theory.

Erica Lee Garcia: We have these very few cultural symbols that represent engineering at all, let alone in a positive or kind of innovative or progressive sort of yeah, yeah.

Mark Graban: There's no equivalent of a show like CSI that led to this flood of people thinking, forensic science, criminal forensics. That became cool, that became, well, you.

Erica Lee Garcia: Know what the problem is? It's because when we do our jobs right, there's no drama, right? The thing just doesn't fall down. The bridge stays up. The building doesn't explode.

Erica Lee Garcia: I think that this is a little bit of a it can be maybe a little bit of a conundrum, although maybe continuous improvement is the answer, right? Maybe we need to start getting a little more high profile in the media with the way that we gamify, doing things better problem solving.

Mark Graban: There's shows that talk about the problems. Cable shows on engineering disasters. It's more common of a theme than engineering successes. I think there are times like people glorify invention more than, let's say, engineering. Maybe.

Mark Graban: I don't know. We'll have to see how to crack that. I mean, I heard a news story this morning. It's the 30th anniversary of the release of Jurassic Park, and the popularity of that film led to a big increase in people going to study to become paleontologists. And they actually interviewed somebody who was like, I'm getting off track here, but how do we create this in engineering and manufacturing?

Mark Graban: Even nine year old kid blown away by Jurassic Park became a paleontologist and ended up being an advisor to one of the many, many sequels that was still coming out. 25.

Erica Lee Garcia: Oh, my gosh. That's the coolest. I love that. So I'll tell you, a little bit of a corresponding anecdote there, and it's not off track at all. It's beautiful.

Erica Lee Garcia: I have met engineering students that were in some of the early National Engineering Month events that I helped organize. So dating back to, I guess, 2013, right after I decided to go out on my own as a problem solver, as an engineer, frankly, things were going a little bit well at the beginning, and I got a little bit confident and decided I could do something else at the same time. And when I was approached by Engineers Without Borders, canada had the opportunity to start leading their outreach that was basically saying to kids, look, engineering can be about being a humanitarian. It can be about helping people. And of course, this dovetailed beautifully with what I had discovered in the meantime.

Erica Lee Garcia: And I think the fact that I was a woman helped, that I was speaking to girls and children of all genders, frankly, can hear this message and understand that there's a place for them. And what started as a single contract running National Engineering Month events in Ontario in March has now blossomed into a national engineering charity. I'm going to forget the numbers, but we're in. I think ten provinces, and we have over 400 volunteers active in many different programs, going to classrooms, going to Girl Guide and Boy Scout meetings, going to church basements, going to wherever the kids are hanging out to give them a positive experience of engineering that helps them see, oh, okay, so maybe it's not what I thought. It's team based.

Erica Lee Garcia: It's creative. It's something that allows me to make a contribution to the world. And, yeah, pretty hard to beat the thrill of knowing that your influence or a program that you helped create or helped run actually shifted someone's life for the better and maybe inspired their career choice.

Mark Graban: So I want to come back and talk about some of the nonprofit organizations and causes that you're involved in helping people. I want to hear first a little bit about the journey of starting your own business, of what was the spark to go out. It's a leap to leave corporate life behind. I've made the leap. A lot of people listening, I'm sure, have made the leap, and there might be many more who would like to.

Mark Graban: So tell us a little bit about it takes courage, right? So what led to that?

Erica Lee Garcia: No, thanks for that reminder. I mean, picking up my life and moving to South America was a good warm up, because once you've already done that, things kind of fall. I think some of the fear falls away, some of the need to stay in one place falls away because I've already moved metaphorically and physically, and I found myself. They replaced me when I went to South America, and then I came back, went on contract for a bit, and there was nothing really calling me to stay at that time. And so I decided, well, look, I know I have a lot of skills.

Erica Lee Garcia: There's a lot of value I can help create here. They're not paying me $180,000,000, so clearly there's an ROI to having me on their team. Maybe I can do it in a way that allows me to have some flexibility and some self determination. And long story short, I took my severance package and spent it all over South America, the Caribbean and Europe. Started out with just, like, a quick three months, and it turned into a volunteer project.

Erica Lee Garcia: And it was in Argentina. It was working with people that were scavenging plastic in order to survive and basically just selling it. So very minimal value, quite a lot of poverty. And there were as you might know as your listeners might know, in 2001, the economy of Argentina had a complete meltdown, and there were hundreds of thousands out of work overnight. So out of necessity, they organized themselves into these groups.

Erica Lee Garcia: They were scavenging for cardboard, plastic cans, bottles, things that they could sell. And we saw an opportunity. I'll say we meaning waste for life. The organization that I joined up with, which was started by an engineering professor and role model of mine, Dr. Caroline Bailey.

Erica Lee Garcia: So she had spoken at a conference that I had seen when I was a little baby engineering grad. And she said, risk being know, risk putting your values with what you've learned in school. And she had founded this project while she was on sabbatical in Argentina and also started a network called the Engineers for Social Justice and Peace. So Waste for Life has, let me see if I can get this right. Waste for Life develops poverty, reducing solutions to ecological problems.

Erica Lee Garcia: And what that meant basically was we were adding a little bit of value to those plastics by fusing them together with a very rudimentary hot press. So plastic and other materials including fabric or cardboard to make things that people could sell or turn into other things. So anyway, you can check out Waste for Life. We can put the link in the show notes. It's still going on.

Erica Lee Garcia: The work to this day is still happening. They've branched out into Argentina and Sri Lanka and Lesotho in Africa. It's amazing to see how this same idea developed at my alma mater Queens, was just able to scale so beautifully and again, really allow engineering to branch out and have that direct community impact. So it gave me a little taste of international development and entrepreneurship and just seeing people really struggling with very small margins and very little dignity, frankly. And how we were able to add some value to them and give them the opportunity to then sell these little wallets that they made in the swanky boutiques in Buenos Aires.

Erica Lee Garcia: And they got a contract to create some garbage cans to go in the local park, poetically enough, made out of upcycled plastic. So I know, so cool, right? So this is what I was doing and I got the AHA. I remember I was on the train in Argentina when I got the AHA. I've basically spent my career thus far honing my skill set and improving processes, maybe I don't need to just toil inside the corporate machine making these incremental improvements.

Erica Lee Garcia: Maybe I can direct this toolkit towards something that really resonates with my values and my desire to have an impact in the world. And I'll say in the name of fairness, I think you can have an impact in the world being inside a big company as well. I think that's very valuable. And there is maybe a little bit of black and white thinking that my younger self was engaging in. However, it did lead me to take that leap of faith and move to Argentina.

Erica Lee Garcia: And I happened to meet the man who is now my husband while I was working there. So that was a pretty cool perk as well. And I remember calling home and telling my parents I can't even believe what I'm doing. It's so cool you can't even believe it. I mean, I've never felt more alive.

Erica Lee Garcia: And the ways that my skills can play out. And I think that was once I had that feeling of knowing that I was making a difference and I was being a part of these really cool, innovative ways of being in the world and really helping people. That's when I knew I want to keep doing projects like this for the rest of my life and I probably need to do it on my own. So it was a bit of an operation of necessity to start my own business at that point and I started small and got a few things under my belt. I will be celebrating twelve years in business this coming August and I think what I'm most excited for in this next chapter is to start to get a lot more specific on, here's what I do.

Erica Lee Garcia: I've spent the last twelve years entertaining a lot of different interesting possibilities and that's been a lot of fun. And I think now at this point in my career, I'm really excited to get very specific on Kaizen events that emerged from my reflections as like, that's the sweet stuff right there when I can watch the needle move in three to five days on a big sticky problem that people have been fighting with for a while. I also really love training and then seeing the results of training. So Lean Tools, all these things that I've been doing for a couple of decades now, really helping people say, okay, well, what is the root cause? Know really what's the root cause and what is that costing us and why does this matter and how can we test this out?

Erica Lee Garcia: I'm such a fan of Lean Startup as well. I think it can be integrated in so many places. Anytime you have uncertainty and you need to move forward in the face of uncertainty. Throw some Lean Startup, some build, measure, learn cycles on it. So I'm hoping to get really a lot more specialized in the coming months, coming years.

Erica Lee Garcia: I do have a few more decades left in my career and this is really exactly my sweet spot. It's right what I want to be doing.

Mark Graban: Yeah. Some of the most interesting speakers at the Lean Startup conferences are people doing basically social entrepreneurship and applying those same Lean Startup principles to iterating and understanding, let's say instead of product market fit, it might be looking for that fit between the services you think you can or should be providing and the need of the people. And how do you learn, how do you decide? Do you pivot or persevere? I've had a couple of guests on the My Favorite Mistake podcast who told kind of social entrepreneurship pivot stories of getting really deep down a path, of building a solution and then realizing, oh my goodness, there was a really bad assumption baked into.

Mark Graban: There was one woman who was developing a school in a country and just to summarize the stories real quick and people kept telling her, don't build something. I forget what country it was, but it was a country with warlords and some lawlessness and they told her, don't build something too nice. And she built something nice to Western standards and it got seized by a military group. And so that was, yeah, bad, you know, and she, you know, to hear that story of, okay, well, gosh, learning from that and pivoting. And the other story was being in a different country of trying to provide meals to young girls and an assumption about what constituted a meal kind of thinking of like hot meal Western standards, even if it was local food.

