I’m very excited and pleased to present this interview with a person I admire greatly – Jon Miller. As you’ll see in this interview, Jon takes a very balanced and thoughtful approach to Continuous Improvement. His approach, indeed, is one I’ve tried to incorporate into my own life. Being present; thoughtful; aware – attributes that often gets forgotten or ignored all-together in our overly busy lives. I’m grateful for Jon and for his example in demonstrating these qualities in both life and in the daily learning and practice of the Toyota Production System.
In this interview, you’ll learn some of the following:
- How Jon first began his Lean journey.
- In his role as CEO of the Kaizen Institute Worldwide, what common challenges he sees in the companies he and his organizations has served.
- What happens when a Lean Manufacturing guy, a Kanban Software guy, and a Lean Startup guy walk into a bar.
Enjoy the interview and check out our other Lean Leadership Interviews.
Jon, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Could you please introduce yourself and your work to my audience?
I’m currently global CEO and board member of the Kaizen Institute Consulting Group. Prior to joining Kaizen Institute my role was CEO of the consultancy Gemba Research, which I founded in 1998 and merged it with KI in 2010-2011. I am also co-founder of Gemba Academy, the online training business. I have blogged about kaizen and lean since 2003. I’ve worked as a lean trainer and consultant, designed complex lean deployment programs for multi-national companies, authored training materials, traveled to something more than fifty countries as speaker, salesman and firefighter.
From what I remember, you began your Lean journey as a Japanese to English translator for Japanese Lean consultants. Can you tell us about that?
I started as a Japanese-English interpreter in 1993, more or less straight out of school. My knowledge of business, manufacturing or operational excellence was basically zero. I learned more in the first six months than in university.
My work involved traveling 2 4 weeks per month with Japanese consultants from the Shingijustsu consulting group, helping them communicate. They mostly led kaizen events, or in some cases provided follow up coaching or specific technical guidance for companies implementing what was not yet called lean in those days.
I was very fortunate to get a good education about kaizen and TPS in this way. Since I was born in Japan to American parents, the language part of interpreting was easy for me. This allowed me to reflect on what was being said, be curious about the content and also to observe dynamics between people. Some interpreters were just barely keeping up with switching between languages, and missed a lot of what was really going on.
Looking back, I realize that my role as an interpreter also required me to develop strong listening skills, a keen awareness of when people fail to communicate, and a burning desire to fill any gaps in my knowledge required to do my job.
In your role as CEO of Kaizen Institute, which in the business of helping organizations improve their businesses through the adoption and application of Lean, what trends have you seen in terms of the challenges companies face?
We serve such a wide variety of industries, sizes of companies and geographies that it is hard to spot trends across the total customer base. The specific segment of customers that I have been spending a lot of time with in my role is the multinational company wanting a global lean deployment.
Talent continues to be a challenge. Many companies can’t wait to develop their own people into lean leaders of operations or lean leaders in continuous improvement roles, so these must be hired in from outside the company. It’s a limited talent pool. What makes it worse is that a lot of the best people have become disillusioned with in-house lean leader roles and prefer to be consultants or in interim roles. There is so much latent aggregate demand for leaders with lean skills and behaviors. Talent development in this area is highly fragmented with no standards for lean qualifications. I don’t see evidence that the talent pipeline will match the need level any time soon.
One challenge which I think is just emerging but not yet fully in the consciousness of the leadership of the major companies is what we can call lack of mutual prosperity. While trying to employ Toyota’s methods, most large companies still eschew Toyota’s commitment to long-term mutual prosperity between employer and employee, company and customer, producer and supplier. As a result they struggle to get full engagement from employees and supplier development efforts falter. This is also a problem of unaligned incentives and short-term thinking, and will take a combination of time and enlightened leadership to fix. It’s a business ethics problem rather than a lean problem per se.
An encouraging trend that makes me really happy is increasing lean adoption by government at levels. It’s still far too little and far too driven by individual strong leaders rather than as part of what we demand from public service as citizens in this society, but I am very encouraged by what I see going on in Washington State. The challenge for government as a company is that we, the citizens, as owners, are not demanding strongly enough yet that government be lean.
