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Featured Lean Thinker: Jeff Hajek

I am working with a new group in the near future, and they requested that I start out by introducing myself in the ‘Featured Lean Thinker’ format. I realized I hadn’t actually answered the questions myself, so instead of just talking to the group about what I thought, I went ahead and wrote out some answers.

What does Lean mean to you?

Lean, to me, is not really about the tools, or the philosophies, or the methods. It comes down, simply, to a desire to continuously improve. In one of the classes I teach, I, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, say that the first example of Lean came long before Toyota, or Henry Ford, or even the concept of interchangeable parts. It came when the first cavemen smacked a few rocks together to form a scraper. It is that spirit of experimentation to get better that embodies what Lean is to me.

What was your first experience with Lean, and how did you know you were hooked?

Surprising to many people, my first experience with Lean came long before I ever knew the term. It was in the military. The concept of standardization and 5S are deeply embedded in the Army’s culture. I even experienced flow for the first time while helping close down a base at Bad Hersfeld in Germany during a round of drawdowns. I was named the ‘preservation officer’ which just meant that as a junior lieutenant, I had to prep the unit’s vehicles for storage.

Part of that included crating up equipment for storage. So, I developed a system, out of necessity, of building crates as vehicles rolled out of the maintenance shop. With no supply of wood, and no place to store crates, and a mixed-model production requirement, my team essentially set up a flow system where the next vehicle rolling into the maintenance shop signaled us what to crates to build.

Later, when I actually ventured into the manufacturing world, I immediately saw the logic in Lean production methods because I had been unknowingly doing it all along. When I could put a name to what I saw as common sense, I was hooked.

What is your Lean claim to fame?

My claim to fame is my extensive online reference guide. I have seen a couple of resources with more terms than mine, but none go into the depth of detail mine does. Plus, it links with all the other resources on my site—forms and tools, videos, and my Lean Training System. I knew it was getting some traction when a friend of told me he was visiting another company and saw my name up on a whiteboard as a resource to use for Lean information. Most of the time in my line of work I don’t see much beyond the electronic walls, so it was nice to hear about that real-world contact.

Where do you see Lean going in the future? What is on the horizon?

In the near term, I see Lean playing an instrumental role in bringing some offshored work back to the US. With the poor economy here, it is an employer’s market, and the easing of wage expenses, coupled with high fuel prices, makes domestic manufacturing more appealing. Plus, many companies are realizing the challenges of having an extended supply chain, and are changing their cost models that drive their decision making. Part of that cost model will include the assumption that Lean will help keep costs in check.

I also see Lean playing a vital role as the economy recovers. I suspect that there will be a reluctance to hire additional people until there is absolutely no doubt that things are picking up. That means more demands on workers, and that means they will need a way to keep from getting buried.

Jeff’s Autobiography

I’ve got a varied background that has provided me with a great perspective about Lean. I earned my degree from West Point in mechanical engineering, with a concentration in aerospace, and later got my MBA from the University of Washington. I spent 6 years honing my leadership skills in the Army, and then served in a variety of roles in both heavy industry, and with an electronics manufacturer. I migrated back and forth from engineering and managerial roles to internal Lean consulting roles before starting Velaction.

I have participated in, led, planned, and facilitated hundreds of kaizen events, and have taught countless hours of Lean classes, many of which I developed myself. I am also a prolific writer, having authored Whaddaya Mean I Gotta Be Lean? as well as a steady stream of articles and terms for The Continuous Improvement Companion.

The unique path I have taken on my Lean journey provides me with great experience, but above all else, it has given me perspective. I can step back and put myself in the shoes of the people I’m hoping. That helps to give better advice to them, plus it helps build trust. People relate to me better because is a good chance that we share common background.


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