A Simple Personal ‘Kanban’ System


‘Kanban’ is a visual system for work management. While kanban has its roots in the Toyota Production System, it is used in a variety of applications from replenishing supplies on an assembly line to the agile approach to software development.

I enjoy experimenting with applying tools from the continuous improvement world to my personal life, and have gone through several iterations of a kanban board. The most recent version is a simple whiteboard layout with sticky notes as shown in the picture.

The notes are color-coded by category. For each category, I identify the upcoming tasks that need to be completed and write down each task on its own sticky note. The tasks are then prioritized based on time and importance. ‘Hold’ tasks are ones that cannot be completed until either another task is first finished or needing to wait for an external event. ‘Ready’ tasks operate on a ‘pull’ system – when enough ‘In-Process’ tasks are complete, a ‘Ready’ task can be started. ‘Ongoing’ are for items that don’t technically have an end but I want to make sure I remember to work on them.

What I like about this system is that it helps me visually understand my current and upcoming workload ‘at-a-glance’. It helps me maintain strategic focus and monitor progress. The kanban system also triggers me to remember to prioritize tasks, as opposed to just working on whatever I feel like or what’s easiest, which is a disadvantage of traditional ‘to-do’ lists. There’s also the kick I get from taking a completed task off the board, crumpling it, and tossing it in the trash – one done!

Applying Continuous Improvement to a Homeless Shelter


I recently had the opportunity to partner with a non-profit organization that provides food and shelter to the homeless population in the local area. It was my first time applying the principles and tools of continuous improvement to the non-profit world, and I was amazed to discover how well the concepts transferred outside of traditional business applications.

During the initial assessment with the executive director and shelter operations manager, we determined that there was a critical need to standardize and document the daily homeless shelter operations process. This was important because it would help ensure a consistent experience for the shelter guests, who often have very little stability in their lives outside of the shelter.

Just like in business, I needed to ‘go-and-see’ the process so that I could better understand the current situation. I visited the shelter and spent several hours talking with the staff and observing the operations. It was clear that everyone who worked at the shelter was committed to providing the best service to the guests; however, there was some chaos and confusion at times. What was interesting was that some of the regular volunteers working there had identified some ways to make the process flow more smoothly. For example, the volunteer who handed out towels to the guests developed a simple kanban system to ensure he never ran out of towels. There was a tremendous opportunity to identify best known practices like these and standardize them.

Once I had clarity on the goals and current process, it was time to form the team. We had representation from every functional role in the shelter operations. After communicating the intent and scope, I facilitated a 2-day workshop with the team to build the standard operating procedure.

We began by building and aligning on the shared vision and scope of the workshop:IMG_5116

It was important that the team understand how having a standard operating procedure would help ensure consistent results. To do this, I had them do an activity where each team member built a paper airplane in silence with no work instructions. Then, they built a second airplane. This time, they had clear step-by-step work instructions and were allowed to talk to and help each other build the airplanes.

The picture below shows the difference in results between the first round of airplanes (multi-colored airplanes) and the second (white airplanes):


Now that the team had a better understanding of the benefits of standardization and documentation, it was time to build the shelter operating procedure. We began by mapping out the processes for shelter operations, including special situations. It was interesting to me to see that, just like in the corporate world, there was variation and conflict on the ‘best way’ to perform tasks. The team worked through the conflict and aligned on one procedure, as shown in the following process map:


We then divided up into smaller teams who were each tasked transferred with transferring the process into electronic documentation. They also added ‘key points’ to process steps to help explain the ‘why’ behind each task. When each team was done, we regrouped and reviewed, adjusted, and aligned on each procedure.

By the end of the two-day workshop, the team had made incredible progress on what had seemed like a daunting task. About 75% of the documentation was complete. We identified the remaining actions to complete the standard operating procedure and assigned owners and due dates.

A month after the workshop, we had a follow-up meeting to review progress and for me to provide feedback. I could not believe how much the team had completed since the workshop. The team had completed the first draft of the shelter operating procedure and were very excited about the results. They clearly saw the benefit of standardizing the work among the current staff members and having clear documentation with which to train new employees and volunteers. The executive director, who was the sponsor of the project, was very pleased with the results

The project was a success. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that not only were the principles and tools of continuous improvement just as applicable to a non-profit organization, but it was actually easier than applying it to more traditional industry. I attribute this to the passion and commitment from the team to provide the best services for the shelter guests.

This experience proves that there is a tremendous opportunity to help non-profits maximize their impact through continuous improvement.

