Consistency over time wins the lean race
July 21, 2022 | 2:48 pm CDT
Brad Cairns, Quantum Lean

One of the most frequent phone calls we get is a manufacturer trying to implement lean and typically the phone rings right when they’re trying to get started or trying to implement something new.
Call goes something like this “help, I’m really struggling with___________” (fill in the blank).

I believe there are a few factors at play, most of them have nothing to do with lean manufacturing and everything to do with human behavior. You don’t have to own a business, run a business or manage people in any capacity for very long before you run smack dab into the fact that people hate change. And we all like to point fingers and say, “They all hate change.” But in reality, if someone walked up to us and suggested turning our daily routines upside down, we would probably feel the exact same way.

So, walking out into your factories and suggesting any type of change is analogous to walking into the forest and trying to bend giant oak trees. Your chances of being able to do it are almost zero. But did you know if you took a seedling, you could quite easily bend it to any shape you want and with just a little bit of pressure it will grow in that direction?

As I write this I’m starting to wonder if people and trees aren’t so different when it comes to change. The small amount of pressure we apply to a seedling would be the equivalent to onboarding a new employee with the right training. Immerse them in the right culture, and they will be far more adaptable to change.

Trying to enact lean change in your factory can seem like trying to bend over a sturdy oak tree. It’s easier as a seedling, but it can still be done a little bit at a time.

But what do we do with our big oak trees? Well, imagine you connected a big winch with the cable connected to the very top of the tree and slowly started tightening that winch. On day one, you and the tree will probably be pretty convinced it’s never going to move, but if every week you just tighten it another notch, with enough time you will find the tree slowly complies to the pressure of the winch. But as you can imagine this is a very, very slow process, regardless of how bad you want or need to bend that tree.

And in all likelihood, the biggest mistake we make when implementing anything new is the assumption we make regarding how long it will take, which in turn leads to disappointment. If you introduced something new with the preconceived notion it should take a week, but after a week you find it’s not getting the traction you were hoping for, it’s frustrating. But if you start out with the assumption that you were going to have to apply constant and steady pressure in the right amount for a year. After that first week, it won’t seem so bad. You might even think you’re ahead of schedule.

I have an amazing friend and mentor who promotes his lean journey as the lean crawl, as you can see, he has learned, and he has come to grips with what a long, slow process this really is.

In your mind’s eye, you can see where you are, and where you would be if you were a lean company. I believe the people who have achieved this status fell in love with the journey. The slow methodical teaching, training, experimenting and — most important — failing. These are the ones who eventually agree to give a tour even though they fully believe they are not ready. And the tour group is totally blown away by the operation. But the host didn’t notice because they were just in love with the process. How can this apply to getting people in your factory making improvements?

Rather than asking if people have made improvements, enjoy the process of morning Gemba walks asking people what they are working on and helping them identify opportunities. Maybe you’re thinking, “I love the thought of continuous improvement at my factory, but I’m struggling to get my team on board.”

Rather than telling them about this cool “lean” thing and how we need to do it, introduce them to the concepts the same way you found out, and teach them a little bit each day. Whether it’s reading a chapter of a book together or watching some videos together, share success stories from other companies. Expose people and let them ask the question, “How did those other companies do it?”

Lean manufacturing
Michael Althoff’s book “The Lean Deal” focuses on how lean can be just as beneficial to employees as it can be for management.

My people are all pretty convinced that I’m just pushing this lean thing on them for my own benefit.
If you just start talking about lean and how much more efficient the factory will become, it will be a hard sell. You must cover, “What’s in it for me,” on behalf of all your people. I highly recommend the book “The Lean Deal” by Michael Althoff. He explains this masterfully.

And regardless of where you start, or what you’re trying to implement, remember the oak trees. No one wants to bend on day one. Don’t give up. Just start slow and easy. A wise man once told me, “Take smaller bites, and chew more thoroughly.” Start out with easy-to-present ideas and try not to backslide once the implementation has begun. If people push back, that’s normal. If you want something, and they don’t, typically it’s because you understand something at a slightly deeper level. They can’t know what they don’t know. Revert to exposure and training. No matter what, celebrate every single small win. Never give up. Be patient and trust me. You will get there.

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

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at The Center for Lean Learning/ 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 brad@quantumlean.ca.