INCubator program helps companies get a streamlined start

By: Cortney Casey | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published August 22, 2012

Debra Levantrosser Setman likes to say she was “born into a lean household.”

She didn’t know the term as it applied to the corporate world then. All she knew was that every time the refrigerator door needlessly lingered open, it became a lesson in conservation. All family members were encouraged to identify and eliminate waste. And when major decisions were required, they were made as a team.

Decades later, Levantrosser Setman is preaching the power of efficiency and effectiveness in the business realm through Oakland University’s Lean Diversification Program, which brings its new Startup Lean program to the Macomb-OU INCubator in Sterling Heights this September.

Set for 8 a.m.-noon Sept. 11, 18 and 25, the series is geared specifically toward startups, early stage companies under 2 1/2 years old, and even entrepreneurs with a dream who haven’t yet put pen to paper.

The course’s bottom line is, “don’t wait to become lean — start lean,” said Julie Gustafson, the INCubator’s executive director.

“If a company starts this way from scratch, there’s only continuous improvement, rather than big, radical culture change,” agreed Levantrosser Setman, founder and lead adviser of South Lyon-based Arbed Solutions and co-founder of the Michigan Lean Consortium.

At the heart of lean is innovation, encouraging employees to “feel free and feel empowered to make suggestions on how to change things” and making incremental adjustments to achieve larger results, said Levantrosser Setman.

“Lean thinking is a way to empower associates to eliminate waste in processes and maximize value for customers,” she said. “So it’s really an organizational culture, and really, at the core of the culture is continuous improvement … and the idea that you don’t have to make a huge transformational change to make an impact.”

The concepts aren’t new: They were employed and espoused by such famous figures at Henry Ford and W. Edwards Deming, she said, and “if you go back even further, Benjamin Franklin used a lot of these principles in the founding of our country.”

The INCubator has already held Lean Green Belt and Black Belt certification programs, which entail a lengthier time commitment and more in-depth instruction, but Startup Lean is a new addition, an abbreviated version to accommodate fledgling companies that may have limited time and resources, said Gustafson.

The program was developed after reviewing responses on surveys administered to more than 50 new businesses in southeastern Michigan, inquiring about their greatest challenges, she said.

Ensuring streamlined processes are in place opens up owners and managers to focus on what’s truly important for moving their businesses forward, said Levantrosser Setman.

“Leadership doesn’t spend all their time in their offices and on conference calls and writing emails. … They go out on the front line,” she said.

Examples include establishing an efficient accounting system from the get-go, hiring an accountant and implementing software like QuickBooks to keep everything in order, versus stashing boxes full of receipts in the back room, said Gustafson.

It can mean the difference between solid financial forecasting and “not being able to tell anybody the health of your business or not knowing the health of your business, which will make it so you can’t plan well,” she said.

Levantrosser Setman — who said she’s implemented lean principals in more than 50 countries for various companies, including Ford Motor Co., PricewaterhouseCoopers and Johnson & Johnson — noted that the class is applicable for businesspeople in any industry, as participants with myriad perspectives can learn from each others’ successes and struggles.

Startup Lean tuition is $125 and includes instruction, breakfast and a mid-morning snack.

Meanwhile, the next Lean Green Belt certification program at the INCubator will run 8 a.m.-4 p.m. weekly Oct. 2-30, and concludes with a final session Dec. 11.

It entails 44 hours of classroom work, plus a Green Belt-level project demonstrating the concepts learned. The tuition cost is $600, but fully grant-subsidized student slots are available for companies that qualify.

For more information or to register, visit or contact Joan Carleton at (586) 884-9324 or