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Did you know you were an improvisor? Unless you’re a telemarketer, you don’t have a script. You may have clear goals and a plan but anything can happen. Did you know that all professional improvisors follow the same rules?

The same elements that make Second City successful on stage can make you a better problem solver, collaborator and innovator. Join me in this Introductory Webinar as I give you the inside scoop on what I learned from my years with ImprovBoston and use on the job to this day!

Webinar Level

  • Introductory


In this 1-hour webinar, we will cover the following:

  • How improv is not stand-up comedy
  • What are the improv basics
  • How to apply improv basics to problem-solving
  • What are some tips and tricks of improv

Webinar Slides

Webinar Transcript

Tracy O’Rourke: Hi, everyone. Welcome to’s webinar. Thanks for spending some quality time with us. Hundreds of people have registered for this webinar and we are very excited that you are here.

Lean and Six Sigma are the go-to improvement methods used by leading organizations all over the world to delight customers, minimize cost and develop better teams and problem solvers.

Every month, we craft webinars just for you and this one is super special and I think you’re going to like it a lot. And ultimately, we really try to simplify concepts and tools of Lean and Six Sigma and really anything that has to do with problem solving so that you can understand and apply them more easily and be more successful.

So I’m happy to introduce that today’s webinar is titled How to Use Improv Basics to Up Your Problem Solving Game. I can’t wait to hear all about this. I’m Tracy O’Rourke. I’m a Managing Partner at And today’s presenter, Elisabeth Swan, is also Managing Partner at She is my colleague, the wonderfully talented, innovative, consummately passionate and funny girl. Welcome, Elisabeth.

Elisabeth Swan: Thanks, Tracy. Thank you.

About Our Presenter

Tracy O’Rourke: So let me give you a little background on Elisabeth and why the heck she is doing a webinar on improv. So first of all, she is the co-host of the Just-In-Time Café podcast with me and she is also the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit that we wrote together. She has been doing this kind of work for over 25 years.

And aside from almost three decades in the business, she also performed at Improv Boston. How long did you perform at Improv Boston, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth Swan: That’s about four years, give or take.

Tracy O’Rourke: Four years. And she is going to be sharing some awesome techniques that really apply to problem-solving. So welcome, Elisabeth.

Elisabeth Swan: Thanks, Tracy.

How to Interact

Tracy O’Rourke: OK. So a few housekeeping notes before we get started – before we start the fun stuff. So at the end of the presentation, if you have questions, we’re going to try to answer them as much as possible but they will be available in our Go-Getter Membership Forum as well. We welcome you to participate.

Where Are You From?

You will be asked to participate in some polls. Our first poll is going to be where are you from? What you want to do is in the chat window or where it says Ask a Question or Questions, type in where are you from.

Elisabeth Swan: What do you see?

Tracy O’Rourke: Let’s see. Fallon, Nevada, I should say home of the Top Gun, all right, Laura. She is calling from Top Gun. And we have New Hampshire, Phoenix, Beverly Hills, California, London, Ontario, Boulder, Colorado. Thanks for joining, Dan. Dorset, UK, Susie is joining us from there. Matt from North Dakota. Bryan says USA. That’s awesome, Bryan.

Elisabeth Swan: Go USA.

Tracy O’Rourke: Pennsylvania. Mark is joining us there. Timothy Franklin is joining us Kuala Lumpur. Inas is from Ottawa. So we’ve got some global people. We’ve got somebody from the Ivory Coast in Africa, Redding, California, Provo, Utah, Norfolk, Virginia. Nicole says, “This is Nicole. I’m in Seattle, Washington, the evergreen state.” Welcome, Nicole. And we’ve got somebody from San Diego too.

So, gosh! This is a long list of people here. So I’m going to go ahead and hand it over to you, Elisabeth.

Our Mission and Core Values

Elisabeth Swan: Thank you, Tracy. Thanks for such a warm introduction and I’m happy to be here with all of you guys from all over the world. Thanks for joining us.

As Tracy said earlier, we’ve been with since its inception and we founded this company with a clear purpose. Our goal is to revolutionize the way people learn process improvement, making it easy for everyone everywhere to build their problem-solving muscles.

And we’ve got three core values. We believe in cultivating community. You guys are our community.

We believe in having a servant’s heart. We are here to be a service to you with these free webinars.

We also believe in having a trailblazing spirit. And for that one, I don’t think there’s a lot of Lean Six Sigma webinars using improv out there.

We’ve Helped People From…

So thankfully, there are lots of organizations who agree with our philosophy. So here are some of the organizations we’ve helped. You can see a lot of diversity here. We’ve got brick and mortar. There are online industries in diverse areas like healthcare, financial services, manufacturing, state government.

And the reason is because Lean Six Sigma is about problem-solving, and every organization has problems to solve. So for anyone looking to strengthen or build problem-solving muscles, we are here for you. So more on benefits later.


Let’s review today’s objectives. After attending this webinar, you’re going to be able to use key improv tenets in your daily life.

You’re going to be able to apply improv techniques to problem-solving.

And you’re going to be able to use existing tools to improvise.

And you can use improv when you’re working with others.

So those are our objectives for you.

Today’s Agenda

And here is our agenda. First, we’re going to talk about how improv is not standup.

Then we’re going to introduce the key tenets of improv.

We’re going to teach you how to apply improv to problem-solving.

And then we’re going to give you a few tips and tricks of improvising.

Poll #1

And I’m going to start this off with a poll. So we just want to get a sense from all of you what is your experience with improv. So you’ve got three options there. Let me launch this. So if you got a general idea of what it is, pick A. If you’ve seen it on shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” pick B. If you’ve been doing a live show, improv show, pick C. And if you’ve taken classes and tried it, pick D.

So let’s hear what you guys came up with. Tracy, have you ever been to an improv show?

Tracy O’Rourke: I have. I have actually been to a couple of improv shows and I love them. They’ve have a couple of them out here in San Diego and I went with my husband.