What’s your reaction to the phrase Wait a minute, Toyota doesn’t do that, so why should I?
I’ve never heard that before. It’s usually some variation of, We aren’t Toyota. We don’t make automobiles. We are unique. Toyota doesn’t do a lot of things. I’m not sure why anyone would want to do everything that Toyota, or any excellent company, does. Even Toyota says that their methods are countermeasures specific to problems within their context, not dogmatic universal solutions that must be adopted by everyone who wants to be lean or emulate TPS.
I have a beef with standard approaches to Lean, which generally fall into two camps: Begin with 5S or Begin with Value Stream Mapping. There are variations but most fall into those two buckets. That bugs me and Art Smalley a lot. How about you?
I think the acceptance of such simplified and limited entry points to lean is more a reflection of a lack of curiosity, lack of a grasp of context or patience to develop understanding of it, and the lack will to experiment and learn from failures. These things bother me more in life and society in general. Standard approaches to lean are just a small local manifestation of such human tendencies to want simple non-nuanced answers, visible results, and a recipe.
Because there is such a massive amount of waste in most organizations, a simple approach leading with 5S, VSM or anything really, gets results initially. This lulls people into a false sense of comfort with approaches to lean. As long as results are coming, we don’t ask the difficult questions about incentives, organization structures, fairness, leadership behaviors, etc. These things never show up on a value stream map. They are rarely addressed until the lean efforts start failing and leaders are forced to look deeper for answers.
Grasp the current state, grapple a few of the tougher questions, and pay for these by achieving sustainable short-term results that’s about as standard as any improvement approach should be in my opinion.
Okay, here’s a hypothetical question: A Lean Manufacturing guy, Lean Startup guy, and a Kanban software guy walk into a bar. They sit at a table and have a drink together. What do the talk about?
That’s a tough one. Can’t imagine this situation. I never walk into bars unless I’m with someone I really want to / have to talk to. If the gist of the question is “What are similarities and differences between startup, kanban and lean?” or something similar, maybe you can rephrase it that way.
I am a big fan of new communities adopting good management practices based on lean, continuous improvement, TPS and so forth. Thanks to the internet and social media in particular, new movements like software development kanban and lean startup have greatly expanded the audience for lean to young people outside of healthcare, manufacturing and big corporate programs.
At the same time, these conversations have largely not been moderated or guided by people with expertise. The gurus who could answer questions or set people on the right course about sustainable organizational change have not been part of the conversation. I think this is mainly due to a generational difference. The people who could help out aren’t on social media, or there aren’t enough of them on to make an impact. There is an interesting parallel here to the fact that Japanese experts who could have saved us 25 years in a correct understanding of lean were not fluent in English or how to explain concepts within Western culture. I see history repeating.
The lean startup movement seemingly came out of nowhere. This is probably how the whole kaizen thing must have felt to people in the 1980s. Japanese quality? Where did that come from? To those who looked deeper into TPS or kaizen, or knew about Deming, the answer was clear. It was part of a larger whole with a long tradition of significant investment in capability development of people. However the vast majority of the West did not look deeper into the system until at least a decade later when lean thinking became a thing. It’s taken another 20 years since that for people to begin to understand that lean is nothing more than the result of persistent problem solving with the aim of building long-term mutual prosperity.
The lean startup community doesn’t require a comprehensive and deep understanding of lean to have an impact. By nature startups are small and do not have the complexity of long-established supply chains, habits and business practices. The lean startup methodology or tool set is brilliantly simplified and fit for early stage companies. But it’s a movement created by people who don’t have deep experience in guiding organizations through change over decades, like Toyota or other companies and consultants have done.
As counterpoint, I’m aware that GE and others have adopted lean startup principles within their product development teams, and that this is an example of a large, mature organization with an established culture. This in fact proves my point, since GE has a strong management system, invests heavily in various brands of continuous improvement, and has the senior leadership with the open-mindedness to pick up a book about lean startup and give it a try.
