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4 Things I Learned from Rob Giapponi, General Manager, Ulbrich Steel


Back in 2012 when I decided I wanted to spread the gospel of lean, I met one of the absolute best companies on the planet to work for....Ulbrich Steel. Established in 1924, 4th generation, Ulbrich is truly about people first steel 2nd. They are incredibly good at what they do...they build precision. But the people philosophy has been 4 generations in the making also.


I have been so fortunate to work for (and learn from) Rob Giapponi, General Manager at USSM (the MILL). Rob is retiring today, and I thought I'd share 4 things I learned from Rob that would have made my own lean journey (trip through hell) easier. I also think these are qualities that any high level manager interested in building a culture of kaizen from scratch should consider.


1. Humility-"When we win, it's them, when we lose, it's me." As a 35 year college football football official, this is a very common thread I see with the best coaches I've worked for. We talk about humble inquiry and trusting that people are experts at their jobs (especially with the number of years of service at Ulbrich). It takes a lot of humility to "make problems visible" as well as not having to feel like you have to make sure everyone knows you're the boss and the smartest person in the room. That's Rob. Never in the limelight, always in the shadows. Rob is in the picture above, attending a closing by Billy Burns on the floor in late 2012. Rob is far left. One of the most humble people I have ever known.

2. Persistence-my approach to building a lean culture is to find willing people to make improvements in their work, and make those improvements as visible as possible, If we stick with it and demonstrate it's important, more and more people get involved until everyone is making improvements. Start with suggestions and work up to hard ones. Learn by doing. Needless to say, not everyone jumps up at once. There are peaks and valleys, and sometimes people just get caught up in "busy-ness". A solid kaizen culture is more easily built when your leader is patient, understanding that not everyone buys in at once! People at USSM are FEARLESS about going after the 8 wastes in processes. That is Rob's patience and persistence.

3. Life-long Learner-we've had plenty of lean classes, workshops, on-line classes during the pandemic, A3 closings,, live and virtual. Often with reading assignments (all of Toyota Kata), homework and quizzes. What message does it send to everyone else when the General Manager shows up early to every class, does all of his homework, aces the quizzes and participates in every class? By the way, Rob is an alumni and student-athlete of Columbia University

4. ALWAYS Show Up-when we started to encourage Gemba Walks, they started at the MIll twice daily. Rob never missed. In fact, when others missed because they were out or in a meeting, he would walk alone. But never misses. A3 closings? This is a one of the kata we try to establish early, and like all routines, takes some time to become a habit. In the beginning, we would get a small handful of people every Wednesday at 1:15 in the cafeteria to "close" A3s. John Peterson (USSM's now retired Lean Coordinator) and I would go there a few minutes early to set up. More often than not, Rob would be sitting there waiting. Never missed. Often, people want to know what is important to their boss, so they can get caught doing it. Rob always demonstrated (not merely words) lean was important by ALWAYS showing up. And I know he is always busy-he runs the Mill!!


Rob Giapponi, much respect and gratitude and best wishes for a fulfilling next chapter. Like many, I feel I am better at what I love to do thanks to you.

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