The secret to Lean transformation success

May 16, 2022
In this episode of The Tool Belt, Kathy Miller and Shannon Karels discuss their journey as women leaders in manufacturing.

Plant Services Managing Editor Anna Townshend spoke with authors and manufacturing leaders Kathy Miller and Shannon Karels about their new book Steel Toes and Stilettos: A True Story of Women Manufacturing Leaders and Lean Transformation Success.

Karels is a senior operations manager who has led multiple Lean transformations and run operations for two large corporations across multiple industries. Miller is a senior operations executive, who has held numerous global vice president and director positions in manufacturing and Lean enterprise leadership. She is a Shingo Prize Recipient for Large Businesses as a plant manager.

The two friends wrote the book together about their journey as women leaders, but their leadership message transcends gender or experience.

PS: I would like to start at the beginning of this book adventure. So, tell me about your decision to write this book. Why this book, and why did the two of you decide to do it together?

KM: Shannon and I, as you learn in the story, became very good friends through the course of this transformation. And one day, we were reminiscing about our time together and all the achievements of the team at that time, and really got thinking about why was that such a successful endeavor? What were the key elements of it? What were the ingredients? And as we thought about it more and laughed and reminisced about some of the challenges, we thought, “You know what? We really have a good story here. And maybe some people could benefit from it if we took some time to write it down.” So, we said, “Okay. Let’s do it.” The next day, Shannon texted me, “I’ve got a title for it.” And within a few months, we had outlined the basic timeline. It’s a business book, Anna, as you know, but it’s not real prescriptive. It’s our true story. So, it’s a blend of Lean transformation roadmap, but also, the personal challenges and triumphs, and stories of friendship along the way. It is a true story and it allows people to see themselves in different aspects of the story.

PS: Well, there are so many great topics to talk about here. And I don’t want to talk about gender too much, because I think most of the leadership advice you give really far transcends that, but it’s definitely a part of your book, and because as women in male-dominated industries, it is part of our lives. But rather than focus on some of the negative situations and things that we’ve all encountered, can you talk to me about what it means to be a female leader? And how does that shape how you work in the manufacturing world?

SK: A big part of what we talk about in the book, and Kathy and I discussed when we were writing this is you’re right, it is one factor of our roles and our total identity in this industry. As you mentioned, we don’t dwell on it as much because we just were there to do a job. And we were too focused on our goals and our task at hand to focus on whether or not we were the only woman in the room. And we rarely brought that up unless someone else did, and we rarely recognized it unless someone else brought it up and made a comment about it. So, you’re right, we didn’t focus on that as much. And we were busy. And, it wasn’t until afterwards when we were talking about this book that we started to recognize it a little bit more and started to discuss what it meant to both of us. And our biggest driver for some of the things we discuss in the book about being a woman is to show young female leaders that you can stay true to yourself, you can be your authentic self, and not have to conform to different stereotypes of being in a male-dominated industry and still be successful. And I think a big driver for us is that we wanted to just show these women that you can jump into this manufacturing career and be a great leader regardless of your gender.

PS: Great. I think that’s wonderful. And I hope women out there read this and think you have some witty things to say about some of those uncomfortable situations that we’ve been in. But I hope men read that too and take note of maybe some of the different situations that we have to come across. But I think very well said. I do want to talk about industry just a little bit. This book is about your experience leading a manufacturing team through a Lean transformation. So, let’s talk Lean a little bit. Why is that so important to the work that you do? And what do you think is most important for those who maybe don’t know exactly what Lean is all about to understand what that means in the manufacturing space?

KM: Lean is based on the Toyota production system, which has been around for decades. It’s about delivering value to customers with the least amount of waste. It’s a very simple concept. Why it’s difficult in manufacturing sometimes is how measurements are set up. Batch operations are normally used to maximize the efficiency from the investments that you’ve put in, the pieces of equipment. So, trying to take your measures from how many widgets you can put out on a certain piece of equipment in a certain amount of time to how value flows to the customers at the rate that they want to consume it is really what the transformation is all about.

Shannon and I have been doing these sorts of transformations for a number of years, and it’s so powerful. It’s very difficult at first. People don’t understand that vision. They’re used to cranking out a lot of inventory and pushing it through the system and, eventually, good products come out at the other end and someone matches it up to what customers want.

But we have just seen so many amazing results when you get the team onboard and work through it in a systematic manner. And I think you saw, Anna, in the book that over three years, the level of results that we got from being persistent and putting something in place and seeing what worked well, what didn’t work well, and how to build on that, and just continue to eliminate waste. And what’s really powerful about it is, if you do the whole system, it’s built on the concept of respect for people. So, it’s not just me, as the general manager, or Shannon as the transformation manager coming up with all the ideas and saying, “Thou shall.” It’s really about creating an environment where everybody can recognize waste and help you continuously improve. And when you get those light bulbs going on, and people understand that, “wow, you respect me for my mind and my heart and not just my hands,” the rate of improvement really accelerates and the ideas are amazing. And while the principles are the same, regardless of what enterprise you’re putting in, there are always nuances in every business. So thinking and creativity are required. And setting up that inclusive environment where people can bring their ideas forward is really one of the key things that we appreciate about it, and understand it is fundamental to getting the rates of improvement that you want.

