We’re going lean! What’s next?
January 10, 2023 | 10:54 am CST
Brad Cairns at River City Cabinets

Brad Cairns talks to production employees at River City Cabinets in Austin, Texas, about setting up a production line for assembling cabinets. 

It’s pretty unlikely you just woke up in the morning and decided, “Hey, I’m gonna take my company on this lean adventure; I should tell everyone today.”

More likely, you read a bunch of books, mentioned it to your leadership team and spoke to a few key employees. Then undoubtedly that disseminated through the ranks and everybody heard the boss said, “We’re going lean.” And then, they were all left to their own devices to decide what that means. 

In my experience people will fall into one of three camps:

  • Excited for a new challenge and willing to learn.
  • Not sure about this whole lean thing but willing to watch how it goes before deciding.
  • Totally against it, digging in their heels and openly telling everyone they’re not doing it.

The first two categories we can work with. It’s the last one we’re all concerned about. What happens if I lose good people? I can’t afford to lose people at journeyman level or craftspeople. And, yes, those are the kind of people that often push back…LOL.

I think we have to find out why they decided not to partake. There are few reasons that usually come up. 
First, they got someone’s poor interpretation of what lean manufacturing is. Something along the lines of you’re gonna have to learn how to speak Japanese and work 10 times harder.

Second, they already put in nine hard hours with a company every day and feel like lean is something extra that they will have to squeeze in, and they just don’t have time for it.

And third — the big one — just a fear of change, the thought of having to learn something new.
All of these can be legitimate fears for someone and should be addressed with all due respect.

Dispelling fears
We can dispel all of these fears in one succinct explanation: Lean at its core is continuous improvement through the elimination of waste. One of the easiest ways to eliminate waste is to make your job easier. You were going to approach your work each day regardless, therefore lean is not anything extra it’s simply changing your approach to the work.  
You don’t have to worry about learning new things, every single human being on the planet is already programmed with a lean mindset. Except for a few counterintuitive principles, there is almost nothing outside of the realm of common sense. And, no, you do not have to learn Japanese. 

Lynn Thomas at River City Cabinets
Lynn Thomas from Quantum Lean conducts a lean training session at River City Cabinets in Austin, Texas.

Introducing lean
Let’s talk about how we introduced lean to our team. The formula is simple. 

Show an unrelated example of everyday improvements we can’t live without and ask, “Why do we use these?” Drills, CNC routers, and motorized transportation are a few good ones. Emphasize the point these were all changes people were afraid of when they first came out.

Talk about your pain. How would it be if the pain were gone?

Introduce the concept of lean manufacturing as a solution.

Show success stories from other companies from YouTube.

You could sound out something along these lines at a group meeting, using a PowerPoint presentation to go along with it.
Who has ever had to drive a screw into a piece of wood with a hand screwdriver? (Ask for a show of hands.) If we can do that, why bother using impact drivers? You will likely get answers along the lines of easier, faster, etc.

What about that CNC router of ours? Why did we ever purchase that? We are all capable of using hand routers and templates. Seemed like a pain to learn how to program and operate the CNC at first, didn’t it? Again answers: more accurate, easier, faster etc.

And if you walked to the meeting this morning, then why would you drive to work? Walking or jogging is perfectly acceptable mode of transportation. We are all a little leary about this lean thing, but at one point in history people were afraid of all those changes, too. 

Nothing new
This resistance to change is nothing new. When Henry ford would drive his first car around town, people would complain because the noise scared the horses. Imagine if he had listened to the naysayers and just gave up. He was quoted saying, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

The pain of hand-driving 100 screws is not much different to what we face on a daily basis, this is due to the process we’ve created that are suboptimal. 

Getting people to embrace change is probably the hardest job leadership has. I just got back from working with a company in Texas. The setup was a typical cabinet shop with 13 individual build stations with highly qualified cabinet makers at each one. 

We introduced the concept of creating flow through the organization by creating work buffers, a constraint and dependencies, in short, “a line.” At least 60 percent of the shop staff gave us several reasons why it wouldn’t work. Despite all the manufacturing greats doing it this way or having done it a million times at cabinet shops before, it was almost impossible to convince them. Alas, they were still great people and willing to give it a try. Probably hoping they could just pull me aside and say, “I told you so.” 

We spent the week reconfiguring the work flow, training all the staff, and setting up the line. By Friday we were ready to sit back and watch. It could only go one of two ways. Either tank production or increase it. 

You know the old adage “the first one is the worst one,” so it’s totally expected that the first couple days will be the most painful and confusing. Despite that, the team still managed to almost double their production with three fewer people overall. 

I’d say they are on the right path. It can only get better from there. And, if you don’t believe such huge gains in efficiency are possible, watch the full video. 

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

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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]