Release Date: February 10, 2020
BUFFALO, N.Y. — When Roy Jordan founded North Forest Office Space in 1982 with his wife, Patty, he needed to understand all facets of constructing buildings.
Business survival required utilizing time wisely, too. He discerned ways to discard the waste inherent to industry practices and common among contracting circles.
Jordan did not know it then, but he was employing aspects of the Lean business approach. Nearly 40 years later, the Williamsville-based company that develops, maintains and leases professional, medical and dental office suites is formalizing its relationship with the methodology.
The goal: harnessing Lean to prevent pains that ordinarily accompany growth. North Forest reached out to the University at Buffalo Center for Industrial Effectiveness (TCIE), the business outreach center for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, to set the expedition on the optimum course.
“I think it was in our blood all along, but we didn’t have the tools or the methods to do it at scale,” explains Chris Kozlowski, the company’s continuous improvement manager.
Tools and methods make waste-reducing Lean tick, but it will fall apart if sustainability receives no attention. Thus, TCIE guided North Forest in shaping the foundation for managing an efficiency-driven culture across the organization of about 50 employees, which includes branches in Rochester, New York; Denver, Colorado; Austin, Texas; and Dallas, Texas.
The tactical scheme seems to be paying off. Kozlowski thinks Lean has played a role in stabilizing the company in the wake of enormous growth. North Forest is on pace to double in size from 2015 — when intentional Lean efforts took root – to 2022, without a significant rise in headcount or “fire” flareups.
“There have been no moments of ‘We don’t know what we’re going to do,’” he says. “It’s hard to quantify the things that didn’t go wrong.”
How exactly has Lean made an impact? Perhaps it is the methodology’s innate quality of strengthening teamwork when done correctly.
“I feel we have a good camaraderie. But we need to listen to each other and incorporate each other into decision making,” says Emma Concannon, leasing associate for Buffalo. “That was good before, but it’s only gotten better” with Lean.
The road to Lean
Appointing Dave Merrell as North Forest president set the stage for serious deliberations about Lean. Prior experiences at other companies made him a believer. He understood the methodology’s relevance to any industry and viewed it as a good fit for North Forest’s growth ambitions.
“You can add people all over the place, but if the processes aren’t working, those need to be looked at first. Adding people just makes it more inefficient,” Merrell says when reflecting on his belief that Lean would increase the probability of successfully scaling the company.
TCIE’s 6-month Certified Lean Professional (CLP) course was the chosen vessel to test the waters, with then-IT manager Kozlowski selected as the candidate to learn principles and techniques.
Certification required implementing an improvement project and passing an exam. Kozlowski examined customized dental offices in Austin that were sparking too many construction defects. He determined the root cause to be the company’s non-existent process for altering a product. The solution implemented led to organizational changes — including bringing engineering in-house — and standard work that affects development of all products to this day.
Concurrent to the CLP program, Kozlowski found self-identified Lean/continuous improvement companies through the Association for Manufacturing Excellence. He called local and non-local organizations, seeking advice and insights.
“Every single one of them said you need top leadership buy-in. Luckily, we had that,” he says.
Jordan, the CEO, provided a big boost after deepening his knowledge of Lean and its merits by attending CLP classes. The CLP experience and company interviews amassed enough knowledge for North Forest leaders to recognize they were on the right track. They solicited the aid of CLP instructor Julie Stiles, a TCIE senior consultant/facilitator, to formulate a plan for creating a Lean enterprise.
Conversations coalesced around identifying main players of the culture change initiative, how to communicate the evolution, and the training needed. Discussions also focused on Kozlowski’s transition to his current role of shepherding North Forest’s continuous improvement. Stiles helped devise an early scorecard — ascertaining the financial, operational and customer aspects deemed most important to the company’s success — to serve as a compass for directing Lean efforts.
Her coaching also generated topics and questions that may not have received enough attention otherwise, like how the organization should monitor and respond to improvement ideas. Kozlowski says he has learned “a ton” from Stiles over the last three years.
“The thing I like about TCIE is that they always over-deliver on what they said they were going to do,” Kozlowski says. “They’re not just taking our money, coming in and giving us boilerplate stuff. They really customize it to what we say we need.”
North Forest’s plan balances instilling the culture through messaging and empowerment, with educating the workforce to solve problems.
TCIE delivered a Lean boot camp training to all company employees covering the nuts and bolts of identifying waste. Four others, aside from Kozlowski, also earned their CLP. Additionally, eight colleagues audited CLP.
Some employees admit the initiative initially drew skepticism, but the training and project results changed opinions. Concannon, who earned her CLP, says employees witnessed the simplification of processes.
“I’m starting to see solutions from one project impacting and opening the door for improvements in another project,” comments Diane Austin, corporate sales and marketing manager.
Simpler Lean concepts are taking root to power the everyday, like daily huddles and visually communicating information through flip charts and sticky notes posted on hall and office walls. Any problem that lingers after an experimental approach is a candidate for a Lean project.
“We’re not project hunting. We form a project when we identify that it is going to require coordination, leadership support, and more time than a smaller issue,” Kozlowski explains. “So, it means something to say we’re going to do a project.”
A never-ending journey
Speak with North Forest employees, and they profess that the company has historically been a very good work environment. Lean has only improved it.
Kozlowski interviewed a few employees about Lean’s impact and presented the resulting video at the company’s annual management meeting last fall. The resounding response: collaboration has increased.
Lean projects and initiatives have required employees to communicate more and gain better understanding of each other’s jobs. Subsequently, there is greater emphasis on gathering input from everyone affected by an issue and involving them in making decisions.
“We’re asking better questions,” says staff accountant Cheryl Zelasko, who earned her CLP. “We’re getting better information, and then we’re following through with a better process overall.”
Better information partially stems from a rise in meaningful data collection. Concannon says she is more confident in expressing opinions because their basis is data, “not just a gut instinct anymore. And I feel I am much more accepting of opinions that are different from mine because their decisions are based on data, too.”
Merrell refers to Lean as the company’s “True North” that provides a common language and way of doing things. North Forest will continue to call on TCIE for the jobs that need an outsider’s perspective.
“You always need your partners to help break you through various points of your journey. You get to a certain point and you flatten out and plateau,” he says. “That’s where consultants from the outside, who aren’t living and breathing it every day, can ask the right questions to get the root causes and help you get to the next step function.”
Despite the progress across three years of Lean-based thinking, Kozlowski is not ready to declare that North Forest has a sustainable Lean culture. Continuous improvement experts forewarned him that culture change takes five to seven years to marinate.
Even then, the organization needs to continually nourish and manicure the effort. “We’re on a non-stop journey,” Merrell says. “Read books about Toyota [and its Lean initiative] — they’re never done.”