Tim Keran – Owner, Altus Business Advisors, St. Paul, MN

Tim has 25+ years of executive management experience and has been on his own personal continuous improvement journey since 1987.  Altus is a business improvement company.  Prior to Altus, Tim owned Western Graphics, a 50 employee, general commercial printing company.   He focused on building a fun, rewarding and winning work culture.  Western was a seven time winner of PIA’s Best Workplace in the Americas and won the prestigious Manufacturer of the Year and Best Lean Culture awards from the Manufacturers Alliance.

I worked at Western Graphics for twenty nine years and owned it for the last fifteen years.  One of our most significance successes in all of that time was that we never came off our continuous improvement journey since we implemented lean in the summer of 2007.

To me, sustaining a continuous improvement or lean journey is the hardest part of this goal of becoming a leaner company.  After talking with many people involved in the lean community there are a common list of what knocks companies off their quest.

The most likely culprits are:

  • Change in lean leadership
  • Acquisition or divestiture
  • Change in senior leadership
  • Economic downturn
  • ERP implementation

But, why would something so successful and valuable as lean get shown the door when a major change happens?  Many would argue that lean is even more valuable when tough times appear.

I believe the reason lean isn’t sustainable during one of the changes noted above is simply that lean isn’t in the culture of the company.  It is still in the company’s process toolbox and has not been interwoven into the operating fabric of how the company does business- regardless of what ups and downs it encounters.


One of the lucky things that happened at Western was that we started lean in the summer right before the Great Recession began in December of 2007.  We decided if we couldn’t get bigger, we certainly could get better.  It became doubly important to our future because we were in one of the toughest industries, commercial printing, that was going through its own systemic change during those next nineteen months of the recession.

We used three strategies at Western to get lean out of the toolbox and into our culture.  They were:

  1. Get Everyone Involved
  2. Make Getting Better Fun, Make it a Game
  3. Communicate and Connect the Dots


Another lucky break was how we started our lean journey.  We decided to start with a Red Tag 5S Event where everyone in the company would participate in the biggest spring cleaning project in our history.  When we were done 6 weeks later, we had put over 250 yards of stuff in the dumpsters.  We had another 200 yards of leftover equipment, furniture, and supplies that we auctioned off to employees.


Everyone was energized and involved.  At the next company picnic, I had spouses coming up to me and telling me that their garages, closets and basements had never been so clean and organized.  By starting off our lean journey with everyone participating, we had accidentally gotten the momentum moving in our favor.

Another early move we made was to move lean out of the executive’s hands and give it to the departments.  It was their job to decide on what they were going to measure and track and how they were going to attack the goal of getting better on a daily basis.  The only requirement was that they had to have a daily huddle, a tracking scorecard and documented improvements.  We didn’t count ideas, only improvements counted.  The reason is ideas are a dime a dozen.  Our outside janitorial service could have told you what we needed to improve on.  Counting improvements also has the added benefit of requiring people to take care of their own areas first instead of writing up ideas for what everyone else needs to change.


We had fun in the first year of our journey.   We went to the smorgasbord of the lean tool buffet line and began trying things like 5S, Value Stream Mapping, Kaizen Events, Visual Controls, A3’s and many others.  We kept what worked and parked the ones that didn’t seem to fit our culture or give us energy.


We noticed pretty quickly though that the tools didn’t seem like they were culture building.  We read a quote from Tim Kastelle that said, “Tools don’t solve problems, people do.”

We also read a Gallup poll that said 73% of employees are either non-engaged or actively disengaged.  This confirmed that what we were noticing was true- that the continuous improvement problem is a people problem.


Another confirmation of getting everyone involved happened when we did our first spaghetti diagram.  A spaghetti diagram (my favorite lean tool) tracks the movement or steps a person or department physically goes through to make good parts or service from their area.  Nothing is more sobering than seeing all of the non-value added steps we have created in a process visually illustrated.  If you’ve ever needed thin skin in business, this is the time you need it.  I viewed the   diagram on our press setup standard work then called a time out to replace all of the pencils I snapped.  When we reconvened, it dawned on us that the only people qualified to fix and prune back the overgrowth of a process was not us, the executive team nor supervisors. It was going to have to be done by the employees who actually did the work.  It took us right back to the success of strategy #1, Get Everyone Involved. And, it worked!

Average Time To Complete Press Make Ready:
Before: 70 Minutes
After:28 Minutes


To Be Continued: Tim has promised to write more of this story when he returns from mountain climbing in Nepal!

The entire article will be published later this year in an ebook being compiled by the Manufacturers Alliance.

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