Lean Leadership on a Napkin - Author Interview with Ken Pilone

Author Interview with Ken Pilone: “Lean Leadership on a Napkin”

I am excited to continue my author interview series with longtime friend and colleague, Ken Pilone, who’s written an a great introductory book on lean transformation called Lean Leadership on a Napkin: An Executive’s Guide to Lean Transformation in Three Proven Steps. During our interview we explore many topics including insights from Ken’s nearly 20-years at Toyota and leading the University of Toyota, why he recommends introducing A3 thinking as the way to transform your organization, what he’s learned from leading transformational change and teaching leadership across diverse industries (including healthcare), and why simplicity is the answer.

About Lean Leadership on a Napkin

In Lean Leadership on a Napkin, Ken demonstrates the simplicity of lean as a simple common sense approach.

He describes the three main steps (or phases of transformation), as he documented at the University of Toyota, as:

  1. Introduction
  2. Integration
  3. Internalization.

This book primarily focuses on the first phase – Introduction. It is an excellent introduction to what lean is really all about, including a “CliffsNotes”style history of the Toyota Way and lean, an overview of the key principles, tools, and practices of lean, and simple diagrams (hence “lean leadership on a napkin”) and witty stories to illustrate each point.

Ken writes in a simple and straightforward way, focusing on the fundamental principles and tools that support the development of a lean continuous improvement culture. I read the book in one sitting – enjoying it thoroughly, even as a seasoned lean practitioner.

If you are responsible for leading change in your organization and are seeking some simple ways to convey your vision, or are a leader curious to understand what lean is really all about in an accessible and easy-to-understand way, this book is for you!

The Book Giveaway for January 2023

Lean Leadership on a Napkin Giveaway


Ken generously donated 3 signed copies of his book to giveaway to three lucky winners in the US!

This giveaway ended on January 10th at 11:45pm Pacific time, if you would like to hear about my future book giveaways, click here.

About Ken and Our Chain of Learning

Ken’s career has traversed several roads, all focused on creating learning organizations through developing people.

Ken spent nearly two decades at Toyota Motor Sales (where he knows that he was in meetings together with Isao Yoshino, the subject of my book Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn, when he was working out of the Torrance office), including roles at the co-creator of the University of Toyota, where he developed the training programs to the Toyota Way and Toyota Production System. He also led the Center for Lean Thinking and helped adapt the Toyota Production System to non-production environments (warehousing, supply chain, HQ administration depts., sales, product distribution, dealer operations) across Toyota.

After leaving Toyota, Ken had a successful consulting practice bringing all that he knew about lean thinking and practice to diverse industries, before taking several leadership positions internally at several California-based healthcare systems.

The Link in Our Chain

Before this interview, Ken and I hadn’t talked in a few years, but when we got together it was like no time had passed. Ken and I first met when we were both leading Lean Promotion Offices for different regions within Sutter Healthcare System in California and were responsible for leading the lean transformation efforts across the system.

I was always impressed with Ken’s depth of knowledge, his kindness, and his genuine caring about everyone he worked with. This attitude comes through in his writing and storytelling in Lean Leadership on a Napkin.

Ken was also a guest on my friend Mark Graban’s Lean Blog podcast where he talks about his book in detail – which you can listen to here.

And fun fact, Ken worked at the University of Toyota with Matthew May, an author who is on my 10 Top Books about Culture, Change, and Strategy and who I also interviewed in his own author interview about his new book What a Unicorn Knows.

Author Interview with Ken Pilone and Katie Anderson: Lean Leadership on a Napkin

Without further ado, dive into my conversation with Ken in the video below and discover why I was so excited to talk with him.

Note: this interview is longer than my typical author interviews (coming in at just under an hour) but you won’t want to miss any of the wisdom and golden nuggets about leadership, learning, and people-development that we cover here.

Highlights from my interview with Ken Pilone

Below are some highlights from our conversation including some of the questions asked and excerpts of Ken’s responses with time stamps. We covered more topics too so don’t miss out on the rich discussion – watch the video above!

1. What inspired you to write the book in the first place? What problem were you trying to solve by writing the book? (01:47)

I saw the trend in books around lean, getting bigger and fatter, and more complicated. I kept scratching my head thinking, why is this so difficult?

The way I learned it, the way I grew up in Toyota, was a simple common sense approach.

The idea was to keep it simple and straightforward and go back to what my understanding was about it, which is a pretty fundamental set of principles and tools.

“The idea was to keep it simple and straightforward and go back to … a fundamental set of principles and tools.”

2. Can you share a little bit of your background and history of how you came to have so much wisdom that you were able to distill down into that “applied common sense”? (3:05)

I started out in multiple industries in manufacturing and aerospace and then I ended up at Toyota. I worked in training and development as the head of training development at the company headquarters. About halfway through my 20-year career there, I got asked to join a team of five other people to create the University of Toyota, which was intended to consolidate all the training education.

In that mode, I was forced to learn about lean, and try to figure out what made sense for us to teach, how do we teach it?

I was immersed in it and that brought me to Toyota in Japan, and spent time in the archives there and learning about the history, which also helped me.

3. What are the top things that you see people getting wrong with a lean transformation and one suggestion you have for people getting started on a transformation to avoid these risks? (7:11)

Well, many, if not most transformations fail, whether it lean or anything else, they just fail.

