My Lean Transformation

”How many segments does an earthworm have?”

That question from the veterinary school’s entrance exam still haunts me. Who takes an earthworm to a veterinarian? I failed the test. My brain is not wired to store and retrieve data. It was little consolation at the time that I aced the reading comprehension and problem solving portions of the exam.

Ironically, my science degree led to a quality assurance position at a pet food plant. The job was to segregate questionable product out of the endless stream of product, sample, test, and report findings to management. When things were running well, which was most of the time, I had five minutes of work per hour. At first, the job was awesome. Someone was paying me well to play cards all night. However, a guy can only play five hours of pitch five days a week for a few years before it becomes monotonous. Although many would covet a job like this, boredom made this job a nightmare for me.

Many unhappy months followed; mostly spent watching the second hand on the clock. Each night dragged on and on. The lack of long term memory kept me from seeking a more technical lab job. Then, finally, at my lowest moment, I saw it!

At first glance, it appeared someone brought their yearbook to work. Never seen a catalog with a hard cover. The pages were heavier and glossier than you would expect. Four to six products were artistically displayed on a page. As with the catalog, the merchandise was high quality. The same quality level the company desired. The company would give points for each accepted suggestion that could be used to obtain merchandise.

A forklift almost hit me. For some reason, a safety mirror wasn’t added to this blind corner. My first accepted suggestion yielded 5,000 points. Very few items could be purchased with the minimum award of 5,000 points. The fishing pole I coveted was 20,000 points. I challenged myself to earn those additional points. Progress was slow. Eventually, I learned every problem irritates someone: employee, customer, supplier, etc. If I seek irritated people, I would find problems. Once a problem was identified, finding a solution was easy. A new door to facilitate access to a rooftop thermometer gave me enough points to get the best fishing rod I have ever owned. Soon, new boots and a wall clock found their way to my house.

The atta boy letters that accompanied the points award checks were too pretty to throw away. One day, I noticed I had collected quite a few of them. This is when my goal changed from obtaining merchandise to averaging one improvement per month.

This challenging goal pushed me to my limit. After five years on the job, I was finally motivated to read the voluminous quality assurance manual and the product specification manuals. I looked for trends in reams of consumer complaints. I listened to anyone with a problem. In three years, I initiated forty-two improvements. Only a couple of my suggestions were rejected. One of those rejected, using an incident journal for each machine, was a subject in one of my future MBA classes. The procedure of comparing machine data to customer feedback reveals the optimal machine settings/procedures.

Although I still collected pots and pans, dishes, utensils, a rifle, the most comfortable robe I have ever worn and toys for a children’s shelter, I would have initiated the improvements without the merchandise and did so with other companies. I learned most front line employees are open to lean.

What’s your lean transformation story?

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