3 strategies to flip the switch!
Brad Cairns, Quantum Lean

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at Quantum Lean and also owns Best Damn Doors, a cabinet door manufacturing business in St. Thomas, Ontario.

Amongst all the jobs we have as lean leaders, one of the most critical ones is to “flip the switch.” You should know what I mean or you probably wouldn’t be reading this. At some point, you were going about your business and discovered lean. Then somewhere after that discovery something happened, and your switch flipped. You realized, “Wow! This really is a thing, and it’s amazing!”

As lean leaders, shouldn’t we be facilitating that for our people as well? Below I will be outlining three strategies inspired by my good friend Ryan Tierney of Seating Matters in limavatti, Ireland.

If you have ever tried to inspire change at your organization, you will definitely be able to attest to how difficult it can be. I believe employing these three principles will help inspire positive change and with any luck, flip some switches, let’s get started. 

Principle 1:  Language
This is so critical in every aspect of communications, the words we choose can make or break a conversation. And if you’re trying to get someone to entertain a different belief or philosophy, that importance is multiplied by two. 

The language you choose could be wildly different when you’re talking to people who are just being introduced to lean compared to a seasoned lean maniac. Let’s work through some examples.

From a value-added perspective, engineering is all non-value added activities. If your entire engineering team is new to lean, I don’t recommend using language like this: “Hey, everyone, I just learned that your jobs are all non-value-added activities.” This will surely ruffle some feathers. You may instead choose to educate them on value vs. non-value and discuss how their functions are to support the gemba (where work is actually done). One day with enough study, they may realize the non-value element on their own, but because of deep knowledge they will still understand and support the importance of their work. 

Telling your delivery driver that delivering products is the waste of transportation (and motion) might be very confusing. As a matter of fact, it down right makes no sense. How can we make money if we never deliver our products. And if counter intuitive principles are not depicted in a digestible way, you might lose people because, well, they think you’re insane. 

So consider your language, and cater it to the audience. How you discuss lean with the shop floor may be different than how you discuss it with your management team. Set your ego aside, knowing fancy terms and throwing them around at the wrong audience won’t get you anywhere. 

Principle 2: Contrast
People can very easily see where they have been, and fully understand where they are. Combine that with the fact humans love comfort, and it’s a job to get them to step into the unknown. 

Using contrast can really help bridge that gap. What do I mean about contrast? Let’s say you want to make a process improvement. It might take a few more minutes but a quick demonstration of extreme contrast could help. Hand two people a 3-inch screw, then hand one a screwdriver and hand the other a drill. Have them race! The outcome is obvious, but watching the struggle will send a clear message that one way is better than the other. And at some point, people had to let go of previous ideals.

Probably one of the best and easiest ways to demonstrate contrast is showing videos at your morning meetings (you are doing those right?).

Do a quick gemba walk through your factory (going where the work is done). Then watch some amazing shops who have shared videos on-line. Your people will immediately see the contrast and allow their creative juices to start flowing on how to close the gap.

Principle 3: Stories
Since the beginning of time, we have transferred life lessons through generations using story telling. We seldom can remember word for word lessons we were taught in school, but we can all recall a great story from our childhood with the most vivid details.

Implementing standard work is a cornerstone of lean manufacturing. Have you ever posted a standard, spending hours perfecting it, proudly posting it at the work station, only to find within a few days no one is using it. This is my story on standard work. 

I learned this lesson one day while walking my dog Walter. If I held the leash tight and right by my side, he would walk right beside me, happy dog. If he started to get a little ahead of himself, I would just give the leash a little tug and he would know to return to my side. 

Then, when he would do that well for a little while, I would feel bad and let go of the leash except for holding the end. Walter then immediately went out to the end of the leash. To get him back to my side took a bit more effort, I would have to tug on the leash and say his name to let him know that I wasn’t thrilled with where he was walking, and he would return to my side yet again.

As he got better at walking beside me, I decided to let go of the leash all together. It wasn’t long before he was off on his own bolting through fields. Almost nothing I could do would get him to come back. Then it happened, a car in the distance. Me and Walter saw it at the same time. I bolted and started running to intercept this sure to be disaster. So, what started as a little tug on the leash, has turned into a full on crazy person running and screaming waving my arms to try and prevent an accident. 

The moral of the story is this. If you keep the rope tight, everyone is still happy.  The sloppier you are with adherence to standards, the harder it will be to get people back to following them, and if you stop paying attention for even a few moments, you’re likely to run head on into the exact situation you were trying to avoid by creating standards in the first place. 

If you can relate to this story, and think it’s a good idea to read it to your people. I would probably go back to Principle 1 (Language) and realize this story is more for a leadership team, than a shop floor team. 

Only the well-trained will understand the meaning of this, everyone else will be upset they are being compared to a dog.
Nonetheless, stories will continue to work for generations. Find yours, use others and share them with your team. Those may very well be the lessons they don’t forget. 


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About the author
Brad Cairns | President/Owner/C-Level

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at Quantum Lean and is dedicated to improving the woodworking industry in North America using lean methods. He also owns Best Damn Doors, a cabinet door manufacturing business in St. Thomas, Ontario. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected].