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FastCap Tour: Lean & Mean

My brother is a year older than me, and because of that, he’s far more experienced and much smarter. But the thing that bugs me is that everything always has to be ‘just so’ with him. Sometimes, when I think about my brother I remember the last words in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury: “…each in its ordered place.” Even the pencils and pens on my brother’s desk have to be ‘just so’ before he’ll answer a ringing phone; his door bench is the same way: every tool has to be razor sharp and in its proper place before he’ll start work on a door.

It took me years to understand why. I have to thank Paul Akers, from FastCap, for helping me see my brother in a totally new way.

(Note: Click any image to enlarge)

Lean Manufacturing

I wasn’t able to join the recent tour of FastCap’s facility, but Scott Wells and Devin Wiltermood—together with Dan Parish and several of his crew from Millwork by Design, brought back three hours of video.

I was tapped to edit the footage and somehow boil it down to thirty minutes (even that’s excessive for YouTube, but there was too many invaluable moments to cut it any further!). Watching that raw footage was almost better than being on the tour. The culture of the company and the day-to-day operation still staggers me—most definitely a life-changing experience.

Paul Akers is a world-wide respected specialist on Lean Manufacturing. He has written several books and speaks frequently at international symposiums and businesses. And he practices what he preaches. FastCap is a model of lean manufacturing, including the ideal of Kaizen or constant improvement.

Lean Philosophy

Modeled on principles of Taiichi Ohno (1912-1990), the philosophy of “Lean Manufacturing” literarily turned Toyota Motors around, from an almost third-world company “producing an annual output equivalent to (only) three days of U.S. car production” (source). After studying U.S. production systems, Eiji Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno identified two major shortcomings: U.S. manufacturers produced components in large batches which necessitated additional storage and handling; and their system was engineered toward mass production not customer preferences.

Obviously these two issues are not problems commonly faced on jobsites, however the underlying cause or result is: waste. Like antibodies attacking a foreign invader, Lean manufacturers target waste as the real enemy. As identified by Taaichi Ohno, there are Seven Wastes:

1. Delay, waiting or time spent in a queue with no value being added
2. Producing more than you need
3. Over processing or undertaking non-value added activity
4. Transportation
5. Unnecessary movement or motion
6. Inventory
7. Defects

To ensure that all of his employees actively participate in the Lean approach, to encourage his entire team to exercise their own creativity and passion, Paul devotes the early morning hours to an “all hands” Morning Meeting, which is led by a different employee each day. And that meeting isn’t just about work. They discuss important current events; they share the definition of a new word—adding to everyone’s vocabulary; someone may report on a book they’ve recently read; turning to business, they identify potential waste choke points and potential improvements, too; and to ensure that their minds are ready for work, they exercise.

What does that have to do with carpentry?

Don’t be put off by FastCap’s morning meeting or Ohno’s “Seven Wastes!” Sure, they seem more relevant to manufacturing than to carpentry, but take a closer look! Who hasn’t suffered profit loss from jobsite delays? And how many of those delays are due to material orders that could be improved if you sharpened your system of contacting and followed up with your lumberyard or material supplier? Or developed a more skillful practice of scheduling?

And while we rarely suffer from over production, trust me, we often fall into the trap of undertaking non-value added activity. Like starting any job—a whole house or a mantelpiece—without proper drawings; performing additional work without a signed authorization; training a new carpenter on a task they aren’t ready for, or not taking enough time to train that carpenter on a task they are ready for!

And let’s talk about defects. My brother always practiced a simple system—you start installing finish material on the upper floors of a job and work your way down toward the front door. And you make sure there are no missing pieces or defects behind you. That way, all your pickup is right near the front door.

Then there’s the type of waste that is critical to making money in construction: unnecessary movement or motion.

Carpentry is a job dominated by repetitive tasks punctuated by occasional creativity and interrupted by problem solving. Most carpenters recognize that repetitive tasks can be sharpened by developing simple systems: for instance, eliminate wasted trips to the miter saw by making cutlists for baseboard and crown; pre-cut window and door packs, gang cut rafters, increase efficiency and quality by pre-assembling casing; develop a simple step-by-step process for installing doors, eliminating unnecessary steps.

