One of my least favorite questions

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on December 16, 2014 · 0 comments

question personI get a lot of questions – during my coaching and advisory visits, after delivering a speech, by email, by phone, and sometimes from conversations started in airports. I try to answer every last one of them, which could be a full time job all by itself. But there is one question that is one of the most common I receive yet a question I really dislike.

What company is really good at lean?

“Why do you want to know?” I respond. Answers vary from wanting to learn from the best to wanting to be inspired (or inspire others). But two things are always true: 1) they want to benchmark them and 2) they’re reasons are very vague.

Why does this question bother me? There are two reasons.

First, I’m not so sure there is such a thing as a great lean company. Toyota is held up as the example, and there is no question they are great at many things, but not everything. There are many companies that I respect greatly for their lean efforts, and they have much to be proud of. And they have much left to work on.

There was a client who had improved dramatically their financial performance, their operational performance, and even their human performance. I talked to them about perhaps sharing their story. Their response was telling of a true lean company: “We have too big a gap to where we want to be to talk about our success.” They were focused on the journey, and felt they were further away from their destination than ever.

Second, and perhaps more importantly to a request, this is what broken benchmarking looks like. People love to visit companies – I get that. But that rarely leads to real learning. You need a clear learning objective to make benchmarking effective. What are you trying to accomplish? What problem are you trying to solve?

I’ll continue to get this question, and I’ll continue to do my best to answer it, but my answers may now include a link to this post.



Reflections on coaching (from Andy Carlino)

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on December 11, 2014 · 0 comments

My friend and co-author Andy Carlino had a great idea for his blog site. He shares Reflections in 3 columns – What’s good? What’s bad? What do I think? – on different topics. At this time he is covering coaching.

CoachingandyI encourage you to visit the home page at to read it for yourself.

I want to share my own reflections based on something Andy wrote. He said:

Coaching is a special skill and deserves special consideration. In retrospect, I must admit that I am guilty of thinking that I was coaching when I wasn’t.

Me too.

During a course I teach, we go deep into the role of a leader as a coach. Before we do a case study, I ask for a show of hands of how many people think that they do some coaching. Every single hand will go up.

We then go through an in-depth case study that explores the relationship between a coach and their student in a lean environment. After the case study discussion, I ask the same question. It’s very rare that any hands go up of people thinking that what they do is actually worthy of being called coaching.

Coaching isn’t advocating a point. Coaching isn’t teaching existing knowledge. Coaching isn’t giving what I call “drive by feedback”. The standard for coaching is much higher than that. We should be less casual about its use, and hold it in much higher regard.



Control is overrated…and a myth

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on December 10, 2014 · 0 comments

Management has long been based, although not necessarily by design, on a basis of control. For much of time, that control worked, but at the same time it did not allow for great organizations to be built. It at least did not allow organizations to be build on the capabilities of the people in that organization. There are other factors that can matter too – great assets, or locked in advantages, or sometimes the talent of one key person. But to build a team that performs at a high level, you cannot control everything they do.

Yet we have the hardest time letting go of control.

Zm6x5394A favorite quote about control is from Mario Andretti, in part because I live near his home, have met him, and once spent hours and hours next to his father in physical therapy and enjoyed my chats with him. The quote also makes an appearance in the video below.

“If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.” – Mario Andretti

The reason I’m sharing these thoughts are based on the video below, and a quote that hit me head on – “Control is overrated.” The video is from Smigdig (or Agile), a conference in Norway, and the speaker is Henrik Kniberg from Spotify (a favorite service of mine).

