Repainting the Wood Steps of Lean Transformation

By Jon Miller Updated on August 16th, 2020

Summer is a great time for home improvement projects. This week I crossed off another one off of my list. The paint on one of the back staircases was worn and peeling. It was in dire in need of repair. At five feet wide, three feet tall with a metal railing on one side, it wasn’t a big project. But it was also not a small one. In the course of planning and executing this home improvement project, I recognized some similarities between repainting wood steps and some key considerations during a Lean transformation.

Start When the Conditions are Right

Exterior painting requires dry, warm conditions. In the Pacific Northwest August is about the only reliable month for this. I could do planning and prep work ahead of time, but only start once the weather forecast showed two weeks of less than 10% chance of rain. Likewise, in a Lean transformation, we can study, plan and make small improvements around the margins, but we can only do the work of exposing chronic problems and bringing systems up to a higher level of performance during periods of stability.

Gather Tools and Supplies Progressively

No, Lean isn’t all about the tools. But you’re being unwise if you fail to use the best available tools for a given job. There’s no sense in sanding away paint by hand when an orbital sander is available. Of course, this creates another level of preparation such as eye protection, mask, and an adequate supply of sanding pads. Unlike in the garage, power sanding outdoors so close to living space requires special cleanup plans, as the dust will go everywhere on a dry, breezy day. This required the purchase of a new shop vac, creating a minor delay.

Remove the Old Layers to Reveal the Truth

The first step in repainting is to undo the previous paint job. When we paint over the previous layer of paint and all of its flaws, we invite trouble. The new coat of paint may look good for a while but whatever underlying conditions such as moisture or cracking will soon degrade our efforts. We have to go down to bare wood to check its condition and whether it is ready for repainting. Likewise, in a Lean transformation, we need to expose and understand the flaws within our current system before we can improve them.

Fill the Cracks and Gaps

These steps were thirty years old and full of cracks and gaps. Many of them were visible even before stripping the old paint, others only after. Where flowerpots had been sitting, there was rot to dig out. An important step was to decide whether these treads had to be replaced or if they would hold up safely for a few more years under a new coat of paint. I exposed the cracks and gaps in the wood, dug out debris, and filled them with putty. Likewise, in a Lean transformation, there is a critical decision point early on when the senior leadership must assess where the existing people, products, processes, equipment, policies, services, systems etc. can be improved and rejuvenated and where they are too far gone and in need of replacement.

Give Enough Time for the Gap Fills to Take Hold

The wood filler needs to set for a day or two. Putty in the thin gaps along the wood grain dry quickly. Deeper holes take longer. There was a two-part hardener to accelerate curing, but being in no hurry, I opted not to used it. Where this applies to a Lean transformation is that we need to make sure that changes and stabilization efforts we make prior to accelerating the transformation have taken hold. Don’t try painting over uncured putty.

Smooth Out the Rough Edges

Once the wood filler dried, it needed to be made smooth. This is where the hand sanding comes in. Sure, an orbital sander could do the job with a fine grit pad at a slower RPM. But on this particular project, sanding by hand allowed me to get up close to inspect the wood, find additional small gaps, inspecting by touch and sight. An orbital sander may also have been too powerful, creating divots into newly set fill material, requiring rework. The Lean transformation lesson is to not always use the “power tools” of Lean. These Lean power tools are those practices that, like an orbital sander, help us make big improvements quickly. Instead, there are times when being up close and hands-on with a personal touch works better to understanding the situation keep improvement going.

Protect the Borders

Before applying the new paint, I taped off around the places I didn’t want the paint to go. This included the metal railing, where the steps meet the house, and where the riser below the first step meet the pavers. There are transition areas within organizational boundaries or between organizations that are not in the initial scope of the Lean transformation. These areas may need improving later on, but in due time with due consideration.

Allow Some Slack in the Project Phases

The whole project took about 6 hours over two weeks. The actual application of paint, less than two. These typical lead time, process time and value-added time we might see on a value stream map. No doubt a professional crew with the best tools could have done it all in half of the time.  But there are benefits to tackling transformational changes in phases with some built-in slack time.

I couldn’t take the stairs out of commission for six hours straight. That’s assuming that I could have worked without interruption, which I couldn’t. Doing it in small stages, with many tasks taking an hour or less, worked for me, as I fit this project into my schedule. Doing this project over a couple of weeks also let me reflect on my work, find countermeasures for sanding pollution, and to the store to buy additional wood filler when the cracks and gaps required more than my initial estimation.

It’s common to hear that the Lean journey is a marathon, not a sprint. And yet there is often pressure to accelerate the transformation and deliver results faster. Even with the best skills and practices, it’s inevitable that we discover unexpected gaps, shortages in supplies or better tools. It’s best to allow slack time for missteps and learning, especially the first time through.

Follow through on Checking the Foundations

At one point near the end of the project, it occurred to me that it would have taken less time, effort and mess to rip out the steps, buy new two-by-sixes, paint them, and fasten them to the stringer. The steps had been in service for thirty years, not in great shape, but salvageable. I figured they would last a few more years. Also, I didn’t want to remove the steps only to find that the stringers also needed replacing. That would have turned my simple repainting project into a complete rebuild, making that entrance inaccessible for a few days, once I committed to demolition.

This is also a common occurrence in Lean transformations. Leaders commit to changing systems, policies, product mixes, cultural norms up to a point but not beyond it. They may suspect there is some rot, but don’t go as far as fully exposing it. It’s understandable to avoid taking on a broader scope or disruptive change, when a smaller one will get us good results in the near term. This approach is okay as long as Lean transformation is not a one-time correction but part of a continuous improvement journey. This requires that we follow through on exposing, rebuilding and replacing these worn-out foundations and underpinnings.

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