Most carpenters also know that improving efficiency often begins with organizing your truck, van, or trailer, so that you know precisely where your tools are; organizing your jobsite work area, so that work flow is stripped of unnecessary movement; organizing jobsite materials, so that it’s easy to identify and access the items you need.

The list is endless. But few carpenters or contractors have recognized or identified the underlying incalculable value of organization. In fact, most carpenters, myself included, are reluctant to devote too much time to organization—after all, we still feel our primary responsibility is defined by the number of doors we install, or how many rooms of crown molding we finish, or how many feet of fascia we hang. And there lies the real problem.

At FastCap, organization isn’t like a light at the end of a tunnel—it’s a beacon. You can’t miss seeing it. Paul Akers reminds you every step of the way: “We’re not here to assemble and sell The Best Fence or FastCaps or 2P10! We’re here to eliminate waste and improve the way we assemble and sell our products so that we can better serve our customers.”

And that is why Paul’s approach is so important for folks in the construction trades. While we may be on a jobsite to build a home, our primary focus should always be on eliminating waste because that is the best way to improve not only productivity but craftsmanship, too. If you don’t believe me, think about that older carpenter you may have once worked beside. While you were hustling and rushing, he was moving slow and steady; while you were breaking a sweat, he never broke stride; at the end of the day, that older carpenter always seemed to get more work done, and unlike many younger carpenters, he was never worn out.

For carpenters, waste is the worst enemy. Something magical happens when you focus on eliminating waste and improving methodology—the job becomes secondary to your own creativity, and through exercising creativity, along with the creativity of your co-workers, we nurture self-respect and respect for others, appreciation for the contributions each of us make to improving our craft.

The Three S’s: Sweeping, Sorting, Standardizing

For Paul and the folks at FastCap, every day begins with the Three S’s: sweeping, sorting, and standardizing, so that every work station is clean, uncluttered, and ready for work—regardless of which employee is operating that station, and they are all cross-trained to operate each work station.

FastCap’s focus on organization and the Three S’s reminds me again of my brother. I’ve visited countless carpenters, shot both video and photographs in their shops and on their jobsites. Don’t freak out! I won’t mention any names. But I’ve watched too many carpenters hunt for their tape measure—for the third or fourth time; I’ve helped find pencils, glasses, ear protectors, router bits, and notebooks, too. And those unorganized craftsmen often share the same type of shop, the same jobsite conditions, the same chaos in their trucks and trailers. It’s a disease.

Being organized and developing systems that avoid waste allows you to move beyond the immediate task—what tool to pick up next, what step to take next. Instead you are free to think creatively, how to improve the task you’re accomplishing. It is those moments, when you’re using your creative mind, that you are most powerful, most productive, and having the most fun at your job.

All the tools at each work station are color coded so that they can not end up at another work station, and every tool has a place.

Reactions from the TiC FastCap Tour Group

Dan Parish, owner, Millworks by Design

I asked every employee at FastCap the same question: “Why do you do this? Why do you invest in Lean?” Nearly every one of them had the same answer:   “Because it makes my life easier.”


What really blows my mind is that Paul invests SO MUCH time and money in Lean principles—and most people would say he’s totally nuts, he’ll never get that money back. But not only does he recoup the investment, that investment raises his profits exponentially, and that isn’t even the best part—that isn’t even the valuable aspect of Lean. The most rewarding part is how Lean affects his employees, how each of them takes ownership—all of his people are eager to pitch in, to improve their jobs and the jobs of their co-workers. He has created an entire team focused on supporting each other, on respecting each other, on listening to each other. Imagine that in today’s crazy world. Some readers might misapprehend my point, and they might think that Paul is like some cult leader. No way. Nothing could be further from the truth. He simply respects his employees enough, as people, to provide them with an environment where they are encouraged to exercise their creativity.

