For more information about Joe Bornhorst, please visit Lean Project.




Hi, I’m Norm Orlowski, and welcome to another Program Book Talk.

Can lean management produce the same benefits for nonprofit organizations as for corporations? Well, opponents of lean, nonprofit management say that lean works in business because the profit motive exists. In charitable work, there is no such motive. Therefore, lean is said to be a poor fit, which could interfere with the organization’s laudable aims.

Our guest today is Joe Bornhorst, a lean coach for over 10 years. Bornhorst has been dedicated to lean coaching, drawing on his previous experience of 30 plus years in the commercial construction and real estate development business. He has coached lean culture, transformations, and facilitation behaviors to people at all levels of management. Projects managed by these individuals continuously experienced predictable schedules, significant cost savings, and increased team morale.

NORM: Well, good morning, Joe. We are really happy to have the time to share some thoughts on the lean principles with you, and we would like to welcome you to one of our podcasts.

JOE: Norm, great to be here, and I’m looking forward to sharing any experiences I can, and give people the opportunity to maybe look at the world in a little different fashion.

NORM: I agree with you. I think it will give people an opportunity to look at things a little bit differently.  Because, one of the things when I first met you, I was very intrigued, of course, with the concept of lean. But, I have always thought that it was more associated with lean manufacturing. Do you feel that it can also be applied to nonprofit organizations that we work with?

JOE: Let’s step back a little bit. You look at the word lean and you can Google this word and you’ll find all kind of definitions. You’ll find all kinds of descriptions. There is a lot of stuff out there.  And I have learned through the years that it is just kind of a generic term for kind of two basic concepts.  It is reducing waste and continuously improving.

NORM: Okay.

JOE: And if you take those just two basic phrases, I mean, it can apply to any industry whether it is a profit or a not-for-profit. If you think about it, every business, you know, regardless if you’re in the profit mode or nonprofit, always has room to improve.

NORM: Right.

JOE: And if you think about–if I, as running the business, can adopt kind of a lean thinking, kind of lean culture, that kind of thing over the long haul could help every business propel their mission.  It has been accepted in the manufacturing business. When you Google it, it is going to come up manufacturing, you know, Toyota, all the auto industries, okay?  But, as I have been around, just in the last probably 10 years, as I have traveled around the country, I have seen it adopted in many service industries. Healthcare is a big one. As you know, healthcare systems, some are profit, some are non-profits.

NORM: Yes.

JOE: But still they all have operations that require improvement. I have seen museums do it. You know, they are the ultimate non-profits, as well as my basic industry, the design and construction industry. So, it has really been picking up steam there for the last probably 8 to 10 years. But, again, bottom line, lean thinking is just an approach to business and a great addition to a company culture.

NORM: So it can be summed up as you say, in reducing waste and continuing improvement to the organization.

JOE: Yes.

NORM: I have a phrase that I use, which I really picked out, but the room for improvement is the biggest room in the world.

JOE: That’s right. And it gets bigger every day because there is always room for the next big idea.

NORM: So one of the things I am sure when people–with our folks, and again, we work with the non-profits, the orchestras, the dance, the theatre groups, as well as venues, and when they hear the term lean, they are going to think back to 2008 when we had this economic downturn when most all the organizations, in order to survive, were forced to do more with less. Because a lot of them were looking at that right now and they’re saying, “Well, we already have a lean staff. What else can we do?”

JOE: Well, like any business during the times–and we still all remember that–you had to do what you had to do in order to survive. And if you are still around in these times, you did something right, okay?  So having said that, you know, again, when times get tough most people chip in and they do the right thing, whether it is loyalty, you know, it’s just the right thing to do, or “Hey, I’ve gotta do this to keep my job”, or in other words, basic survival instincts apply when times are tough.  And when you do that, if you think about what kind of happens, they instinctively start to focus on what are the key main things that matter or in the lean terms, they focus on what they do best.  But the big one is, what are their customer values.  And when you look at that, then there are some other tasks and functions that if you sit back and say, “do we really need to do this?”  Okay?

And if you think about it, we all have heard that term, you know, when someone asks a questions, “so why do you do this?” Sooner or later someone will pipe up, “well, that’s kind of what we’ve always done”. So, hence, becomes an opportunity to do something better, whether you eliminate it, you figure out a different way, you do it faster, you do it quicker, maybe you got some better visuals, new images. Bottom line, when you kind of get to that, you kind of stop and ask yourself, maybe there are some core things we do that we can really do better. But maybe there are some things that we adopt, maybe there is somebody else on the outside that is better suited.

So when you look at that, you really start to focus on your main things, and you start to challenge yourself, “is there a better way we can improve?” And if you are open to say, “maybe there are resources out there that have learned and grown and picked up things from other industries that maybe they can help us”. Kind of partner with them.

