I stepped into the Kaspar Companies boardroom Monday morning not so bright-eyed and not so bushy-tailed. There were seven other folks gathered around the table. They seemed as subdued as I felt — it was a Monday morning, after all. The notable exception was Derek Richner. Despite it being early on a foggy Monday morning on the start of a hot Shiner summer day, a whopping 12 hour travel commute from his home in Maine, Derek, our guide for this week, was a bundle of energy. Derek is an expert in kaizen, a Japanese word defined as change for the better, a philosophy that can be applied to a person’s personal life or to an entire business. Derek has been spending his time spreading this way of thinking around Kaspar Companies. Before meeting Derek, I knew little about kaizen and wasn’t particularly looking forward to learning anything more on the subject. Frankly, I didn’t see much value in it. I doubted that I could apply a dusty old Asian ideology in my own life, and Kaspar Companies seems to have weathered the last century just fine without kaizen, so I had my doubts about the whole enterprise. In retrospect, I was dead wrong.
Before taking my seat, I introduced myself to Derek. The first thing I noticed about him were his eyes. Derek met my gaze so directly that it was almost disconcerting. It made me feel like he could tell what I was thinking. Later on I had a conversation with Derek; he had an uncanny ability to guess what I was getting at with my questions, often rephrasing them himself so he could give me a better reply. Derek’s eyes match his personality — they’re just as direct. He can be blunt to the point of being disarming. He’s never rude or impolite, but he doesn’t bother much with beating around the bush. If Derek thinks you’re wrong he’ll tell you so, and promptly give you his view on the matter. I got the impression that he’s a man that values time. That doesn’t mean that Derek doesn’t make time for fun though; on the contrary, Derek constantly told jokes and funny anecdotes during the meeting, lightly ribbing some of the Ranch Hand employees at the table that he’d worked with before. At one point, he bumped into the podium and knocked his laptop to the floor. He turned that into a joke as well. As the meeting progressed, Derek’s enthusiasm rubbed off on his audience, and before long everyone at the table was having as much fun as Derek.
Another thing that quickly struck me about Derek was how affable and likable he was. Derek treated everyone familiarly, like we were all old friends. He clearly has a knack for names. I don’t think he ever addressed someone without using their name, and he would frequently single out a person by name to get their opinion or to make a point. He’s perceptive as well. At one point in the meeting I saw someone frown at one of Derek’s slides. “Billy, I see you shaking your head,” he said. Once they were on the same page about the subject, the presentation continued. It wasn’t a cue most presenters would pick up on, but Derek did, and by addressing it he turned the lecture into a conversation. After that, Billy asked questions freely.
Derek started the session with a PowerPoint presentation. Many of the finer points of the discussion were lost on me. I don’t know much about assembly lines or changeovers or the merits of one method of fastening versus another. The broader points came across loud and clear. Derek is all about efficiency. To Derek, if a workplace is messy, it should be cleaned. If an assembly line is slow, it should be faster. It is Derek’s job to ask why those things are the way they are and how they can be fixed. More importantly, it is his job to teach people at Kaspar Companies to ask those questions. Maybe the workplace is messy because there’s no trash can in the room. Maybe the assembly line is moving slowly because there’s not enough employees working it, or maybe the employees there are organized inefficiently. Throughout the presentation, Derek gave examples of problems at other companies and solutions that had fixed them. I was surprised by the variety of industries he referenced. Derek spoke about working with burly forge workers, meticulous surgeons and tidy casino CEOs. The interesting part was that he applied the same basic principles to all of the businesses, usually with marked success. Derek gave the same sort of presentation we were getting in the Kaspar Companies boardroom to the employees at SeaWorld.
The presentation ended and Derek told us that we would do an activity. Derek directed a member of his audience that had attended one of his previous kaizen sessions to give us instructions. He emphasized that he wasn’t at Kaspar Companies to fix problems; he was there to teach people at Kaspar Companies how to fix problems. The activity was an exercise in efficiency. We were each given a page with a set of numbers printed on them and told to connect the numbers in order with a pen as fast as we could. The numbers were oriented differently, in different fonts and sizes and spread out all over the page. It certainly wasn’t my forte. I only got to five out of 49 the first time around. I think I was the slowest one at the table. After we’d finished with the first page we were given a new one with numbers that were organized more logically and told to connect the numbers again. We were then given yet another until even I could finish in the allotted time. That’s what kaizen is all about. Change for the better. Not necessarily perfect, but improved. I thought about kaizen when I got back to my office and sat down at my desk, which was messy — littered with old proofs and scrap paper and things I hadn’t gotten around to throwing away. I remembered Derek telling us about the CEO of a company that owned several casinos. Derek was walking through the floor of one of the man’s casinos when the CEO stooped to pick up a little piece of litter dropped on the ground, throwing it away himself. Then I remembered the exercise with the numbers and how organizing them just a little bit better had made connecting them so much easier. Derek Richner had proven me wrong; I did learn something from an old Japanese philosophy. I pulled the trash can closer to my desk and started my own kaizen process.
