The true power of Lean and Respect for People

As we start to wind down for the holidays and year’s end, I always find myself becoming reflective. During a group discussion at the AME workshop in Boston I recently lead on Employee Engagement, someone asked me what my proudest Lean moment has been. To answer, I relayed the story of Chris and Tony – one of the best examples I have to describe what Lean and Respect for People are truly all about.

Chris and Tony (their real names, BTW) worked in the shipping department of a medical device manufacturer I ran. Their jobs were to organize the printed orders, then pick, pack and ship the filled orders via UPS by 5PM. At this particular manufacturer, they prided themselves on their quick turnaround shipping, which translated into an “ordered today, ships tomorrow” mentality. For years that goal had been attained, and I certainly didn’t want to be the first Plant Manager to fail to meet it.

In the beginning, they were shipping about 800 boxes of product per day. To do this, Chris and Tony would come in a couple hours after first shift had started and stay a couple hours after they’d left in order to load the UPS truck at 5PM. Simple enough.

Now, this company was lucky enough to be growing sales month over month by quite a bit. As this growth continued, Chris and Tony were having a harder time meeting their 5PM deadline each day. To address it, they were coming in earlier to give themselves more time to fill orders. This worked for a while, until it got to the point where both Chris and Tony were working 10+ hour days, 5 days/week and just barely getting orders onto the truck. To help us out, a few times the UPS driver was nice enough to stay an extra few minutes, or would circle back after making a couple other stops, but that was a practice that would not sustain. For those who deal with UPS – you know what I’m talking about. Those folks don’t usually hold up or backtrack for anyone. We knew we had to do something different, quick.

During our kaizen, we corrected many ills and eliminated many wastes. For example, we rearranged the shipping rack to include all products (previously, they were stored in numerous locations), got rid of a persnickety pick-to-light system, and rebalanced the work content between the two guys. Post kaizen, we were able to ship 1200 boxes of product per day, and both Chris and Tony were back to their original, straight-time schedules. In short, we were shipping 50% more product using 25% less direct labor. We saved time, decreased occupied floor space, increased output… all the great things that adopting Lean can lead to.

And that wasn’t even the best part.

Before we held our kaizen, I watched Chris and Tony work. There were some obvious things that we could (and did) change to make things go faster, but the worst part was witnessing the toll the broken process was having on them both. As they’d gotten busier and adjusted their schedules to work more, they were both getting tired and hence more easily frustrated. As their patience began to wear thin, what once had been a simple problem (like coming across the occasional misprinted shipping box) now represented a major system problem and cause for outburst. They’d also began griping at each other, which had never happened before in years of working together. It was clear that the inefficient, fragmented process was having an effect far more important than putting our shipping metrics in doubt.

It occurred to me on the drive home one night after an especially difficult day how unfair it was to expect the best from these guys when we’d given them such a poor process to work with. I watched them bust their humps all day in an effort to achieve what the company had said was important, all the while enduring poor systems and bad processes. By the end of each day, both men were spent – physically and emotionally. They had nothing left in the tank to go enjoy the rest of their lives with, and I, as Plant Manager, was solely responsible for that. I’d told them to hit a target that was nearly impossible to hit, yet they did so each and every day. The fact that they upheld our shipping metric during this time is a testament to their characters and constitutions, which to this day are two of the best I’ve ever had the honor of leading.

A month or so after the kaizen, Tony came to me and thanked me for what we had done. He told how he “wasn’t too sure this Lean stuff would work”, but had become a believer since the changes proved sustainable. He now had time to cross train on other equipment, so he gained some personal development that he’d been asking for for a while. Best of all, he said, was when he went home at the end of the day he didn’t feel like the only thing he had to look forward to was coming to work to barely make it again tomorrow.

That, folks, is what Lean and Respect for People is all about.