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This month, it’s all happening at the zoo. We’ll be interviewing Jeff Foster of the San Diego Zoo to find out how rhinos deal with process improvement.

For today’s appetizer we’ll review an app that is bad grammar’s antidote to the “To Do” list. For our Bulletin Board we’ll discuss what Vitamix discovered when they put Lean in a blender and then we’ll head to a Lean farm in Massachusetts to see how they removed waste and managed dirt. For Tools of the Trade, we’re discussing one of Daniel Pink’s books where he maintains that we’ve all got a little used car salesmen in us. Last up, some Q&A to settle the question of whether or not Toyota’s chief architect of the Toyota Production System was a student of Dr. Deming’s. Spring is here, so we’re sipping our coffee next to a big bouquet of tulips here at the Just-in-Time Cafe.

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Podcast Transcript

Intro: Welcome to Just-In-Time Café,’s official podcast where we help you build your problem-solving muscles. We share best practices from over 20 years of success helping organizations from the Fortune 500 to small and medium-size business to government achieve their goals using Lean Six Sigma.


Tracy: Hey, Elisabeth. How are you today?

Elisabeth: I’m awesome, Tracy. How about you?

Tracy: You know, life is pretty good right now.

Elisabeth: Well, it’s great. This is our first spring podcast so I’m quite excited about spring.

Tracy: How is that? Why is that, Elisabeth? Because you’re loving Cape Cod?

Elisabeth: Yeah. I mean it’s just the rebirth. It’s time to get to work. Let’s get out there. The winter is done. You get out of your house. Things are starting. I know you’re in California. You’ve been outside the entire winter but I haven’t.

Tracy: I do understand what you mean though because just yesterday, we found two birds’ nests being built in our yard and that was really exciting to see. And we only see that in the summer so that’s really – that’s nice. It’s a nice connection.

Elisabeth: Well, in honor of spring, I brought us a bouquet of tulips. So how about you grab the menu and I will meet you in our private dining room?

Tracy: Awesome. I love tulips! They’re like my favorite flower. I’ll see you in a minute.

Elisabeth: OK.

What’s on the Menu (Podcast Agenda)

Tracy: So, what’s on the menu today, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth: All right, Tracy. Today’s Appetizer, we’re going to review an app and it’s bad grammar’s antidote to the to-do list. So that will be an interesting one. We’ve got for our Bulletin Board, we’re going to discuss what Vitamix discovered when they put Lean in a blender. And then we’re going to go into a Lean farm in Massachusetts to see how they removed waste and managed their dirt. Tools of the Trade is this month’s book. We are going to discuss Daniel Pink’s To Sell Is Human. We’re going to find out what we’ve all got in common with used car salesmen.

Tracy: Oh, yucky!

Elisabeth: I know. Special Request, there’s a Q&A about whether or not Toyota’s Chief Architect of the Toyota Production System was a student of Dr. Deming’s. We’re going to find that out. And then Today’s Special is an interview with Jeff Foster of the San Diego Zoo. And that we’re going to discuss how rhinos deal with process improvement.

Tracy: Rhinos! Wow! You better get them on board because that’s a lot of weight to be moving around.

Elisabeth: I’m with you.

Tracy: I’m really excited to hear about it. The spring lineup sounds exciting.

Elisabeth: So let’s get to our Appetizer.

Appetizer: I Done This

Tracy: So, tell me Elisabeth, how is bad grammar going to motivate me?

Elisabeth: It already did, Tracy. So this is the app from the website, I Done This. There is the bad grammar. I Done This. I read about it in the book called The Coaching Habit. You turned me on to that by I think it’s Michael Bungay Stanier. So he threw it out there as a great productivity app. So I checked it out and this one I would say is the antidote to the to-do list because it focuses on what you’ve done and it takes advantage of that human emotion, that pride in accomplishment.

And this reminded me of a great point. One of the presentations when we were out of that Lean conference in San Diego, I went to one on Kanban boards, personal Kanban boards, using it to manage your workload. And he pointed out that sometimes people have to-do list and then they do something that wasn’t on the to-do list and then they go back and they write it in just to cross it off, right?

Tracy: I do that.

Elisabeth: Have you done that?

Tracy: Yeah, I do that a lot of times.

Elisabeth: I love that. So these guys took advantage of that and just said, “Let’s focus this on this sense of accomplishments.” So you and I have been testing it out and I like seeing that you’re completed tasking through one of them said you would schedule the kids out of the house with a podcast recording. It’s so cute.

So these guys took advantage of that and just said, “Let’s focus this on this sense of accomplishments.”

Tracy: Kind of important because unfortunately, I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t record a podcast when the kids are around.

Elisabeth: Good learning. But great. So I appreciate – I saw you kind of in action like I knew you were preparing for today too. It’s great for teams, for Six Sigma teams. They can manage without bossing each other around. Just say, “Hey, since we got out of that meeting, here’s what I’ve done. I did all these action items from the action item list we left with.” And they got it from a Harvard study called The Power of Small Step. So these little things sort of provide that momentum and its support and I like that.

Tracy: I really like it too. I think it really definitely can change team dynamics, change it up for people because I think in meetings, sometimes it’s all about did you do this yet, did you do this yet, did you do this yet? And this is really saying, “Look what I did! Look what we did!” And feeling good about celebrating some accomplishments is what people need sometimes. I think sometimes we don’t get the recognition or we don’t acknowledge the recognition and people feel a little drained. So I think this is a great way to say thanks and say, “Hey, look at what everybody has been doing.” And use it as a positivity thing.

Elisabeth: Absolutely. And I’ll say one last thing about it. At first, whenever time I went on, there was a guy, a little pop-up person saying, “Hey, if you need any help, I’m here for you,” and giving me tips. And I started to feel like it was a little close to that Microsoft Paperclip that used to tap at you. But I told him. I said, “I think I’m getting too many of these sort of reminders and tips.” And then I got a response and he said, “I lowered the number of times. I reacted to that so I’ve adjusted it for you.” They’re really responsive. It’s kind of cool.

Tracy: That’s neat.

Elisabeth: Alright. Yeah. So next up, let’s go to our Bulletin Board.

Tracy: Sounds good.

Bulletin Board

Elisabeth: So Tracy, can you tell what happens when you put Lean in a blender?

Tracy: Absolutely. So I think there’s a double meaning here when we talk about Lean. This is about Vitamix, the blender company, high-end blenders. And a lot of people purchased these expensive blenders because they want to be healthier. They want to be able to make juices and smoothies at home in a convenient way. And they’re willing to spend money on a high-value product.

And so, you’re putting Lean stuff in a Lean blender. And Vitamix is implementing Lean in their organization too. Woohoo!

So the article really talks about what Vitamix is doing to implement process improvement in their organization. And what I really like about this article is it does talk about their first attempt in 2006 and it didn’t – wasn’t successful and a lot of it they say was because the production managers at the time were very focused on meeting the growth demand and not necessarily focused on building a culture of Lean. And that makes a big difference. So people didn’t feel motivated to do it or be a part of it.

So now, they are doing a lot of Kaizens. The emphasis is on improvement. The other early lesson they learned was not to focus too much on cost savings as well because it drove the wrong decisions. And ultimately, their work is more fun and the employees want to be involved and they’re removing frustrations about work and guess what? Employees are more engaged. They see the value in it and the company is growing 45% year over year growth as a blender organization.

Elisabeth: Wow!

Tracy: So that is great and I love to hear stories about that. And here’s an interesting tip too. Vitamix is doing a Lean tour during the Industry Week Manufacturing Technology Conference in Cleveland, Ohio on May 8th and 10th. So hey, if you’re in that area, you’re going to this conference, go check out Vitamix’s Lean tour.

Elisabeth: Yeah. Get a Lean tour. Get a smoothie. It’s making me hungry.

Tracy: Be Lean in many ways.

Elisabeth: Alright. This coffee is good but I want a smoothie now for some reason.

Tracy: So Elisabeth, what’s this about managing dirt?

