Employees inside a truly “lean” enterprise don’t consider themselves production workers. They’re problem solvers. The reason they get paid each day isn’t to perform a specific task, but to improve a specific process.
Every small business owner or top-level manager out there shows up to work every day focused on getting the job done. You’d still be working for someone else if you didn’t have that basic drive. But the real question is figuring out what “getting the job done” actually means. Whether you own a sandwich shop, a pet shop or a body shop, you better know the answer. Let’s face it, there are only so many hours in a day, and success depends on how you spend them.
All good intentions aside, how much time do you really spend building your business versus dealing with the day-to-day issues? Start counting now. By the way, you can include the time you’re spending reading this article.
Done counting yet?
OK, so let’s face facts: We all know that if we didn’t deal with the bull$#! issues immediately, then we wouldn’t have any business left to work on. Or we’d have to spend even more money on staffing or training or management software or some other stuff that we can’t afford right now. It’s the proverbial catch-22.
And if you are one of the few lucky individuals who can steal some time to work on your business, what is it exactly that you should be doing? Is it focusing on growing new sales … improving efficiency … strengthening the dollars of your current sales … ?
Hold on. What if you take a completely different approach? What if you decide that you’re going to be in the business-building business? What if you come to work every day with the mission of building a better business? What if everyone who works there shares this same purpose? Is it possible to solve the day-to-day problems that keep you from getting better by sharing the responsibility – by making this everyone’s actual job?
Problem Solving 101
Look at how you solve problems in your shop today. For example, let’s say your accounts receivable is out of control – that it’s six times your weekly sales and cash flow is getting tight. What would you do to fix it? Well, the first thing you’d need to know is why. What is it about the way you work with your files that’s causing the problem? I’m sure you have a standard way it’s supposed to be done. It may or may not be written down, but everyone knows how you expect it to be done. Is it a problem with uploading finals to the insurer, are you not including all the required information before upload or are you just leaving them sit on someone’s desk too long after completion?
Now you could stop dealing with all the other daily issues to dig in and figure it out, or you could ask someone else to tell you what’s happening. Either way, someone is going to have to figure out what’s going wrong.
If you hire someone to figure out what’s wrong (like a consultant or your sister-in-law), they’d have to go and watch the actual work being done to discover the problem. Even if you were the person to figure it out, you’d probably have to process a couple of files to understand the problem.
So, if it’s someone’s job to find the problem, that person would also be observing or doing the actual work. But what’s more important to that person at that moment is finding out what’s wrong, not the work itself.
Let’s break this down:
A symptom exposes itself in your business, indicating a problem. In this case, the symptom is no cash in the bank. (Realize, the problem is not the lack of cash, something else caused that.)
You have to identify the problem (the cause) so it can be corrected.
The best way to find out what’s wrong is to watch or perform the work being done.
In this moment, discovering the problem in the work is more important than the work itself (yet the work is still being done). So who would be the best candidate to discover the problem? I think you’d be best served having an expert look at it, maybe someone who does that type of work day in and day out. Hmm … how about the person you’re paying to do the work right now? I’d say the person who has to do this job every day knows a hell of a lot more about the work than the manager does. I mean, this person does it every day, all day long.
The best people to discover the problems are the ones who actually do the work every day (the ones who you may think are actually causing them).
Enlist Your Employees as Process-Improvement Experts
So if the folks performing the work also have the answers to the problems, then why do we continually have to deal with issues that keep us from working on building a better business? The answer is simple: We ask our employees to help us build cars all day long, not help us build a better business. The very experts who could help us create something incredible are merely asked to fix cars and process files.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to hire people whose job responsibility is to discover better ways to work in the field they’re familiar with, rather than just have them practice their work? Obviously, they’d also have to practice their field (do the actual work) in order to discover what about it could be improved.
This is the side of a lean business that often goes unnoticed. You see, at the core of a lean enterprise is continual improvement. Problem solving has been passed down to the “shop floor” level and is the reason people come to work each day. Employees inside a truly “lean” enterprise don’t consider themselves production workers; they understand that they’re problem solvers. The reason they get paid each day isn’t to perform a specific task but to improve a specific process.
