This is a collection of some of my favorite business, improvement, and lean quotes. Many quotes include my own commentary of what the thought means for me or my company. I’ve done my best to credit the source for the quotes – although some are from post-it notes on my wall that are missing details. If you know where an uncredited quote comes from, let me know and I’ll add the details. Also – if you have a great quote you’d love to see included, please send it over and I’ll make sure it gets included.
“Be passionate about solving the problem, not proving your solution.”
– Nail It then Scale It, p. 112
As soon as we start fighting for our solution, we’ve changed our focus from the customer to ourselves. While explaining your reasoning is important, quickly supporting better ideas will benefit your organization much more and shows true wisdom.
“Sometimes no problem is a sign of a different problem”
– Reworded from Mark Rosenthal, author of The Lean Thinker
Since companies ultimately rely on imperfect people, businesses will always experience variation. To say something has no problems is to indicate you lack awareness.
“If you are constantly fire‐fighting, you have the impression that you are surrounded by many, many problems.” ‘However, careful analysis will point to a few core problems that will solve all the fires.’
– It’s Not Luck, p. 94‐95 (second part paraphrased)
If we’re able to solve the root cause of our problems, we suddenly find we have much more time.
“Problems are excellent guides to improvement, but only if the real problem is identified.”
– Paraphrased from The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership
This principal is especially applicable for successful managers. Focusing your attention on the wrong problem or redirecting your team’s efforts to ease symptoms instead of solve problems is an easy mistake to make. Knowing how to explore deeply and find the real problem is a true skill to seek. A similar sentiment that presents a great visual metaphor of the same principal is next.
“When solving problems, dig at the roots instead of just hacking at the leaves.”
– Anthony J. D’Angelo, The College Blue Book
“You are in the business of testing your guesses, not convincing yourself that you are right.”
Nail It then Scale It, p. 57‐58
“A relentless barrage of ‘why’s’ is the best way to prepare your mind to pierce the clouded veil of thinking caused by the status quo. Use it often.”
– Shigeo Shingo
This is how three-year-olds learn. They ask “why” in response to everything. Even if you try the infamous “because I said so”, they will respond with “why.” That’s why they learn so much. We could take a lesson from them, as detailed in the article The Three-year-old Why Technique
“Asking ‘why?’ five times helps lead you to the human error in a technical malfunction.”
– Eric Ries, The Lean Startup
“Costs do not exist to be calculated. Costs exist to be reduced.”
– Taiichi Ohno
Whenever I am overburdened by accounting paperwork, I remember this note of wisdom. Then, I stand up from my desk and try to get real work done. (Note: I love accountants too and appreciate their hard work)
“We didn’t have time for mistakes, so we had to spend extra time planning.”
– It’s Not Luck, P. 265
Often, if you want to get something done quickly, you have to slow down. Thoughtful actions are often more successful than quick, rash decisions. You’re either going to put in time planning or cleaning up the mess afterward.
“Stop production so you don’t have to stop production.”
– Toyota Explanation of the Andon Cord, Referenced in The Lean Startup
This one makes me smile because it makes you think for a minute. Putting out a campfire is much easier than putting out a forest fire. Again, this thought ties right into the previous one. You’re going to have to stop production at some point. How much wasted money and disruption that stop will cause is up to you.
“A chess novice can defeat a master if moving twice each round.”
– Mark Goldenson, Ten Lessons from a Failed Startup, in VentureBeat. 2009. Quoted in Nail It then Scale It, p. 96
Speed and agility are often underutilized advantages with which companies can succeed – especially small businesses. Imagine reducing waste and leaning your processes to the point that you can move twice as fast as your competitors do.
“Almost all quality improvement comes via simplification of design, manufacturing… layout, processes, and procedures.”
‐Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence
Anyone can come into a department, position, or process and make it more complicated. Beefing up staff, procedures, or budgets often feels like a temporary upgrade. However, true innovation usually means simplification and reduction.
