Slow down to speed up!
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].
When I was young and crazy I used to race dirt bikes. I had big dreams of riding pro one day. A good friend of mine who was a pro-rider at the time would often watch me race. One day I had just come off the track, mouth full of dirt, exhausted after 30 minutes of grueling racing. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Brad, you’re the fastest guy on the track, if you just slowed down you probably would win some races.” I cocked my head to the side and said, “What?” 
He then bestowed the words that would forever change not just my racing, but the rest of my life. He said, “Slow down to speed up.”
Last week this lesson came back to me, and I thought it was worth sharing in a manufacturing context.
This summer seems as if it has been totally bonkers in the manufacturing world, everyone I talked to is insanely busy. I think we can all agree, when we get busy, our mistakes also seem to compound. Before we know it, we are no longer woodworkers; we are full-time firefighters. 

Building eruption

I will happily admit that my company is no exception. As customer demand increased over the past few months, so did all the UDE’s (undesirable effects). But it was more like death by paper cuts. It wasn’t one big mistake that we could easily identify and put in some countermeasures. In hindsight, I could see that all these little UDE’s  were compounding and like a volcano, we were bound to erupt. 
We were tracking all the data and felt like we had it somewhat under control. That is, until one week we made three significant mistakes that escaped our building and made it to a customer. 
That was the tipping point for me, and all I could think of was “slow down to speed up.” So we did, and we didn’t just slow down, we brought it to a screeching halt. 
We stopped the whole factory and gathered in our sandbox (meeting area). We carefully avoided the usual “so everyone, what’s going wrong?” That usually turns into a ton of finger pointing and complaining. The first step is to make sure your team is well-versed in internal vs. external customer/supplier relations. If this concept is new to you or your crew, take a moment and review it with everyone. It’s a simple and powerful concept that is already universally understood outside the workplace.

Customer/supplier relations

If you purchase something from a retail store, and it’s not what you expected, what do you do? Thats right, you return it. Typically, you don’t even think twice about doing so. But for some reason in our factories, we hesitate to send things back to our internal suppliers. The root may be avoiding conflict with a co-worker or not wanting to give them bad news. We set out to fix it ourselves thinking we are doing the right thing. 
In reality what is happening, we are robbing the system of critical feedback and opportunity to improve. If you don’t have a formal CPARS (Corrective, Preventative Action Reporting System), then at the very least you will create total awareness around the factory about defects being found. 
One critical element is never leap-frog a supplier. For example: if you found the defect in shipping, and you know it was caused in engineering, resist the temptation to just go to the engineers. Just return it to your supplier, let them return it to their supplier, eventually it will make it back to the source and create a ton of awareness along the way.
Sound crazy? Imagine you buy a bike at Walmart, the tire is defective, what do you do? Return it to Walmart! It doesn’t even cross your mind to find the company that did the assembly, made the tire or supplied the rubber. You don’t even consider that, so maintain that same mentality in the factory too. It works wonders. 

Simulating processes

To kick this off what we did was positioned everyone in a circle in the order of their work stations. We created fake work orders and starting simulating the release of orders to the factory. 
It took no time at all for our typical problems to surface, and because we were all there seeing it unfold we could just yell “STOP,” then we would all identify the problem and develop a countermeasure. Then we would collect the work orders and start again. 
With each iteration, we uncovered the little tedious things that were plaguing us. 
Once we were confident we had a working system, we started to create problems on purpose to stress test it. Once again, when the wheels fell off the wagon, we brainstormed a solution, implemented and ran the simulation again. 
I thought we would need about an hour, which quickly turned into several hours. But it was so productive, that I didn’t want to stop. We stayed in the sandbox simulating until we had an improved system, at least in theory, and finished by documenting all the new rules we were going to follow.

Miraculous improvement

Nevertheless, the proof is in the pudding, so we all went back to our work stations then fired up the routers. What followed was nothing short of miraculous.
Router utilization went up 25 percent. Work in process was reduced by 75 percent. The production staff went from being crazy busy all day to having lots of time to ensure quality, do cleaning and even some maintenance. To some, the most exciting number would be the 30 percent reduction in manufacturing time. 
Although I do really like that result, my favorite part was everyone’s job got easier. 
Like many lean principles, the counterintuitive nature is what steers many people away from trying. In the very peak of summer production, our deadlines were approaching fast and my whole team was feeling the pressure. We intentionally took our foot off the gas, slowed down, and the result was a significant increase in speed. 
If you are running your plant flat out and have an idea, but there is no way you have time to try it? That might be the very indicator you need to give it a whirl. 
And if you’re a little nervous to try it on your own, just give us a call; we are always happy to help!

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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].