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Mike Micklewright

Quality Insider

Dyslexics Wanted, Part Two

Lean attributes helpful to those with dyslexia

Published: Tuesday, July 27, 2010 - 06:00

In part one of this series I described what dyslexia is and how I linked “dyslexia” with “lean.” I described how, despite the many positive attributes of people with dyslexia (e.g., tending to be more creative), schools and businesses have done a poor job of adapting educational and training systems to meet the needs of students or employees who are dyslexic. I suggested that perhaps we can and should keep in mind those who have dyslexia or other “issues” (e.g., other learning disabilities, ADHD, English as a second language) when we manage our business systems, much as lean principles and techniques have. Perhaps we can take the approach of what is called “universal design for learning” (UDL). How do we do that?

Respect of the individual

It starts with one of the key principles behind lean, “Respect every individual.” This principle is also one of the key principles of the prestigious Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence, in which it is stated,

“Respect is a principle that enables the development of people and creates an environment for empowered associates to improve the processes that they ‘own.’ This principle is stated in the context of ‘every individual’ rather than ‘for people’ as a group. Respect must become something that is deeply felt for and by every person in the organization. It is something that must be reflected at the individual level, because at the end of the day individuals drive continuous improvement throughout an organization.”

Let’s face it gang. We have done a terrible job of adhering to this principle. We have treated students as a group, not as individuals. Our schools tear apart the self-esteem and tear out the hearts of our little children with dyslexia by telling these smart, creative kids that they are dumb, in the form of report card peppered with Ds and Fs.

From page 59 of Innovate Like Edison: The Success System of America's Greatest Inventor (Dutton Adult, 2007) Thomas Edison, who was strongly believed to be dyslexic, once said, “I used never be able to get along at school. I don’t know what it was, but I was always at the foot of the class. I used to feel that the teachers never sympathized with me and that my father thought I was stupid, and at last I almost decided that I really must be a dunce.”

In The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education (The MIT Press, 2000), W. Edwards Deming, Ph.D., wrote, “People are different than one another. A manager of people must be aware of these differences and use them for optimization of everybody’s abilities and inclinations. This is not ranking people. Management of industry, education, and government operate today under the supposition that all people are alike.”

Children with dyslexia, after being battered and humiliated in our school systems, grow up to be adults and then we expect them to read e-mails, contracts, procedures, work instructions, and drawings as if they could read these documents as easily as a person who is “normal,” just because they are now out of school. We continue to fail these now grown up kids as we evaluate each individual “as a group” with grown up report cards, called “performance appraisals.” The result is the same—they continue to feel like failures, and we scratch our heads trying to figure out why they won’t participate and help the business improve.

Standardizing processes vs. individualizing employees

Processes need to be standardized. People need to be individualized. It is well understood in the lean world that, for a process to be improved, it needs to be first understood and standardized. People are then trained to the standardized process to ensure consistency. A new thought or idea is brought forth by an employee, it is attempted, the results are checked or evaluated, and a new standard is developed. This is the basic plan, do, check, act process that so many of us understand.

However, it does not apply to people. We cannot, nor should we, try to standardize people. It is not respectful of them because we are all different products and we cannot force all of us to behave or perform the same way. And yet, we continue to train people to the same types of procedures, using the exact same methodology for all individuals, even though we all learn differently. The methodology is not universal in design. It does not allow for:

Multiple means of representation to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge

• Multiple means of expression to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know

• Multiple means of engagement to tap into learners’ interests, challenge them appropriately, and motivate them to learn


We then also evaluate all employees on standardized criteria and we “inspect” them, as we would in the final inspection process of products coming off of the assembly line, in a process called “the annual performance review,” even though we know people are different and excel differently in different areas. For more information on this topic, refer to a previous article entitled “God’s Mistakes.”

Lean, on the other hand, embraces differences between employees and encourages us to find the best attributes of all employees and use those to the advantage of the employee and the company. It does so, because respect of all individuals is the key principle by which all tools and the culture are based.

Furthermore, in the job instruction module of training within industry (TWI), the training process is one in which a trainer trains an employee by actually doing the task (trainer and trainee), seeing it, vocalizing it, and explaining why each step is important. This is more of a universal approach in training employees, and gives them multiple means of representation and expression.

Edison, with the assistance of a strong and supporting mother, overcame his feelings of inadequacy because he intuitively came to understand the importance of experiential learning, combining multisensory information with words. It is said that he touched and “tasted” associated objects with his readings, including ores, rocks, powders, leaves, wires, wood, bark, and other elements of nature. A lean environment allows for those who learn differently to excel in the company.

Visual controls/visual management

If it is difficult for one who has dyslexia to read requirements on a print out of a specification, procedure, spreadsheet, or work instruction, then what should we do? Should we keep giving him or her the same types of documents, expecting different results, not getting different results, blaming the employees for incompetency, adding more of the same difficult-to-read words, retrain him or her again, and achieve the same negative results again? Or, should we look at different alternatives?

