Jeff Kaas Talks About How to Grow Your Business by Growing Your People

To really get what Jeff Kaas, CEO of Kaas Tailored, is trying to do, you need to visit his manufacturing and teaching facility in Mukilteo, Washington.


On paper and in technical terms, it's about how he's created a culture of continuous improvement by adopting Lean principles and tools. But it's so much more than that - Jeff has fully committed to the growth and development of his people, knowing that his business will prosper as a result. That is clearly his purpose.


As the former Vice President of Lean for Starbucks, I toured Kaas Tailored no less than five times and I always left with new ideas and plenty of inspiration. That said, I need to remind myself that the real work is in the consistent practice of the ideas which can be hard to do, especially considering all of the upheaval in today's workplace.


Please read and give some thought as to how you are intentionally tending to your organization's culture. Enjoy!


How and when did we first meet?

You were speaking at a Lean conference that Starbucks was presenting at. I was with a guy more extroverted than me and I followed him around until I met you.

Tell us a little bit about Kaas Tailored and what prompted you to bring Lean principles into your organization.

We make airplane parts and furniture. Lean was a survival thing and one of our big customers told us that we would become lean if we were to continue working together. We went to Japan to learn and I never looked back.

The business has changed since we first started. Our mission pivoted about a year ago and it’s now about shining our light and we are focused on growing people. Our goal is to help our team members become who they want to become. And if they don’t know what that is, we’ll help them figure that out. Do they want to get good at something they suck at or do they want to get really great at what they're wired to do? Our mission is to help people grow and the byproduct is a great product.

You spend a lot of time teaching others the learnings from your business. What’s in it for you? Your team?

We were doing three tours a week, 40 weeks a year. In that exchange, my team got to know that they were strong beautiful and smart, and the guests knew they were blessed.


About two years ago, someone came in and said “you do pro bono work for Fortune 500 companies?” When I looked at the tours from a business perspective, I asked myself if we were making enough money from our aerospace and furniture business to finance the future of the people that work here.


Now that we charge for tours, the companies that show up are more interested in what we are doing, their questions are better, and my team is growing as a result. The people that used to show up for tours before were always in the middle of the organization. A lot of people that teach Lean or Kaizen haven’t been in the corner office and if they have, they haven’t been in it as long as I have. I had one company that used to come all the time and I told them they can’t come anymore until a president shows up.


With these more focused tours that we are charging for, I’m meeting with presidents of other companies now and can touch every single subject and that allows me to pour my learnings into the lives of my team members. My team gets to tour other businesses and learn from them and see how they’ve taken what they’ve learned from my team and put it into their company.

How has this changed your work? Are you still involved in the day to day?

My job is to look at the day after tomorrow. I’m not involved in today and involved very little in tomorrow. I’m really involved with the systems that allow the future to become real. Now, in the current state we are in, I’m very involved in the day to day because the day after tomorrow just changed. There are actions we need to take that only the President can do but we are working as a team to figure it out.

If we are around as a company in five years, I’ll be thankful. But I don’t expect it.

[Note: Since I interviewed Jeff, his company pivoted from making furniture and airplane parts to making masks for Providence Hospital. Click HERE to read all about it.]

Okay. Let’s talk about what it takes to create a culture of deep learning. What does it require of leaders? Team members? The business?

It seems unselfish to equip your colleagues with knowledge for their future but it’s not. It’s extremely selfish because the more knowledge they have, the more you and your organization will benefit. We also know that if people teach, that’s how they learn so it’s not just about a culture of learning it’s about a culture of teaching.

If you look at practices in books like Atomic Habits, it’s about putting small practices in place to make it happen. We did things like team training, team cleaning, tours, audits and visual management and these all became habits that required new thinking. A client told me that learning how to do this is like walking on the ceiling. This is how different it is and therefore hard to create habits around.

My experience is that indoctrinating Lean principles and a culture of deep learning is really hard and requires a high level of discipline and consistency to get traction. A lot of organizations don’t have this attention span, yet they want the results. What advice do you have for them?

There are near term things we have to deal with but the principles that hold up Lean or Six Sigma reinforce that the results along the way are way worth it. Businesses need to have short term things and long-term things and my job is to help leaders understand that.

I always go back to the farmer analogy. You probably understand that if you want to grow food, you have to have good soil and need to plant the right seeds. A smart farmer will pull the weeds when they are little and do some pruning to get the best fruit. The dumb farmer sprays RoundUp in his farm. You will grow beautiful tomatoes this year, but you may not want to eat them and next year the soil will not be ready for you because you killed the good stuff in it too.

I tell leaders “You planted beans yesterday and you want to eat them tomorrow. Does that make sense to you?” I encourage them that they have this opportunity to be a leader and they owe the organization something and it makes sense for them to look at both short- and long-term results.

For example, one of my customers cut their lead time in half for product development. They don’t have to carry as much inventory. It allows them to listen to their customer and make what they want, and it also allows them to back out of something a customer doesn’t want. As a business, they are still measuring top line growth along with near other measures like lead time.

I advocate them to be smart enough to look at their business past a quarter. If you are measuring your garden after a quarter, you’ll never have fruit. No garden grows in a quarter.

You and I both know that commitment to the process works, and others can take it or leave it. We know that when we implement this stuff, there is as 30% improvement in cost, quality, defects, joy, innovation, learning and that’s just getting started. It’s not about having guts to make the commitment to the work and journey it takes it’s about having a brain to do it.

What are two or three things a leader can do to create a culture of employee involvement and collaboration?

It’s quite simple:

  1. Head - know the science and facts behind what you’re doing and why you are doing it

  2. Heart - decide if you give a damn and care enough about it, your employees and business to commit to it

  3. Hands - take action

Once you get them aligned for yourself, you are creating a culture of involvement and collaboration. The pursuit of love vs the pursuit of money is the key to success.

Time for your rapid-fire round Jeff!

  • How many times you’ve been to Japan: Six plus or minus two

  • Number of tours you host at Kaas Tailored each week: Twice per week

  • Beach or mountains: Mountains (if you would have said saltwater or mountains, I would have said saltwater)

  • Goal for 2020: I don’t live that way. It’s survival right now.

  • Favorite pastime: Skiing or boating

Tomorrow, Jeff will be the guest of a free live session on Adapting to Ambiguity, hosted by my good friend Chris Anibarro of Impact Consultancy. Register HERE to learn more about how Jeff's team pivoted practically overnight to shift his current operations to making PPE for the healthcare industry.

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