Elisabeth Swan: What’s – do you know the troop’s name is out there?

Tracy O’Rourke: No, I don’t. It was a while ago. But we enjoyed it for sure. It was very fun.

Elisabeth Swan: I try to see them wherever I go if I’m in a new town to see what they’ve got. So let’s see what these guys have to say.

Tracy O’Rourke: OK. So the first one is 47% have seen Whose Line Is It Anyway? So that’s where I think people are referencing this the most, 22% not really sure what it is, followed by 20, I’ve been to live improv shows, and 11% only have taken classes and have tried it themselves.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s pretty cool. So it’s basically 80-20 rule in terms of 80% of the listeners or attendees know about it, what it is and 20, roughly 20% not really sure what it is. So that’s good. That’s helpful. Thanks, guys. OK. So let’s close that and I’ll bring you back.

Improv Is Not Standup Comedy

First, improv is not standup comedy. So when I as performing year ago, friends would sometimes introduce me by saying, “This is my friend, Elisabeth. She does stand-up.” And I would immediately jump in to clarify that I do not in fact do standup. Improv and stand-up are really different. Standup is scripted and improv is not. That’s the big difference. So improv is what we all do all the time. There’s a great quote that I love and it goes, “We all improvise our life. We may have goals and aspirations and attempts to plan our route, but there’s no script. Anything can happen. And how we react to events around us will determine how things come out. So that to me sums up what improv is all about.

It seems magical. It seems like there’s no net. I took the workshop years ago and I assumed that none of us in a class had any talent. It was a bunch of teachers. It was dads. It was me. And I was sure, “We were just not going to be funny.” And then I learned what makes it work. And anyone can do it and everyone made me laugh. It was a great workshop. It also changed my approach to life and work. After performing with Improv Boston for just a year, I kept performing with them. I left consulting firm I was with and I started my own Lean Six Sigma business. I figured if I could perform on stage with no script, I could do anything.


So if improv is not standup then what is it? So here, we have at its heart, problem-solving on stage. So improv, you’re up there. There’s a team of you. You’re taking inputs from the audience. They’re your customers. You’re inventing a scene. You’ve got characters and a plot. You are relying on each other to create a performance. And if you make each other look good, the scene works. And that’s what happens in good organizations. We’re improvisers. We’re working together within an organization. If we work together well, the organization thrives.

So improve changed the way I communicated and the way I work with other people. But I didn’t just start winging it. I had strong guidelines. I worked within structure. And organizations like improv need structure.

Structure Sets You Free

So in this scenario, everyone is trying to get where they’re going. They could step on the gas, maybe they could honk, problem, solution. Only nobody is getting anywhere. What we need is structure. We need intersections. We need traffic lights. Improv provides structure too. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen on the stage. We don’t know exactly what the scene is going to turn into. And just like our roadways, we’ve got guidelines and rules to help us get where we’re going. So let’s see that in action.

Improv Demonstration

Now Tracy, did not do improv.

Tracy O’Rourke: No, I did not.

Elisabeth Swan: No, you did not. But we’re going to do a simple improv structure. We’re going to use the alphabet to be our structure. We’re going to have a conversation and this conversation is going to start with the letter A and then the next person has to start their response with a B and so on. We would not go through the whole alphabet. We got to through our webinar here. But we just want to give you a sense of how this might work.

Now, we do not have a conversation set up just so you know. I’m just going to start it. Anything you want to say, Tracy?

Tracy O’Rourke: Busted!


Elisabeth Swan: Can’t you come up with anything?

Tracy O’Rourke: Darn it! Yes, I can! This is awesome so far. [Laughs]

Elisabeth Swan: Everything I expected out of you and more.

Tracy O’Rourke: I’m having fun. This is awkward but I’m having fun. Oh, I didn’t start with an F. I should start with fun.

Elisabeth Swan: It’s OK. But now, I found out you’re having fun. And it’s OK to mess up, right? So we also had – this is your first time, Tracy, right? You’ve never done that before.

Tracy O’Rourke: Never done that before.

Elisabeth Swan: You didn’t get call on stage when you went and saw the troop in San Diego, did you?

Tracy O’Rourke: No, I didn’t.

Elisabeth Swan: Right. So you’ve never tried it. So we just used the beginning of the alphabet, right? We just used the structure to talk to each other. Pretty simple structure but since everyone listening knows that structure, you’re just wondering how we’re going to figure that out. What are we going to do? What words you’re going through your mind? What could you start with a D? What could you start with an E? You know the structure so you’re waiting to see what words come out.

So that’s not hard to do, right? Once you know the structure, you know what to follow. And all of improv is built on structures like that one. You get input from the audience, right? Those are our customers just like organizations have customers. And then we sort of go with what – the audience, maybe the audience kind of started that structure off with a sentence beginning with A.

Continuous Improvement “Structures”

So if you look in the continuous improvement world, the same is true for our structures. We have structures that help drive our efforts. DMAIC is a structure. We work through the phases to solve problems. SIPOX gives us structure to build the high level maps. The charter is a structure. Its structures are improvement efforts. Even a simple agenda guides then drives meetings.

So the ABC structure that Tracy and I just use and all the structures here are really helpful. The background of the structures is what improv has are these tenets. And I’m going to give you three key improv tenets that underlay everything you do. So you can have all these – yeah?

Tracy O’Rourke: Can I just say something really quickly about these structures of continuous improvement?

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: So, when I teach a class at UC San Diego, the Green Belt, we have people coming in from all over all industries and they use the same structure of DMAIC and everybody gets what the problem is, what the root causes are, and what the solutions are regardless of industry, and they love it. They always talk about how that was super impactful for them. So I just wanted to share that.

Elisabeth Swan: Well, thank you. Thanks for giving the vote of confidence for the structures because I think that word is used in improv, we talk about structures, but in our world, these are also structures. And like you said, DMAIC is a really foundational structure. It makes things clear for people. And like you said, it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, you get it. You got to define the problem. You got to measure it. You got to analyze and you improve it and you control it.

So these are – help us problem solve and underlying that, there are also things that are true for problem-solving and I’m going to come back to what those are in improv.

3 Key Tenets of Improv

So the three tenets of improv. I’m just going to focus on three. There are many. To me, these are the most powerful. I’ll give you their purpose in improv and then I’m going to show you how they work in the problem-solving world.

The first one “Yeah, and…” And this helps you build a scene. It helps you forward the plot. Problem-solving also requires forward movement. So we’re going to see how that applies in the problem-solving world.

The next tenet is Embrace Mistakes. Now, mistakes on stage are generally the funniest moments. The mistakes are always also a huge part of problem-solving. So we’re going to embrace mistakes.

And number three is Move It! There’s nothing worse than a bunch of talking heads on stage. You want to move and use the stage. So we’re going to see movement affects us in our work lives. So we’re going to unpack these and see how they might be of use.

Tenet 1: Yes, and…

So “yeah, and…” is an improv basic. There’s even a book out there called “yeah, and…”. It’s all about improv but it’s that foundational. People use it as a calling card for improv.

In the improv class, we had drills that were in the same format as layup practice. If any of you played basketball in high school or middle school or college, you have two lines and when you get to the head of one line, you make what we call an offer. So you’re offering a line to the first person in the other line.

Now, an offer might be, “Your Majesty, the council is ready for your verdict.” And the person at the head of the other line could say, “Yes.” And I say, “Open the gates.” Now, that could be the start of a scene. There’s a lot going on there. You already are in some kind of a kingdom. You’ve got a queen. You’ve got something happening with the gates like what’s going to happen?

So that was a lot going on with just two very short sentences of dialog. And we practice that in those two lanes then we go to the back of the lane and then you would become the person who either received an offer or if you had just received one and you would give an offer. And that was one of our basic practices every single time we went to improv workshop.

So the idea is to make it second nature to add and forward the scene. The idea was to give your fellow actor an interesting persona like a queen and a place to be. And the key was to resist a temptation to be – try to be funny and say, “Oh, I’m not the queen. I’m just the janitor.” And the crowd might even laugh at you. That’s funny. But then there’s nowhere to go. You’ve kind of killed it.

So think about a time when you were in the meeting and you offered up an idea and the response wasn’t yeah, and. It was still yes but the person said yes, but. Well, you don’t hear the yes. You just hear the but. You hear that your idea is not being listened to and you’re about to hear all the reasons they’re not going to entertain your idea, which basically is rejection. So telling you why would not work.

If you say, “Yes, and …” that means you’ve got to really listen to what the person just said in order to build to it. So that causes you to give every idea a chance.

So I’ve incorporated “yes, and” thinking in my work. I listen to what people say to me. I resist saying, “yes, but” because I think I know better. I’ve got experience. I’ve been in this business a long time. I might honestly think I know better. But I know my training tells me to keep my mind open, not always easy, so I’ve got to really listen and I’ve got to try to add to what that person says.

LCS Technique

So let’s bring this back to the business world. How do we use that in our daily lives? Well, I’ve got a technique for you called LCS. And the L stands for Likes. So that means that when you hear a person’s idea, your job is to respond with what you like about it. So you can’t say, “Yes, but” and you can’t say, “We try that.” You got to stop and you have to think about it because maybe you don’t like it at all. Not every idea is a good idea so you got to really sit with it and come up with, even if it’s something very small, you’ve got to say what you like about it.

Now, once you’ve said that, then the person knows you’re listening to them. They feel heard. They are automatically getting a positive reinforcement for offering ideas. And we need ideas so you want them to be positively reinforced.

Now, the trick is, once you’ve heard – once you’ve told them what you like then you get to say your concerns because you’ve got concerns. No idea – not all ideas are good. So you got to be able to say, “Well, my concern is this.” Or, “My concerns are these.”

But here’s another trick. For every concern, you’ve got to have a suggestion. Now, the great thing about this flow is that you’ve said your likes, so you responded to what you found that was good. You voice your concerns and when you make suggestions, you’re building on their idea. Now, the person feels heard, they’re more likely to offer ideas and you got something new to work with. You’ve been building ideas with colleagues, that builds trust and it helps with problem-solving.

So what happens when you use a technique like this is that you are building relationships with your colleagues. And if you know anything about change management, you know that that’s critical to change in the workplace.

So this simple technique, seemingly simple technique does it all. And it might feel awkward at first, you can even joke around with people saying, “Well, what I like about what you just said,” “Now, my concerns are…” “Here are my suggestions.” But truly take this in. Try to practice it. It makes it a huge difference.

LCS in the Rockies

And I’ll give you a little example, kind of a fun story. This is an example of how adding to ideas results in an innovative solution. This was Colorado’s main power company and they had a big problem in the winter. Their power lines would get ice hanging from them. They froze up in the Rockies and de-icing the power lines was incredibly expensive and dangerous. They had – actual workers had to climb the lines. They had to manually knock ice off the lines. It was cold. It was dangerous.

Then they would sort of get into the heated trailers at some point and try to warm up. And this came out of one of those trailers. It was a story about them joking around. This job is so hard. It’s so difficult to try to remove the ice. It would be great just to have bears climb these poles, right? Why don’t they just climb the poles and they could shake it and knock the ice down?

And a technician joking around with LCS said, “What I like about that is that we’re not climbing the poles and I’m not putting my life in limit risk. What my concern is that it’s bears.” He said, “Wait a second. What if we had helicopters fly near the lines? Same idea. You get vibrations of the blades to shake the ice off.”

So this actually turned into a technique they used. Easier. It turned out to be cheaper. One person or two people to man the chopper. Faster. Easier. Nobody had to climb the poles. It’s not so dangerous.

So they are joking around. And that’s another thing that’s interesting about problem-solving is when you get people laughing. I’ve often found that kind of ha ha ha is close to aha. So anytime you start laughing, think about what’s the kernel of truth in that, what’s the interesting piece that you could use. So that’s just a little sort of fun fact.

Recap Tenet 1: Yes, and…

But LCS, really simple, really powerful. Just adapt that mindset of “yes, and…” Make your first response be what – to see what you can add. Start with your likes. Use concerns and suggestions to build ideas. Make it a habit. You’ll increase the number of ideas and the source. People would be more interested to give you ideas when they know you are receptive. It makes you a better problem-solver. And it also helps you network with co-workers and lay the groundwork for change.

Tenet 2: Embrace Mistakes

OK. So let’s go look at tenet number two. So in improv, it’s really easy to embrace mistakes because they are generally really funny. Misunderstandings on stage are just fodder for great scenes. Think about scenes you’ve seen in comedy shows. I don’t know if you guys – probably this dates me but I remember Carol Burnett shows where all the actors were clearly laughing because somebody messed up and they were just trying to contain themselves laughing. But you can see that in skit shows, live shows, Saturday Night Lives and other one. You see them start laughing and trying to hide that they are laughing because somebody messed up.

Now, that’s not the case in organizations. Nobody is laughing when people messed up and we work hard to avoid mistakes because we don’t want to look bad. Making mistakes often means failure in many people’s eyes. And that causes fear and fear keeps us following procedures even when we know they are not good procedures.

So if you heard our podcast with Richard Sheridan. He is the CEO of Menlo Innovations. He also wrote a book called Joy, Inc., great book, hugely successful software development company. And he said his job as a leader was to drive fear out of the room. He knew that he had to make it OK for people to make mistakes. Failure gets a reputation but without it, we can’t innovate. It’s a matter of your mindset towards mistakes.


So let’s take a look a little more and discuss failure. So as we just discussed, as a leader, your job is to help make failure OK. Here are some great quotes just about that.

So this one comes from Thomas Watson, President and Founder of IBM and he said, “In order to succeed, double your failure rate.”

I don’t know if you’ve heard the expression, “Fail fast.” Do it quickly. The faster you fail, the faster you can innovate.

Another one comes from Abraham Lincoln, “My greatest concern is not whether you have failed but if you are content with your failure.”

So again, what are we doing with that failure? As a problem-solver, your job is to stay a scientist. What did you learn?

And this last one I love. This came out of sports writer. And he said, “The amusing nature of errors is that the baseball players who pile up the most are generally the finest fielders.” So even though you may not want to have a high amount of errors, if you look at the stats, it means you’re better because you’re practicing. You’re trying. You’re making mistakes in the process of becoming a better ball player.


So thinking about failures, thinking about making mistakes, I want you to think for a second and I want you to answer this question and you can put it in the question box that Tracy pointed out earlier. Do you have an example of something good that came out of a mistake?

So I want you to take a moment. Put that in the question box. And then I’m going to post that question to you, Tracy. This is more improv for you. [Laughs] What do you see as an example of something that was a failure or something good that came out of mistake?

Tracy O’Rourke: OK. So actually, I do have one. So actually, this came from me volunteering at the school and what happens is I was the Chair for the Harvest Ball and they print flyers every year that get – to have distributed. And of course, you have to do that with a reduction in dollars because they don’t have a lot of money to spend on this stuff.

So anyways, they have been printing flyers 8 ½ by 11. They sent it to the printer and the printer actually printed it wrong. And it was smaller. It was much smaller. It was like four of them on one instead. It was like a postcard. And there was a mistake. That’s not what was supposed to happen. And we end up saying, “Well, why does it have to be 8 ½ by 11? Let’s send out the postcard. This is great.”

And it actually got people’s attention because they were smaller and they were able to be in color. So that worked out. And now, they’re always that size.

Elisabeth Swan: [Laughs] So that’s like in that category of happy accidents.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s great. Thank you. That was wonderful. I hadn’t heard that. That’s a nice example.

OK. What do you see is – are we getting any examples from our listeners?

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. So Diane says, “WD-40 was a mistake.”

Elisabeth Swan: Oh! I didn’t know that.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah. We can look at a little bit more about that.

Elisabeth Swan: I know. We can look it up.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah. I’m sure there’s a lot of things that are – isn’t – there’s a candy that is a defect of another candy. I want to say Mike and Ike, the Tamales or something like that is a defect from making another kind of candy. So that’s interesting too.

Shelly said she found a new feature in an app. Maybe that was a mistake at first.

We have a couple of others.

“I sent a question via email to the wrong person. Oops! But that person knew the answer and sent me an accurate solution quickly.” Nice!

“I did not support someone …” this is from Judy, “I did not support someone who was hired and if it was up to me, they would not have had the job but they turned out to be really successful in their position.” Very nice, Judy.

Elisabeth Swan: Wow! What a nice acknowledgment too that you did not want them. You made a judgment and you found out, “Ha! My judgment was off.” That’s great.

Tracy O’Rourke: Latisha says, “We located a system issue from inputting wrong information during testing.

Elisabeth Swan: Oh, that because they entered the wrong information, they discovered an issue so that it led up to solve a problem. That’s great. I like that.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yup. Joseph reminds us the 3M Post-it notes were also a mistake. That’s true.

Elisabeth Swan: Oh! Let’s come to that. Well, these are great. I’m going to jump to the next slide because he just brought up that one, unless you have another one that you want to share.

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, Phillip said, “The double stuff of the Oreo cookies, I’m wondering if that’s a mistake.” [Laughs]

Elisabeth Swan: I still think it’s a mistake. [Laughs]

Tracy O’Rourke: And potato chips were a mistake according to Sean as well.