Tracy: I’m glad you asked, Tracy. This is my nick of the wood. This is Montague, Massachusetts and this is a great article in the Boston Globe recently. And they applied Lean to the farming process. And I love their value stream. It’s called Field to Farm Stand. Isn’t that nice? Field to Farm Stand. And they basically got in there and applied the Toyota Production System to farms. And I read a really fascinating little known fact. The first Toyota workers had been raised farmers, which makes total sense, right?

And so, these are people that came into learning the Toyota Production System. And now, they’re bringing it back to the farm. And the big difference is that farms are messy. There’s dirt.

Tracy: Yes. So a lot of processes in farms.

Elisabeth: Yeah, yeah. And they went after all of them. There’s a great book that this farm used called Lean Farm by Ben Hartman. And the first thing they did was listen to the voice of the customer, and I love that. And their customers are local restaurants, CSAs which stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and farm stands.

And they’re responding to competition. There is more and more CSAs. There is more farm stands. And there are people struggling to sell their stuff. So now the big change was offering only what customers were asking for.

So they started growing like hard to find veggies for local chefs, which helped with the competition. They also cut down the amount that they were growing. So they were growing stuff people didn’t necessarily want. But they really focused on what are people really asking for from these restaurants. And they focused on stuff that was more profitable to grow. So they were growing less and making more money.

And then they ended – the whole thing ends with like five nice big takeaways. So one, and this will be familiar to you from any organization you’re ever in which is put every tool in its place. Clearly, they did a lot of 5S whether they were surrounded by dirt or not. They had to do a 5S for their tools.

Farm for your customer, they just described that. Cut production waste. Reduce packaging. Use multipurpose equipment and reduce movements. So they didn’t need to package everything. So a lot of things were open or just have people use their own bags, things like that. Reduce management waste. So replace low profit crops with a high profit. Don’t over ordered their supplies.

And then simplify farmers market sales. So they don’t bring too much produce. So they’re really paying attention to what people buy. And then instead of weighing stuff, they would put it all some nice grab bag together and say, “Buy the bag.” They give you an option to do it that way.

So anyway, I did appreciate that it was happening on the farm. I love that. And I love that they are competing that there’s more and more farms out there. It’s good for all of us.

Tracy: Absolutely. And I really love the piece about the VLC because my aunt out here in San Diego works in the restaurant business and she says that chefs love this new approach where they’re really listening to the chefs of these restaurants to procure vegetables that aren’t around that make it very interesting for customers to come and say, “I’ve never had that kind of lettuce before. I want to try that.”

Elisabeth: Yeah.

Tracy: So I think that’s really interesting. And kudos to Lean farms because they’re helping our pallets all over America.

Elisabeth: Hear! Hear! Next up, Tracy, we’re going to Tools of the Trade.

Tools of the Trade: To Sell Is Human by Daniel Pink

Tracy: So tell me Elisabeth, what – I’m dying to know this. How do we have something in common, most of us, with used car salesmen?

Elisabeth: So this is the book, To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink. And I think most people know him for the book, Drive. And that was about what truly motivates people and that was a great book. I like the way he writes.

And this one maintains that we all need to get better at selling. And I think the way I understand this better is that he is really getting at this our need to influence others. And that’s a huge deal in process improvement. We’re constantly coaching teams to not just run out there and tell people what’s right or how to fix stuff but to think about how they work with others so that they are influencing people in such a way that they’re interested in the project and owning it and part of it.

So he points out that selling, back to the used cars salesmen, we perceive it as manipulative. But the techniques he is offering, they’re really more practical. They’re not on the sleazy side of the influence bandwagon. You can cover a lot. I think he comes back to things like you should listen. You should focus on your ability to listen to others and that came up again in last month’s book, Frank Sesno’s Ask More, start of inquiry. So those points I think are really worth taking in new ways to be a better listener. Brevity, he’s big on that.

After reading this book, I got really good at thinking through the titles of my emails like really putting what’s the request? What am I really asking somebody? Let’s just put it right in the title of the email. They can see it right away. If they want more, they can read the rest of the email but they know right away what I’m asking about. So he’s already sort of altered my habits there.

The other thing, I like that the talked about – he went and took some improve course. He did tons of good research for this book, lots of studies that he got into and took away from. But the improve class, back to listening, he highlighted the technique and I used to do improve way long ago with improve Boston but the technique and the thing we would practice was yes and, and that’s – to have that in your mind when you’re talking to people, it’s very basic. It’s the opposite of no but. It means you have to take in what they’re saying and add to it.