What I Learned From My First Keynote Speech


I gave my first keynote speech last week at the Siouxland Lean Consortium conference, and honestly it was much more challenging than I thought it would be. The audience did not seem to be as engaged as I had hoped, and I was surprised and perplexed that tmy actual delivery was different than it was during my practice runs prior to the event. Although I am typically hard on myself, I believe that my assessment of the gaps is relatively accurate. I will find out more when I receive official feedback from the participant survey.

In the spirit of humility and continuous improvement, I have reflected on the experience as well as some initial feedback I received. My conclusions are summarized below. I welcome any comments offering additional insight or advice!

High-level takeaways:

  1. Keep the topic simple. The main premise of the talk was that continuous improvement is not only most effective when we do it with people, but also when we realize and apply the knowledge that it is something we do for our people – it helps to make not just our work better but also our selves. I believe I over-complicated this main message by tying it to some more theoretical aspects of behavioral psychology, which drowned out the main takeaway. There is only so much people can absorb during a one-hour talk, and I did not consider this as carefully as I should have.
  2. Focus on the audience’s interests. I downplayed my unique experience of working directly for Toyota, because I did not want to come across as ‘superior’ or an ‘expert.’ However, during the Q&A portion of the event, all of the questions indicated the audience was curious to learn more about what Toyota was like. While I had good intentions in not wanting to appear as a self-proclaimed expert, this motivation was not driven by what participants wanted but rather my own need. It seems that people generally are quite interested in learning what it was like working at Toyota.
  3. Don’t create content in a vacuum. I knew better, but nonetheless I did not review the specific content of my talk with anyone else to obtain feedback. Instead, I created and practiced the speech on my own. My past experience has repeatedly shown me that soliciting and incorporating the input of others has always resulted in a better outcome.

More tactical takeaways:

  1. Provide an outline document for the audience. Although I provided a worksheet with some key takeaways and questions for participants, I received feedback that an outline would have better helped the audience follow along and provide a future reference of the key concepts.
  2. Refer to notes as needed. To learn how to give a speech, I mainly referenced TED talks. I noticed that the speakers did not refer to notes during these talks and so I thought that I should not either. However, I failed to take into account that TED talks are generally only about 20 minutes long – my talk was 45 minutes and it was very difficult to remember the key points and stories I wanted to tell. Referencing notes when needed would have helped trigger my memory of what came next.
  3. Get a good night’s sleep! This is a difficult one to know how to countermeasure. I struggled to fall asleep the night before as my mind kept looping through the talk. Any advice on this is particularly welcome.

Overall, even though it was difficult, I am glad that I had this experience. I will take the lessons learned and apply them in the future. I am sure my next talk won’t be perfect either, but I know that it will be better.

New Year’s Resolutions – Hoshin Kanri Style

Recently, I had the pleasure of presenting a webinar with KaiNexus on the topic of Hoshin Kanri strategy deployment and how to apply this concept toward achieving personal goals.

In the  webinar (link here), you will learn:

  • Grasp the basic concepts of the Hoshin Kanri strategy deployment process
  • Contrast the Hoshin Kanri approach with other strategy and goal-setting methods
  • Learn how to use the Hoshin process for personal goal development and execution
  • Gain actionable understanding of how you can apply Hoshin Kanri in your own life


What the 10 Toyota ‘Attitudes’ Mean to Me


When I worked at Toyota, I was instructed to memorize the company’s 10 Attitudes. Even now that I have moved on to another company, I find myself drawn to these core values. The following examines which each of these Attitudes means to me personally.

1. Customer First – Always provide satisfactory products and services

It is no coincidence that this attitude comes first – without customers, our business does not exist. We should ask the question “How does this benefit or impact our customer?” when considering improvements or other process changes. Look beyond pursuing just ‘customer satisfaction’ and aim for ‘customer delight’.

2. Challenge – Aim at high target with brave and creative spirit

It take courage to face goals that are higher than we have ever achieved. Frame these challenges as not inconvenient obstacles but rather as opportunities to adapt, improve, and innovate. A creative approach is imperative – we should not limit ourselves by only considering incremental improvement, but also by seeking way to transform how we do business.

3. Kaizen – Continuously pursue evolution and innovation

A willingness to adapt to changing conditions and a thirst for continuous improvement are hallmarks of a sustainable business. We are never more in danger than when we think we are good enough. Like the motto for Lexus, we should never stop ‘pursuing perfection’. Kaizen is the vehicle on the journey to our destination of True North.