NORM: I see.

JOE: And you kind of challenge yourself over and over, and you kind of go through that and kind of start back up just with the things I talked about, eliminate the things that don’t make sense, do your core things better.  Maybe you find someone who can do what you’re doing a lot better because they do it for a lot of other industries. And it is not about doing things for less with less people, it is about making your people in more high-value positions to where they are being utilized to the core concept of the business.

NORM: So it’s kind of like looking at things, looking at all the things you do and understanding, are you really majoring in your minor and minoring in your major. You know, what are the things that you can do.

JOE: Right.

NORM: Okay. That makes good sense. You know, one of the things–and I know that you travel around the United States and perhaps even the world, but, I know that in your sessions that you do with the coaching, we’re all familiar with once a year or maybe not once a year, but at least every five years or whatever, we need to look at planning. And everybody knows strategic planning.  That’s the buzz word.

Is there such a thing as lean planning? Can someone look at creating a plan for the upcoming year, which considers the lean concept?

JOE: Sure. You know, the concepts of planning, or as I call it, as I am out and about around the country, collaborative planning is similar, regardless whether it is strategic planning or project planning, task planning…okay, and I look at kind of my definition of planning as, “we lead a group of professionals through a defined process to obtain a desired goal.” So, that goal can be a variety of things. So strategic planning, you know, everybody thinks, “oh, five-year plan, I gotta look out, where do I want to be and who do I want to be, et cetera…”

NORM: Yes.

JOE: And then you kind of focus on the details of how are you going to get there.

Lean planning is no different than kind of dialing it down to the details. Because as we all know, that is where, kind of, the rubber meets the road. So, whether it’s our next project, whether it is how do we improve a department, or maybe it is just brainstorming different ways or different options to accomplish a very specific staff or a function.  Again, you can dial it down to as small of a detail as you want or as large.  And, again, lean planning, go back to lean – “How do we get better?  How do we improve?” So, hence, focusing on the details is where that kind of starts.

NORM: You already mentioned this, but how important in your sessions is re-thinking the staffing models?  For instance full-time versus part-time, maybe outsourcing some of the back room operations, how important and how critical is that?

JOE: Well, you talk about re-thinking staffing, or kind of another way I would put it is re-thinking is “how do we best utilize our resources?”  Because in an organization, the resources, our brain power of our people, that is all we’ve got.  And, if you look at that and say, “Okay, where does brain power exist in, not just in our organization, but the world”.  You say, “I do rely on other people to do things.”  Whether it’s our suppliers or vendors or…in the construction industry we call them trade partners.  So, hence, their brain power becomes part of our organization.  They are smart.  They have seen lots of situations over the years.  You have to remember, our organization is kind of a fixed component of experiences.  Then when we bring in our trade partners, they do things for organizations like that all over the country. So, their experience, their resources that they have tapped is numerous, and if we can invite them in as part of our organization, amazing the things they bring to the table. And it is so simple, all we have to do is ask.

In the construction industry, we do that all the time. If you think about it, we have electricians, we have plumbers, we have design specialists that have done a variety of projects.  So, typically when a situation comes up, somebody in that room have seen that issue before and offered multiple ways that others have solved the problem.  So, when you’re in that kind of mode, it becomes almost to the point where you can pick and choose which solutions kind of work best or whatever your situation is. And it’s so simple.  And I kind of phrase it as, “all we have to do is ask”.  Ask for advice and you get a lot of fresh ideas, and then you can just kind of pick and choose. But, the key becomes, as we ask to kind of look at ourselves and say, am I willing to open my door and let them in, share with them, kind of, my experiences, where I see–kind of bring your vulnerabilities down, and that is when trade partners do best, helping us solve a problem.

NORM: People tend to be a little reluctant to open up their doors and give up the control so to speak. That is one of the things we run into.

JOE: Yes. It’s when you break those walls down and you open your–I mean just by human nature, people want to help.

NORM: Yes.

JOE: And if you ask, you get some really great ideas. I like always being in a position to where I can pick and choose versus having to create. Because when you create, your ability is kind of limited to your own experiences, and that’s why it’s important to bring in people that have multiple experiences from various places across the industry. Again, at the end of the day, you’re still in control, but you get to pick and choose.

NORM: The other thing that I was wondering is, is there any possibility, if an organization, the ones that we deal with, adopt the lean principles…in any way could that possibly help the organization attract new donors and increase commitment from current contributors?

JOE: Yeah, sure. You look at the theatre industry, where you spent your life, I applaud them for doing a fantastic job of finding contributors, define their mission over the years, and even during the downturn, they have been able to continue doing what they do best.  But if you look as donors and contributors, they still have good memories.  You know, the recession, even though it was a few years behind us, those who are tough enough that people still remember that.  So, yes, they are very conscientious as to how they spend their dollars, you know, even from a donation standpoint.