So if you have this mindset of “yes and,” it will encourage conversation. It also causes you to listen what that person is saying such that you can add to it. But it’s a very simple thing. But after learning it on stage, it just altered the way I interact with people. There’s so much I learned at improv I used in business or I use in business every day. So I think those were really cool.

And I knew you read it too. What do you think of it?

Tracy: I really like this book too. And I think mostly, it’s really saying, “Hey, You may be in sales and not know it.” And don’t react negatively because it’s not a bad thing. And he sort of – he’s selling us on why we’re all in sales I think. And I think it’s a paradigm shift. It’s really saying, “We’re not all used salesmen.” We’re convincing people of our ideas and our opinions. We might be getting someone to align with our business strategy. We may be helping people shift strategies. He even mentions that an airline gate agent he convinced to switch to a window seat.

And I’m reading this that I’m thinking, I actually just went on a horseback riding activity this weekend and I called originally, they said they were booked. And I said, “But it’s my birthday! This is the only thing I want to do. Are you sure?” And he goes, “Let me call you back.” And in ten minutes he called me back and he said, “We got somebody else to come in. We can accommodate you.” So I kind of felt like I guess in his definition of selling, I just did that. And we’re always doing it. And he said, “Now, if you embrace that idea – now, here are a couple of other things you can do to be really good at it.”

And so, I really liked that. And I think one of my favorite things about the book is he talks about if you are going to be in sales, make your messages meaningful, purposeful, and personal. And he talks about emotionally intelligent finds. And so, a good example of this is he is telling these stories about, we’re having a hard time with people picking up after their goes to the bathroom. And so instead of just saying, “Pick up after your dog,” the example he used was, “Pick up after your dog. Children play here.”

And I thought that was interesting because it really does trigger a different reaction than the first sign. And I’ll just share one last example and I was thinking about where I’ve seen signs like that and my sons are playing little league baseball and on the way to the baseball field, there is a sign that says, “Drive like your kids live here.”

And it could have been just “slow down” but it wouldn’t have the same effect. So guess what? I guarantee every person coming around that corner is driving like their kids live here. So I really like that and it was really just an interesting way to say, “Be emotionally intelligent when you communicate.”

Elisabeth: He is slipping in the purpose. Not just the to-do, not just the task, but why.

Tracy: Yes.

Elisabeth: And that’s so key. Love it.

Tracy: So that was pretty impressive. I really liked that.

Elisabeth: Yeah. Good book. Recommend it. Really helpful for teams looking for techniques to influence others. Help get your improvements happening.

Special Request

Tracy: OK. A question that came in from our, so the question is, did Taiichi Ohno learn from Dr. Edwards Deming? What do you think, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth: Well, this is fascinating question. And I didn’t know because if you think about it, Taiichi Ohno was the Chief Engineer at Toyota. He’s responsible for the development of the Toyota Production System. He is considered the Father of Lean Manufacturing. Now, those are some pretty big titles, the Architect of the TPS.

Then you think about Dr. Deming. Now, Dr. Deming also considered the Father of Quality. I know there are lots of Fathers of Quality out there. But he’s often put out there as number one. And they’re both in Japan around the same time. And this person thought, “Well, Dr. Deming must have taught Taiichi Ohno.”

But if you look a little bit closer or actually, our colleague Craig Tickel took a look a little closer, did some fact-checking. And what was the discovery?

Tracy: Well, the discovery is surprising that no, they were not – he did not learn from Dr. Edwards Deming. And a lot of this is historical based. So Ohno’s initial work was in 1947 and Dr. Deming didn’t join until he was invited to speak at a session in 1950. So given the original timeframes, it may – Taiichi Ohno probably influenced Dr. Deming is what we’re thinking.

Elisabeth: Yeah. I think maybe they – because we weren’t there, maybe they both influenced each other. They are both clearly leaders in their field and they’re connected by I guess the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers, the JYSE. So that’s where they may have connected. But it’s different years, you’re right. So it’s interesting. There’s an assumption in there but it sounds like they probably – they knew of each other. I wonder who really influenced who but the suspicion is they influenced each other.

