What Happened to 5S’ Fourth S? Let’s Standardize! [Guest Post]

I’m admittedly a bit of a 5S curmudgeon. I blame it mostly on the fact that I have routinely witnessed well-applied 1S, 2S, and 3S, evaporate in the absence of any meaningful 4S. It’s like so much in lean, when we fail to understand that any technical change requires a management change, bad things happen.

In other words, the first 3S’s matter little if we don’t do some of the things that 4S requires – assigning 3S responsibilities, integrating 3S duties in regular work duties, and checking on 3S maintenance levels (not to mention preventing things from getting dirty in the first place). Here, our guest-blogger, Tony Ferraro, talks about another critical part of the fourth S – standardizing the lines, labels, shadows, presentation, etc. that was developed beforehand.


5S is one of the most effective tools within the realm of workplace organization. Since its inception, 5S has gained a loyal following in many different types of work environments. Companies that have truly embraced 5S enjoy high levels of organization and efficiency.

For those of you unfamiliar with 5S, it is an acronym used to describe five different, yet integrated practices that all begin with the letter S. They are as follows:  sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain. It seems that most businesses engaged in the practice of 5S do a rather nice job implementing at least the first three S’s. However, the fourth S, standardize, consistently seems to lag in the background.

Why is this?

Is it that standardize is hard to implement? Misunderstood? Undervalued?

An Example – Standardize in an Auto Shop

Here’s a quick story about standardization, also known as standardized cleanup. The setting for this story is an auto shop.

Now, auto shops have a well-earned reputation for disorganization and uncleanliness. Originally, this one was no different.

The primary purpose of standardization is to ensure that work stations and equipment are set up in a similar manner, kept clean, and maintained in line with 3S responsibilities – including regular work duties and maintenance. For more information, please refer to Hirano’s book entitled “5 Pillars of the Visual Workplace.” One important goal is for associates to be able to walk up to any work station and locate any needed tool or item quickly and easily since all stations are consistently organized.

Our auto shop had made some great progress and had a good handle on the first three of the 5S’s but struggled with the fourth S. However, due to the individualized organization of tools and equipment, employees were unable to use different work stations to and perform the same high level of work efficiency.

In a nutshell, everyone had their station set-up differently according to their specific likes and dislikes. When other employees needed to use a different station, they would spend unnecessary time reorganizing the space and equipment to meet their needs. Some common problems included misplaced tools, disorganized workspaces, and overall losses in production time. The sad truth was that a lack of standardization was eroding the success achieved with the first three S’s.

Consistent with the notion of 5S, we employed a visual approach towards standardization. We gathered the employees and set-up the ideal, universal workstation by taking each employee’s opinions and thoughts into consideration. A photo of the pilot workstation was then posted at all of the other workstations.

Employees took ownership of the workstations by setting them up in the specific and uniform manner according to the agreed set-up and photo illustration. Foam tool organizers were extremely useful in the effort. The organizer helped to keep all tools presented similarly at each work station and then also made each employee accountable at the end of his or her shift to have all tools back in their predetermined locations. Just like the saying goes, every place has its tools and every tool has its place.

Don’t Overlook the Benefits of Standardization

Even though standardization may seem trivial, don’t underestimate how it can help create and help maintain an effective and efficient work space. Standardizing workspaces can help engage employees and create a universally organized and well understood workplace for all stakeholders. Please familiarize yourself with the fourth S and re-energize your 5S culture.

Antonio Ferraro, on behalf of Creative Safety Supply based in Portland, OR (www.creativesafetysupply.com), authored this guest post. Tony strives to provide helpful information to create safer and more efficient industrial work environments through 5S, six sigma, kaizen, and applying a lean mindset.

Related posts: Ineffective Visual Controls – 9 Root Causes, Scrunchie Lean, Visual Controls, Spider-Man, and Do Hotel Chains Really Care About Saving the Planet?


Embrace Ugly

As best as I can recall, I’ve never coined a phrase with any staying power.

Until now.

And, my phrase has been purposely captured on a T-shirt, by someone other than a close relative. It’s not quite like having my words recorded indelibly in marble and situated in the Parthenon, but I’ll take it.

Enough gloating, what’s the phrase and what is its etymology?

“Embrace ugly.”

It’s a term that I have used frequently with a particular client. Frequently – as in multiple times per day, even multiple times per hour. I repeated the phrase, not only because of its self-entertainment value (yes, I do that), but more importantly to break the client’s paradigm.

You see, they were (note the past tense) chronic and debilitating perfectionists.

Now, striving for perfection is part and parcel of Lean Thinking (by way of Womack and Jones). The Lean Enterprise Institute lists the fifth step, “As value is specified, value streams are identified, wasted steps are removed, and flow and pull are introduced, begin the process again and continue it until a state of perfection is reached in which perfect value is created with no waste.”

However, the intent is to aggressively pursue continuous improvement – by frequently and rigorously spinning the PDCA (plan-do-check-act) wheel.

Perfectionists however have a very difficult time getting around the wheel and, in essence, missing the benefits of failing faster. Perfectionists tend to have their own version of the wheel, something like PPPPPDDDDD, or Plaaaaaaannnnnn, then Dooooooooooo. “C” and “A” are, often accidentally and ironically excluded from the perfectionists wheel.


Because after investing so much time planning and then investing in the perfect “Do,” (impossible, by the way) there is little time or money or will left to make meaningful adjustments. The victims (a.k.a. stakeholders) are often doomed to a life with less than optimal fixtures, equipment, facilities, etc.

How many times have you seen expensive underutilized stainless steel equipment, nicely laminated work surfaces that workers do not like, pricey, oversized extruded aluminum workstations, and flashy, but useless tooling? Stuff that unfortunately was not designed or developed with important things in mind like takt time, footprint, PM’s, flows (of people, materials, supplies, information, tooling, etc.), visual control and line of sight (i.e., can you see over and around it easily?), ergonomics, scrap, etc.

While lean folks apply 3P (production preparation process) concepts like 7 different ways and seek to down-select to the top three or so and then trystorm their way into the best using sub-scale and full scale models made of cardboard, plywood, and PVC, perfectionists are machining or building the perfect design in expensive materials.

In short, lean folks embrace ugly. They revel in trystorming, in learning, in rapid PDCA. Ugly is synonymous with the quick and the dirty.

Which is exactly why I kept repeating, “embrace ugly,” until my friends were repeating the same and then finally breaking away from the suffocating, expensive, lethargic legacy of perfectionism.

…and now, they’re wearing the words on their shirts.

A couple of quotes:

“Quick and dirty is better than slow and fancy.” – Taiichi Ohno

“A good plan implemented today is better than a perfect plan implemented at some unspecified

time in the future.” – General George S. Patton

Related posts: Kaizen Principle: Be Like MacGyver, Use Creativity Before Capital!, Lean Space – Some Thoughts and 10 Questions

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Lean Management System: Accountability’s Four Questions and Two Tools

Lean oriented questions tend to be straightforward, but not necessarily easy.

The same goes for the four basic questions around the daily accountability process – the process by which leaders facilitate effective follow-through. The follow-through that I am referring to is about the countermeasures necessary for what some refer to as (team-based):

  • Maintenance kaizen. Kaizen to bring a process back to standard, and
  • Improvement kaizen (redundantly named). Kaizen to elevate performance from a given standard.

To that kaizen-duo, we can add perhaps more mundane, but still important, countermeasures, and plain old action items, that help to appropriately drive awareness, communication, adherence, purchase a new right-sized cart, etc.

The four questions:

