Top 10 Most Misunderstood Lean Tools (Part 1)

Top 10 Most Misunderstood Lean Tools (Part 1) -

Lean tools can be incredible assets to a business. They’re usually fairly simple to understand and can produce some outstanding results. Unfortunately, many Lean tools get used without consideration for what truly brings value to the customer or the broader business strategy. As a result, tools are applied toward short-sighted gains and the true commitment level to sustainment is low. This article lists the first 3 of the top 10 most misunderstood but commonly applied Lean and Continuous Improvement tools.

1) First on the list is 5S (or 6S if you include safety). The 5 S’s stand for sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain. This acronym was originally developed in Japanese, which also used 5 S’s, which you can learn more about here – 5S on Wikipedia.

The misunderstanding: Most people understand 5S to be a good way to organize the workplace so it looks and feels good. 5S is a great way to remove clutter and define a home for each and every item. If you’re really doing it right, 5S also serves to thoroughly clean equipment inside and out and identify defects that need repair. Some even go into 5S expecting an immediate boost in productivity, morale, and some other key metrics. While 5S does enable these and other great results, it’s not the fundamental intent of the methodology as designed.

Why do 5S? The true purpose of 5S is to expose opportunities for improvement – both from a people and process development standpoint. Many leaders expect an immediate ROI after a 5S implementation, but what this method really does is lays the workplace conditions needed to begin the journey of Continuous Improvement – and not the journey itself. For example, during 5S, you must establish a home for each and every item. When an item is found to be out of place, it exposes an opportunity for coaching and possibly process improvement. Leaders and process owners should be asking why the misplaced item so easily wanders from its home? Perhaps its home is not set up in the ideal place. Perhaps there aren’t enough of this particular item in supply for each area and people from other areas keep taking them away. There could be a million reasons, but in observing the process and asking why things are out of compliance, helps drive overall process improvement and people capability development.

2) Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) – This is a metric used to calculate equipment utilization and categorize losses. The metric measures a factory against perfection – meaning 0 losses, which is theoretically impossible, so you should never ever ever see 100% OEE.

The misunderstanding: Many use OEE to show how good their processes are. Some set a target for OEE, even as high as 85%, which is widely regarded as world-class, then expect their teams to show 85% as quickly as possible. Some even go as far as to reprimand or punish their teams for not showing a high enough OEE. Many seek ways to trim out some losses so they can show a higher number such as giving start-up and changeover allowances because these losses are considered “unavoidable”. Another example would be to not consider losses due to supplier or raw material issues because these losses are “out of our control”.

Why use OEE? The real value in OEE is in showcasing your losses and using the information as an input to where you can drive the greatest improvements. The reason OEE compares your process to perfection, or Zero Losses, is because true process perfection is the ultimate objective, although realistically unachievable, and thus is why we call it Continuous Improvement – because it never ends. Implementing OEE is not the end of the journey, its done in the beginning. The journey is in the improvement work done to capture OEE gains, which happens over a long time period – years even. In the process, leaders should be developing the capability within their people to understand OEE losses and lead process improvements. Only when the people capability is developed can sustainable gains be achieved.

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3) Kaizen. In most Lean  circles, Kaizen is synonymous with Continuous Improvement. It actually stems from the words Kai, for change, and Zen, meaning “good” in Japanese. The literal translation to English is Change for the Good. Change itself is inevitable. The objective of Kaizen is to ensure that things are changing for the better. Organizations should be constantly improving to get or stay in tune with the market.

The misunderstanding: Kaizen is often used to generate some quick business results. Perhaps this means a cost savings or bump in productivity. The expectation is that once the Kaizen event is done, you should be able to continue normal operations and achieve better numbers. It’s also an expectation that the area that was improved was done in isolation of all of the many interconnected parts of the organization such as other production areas, support functions, the customer, sales, logistics, etc. Even the people are expected to be trained on the new process and run out and start generating much better results.

Why do Kaizen? The world within and around your business is constantly changing. In order to stay viable or grow, your business has to change as well. Kaizen describes an approach for making these changes. Kaizen not only helps to continuously engineer a more perfect process, it also helps to build the capability within your people to improve. In other words, it transforms every process owner into somewhat of an engineer, capable of self development, decision-making, and process improvement. The key to making Kazien work is for leaders to focus on building people capability, who in turn, perfect the process. Another critical ingredient is to make sure improvements are aligned to the company strategy. This helps ensure that improvement effort isn’t randomly applied, consuming precious company resources, but instead are working to take the business in the right direction.

By now, you can probably see the pattern in how Lean tools are misunderstood. Many times, the expectation is quick results with a relatively low level of leadership commitment. However, for these tools to drive long term sustainable growth, you need high leadership engagement and a clear strategy. At the heart of your business are your people. Your business results are largely a result of their capability, which is largely the result of your investment in them as their leader.


The Genius Inside PDCA and Why You Can’t Improve Without It

The Genius Inside PDCA -

If you’re like me, you’ve been seeing, saying, and maybe practicing the method behind the acronym PDCA throughout your entire Continuous Improvement career. Ever done a root cause analysis? A kaizen event? A DMAIC project? Or pretty much any Lean tool for that matter? Yup, you’re in this too! You were probably sucked into a PDCA without even knowing that’s the kind of party you were going to. Either way, there’s a good chance you’re doing it all over the place; and there’s also a damn good chance you could do it bigger, smaller, and just better in general.

What is PDCA?

“Plan-Do-Check-Act”, “Plan-Do-Check-Adjust” or “Please Don’t Call Again”, I think you can go either way on this one. If you bust this method down to its core elements, it’s really just the good ol’ fashion scientific method (it’s still okay to use the word scientific, right? Just checking). Let’s do a quick and dirty side-by-side:

Plan – Form a Hypothesis
Do – Run an Experiment
Check – Validate if the hypothesis is true or false
Act / Adjust – Decide whether or a new experiment is needed and repeat

Yes, I know this is oversimplified and there’s a lot more to running valid experiments and all that – but you see what I’m getting at. Now we have a pretty good idea how this works on a project level. Let’s say we want to fix an issue with a failing motor that’s causing excessive downtime. We may go out and observe (plan), troubleshoot, try something (do) – oops that didn’t work (check) – then try something else (act). Then keep trying until we figure it out and just continue to monitor until we’re comfortable that the dang thing is fixed. This is PDCA in it’s simplest form.

Let’s scale up one level to the kaizen event. Now we have a system of conveyors and machines that is dropping $250k / year worth of product on the floor from various places. We might capture the waste at different points to measure, then quantify losses per leak. Then we might prioritize which leaks to go after and in what order (plan). Then start the root cause analysis process or “where-where-why-why” analysis and then start troubleshooting (do). From there we continue to collect data to validate that losses have in fact been reduced (check). Finally, after learning that losses have actually gone up, we fire the Continuous Improvement leader, reassign someone who knows what they’re doing, and try again (act). Okay, let’s keep the CI guy and give them one more chance but they’re only allowed to 5S the front office.

Now let’s zoom out. Past all the engineers and accountants. Past the 17 levels of middle management. Past the 900 Vice Presidents and baam!…you’re the CEO. Your stock values are down. Wall Street is sending you death threats if you don’t do something quick. You hire a top tier Management Consulting firm to come up with a brilliant strategy (plan). You deploy this strategy throughout the company sparing no beating heart in the company (do). After about 6 months, you patiently watch the stock value barely budge (check). Then you decide the strategy and the consulting firm were bogus, you scrap them both and go with your gut to transform the company (act). Yes…this is also PDCA.

Where PDCA Fails?

Well since there are four letters involved, you guessed it, there are four places where PDCA can fail. Let’s just go in order, shall we?

Plan – You’ve heard the expression – failure to plan is planning to fail. Planning indicates the intent to prosper from an activity or at least avoid unnecessary losses. A good plan should define parameters around who, what, when, where, why, and how. It should also clearly state the hypothesis and how it will be validated. If controls can be put in place to make sure other “issues” don’t skew the result, that’s even better. It’s also good to establish from the onset what “success” looks like and the reaction protocol when (not if) it doesn’t come out as planned the first time around.

Do – This one goes without say. A wonderful plan that never gets executed is nothing more than a wish. You may think this is obvious but consider that 90% of strategies never get deployed. In fact, a whole world of executives will cite poor execution as the biggest reason for failure in business overall.

