By Gwendolyn Galsworth
Paul Akers is nothing if not wildly enthusiastic about people, learning, and continuous improvement. He is the epitome of the inspired natural leader at his entrepreneurial best. The story of FastCap, summarily captured in Paul’s bathroom narrative, demonstrates a concept I have long held near: it is not a company’s culture that has to change for progress to be made but people’s behaviours—when that happens, the culture changes in response.
I had the good fortune of visiting FastCap in December of last year. A big fan of Paul Aker’s philosophy captured in his small and mighty book, 2-Second Lean, I know Paul for the all American leader he is: packed with energy, positivity, and an insatiable hunger for innovation and progress. He is also a people person, seeing the same positive potential in every single person as he does in the world at large. Spend an hour with the man, and you know he is a cocked-eyed optimist that wants his own up-by-the-bootstraps success story to be everyone’s.
In LMJ, he writes directly and specifically about the why, wherefore, and how of Fast Cap’s bathrooms. Having encountered at least two of them personally, I can attest that they are sparkling, uniform, and lean; the very picture of cleanliness, repeatability, and standardisation.
But the article did not have the space to share other things Paul put in place to boost FastCap as a learning organisation. For example, the hour he sets aside every week for the workforce to learn about great moments in history, great works of art and great figures that have shaped our world. We don’t learn about the personal care he demonstrates as he attends to the improvement ideas of his employees.
Not just a leader in title, Paul shares the bounty of his own success by both sharing the sensibilities that enabled his success to happen and helping people to cultivate a capacity to enjoy their own success when it arrives.
Touring FastCap in person allowed me to see more, much more. I saw lean 5S on bench tops and under them, systems of improvement logic for shelving, packaging, equipment change over and maintenance. All of it derived from the imagination and willingness of a workforce that has been ignited and encouraged to value and cultivate these habits of the mind.
The values that FastCap teaches are fundamental to the transformation we call operational excellence and the cultural alignment that is so deeply a part of that. To name the most evident: respect for the individual, the recognition of our inborn human imagination, the tactical importance of daily continuous improvement, the intentional cultivation of the positive will, and the indispensable role of leaders and the leadership they must demonstrate, with humility and rigor.
FastCap’s enthusiasm for continuous improvement seems unstoppable and, as a person who was there, I can confirm that it is certainly contagious. I was enormously impressed. Yet I was also left wondering if FastCap can and will go further? And if so, how?
This came home to me as I walked through FastCap’s new site—opening in a scant few months, architecturally compelling (inside and out), and easily ten times the current site’s size. I could not help but wonder if there was enough structure in the FastCap phenomenon for it to be scalable. Could it grow in depth and magnitude to fit its own expansion?
It is easy to hope so. And almost as easy to assume it will happen. With so much good will, positive shared history, fabulous marketable inventions (with FastCap’s habit of inventiveness also widely exhibited in its growing product line)—and with Paul’s irresistibly confident and progressive leadership, how could these not carry over to the new location and grow even more impressively? How could the forward movement not continue? But I wondered. And I thought about the steps I might suggest that FastCap take to ensure this outcome.
As many of you know, my primary field of endeavor is workplace visuality. So I wondered if the fledgling level of visuality FastCap now exhibits was stimulated by an actual set of visual principles, would that drive visual information sharing further and visually embed performance into the new work landscape in a way not yet achieved at the old site? Or what would happen in the course of any single employee’s day if chronic and random questions and information deficits could be visually leveraged into improved quality and lowered costs? Since only principles can drive a seemingly endless stream of diverse improvement solutions, I wondered if FastCap would take the opportunity to scale up and expand the nature of enterprise improvement by visually embedding its operational intelligence into its physical site.
What would happen if the workforce created visual devices that revealed deeper levels of the waste called motion (moving without working) and allowed each person in the new expanded workforce to “tell the difference merely by looking”?
What would happen if FastCap used its application of standards and standardisation as a platform—a base—upon which to build at the new site a range of solutions that installs visual linkages between functions so that the company is connected up in a comprehensive network of operational know-how and know-why? What bonus layer of performance excellence would result from that? And what, I asked myself, would happen if metrics were constructed capable of driving this performance and not just monitoring? And beyond that, what new crop of innovation and work reliability would surface if FastCap employees acquired a more complete, even masterful, understanding of causality—the long forgotten heart of the Toyota Production System and reason Toyota could scale up into the dominance of market leader?
FastCap is an exemplar of the innovation-driven American enterprise. Indeed, Paul Akers’ weekly radio show is aptly titled: The American Innovator. But I wonder if continued reliance on the corporate and individual imagination can provide FastCap enough mileage to fuel its future. Every successful business has learned to make a friend of imagination. But let us not forget that it is also a hungry ally; it must be fed. It is not enough for us to taste the fruits of the imagination for it to continue. For the vast number of us—including Einstein and Edison—imagination runs out of steam (and fast) if it is not grounded in principles. For reasons that cannot be delineated within the short scope of this article, the imagination is lubricated and primed when it seeks to define itself within a set of concrete, objectified principles. It is liberated by such anchor points.
And if anyone were to ask me to advise FastCap in fashioning a happy and an expanding future, I would urge this already remarkable enterprise to pursue a more structured process for identifying and addressing the finer layers of waste. Such a process might just help FastCap redefine continuous improvement into its next generation equivalent: a workforce of improvement thinkers who are well on their way to becoming scientists of their own work and masters of cause on the attribute level.
If this pleases, it would first have to appeal to FastCap’s dauntless and inspiring leader, Paul Akers, because it is he who must name the future in order for others to seek it. That is the nature of the entrepreneurial leader. We follow his lead and make it our own. Paul Akers is undoubtedly one of the best.