‘Whatta They Got That I Ain’t Got?”

I teach a full-day workshop called “Lean Boot Camp.” It’s an introduction to small-scope projects and tools, the kind you can do as a beginner like 5S and a Waste Walk. I use a phrase that I picked up somewhere: “The lean approach is simply having the ability to see waste, and the courage to eliminate it.”

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When I speak about the courage to eliminate waste, I point out that it’s not the hero’s kind of courage to work around obstacles and make superhuman efforts. It’s the courage to tackle the things that “have always been this way.” Also, the courage to take people out of their regular assignments to participate on improvement teams. And the courage to say “yes” to an expense that comes from an idea on an improvement team – the courage to make an investment in positive change, rather than falling back on “there’s no budget for that.”

I’ve noticed recently some apparent opportunities to make a decision that might be called courageous. An example:

At a hotel breakfast bar, coffee is provided in paper cups so customers can take their cup with them after breakfast – very customer-centric, and I applaud that decision! However, the cup lids did not quite fit. Were they ordered because they were cheaper than the lids made by the same company as the cups? Did they come in and get accepted, even though they didn’t fit, because they were already there and it was to much bother to send them back; or maybe they were running out of lids and thought that ill-fitting lid were better than none?

In contrast: In a kaizen / rapid improvement event, it became apparent that a big-screen monitor was needed to track the progress of patients in an emergency room. The team champion agreed that it was needed, but the purchasing department was not set up to make same-day transactions. After some discussion, one of the doctors pulled out his credit card and said, “Let’s go buy it at the appliance store, we can put it through purchasing later.” The team proceeded to buy and install the monitor that day.

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Have you seen examples of individuals, teams, or organizations displaying that kind of courage? If so, please share!

Comments 5

  1. Frank Sides

    Great article Sue!

    I work in a steel mill in Georgia. I would like to applaud our controller here. Many times they are the ones who are telling us not to spend money, but he is a huge supporter of kaizen events. He is known for saying – I don’t care what it costs, if it’s safety related, let’s buy it. Many times he has personally gone out with the company credit card and purchased the items needed to fix a safety issue identified during an event because the lead time was too long!

    You mentioned Waste Walks, can you spend a blog and give us some examples?

    Keep up the good writing. I really enjoy your posts!

  2. Sue Kozlowski

    Thanks Frank, I’’ be happy to do a blog on that. Sometimes, I take for granted tht everyone’s lean toolkit has the same tools, so thanks for asking!

  3. Melissa C


    I saw a very old blog post by you where you mentioned you were in the laboratory field. Are you still?

    Thank you-

  4. Fang Zhou

    This is very interesting. When I was an employee at a start-up from Yale (funded by VC) years ago, we did whatever needed to get things up and running. Everyone seemed to have great ownership and saw no boundaries of responsibility. Decisions were quick and creative solutions led to great results. We never called it Kaizen or anything.

    As I moved into larger organizations, it became increasingly more difficult to make decisions by employees without management approval.

    So the courage we talk here is the behavior that would have been natural if not because of organizational boundaries and culture.

    If you were the leader of an organization, what would be your reaction when observing such courageous behaviors? Celebration of positive culture change, or a warning sign of a deeper root cause that is paralyzing the organization?

  5. Sue Kozlowski

    Melissa, thanks for your question. My background is in clinical laboratory operations, but I moved into process improvement in 2003 as a Six Sigma Black Belt to work on hospital- and system-wide projects. I do teach at a local undergraduate clinical laboratory science program and speak for lab professional organizations, to continue contributing to my original profession.

    Fang, you raise an interesting question about the response of larger organizations vs small. I have seen the complexities of matrix authority and cross-departmental approval processes have a damping effect on change processes. It would be very interesting to hear some stories from readers around that issue.

    For my colleagues who asked, the title of this blog comes from the Cowardly Lion’s speech in the movie, "The Wizard of Oz."

    What makes a King out of a slave?
    What makes the flag on the mast to wave?
    What makes the elephant charge his tusk
    In the misty mist or the dusky dusk?
    What makes the muskrat guard his musk?
    What makes the Sphinx the 7th Wonder?
    What makes the dawn come up like THUNDER?!
    What makes the Hottentot so hot?
    What puts the ’ape’ in ape-ricot?
    Whatta they got that I ain’t got?"

    To which the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and Dorothy reply,

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