One, two, three, and you’re lean!
Leave it better sign at Yellotools

Simple signs like this can remind you and your employees about the basics of lean manufacturing.

This lean thing is great! We get to read all kinds of interesting books. We get to learn all kinds of fun facts and figures. We get to learn all about the world’s manufacturing greats like Taiichi Ono and Henry Ford. And it’s all with the ultimate goal being able to transform of our own businesses. But how do you turn all that information into practice?

I can only speak for myself, but I have read hundreds of books, studied dozens of famous people and even went right to the manufacturing mecca Toyota City in Japan. So, it’s safe to say there’s a lot of information bouncing around in all of our heads, and if you ask me, it’s darn near impossible to recollect the exact right information from the exact right source for the exact right situation. And don’t forget, that’s just us.

We still have to teach all of this to all of our people and then have them remember it. My goodness, no wonder why this lean thing is so hard! And just to add insult to injury, we’re woodworkers at heart, not teachers. (Arguably after one employee you are no longer a woodworker you are now a teacher but that’s a whole other article.) 

But there is help. Rather than memorize volumes of text, I have found three unbelievable sayings that come in handy almost every single day and anyone can remember them. I believe memorizing just these three sayings will get you 90 percent of the way to lean success.

Leave it better
The first one comes all the way from Germany. One of my best friends in the whole world Michael Althoff, owner of Yellotools and author of “The Lean Deal” has small signs all over his factory that simply say:
“Leave it better than you found it.”

The beauty and simplicity of this sentence is staggering. All he is saying is go about whatever you’re doing and then just before you leave pause for one moment to look around and try to find some tiny way of leaving the area just a little bit better than when you walked in. Imagine everyone in your organization doing this, in every room of your organization. The office, the shop floor, a work cell or in the bathroom. And then the real magic happens. When it’s just how you start behaving. See the attached video for two interesting stories from my life.

I’m not sure where this one originated because I’m pretty sure I’ve heard It a million times throughout our lean community, but it didn’t hit home until Michael beat it into my brain. Side note: If you haven’t been to Germany to see Yellotools in action do not miss our European Quantum lean tour! 

These wonderful words should ring in your mind with every communication everywhere all the time with everyone. 

No guessing
Now for our next critical phrase:

“No guessing, no assuming.“ 

I’m sure you’re noticing a pattern of simplicity by now, but let’s delve into this one just a bit. Every time we guess or assume we are leaving the door open just a crack for a mistake to happen. And if you’re anything like me and have a 50-50 chance of guessing something right, it will be wrong 100 percent of the time. 

So, how do we close the door on mistakes? We just have to ask a simple question; are we leaving the other person to do any amount of guessing or assuming? Are we guessing or assuming ourselves? If you are, pause for a moment, clarify beyond the shadow of a doubt, and then execute. That extra 30 seconds will save you hours by the time it gets to the shop floor.


Paul Akers and Brad Cairns
Paul Akers, left, is the owner of FastCap and a lean mentor to many, including Brad Cairns. 

Last but not least, this next one comes from my good friend and mentor, Paul Akers, owner of FastCap and author of “Two-Second Lean.” We are often engaged in conversation about how to make improvements. Ultimately the goal is to eliminate human struggling. That even includes what I refer to as unrecognized limitations, such as when there’s a small struggle I can see, but the person in the process doesn’t recognize it as a struggle, yet.

Even if they don’t know if they’re struggling, they will several times a day come and tell you they are struggling. But it will not sound like, “Hey can you help me? I’m struggling.” Instead, it will sound more like, “Hey, where are the keys?” or “Where do I find the information for building this unit?” Their struggle won’t even sound like they’re suffering, but every question means delay until they get the answer. To address that, these powerful words should resonate in your mind all day:

“Where the question is, the answer should be.“

Just this sentence tells you where you should put tools, where you should put information, where you should locate your workstations and on and on and on. Again, simplicity trumps everything. Wherever the question is, and whatever the question is, the person should only have to take one step back, pause, and look around in the immediate area for the answer. It should be visible and as close to where the question started as possible. 

What these simple phrases are actually accomplishing in lean terms, without making it complicated and scary, is simply this:

Leave it better than you found it.
•    Practice 3S (Sort, Sweep, Standardize) everywhere, all the time.

No guessing no assuming
•    Create standard work.

Where the question is, the answer should be?
•    The perfect guide on where to put things.

If you can get everyone in your organization to remember these three phrases, it is truly my belief that something good is going to happen. We have a short video on the power of these concepts in action. 
Now let’s all go make some improvements! 


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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].