Reprinted with permission. Original post on Swaay can be accessed at

Marcia Brey has spent 24 years inside the walls and factories of GE Appliances where she has learned to navigate the demands of a global business, the paths to lean manufacturing practices and the intricacies of establishing leadership in mostly male environments.

With two masters degrees in engineering under her work belt, and decades of production floor and supply chain experience to draw from, Brey is currently charting a course to greater company-wide collaboration that creates a superior ownership experience for consumers—and for employees.

As GE Appliances’ first Lean Enterprise Leader, Brey’s aim is to show associates how they succeed best together. Above all, this former plant manager knows that true leadership is an attitude that can inspire others to action.

What is a Lean Enterprise?
It’s much more than manufacturing. That’s a journey we’ve been on for many years now, and my job is to elevate this thinking—this laser-tight focus on the most efficient use of resources—across our entire enterprise. We want to pull departments and job functions together to solve problems quickly at less cost. It doesn’t matter if you’re in technology, sales, production, marketing or distribution—every associate has expertise in some aspect of our business, and every associate is part of the Lean Enterprise. My team, our leaders, will be the glue that binds these many different perspectives together, allowing us to see much, much more than any one individual or dataset can ever reveal.

1) Many women have felt frustrated working in a male-dominate industry. How do we shift from an “us vs. them” mentality while still standing up for ourselves?
I’m an engineer by trade, so I have been in environments with a disproportionate ratio of men to women for most of my career, especially early on. But you’ve got to get over it. I guess you could say I’m just one of the guys, so you stop thinking about it so much.

But there was a time it really hit home, and that was when I became a plant manager. When I arrived at the factory, one of our female associates approached me and said, “Good for you, I’m so excited!”

I remember I told her that my background wasn’t manufacturing, that I was more of a technology person, and she said, “No, you’re a woman, and that’s a huge vote of confidence for us and it’s a true reflection of how we want our workforce to be. I feel so proud to work here where the company feels confident to put a woman into this position.”

The simple answer is that we need more representation of women in technical roles. For instance, the foundation of lean and what we’re doing comes from a manufacturing and supply chain environment, which is very underrepresented by women leaders or really, women in general.

Other than our numbers, there’s nothing preventing us from rising through the ranks, whether that’s a loading dock or a lab. Naturally, it can be intimidating to be the only gal in a group of guys, but hard work and bright ideas are universal, and there’s nothing that breaks down barriers faster than succeeding on a project together.

2) In your experience, what are the most impactful things you can do to boost morale and lead a successful team?
It all starts with empathy. I think many leaders are quick to speak and slow to listen. My best advice is to get out and go see for yourself. Associates don’t expect you to know everything, to have all the answers, but will respect you for taking the time to understand their roles and the concerns that come with those responsibilities.

I’ve had the opportunity to work in multiple job functions, and having these many perspectives helps me understand that it's not just about how we teach people to solve a problem within a function, it's how we encourage people to go to the source of the problem and understand it from the user's point of view.

Doing this requires a cross-functional approach, where associates from different areas of the business must come together and dig deeper to uncover the real issues. But it’s this collaboration, this camaraderie, that catches on and starts to spread.

I think there’s a social aspect to lean that’s often overlooked, but that associates respond strongly to, that can only come when employees feel genuinely engaged and enabled by leadership. It’s not rocket science, but it takes a calculated approach and a commitment by management to model this ideal state in their words and deeds day in and day out.

3) Do you have any creative suggestions for how to lead a team?
Don’t underestimate the power of sketching and drawing—seriously! Collaboration sounds great, but if you just have a bunch of people sitting in a room waiting to share their opinion, then not a lot tends to happen.

With lean thinking we have our teams get out the sketch pad and draw their ideas. Then we put the sketches on the wall and go through one by one asking, “What do you see?"

One picture may not show the whole problem, but collectively you put those images together, and it creates a depth that you didn't even realize was there.

It’s not just talking, it's about creating a process that encourages folks to see beyond their own perspective, and that’s how we’ll continue to leverage the strength of our many associates at GE Appliances moving forward.

While the manufacturing space remains a man’s world, it is a new generation of leaders like Marcia Brey that can change the perception of women in commercial industries by reshaping the ways the biggest businesses succeed.