“To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”
– Leonard Bernstein
I previously wrote an article on this thought. I rarely have what I think is enough time for many of the projects or initiatives I work on. Bernstein’s recipe reminds me that time is always tight, and great things happen because of that pressure. When you don’t have time to sit around and be fearful, you have no choice but to move forward. Tight deadlines make my work much more efficient. Instinctively I begin cutting out the non-vale-added “fluff.” The fluff is what often holds me back on a slow day.
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
‐ C. Northcote Parkinson, 1958
I approach a two-hour deadline much differently than a twenty-day deadline. In most cases, the deliverable is the same no matter how long I have.
“The essential question is not, ‘How busy are you?’ but ‘What are you busy at?'”
– Oprah Winfrey
I have this one by my desk, constantly reminding me that to be busy doesn’t matter if I’m not busy adding value. Thoreau had the same idea a century and a half earlier:
“It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?”
– Henry David Thoreau, letter to H.G.O. Blake, 16 November 1857
Everyone is busy. Talent and productivity is busy doing something worthwhile, helpful, and well.
“The iPod story illustrates a crucial point: a big, successful venture can look in retrospect like a single‐step creative breakthrough when, in fact, it came about as a multistep iterative process based more upon empirical validation than visionary genius. The marriage of fanatic discipline and empirical creativity better explains Apple’s Revival than breakthrough innovation per se.”
‐ Jim Collins, Great by Choice
Great by Choice is by far the best Collins book yet. It emphasizes the powerful roles that discipline, creativity, and risk-planning play in great companies and individuals. Collins tells the story of how that the Apple’s iPod wasn’t so much a result of creativity but of fanatic discipline. In fact, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple, his priority was reinstating discipline, not creativity. This story completely changed my conception of how to lead an innovative company.
“Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly and get on with improving your other innovations.”
– Steve Jobs
I’d rather have my team make seven wrong turns and three positive improvements than zero wrong turns and one improvement. More than that, I’d rather have the seven wrong turns and three improvements over zero wrong turns and three improvements. If you don’t occasionally fail, then you’re not aiming toward high enough goals.
“Without changing our patterns of thought, we will not be able to solve the problems that we created with our current patterns of thought.”
– Albert Einstein
Mark Rosenthal does an excellent job of describing the “Next Target Condition” in a couple of his posts here and here. Essentially, we know there’s a solution out there, but we don’t know what it looks like. However, we can start learning in that direction, which will help us get closer to the solution. Just like Einstein’s quote, we often have to improve our patterns of thought before we can spot the solution that will improve the process.
When improving a process, try to visualize what it would look like if it were smooth. “Smooth has no wasted motions, no excessive activities. Anything that doesn’t look smooth is likely the result of an accommodation, an awkward operation, poor information presentation, poor computer screen layout and workflow.”
– Adapted from Mark Rosenthal, author of The Lean Thinker
“Continuous improvement is not about the things you do well ‐ that’s work. Continuous improvement is about removing the things that get in the way of your work. The headaches, the things that slow you down, that’s what continuous improvement is all about.”
– Bruce Hamilton
Whenever I find myself dreading a task on my to-do list – that’s a strong indication that I can make a significant improvement. The reward from that improvement effort comes when instead of dreading the task, I look forward to it. Removing the things that get in the way of your work helps you create more value.
“The signature of mediocrity is not an unwillingness to change. The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency.”
– Jim Collins [Source]
This quote is from an interview about education and government, but it applies very well to a corporate setting. Being able to count on a process or person is much better than sporadic big successes and large failures. This relates to a motto from a friend of mine, Bryan Braun:
“You don’t have to be amazing… you just have to be consistent”
– Bryan Braun, BryanBraun.com
This corresponds with one of my favorite concepts: discipline and a steady stride of small wins.
“Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage.”
― Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Developing a habit of doing a bit extra each day has an extraordinary result. That small advantage, like compound interest, grows and grows until it produces amazing results.
“Amateurs work until they get it right. Professionals work until they can’t get it wrong.”
― Author Unknown
This thought reminds me of Poka-yoke, or mistake proofing. Instead of just making a process that works, a truly solid process cannot be broken.
“There are many experts on how things have been done up to now. If you think something could use a little improvement, you are the expert.”
