Vidas Petraitis: Most businesses don’t cope with values

Beatričė Laurinavičienė, Verslo Žinios

Before meeting with Vidas Petraitis, the founder of Lean.lt, the CEO of Baltijos Brasta Group UAB, one of the founders of the NGO “Vaiko Talentas” (“Children’s Talent”) and a regular speaker at Verslo Žinios conferences, I asked my colleagues who have dealt with him what keywords would describe his personality.

Lean, professional, Japan, great talker, and so on. That’s what my colleagues said. But Vidas turned out to be rather more non-standard than that description might suggest.

The joy of learning

We started from education. Two years ago, this VŽ Weekend interviewee graduated from Harvard Business School. Before that, and after secondary school at Saulės Gymnasium in Kaunas, were studies at the Baltic Institute of Corporate Governance, BMI and ISM.

“I’ve always liked and enjoyed learning – studying accompanies me all my life,” Vidas says, noting that he probably inherited his love of learning from his parents.  

He said he dreamed of finding out what knowledge from BMI or ISM, which are seen as tops in Lithuania, looks like from Harvard University, and ultimately he was able to realize that dream. But what’s most important is he likes to learn about certain areas, focusing on what is interesting to him.

“I make big efforts to be able to delve deeper into those things,” Vidas says.

At Harvard Business School, he delved deeper not just into business matters, but also into “the personality side”.  

Vidas tells how at the school a personal trainer assigned to every student tracks their strong points over two years and the two talk together to lay out personal growth plans. So studies at Harvard, he says, are not just about learning to make management decisions, but first of all affect you personally.

“And the effect is to knock off the bucket you’ve put over your head here in Lithuania. Then you see that most have started their activity from little things, and it’s just a question of whether you’re open and brave enough to accept changes in yourself and your surroundings,” Vidas explains.

He says your surroundings have a major impact. And those studies had a strong impact on his outlook – both towards business and towards a measured boldness in business.

The values hurdle

One of the research findings that left the biggest impression on Vidas at Harvard was that where the majority of businesses stumble is in the area of values.

“During every business ethics lecture, the well-known professor would say: ‘A values problem is a legal problem tomorrow, and a legal problem tomorrow is a business problem the next day.’”

“He backed up that claim with examples. Most showed how leaders and managers slip up on matters of values and principles – when you behave inappropriately at a certain moment, it’s just a matter of time before that brings undesired economic consequences,” Vidas explains. There are hundreds of examples like that, he adds. Back in Lithuania, he kept thinking about how firmly we hold to our values and business principles.

Asked how firm he thinks we are, he notes that we’re young, so while we’ve probably gotten past the Wild West stage, it’s a fact that managers should do more with their own example to promote an appropriate culture inside their organizations.

“If leaders thinks they can delegate values and principles, or that everyone has to assume responsibility except them, it won’t work,” Vidas says.

Here and there

Comparing his studies in Lithuania and the U.S., Vidas says that OVER THERE things are completely different – both in terms of the load and the process.

At Harvard, he says, it’s not typical for a lecturer to just lecture while students just take notes. Rather, business problems are posed and analysed, trying to understand their origins and causes, examining ways to solve them, and so on.

There were 160 people in his class at the business school. Vidas’s own group included eight – from Canada, America, Brazil, England, India, Japan and Australis. That means very different approaches were considered for dealing with every problem.  

“First you review the case yourself. Then the others in the group enrich your view with their insights and cultural background. And only then do you go to the classroom, where the professor doesn’t lecture about the ‘correct answers’, but raises questions.”

“In other words, he teaches you to solve problems, to quickly find arguments and facts to support your position. It’s a totally different learning process where you are 100% involved and have to stay on your toes,” Vidas says. He laughs recalling that the approach is called “cold calls”: if professors see you’re dozing off, they’ll immediately call on you.

“It’s really engaging. And it lets you see how narrow at times your own viewpoint is. It was great to learn from fellow students, such as vice presidents at Intel and Microsoft or a Toyota executive, people who have completed part of the journey and have invaluable experience,” Vidas said.    