Part of it is they underestimate the resistance. They think it’s a really cool thing – everybody should jump on board… And everybody doesn’t. Everybody won’t.

People are naturally cynical or have learned to become cynical, or they seem the flavor of the mouth come and go.

So, one piece of advice is: don’t underestimate the negative resistance, you’re not going to see it until you start moving but as soon as you start moving, you’re going to encounter those headwinds. You have to be realistic but persistent. 

“Don’t underestimate the negative resistance…You have to be realistic but persistent.”  

The other half of that is starting small.

I try to emphasize instead of going after or trying to tackle the entire transformation all at once, particularly in a large organization, try a model cell, try with one department and be upfront about it.

You and I both know that if you experiment in the right way in a model cell, it’s going to work and eventually spread. So start small and don’t underestimate the resistance.

So, my advice is: small and don’t underestimate the resistance.

“My advice is: small and don’t underestimate the resistance.”

4. What are the key elements of learning that need to happen from the executive team? (9:27)

I would say that leaders need to start by learning about themselves and really understand:

  • What is your MO (modus operandi)?
  • How do you present yourself as a leader currently?
  • How do the leadership team present themselves?
  • What do you believe is right about your leadership? 

“Leaders need to start by learning about themselves.”

5. In the book you recommend that “if you only do one thing to transform your organization, this should be it! It will transform your life.” Why do you believe that A3 thinking and using A3s is the one thing to do to transform an organization (and your life)? (14:55)

Well, as you well know, [A3 is] a scientific method on paper. It starts with a hypothesis, and I like the idea that it forces you to think logically. I know it helped me personally this way. 

An A3 guides your thinking on how to solve a problem, and it raises a whole bunch of questions. And by asking those questions, you become more humble. And by becoming more humble, you become a better leader.

So it’s more than just a piece of paper. It’s more than just “doing an A3”.  It’s really the enrichment personally that you get from it, the lessons that you’ve learned, the notion that, hey, it’s not over when it’s over.

Because when you get to the end of the A3, guess what, you start all over again. This notion of it being a slinky, which also embeds the notion of kaizen in your mind. Everything good about lean in a way, I think, could be found within the four corners of the A3.

“Everything good about lean in a way could be found within the four corners of the A3.”

6. What do you think were some enablers for you to make the transition across very different industries, from manufacturing to healthcare? (18:52)

Well, I’d start with the foundation for lean and the foundation for healthcare that leads in a clinical space is a scientific method.

So it’s a common language there.

7. What is one thing that you have discovered or learned through the process of writing and publishing your book? (25:08)

That I knew nothing! 

I mean, it was a very humbling experience because I always had it in my head that someday I was going to write a book. But when I actually sat down to do it – and I had a publisher with expectations – I learned that having some content knowledge is only half the equation. There’s a whole lot of other things involved in it, which to me was an adventure.

8. Thinking back on all the stories and all the lessons you’ve learned through your career, what’s one thing that you found was the most impactful or was impactful for you in changing your own behavior or something that you learned how to do? (27:17)

Well, there’s so many of them, but I would say the pattern would be I learned the most after failures and when I was challenged by my internal coaches at Toyota to break down the logic and what I was doing and how I was doing it.

Particularly one boss who encouraged me to go to gemba, and not hide behind my computer but to get out there, understand what’s happening, talk to people, and ask questions.

“The most important thing I’ve learned is the pattern I learned after failures and when I was challenged … to break down the logic and what I was doing and how I was doing it.”

9. What is one question that you haven’t been asked about the book that you’d like to pose here and answer? (30:00)

I think it gets back to the opening comments about why I did it: Why did I write this book?

The one thing I think it affirmed for me or reaffirmed for me is that people hunger for simplicity. They would rather be led than managed.

“People hunger for simplicity. They would rather be led than managed.”

The point at which this all began was when I was sitting in one of the physician’s offices who was a person that I was coaching, and it was a routine leadership coaching session. And on his wall, on the corkboard, he had a bunch of images that I had sketched out for him over the prior sessions.

I said, ‘I’m flattered that you have these here.’ He says, ‘I love these. And I reproduced them and I shared them with other people exactly the way you drew them for me.’

And he said, ‘You know what, Ken? You should staple these things together and call it a book.’

And I go, ‘Ha, how silly is that?’

But it stayed in my head, rattling around, and I thought, and I said, ‘What is it about that that you find useful?’

He said, ‘The simplicity of it, and my ability to recreate it is not based on any artistic ability or anything like that. It’s just taking a real, fairly complex subject and reducing it to something small.’

And so that really reinforced to me that if you’re talking about a physician leader who benefited from these simple little crude napkin drawings, then maybe there’s something to this.

“It’s just taking a real, fairly complex subject and reducing it to something small.”

A chance to win a copy of Lean Leadership on a Napkin!

If you enjoyed this interview and want to learn more directly from Ken, be sure to register for the book giveaway to get your own copy!

This giveaway ended January 10th, 2022 at 11:45pm Pacific time.

Three lucky participants received a copy of the paperback version of Lean Leadership on a Napkin.

If you would like to hear about my future book giveaways, click here.

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