Help Myself, Then Help Others

Few people realize that my work in Lean leadership originated with the need to improve my own leadership skills. In 1994, I was promoted to the role of business unit manager at Pratt & Whitney’s Rocky Hill, Conn., facility. A few months prior to my arrival, the facility started to implement Toyota’s production system, facilitated by consultants from Shingijutsu.

I had been working to improve my leadership skills in the prior three years, and that training and daily practice was a helpful head-start. But it was not enough. So, in 1995 and 1996 I developed new leadership concepts and practices closely aligned Lean principles and practices to help myself. I found that the new leadership concepts and practices worked very well for me. They worked so well that I thought others could benefit from them. So, I wrote two papers, “Continuous Personal Improvement” and “Lean Behaviors,” both of which were published in 1998 (and later summarized in my Practical Lean Leadership workbook).

Lean leadership became my central research topic to help myself better understand it, as well as Lean management. My writings reflect an intensely personal Lean journey, inclusive of all the trial-and-error. It has never been a theoretical exercise. It is a journey firmly rooted in practice and which is shared by many thousands of people. What I write, though borne of personal experience, is relevant to most others who experience Lean.

I was able to write so much writing because I joined academia after working 15 years in industry (it is part of a professor’s job description to write papers and books). Some people could interpret my work as an academic “throwing stones” at others, particularly if they do not know about my work experience and the time I spent in leadership positions. My intent has always been to help myself, and then help others. It has never been to “throw stones,” which would be inconsistent with the “Respect for People” principle.

Though I am a full-time academic, I remain a hands-on, and brain-on, practitioner through my innovative work in applying Lean principles and practices to teaching in higher education. I cannot, in fact, throw stones because we are all in the same boat – working to improve our understanding and practice of Lean, day by day.

When I asked about his knowledge of Lean (TPS), my old sensei, with 35 years of TPS experience, said to me: “I am in the second grade.” We all have a lot to learn, and I hope that you can learn from my experience and insights.

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