Elisabeth: Yes.

Tracy: Next up, Today’s Special.

Today’s Special: Interview with Jeff Foster from San Diego Zoo

Tracy: So Elisabeth has the pleasure of interviewing someone very interesting. And apparently, rhinos are some of Jeff Foster’s stakeholders and someone that works at the zoo. So that’s a little different.

Elisabeth: So this is fascinating. Jeff Foster came from the hotel world. So he has learned Sid Sigma in the operations of Starwood and then he went over into the San Diego Zoo and worked in their wildlife section. This is where they’re trying to basically save species. So yeah, they’re working with rhinos and they’re working with other zoos so they’ve got an ability to translate improvements. So fascinating seeing these techniques applied in the wild or at least in the contained wild. But absolutely stay tuned. It’s a great interview.

Tracy: That’s exciting. And I’ll just say that we’ve got a few people in the San Diego Zoo at our Lean Enterprise course at San Diego State. And it’s really interesting to hear how they’re applying process improvement from Dan the Aardvark also being a customer to actually reducing lines for the African Trams. So I love to hear how they’re applying process improvement in places like the zoo.

Elisabeth: That’s great. I love that San Diego is helping out there. Awesome, Tracy. We’ll talk to you later.

Tracy: Alright. Happy spring.

Elisabeth: Happy birthday!

Tracy: Thank you! I’m going to go run out and jump with the bunnies.

Elisabeth: Keep the tulips.

Tracy: Thanks.

Elisabeth: Hello, everybody. Welcome back. We’re here at the Just-In-Time Café. Today’s special, we’ve got Jeff Foster and he is the Director of Performance Improvement at the San Diego Zoo, which is fascinating already. They’re doing it at the zoo.

So Jeff, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Jeff: I am the probably saw – no, I shouldn’t say that. I’m the Head of the Lean Six Sigma Movement here at San Diego Zoo Global. I’ve been here six years. We have four facilities in Southern California, two of which are attractions, two of which are research facilities. And then we operate 28 projects, research projects around the world. Our True North is end extinction. We are in the conservation, animal conservation business and that’s what we support and do 365 days a year.

Elisabeth: That is fascinating. I think for anyone out there who does not heard the term, True North, Jeff talking about kind of your reason for being, your mission, right? And that’s huge. Say it again.

Jeff: Our True North is end extinction.

Elisabeth: That is awesome. That’s incredible.

Jeff: We are all focused on one – it helps us to focus in one direction and helps all of our actions within the organization to align to help us achieve that True North.

Elisabeth: So I don’t think people even have an idea of just how big of a reach the zoo has and that you guys are the epicenters. So I think that’s incredible too. It’s obviously – I mean, I recently went to the zoo and it’s fabulous. But talking to you, I realized there are so much more going on behind the scenes.

Jeff: The zoo and the safari park are actually our guest-facing attractions here in Southern California. They provide us the ability to support all of our conservation work that’s going on behind the scenes. So we’re like an iceberg. You can only see the top 10%. There’s actually 90% that’s underwater that is going on in the background while all of our guests are visiting our facilities here in Southern California.

Elisabeth: So I know that you didn’t start Lean Six Sigma at the zoo. Where did you get into the world of process improvement?

Jeff: So, I worked for 20 years with Starwood Hotels and Resorts. I was trained in Six Sigma and spent many years practicing Six Sigma and then trained with Starwood on Lean and we implemented Lean at a number of – but I was part of the team that implemented across Starwood in the late 2008 era. And then I got my – but I guess you’d say their. And I just continued to utilize process improvement and Lean methodology in my work and got better and better at it and eventually ended up here at the zoo.

Elisabeth: So that’s a wild transition because Starwood had an incredibly big effort and they were the first hospitality organization to roll that out worldwide, really impressive effort. Do you ever see – do you see crossovers, things that you did or projects you did at Starwood or just things that you learned there in processes that you see them at the zoo or you see that similarity?