The company that he founded, Lean.lt, has been in business since 2011. In that time it has become the biggest Lean consulting firm in Lithuania and the only partner in Central and Eastern Europe of Honsha.org, a global Lean implementation consulting firm comprised of former Toyota executives and expert team members. And when he graduated from Harvard two years ago, Vidas had a lot of things to share with his partners.

A Lean beginner in Gargždai

Calling his first encounter with Lean “a very interesting story,” Vidas tells how about 15 years ago, when he was 21, his father heard from the general manager of Mars Lietuva that the company was implementing “something called lean”, and he liked what he heard so much that he suggested his son find out more about it.

“I went there. The truth is that that organization made an unbelievable impression on me. Walking through the factory it felt like I wasn’t in Lithuania: people were smiling, with bright faces, you could feel that something was different,” Vidas recalls.

A few days later he wrote to say thanks for the visit, sincerely noting how he had felt, and two weeks later he got an invitation from the head of the company to join the team.

He wasn’t looking for a job at the time, but he gathered up his things and moved from Kaunas to Gargždai, where he ending up staying five years.

According to Vidas, his father Vidmantas, who was running the company Baltijos Brasta which he had established, told him then: “I invented a bicycle, but it’s not the best one. Why don’t you try to work a bit where they invented the bicycle 100 years ago? If you learn to ride the fastest, it’ll be very easy to come back here and do things even better.”

Well, after 12 years working at Mars Lietuva and in his own company, Vidas did join Baltijos Brasta, taking over his father’s management role.

“No, I find it very interesting,” he says, asked whether he felt pressured by his father to take over the family business. “All the more so since there are three different areas of operations, an interesting team of managers, a lot of nice challenges and good opportunities. I’m happy to be able to play a part.”

And to implement Lean methodologies, I suggest.

“Of course,” he laughs.

The sources say it was Henry Ford who began to apply the first rudiments of the Lean methodology for efficient business management at his automobile factory, but the system was created by Eiji Toyoda of Japan. That’s how the Toyota methodology came about, the basics of which Vidas learned while at Mars Lietuva from Toyota specialists who for three years came to spend a week every month at the factory.

“That was my greatest experience and school. Now Lean.lt is a partner of the Japanese, we represent them in Central and Eastern Europe. They come here for a week or two every other month. We have joint projects, in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. We export services from Lithuania to the neighbouring countries,” our interlocutor says. He doesn’t feel cultural differences in working with these people from Japan.

“Our partners,” Vidas says, “are professionals of the highest calibre and work throughout the world. Talking about Eastern European companies, sure, there are differences. But I personally have more faith in the culture of an organization than that of a country. In other words, if you put Mars Lietuva, Achema and Maxima side by side, you’d see that in terms of operating principles, culture and values they are very different organizations, even if they’re all run by Lithuanians. Similarly, Toyota differs in terms of its values and principles from companies like Honda or Kawasaki.”

Improvement is everything

Vidas is an inveterate promotor of Lean. Even when conversing about everyday matters, he elegantly interweaves references to that methodology. He lists three principles that “partners strongly support,” for example.

First, he says, boldness has to be encouraged in an organization, so employees are not afraid to point out problems. Since every problem that’s solved makes one stronger.

“It seems to me that behind every problem there’s a person. When someone fails, very often their intention may be very good, they simply lack certain skills. Nobody taught them how to do that. They’ve learned to swim on their own, and we expect them to set a new world record,” Vidas notes.

The second principle is humility. Our interviewee says that means not resting on your laurels thinking you’re the best, but always asking what you could do better.

The third principle is continual improvement.

“Imagine we go to an organization and ask: do you have any problems? No, they say, everything is fine. Maybe there’s something you could improve? No, they say, we’ve taken care of everything, it can’t be done any better,” Vidas laughs. He’s convinced that when people hide their problems and think they’re the best, that attitude alone prevents continual improvement. And to lack that trait in today’s ever-changing world is a big disadvantage.

An achiever with drive

Let’s turn to his school days. Vidas went to Saulės Gymnasium in Kaunas. He was first in his class and pestered his teachers with questions that they couldn’t answer.

