Entrepreneurs love solving problems. That’s what they’re good at doing. In fact, the more complex, difficult and messy the problem, the more the entrepreneur will enjoy the challenge. Entrepreneurs are especially good at solving problems that nobody knew were there. Think about Steve Jobs: He knew that we needed a pocket MP3 player before we even knew what it was.
While entrepreneurs are coming up with the next “big” thing, we need the non-entrepreneurs in our organizations focused on solving the small problems in our company with the same enthusiasm. Imagine if every one of your team members were consistently looking for opportunities to improve your systems, processes and service delivery. Those subtle changes made in the non-sexy parts of the business usually have the biggest impact on the bottom line.
This is a business concept called Lean, in which a company changes their processes to create the most benefit to the customer using the least amount of resources possible. Lean is commonly used in the manufacturing industry, but its principles can be used in any business to change the way of thinking and doing things.
I recently witnessed a great example of how Lean principles were used to improve one of my clients, LuminUltra – a leading provider of microbiological testing hardware, software and services. The company serves industries that need to know quickly and accurately what’s living in their water. At a recent quarterly planning session at the LuminUltra offices in Fredericton, Canada, COO Charlie Younger shared a powerful story about the company’s manufacturing facility and challenging the status quo.
During the expansion of the company’s manufacturing facility, one of the team members was lamenting to Charlie about how much time it took to complete a lengthy step of the manufacturing process – one specific quality check that was very time-consuming. He remarked that in the history of the company they never had a single machine fail the test. Charlie’s first thought was, do they even need to perform this specific test again?
After more discussion with colleagues, the team realized that the other quality checks performed earlier in the manufacturing process would always identify a defective unit. With this knowledge, the manufacturing team asked for permission to perform minimal testing to still provide assurance with less work. When presented with the information, the company leadership agreed that it was a great idea and would save time and money as well as improve the employee experience. But the bigger question was: Why hadn’t anyone ever questioned this lengthy step of the manufacturing process before?
Charlie, having run Lean programs in the past, has seen this issue before: People continue to do what they’ve always done even if they think there is a better way. He thought this would be a great opportunity to use a fun, simple but elegant technique to capture other status quo breakers – in other words, he decided to use the same principles for changing the company’s production process to make other company decisions.
With that, he posted a whiteboard in the manufacturing room with the title “What’s Dumb Around Here?” and encouraged team members to capture possible “dumb things” to add to it. These topics are discussed and vetted during their Lean process meetings to determine if they can be improved.
When I discussed the new process with Charlie, he noted, “First, you have to create an environment where people are willing to question the status quo. We have always been highly focused on quality and accuracy, so the team thought it was outrageous to openly question a quality check we had been performing for years.”
He continued, “You have to help your management team be open to receiving ideas that might seem crazy and not overreact to the suggestions. Instead, simply ask them to explain their logic. More often than not, the front line knows a better way to do things but does not know how to navigate the change. The beauty of using Lean techniques is that you now have an easy navigation path to discuss, approve and roll out changes. Suddenly, you have an energized front line solving problems with minimal involvement from management – how great is that?”
While LuminUltra continues to grow their product line and expand into new markets, it expects that its implementation of Lean principles will help it make subtle but important modifications to processes that will positively affect its bottom line. The CEO, Pat Whalen, remarked, “If we can produce our products faster and more cost effectively and get them into the hands of our customers faster, we can have an even bigger impact on the water sector with our microbiological monitoring products. I need all of our team members thinking how we can improve every single day. The water sector needs us.”
Every visionary, big-thinking entrepreneur needs a team that challenges the status quo. How are you encouraging your team members to identify, “What’s Dumb Around Here?”