Check – Believe it or not, many-a-kaizen event are done and wrapped up with no performance tracking mechanism in place to validate if the dang thing even worked. I mean, people will go all out on the celebration after a kaizen event – popping champagne bottles, handing out t-shirts, big smiles for pictures in the newsletter and all that. But if you go back 3 months later and ask if the results have sustained, and you get a bunch of blank stares. Of course this has never happened to you, but take my word for it that it happens.

Act – This is a good barometer for the true Continuous Improvement mindset and culture at your company. You have to have a growth mindset to be any good at this one. You have to be willing and able to accept that perhaps your hypothesis was wrong and that the first go round was a learning exercise. Then be willing to give it another go based on your new knowledge to maybe get it right the next time. And then be willing to do this over and over and over until you get the result you want. If you have a succeed vs failure mindset (as opposed to a growth mindset), you might just write the whole thing off as a failure way too soon and accept the current state as a fact of life. This failure mindset is fatal in Continuous Improvement and should be discouraged at all costs. Do it for the culture. Do it for … the people!

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How to get Better PDCA’s?

Better PDCA’s, by definition, comes with improved quality and increased quantity. You have to be deliberate about making sure each step is executed the right way, every time it’s supposed to be. I watch my 7 year-old son execute PDCA over 100 times to beat a level in Mario Bros. Yes it took him 100 tries but he got it…and for him, it was totally worth it.

Here’s the gameplan:
1) Start with the company’s strategy so everyone is clear on what’s most important to improve
2) Then challenge every employee to improve something important in their area of ownership
3) Use Lean tools such as Root Cause Analysis, Kaizen, 5S, and others to identify needed changes and make them
4) Monitor the results and adjust / respond as needed. It’s best to have strong analytics system in place so tracking data doesn’t seem like added work

The key to success is not quitting until you get it right. In fact, the definition of success is not quitting (paraphrased for your convenience). This works at all levels in the organization so no one is immune. Implement a management system like to facilitate this practice and develop this capability throughout the entire company and see a dramatic and permanent shift in culture, capability, and business results.

90% of Strategy Deployments Fail: Here’s How You Beat the Odds

Better Strategy Deployment -

Breaking News: A stockpile of corporate strategies have been discovered floating near the Bermuda Triangle. They appear to be unused and have clearly never been executed. Some of them are quite beautifully hand-written on parchment paper with shiny gold ink with a quill. Some even show meticulously detailed action plans including names, due dates, and even incentives for early delivery. However as much as 90% of them never saw the light of day. Its clear that we put a lot of thought into strategy; perhaps we should all think harder about strategy deployment.

We spend a lot of time, energy, and political capital developing strategies for our businesses. Some of us put more into its development than its actual implementation. We treat the creation of a strategy like just another task to be completed and not like the path to everlasting prosperity that its meant to be. Something is wrong with this picture. Why are so few strategies actually brought to fruition? Why work so painstakingly hard to build a great strategy, just to fold it up and use it as a coaster for our morning coffee – and get right back to business as usual? And what can you do to increase the success rate of strategy deployment?

What is a Strategy Deployment?

Okay, so you’ve got this brilliant strategy. I mean, this thing is going to revolutionize the way business is done in your industry. You’re going to be the Toyota of food packaging, the Apple of household cleaners, or the Amazon of cosmetics by the time this is over with. You did everything right. Incorporated input from your key stakeholders and got buy-in from direct reports. You even held town hall meetings with the entire company to make sure everyone got the message that we’re more serious than ever about nailing this strategy down.

Then what happens? Not even a month later, a couple of angry customers, an injury, and a bunch of bad product that almost got out to the customer, and very few people can even remember that a strategy ever existed.

Strategy deployment is the process of managing a strategy into fruition. It usually entails engaging people at all levels in the organization to commit to objectives that translate the strategy to their areas of ownership. For example, if a key part of the strategy is to be the lowest cost producer, it would naturally follow that each person along the chain of command from the CEO to Line 2 operator would commit some work against reducing operating cost. However, strategies may have multiple levers, which only means more manpower needs to be involved and the more time it will take to truly deploy.

Why Strategy Deployment Fails

The best strategies deploy themselves, right? Wrong! You can etch your strategy into a golden tablet, but without investing in the support or management system to bring your strategy to fruition, it will just sit there collecting dust. The best strategies originate from the CEO. Some don’t, but hey, we gotta work with what we got.

