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Embrace Continuous Learning in a Deliberate Fashion

Posted by Maggie Millard

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Sep 4, 2014 8:11:00 PM



Read the previous post in this series

Successful business leaders today are faced with mounting pressures of changing consumer demands, quality and safety requirements, and employee expectations. To see how some executives are enabling their organizations to stay relevant, survive, and grow, we're beginning a new blog series in which we'll interview executive leadership in various industry sectors and ask about the challenges they face and what they're doing to rise to the occasion. 

In this post, KaiNexus VP of Customer Success Mark Graban interviews Paul Akers, President of FastCapa company in Washington. 

Mark: Hi, Paul. Thanks for talking to us today. How are you?

Paul: Very good, Mark; always good to talk to you.

Mark: For people who might not be familiar with you and your company FastCap, can you introduce yourself and your business? A little bit of background on you.

Paul: Well first of all, we’re Lean maniacs, and then we’re a product development company that happens to make woodworking tools and equipment. We always say that it wouldn’t matter what we were doing. We’d be wildly successful because we’d first approach everything through the filter of lean and then we’d do what we’d have to do, and that seems to solve ninety-nine percent of all of our problems.

My background is that I was a woodworker, a general contractor; I developed a simple product called a FastCap. That product grew, and today we have about 700 products in about forty countries, and we’re just a really fun, interesting, different kind of company that develops lean solutions for woodworkers.

Mark: Yeah, and we see pictured behind you and illustration or your lean journey. I mean, the company started and then you discovered lean, even though you describe yourselves as lean maniacs.

Paul: That’s right.

Mark: What got you introduced to lean and continuous improvement and Kaizen?

Paul: Well, I think the important thing to know about that story – and that’s actually not my lean journey [gestures to illustration behind him]; that’s Walters and Wolf, a company that we taught lean to. 900 union employees and in one year they made over 2000 improvement videos, and they made lean fun, and think about their union, and they made this really cool lean journey, and I’m so proud of them that they made a copy of it and I hung it up in our conference room. So it’s really about them and it’s really cool.

Mark: Oh, I see up there it says “Paul Akers,” so that’s how they got started.

Paul: Yeah, that’s how they got started. They read the book and then taught all 900 of their employees, imagine thousands of videos – I think they’re up to 3000 now, a year and a half later. And they have the most incredible culture I’ve ever seen; they’re the best lean example to date.

Mark: Wow. And your book is 2 Second Lean, and a lot of that is focused on what it says up there – “fix what bugs you.” Show people your t-shirt.

Paul: Yeah, my shirt. So my employees made me a shirt that says “Step 1: Fix, Step 2: It.” There’s a great Saturday Night spoof video on this guy who’s talking about how to fix the economy and everything, and he says “It’s really simple! Step one: fix; step two: it.” So whenever I speak in front of people I play that Saturday Night clip.

Really, lean is so simple. There’s so many bad processes surrounding everything we do every day, and if people would just stop and fix it instead of tolerating them again they’d solve ninety-nine percent of their problems. So that’s what we basically teach, and it’s fun, it’s easy, and everyone understands it.

Mark: So one of the themes in this interview series is “What keeps you up at night.” On that note was there something keeping you up at night that you needed to fix, that lean and this culture is helping you fix?

Paul: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we had this interesting lean journey because we didn’t have a burning platform – we had this amazing company before lean that was making lots of money, doing really great, having lots of credibility, everyone was writing about us saying “Are you going to go public? Can we buy into your company?” You know, that whole nine yards. But the truth of the matter was I was struggling with managing the company, managing employees, dealing with all the issues, but from the outside it looked perfect. We had banks come in that said “We’ll give you all the money you want;” everything was going right – we won business of the year.

But I knew there was just so much struggle in everything I did and I wanted to make it better, so I was always searching and reading books – I read Good To Great, one of the most profound books anyone could ever read.  I had just read Good To Great, and we had consultants come into our place to help us with managing inventory, and the bottom line is that they just said, “Hey, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

And I said, “What? I don’t know what I’m doing? I’m really successful.” And they told me that I needed to learn the Toyota production system. So I went off on that journey and I began to understand that there were so many different ways of thinking about business. We just had a tour the other day and this guy gave me a quote that I don’t think I’ll ever forget, and this typifies exactly what happened to us: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

And at that point I knew it all – everything I touched had turned to gold, right? But then I learned the Toyota production system, and that was what counted because that took me to a whole different world.

Mark: So how do you describe your role as the president of the company? You’re not the only one with ideas; you’re not the only one fixing things. What do you do as a leader?

Paul: Well, that’s the power of the concept of lean: that everybody’s an innovator, everybody’s coming up with improvements. You teach everybody how to do an experiment and that experiment probably fails a lot of the time, but you learn from that experiment, so we have Edison’s laboratory as we say here – everybody’s tweaking, checking, analyzing, and then they find out it doesn’t work, so they try something else, and then they find out it does work. And then we have this whole base of knowledge from all of our people, and it’s pretty remarkable.

