Improvement Begins with I

One day, shortly after entering grade school, my daughter, Alison, asked me “Dad, what do you do for a living.”  An odd question, I thought, coming from a six-year-old, to which I flippantly and thoughtlessly responded, “I go in search of the almighty dollar.”  I actually really enjoy my work; it’s much more than a paycheck and I don’t recall what pangs of cynicism gripped me that day.    But I will never forget what happened the following day.   Returning home from school, Ali, declared that classroom discussion had centered around what parents did for a living, and she had proudly announced that her father went in search of the almighty dollar. 

Embarrassed, I apologized that I had been joking and that my real job was sharing my process improvement experience with others.  Try explaining that concept to a six-year-old.  “What’s a process and why does it need improvement?” she asked.   This line of questioning continued for a while with examples and anecdotes that were more relatable to a grade-schooler. “So, you help them to make things better,” she finally said.  “Yes!” I exclaimed, “that’s it.”

Not completely satisfied with this answer, Ali inquired, “Why do they need your help to make things better?”  This thoughtful question made me chuckle.   “I help them see where things can be better, just like I did with you.  It’s called Kaizen.” 

“Oh, Kaizen,” she said, “seeing where things can be better.”  The idea had connected in a significant way   Shortly thereafter, Alison informed me that she’d let her class know that my job was Kaizen.   

Years later, I’m struck by the need to have a similar dialogue with full-grown adults.  I hear comments like “If people just did their jobs . . . “  or  “Things are okay as they are . . . “  Shigeo Shingo noted that “99% of objection is cautionary.”  In other words, if we are to accept a new idea – in this case, Kaizen — we need to be convinced.   It’s a personal thing.   Kaizen, as Shingo noted, is more about individual will to improve, and that derives from a “constructive dissatisfaction with the status quo.”   Call it Kaizen spirit.  For every person, the process to develop that spirit is unique, in the context of anecdotes and examples that are relatable to them.  As businessman and author Arnold Glasgow once said, “Improvement begins with I.”  This poster hangs in my office. 

What’s your Kaizen story?  Were you an early adopter or a late bloomer?  How did improvement begin with you?  Can you share an example? 


Speaking of sharing,  we just announced that our 17th Annual Northeast LEAN Conference will be IN-PERSON at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, MA on October 6-7, 2021.  Featuring four inspiring keynotes, four educational break-out tracks, and our frontline sharing space, the Community of Lean Lounge.   Register early for a super deal.  Hope you can join us.  More info and registration here.

Extra Space

This time of year the abundant ads for junk removal and cheap storage units remind us that it’s time for Spring cleaning, an annual pastime that has perhaps been bolstered by the need to unlock extra space in the home during the pandemic.  Businesses too have managed to find space to accommodate safe distancing, either by pushing unneeded items to dark corners or back-lot containers or occasionally by chucking them.   It’s the typical 5S lament:  Sorting and setting in order, but not sustaining the improvement.  Which, of course, is why Spring cleaning is an annual thing.  

Removing clutter from our lives is a good thing, be it personal or professional.   But there’s a huge, often missed opportunity that is unique to business:  inventory. We buy it, machine it, fabricate it, assemble it, paint it or process it in some other way and then we store it for eventual use (or obsoletion.)  According to, the ideal inventory turnover for a company is 3 -6 times per year.  Wow! The things we can learn from the Internet. Seriously, in our personal lives we would never consider maintaining those levels of household inventory – not even in a pandemic.   But it’s normal in business.  After 50 years in manufacturing, my unscientific estimate for ratio of inventory storage space to production floor space is 1:1, maybe worse.  Businesses mask this ratio with high-bay, high-density storage; perhaps a fairer ratio would be cubic feet of storage. I suppose the ratio for that would be worse.  And these storage optimization solutions come with their own set of problems. 

In one of my last factory visits of 2020 just before Covid, I asked to see the stockroom, as I always do.  It’s like the heart of the business,  with inventory flow analogous to blood flow. So, the health of the stockroom says a lot about the overall flow of value to the customer. The factory manager who was hosting my visit pointed to a 5S evaluation posted in the area and apologized:  “This is a 5S mess. The aisles are cluttered and it’s impossible to find anything. We can’t get these guys on board.”   

I chose my response carefully: “Perhaps the stockroom cannot organize because they cannot count on stability of material flow.” 

The factory manager answered defensively, “We’ve already doubled the size our stockroom to account for variability.  We gave them extra space and it’s still a mess.”   

“Why do you suppose?”  I asked him. 

Fact is, it’s tough – impossible — to organize inventory when you have no idea of what’s coming and going.   In this sense, the stockroom is a reservoir reflecting every policy and habit that authorizes inventory.  Increasing the reservoir’s size only enables that. I’ve lost track of the number of posts I’ve written about the punishment inflicted by outmoded policies and bad habits which may, in fact, achieve the dismal goal of 3-6 turns per year but at the expense of profits, cash flow,  and customer service.  Here are a few 3-minute reads from past years about inventory-related policy snafus that may help you to regain some extra space for production in 2021:  

One to read per day for next week. 

