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Join us as we find out from John Dickson of Spokane County the secret to nearly 500% improvement!

Check out the Chicago Bulls in the news applying root cause analysis to sports medicine. Your poll results are in and we discovered the biggest obstacle to process improvement and you can listen to our review of the book, Grit, where Angela Duckworth researches what turns the average human into a superstar. You can be a superstar too. Join us at the Just-In-Time Cafe and we’ll tell you all about it!

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Poll: What is the biggest obstacle to your Lean Six Sigma effort? -

  • 12:51 Today’s Special
    • Interview with John Dickson, Chief Operations Officer at Spokane County

Podcast Transcript

Tracy O’Rourke: We ask our subscribers what got in the way of improvement efforts and we got some surprising results. Stay tuned.

Elisabeth Swan: Hello, everyone. I’m Elisabeth Swan.

Tracy O’Rourke: I’m Tracy O’Rourke.

Elisabeth Swan: We are from and you’re listening to the Just-In-Time Café Podcast where we bring you fabulous apps, polls, news, books, and people so you can build your problem-solving muscles.

Tracy O’Rourke: And we get to eat because I think I got the last muffin in here.

Elisabeth Swan: You had to do some battle to get that, Tracy.

Tracy O’Rourke: I did. Good thing I’m in shape. Let’s grab a menu and get out of this crowd.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah, I’m bringing a knife so we could split that muffin.

Tracy O’Rourke: Darn it! OK. That is much better.

What’s on the Menu (Podcast Agenda)

Elisabeth Swan: We got a promising menu today, Tracy. In the News, we’ll find out how the Chicago Bulls dip their toes into the Lean Six Sigma world by preventing injuries using the FMEA which as you know is Failure, Modes, and Effects Analysis.

For the Printed Page, we’ll discuss a book where the author interviewed not only Jeff Bezos of Amazon but his mother in her quest to understand super achievers.

And then we’ve got Poll Results from last month and a brand new follow-up poll about how to overcome obstacles to improvement efforts.

Tracy O’Rourke: I think we can hear that.

Elisabeth Swan: Careful what you ask for.

Tracy O’Rourke: Remember to stay tune for this month’s coupon code in order to get a discount on online training.

Elisabeth Swan: Up next, it’s Lean Six Sigma In the News.

In the News

Tracy O’Rourke: I’m trying to picture the Chicago Bulls using a FMEA. Isn’t that tool from aerospace, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah, it is. And you know, it’s used everywhere, not just in aerospace. But this is fascinating and it’s a true story. A guy named Robert “Chip” Schaefer works for the Chicago Bulls. He is their Director of Sports Performance. He has got a doctorate in health Science. He has got a very storied history. He was the Head Trainer during the Bull’s title run six rings from 1990 to 1998. He was also the Director of Athletic Performance with the LA Lakers, that’s five rings, ’99 to 2011. He came back to the Bulls in 2016.

And he is recently in the news because he has upgraded the organization’s medical procedures into a method that treats the players for prevention as well as health and recovery. So he’s working to prevent player injuries and is using an evidence-based approach. Sound familiar?

And we found out about him because our Client Experience Manager, Kelvin, noticed that he purchased a few of our single modules. He had purchased the 5 Whys and the Fishbone Diagram Training and he got the FMEA Training, that’s the Failure, Modes, and Effects Analysis that you mentioned. And he signed up for a Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt Training. So this was curious.

We checked in with him. It turns out he is applying process improvement because he wants to use root cause analysis to understand why injuries are happening. So instead of reacting to a sprained ankle, he is studying what is happening in the first place to cause that. So he is trying to understand what are the characteristics that make an athlete more likely to sprain their ankle?

So basically, why are you getting injured? And then he uses the FMEA to identify both the cause of basically a failure which is the injury and then how do you prevent it. The FMEA would give you both preventive measures and contingency plans.

And then he uses the FMEA to identify both the cause of basically a failure which is the injury and then how do you prevent it. The FMEA would give you both preventive measures and contingency plans.

So he has implemented a program to decrease the probability of his guys getting injured in the first place, which is a really cool application. So it makes me think – I know both of us have sports in our past, two unsung sports shall we say. But can you think of your Gaelic Football injuries and what you might have done to prevent them?