Matt: Alright, first things first, do you like Shiner Bock?
Derek: I’m more of a dark beer drinker, but when I first came, there was a six pack of Shiner beer in the apartment, and I was pleasantly surprised.
Matt: They do have a Shiner Bohemian Black Lager I think that might be more up your alley.
Derek: Yeah, I actually just found it up here In Maine.
Matt: I’ve made ice cream with it before. Sometimes use it with meat as a marinade. Do you drive a truck by any chance?
Derek: That is a trick question; I have a truck; It’s a 1967 international harvester, you know the agricultural green one.
Matt: I don’t think Ranch Hand makes a grille guard guard for that.
Derek: It doesn’t need one. (laughing) That truck has around 300 pounds of sheet metal on the front of it (continues laughing).
Matt: They don’t make them like they used to. Alright, let’s get down to business. What does the word kaizen mean?
Derek: It’s really simple — it’s the derivative of two words, “kai” and “zen.” Kai is change, zen is for the better, so all it means is “change for the better.” So when we have an event, all we’re doing is making change for the better.
Matt: How do you use that concept?
Derek: I teach people how to think within the context of a structure of tools and problem solving methodology. It’s not strictly manufacturing; it’s not strictly transactional. It’s the nature of solving problems on a gross scale, and then understanding which specific tools to use for specific issues.
Matt: How do you do that? What does a typical kaizen event look like?
Derek: For us, because of the travel and logistics, it makes sense to do a week long event. Essentially the pattern looks like this: we start off getting a good understanding of the current situation. We’ll often do what we call a current state map. There are different forms of that, but it’s basically graphical representation on a whiteboard that outlines how things are currently done, which helps identify problems and issues. Then we start to do some brainstorming around that, asking how we can solve some of those problems. To test our ideas, we do something called try-storming, which is different than brainstorming, where we want to see whether the ideas we have actually help. If they work, we try to standardize — we try to make those solutions into a standard operating procedure. You have to help folks form new habits. When you change a process, you really have to change it significantly, so folks recognize it as something different than the old way. At the end of the week, we look at where we were and where we are, and document the significant improvements. We also want to celebrate and recognize the great work that was done. We want to make sure that folks come back to kaizen again and again. If you’re a first time participant, we want to make sure the experience has been gratifying.
Matt: What’s the favorite part of your job?
Derek: My favorite part is really about the interaction with people. It’s a little hard to explain, but after you’ve been doing this job for a while you’re kind of solving the same problems. It’s really about helping others solve their problems, and frankly, their joy becomes my joy. My favorite part of this job is meeting new people, showing them new things. They also teach me new things, and I learn something along the way. But really, my gratification is the client’s gratification, and I know it sounds kind of corny but after a while that’s kind of what’s left.
That’s the most meaningful piece, even outside of work. A couple months ago, a friend had a problem with his dishwasher. He mentioned that he had tried to get a repairman without success, and he couldn’t fix it. I’m kind of a fix-it guy, so I said I’d help him fix it. Well, his expression was kind of incredulous, but I convinced him we could do it. So, the next Saturday we took the dishwasher apart, found the problem and it was an easy fix. My friend was just ecstatic. You see he’s a lawyer, and had probably never done anything like that before. The following evening he cooked me and my wife this beautiful, authentic Italian meal, and that was just a joy. So, it’s just what I do. It’s just how I am.
Matt: What’s the hardest part of your job?
Derek: Being away from home for extended periods of time.
Matt: What’s one of your kaizen success stories?
Derek: U.S. Vision is an eyewear manufacturer. They’re kind of on the lower end in cost; these are the folks that might supply eyeglasses to Walmart. They’ve got a pretty quick turnaround and they do a lot of volume. I worked with them for about six months. From the beginning they were all in, no hesitation, 100 percent. I spent a whole week with them training every single person in the facility — everyone. About two hours for every person. The cool part is there were two management people helping make sure that everything ran smoothly. I had training session after training session, and I’m starting to lose my voice by the end of the day Wednesday. So, at some point these management people had seen all of the training and they offered to help. As we moved through the rest of the week, they did more and more of the training. By the time we got to Friday, all sessions were being trained by these two people. They were having a blast, and all I was doing was giving them feedback at the end of the sessions. The best part was that at the end, I knew they could do it themselves. That’s what we’re looking for. That is success — teaching the client how to do what we do, so they can solve their problems on their own.
Matt: Groups invite you because they have challenges in their business. What’s that challenge usually like?
Derek: So, that’s not always true. I don’t mean that quite that literally, but there’s a number of reasons we come in. Sometimes in a large corporation, they want you to come to a facility to help them out. The difficulty could be that they don’t think that they need any help — they don’t really understand their challenges. So, in that case, my job is really to help them see where the challenges are.
