Santa’s lean workshop

by Col. Raymond Briggs
86th Maintenance Group commander

I’ve been to Toyota, Caterpillar, John Deere, Standard Aero, Wal-Mart and many other industries to study their streamlined processes, also known as their lean manufacturing processes, but the one factory I’d love to see as the pinnacle of lean operations is Santa’s workshop in the North Pole.

We don’t know much about Santa’s workshop, but what we do know tells us it has to be the leanest, most efficient place of manufacturing in the world. Given the suspected number of elves working for Santa, you may question the assertion that the factory is truly lean. However, there are a number of indications that point to a truly phenomenal lean process.

First, large numbers of employees is not a disqualifier of lean processes. Wal-Mart employs about 1.4 million Americans to service a population of about 320 million. Most of us would have no trouble declaring Wal-Mart processes to be lean, so they are a fair model to use. There are about 1.9 billion children in the world, so if we used the same ratio of Wal-Mart employees to Americans, then that would mean Santa would employ 8.3 million elves.

Most of our accounts of his workshop put the elf count in the thousands, not millions. Even considering the children on the naughty list don’t get toys, there is still a lot of product for a few thousand elves to produce in just one year. Without perfectly lean processes he would never get done in time. Santa’s operation must be far leaner than Wal-Mart.

Next, we know that most of Santa’s product is hand-made. Hand manufacturing has been on the way out of our processes since the beginning of the industrial revolution. His tools, first time pass rate, takt time and flow must be absolutely perfect for hand manufacturing to meet the required demand. There just isn’t enough time in the year to re-work anything.

We have it on good authority that there are about seven or eight misfit toys each year that don’t quite meet quality standards. That’s about one defect per 125 million toys. Wow!

One of the most important processes in our world, the safe travel of passengers on an airline, produces 2.6 defects per million takeoffs and landings. Even considering that Santa’s statistics are estimated, it looks like the odds of getting a defect-free toy from Santa exceed one of our best and safest processes of airline passenger travel.

We also have to admire the efficiency of the product delivery process. Seemingly a one-person operation aided by draft animal power, covering all customers in a single 48-hour period by taking advantage of the Earth’s time zones and the international date line is impressive. If that’s not lean, nothing is.

Finally, one of the best hallmarks of lean processes is an empowered and happy workforce. There can be no doubt that the elves populating Santa’s workshop are the most cheerful and happiest employees in any company. Every account pictures rows of elves making toys and happily singing away. In fact, there is only one account of a disgruntled elf that wanted to do something other than make toys.

It will be a long time before we have the capability and efficiency in our processes to be as lean those of Santa Claus, but it can’t stop of us from dreaming.

After all, the pursuit of perfection is another distinguishing characteristic of a lean operation, and if Santa’s operation doesn’t fit the ideal perfect manufacturing operation, then nothing does. We can all learn something about continuous process improvement by studying the best processes available.

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!