Lean 201, Part 2: How Curtis Lumber Embraced Lean Principles to Boost Its Operations

From ProSales. By Scott Morrison.

Lean principles include keeping tools organized and in designated spaces so they’ll be easy to find every time.

In part 1 of this series, I said making Lean principles stick requires you to promote two seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time: Promoting ideas and responsibility-taking from below while imposing principles and standards from above. Now let’s look at an example.

When working with clients to assemble a kaizen (continuous improvement) team that has been charged with identifying the root causes of a problem, I urge the client to pick people who know the current process but, more importantly, work hard within the process and want to improve it. A yard layout optimization project I did with Curtis Lumber in Plattsburgh, N.Y., illustrates the point.

One key team member was John Lavalley, the yard foreman. Lavalley has worked in the yard for 25-plus years. With some training and coaching, and by going on several walks through the yard, I got Lavalley’s critical input on what prevented trucks from getting out of the yards in a timely manner in the morning and then achieving fast turnarounds during the day.

I worked with Lavalley and the team to couple this information with Lean analytical tools like visual management (clear and precise labeling of inventory, traffic lanes, and storage locations), minimizing waste (placing supplies at point of use based on frequency and volume of usage), and single-piece flow/process smoothing (assigning specific zones for stagers and trucks). By relocating the highest frequency/volume materials and using a centrally located paved apron as the staging/loading area with dedicated zones for trucks, we reduced overall travel distances by 25%.

The Importance of Teamwork
Sometimes the first pass at beginning the 5S/Lean journey stalls. This can occur because the two sides aren’t aligned: Management pushes without confident receipt by the workforce, or the workforce gives 5S/Lean a start without bosses recognizing and reinforcing early effort.

You get improvement from teamwork, then you get improvement from individual effort, then you get improvement from teamwork … and so it continues.

Lean thinking revolves around a Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. Here, Lindsay LaRuffa, director of sales and operations for the central division at Curtis Lumber, confers with Bill Cairns, manager of Curtis’ facility in Delhi, N.Y.

At Curtis Lumber’s yard in Delhi, N.Y., Site Manager Bill Cairns and his staff have three corporate-driven Key Results to deliver: sales growth, profitability, and be the local employer of choice.

Curtis’ executive team created an environment for each of their locations to excel by establishing a set of personal accountability principles based on The Oz Principle: Getting Results Through Individual and Organizational Accountability. Everyone at Delhi is expected to look at each problem/issue from the perspective of “See It” (recognize a problem exists), “Own It” (take responsibility to determine the root cause of the problem), “Solve It” (formulate an appropriate corrective action), and “Do It” (take that corrective action).

Liz Irish, vice president of information systems, emphasizes, “We’re not focused on personal accountability to just drive change. We are focused on personal accountability to empower our employees to help us as an organization move to the next level via continuous improvement and, most importantly, drive and achieve our Key Results.”

These principles are a perfect fit with 5S/Lean. Lindsay LaRuffa, director of sales and operations for Curtis’ central division, says Yard Foreman Brian Utter and his team “really embraced the program, and what I see the most is that they have picked up the teamwork and ownership, but also creativity. Utter and Cairns have empowered the workers to take responsibility for improvement, and now every visit they challenge me to determine what’s new and what’s changed.”

Accountability chart at Curtis Lumber in Delhi, NY

Within the store, William Cash, senior counter salesperson, took over the daily improvements, allowing Cairns to go on the road extensively and focus on the Key Result of sales growth.

As the cultural change began, emphasizing the positive results and the people who drove those results convinced others to get on board. LaRuffa says others who were negative at first now embrace the change. Irish adds: “Employees are no longer settling for status quo; they jump in, take initiative, and assist in driving positive organizational change.”