Most good managers are fully capable of making changes to processes. This can be done relatively quickly and can be quite enjoyable. The challenge comes when the changes needed are in the area of people capability and behaviors. Here is where it helps to be a little bit of a psychologist, which most of us are not qualified for. If we were, perhaps we’d be making a bit more money. This takes time, patience, and some good ol’ coaching.

Most strategies are developed with the intent to make changes to the way the business works. However, the reality is that the business works how the people work. Likewise, the strategy should focus on what people capability and behaviors are needed to move the business closer to its vision. Then comes the painstaking neuroscience of re-wiring people’s brains to think and work differently. This is a deliberate and intentional process. Command and control just isn’t going to cut it. People have to want to get there, or else it won’t sustain. You have to leverage each person’s inner drive and passion. You have to start by issuing them… a challenge. Then put your coaching cap on.

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How to Increase the Likelihood of Successful Strategy Deployment

Given the choice to work on what pays the bills today versus what’s going to enable a successful future, most people I know would go straight for the short-term gratification. Unfortunately, many company cultures reward short-sightedness and quick wins, even if they are at the expense of long-term success. Fortunately, there are a few ways to leverage this dynamic to drive strategy:

  1. Visual Management System – Any Continuous Improvement coach worth their salt can tell you about the importance of highly visual management systems. There’s some social power in making something visible. No one likes to be publicly humiliated or appear to be failing in their role. In fact, it can make it difficult to lead if you clearly aren’t getting things done. On the same note, everyone likes to shine and appear to be succeeding. Visual Management Systems can be some of the easiest and fairly administered approaches to driving performance, especially when everyone is measured with the same yardstick and resources are equitably distributed.
  2. Strategy Deployment Verification – As a CEO, its hard to tell if the strategy is cascading throughout the organization. Getting buy-in and alignment with direct reports is one thing but getting all the way to the shop floor janitor is almost impossible to do effectively without the right tools. Everyone in your company needs to be able to see what everyone is committed to and how much progress the have (or haven’t) made. This also helps to ensure problems aren’t being kicked from one area of the business to another. This increases accountability and the chances of success.
  3. Strategy Alignment Verification – As the shop floor janitor, its hard to tell what the CEO’s strategy is or if priorities have changed and when. We like to believe that strategies should be set for several years to give the organization time to execute. However, consider that the company that can deploy, adapt, and deploy again on a shorter interval has a major competitive advantage over their slower counterparts. People need to know that they’re working on the right stuff. Their leaders need this confirmation as well.

Low tech strategy deployment methods such like spreadsheets, powerpoint slides, and word-of-mouth just don’t get you where you need to be. This is why leading companies like Toyota have adopted technologies to deploy strategy, ensure alignment, and ensure everyone’s Continuous Improvement efforts can be tied back to the strategy.

Isn’t it interesting that its easier to find out what’s happening in the White House than it is to find out what’s going on in the C Suite of your own company. This is the advantage that technology brings – as leveraged by media organizations, making the world smaller. Leverage technology to make your company smaller and more agile through effective strategy deployment. Your stakeholders will be glad you did.

The Customer Value Bill of Rights and the Lean Manufacturing Justice System

Customer Value Bill of Rights -

You’ve probably heard the expression that you succeed by helping others to be successful. Well that’s also true for a manufacturing business. Truly putting the customer first and your role as helping them to succeed changes the way you see value and waste, which are the ying and yang of Continuous Improvement. In 1950, it took Toyota a year to make the same amount of cars that Ford and GM made in 3 days. Toyota was on a glide path to failure and needed to make drastic changes for the sake of their own survival. Out of this immense pressure emerged the diamond that we now call Lean Manufacturing and the Toyota Production System, which has become the global benchmark of operational excellence. At the core of this set of management processes were 2 principles:

  1. Value is defined by the customer
  2. Waste is eliminated or controlled by a method we call one-piece-flow

This article stresses the importance of the first principle. The Toyota Production System was born out of an understanding that the customer is at the center of the company’s universe and everything the company does is intended to bring greater value to the customer. With this clear perspective on what it means to “win”, it also becomes clear what “losses” are – which are any activity that does not bring value to the customer. On the same note, Toyota has famously proclaimed that as much as 93% of all of it’s end-to-end supply chain activity is waste. So if you look around and see some opportunities for improvement, you’re certainly not alone.