Matt: What’s a reoccurring theme that you see regularly across many companies that cause failure or weakness? What are the repeat offenders here?
Derek: I think it’s really behavioral. If you’ve been doing the same thing for a long time, working in the same company, you don’t see the problems. It’s no different than your own household, after a while things that bothered you at first stop bothering you. You know, you get used to them. At times it can be hard to see your own problems, so it’s an advantage I have. I’m a fresh set of eyes. One of the biggest problems we see is communication, and how it flows, both up and down the organizational chain. From the top you don’t always see the problems at the lower levels. Conversely, at the lower levels you don’t necessarily understand where the company’s trying to move strategically. So, it’s that communication between those two groups. We have tools and methods that help facilitate that.
Matt: So how do you sell the idea of “change” to an organization that’s culturally resistant?
Derek: There is not a magic bullet to that one. At least, I don’t have a magic bullet. By and large it’s an emotional thing, not an intellectual thing. There is a reason for the denial or resistance. Maybe it is a fear of failure or bad past experiences. I’m not really trying to sell anything. I just ask that they try. The experience and results should be enough to change people’s minds.
Matt: So what’s your experience been with Kaspar Companies, particularly regarding resistance to change?
Derek: What we’ve seen is sort of what I’ve described. As we’ve done more and more events with Kaspar Companies, people get more and more excited. I’ve not really encountered gross resistance. I think part of the reason is that my personality fits with you guys. I like Shiner. I like rural Texas. There’s things that are broken and things that aren’t working. It is easy to see that change needs to be made and overall folks have been eager to see that change.
Matt: What were some of your first thoughts of Kaspar Companies when you first came to Shiner?
Derek: It has lots to do with the people. When I first went to Kaspar Companies, I didn’t really know what to expect. When I first saw the buildings, they looked a little rough. Then I understood a little bit more. Once you get inside, there’s some energy, and then you meet some folks, and there’s some good folks, and some smart folks, and some folks that are hungry for some information and some learning, and all of the sudden you can see past the exterior. I’m working with the people inside. From the outside it’s not pretty; on the inside I think there’s lots of potential, and I’ve really enjoyed working with the folks here.
Matt: What goes through your mind when you walk into a new company for the first time and meet the people that work there?
Derek: Remembering their names is a big thing. I’m just trying to get a feel for people’s personalities, get a feel for what it is they’re thinking. You’ve got to have some sort of relationship, some sort of rapport built fairly quickly to be able to move forward, so that’s just kind of what I’m trying to do. Put my hand out, shake their hand, look them in the eye, and try to see them as a whole person as quickly as I can. Someone told me a long time ago that no one cares what you know, until they know that you care, and I’ve never forgotten that.
Matt: If you were to put employees into different categories, how would you categorize them?
Derek: So, mentally I don’t do that. It’s just not how I go about it. I probably resist those categorizations because I think people are a lot more complicated than any scheme that you can think up. I also think it diminishes them. I don’t want to diminish anyone. If anything, I want to build them up. Mostly I just want to be respectful, and I can’t do that if I try to see them as a stereotype or category.
Matt: What kind of people do you enjoy working with when you are looking to transform a company?
Derek: Who I am going to enjoy working with varies a lot. It could be a very technical person, it could be a kind person, it could be some badass that to the rest of the world is a jerk but gets along with me. That badass might not be so bad. Who I enjoy working with goes back to what I enjoy — the ability to give something to someone. I think we all appreciate being appreciated. When you have that personal connection and admire another person’s skill set, it’s really fun to work with them. It’s also fun to solve a difficult problem.
Matt: What kind of people do you least enjoy working with?
Derek: Really tall people.
Matt: Tall people?
Derek: I’m joking. Who do I least enjoy? That’s actually a really easy one. Some folks can be aggressive and arrogant and all about themselves. And I’m not talking about ambition. You can be ambitious and still treat folks around you well. The folks that I don’t appreciate being around are the folks that don’t appreciate other human beings. It’s those kinds of folks that I try to stay away from, if I can.
Matt: If you could tell everyone at Kaspar Companies something what would it be?
Derek: I think I would say, essentially, that you can impact your own work environment. You can make things better. You can contribute in ways that you probably don’t realize. There’s an opportunity to participate and make a difference for yourself and others. The bottom line is that there may not have been an opportunity to make change in the past, but there is now.
Matt: Can we take a picture of you wearing a ninja mask?
Derek Richner is a lean practitioner at Next Level Partners where he leads, mentors and teaches change management and continuous improvement in operations, quality assurance, process and product engineering. For more information about Next Level Partners, check out their website at nl-p.com.
Matt Wilson is a writer for the Shiner Gazette and a freelance writer for Espresso.