  1. What? Here the lean leader must capture a specific countermeasure (the what) that will address a particular problem’s root cause. To this question many folks very appropriately add a short problem statement (to which the countermeasure is being applied). This facilitates and demonstrates good problem-solving rigor and thinking. The “problem to be solved,” in the context of a lean management system, is typically identified during the application of the lean management system’s leader standard work (and the related audit of adherence to and sufficiency of the standard work), team-based tiered meetings and reflection, and andon response. If you say this sounds a bit too neat and tidy, you would be correct. It is darn difficult to accurately nail down a tight problem statement, identify root cause, and come up with an effective countermeasure in the span of a 10 minute daily tiered meeting (during which much of the time is allocated to other things). In fact, unless some quick 5 why activity can get the team there, the hard work of problem-solving is typically done off-line. This means that the captured “countermeasure,” more like an action item, may be for an individual or team to apply the necessary problem-solving rigor. In other words, sometimes it’s a plan for a plan. Know that the countermeasure or action item is not the sole brain-child of the lean leader, it’s usually developed with/by the team, as facilitated by the lean leader.
  2. Who? A countermeasure, no surprise, needs someone to execute it. Often it’s more than one person, but accountability is best served when there is one “belly-button.” The lean leader can record more than one who, but there must be a primary who!
  3. When? What good is a countermeasure or action item without a date certain? Clearly, not much. Many folks, unfortunately, are more than happy with an ambiguous due date. It’s an infinitely open loop.
  4. Status? Without a formal check to verify that assigned and agreed upon countermeasure have been completed, there is ZERO accountability and ZERO follow-through. Simply checking on completion is basic stuff. It is often appropriate to periodically check countermeasure status between assignment and completion, assessing execution status across the PDCA spectrum.

Admittedly, these are not the sexiest of questions. But, they are the bread and butter of the accountability process…along with the requisite lean leadership behaviors.

Once these questions are infused in the minds of lean leaders and team members, along with solid problem-solving skills, things get exciting. Folks get better at identifying problems, converging on problem-solving, and holding themselves and each other accountable.

And now the tools…

There are two basic tools to help in the accountability process. They are used primarily within the context of regular, typically daily, tiered team reflection meetings and help integrate the four questions within the “conversation.”

Each tool and its derivatives has pros and cons. None are perfect, but each are powerful.

  1. Countermeasure tracker form. This simple form records at least the following: 1) countermeasure number (nothing fancy – 1,2, 3, etc.) 2) the countermeasure (what), 3) who, 4) when, and 5) status. Some folks add a column in which to record the “problem to be solved.” The form is often hung on a tiered meeting metric board and are an active tool during the meeting as new countermeasures are recorded by the leader and old countermeasures are “statused” as part of the standard tiered meeting agenda. There are two basic ways the countermeasure tracker is used on a tier board: 1) one form for the entire board, or 2) one form for each of the metric categories (i.e., People, Quality, Delivery, Cost).
  2. Task accountability board. This board (sometimes paper) captures each assigned countermeasures/task on a single Post-It® note or card. The note/card, which also reflects the countermeasure due date, is then placed on the board in the row designated for the assigned tiered meeting member, intersecting the column which reflects the appropriate due date. See below for an example.

click to enlarge

Related posts: Tiered Meeting = Team Stand-up A3, Another Classic Lean Question – “Do You See What I See?”, 6 Leadership Habits for Effective Tiered Meetings, “So What?” – A Powerful Lean Question

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Lean War Trophies

For millennia, warriors have taken war trophies to commemorate their victories. They range from the souvenir to war reparations to the just plain gory.

We’ve got flags and weapons and things like seagoing vessels, such as the US Coast Guard’s tall ship Eagle – courtesy of the defeated Nazi navy. (My son has a lot of great memories on the 295 foot Eagle.)

And then there are human trophies. You know scalps, heads, ears – that kind of stuff.

So, where am I going with this?

Lean implementation is a never-ending war. It’s a hard and noble effort.

Occasionally, we need to smell the roses and reflect. This includes basking (ever so) briefly in the team’s success.

A war trophy can help in the commemoration, serving as a poignant and necessary reminder of a substantial past victory…and the possibility of future ones.

Sometime the victory is the fruit of superhuman work. Like tearing down a two story, 220 square foot cinder block and wood building that impeded flow – and accomplishing that in one shift (True story. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a chunk of concrete!).

More often than not, there is physical work, but the real win has to do with the organization taking a giant lean leap of faith. In other words, doing something that definitely does not seem in the best interest of an otherwise healthy sacred cow.

Now that is deserving of a lean war trophy.

I remember my first trophy, circa 1995. It was an elaborately machined aluminum “stopper” – picture something on the order of a one foot wide and 10 inch high book-end.

