It may seem strange that a warehouse would remind me of a book that centered on fly fishing, but that was the case when I toured Menlo Worldwide's warehouse near Chicago while preparing this month's story on lean logistics.
The book, A River Runs Through It, is a semi-autobiographical story by Norman McLean. The early pages describe how the main character and his brother learned the art of fly fishing from their father. But what came to mind as I toured the warehouse was a passage in which the boys' father taught them about writing. He would give them a writing assignment, and then, when it was completed, ask them to rewrite the piece at half the length. Then he would have them do it again. He was teaching them to find the precise words to tell their stories clearly—not necessarily in a terse way, but with nothing extra, nothing wasted.
So it is in a lean distribution operation. The men and women working in that warehouse—managers and hourly employees alike—seek out the waste in everything they do, eliminate it, and then do it again.
The idea is not a new one. Toyota made the process of continuous improvement an obsession decades ago in manufacturing, and lean concepts have slowly expanded to processes beyond the production line. What makes it tough for people to accept, I think, is the deceptive simplicity of the process: See something wrong, stop everything, fix it, change the process so it doesn't happen again, and start up once more. But investigate further, and you see that improvements are actually born of expertise applied with concentrated effort, with intense attention to every detail. To borrow another writing parallel, this time about the effort required to distill a thought to its essence: Mark Twain once apologized to a friend for writing such a long letter. He regretted, he said, that he didn't have time to write a shorter one. It takes great effort to produce an easy read or waste-free process. That's a hard lesson to learn for writers and for businesses trying to go lean.
James Womack, the author who has helped spread the word on lean in the United States, tells a story about two manufacturing plants designed for lean processes. In one, the manager frets when workers are not shutting the production line down. In the other, the manager frets when workers do stop the line because it might mean missing a short-term production goal. The first understands the source of improvement. The second fails to grasp that factories and DCs, like good stories, only get better in the editing.