Lean lessons learned: Don’t be them

Just recently I spoke to a friend who had started his lean adventure back in 2015. It was so great to catch up with him. After getting all the personal stuff and gossip all caught up, naturally the conversation turned to business.

This fellow owns a small cabinet company, under 10 employees. They do very high-end work. Like most shops, he has a mix of old-timers who have been with him for years and a couple newbies. We discussed his challenges of which finding people topped the charts. I’m almost certain that everyone reading this can relate. Then we bounced from subject to subject, talking about everything from inadvertent material shortages, building repairs, all the way down the line to some quality issues they would experience. The emphasis was most defiantly on "mistakes." I asked how the productivity trajectory has been, and there was no real way of knowing from day to day.


I was doing my best just to listen, but you know what happens when someone tells you about a problem, your brain immediately comes up with countermeasures. Well mine was no different, with each situation we discussed, the countermeasure popped into my head. As we were discussing material shortages, all I could think was "kanban." As we delved into the myriad of human errors all I could think about was "standard work." The people problems were no exception to this, and immediately I thought "morning meetings." The building needing minor maintenance easily solved by "improvement time." When it came to productivity tracking, why wasn’t he "keeping score?"

Before I had the opportunity to interject, as if he was reading my mind, he said, "We have sort of let our lean principles fall to the wayside." Immediately I totally understood how all these little, (and some not so little) problems were plaguing his day-to-day operations.

Cutting the trivial

I have come to believe that a lean transformation has more than one phase, just how many, I can’t hypothesize. As we all know, it’s a journey that never ends. However, I am quite confident of the first phase. This should be called "get all the trivial crap out of the way." Then you and your people can focus on the stuff that matters, not who’s picking up printer paper because we ran out, or having to stop a job because the hinges aren’t there, or god forbid you run out of toilet paper, which is somewhat critical to the smooth operation of any factory.

"Lean is not something extra you make time for and do; it’s as simple as a mind shift."

Literally, hundreds of tiny interruptions consume our time, our creativity, and take up valuable brain space for real problem-solving. Most smart people can’t believe lean is this simple! Well, it truly is. I think most people want their productivity to increase, and they can’t see how organizing the pens in the office can lead to building more cabinets. We have to keep in mind the key to a lean enterprise is teaching and training people. So it’s not that we care how many pens we are using on a yearly basis, it’s having everyone understand how to control inventory. It’s not that we care if your garbage can is on the left or the right at your work station, it’s that we teach the importance of creating standards. We have all the facility required to teach people all these tools and techniques on stuff that’s really not expensive or critical to operations.

Lean is not extra

The other big misconception that I believe prevents people from keeping up a lean effort is thinking it’s something they have to do in addition to what they are already doing in a day. BIG MISTAKE.

If that was the case, no one on earth would have time to "do lean."

Lean is not something extra you make time for and do; it’s as simple as a mind shift, putting some basic principles into play, and having the discipline to stick to them. Naturally like any change, in the beginning, the old habits want to creep back in. Stick to your guns, and within a year, you won’t even have to think about the lean tools. It will just be how you do business.

Culling bad apples

Practicing lean principles will also help with the number one problem we all face: finding good people. When you begin to hold everyone to a higher standard, almost as good as finding great people, is getting rid of bad ones. A lean environment is one that gets very uncomfortable for people who don’t want to learn, grow and improve. So the bad apples tend to self-select. There is a small phenomenon that happens around people who you think you can’t do without, soon as they leave, an even better replacement shows up.

Circling back to the conversation I had with my friend, it was obvious that five years had passed, and not a whole lot had changed. To me, this was the most heart-wrenching part of the conversation. Life is short, why spend your time doing the same thing you have always done, and getting the same thing you have always got.

Even the smallest commitment to some kind of continuous improvement will compound over the years. Don’t wait five years only to look back and say, "I wish I would have kept up our improvement efforts."


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About the author
Brad Cairns | President/Owner/C-Level

Brad Cairns is a partner at Quantum Lean and is dedicated to improving the woodworking industry in North America using lean methods. He puts lean thinking in action at My Door Factory, a cabinet door manufacturing business he founded in St. Thomas, Ontario. And he is also founder of Stolbek, a machinery manufacturer. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected].