Are you solving problems?
Business gauges

No matter what you measure, create gauges. Every time a needle is in the red or yellow, your whole team can rally around a single purpose of fixing that problem.

Lean at its core could be summed up as continuous improvement through the elimination of waste. We wage war against waste, trying to identify it and eliminate it. 

Some waste is easy to see and get rid of, or at least reduce, and typically team members can be doing that on the shop floor by making simple improvements to their work area or their process. 

There are huge gains to be made having your whole team engage like this, and we highly recommend setting aside time to let them do so. 

But let’s face it, you have some bigger problems! And wouldn’t it be nice to start knocking some of those off your list?

Here’s a formula that should jumpstart your problem-solving activity. 

Measure it. ➡ Assign it.➡ Monitor it. ➡ Improve it. ➡ REPEAT. 

Basic metrics
Now before we delve into each step, I hazard to say solving what we would classify as big problems are because we want to move the bottom line. And most businesses have four measurements that you’re probably already tracking:

1.    Cost of goods sold
2.    Overhead
3.    Labor
4.    Profit/loss

We want to see the first three going down and the last one going up. Although as management these are the measurements we look at, running around yelling reduce overhead is going to have a net zero effect. 

So, how can we set this up for maximum effectiveness? Let’s go! 

Step 1: Gather your leadership team. One stakeholder from each department should suffice. This should be a daily stand-up huddle and should not drag out, 30 min or less.

Step 2. Establish measurables. This part can be tricky and take a lot of thought. Keep in mind the old saying, “Tell me how you measure me, and I’ll tell you how I behave.” This measurable has to be specific, and the person it’s assigned to must be able to influence those numbers.

Step 3. Assign your specific measurables to the person on your leadership team who is a stakeholder in that area. Now they are solely responsible for moving that dial in the right direction. 

Step 4. Report progress. Have each member of your leadership team present their dashboard to the group each day. Preferably a graphical representation, green, yellow, and red. If their arrows are in the red, simply ask what’s the plan? If they need any help or assistance, they’re standing there with your entire leadership team to brainstorm.

Step 5. IMPROVE! This is the fun part. Every time a needle is in the red or yellow, your whole team can rally around a single purpose of fixing that problem.

Warning: You have to create a very safe place or people will not tell you about their problems. 

And they might even be a little nervous in the beginning, so whoever comes to the table first with a real problem to solve or an accurate measurement on poor performance, you must celebrate that and show the rest of your team that’s why you’re there, not to assign blame but to solve problems. 

Everybody on board
I will repeat a famous quote in the lean world:

 “Smart people can’t believe it’s this simple.” 

Most people are wonderful problem solvers and eager to help the company. If you are rolling your eyes thinking, “That’s not my case,” and they are on your leadership team, ummm you might want to set them free to bother some other business owner.

Let’s begin with a few lessons learned to help jumpstart your leadership huddle. 

1) Be patient. It will take some time, thinking and trying different things to make the meeting effective, but it will happen. When you feel it’s not effective, don’t be shy. Say “Hey team, I’m not feeling the value here, how can we make this more productive.”

2) Be intentional. If you get busy and miss the meetings, they will lose value and slowly fizzle out. 

3) Be relentless! If you’re facilitating the meeting, don’t let people off the hook. Ask the tough questions. If they don’t have an answer, which in the beginning might be the case. 

After the meeting, let them know you expect them to have the information. I’d recommend not doing this in front of the group, but when someone does have great information or brings to light a real problem in their area, pour on the praise in front of everyone. 

Remember the old saying, “Praise in public, punish in private.” 

4) The show must go on. If one or more people can’t make it, don’t cancel it. Have the others take notes and send them to the missing people. The message must be clear, we are getting together daily to solve problems!

5) Make measurements reflect reality. This might involve doing daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly & yearly metrics. Also helpful is to do rolling time periods, five weeks is usually good. 

But if you monitor only monthly or yearly, you won’t see the arrows moving because of a small improvement effort. It’s important to capture data that will move the needle within a couple of days. 

Last but not least, a few words on measuring. This absolutely will be the most challenging part. We are all familiar with the Five Whys (keep asking why five times to find the root answer). Measuring is similar, but use the Five Whats to help guide you.

Example: I want to reduce my material cost. You can’t say, “Hey everyone, reduce our material cost.” No one will know where to start. But if you give a clear directives, magic will happen. Ask these questions:

WHAT effects material cost the most? Answer: How many sheet goods we use.
WHAT effects how many sheet goods we use? Answer: How effective our CNC layouts are.
WHAT determines how effective our CNC layouts are? Answer: More parts per sheet.

Now you have something that’s within the control of your team and something you can create a metric around: Average parts per sheet. 

Track that for a week, then put someone in charge of improving the metric. I’m already reading your mind: “I have software that does that.” Yup, and I still challenge people to improve it, check the settings, monitor scrap for better yield. Don’t shut it down before it begins, you never know what awesome ideas your team will come up with.

Measuring is always tricky, if you need some help with it, feel free to reach out to us anytime. Now, get your team together and solve those BIG problems. 



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

Brad Cairns is a partner at Quantum Lean and is dedicated to improving the woodworking industry in North America using lean methods. He puts lean thinking in action at My Door Factory, a cabinet door manufacturing business he founded in St. Thomas, Ontario. And he is also founder of Stolbek, a machinery manufacturer. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected].