A beginner’s guide to Lean

Many companies started with 5S events are stalled or, worse, going backward. See what you should do to establish a lasting Lean program.


As I do every summer, I visited several manufacturing companies in the southeastern Michigan area to evaluate and recruit companies to Mark S. Doman is a professor in Lean studies at Oakland University. He has led several major organizational change initiatives throughout his career that included corporate restructuring, Lean workouts and process re-engineering.Courtesy: Target Online Magazine sponsor Oakland University student teams for my Lean courses during the upcoming fall and winter terms.

Many of the companies have started their Lean journeys, but now find themselves stalled or, worse, going backward. One common denominator is that most of the companies started with some sort of 5S event, which more likely turned out to be 2S "one-and-done" events.

One plant manager walked me through his raw materials receiving area and showed me the faded trappings of a 5S effort that a team did two years ago. Sure, there were painted lines on the floor where certain materials were supposed to be stored, but that was about it. The receiving area was dirty and disorganized.

I asked him what had happened. He shrugged his shoulders and said there was a big hoopla to start, but that it quickly died down and not much was done afterward. It left a bad taste in everyone's mouth about Lean.

Another plant manager gave me a plant tour through his production area. I noticed the hard-to-see paint on the floor that indicated that a storage rack was supposed to be situated there, so I asked if the rack against a nearby wall was out of place. He said yes. I asked him what he typically would do about that. His expression said it all.

I know that a 5S event is a great team-building event. It's comfortable. Who doesn't like a fun 5S event? Everyone likes a clean, organized workplace. It's a great way to kick off your company's Lean journey. Right?

Not so fast. My experience tells me differently. A 5S event promotes a false sense of finality. "We did 5S, and now we are done with Lean." It's perceived as a one-time event that is supposed to start the Lean engine, and Lean will run on its own thereafter.

Lean needs to start with a leadership team that understands what it is embarking on and what commitment will be required to see this Lean journey through.

When I talk to the leadership teams about starting Lean, I always go back to the fundamentals I wrote about in my summer 2012 Target Online article, "How Lean ready are you?"

As I said in that article, "Every member of the leadership team should participate in the first three steps of this four-step, hands-on, data-driven Lean readiness assessment (LRA) exercise:

1. Go to the Gemba: Get out of your office and see what is really going on.
2. Value stream mapping: Understand where the value is produced and where the waste is with data and metrics.
3. Problem-storming: Identify (not solve) major problem areas and where they are with pictures and frontline input.
4. Then, based on your leadership team's answers to the first three steps, either decide to stop the LRA now or move forward to the fourth and final step.
5. Kaizen: Select a lean champion from the leadership team, appoint a team leader from the problem-storming invitees and form a Kaizen team of five or six members from different levels and functions to choose a problem from the list of problems identified in the problem-storming session and complete an A3 Report."

After completing the four-step LRA, the leadership team will have the knowledge and experience, plus have demonstrated their personal "skin in the game" to their employees, to decide whether it wants to start a lean initiative. Then, there's a good chance that it will be more than a "big hoopla 5S event" and nothing more.

Email me your best Lean practices and describe how and why they work to motivate your employees to solve problems and improve performance. I'd like to include them in future articles and spread the word about best Lean practices throughout the manufacturing world.

Mark S. Doman is a professor in Lean studies at Oakland University. He has led several major organizational change initiatives throughout his career that included corporate restructuring, Lean workouts and process re-engineering. He is the author of A New Lean Paradigm in Higher Education: A Case Study. Quality Assurance in Education, Vol. 19 No. 3, 2011, "How Lean Ready Are You?" Target, Vol. 28 No. 2, 2012 and "The Beginner's Guide to Lean" series. This article originally appeared on AME Target Online Magazine. AME is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Joy Chang, digital project manager, CFE Media, jchang@cfemedia.com

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