Happy Spring.  Stay safe and protect those around you  – get your shots. 


PS Like this post? Did you know you can actually hear from Bruce live during his free webinars presented on the second Tuesday of every month? On May 11, he’ll discuss “Bad Handoffs“. Save your seat today! And on top of that, did you know you can see recordings of all the webinars he’s ever given on Leanflix, GBMP’s streaming Lean Training Video platform? (THERE ARE MORE THAN 60 OF THEM!) With topics ranging from “The New Gemba” to “Lean Self Assessments”, “Responding to Managerial Objections to Lean” and “Making Huddle Boards Work”, there are at least a few that will “speak” to you and your Continuous Improvement challenges. Check ’em out today!

Accidental Excellence

Sometimes, reflection on a great discovery will reveal that its invention was actually a lucky accident that just stuck.  Take for example French engineer George de Mestral’s discovery in the 1940’s that the thistle seeds he pulled from his dog’s fur could be synthetically replicated as what we now call Velcro.

On a less grand scale, several pivotal chance events in my Lean journey have managed to stick in ways I would not have predicted or planned.  One was a chance meeting in 1989 with Norman Bodek, founder of the Shingo Prize which led to my interest in the Shingo Model and my plant’s successful challenge for the Shingo Prize in 1990.  In a short Tribute to Norm on his passing last December, I related the serendipitous circumstances that ultimately thrust a small New England manufacturer into the limelight. 

While publicity from the Shingo Prize was not unexpected, the sudden volume of requests for factory tours was.  Suddenly, we were the hot spot for visitors from Fortune 100 managers and executives.   More significant than the publicity from these benchmarking visits, however, was the positive impact it had in developing our frontline employees as teachers.  I wrote a post a couple of years ago about this unexpected benefit, entitled Tours R Us (aka Why Sharing & Teaching are the best way to Learn).  The concept of executives learning from the front line is still novel today, but 30 years ago it was revolutionary! 

In fact, the most significant outcome of the “Tours R Us” saga came from the idea of a shop floor team member:  Front line employees should be sharing regularly with each other – peer to peer, across departments. They were, after all, the persons closest to the action and most responsible for improvements that had been made.  They were the experts.  We didn’t know the Japanese word for this at the time (Yokoten), but the significant improvement to alignment as silos were removed was yet another happy accident. 

A final episode in this tale began with yet another idea from the floor:  Request reciprocal visits to any site requesting a tour of our facility.   And, as our front-line employees had been an integral part of training visitors, reciprocal tours to other sites would include both front-line and management from our site.  Why not create “A Community of Lean?”  

Fast forward to 2010, when GBMP borrowed this concept, introducing the “Community of Lean Lounge” as an integral part of our Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference.   Fingers crossed, we’ll be back again in person on October 6-7, 2021, but in the meantime, GBMP is offering one more way to share as a community: Next week, on April 1 I hope you’ll be able to join us on a rapid-fire virtual road trip, a Community of Lean Showcase, to visit and speak with ten different frontline teams from manufacturing, healthcare and service.  We’ll do the driving!  You just log on, watch, listen and ask questions. Here’s the link.  I hope you can join us next week, on April 1, for this “everybody, every day” experimental expedition.   And, by the way, I hope you’ll send front line employees as well as managers. 

Happy Spring,



At the tender age of 21, living in a universe with far too many parallels to present day, I took a job – which turned out to be more than a job — to support myself in college by working as a caregiver, cook, driver and constant companion to a man who as a young adult had been infected by the awful poliomyelitis virus. This is story about two persons: Teacher and Student.

Teacher:  When I first met Michael, he had already been persevering this condition for twenty years.  Polio, like our current virus, produced symptoms in less than 1% of those infected, and only a small fraction of those were severely impacted. Michael’s symptoms were extreme.  He had no use of his arms, although he managed to use one hand, held in a sling, to write.  Bound to a wheelchair, was able, if lifted, to walk several steps. This major feat enabled him transfer to a bed or toilet — always with 80% of his slight frame supported by me.  Most significant, however, was that paralysis had reached his diaphragm; he had completely lost the ability to breath autonomously.  He drew each faint breath consciously using only his neck muscles – amazing.  To breath while sleeping he lay each night strapped to a bed that rocked constantly in a seesaw motion to raise and lower his diaphragm.   