How does a fast food chain ensure consistency with its products from restaurant to restaurant, across the country or globe, while employing people of so many different backgrounds, cultures, and languages? Pictures! Photos!

Lean is all about visual controls. Lean is about color coding, color logic (e.g., red is bad, yellow is caution, green is good), and color standardization. Lean is about outlining different tools on a pegboard or in a tool chest so that it becomes obvious if a tool or piece of equipment is missing. Lean is about creating photos of the ideal situation and placing them out in the open, so that the situation can be seen by all—including responsible managers—to allow for a quick comparison between the ideal state and actual state. Lean is about not hiding problems and openly showing problems. Lean is about mistake-proofing so we don’t have to think or read, thus making it universal in design once again.

Lean is also about visual management, so that a leader, at any level, can be at the process and see exactly how the process is performing at that moment in time, without having to ask anyone. Lean is about seeing the problems or the misses to expected performance, and seeing the actions that are being conducted at that time.

Those who have dyslexia would thrive in a lean environment, because of the lack of reliance on the written word and the desire to install and maintain visual controls and visual management systems.

Gemba walk/process focus

Paul Smith, an individual with dyslexia and former president of the Kroger Co.’s Atlanta division ( a $3 billion dollar a year division, with 24,000 employees and 16 stores) has no computer. “Computers don’t run companies. People run companies,” Smith says.

From The Power of Dyslexic Thinking: How a Learning Disability Shaped Six Successful Careers, by Robert W. Langston (Bridgeway Books, 2009), Smith also says, “I get up every morning and I drive to my stores. I go to as many stores as I can a day, and I talk to baggers, I talk to cashiers, I talk to managers, and I talk to my customers. From that, I try to get a feel for what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong, and then I call the office and tell them what to fix.” Every day, he was an “Undercover Boss” as depicted in the hit CBS show—except he wasn’t undercover.

So was Paul Orfalea, another famous person with dyslexia and founder of Kinko’s (the name originated from a reference to Paul’s kinky hair).

“I didn’t keep paperwork, files, a pen, or a computer. In a way, the office was just for show because I didn’t like spending time there,” Orfalea says. “We were an oral company, a verbal company. My restlessness propelled me out of doors. How many managers do you know who really understand what is happening at the front lines of their business? I did. I visited stores to find out what our different locations were doing right. Anybody can sit around in an office thinking about what people are doing wrong. My job was to get out and find out what people were doing right—and exploit it.”

Lean is about getting the butts of managers and leaders out of the office and conference rooms and into the process. Smith and Orfalea had no choice. They ran their organizations from where the action was. It would not even come close to making any sense to them, both figuratively and literally, to run their very large organizations from the comforts of a corporate office, because this is not where the action is… and besides, the only thing that really gets produced in offices are difficult to read words and numbers. Who would want that?

In lean lingo, we refer to the Japanese word gemba, which means the “actual place.” The more appropriate longer version of this term is genchi genbutsu or “going to the actual place to understand the situation.” Is this not the lesson being taught in CBS’ “Undercover Boss”and by our many dyslexic corporate leaders?

When developing a lean culture, a key component is to have the leaders—not managers—from all levels, including the CEO, go out to where the action is to see the situation, to coach, to mentor the people, to see and show the waste, and to ask the people what they could do to make the process better. This is a largely misunderstood process in the United States, primarily because it requires leaders to be humble and not egocentric. It requires tenacity, vigilance, patience, and discipline. It requires process focus, process knowledge, and it requires the ability to study and see situations objectively. It requires being a leader of people, not a manager of people.

So often, after teaching a company about the gemba, a supervisor will walk up to me and say, “I do gemba every day.” I am very skeptical. Usually they mean they walk the floor daily— this is not doing the gemba. Gemba is not performed correctly in most cases.

Doing a gemba walk comes naturally to a person with dyslexia. Those of us who are “normal” would benefit in learning from those who have dyslexia. Lean allows those with dyslexia to thrive within the organization.



About The Author

Mike Micklewright’s picture

Mike Micklewright

Mike Micklewright has been teaching and facilitating quality and lean principles worldwide for more than 25 years. He specializes in creating lean and continuous improvement cultures, and has implemented continuous improvement systems and facilitated kaizen/Six Sigma events in hundreds of organizations in the aerospace, automotive, entertainment, manufacturing, food, healthcare, and warehousing industries. Micklewright is the U.S. director and senior consultant for Kaizen Institute. He has an engineering degree from the University of Illinois, and he is ASQ-certified as a Six Sigma Black Belt, quality auditor, quality engineer, manager of quality/operational excellence, and supply chain analyst.

Micklewright hosts a video training series by Kaizen Institute on integrating lean and quality management systems in order to reduce waste.