If slow and steady wins the race…
October 31, 2023 | 3:07 pm CDT
Brad Cairns, Quantum Lean

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at Quantum Lean 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. 

Lean seems to be viewed as this magic bullet, that once fired, everything changes, radically, and immediately. I would put forth that there’s just as much skill in implementing lean, as there would be playing a guitar like Jimi Hendrix.

And a lot of the skills required for a lean transformation don’t come naturally to a lot of people, leaders in particular. So there remains this huge gap between our expectations and our actual skills.

Hire the band or learn to play?
If you need a radical, immediate improvement, then hire a professional to come in and spearhead a kaizen (continuous improvement) event directed at your pain points. This would be analogous to hiring a band to play at your wedding versus learning how to sing and play the instruments yourself.

Remember, life is all about balance. A quick result might get you what you need in one area. But even though the slow and steady approach might take longer, you will earn the wisdom forever to apply wherever you see fit. 

Patience and planning
I have seen successful lean transformations. I have seen failed lean transformations. And I have seen struggling lean transformations. Something I have learned along the way is that patience and planning are key. 

The first three steps of your lean transformation are: 
Assessment — know where you are at; this helps to set targets.
Metrics — this helps to plot improvements in productivity.
Meeting — A townhall meeting with all your people helps educate them on what you’re about to implement and what’s in it for them. Give them the “why.” 

To any normal person, this seems like a couple days of work, and you could be onto the more fun and exciting parts of implementing lean. After all, everyone wants to see results in days or weeks, not months. But this lean thing may be a lot like planting a tree. It has the potential to turn into a mighty oak, but yelling at the seed to grow faster isn’t gonna do much. 

Step by step
Don’t try to accomplish the lean transformation in three days. I’d say stretch it out for five months. (Yes, you heard me right. Brad, the most impatient person on the planet, just said stretch it out for five months.) 

Step 1: Take a month and really assess where the company is from a lean manufacturing standpoint. Dig into your process systems, and your people systems. (We have a scorecard for this.) This might take only a day or two, but then let it simmer, and discuss it a little bit each day. You might be bored to tears talking about it, but you’ll have a very clear vision of where you’re at as a company. 

Step 2: Measure. This is such a critical step, and almost universally avoided. But take the next three months and measure the performance of your factory. Not financially — something your people can relate to: boxes per day, pieces per day, doors per day, drawers per day, openings per day. Something, anything that can be counted on the shop floor and put into a graph. And even three months is a small snapshot. 

Step 3. Townhall meeting. Here you are, four months into your lean journey and nobody really knows about it yet. But now you’re ready for the announcement. And look, you’re not just a crazy owner or manager with the latest idea. 

You can present the assessment, and talk about it a little bit each day for a week. Then you can present your metrics, and talk about it a little bit each day for a week. Next, in the following week, educate your people on what lean manufacturing is, and what’s in it for the people. (Hint: don’t make it just about money.) And finally, in the last week, flush out any concerns your people have — and they will have them.

This process will give everybody ample time to digest, prepare for a change, or do their own research. Moving at this pace also will amplify your odds of success.

Lesson from racing
This takes me back to my glory days of racing dirt bikes. I was working my way through the ranks and got some good advice from a pro rider. He said, “Brad, you’re the fastest guy on the track. If you’d just slow down, you’d win some races.”

We all want everything tomorrow. We can’t figure out why nothing happens fast enough. But in reality, your company could be so improved it’s completely unrecognizable in two years. Which, in the grand scheme of things with time flying the way it does, is pretty darn quick.

We had the pleasure of working with a wonderful company that needed some help jump starting its lean journey. The leadership was absolutely on board and well versed in lean thinking. The owner was supportive and ready to burn the ships. We thought, “Wow, this is going to be great!” 

Lynn Thomas from Quantum Lean jumped right into doing the training, and I hit the shop floor. With enthusiasm we started making recommendations that were tried and true for their scenario. However, there were a special few people on the shop floor who just happened to be in roles that could really sabotage our efforts, and sabotage they did.

They made every step of the way a complete uphill battle. Lean is actually a natural state of making things easier, so everyone eventually comes around (or leaves). But now the next five months is going to be spent in frustration until the penny drops for these people. One can’t help but wonder what would have happened if we had spent the five months in preparation, since it will be the same amount of time overall. Could the slow and steady route be less frustrating for everyone involved?

The moral of the story is: Whether you’re racing dirt bikes, or implementing, lean, the overarching principle is: “Slow down to speed up.” 

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].