The Time He Questioned a Leader’s Commitment: Adam Lawrence

The Time He Questioned a Leader’s Commitment: Adam Lawrence

My guest for Episode #41 of “the My Favorite Mistake” podcast is Adam Lawrence, from his firm Process Improvement Partners. He is the author of the new book The Wheel of Sustainability: Engaging and Empowering Teams to Produce Lasting Results. You can also find a longer interview that I did with Adam about the concepts in the book, from April 2020, before he wrote the book.

Adam has over 30 years of experience in process improvement activities, targeted at manufacturing and business processes and he started this company in 2018, based in Lancaster, PA.

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Today, Adam tells a story about a mistake that he made over 20 years ago, much earlier in his career. He was sent to a factory to do some improvement work and he wasn't getting much engagement or participation from leaders there. Adam made the mistake of questioning the commitment of the business unit leader, let's call him Carl. Adam reflects on this story and shares his lessons learned.

“So, over the years, Carl and I developed a pretty good working relationship.”

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"I realize as my 'favorite mistake,' that's not the way to influence management leadership to support their teams. There's gotta be a better way."

"What it led me to, in the broader sense, is to create a process in the system to create that leadership commitment before the team is even developed. And that's really what [my mistake] taught me."

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Automated Transcript (May Contain Mistakes)

Mark Graban (0s):

Episode 41, Adam Lawrence, author of the new book, The Wheel of Sustainability. Thanks for sharing your oopsie with us.

Adam Lawrence (11s):

Happy to do…

Mark Graban (12s):

the first oopsie. I think we've had in “My Favorite Mistake.” I'm Mark Graban. This is My Favorite Mistake. In This podcast, you'll hear business leaders and other really interesting people talking about their favorite mistakes, because we all make mistakes, but what matters is learning from our mistakes instead of repeating them over and over again. So this is the place for honest reflection and conversation, personal growth and professional success. Visit our website at Enter to win one of three free copies of Adam's book.

Mark Graban (52s):

Go to And now on with the show. Welcome to My Favorite Mistake. I'm Mark Graban and our guest today is Adam Lawrence. He is managing partner of his company process improvement partners. He has like me a BS in industrial engineering. So we'd have that a lot in common professionally. His degree is from Virginia tech and Adam is author of the new book titled The Wheel of Sustainability: Engaging and Empowering Teams to Ensure Their Results Live On. So Adam, thank you so much for joining us and being a guest today. How are you?

Adam Lawrence (1m 33s):

I'm doing great, Mark. Thanks for having me on today. Yes,

Mark Graban (1m 37s):

Sure thing. I'm happy that we can, when we talk about the book and your work and all sorts of things, but let's, let's jump right in Adam. What is your favorite mistake?

Adam Lawrence (1m 49s):

Okay. Didn't have to think very hard about this one. Mark. It came about 22 years ago. So as you said, I'm an industrial engineer out of Virginia Tech. And I worked for our global ceiling tile company for many years and early in my career. I used to go visit our manufacturing facilities and help team solve problems or improve the performance of their fabrication lines. In 1998, I went to Macon, Georgia. I was invited at least I think I was in Macon, Georgia. Right? And I had spent time on the line maybe a month or so before that identifying opportunities meeting with the folks that worked on the line and just basically spending two days to get to know where the issues were.

Adam Lawrence (2m 41s):

And either I convinced management or my bosses convinced management to bring Adam back and spend a week doing what we called rapid improvement events. We didn't know the words Kaizen at the time. So basically I was given a team of six operators and mechanics, a couple of supervisors and myself, and the goal was to just improve the performance and safety of the line. So I had a bit of a process I use. So I brought the team in, we had a meeting, everything was set up on a Monday morning. And the first thing I noticed was it was just myself and the team, nobody from management, no kickoff, no process, except for what I was going to do.

Adam Lawrence (3m 29s):

So of course I was being stared at, by these folks that essentially had never had the opportunity to make things better in their factory because in those days that was management and engineering's issue. And so I'm the guy, who's this guy, they just brought from corporate. We're going to try to fix our lines. So of course they didn't really believe that was possible, but there was nobody telling us what we could or couldn't do. So we did a little bit of introduction. What started out at the line and started identifying things that we could improve. Well, these guys really got into it.

Adam Lawrence (4m 10s):

And first day flew, we probably worked 10, 12 hours and things were already getting better. I'd say about 4:30, 5:30, somewhere around then it was time to stop. And nobody from management, including the guy that was a business unit manager of the operation had come to see what we were doing yet. We were making changes, improving things, talking to people, people were really getting into it. Safety was getting better. We were shutting the line down, trialing all sorts of different things.

Adam Lawrence (4m 54s):

And I thought, well, somebody must be interesting, but it didn't seem like they were. So eventually the team went home and I said, well, maybe I can do something about this. So I walk over to the business unit managers office. Let's just call him Carl for the sake of argument, because that's not his real name. That's actually is in the book because it's just an example of something that was such an oopsy that I learned from it. So I started to tell Carl he happened to be in his office and he was, he looked up and wait and tell him what a great job his folks were doing. And I knew from my prior visits to make and fit…

Adam Lawrence (5m 34s):

The operators and mechanics really weren't thought of, they were thought of as, you know, lever polars and button pushers and grabbers of material, but their creativity and their thought, wasn't always highly respected. I say, well, I can do something about, I just spent a day with these folks and they were, they were awesome. So I started to describe it to Carl and he's relatively interested, but you can tell he had other things that were more important to him. So I invited him. I said, Hey, I know you didn't have an opportunity today, but how about tomorrow? Come on out to the line because your folks are doing such as great job. And I know they really appreciate you being there with them and letting them know how much you appreciate.

Adam Lawrence (6m 21s):

Yeah. So you said, well, I'm tied up in all day meetings and you know, if I can make some time for it and, and you know, he kind of waved me out of his office. So walked away a little dejectedly and, but you know, I, we were making progress. It was just a one. Let's see what happened to, let's see if I influenced his behavior at all. So day two improvements and faster and more furious, right? Because the team now believes they can do what they want to do. And they're seeing improvements. And we were having fun and we were welding things in place.

Adam Lawrence (7m 2s):

So people couldn't move it and things that this one or that one had always wanted to do. They were now, now doing. And you know, now they want it to work for 12 hours because the more they can do, the less management could screw it up. But then I was like, okay, whatever, floats your boat. And we started to get visitation, but from crew members and mechanics, so still nobody from management. So it was very, very long, but about 4:30, I kind of stepped away to see if I could go find Carl. Cause now we're in Tuesday. Nobody not the plant manager, not an engineer, nobody's come to see us. And I just can't believe it.

Adam Lawrence (7m 42s):

Well, I find out, I go to Carl's, Carl's gone for the day. So we had this all day meeting, but apparently he left early to do something that was more important than any other was a high school baseball game or cut the lawn or something of higher priority. But whatever it was, all I know was, I think it was hard to hide how upset and frustrated I was as I walked out. Yeah. So I said, all right, I can do better than this. I gotta be here. Let's do better than this. How about I don't wait until the end of the next day to try to get this guy to come out.

Adam Lawrence (8m 22s):

Right. So it seems like a good plan, you know, I'm in the hotel and I've, you know, I'm just getting them all excited about it and I'm going to get them to visit. Yeah. That's great idea in your head, but when it happens, it doesn't really, it really worked out that way. So day three, you know, we're, we're rolling and the team's just killing it. They're just, I mean, you can actually see more ceiling tiles come down the line for an hour than they ever have had we've ever seen. That's pretty cool. So we finally take a break. It might've been 9:30 or 10:00 all right, I'm ready. I'm going to go visit Carl again. Now I'm going to connect. I wasn't convincing before, but I'm going to convince him to come out now.

Mark Graban (8m 59s):

Now, where are you feeling upset at that point? Or are you still like optimistic? Like I'm, I'm eager and I'm going to go and invite them.

Adam Lawrence (9m 8s):

Well, let's say that you probably gave me more optimism, but there was probably, there is pretty strong. I don't know if anger frustration let's be nice and all. It frustrated me. I just, it just wasn't right. It just wasn't right. Okay. So he's in his office. So that's the good news and maybe not so good news is I go on the office and I'm telling him about how, not only is the team doing and making great strides, but we just had all these visits from the hourly crew in the maintenance folks and how it brightened the team up.

Adam Lawrence (9m 49s):

Every time somebody, they were just so proud of it and they were showing it off. And I said, but what, what surprised me was what we're doing. If we're not getting visits from management and leadership, and it would be great to get you to come out. And he looks at me and he says, what are you really trying to tell me? And there's a moment where you go, okay, maybe it's time to back down, but that's not in my nature. So in the nicest way I could think of, I said something like Carl, it would be fantastic if you would come out and see what we're doing and show the team, your commitment to their effort.

Adam Lawrence (10m 32s):

And that's when everything changed.

Mark Graban (10m 35s):

So something like that. So that sounds like a positive statement, but I think I'll let, I'll let you continue. I think I probably know what may have triggered him here.

Adam Lawrence (10m 44s):

So he was triggered. All right. And he said, Adam, if you're questioning my commitment, you can do it from corporate all in capital letters. Right. So I'll have to tell you that I'm not exactly certain what I said next, or what happened next. What I can say is I wasn't fired. I did walk out with my tail between my legs. I tried to brighten up before I joined the team of it. They, you know, why should they bear the brunt of that?

Adam Lawrence (11m 24s):

And we continue to work in now, of course I was bitter pretty dejected. Again, I'm a pretty energetic guy, but I'm sure it was fairly obvious that I'd been beaten down pretty good. And I tried not to complain to them. One of the fellows on the team was supervisor might have said to him, and he probably gave me the look like, Oh, that was a really bad idea. How are you still here? Kind of thing. But the week wore on and by Friday. So we did this for the full week. There was no, I used to, you know, I didn't really have a plan per se. I mean, we prioritized and we were doing the things that they wanted to do, and it was making a difference, but I always wanted at the end of the week to kind of let them show off what they did.

Adam Lawrence (12m 10s):

Okay. What was I going to do that? Well, I will tell you that's I don't remember what the conversation was, but Friday afternoon, we actually had an audience and Carl was there. The plant manager was there and a few others were there and the team was able to, you know, show off their work and they got some pretty nice, you know, recognition thank yous and clapping and all that kind of stuff. And, you know, I got invited back many times afterwards, but I will say that Carl, at least that, that we never acknowledged that anything I said had any influence on it in some ways I'd like to think it had some influence on it.

Adam Lawrence (12m 52s):

But I realize as my favorite mistake, that's not the way to influenced management leadership to support their teams. There's gotta be a better way. Yeah.

Mark Graban (13m 3s):

Yeah. So I guess the, the mistake in a nutshell, is it the, the, the choice of words, I mean, to show your commitment, I mean, that could have been interpreted many different ways in a way you're acknowledging his commitment and you can come and, and, and, but, but maybe what is it like, I mean, this is getting, you know, let's get into the weeds for a minute. I mean, if you had said something to the effect of, you know, a way of coming out and continuing to show your, I don't know, like what would it, is there a way of saying that, cause you were trying to be positive about it, I'm guessing, right.

Mark Graban (13m 45s):

Like come out and recognize people and demonstrate your commitment. But yeah. So I mean, like I'm not trying to, well, you know, you, you said it was a mistake and you, yeah,

Adam Lawrence (13m 57s):

Yeah. It was a mistake. So clearly how I said it could have been better. So I don't know about you, but I experience, you know, foot in mouth disease from time to time. But, but really what it led me to in the, in the broader sense is to create the process in the system to create that leadership commitment before the team is even developed. And that's in, that's really what it taught me. Now, I'll be honest with you. I was bitter about that for, for more than a day. Right. And I didn't develop my approach to leadership commitment immediately either, but that is the basis of the new book is how to, and what is the image of that and how do you actually engage in such way so that you, so that, you know, you have the commitment before you even take that first.

Adam Lawrence (14m 52s):

Yeah. And

Mark Graban (14m 52s):

That seems like maybe the higher level lesson. So there's questions of the words you used or the tone, or again like this could have been, you caught Carl on a bad day. This might not have been your mistake, but I think the higher level point that you make is something I had jotted down about, you know, that, that upfront commitment. So just recap a little bit, our guest again is Adam Lawrence, the book that he mentioned, his new book, The wheel of Sustainability is the title there. And as, as you called it, my favorite oopsy, I don't think we're going to rename the podcast.

Adam Lawrence (15m 31s):

Well, that was my mistake today.

Mark Graban (15m 33s):

Yeah, no, it's not a, it's just, that's a fun way of putting it, but, you know, kind of stepping back and thinking a little bit when, to what you were saying upfront of you were invited kind of, you know, like with a question mark, you know, it's, you know, it's famous expression, I guess, you know, I'm, I'm here from corporate and I'm here to help. Yeah. Is there agreement around that? I mean, you know, I was never in a role where I was sent really from site to site, but being within a site, I was often sent, like I'm sent from this improvement group, I'm here to help. And there's always that question of like, how broad is the invitation somebody invited you in.

