“My career has been helped tremendously by the Lean experts that frequent the NWLEAN forum. When questions come up, there are usually answers from the best in the business. How cool is that?” That’s what Dean Bliss of the Iowa Health System had to say about one of the leading lean knowledge exchanges on the web.
While there are many good discussion sites, NWLEAN is the one I use most. To find out more about the network, I spoke to director of operations, Bill Kluck. He said, “Back in 1997 the Internet was quite a different place. There was a group at the University of Kentucky that had an email list called the KLMN, the Kentucky Lean Manufacturing Network. It was essentially one way—they would just blast out announcements about courses and upcoming events to the list.
“I thought the idea of being able to share information was interesting, because there are so many questions out there about what lean is and how to get started, and once you’re started, which direction you should go. And if you’re going to grow any effort, you have to have more than one point of information. I thought, why not have a group where there was an infinite series of information points? Even though nobody has the full answer to my question, lots of people would have a piece of it, and if I could ask a question in my industry and have somebody from other industries answer with their piece, and then another piece and another piece, I would be able to better form an answer myself.”
NWLEAN has grown to a community of 11,000 members, with more than 6,000 registered as members of the NWLEAN Yahoo discussion group. At it has developed over the years, it has changed with the lean community itself.
Kluck said, “I think that the quality of the questions as well as the quality of the answers has been improving over the last several years. The first two or three years people would say, ‘I was just promoted to the lean manager of the organization. I have two questions: what is lean and what do I do first?’ The wonderful thing is that people were comfortable enough with the group to even ask those questions.
“For the last several years we’ve gotten into more discussions about the depth of a lean transformation and the requirements for participation at all levels in the organization. We also have discussions about how to implement a particular tool and how it works in a particular situation.
“The questions that really get a lot of people going lately are those related to the long-term aspect of lean rather than the short-term gains. I’m excited about that because it means that we’ve broken through a barrier that it takes companies years to get to.”
Other members have noted change over time. In answer to my forum question about the value of NWLEAN, member Mark Rosenthal wrote, “In 2000-2005, the traffic appeared to be generated by people asking the classic, oft-repeated ‘How do I...’ questions, and getting fairly standard answers. Lately, the topics are far less technical nuts-and-bolts, and almost bordering on philosophy. The conversations seem to be engaging half a dozen active players, and perhaps that many more, like me, who jump in now and then with a comment. It is like watching a panel discussion of some very interesting topics. “
Why get involved?
What do people get out of a group like NWLEAN? Benefits people mention most are knowledge, recognition, and relationships.
“The people who participate,” said Kluck, “are searching for outside information. They may have mentors in their company and their industry, but that’s a narrow perspective on the way to do things. The people that participate in efforts such as NWLEAN are looking to generalize their knowledge. When you generalize your knowledge, you have a much greater chance of not only advancing whatever cause you happen to be working toward in the organization but, in your own personal career, it makes you more valuable to the organization and more marketable in the industry.”
Anthony Reardon wrote on the forum, “What I find interesting are the hard issues being openly addressed and how sharp the responses are. I use the site for professional research and development. I think learning how to speak intelligently on the subject will benefit my career. I appreciate the varied views of professionals that are brought to the table.”
“Reading and answering questions,” wrote Mark Rosenthal, “has helped me sharpen my own skills to visualize problems and interact with people in a way that helps them see the issues and perhaps arrive at their own solution.”
Dean Bliss, commented, “I'm one of the infrequent visitors to the NWLEAN site (the 90%), but I devour the e-mail summaries that come every day. In fact, I pass along the wisdom I receive to others on a regular basis. The site provides me with tremendous value. As a Lean practitioner in health care, I am able to glean insight from all industries and attempt to translate them to our world. And, since culture and leadership are two of the secrets to making this work, guess what—that works everywhere.”
