Lean Is Often All About the Smallest Things

Rick Bohan

I always start any project with a few days of information gathering about the operations so that I’ll know a bit of the culture and local language when I get to the leadership planning steps. The info gathering phase is always enjoyable as I get to know the folks within the client organization and tell them what I have in mind.  During the info gathering I always come across conditions and situations that, on the one hand, are easily addressed but, on the other, I fear that the client will think, “Is that all you’ve got?” when I bring it up.

I had the latter experience a few years ago.  I was strongly encouraging a client to implement workplace organization and visual factory methods in the plant.  The thing was, the plant was reasonably clean and organized but just in the usual “decent housekeeping” way that plants sometimes are.  The managers didn’t refuse to take me up on my suggestions but didn’t seem to have much energy in implementing 5S.  They seemed primarily interested in “cost savings kaizens”.  (They couldn’t tell me what savings had come from past kaizens, or even how “cost savings” were to be measured, but that’s another story.)

Separate from my work and after I had been there a month or so, the company hired another consultant, a Japanese man who was purported to be the world’s foremost quality expert in the company’s product.  (The company also hired an interpreter as the consultant spoke no English.) I gathered he was pretty expensive, especially given that they were flying him back and forth from Japan.  After spending some time looking through the plant and talking with a number of managers, supervisors, and employees, the consultant told top leadership, “Your quality won’t improve an iota until you get serious about workplace organization and visual factory.”  The 5S program picked up after that.

So, the process was:

  1. Local consultant tells company that it very much needs to implement workplace organization and visual factory
  2. Company ignores local consultant, continues to focus on “cost savings kaizens”,
  3. Expensive, world-renowned consultant from across the globe tells company it very much needs to implement workplace organization and visual factory,
  4. Company drops the “cost savings kaizens” and gets energetic about implementing 5S.

I know it sounds like I’m engaging in a bit of self pity but my point is that companies too often think that lean is about whizz-bang “kaizens” and magic initiatives  when it’s mostly about every day blocking and tackling of the most pedestrian sort.

I just started a new project and spent the week gathering information.  The operators put product as it comes off the lines into  plastic bags.  Operators have to pick the roll of bags off the floor, tear off a bag, then put the product into it.  Having the roll of bags on a mount or stand right next to the operator so that bags can be readily and quickly torn off the roll is going to be an obvious solution.  It won’t save much money and throughput isn’t going to jump up by ten or twenty percent but it will make the operators’ jobs just a bit easier and the flow of product from line to package will be smoother.

I’m more optimistic that we’ll make progress in this case because it was a manager who pointed this out to me as an example of the sorts of improvements that are going to make a difference.   As I’ve so often said, lean tools always work.  It’s the leadership and culture of an organization that makes the difference.


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