‐ Robert Brault, RobertBrault.com
It took me a few years out of college before I realized that most of my work questions didn’t have a higher authority with an answer. Most of the time, we are the best person to answer our own questions – it just takes a bit of hard work, background research, creativity, and faith.
“Survival is optional. No one has to change.”
– W. Edward Deming, [Source]
A sobering reminder that not changing may mean not succeeding. Shigeo Shingo explains takes a different approach on the same thought:
“Are you too busy for improvement? Frequently, I am rebuffed by people who say they are too busy and have no time for such activities. I make it a point to respond by telling people, look, you’ll stop being busy either when you die or when the company goes bankrupt.”
‐ Shigeo Shingo
Most small businesses that fail don’t lack hard work; they lack processes that help the company succeed in a sustainable manner. When faced with those prospects, suddenly it’s easy to find time to slow down a bit and improve. This makes me think of a fun graph of how Geeks and Non-geeks approach repetitive tasks:
“The three A’s of metrics: actionable, accessible and auditable.”
– Eric Ries, The Lean Startup
Dashboards, KPIs, and scorecards all depend on good measurements of progress toward goals. Actionable metrics clearly direct what actions need to be taken to improve the score. Accessible metrics are able to be calculated and understood by others. Auditable metrics means that multiple people can calculate the same metric independently, which avoids mistrust in the numbers.
The next is an excellent definition of the Toyota Production System for those who are new to its concepts.
“When I first began learning about the Toyota Production System (TPS), I was enamored of the power of [one‐piece flow, kanban, and other lean tools]. But along the way, experienced leaders within Toyota kept telling me that these tools and techniques were not the key to TPS. Rather the power behind TPS is a company’s management commitment to continuously invest in its people and promote a culture of continuous improvement. I nodded like I knew what they were talking about, and continued to study how to calculate kanban quantities and set up one‐piece flow cells. After studying for almost 20 years and observing the struggles [other] companies have had applying lean, what these Toyota teachers told me is finally sinking in.”
– Jeffery Liker, The Toyota Way
The motivation and support of a company’s management will have more influence on the culture and potential improvement than any specific set of tools. To reach this level, many companies need to transform and get better at the top as well as the bottom:
“A corporation is a living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change. Values have to change. The sum total of those changes is transformation.”
– Andrew Grove, Former CEO if Intel
“You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”
― Zig Ziglar
My wife, a middle school teacher has a big poster in her room that reads, “The expert in anything was once a beginner.” Few people are great the first time they try something. So, you better go ahead and get those first few tries out of the way. Moving forward and gaining momentum is both difficult and important. Here’s another great quote about getting started:
“A real decision is measured by the fact that you’ve taken a new action. If there’s no action, you haven’t truly decided.”
― Tony Robbins
“The entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.”
– Peter F. Drucker
Organizational changes, especially crises, are excellent opportunities to improve. As people are pushed out of their comfort zone, many are willing to adopt better practices. However, poorly managed changes can also create large amounts of waste.
“You must have long‐range goals to keep you from being frustrated by short range failures.”
‐Charles C. Noble
Life brings many storms and setbacks. By instead focusing on the end destination, emergencies and fires cause a lot less stress. Actively choosing long-range goals and striving toward them creates great people, as expressed in the next quote.
“A ship in port is safe – but that is not what ships are built for.”
‐ Rear Admiral Grace Hopper
Whenever I feel risk-adverse, I remember this and act more boldly.
“Improvement usually means doing something that we have never done before.”
– Shigeo Shingo
“The impossible is often the untried.”
– Jim Goodwin (Adirondack Mountaineer)
Too many times I’ve thought something couldn’t be done – until I tried.
“The Toyota Production System – continual improvements toward profound evolution through full participation of all employees. There are no bound to improvement. This is the basis of ongoing efforts by all employees to aim for kaizen, and refusing to ever by complacent.”
– Toyota Museum, Nagoya Japan (from Picture taken by Mark Graban, posted on Lean Blog
“Every action is an opportunity to improve.”
