How to grow your people
October 2, 2018 | 1:12 pm CDT
Brad Cairns is the senior principal at The Center for Lean Learning as well as running 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].

I’m excited to continue our adventure together on this series of articles designed to kick your butt into gear. If you’re just joining us, welcome. But, before you read this article please go back one month and read the first in the series (…).

You have had the last 30 days to warm up to the idea that failure cannot only be a good thing, it can be a great thing. You’re armed, dangerous and ready to fail. What’s next? How do I lead my troops into battle? Wage war against waste? Create a fun lean culture? Watch our business flourish? While simultaneously blowing our customers’ minds, and leaving the competition wondering how we do it. Just mount your trusty steed, draw your sword and yell CHAAAAAARGE!

I love enthusiasm, but that’s not exactly how we want to approach this one. For your lean adventure to take off, there is a significant requirement for leadership, not autocratic leadership, which is “I’m your boss, therefore I’m your leader.” That might not work as well as you are hoping. You also don’t want to be the travel agent leader, telling people all about places they should go, but you haven’t been there yourself. Your people will need a leader they want to follow. A great start to developing this is to take the trip yourself, before sending your entire organization.

Growing your people

Regardless of what you’re learning and where the information is coming from, in the lean community there is a general consensus that we must grow our people. One of my Japanese mentors was quoted, “Want to grow your business? It’s easy, grow your people.” And as we peel the growth onion, the first step is also very logical and simple, and I love simple, ready? (drum roll) Grow yourself. There you go, the keys to the castle!

But I assure you it’s much easier said than done. There are many sayings I love and try to live by. For the purpose of this article, I choose these two: 1. You get what you tolerate; and 2. Fix what bugs you.

Let me explain a little. You get what you tolerate does not just apply to your people. You need to take a look in the mirror first. Stop tolerating the mess in your office or work area. Stop tolerating half-finished projects you probably started with good intensions but have left to collect dust. Stop tolerating poor behavior. Stop tolerating tardiness. And the list could go on. This leads right into “fixing what bugs you.” If you start to let those things bother you, then you are more apt to go about fixing them.

Fix what bugs you

I have an amazing friend and one of my mentors, Paul Akers. You might have heard of this guy. I saw a post from FastCap (Akers’ company) where they put plants under the hand dryers in their bathroom because they were tired of cleaning up the water drops off the floor. (I know - right?). When I said, “There is nothing you haven’t thought of” he replied, “No, I just fix what bugs me, and I let a lot of things bug me.” (Check out the video at

The trick is, do exactly what you want to see your people do. That’s it, the rest will take care of itself. If at this point you are in the mindset that you can delegate lean, I cannot say it’s not possible, but I have never seen or heard of that working.

Ten steps to lean

Let’s look at how you can use this opportunity for leadership development. Since you and your management team will likely be new at applying Lean Thinking, I recommend you stick to the basics. Take ownership of the list below so it becomes your own. The points listed have delivered amazing results for other companies beginning their lean journey.

1. Make time to learn. Listen to audiobooks or read at least 30 min per day. Jim Lewis has a great collection of lean books ( and when you get through Jim’s collection please reach out; I have an endless supply of recommendations. All of which will be audio books.

2. Make time to improve your processes each day. Don’t stop until you free up at least one hour a day for continuous improvement. We will be discussing what to do in that hour in subsequent articles.

3. Make time for your body. You don’t have to be a gymnast or body builder, but a deliberate effort should be made for 30 minutes of physical activity and improve your diet.

4. Make your own improvement videos. Share them with your leadership team.

5.  Find a mentor, lean sensei, coach or community. These are people you can call on to share ideas and learn from each other. Great places to meet these people are at trade show education seminars and lean tours (more on those below)

6. Get out of your shop and see other lean companies in action. People are applying Lean Thinking all across our industry. Pick their brains. Paul Akers runs frequent tours to Japan and The Center for Lean Learning (Quantum Lean) also offers North American lean tours for people who would like lean immersion.

7. Educate yourself on the eight deadly wastes & the improvement trident (safety, quality, simplicity).

8. Learn to see waste everywhere in everything you do.

9. Watch lean and continuous improvement YouTube videos.

10. Learn how to motivate people. This can be as simple as finding someone who motivates you, and do what they do. Getting your hands dirty is a sure fire way to get people engaged. Work hand in hand with them on their improvements.

I have a friend and fellow lean maniac named Filipe Marques from Portugal. He says, “If you can’t lead yourself, forget about it. There is no way you can lead anyone else.” Feel the pain of trying to find and make an improvement every day. See how hard it is to remember the before and after videos, experience the value of seeing other factories, realize that you do have 30 minutes a day for learning and another 30 for your health. Start to see waste in the world around you. Do this consistently and you will not only be practicing how to lead, feeling the benefits of continuous improvement, and the trials and tribulations of making it all happen, but you will be engaged in the most important activity of all - learning how to teach it. Have you ever met a great leader who was a bad teacher? Neither have I.

There is nothing easy about this. There is nothing fast about this. And when you take action on this article, you will be taking the first step in “The Lean Crawl.”



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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].