Whether we fail our professional exam or make a mistake at our job, the key takeaway we should walk out with from these experiences is what we’ve learned from them. Even though some moments in every industry require a much more cautious approach than others, as our guest today says, “when we make small mistakes and we can be honest about them, that helps us prevent large, major, really bad mistakes.”
Today’s guest is Mark Graban, an internationally recognized Lean management consultant, author of several award-winning books, and keynote speaker. He got his bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from Northwestern University and a dual master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and Business Administration. Building upon his engineering background combined with his practical experience working with different companies in different industries—from manufacturing to technology to healthcare—he teaches managerial and leadership methodologies applicable to all sectors.
In today’s episode, Mark explains how his transition from engineering to a management consultant role happened, how he managed to put himself out there publicly even after being considered a heavy introvert by the Myers-Briggs test, as well as the personal mistakes that led him to start his own podcast. As a bonus, Mark shares what he would do if he were trying to pass his FE/PE exam but had already failed it before. You’ll definitely not want to lose this!
Mark Graban (LinkedIn) – https://www.linkedin.com/in/mgraban
Mark Graban (Website) – https://www.markgraban.com
My Favorite Mistake Podcast – myfavoritemistakepodcast.com
Lean Hospitals: Improving Quality, Patient Safety, and Employee Engagement, by Mark Graban – Click here
Practicing Lean: Learning How to Learn How to Get Better… Better, by Mark Graban – Click her
Healthcare Kaizen: Engaging Front-Line Staff in Sustainable Continuous Improvements, by Mark Graban and Joseph Swartz – Click here
Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, by Mark Graban – https://www.measuresofsuccessbook.com
KaiNexus – https://www.kainexus.com
Value Capture – https://valuecapturellc.com
The Ultimate Civil PE Review Course – https://civilpereviewcourse.com
The Ultimate Civil FE Review Course – https://civilfereviewcourse.com
Haven’t joined up in our free community? What’s wrong with you? J/K. Ok, just go there and join a group of like-minded civil engineers! – https://ceacommunity.com
Join over 4000 engineers like you and learn the tips and tricks to passing the FE and PE. We even have a free resource for you! – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/join-our-newsletter
Check out our Youtube Channel for more content, live sessions, and much more – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPeFLBZ2gk0uO5M9uE2zj0Q
If you need exams, solved problems, or courses, make sure to check out our home base. We can definitely help you on your journey to become a professional engineer. – https://civilengineeringacademy.com
Reach out to Isaac – [email protected]
Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: All right. Thanks for coming on the Civil Engineering Academy podcast with me, Mark. How's it going?
Mark Graban: I'm good, Isaac. Thanks for having me here.
Isaac Oakeson: I really appreciate you jumping on. You know, I know you do a podcast called My Favorite Mistake, and that really excited me to talk about that with you. You know, the audience that I talk to is civil engineers and a lot of them, I fall in this category too, but we make mistakes, we fail, we fail exams, and we want to get ourselves back up and keep moving forward. I guess before we jump into things, it would be nice if you could tell us a little bit more about your background and how you found yourself going from, like, engineering into a public speaking role, and coaching, and entrepreneurship. How did that happen? Tell us about your background.
Mark Graban: Well, some of that certainly evolved over time and I can share here I stumbled into some of that. I know a lot of your audience, or most of your audience, is civil engineers. I'm an industrial engineer. Got the bachelor's in Industrial Engineering from Northwestern University, just outside of Chicago. I started my career in my hometown of Livonia, Michigan, at General Motors working as an IE out on the shop floor. And I had the chance to go get a master's program at MIT. It was a dual master's in mechanical engineering and an MBA. Went to work for Dell Computer. And then, moving ahead a few steps, I thought I wanted this career in manufacturing, leadership. Big company settings is, I guess, what I had exposure to. At MIT, I got some exposure to the world of entrepreneurship, which was really eye-opening.
Mark Graban: And I can kind of understand why, generally speaking, entrepreneurs come from families where there are entrepreneurs. It's not so much that it's in your blood, but you're exposed to it. So I was working in manufacturing careers, my manufacturing career, and then about 10 years into it -- You know, I was doing training. So I was doing what you might call internal speaking, not really public speaking. But then I had an opportunity in 2005, because my wife took a new job, we moved to Texas, that put me on the job market. I was able to get my first job working as a healthcare consultant. So I was hired by a division of Johnson & Johnson that did consulting with healthcare organizations. And so in that role, I was thrown into doing more public presentations and public speaking. I had started podcasting in 2006, I had started blogging the year before.
