An Inc. “Best Small Company Workplace” & Their Lean Culture

Photo Credit: Inc.

As I was cleaning out a pile of stuff in my office, I found an unread issue of Inc. magazine from June 2011. One of their “Best Small Company Workplaces” was Hopkins Printing in Columbus, Ohio: “Survival of the Smartest: Hopkins Printing has staked its future on cross-training.“)

Far too often, “best workplaces” profiles focus exclusively on the perks and incentives that are offered in a workplace. Things like free backrubs, gourmet meals, and car wash services are somewhat superficial or they are a form of extrinsic motivation.

I love it when organizations, small or large, in any industry, utilize Lean to tap into the intrinsic motivation that's so powerful in creating an engaging, successful company.

Hopkins is a company with 100 employees and revenue of about $17 million. They are proof that you don't need to be a huge company to utilize Lean, nor do you need to be a high-volume repetitive manufacturer. As a commercial printing shop, they face a number of competitive challenges that Lean has helped address.

The owner and founder, James Hopkins, is a humble man (which is not uncommon among great Lean leaders).

“I never went to college, and I think if you're self-taught, you believe everybody can learn,” says Hopkins. “People always want to be better.”

People want to be better. That's an important intrinsic motivation that makes the kaizen style of continuous improvement so powerful. If we allow people to make improvements that make their own work more interesting or more enjoyable, they will be motivated to do so – and the company and customers will win. Kaizen doesn't have to be forced or dictated if we have the right culture and environment.

Again, from the article:

In the past two years, most employees have been trained in an additional one to two jobs and have implemented dozens of improvements that they devised. “We work smarter and help each other work smarter every day,” says Mike VanAtta, a lead operator in the bindery and 19-year employee.

It's quite common to have extensive cross-training in a Lean environment. As the article states, the benefit to the company is increased flexibility and a greater ability to meet customer needs as demand shifts or as employees take vacation. The benefit to employees is that they get the pride of learning a new job and they are MORE valuable to the company (as opposed to being an interchangeable cog who can be fired and replaced with somebody cheaper).

Although not referenced directly, it sounds like Hopkins uses the Training Within Industry approach to standardized work and training, as this paragraph describes:

The training is facilitated by standard work documents, a lean manufacturing tool that lays out the steps of each task in a couple of pages, so workers can absorb them quickly and refer back when necessary. At Hopkins Printing, employees write the documents, using the kinds of language and perspective familiar to colleagues who will train after them. “Often these training things are paragraph after paragraph, and you can get lost in them,” says CEO James Hopkins. “This is employees talking to employees in the language they would normally use.

The article also describes their engagement of staff in continuous improvement:

When new projects come into the bindery or other parts of the plant, employees set up workflow simulations “to reduce steps, reduce mistakes, and improve speed and quality,” says Roy Waterhouse, Hopkins's president. “If we can remove 20 seconds out of a process that we'll be doing for six months, then it's worth it.” Employees incorporate all such tweaks into their standard work documents and revisit those documents every year to ensure they haven't missed some opportunity to do better. They are also expected to recommend at least one new process improvement a month, for either their own jobs or—because they are cross-trained—someone else's.

That mindset reminds me of Vibco and Karl Wadensten (see their online video show via UStream). It also reminds me of FastCap, Paul Akers, and his approach to “2 Second Lean” – where employees are encouraged to make small improvements that even save just two seconds from their work. Those seconds add up greatly over time. See his new book on 2 Second Lean via Amazon.

Organizations like Hopkins, Vibco, FastCap are the type of culture that all Lean organizations should aspire to. Now, the question might be: can larger organizations create this sort of culture.


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Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker who has worked in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. His latest book is Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. He also published the anthology Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.

  1. Al Norval says

    Great article on the power of cross training and the advantages beyond just labor flexability. What amazes me is that people will pick this up immediately and see it’s application to the factory floor, yet will struggle to apply it in an office or business environment. To me the benefits are the same, yet we treat office or knowledge workers differently. Any thoughts on why?

  2. […] lookout for incentives and best practices to help retain employees then you need to have a look at Mark Graban’s Lean Blog post for January 10th.   Not only does Mark suggest a great practice but one that also contributes directly to the bottom […]

  3. Tom Southworth says

    Great article, Mark. It’s always great to hear about smaller company who’s “seen the light”, even more so that it’s a printing company.

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