“My grade average was 9.9” on the Lithuanian scale of 1 to 10, “which is an achievement… But I wasn’t really a nerd. I was more a guy who organized parties and brought people together,” Vidas says, laughing. Who he spent time with and how was important to him, and that’s still true for what he does today.

“Yes, it’s important to me that our business be successful and grow, but much more important is the process, how we try to get there,” Vidas says.

Thinking back to his school days, he remembers about how from about the sixth grade on when returning home from school he would read articles in the newspaper that caught his attention, mostly on politics and sports. On Wednesdays, together with his father, he would watch Audrius Siaurusevičius’s “Spaudos klubas” (“Press Club”) on TV, and the debate talk show “Paskutinė kryžkelė” (“The Last Crossroads”).

“I really liked those things, and my favourite subject was political science. My classmates sometimes prodded me to ask the teacher about some current event, and he would get to talking about that and not call on anyone,” Vidas recalls, laughing.

A group of friends come together in the eighth or ninth grade. They would play basketball or soccer, or else have lively discussions. One of the boys was more socialist in his views, Vidas himself was more conservative or liberal, another was something else, and sometimes they would spend evening after evening debating the very same topics.

The most interesting discussions, Vidas remembers, took place in Klaipėda. At the time, people in Klaipėda liked to say that Kaunas was just a petrol station between Vilnius and Klaipėda. He prepared seriously for those discussions, finding out, for example, how much Kaunas contributed to GDP and how much Klaipėda did.

After secondary school, Vidas entered ISM University of Management and Economics.

He says that both in secondary school and at university he would distinguish between what was interesting and what was not. He would disregard what was not interesting.

“Usually quite successfully,” he jokes. “On the other hand, outside the lecture hall I got involved everywhere possible. Being active was very important to me. Maybe that’s why even now I find myself working with a lot of organizations, interacting with a lot of people,” he says. Asked about his current “extracurricular activities”, he says that is what he would call the NGO “Vaiko Talentas” (“Children’s Talent”) that he and a friend founded.

Children’s talent

Vidas tells how, with the birth and growth of his first daughter, he started thinking about which of her talents it would be good to develop, how not to set his child off in a direction that she wouldn’t want to or couldn’t go, what activities would be right for her.

“I myself as a child went to maybe 15 different clubs and groups, and I’m glad I went from one to another until I found my own place. So I started exploring to see if there were any methodologies to help know what children’s talents are at different ages, what their gifts are,” Vidas says.

Thus he discovered the so-called Feuerstein Method, developed by the Jewish professor of cognitive psychology Reuven Feuerstein (1921-2014). One part of it lets you identify a child’s abilities early on and define a learning approach to help them realize their maximum potential throughout life.

“Vaiko Talentas” continues to grow, with 50 children now attending.

Talking about his support for a variety of initiatives, Vidas is more reserved: “We’re not major patrons or anything like that, but there are areas we find important and interesting. One year we sponsored a trip by young debaters to a world championship. We support the studies of gifted children around the world. We contribute when someone suffers a misfortune, or to Valdas Adamkus’s library, and so on.”

Asked if recognition was important for him, he says he hasn’t received any aside from those people’s ‘thank you’: “It if was important, we’d look for forms of support where we’ would be called up on stage and given a medal. We don’t do what we do for a medal. The only thing you can get from, say, modestly contributing to a gifted young person’s studies at the best political science university in France, is that person’s gratitude. On the other hand, it’s good to help kids like that, since those are the people who, hopefully, will determine the future fate of this country. And the more bright people there are, with proper values and a good grasp of things, the sooner this country will be not just young, but also fast and smart.”

I ask him if he really believes that.

“I do. I think we need a variety of changes in a variety of areas,” Vidas says.

One of those areas is healthcare. Lean.Lt is contributing there by using its expertise to help the Young Doctors Association.

A place to bring dreams to life

The topic of patronage is clearly not one Vidas is keen to talk about, so he returns to things he considers of more concern and says he definitely wants to mention that “many organizations focus heavily on results, but not on the process of how they obtain those results. Because of that, people get pushed too hard, problems are made personal, and in the end, you only see numbers, but you don’t see the souls behind the numbers.”

He says the Lean.lt team, which now includes 18 people, like a lot of people has a heavy workload, but tries to maintain a spirit of camaraderie. One way is week-long gatherings in the summer and in January where they “strategize”.

During one of those meetings four years ago, the team got caught up in watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That’s one of Vidas’s favourite movies on account of the values it promotes: trust and having a goal and pursuing it.

One evening he mentioned that it would be fun for all of them “to travel to where that movie was filmed.” After checking that it really was New Zealand, that very same evening they got on their computers and made a budget for the trip. Seeing that it would have been hard to save that much in one year, they did it over two years. The company contributed and so did each person, pooling what they won for so-called Kaizen ideas. In that way they saved up, and the whole team flew off to New Zealand for two weeks, intent on travelling and seeing as much as possible.

They are currently saving up in just the same way for a trip to Thailand.

“I think those sorts of things keep a team together better then competitive pay. For one thing, they form the soul and a realization that we can be more than just bodies who come together to work. For another, work becomes not just work, but a place where you can touch your dreams,” Vidas notes.

Asked what he has in mind, he says that Lean.lt has a list of every employee’s dreams and at a certain point makes them come true.

Thus for one of them who sails, the team arranged a voyage with the Ambersail yacht on the Mediterranean Sea. Another, a fisherman who was crazy to go fishing in Norway, got sent there. And a bowling lover was enabled to realize his dream of going to an international championship.

Asked what his own dream is, Vidas laughs: it hasn’t come true yet. He adds that his biggest dream was to study at Harvard. Now he has another one.

On being Lithuanian

“I don’t know how this will sound, but I’m going to say it. Sometimes you look at your life and wonder which spokes are the strongest. You see you’ve given a lot to your education and career, but I want to know about other things, too. For instance, I’m really interested in Lithuanian traditions and customs – I want Christmas and Easter to be more than just breaking a wafer or knocking eggs together. I want to go deeper and cherish those traditions in my family, pass them on to my children,” Vidas says.

He fills in the gaps in this area by conversing with Prof. Libertas Klimka, who comes to visit and talks about Lithuanian traditions and celebrations.

Vidas says the issue of being Lithuania is important to him more generally. He remembers one occasion at Harvard when he was watching a comedy show with a group of friends.

One of the comedians started detailing what the countries of Poland, Czech Republic and Latvia are like. On the topic of Lithuania, he theatrically asked where that country was, which made Vidas’s classmates laugh.

Back in Lithuania, Vidas wrote to each one to ask what their favourite number was. They answered.

Then he when to a sporting goods store and bought the jerseys of the Lithuanian national basketball team with his friends’ surnames and favourite numbers written on them. When he returned to the business school, he presented each one with their own jersey.

The classmates all put them on and went together to a lecture. When the professor noticed, he asked what it was all about, and one of them answered: Lithuania.

“And all of a sudden 160 people found out what and where Lithuania is. I think we can all bring Lithuania to others – through the communities and other circles we form part of. Now we’re making plans for a class reunion, and guess where it’s going to be,” Vidas asks.

The answer is more than clear: in Lithuania.

Dream and you’ll get ahead

Returning to the topic of intellectual conversations that enrich your personality, Vidas says that with friends’ families they have gatherings and invite interesting speakers: Vladas Vitkauskas, Paulius Kovas, Alfredas Bumblauskas, and sometimes other less well-known but no less interesting experts in their fields. They spend a few days in discussion. Their children of course also take part in the gatherings.

Our interviewee says he is convinced that “in ways like child develop an understanding of what being Lithuanian means, and at their ambitions in life start to take shape.” “That also happens through little things. For example, every night before going to bed, my daughters and I tell each other a phrase of encouragement. It goes like this: “Dream, strive, think and work a lot, and you will always get ahead.” The older girl, who’s seven, says the same. The little one, who’s three, just says: “Dream and you’ll always get ahead.”

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