How many walls do you see?
July 31, 2018 | 9:44 am 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].
If you are anything like me and, dare I say, most business owners, you are up before the birds trying desperately to get some work done before everyone gets to the shop and the rest of the day goes sideways. We don’t usually head home until the sun is going down or the necessity to eat overcomes our ability to work.
This is the million-dollar question, “How many walls do you see?” Not physically, but metaphorically. 
It’s likely that you only see your four walls. For about 20 years I was no different. But then something amazing happened. I’d like to share that story with you.

A trip to California

I read a book titled, “2 Second Lean” by Paul Akers. If you haven’t read it yet, stop what you’re doing right now and read it. Or, like we tend to do in the lean world, listen to it. It’s available for free at
The book was so incredible I thought to myself, “I need to talk to this Paul Akers fellow.” So, I did. 
Long story short, we ended up in Randsburg, California, for four days riding dirt bikes through the desert.
I didn’t have time to do this, I didn’t have the money to ship my bike across the continent, so what did I do? 
I put my bike and gear in my truck and drove for 30 hours. 
Talk about an amazing adventure, and, of course, we lean maniacs made a video
What does this story have to do with lean? Lots.
First: if you weren’t a lean maniac, you weren’t invited. So, I got to spend four days with fellow lean maniacs. We shared stories, ideas and, of course, watched improvement videos. 
That interaction alone left me with eight new friends and a ton of ideas. I couldn’t wait to get home and apply what I learned at my company. If that was all that happened, I would have gotten my money’s worth 10 times over. But, there is more to this story.

A trip to Japan

On the way home, I took Paul to the airport in Las Vegas. He was busily working on his phone coordinating a trip to Japan. 
Each time he got off the phone he said, “You should be on this trip. Too bad it’s sold out.” 
Yeah, I was bummed, but considering the previous four days, my lean tank was full, and I was eager to get to work. Then came the magical moment: Paul said, “Hold on,” to the person he’s talking to, looks at me and says, “You wanna go?” I couldn’t have said, “Yes” any faster or more emphatically. He returned to his conversation and said, “I don’t know how, but we have to get one more on the trip.” 
This was unquestionably what is referred to in the sports world as the The Sports Network turning point of my life.
I went on the Japan study-mission. It was mind-blowing. The Japanese operate at a level that we can barely comprehend, yet the principles are unbelievably simple. 
While we did see some amazing factories in operation, I would say equally as important was being trapped on a bus with 25 other lean maniacs. It’s analogous to being a golfer and running into a fellow golfer at a party. Instantly you have this bond and before long it seems like you have been friends for years. Well, the experience was like that, except on steroids.

Your problem is solved

Most problems we have are not brand new and, as a matter of fact, many people have already solved them. 
It just so happens we are at a particular juncture in business that has a natural amount of pain associated with it. Now, imagine being able to pick up the phone and reach out to someone you know who has already solved the problem you are wrestling with. 
One phone call can turn three months of suffering into a week of implementing a known strategy. If this occurs four times per year, you turn a full year of struggling into a month. 
How much time would that free up on your schedule? Trust me when I tell you it only FEELS like you don’t have enough time, there is ample time when the fire fighting is under control. 
The advice factor is only half of the equation though. The other half is that now you can get out of your four walls and see theirs.
I have visited almost all the people that were on that trip. If I were to say I learned a lot at each one, I would be drastically understating the truth. 
That group of people have completely changed the trajectory of both my life and my business. As I sit here, I’m pondering, “Where would I be right now if I hadn’t gone on that trip?” 
I can’t imagine, nor do I want to. It has been said you become like the five people you spend the most time with. Who are your five people? 
I now have the good fortune to be surrounded by fellow lean maniacs who are constantly pushing the boundary of possibilities, and it’s a wild ride.

Outside your walls

So, if you have only seen your four walls for as long as you can remember, stop saying you don’t have time and get out of the box you have created. 
And whatever you do, don’t forget to bring your people along. I have a friend in Ireland who has sent 15 people on lean excursions in the last year and a half. 
The investment is substantial, but just watch this video and see why it’s part of his culture. 
They have only been doing lean for two years and are absolutely leaving their competition in the dust.
How else can you meet other lean thinkers to get outside your walls? Here are some starting points:
Some other great ideas are trade show educational seminars such as the upcoming IWF show in Atlanta and next year at AWFS in Las Vegas or find someone doing something you like on YouTube and reach out to them.
If every minute you spend reaching out to other like-minded people isn’t returned to you tenfold, let me know. 
I will eat the pages this article is written on.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

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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].