A lot of the video is on some pretty basic or fundamental practices, but there are also many worthwhile nuggets. Here are a handful:

  • An example between control and trust is an intersection. A common cross-intersection has 32 conflict points of traffic. It controls traffic, or at least attempts to. A roundabout is based on trust, and on a mutually beneficial outcome (getting through safely). There are only 8 conflict points, and tend to be both safer and faster.
  • Spotify tries to reach a balance between chaos and bureaucracy, but leans a little more towards chaos. Jokingly, they try to find the “minimum viable bureaucracy”
  • Spotify is using lean thinking, and A3s and Toyota Kata language, although interestingly when he asks the audience about it there appears to be no recognition (I hope I’m misinterpreting the video)
  • Frequent releases reduce risk. Everyone is worried about what happens if the market doesn’t like something. They go as far as near-continuous releasing, which means it’s not moving from Windows 7 to Windows 8, its just one feature tweak. If there is a negative response, you can change it back and try again. Reduce the risk, and you increase the trials.

I encourage you to watch the video, which you can do here:

Spotify Engineering Culture – Henrik Kniberg from Smidigkonferansen on Vimeo.

Henrik has also written a book, Lean from the Trenches: Managing Large-Scale Projects with Kanban (which I have not read), which you can find here:



Creating aspiration for change, and my time as a clown

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on December 3, 2014 · 0 comments

I was a clown. Some might think I still am. Let me return to that in a moment.

When trying to create change in the organization, we often struggle with ways to motivate people to change behavior. We certainly often aspire to ignite the intrinsic motivation of individuals, and for the “big” stuff, that is really where we want to maintain our attention.

But many of the behaviors that wrap around our core purpose require something else to drive activity. The reason doesn’t have to be intrinsic. It can be fun, or competition, or requirement. There are reasons to design in any level of aspiration into seemingly mundane tasks just to make them interesting and engaging.

I was recently visiting an organization who had a new safety standard, and the site turned catching the management team violating the standard into a bit of game. They all had fun with it. Another organization gave out stickers as recognition, and people would collect those stickers sometimes on their laptop much like those on a college football helmet.

ClownWhat does this have to do with clowns? When I was living in Michigan, I was a part of a group called the Distinguished Clown Corps. It was made up of local executives and entrepreneurs. I was asked to join and my experience in the group profiled by the local newspaper. The group raises money for Detroit and for the Detroit Thanksgiving Day Parade, an important event that brings people into the city and helps retain a connection to it. We all were dressed as clowns (see my photo with my daugher) and we marched in the parade, handing out gifts to kids along the route. It was a longstanding and successful fundraising program with excellent longstanding membership. One of the hard part of including a group of individuals such as this is that they don’t have much that they haven’t already accomplished. And so the Distinguished Clown Corps created levels of aspiration that couldn’t not be bought by money but with service. If you had 3 years of service, you were made a 2-piece clown costume. After 5 years, gold and silver. And the really special level, after 25 years of service, you were able to wear a red velvet cape.

What’s the point? These levels, to which there were no shortcuts besides participation, create motivation to stay involved. You aspired to those higher levels. You stayed engaged, not just because it was a good idea, but also because you might someday get to be one of those clowns with the red velvet cape.

You aren’t going to give out red velvet capes as part of your change program (and if you do, let me know because I want to hear about it). But the point is, it is useful to create aspirational levels. These aspirational levels are not a replacement for the intrinsic value of participation. It is an enhancement to it. It is a reminder of it. And it helps to make doing the right thing just a little bit more fun.



Building a Strong Lean Foundation [Lessons from the Road]

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on November 30, 2014 · 0 comments

Lessons promoOrganizational transformation is a tricky challenge. Many, if not most, of the questions I received have to do with how to transform an organization. And a small organization is just as challenging as a large organization, but for different reasons.

In the last installment of Lessons from the Road, I addressed some key issues in starting your lean journey in The Lean Starting Line. In this installment, I explore how to build a strong foundation on which you can build a long-term journey. In Building a Strong Lean Foundation, I address training, learning, and focus. Here is an excerpt:

At the beginning of the Chrysler lean journey, I deployed one of our first learning labs. It was focused on 120 people (which was still too big) out of 5,000 at the site. The objective was twofold: prove to ourselves the business application, and prove to the employees the people benefit. Over eight months, we engaged those 120 people to implement over 900 ideas. We achieved the business result: Downtime per week went from 240 minutes to 4 minutes. And the people engagement was so high, not only did all the high seniority people bid to work in the area, but the union leader in the area went to his union hall and encouraged further investment in the Chrysler Operating System.