Each customer defines value differently. Likewise, customer preferences are constantly changing. This is great; it means there’s always opportunity for you to grow and lay claim to whatever your slower moving competitors are leaving on the table. However, there are 6 rights that bring increasingly greater value to every customer. The company that does the best job satisfying those 6 rights every time has a huge competitive advantage over the other guys.

Here is the Customer Value Bill of Rights:

The Right Product

When you think of product, think of a solution that has a certain form, fit, and function. Customers will buy the product that most closely fits their need (or desire). Also, keep in mind that customer needs are always evolving as being driven by new technology, fashion trends, and competitive activity. You win this category by picking up the signals of consumer taste and being first to re-tool and launch products that seize emerging market opportunities. In this category, your weapon of choice is production agility and flexibility.

The Right Place

One simple but powerful Lean tenant is that supplies should be staged near the point of use. Your customers also appreciate the convenience of getting what they need from you without needing to look far and wide for it. Nearly all supply chain operations fall short of the ideal of zero distance from the point of use but is getting us fairly close. Most supply chain models are designed to get the product from the factory to the shelf at the supermarket. We then rely on the customer to come into the store to find and purchase the product. Amazon and a few other close followers have taken this a step further by delivering products directly to the customers doorstep – albeit at least a couple of days later. There is still opportunity here for us all.

The Right Time

Can you imagine everything you need just materializing right in your hand the moment you need it? We don’t live in that world today but I’m sure people would be delighted to fork over a little extra cash if you could figure this one out for them. This sounds a lot like the Lean Manufacturing principle of Just in Time delivery (JIT). As a consumer, the closest thing we have to this is in digital products like movies, music, and other content that can be accessed on demand. The next wave is products on demand in real-time. Imagine a new bottle of dish washing liquid showing up at your door the moment your current bottle reaches the 10% mark with no action needed on your part. Its coming – and if you get there before the other guys do, the spoils are all yours to enjoy.

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The Right Quantity

I would venture to say that most manufacturers that have been in business for a while do a pretty good job at shipping the right quantities to the customer. Of course some still struggle in this department from time to time but with the help of ERP and Order Management technology, you shouldn’t have much trouble getting production orders filled as needed. The key here is to continue to increase production reliability so that your system delivers the quantities needed with less time and inventory required.

The Right Quality

Quality can be a tricky one because it has a double-meaning; one being to produce with high consistency and low deviation from one unit to the next of the same product; the other referring to the perceived value of materials and methods used in production (consider luxury products as being regarded as high quality). For all intensive purposes, let’s consider quality to mean consistency and reliability of the product itself. Manufacturers win in this space by continuously engineering a more perfect production process where defects are made impossible in the best case and contained prior to shipping in the least so that product defects never reach the customer.

The Right Price

Finally, all of this must be done at the right price to the customer. This implies that conversion and material costs are low enough to leave you with a healthy profit as well. The manufacturer with the lowest direct, indirect, and overhead cost structure has a significant advantage over the competition given all other things equal. To win in this category, continue to drive out the eight wastes while delivering excellence across the Customer Value Bill of Rights.

The days of brand loyalty are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Companies that win in the markets of tomorrow understand the Customer Value Bill of Rights and leverage end-to-end Continuous Improvement to deliver on them more effectively than the competition. Jeff Bezos and the good folks at have made a killing by exploiting the fact that manufacturers do poorly at providing the right product at the right place. However, Amazon is terrified of that manufacturer who figures out how to deliver the right product to the individual customer’s doorstep on demand in the right quantity, quality, and price.

The Ultimate Lean Metric: Are You Really Improving?

The Ultimate Lean Metric -

So, I have good news – and I got bad news. Which one do you want to hear first? Ok the bad news…you might want to sit down for this. Well the results have come back from the lab and…it turns out that your manufacturing business is only 50% as productive as it could be (maybe this comes to you as good news. If so, we should talk because you need some new friends). The good news is that you can get to 60% just by tracking and reporting the right information. You can get even more productive than that by engaging your workforce in overcoming issues that are hurting your company’s productivity. But let’s tackle first things first. What Lean Metric are you using to show your opportunities for improvement? And how are you measuring productivity?