Its purpose in life was to prevent the partially assembled product speeding downstream on a motorized conveyor from overwhelming the downstream assembly operators. These downstream operators could position the stopper so that it straddled the conveyor and basically dam it up…at least until one of the upstream pieces of equipment went down (a routine occurrence) and provided an opportunity to catch up.

Interestingly enough, this line (actually there were 6 identical lines) had been proudly called the “JIT Line” for years!?  You know just-in-time…as in takt, flow, and pull.

Clearly, none of that JIT stuff was going on, just a lot of overproduction and frustration.

Fortunately, these lines were ultimately reconstituted into single-piece flow cells, without any conveyors or isolated islands. I took one of the obsolete aluminum stoppers as a war trophy – less so for the physical conversion from push to pull. More so for the important revolution in thinking.

That was something I wanted to remember.

Pictured in this post is a nylon block – one of a couple hundred that were used to hold product as it wound its way through a curing cycle. It’s my most recent trophy. Admittedly, I encouraged others to take one as well.

The block was liberated from a machine – actually, there were two identical ones…twins! Both of the machines have been moved away to a warehouse. Hopefully, it’s a very temporary stop on the way to scrap yard.

Anyway, these machines were the proverbial universal automated behemoths, engineered and built by folks who didn’t have to live with them.

They took up a lot of space, were less than reliable, required two pairs of operators to feed and unload, didn’t necessarily match takt time, etc. In a John Henry match-up, the manual lines would win. They are more productive, more flexible, produce better quality, and so on.

But, when you spend a lot of money on a project, it’s tough to say goodbye. Unless of course, the organization starts to really get it. And they did, hence the trophy!

I’ll keep this one for a while.

So, do you have any Lean trophies?

Related posts: The Perils of “Lean Relativism”Want a Kaizen Culture? Take Your Vitamin C!

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New Blog Launch – Lean Math!

In the fall of 2009, I launched Gemba TalesTM in anticipation of the Kaizen Event Fieldbook. Truthfully, it was something that I was told authors do – “You need to have a blog to promote your book.”

Well, sort of.

Blogs, in my opinion, should emanate less from a marketing imperative and more from a sense of sharing and community. That’s a whole lot more fulfilling.

So, with like mind, I would like to announce a new entrant into the lean blogosphere, it’s called Lean MathTM (leanmath.com).

I know what you’re thinking, “Lean Math?!” Now, that’s a subject that evokes passion in the heart of every lean practitioner…right?

But, the truth is effective lean transformations require some level of math, whether it’s the often deceptively simple takt time calculation, sizing kanbans, calculating process capability, or anything in between. It’s hard to get away from math.

There is no such thing as math-free lean and certainly not math-free six sigma!

Lean MathTM is not intended to be some purely academic study and it does not pretend to be part of the heart and soul of lean principles. (Can you say niche?) Rather, it’s a tool and a construct for thinking. Here we want to integrate lean math theories and examples with experimentation and application.

Some background. Within the next year, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers will be publishing a book, tentatively entitled, Lean Math. I started this thing a LONG time ago, just ask SME!  And, I’m not going it alone this time, Michael O’Connor, Ph.D. (a.k.a. Dr. Mike) is co-authoring this work. We’re also getting a ton (!) of help from Larry Loucka, friend, colleague, and fellow-blogger at Lean Sigma Supply Chain.

No surprise, we’re the three folks who are launching the Lean Math Blog. The formal launch date is February 14th – because we LOVE math! Ok, love may be a bit strong. We really LIKE math.

Here are some of our first blog posts:

  • Time
  • Cycle Time
  • Square Root Law
  • Available Time

I even made an introductory video for the new site. First video ever. And it’s about math…!?! Scary.

The categories or topics that we’ll ultimately address with future posts include the following. Go here if you want to see the detail.

  • Systems
  • Time
  • “Ilities”
  • Work
  • Inventory
  • Metrics
  • Basic Math
  • Measurement

Yes, there’s a lot of ground to cover. That’s why the book draft is so stinking big!

Please check out the site and subscribe to RSS or email to catch future posts. If you’re so inclined, make a comment and start a conversation and/or share the posts with other folks  through social media (we’ve got the buttons). Also, please like us on Facebook (Lean Math Blog) and follow us on Twitter (@LeanMath) and on our LinkedIn company page (Lean Math Blog).

Admittedly, we’re just getting started, we will continue to add new content in a variety of categories. Through our own application of PDCA, we’ll endeavor to improve the site and increase the value to our readers.

Ultimately, we hope that you will join our fledgling Lean MathTM community and that it lives up to our blog tag line, “Figuring to improve.”

Related posts: Does Your Cycle Time Have a Weight Problem?, Musings About FIFO Lane Sizing “Math”, Guest Post: “Magical Thinking”


Lean Should Be a Pain in the #*%!

We’re all familiar with the Toyota Production System “house.” You know, the structure schematic with, among other things, the just-in-time and jidoka pillars.

Well, sometimes I think it would be more appropriate to refer to the house, any lean house, as a house of pain.


Not great for lean marketing purposes, necessarily. But, there is more than a bit of truth to this notion of lean pain.

Here we’re not talking about pain in some sort of sadistic or masochistic way. This type of pain is value-added in that it spurs quick recognition and meaningful response to stop that particular pain forever…all for the purpose of making things easier, better, faster, and cheaper.

Sure, we could try to avoid pain. Most normal people don’t like pain. But, as the old cliché goes, “No pain, no gain.” And by gain, we mean continuous improvement and organizational learning.

So, what is a primary building block (pillar, foundation, etc.) of this house of pain?

I’m thinking continuous flow (it’s part of the just-in-time pillar, by the way) is a great candidate, among many. There’s nothing quite like operating with a lot size of one. Continuous flow provides no place to run OR hide.

It will never be mistaken as a morphine replacement.

Of course, lean’s pain is somewhat compassionate, in a big picture sort of way. It does not seek to kill or incapacitate. That would NOT be value-added.

How could you possibly satisfy the customer in such a condition?! How would that square with respect for the individual?

So instead, lean’s pain is more gradually and strategically applied. As an example, we strive for continuous flow, but often the more pragmatic (and temporary) approach includes a measure of supermarket pull and/or sequential pull (a.k.a. FIFO lanes). For a batch-and-queue operation, that’s pain enough…for now.

This isn’t quite Shewhart-esque or Deming-esque, but the lean pain cycle might go something like the following:

  1. Enable/facilitate pain – for example, implement continuous flow.
  2. Recognize the pain when it comes (and it will come, if you’re appropriately aggressive) – visual controls are critical for early recognition.
  3. Respond to the pain – think line stop jidoka, along with andon response.
  4. Make the specific pain go away – first aid may be more along the lines of containment, but permanent pain elimination requires real problem solving.
  5. Repeat.

[LSS Academy’s and Gemba Academy’s Ron Pereira shared an excellent video a while back that explained the true meaning of the Chinese characters constituting the word “kaizen.”  In all seriousness, it has something to do with self-flagellation, sheep, and altars! True story. The subject of pain is definitely front and center. Go here to see Brad Schmidt’s expert and very entertaining explanation.]

Here’s another cliché, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

Which raises an important point – the lean leader needs to understand pain thresholds (without facilitating lean wimpiness) and challenge and coach others appropriately.

Here’s to value-adding pain!

Related posts: 12 Narrow Lean Gates, Standard Work Is Like Food – Taste before Seasoning, Leader Standard Work Should Be…Work!


PDCA – So Simple, It’s Child’s Play [Guest Post]

I was recently working in Indonesia at one of the largest pulp and paper mills in the world. One evening we were invited to the company’s continuous improvement awards ceremony.

On a quarterly basis they recognize kaizen teams that have excelled.

Halfway through the ceremony, two girls from the local grade school took the stage to present the results from the kaizen event that they had led at their school…


In a simple and logical manner they explained how they followed Plan, Do, Check, Act.

The problem was congestion in the hallways between classes. This caused students to be late for the next class, damage to property on shelves, and, in a few cases, injury.

Through direct observation they documented the current state with “noodle” diagrams and time observations. They identified a solution and tested it. They made a few modifications and implemented the final solution with standard work and a method to measure results. The results were no one was late for class, and damage and injuries were eliminated.

Talk about humbling! GRADE SCHOOL!

