An interview with Mark Graban
  • September 26th, 2017

Mark Graban, Author of Practicing Lean: Learning How to Learn How to get Better... Better

1 H 20 MIN
In this Episode

Mark Graban is the author of the Leanpub book Practicing Lean: Learning How to Learn How to get Better... Better. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Mark about his career, his interests, his book, and at the end they talk a little bit about Mark's experience as a self-published author.


Mark Graban

Mark Graban is the author of the Leanpub book Practicing Lean: Learning How to Learn How to get Better... Better. In this interview, Leanpub co-founder Len Epp talks with Mark about his career, his interests, his book, and at the end they talk a little bit about Mark's experience as a self-published author.

This interview was recorded on May 2, 2017.

The full audio for the interview is here. You can subscribe to the Frontmatter podcast in iTunes or add the podcast URL directly.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

A Note About the Leanpub Frontmatter Podcast

This summer we split the old Leanpub podcast into two distinct podcasts:

Frontmatter, which is a general interest podcast where you can listen to Leanpub authors talk with Leanpub co-founder Len Epp about their books and their areas of expertise, from data science to molecular biology, to the history of labor and management. And for those interested in the nitty-gritty of what it takes to be a successful self-published author, at the end of each episode Len asks the author about how they made their book and how they are spreading the word, and othe publishing shop talk.

Backmatter, a new podcast focused specifically on the publishing industry and its latest trends. In each episode Len interviews a professional from the publishing world about their background and their insider's perspective on what's happening in the huge and evolving world of book publishing.

Mark Graban

Len: Hi, I'm Len Epp from Leanpub, and in this Leanpub podcast, I'll be interviewing Mark Graban. Mark is VP of Improvement and Innovation services at KaiNexus, a technology consultancy focusing on creating and fostering cultures of improvement in health care and other industries.

Practicing Lean: Learning How to Learn How to get Better... Better by Mark Graban

He's also an author, consultant, speaker, and blogger with a particular specialty in Lean healthcare. At times in his career, he's worked for industry giants, including Dell and General Motors. And he has a Master's in Engineering and an MBA from MIT.

Mark is the founder of, where you can read his posts and listen to the podcast episodes that he hosts. You can find out more about him on his website at, and you can follow him on Twitter @markgraban.

Mark is the author of two award winning books from Productivity Press: Lean Hospitals: Improving Quality, Patient Safety, and Employee Engagement, and Healthcare Kaizen: Engaging Front-Line Staff in Sustainable Continuous Improvements, which he co-authored with Joe Swartz. More recently, Mark and Joe also published an additional companion book, *The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen: Leadership for a Continuously Learning and Improving Organization.

Mark has authored a number of Leanpub books, including editing and contributing to the book, Practicing Lean: Learning How to Learn How to get Better... Better, which is a collection of first person stories by 16 authors from different industries, reflecting on some of their mistakes and experiences practicing lean.

In this interview, we're going to talk about Mark's professional interests, his books, and for those listening who are themselves authors or aspiring authors, at the end we'll talk a little bit about his experience publishing and being an author.

So, thank you Mark for being on the Leanpub Podcast.

Mark: Thanks Len, great to be here with you today.

Len: I always start these podcasts by asking people for their origin story. I was interested how you first got started in your career, and how you got to where you are today. I know it's a long journey.

Mark: Yes, that's right. You gave some of the background there. I guess my origin story has two acts so far.

The first act was I thought I was going to be a plant manager, a manufacturing executive. I thought that was my career path, that first part of my career. I was always focused on lean manufacturing, if you will, "lean production," "lean manufacturing," [the] precursor in a lot of ways to "lean startup," and I think also "lean publishing." I've just always enjoyed helping people improve.

And as, you might say, a recovering engineer, you have that drilled into you - that you need to come up with the answer. With lean and continuous improvement, it's less about you coming up with answers, and more about being a facilitator and a coach.

So after ten years of manufacturing, the second act of my career was in a way, I won't say accidental, but unplanned detour into healthcare, where I've now been working for almost 12 years. Same challenges. How do we help people improve? There's no shortage of improvement opportunities in healthcare.

