Confessions of a recovering concrete head

Mike Wroblewski
Tags: lean manufacturing

Hi, my name is Mike and it has been 5,840 days since I was a concrete head.

My initial introduction to kaizen was a five-day kaizen event. On the surface, the idea of kaizen seemed so simple to me, however I was skeptical of all the new manufacturing approaches with the promise of amazing results as it was presented to me. It just sounded too good (and too easy) to be true.

We had a top-tier Japanese consultant acting as our sensei for the event with a huge scoped project, impossible target goals and a looming Friday deadline. The week was filled with a flurry of activities and constant motivating (yelling) guidance from our never-gives-a-compliment consultant.

Getting yelled at in Japanese is a unique cultural experience all to its own, plus you get the English version from a translator, only without the emotion. My bet was that the translation was probably kinder in word than the actually Japanese meaning. It was almost funny if it wasn’t for the public pronouncement to my team members that I was a concrete head.

Me? A concrete head? I have been called plenty of names before but never a concrete head. For those of you new to lean, a concrete head is someone who is hard-headed and not open-minded. It is a term given to those of us who questioned these new approaches to manufacturing.

From my viewpoint, I was acting as a critical thinker and as a responsible industrial engineer. It was my duty to act and think in the best interests of my company’s operation. I did not take this responsibility lightly and held the belief that there was nothing wrong with putting any and all ideas under the microscope. If the idea held water, it was a good one. If the idea was full of holes, then don’t expect it to float.

My Japanese sensei held a different point of view. He was the “wax on, wax off” type of sensei that expected me to “just do and don’t ask.” At first, that was extremely difficult for me. It was not that I didn’t see the merit in his teachings; heck, most of it was basic industrial engineering. It’s just that I had unanswered questions how it all fit together. I still was not convinced it would work. Besides, this guy had no experience in my industry, never put my product together, and did not realize just how different we were from his manufacturing experience. We had to deal with unique issues and problems.

Eventually, I was persuaded to just try it. I realized that we were not going to move forward unless I at least tried. So, putting my concerns aside, I followed the direction pointed out by my sensei. As you might have guesses, these wild improvement ideas worked and it actually worked better. This got my attention.

In thinking back, I see that it was pretty easy to come up with all the reasons why something won’t work and it was a greater challenge to think of the ways how to make it work. Stepping up to this challenge with determination and creativity, I found a greater sense of accomplishment by making it work. It opened up a whole new reality of possibilities.

My first lean lesson was beginning to take hold: Be humble to gain understanding.

About the author:

Mike Wroblewski started his lean journey with instruction in quick die change from Shigeo Shingo. Mike is president of Victory Alliance Technologies, a Greensburg, Ind., firm that specializes in lean implementation