Elisabeth Swan: Oh, that’s cool. Yeah, it’s like pot stickers. I think that was a mistake where they left them in the pot too long and they stuck to the bottom. Somebody fried them and then went, “Hey, it’s good when they got a crispy bottom, right?” [Laugh] Probably the same thing.


OK. So let’s go. Since they mentioned Post-it notes, I want to come to the next one. And that is these two. So Thomas Edison who invented the electric light bulb, he had thousands of failures before he discovered that a tungsten filament would work to illuminate the light bulb. And his quote was, “Before I got through, I tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths and I ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material.” So he saw each failure as a part of the learning process.

And then as one of our listeners pointed out, the Post-it. This came from Art Fry. He worked at 3M. He was the New Product Developer. And the story I heard was that it originated with a failed batch of glue. It didn’t stick permanently. So he was trying to figure out what to do with it. And he tried it on little flips of paper originally as a bookmark. He was – I think when he was in a choir and he kept putting his pieces of paper in the books and they would slip out so he used it as bookmarks. But then he also tried to let his admin staff try it out. He just let people experiment with it. And he brought the idea to management but the motto for 3M was, “We make things that stick.” And it didn’t stick, right? You can pull it off.

And so they said, “No, this doesn’t really fit our motto.” So he kept giving it out to the admin staff. They kept asking him for more batches because they really loved it. He was using it and he stuck with the idea. It took about seven years to get to market but now, obviously, Post-it notes are ubiquitous. And Art was up against leadership that did not view failure as an opportunity, back to Richard Sheridan of Joy, Inc. We’ll talk about him. So yes, you can get great opportunities from failure.

Structure for Experiments

And as a learner, and here’s another structure, obviously PDCA, you want to use experiments as a way to learn. So Tracy and I actually toured Menlo Innovations up in Michigan. And they made it clear that one of the expressions you can hear many times during the day is, “Let’s run the experiment.” It’s the ideal mindset.

It’s also a mindset at I was just – we were just talking with the staff right before this and I was asking when did the email go out to remind people to come to our webinar? And they said – told me what day it went out and of course, me like a know-it-all like, “Hey, why don’t we send it out day of?” And they said, “Actually, we tested that. We tested. Is it better if we send a reminder 7 days in advanced or if we do it a day before or a day of?” And it was I think like they said 70% better response from people signing up if we got it a week out.

So that – and that is constant. These guys are constantly testing. We never assumed. We listened to what each person regardless of position brings to the table. And that’s what you want. You want experimentation a second nature.

So you’re constantly running small PDCA cycles all the time. It’s a great format for experimenting. You have a hypothesis. You set yourself a goal. You try out your idea and you learn from your results. So success or failure, you’re learning a little bit more. And then you try again. So you plan it, you test it, you check it, got results, and then you make adjustments and you test it again. So, great structure for experimentation.

Recap Tenet 2: Embrace Mistakes

And that brings us to the end of embracing mistakes. So it means people are free to innovate. Problem-solvers should approach mistakes as learning opportunities. Leaders must work to remove fear of mistakes from the workplace. Mistakes drive innovation. Innovation and experimentation are key to growth. If anything, make mistakes faster.


OK. So now, I’ve got another idea – another question for your guys before we launch into this next segment. I want to know where are you and what are you doing when you get your best ideas? Go ahead. Put that in the question box. And Tracy, where are you? What are you doing when you get your best ideas?

Tracy O’Rourke: Well, I usually have – I’m taking a break. I’m on my bike, riding on my bike or on a stationary bike. But it’s usually – I’m doing some sort of activity and something happens.

Elisabeth Swan: Great. So that’s a nice example. What is – what are you seeing from our listeners?

Tracy O’Rourke: Let’s see. Someone wrote, “I get many shower epiphanies.”

Elisabeth Swan: Shower epiphanies! I love it.

Tracy O’Rourke: Christian says, “On the real machine, I’m running when I used to run.” [Laughs] OK. We actually have – most people said in the shower, believe it or not.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah.

Tracy O’Rourke: I’m skimming through this. Sleeping.

Elisabeth Swan: Sleeping. Cool.

Tracy O’Rourke: Driving to work.

Elisabeth Swan: Driving to work.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yeah. Lying in bed.

Elisabeth Swan: OK.

Tracy O’Rourke: Let’s see. Sleeping. I work in a – early morning hiking. Hiking someone put.

Elisabeth Swan: I’m impressed as an early morning hiker.

Tracy O’Rourke: Laura says, “When I’m baking.”

Elisabeth Swan: When baking, OK.

Tracy O’Rourke: One more funny one. I’m sorry. Georgina said, “Rearranging the furniture.” [Laughs]

Elisabeth Swan: Come over to my house. That needs to happen over here.

Tenet 3: Move It!

OK. So nobody said cubicle. Nobody said conference room. Most of you, it involves movement. Even if it was just a movement of your rapid eye movement in your dreams because you were lying in bed sleeping.

So the same is true with improv. The idea is to move around. Use the stage. We are always told, “Do not be a talking head.” Standing there talking is boring. Establish a scene.

And Aristotle also understood this. He ran a school called the Lyceum, and that was a walking school. So there’s no building. So he just walked with his students and they discussed ideas. It’s movement that’s key. You get your best ideas off often when you are moving. I have asked that question a thousand times. I’ve never not heard what we just heard. I love – although I did not hear show epiphanies. I like that as a new phrase so I will appropriate that. [Laughs]

“Sitting is the New Smoking”

But the problem is that most of us are sitting at our desks. We are stationary. Some organizations are testing stand-up desks but that’s still new. It’s an investment. It’s great when you see it. But it’s not necessarily how you get to work.

There was a Wall Street Journal health and wellness article a few years back that had startling data. Sitting for more than 3 hours a day cuts your life expectancy. That article was by Andrew Seidman, S-E-I-D-M-A-N, if you want to look it up. Sitting also reduces our productivity and our brain power.

