Focus Groups and Lean: An Interview with Richard Coley

During uncertain economic times, it’s natural for businesses (and people in general), to seek to reduce costs wherever possible.  In fact, I keep running into people whose organizations are going through a “lean” makeover. Whether they make mattresses in Pennsylvania or deliver public health services in Oregon, companies everywhere are looking for ways to cut waste.

Developed in Japanese Toyota plants in the 1940’s, going lean is about preserving value with less work. It is actually a set of tools that helps with the identification and steady elimination of muda in companies, a Japanese term for futility, uselessness, idleness, superfluity, and waste.

I first became acquainted with lean through Richard Coley, a veteran lean practitioner trained by Japanese sensei’s.  Richard’s consulting services are grounded in the philosophy that all improvement work must integrate the voices of the people involved at all levels. Richard approached me when he learned about my focus group work and immediately saw the application to lean as a means to see waste where it had not been seen before.  He ultimately invited me to conduct a series of focus groups for a lean project he and his team were conducting for a local nonprofit agency.

I recently asked Richard how he thought the focus groups complimented the lean process. Our conversation follows:

Eliot: How do you define lean when people ask you what it is?

Coley: Lean is a magnificent combination of tools blended into a holistic system for improvement. It is applied to the organization as a whole. It also lends itself as a plug-in for tools outside the traditional lean process. It’s more of a systematic strategy than a tactic.

Eliot: Where does lean work best?

Coley: With all types of organizations really. I’ve worked with government agencies, in health care, manufacturing, with sales groups, financial industry, and engineering firms. I’m not an expert in any of these areas, but I help companies look at their processes, whatever the industry. Just like water takes the path of least resistance, lean is about designing processes so there aren’t any dips or roadblocks in the workflow.

Eliot: So it sounds like lean is about fixing processes, not people. Is that right?

 Coley: That’s right. It’s not about fixing people. It’s about improving people’s conditions so they can be the best at what they do. Sometimes we put people in working conditions that pretty much force mediocrity. It’s not that people want to be mediocre; they’re working as hard as they can and doing the best that they can. Lean is about improving the work environment so people experience a level of competence that they might not have experienced before.

Eliot: When we first met, you told me you that you thought lean could benefit from focus groups. Talk to me more about that.

Coley: When I learned lean from Japanese sensei’s at Toyota, one thing I came to understand is that the originators never intended for lean to be static. That’s why I’m constantly searching for other tools that would plug in easily to the lean process. Focus groups are a good way to make sure you have a comprehensive set of information in front of you before you start. It’s a way to hear the voice of staff and reveal underlying issues at the system level. When you start looking under the rocks, things start to bubble up.

Eliot: Why do you recommend doing focus groups rather than just asking staff outright what processes are broken?

Coley: People may not always say things in a way that is concrete and clear so I think that is where focus groups can be real helpful in bringing out the issues and helping clarify them. Focus groups can also help inventory the issues by digging deeper than asking the question outright. That way we are sure to understand the full scope of the problem.

Eliot: It sounds like capturing the voices of those who will be part of the lean process – wherever they work – is integral to lean.

Coley: Yes, you hit the nail on the head. The main thing is that people feel their voices are heard. Anytime you can take a group of people and set them down in an environment that is absent of their managers, they feel freer to talk.  And, they walk away feeling respected by the organization.

Eliot: So it’s also about respect.

Coley: Definitely. In my entire career working with people, the main motivator I have found is respect. It’s not money; it’s not position. I work with people who don’t get paid very much but because they are so highly respected, they do extraordinary jobs. The real test of that, though, is showing that what we uncovered in the focus group is integrated into the project. Now, that’s the ultimate form of respect! That’s something tangible that people can feel.

Eliot: What should managers and program directors know about the lean process?

When I talk with managers they are always talking about alignment—aligning their company objectives with customer needs. They must understand that listening is a huge piece of that—you first have to understand what your employees are saying to you. And then you must act on it. I’m talking about what I call “listening with action.”

Eliot: “Listening with action” is one of the things I really like about lean. Not only do you give people voice, but you take what they say and almost immediately integrate it into the improvement process.

Coley: Yes, people can say, “They heard us,” “They listened to us,” and “They did something with what we said.” And then we can continue the focus group discussion with them on the shop floor. They can say, “See, this is what I was talking about [in the focus group].” The focus groups can lead us to a lot of what I call ‘just-do- its.’ ‘Just-do-its’ are simple items that can be completed with little or no additional resources, but have a positive impact on the flow. They are like simple Kaizens.

Eliot: What is a Kaizen?

Coley: It is a Japanese term. “Kai” means ‘take apart’ and “Zen” means ‘put back together with peace and harmony.’ That’s important because if the project doesn’t end in peace and harmony, you will not see successful improvement. There are of tons of consultants who help companies make improvements. But if people end up feeling frustrated and disgruntled, the consultants have not left the area in peace and harmony. It will not work. Kaizen events normally last between 3 – 5 days and create a great foundation for applying additional lean initiatives such as lean six sigma.

Eliot: How do you ensure that peace and harmony last beyond the lean process?

Coley: That is by far the hardest. In our culture, when we achieve an improvement we high-five ourselves and move on. We assume that the improvement will sustain itself. And that is where the failure comes from. You must have some structure, some process in place that gives a signal when things go awry.

I think that’s another place where focus groups can be useful. In addition to doing them prior to the lean process, focus groups can be used during the implementation to identify what’s working and what’s still missing. They can especially help pick up what part of the nurturing piece is missing that needs to be addressed to sustain the peace and harmony.

Eliot: How closely do we in the U. S. implement lean to the way the Japanese intended it?

Coley: In the 18 years I’ve been practicing lean, I’ve seen a shift where U.S. companies are focused more on process improvement and performance than on the people portion. But companies must learn to listen to employees’ ideas for accomplishing the company’s objectives because those ideas are tied to customer needs. It’s what the Japanese do.  It becomes your culture if you allow it to manifest and grow in the right way. You don’t even call it lean anymore. Everyone knows how to react to issues as they come up because of the lean culture they have integrated.


Though focus groups have not been a traditional component of the lean process, Richard knows that they are a key element in identifying areas of waste and for implementing solutions that work.  He even thinks the Japanese would approve!

If you have experimented with using focus groups in the lean process, please leave Richard and me a comment below. We would also be happy to answer any questions you may have about lean, focus groups, or a combination of the two.

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