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Michael Bremer on What Excellence Truly Looks Like

3 minutes, 44 seconds read

Shingo Award winning author Michael Bremer built his career on improving processes, but in the latest Lean Frontline Podcast he admits that he focused for too long solely on adjusting processes to drive organizational improvements. A kaizen event in the mid-1990s taught him that to truly improve processes, you need to focus on your frontline people as well. 

Push your frontline to think about solutions

That particular event was a week-long project to improve two production lines at an operation in Shreveport, Louisiana. At the end of the week, Bremer encouraged the kaizen team to celebrate their accomplishments by sharing what they got out of the experience. 

“We go around the room and everybody says very polite things and then we come to Pearly,” Bremer recalls. “Pearly says, ‘I’ve worked for this company for 25 years. It’s the first time they ever asked me to think, and I really liked it.’”

Bremer recalls first being struck at excitement by the change he’d helped inspire. However, that excitement was fast followed by concern. Would the organization continue to push Pearly and her peers for ideas and solutions? Would Pearly continue to find that new sense of satisfaction in her job? 

“I really didn’t understand deeply the emotional impact of what was going on inside people’s heads,” Bremer shares. “When Pearly said that, I realized how much pain was there and how really little we were using the talents and capabilities of the people who are in the organizations where we work.” Bremer came to move beyond his intellectual understanding of improvement to an emotional understanding. From there, he focused more on helping organizations engage their people and tap the talent and capability in their workforce. 

It’s an understandable oversight. It’s common for organizations adopting Lean methodology to focus on their Lean teams, expert insight and trained Six Sigma black belts. Often there’s a missed opportunity for tapping into the intellect and creativity from the frontline employees who are executing process on a daily basis. 

3 Strategies for achieving excellence

Tapping into the insight from your employees starts with being aware of this gap and working to improve it. Of course, that’s not as simple as it sounds. 

Through the course of his work in teaching people to see excellence, Bremer suggests making the following changes to how you think about continuous improvement: 

  • Focus on process over tools.

    Bremer admits that when he started doing Total Quality Management in the ’80s, he focused on learning the tools. Then Dr. Deming taught him to first focus on process. Every process is linked to one another. Using tools to perfect one department without looking at how it impacts the whole won’t create lasting change. 

Dr. Russ Ackoff described it to Bremer this way. If you’re building a car and you take the best in class components from everywhere in the world and throw them all together at the end … you won’t have an operating car. Instead of focusing on making each process “the best,” try making everything work together  in harmony. 

  • Look for the gaps.

    “Early in my life I thought that if we could define what excellence looks like, we could identify the gaps and logically close those gaps. What I’ve come to realize over the last 20 years is that you really don’t know what excellence looks like so you don’t know what the gap is,” Bremer says. For Bremer, excellence looks like an orchestra at play. It’s an organization that has a rhythm so that when abnormalities occur, they’re easy to spot.

  • Don’t settle for pretty good.

    Those things that are important to an organization should be getting better every year. Instead, there’s a tendency to get pretty good at doing something and then accept that as how to do things rather than improving, Bremer says. But why settle for good enough? Create a baseline for performance and start working to improve it. Tracking improvements can show the entire team that there’s always room to improve. 

As Bremer would have you know, excellence is in reach. And you should never stop working to reach it. 

Listen to the full podcast at

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