Stand-Up Meetings

So we’ve got two great remedies to counteract this seemingly entrenched part of office life. And one of them is standup meetings.

So they are our way to keep a meeting on track is people are standing. They generally want to get through it quicker. You’re not going to sort of stand around waiting for people to talk. It increases your brain power.

Tracy and I have both noticed when we run workshops, the further away people are from the flipchart, the further – the sort of the more relaxed they are in a chair, the fewer ideas come out of the group. So we really reinforced. You got to stand. You got to get together. You got to pull it together. You could run daily huddles this way. You can also capture ideas on Post-its. Art Fry would have been proud if you use the Post-its. So just standing up is a way to counteract that. That’s one thing.

Process (Gemba) Walks

The next thing I would put out there is a great problem-solving tool and that is process walks, otherwise called gemba walks. And gemba is Japanese for where the work happens or the real place. And actually, walking the process whether it’s a factory or it’s “invisible” and administrative process is key for continuous improvement.

So as part of this, interviewer stand and then the interviewee who might have been sitting, they will stand and become an interviewer at the next process step. So the goal is to truly, truly understand what happens in the process from end to end. So it makes pain points clear. It helps people understand why mistakes happen. There’s action. There’s conversation. There’s movement. And people get to know each other. And the more you know your fellow workers, the better your chances are of working with them to improve a process.

So just going to the gemba, go see where work is happening, see what’s going on is a big plus for problem-solving. So this is a key tool and it’s all about movement.

Poll #2

So new question for you guys, have you conducted a process walk? You’ve got four options there. I am going to post that now and launch it. OK.

Tracy O’Rourke: And I‘ll just say …

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah?

Tracy O’Rourke: … that this is my absolute favorite thing in the toolkit, process walks, because of what it does for people and what I hear back about doing process walks.

Elisabeth Swan: It’s such a revelation. Once you do it, there’s no way you’re going to run the project without it is what I’ve pretty much discovered.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes, the very powerful people love it. They are always saying it with a full of insight and never knew what it really entailed around learning about the processes and the discoveries they had.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. Well, I can tell your interest because I think you’ve produced at least five different learning vehicles for process walks. [Laughs]

Tracy O’Rourke: I know. I’m very passionate about it.

Elisabeth Swan: Which is great. It helps me immensely. OK. So I’m going to close this and see what these guys came up with.

Tracy O’Rourke: OK. So the big one is 42%, I have done at least one. Good for you. I hope it was a good experience. Sometimes people don’t have a great experience the first time if they’re not sure what they were doing. But hopefully, it was good for you. Followed by I’ve never heard of a process walk, 26%. Oh my gosh!

Elisabeth Swan: Uh-uh!

Tracy O’Rourke: Obviously, I have not gotten to these people. We need to send them the process walk webinar. And then we have Yes, it’s a regular practice, awesome, 19% and 13%, I’m not sure how they are done.

Elisabeth Swan: So this is fascinating. People – it was 80-20 rule, 80% knew about improv, 20% didn’t. Reversed. 75% know about the process walks, 25% basically don’t. So we have to reverse that, Tracy. That’s our job.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes.

Elisabeth Swan: OK. Well, that’s helpful and that means we’ve got some great stuff to share with you guys that would be helpful. OK. So let me hide that.

Recap Tenet 3: Move It!

So recapping, movement, key to your health. You could have standing meetings. You could make it a habit to go to the gemba, see what’s happening in your workplace. Bottom line, if you have a process improvement problem, conduct a process walk. It is key. It should be your first step to problem-solving. We will give you some resources but it is just invaluable on every level.

Business Advantages

And that brings us to what does the business get out of this? So we’ve talked about improv. We’ve talked about how that manifest in terms of structure. What are the tenets? But what does it do for the business?

So first off, it improves relationships. Think about what happens in improv. My job was always to make another person look good. And if they looked good, the scene was good, the scene in terms of organizations. If you are trying to make sure others look good, you’re going to have good relationships with other people and you’re going to have better outcomes.

It also increases authenticity. If you are really listening because if you have to add, if you have to say yes and then you are really listening to that person, and that increases your authenticity. People believe you. They know that you are really listening to them. You are not brushing them off. You are not saying yes but and proceeding with what you believe. You are actually taking them in.

It promotes spontaneity. If mistakes are OK, if that’s a way to learn, then you’re going to be more spontaneous. You’re going to be game to try something out you didn’t. You’re going to get those postcards back that you thought were going to be 8 ½ by 11 and say, “Let’s go with postcards. Let’s try this out.” Because in experimentation, you know it’s how you learn. You know it’s how you innovate.

It also fosters trust. People trust you when you’re authentic. And trust is so key for your working relationships, for leadership to actually hear what’s happening in the workplace. People have to trust them. So if your job is to drive fear out of the organization, you’re going to be increasing trust.

It nurtures innovation as we talked about. It’s OK to make mistakes. You can try something new. It increases co-creativity. You are building on the idea of others. You are using likes, concerns, suggestions.

It promotes personal and professional growth because you’re always learning. If you’re trying and experimenting and innovating, you’re going to be constantly growing professionally and personally. So it drives organizational performance. Everybody wins.

Improv Tips

So let’s come back. Structure sets you free. And problem-solvers have a lot of structures at their disposal. We gave you some key. You also have to say “yes, and…”, really listen, and add to what’s being offered.

Be aware of “yes, but…” You will find more problem-solving ideas by building on the ideas of others.

Embrace mistakes. Making mistakes is the fastest way to learn and innovate.

And move it. Go to the gemba. Conduct a process walk, the best way to learn and engage other problem-solvers.

What’s Next?

So what’s next? Here’s what you can do. So one is figure out what helpful structures there are for you. You can listen to the free DMAIC webinar. There’s also a whole list of templates that are free. You can download both of those.

You can adapt likes, concerns, suggestions. That tool is so simple. We don’t need even a template for you. Just think about what do you like about what someone said? What are your concerns, and what are your suggestions?