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, if I knew that I have this guy in my back pocket if you will, I think more than anything, I’ll probably raise my confidence that I’m not going to get hurt because I have to be honest. I played Gaelic Football on and off for 18 years and after a while started marking people that could have been my daughter. And I think I would have been more confident knowing I wasn’t going to get hurt if there were some preventative things I was doing as a result of some of his research in root causes. So I think that probably would have helped me in my later years in terms of confidence in getting out there because honestly, I didn’t want to play in the middle because I don’t want to get hurt.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah, I hate that too. I played Ultimate Frisbee for not quite as long, maybe like 10 years. But I read this and thought, “Where was Chip Schaefer when I needed him?” My ankles are shall we say, a little shot. But anyway, fascinating use of process improvement, right? Sports medicine, really cool.

Tracy O’Rourke: Very nice, Chip.

Elisabeth Swan: I’m Elisabeth Swan and you’re listening to the Just-In-Time Café Podcast.

Tracy O’Rourke: Up next, the Printed Page.

The Printed Page

Tracy O’Rourke: So Elisabeth, what did Jeff Bezos’ mother have to say in this book?

Elisabeth Swan: Not going to surprise you, he’s an intensely focused kid. But I read about him and his book called “Grit” which is by Angela Duckworth. And she is a MacArthur Fellowship Grant winner and she quit a high-powered consulting job at McKinsey. Basically, she got back into teaching and she followed her interest which led her into this study of what makes high achievers so special and she narrowed it down to something she calls, Grit. And that’s the name of the book.

She interviews Olympic swimmers, Seattle Seahawks’ Head Coach, Pete Carroll. Obviously, Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, and his mother and a few other quarterbacks and their mothers and their fathers. She got right back into the families. And she combines these interviews with behavioral psychology studies along with her own research to figure out what makes people in her words gritty and what the rest of us could do to become grittier ourselves.

And she breaks Grit down into four psychological aspects. She starts with interests. How do you form an interest in something?

Purpose. Finding your purpose. You and I are really familiar with that idea of what is the purpose of what you’re doing. That was an interesting piece too of how long it takes you to figure out your purpose. That doesn’t necessarily appear right away.

Practice. A lot about how people practice, what’s different?

And then hope. And hope, not so much just, “Gee, I hope things get better.” But that you play a part in tomorrow being a better day than today.

Really interesting mix of these studies, these interviews. And the full book review is posted on our site. But she has got great anecdotes. One I love was how we learn to deal with failure. And you’re a mom. You know this better than me. Kids, when they’re learning to walk, they just get up, right? They get up. They fall down. They get up. They fall down. They laugh. They never stop getting up, right? They’re going to figure out how to walk.

But at some point, adults respond to us when we don’t get things right. They look at us. They worried. They run over what went wrong. How come you couldn’t do that?

And we learned from adults that there’s shame, there’s fear, there are all these other attachments to failure. So we start protecting ourselves. We start preventing ourselves from sticking our neck out which is so interesting because I have troubled with this myself. I’m not a fan of failure. But I really started to incorporate fail, figure out why, and then do something to prevent the failure the next time. It’s actually a really important source of learning.

And she focuses on that too. And she comes back to something called deliberate practice. And she even mentions the word Kaizen. It’s really about applying continuous improvement to your daily life. What worked? What can I learn from that? What can I do better? Which is kind of fascinating.

It’s really about applying continuous improvement to your daily life. What worked? What can I learn from that? What can I do better? Which is kind of fascinating.

Tracy O’Rourke: It is fascinating. And it has very much piqued my interest because I feel like when I was growing up, at what point do they start to see and display these characteristics of grit because I have to be honest that when I was a kid, before I was 16, I could care less. I was a late bloomer I have to say, self-proclaimed. And now that I have a 14-year-old, I’m wondering, is there some grit there? Or is he a late bloomer too?

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. But actually, you do something with your kids that I think will help them develop grit because it’s your three principles that you tell your kids that your job as a parent is to love them unconditionally to keep them safe. But the third one is critical. Help them thrive in the world. And that to me, Tracy, that’s all about them forming grit.

Tracy O’Rourke: True. And that means that often, I am not trying to save them from failure because that is sometime the best lesson you can have.