What is a Lean Metric?

Okay, I have a confession to make. I used the term Lean Metric with an unfair assumption. In my defense, its an assumption that almost everyone makes when they think about Lean or Continuous Improvement. Its the assumption that your company is focused on increasing productivity, reducing cost, freeing up working capital, optimizing throughput, improving quality, and so forth. Before investing another minute of your time or kilo-joule of your energy in Lean or Continuous Improvement, you should know what’s most important for your company to improve. If the answer is none of the items listed above, you might not be looking for the intel I’m about to share with you.

Your Lean Metric is the one that lets you know 2 things:

  1. How much better can you get – notice I didn’t say “how good you already are”. Hey, we all like to look good – but when you’re looking bad, you want to find out before everyone does
  2. Where do you place your improvement effort – hopefully you’ve accepted by now that improvement does require effort and you’ve planned for that, come on people. The next step is sizing up where that effort is most economically placed to produce the greatest return on investment. Not all changes are actually improvements – only changes that actually help are improvements.

Now if I walk into your plant and you tell me that you’re achieving over 100% efficiency, we need to have a serious talk. When you tell me that your performance metrics are no longer green but have reached gold status, let me know in advance so I can bring a good therapist along with me. The global standard for measuring productivity is a metric called Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE). I like this metric because it measures your equipment output against perfection, which means you can never achieve 100%. And that’s okay. The first step to recovery is acceptance.

However, even OEE as it’s taught in the textbooks is limited because it lacks the human element. The one that says that a person, or group of people, are responsible for the results. It draws focus to fixing machines but not developing people. A better metric would look overall personal effectiveness, which is similar to OEE (availability x throughput x yield) but at a person level as well. This way you can see who has better processes and capability and can help develop capability in those who need it most. This works well if leader behave more as coaches and adopt a CI mindset instead of seeking to place blame or take punitive action.

Why Your Lean Metric Matters

You may be thinking, wait a minute here. If I show a low efficiency number, its going to hurt morale and demotivate the team. The flipside is that if you show a high number that isn’t deserved, you’ll spoil the troops, which is also demotivating. To foster a Continuous Improvement culture, you need to reward the behaviors that you want to see repeated. The key is to reward behaviors that produce consistently improving results, not the results themselves. Even better if you can catch the behavior in the act and reward, encourage, inspire, etc. Rewarding results is dangerous because you probably don’t know what behaviors were used to produce those results.

Lean Metrics should help drive the right behaviors; those that lead to better and more sustainable results, as indicated (but not proven) by the metrics. Reward steady and gradual improvement, which is achieved by learning and increased engagement in the right behaviors. As a leader, the Lean metric more than likely represents how much you are investing in building the right capability in your people. The capability to overcome challenges, solve problems, and continuously improve processes in their area of ownership.

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How to Improve Your Lean Metric results?

We all know managers who think they’re “coaching” when they’re actually just “telling and punishing” their employees. They say things like “I told them what to do and they didn’t do it” or “they didn’t listen” or my favorite “they were coached”. This mindset comes from the old command and control management style that just doesn’t work for operational excellence. The reason is because you can command a short-term change in behavior, but if you haven’t built the capability and learning to sustain that behavior, it falls apart under the weight of real life. The key to getting better results in your Lean Metric is by truly coaching people. John Wooden would say that “great coaches can guide the behavior of others without causing resentment”. That’s a powerful skill that every leader should work to master.

Here’s a great way to coach people. You issue them a challenge that excites them or find out what they’re trying passionately to improve. Then engage them in overcoming the challenges between the current and target conditions. Whatever you do, don’t give them the answers – that’s not coaching, that’s commanding. Certainly don’t force them to use certain Lean Tools that you like and expect them to fall in love with the tool like you did; it’s not gonna happen. Let them come to understand that they can’t achieve their goal unless they get the tools or help they need. Once they ask for help, then you provide advice (but not commanding). They must achieve and retain ownership of the process and the improvement. One of my favorite expressions is “the beauty is in the struggle”. Let them struggle, then overcome, and finally be victorious. The Lean Metric will show improvement, then you reward them for all their hard work in overcoming such impossible challenges.