PS: I think that whole idea of respect really plays into this next question that I wanted to ask. Throughout this whole transformation process, you talk a lot about the time that you spent on the factory floor and the proper way to do observations. Why is it so important for leaders to be a real presence in the factory, especially during these times of transition? I think you just hit on that, but anything else you ladies want to say about that?

SK: One of the things that Kathy says a lot is, “You can’t delegate this type of work. You have to show up as the leader to show them, this isn’t just another flavor of the month, and this isn’t going to pass, and this is the way we want to do business now.” And to be able to do that is exactly what I said. You just have to show up and be there. And the more that we get to know people as people and not their jobs, the more impactful that relationship becomes; the trust builds, and they start to follow your vision and trust that you’re going to take them to the right place. If you’re just more dictatorial and, “This is how we’re going to do it, and this is what we’re going to do and you’re going to like it,” it just isn’t going to be as impactful. You could still put the tools in, but it won’t sustain if you don’t have the people at every level engaged in participating in driving the change in the organization.

KM: People have to trust you. They get used to “Oh, this is the program of the month. This is the new person’s initiative. We can wait this out like we did the last one.” So you have to be present. You have to have that consistent communication that does not come down in a memo of “Thou shall.” You need to be available so you can address people’s questions, you can earn their trust by creating these high-quality interchanges where you’re seeing what they’re struggling with. And as you work together beside them to solve their problems, they begin to understand that you really do care about their input, you do care about them creating quality and value and them making the world a better place. And you can’t get that level of understanding of what people are really trying to do to contribute from a conference room. You’ve got to be right there next to them to see what they’re struggling with, how they’re contributing to really gain an appreciation for what you’re asking them to do.

SK: The people closest to the work are the ones that know what will work and what won’t. And if you can get them to try new things, whether it works or doesn’t, that communication is, “Okay. Well, it didn’t work. Let’s try something different.” But being able to have them show you their job and you, if you’re able to, do it with them, then, like Kathy said, they feel like you actually understand and care and it’s not just, “Well, you don’t know what I’m doing every day,” type of a mentality.

PS: It was very interesting to watch, or read with you ladies as you walk through the story of how you’re developing this culture of inclusivity, which I think you had to work as hard at as changing the manufacturing processes and how important each one was in both holding up the other. So, I have a couple of questions here for folks who are maybe struggling with the transformation. You talk about a lot of the obstacles that you came across in your book, but how do you get engagement from a team that maybe isn’t onboard yet with what you’re selling or what you’re trying to get them to do?

KM: There are actually a lot of things. There’s not one silver bullet in that whole thing. First of all, you’ve got to set the vision, communicate the vision, articulate the vision, over and over and over again for people who haven’t had the benefit of seeing what a more lean enterprise looks like. So, that’s absolutely the first thing that you have to do.

Listen to the entire interview

SK: And then I think part of it, too, is a little humility. We, as leaders don’t have all the answers all the time. Yes, we have a vision of where we want to go, but when somebody says, “Well, how are we possibly going to do that?” Sometimes the answer is, “I don’t know, but we’ll figure it out together.” And that, I think, is powerful and starting to bring those cultures along. And like Kathy said, it’s just all about communication, communication. You cannot talk to people enough. And it’s not just in planned meetings, it’s in shift startup meetings, it’s one-on-one when you go to their machines every morning and sign their day by hours, and you check-in after lunch. It’s those types of conversations and communications that start to bring those cultures along.

KM: And I think quite honestly, at the beginning, you have to get people out of their comfort zone. It’s not optional to work on the business and just work in the business. We assigned 100% of people to a team, whether it was a problem-solving team, a safety improvement team, whatever was working toward our strategic objectives. And it wasn’t just a Lean transformation we were going through. We had pricing initiatives and supply chain initiatives, and so it wasn’t like we could all just focus on this one thing. So, what we tried to do was tell everybody, “Look, you’re going to be involved in improving this business. You’re going to spend X% of your time, and we’re going to pay you to do this. It’s still part of your day job, but 10% is going to be on working on how we do business, not what we’re transactionally doing every day.” So, for instance, one of the objectives that I had was anytime anyone got hurt, anytime there was a recordable injury, my entire staff, with myself, would go out and see where the injury occurred.

And at first, the marketing manager said, “I have nothing to do with shop-floor safety.” But I said, “You know what? This is not optional. This is important. People on the floor need to understand that we care about their safety, both psychological and physical, and we’re going to show up as a leadership team.” And he was not happy. But I will tell you after about the third injury, he really saw that we took a lot of value from his experiences. He was a whole person. He wasn’t just the marketing manager. He worked on all kinds of equipment and things outside of the factory and had amazing ideas and resources on how we could’ve fixed things that Shannon and I never would have come up with. And so when he saw that that time and his contributions were being implemented in helping prevent accidents in the future, then he no longer resisted participating in the accident investigations. So, when you talk about getting over that initial hump of getting people to participate, sometimes you have to require it. But it’s not telling them what to do, it’s providing the opportunity for them to get involved in providing the solutions.

PS: I’m a firm believer in brainstorming and two minds are better than one. And you talk a lot about bringing the team together. But also, at a certain point, you have to come to a decision. So, how do you make teams both comfortable with debate, yet able to coalesce on a united front when it’s time to make a final decision?

SK: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think it really comes down to that trust element. And like I said, getting to know people as people. So, from a leadership standpoint, and just a purely management standpoint, we had touchpoints, weekly one-on-ones with each team member, plus weekly staff meetings, plus we had monthly or quarterly reviews on our initiatives. So, it was that constant communication that we would have. Then in addition to that, it was allowing a safe space for healthy debate. And, if it got heated, as the leader, you would have to come in and be the final say, and that’s your role as a leader in the organization. You’ve got to create that, like Kathy said, psychological safety for people to be themselves, allow a healthy debate. But when we walk out of the room, we are a united front, and we all agree one way or another, so, there’s no silent disagreement. It’s one of the terms I like to use a lot. We’re all in. Whether you fully agree or not, we are a team and a united front when we come out of there. And that’s part of the role as a leader is to make sure that the team understands that, and that we don’t leave until those decisions are made.

PS: Kathy, you talked a little bit about one of the safety initiatives that you started, but can you talk more about the passion that you have for safety? It’s a big part of the book. Why is that an important issue for you as a leader?

KM: Yes, absolutely. I started literally working in factories when I was 17 years old as a co-op student. And I’ve worked in a lot of facilities that are unionized, UAW, and some of the other unions. And very early in my career, I realized that there were a lot of joint initiatives around safety and quality. So early in my professional career, I was in teams and workshops about providing great quality and an injury-free environment. It’s an area of common ground that all humans can relate to. So, even if you’re arguing about work rules, or, all the kinds of things that you get in these three-inch thick contract books that you go through, nobody can dispute the fact that everybody deserves to go home safely to their families. And so that was just part of my foundational upbringing. But as time went on, I witnessed some bad accidents, situations where people didn’t get to go home to their families.

In one situation, I had to be the senior leader at someone else’s division because I was physically closer to it when there was a fatality there, and I literally had to take the contents of this individual’s locker out and put it in a box to give to his family. And I cannot put into words the impact that had on me. That’s anyone’s worst nightmare. And I don’t want other people to ever have to experience that. So, I have a ton of passion around safety. I always ended every conference call I had with, “Okay, everybody, be safe.” It’s a person’s right to go to work, earn a living, and come home to their family with all their digits and all of the aspects of their safety, both psychological and physical intact.

PS: Thank you. So, it was an amazing story that you ladies have to tell about how hard you worked on this transformation. But I really want to also end with a little humor and why it’s also important to have fun and celebrate along the way. You ladies had fun, and you laughed, and talk to us about why that was important as well.

SK: We spend, oftentimes, more time at work than we do with our own families. And so, Kathy created this environment where we could be our authentic selves. And sometimes, that led to a little silliness, in a very positive way. And I took that with me for the rest of my career as well. Even when Kathy and I weren’t working together, and we were working in separate locations, the team allowed their personalities to come out.

Kathy always uses this quote, I’m speaking for her now, “Take your work seriously, but yourself not so much.” I learned that and the whole team learned that and spread it around. And so we created this camaraderie around being ourselves and appreciating each other and not always taking everything so seriously, although it was serious work. Sometimes we would joke and say, “Hey, it’s either laugh or cry.” And we would choose to laugh most often. And we just loved that. And then the team loved to celebrate. Once we got them into celebrating small wins, all wins, and even at times celebrating failures and sharing that knowledge, because even a failure means you tried and allowing that safe space for those types of things to happen, you really got to know people better. And having fun was really a part of our big process, even if it was down to Kathy forcing us to have stickers for our 5S office days, which is a great story to share. It was important for us because it was serious work, but it was more important for us to enjoy it as well.

Look, manufacturing is serious business. I don’t want to understate that at all. Whether you’re making cars and final products, or the rubber parts that go two or three subsystems in, manufacturing is real. And you’re creating value. You’re making the world a better place, if you trace your parts all the way through where they are ultimately used. You’re meeting some need of mankind. And so, that’s serious business, employee safety, serious business, product quality, service quality, important business. But we’re only going to be on this earth so long. And while we contribute, and we spend all this time in factories, in the office with people other than our families, there is no reason to be miserable about it, even though, it is serious business. So, yeah. I always say, “Laugh or cry, and crying is not allowed at work.” So, that’s what we’re going to do and we’re going to get through these things together. And people love to be recognized. They love celebration. They love seeing their picture on the big screen with music in the background. It helps reinforce that message that, “We’re all a part of this.” We’re all a part of the success and bringing value to our customers. And we see each other, and we celebrate together, and we’re going to make this world a better place together.

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