NORM: Okay.

JOE: So when people come in and ask, “Hey, would you like to contribute to our cause?”, I mean, the basic issues of, “Okay, let’s talk about what service you provide.  How are you delivering that service, and then what about the repeatable things that you are doing.”  So when you adopt a lean principle, lean culture, it becomes kind of a new story. You know, we’re improving our organization.  So now you’ve got a little different story to tell than you did the previous year.

NORM: Interesting.

JOE: And I have seen that throughout the design and construction industry for companies who have kind of adopted a culture and start to do it very well, they can now start citing examples of how by putting that in, they are improving, and it gives them an additional story to tell that was not there a year ago.  And when people donate, they love to hear, you know, what are you doing new.

NORM:  Yeah.  That’s a great concept, a great thought.  I just did another podcast, Joe, with an expert in fundraising.  And, he talked about how important it is to relate to that potential donor all the wonderful things that you are doing.  But now, as you say, if you’ve got a brand new story that includes some of these concepts from lean principles, it’s a whole new story and it is pretty exciting for the development department to be able and go out there and relate what is being done to reduce costs.  That’s a terrific thought.

JOE: And when you give them a new story, the stage is set.  So now you have their ear, you have them as an audience.  And then it’s pretty basic, then you have to sell your program.

NORM: Good. I just want to — this might be a tall task, but as we close out this podcast, I was just wondering if there was just maybe one or two things, maybe one or two nuggets, that an organization can do immediately to take a step towards lean operations?

JOE: Sure. You hit kind of the key word there, “operations”, and that makes it so easy.  Because in operations, if you think about it, you’re doing a lot of repeatable things.  And repeatable items is where the opportunity lies.  But the key is that you kind have to make a list of them, and you’ve got to isolate and you kind of have to focus.  So as a result, kind of what we talked about earlier, is, you know, set an end goal for whatever that item may be.  So whether it is, “I want to reduce delivery time by 10%, I want to reduce the cost of the specific item, or I want to outsource a task that we have traditionally done in-house, because I want deploy our people to other things.”  Again, whatever that task wants to be, the key is to define that end goal.  And then you have got to bring the right people to the table.

So you know, it is thinking through who you are kind of bringing in to kind of talk about it, you know, whether it’s your own staff or peer, or whether it’s organizations from the outside.  The key is you have got to keep the group small, because it has to be manageable, and I’m saying six to eight.  My experience is no more than 10 people in a room, and having someone to facilitate that that is kind of neutral.  So maybe it’s somebody within your organization, or maybe somebody from a different department that does not have a vested interest in kind of where things are going, or maybe somebody from the outside.  But the key point there is that they have to be somebody who ask just great questions.  Your people, your experts, know the answers.  The key is, is what is the right question to ask.  And then bottom line, you kind of create the road map, and in the lean world, we call it creating to A3.  People can Google that.

But basically, it is just a format and it asks some basic questions, kind of, what is our current situation, and everybody talks about it and then write that down; what is our end goal, talk about what you are trying to accomplish; what are options, suggestions, and alternatives; what are the recommendations and; what’s our next step, maybe some have some costs items associated with it.  But the key is, is when you are doing this is to put the ideas up and just let them sit there and kind of let people think about them.  Too many times I have seen when you do things like this, people want to put an idea up, and then decide yes or no whether it works.  Sometimes you just have to let it kind of sit there and cook and bake a little bit.

NORM: Right. There is always the knee-jerk reaction that we have done that, tried that, and it does not work.  Just to kind of summarize here, some of the things I got from this is that, number one, look at the repeatable tasks. What is the organization doing that repeats every year, and look at these maybe in a different way.  But define the end goal, what the end goal is in mind, and then bring the right people to the table. Not only the internal, but maybe external, maybe vendors, whatever, and talk with them.

JOE: Right. And then the key component is, again, the repeatable things and seek out experts.  Seek out people who have solved this in the past.  Most organizations’ problems exist somewhere else in the world.

NORM: Good advice. Well, Joe, I really appreciate you taking the time this morning to share your thoughts with me. I am sure that once we get this podcast out, it is going to provide some good feedback and some good thoughts for the organizations that we work with.  Again, thank you very much for your time.

JOE: Norm, I really appreciate it, and I wish you the best, and again, hope the industry continuously improves.  That’s the name of the game.

NORM: Joe’s current passion to his clients is to instill reliability to deliver predictability by offering lean coaching and business advice to all levels of professionals. If you would like to contact Joe, and you can reach him at his e-mail address, which is

I’m Norm Orlowski, good selling.


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