I think of the excuses that I routinely hear; it won’t work for our problem/business, we do not have the time, it is too hard, no one wants to change.

Blah, blah, blah….

Remember that even kids are using PDCA.

Stop making excuses and go and fix something.

John Rizzo authored this blog post. He is a fellow Lean Six Sigma implementation consultant and friend of Mark Hamel.

Related posts: Guest Post: Beyond Toast Kaizen – Lean Breakfast Concepts, Circa 1937, “Do” Only Gets You Half the Way There, or…“No Pie for You!”, Want a Kaizen Culture? Take Your Vitamin C!

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Blog Carnival Annual Roundup: 2012 – Shmula

Peter Abilla

This is the second of my two contributing installments for John Hunter’s fifth annual review roundup. In this post, I am honored to review Peter Abilla’s blog Shmula, a blog about, “business, technology, and stuff in between.”

I must admit, I have no idea what a “Shmula” is, be it noun, verb, adverb, obscure lean acronym…

However, I do know that Peter Abilla is a thought leader, speaker, consultant, and professor, among other things. He’s got a very refreshing blogging approach, both in perspective and content. Heck, Peter studied math, philosophy, and more. I studied math, theology, and other stuff.

We’re practically related!

Truly, Peter is unique. His posts touch upon not only lean manufacturing, but queueing theory, and operations research. He is not your stereotypical ex-ops guy.

Abilla wrote 76 posts during 2012. Here’s a quick summary on just a smattering of his work.

OK, so there are 71 more 2012 Shmula posts to check out. I do hope that you visit Peter Abilla’s blog.

Please let me know if you figure out what a “Shmula” is.

Also, please see ALL of John Hunter’s 2012 Management Blog Carnival activity right here. The lean blogosphere has so much to offer.

Related posts: Management Improvement Carnival #126, Blog Carnival Annual Roundup: 2011 – Steven Spear, Blog Carnival Annual Roundup: 2011 – Lean Blog, Blog Carnival Annual Roundup: 2011 – A Lean Journey, Blog Carnival Annual Roundup: 2012 – Old Lean Dude


Blog Carnival Annual Roundup: 2012 – Old Lean Dude

Bruce Hamilton

This is the first of my two contributing installments to John Hunter’s fifth annual review roundup. In this post, I am honored to review Bruce Hamilton’s Old Lean Dude blog, “a blog about understanding TPS and gaining its full benefits, brought to you by ‘The Toast Guy’.”

Bruce is the President of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), is Vice Chair of the Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence, and all-around lean evangelist.

While Bruce has been blogging for just two years, his lean thought-leading presence has been around for many years. I have met Bruce personally several times and have listened to him speak on a handful of occasions.  My consistent experience can be summed up as follows:

  • Wow, what a humble, unassuming, down-to-earth person!
  • He just expanded my lean-thinking (again)!
  • Bruce lives and embodies the GBMP tag line of people-driven improvement, “Everybody. Everyday.”

Make no mistake, Bruce may be known as the Toast Guy (I have used the Toast Kaizen DVD for training purposes nearly 100 times), but he is really a sensei…and I reserve that term for very, very few folks.

Oh yes, Bruce’s blog…

Bruce has been a busy blogger. There is a ton of great content, written in his own inimitable style.

While I can only share a few his posts (below), you will do well to explore Mr. Hamilton’s blog.

  • They Assessment. Bruce gets the reader to reflect about culture and an organization’s use of the word “they.” Lean transformations are by no means immune to us versus them thinking.  In fact, “they” word counts and lean success is inversely proportional.
  • What Does 3p Stand for? There’s the technical side of 3P and the people side. Hamilton shares both within the context of a real-life example. Great stuff!
  • WIP It. Two things: 1) the Old Lean Dude and his team are great at didactic entertainment, and 2) Bruce can’t sing! Check out the post and check out the video below. Can anyone say, “Lean Devo”?

  • High Level Ignorance. Remember the 8th waste? Bruce provides insight into perhaps the root cause behind that waste. Hint- it ain’t the “low level employees.”
  • Too Happy Too Soon. Bruce just posted this one today. Here, he shares a real life experience around SMED with a deeper learning about when to expand beyond pilot-mode. Our impatience can limit our level of improvement.