Jeff: Absolutely. So I think one of the – I would say one of my biggest learnings over the years of practicing Lean has been that it doesn’t matter what the process is. And I’ve learned this through my transition from Starwood into the zoo. That the process improvement methodology and the continuous improvement and the PDCA and the cycle of process improvement is consistent no matter what the process is.

So other than having to maybe change your message a little bit, I went from a for-profit at Starwood to a not-for-profit here at San Diego Zoo Global. But other than that, the way that you apply process improvement is exactly the same. So whether I’m dealing with a group of animal keepers and an animal, the process is what’s focused on. The process improvement is changing the steps of the process. It’s the exact same thing that we went through at Starwood in hotel operations.

So whether I’m dealing with a group of animal keepers and an animal, the process is what’s focused on.

Elisabeth: That’s wild. And I hear you. We always say a process is a process is a process. And then in terms of for-profit, nonprofit, you just mentioned it earlier that you’ve got the public-facing piece of the zoo, the animals that people are coming to visit and see but that funds the nonprofit work and your mission to end extinction. So it still matters. You still have to bring in money to support what you do. So that’s an interesting 2-piece there too.

Jeff: It’s an endless dichotomy, right? We need more money to do more conservation and we need to do more conservation so that we can make more money. And so, it’s kind of an endless cycle for us. So we try to find the absolute best balance we can.

Elisabeth: Endlessly good.

Jeff: Endlessly good. I would agree. For the betterment of the world.

Elisabeth: Yeah, that’s huge. Those are True Norths you can get by. So what kind of success have you had with process improvement at the zoo?

Jeff: So I have had some really great success. Our organization and the zoo industry in general as you can imagine, we are one of the bigger players in the American Aquarium and Zoos Association which is a domestically-based organization of 250 zoological organizations. We are one of the anchors if you will of that organization.

What I learned quickly is that the zoo industry, in general, has not been exposed to a lot of process improvement over the years and is ripe and ready for the benefits that process improvement brings.

So what I – my first week was a little rough. I had to transition from a for-profit mindset to a non-for-profit mindset. And in my first week on the job, I was sitting in a boardroom full of the executive committee and introducing myself. And I said, “Hey, there is this really simple process I just recognized that if we make a quick change we can save ourselves probably $25,000.”

And I had the Chief Life Sciences Officer who is kind of our lead of the Animal Collection, the person in charge of the Animal Collection, he looked directly at me and he said, “Well, why?” And in my former position in the for-profit organization, that message resonates. In a non-for-profit organization, I quickly learned that that doesn’t resonate.

What did resonate was, “Hey listen, if we change this process, we can increase our ability to do more conservation work.” Then I started to get a lot of people behind me. So once I learned that lesson plus the timing in like I said, the zoological industry and across the multiple members of the association we’re part of, I quickly found reception for not only the process improvement methodology but how to apply that in all sorts of different areas that did have pain in some of their processes and they were anxious to see results.

So I’ve had a great deal of success across many areas of organization I’d like to say horizontally across the org chart versus vertically in the org chart. And I’ve had a lot of great successes, a lot of great projects that come out of that. We’ve learned how to care for animals better through process improvement. We’ve learned how to provide greater guest satisfaction through process improvement. So we are really making a lot of great strides and I’m looking forward to actually building a center of excellence in 2018 that we will be able to start capturing the results of our projects and be able to make those transferable to other organizations.

Elisabeth: You said some great things in there, some things that hit nerves I think in other places like you mentioned first saying, “Hey, I can save you $25,000 …” and thinking everyone gets that. Why wouldn’t you just go save the 25 grand? And what you realized then that you had immediately tied it to the mission that they find that’s true across all improvement projects. So we’re constantly working with folks that are – they will give like a target like we want to lower the mistakes by this much. We want to save 25 grand. And often, they will tell people why. And I think that gets people interested and motivated. If you can come back to the why, and that’s what you did there.

Jeff: Yup. We get a little myopic sometimes in trying to solve our problems, right? Because we’re talking with process owners that their world if you will is the process and where the pain is. But not so much how that fits into the bigger picture. And it’s always important for me when I go work with a group to help them tie that back to our True North and why we’re doing this and what are we doing and what’s our goal, how to identify what we know and what we don’t know.