Mark Graban (16m 19s):

Yeah. But does everybody feel like you were invited? How do you set that up? Up front is an important thing to think about.

Adam Lawrence (16m 27s):

Yeah, it's a great point. And I never really followed up. So over the years, Carl and I developed a pretty good working relationship. I never really went back to say, okay, you know, we joked about it a little bit. I said, remember the time you about fired me. And so we could do that because once you prove your value, people can sometimes overlook that you didn't use the right words. Okay. And really positionally. He was a couple levels above me. So, you know, there, it might've been a piece of that, but I think a piece of all of this, again, there's gotta be credibility.

Adam Lawrence (17m 7s):

And then in my mind, what I learned again is create that image of what does that look like so that we can be aligned around that first. And then I know where you are and you know where I am. And, and we both are agreed on what we're trying to accomplish. I do believe because I had moved from a different subsidiary at different industry to that industry. I didn't have a credibility in that industry. At that point, I was a guy that just loved to be on the factory floor, working with people and saw things in a different way that led to improvements. So once we got the first one under my belt, I think the second, third and fourth one were a lot easier to do, Hey, we've got this other line and we've got this other group and we like what you did and you know, but first time you just think everybody knows you're going to be okay

Mark Graban (18m 2s):

Necessarily. Sure. No. I mean, and that speaks to the power of relationships. Right. And, you know, coming in as an outside consultant as, as you do now, and as I do, there's a lot of relationship building that, that, that can and should be done upfront so that we don't run the risk of miscommunications or misinterpretations or lack of trust that come just from not having established those relationships. How can we have the, how can we have those relationships in place that, for that first cycle, instead of maybe, you know, stumbling through something and in your case, being fortunate to have a second, third, you know, continued cycle to build that relationship, what, what are your thoughts on that relationship building, especially if you're being brought in for something that's you relatively short or there's there's pressure.

Mark Graban (18m 57s):

How do we find that balance between getting the work done and building the relationships that help us, help us get the work done?

Adam Lawrence (19m 5s):

So it's a great question. So what I do now in my process is I try to have a stepwise approach to engaging with that client for the first time. So the first discussion is a call where we're getting to know one another, and I'm trying to understand the issues that they're dealing with. If that creates some form of alignment, I try to be myself, regardless of what, you know, activity or in, because I feel like they should know what they're getting early so that no one's going to be disappointed. Right? The second step is typically what I call the site visit or site assessment. It's usually about a day and what I do as I'm walking, get low with leadership, and we're talking about it from their eyes and from my eyes, what do, what do you really care about?

Adam Lawrence (19m 55s):

And let's see what your people think about that within that is it, I actually take 30 minutes to 45 minutes to talk about this wheel of sustainability, this image, again, of what teams are going to be utilizing to sustain their results and how leaders participate in that. Now, if they engage in that discussion, we've got a good chance to move forward. If it's kind of just like another thing and not interesting to them and yeah, yeah, yeah. I know all of this. It's not likely to move forward and it might be believe it or not sometimes because of me, because what we're trying to do, what I'm trying to do is set up the team to have a winning experience, right?

Adam Lawrence (20m 41s):

We, we want the, you don't get that many opportunities unless you're in a company that does this with great frequency. But a lot of times I'm meeting with groups, potential clients that have never done this, or have very low experience. So to create that image, it looks like, and even an image of what a Kaizen can actually accomplish. You have to, they're almost taking a leap of faith. I've had people say, there's no way that can get done in three days. We'll tell that to 300 other teams that have done it. That in my experience, I mean, it just, but if they've never seen it and I can't portray the image of it in a way that they feel comfortable with and that's on me, but at least I can give them that image so that they can see.

Adam Lawrence (21m 22s):

So those eight spokes in that one hub, you know, they sit through a little description discussion of it. And hopefully if they're asking questions, I go, okay, there's a shot at this. So we've got a good chance at alignment and we can do, we can do right by the team. Yeah.

Mark Graban (21m 39s):

Well, that's great. And I appreciate you sharing your story and your reflections and your lessons learned. I think there's a lot of food for thought for others who do similar work. And we'll talk a little bit before we wrap up about the book, the wheel of sustainability, I do want to mention to listeners and viewers, I did a, a longer interview with Adam in April, 2020, where we, we talk in much more detail about this wheel of sustainability concept. You, you can find more about that by going to, or you can search Lean Blog Interviews, Adam Lawrence, if you, if you search in Apple Podcasts or your podcast player, app of choice, you can find that discussion if you want to learn more about that.