Mark Graban: And basically families were taking the meals intended for the girls and giving them to the boys in the family. This kind of took a detour again, but trying to get past some of those assumptions and pivoting and providing basically like meal shakes that the girls could sort of just keep to themselves or consume on the go and not have their family take the food. So it's like things we wouldn't imagine coming in from an outside perspective. But even as entrepreneurs in business, sometimes you're kind of flabbergasted by, I didn't know my customer would do that with this product. Even if it's not as sad sorry, that took a sad turn.

Mark Graban: But trying to work on it.

Erica Lee Garcia: I think it comes to a reality that we need to design for the conditions where we want our solutions to work and we can have all these ideas about what we hope it is. At the end of it, though, we have to design it for what it really is. And yeah, it can be heartbreaking, right? We're allowed to have emotions about what we see and what we wish we could see instead. And I think the best thing we can do is learn and adapt, like you said, learn from those assumptions that we didn't realize we made and keep moving forward.

Erica Lee Garcia: And maybe there are systemic solutions to get at eventually in the longer term. I know that helps me sleep a little better at night sometimes. Instead of saying, well, I'm just adapting, accepting situations as they are. Maybe I'm also supporting a group that's got maybe some policy solutions or some overriding other initiatives going on designed to shift that underlying reality.

Mark Graban: Yeah. So I wanted to ask you about two of the organizations you're involved in. First off, Artemis Project and how that helps women in particular.

Erica Lee Garcia: Yeah. So the Artemis Project is a collective of about 90 female entrepreneurs serving the mining industry. So I'll say that again, female entrepreneurs serving the mining industry. I know we're not supposed to exist, but we do. And there are a lot of us, we get together, we talk about positioning our services, the impact we want to have.

Erica Lee Garcia: Every single one of those women is outstanding at what they do. And they're all doing something to move the needle, so to speak. I guess I say that a lot. We say change the face of mining, right? It's a bit of a play on words, but basically they're looking at innovation sometimes they're looking at climate resiliency, energy efficiency, local community relations.

Erica Lee Garcia: They offer all different suites of solutions. I myself have been an Artemis member. My lean business improvement skill set is bundled in there in the collective. And we really want to partner with mining companies that are interested in improving their gender representation, as most mining companies are these days, their employee population and their leadership and their boards, rightly? So are usually the main focus of that gender diversity effort.

Erica Lee Garcia: And Artemis project is looking to influence them to also look at their supply chain because mileage varies across the board. However, most mining companies are somewhere between eight to 15% women so far and supply chain is less than 1%, meaning the vendors and contractors that they employ. So if we can up that even a little bit and give these very deserving women entrepreneurs a chance, it's just about leveling the playing field, giving them an opportunity to speak to those decision makers about their solutions. And everything that's happened since then, artemis has been going for about four years now. Everything that happens from there is really on the backs of the quality of the solutions of our members, which is just I cannot say enough about the impact that they're having across the board.

Erica Lee Garcia: All these different areas designed to help mining evolve into basically the next know. They're meeting the UN sustainable development goals, looking at other types of innovation through this gender responsive procurement opportunity.

Mark Graban: And tell us about engineers of tomorrow that's going back to younger ages, influencing the potential future, not just future engineers, but also they could be potential entrepreneurs.

Erica Lee Garcia: Could be entrepreneurs, yeah. I mean, we say that we're not necessarily looking to recruit engineers. We want every kid to know what engineering is, because those are going to grow up to be the decision makers, the leaders of companies, the politicians of tomorrow. And we want them to have respect for evidence based decision making and listen to the engineers of tomorrow. Right?

Erica Lee Garcia: So it really is about raising that technical literacy and familiarity across the board. And that starts with being deliberately positive and inclusive now and not looking at certain kids and saying, well, you're not smart enough to do this or you're not good at math, which is really sad, right. To see how quickly kids can get turned off from thinking that they have that kind of brain. So I am deliberately and stubbornly very inclusive and positive in all my dealings. I have three daughters myself and I'm very careful about the messages and as I think everybody needs to be when dealing with young people, being very open, encouraging their curiosity, leading with your story as a human and what makes you tick.

Erica Lee Garcia: I think I've been weaving it into this conversation fairly effectively. I don't know if I know how to turn it off, actually. But rather than getting up in front of a class and saying, well, I assist with the optimization of processes in order to realize efficiencies right, kids are going to fall asleep. So you need to really bring it to them, bring it with some storytelling that's connected to something that they know and give them the chance to feel encouraged and feel successful in it. So there's almost always a hands on component to this.

Erica Lee Garcia: And yeah, I guess the story of Engineers of Tomorrow, I kind of told it earlier. It was part of my big think about what I wanted to be when I grew up, and it evolved into this charity that's now it's grown nationally. We've got hundreds of volunteers. Our annual report just came out. Maybe I can give you the link to that in our show notes as well, if people want to learn a little bit more about it.

