Graduate Capstone Profile: Dagmar Leans Into Leadership

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Dagmar and sticky notes

When the time came for Dagmar Vlahos, M.S. Leadership ‘21, to select her graduate capstone project, she decided to focus on what she knows best.

DagmarDagmar has spent nearly the last two decades of her professional life learning about, applying, and teaching the principles of Lean. Lean is a philosophy focused on improving workplace processes to increase efficiency, provide a better customer experience, and save businesses time and money. In 2015, she earned the Lean Black Belt Certification after completing an intensive 10-month training. She’s now working toward attaining the next level, the Master Black Belt Certification.

In her role as Senior Process Engineer with the USNH Enterprise Lean Team, Dagmar has trained employees and organizational leaders statewide and in the United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, and India. When the State of New Hampshire needed help implementing its COVID-19 vaccine program, they called on Dagmar and other select members of the USNH Enterprise Learn Team to help.

Selecting a Capstone Topic

As the culminating achievement of the master’s degree programs at Granite State College, the graduate capstone asks students to define, research, and solve a personal, community, or business challenge, or realize an entrepreneurial opportunity. Program directors and faculty encourage students to choose an idea that ignites their interest and curiosity.

Dagmar said she initially had a difficult time narrowing down a specific topic for her capstone. Her instructor, Dr. Joseph Mews, asked her questions designed to guide her on the right path.

I could immediately see that teaching is Joseph’s passion. He exhibited his passion through his willingness to help and how he approached each of us individually. I couldn’t have had a better mentor throughout my capstone course.

In her extensive experience teaching Lean, Dagmar discovered a common trend. While the employees she trained often became enthusiastic ambassadors for Lean values, getting buy-in from organizational leadership was more challenging.

Oftentimes, organizational leadership is hesitant to invest the energy needed to incorporate a Lean culture. My challenge is to show them that the investment is worth the long-term rewards.

Dagmar decided that her research would focus on examining the correlation between leadership engagement and the formation of an organizational Lean culture.

Digging Into the Research

Selecting this topic allowed Dagmar to analyze a challenge she faced in her day-to-day work through the lens of what she learned through her master’s degree program. Her research helped to strengthen her understanding of the challenge and how to address it.

Dagmar’s research found that 64% of employees are disengaged from their work, despite that 80% of innovation and improvement comes from frontline workers.

A lot of employees feel that they don’t have a vested interest in the goal and mission of the company. Lean really focuses on addressing that.

While she knew from experience that Lean principles are effective tools to increase employee engagement, she also understood that Lean is most effective when an organization’s leadership buys into and actively practices it.

Dagmar studied the Japanese auto manufacturer Toyota, the company that originated the Lean philosophy. She learned that Toyota trains its leaders to think with the Lean methodology, operating as “servant leaders.” Toyota’s leadership actively gathers feedback from employees and applies it, instead of managing top-down. Toyota has found that gathering and applying employee feedback improves processes and increases efficiency.

Lean works best when leaders use it to empower employees. The employees find that they have a voice and can articulate to the project team when they’re seeing inefficiencies. The worst thing a leader can do is allow their team to work through a bad process.

Addressing the Challenge

After developing a body of research to support her capstone, Dagmar’s next step was to consider how she could use that information to address the challenge. How could her research help her to convince organizational leadership that Lean is a worthy investment?

She understood that illustrating the cost savings would be the most effective way to drive home the value of Lean. So, she utilized research from Harvard Business Review, which finds that a company with a highly developed culture of quality spends, on average, $350 million less annually fixing mistakes than a company with a poorly developed one.

Leveraging this data, Dagmar argued that businesses have far more to lose by not adopting a Lean culture than they do by investing in one.

Applying Her Capstone in the Field

Now that she’s completed her graduate capstone and her M.S. Leadership program, Dagmar is ready to apply what she learned in the field.

I am so thankful to Granite State College for my experience in the M.S. Leadership program. I now have more confidence in my ability to engage leadership and show them the value of their role in building a Lean culture.

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