Lean principles include keeping tools organized and in designated spaces so they'll be easy to find every time.
Mitch Wojnarowicz Lean principles include keeping tools organized and in designated spaces so they'll be easy to find every time.

SLAM! My junior year high school English teacher, on the first day of class, would walk into the classroom after slamming the door as hard as he could. His purpose was to galvanize our attention and eliminate all distractions.

This achieved, he began to teach critical thinking. His tool was to have us read a classic, split the premise of that book into two ways of thinking about the same observation, and then draw two different conclusions. He taught us how to hold differing, perhaps even contradictory, premises in our minds at the same time.

Where is this going? Welcome to Lean 201. SLAM!

Let's Get Beyond the Basics
I assume you’ve heard about the basics of Lean management techniques. Lean tackles the systematic reduction of waste, and key Lean practices include disciplined housekeeping and organization, reducing truck turnaround time, and implementing single-piece flow in a door/millwork shop. (Need reminders? See this glossary for key terms.)

That’s Lean 101. I want to discuss what to do after the basics are implemented, and this brings us back to my teacher’s lessons.

Here’s the key: In order for Lean to flourish, ownership and management must allow contradictory concepts to co-exist. You need to balance top-down, command and control management with bottom-up, employee-driven change, pushing decision-making responsibility and authority to the lowest organizational level.

This approach attacks what may be the worst waste of all: loss of creativity. Anyone in a position of authority (perhaps most of all, ownership) should routinely approach everyone in the organization and ask, “How can we make your job better?”

This doesn’t mean the owner/manager is abdicating authority and responsibility. There’s still a top-down element required. Your challenge is to get your workforce to embrace what you want them to do: continually improve their performance.

Brian Utter, yard foreman at Curtis Lumber, Delhi, N.Y.
Mitch Wojnarowicz Brian Utter, yard foreman at Curtis Lumber, Delhi, N.Y.

Start from the Bottom and Walk Around
How do you use your top-down energy to inculcate bottom-up thinking? Spend time—a lot of time at first—informally going to the workstations (please don’t drag anyone into a conference room!), and talking to your workers. Why? Because they perform that job day after day, and they are a lot smarter than you may think.

They know where problems happen and have ideas on how improvements can be made. But if no one asks them, unless they are not bashful you won’t get their input. Many won’t volunteer what they know, not every suggestion will be a good one, and many won’t be feasible. Ask anyway!

They could see opportunities for improving tools, such as your software. They’ll see friction any time two or more groups are involved in the same process. Many times, information between groups doesn’t flow as freely as bosses assume. And they’ll spot communication errors occurring between levels of management.

These problems can be costly. Consider if an incorrect stock SKU is recorded on an order. Should that error get all the way to the jobsite, it leads to a dissatisfied customer, a delivery truck making a second or third trip, and sales staff and/or ownership having to repair customer relations.

What can be done to counteract the loss of creativity? Pickers, stagers, loaders, and drivers should be taught about product features and purposes, then encouraged to ask if an order doesn’t make sense.

Take a daily walk somewhere in your store, yard, and/or production area(s). Talk to whoever is working in that area. Ask them what they’re doing, what works well, and what doesn’t work well. Act on what they tell you, and ask them to be involved as much as possible.

Have a five to 10-minute daily stand-up meeting covering issues everyone needs to know about, such as watching for a certain delivery or a salesperson bringing a new customer on a tour. Most important, talk through ideas and improvements. If you don't want to plunge into daily meetings, start by meeting weekly.

Give private positive feedback immediately upon hearing of or seeing a “good deed,” such as turning around a complicated special order with an on-time and in-full delivery. This reinforces what happened and encourages repeat performances. Follow up occasionally with public acknowledgement of good work that occurs “behind the scenes.”

When you hear of or see a negative event—something that adversely impacts customer relations, safety, or teamwork—privately interview the person(s) involved to find out the circumstances, ask how the situation could have been handled better, and then mutually determine a corrective action to minimize recurrence.

Accountability chart at Curtis Lumber in Delhi, NY
Mitch Wojnarowicz Curtis Lumber promotes accountability at all levels of its staff, including team member William Cash.

Reinforcing Continuous Improvement
Let’s put this concept into practice. At The Building Center of Gloucester, Mass., if someone needed a screwdriver for store use, that person would just go to the hand tools aisle and take one.

“We had six screwdrivers spread around the store when we only needed one,” CFO Tim Huff says. Huff made people stop and think about that, and by doing so he set the table for how he and the management team implemented culture change.

“Find the people who get it and work with them, and allow the people who don’t to be influenced by those who do,” Huff says. “Identify the people who see the value in 5S/Lean as your champions. Managers need to lead by doing, especially at first, not delegating. “Investing in the employees to work with you is like generating compound interest, but it’s with time, not money,” Huff adds. “With 5S/Lean, you’re investing your time on the right things. Patience is very important! … You’ll really improve your bottom line if you’re focusing on long-term efficiency gains.”

Jim Sobeck, CEO of New South Construction Supply in Greenville, S.C., and author of The Real Business 101: Lessons from the Trenches, states, “You can’t just work smart or hard; to be really successful, you have to work both smart and hard.”

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