Erica Lee Garcia: We think those positive experiences, maybe for childhood in general, but especially when it comes to engineering or Stem, they're like pearls on a string. You just want to put as many of them together as possible to lead them to see, like, wow, this is something that can be for me, or that at least I understand and I'm not intimidated by it, and I'm willing to try it on and think about it and acknowledge it as a force in my life.

Mark Graban: Yeah, well, thank you for sharing. I'm impressed how you're drawn to these big challenges and nonprofit organizations and these big problems. They're big opportunities for societal benefit.

Erica Lee Garcia: Well, thank you for that. I have to say that I feel like I just won the lottery in terms of the volunteers we've been able to find. I'm actually looking for a social scientist who wants to partner with us to study what happens with our volunteers because it's probably 10,000 people and counting over the decade that we've been doing this. They come to us and they want to tell their stories. And these are anyone from a recent grad to been retired for ten years, veteran.

Erica Lee Garcia: They know who they are. These are our bread and butter volunteers that just come around, and they're so passionate about telling the next generation, this is what I love about what I do, and this is why you should think about it. And we coach them. We have a library of lesson plans. We give them coaching on the storytelling part of it, and we give them connections, of course, to the teachers and the community leaders that they're going to be collaborating with to go meet the kids.

Erica Lee Garcia: And the rest is it's their stories, it's their energy. And it's just the most contagious thing to have them knowing that they're part of something bigger here. They're potentially changing someone's life through their story and their example. I think that it's a very satisfying thing to do and we're not paying them, so they're coming back because they're getting a different type of reward out of it. There's a very positive non monetary thing that's happening there something to do with their identity.

Erica Lee Garcia: I think that just feels really good. I think we're having an impact and we're doing it together. And that is sort of the dream as far as you start something and you hope it leads somewhere. Most things that get started don't lead anywhere. But I'm very fortunate to say, like I call this one my First Child.

Erica Lee Garcia: I started it in 2013, and then I had my kids after that and it's alive and kicking, thriving, exciting to see what's going to happen next.

Mark Graban: Yeah. Well, before we wrap up again, our guest is Erica Lee Garcia. Erica, one other question about your business. What sorts of organizations do you tend to work with?

Erica Lee Garcia: Yeah, absolutely. So I'm most familiar with manufacturing and mining because that's where I worked, that's where I grew up, and I find my specific knowledge for those industries. Even understanding the talk on the shop floor, the differing ways that people can react in the mine site, that really helps me connect with people and kind of get conversation flowing, get things going on the change efforts. So, yeah, definitely manufacturing, mining companies, certainly engineering organizations, service based organizations as well, I've been known to partner with to help them and if they want to get in touch with me to discuss how I can help them, either with efficiency, cost savings, value creation, or other types of change strategy, be happy to have that conversation.

Mark Graban: Well, great. And I'll make sure there are links in the show notes for people who want to reach out and contact you. Erica and then one final thing I know you were going to offer, we'll put a link to this in the show notes as well. Kind of a giveaway offer if you want to tell people about that.

Erica Lee Garcia: Oh, yeah, absolutely. So a few years ago it was in the before time, so let's just say four or five years ago, I was invited to give a talk to the engineers at the Ministry of Transportation here in Ontario. And they had just undergone a massive reorganization, and everybody was a little bit disoriented. And they said, Tell us what we need to know for Navigating change. And I was like, okay, just let me sum up 20 years in a 45 minutes talk.

Erica Lee Garcia: I'll get right on that. But anyway, I sat down and I put some thoughts together for them and the result was something I call a navigating change roadmap. And it basically involves pulling together the best of what I know, both from a personal and organizational perspective, and I would love to share that with your listeners and hear what they think and get their take on what sorts of changes they're navigating. So this would be great for anyone, navigating change within an organization or in their personal lives, maybe something like getting laid off or looking for a new job or changing from one relationship or one town to another. All of these changes, basically they act the same and they're predictable.

Erica Lee Garcia: So even if they're challenging, there are tools and there are ways that the tools of our profession can be used to help people navigate them more successfully and come out on the other side thriving. So would love it if people wanted to check that out and let me know what they think.

Mark Graban: Well, good. I hope people will. I'm going to go check that out. We're all navigating change professionally, personally, all of the above. So thank you, Erica, for offering that and for sharing that with everybody.

Mark Graban: So again, we've been joined by Erica Lee Garcia. Thank you for telling us your story. Not just the passion for problem solving, but the passion for, as you put it so well, making the world a better place. So I really appreciate you sharing that all with us today.

Erica Lee Garcia: Thank you so much, Mark, it's been a pleasure.

Announcer: Thanks for listening. This has been the Lean Blog podcast. For Lean news and commentary, updated daily, visit www.leanblog.org. If you have any questions or comments about this podcast, email Mark at leanpodcast@gmail.com.

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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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