Leaning Circulation. Kaizen with John Borwick.

July 15, 2015, 8:46 pm

Lean Startup had a strong influence on me. I had wanted to blog more about lean principles across library organizations, but that didn’t work out.

I’ve benefitted from some conversations with John Borwick (Director of IT Services at Virginia Tech Libraries) who is well versed in continuous improvement and project management. His blog explores how IT can effectively deliver more value while minimizing waste.

John approached my team about conducting a lean activity and examining some of our processes. Here are some notes:

Why Circulation?

John wanted to explore the laptop check-in, check-out process. A lot of people care about this service. It is valuable to patrons. The laptops are always in demand so there seems to be a sense of urgency to improve.

On one side it seems like an IT Services matter since it involved computers. But circulation views it as a workflow matter. Everyone cares about the patrons and wants to be efficient. But it was unclear who owns the process so the goal was to bring people together to understand all the parts and pieces.


IMAG1640John started out with a brief summary but he wanted everyone to observe the action together. He had someone go through the entire process of checking in a laptop and preparing it to be ready to go out again. The intention was for all parties to witness all the steps and the thinking behind them.


  • Who did what?
  • Where did the different actions happen?
  • What was involved?
  • How long did each step take?
  • What worked well?
  • What was challenging?
  • What was confusing?

After witnessing the process the group talked about what they saw. They identified all the steps and the rationale behind them. Then they watched the process again and this time timed it so they could have a more accurate sense of how long each part took to complete.

Get Rid of Cabinets

IMAG1636John admitted to me that he struggled with his role. While he is the head of IT, in this instance he was trying to play a facilitator role. He wanted to be neutral, but he could not prevent himself from making suggestions. In lean, the objective is to allow the people involved with a process figure how the best ways to improve it.

What he suggested was getting rid of the large cabinets which the laptop. But he was met with resistance. People liked the idea of having a physical home for all the equipment: Laptop #10 belongs in Slot #10. Everything has a place and there is a place for everything. It’s probably a library thing!

The way John saw it—the equipment is always checked out except during break weeks. He felt that it would improve speed and workflow by having the laptops stacked on a table or open shelf. With the current system, our staff has to open every cabinet but they could reduce effort if the machines were just in piles.

Reduce the Queue

IMAG1639Re-imaging a laptop takes 15-20 minutes. This is where most of our effort (time) is invested. How can we make this take less time? Our IT team could explore it as a technical issue: could we re-image faster or differently? But as the group watched the process another issue emerged: wait time in the queue.

We saw that once the machines have been discharged they are placed in a queue: waiting to be re-imaged. The staff checks the shelf once an hour. They prefer to do the work in batches. They found that this could cause delay if the desk was busy or other needs emerged. So the group focused on this theme and tried some different experiment related to moving the laptops through the queue more quickly.


While the aim was to improve the laptop lending process, the larger objective was to demonstrate to our staff that they could make changes happen. We wanted our circulation team to see that they are experts in the process and that they could work with IT to explore ideas for improvement.

I attended the meeting but I didn’t want to come across as the decision-maker. I tried to downplay my admin role and was there as an observer. I wanted to reinforce that they were empowered to shape the service and process accordingly rather than it being a top-down mandate.

Here are a few lean notes from John:

  • “We are here to learn, to make a difference and to have fun.” Deming
  • We’re not robots, each of us has a brain and we’re experts in our primary job.
  • One trap with lean or any tool is that it is easy to learn the tool but difficult to master the process. I might be very proficient using Microsoft Word but that technical knowledge won’t make me a better writer. We need to learn more about the philosophy of improvement rather than just a few techniques
  • “Problems are treasures.”
  • We only become good at something after being bad at it. We don’t start out awesome but can become awesome through constant improvement.
  • Most organizations have a culture of knowing. The manager is expected to know everything. With lean the goal is to have a culture of improvement where learning is the critical asset.

Added note:

I ran out of time on this post, but I would have liked to have interviewed members of our circ team to gather their side of the experience. One of the guiding principles of lean is that the people doing the work (close to it) are the experts. In this case, John was looking at the process as an outsider but didn’t have enough time during his two-hour session to absorb circ culture, the departmental history, and their workflows under different circumstances. Our circ folks are very agreeable and willing to make changes, and I appreciate that. My guiding interest in this experiment was trying to help them see that they own the the processes around them and that they are empowered to alter things accordingly.

If you’re interested in learning more about lean John recommends: Toyota Kata

He also recommends this video:

The book that really connected with me was: Getting the Right Things Done: A Leader’s Guide to Planning and Execution

Oh and about laptops. One day we’ll switch to a system like this, but right now the scale isn’t large enough for the price tag, for me. I’ll get excited when we have a system that lends 50+ laptops. But I’m glad VCU has this. It gives me hope for a more automated future.




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