Is your lean journey stalled?
July 29, 2021 | 8:48 am CDT

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at the Center for Lean Learning and Quantum Lean. He also runs 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].

So, you’ve started your lean journey, got your people trained, things are heading in the right direction. You have some half-decent morning meetings going, people are making improvements on a regular basis, and overall you’re thrilled with the results of this crazy lean thing. 

Before you know it, the honeymoon is over. It seems like all of the productivity gains you made are a thing of the past, and your morning meetings are abysmal at best. Oh, and your daily improvements are more rare than a Bigfoot sighting.

This is the all too familiar story so many people have. The statistic of only 5 percent of companies creating a lean culture is all too true. There is a myriad of reasons why the story is told by so many. Today we’re going to discuss two possibilities causing this phenomenon and some ideas on how to avoid it.

Why your lean journey is stalled
One of the most common reasons for a stalled lean initiative is a lack of leadership. 

There’s an old saying, “The fish starts stinking from the head.” Loosely translated, this means most of your problems are probably caused by leadership or lack thereof. When anything is going wrong in your organization and you look at a top-five list of probable causes, if leadership is not number one on any list I’d be very skeptical of the validity of said article. After all, everything is a derivative of the leadership.

Another factor has to do with the ever-changing makeup of your staff. 

It’s very natural for most companies to have people coming and going. Whether it’s hiring, firing, or retiring, like it or not our tribal knowledge is constantly leaving the building as we bring in new talent. Now most of the world doesn’t know what lean is, so it’s a fair assumption that most of your new hires are not coming on board with a lean mindset. And if we’re not doing something intentionally to get them going in the right direction. We’re leaving it up to them and our shop floor influencers to decide which path they will take. 

Some people might gravitate towards lean naturally. Some might gravitate away from it. And I’d be willing to bet the vast majority sit on the fence waiting to see what the people they end up getting along with do. Then they will follow suit. We would all love to say 100 percent of our company buys into lean, self-educates, and makes improvements every single day, but I can honestly say I don’t think that’s reality.If we don’t step in intentionally to point them in the direction we would like them to go, it’s like putting all your chips on number 17 and spinning the roulette wheel. (With AWFS in Vegas, I couldn’t resist the casino reference.) 

Working with new hires
In my experience with hiring new people, there are three distinct phases. If we fall down in one or more of these categories, it reduces our odds of taking good new hires and turning them into productive lean maniacs. The three phases are as follows:

1.    Setting the expectation pre-hire. 
2.    You’re on boarding process
3.    Follow up training

Let’s dive into these one at a time. 

Setting the expectation seems pretty simple. I mean, tell them you’re a lean company and that you make improvements every day and walk them around the shop. However, it might be important to put yourself in their shoes. They just want the job, they will say and do anything. 

They will smile and nod. They will agree with everything you say, and in the end, they might not even know what they’re looking at or looking for. It’s not until they get home, when their heart stops racing, and they’re trying to explain to their significant other what happened at the job interview that they try to really analyze what happened. 

You need to give them some things they can take home, like your favorite lean book and a list of your favorite lean videos. This way, when they return to thinking about the interview, they are armed and dangerous with all the information they need to recollect what they saw and heard, and reinforce what they’re getting into. Also, this is not a bad way to filter through some of the deadwood to see who doesn’t do any of the homework.

What about onboarding and what do I mean by that? I’m referring to the first hour of every day of their first month. You somehow need to get them caught up with the rest of your team so they’re not aimlessly wandering around wondering what everyone’s talking about with these eight deadly wastes.

Do you have systems in place to provide a clear consistent message for everyone starting at your company? Remember, if you leave the training up to people, you might still be facing significant variation. Depending on who it is, what day it is, how they feel and what the pressure at work is like. This is a great time to employ video training. The message will be exactly the same, they have the option to do it at work or at home, and it doesn’t consume any extra effort from anyone on your team. 

It also gives everyone a consistent message to refer back to instead of making corrections that seem opinion based. For example, human tendency is to do batch work, so instead of saying, “Hey, we don’t do batch work here,” you could say,“Hey, remember in the videos the demonstration of single-piece flow versus batch work and how much more effective single-piece flow was?” This is a lot less offensive to a new person who is just trying to do a good job. 

We also understand you might not have a video studio, editing software, and quite frankly the time to record, produce and distribute these videos, so head on over to where we’ve done all of that work for you.

Follow-up training
Now last but not least, it’s time to assess your internal training regime. One of my good friends and fellow lean maniacs, Laverne Martin, once told me when it comes to training, “Repeat, repeat, repeat.” Make sure you pepper your new hires with as much lean training as possible into your daily morning meetings. Speaking from experience, you will probably be the only one that gets bored of saying it or hearing it over and over. Most people really enjoy having the answers and sharing them in front of the group. Don’t be shy. Heed the wise words of Laverne,  and repeat, repeat, repeat. And if at all possible, whatever your onboarding process ends up being, try to get people to cycle through that at least once a year as well.  

I know what you’re thinking boy that sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But every time we gravitate away from training and deviate from our standard onboarding process, we can see the effects in our culture and our improvements almost immediately. 

I promise if I ever think of a shortcut for this process, it will be my very next article.  

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].