There is a lean thinking book that should be in everyone’s library. It is titled, “All I Need to Know about Manufacturing I Learned in Joe’s Garage: World Class Manufacturing Made Simple” by William Miller. I am not promoting Miller’s book, but it is a good lean reference, and the title was a good lead-in for this article on leadership lessons learned about lean at Joe’s cabinet shop.

CabinetMaker+FDM archives contain a number of articles regarding leading in a lean environment, but this one will address specific lessons learned from the initial implementation of a couple of tools of lean at Joe’s. The tools are Workplace Organization and a recent Kaizen activity. Both of these tools may have already been deployed at your facility or they will be at a future time. I hope these lessons learned can be incorporated into your own Lean journey.

Level of commitment

There is a good and capable Lean Champion leading the lean transformation at Joe’s, and he is supported by an equally capable and passionate Lean Coordinator. Joe is also an enthusiastic supporter of lean thinking, but regardless of the level of passion of these three key leaders, a successful transformation cannot be achieved without the dedication and commitment of the entire management team. I hope the two cases in point that I am going to share will help you appreciated the level of commitment required to ensure success in a lean transformation and the role of all leaders in support of any continuous improvement process.

The initial activity, following the introductory lean training sessions, was a phased implementation of the first three steps of the first 3Ss – Sort, Set-in-Order, and Shine – as outlined in “The 5S Pocket Guide, which is available at Using that resource encouraged continuity and consistency in the application of 5S thinking and provided supporting information to help team leaders and area managers better understand and execute the requirements. Each leader was tasked to assess his or her area of responsibility and then develop an implementation plan based on guidance from the Lean Champion. Parallel to that process the Lean Champion developed a general, enterprise-wide plan, which was communicated to all of his direct report staff. Each direct report person followed the same protocol to develop a more tailored plan for his or her individual area of responsibility and then they collectively briefed the Lean Champion back on their plans for his approval and for coordination of support resources across the enterprise.

Following approval from the Lean Champion, each direct report rolled out the plan to their staff who subsequently developed a very detailed plan, and so on until the entire organization was included in a plan at some level. The tool used to develop the plans was the Tactical Planning Tool, which is also available for reference through CabinetMakerFDM archives. Has the stage been set for a successful Workplace Organization implementation? Let’s take a look at the Kaizen (improvement) event before responding to that question.

Kaizen event

The Kaizen event focused on creating a breakthrough opportunity in one of the bottleneck processes. The objective and scope of the event were detailed and communicated to the Kaizen team through the use of a Kaizen Mandate in advance of the activity and the cross-functional team was selected well in advance of the event so each team member could become familiar with the target process as well as their role on the team.

This was a four-day Kaizen that followed established event protocol consisting of:
•Lean refresher training,
•Evaluating the current situation through,
o Documenting the current state,
oTime studies,
oValue Stream analysis, and
oGoing to Gemba (the shop floor) to observe and absorb.
•Brainstorming alternatives,
•Testing selected alternatives to validate their feasibility and application as long-term solutions,
•Defining and documenting a new process,
•Establishing 30, 60, and 90-day follow-up responsibilities,
•Training the current staff in the new process,
•Briefing company leadership on the results of the Kaizen activity, and
•Celebrating success.

The mandate for this event included a target increase in throughput of 25 percent. The team developed a new process that should deliver 35 percent throughput improvement. Was this Kaizen event a success?

Closing the loop

The answer to both of the questions unfortunately is no. The only thing that these two lean tools accomplished was establishing a framework for success, they didn’t ensure it. In both cases success will be achieved only when the leadership team, including the Kaizen Team leader, close the accountability loop and ensure that the new disciplines established through Workplace Organization and the Kaizen event become the new norm at Joe’s. This is not a small task and should not be viewed as something that only requires cursory follow-up from time to time with a moderate level of reinforcement. At Joe’s, subsequent reviews and follow-up on the execution of the Workplace Organization plan indicates that some of the leaders were actively engaged, but not all of them. Subsequently a new plan is being developed to complete the process. There were a number of common, legitimate reasons why the attention of some of the leaders was distracted from the task, such as increased work load and unfamiliarity with the 5S process, but those factors should have been considered in the original plan so a realistic timeline could be developed. Also, there were milestone events defined that should have been followed closely by the responsible manager for early detection of barriers to success. The Tactical Planning Tool has a built in accountability loop as well as triggers for assessing progress towards the objective.

The Kaizen follow-up checklist is also designed for the team leader to stay connected to team members who are responsible for accomplishing necessary tasks that carry beyond the completion date of the event. Although an accountability loop is not built into the Kaizen mandate, standard Kaizen operating procedures provide a protocol for the team leader to use follow-up.

The role of the leader is to use the Lean tools not only to establish a template for continuity and consistency in planning activities such as Workplace Organization and Kaizen, but to hold people accountable for the plan they developed or the agreements that they made. That is a responsibility that should never be delegated to someone else or relegated to a status of low prominence. Success is achieved when leaders lead. I’m confident that the management team at Joe’s can regroup and rededicate themselves as leaders of change. 

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