Elisabeth: Yeah. That’s really good. It’s good practice for everyone. So I just think even though you have a really one of the more impressive True North, mission statement, purpose, than most it still matters. You still have to come back to that and raise your head up, raise people’s awareness up because those folks around you, you’re asking them to do stuff and they’re just going to go, “Well, why?”

Jeff: Even if your organization doesn’t have as well-defined True North as somebody else, having any direction and aligning your process improvement to that direction makes a big difference because sometimes we change for the sake of change versus aligning the change to help us get further along towards our goal.

Elisabeth: Yeah. The other thing you mentioned was that you work across the org chart and I like that image. We always see the org charts – lots of org charts, they show this sort of hierarchy whereas what’s important to us is that horizontal movement like what happens across the process because they cross through departments, and that’s what we’re always tasked with doing, looking at the end to end.

Jeff: And every process is attached to another process. So inevitably, you’re affecting somebody in another department in some way either upstream or downstream from your process and it’s important to understand when you do that improvement, how that’s going to affect that upstream and downstream area or process.

Elisabeth: Do you have an example of an improvement you made that sticks out in your mind because you had to overcome some kind of resistance or difficulty and you got over it and you made a memorable improvement?

Jeff: Yeah, I could give you an example. We have a Rhino Rescue Center at San Diego Zoo Safari Park and that Rhino Rescue Center is a breeding facility as well as a conservation project for rhinoceros.

What’s interesting about that is that we have two camps in our organization, kind of the animal-centric people which would be all of the people that have the animal as their customer, veterinarians and the collections and curators and animal keepers. Then we have a guest-centric people which have the guests as their customer and that would be all of our guest-facing admissions and food stands and merchandise and those type of things.

Anyway, we frequently have some – we have a lot crossover between those two but we have different points of view from those two different camps. So at the Rhino Rescue Center, we had a lot of conversation about a particular conservation project we are involved in rhino reproductive project.

And in past years, to treat rhinoceros right if you are going to our official inseminator. You are going to collect sample, blood sample from a rhino, you typically would have to anesthetize the animal first. The problem with anesthetizing animals is that you have to do that over and over and it becomes detrimental to the health of the animal. So you have some argument about the value of having to anesthetize the animal. So we got to talk one day and we said, “Hey listen, what if we could train the animal to allow us to take blood without anesthetizing it.”

So we’ll teach it to walk into this tight space and we’ll teach it to stand still and we’ll teach it while we take this blood sample, we’ll teach it to accept that as norm. And we began to train that.

The fascinating part of that is that the animal-centric people are like, “No way! You can’t do that. And here’s a hundred different reasons why and we’ve never done that before and we’ve never had to do that. We’re a hundred year old organization and that’s not what we do.” And as we work through all of those I can’t and why not, we found that hey maybe, that’s possible.

At the end of the day, we ended up training the rhinoceros to walk through this – it’s called a shoot, the squeeze. And they stand there while the blood is drawn, and that’s preventing us from having to anesthetize the animal and allowing us to continue our conservation work on the reproduction of the rhino.

And it was a great opportunity not only to overcome the resistance but to innovate and establish new process and new precedents that now that squeeze concept is used across multiple animals across multiple organizations domestically all over the country. That concept of training the animal to do a medical procedure without having to anesthetize it has been applied to a large variety from gorilla cardiac ultrasounds, elephant foot treatment.

So it was a great opportunity for us to get past all the resistance and all of the, “well, we’ve never done that before” and all of the naysayers if you will. To be able to overcome that and establish a standardized process that would allow us not only to transfer it across multiple animals and organizations but transfer it to other organizations also.

Elisabeth: That is fascinating because I remember – I know Starwood, if you guys had something that worked for check-in, so you had a process that you were able to better man the front desk just apply labor the right way, look at the demand, when guests were there, and then you can transfer it across 800 properties if that worked.

And now, you’re in this position where you did something for one animal for one procedure. So you had rhinos and it was just to draw blood, and that we call it translation opportunities. You were able to translate that not just to other animals but to other procedures and then to other zoos. So that is massive. The effect there was huge.

