Just recently I spoke to a friend who had started their lean adventure back in 2015. It was so
great to catch up with them, everyone has an interesting story and this was no exception. After
getting all the personal stuff and gossip all caught up, naturally the conversation turned to
This fellow owns a small Cabinet company, under 10 employees. They do very high end work.
Like most shops he has a mix of old timers that have been with him for years and a couple
newbies. We discussed his challenges of which finding people topped the charts. I’m almost
certain that everyone reading this can relate. Then we bounced from subject to subject talking
about everything from inadvertent material shortages, building repairs all the way down the line
to some quality issues they would experience. The emphasis was most definitely on “mistakes”.
I asked how the productivity trajectory has been, and there was no real way of knowing from
day to day.
I was doing my best just to listen, but you know what happens when someone tells you about a
problem, your brain immediately comes up with countermeasures. Well mine was no different,
with each situation we discussed the counter measure popped into my head. As we were
discussing material shortages, all I could think was “kanban”. As we delved into the myriad of
human errors all I could think about was “standard work”. The people problems were not
exception to this and immediately I thought “Morning meetings”. The building needing minor
maintenance easily solved by “improvement time”. And when it came to productivity tracking,
why wasn’t he “keeping score?”
And before I had the opportunity to interject, as if he was reading my mind, he said “we have
sort of let our Lean principles fall to the way side”. And immediately I totally understood how all
these little, (and some not so little) problems were plaguing his day to day operations.
I have come to believe that a Lean transformation has more than one phase, just how many, I
can’t hypothesize, as we all know, its a journey that never ends. However, I am quite confident
of the 1st phase. This should be called “get all the trivial crap out of the way”. Then you and
your people can focus on the stuff that matters, not who’s picking up printer paper cause we ran
out, or having to stop a job because the hinges aren’t there or god forbid you run out of toilet
paper, which is somewhat critical to the smooth operation of any factory. There are literally
hundreds of tiny interruptions the consume our time, our creativity and take up valuable brain
space for real problem solving. Most smart people can believe its this simple! Well it truly is. I
think most people want their productivity to increase, and they can’t see how organizing the
pens in the office can lead to building more cabinets. We have to keep in mind the key to a lean
enterprise is teaching and training people. So it's not that we care how many pens we are using
on a yearly basis, it's having everyone understand how to control inventory. It’s not that we care
if your garbage can is on the left or the right at your work station, it’s that we teach the
importance of creating standards. We have all the facility required to teach people all these
tools and techniques on stuff that’s really not expensive or critical to operations.
The other big misconception that I believe prevents people from keeping up a lean effort is
thinking it’s something they have to do in addition to what they are already doing in a day. BIG
MISTAKE. If that was the case, no one on earth would have time to “do lean”. Lean is not
something extra you make time for and do, it’s as simple as a mind shift, putting some basic
principles into play and having the discipline to stick to them. Naturally like any change, in the beginning the old habits want to creep back in. Stick to your guns and within a year you won’teven have to think about the lean tools, it will just be how you do business.
Practising lean principles will also help with the #1 problem we all face, finding good people.
When you begin to hold everyone to a higher standard almost as good as finding great people,
is getting rid of bad ones. A lean environment is one that gets very uncomfortable for people
who don’t want to learn, grow and improve. So the bad apples tend to self select. There is a
small phenomenon that happens around people who you think you can’t do without, soon as
they leave, an even better replacement shows up.
Circling back to the conversation I had with my friend. It was obvious that 5 years had passed,
and not a whole lot had changed. To me this was the most heart wrenching part of the
conversation. Life is short, why spend your time doing the same thing you have always done,
and getting the same thing you have always got.
Even the smallest commitment to some kind of continuous improvement will compound over the
years. Don’t wait 5 years only to look back and say “I wish I would have kept up our