Elisabeth Swan: Exactly.

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, thank you. Gosh! I can’t believe you remember those three things.

Elisabeth Swan: They’re good.

Tracy O’Rourke: I’m Tracy O’Rourke and you’re listening to the Just-In-Time Café Podcast. In a short while, we’ll get to hear my interview with John Dickson, the COO of Spokane County and what he has to say about leadership and what can get in the way of leaders.

Elisabeth Swan: Next up, it’s Results of Last Month’s Poll.

Results of Last Month’s Poll

Elisabeth Swan: So we’ve got the results of last month’s poll and we’ve also got a follow-up poll. Tracy, do you want to go over the poll for our listeners?

Tracy O’Rourke: We ran a poll last month and you gave us your input. Thank you very much for that. We appreciate your input. The question was, what is the biggest obstacle to your Lean Six Sigma effort?

We had 420 responses and I’m going to go through some of the results: 112 of you said finding the time to do it was the biggest obstacle, 89 of you said finding the right data, 123 of you said getting leadership support was the biggest obstacle, and 96 of you said picking the right focus areas. So guess what? Getting leadership support is the winner with almost 30%. You can see the Pareto chart posted online.

Getting leadership support is the winner with almost 30%. You can see the Pareto chart posted online.

And since leadership support is the top issue, we’re going to do a more deeper dive into another poll for you. So our next poll is, what do you value most in a leader? Is it A) freedom to take risks with process change, B) Lean Six Sigma mentorship, C) guidance for my improvement efforts, or D) removal of obstacles to change? Again, what do you value most in a leader?

The poll is now posted on our website. Go ahead and enter your vote and we’ll discuss leadership remedies next month.

Elisabeth Swan: Coming up next, it’s Today’s Special. Tracy, can you give us a preview of your interview with John Dickson?

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. John Dickson is the COO, the Chief Operations Officer for Spokane County. He has done a lot of work not only in the public sector but also in the private sector. He used to work for Boeing. And he has applied Lean as an effective Lean leader for a number of years.

As a matter of fact, in Spokane County, since 2014, they’ve had over 500 improvement projects. So I’m very interested to talk with him to see what he is doing over there to create so much activity around process improvement. And we talked a lot about leaders. So you’ll get to hear some of the challenges in his opinion of what prevents leaders from doing a really phenomenal job.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s good. Leadership keeps coming back in as a thread. So I’m excited to hear this one. Thanks, Tracy.

Today’s Special

Tracy O’Rourke: Hey, John. It’s Tracy. Welcome to the Café.

John Dickson: Thank you, Tracy.

Tracy O’Rourke: How are you doing today?

John Dickson: Oh, I’m doing fantastic.

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, thank you so much for coming to the Café. Before I talk with John about some exciting Lean leadership, I want to tell you a little bit about John.

Since March of 2013, John has been Spokane County’s Chief Operations Officer. He has been leading significant operational improvement activities across this county government to make it more lean, effective, and customer-focused.

Since about 2014, John, over 500 improvement projects. Wow! Ran by county staff. That’s amazing! Can’t wait to hear about them.

John Dickson: They are amazing.

Tracy O’Rourke: And then you have also not only been an executive state and county government but also private industry too, leading large Lean transformations in really each of those sectors. So really providing a unique perspective on what it takes to be an effective leader.

John Dickson: I hope so. Yes, right!

Tracy O’Rourke: So tell me, what is your opinion on what key principles make an effective Lean leader?

John Dickson: I think first off, you got to be a learner. You got to want to continue to learn what’s going on. I’ve jumped around a lot from private industry to state government to local government. I constantly found myself in very uncomfortable situation but in our uncomfortable area, that’s where we have our growth. And it has forced me to continuously be a learner, to look at things, to hear things.

I constantly found myself in very uncomfortable situation but in our uncomfortable area, that’s where we have our growth.

What I found far too often in many organizations is you get a lot of what I called knowers. They know how to do things. They know how things have been done very successfully. And a lot of times, that can inadvertently be one of the biggest issues going forward with Lean transformation is the knowers. We know how to do this.