You can read the rest of the column here. I will continue to explore issues of lean transformation in future issues, and as always, you can always ask me questions or suggest topics.



If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on November 7, 2014 · 0 comments

If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door. Put up a knocker. Add a sign. And put a doorman out to steer opportunity your way.

DoorWhere am I going with this? I see too much victim mentality and it drives me crazy. The worst kind is the jealous kind, seeing other organization’s success as simply a matter of good luck. That company is so lucky because they serve the booming oil and gas industry; or, they are constantly reviewing their market opportunities and just adjusted earlier than others. That other company is so fortunate that they didn’t invest in a Java platform that the iPad is making obsolete; or, they had dynamic development planning and were able to start investing in HTML 5 before you did.

Yes, there is a good amount of luck in the world. And it can work both ways. When people ask me about my career planning, I like to tell the following story. When I was at Lehigh University, I interviewed at Chrysler. I wasn’t really a car guy, and couldn’t imagine living in Michigan, but knew enough not to turn down the opportunity for an interview. There was an ice storm the day I was to fly out for my interview. My friend dropped me off at the airport and even had a fender-bender on the drive back. Flight after flight was cancelled. But I stuck with it, until around 5 PM when I had enough. I called the coordinator to tell her to cancel my interviews. But I had likely just missed her – she had gone for the day. Someone was picking me up at the hotel at 7 AM and its not like we all had cell phones for me to call him and tell him not to come. So feeling bad that I would be leaving this person standing in a hotel lobby not knowing what to do, I decided to stick it out. I got to my hotel at 2 AM, had to iron everything, and get a couple hours sleep before the interviews started. And the rest is history.

LUCK! If the coordinator had answered the phone, I wouldn’t have gone on the interview, wouldn’t have met the people who turned me onto MIT, wouldn’t have been part of the Chrysler transformation, and wouldn’t have met Andy Carlino and Denny Pawley who I co-founded the Lean Learning Center with. Luck!

Now I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have been successful had the person picked up the phone, but I cannot claim this was all one grand plan. But what turned it into an opportunity for me was that I knew what I was looking for. I was already making most of my major decisions based on the primary factor of how much I would learn. Chrysler had a fantastic structure for that, and I met people who could be tremendous mentors. So when I saw the opportunity, I knew what it meant for me and grabbed ahold of it.

Planning matters. So does luck. But more than anything is having a clear idea of where you want to go (a vision if you want to call it that), keeping your eyes wide open for anything that intersects with that idea, and the courage and conviction to grab it when it happens.

Opportunity doesn’t knock, and doesn’t always announce itself. We have to train ourselves, and prepare our systems of work, to make the most of whatever opportunity we were blessed to experience.



Should price be the primary metric of supplier management?


Are you treating your suppliers right? General Motors, a company historically adversarial with their suppliers, long outlasting their 800-pound gorilla status, is working towards mending and building relationships with its suppliers. Some of their playbook is the same old GM. They are looking to consolidate their supply base so that they can have better pricing […]

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If we’re going to fight fires, do it like the pros


This post originally appeared on the Lean Learning Center blog. Email comes in. React. Issue gets raised at a meeting. React. Customer calls. React. What do we call it when we spend all day reacting to the events around us? FIREFIGHTING! We all do it. It’s how most people spend the majority of their day. […]

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The Lean Starting Line [Lessons from the Road]


It’s time for another installment of Lessons from the Road, my column for IndustryWeek. In the next few installments, I will talk about the lean roadmap, or how to handle the change management of the lean journey. This month, I am talking about the beginning of the journey, The Lean Starting Line. Here is an […]

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Saving childhoods one at a time


Please help! For most kids, a childhood is defined by play, running, jumping, riding bikes, and all sorts of activities. There are several ways in which this can be lost. My daughter experienced Perthes, and spent an awful lot of time visiting doctors, in surgery, wearing a brace, and physical therapy. Many kids have had […]

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