And my career transitioned from being an engineer and consultant, to also being a writer, which started with blogging, and that very directly led to the opportunities to write books. I love writing, and sort of get pushed by my dad into engineering, instead of being a sports writer. That's going way back in the origin story. I wanted to be a journalist. I'm happy to have the engineering degree in that background, and I guess it goes to show, I was able to find ways to write anyway. And Leanpub, in later years, has been a part of that.

Len: I know you've got a book on Leanpub called Sports and I'm going to ask you a couple of questions about that a little bit later.

Before we go any further though, I'd like to ask you - for the benefit of those listeners who might not have heard of "lean" before - I know it's a big question, but what's the brief introduction to the history of lean and what it is?

Mark: There's different places to start. I [will] maybe start in the middle and talk about how lean production, almost 30 years ago, was a term that was coined by some researchers at MIT that were studying the auto industry. They were looking at Japanese automakers, American automakers, European automakers.

As Jim Womack, one of the authors and later founders of the Lean Enterprise Institute, [said] - I think this is his line: "The good news was that the Americans were better than the Europeans on productivity and quality. The bad news is that we were nowhere near as good as the Japanese," meaning Toyota and Honda. And they studied the companies, and zeroed in on what they would call the Toyota production system.

There's this method, that Toyota describes today - it's a method that has its origins post-World War II. W. Edwards Deming, an American statistician and quality guru, was sent to help rebuild Japan and their industry after the war. So if we backtrack a little bit, [we find] a lot of American roots and other influences on Toyota and what became the Toyota production system.

Today in 2017, Toyota people who go and help people - suppliers, non-profits - there are great success stories out there with food banks and eye clinics. Toyota describes lean as not just a set of technical methods of how do we improve - tools if you will - but they also describe it as a management approach. You could describe it as a style of leadership. They also describe it as a philosophy. And Toyota - I think, most importantly - describes it as an integrated system. All of this together - developing people, improving the results of the organization.

So Womack and the MIT team had to give it a word. They said if they wanted this approach to spread in the auto industry - and I worked at General Motors, Toyota was a dirty word, we can't say directly and tell people we're copying Toyota, even though that was very much the case in 1995. You had to call it something. So phrases like, "Just in time production" and "lean" came into vogue in the 90's.

Lean is at its core, I think, an improvement methodology, a management system, a culture - it's what we do, it's how we are as leaders. And it's proven transferable across different types of manufacturing, healthcare, government, software companies, law firms. People in every industry and every setting would say, "Well hey, we don't build cars. How is this appropriate to us?"

And you know what? It turns out, when you look at it not just through a narrow lens of a better way of building cars, ahen you view it as a management system, a way of engaging everybody in continuous improvement, you realize - yeah, that does apply. So that's my attempt at lean in a nutshell.

Len: Thanks for that, that was very good to ground it in a story from your own life, because it might sound a little bit abstract to people. But this is actually a very complex thing, and deep inside a company's culture, and so therefore can be quite a shock on a number of dimensions.

You have a great blog post that you invoke in your first chapter of your book, Practicing Lean, Where you talk about your experience starting out at General Motors, and - I mean, I'm tempted to tell it - to retell it myself. But just to sort of set the stage.

Mark: Which story?

Len: I'm sure there's more. But there's complex things like - for example, under union rules, the environment that you went to, the older shop floor workers were the ones who got to work. And the younger ones were made to stay home, because of seniority. And so therefore the younger ones were not working, and were making 70% of their pay doing nothing. And the older ones were doing all the strenuous work. But then they made 100%. And just various things like, you have a story about how you designed this more ergonomic way of doing something that was much safer and less strenuous for the workers who did that particular task. And yet, they resisted your improvement, because it was less macho to use the equipment rather than use the -

Mark: Think that was part of it, yeah.

Len: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the story with the - I forget what they were called, but they were these rods, I think - that were falling in the grease.

Mark: If you think back to some of t

Podcast info & credits
  • Published on September 26th, 2017
  • Interview by Len Epp on May 2nd, 2017
  • Transcribed by Alys McDonough