Extend your lean network
January 1, 2020 | 12:03 pm CST
Brad Cairns is the senior principal at the Center for Lean Learning and Quantum Lean. He also runs a woodworking business called Best Damn Doors in St Thomas, Ontario, Canada, where he puts lean thinking into action every day. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected].

Whenever we think of lean, we tend to think just inside our little box. We stick to our lean principles in the office and the factory floor. But what happens when you extend your lean thinking to your network of suppliers and customers?

Now before we delve into this I think I will share some wise words I received from Ritsuo Shingo (son of Shigeo Shingo, co-creator of the Toyota production system) while I was studying manufacturing in Japan.

Brad Cairns, left, greets Ritsuo Shingo, son of Toyota Production System co-founder Shigeo Shingo.

It's an important point that could probably save you some time and effort in the long run. Mr. Shingo said, “Toyota can’t sell cars because they use TPS (Toyota Production System); customers just don’t care. What they care about is a car that is affordable and reliable.” So, if your definition of customer is “end user,” then save yourself the effort of telling them all about your lean adventure; they don’t really care. Their main concerns are quality, delivery and price. If you're thinking lean, those things will fall into place, and customers will love you. Don’t get me wrong, a few might find it interesting and smile and nod, but fall down on any of the above metrics and watch how fast they lose interest in your lean adventure.

In light of the above sage advise from Mr. Shingo, for the purposes of this article “customer” will be referred to as any customer in the supply chain prior to the very end user.

Terrible sales process

The typical customer/supplier relationship is one of a terrible sales process that no one likes. Customers are guarding against “being sold” to their own detriment if what’s being presented is actually a better product. Customers then pretend not to need the product or service in hopes of the sales person getting desperate to make a sale and lowering the price. And at all times both parties involved in the negotiation keep all their cards close to their chest. Sound familiar? It's the way people have been buying and selling for decades, is there a more effective way to go about this? Can we apply some lean thinking and improve this painful age-old process? I think we can.

I would like to tell you two stories that depict the sales process, each from a different perspective. The first ties into a few lean principles. Respect for people, continuous improvement, and question everything. It all starts with the company gate keeper. Typically they are trained to sift out the sales calls and make some excuse as to why the purchaser is not available. If you have a business, that needs to make sales calls, this part sucks. There are many learned tactics to get past good gate keepers. But what if someone is actually selling something that would help you? You're blocking out that opportunity as well.


At my company, we have a policy to put through all sales calls. I believe this is showing respect for people. When I’m doing sales calls I appreciate the same courtesy. You do have to be polite, honest and concise if it’s a service or product you're sure you don’t need. This policy led to meeting a sales rep who was supplying “product-X”, we were happy with our current product-X, but in true lean fashion of question everything, we tested the salesman’s product-X. It shocked us all when we discovered that in-fact this new product-X out performed what we were using by a landslide. The improvement was well worth the few phone calls I had to sift through. I extended respect to the human being on the other end of the phone.

Sometimes we forget sales people are human too. Then we questioned everything, particularly the things we thought we already knew, sometimes I wonder if those are the things we should question the most. In the end, we made a significant improvement. Speed went up, quality went up, cost went down. Yet another small burden we no longer have to pass onto our customers.

The lean sales call

This next story is from the opposite perspective where I was making the sales call. The difference is what happens when a lean thinking supplier calls on a lean thinking customer. We showed our offering to this potential customer. In the initial meeting the customer explained to me the pain points they were having. We put our heads together on how to solve the issues and we moved forward. But that’s not the best part.

What typically happens when a mistake occurs is the customer only thinks of them, and the impact the mistake had to their organization. The supplier then scrambles to replace the bad part or parts in hopes that it doesn’t happen again, but hope is not a plan. In this case, the customer reported a mistake we made, and their very next question was “How can we help solve the problem?” Lean thinkers know that problems are not really problems, they are opportunities to improve! If you just send bad parts back, they likely will be replaced, and if it happens enough, you’ll look for another vendor. But what happens if you help solve the problem at the root? Then you get to move on to the next problem, then the next and the next. Soon the problems will be gone and you will be collaborating on improvements!

Working together

In this case, they invited us into their factory, took the time to have their team demonstrate possible solutions. They even put us in touch with some of their suppliers who we had not heard of. We ran trials and kept the feedback loop open. We weren’t perfect at first, but as we continued to work together on solutions quality went up, speed went up and defects went down. We worked together through problems right into improvements. The benefits started adding up on both sides. We were able to eliminate a ton of non-value activity, as well as build into our process some of the first steps taken by our customers after receiving our products, and all this at no extra cost.

Speaking of cost, I’m honestly not sure to this day if the subject has ever even came up. Imagine that, knowing the benefits of working together would far out weigh hammering down on vendors to get the best purchase price. And what effect do you think this had on us? You got it, they get our best price and we will do anything for them.

Having spent so much time together initially, also helped both our lean journeys. We would constantly share ideas and keep each other motivated to make improvements. When I look back on the first time I was at their plant compared to today, the changes are nothing short of incredible.

It usually takes a few visits for our customers to wrap their head around the fact that we are not trying to sell them anything. We are merely trying to eliminate waste looking at the whole value stream. From the time a homeowner orders cabinets, until our customers collect the cash.

Working with fellow lean maniacs gets two thumbs up from me.


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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].