What it means to be lean in my daily routine

The author and shop owner has applied lean business practices to how he manages employees, suppliers, subcontractors and clients with good results
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A typical morning:

7:03 a.m. – The smell of coffee fills the room as the golden brown espresso flows into the two-shot measuring cup. I’m running a little late for the start of our busy day, but everything tends to work itself out. I head out to the shop and my guy is going through his early morning ritual of transitioning from pleasure to work. A few minutes are spent dancing around pleasantries and positioning for what we know the day ahead brings.

7:11 a.m. – We both get comfortable and begin chatting about football game highlights, some local news or generalized banter that reminds us we are both humans with real needs beyond the work environment.

I read a book years ago written by a general contractor who extolled the virtues of taking control of the day, every work day, by establishing a rallying point that he could focus on first before facing the rigors of the work day ahead.

I have discovered in the many years of business the importance of not losing ourselves (or our employees) in the stressful demands of running an operation. It’s too easy to get absorbed in the pressing needs that are always going to be there. A key thing to remember about business is that it will forever have needs, every day. Knowing and accepting that right off the bat should help in managing its unwieldy demands. A business is like a leech, it latches on to your body and attempts to suck out your lifeblood. Clients, employees, finances, tools, education, the whole gamut of problems and issues that a business feeds on will constantly be there to taunt and test your resolve. Is running a business all about obediently tending to these needs as a servant without freedom, or should we revolt against this system of alleged slave-like treatment and find a better approach?

7:26 a.m. – Our discussion naturally flows towards the work of the day along with our routine of reviewing the scheduled workweek ahead. There will often be an overview covering all our projects in the queue as a reminder of what the overall company responsibilities, commitments and goals are. Mandatory during this time is to brainstorm new ideas to improve our current system. This could include things like:

  • Improvements and/or new ideas regarding fabrication or installation techniques
  • The need for an upgraded or new tool
  • How to better manage subcontractors

Essentially, we are attempting to make ourselves better every day. It’s not enough to find a system or technique that works, we are all about trying to improve whatever we are currently doing. The saying, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it”, can carry a lot of weight. However, if you adopt that attitude with wholesale conviction, you’ll shut out the ability of employees or even yourself to become more involved in the process of improvement. Simply following a return-on-investment recipe that includes the standard ingredients of a great business plan, money and labor, is not enough. You must keep the primary focus on the human side of business which encourages an all-inclusive forum of ideas. This has more value and rewards than immersing oneself solely in the inanimate nuts and bolts. Emphasizing the importance of a people-centered business will yield a higher level of sustainability and profit.

7:48 a.m. –  We’re getting close to the end of our lean meeting. I always try to keep them around 30 minutes, but some days are more and others less.

You must be flexible in running a small business, especially in the area of time management. Most books and studies regarding time management revolve around large businesses with hundreds of employees. When you’re managing that many bodies the rules of time engagement change. In order to keep the masses corralled, you have to have regimented time slots for everything; breaks, meetings, start and ending times, etc. Without specific order the company storehouse can easily be siphoned.

It doesn’t necessarily work the same way with a small company. Consider this: If you were to attend a 16-hour class on veneering taught by a master of the technique, how much different would your experience be if the class size was 500 compared to five? Even though the material, technique and instructor are all the same, the knowledge you leave with would be completely different. Small companies are more intimate and personal, regimented protocols are not always effective.

Next, we move into a discussion about current and past clients. It’s a good exercise that keeps us centered as a team. Everyone has a different threshold of tolerance when working with different people. And depending on your title and responsibility in the company, you will be treated differently by the client. That’s why it’s so important to discuss the feelings and opinions of current clients. Your company, suppliers and subcontractors are all on one team. So, it’s also important to communicate the issues and resolve of the people you are working for, with the people you are working with. Again, not everyone sees everything the same, so a safe and open forum allows differences and potential problems to be resolved before they explode.

Lean concepts

I’ve been studying lean business practices for a number of years and have found tremendous success in implementing the philosophy in my business. Although I’m not religious about it, the amount of waste that can be eliminated with some of the most basic ideas is astounding. I’ve taken the lean concept a step further and applied it to people management.

Implementing lean ideas as it pertains to employees is the logical first step, but it also must extend to suppliers, subcontractors and clients. Basically, any person that has a part in the success or failure of your business.

In its most basic form, lean is the idea of finding better and more efficient ways of doing a specific task. To implement lean in your business, all your employees must buy into the concept or it will be difficult to realize the true fruit it offers.

When I speak of lean as it pertains to people management, I’m not referring to the task of teaching employees how to become more efficient in their work, I’m talking about how you as a manager better treat them as a person. The more ways a manager finds to edify the people under his or her charge (and continually strives to improve upon them), the more efficient that employee will become, regardless of whether lean concepts are taught in the company or not.

Making people your priority makes managing them leaner because you cut away the “fat” of uncertainty that a person may have regarding the value they hold in the company. Accentuating the human element (lean and to the point), eliminates the dance employees have to do to show worth, and puts them right on track to do the work they’re hired to do. The same principle works with suppliers, subs and clients. Don’t put the cart before the horse, people first, task second.

David Getts

David Getts

For more information on the practical application of lean concepts, visit www.paulakers.net.

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue.

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