And even when the process is telling you something or the staff or the customers are telling you something, if it doesn’t fit their paradigm, a lot of times, these folks have a tough time leading some of the necessary changes.

So, that’s one of the biggest things for me is we have to constantly humble ourselves and be a learner and really listen and see honestly what’s going on in front of us.

…one of the biggest things for me is we have to constantly humble ourselves and be a learner and really listen and see honestly what’s going on in front of us.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes, I would agree. As a matter of fact, I think one of my pet peeves is when there are a lot of tellers too. So there are knowers and the tellers. And they are always telling you what you wouldn’t do and not necessarily learning for themselves, right?

John Dickson: Right. It’s the very, very humbling experience. I was trained in private industry to be a knower. So I’ve personally have had to gone through this transformation which is really scary, from knowing what’s going on and being rewarded and expected to know what’s going on which in essence made me the bottleneck in those organizations because everything had to go through me to now becoming a learner where I could just sit back and watch and realize that everything going on within my system as you start seeing the issues and the customer complaints and then fully accepting it and never blaming anybody but myself for what’s going on but accepting it.

And that’s hard. I mean for me, it has been a – it continues to very challenging transition. But very rewarding as you truly become what I found an empathetic listener which for me, people can be very challenging if you know how things should be and you know how the customers should be acting and you know how they always have, you know how process has been done to truly listen to a completely different perspective, listen, can be very challenging. And for me, it has been but we’re getting better at it.

Tracy O’Rourke: And so, you worked at Boeing for a number of years in the private sector.

John Dickson: Loved it. Love it. And we were so blessed in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s to get into this thing called Lean and I just loved it. I was always in the operations. By training, I’m a mechanical engineer and I was always – I was blessed to get into Boeing back in 1984, ’85. So early in my career, the Boeing company jumped in to Lean and got amazing training.

And for me, it was so fun. Always being in the manufacturing and assembly side, you instantaneously got to jump into it and start practicing and oh my gosh, just stumbling greatly. I don’t use the word “fail” as long as you’re doing something.

But after years and years and years of then getting in the leadership and management ranks and constantly learning, there is that word again, how to be a more effective enabler, a more effective listener.

Another very important thing we have to be as Lean leaders and great teachers, as we learn, we also have to be teaching some of these basic principles on what we’re going to be doing. We also got to very, very easily able to say, “I made a mistake.” And because as a Lean leader, you have to enable action. You have to learn by doing. And as people and organizations do things differently, they’re always going to make mistakes. Always. You can’t not. Or else, you’re not pushing it hard enough.

We’ve also got to very, very easily [be] able to say, “I made a mistake.”

So when things – I call them stumbles. I don’t call them failures. But when we stumble, we have to step up as leaders and take full accountability in response to it. And I’m not just talking verbally and invisibly. I’m talking you got to really believe that as system leaders, yup, we made a mistake there, here’s what we learned from that, as you work with your team. And on we go. Because so much of – as leaders, so much of what we communicate is actually not our words, it’s our actions. It’s our behaviors. It’s how we do this stuff.

And as we show our teams, our organizations, “Hey, it’s OK. Be action-oriented. Try some stuff. Stay within the law but learn. Stumble. Talk. Discuss. What happened? How can we do this more effective?” And when they see us in senior management, senior leadership position doing that, it’s just ripples across the organization that, “Hey, I guess it’s OK to do this.”

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. So culturally, there has got to be an acceptance for experimentation or a little bit of risk-taking just like you said, John, not breaking the law if you will. But I find that there’s a lot of risk aversion in government because there’s a lot of oversight and people don’t want to end up in the papers. Was it a little easier at Boeing because you didn’t have to deal with something like that? What would you say the difference was?

John Dickson: The big difference that I found leading very large manufacturing and assembly area is the product that you are creating was very visible. It was there in front of you. When you had oversize holes, when you had misfit rigs and bars, there it was in front of you as a nonliving, not apparent, no feelings, not collectively bargained thing. So all the people would gather around this inanimate object, at times some ribbing, of course. But you could see what the issue was.

And as a system in manufacturing, there were some very clear measurables that in essence determine the health of your system. For us, it was quality. It was cost. It was delivery. It was safety. Those were the big measurement. Then you track them by unit and you would expect cost to go down and quality to go up and safety to go up. And to me, they’re procedure, delivery, schedules. Now, you get into be more of a service provider. We typically tend to be in state and local government.

