Volume 2, Number 8 - August 3, 2004

Give me a hammer, some nails, and some wood, and I will make you a house. Perhaps a bit lopsided and leaky, and maybe not too pretty either, but it will be a house. Give those same tools to an accomplished carpenter who works with an architectural drawing and you will also get a house. Much better than the one I built. Same tools, different results. I’m smart, hard-working, and well-intentioned, but I don’t understand how to build a house. I try. I use the tools you’ve given me and even paid attention to the training you gave me. The carpenter does understand how to build a house, and he has a vision and plan that I don’t have. No wonder he is more successful using the same tools.

Many companies see the wisdom of the Toyota Production System, commonly referred to as “Lean Manufacturing” in this country. Many have thrown away junk, painted lines on the floor, put up a few signs and said “we’re implementing Lean.” Many have added Kanban cards to the mix, using them to control inventory and align scheduling of multiple operations. And while things seem better, it’s not showing up in bottom line results or customer satisfaction.

Implementing the tool kit of lean will make your company better, but your results won’t compare to those of companies who actually weave the spirit and intention of lean into the fabric of their organization. So how do you do that? You quit focusing on the tools and start focusing on the intent. The tools are a means to help prevent interruptions to flow and eliminate waste. But to leverage their potential, they must be used in context with a specific issue in mind and with very specific intended results. Before you use a tool, provide context, understand how its application will help, calculate expected metric improvements, and then complete a post-mortem to see what worked and didn’t work. Learn from experience.

The house I built is better than standing in the rain and snow. It is a step in the right direction. But the house built by the person who truly understands what is needed and how it all fits together is much stronger than mine. Work to make sure that the people using lean tools in building your company understand what is needed and how it all fits together.

Many companies employee slugs. People who simply do not and cannot contribute. They may be very nice, and may even be long-term employees. You may think you can save them, nurture them, help them become productive. If you can, then do it. If you can’t, then fire them. Keeping them around is not fair to other employees, the management team, nor to your shareholders. It’s simply not good business. Yes, you may need help from an employment attorney to avoid legal action, but you can’t run your company based on fear of dealing with a non-performing employee.

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