You were able to translate that not just to other animals but to other procedures and then to other zoos. So that is massive. The effect there was huge.

Jeff: Yes. And it doesn’t – it sounds really great when you say it like that and easy. It sounds really easy. But the reality is, that was pushing rope uphill for a long time before we got to that point.

Elisabeth: And I think that’s true also when you were dealing with properties. It sounded easy but it was like, well, we’re different so everybody is different, right?

Jeff: Exactly. And then there’s always a pushback about our customer can’t really tell us if that’s acceptable or not acceptable from a standard standpoint. And we spend a lot of time having a lot of conversation and a lot of trial and error, a lot of PDCA kind of process work before we got to that point. So it was definitely a hurdle for us and has provided some absolutely amazing benefits.

Elisabeth: That’s exciting and that’s a great window on kind of what’s happening at the zoo. That’s the work that you’re doing. That’s what improvement looks like. So it’s pretty cool.

Jeff: Yes. It’s a good evolution.

Elisabeth: It is. And then I ran into you at the Lean conference out in Carlsbad, California and I was wondering what are some of your influences if you think about your Lean practices? Who have been some of your bigger influencers?

Jeff: I think I’ve had a lot of influencers. I think maybe you learn as much where I have learned as much about what not to do as what to do. So I’ve appreciated a variety of experiences I’ve had with both good and bad and I would say that way back in the beginning I guess of my process improvement journey. I think that I appreciate the people who even saw that quality in me when I knew nothing about it. So I’ve had a variety of mentors along the way that I will probably attribute to my success.

Elisabeth: That’s a really nice statement and I think that’s a good message for anyone mentoring somebody new to process improvement out there as see that quality in others, see that potential because what you’re doing now is impacting not just a lot of people but obviously, a lot of animals that are in danger of extinction. And I think that’s incredible.

Jeff: It was funny the very first conversation I think I had with anybody about that. I was working in a hotel property and my general manager said, “Well, he had some Six Sigma training in his previous life.” And he said to me, “You know, you’re kind of doing it already, problem-solving and PDCA, we call it PDCA but really what you’re doing is hey, you’re planning to make a change. You’re making a change. You’re seeing what impact that change had and then you’re making adjustments to that change if you need to to reach your desired outcome.”

He says, “Kind of what you’re doing already.” He said, “We’re just going to formalize a little bit by giving you some more training.” And I thought that was amazing. And I use that analogy in a lot of conversations I have with process owners in our organization is that, “Hey, you’re kind of doing a lot of these things already just by instinct.” So it’s a good foundation and it automatically helps build credibility for me especially when people may be resistant to somebody coming in with some magic that they’re going to apply. It’s really good for me to get my foot in the door with people that are tenured in the organization and maybe ultimately resistant.

Elisabeth: You bring up a phrase to mind that I heard, I don’t even remember who said it now but it’s not rocket surgery.

Jeff: Yeah, definitely not.

Elisabeth: It’s not. And how nice to set that stage that this is problem-solving, this is nothing that you can’t do and make it accessible.

So, I so appreciate your taking the time to call in to us at the Just-In-Time Café. And how would people get in touch with you or communicate with you if they wanted to?

Jeff: The easiest way to get in touch with me would be via email. My email is [email protected] and I am more than happy to respond. I would love to hear from you and get feedback from you and be able to share feedback. I think that the more networking we can do as Lean practitioners and the bigger our foundation we built, the stronger our process improvement skills become. So I invite all of you to reach out to me because I think that I become a better practitioner through your questions and feedbacks. So I would really appreciate any of that.

Elisabeth: It’s a lovely invitation. Thank you, Jeff Foster. Thank you all for listening and tuning in to the Just-In-Time Café this month. Please tune in to hear us again next month. Take care and goodbye everybody.

Thanks for Listening!

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Tracy O'Rourke

Tracy is a Master Black Belt at, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. She is also a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Instructor at UC San Diego and teaches in San Diego State University’s Lean Enterprise Program. For almost 20 years, she has helped leading organizations like Washington State, Charles Schwab and GE build problem-solving muscles.

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Master Black Belt at, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. For over 30 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Marriott International, Inc. build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.
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