Meeting Ernie, learning Lean

One of the funny things about SAP is that we refer to our highest-ranking executives by their first names – Leo, Bill, Henning, Marty, Ernie, Hasso, Shai … Not that there aren’t other Germans at SAP named Henning!  But when you just say ‘Henning’, everyone knows who you’re talking about.  In my case, I’m really excited to tell you that (as part of SAP’s Top Talent program) I had the chance to have lunch and speak with Ernie in September last year, during his worldwide Listen & Learn Tour.  There are a couple of reasons I didn’t write about it earlier.  The first is that I was still feeling odd about being part of the Top Talent program (as discussed in my earlier post), and second, I wasn’t sure what was appropriate to talk about outside of SAP.

Now that it’s all public knowledge (and since you may not be as up to speed on our executives and their responsibilities!), let me tell you that last year Ernie Gunst was named to SAP’s Executive Board, and is now the Chief Operating Officer for the company.  When I still worked in U.S. Operations in 2004-2006, we saw Global Operations under new leadership and restructured numerous times.  In 2006, I took a global role in an Operations function for Sales & Marketing, and while it’s been a great experience, we’ve also had our share of challenges.  Things were a little bumpy at first, but they finally started stabilize and gather momentum in 2007, so I hope that a growing focus on Operations will help to create some further energy around the work we’re doing.  I also have a not-so-secret hope that we’ll have the opportunity to work in the new Board area that Ernie is building, so that we can extend all of our processes, programs, and services across the rest of the company.

In the early Fall, I received an invitation to lunch and the Listen & Learn with Ernie, which I immediately accepted!  We ate in the executive dining room, and I had a chance to reconnect with Jane V, the SVP of Business Operations I used to work for, and also to meet a number of other Top Talents from the U.S., many of whom I had never before met.  Later, we moved to a customer demo room so that we could talk in a quieter environment.

In preparation for the meeting, we had been asked to complete an executive briefing document, to provide a little information about ourselves and share our perspectives on where we felt his focus was most needed.  It was a great opportunity to provide feedback to an executive, and then dialogue with him about it.  We had a chance to hear a little about him and what he hopes to accomplish, and what he was hoping to get from his visit with us.  I did not take notes during the session, except a few tidbits I typed into my Blackberry about Lean Management, which I knew little about at the time (more on that shortly).  Ernie was very careful not to commit to his priority areas at that time, making clear that he wanted the approval of the Executive and Supervisory Boards before he began any communications on that front.  In spite of the fact that there is still a lot unknown about how the Operations area will take shape, in hindsight, it was definitely one of the highlights of my Top Talent experience!

As a follow up to my lunch that day, I wrote this note to my boss Liezl and her boss (a former colleague and boss) John.  My focus was really on the tenets of Lean that Ernie had outlined, as I was already starting to percolate on how I could take this emerging discourse and align my team’s work to it.  

From: Hanson, Natalie
Sent: Friday, September 19, 2008 11:13 AM
To: John B; Liezl S
Subject: ‘Lean’ Management – from Ernie

John, Liezl –

You know that on Wednesday I had the privilege to meet with Ernie Gunst, along with Rob E (COO of Global Field Operations) and Jane V (SVP of GFO).  In attendance were other U.S. Top Talents.  It was a great meeting, and I have lots I could say about it.   Perhaps most importantly, I can’t say enough about how impressed I was with what he had to say, his style, his interaction with all of us, etc.  It was terrific.  Just briefly, I wanted to share my notes regarding the ‘lean’ management style which seems to be at the heart of how Ernie operates.  John, this may be a repeat for you, but I wanted to make sure Liezl had this going into her meeting with him.  Ernie says that ‘lean’ is based on five pillars:

  1. Focus only on things that are good for the customer, as defined by the customer.
  2. If you need to make changes, start from the customer and work back.  Organize to be efficient and effective.
  3. Ensure your processes flow as fast as they can.
  4. We need to be innovative, but at the right time.  It doesn’t matter if we have an exciting new product if it’s two years ahead of what the market needs.
  5. Focus on perfection.  We should be striving to improve continuously, optimizing all the time.  We should focus on reducing avoidable waste, while recognizing that some waste is unavoidable.  Focus on avoidable waste.

As I said, I have lots more I could share, hopefully during in-person conversations with each of you.  I am also going to ask my MBA students (Greg and Jen) to pull 1-2 white papers that I can read about this.  I will send them on to you as well.

All best,


As I’ve written about elsewhere, since 2006 I have been maturing a small User Experience (UX) function in Global Business Operations.  As I know now, ‘walking the shop floor’ to understand and ultimately improve processes is one of the fundamentals of the Lean approach, so I was very excited about what Ernie’s priorities and approach might afford in terms of new opportunities and challenges for me and the UX team.  A key part of our the User Experience value proposition has been to start with our customers (in this case, SAP employees who are the end-users of SAP’s internal systems and processes).  We deliver insights back to the sponsor to inform application UI design, process change, and strategic direction on a variety of SAP-internal topics, and then work jointly with that sponsor’s team to interpret findings and identify opportunities for meaningful and feasible improvements.

Earlier in the year, my team had also been collaborating with an internal process team to develop a new service offering.  Our hope was to offer a service that would provide meaningful, industry-standard user relevant metrics alongside process KPIs.  Both the customer and process orientation are central to Lean, and so following the Listen & Learn, I continued to hope that organizational changes would enable us to position our services and support Ernie’s vision and plans.

Those hopes have finally started to materialize into opportunities, so what is happening now will be the subject of some of my subsequent posts.

1 Comments on “Meeting Ernie, learning Lean”

  1. Pingback: Greener, happier commute « Natalie Hanson, PhD

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