The biggest challenge I found here as providers is very infrequently do you have a physical manifestation of the process, customer service. And when things go wrong in government with customer service, what is the physical representation of the process? Well, it’s that person typically at the front desk. That’s the physical manifestation.

So what I found a lot in government is what I call blamestorming. Not brainstorming.

So what I found a lot in government is what I call blamestorming. Not brainstorming.

Tracy O’Rourke: Right.

John Dickson: If something goes wrong, we attack people. And it causes a lot of folks. And I’m not just talking government. I’ve seen this in many service providers.

So the biggest thing I found that we’ve had to do on the service side, government, is to make sure visual management, visual representation of processes is so important because we got to take the focus off of the person as the sole contributor to the process and take a look at how all these people are connected towards getting a permit out, fixing a pothole in the road, et cetera, booking a person in jail. So very big differences.

Tracy O’Rourke: I think the fact that you guys have done 500 improvement projects since 2014 is huge. And you’ve got about a staff of a little over 2,000. Is that about right?

John Dickson: Correct, about 2,000.

Tracy O’Rourke: So how did you manage to lead this transformation with over 2,000 employees, with 500 improvement projects and in an environment where people could be risk-averse, even blamestorm, and there’s a lot of oversight? What would you say were some of the key things that you implemented or that you were very mindful of to promote this effort?

John Dickson: The first and foremost, it’s just that respect for people, being very respectful. So when I got here, I realized, the first thing we really had to do especially as senior leaders is to get a common language on what this really is. This is the teacher part of being a Lean leader.

This is the teacher part of being a Lean leader.

So I created a 4-week course. We only meet for two hours a week. But in essence, what I saw that we had to learn the basics of was problem-solving. And very simple, what a lot of us would call an A3. But I wanted to make it even more simple.

During the first session of the course, we’d get all of the department heads, the elected officials. I taught 16 of these so far. I was just learning the language and then learn by doing, gave them what we call the problem-solving storyboard, a very simple 4-square start.

First quadrant, why do we do this process? And then what I found was really important, our folks have to write out what’s the problem. I found it was very important for folks to have to write that out to get clarity, clarity of the problem. And then just a very simple drawing out the current state, drawing out the future state and then who is going to do what by when.

We’d plot this out on big pieces of paper. And requirement during the course was that these storyboards had to be prominently displayed in their office area so folks could see it every day.

During the next three sessions, the leader they were expected to empower their teams to solve the problem, to do the actual project. It’s the last session you have report of on this success.

So what I found was to keep this simple, keep the terms simple, get a common language and then force action.

The other key part of this then was the storytelling. Storytelling is extraordinarily important in selling continuous improvement across an organization. So what we did is we created an internet portal within our county where after the training, they could create their own project and they’d write them out. In essence, it’s a problem-solving storyboard. And they’d run them and we’d track by department. But at the end of every project then we ask everybody to capture their success story.

Storytelling is extraordinarily important in selling continuous improvement across an organization

And as we got this success stories, we would systematically get these folks in front of our senior leaders or elected official and let them understand that this is kind of exciting stuff. But the key here is we really focus on our frontline staff especially and enable them to run, to initiate and run these projects because we have to get through the traditional type of org structure which is pretty predominant I’ve seen in many government agencies. So the key was to teaching them how to solve their own problems and then let them solve their own problems. Capture it. Capture your story and now, let all these senior leaders know.

Capture your story and now, let all these senior leaders know.

And it starts the excitement. It gets the excitement going. And that’s what I found in government is we are amazing people who work hard. The processes are not that great though. And so often that person you see right at the front of a government agency, right behind them is not a great process, which is not their fault.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes.

John Dickson: Right? But their hard, hard workers and they care deeply. That’s why government folks are so great at Lean. We are so customer-focused. We are grounded every day and so many customer interactions.

That’s why government folks are so great at Lean. We are so customer-focused. We are grounded every day and so many customer interactions.

I found that as you teach these basic techniques, it ripples across in organization like ours so much more quickly than I actually saw in private industry.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. I’m sure with these transformations that you’ve done, both the one you’re in now in government is probably the same in private industry. What do you do with resistors? How do you get resistors on board? Have you been able to find the secret sauce that seems to work with getting people on board?

John Dickson: You already answered the question. You get them on board. What I found, the vast majority of my great resistors, they care passionately about the quality work they do and how they do it. Now, the change agent comes in, right? You’re going to move my cheese.

And what I find is a lot of these folks, they’re going to resist initially because they want desperately to do a great job. And what I found, they started going the hard way. But to answer your question, get them on the team and don’t expect initially that they’re going to want to play well with others. But keep respecting them. Keep being humble. Keep listening as a Lean leader. Ask them, “How do you believe we’re going to solve the very challenging issue? What are we going to do? How are we going to do it?”

Once they then feel comfortable sharing, “Well, that’s stupid. We should do it this way.” OK. Let’s do it that way. Can you help lead us through this? What do you recommend? What should we do next? Right?

Then they look at you. And then you do it. And nine times out of ten, it’s a really good thing that we’re thing.

What I found as my greatest resistors, 90% of them have become then my biggest supporters once you respect them and allow them to be part of the process because they truly care about – I found that they truly care about doing most of them. . There are exceptions but the vast majority, if you give them the opportunity.

What I found as my greatest resistors, 90% of them have become then my biggest supporters once you respect them and allow them to be part of the process because they truly care about

One of my sayings that I stick to is people support a world they help create. And as leaders of this, we have to allow especially our frontline staff to create their new world through continuous improvement. But that’s how I love – I love resistors. I love them now. I didn’t love them as a “traditional” manager initially because they didn’t think like me and they were just problems so I didn’t listen to them, right?

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah.

John Dickson: And so often, these resistors are truly passionate about doing it right but so often they had managers like me back in the day truly not listening to them. But that’s how we do it here.

Tracy O’Rourke: I agree. And I actually did work with someone who was a big resistor. And the leader, his manager said, “Watch out for him. Watch out for him.” And he completely turned. What happened was what you suggested, is to get them engaged. Get them involved. Listen to them.

And it was so funny because he was on board and he started doing things. And then there was a situation where it wasn’t going the way he wanted, right? And he said, “See? There I go caring too much again. What do I do?” Because they do care. You’re right, they do care. And sometimes they have to check out because if they don’t check out, it’s because they care so much that they just can’t come to work every day.

But Lean provides that platform for them to be able to get engaged again. So that’s great.

Now, where have you seen leaders struggle the most with Lean transformation? And when I say leaders, I mean every level. So maybe it’s your peers that you’ve seen other peers struggle with the ones at the top of the organization.

And then there’s the people in the middle if you will that sometimes are called the frozen middle because they don’t really know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. What do you see leaders struggle with the most when it comes to this kind of stuff?

John Dickson: When leaders believe that leadership is a noun and not a verb, those folks tend to struggle with this a lot. Leadership is a verb. And what I found, I had a boss at Boeing at once. And he said, “John …” and this was when I was struggling greatly with my traditional way of thinking, he said, “John, at which layer of the organization are the vast majority of business decisions being made every day?”

Well, I looked at him honestly. I said, “Well, at my level.” And he looked at me and he said, “Yeah, that’s your biggest problem right now.” He says, “Where do you truly think most business decisions are being made?”

And finally, it’s the frontline, the frontline staff doing the work every whole drill, every, every service call. They’re constantly, our frontline staff, making business decisions.

So then as I started learning, I’d keep looking at my boss, my mentor. He said, “OK. Well, John, with what consistency are now your business leaders, your frontline staff in essence, making great business decisions?” And I looked at him again with that look like, “Oh gosh! I don’t understand.”

But what you sort of teach me then was how do you teach your frontline staff who was doing the vast majority of making your business decisions? How do you teach them with what criteria to make business decisions?

And what I found is the vast majority of my natural leaders in any organization, private industry, government are at the frontline. The vast majority of the natural leaders are those folks that when a new opportunity comes up, a team to improve something, they just can’t help themselves but step forward and say, “I’ll do it. I don’t know what it is but I’ll do it.”