Out of everything I learned from the tour, that sticks with me the most. Lean is like compounding interest. Over time, even a one-second improvement per day builds into something solid, meaningful, and valuable, something that actually affects future success. I learned to be okay with small gains, and not search for huge leaps. For my company—with over 80 employees, more than 60 finish carpenters in the field, this means celebrating every small improvement and every employee who generates an improvement; it means encouraging our team to act like a real team—to focus on eliminating waste certainly, but primarily to focus on supporting each other.

Scott Wells, owner, Scott Wells Construction

I’m always trying to hone our systems to tackle each project. I try to stick with an order or path that we take on each job. That way, every time we roll up to a new project, everyone knows what’s going to happen first, second, third, etc.…

After attending the FastCap tour, I learned how important it is to include your employees in those planning sessions. We’ve instituted our own version of the “morning meeting.” We haven’t taken the leap to meeting every morning, but we’re formally meeting every other Wednesday to eliminate waste in our trailer and practice the Three S’s.

Each of us picks an area of the tool trailer and figures out how to organize it in a way that makes it easier to use. We spend 30 to 45 minutes cleaning, moving unused tools, fasteners, and equipment to my storage shed, adding little features that make our work more organized and easier, and/or building new boxes or drawers or tool totes. It seems like a small thing, but it all adds up fast.

Though we only meet formally every other week, in truth, my crew has started practicing the Three S’s almost every day, because once you recognize the benefits of being organized and eliminating waste, it’s a hard habit to break—and why would you want to!

Devin Wiltermood: The Katz Roadshow & THISisCarpentry

I watched some FastCap videos before the tour, but seeing the company and the employees was extraordinary. Lean culture definitely improves employees’ attitudes and improves performance. The main part of Lean is to be constantly improving everything you do.


It can be as small as taking a five-second task and making it one second quicker. For example, instead of walking three steps away from your work station to throw a piece of trash away during your assembly process, move the trash can into your work station, so you don’t have to walk anywhere. It might seem like a small thing, but if you have to walk to the trash can ten times a day, that adds up to a lot of wasted time over a week, a month, a year!

I was seriously impressed at the level of organization. Every desk, every tool kit, every drawer—even in the kitchen—was organized with Kaizen Foam, making it nearly impossible to misplace a tool or object. That level of organization and standardizing I won’t soon forget. If you have everything organized and clean, it makes it faster and simpler to find what you need, and that helps you stay ‘in the groove.’

That level of organization, and Paul’s determination to allow his employees the freedom to not only develop improvements but to initiate them immediately—that approach has changed the way I work. Too often I recognize a roadblock or a chokepoint in a specific process, but I struggle through it, thinking I’ll solve the problem later. Now there’s no more later. I am re-training myself to act immediately when I recognize a snag or a complication. Now I almost seek that feeling of empowerment from acting instantly and solving problems, knowing that’s one less hassle I’ll have in the future.

For more about “Lean Manufacturing”, please (PLEASE), watch Paul’s inspiring presentation:


6 Responses to “FastCap Tour: Lean & Mean”

  1. Lynette McNeil

    That was AMAZING !!!!
    I plan on learning more about this and seeing where I can make changes to help my team.
    Thank you !!!!!

  2. Paul Comi

    Working alone or with a small crew, this approach to work and job site has made work less of a struggle and more enjoyable. It’s meant being able to roll onto a job and get right to work without countless trips to the truck for a tool.

  3. Jim Kleinfelder

    Agree 110% with this. Organization of truck, tools and job site is key to efficiency. The Pre Planning and purchasing for the project is even more important.

  4. Josh Briere

    Such a cool tour, I definitely picked up some stuff from it, esp the coloring coordination. Love how Paul touched on the hiring process and explained hiring for character and training the skill. Thanks guys! PS… Scott is that torque wrench in your trailer lean video for getting your Simpson ties perfectly tight or for your tablesaw arbor nut? Lol

  5. Z. Elodat

    I like how at the product assembly table everything is within reach. The drill is hanging from a line, all tools and parts don’t even require a head movement. Every second counts. Great work Paul!


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