Think you don’t have time for lean? Think again
Brad Cairns, Quantum Lean

Brad Cairns runs Best Damn Doors, a cabinet door manufacturing operation, and shares his entusiasm and expertise on lean manufacturing through Quantum Lean.

If your days are anything like mine, it feels like the alarm goes off and its 900 miles per hour for the rest of the day. If you manage to squeeze in a 5-minute lunch and God forbid a bathroom break, it feels like you’re winning. Adding one more thing to the proverbial to-do list is unfathomable.

That’s why it’s so understandable when we have conversations with clients that go something like this: 
Woodworker: “Hey, Brad, I saw some of your videos on YouTube and it looked awesome, I’d love to implement a lean philosophy in my organization.” 

Brad: “Great, that will be the best decision you ever made!, When would you like to get started?”
Woodworker: “Umm, well this week is crazy, lets touch base next week.”

Brad: “No problem. Ready when you are.”


Brad: “Hey there, ready to get started?”

Woodworker: “Oh, we are in the middle of a few other implementations at the moment and this month is crazy, how about next month?”

Brad: “No problem. Ready when you are.”


Brad: “Hey there, ready to get started?”

Woodworker: “Just got a big project on the go we need to finish up, then we are ready, how about another month?” 

And this cycle continues until one of us gives up. And sadly, this is the vast majority. 

Here is the catch, and likely the most commonly misunderstood fact of lean manufacturing (or lean thinking) are you ready? Lean is NOT something extra in your day. It’s just a different mindset when going about your day. And the irony is, if you apply lean thinking to your existing impossible-to-finish to-do list, you will likely get through it faster. Now, before you jump to the conclusion that I’m crazy, let’s examine a few simple examples.

Kanban card
Kanban cards like this turn reordering challenges into simple processes handled automatically even for specialty items.

Example 1: The special screw
Someone comes in your office with a piece of hardware that requires a specialty screw, and says, “We are out of those special screws for this hardware.” We aren’t even going to calculate the time they spent looking for said item, the time you are about to spend doing the same, and the ramifications of the frustration that they didn’t tell you about before they ran out. 

Now you start searching. Where did we get it last time? There are three sizes, which size do we use? How many should I get? Then when you figure all that out, I promise you will over-buy this item so you don’t have to experience this pain again for a long time. Let’s say the whole thing cost you 30 minutes. That’s 1/16 of your day. Looking for a screw!

In a lean mindset, you would have created a Kanban card for this item the first time you bought it. This will take you under two minutes. Then, when stock is running low, the card is triggered and looks like the example on this page. All the information you require to make the purchase is on the card, as a matter of fact, at this point you could turn over the purchasing to anyone and know that they are going to end up with the right items. 

Lean flowchart
Lean simplifies complex tasks by making it easy to see where the bottlenecks are and for you to expedite flow, no matter what you are trying to accomplish.

Example 2: New software
What about if you are implementing a new software or ERP system? This would seem like a good reason to put off a lean transformation until some future date, right? Wrong. Approaching that implementation with a lean mindset will help you get it done in less time and more accurately.

Understanding flow and bottlenecks isn’t just for the factory floor. It applies to everything we are doing.  How are you entering and testing information in the new system? A single-piece flow approach will yield far better results. Controlling batches of information and subordinating activity to the bottleneck will ensure everyone is working on the right thing at the right time. Typically, when you apply lean thinking to a process, you can save about 50 percent of the time it would have taken.  

Standard work robot sanding
Standard work, sometimes called standard operating procedures (SOP), makes training efficient and makes better use of trainers’ time.

Example 3: Training people
Here is a big one, probably the mother of all things you should be doing immediately. What eats up a tremendous amount of time for you and your team? I’m going to go out on a limb and say, “Training people.” Especially in today’s labor climate. No longer are people looking for a career, they are looking for a job without a long-term commitment in mind. So, companies are experiencing turnover like never before, and someone has to teach these new people.

A lean mindset simply makes a standard the first time you have to teach someone, then, depending on how good of a job you do on that standard, you could be free of this task forever, or until the standard needs to change. A simple written document and a video make training 1/10 of the effort it probably is today.

Every time I walk through my factory and see someone watching a training video I just get all warm and fuzzy inside knowing that used to have to be me teaching them. Now, I’m still teaching them, but through good standard work and videos. This might sound daunting, but trust me, with technology like it is today, it’s much easier than you think.

Lean is not extra
This list goes on with lean tools to apply to your daily work to make life easier, better, faster and cheaper. But the main takeaway is that it is NOT an extra thing to do. It’s a mindset. And once you learn it, you simply can’t ignore it. Your brain will constantly be on the alert to apply these techniques to everything you do. The truth of the matter is it’s more advantageous to learn lean thinking before any other projects. In the end, it will save you more time than you ever imagined. 

And let’s clear the air on any preconceived notions that lean applies only to the shop floor. Lean applies to EVERYTHING. Remember, the fundamental principle is: “Everything is a process, and every process can be improved.” So, it doesn’t matter if you want to improve brushing your teeth, the factory floor, your office operations or the sales department. The principles all apply.

Now, let’s go apply some lean thinking to our day and save our one non-renewable resource — our time. 
Note: The kanban card and SOP document shown can both be found on the Quantum Lean website:


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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].