The lean startups that survive their early stages and become mature organizations will need to become lean in the broader sense of the term, beyond MVPs, trial and error, pivoting, using data and so forth. I worry about the ones that are too successful to question their understanding of lean beyond lean startup. Complacency leads to decline. This is because one of the toughest things to do is to give up a management system or belief system that has worked for you until now. When a startup grows beyond the startup stage, the paradigm shifts. Not all of the assumptions and beliefs apply. Lean startup concepts are still important, but need to play a smaller part in a larger management system. If the leaders of these growing startups can broaden their understanding of lean then they will do fine.
The kanban movement worries me because they seem to be on the same path as some of the early attempts by Western companies at learning from the Japanese. At first the West took very small visible parts of the system, such as TQC / TQM, JIT, 5S, kanban or kaizen, and made them into the entire system. In hindsight these efforts were laughable. These methods were all taken out of context. As people learned that there was more to the system they expanded, or changed what they called their program to build that system. This trial-and-error in the lean world based on incomplete recipes has been at the expense of needless struggle. Kanban is a good entry point for software development teams, but what the whole organization needs is a lean management system.
We are still identifying important and relevant aspects of the lean system, taking a look at neglected elements of TPS, making connections to fields in social and cognitive sciences, decades on from the Kaizen book. We are learning, but my concern is that we don’t seem to be getting much better at articulating what we have learned, sharing it and building on the work of the past, instead of repackaging small subsets of what we already know.
Jon, I highly respect you and your work. And, for as young as you are, you’ve accomplished so much. If you wouldn’t mind sharing, I’d love to know what specific items you’re working on developing, or things where you feel you might not be proficient in yet?
Thanks Pete. It’s a timely question. I am working on improving my proficiency in the areas of being a husband, father, son, brother, friend, neighbor, and community member. My past 20 years have been focused on career and related skills and competencies, so it’s time to bring things back into balance.
In terms of proficiency in business areas, I would like to get better at simplifying things. I think this involves seeing things through other people’s eyes and understanding the question through other people’s frameworks. I’m always amazed at how simple the answers can be when one can spend enough to truly understand the question or problem. Of course I would like to continue improving my skills as a writer, speaker and teacher.
I am working on developing practical, fun and simple ways for people and organizations to tackle the problem of bad culture. Specifically, building awareness of what culture means, how to recognize culture in the workplace, and concrete exercises to change behavior patterns. This is area that is deep underneath lean but so far has been only superficially explored.
Another long-term development that interests me is to organize or catalogue what we know about good management. I think we know an awful lot. But our knowledge is quite fragmented. Most experts, consultants and academics are happy to remain specialists in their field, to the degree that we even fight turf wars over buzzwords, which is idiotic. As a result we create confusion, ambiguity, reinvention or relearning basic lessons rather than helping people to advance their understanding and practice of good management.
Recent progress in social sciences, neuroscience, cognitive psychology and related areas in terms of how humans make decisions and function within organizations has yet to be fully integrated within how lean is implemented. This is something that needs doing. I am interested in playing a part in this.
We don’t yet know what don’t know about good management. That would be the next development after these.
What advice might you have for a reader that may just be starting their Lean journey?
Make it YOUR lean journey. Don’t just ride along on your company’s lean program. Take full advantage of learning opportunities, self-improvement opportunities, advancement opportunities that come from your lean journey. Think of lean as a means to develop yourself in the direction that you want, funded by improvements in the company’s performance.
Also, always spend more time than you think you will need in grasping the current situation.
Thanks Jon. Is there anything else you’d like to share with my audience?
I’d like to share everything that I’ve learned in the past 20 years about trying to be a better person. But that’s an impossible task without understanding the context of each reader. So I will just say be humble, curious and grateful.
About Jon Miller
He is also President at Kaizen Institute Japan, Ltd., and Partner at Gemba Academy LLC. He was born in Japan and lived there for 18 years. In 1993 Jon was fortunate to start his career working with consultants who were students of Taiichi Ohno.
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