I truly hope that you visit Bruce Hamilton’s blog. The Old Lean Dude can teach the willing student new tricks!

Also, please check out ALL of John Hunter’s 2012 Management Blog Carnival activity right here.

Related posts: Management Improvement Carnival #126, Blog Carnival Annual Roundup: 2011 – Steven Spear, Blog Carnival Annual Roundup: 2011 – Lean Blog, Blog Carnival Annual Roundup: 2011 – A Lean Journey


Eight Ways to Avoid the Kaizen Roach Motel

I see the same cycle in so many places.

What cycle?

This one, more or less:

Step 1. Altruistic leaders sincerely (?) ask the associates for their improvement ideas (a.k.a. suggestions, kaizens, CI’s, etc.) in an attempt to foment some daily kaizen.

Step 2. Associates (not all of them), somewhat skeptically, call leadership’s bluff and submit their ideas.

Step 3. Leadership is pleased with the response (the number of ideas, that is) and then…panics. They determine that the quality of the ideas is uneven at best and they can’t effectively respond to and implement even a fraction of the ideas that have been submitted.

Step 4. The associates come to the realization that their ideas are on a one-way trip to kaizen’s version of the Roach Motel. You know, the Roach Motel, where ideas (or roaches) check in, but they don’t check out. The most jaded associates chide the ones who were gullible enough to think that their ideas mattered. Improvement ideas slow to a trickle.

Step 5. Leadership organizes a tiger team to make a dent in the huge inventory of ideas.

…and so on.

I don’t need to tell you that it doesn’t always end well.

How can we break this cycle?

Here are eight ways.

  • Build the right ecosystem. Kaizen, especially daily kaizen, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. An effective lean management system helps drive good standardize-do-check-adjust (SDCA) and plan-do-check-adjust (PDCA) thinking. It integrates solid visual controls, andon response, leader standard work, and regular team reflection meetings during which the team engages in, or at least initiates, problem-solving and then follows through. Of course, the ecosystem doesn’t work without solid lean leadership behaviors.
  • Teach and coach basic problem-solving capability. Good problem-solving skills aren’t necessarily innate. One of the most futile things is to launch a quick and easy kaizen system, suggestion system, etc. without any formal training. That’s when you get unintelligible problem statements, countermeasures that are wholly unrelated to the root cause, etc. Folks need practical training, practice, and coaching all the way up and down the organization.
  • Keep the system simple, transparent, quick, and local. Bureaucracy is the enemy of kaizen. People need to understand the system, easily know the status of their ideas, and get nearly immediate feedback when they first submit their idea…like in 24 hours. Think “subsidiarity,” push improvements and decisions around the improvements down to the lowest possible level – usually the natural work team.
  • Prioritize. When kaizen idea systems really kick into gear, expect dozens per person per year. Such a magnitude of ideas can’t be implemented at once. Teams should apply simple ways to prioritize (for example around impact on the team’s tiered performance metrics and the effort required to implement) and work no more than a handful at a time.
  • Don’t separate finding from fixing. Folks are truly engaged when they “own” the improvement, meaning they are invested in finding the problem and then personally fixing, or help fixing, it. Similarly, it is impossible to understand PDCA if one only does “P.”
  • Provide nimble resources for implementation. Effective lean organizations invest in modest, but targeted resources to help facilitate daily kaizen. These resources include the kaizen promotion office and “moonshine” departments.
  • Share and manage the change. Horizontal sharing of improvement ideas (yokoten) is an excellent way to recognize those who did the kaizen, while also inspiring others to “borrow” and further improve on the improvement. At the same time, there needs to be a low bureaucracy way to manage change to ensure that pragmatic standardization is maintained where needed.
  • Dole out the 3C’s. Leaders must constantly challenge folks to improve the process (easier, better, faster, cheaper!), provide them with the courage to try new things (“fail forward”), and to apply their creativity.

Do these eight things and avoid the Kaizen Roach Motel!

Related posts: Want a Kaizen Culture? Take Your Vitamin C!, Bridging to Daily Kaizen – 15 (or so) Questions, Book Review: How to Do Kaizen