Many leaders who are attempting to implement lean thinking in their business still don't understand the relationship between maximizing resources and engaging all available resources in that pursuit. The people at your company are the most valuable continuous improvement resource at your disposal. To not effectively engage the staff means the company will never achieve maximum productivity and profitability.
You may recall from earlier articles how Brad Cairns of Signature Wood Systems (SWS) in St. Thomas, Ontario, attempted to implement lean at his cabinet shop. Brad understands lean thinking like few other people do, but he initially failed to engage his staff. So all of the changes and improvements that he implemented didn't stick because the staff didn't understand and embrace them, and Brad was left frustrated and anxious. It wasn't until he took time to train all of the staff in the lean tools and techniques, as well as how to effectively apply them, that breakthrough, sustainable improvements were possible.

Breaking down silos

Brad has a small shop and was never able to average more than 10 cabinets per day until he applied the 6Es at SWS. The 6Es are: Enlist, Enable, Engage, Excite, Empower, and Encourage. Brad did one other thing that every business leader has to accomplish before enterprise-wide improvements can be realized. He broke down the walls around the individual silos of activity that are part of every departmentally structured organization.
When process owners are focused only on their own agenda the synergy and energy created in a team environment remains untapped. With the 6Es in place and the silos of activity eliminated Brad's staff was able to implement new processes that increased throughput from 10 cabinets per day to 40 cabinets per day without any capital expenditure, beyond rearranging some processes to be more mutually supportive and create flow.


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Lean works anywhere

Brad is not the only business leader who has experienced the rewards of an engaged staff. One of the first lean transformations that I facilitated was with a mannequin manufacturing company. This company produces high-end, upholstered clothing display forms and mannequins. The vice president approached me at the 1995 IWF show and asked if I could help him improve productivity and on-time delivery at his company. Knowing that lean can be applied to any situation in any business, I emphatically replied - Yes!
The company had a production staff of 100 who were diligently working more than 50 hours a week to produce a mere 350 units per week, which was far short of demand. Customers were more than disgruntled at the company's poor delivery performance. The make-up of the staff was unique in that there were 26 different nationalities represented and many of the people didn't speak English. Beyond that, there were cultural differences that prevented some people from working closely with others in a team. Using interpreters to communicate the lean tools and techniques and patiently working to break down cultural barriers, we were able to engage the entire staff in making quantum leap improvements happen.
Improvement was centered on developing cross-functional work cells of three people each and implementing methods improvements to deskill some of the processes. One by one the teams melded together and took full advantage of the innovation and creativity that each person possessed in achieving increased productivity. Within eight months of the launch of the lean journey the same staff was working 40 hours and producing 750 units per week. Two years into their journey they were producing 1,500 units per week with only a 30% increase in staff. As unbelievable as those results may seem, they are real.

Bucking ingrained culture

Another example of the dynamics of an engaged staff is that of a high-end upholstery company in upstate New York. The company is now 116 years old and has been on the lean journey for 10 years.  When the two-brother visionary leadership team decided to embrace lean thinking to improve their company it was fraught with silos of activity that were so ingrained in their own agendas that the brothers thought change would be impossible to implement. Further exacerbating the situation was a piecework system that had been in place for decades. Other issues included excessive inventory that was fueled by the silo effect, a lack of flow because there was no coordination between silos, long lead-time, and missed shipments because parts didn't come together at assembly in the right sequence or timing.
Little had changed in that factory in the 60 years preceding the lean initiative. Pictures from the 1940s of the upholstery department showed workstations fixed to the walls in the same locations as the then present-day factory. However, beneath this ingrained culture rested the same innovative and creative genie that resides in each one of us. Engaging the staff was simply a matter of turning that genie on, getting people excited, and then getting out of the way while positive change flooded the entire operation from the office to the shipping dock.
People who had never worked together before were collaborating and developing team thinking that transformed the 1940s fixed bench, silo culture into a cross-functional process of sewers, frame builders, spring-up people, and upholsterers in a cell manufacturing system that created continuous flow; an environment for cross-training and mutual support; and collaboration in ensuring 100 percent on-time order completion. Internal lead time went from 15 days to two days. Pieces were produced in a sequence that mirrored how they would be loaded into the truck so staging of finished units was virtually eliminated.

Releasing the genie

The secret to the success of each one of these case studies is the unlocking of that innovative and creative genie and getting the staff excited about how their active participation can make a difference for themselves and for the company. If you are on the lean journey but not achieving the productivity and profit objectives you believe possible, maybe you need to evaluate how your resources are engaged. Are the leaders trying to make change happen in a vacuum, or are they leading an effort that is supported by everyone on the enterprise team?
To learn more about the 6Es and other lean thinking tools and techniques, search the FDMC archives and check out my new book, A Testament to Lean Thinking - Cases for Change, co-authored with my business partner, Dave Irwin. The book is available through major eBook retailers and at

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