Learning to Be Lean with Zingerman’s Mail Order

January 15, 2024

by Cj Pettus

You’ve likely heard of Zingerman’s—a visit to their deli is a must on every Ann Arbor trip itinerary—but did you know that Zingerman’s Mail Order depends on Lean process improvement to accurately fulfill national orders? Zingerman’s active focus on continuous improvement is exemplary, and Nexus is proud to partner with them. Learners in several courses get to see Lean thinking in action by visiting the Zingerman’s Mail Order warehouse.


As of last year, the Kata Mindset and Lean Manufacturing Week 2 Blue courses both spend a day at Zingerman’s Mail Order. Learners walk through the workspace, and Zingerman’s team members are more than happy to talk about what they are working on.

Production Manager Betty Gratopp loves having the opportunity to meet with learners from Nexus courses at the facility. She says, “When you go to the warehouse, you’ll see examples of most of the Lean tools. You’ll also see artifacts of starter Kata—Kata storyboards that allow us to make our thinking visible during Kata training. You’ll also see improvements that were driven by scientific thinking even though the storyboards no longer remain.”

Lean Manufacturing participant Justin Handlin learned a lot from his trip through the warehouse. After his tour, he shared, “I think one of the reasons Zingerman’s is considered world-class is because the employees are very engaged and familiar with the Lean principles. I learned that I don’t need to overcomplicate things. If we want to try something new, we can grab some duct tape, cardboard, and markers, and the outcome will be just as successful.”



When learners first arrive at Zingerman’s Mail Order, they’re impressed by the tools and methods. But Betty is honest about their reality. The visual management and workflows you see today aren’t the product of a week’s work. Betty is open about the fact that anything you see today is the result of nearly 25 years of work—that’s how long the team has depended on Lean principles.

From the start, when Zingerman’s management decided to go down the Lean path, it was never a unilateral decision. Company leadership understood that the only way to successfully adopt a new method of doing things was if the team members—the people actually doing the work—had agency and were able to embrace the change.

Betty said, “As long as you’re bringing in the people doing the work alongside the people making the decision, you’re all making the decision together. And it made it a better experience in the end. Nobody wants things that are done to them. Nobody who has been working at a job for however long wants someone to bring them solutions.”



The belief that the worker should have a say in how the work is the foundation for Zingerman’s continued success with Lean thinking today. Betty shares, “That’s the part about Zingerman’s that really rocks—our guiding principles allow us to learn and grow in ways that the individual wants and that the business needs.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly all the time. The Zingerman’s team is honest about pain points. Nexus learners interact directly with team members on the floor, and the team members happily answer questions and explain systems—even if they are working through a challenge. Betty says, “We will also show them all of our bumps and bruises and share all of our failures stories openly and honestly, because we want to set the expectation that, sometimes, that’s where you learn.”

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