Use PDCA to experiment. If you are not familiar with PDCA, Tracy did a fabulous introductory webinar. That’s free.

Go to where the work is happening. Go to the gemba. Listen to the free process walk webinar or take the process walk single module and hold standup meetings.

So those are some great calls-to-actions for you. You can get rolling on as soon as you’re out of this webinar.

Today We Covered

OK. So today, we talk about how improv is not a stand-up comedy. There’s no script. What are the three key tenets of improv, how to apply improv to problem-solving, and tips and tricks of improvising. There’s our little guy.


So, that brings us to questions you guys have about what we just talked about and more. And while you’re forming your questions, we’ll just review a few things that are happening now at Go Lean Six Sigma.

Getting Started

You can learn more about anything we just talked about in any of the online training. There’s White Belt, Yellow Belt, Green Belt, Black Belt, Lean and you get a coupon code just because you are part of this webinar. So if you put 20IMPROV into the online form then you get 20% discount on all the courses. That’s good until the end of December.

Introducing: Go-Getter Membership

Now, this is new and this is kind of exciting. There’s something called a Go-Getter Membership. This gives you a forum to network with your peers. You got – you can connect with our Master Black Belts, get access to all these members-only content. You get all the single modules, that’s like almost I think 300 bucks right there including that one for process walks and there’s one for facilitating process walks.

You get access to all the intermediate and advanced webinars. You get all of our books and guides and everything for free. And you could take 20% off anything that we’re not just handing over to you. So the same thing, you can get 20% off this. And Tracy, this is $2199, right?

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes.

Elisabeth Swan: $199 and you get 20% off which is I think like 40 bucks off just for watching this webinar.

Book: The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit

There’s also the book that Tracy and I wrote this year, The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit. That is available both as an ebook and there’s a printed copy, both available on Amazon. That is a great reference guide, 35 foundational Lean Six Sigma tools and it’s done through a road trip of your basic tools with the Bahama Bistro as a case study throughout. It has got great examples of short paths around potholes, sightseeing options when you want to learn more. Tracy and I are super proud of that. So that is out there for you.

Upcoming webinar, Tracy, tell us about your upcoming webinar.

Upcoming Webinar: Dec. 20 – 10am PST

Tracy O’Rourke: So next month’s webinar is basically the four components for building a Lean culture. A lot of people send people to training and then they wonder why they’re not making progress on building a Lean culture. And it takes more than just tools training for frontline people. It takes leaders to be engaged as well. And so we talk about the four areas or components of a Lean culture in this webinar.

And it’s not just for leaders although leaders help greatly with building the kind of culture in an organization.

So I would encourage you to attend. If you’re doing process improvement, you don’t think it’s going well even though you got the tools and you got the tools training, there might be one of these components that are missing. So tune in.

Elisabeth Swan: I’m looking forward to that one, Tracy. And how about this one? Oh, actually, yeah. Tell us about this one.

Just-In-Time Café Podcast

Tracy O’Rourke: So this is our Just-In-Time Café Podcast with Edgar and Pete Schein, Peter Schein. They are co-authors of Humble Leadership. This is one of – another book in their Humble Series, which is great. And I had a chance to talk to both of these guys and they are awesome. I really enjoyed my interview with them. They have really great insights about humble leadership and really their progressive ideas around what leadership really needs to be for us to transform. So don’t want to miss this one.

Elisabeth Swan: No, that’s a wonderful interview. How about this one?

Success Story Webinar

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. So this is a success story webinar. So this is an actual Green Belt project that was done by Franklin and Jared. And they worked – they are UC San Diego and they are in the mail room. And they were actually – they did a project and it reduced mail packaging time from 415 minutes to 96 minutes. So if you want to hear about what they did, it’s an office environment. They walked the process and they were able to make a really big impact. So tune in to that one. It’s 30 minutes on their Green Belt project.

Elisabeth Swan: That’s a great one. And now …

Wonder Women of Quality

Tracy O’Rourke: And then we have Irene Longoria. She is our featured Wonder Women of Quality. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Irene directly. She works for Solar Turbine. She is the Master Black Belt here in San Diego. And she has really transformed their whole Lean Six Sigma training Program at Solar. So hats off to Irene and get to know her a little bit by looking at our blog with her.

Elisabeth Swan: Absolutely. And that brings us back to questions, Tracy.


Tracy O’Rourke: All right. So, we’ve got a few. Do you have any tricks we can use when looking for the right word? So I’m going to guess it’s related to the alphabet maybe but I could be wrong.

Elisabeth Swan: So I’ve got two answers to this because I am constantly looking for the right word and that’s because I do a lot of editing. And that means I have my little handy online Thesaurus ready constantly as I punch in my words and try to find the best word, my new word, my most favorite way of replacing the word that’s not working for me as I struggle for the word.

And if you’re doing it live, sometimes I ask the person I’m talking, “Hey, what’s the word I’m looking for? It means exciting but it’s more innovative than that.” So once again, you can engage the person you are talking to in helping you find the word. So there are two. There’s a live and there’s an online.

Tracy O’Rourke: Very nice. Thank you. OK. Lisa says she has an unusual question. She says, “I’m drawing a blank with using Six Sigma for my morning and evening routines during work days.” One thing I was thinking was potentially huddles, right? Morning huddles. That’s definitely something that people use to bring teams together and those kinds of things. Do you have any suggestions for her?

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah, I think huddles are great. And morning, it’s like what’s on for the day. And one thing we’ve been incorporating more and more is reflection because I often feel like what we do is we do what we do and we’re on to the next, right? It worked. It didn’t work. Whatever. Moving on. And that moment of reflection. So it might be at the end of the day routine to reflect on what happened, what worked, what didn’t, what can I learn and take with me to tomorrow? And I move that into my morning routine. But I think end of day is also a nice time for reflection. So there are two thoughts.

