Kathy Miller and Shannon Karels
Q&A logo with Steel Toes and Stilettos cover

If the Shoe Fits: How Two Women Manage Lean Transformations

May 24, 2022
Two lean transformation professionals share a roadmap to their success in a lean transformation journey.

Video: First-Time Authors Lean Into Transformative Manufacturing Principles

The central thesis of Shannon Karels and Kathy Miller’s first book, Steel Toes and Stilettos: A True Story of Women Manufacturing Leaders and Lean Transformation Success, is that lean transformation is rarely driven by a one-size-fits-all approach.

The book is a case study in how the pair formed a high-performing partnership as supply chain leaders who foster the culture change needed to transform a traditional manufacturing plant into a lean enterprise.

Karels, a senior operations manager, used her supply chain degree from Western Michigan University to advance through supply chain roles before leading multiple lean transformations and running operations at two large publicly traded corporations and business models. Miller, a senior operations executive and a Shingo Prize recipient for managing large plants, has held global vice president and director roles in manufacturing and lean enterprise leadership.

“We felt like we had a really good story about business transformation that was comprehensive, around creating an inclusive manufacturing culture and in converting processes from batch manufacturing to lean,” said Miller, who got her start in the industry as a 17-year-old co-op student and went on to earn an industrial engineering degree from General Motors Institute (Kettering University) and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania.

In the following truncated Q&A from a Zoom interview, Miller and Karels shared their perspectives on lean transformation, creating high-performance teams, overcoming cultural roadblocks and the power dynamics in taking criticism.

Machine Design: Shannon, the book has a relatable tone, but is it intended to be a book on leadership and operations, supply chain management, lean transformation, or is it self-help? How would you characterize the book?

Shannon Karels: I think it does take on many different lives and it reads as a novel. First and foremost, it is a story about the lean transformation. That’s the backbone of the book. We talked through this process that we went through and the steps we followed to be successful. Intertwined in that, Kathy and I thought it was so important to show how we grew as leaders and what made us successful because, ultimately, we got great business results.

What we’re most proud of was how we changed the culture and brought the people along with us. That’s what made the results come to life and sustainable. It wasn’t just about implementing the tools; it was about how we inserted that concept of respect for people with the tools to guide all of that.

We also wanted to show that, as women in manufacturing, you can be yourself. That’s also where the “steel toes” and “stilettos” come in; you can be feminine if you want to be, and you can still throw on your safety glasses and your steel toes and go get your hands dirty on the floor.

MD: One topic you discuss is the high-performance team. First, what are the markers of a traditional high-performance team? And then, tell us what your experience as women bring to leadership roles and, by extension, how that approach complements “traditional” high-performance teams.

Kathy Miller: High-performance teams are really self-directed work teams. In a progressive business, they permeate throughout the entire operation, including people on the shop floor who are running equipment, all the way through senior staff who are working on problems they need to solve or strategic objectives and those sorts of things. So, they have a big role to play in terms of what goals that they want to set, how they are aligned with the bigger corporation and how they want to work.

High-performance teams don’t happen overnight; you have to sometimes force people to work together in a team situation and go through all those stages of team formation that are classical. When we were working together, the teams and all the employees had not been working as high-performance teams. And so, when we started to talk about that, it was a very foreign concept for everybody.

Some people prefer to work as individual contributors. Not everybody is going to love this type of configuration. But to get started, as the general manager, I made it not optional. Everybody was going to serve as a member on a high-performance team.

We celebrated success when they met their goals…But when they didn’t meet their goals, it was okay, as long as they tried. We really wanted to create a culture that was psychologically safe for experimentation.

MD: Are your leadership styles the same or different?

KM: We have very different personality styles, that’s for sure. I say that we both have our own leadership styles, but they’re very consistent in that we are very inclusive. I characterize myself as a situational leader. I like to be inclusive; I like to be a servant leader when I can but I also have to realize that I have the responsibility of creating P&Ls and businesses that are going to outlast my tenure. So, sometimes I have to make very hard decisions that might not be consistent with servant leadership, especially if there’s conflict in an organization about the right direction. I characterize my leadership—and you won’t find this in any management book—as tough love.

SK: I had been a leader prior to working with Kathy, but when she hired me, it was more of an indirect, influential leadership role. I didn’t have a significant number of direct reports and mostly what I had to do was work within, up and down the organization and influence people to get things done. I had to learn a lot about patience, change management. A lot of that came from Kathy’s guidance and learning from watching her and her leadership style.

From that I would say we’re very similar. I also tend to be very inclusive. I can make tough decisions on my own when I have to, but I prefer to work with my team and give them more of a voice, and get to know my people as people and not just the job that they do. I think a lot of that is very, very tightly tied together.

MD: You speak very positively about different ways to tackle leadership. Can you give examples of some of the organizational hurdles and cultural roadblocks that you’ve had to overcome?

KM: Leaders rotate in and out of organizations, particularly in large organizations. One roadblock that you come against is just being the new sheriff in town. People who work within the organization might not be as mobile as the leadership team and so there’s always this sense of, “Okay, here comes the new person. What is their initiative going to be? How can we outwait them like we did the last guy [and] the guy before them?”

To overcome those hurdles, you have to be super-clear in your communication on where you’re going to go. If it’s possible to build on the platform of the previous leader, that’s a lot better than saying what they were doing was wrong and how we’re going to do it right.

SK: In my experience, understanding the culture, especially when you’re moving companies and going from one culture to the next. I found that while I want to fit into the culture, I can’t be consumed by it. You have to stay true to yourself, otherwise you start to become less productive. You start to become less of a change agent supporting your team. You have to be careful not to fall into some of the negative cultures that may have already been embedded when you’re trying to do the opposite. That’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced.

MD: Let’s talk about supply chain or materials movement practices. How does your approach complement a classical approach?

SK: The approach we take is, instead of just buying inventory based on demand, you’re actually right-sizing it, which allows for demand fluctuations and internal issues, and you’re using formulas and math to guide those decisions. It’s less of an opinion and more about the data—and so you’re making database decisions. That is the core of it. From there, you start to size however you’re going to move that material—what frequency are you going to or pitch, are you going to move that material throughout your factory, what quantity are you going to move, how are you going to move it?

All of those things are tied together and we walk readers through it in the book throughout the process. But the core value is it’s all based on math, and so you have to spend a lot of time not only understanding the math but also the processes that link up with it.

MD: Similarly, can you contextualize your process around the principles of productivity?

SK: When you’re doing these transformations, you’re looking at product productivity in every nook and cranny in your business. It’s not just in manufacturing, it’s also in office processes, which is why we looked at it as a full enterprise. We took the same concepts into the office to try to reduce waste and free up people to do more value-added work.

But when we’re looking at productivity, we’re looking at it in every format. So how do I move material? Can I do it more efficiently? How many people are doing it? We went from almost every operator and every supervisor moving material to one person in the whole facility. So, talk about productivity just in material movement or how about productivity when you receive product and put it away? We completely transformed our shipping department and our storage facility to make that more productive.

And then you get down into the equipment, how can I change over faster? How can I run smaller batches so I can better satisfy customers? And you actually look at people movement—how can I reduce waste in motion? How can I utilize people to do more value-added work? All of these pieces roll up to your productivity metrics, however you choose to look at them.

The last piece is that we measure productivity at every level, so we measured it at an equipment level, a cell level, and all of that rolls up to those high-level metrics that the corporation or organization will measure.

MD: If you were to choose just one metric to for success, what would that be?

KM: Lead time reduction.

MD: Lead time reduction? That’s an echo we’ve been hearing over and over again from supply chain sources. Can you elaborate on that?

KM: The amount of time it takes to go for raw material to finish goods, and the quicker you can do that generally indicates that you’re doing it with less waste. And it allows you to be more flexible for your customers’ demands.

SK: It’s all about the customer in the end. The faster you can be flexible and shift towards their demands, as well as getting them the product that they need. I mean, faster to market, faster to the customer will win in this environment. That’s why the lead time reduction is so important.

MD: I want to bring it back to the employees as stakeholders. Driving inclusivity in the workplace is something that you tackle as well. What do you mean by inclusivity?

KM: What I meant by inclusivity—and I’m sure that Shannon has a very similar view because we were driving it together—was creating an environment that was healthy and allowed people to use more than their hands, that is, to use their hearts and minds as well to contribute to the business. Regardless of what position you play, role or title you have, you can come to work every day and know that your opinions matter and are valued and are going to be listened to.

SK: I agree with that…What we’re really looking for is more diversity of thought and that tends to naturally drive diverse teams, whether that’s gender, sexuality or race...When we talk about inclusivity and diversity, it is around hiring the best person for the job, making sure that the team can be cohesive. You don’t want a team that’s all the same because then you lose the opportunity to understand different perspectives and drive your performance higher.

MD: I’m interested in the dynamic you have as partners. Let’s consider power dynamics. How do you handle feedback?

KM: I actually take feedback from Shannon much better than I take feedback from other people because Shannon and I have developed such a close professional and personal relationship. I know that when she has my best interest is in her heart versus getting feedback from others in an organization that may want to, first of all, hide behind secrecy. I never loved 360-deg. feedback; I always signed it because I never felt I should give feedback in the cloak of secrecy.

SK: We have this in common. Neither of us take feedback very well and it’s for the same reason—we’re self-critical. Oftentimes I know I will dwell on every single negative thing I did wrong and gloss over all the things I did great. I feel the same way about Kathy. The feedback we give each other is only to make each other better, and so we take it as that. And that’s helped us both grow.

MD: One last question to both of you: What’s the one piece of advice you would tell your younger self as you approach a career in manufacturing?

KM: Develop resilience. Over time I became resilient but there were many times along the way when I wasn’t getting proper rest. I wasn’t necessarily recognizing emotional triggers and was not putting a little pause between the trigger and my reaction. [This was especially true] in situations where people were being critical of my organization or my team or things that I took very, very seriously in terms of wanting to win and wanting to contribute. For me it would be: Learn about resilience and develop those skills a little bit earlier on in my career.

SK: For me it would have been to be much more patient, not only with myself but with others. I have tended to have extremely high expectations of myself and everyone else, and then allowed it to negatively affect me. From my attitude, and the shadow that I cast around, it would have been significantly helpful if I would have given myself and others a little more grace.

Editor’s Note: Machine Design's Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) hub compiles our coverage of gender representation issues affecting the engineering field, in addition to contributions from equity seeking groups and subject matter experts within various subdisciplines.

About the Author

Rehana Begg | Editor-in-Chief, Machine Design

As Machine Design’s content lead, Rehana Begg is tasked with elevating the voice of the design and multi-disciplinary engineer in the face of digital transformation and engineering innovation. Begg has more than 24 years of editorial experience and has spent the past decade in the trenches of industrial manufacturing, focusing on new technologies, manufacturing innovation and business. Her B2B career has taken her from corporate boardrooms to plant floors and underground mining stopes, covering everything from automation & IIoT, robotics, mechanical design and additive manufacturing to plant operations, maintenance, reliability and continuous improvement. Begg holds an MBA, a Master of Journalism degree, and a BA (Hons.) in Political Science. She is committed to lifelong learning and feeds her passion for innovation in publishing, transparent science and clear communication by attending relevant conferences and seminars/workshops. 

Follow Rehana Begg via the following social media handles:

X: @rehanabegg

LinkedIn: @rehanabegg and @MachineDesign

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