Think about it working this way: Each day when you come to work as an associate inside our “lean” organization, I need you to run this specific process we’ve designed. We’ve designed it so that a specific outcome should result (a certain amount of work, at a certain level of quality, with a certain amount of resources, in a certain amount of time). What I need you to do is this:
Perform these specific tasks of our process.
Monitor the actual performance of the process against the desired outcome.
Determine what area of the specific work is keeping you from achieving the desired outcome.
Modify the specific tasks (standard work) with the desired outcome in mind.
Continue doing this every day until you’ve achieved the desired outcome.
In this business model, there are no “lowly” workers. There are only process-improvement experts who perform the work in order to make the business better. The outcome is that all who work in the business are focused on improving the business. You’re now in the business of building a better business.
Think about how powerful that is. The people who perform the work are only performing the work to see if they can make it better. It’s where the focus is placed that counts. Why not turn your people (the experts in their respective fields) into improvement experts?
Making This Happen
You’re already paying people to do the work. Why not give them the tools to make the work better as they perform it? Why not change the focus for them from just performing it to figuring out how to improve it? How much more rewarding is this world for your employees? We’re all now working on building a world-class business versus working on building a car.
Now, granted, you can only do this if you have:
A standard way to do the work.
A process that flows work from step-to-step at a specific time (the interdependent and connected flow described in May’s Lean & Mean).
An entire, whole process built around delivering the results the customer wants (value-added activities without waste as described in April’s Lean & Mean).
Now you have the key ingredients – a system that expects a defined outcome. A specific time to do it in, and a specific way to do it. And when it doesn’t happen as expected, you can go fix the exact thing that’s getting in your way. No guessing. And by the way, if you do fix it, you’ll have measurable improvement in your overall business.
Most people look at a lean business and just see the lean tools: visual systems posting information about what and where work is happening, clean and organized shop floors, and flow lines where product moves in an orderly fashion from step to step. The truth is, good ol’ Hank Ford figured that stuff out decades ago. Lean isn’t an assembly line or a production process. It’s a complete and completely different business philosophy.
Often we’re asked where someone can go to learn to become a better business manager – where to learn more about business before making this jump to a lean model. The truth is that lean is the business manager. Lean is a comprehensive way of thinking about your business that’s forever focused on getting better. It’s built around the theory that waste in your business is the root of all your problems and that eliminating it makes the results better for everyone.
Where We’re At, Where We’re Headed
Here’s a recap of what you should know so far:
All the work that you do must be strictly built around serving the customer.
— Know who your customer is.
— Know what he wants from you.
— Stop doing everything that doesn’t serve these needs. (It’s waste.)
You must stop gauging your business’s performance around individual measurements (like parts or labor gross profits). Only the overall performance of the business means anything – the cost of a component is always subordinate to its effect on the overall system.
Waste is the root of all your problems. Know what waste is and learn how to see it in your business.
“Value” is what we should be producing. It’s the stuff that our customer is requesting from us. It’s the opposite of waste.
Creating continuous flow throughout the business is the way to eliminate waste in the business.
And now, everyone’s new job will be to figure out how to improve their step of the process (eliminate the waste) while they work.
Hopefully you’re gaining a better understanding of “lean” through these articles. You also might want to go back and re-read the prior articles as a refresher. And, as always, feel free to contact me with any questions. Until next month, good luck.
Contributing editor John Sweigart is a principal partner in The Body Shop @ (www.thebodyshop-at.com). Along with his business partner, Brad Sullivan, they own and operate collision repair shops inside new car dealerships, as well as consult to the industry. Sweigart has spent 21 years in the collision repair industry and has done everything from being an independent shop owner to a dealership shop manager to a store, regional and, ultimately, national director of operations for Sterling Collision Centers. Both Sweigart and Sullivan have worked closely with former manufacturing executives from Federal-Mogul, Morton Thiokol and Pratt & Whitney in understanding and implementing the principles of the Toyota Production System. You can e-mail Sweigart at Jsweigart@ thebodyshop-at.com.
Comments? Fax them to (330) 670-0874 or e-mail them to BSB editor Georgina K. Carson at [email protected].