Lean On This

One company's experience and lessons learned from implementing Lean in its warehouse operations


Over the past four years, I’ve had a privilege few logistics professionals get: teaching hundreds of people the ins and outs of quality improvement principles. Just as important, I’ve had a chance to see the extraordinary results they’ve been able to achieve when they’ve taken what they learned, shared it with their locations and put it into action.

These results aren’t nebulous – or negligible; their tangible savings have ranged from a few thousand dollars to more than a million (and counting).

They also aren’t unusual, because with the right resources and level of commitment, any company can make continuous improvement disciplines work equally hard for them.

Whether you’ve just begun contemplating a quality program or have already implemented one with only moderate success, I hope this “FAQ” about the early years of our program will provide you with a little high-quality inspiration of your own.

How did you decide which quality discipline to use?

As anyone who’s ever been involved in formal continuous improvement knows, there are several highly credible quality disciplines to choose from, including Lean, Six Sigma and JDI (Just Do It). But not every one is a perfect fit for every company.

After carefully weighing the pros and cons of several approaches, we elected to kick our program off with Lean because of the combination of structure and flexibility it offered. Like Six Sigma, it’s a highly quantitative discipline. However, it’s also considerably less data-intensive, which made it a far better option for our particular operations at the time.

Lean also offered the advantage of having shorter project timelines – three to six weeks – which meant our company’s teams could start generating positive results almost immediately. That was a big help in terms of getting quick buy-in throughout the company and the pay-it-forward funding we needed to train more teams.

Some might argue that we should have started with JDI (which we wound up adding to our initiative a couple of years later), since it’s even less data-intensive. But truthfully, I don’t think it would have been worked nearly as well for us if we hadn’t had a solid foundation of Lean to draw from first.

How did you decide whom to train?

When it comes to getting professionals trained in Lean, some companies think it’s best to train a handful of professionals from within their organizations and then let them manage projects on a go-forward basis. We preferred the more grassroots approach of training as many employees as possible and then letting those employees take charge of owning the process and training some of their fellow employees.

This “viral” methodology enabled us to train hundreds of people within our organization in a fairly short period of time, and that in turn enabled us to begin tackling more projects sooner. Viral training also enabled us to create considerably more continuous improvement experts and advocates than we otherwise would have had. And you can never have too many of those.

What did your training consist of?

As the training phase of APL Logistics’ program began, each facility going through our Lean training was instructed to identify a problem or challenge it wanted to address and create a team that would address it.

That team then attended an in-house workshop, where it used Lean tools to tackle the issue and find a solution. Afterwards, the team returned to work to put that solution into action.

Even though it would have been considerably faster for us to train teams using hypothetical scenarios or doing something simple like addressing the challenge of building a better paper airplane (which is what some companies prefer to do), we’re incredibly glad we chose the real-life, real-stakes approach because a) it was a good use of team members’ valuable time and b) it enabled the team to see that even though Lean tools seem cerebral, they’re actually highly practical – and applicable.

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