4. Genchi Genbutsu – ‘Go and see’ reality, and ‘attempt’ to know the truth

As a quality engineer at Toyota, if I had not gone to see a quality issue with my own eyes, I lost credibility to speak about it. You cannot understand the situation based on second-hand knowledge, but must go and see yourself, with the mindset of question and discovery.

This was evidenced to me when I was working on an issue where a supplier had repeatedly neglected to weld a bracket onto a sheet metal part that was a critical sensor mount. Curious, I went to the assembly line to see where the bracket was used, only to discover that it was not. It turned out that Engineering had moved the sensor to a different location on the vehicle. Instead of investing in a costly countermeasure, we were able to change the specification and remove the bracket entirely. This was all due to the firsthand knowledge gained by going to the gemba.

5. Shitsujitsu Goken – Be time & cost efficient, and work with sincerity

We function as stewards of our company’s resources, and we should use them judiciously. For example, when I book my travel, I try to do so as cost-effectively as possible. I don’t need to stay in a 5-star hotel when a 3-star is perfectly adequate. The money spent may not be mine personally, but I strive to treat it as if it is.

As for sincerity, our motives must be honest and transparent. This builds trust with our coworkers, suppliers, and customers. There is no room for hidden agendas in a company committed to building a culture of continuous improvement.

6. Team Work – Priority is on your team’s performance – not only yours. By helping each other, strive to achieve the team’s target.

This value particularly resonates with me, as I used to be focused primarily on my individual performance. Over time, I learned both the value and fulfillment that comes by emphasizing ‘we’ over ‘me’. As iron sharpens iron, my team mates made me stronger, and partnering with them helped to mitigate my weaknesses. The sum of our efforts is indeed greater than our individual parts.

7. Ownership & Responsibility – Be considerate for all what you do and speak.

If the collective good is our highest priority, then we must take ownership of our personal part. Showing responsibility for your ‘stuff’ is a reflection of your character and integrity, and shows respect to our coworkers and customers. As my father used to tell me, “Your word is your bond.”

8. Humility & Gratitude – Do not forget that you are always supported by others. Always listen to others, and appreciate their comments.

Everything that I have become has been built with help from others. I believe that there is no such thing as a ‘self-made man’ – we are made by the investments made in us by both ourselves and those around us.

With the humility that comes with the knowledge of others’ contributions to our success, we open ourselves to learning from different perspectives. When I listen to others with a spirit of humility and curiosity, I find that everyone that I interact with has the capacity to teach me something.

9. Integrity – Always communicate the fact in sincere manner.

It’s tempting to put ‘spin’ on difficult or unpopular messages, whether to soften the impact or to protect ourselves from the reaction. But this is dishonesty, and does us all a disservice. No matter how painful the truth might be, we can only react appropriately if we understand it fully. Attempting to mask or suppress the truth indicates a lack of integrity. It takes courage to speak the truth, but it must be done with sincerity and respect.

10. We love Toyota!Create more Toyota fans around you, by supporting production of high quality cars at affordable prices. 

Although I still remain grateful for all that Toyota has given me, I have replaced ‘Toyota’ with the name of my current company. I consider myself an ambassador to my organization to those within and outside of it. I was proud to work for Toyota, and I am now proud to work for WestRock, and the company’s values of Respect, Accountability, Respect, and Excellence resonate with me as the 10 Attitudes of Toyota still do.

Podcast: Lean Leadership Lessons from Toyota and Beyond



Recently, I was honored to be a guest on a podcast for Mark Graban’s Lean Blog. Mark’s work as a speaker, author, and consultant has had a significant impact on my continuous learning about continuous improvement. During the early days after I left Toyota, I found that there were gaps in my knowledge of how to foster a culture of continuous improvement at other companies, and listening to wisdom of the many guests on the Lean Blog podcast was a tremendous help to me. My hope is that some of the experiences and lessons learned that I share in this podcast can be of use to others.

Some of the topics covered on the podcast:

  • How I transitioned from focusing on my own accomplishments to a more collaborative approach of engaging others
  • Some of my core beliefs on lean and continuous improvement
  • What it it was like to apply what I had learned at Toyota to another company
  • The transformation experience I had of helping a struggling facility that was in danger of closing (blog post here)
  • Leveraging the power of employee ideas and the impact it can have
  • The shortcomings of project-based approach focused primarily on cost savings
  • Why lean is more of a ‘safari’ than a ‘journey’

Please feel free to share any feedback and/or comments.

Link to podcast