Are you a lean thinker? Don’t you wish everyone was? If you follow this column on a regular basis I should be able to assume that you and your staff employ lean thinking on a regular basis – right? How I wish that were true. How can we work together to make that wish come true? If your company is not on the lean journey or applying lean thinking to daily business activity, there may be someone in your own neighborhood, or at least in your industry, ready and willing to help point you in the right direction and augment the learning opportunity for you and your staff.

If you attended Wood Pro Expo in Baltimore in October you had the chance to meet the chief executives of Hunter Trim and Cabinets (HTC), Signature Wood Systems (SWS), and Busby Cabinets and to hear their testimony of how lean thinking is transforming their business. Even those executives have learned, and continue to learn, from each other how important it is to have a participative staff in order to achieve the full benefit of lean thinking.

That is an important point to remember if you are considering embracing lean in 2015. As I have stated in many different ways in these articles, if you are not willing to empower your staff to apply the tools and techniques of lean at an individual and team level, and encourage their active participation in the change process, you will experience a very frustrating and disappointing journey that could end in a train-wreck that will be even more challenging to recover from.

Lean connections

Brad contacted me a few years ago to help him begin the transformation process at SWS and since then he has become an active proponent of lean thinking. I don’t recall how the relationship started, but Dustin made contact with Brad, and then contacted me about starting the transformation process at HTC a couple of years ago. They have been able to help each other in a number of ways since. When Jack of Busby Cabinets contacted me I referred him to Brad first. Their conversation was instrumental in reassuring Jack that lean was the right business model for achieving the growth and profit objectives he desired for Busby.

Both Dustin and Brad are reaching out to another CEO in each of their locales to help that person begin the lean journey at their company. Unfortunately, at this early stage in the process, it appears that only one of them is likely to achieve success. The other one may wind up frustrated and disappointed. Why do I perceive the possibility of that result? Both CEOs believe that change is necessary for them to succeed in 2015, but one is not willing to make the necessary personal culture shift from the role of an autocratic decision maker to that of a leader in collaborative decision making with his staff. 

Not really in control

What is it that causes a business owner to believe that he is the only person in the organization with the right answers? An owner/executive who thinks that he is in control has never taken the time to assess how things really get done in his business. The executive may make all or most of the decisions, but he is not the one who executes the processes and tasks that transform the raw information and materials into a product that is intended to satisfy the customer’s expectations.

It is not the executive who is in control; it is the process owners who control almost every aspect of the business. As you assess 2014 and develop a Lean strategy for 2015, consider how your decision making protocol may be constraining the creative and innovative genie that resides in every one of your employees. Letting the genie out of the bottle will provide the catalyst to achieve objectives that you may not even dare to dream of today. Brad’s CEO peer is not willing to make that assessment at this time and a gold mine of improvement opportunities may well go unexploited.

Making a commitment

Brad’s enthusiasm hasn’t rubbed off on (let’s call him) Bob yet, but Brad is giving up one day a week at his own business to mentor and coach him. He is also working with a few receptive and daring shop people to demonstrate to Bob that improvements don’t have to cost a lot of money or take a lot of time to implement. Making quantum leap improvements will require a commitment from Bob that Brad is concerned may not be forthcoming. Since there may be some valuable lessons to be learned from this experiment, I will keep you informed of the outcome.

Meanwhile, Dustin is beginning to collaborate with Chris at Hodges Millwork in Dallas. Even though they are both custom cabinet manufacturers their proximity to each other doesn’t create direct competition. Chris has already visited Dustin’s shop and was very impressed with the changes that have taken place and the results that Dustin detailed for him. Chris was also encouraged by the active participation of the shop personnel in making positive change happen on a continual basis.


I will be facilitating the lean training and the initial transformation process for Chris and his staff while Dustin reinforces and augments the learning through cross-shop visits, one-on-one coaching and collaboration of the shop leaders, and even sharing of production methods between shop staff. This cooperation between Dustin and Chris reduces the on-site time that I would normally spend at Hodges Millwork, which subsequently reduces the cost to Chris while starting to build a network of resources that may be expanded as more cabinet shops in the Dallas/Ft Worth area begin to embrace Lean thinking.

Cooperation and collaboration between seeming competitors may be uncomfortable for some of my readers, but I believe it is necessary for the survival and growth of our industry. It is a rare occurrence when a cabinet or furniture company has a process that is so unique or secretive that it can’t be shared between businesses. In my 30 plus years in this industry I have learned that there aren’t too many different processes that can be employed in cabinet making. There is little to lose and much to gain through collaboration and cooperation. 

Reach out to your counterparts in the neighborhood to see who is already on the lean journey or contemplating a launch soon, then contact me, Brad, or Dustin for more support, guidance, and direction. Let’s make 2015 the year our industry comes together to spread the lean business philosophy so everyone prospers.

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