When lean meets community, everyone wins

By Carrie Schroeder. 

Lean is a journey, not a destination. It requires enterprise-wide commitment and a long-term vision to identify and solve problems, learn from those experiences, and institutionalize a culture of continuous improvement. Leadership is key, yet teamwork is fundamental.

Although recognizing there is always an opportunity to do better will get you into the game, nurturing high-performing teams is what will earn you the win.

Being part of a strong team is hard work. Egos must be checked at the door, humility sewn, and self-assessment practiced regularly. All players must foster an environment of trust, where healthy conflict challenges the status quo, while — at the same time — celebrating successes and helping one another reach their potential.

World-class lean companies have refined this engagement down to a science. Each Toyota employee averages close to 50 suggestions for improvement annually — roughly one per week.

Celebrating accomplishments, however, is equally important. Lean should not be a daily grind; it should instead be a constant reminder to ask questions. Can we do this better? What can we improve? How can we keep this from happening again? How do we change the process to better communicate? Sometimes, the focus on transformative improvement is so prominent, we fall short on celebrating many incremental successes achieved by the team along the way.

Of course, a one-size-fits-all approach to recognition and reward is nowhere near as powerful without meaningful activities driven by employees. Providing your staff with opportunities to celebrate together and grow both personally and as a group accelerates return on your lean investment.

Community-based initiatives, through group volunteerism or assisting local causes, is one way the top-tier lean organizations are supplementing their internal efforts.

Leaders have a social responsibility to leverage their position of influence to ignite a positive change in the world — and to empower their employees to do the same. Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Have you ever considered the impact your team could have in your community? How could your team apply its lean knowledge for the greater good? Who could we teach basic lean principles to that would benefit our society?

The Toyota Production System (TPS) is based on the idea that “the summation of many, many small, cheap improvements can have a big impact.” Jamie Bonini, vice president of the Toyota Production System Support Centre, or TSSC, a not-for-profit entity mandated to assist small industrial and not-for-profit organizations with TPS implementation, explains, “These basic principles of the Toyota Production System apply to any kind of process — it doesn’t have to be manufacturing.”

Remember Hurricane Sandy back in 2012? In one of the hardest hit areas in New York, volunteers at the food bank struggled to distribute provisions quickly enough to families in critical need. The volunteers were frustrated, disappointed, and yearned to do more. They had an abundance of supplies, but lacked the resources to match output with the demand.

TSSC answered the call. By using simple lean principles, the team was able to optimize the size of the boxes to pack more in the delivery truck. They reconfigured the layout of the warehouse, decreasing the time to pack a box of food from three minutes to 11 seconds, and streamlined the distribution process on-site. When all the improvements were implemented, the team consistently delivered food to 400 families in half the time — a triumph captured in the short, Toyota-produced YouTube video, Meals Per Hour.

Closer to home, Winnipeg-based Boeing Canada Operations Ltd. — recipient of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters’ 2015 Community Contribution Award — has demonstrated that same spirit. Boeing dispatched their lean team to help Siloam Mission, an inner-city organization that addresses homelessness and people in crisis, to help volunteers organize donated goods, maximize storage space, and increase the efficiency of service delivery.

According to Judy Richichi, director of major gifts and corporate relations for Siloam Mission, “The cost of having that many engineers and that many staff come in and redesign our basement — we could never have afforded to pay for it. We could not have done it without them. As a matter of fact, we wouldn’t have had the skill sets or talent to even think about doing it.” What a proud moment for the Boeing team!

But these contributions are not the sole province of large multinationals. Many Prairie manufacturers, big and small, have the aptitude to apply lean outside the factory floor. And we are seeing that in the advancement of lean in healthcare, education, government, and other service sectors. Can we improve the process for soccer registration at the local community centre? Can we help the seniors’ care home serve meals more efficiently to their residents? Can we lend a hand to the nearby soup kitchen to save money on food collection and processing? These are questions we can help address as lean manufacturers.

The answers to these questions can also yield major reward for your employees that cake and coffee in the breakroom cannot touch. The result: An engaged workforce, a better community, and a stronger business.

It all starts with a conversation. Have yours today.

Carrie Schroeder is a former lean facilitator and the current operations manager with Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters in Manitoba.