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Enterprise Excellence Episode 9: Ken Synder


Welcome to Episode 9 of the Enterprise Excellence Podcast. I am honoured to have with me the Executive Director of the Shingo Institute and an expert in developing organisational cultures of excellence, Mr Ken Snyder.

You would have heard the terms 'Shingo Prize' and 'Shingo Model' mentioned by past guests. It is one of the most prestigious awards an organisation can win, recognising a culture of excellence. Authors can also be recognised for their contribution in this area through a Shingo Prize. Ken has dedicated his career to researching best practices, supporting organisations on excellence journey’s and recognising them through the Shingo Prize as they advance in their work to create a better future.

Podcast Summary

Ken outlines his background in studying and practicing continuous improvement during this episode. He discusses some of the great things he was involved in early in his career. He had the opportunity during college to travel to Japan and learn what he could about Japanese business. This changed his focus, and he decided to pursue his business interest in Japanese principles. After business school, he took a job with a Japanese company and went and lived in Japan again and worked there for a few years, and then continued with that company for another decade or so. So, he was really immersed in the Kaizen culture, the improvement culture that permeates many Japanese companies.

He tends to use the Japanese word Kaizen, which is the word he learned when immersed in that culture, or 'improvement' if people are uncomfortable with a Japanese word. Ken came to realise that the objectives and principles of Japanese and American businesses were the same, they were just differently executed due to cultural and engagement differences.

For example, Ken would find that Americans would actively talk and brainstorm about an issue, and everyone would have an idea or more to contribute. They weren't particularly well thought out ideas though. So, Ken's challenge here was to encourage more critical thinking with them, using tools such as the Fishbone diagram. In contrast, in Japan, Ken would have to wait a long, long time to extract an idea. The Japanese way is to remain quiet and think deeply before they finally arrive at an answer. So, it would take a long time to elicit a response, but would usually be of very high quality, and well thought out.

Ken moved to the Shingo Institute almost coincidentally. He was motivated to work for the Utah State University, where the Shingo Institute was located. He served for seven years as one of the associate Dean's in the business school. He had oversight responsibility over all of the programs, which included the Shingo Institute, then joined the board, and then later became the chairman of the board.

He started the Shingo prize in 1988. At first it was mainly North American manufacturing for the first 10 to 15 years. There was a lot of initial success in identifying their assessment model and the systems, tools, and results. After time, it was apparent that the level of sustaining improvement efforts was proving difficult for some Shingo winners. This became a challenge. The underlying cause seemed to be that 'lean' was being done by managers and engineering to their people, not with their people. What they saw with those who were able to sustain their improvement efforts over time and kept getting better and better was that they had figured out how to engage their people. It was everybody working together on improvement, it wasn't just management, it wasn't just engineering. It was everybody was involved, and they had changed the culture.

So, what were the three insights that Ken and his team researched and discovered?

The first was that the companies who did sustain the improvement journey were not tracking KPI’s but were talking about tracking leading behaviours.

The second insight that was purpose and system drive key behaviours.

The third insight is, that employees at every level of the organisation can answer questions like, 'Why do you do this or that?' or, 'How did you achieve that improvement?'

These three insights informed the development of the 10 Shingo guiding principles, in the Shingo model. Ken believes that they a really important missing piece in our previous way we are doing assessments because the culture is the accumulation of all of the behaviours of the people in an organization. The Shingo institute then developed a workshop to introduce the Shingo model to the world and called it, at the time, Shingo 101. They now call it the "Discover Excellence workshop".

You can download the Shingo model handbook from their website:


Ken’s LinkedIn Profile:


Utah State University:


15:30 min You can do a lot of improvement but you’re not going to be able to make it sustainable unless you’ve got the right kind of culture.

20:57 min Ideal results require ideal behaviors.

24:05 min Purpose and system drive behaviors and if you want those ideal behaviors that will drive those ideal results. We need to have a clear purpose and we need to make it easy for people to do the right thing.

26:55 min Guiding principles inform ideal behaviors.

27:48 min Culture is all about the behaviors and those principles guide ideal behaviors and they explain why.

30:31 min can't just have a purpose, you have to have a meaningful purpose, you have to have a purpose that people unite around and unify around, you've got to have a purpose that people can understand and relate to you. You can't just have it be something that's meaningless and petty, and not and not lasting.

44:47 min The most common piece we found that causes systems not to work right is that it’s missing some sort of feedback loop. You have a system that’s supposed to do this, you have a purpose behind that system, that’s why you created that kind of work for people to do, it’s for the system to do this. But it’s not working? Why is it not working? Well, chances are it’s missing some critical piece that makes it work and one of those is feedback.

47:44 min If you really want to make the system work and drive those ideal behaviors, you have to have all of these elements in it and you have to have these tools in it. And then the system will work the way you want.

49:17 min There is a great Japanese word... Ikigai… puts meaning to life. There is a word that goes with it that yarigai that means the doing, particularly doing work. Most Japanese find their ikigai in their work, not necessarily in other parts of their lives, which I think is unfortunate. I hope I find a balance between the ikigai I have at work and the ikigai I have with my family and outside of work. But it’s a place where you find your passion and the thing that excites all converged together and you find fulfillment in life.

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