It’s hard to believe I’ve spent twenty years in the automotive industry. For the last eight, I’ve held senior leadership positions in: Logistics, Material Planning, Trucking, Internal Material flow, Engineering, Maintenance, and Operations.  And I never had a clue what I was doing.

We had started doing great things before the financial crisis of 2008.  We were transforming the way we ran our business and securing our future.  We began implementing Visual Management, 24 hour boards, and 5S.  We had even formed a continuous improvement team working on kaizens!

And what did we do when times got tough?  We redeployed all those people and soon after we stopped improving.  Now, we have a great company, driven by innovation, and doing what it takes when times get tough.  We rebuilt and we came back from the most difficult of times.   It was not lean, it was survival, driven by desperation.

In 2010, we charted a new course under a new leader.  We focused our efforts on getting quality right the first time.  The impact was nothing short of transformative.  It was almost unbelievable to those of us that had the privilege of being on the front lines.  We became profitable once again!  This was just a taste of what a future based on lean principles could be.

We are a good company and we know it.  It’s our biggest problem and the most significant roadblock on our lean journey.  I am talking about becoming a world class lean organization.  When you are told you are good and you believe it, you will never achieve greatness.  Humility is the key.

Everyone likes to talk about lean.  I have met many people that can speak it, but I know few that can really make the rubber hit the road.  In my quest to improve, I hired a supervisor with great lean knowledge and experience.  I was so excited to learn from him and help us chart a different course. We gave him one cell to create a laboratory we could learn from.  It was a disaster.  A complete disaster.  He resigned, and we once again gave up on lean.

Six months ago, I received my performance review. I was told to figure out the next thing for my department.  So I embarked on a benchmarking tour.  I reached out to all kinds of contacts, went all over North America to different plants. When I was there, I listened.   Trying to understand what really works.  During that time, I was also reading a book about every two weeks.  When I finished a book, I wrote a one pager for myself, to pick out the one thing that could help our team.

Then… POW!  One day, I just got it.  Like a slap shot in hockey, once you get it, you can’t keep the puck down.  I am Canadian, eh?  It was like I could finally see the light.

They say, when the student is ready to learn, the teacher will appear.  And that’s what happened to me.  A colleague of mine, who is a lean geek, (he actually embraces the term) showed up ready to help me!  This lean thing is addictive.  Once you get it, you will never be the same.

His words resonated with me, “I don’t care what made you get it, I am just happy that you did.”  People that get lean have no judgment and only want to share the knowledge.  Vulnerability is not only accepted, it is required to really get it.  This guy used to write articles on lean, but had not written anything in ten years.  I asked him why, and his answer was simple and without wasted words. “We have not done anything worthy to write about.”  I said, “Paul, that is about to change.  Let’s do this.”

So where are we today? We are only at the beginning of our journey.  This journey has no end and to be successful, it must become a way of life.  I have the honour of leading a team of over two hundred and fifty people and they are ready for change.  Here’s how we started.

We began with one manufacturing process with fifteen production team members per shift.  The line was operational over three shifts.  When Paul came over and saw what we were doing, his first comment was, “You started too big!” Guess what?  He was right!  We have narrowed our focus in order to develop a world class ‘station.’ We will follow this small step with another.  We won’t stop because we can’t.

Standardized work is the cornerstone of what we are building.  We thought we had standardized work, when in fact, we were clueless.  How can you improve when there is no clear standard?  Now that we have one station with a standard, the ideas are flowing in.  Work is fun once again.

It has been the most exhilarating time in my career.  The team is pumped and full of energy.  I have never been so confident that we are doing the right things.  We have won a new contract and are adding new jobs at the plant.  To celebrate, we invited the media in for a publicity event.  Our General Manager led them on a tour of our plant.  The station the team had been working on ended up on the news!  How can you get any more exposure than that?  I walked in the door today, and one of our long term employees stopped me.  He watched the story on the news with his family.  He felt such pride to be able to tell them that this was an improvement project he was working on.  This was a significant emotional event for both us and confirmed we are on the right path.

Positive energy is transformational.  I want to share this journey with you so we can all understand simple ways to build a better business.  A business where our people are moving towards a better future, together. I can’t wait to share more ideas in future stories.  Let us never dwell on the negative.  Let’s change the world for the better!