Mark Graban: So even before social media really became a thing, I guess I was starting to get more comfortable with putting myself out there more publicly and sharing lessons learned and commenting on things in the news and trying to share experiences about lean manufacturing, or lean in healthcare. And then I had the opportunity to write my first book, Lean Hospitals. And then, here's the funny thing, when you get a book written and published, then you get more opportunities to come to speak. I'm like, "You've got to be careful with that assumption that, you know, what it takes to get a book into print, that's a different skillset, or maybe even a different personality, than what it takes to get up on stage and talk about it." But I've tried to develop my skills in both of those areas.
Mark Graban: For anyone else in the audience that would consider themselves -- If you've done the Myers-Briggs Test at work, I am very heavily a Myers-Briggs introvert. But I want to try to give encouragement to the introverts out there. You can do things that are public, if you're comfortable with it. You can be on stage. You might seem like you're an extrovert, but then there's the trap. Like, the thing about being an introvert is you can do it, but it's exhausting. And I've come to realize that better. Like, last week I had a day where I did a thirty-minute online talk and a two-plus hour online workshop, and I was exhausted. And I think doing that stuff virtually, I think, is even harder.
Mark Graban: But back to your question, you know, I worked for a startup software company in the early 2000s. I've been involved in another software company, I'll hold up my coffee mug, the company KaiNexus. June is my 10th anniversary of having different roles with that company. So I've been fortunate that I've shifted from kind of full-time traditional W2 employment to having my own company for 10 plus years, often partnering up through other companies or consulting firms to do bigger things, being involved in entrepreneurship of helping grow KaiNexus. Ans frankly, I couldn't do all that if my wife didn't have a really great career and that sort of stability and health insurance that allows me to do things that are entrepreneurial.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. So with the new company that you have, are you helping other companies then with lean? Is that mainly the focus there?
Mark Graban: Yeah. So when I started working independently back in 2010 -- Yeah, I do speaking, training, consulting, coaching, you know, there are some things that I can do individually and I can contract directly with organizations. Mostly in healthcare, sometimes in other industries. But then there are times where, for example, the last three and a half years, I've also been a subcontractor to a larger firm called Value Capture, which is a consulting firm that is totally focused on healthcare, using lean methodologies, and related ideas to really drive a focus on employee safety and patient safety in a way that helps drive other benefits through the organization. So I get to juggle different things, I wear different hats. I mean, the proverbial hats. But I get to do a lot of different things, sometimes in the same day.
Isaac Oakeson: That's awesome. Well, one of the ways we connected, one of the things I really enjoy what you're doing is, you started a podcast called My Favorite Mistake. Tell me how that started and, maybe, why are we so afraid to make mistakes?
Mark Graban: Well, to the last part of the question, and then we can maybe explore. There were a couple of different paths that came together to lead to My Favorite Mistake. I would be the first to admit that, you know, like a lot of people, I've got perfectionist tendencies. I think I've always been the type who -- I'm harder on myself than others might be on me. My parents, or coworkers, or a manager. So some of that may be just personality traits. But I think whether we are hard on ourselves or not when we make a mistake, then there are oftentimes organizational dynamics that do criticize, punish mistake-making. And, you know, there's a time and a place to be cautious. Like, I would hope a professional engineer who is designing a building, or a bridge, or something like that, you don't want to be of the mindset in Silicon Valley that often applies to software development of "Fail fast, fail early, fail often."
Mark Graban: There's a time and a place where failure is bad, of course. That's true in healthcare. But I think the idea of "Fail early" comes back to a lesson I've learned and the coaching I've gotten from former Toyota people I've worked with. When we fail early, meaning if we're going to make a mistake, make a mistake during a prototype phase, during testing, during a practice session. Like, those are relatively safe mistakes that might not affect the customer, that might not be publicly embarrassing. So I think, you know, the Toyota production system or the Lean approach teaches us, when we make small mistakes and we can be honest about them, that helps us prevent large, major, really bad mistakes.
Mark Graban: So from an organizational culture standpoint, we don't want leaders to proverbially beat people up for trying something new and have that new experiment not work out the way we expect.