4) What excites you the most about being in this role?
I am most excited about the opportunity to lead and coach employees to implement projects that cross traditional functional boundaries. We have many team members who want to implement bigger scope projects but find it difficult trying to navigate beyond their function and maintain their daily task requirements within their functional roles. The Lean Enterprise team can support these multifunctional projects and ensure an “outside-in” focus on our consumers. I think of our team as “glue” that pulls our teams closer together.”

5) What do you think you do differently than if someone else were tasked with this role?
My 24-year career at GE Appliances has helped prepare me for this Lean Enterprise Leader role. I have worked in almost every function in our business and have had very challenging leadership positions over many business cycles during the past two and half decades. I started my career in Technology where I designed washer transmissions and pumps. I helped launch our first B2B web application. I learned how to “walk in the shoes of our customers” when I led a call center team in Customer Service. I earned my Black Belt and Master Black Belt in Six Sigma.  I ran our GE Appliances online store and consumer websites. I managed our logistics and distribution warehouses throughout the U.S. and most recently was the Plant Manager for our Bottom-Freezer Refrigeration factory where I truly saw how Lean thinking can transform the effectiveness of team problem solving. In a way, I feel my entire career has been in preparation to take this leadership role for our team.  I love GE Appliances. I love our people. I am passionate about helping our customers be successful and I am dedicated to building appliances that consumers will feel proud to have in the heart of their home. I know I have a big responsibility to our employees, our customers and our owners. It is an exciting time to bring this next level of thinking to our company.

6) What’s your proudest moment/biggest win so far in your current role with Lean Enterprise?
We are only 6 months into this end-to-end Lean journey at GE Appliances, so we are really just in the infancy stage of our Lean Enterprise. In fact, every day I feel I learn how much more we have to learn. With that said, we have aha moments weekly. Here is one story from our learnings so far. 

“One area we are focused on improving using Lean Enterprise thinking is how to create stronger, consumer-focused definitions for our new Appliance concepts and ideas. We traditionally survey consumers and use that data to feed into the creation of new designs and styles. We are trying a different approach that puts more effort into the definition of “winning designs.” During one workout, we assembled a cross-functional commercial team made up of senior managers, industrial designers and sales personnel who spend their entire day working with customers on the appliance showroom floor. Together, we debated the results from the consumer data, we took time to “go see” the product together on the show room floor and we discovered a different level of ideation of what we could do to create market leading appliance designs. Every person came into the workout thinking he or she had the answer for what our new product designs should be. We all left the workout united and focused on where we will go together with our new product appliance strategies.”

7) What are some common mistakes leaders may make that stifle a team?
One common mistake leaders make that stifle a team is telling more than listening and coaching. Many leaders think they have to have all of the answers. Some think that if they don’t provide the answers for the team then they are not fulfilling the basic role of their position. I observe that the best leaders are the ones who truly listen to learn and understand (versus the ones who are just waiting their turn to talk). The best leaders have empathy. They ask thoughtful questions and they “go see.” Laborious debates around a conference room table or through long email strings rarely solve problems. Leaders who engage multiple team members to understand many viewpoints of a problem preferably going to the source of where the problem is occurring—where does a “good one” become a “bad one” as we would say in manufacturing—are the leaders who are the most effective.

8) You’re in an industry that’s inundated with men. Are you conscientious of this and does it affect the way you lead?
I am aware only as it applies to diversity. It is important that we have leaders at all levels of our company that reflect the diversity of our consumers and our employees. Our leadership team must be able to relate to these groups from different points of view and a diverse culture enables that breadth of thinking. So it is critical that we encourage and promote that diversity through our leadership pipeline at GE Appliances. Otherwise, I try to lead each member of my team based on what he or she needs from me to bring out their best.

9) What are some examples of hands-on thinking coming to life (i.e., full scale prototypes to speed development)?
We are learning how to communicate between functions beyond just email, conference room meetings and PowerPoint presentations. There are times when “go see” is just not practical—like when we are working on problems in distribution that involve multiple warehouses and transportation across many states. Recently, we wanted to show a cross-functional team where the “waste” in this manufacturing-distribution value stream was located so we simulated the daily flow of one of our dishwashers including the sales orders that triggered the physical flow of product using Legos. The demonstration was very effective and allowed a very diverse group of leaders to quickly understand the current state. The simulation was very simple to put together and the resulting dialogue and debate were very valuable in creating collective team think about the gaps preventing us from reaching our ideal state. Drawing pictures or creating simple simulations where a group of people huddle around a drawing or model generates in-depth discussions and creative ideas.