What We Can Learn From Legos

Work shouldn’t be like catching the right train in a foreign country, where you spend anxious minutes trying to parse the maps and navigate the train station…and eventually hop aboard with a leap of faith that you won’t wind up farther from your intended destination than you started.

Lynn Walters and the Stores and Maintenance teams at Cedar Hills Regional Landfill think work should be more like building Lego castles, where anyone can easily understand how things work, which are the right pieces to assemble, and in what order.

Lynn Walters was building a castle with his child when he had the inspiration about the  Lego instruction manual,

Lynn Walters was building a castle with his child when he had an inspiration about the Lego instruction manual, “There’s no words. A person in any language could build this stuff.”

Unfortunately, all too often, some of our most complicated processes aren’t documented. Or, when they are documented, understanding the documentation itself requires lots of intimate knowledge of the process, which is a real Catch-22 when you think about it. (The train timetables and maps in foreign cities are documented. But if you can’t figure out which platform to stand on, the documentation won’t help.)

Without a common understanding of the process, employees have a hard time sharing knowledge among themselves. That, in turn, makes it difficult to identify the best ways to do things and to use those best practices as a shared baseline for improvement.

For new employees without an easy-to-understand way of getting up to speed, months of frustrating “trial and error” learning can be the typical experience. And even then, they might not be sure if they are doing something the right way.

Just like with any database system, training can be a huge challenge. Especially when it spawns changes to any of the physical activity associated with the new database system. The new database and inventory management system implemented for Stores and for Maintenance (named “FASTER”) is that way for old and new employees. The system required re-learning for existing employees; and designing a simple manual would also help new employees.

Work Instructions for Everyone, by Everyone

That is what Lynn Walters had in mind when an inspiration from the Lego instruction manual struck him. Building a castle with his son Brian, Lynn realized that they never had any questions that the pictures couldn’t answer immediately. In fact, the Lego manual didn’t have any words at all, so anyone in any language could build the same castle.

Why couldn’t the Cedar Hills inventory system have a similar visual manual?

When Lynn explained his idea, the team realized that a Legos-like manual could help all of them become more successful. A clear visual system for work instructions would not only help new employees, but could become the team’s repository of best practices and the quickest, easiest ways to perform tasks within the complicated system.

Team member David Schroeder took the lead on drafting a template that the team then refined through discussions about most effective ways to navigate the system. Maintenance and Stores teams each created manuals to reflect their different functional perspectives for using the system.

Here are a few pages from the manuals now:

how to use the system

Step 8 for Stores team:

stores manual narrative

Step 8 for Maintenance team:

step by step guidance

And here is the manual in use:

actual manual

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