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. 

Tribute to Norm

Norman Bodek, who sadly left us last week, will no doubt best be remembered for the amazing library he brought us over thirty years ago from Japan:  Primary sources like Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo, as well as brilliant consultants like Yashuhiro Monden and Shigihero Nakamura; and professional associations like JUSE, JMA and JHRA.  Before it was Lean, Norman delivered Hiroyuki Hirano’s comprehensive JIT Implementation Manual.  Tomo Sugiyama’s The Improvement Book is one of my favorite sources for teaching the concept of waste; and Hirano’s JIT Factory Revolution, essentially a picture book of best practices, melds TPS concepts with TPS tools in a way that makes it a great choice for book study groups.   In the late 80’s and early 90’s, there was such a flurry of new releases, that some of these gems may not have made it onto our bookshelves.  And unfortunately, some are now out of print. 

My discovery of this TPS trove began serendipitously as a footnote in Doc Hall’s Zero Inventories, one of the few books of the time not published by Norman Bodek.  The footnote led me to Shingo’s books and from there to Productivity Press, located in a small Cambridge walk-up just a few miles from my plant.  There in 1987, I met Norm and his small staff of instructional designers and editors.  Before this fledgling publisher, there was just a trickle of references to TPS, all written by faithful western reporters like Robert “Doc” Hall.  Norman opened the flood gates.  The better-known texts are standards on Lean bookshelves today, but there are so many less well-known treasures like Kohdate and Suzue’s Variety Reduction Process that in 1990 brought lean out of the factory and into product development!  Norm’s is a unique publishing legacy from a time of remarkable discovery that I think will never again be matched.  Lauded in the business press as the “Godfather of Lean” and “Mr. Productivity”, Norm Bodek, by his own admission, had no experience with manufacturing or TPS.  He was not an inventor like many of those with whom he was compared or whose ideas he ushered into the light.  Norman was an explorer, a latter-day Marco Polo, with an eye for trends that eluded the rest of us; someone who found the best thinkers, practitioners and authors, and made them accessible outside of Japan.  

Perhaps even more remarkable, however, was Norm Bodek’s ability to popularize these discoveries he was publishing.  For the 35 years that I had the pleasure of knowing Norman, I fully expected that, at every encounter with him, he would have something new to sell me.  He would greet me with a statement like, “Bruce, I have just discovered the most wonderful teacher and you need to let me share this with you.”   This was expected; Norm was a promoter, with the enthusiasm of a child and salesmanship of P.T. Barnum.   On more than one occasion, he lamented “You know Bruce, I’ve never made any money on these books.”   I suspect he probably did okay for himself.  In any case, he surely enriched the rest of us. 


‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

For the 2020 Holiday Season, here’s a little Lean levity from the ghost of Christmas past.  Most parents who celebrate the annual visit from Santa will have fond memories of “night before” experiences (a true story) like this:

‘Twas the night before Christmas,
And all through our home,
I was searching for tools
But couldn’t find some.
A Phillips head and an adjustable wrench,
That I thought I’d last seen on my messy workbench.
And likewise an Allen set missing from sight,
Took an hour to find until almost midnight.

The Foosball game had almost one hundred parts,
With an eighteen-page book of instructions and charts,
Part A was to go with Part B and Screw C,
Confusing at best to a novice like me.
Which end was up and which side was right?
I thought to myself, “This will take me all night.”

As I laid it all out on the living room rug,
Mrs. Santa was laughing and gave me hug. 
“You can do it,” she whispered, “there’s plenty time.”
“Can I help you with it?” “NO,” I said, “this job’s mine.”

All through the night I assembled the table,
First building the base and affixing the labels,
And twenty-offensive and defensive players,
As I thought I heard family stirring upstairs.  

After five hours of rework and frustration,
I started to muse on our children’s elation,
When they’d gaze upon Santa’s fantastic creation. 
Just the right thing for playing on Christmas vacation.

As I cleaned up the mess and was turning around,
Down from upstairs came our kids with a bound.
“Just what we wanted!” they cried out with glee.
A memory for Mrs. Santa and me.

“Well,” quipped Mrs. Santa, “His elves are no laggards,”
“Except that the players are all facing backwards.”
Each team was assembled to face its own goal.
A defect, for sure, coming from the North Pole.
Indeed it appeared a mistake had been made. 
But the kids didn’t care, so that’s how it stayed.

Best wishes to all my readers for whatever Holiday you celebrate.  Please stay safe and wear a mask.  Better times are ahead. 


PS Join me tomorrow, Tuesday, December 8, for a free “Tea Time with the Toast Dude Webinar” and a discussion of “Top Line Focus”. While most organization visions are expressed in terms of value to the customer, ultimately actual practice is very heavily slanted to cost-cutting and the bottom line. Please join me from 3PM to 3:45PM EST when I’ll discuss the pitfalls of that approach and suggest a different one to take. Reserve your seat here