The Brilliance Behind the 5 Why’s: The Leanest of All Lean Tools

The Brilliance Behind the 5 Why's -

I have some terrible news. I hate to have the one to inform you of this. But…if you or your people are no good at solving problems, you can’t do Lean. Don’t waste your valuable time running out to the production floor to do 5S, kanbans, or even OEE. You’ll get your hopes up high just to watch them come crashing down after a couple of weeks when you start to see all the great work you did just isn’t sustaining. It will break your heart after investing so much political and emotional capital and getting everyone else so excited about Lean, just to end up feeling like Lean doesn’t work for us – just another flavor of the month.

But don’t give up hope. What I’m about to say in this blog post will change the trajectory of your Lean journey and put your initiative on the path to lifelong growth and sustainability (just pretend with me like that statement is not an oxymoron).

What is the 5 Why’s?

I assume you’ve probably heard of the 5 Why’s but I’ll give you the quick and dirty. It’s essentially a little technique that helps you identify the root cause of an issue simply by asking Why 5 times. The 5th Why (sometimes more or less) should get you pretty close to the root cause.

For example, a 5 Why’s Analysis might look something like this:

Problem: The conveyor system keeps failing

1st Why: The motor is running high amperage and shutting down

2nd Why: The motor is failing

3rd Why: The motor and gearbox have been lubricated very infrequently since they were installed

4th Why: No one is checking the lubrication record to see when the next lubrication is needed and lubricating

5th Why: There is no scheduled preventative maintenance in place for this motor

Logically, one would conclude to implement a PM, or even better, an Operator PM or self-lubrication system to lubricate the motor on a regular basis to avoid future failures.

How Are You Supposed to Do The 5 Why’s?

Although many people just complete the 5 Why’s as a conference room activity, which is a huge step forward from doing no root cause analysis at all. Ideally, the 5 Why’s would be done along with validating the “truth” in each of the assumptions made during analysis. The fact is that each of the Why’s listed above is a hypothesis that needs to be validated by testing the process to see if it actually changes the outcome, or even better, produces the desired outcome. If the 5 Why theory holds true, once you get to the 5th Why, then you have found the root cause.

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Why the 5 Why’s is so Powerful

There is no typo there. The 5 Why’s is immensely powerful. I’ll list 2 damn good reasons why but I’m sure you can come up with a half dozen more if you put your mind to it.

Reason #1: In identifying the root cause of one issue and fixing it permanently, you have also solved a whole boatload of other problems. So there’s a multiplier effect of getting this right. Take the example above regarding the PM for the conveyor motor. You can probably imagine that this conveyor failing is causing other reliability issues up and down the line due to the erk and jerk of frequent stopping and restarting. Also, I’d be willing to bet my allowance money that there are a bunch of other motors / gearboxes in your plant that also need to be set on a lubrication schedule.

Reason #2: Probably 99% of humans older than age 6 could effectively handle asking Why 5 times to get to the Root Cause. Okay maybe 99% is an overstatement but I’ll venture to say that all of your employees, managers, and colleagues can handle it just fine.

That’s another reason why I love Lean and Continuous Improvement. After spending too much of my life in undergrad for Industrial Engineering, half-killing myself pulling all-nighters to pass tests designed to demonstrate my inferiority and make me pay twice to retake each class, I get to the real world and learn that the best Industrial Engineering tools out there can be successfully executed by a six year-old.

Root cause analysis is at the heart of Dr Deming’s PDCA (Plan – Do – Check – Act) model of Continuous Improvement. The 5 Why’s is undoubtedly one of the most powerful Root Cause Analysis tools as it applies the logic behind what’s driving the problems we see everyday, regardless of complexity. So go forth and apply this wisdom to your stickiest of problems and at least (but not last) start to build the ever-so-needed problem solving capability. Couple this behavior with a good management system to get everyone using it regularly and you’ve got a recipe to build an unstoppable growth machine.

Kazien Events Don’t Work without this Powerful Activator

Sustaining Kaizen -

Okay so you spent the last 2 months planning this Kaizen event and the big day has come. You had to give up a kidney to get some line time freed up for this. You had to sign over your first born child to get a few operators, a mechanic, a quality person, and a safety resource booked for this event. The Plant Manager has given you an ultimatum that says if this kaizen event doesn’t result in a complete transformation of performance and culture, there’s no chance you’ll be successful with the company. Better yet, the expectation is that you get 100% buy-in from the entire workforce and all of the shop floor operators need to start taking the initiative to apply lean tools in order for you to claim any degree of success from this event. But hey…no pressure – it’s all good. Let’s do this.