Mary Pat Cooper, a consultant with Moffitt Associates, responded, “Participation in NWLean has helped me tremendously, as a lively forum for my questions, as an inspiring opportunity to contribute towards some answers, and as a challenging and thought-provoking overview of the Lean Transformation movement at large. For me, NWLean is a window into what people may be thinking, yet perhaps not saying. Because it entices me to submit clear questions, to organize timely responses and to look in on what people are thinking, I think NWLean has significantly enhanced my career as a senior management consultant.”
Rosenthal wrote, “A few years ago, I'd say it helped in that it got my name out there to a wide readership. When I talked to other people or when we had people touring my company (Genie Industries in Seattle), I had some degree of name recognition. People would say ‘Oh! I finally get to meet you... ’ It helped to have that ‘name’ when I interviewed on the east coast in 2002, for example.”
I also spoke to Mike Thelen. He said, “People follow the forum and they get a feel for what kind of individual you are by the responses you make. Are you aggressive? Are you defensive? Are you trying to provide clear and helpful information? There a lot of times when you get contacts saying, ‘I read your post,’ and that opens up a whole other dialog indirectly, individually.”
Though Bill Kluck says he and the other moderators of the network try to keep the members free from contacts by consultants or others trying to sell them something, people do connect with each other by e-mail, phone, or meeting at events.
Thelen has taken his involvement in the forum to a new level. After he formed a network of people in local businesses in his home of Aberdeen, SD, he connected it with NWLEAN in some creative ways.
He says, “We often use NWLEAN as a springboard, taking what we are learning there into a more localized conversation. What are you doing with downtime? Are you laying off employees or finding other methods? Then coming out of our local meeting where someone says, ‘I really don’t want to lay anybody off but what can I have them do?’, I use the forum to see what other ideas are out there.”
Thelen has also developed national and international relationships with experts who post on the online forum, bringing them to his network in South Dakota, a part of the country that they probably wouldn’t get to otherwise, via videoconferencing. It’s.
Thelen shares more ideas for using the web to further your lean education on your own:
“I share NWLEAN with people, and other prominent sites or pieces of information that I find. Several people from the forum have gone to Mark Graban’s Lean Blog. I’ve got several people from the medical field in the local network and Mark does a lot with lean healthcare.
“There’s so much out there, how do you find the credible sources? The biggest way that people discover lean is through books, and many authors have a blogs or websites. So read a lean book and then look for the author online. These people are well-versed and they tend to know others who are of like mind and who have information and resources. From that author’s website, you’ll find other credible sources. Almost all of them share links back and forth. So once you find one, you’re going to find a bunch, but the key is finding the right ones to start with.
“Most of the authors and other people in the lean community, if they’re really, truly in the lean community, are more than happy to spend a little bit of time with you for nothing, just to discuss, to have a dialog. They are willing to share information at just about any level at any time.”
NWLEAN is just one example of a forum you could be engaged in. Others are industry-specific. For instance, my friend Sandy Marshall says, “In the yarn industry, we have a hyperactive online community called ‘Ravelry.’ I started a group for my Neighborhood Knits store there three weeks ago and have 72 members, with just under 60 postings.”
When you visit a forum
While some forums are full of rants, political discussions, or bickering, you probably are better off appearing to the online world as a reasonable and respectful person, especially if you are interested in job opportunities.
NWLEAN provides good models for effective participation, partly because its managers closely monitor it. They screen each message before posting it. This prevents sending spam, viruses, and 'out of office' messages. Messages that are posted include:
1. Questions—all questions are posted.
2. Responses that emphasize lean principles and actual experiences.
3. Responses which contain relevant practical information.
Responses may not get posted if they:
1. Have attached files.
2. Emphasize non-lean solutions.
3. Are redundant, or significantly similar to previous responses.
4. Advocate specific software solutions.
5. Are overly commercial in nature.
6. Are more appropriate for a private dialog (such as 'Hey John, have you tried this....?').
7. Are derogatory or inflammatory.
So if you are looking for answers, connections with people in your industry, and a way to gain visibility, find a network group that matches your interests. For a start, try “Groups” searches on Google, Yahoo, or LinkedIn. Observe the interaction for a while and join the discussion when you find the groups that suit you.