The Tale of Three Christmas Trees

Years ago, I was the Manufacturing Manager of a medical device company here in CT. Because we were such a small place, in addition to running the manufacturing floor I was also the defacto “facilities guy”. Anything even remotely related to the building or grounds would come through my office – manufacturing related or not.

lean-christmas1One December day, the CEO calls me and asks “Can you do us a favor and go pick up this Christmas tree that we just bought? We saw it in the window when we were coming back from lunch and thought it would be just perfect for the lobby. Be careful though – it’s already all decorated.” I (of course) obliged and hung up thinking “Who in the Hell buys an already-decorated tree? And how exactly does she expect me to transport it without destroying all the decorations?”. Knowing the answers would not come, I grabbed my keys and set off.

Now, in my boss’ defense the tree was very pretty. It would have caught my eye as well. But moving a decorated Christmas tree in the back of a pickup truck across town in Connecticut in December is about as easy as you think it’d be. As an added bonus, the bottom of the tree was over a foot wider than every door frame it had to fit through, so by the time I got the thing into our lobby, it wasn’t looking so good anymore.

Flash forward to January when we were taking down and storing the holiday decorations. I, along with a helper, were moving the now undecorated tree to our storage mezzanine – the veritable “junk drawer” of our plant. As we crest the top of the stairs and search for a good spot, my helper says to me, “Hey Paul, check that out!”. I look to where he’s pointing, and to what to my wondering eyes do appear? Not one, but two Christmas trees!

When I later mentioned to my boss and the woman in charge of managing these things, they kind of laughed it off as one of those “flighty things we do sometimes.”. As I thought about it in my office later, I solidified my resolve to become more Lean. I knew that it was the only way to properly run a company.

As business owners and leaders, we make this same mistake every day, and often to a much higher (and more expensive degree) than an artificial Christmas tree. We go full-force to the next shiny thing – a new machine, a new process, a new assembly line, but we don’t take the time to apply Lean to what we already have. If we did – we might learn that we don’t need that new thing.

In our case, we failed for a number of Lean reasons. We had no Standard Work; no indication that we already had 2 trees. There was nothing to queue anyone to “go see” if we already had what we needed. There was also no inventory list nor an “area map” to refer to. We relied on people’s memories and proactivity to think “Hey, maybe we should check first”. Relying on tribal knowledge isn’t a plan for success.

We also had no visual controls. The 2 trees we owned were “out of sight, out of mind”, stuck on a dark and dingy mezzanine that was rarely accessed. Had they been more out in the open, we’d have noticed them and avoided buying another. Instead, we wound up spending more money (capital) on something that we already had 2 of! Plus we created a lot of extra, difficult work for our employees (namely, me!) in trying to accomplish my boss’ request.

As you implement Lean into your organization, consider the Tale of the Three Christmas Trees. Lean is not just about being more efficient and reducing waste – it’s also about being responsible to your company and to your coworkers. Being respectful of their time and all that they have to do each day. I had lots of other, more important things to do that day than to go pickup a tree, so imagine how I felt when I saw trees #1 and #2 staring back at me. To then have the issue brushed off by the CEO as though it was no big deal really got me angry. I deserved better! Well…so do our coworkers and employees. In your organization today; are you asking your people to do things that they don’t really need to do? Is everything they do each day value-added, or are they doing it out of habit, or worse yet, ignorance? Don’t have your people out buying Christmas trees when they should really be doing what you pay them to do: helping to sustain and grow your business.

New England Lean Consulting is a full service Lean partner serving Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. We offer comprehensive Training programs as well as direct Consulting services. Contact us at for more information.

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