Student:  As an able-bodied 20-year-old, I learned very quickly how many normal tasks most of us accomplish without thinking.  My job, plain and simple was to do all those things for Michael — only backwards.  I re-learned all the familiar tasks as mirror-images of what I would normally do for myself.  Buttoning shirts, tying shoes, eating, bathing – everything.  If there was an itch, I’d scratch it.  I drove him everywhere — to dinner, the theater and social events. I dragged him in his wheelchair into the corn fields and across the beaches of Long Island.  I even traveled with him by air to his summer home in New York.  He was paralyzed, but definitely not immobile.  In my senior year of college, I truly learned more as Michael’s employee than I did in the classroom. But beyond my unique experience assisting Michael with his daily routines, I learned one of my most cherished life lessons:  Experience is mainly what you make of it.  In Michael’s case, having contracted polio less than two years before Jonas Salk’s vaccine, he could have been bitter and insular.  He was the opposite.  Michael needed someone like me to enable portions of his life that had been denied by the virus, but he needed no pity or charity.  With the one hand that he could barely move, he wrote poetry; and until his passing in 2000, he edited and published a renowned poetry journal.  One day I asked him in conversation, “How did it feel to be a confined to an iron lung for almost a year?”  Drawing in the largest breath he could, Michael exclaimed, “Wonderful!”  

Keep a positive attitude.  Better times are ahead. 🙂


PS Spending time with a community of like-minded individuals is one thing I like to do to keep a positive attitude. My organization, GBMP, is putting on an event for passionate Lean practitioners to benchmark, share and chat. Join us for our Lean Spring Showcase on April 1.

Looking to the Future

As we begin to take our approximately 4-½ billionth trip around the sun, I’m reflecting on the previous 525,600 minutes and looking ahead to the new decade.  The decade (the ‘20’s), by the way, begins this coming January not last January, a factoid noted in a short address by Hiroyuki Hirano in 1999 as the world approached the cyber-perils of Y2K.  After listening to Mr. Hirano explain multiple overwhelming challenges that manufacturing would face in the next century (Y2K was not one of them, by the way), I naively asked him what countermeasures he would recommend to manufacturers.  “Oh,” he quipped, “I tell my friends, don’t go into manufacturing.  It’s just too difficult.” 

What struck me most about this chance meeting with Mr. Hirano was not his flippant answer to my question, however, but rather the decades-long view that he was sharing with the rest us who were mostly focused on much shorter planning horizons.  I was reminded of this tendency to think short-term in March of this year, as planning cycles shrunk still further to months and even weeks.  If anything, 2020 has been a year of tactical maneuvering for most of us; pivoting and adapting to unstable health and economic conditions.  For those who have survived the year, there is reason for celebration and recognition of many herculean efforts to adapt of circumstances beyond our control.

On this account, however, I’m also reminded of Rheinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

I do, for example, anticipate the Earth will complete another revolution around the Sun in 2021 and I also accept the possibility — roughly 1 in 300,000 — that the Earth will be struck by a catastrophic asteroid in the next 365 days.  I believe these events are beyond my control and they don’t affect my sleep.  But a pandemic; or global warming; or contention for scarce resources?  

At a training I attended in 1989 with Ryuji Fukuda on strategic planning, he raised the question regarding things we can change.  Citing a study on rail disasters in Japan, Dr. Fukuda made a compelling case that detailed study of rail disasters had in fact reduced many previously long-standing causes.   Fukuda’s point was that long-term planning should not accept as fait du complis, events that have previously been considered unavoidable.   In fact, all of the countermeasures applied to reduce rail disasters were “small changes for the better.”  Kaizen.   I humbly assert that same can be said of the impending threats like pestilence, climate change and scarcity. 

So why does it seem so difficult to address these problems?  In the words of Taiichi Ohno, “No problem is a problem.”  That we’ve spent the last year turning a blind eye to science regarding Covid-19 is not atypical; it’s a legacy dating back to Galileo. (He was excommunicated from the Church for suggesting the earth is not the center of the universe.)   Decades of science denial surrounding future livability on the planet, is far far more damaging, just not as immediate.  It seems that when consequences are not directly in front of us, we can’t see them. We’re quick to accept the technical solutions that science brings us, such as a vaccine, but slow to accept the personal sacrifices that come with adaptive change, like wearing a mask or using a recycling bin.   In the words of W. Edwards Deming, “emphasis on short-term profits” (start the video at 3:30) is the root cause of this blindness.  Organizations, including our government, may espouse long term strategies, but behavior is based primarily on quarterly earnings.  Profits over everything, “no matter what,” as Deming said.   

So, with total respect to Rheinhold Niebuhr, I’ll offer a 21st century adaptation of his 1932 work as a wish for everyone in 2021 and beyond.   Call it the Sanity Prayer:

God, grant me the sanity to accept the things I cannot change,
the long-term thinking and courage to change the things I should,
and wisdom to know the difference.

Happy New Decade Everyone!


Hey!  Save the date:  April 1, 2021.  No joke.  GBMP is sponsoring a Continuous Improvement road trip, featuring best practices at eight different workplaces including production, admin, healthcare and services.  But this road trip requires no driving.  We’ll take you, to the floor for direct observation as well as Q&A with team members.  Mark your calendars.  More to come.