Is there such thing as a lean layout?
Meandering river

Think of your production as a meandering river. You can straighten out the curves to increase flow, but you also need to think about how much is flowing.

You want the leanest layout possible? You’re in luck, because that’s exactly what we’re going to go over.  

We got a call from someone looking for help with a new shop layout. This is not something we do regularly. The customer’s request was simple enough: “I want to build as many cabinets as possible, in the least amount of space with as few people as I can.”

This was the exact moment we knew it was going to go wrong. On the surface, it seems like a reasonable request. Isn’t that what every shop wants? But there is more to it than that.

Now, my educated guess is that you’re probably not a good planner, or you wouldn’t be a woodworker. So, your inclination is to run out in the shop and just start moving things around. I can assure you with 100% certainty that this is not the right starting point.

Establish a target
Your new layout should start way before you get onto the shop floor. The absolute first thing you must establish is a target. The target must be an actual number. “As many as possible” is not a target. 

To establish a target, you have to back up one more step and have measurements. If you’re not measuring now, how will you know your new goal? And if you’re just basing it on dollars, that’s not the right measurement. I’ve talked about measuring and metrics in many articles before. If you need a refresher, try “Are you keeping score” (…) or “Coordinating is harder than doing” (…).

So your new layout might start with establishing measurements in your existing layout. Then you’ll have a relative measure between dollars and pieces, your CFO wants the dollars, shop floor needs pieces. Now, we can move forward.

First, squeeze the lemon
When I say move forward, that still doesn’t mean we get to run out there and move machines, yet. Have you squeezed your existing lemon?

For argument’s sake, let’s say you built 50 boxes a day, you want a new layout, to increase throughput. The good news is if you shuffle everything around and get it right, then you’re throughput should go up. The bad news is you will probably be horrifically disappointed at the trivial increase.

“But Brad, I don’t understand if I create better flow through the shop why wouldn’t the results be anything short of wonderful?” Glad you asked. 

Imagine a river winding back-and-forth and around mountains. This river is 500 miles long. Now we want better flow, so we hire a bulldozer, and we bulldozed a straight line all the way to the ocean. Our new river is only 400 miles long, we saved 100 miles of twists and turns. Big win? Maybe, maybe not.

In both rivers, we dump 500 gallons of water per hour. How many gallons come out the other end? The result will likely be you get the first gallon faster from the straight river. Which is a win, no doubt about that. But if you had to pick the straight river, getting fed at 500 gallons an hour or the bendy river at 1,000 gallons per hour. Which do you want?

Is more space the answer?
Chances are you think you need a new layout because you’re busting at the seams, there’s no room for anything. You think more space is the answer to your problems. I know it feels like this will help. However, you’re only likely to make your problems bigger with more space.

So, when I say, “Are you squeezing your existing lemon?”  I mean have you done everything else possible in the hidden factory (a.k.a. your office) to maximize flow on the shop floor?

Flow starts in the office. In what batch sizes are you releasing to the shop floor? Are work orders complete and accurate? Is purchasing on point so the factory is never waiting or running out of things? All these things will just get more painful if your shop gets faster.

Back on target
Let’s get back to setting that target. There are two really important factors. 

Is it realistic? You’re not arbitrarily saying, “Let’s double production.”

Can you afford it? Financially speaking, to hit the target you set might take new equipment. And don’t forget, aside from paying for hard assets, with increased production you also have increased costs. Doubling production with no money in the bank might bankrupt you.

Any business that does 20% increase year over year is pretty strong. It’s not glamorous, but it’s stable and attainable. Only you can set your target. Make sure your target and your budget are in line.

Now that you have:
• Established measurements (existing layout) 
• Improved performance (hidden factory, squeezed the lemon) 
• Established new targets 
• Aligned budgets with targets 
It’s finally time to move things around to create flow. Get rid of carts and put in some conveyors. Eliminate as much motion and transportation as humanly possible. There’s only one more thing to consider, and we saved the best for last.

Do you have a lean mindset? Are you ready to get uncomfortable, try something new, experiment a little? Because the only thing I know about a new layout is, it’s not gonna work the first time.

Be flexible
Do it yourself, you’ll probably get close; if you hire an expert, they’ll probably get you even closer. But until you start using it and get feedback from people actually doing the work, it won’t be perfect.

My advice: Don’t fall in love with the first solution. Make sure everything‘s on wheels and all your air, dust and electrical connections are done in such a way that it’s as flexible as possible. Make the next inevitable shuffle as easy and painless as possible, this will help ensure you don’t put it off because it’s too much of a pain.


Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Profile picture for user bradcairns
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].