Tracy O’Rourke: And I’ll also add there. The kanban board, right? So organizing and prioritizing little actions that people have to do. A lot of people start their morning routines with looking at their personal kanban board. And if you want to learn more about that, it’s a great book written by Jim Benson called Personal Kanban Board, and it’s great to make your work visible and prioritize your work.

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. And we’ve got a review of that on our site if you want to read a quick review before you buy or in addition.

Tracy O’Rourke: OK. Perfect. OK. A few more questions. Tracy wants to know, “What is the name of that book again? I can’t seem to find it on Amazon.” I’m guessing it’s our book or maybe it’s Humble Leadership.

Elisabeth Swan: OK. So we will tell you all the books. Yes. So one is The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit, and I think problem-solvers, you have to make sure it’s hyphenated. That might cause a search glitch if it’s not hyphenated. So, The Problem Solver’s Toolkit is one.

And if you were reacting to the Edgar Schein book, that’s Humble Leadership. He also wrote Humble Inquiry. And there are reviews of both those book on our website as well. Tracy and I both highly promote and love those books. So there are all the books we talked about I think.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. [Laughs] OK. Anna also has a question. She wrote, “I work in government and our processes are most documents and data. How do you perform a process walk when your work area is cubicles, computers, data, and emails? I’ve navigated to process mapping. But what other tools could help with this?” Is it OK if I take this one, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth Swan: I’d love it if you did because I know you’ve dealt with this many times.

Tracy O’Rourke: Right. So that’s actually when process walks are the most important is when the process is invisible. Most administrative processes are invisible. You cannot see them. So that’s why it’s really important to walk them because you would be amazed at how complicated we make these processes when we can’t see them.

So – and as a matter of fact, we’ve got a process walk video on our website, a real process walk. That was done in government. And so, you actually see these people go to different cubicles. And it works. So I would encourage you to find that. It’s a video for process walks on our website. We can send you the link probably Anna. Hopefully, that will work.

Do you have anything to add on that, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth Swan: Nope. That’s great. It’s a great question. And I’m glad you were able to fill it.

Tracy O’Rourke: Great. OK. Let’s see if there’s any more here. “I work in a typical operations environment where the general motto is to do what we’ve always done and maybe try to do it more efficiently but we don’t change things. Any ideas on how to introduce a culture of change into a typical repeat type of environment?”

Elisabeth Swan: It’s tough. Culture is a beast. It exists and it’s very hard to move it and it generally needs leadership support. So the thing is to expose leaders to what’s possible. And the way – I was having an interview recently with Mohamed Saleh from Hartford Healthcare. He is a Lean Sensei. He has been at this for a lot of years. And we talked about just this question. His podcast will be out next year.

And he said you can’t really convince people what to do but you’ve got to look at what is your current culture sort of cost you in terms of opportunity? So if you look at what is the current system doing? What are you not doing? What’s not happening? There was probably – you have to sort of look at where the opportunities are and contrast that with how – to the levels you’re reaching now.

Tracy, do you have anything to add on that one?

Tracy O’Rourke: No. That’s wonderful. That’s great. Good feedback. I am looking at a couple of the other responses for you. So Jessica writes, “We run role playing exercises for our IT Help Desk student workers to help them with answering questions. This was very helpful for improving that process. Thank you.”

Good job, Elisabeth.

Elisabeth Swan: Oh, that’s nice. Thanks.

Tracy O’Rourke: Yes. And Bryan wrote, “I don’t have any questions. Thank you so much for this webinar. It was very innovative. Cheers!”

Elisabeth Swan: [Laughs] Cheers back!

Tracy O’Rourke: We have a few questions on getting copies of the slides. So yes, they will be getting copies of the slides. Is that right still? Yes, I believe so.

Elisabeth Swan: And if anyone had a question that we didn’t answer, we’ll answer you personally. Q&A is on now in the forum. So if you want to see other Q&As that happen in the forum, go ahead and join the Go-Getter Membership, which is an awesome deal. So I say, go for it.

Tracy O’Rourke: One person did ask about the book by Richard Sheridan, Joy, Inc. is the name of that. And then we have one other. This will be the last one I believe. And it’s the same one. She actually said, “You know, that’s great. Thanks for the examples of starting your day at work.” But she meant from home. [Laughs] What could she do from home to incorporate Lean Six Sigma thinking into her world?

I could think of lots of ideas. I think about how I’ve incorporated process improvement into my world. I actually use the kanban board for all kinds of stuff, not just work tasks but also personal tasks that I want done. So that’s definitely one way you can still start.

Then I think about kitchen kanban and some of the mechanisms people have in their house to make sure they don’t buy enough of or too much of something and never run out of something. So they are installing kanban in their homes.

How about you, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth Swan: Yeah. I was just going to say, you should go look up Tracy’s shoe kanban board, which is a hilarious but incredibly useful tool for managing your shoe collection. Also, look at the blog series called Lean Six Sigma Everywhere. That has brilliant visuals. A lot of those are in the home like how to Christmas ornaments so you know which box has them, how to store your hats and your scarves so you know what’s going on.

Tracy talks – there’s a lot of about 5S in the home. There’s a whole series of applying the 5S tool to home processes. So absolutely there are tons of stuff for the home on our site so great examples there if you want to just dig in.

And I would say with Joy, Inc., that book, also a review on our site if you want to take a look at that. Another great book.

Tracy O’Rourke: Perfect. Those are all our questions, Elisabeth.

Elisabeth Swan: Well, that was fun, Tracy. I enjoyed it.

Tracy O’Rourke: Me too. Thanks for joining today’s webinar. We hope you enjoyed your time with us and you found this webinar very helpful. I found it very helpful and enjoyable. Elisabeth, thank you so much.

Elisabeth Swan: Absolutely. Thanks everybody. See you here next month.

Tracy O’Rourke: Bye-bye.

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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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