Paper, Wood, Metal

 This simple progression is one impetus for moving forward on the lean journey —or the life journey. 


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First paper, then wood and finally metal. According to Scott Simmons at Climax Portable Machine Tools (see the article Machining Reimagined), this is how the company implements many of its lean manufacturing ideas. When I visited the shop last summer, he showed me examples of kanban stations that were made mostly of paper and cardboard because their format was still being developed and refined. As Scott explained to me, initial lean efforts are usually tried out in inexpensive, easy-to-work-with materials. That way changes and improvements can be made with little hesitation.

Later, when the design or configuration seemed to be working well, he told me that the shop would construct a revised version in plywood or another sturdy material for fuller testing and perhaps additional improvement. After this prove-out period, the shop might finally fabricate a "permanent" version in materials made to last. Tool racks or point-of-use storage units that started out in wood might be "finalized" in sheet metal or plate.

Although this topic wasn’t the main focus of my tour, I’ve thought about it a lot since then. It’s led me to some useful insights that I keep in mind when confronted with change or the need to try something new. These insights have helped me organize better responses to life’s challenges and opportunities.

For example, each of the paper, wood and metal phases has its own characteristic outlook or attitude that is suited for its particular kind of progress. I call them the Comfortable, the Confident and the Committed. It goes something like this: When giving something new a try, you have to be comfortable with maybe not getting it right the first time (the paper phase). You have to be ready to firm things up when confident that they are working or you’re on the right track (the wood phase). Finally, you have to be committed by following up with decisive action (the metal phase).

The first phase has to be comfortable. It is easier to jump in when risks are manageable. You don’t want fear or doubt to keep you or your project partners from trying. The key is to get started. Expect failure and messiness, but count on countering them with fixes and cleanups.

Confident is the word for the next phase. As things take shape and you get surer of the outcome, then transition out of the tentative, trial-and-error, learn-as-you-go period. The key is to keep moving. Implement the good-enough. Don’t let perfectionist tendencies stall your progress.

The committed phase is just that—there is a time to act decisively, follow through and establish the disciplines that sustain the accomplishment. Lock in the progress you’ve made. Be sure to finalize it and move on.

This new year will likely be a trying, challenging one. I’m resolving to handle what lies ahead with a can-do, paper-wood-metal approach. I’ll look for ways to stay comfortable with change and be at ease with disruption. I’ll be more confident about taking next steps and maintaining momentum. I’ll work harder at making things stick because, in the end, I’m commited to the long haul.