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Giving everyone a voice

Russ Kathrein

I recently attended the virtual LBM Strategies Conference and was able to hear Kevin Hancock’s keynote speech, in which he talked about giving a voice to everyone in his company. Afterwards, I thought about his message and the results he has seen at Hancock Lumber, and I recalled something I had witnessed years ago that demonstrated the effectiveness of Kevin’s message.

I had taken a team of 15 to an off-site team building and training retreat. Right off the bat our team was introduced to the Lifeboat Drill, and we were told that we would practice this exercise several times each day. On the last day we would conduct the exercise in front of all the other teams at the training facility, and the best time to complete the drill would win.

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The Lifeboat Drill consisted of a large black cloth zippered bag with various pieces of unmarked 1x4s in different lengths from 2′ to 4′ and an instruction page with a diagram. The goal was to unload the bag and stack the 1x4s on the ground in a fashion that exactly matched the diagram and thus create a “lifeboat.” Since we had plenty of people, I told the team that I would sit this exercise out and just observe.

After looking through the bag and reviewing the diagram, the team did their initial trial run. True to form, the supervisors and the Type A personalities took charge and instructed a few of the other team members where the pieces were to be placed, while the rest of the group stood by and watched. After a few attempts, the team told the facilitator they were ready to be timed. As they had done in their practice sessions, a few participated, while most stood around and offered what little help they could. The first time was over two minutes.

During the course of the first day, we took breaks from the training. Gradually, reading the instructions louder and faster, and by having the keeper of the bag hand out boards faster, the core participants got the time of the exercise down, while the rest of the team stood around them and offered encouragement in order to stay engaged. The second time was 1:45, the third time was 1:22, and the last practice session of the day was 1:05. The team had cut their time in half and was feeling pretty good.

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Right before we broke for the day, someone asked the inevitable question, “What was the record time for the Lifeboat Drill?” Our instructor laughed and said, “You don’t want to know. It will just discourage you.” “Yes,” the whole team exclaimed. “We want to know the record so we can beat it!” The instructor smiled and then informed us that the record time for the drill was 13 seconds.

At dinner, the core participants all acknowledged that they could speed up some, but not five times faster. That is when everyone agreed that they had to completely rethink the exercise and start asking more questions and approaching it differently. One of the people pointed out that there were 14 boards in the bag with 15 people doing the drill. Another observed that if everyone had one duty and had it memorized, they would not need someone reading the instructions.

On day three, when the final time trials were done, not only did our team win, but we set a new record of 9 seconds!

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I usually share this story as an example of implementing lean ideas in a process. Reduce waste, identify bottlenecks, eliminate friction, continuous improvement, etc. Yet after hearing Kevin’s presentation, I remembered that most of the observations and ideas that made the team so successful in the exercise came from the people on the team who either by tradition, precedent, or personality, would have remained in the background and normally not have had their voice heard. Once the “leaders” of the team hit a wall and ran out of ideas, only then did the others have an opportunity to gain their voice and express their ideas that ended up solving the problem.

How many people in your organization are not given a chance to have their voice heard? How often do we tell people how they should do their job rather than asking them what they think can be done to do their job better?


Russ Kathrein is the former president and CEO of Aurora, Ill.-based Alexander Lumber. He is also chair-elect of the National Lumber & Building Material Dealers Association. Reach Russ at

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