Total Kaizen of the Heart

Last month, we reflected on how the Aerozone Alliance could learn from Legos and its concept of ‘A System in Play.’ How could we create a dynamic and a self-correcting system that continually observes, experiments, learns, discards, refines, and evolves?

In other words, how can we enable a system of Kaizen (a Japanese word meaning, Kai: “Change,” and Zen: “Good;” or, a positive manner in which we learn and evolve)?

I am glad to report we now have one very interesting experiment that has been launched and has yielded some powerful insights.

Here was the challenge/opportunity that we aspired to tackle:

By the way, a fascinating cultural insight I recently gained: Did you know that the Chinese word for crisis is Wéijī (Wei: “Danger,” and Ji: “Opportunity”)?

Wéi: Danger

Ji: Opportunity


  • We have the STEM industries: healthcare, advanced manufacturing, advanced sciences, etc.
  • We as a region have an incredible array of post-secondary educational institutions.
  • We have institutions that can provide systemic ongoing support: Cuyahoga County Library System, Great Lakes Science Center STEM camps, and many more!

And finally:

  • We have one of only ten NASA Research Centers in the world! The greatest STEM brands on the planet!

As we look at these numbers, I am convinced that Pathway to STEM is the most tangible Pathway to Prosperity for our disenfranchised residents.

So, what do you suppose is one of the biggest barriers that prevents our young minds from entering into STEM careers?

The answer: Psychological Access

Many of our students just don’t see themselves in STEM careers because they have very little familiarity with the world of STEM. (Don’t believe me? Listen to our STEM ambassador and Cleveland Browns Quarterback, Josh Dobbs)

Looking at these facts, we smelled an opportunity. We brought together a wide network of partners and we designed a strategy that we called the ‘Yellow Bus Strategy.”

Our challenge: How could we bring more yellow busses filled with students from our most dis-enfranchised school districts to NASA Glenn Research Center and help them connect directly in a hands-on setting with the world of STEM?

After months of preparation, the pilot event was conducted on March 16, 2023. And the event was a tremendous success. (See list of all our partners and some photographs here.)

Josh Dobbs at NASA Glenn
Yellow school buses

Personally, for me, the most interesting moment came on Monday after the event.

It was the lunch meeting where all our partners regathered and immersed ourselves in Kaizen. My expectation was that the meeting would highlight tactical refinement opportunities we could adopt going forward. Or that we would identify ways to make our program more impactful. And yes, while much of conversation was focused on tactics, I really saw something much greater unfolding.

Let me explain… Generally, I tend to be a very tactical thinker. Going into the meeting, we had the whiteboards setup to capture our learnings. We had neatly pre-classified the categories: student experience, logistics and operations, etc. What I completely failed to consider was the deeper purpose of these debrief sessions.

Yes, we had the white board full of notes on our oversights, poor assumptions, unforeseen accomplishments, etc. However, the biggest win that afternoon was the psychological dynamics that emerged. It was the very personal exchange amongst the 10 individuals from NASA Glenn, Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Greater Cleveland Career Consortium, and Ohio Aerospace Institute, who were sharing a meal, celebrating their joint effort, commending each other for their creativity, enjoying each other’s company, and most importantly, smiling.

It was a conversation and a space where people felt comfortable sharing where they personally had an oversight or miscalculation, individuals reflected on their mistakes and offered better alternatives. As the group spoke, ate, smiled, they were starting to feel comfortable being a bit more open and vulnerable.

And when one individual expressed his vulnerability, others stepped in and offered encouragement.

Just 5 months ago, these were individuals who didn’t know each other, who could have passed each other at a Cleveland Browns game as complete strangers – but now we had cemented a deeper bond.

We were experiencing a Total Kaizen of the Heart!

Unknowingly we have taken perhaps the most important first step and created our own Aerozone ‘System In Play.’ A system that now comprises of not transactional workers, rather supportive and committed colleagues. I can’t wait to keep this momentum going.