Mark Graban (22m 29s):

So the book is a new development between when we released that discussion in April and, and now, so w what's your elevator pitch summary of, of the book? Who is it for? What will people get out of the book? What, what type of reader, you know, should definitely go and pick this up.

Adam Lawrence (22m 50s):

Right. Well, great. Great question, Mark. So the book is written for those folks that wanted to engage and empower people to sustain the results or the, the solutions to the problems they're trying to solve. So if you think about it, a lot of effort is done on having complex business problems. But if we aren't thinking about, what's gonna make those results live on, we're gonna, we're going to go up against those same problems over and over again. That's frustrating businesses, investing people are investing their time. So the wheel of sustainability is my image of the system that helps give that team the best chance to sustain those results. So it's not just a manufacturing, but it's not just a business book.

Adam Lawrence (23m 34s):

We actually, I actually working with my wife a little bit, came up with some home related uses of it. You say, let's just test this out. This is our experiment. So, you know, I've been told they get out of the kitchen because that's my wife's toolbox. So things like that say, this is applicable to how you sustain results, that you try so hard to achieve. We put so much energy into, it just seems like there isn't enough material on sustainability as there should be. So I thought this is an area that's a passion of mine. So I think if, if you're interested, if listeners are interested in another way to think about sustaining results, this is, this is that there's not a lot new here, except maybe the image and the structure.

Adam Lawrence (24m 25s):

And just maybe some of my thoughts on some of the terms.

Mark Graban (24m 29s):

So you've got that wheel and it's got a hub and it has spokes. And is the implication of that model? I don't know the dynamics of, let's say a bicycle wheel, how many spokes can be missing and still have a functioning wheel.

Adam Lawrence (24m 44s):

Okay. So another great question. I found that I wrote the statement out six times got down to three. So I was told too redundant, too redundant. So it has eight spokes. So you can remove a spoke and the wheel will still spin. It won't be as strong if you leave the hub out, which is leadership commitment, the wheel falls apart completely. So leadership commitment applies to all of those spokes and then just the whole system as it, as it is in total.

Mark Graban (25m 16s):

Okay. Yeah. No, that makes, that makes, that makes good sense. So again, the, The Wheel of Sustainability it's available and you can learn more about Adam's work through Process Improvement Partners, Adam, first off what's the website, people can go and visit.

Adam Lawrence (25m 31s):

Okay. So it's I also have a LinkedIn page and there's a company LinkedIn page at Process Improvement Partners. And you know, there's a lot of contact information for me as well, because as Mark knows, and hopefully some of my, of your listeners know, I can talk about this stuff all day. So if anybody has further questions, absolutely love to share it with them. And, you know, hopefully there's some interesting, there's about 40 stories similar to the one I just shared in the book, trying to illustrate examples of each of the elements of the wheel, just because I thought it'd be more fun to kind of share here's what we did. Right. Here's what we didn't do so well.

Adam Lawrence (26m 12s):


Mark Graban (26m 13s):

Sure. Yeah. And yeah, so the book, you can find more information about it there, and it's also available through Amazon, right. And that's available in, in what formats, paperback and Kindle.

Adam Lawrence (26m 27s):

Yep. It's paperback and Kindle. Okay.

Mark Graban (26m 30s):

Well, I hope people will check that out again. So Adam Lawrence, author of The Wheel of Sustainability and the subtitle, I think a good summary of what we're trying to accomplish, “engaging and empowering teams to ensure their results live on.” So we don't want short-term results that fade or disappear or backslide. That's what we're battling against. Right.

Adam Lawrence (26m 52s):

Right. Well, thank you, Mark. I appreciate the opportunity. It was great speaking with you again.

Mark Graban (26m 56s):

Sure thing. Thanks for sharing your oopsie with us. Okay.

Adam Lawrence (27m 0s):

Happy to do

Mark Graban (27m 1s):

…the first oopsie. I think we've had in My Favorite Mistake. Thanks again. Thanks for listening. I hope this podcast inspires you to pause and think about your own favorite mistake and how learning from mistakes shapes you personally and professionally. If you're a leader, what can you do to create a culture where it's safe for colleagues to talk openly about mistakes in the spirit of learning, please subscribe, rate, and review the podcast. Our website is See you next time.

Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's upcoming book is The Mistakes That Make Us. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.