People always say to me – their biggest question is – “Do you trust your people to do that?” And I go, “Well, I trust my people because I train my people.” We train relentlessly. We just finished our morning meeting; we started at seven o’clock in the morning, and our people have swept, sorted, standardized our entire facility, everybody has made an improvement, we spent forty-five minutes training people at the morning meeting – we’ve been doing that for seven years and spend thousands of dollars every day doing that. So that’s why I can trust my people, because when you train people that much they’re going to perform at a pretty high level.

Mark: Now, before we started recording you were a wearing a nametag. I should have asked you to leave it on because it led into the story of you having a new employee. Can you talk about why you had the nametag? And what do you do to bring that new employee into this culture that you have.

Paul: Well, first of all, that new person is only doing a test day. In order to work at FastCap the first thing you have to do is send us a video resume; if you can’t do that you’re not going to work for us because we want to see whether or not you can think outside the box, so we don’t want a written resume and we won’t accept one. You have to take your smart phone or your iPhone and look at it and say, “Hey, my name is Paul Akers. I was born in San Diego in 1960. I went to Mark Keppel High School…” You know, you just tell the whole story about yourself. You put that up on YouTube and you send it to us, and we can learn a lot about you just from that one experience.

Then if you pass that test, we’ll bring you in for a test day. And if you pass that test, we’ll bring you in for a test week. And then if you pass that test and everybody in our team says you’re going to fit our culture, then we’ll hire you.

Mark: And you had the nametag on even as the president of the company as part of that welcoming experience.

Paul: Right. And my title read “Process Engineer.” So you asked me before we started the interview, “What’s your title? CEO? President?” And I said, “Well, I’m the president, but I’m really a process engineer. Everybody in our company is a process engineer, and that’s the way we view ourselves. It’s a very flat managerial, very flat leadership. We all work together as a team.

Mark: What advice would you have for senior leaders in an organization – large or small – that have maybe just learned a bit about continuous improvement or lean or the Toyota production system. Maybe they’re nervous that they can’t trust their people to do the right thing. That’s a tough starting point. What would you say, is there anything you could say, to leaders who are in that situation?

Paul: Yeah, actually I had an epiphany the other day about this. I thought to myself, “You know, when you come out of the womb the first thing your mama and papa want to teach you to say is ‘mama’ and ‘papa,’ and the next thing you know you’re in preschool, and then you’re in kindergarten, and then you’re in elementary school, and junior high, and high school, and a lot of go to college.” So, really, the whole mindset of our society is set up on continuous improvement and on continuous learning, is it not? It’s pretty obvious. I mean, we’re pretty deliberate about learning, right? And then all of a sudden you get out of college or you get out of high school and, really you learn a little bit, but statistically learning stops.

After five years you’re in the work force, you stop learning and just become a drone. That is the statistics on what goes down. And so what I would say to people – to answer your question – is embrace continuous learning in a deliberate fashion. That is what we have done; that’s what I learned from the vice president of Lexus when I met with him. And I asked him that question, I said “What is the most important thing for Toyota.” He said to me, “Teaching and training our people, and building a culture of continuous improvement.” Those words changed my life, and that’s what I would say to any CEO.

If you want to build a dynamic company, if you want to experience greatness, you must invest in a disciplined, deliberate fashion teaching and training your people, no different from when you came out of the womb to when you graduated from college. You have to continue that learning process, and that’s what we do at FastCap. Never stop.

Mark: So it sounds like part of your advice, along with “Fix it,” is “Go and do it” – start working with people, give them some opportunities to prove that they can do this, because we know they can; they don’t have to be drones. So get started and see where it goes from there.

Paul: Yeah. And what I really tell people no to do is, don’t go to a conference or a seminar. Make it who you are as an organization. We are a learning organization – it’s the first thing we do every day. It doesn’t matter how busy we get. I’m telling you, we have never missed a morning meeting for seven, almost eight, years now. And we are so busy we can’t even keep up with the orders. It’s crazy, but we do this because we know that learning makes our whole workday better.

Mark: And so you’re disciplined to keep with that, not just because it’s a habit, but because it’s helpful to you and FastCap and your team.

Paul: You know, they say about Toyota – and you know this better than anyone – they’re long term thinkers. There’s no short term game in the Toyota production system. And continual learning the way we do it is all about the long term benefit. You can’t justify a return on investment for taking forty-five people out of a work schedule for an hour and a half every day for seven years. I mean, that’s hard to fathom. And yet our labor number has gone from 12.8% to 8.9%. I mean, we are just blowing the doors off of every statistical number you can imagine because our productivity number keeps going through the ceiling.

Mark: Well, what a great story. I know we’ve just scratched the surface, and I would encourage everyone watching to go check out Paul’s book, 2 Second Lean. People can find you at www.FastCap.com; what other website would you recommend for finding you and your information, all your great videos.

Paul: There’s three places you can find it. Just go to www.FastCap.com and click on “Videos” at the top and you’ll see “Lean videos” – everything’s free, no charge for anything. If you want the book for free, go to www.2secondlean.com; you can download it in English, Spanish, and French now; the audio versions are there, the Kindle versions are there; it’s all free. Just download it and read. There’s no subscriptions and you don’t have to sign up for it. It’s all there

Mark: Well, Paul, thank you so much for making all of that available, and thank you for taking time to talk to us today. I really appreciate it.

Paul: Any time, Mark. My pleasure.

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