2018, Volume 3, Issue 3 - Winter 2018

The real hurdles of implementing lean across a virtual team

By David Fritz

There is book by Art Byrne called The LEAN Turnaround in which the author reveals that 95 – 97 per cent of businesses fail when attempting to implement lean. There is not a fully deployed corporate strategy for lean at Supreme Steel. Since Byrne is evaluating success at the enterprise-wide level, our company would probably be lumped into that group of failures.

Categorizing our lean journey that way, however, would be a major misrepresentation. We have experienced many successes when applying lean principles and tools that can and should be celebrated. I reject the notion that lean is an ‘all or nothing’ proposition.

Everything in life is a process — from brushing your teeth to making your morning coffee. Contained in every process is an abundance of the eight different kinds of waste. For this reason, I encourage our team members to learn to see the waste in their processes and then eliminate it by making small improvements. That said, always start with yourself! We individually have enough waste for 10 lifetimes. There is no need to look at everyone else when you have plenty of room for improvement.

Supreme Steel is the largest privately-owned steel fabricator and erector in Canada. Headquartered in Acheson, Alberta, we employ approximately 800 people. Two years ago, our parent entity, Supreme Group, underwent a restructuring that essentially evolved us from eight separate companies into one business with virtual teams focused on project delivery with excellence. During this same time, while working as a project manager, I was teaching lean sessions throughout our company’s facilities in both Canada and the U.S. Great operational improvements were discovered as a result, and the success of the program was a contributing factor to my transition into the role of director of project solutions. In this new capacity, I had inherited an incredible team, and we had one mission: To win work.

Working as a virtual team was new to us. I wasn’t sure where to start. Everyone was doing everything differently. There was no standardization, no defined processes, and no focus on lean. Our team had to figure out how to apply lean principles to our work in a virtual environment.

Searching for answers, I contacted Paul Akers, who replied to me with this note: “Your virtual team problem, in my opinion, is not an issue. You just need to be creative. It’s totally doable. People do it all the time. Giving you the answer would not solve your problem.”

He was right. Having none of the answers forced us to rely upon the principles we already knew — first and foremost: Everything is a process, and in every process is waste.

Shortly after the exchange with Paul, our Project Solutions Team got together for a weeklong session (which we dubbed the Project Solutions Summit), where we discussed lean principles and lean problem-solving methodology. We discovered how to see waste in our virtual environment. As a team, we discussed which processes were causing our biggest problems, and then we jumped in and started to develop solutions.

All the decision-makers were in the room. That led to accountability being taken, and actions being informed. The outcomes of that summit included: The standardization of our templates and forms (without standards, we couldn’t make progress); the 5S of our file structure (again, standardization in this space would allow us to mine for data); and, the creation of a virtual daily huddle. Using the daily huddle as a staple of our routine drove us to become a true team, and establish a regular forum to share small daily improvements.

Lean is often deployed as a cost-saving initiative. But what is often missed is how it can greatly improve customer experience. We used lean in this way to help us achieve our primary goal of ‘winning work’ for Supreme. This enhanced customer experience at the front end led to greater (and quicker) earned trust and, subsequently, more work. In the 12 months following the summit, our proposal success rate (or win rate) went from five per cent to 26 per cent, we tendered an unprecedented number of projects with no additional resources, and — most importantly — we filled all our shops with work.

Our team is very proud of the improvements we’ve made over the last year. We fully recognize, though, we still have a long way to go in terms of process excellence. We’ve found that some of our ‘simple’ improvements turned out to be very difficult to deploy. Standardizing our tools has been, by far, the most challenging. Some of our veteran staff have been estimating projects the same way for 40 years. We are trying our best to capture their knowledge and intuition with our tools to help guide decision-making for younger estimators, yet this remains a challenge.

I think it is equally important to recognize what hasn’t worked with the same enthusiasm as what has. Along our journey, we regularly found ourselves questioning if the changes we were making were the right ones. We made plenty of mistakes, but we also never dwelled on them. We dusted ourselves off, modified our approach when necessary, and tried again. We were open and honest about our hurdles, and removed the negative connotation from the word problem, since a problem simply means an opportunity for improvement.

Hindsight being 50-50, there were three big mistakes I made that I encourage others embarking on a lean journey to learn from and avoid:

Off the top: I tried to solve problems on my own. Once we provided training and clear objectives to our team, we struck gold and improved lightyears. But it took me letting go and trusting those around me.

Second, I initially didn’t practice what I was preaching. I personally have plenty of waste in my own daily processes, yet that didn’t stop me from pointing out other peoples’ waste for them. Trust me: Starting with yourself will become contagious.

Finally, I made excuses and waited for someone to tell me when to start implementing lean. I thought that lean needed to start at the top, and that left me with an excuse for not applying lean to my work. Don’t take an easy out like that. Start today. Make one small improvement before you clock out.

David Fritz is the director of project solutions for Supreme Steel, and is a certified Lean Black Belt practitioner.