– Mark Graban, Lean Blog
Unfortunately, we are not perfect. Nevertheless, If we constantly look at our actions as opportunities to improve, then we will accept constructive criticism better from those who are offering suggestions. We will be more likely to look for changes along the way. We will not be as likely to remain stuck in our old, ineffective ways.
“It is more than probable that the average man could, with no injury to his health, increase his efficiency fifty percent.”
– Sir Walter Scott
I would hate if my manager came to me with this quote as justification for doubling my workload. I’d much rather look introspectively and figure out how I could accomplish what I’m doing in half the time. Depending on the exact work, Scott’s estimate is usually close. You may even be able to say, “It is more than probable that the average [business] could, with no injury to [its] health, increase [its] efficiency fifty percent.”
“As long as I listen to my customers, I never need to have another original idea.”
– Niel Robertson, founder of Trada, in Do More Faster
When working to improve product offerings and internal processes, you can’t go wrong letting the customer dictate the direction. While this is obvious for end-consumers, the principal is also enlightening when you focus on pleasing internal customers. How can I improve what I’m doing so that my work better satisfies marketing, accounting, sales, or another department? How can I create internal value that eventually results in value to all stakeholders and customers?
“Do not be competitor focused, be customer focused.”
– Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com CEO)
If you always please the customer, then you’ll always be competitive. Your customers can do your competitive analysis for you and let you know how to change better than competitive analysis can. Your competitor may be beating you because they are better at listening to the customer. Jeff Bezos even offers a simple but effective blueprint:
“Determine what you customers need, and then work backwards.”
– Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com CEO)
“A manufacturer or retailer that responds to changes in sales in hours instead of weeks is no longer at heart a product company, but a service company that has a product offering.”
– Bill Gates, Business @ the Speed of Thought
Providing quality and service beyond just the physical product is how most successful product companies are able to differentiate themselves and add value. By focusing on the job the customer needs to accomplish, instead of the product you’re trying to sell, you can begin adding value that goes beyond the item in the box. This is explained by Clayton Christensen’s idea that the reason we buy things is because we’re trying to accomplish a job. By focusing on the jobs customers are outsourcing to our products, we can better help them accomplish that job. This is how Christensen puts it:
“The jobs-to-be-done point of view causes you to crawl into the skin of your customer and go with her as she goes about her day, always asking the question as she does something: why did she do it that way?”
– Clayton M. Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?
By taking this point of view and listening to the voice of the customer, you can find creative solutions to take your business beyond a product and offer a full package to happier customers.
“The absolute fundamental aim is to make money out of satisfying customers.”
– John Egan
Reminding ourselves that our goal is to satisfy customers often brings clarity to confusing decisions.
“We see customers as invited guests for a party and we are the hosts. It is our job every day to make every aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.”
– Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com CEO)
Bezos’s quote demonstrates the correct attitude to have toward customers. The more we treat them as guests that we are honored to have, the less likely we are to create local optima and waste. Whether internal customers or end customers, constantly asking “what can I do to better please the customer” will point toward the path toward success.
“The economic losses from fear are appalling. To assure better quality and productivity, it is necessary that people feel secure.”
– W. Edward Deming
Anyone that’s survived layoffs will agree with this thought. It underscores Lean’s success through investment in people. When people work in fear, local optima through self-centered objectives abound. Very few are going to sacrifice for the good of the company if that could lead to a pink slip letting them go.
“Brilliant process management is our strategy. We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant processes. We observe that our competitors often get average (or worse) results from brilliant people managing broken processes.”
– Toyota Management [Source]
Often when team members fail, it’s because the organization’s processes aren’t strong enough. Few people withhold their best efforts – especially when they know exactly what is expected of them. Bad processes take away the feeling of security and accomplishment that creates true satisfaction. Conversely, the right processes can take even the least-stellar employees and make them shine.
“[All the patterns] that exist in most people’s lives —how we eat and sleep and talk to our kids, how we unthinkingly spend our time, attention and money — those are habits that we know exist. And once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and the responsibility to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp and the only option left is to get to work.”
― Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Charles Duhigg’s book changed the way I looked at my life. At least 90% of the decisions I make each day are just replays of earlier decisions that have become habit. Learning how to change habits has helped me change my life. The same applies with work. As we recognize the habits in our organizations, we can work to improve them. We can also manage change better as we realize others must develop new habits for changes to work.
“We tend to get what we expect.”
‐ Norman Vincent Peale (Minister and Author of The Power of Positive Thinking)
If you expect your people to waste time when you’re not looking, that’s often what your culture becomes. On the other hand, if you expect dedication and hard work, you’ll also be right. My father-in-law coached sports for a long time. When my wife started teaching he gave her this advice from coaching that she carried into the classroom. “Treat your weakest player (or student) like they are your star athlete (or scholar).” People will meet whatever expectations are set for them, so set them high.
“It doesn’t matter how much you invest in technology or processes – if you don’t also invest in people, you won’t succeed. If you don’t have a well-defined strategy and execution plan upfront around finding, screening, hiring, and onboarding talent, you will pay for it later in lost productivity, quality and safety issues, and high turnover rates.”
― Adrian Gonzalez, Logistics Viewpoints
Payroll is an easy target for expense reduction. However, the savings is often an illusion as lower-paid, less-qualified employees result in higher expenses elsewhere. Bringing on and rewarding talent is a best practice that most successful companies follow closely.
“The manager that can see the furthest gets the trust of the team.”
― Jeff Durham, CEO of Durham Brands
This is motivating advice for managers and leaders from a good friend I worked under. A well understood and communicated vision really helps guide improvement and unite people together.
“Kanban is like the milkman. Mom didn’t give the milkman a schedule. Mom didn’t use MRP. She simply put the empties on the front steps and the milkman replenished them. That is the essence of a pull system”
– Ernie Smith, Lean Event Facilitator in the Lean Enterprise Forum at the University of Tennessee
Improvement usually results in something simpler and more common sense. Technology sometimes gets in the way of improvements – because the cores of many improvements are low-tech solutions we’ve known in other circumstances for years. A process that feels unnatural is often a great candidate for improvement.
“[Substitute] information for inventory”
– APICS CSCP Learning System 2013, Module 1, Section D, Page 1‐176
This simple yet powerful principal helped me drive the implementation of our company’s S&OP planning process. The more information you can gather, the less inventory you need to hold.
“The words ‘just for now’ are the origin of all waste.”
‐ Hiroyuki Hirano via The Lean Thinker
I started noticing how many temporary Band-Aid solutions we used after I realized I heard “just for now” multiples times each day. Sometimes, in the spirit of moving quickly, these stopgap methods work. However, slowing down and improving the process to solve the main problem is often worth the work and time.
“The most dangerous kind of waste is the waste we do not recognize.”
‐ Shigeo Shingo
I appreciate wise mentors who have developed the skill of recognizing waste that I do not yet see. This makes me think of health and our bodies as well. The most dangerous kind of waste/sickness is the one that we are not aware of, because we can make no effort to fix it.
“Lean thinking defines value as providing benefit to the customer; anything else is waste.”
– Eric Ries, The Lean Startup
Anything besides providing benefit to the customer is a local optimum. Creating value for employees and stakeholders is important to the long-term ability to serve customers. However, when end customers are no longer the primary focus, you become vulnerable to competitors with a stronger customer focus.
“Variation breeds inventory.”
– Unknown, Attributed to Shigeo Shingo [Source]
Whenever the product development team asks me if we can carry additional variations of a product, this principal guides my response. While variations can capture additional sales, recognizing that each SKU will require its own investment in inventory helps push for lower SKU counts. This applies to variety packs in the supermarket as well. I may think I want 20 different flavors of potato chips, so I buy the more expensive combination box. However, when it comes time to pack my lunch each day, I realize there are only a few styles I love. The rest stay on the shelf.
“True startup productivity is not just making more stuff, but systematically figuring out the right things to build.”
– Eric Ries, The Lean Startup
We can always try to do more. However, increasing productivity often involves finding waste in processes and removing those steps. In tandem, we can listen more closely to the customer and find out what truly adds value, which are the “right things to build.”