US LBM sounds a lot like Disney when it discusses its US 1 program. The education program, based on Lean Six Sigma principles, empowers employees to develop new ideas that will improve the customer experience and simultaneously make the company more efficient. But instead of “keep moving forward,” as Walt Disney once said, US LBM’s mantra is “continuous improvement.” It is the US 1 program and its mission that earned US LBM the ProSales Excellence Grand Award in education.

Lean Six Sigma teaches and trains businesses how to eliminate waste. By employing lean thinking, a company can not only improve its processes, but also can see improved customer service and a boost in employee morale. Lean Six Sigma has several certification levels, which imitate the dan ranking system of karate: White Belt is the first level, followed by Yellow Belt, Green Belt, Black Belt, and Master Black Belt.

The US 1 program provides employees at all US LBM divisions White Belt certification. Though it’s based on Lean Six Sigma, US LBM developed and designed US 1 itself, says Scott Gertjejansen, branch manager at Carpentry Contractors Co., a part of Lyman Companies and a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt-certified trainer.

A US LBM-employed trainer who’s Six Sigma-certified leads each training session. During the four hours of training, employees learn about lean thinking and how to recognize opportunities for improvement in their everyday processes. Training sessions and materials are provided in Spanish for divisions that employ Spanish speakers. After successfully completing the session, employees are invited to submit their names for consideration to receive additional training.

Randy Aardema
Matt Stanley Randy Aardema

US LBM designed US 1 to cultivate at the division level a customer-focused culture of continuous improvement, a concept set forth by US LBM’s CEO L.T. Gibson.

Though the White Belt program is most employees’ first exposure to Lean Six Sigma, it grew from the Yellow and Green Belt programs the company was already operating.

“We partnered with the University of Wisconsin for Yellow Belt, Green Belt, and Black Belt training,” Randy Aardema, executive vice president of supply chain for US LBM and a Six Sigma Master Black Belt-certified trainer. “We didn’t have lean training at the division and local level. A division president who completed Yellow Belt asked if we could provide an introduction to lean training for all their associates, so that’s really how the White Belt process got its start.”

Gertjejansen and Aardema estimate 3,000 employees have completed the US 1 program so far. While the principles taught at each session are the same, not every session is conducted in the same way.

“Prior to the White Belt training, we reach out to the division president or location manager and seek out any type of specific needs they have or opportunities to improve and see if we can tailor some of the training to their business needs,” Gertjejansen says.

Employees don’t just learn about lean thinking; they’re encouraged to give their ideas for improvement. “We really want all associates to act on their own and in teams

to make a difference for the companies,” Aardema says. “When we provide the training, they begin to see things differently and the ideas begin to flow.” Adds Gertjejansen: “They’re able to voice their thoughts, opinions and ideas openly and address them professionally within a group of peers.”

US LBM has already experienced many improvements as a result of US 1. At Carpentry Contractors, window installers used smartphones for calls, emails, and text messages, and tablets for the scheduling system. After receiving White Belt training, employees integrated communication and scheduling into a single device. US LBM reports the switch saves 500 man hours per year.

Following their training session, employees at Wisconsin Building Supply’s truss plant in Green Bay, Wis., realized tools were being swapped between lines too often and decided one set of hardware was needed at each line. They color-coded both the hardware sets and the lines to avoid tool swapping in the future.

A White Belt training session
Image courtesy of US LBM A White Belt training session

The lean projects employees implement at their locations aren’t just helping them; they’re helping customers, too. Aardema and Gertjejansen both say employees work with their customers to better understand their needs. Aardema emphasizes that understanding a customer’s job helps US LBM divisions get that customer what they need when they need it. The quick-paced aid “helps identify waste and simplify the processes; it shortens construction time and makes the job easier,” he says.

The biggest change the company has seen as a result of this program can’t be measured in finite terms: Both Aardema and Gertjejansen cite employee morale as the program’s biggest impact.

“What they saw during the training was that some of the work they were doing didn’t add value, so we challenge and empower them to find a better way to perform the work,” Aardema says. “[Finding better ways to work] removes stress and is energizing. It creates better attitudes. … It creates involvement, it creates engagement.”

“When you compare previous year’s productivity levels, quality of work, retention nubers compared to how we are performing currently, we have seen an improvement,” Gertjejansen adds. “I can definitely relate most of that improvement to the lean training and involving the employees at every level.”

“That engagement in the culture really resonates with people,” says Tim Wirth, communications manager at US LBM. “It’s refreshing to see the passion for rethinking, revisiting, and empowerment that US LBM brings to what can be a very traditional industry.”

“It changes people,” Aardema adds. “It’s truly transformational not only from a company standpoint, but from a personal standpoint.”