The CEO of a cabinet and millwork shop called me recently with a question that I am often asked. He said, “I’ve read all of the lean books and articles I can find and I am convinced that lean is the direction I need to pursue to improve my business, but I don’t know how to begin.”

As I pondered how to respond I recalled a recent, not completely unrelated, conversation with a colleague who is now the VP at one of his former client companies. The colleague said that he was disappointed in not being able to find a lean book that provided a step-by-step process for a successful transformation. I suspect that part of the reason for not finding such a “how to” guide in the marketplace is because even though the tools and techniques of lean apply equally in any type of business, they aren’t always rolled out in the same order. And, since we all learn and become comfortable with new things at different paces, the dwell time on each tool is likely to be quite different.

You need a guide 

Lean is not as much about simply getting from point A to point B as it is about the process employed to make the journey.

Embarking on the journey to lean is in some ways similar to the westward movement of our pioneering ancestors. They heard and read stories about journeys made by people before them, and they may even have had some experiences of their own, but since that had never been on the trip they were planning to make, embarking without an experienced guide could be dangerous. With all of these thoughts in mind my response to the caller was, “Don’t embark on the journey without a guide.”

Obstacles to lean transformation 

Returning to my colleague’s comment in the opening paragraph, there are a number of reasons why no author has attempted to develop a self-help guide for a Lean transformation. I mentioned two of them earlier. Other reasons might include, the size of the organization, the urgency of a current crisis, the layers of leadership that need to be navigated to gain approval for changes and improvements, whether the company has tried to implement lean before, and the availability of experienced resources within the existing staff.

In the caller’s case, the company is quite small so many of the staff wear a number of different hats, which means that using organic resources to take on the enormous task of a lean transformation wouldn’t be practical.

Getting everyone on board 

The CEO said that he was frustrated because he had made a few previous attempts to implement some of the tools ad hoc and wasn’t receiving much support from the rest of the staff. As we talked I got the impression that he was alone in his passion for lean.

Although he was trying to inform his staff of the benefits of lean and his motivation for transforming his company, he had failed to implement the first of the 6 Es – genuinely Enlisting the support of the entire staff. Getting everyone on the same page could be rectified, but not by using the “bull in the china shop” approach. Finally, as the CEO, he had far greater responsibility for his business and his staff than to allow himself to become mired in the minutiae involved in the transformation process.

Visiting the shop 

After laying out a number of precautions to him, he asked how quickly I could get to his shop. That was a new experience for me. I’ve never had a CEO approach me with that sense of urgency before. Fortunately, his company is just a four-hour trip from my office and my calendar was pretty clear, so within a couple of days I was in his shop.

Upon arrival I found exactly what I expected to find – a group of dedicated professionals endeavoring to make their company as successful as they could within the existing organizational culture and accepted norm.
That may sound like a politically correct explanation of a chaotic situation, but this company was in no different state than any other non-lean company. Actually that might unfairly understate their current situation. Unlike many non-lean organizations the CEO and a couple of key people have a good grasp of lean thinking, and they are passionate about transforming their company to the lean business model. Imparting that same passion on the rest of the staff was my first objective.

Getting started 

After spending a couple of days assessing the current situation for my own understanding, I embarked on training the entire staff in the lean business philosophy with special emphasis on two of the pillars of lean – Workplace Organization and Set-up Reduction. Those two lean tools are the best places to begin because they both affect everyone in the organization and, when successfully deployed, they will do the most to gain back available time for doing productive work that is currently being lost to one or several of the Seven Deadly Wastes.

Following the training the staff immediately launched into a planned conversion of individual workplaces in accordance with the logic defined in the Goal Line Sheet described in “The 5S Pocket Guide” by Jim Peterson and Roland Smith, Ph.D. It has been my experience that facilitating the 5S process with a focus only on completing the first three steps of the first 3Ss establishes continuity and consistency in the 5S rollout.

Implementing Workplace Organization should not be considered a one-time event or a process that happens quickly. All journeys to a new location are evolutionary and the end result may not be what was originally envisioned, but that’s OK. The destination that evolves may well be a better place.

This company is in the infancy stage of their Lean journey, but I have no doubt that it will be a successful one. Their success will not be achieved because they asked me to facilitate the transformation process. Rather it will be because of a visionary leader who recognized the need for change and realized that he couldn’t lead the transformation process on his own. He is very fortunate to be supported by a dedicated staff of professionals who want to make the journey with him.

I will share more of their story as the journey unfolds.

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