It is said that every journey of a great distance begins with a single step. On my personal lean journey, I took that first step – and many more thereafter – with the guidance of a man named Gordon Jonas.
Gordon was a man of great passion: for his family, for small-bore rifles which he shot competitively, and for teaching lean thinking to anyone who would listen. If lean had an evangelist, it was Gordon. It wasn’t so much the words that he spoke that caught people’s attention; it was all in the delivery and it was unforgettable.
In fact, it’s been about 18 months since I last spoke to Gordon, but his go-to catch phrases still fill the space between my ears like he’s sitting right here, right now.
. . . . when a kaizen event finally yielded a breakthough:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I believe we have our ‘ah-ha’ moment!”
. . . when the blame was being passed around:
“Remind me again . . . is it called it the 5-whys, or the 5-whos?”
. . . and in the many instances in which I should have known better:
“Joel . . . <insert long, dramatic pause as he tilted his head and lowered his eyes to peer deep down into my soul> . . . c’mon!”
“C’mon” was like Gordon’s own personal badge of honor, and he saw to it that I wore it proudly. A “c’mon” meant that 1.) I was probably being an idiot, 2.) I was about to be informed very directly of exactly why I was being an idiot, and 3.) I was going to learn a very valuable (and slightly painful) lesson that I would not soon forget.
Sure, he was a bit harsh at times, but I knew he was only critical of me because he genuinely cared, not just as a co-worker, but as a person and as a friend. For one reason or another, Gordon invested in my potential and did his best to see that I could do my best. And that is why to me – and to (literally) countless others to whom he dedicated his time and energy – Gordon was the embodiment of what it meant to be a mentor.
Tragically, Gordon passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last month at the age of 55.
I found his obituary to be a perfect representation of his dedication and investment in others, noting that his time was spent:
“traveling around the world implementing and training others in continuous improvement methodologies. His “tough love” teaching style made him universally beloved and respected by his many mentees.”
What I struggled to find, however, were the words that express the gratitude that I feel to Gordon for introducing me to Lean thinking, one of the few passions in my life, not to mention the means by which I am able to support my family. I’ve written and re-written this post more than ten times over the past few weeks, but nothing has been good enough to do him justice. There simply aren’t enough thank-yous in the thesaurus.
The more that I reflected on the topic, the more that I realized that I was coming at it from the wrong angle. I was trying to express my gratitude, when I should have been focused on demonstrating my gratitude. A mentor does not mentor because of the thanks and the praise that they receive. A mentor is motivated simply by seeing the growth and the development of those for which they genuinely care.
If that is the case, how then do we honor those mentors in our lives who have given us so much? The answer is by being the mentors for the next generation. Our mentors were rewarded by our success. When we in turn become mentors, we are ensuring that the wisdom, the energy, the dedication, and the passion of our mentors lives on in others.
When each subsequent generation does the same, adding their own personal knowledge and experience as they go, then we all become part of something very special . . . something without an end that will grow and evolve over time. . . something with the power to change hearts and minds. . . This is the mentor’s legacy.
By paying it forward, you honor that legacy . . . you become part of that legacy . . . and you create a legacy of your own.
What can you do to be part of something very special? Ask yourself these two questions.
“Who is my mentor?” Whether it’s for lean or for life in general, now is the time to find a mentor of your own if you do not already have one. It’s not always easy, but here are some helpful hints to get you started. And if you already have a mentor, consider ways in which to strengthen that relationship.
“Who am I mentoring?” To answer this question, I want you to take a long, hard look in the mirror. In all walks of life, lean thinking included, there are many coaches, and far fewer mentors. Understand that there are differences. A good coach can teach us many things; a mentor helps us to learn for ourselves the lessons in life that can’t be taught. Find someone you want to see succeed, someone you genuinely care about and someone whose life you feel that you can positively affect. Reach out. Be a mentor.
Gordon’s passing has caused me to realize that I have been blessed with a great responsibility. I’ve always considered mentoring to be one of the most rewarding aspects of my career; but with the knowledge that by doing so, I am continuing and creating a legacy for all of the individuals who I am proud to call my mentors, mentoring takes on an even greater value for me.
In closing, I ask you to consider the following:
Will you honor those that came before you?
Will you pay it forward?
Will you create a mentor’s legacy?
And for what it’s worth . . . thank you, Gordon.
Notes. Please Read.
- Contributions may be made in Gordon’s name to the American Red Cross, P.O. Box 4002018, Des Moines, IA, 50340-2018.
- If you are reading this post and knew Gordon personally, I ask you to share a story in the comments below. What did you learn from Gordon? How did he impact your life?
- If you didn’t know Gordon, but had a mentor who affected your life positively, please feel free to share a story in the comments below.