The vast majority of the natural leaders are those folks that when a new opportunity comes up, a team to improve something, they just can’t help themselves but step forward and say, “I’ll do it. I don’t know what it is but I’ll do it.”

Leadership is taking an organization, a group of folks, to an area that they wouldn’t go on their own, which means as a leader to be in front of it, you got to be really comfortable in that uncomfortable area and very boldly and with a lot of courage say, “We’re going this way. We’re going to do this.”

Getting all the way back to your question, where do leaders struggle the most? Well, if you’re in a senior management position and you truly believe that you’re leading, what I found in government, I’m just being honest here, amazing people, super high-caliber people. What I don’t see is we’re training great managers in government. We’re not training great leaders in government. And I can only speak from the state and local level that I’ve been part of.

Tracy O’Rourke: Right.

John Dickson: Yeah. When I was in private industry where you’re a for-profit company, Boeing did an amazing job of leadership development. Our main customer on the military side, the US Air Force, the US Army, our military has been doing an amazing job developing leaders. So that’s what we’re trying to lead here in government, in leadership.

What I love is latest generation, I guess we call them our millennials. These folks are so perfect for Lean continuous improvement. We talked about 5 Whys. They’re extraordinarily savvy. Upwards or 30% of our organization now here just like many who are listening, it’s our quickest growing population in our country. I love my millennials, right? Very savvy, very care – they want to do what’s right.

Leadership is not a position that is recognized like a senior person on the org chart. A lot of senior managers take offence to that at times. You got to earn it.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah.

John Dickson: you got to earn it. I’ve seen with my – generally, my millennials, you got to earn leadership. I find that a lot of them are great leaders and I have just such hope. I’m seeing things go so much more – it’s really fun. The five generations in the workplace currently is a big challenge and we could spend another 8 hours on that. But we’re not. Things are going so good.

Tracy O’Rourke: So let me ask you a question. Any advice for leaders for getting started on the Lean journey, what would you say for someone who has decided, “Well, we’re going to start doing Lean, we’re going to start implementing it, we’re fairly new to it?” What advice would you have for this leader?

John Dickson: I’ve seen many, many, many folks want to be a Lean leader. But when it came time to have to make extraordinarily tough decisions, that typically goes completely against the current organization culture that has to do with discipline of individuals. If you want to be a Lean leader, you have to very willing and able to do the things that 98% of people are not willing to do, and that is to really identify very tough challenges head on.

If you’ve got folks and you are going to have folks, they’ve been a disruptor, a lot of resistance, but unlike what we just talked about a few minutes ago, they continue and it gets beyond. You have to deal with that directly, respectfully not only the person who is being a big disruptor but also the entire organization.

As a leader, you have to deal with this stuff head on. When processes are going bad and it becomes very visible, you have to stand up especially and take it. We are not here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we’re not doing in front of elected officials, in front of the public. We’ve been doing huge law and justice reform efforts here at the county and we are one of ten recipients a year and a half ago of a MacArthur grant, the Safety and Justice Challenge, a real honor first off to get that.

Tracy O’Rourke: Wonderful.

John Dickson: Right. But when you start seeing things, racial equity is really been interesting applying Lean concept to transform in an entire law and justice system with judges and prosecutors and public defenders and the public. But you have to be able to face and accept the truth of what’s really going on. And in all of our organization, it sometimes isn’t good. So if you’re going to lead this stuff, you have to accept this stuff, you got to respect your people, respect the process, respect your customers, and it’s hard at times the decisions we have to make.

And I had – I’ve seen a lot of very well-intentioned people who want to go in and lead this stuff but it gets hard and it gets ugly at times. It’s very rewarding. Don’t get me wrong. And it’s hard.

Tracy O’Rourke: It’s hard.

John Dickson: But you got to be willing to do the hard stuff that has to be done.

Tracy O’Rourke: So I actually have two more questions for you. One of them is, are there any groups that have really blow you away in terms of results and process improvement or even a specific project in particular that blew you away? And if so, can you share a little bit about it?

John Dickson: Oh, absolutely. Our Parks and Recreation Department for our County Park, we as a county also owns three golf courses and Doug Chase is an amazing leader. He is our Director of our Parks and Rec. As we started talking about these concepts, he was in my very first Lean leadership course.

One of the projects that he initially selected for his team are what’s called the Special Event Permit. Let’s say that you’re part of an auto club, a car club, a Mustang club. And you want to rent a park, a county park for a day. So Doug took this project and we found out that the process was pure paper-based when he started our course, and on average, taking the current state measurements, was about 14-day, calendar day process.

The person because it was paper-based had to show up in person to our park’s headquarters to fill out the request. After all the things we had to do within the county from liability, risk management, and on and on, usually it was about 14 days later. The paper would go from Parks and Rec, it’s about 10 miles from our county campus so somebody had to drive the paper to and from the campus.

And once the paper made its way back with all the signatures to the Parks Department then we had to call the person back in who got to come in and get it and pay in paper. We didn’t accept credit cards. So that was our current state not too long ago.

Well, Doug and his team just dug right into that. And in a very short order, they did a fully electronic system. We do – Spokane County has a key performance indicator site. If you just Google Spokane County key performance indicators, you’ll get to our site. When you get there, go to Parks and Recreation and take a look at our special event permit. It’s down to about an hour or two on average.

Yeah, a person, anybody can go and you fill out what you got to fill out online. Everything here is done electronically. Once we get the same approvals that used to take two weeks, now it’s done. Now, you get an email. And now, you just go in. You pay online. And then we email your permit and just print it out. One to two hours.

And what you’ll see on our key performance indicator side is our key measures of this monthly on how long the count of special event permits and the time it takes. There’s nothing we had to teach. This is the teaching side of leadership is just because you do it, how do you sustain it? How do you sustain the game? How do you keep fighting the fight?

And the old way of doing things start to creep back in but we’ve got over 150 stories from all these projects. So I could go on and on. But that’s one of them that happens fairly quickly and that we are sustaining ourselves and that anybody on the internet can continue to follow our story on that one.

Tracy O’Rourke: Oh, thank you. I will check it out too. My last question is around what your interests are these days. And you can answer this in many ways. Maybe it’s where you’re spending your time or if you’ve got a special interest or maybe it’s something you’re working on learning right now. Is there anything you want to share with what you’re doing right now to move further along in the journey?

John Dickson: Yeah. MacArthur grant, the law and justice challenge. Applying the Lean principles to not only law and justice reforms in the region. The State of Washington is quite progressive and we’re going through a huge healthcare reform integrated, physical, mental, and behavioral health systems through Medicaid. And by January 1st of 2020, the whole state is going to be realigned. Huge social challenges that I think everybody who is listening within your regions you struggle with.

So using these techniques for me has gone from military hardware now to these different types of programs. Now, we’re starting to really use these techniques for overall healthcare reform in our region. And there are some amazing things that we’re starting to see. So the stage just keeps getting bigger and bigger on these things that we’re addressing here in the Spokane region and it just keeps pushing, leaders as learners. I’m still learning a ton about this stuff. But these are big social needs that now we’re focusing on.

So for me, there’s a lot of satisfaction in what we’re doing. But there are a lot of very hard items that we’re addressing. I mentioned earlier I just start looking with law and justice in our racial and ethnic disparities and looking at the data and these are hard discussions that we’re having. But because of our involvement with MacArthur Foundation, we are getting some of the nation’s experts out here helping us through this stuff. And so that has been the latest focus.

Tracy O’Rourke: It doesn’t sound like you are afraid at all of hard work. So you’ve done a lot, you’ve accomplished a lot and you’ve been able to be successful in private and public sectors with lean. And I just want to thank you for sharing some of your perspective at the Just-In-Time Café today, John.

John Dickson: Oh Tracy, you are so welcome. And thank you for having a forum like this where we can just talk and share some stories. There’s an amazing noble work going on out there but we’re just going to keep in the stories out.

There’s an amazing noble work going on out there but we’re just going to keep in the stories out.

Tracy O’Rourke: You’re right. And we’re really trying to get more people that are practicing process improvement whether that’s leaders or practitioners on our podcast. So I really appreciate it. I also want to thank our listeners for listening in. Thank you so much and have a wonderful day.

Thanks for another great visit to the Just-In-Time Café. Join us for our next episode when we interview prolific author and Lean power consultant, Karen Martin.

Elisabeth Swan: See you in two weeks!

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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