If it’s easy, why does it seem so hard?
Brad Cairns

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 bet if I asked you to head into the shop on a Saturday afternoon and build me one or two of the things your factory produces, you could do it. What you make doesn’t really matter. And probably just the thought of going in with no one around and executing your craft not only doesn’t pose a challenge but might even sound enjoyable.

Building that cabinet or piece of furniture is presumed to be the hard part. After all, you probably have to be a skilled craftsman or machine operator to do it. Yet, you find that part of the job easy. So, if building a high-quality product is the easy part, why is it so darn hard to make money? 

We have spent most of our career honing our skills on that thing we build. But it’s more difficult to coordinate the building of products than it is to actually build the product itself. 

As a company scales up, it becomes even more difficult. The moving parts multiply so rapidly it’s hard to keep up. I believe there are Three Ps between you and higher profit margins. And I wouldn’t be writing this if there wasn’t a lean tool to help with each of them.

The first P is for products. And not the products you build, I’m talking about all of the inputs required. Sheet goods, hardware, tools, specialty items, pens, pencils, everything right down to toilet paper (which, by the way, is critical to the operation of any factory) when you start really digging into all of the inputs and coordination, it’s staggering how many there are. 

The next P is for people, and I’m not talking about getting and keeping talented people. I’m referring more to once they’re in your factory, how long it takes to train them, and how we can be sure a new person puts out the same quality as our 10-year veterans. I’ve heard a new employee costs a minimum of $3,000 before they’re useful, and my gut says that’s on the low end.

The third P is for pull. Creating pull as the force that moves production is probably the most difficult thing to fully understand. It seems it’s a lot easier to try to push things through the plant. I will hit on some highlights here, but this is a subject you need to further research and practice.

Cairns Kanban system
A kanban system is simple but effective and takes the headaches out of ordering and restocking products.

Kanban for products
Circling back to the first P which is products (or inputs). Getting these wrong can halt your entire factory, or worse, cause production somewhere you don’t need it, (over-production, worst of the Eight Wastes).

Making this function as easy and accurate as possible is crucial. Enter kanban, a simple reminder and reorder system in the form of a card. On the surface, kanban seems too simple to be effective. It probably won’t fully set in how amazing it is until you start doing it. Imagine how much brainpower you can save when 80 percent of all the things you need just magically show up and you never run out. That allows all your energy to focus on the last 20 percent. If this is your first time seeing the word kanban, I highly recommend a Google search, YouTube, or give me a call. This is one of my most favorite subjects, I will talk your ear off. 

Cairns standardized work instructions
Standardizing work and putting up simple instructions with pictures can make a huge difference in how fast you can train people and get them up to speed.

Speeding training
Now let’s tackle how to get new people up to speed in record time. I quote Ritsuo Shingo, “There is no such thing as a problem, only deviation from standard.”

You guessed it, we need to create standard work, even where you think it’s not possible, some level of standardization is always possible. It will blow your mind what some simple instructions with pictures posted on the wall can accomplish. Henry Ford said, “Standardization is the basis of all improvements.”

One big pitfall of creating standards is typing out instructions. No one’s going to read them. Instead use lots of pictures, videos, and as few words as possible.

Creating pull
Last but not least is creating pull. This is no small topic. Most businesses operate in a super push fashion and basically shove things into the plant until something comes out the other end. A pull strategy on the factory floor determines what amount of overproduction you’re willing to put up with, more or less in the form of buffers between disconnected work centers. Then, rather than shove things into step 1 as fast as you can, you let the last step of the process pull work from the previous step, all the way down the line until there is an empty spot at step 1.

Only then do you introduce more work. This same concept applies to office work and engineering. It takes some serious thinking to make this happen, but nothing worth having comes easy! 

It all starts with taking some basic measurements of what’s going on in the factory. Start counting! Whether it’s pieces, cabinets, doors, whatever, don’t be too meticulous and get lost in the weeds. Once you start measuring, you will quickly see what else you need to track. Let it evolve. Once you know what’s actually happening, you can compare to your takt time (rate of customer demand), then balance flow and create pull. Sorry, I made that sound complicated. Just go for it, you’ll figure it out if you put your mind to it. 

Side note: Creating pull is also critical to develop as a people skill. I still struggle with this. I find I’m still pushing improvements on people, and they reluctantly say OK, right until I walk away, then they go right back to the old way. Creating pull in this scenario would look something like this:

  • Ask a person what waste(s) they see in the process.
  • Lead them with questions to the solution you had in mind.
  • Or perhaps they will come up with something better!

Only when they own the idea will it stick. That’s pull!


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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].