Isaac Oakeson: Sure.
Mark Graban: If it's a mistake -- You know, there, there are a couple of different types of mistakes. There's the "We didn't know what to do and we tried our best, and it didn't work out the way we predicted and we learned from it". Sometimes that's a type of mistake. Then there are mistakes when we knew what to do, but we didn't do it for some reason. And, you know, we should, I think, as leaders, try to create an environment---we've tried to do this in KaiNexus as a software company---create an environment where individuals are not blamed and shamed for well-intended mistakes or human error. We try to look at the system and how can we prevent mistakes. So again, there are helpful ideas from lean manufacturing and the Toyota production system of how do we [inaudible] system that's robust. Let's not be at the mercy of human error, because we're all human, we all make mistakes, and that's part of the theme that comes into the podcast. If you want me to tell maybe the story about how the podcast came to be.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. You can touch on it. I'm just curious, you know, was there a mistake that you made that drove that podcast? Because I love the title and, you know, for a civil engineering audience, a lot of engineers find themselves either repeating exams that they have to take to become professional engineers, or they do make mistakes on jobs. I've made mistakes on jobs that I've designed, you know? And you know, you quickly learn from those. So it would be nice to know if there was a mistake that you made that drove this podcast, or did you just know that people make mistakes and this would be a fun topic to talk about?
Mark Graban: Well, I mean, I make mistakes all the time. But there's a difference between, you know, my most recent mistake and my favorite mistake. I think part of the origin that led to the podcast is one mistake that has stuck with me, and I've come to describe this as a favorite mistake. Like, it's a mistake that's big enough that it stays with you, you think about it, you've learned from it. The goal is to, you know, be open about mistakes and to reflect on them and learn from them and not make the same mistakes over and over.
Isaac Oakeson: Right.
Mark Graban: So there's a story that I shared -- So I spearheaded a book project called Practicing Lean, where I wrote the first two chapters, and then I invited other people and ended up with 15 other authors who wrote an essay or a chapter kind of along the theme. And the theme that I set up in the book was in the idea of practicing lean. You know, I've worked in healthcare and people talk about practicing medicine, and that's a good word, right? It implies, hopefully, that you're getting better over time. We practice because we're not perfect. And so I wrote this book and the one story I shared was in my last manufacturing job. I was going through a certification process to be basically a lean black belt, and that required a project. And, you know, part of it was the organizational culture where it wasn't a culture that really allowed me to shut down production for any period of time to work with the frontline operators. And so for the things that I was putting in place to improve the process, it was really hard to get input from some of those key frontline staff, because they were busy. I would try to catch them and there was some sort of downtime, but on-plan downtime.
Mark Graban: And so, long story short, I ended up designing some process improvements, some solutions related to scheduling and changeovers, and Kanban inventory levels. It was all technically correct. But it was never really fully adopted. And so the lesson learned there was partly, you know, to take ownership of my own action. Should I've tried harder to get input from the frontline staff? Should I've made more of a fuss to leadership saying, "Look for this to be successful and sustainable, you've got to give me that time." But I've carried that lesson forward to now where I can think as a consultant. I don't want to allow myself to be put in that position again. I can turn down a consulting gig if somebody says, "Well, we want you to come in and design the answer and just hand it off to us and leave."
Mark Graban: Well, I don't agree with the hypothesis that that would be successful. So the book Practicing Lean, you know, got me thinking along these lines of we all make mistakes, especially early in our careers. Let's learn from them, let's share them---I think that sets a good example for others. And that led to the idea, pandemic project, of doing the podcast My Favorite Mistake. And the other dimension of it was that I would get pitched. You know, I've been doing a podcast about lean manufacturing for 15 years, and I would get pitched these guests that sounded really interesting and I would have to say no because it wasn't a fit. And I kind of came around to think that that was a mistake, that I needed to create a way to say yes. So I had been pitched the opportunity interview Kevin Harrington, who was one of the original sharks on the show Shark Tank.
Mark Graban: And so instead of saying, "No. I'm sorry, he's not a fit with my lean podcast.", part of the reason for creating My Favorite Mistake was to be able to say "Yes" to interesting people that I was looking to interview, and get to meet, and get to know.
Isaac Oakeson: That's perfect.
