Lean Transformation

In addition to having implemented lean in several companies, I’ve been fortunate to have been able to visit a large number of unique organizations where continuous improvement methods have taken root.  Although for the most part they’re all different, they also have a few things in common:

  1. A strong yet humble leader that enables and respects people by teaching new concepts and letting them try ideas, with failure seen as a valuable part of the learning process.
  2. A methodical process that truly analyzes the current state, envisions the future state, and identifies the appropriate changes necessary to improve.
  3. An ability to identify new tools and methods, then modifying them for their specific circumstance, thereby engraining them into culture and making them their own.  Owning it.

The first point on respect for people is critically important, but is often forgotten or not understood.  In my opinion it is the primary reason lean transformations fail, which is also why Gemba Academy has recently released the Culture of Kaizen series of videos.

The second and especially third points are what then create success.  Instead of simply adopting tools, which is the danger of benchmarking best practices, they dig into their situation to truly understand the problem or opportunity.  Only then do they look for tools and methods, and even at that point they know they need to customize those tools.

Great continuous improvement organizations don’t just implement tools.  They go through a process:

  1. What is the problem or opportunity?
  2. What is the underlying root cause or reason?  Really dig into it.  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?  Why?
  3. What are some potential tools and methods to create improvement?
  4. How will those tools work in our environment? What needs to change?
  5. How will they be implemented?  By who, with what resources, knowingly de-prioritizing what other activities?

I’ve seen a lot of great organizations over the past couple decades, and they have reinforced to me that there is no one “right way.”  I know there are many purists out there that insist we must follow “The Way” with regards to which tools, in what manner and order, following the teachings of Ohno or whoever.  Don’t get me wrong – the historical context is very valuable.  But it is also just an input, and every situation is different.

Here are just a few examples from Gemba Academy’s Gemba Live! series – where we go out to unique organizations to bring you their stories.  Each one is different

Techno Aerospace, where the entire organization is geared toward supporting their hoshin plan, including incentives, visual methods, and defined processes.

Menlo Innovations, a software development firm where every activity is focused around adding joy to their team members and customers.

Aluminum Trailer Company, a manufacturing company that leverages Training Within Industry (TWI) throughout, and even outside, the organization.

Specialty Silicone Fabricators, a medical device company where coordinated, cascading standup morning meetings and visual accountability systems at all levels of the multi-site company ensure alignment, execution, and focus.

FastCap, a company led by Paul Akers, where associates are encouraged to practice “two second lean” – making small improvements each day, every day.  The compounding effect of those improvements is incredible.

There are several more examples at Gemba Live!, and in a couple weeks we’ll be releasing videos from another company that has taken autonomous teams to an incredible level.

While in Japan a few years ago I also visited some innovative companies:

Toyota’s Kyushu factory, at that time it’s most efficient auto manufacturing facility in the world, yet there were almost no robots or computers on the shop floor – just an amazing example of manual kanban and the compounding effect of thousands of ongoing small improvements.

Saishunken Cosmetics, where almost all 1,000 employees worked in one large open room, with no walls, with the president and executive staff at a conference table in the middle.  The agility created by the ability to communicate rapidly was a game-changer.

An electronics company where a dedication to 3S, not 5S, turned the company around and made it successful.  You’ll even find the president scrubbing the floors in the morning.

There have been others even before that trip.

Sun Hydraulics in Florida, where a company of over 1,000 people had no job titles, except for the “plant manager” that was in charge of watering the plants.  An incredible story – and also some difficulties as they contemplated growth.

And last but not least…

American Apparel, a company that fascinated me for a long time and I was lucky enough to visit.  They could design and manufacture clothing in Los Angeles, outcompeting Asian sweatshops, even with the burden of a CEO that had “other interests.”  The story is great, unfortunately the CEO not so much.

Don’t just “do lean” by value stream mapping, holding a kaizen event, or even 5S.  Take the time, as a team, to truly understand the problem or opportunity, and even then don’t just slap a tool on it.  Modify it and change it to ensure it works with your situation and culture.

Own it.


Two Types of Kaizen

iStock_000032641854XLargeThe word kaizen is fast becoming a buzz word galore.  You will hear about how people are “doing kaizen” or running a big “kaizen event” next week.

Many times folks are in fact executing kaizen’s in an attempt to make things better and I applaud them.In addition to the infamous “kaizen mind set” there are at least two, possibly more, types of kaizen events I am aware of: point kaizen and system kaizen.

Let’s discuss them.

Point Kaizen

From my experience the most common type of kaizen practiced is called point kaizen. These kaizen events typically come about as the plant manager is walking through the shop (a great thing by the way) and notices a mess in cell 4.

So he or she finds the supervisor of the cell and discusses it. The supervisor gets the hint and launches an immediate 5S kaizen event in the area.

Great stuff to be sure… but we must be careful lest point kaizen consumes us and we lose focus on the entire system.

System Kaizen

System kaizen, in contrast to point kaizen, comes about when this same plant manager realizes that their flagship product line is suffering from a growing past due backlog, too much inventory, and overall poor morale from the folks adding value to the product.

With this in mind, he or she works with the team in developing both a current state value stream map and then a future state value stream map.  This future state value stream map is a view of how the team wishes to see things working in a pre-determined time frame (e.g. 3 months, 6 months, etc.).

Things like tidying things up via 5S, creating model cells, and implementing WIP and finished good supermarkets may be some of the things needed in order to reach this future state.

System Kaizen Leads to Point Kaizen

What the team soon realizes is that the 2 day value stream mapping “system kaizen” exercise lead to the identification of multiple “point kaizen” events.  And once these point kaizen events are successfully complete the team should be much closer to their future state vision.

So, while point kaizen is never bad, I feel it extremely important to mention the need to first look at things from a “system” perspective before worrying about things on a “point” perspective.

Kaizen Rules – 9 & 10

This week has been about all things kaizen. I have to come clean and admit I wrote this entire series last weekend as I was preparing to take off on vacation with my family. Thanks to the greatness of WordPress I was able to delay the submission of the posts. Yeah, I know… it’s a little mass production-ish… but hey what can I say.

In any event, we are wrapping things up this evening. We have covered lots of ground and if you have just joined us please check out the following posts.

Rule 9: Seek the wisdom of ten people rather than the knowledge of one.

Lone Rangers are a thing of the past. No matter how brilliant you are, I assure you that listening to others, and I mean really listening, will accelerate your kaizen efforts ten fold.

Rule 10: Remember that opportunities for kaizen are infinite.

So far we have discussed 9 rules to kaizen. If you remember only one of them I hope it is this last one – kaizen is a mindset and never ends.


For those familiar with the book, “Gemba Kaizen” by Masaaki Imai you may notice an interesting relationship between these ten rules and the ten rules he shares. Yeah, they are the same rules but with my comments added.  So, if you haven’t read this book I really recommend you pick it up and give it a good read.

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