Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The "Unwitting" Lean Thinker

If you're a Lean geek like me, you might have read All I Need to Know About Manufacturing I Learned in Joe's Garage. It's a fun little book about utilizing lean thinking in our everyday world.

The title of the book got me thinking about when I used to spend summers working as a roofer for my dad. After thinking about it for a while, I realized--all I need to know about Lean I learned working for my dad.

My dad is what I call an "unwitting" Lean thinker. I say this because he had never heard of Lean until a few years ago when I started learning about it, but he has for years operated his small roofing business in an extremely Lean fashion. Here are a couple of Lean traits that his business exhibits:
  1. Just-In-Time (JIT) material supply...No warehouses, no inventory. Materials arrive within a half-hour of when the roofing begins. No exaggeration. This results in extremely low overhead and less conveyance and motion waste from material handling.
  2. Close partnership with suppliers...Item #1 above would not be possible if it weren't for the fact that my dad has an extremely tight relationship with his materials supplier, Bradco. He's been with them for years, hasn't beat them up on prices, and enjoys the benefits of a cooperative arrangement (one of which is JIT delivery).
  3. Employee loyalty...Construction trades are infamous for churning employees. A common practice for roofing contractors is to add on some "strong-backs" for a few weeks when business is good, pound out a lot of work quickly, and then lay-off half the crew when the backlog vanishes. My dad has taken a different approach. He keeps his crews together for years and years, rarely adding or losing any team members. His crew members can anticipate each other's moves, are best friends off the roof, and understand the performance level that is required to work for my dad. This is invaluable.
  4. Workload balancing...One reason why my dad has been able to keep his crews together so long is because he balances the workload. By working steady like the tortoise instead of frantically like the hare, he is able to reduce the overburden (muri) on his people and avoid the senseless depletion of the work backlog that is caused by overproduction. Even in these desperate times for the construction industry in Florida where my dad works, he has been able to keep his crews working steady.
  5. Focus on value...My dad doesn't try to be the low-cost provider, or try to reach customers via fancy marketing, or try to land huge contracts through political networking. He just focuses on minimizing waste by keeping things simple, maintaining the highest quality by having the best crews, and creating word-of-mouth advertising by being more focused on customer satisfaction than anybody else. That's value.
As a Lean advocate, I've drawn upon my experience with my dad countless times. People intuitively understand these concepts, regardless of the organization. I think if you could strip an organization down to a simple business like my dad's, you could get going on the Lean path a lot quicker.

All the complexity and distractions of a modern bureaucracy get in the way. That's why I think it's important that we Lean advocates get better at organizational design. We can begin by going back to basics, maybe by studying small businesses like my dad's.

Here's a photo of my full company uniform, but not exactly hard at work :)


Ryno said...

Great article, I had many of the same experiences working for my dad's construction business and long for that type of work environment now!

Michael Lombard said...

We might have to start our own company one day, because there aren't a lot of organizations offering that type of environment from what I've seen.

Matt Stambaugh said...

Very solid post. Your dad was always a business man I respected. I see similar "unwitting" lean thinking in my father (also a small business owner as you know). For example, he uses JIT, for say the hundreds of pounds of fertilizer he will put on one orange grove. He has a long relationship with Growers Fertilizer in Lake Alfred, including serving on their board. He gets most of his stuff from them just before he needs it. He also keeps decades old, but perfectly usable, tractors going.

As for your point on starting lean, I read a lot in my new venture course last semester about starting off right. You have to plan out your cost controls and intangibles like culture, or they will evolve on their own as the organization grows, often into unwieldy beasts.

Michael Lombard said...

That example about your dad keeping old but good equipment running, is great! That's a big concept in the lean world. We use techniques such as preventive maintenance to do what your dad does instinctively.

That's good that they're teaching organizational design concepts in grad school, instead of just the old outdated topics such as managerial accounting.