Mark Graban: You know, that's been a really fun project because I've been able to interview people who've shared mistakes from the standpoint of, you know, telemarketing TV sales, like Kevin Harrington did, I've had former NFL and NHL players kind of talking about the world of sports, I've had a musician, I've had entrepreneurs, I've had, you know, people from different fields who've just shared their own favorite mistakes story. And then we ended up talking about, again, this idea of being aware of mistakes, being kind to ourselves and others when there are mistakes, and then learn from them, get better, keep moving on.
Isaac Oakeson: Perfect. Well, you know, and that goes along with, like I mentioned earlier, a lot of our civil engineers either find themselves making a mistake at work or they're failing their exams, even if they repeat it. And a lot of these engineers are taking that personally, thinking that they can't be an engineer or that they suck at being an engineer, and maybe this isn't the right career path for them. But I consistently tell them that it's not a reflection of them personally, and you can still do this. You just need to learn the process and practice and, you know, learn from where you made that initial mistake and see if we can improve on that. And so I imagine that's a common theme, no matter what profession or industry that you find yourself in. Is that what you've noticed as you've been interviewing guests, or is there a recipe when people make mistakes and try to learn from them?
Mark Graban: It's funny. I mean, I'm trying, until the point now, where I'm starting to look for patterns and sort of mining the different interviews and my engineer brain wants to categorize, connect the dots. Like, when it comes to the tests, like just a question back for you, Isaac, what's the first time pass rates for the professional engineering exam?
Isaac Oakeson: So your first time pass rate is typically, for the PE exam, is hovering around 70%. But as a repeat taker, it really nose dives to about 40%. And, you know, there's some thoughts around that. Usually your first time taking it, you're giving it your best shot. You're also getting, maybe, the brightest minds trying to pass that the very first time. But, yeah. Those are the statistics. So about 65 to 70%, your first time. If you're a repeat taker, that thing dives to 35 to 40%.
Mark Graban: Sure. So I mean, you mentioned the word "Why", Isaac. So, I mean, I think when having a setback like this, any sort of professional setback, I don't think it's fair to say, "Hey, don't be upset about that", because we're human. Engineers have emotion too right? So you've got to get through, you know, if you will, maybe there are stages of grief. And then when you get yourself back to a place where you can step back and now try to be analytical and try to understand, to ask the question why, there may not be a single root cause for why we didn't pass the exam. But I imagine it could be a number of things. It could be, "I was over confident and I didn't study hard enough." Maybe that's addressable then. Maybe, you know, let's say maybe there were extenuating circumstances in your life and you were distracted and not in a place where you could really focus and prepare, or be focused on the day of the exam. And so there might be a number of factors involved. And so I guess I would just invite people to try to reflect and think back on "Can we identify what we might do differently the second time around, rather than just trying the same approach over and over again?" That's the thought process I would explore if I was trying to help coach somebody through that.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. And a lot of times I've noticed that engineers, when they do get frustrated, you have an option to take a different depth exam. So a lot of people will get frustrated because they feel like they failed that first time, or maybe even a second time, and they want to completely change it up. A New exam, a new everything. And I do understand that, but I have to reign them in a little bit and say, "Well, look" you know, "You've taken this exam before and you've learned how they ask the questions, what's on the exam. I probably wouldn't rock the boat too much. And, you know, let's find out what you can fix in the areas that you already know, and then go from there."
Mark Graban: Yeah. That's true. It might not take a radically different approach. Yeah, I don't know what sort of, you know, representative practice exams are available, where, you know, at some point -- You know, are there lessons learned that the first time exam taker can learn from you? You're not going to know exactly what the test is, of course, but are there ways to practice to sort of simulate the experience? I mean, you think back to any standardized test out there, that's the reference point I have. At one point I had a professional certification called CPIM, Certified in Production and Inventory Management, and that was a study, standardized test, computer, proctored exam kind of environment. And I passed that. But, yeah. At first it's uncomfortable if you don't really know what to expect. I think having some sort of practice environment maybe eliminate some of those first time test failed situations. I don't know.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. I think that's great advice. One of the things I noticed that you have also written is a book called Measures of Success. Tell us a little bit about that as a resource to these engineers. There it is. Hold on.
Mark Graban: I've got a copy handy. I didn't have a copy -- Practicing Lean is back on the shelf somewhere. But I talk about Measures of Success more, so I have a copy.