You execute the event to perfection. The training is engaging and eye-opening; the observations and ideas for improvement are insightful; and the execution of action items was impeccable. After the event, the team does the report out to leadership about all the amazing learnings and changes and benefits to the business, right before breaking out into celebrating like you all just hit the lottery.

The Reckoning

The next Monday, everyone gets back to work. Back to the firefighting, the daily struggle to hit schedule, and avoiding risks of any type. However the results from the Kaizen event are showing promise, at first any way. After about a month or two, somehow the line performance is right back where it was before anything was done. How could this be? Should you have done more to recognize the good work that was done? Does the team not care about the beautiful standard work documents that were created and everyone swore on a stack of bibles that they would follow? What went wrong?

Why Your Kaizen Event Gains Aren’t Sustaining

So now it’s time for the post-mortem on your kaizen event and possibly any resemblance of your career with the company. The first stage is denial. You say things like: wait it did work. Look, this area still looks really good. And what about those potential safety accidents we avoided?

The second stage is blaming. You say things like, well it would have gone much better if this operator or that supervisor would have just done their job. You say, “the problem wasn’t the kaizen event, it’s a lack of accountability!”

Finally, you reach a stage a acceptance – and the healing can begin. You start saying, you know what, maybe I could have done some things differently. Perhaps I should have engaged more people or gotten more buy-in from leadership from the beginning.

Chances are that if this sounds familiar, you’re probably more a victim of circumstance more than anything else. Maybe you’ve been given the responsibility to lead a Lean Implementation that is expected to deliver rapid and sustaining results. However, this entire mindset is flawed from the onset. The truth is that you, or anyone for that matter, cannot will rapid and sustained results over the will and capability of the people doing the work everyday, or the people managing the business. Beware anyone claiming that this is possible because they end up doing more damage than good in the long run.

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Maximizing the Results of Your Kaizen Efforts

Here’s the reality of the matter. You can make changes or engage teams in kaizen to improve processes until you’re blue in the face. However, the business performance is truly limited to one thing: the improvement capability that exists within your workforce. So it’s not one-off kaizens that produce sustainable results, it’s gradual and disciplined mastery of the skill of improvement that gets you anywhere. This means the people who own processes in your factory need as many opportunities to sharpen their blade as practically possible.


Where the Real Improvement Happens First

It takes time and maybe some therapy to help people to cope with change – and some need more than others. Expecting rapid results is the same as denying people the time to grieve the loss of a loved one. The only thing that helps people overcome the fear and grief that comes with change is time, support and consistency, or risk causing psychological damage to your workforce. It also takes time for them to build the skills of making improvements. This is done through the practice of Improvement KATA’s. The only way to get good at golf is to play a lot of golf – there is no alternative. Watching videos and reading articles help but if you never pick up the club, you’ll never play well. One-off Kaizens are like golfing once or twice a year…good luck with that because you’re gonna need it.

Just as in golf, you need a good coach or coaches to help you with your CI game. You need someone to give you a few tricks of the trade and hold you accountable to your commitments. If you’re a Lean expert or support resource, it’s not you who will improve processes, its the people who execute them everyday. They are the golfer in the analogy and you’re (maybe) the coach. Even better if they are being coached by their immediate manager or supervisor. But the line operators are the ones who have to step up to the tee and drive the ball into the proverbial CI hole.

Making the Kaizen Results Stick

Once the right skill sets are developed, then you can expect greater results and sustainment from your kaizen efforts. Just like all other things in the universe, entropy destroys processes over time. A kaizen event might provide you with quick burst in productivity and a new process but given time and other factors, it will start to break down. If your workforce is under-developed and not capable of dealing with problems as they arise instead waiting for you or management to fix them, your kaizen gains will be short lived.

So, with all that said, the success or failure of your Continuous Improvement efforts is based on the strength of the problem-solving or CI skills within the workforce. Gains don’t sustain themselves, the people who own the process sustain and continuously increase gains. They need to be empowered to do so by building their skills through daily practice of the scientific method and problem-solving. All you can do is provide them with the means and motivation to improve.