One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.
– Jack Kerouac
The first two decades of my career followed the traditional path of a newly-minted engineer. I started out in entry-level roles in R&D and manufacturing, moved up into supervisory roles, and eventually into the management of increasingly large engineering and operations groups. Along the way, I learned how to operate in complex companies and organizations with a variety of bureaucracies and personalities. As I gained experience, I worked in several different locations and industries, bouncing from Boston to Kentucky to Puerto Rico, back to Boston, then eventually to Silicon Valley. I started in food products, switched to making light bulbs, and then eventually found a passion for the medical device industry.
In 1997, my first plant-level leadership position took me to Salt Lake City and came with a hidden surprise: sixty heavy molding presses, operating at full capacity to supply critical downstream factories, but running several months behind schedule. (Lesson: Ask questions during the interview!). Looking for ways to turn around the situation, I searched the nascent Internet and came across the Association for Manufacturing Excellence and was introduced to Lean manufacturing, also known as the Toyota Production System. A few months and a lot of hard work later we caught up, and I was sold on Lean. I didn’t realize then how Lean would continue to shape my career and overall life.
Unfortunately, the company was not as enthusiastic about Lean as I was (though they have since become very strong at Lean), so I decided to move to the Central Coast of California and take a great position in the hyper-growth telecom equipment space. Little did I know, the entire industry would rapidly melt down a year later. When it did, I had to shut down an entire facility and lay off a couple hundred brilliant friends—on September 10th, 2001, no less! What a week!
After closing the plant and including myself in the layoff, I started a contract manufacturing company, began doing some Lean consulting, and eventually found my way back into a “real” job as president of a medical device company. Consulting was interesting, but I simply loved transforming real organizations and making real things too much to stay away.
In my new job, life was pretty good. I worked for a great company, had many fun side projects, was a partner in a couple of startups, and a board member in a couple others. I was surrounded by new projects and wild ideas—an engineer’s dream come true. What’s more, I got to live and play on the beautiful Central Coast of California. I worked hard but I also played hard, having already begun the shift away from describing wealth in material terms while realizing the value of peace, love, and physical and mental exploration. My work life and personal life were in good balance with each other.
Then, out of nowhere, life took a nasty turn. A family medical situation exploded into unpredictable chaos, creating unbelievable amounts of stress that severely impacted both the personal and professional sides of my life. Even my closest friends and family have no idea how close I was to hanging it all up and disappearing to live on a beach in Samoa. Seriously—I had even researched one-way tickets and visa requirements.
Though the temptation to escape was strong, I wasn’t willing to give up my professional responsibilities, as they provided a needed break from the difficulties in my personal life. But something had to change. One day, while sitting alone on Anaeho’omalu Beach on the Big Island of Hawaii, it finally dawned on me that balance can be created by focusing on simplification and understanding what is truly important. (I didn’t know it at the time, but the act of sitting alone on a beach was important in itself. It combined both seijaku, or quietude, and datsuzoku, a break from the routine.) I realized that several Lean concepts I had used in manufacturing could be applied to simplify my personal life. At the same time, I also recognized how several Zen concepts I was exploring in my personal life could be applied to simplify my professional life.
After a few years, the family medical situation improved and became manageable, but I continued to explore and further define how Lean and Zen concepts could be applied to personal and professional leadership. I also dug deeper into the fascinating relationship between the two concepts.
A turning point in developing my new personal and professional leadership philosophy came while I was reading Matthew May’s The Shibumi Strategy, which coalesced and reinforced several concepts and habits I had developed, especially those regarding how Zen pertained to personal leadership. Finally, over the last several years I’ve read many articles that align with my thinking on leadership, particularly when related to servant, Lean, or Zen styles. These articles provided examples and methods that I experimented with, many of which I will share in this book.
I know I’m treading into some risky waters by combining Lean and Zen. Lean concepts are often misunderstood and misused, and Zen concepts are still viewed with skepticism, if not outright derision, by many people in the West. This is unfortunate, because if we can put away any preconceived ideas we have about Lean or Zen, we can learn much from both.
Leadership does not have to be complex. Mastering personal leadership first is necessary if you want to master and demonstrate professional leadership, and using a core group of Lean and Zen concepts, you can improve both types. Throughout this book, you will find a lot of practical advice for how to be a better leader. I don’t create scholarly theoretical models that are too abstract to be useful. I’m a practitioner, and I prefer to focus on concepts I’ve developed, tried, and refined in the real world. This book is about sharing what works for me. Hopefully, some of the ideas will help you on your leadership journey.
Morro Bay, California