Isaac Oakeson: Tell us a little bit about that. And, you know, I think you've shared a ton of information about mistake-making, and I think everybody should go check out your podcast as well. But tell us a little bit about this book, Measures of Success.
Mark Graban: Yeah. So it's a book that has been out about two years. It's the first book that I wrote that wasn't framed as a healthcare management book. So my first book -- Well, Practicing Lean was not a healthcare book, but that was a different type of project. My first book, Lean Hospitals, and then a book that I co-authored with another engineer, Joe Schwartz, a book called Healthcare Kaizen, those were clearly targeted to a healthcare audience. With the book Measures of Success. I wanted to challenge myself to write something that would have broader appeal to leaders in different industries, because I thought the lessons that I'm sharing in the book are applicable. I've seen them be applicable in manufacturing, startups, healthcare settings. And so Measures of Success is meant to be an introductory book. Engineers listening might be familiar with an approach called Statistical Process Control.
Mark Graban: It's often called Control Charts. Well, Measures of Success teaches a methodology that I learned 25 years ago. It's a form of Control Chart. It's an XMR chart for those who are more technically, statistically minded. But they're often also referred to, I like the phrase, Process Behavior Charts. And so if we look at any metrics that we are tracking, monitoring, reacting to in an organization, process behavior charts help us learn how to stop overreacting to every up and down in a metric, or every data point that's worse than average. We can use these statistical process control rules and the visual nature of these charts to help us understand when we have basically what we can call just "noise" in a metric. Don't react to that noise. But then when we detect statistical signals using some basic control chart rules, that's a time for leadership to then ask questions, like, what changed? What happened? What do we learn from that? What's the root cause?
Mark Graban: And, you know, as the subtitle of the book says, "React Less, Lead Better, Improve More". Like, I've just seen organizations of all kinds have leaders just wasting so much time reacting to every up and down in the metrics, they ask people to go investigate. That wastes a lot of time, that distracts us and consumes time that could be better focused in a way that allows us, again, to improve more. So that's what the book is about, even though it uses some statistical methods. I've gotten feedback from people that it's very approachable, it's very readable. It's, I think, a good practical guide.
Isaac Oakeson: Show us the cover of that book again. There it is. Measures of Success. Got a little rollercoaster.
Mark Graban: Right. So that represents the idea of the current state. We're trying to help get off of that rollercoaster. You know, that's -- Civil engineers are going to cringe. Like, the way that's drawn is very stylistic. Like, I think that the car is about to crash as opposed to flipping back up. But you know, we talk about this proverbial metrics rollercoaster. You know, we've got these highs and lows and we get excited, and then we get scared and nervous. And let's try to stop that dynamic and do something more constructive.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. I come from the utility industry and it was very similar to that, you know? A mistake was made and everyone would be all over it trying to figure out what's going on. But it just consumed resources and people's time. We even went through the Lean method and, you know, you have to take time to do that, purposefully. And so you have to schedule people's time and everyone's busy and sit down and really hammer out where you're sitting at right now and where we can find improvements. But yeah, I think that's a great book. Everyone go check that out. Also go check out the podcast, My Favorite Mistake. Mark, I really appreciate you jumping on with me today. Is there a good way for our audience to get ahold of you and reach out to you if they had any questions?
Mark Graban: Yeah. So, people can find me at my website, markgraban.com. If people want to check out the podcast, you can just search My Favorite Mistake in any of the podcast directories, or you can go to myfavoritemistakepodcast.com, and that forwards to a page on my markgraban.com website. The book, you can go to measuresofsuccessbook.com. And I'm pretty easy to find online. My name is unique enough if you spell it right, Graban. You can find me on LinkedIn, yyou can message me there. Here's one of my mistakes. I had no idea that there was messaging in Instagram. I don't use Instagram reel heavily. And I realized at some point, like, "Oh, what's this icon do?", and I tapped on it and I had a couple of messages. And like, one of them was actually kind of business-related. "Oh, okay. Sorry." Don't try to contact me through Instagram message. That's, I guess, my advice. My lesson learned is to learn how these apps work and at least occasionally check for messages.
Isaac Oakeson: Excellent. Well Mark, I appreciate you jumping on. I've loved your message. I love the podcast. Think you got good stuff going on. I really do appreciate it and maybe we'll see in the future. Thank you.
Mark Graban: All right. Thanks for having me again.
Isaac Oakeson: See you.
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