Blog Archives

One Man’s Lean Journey: Driving Employee Engagment Through Standardized Work Creation

One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is the importance of employee involvement in creating improvement within an organization. Working for the automotive supplier to create standard work instructions was time in my learning.

I have an industrial engineering degree. I had been certified in Ready-Work Factor and MTM motion-time analysis tools. I was taught how to analyze every slight movement a person makes and how to determine the amount of time it should take. I was the snot-nosed, arrogant, young engineer telling employees how to do their work quicker. I can count on one hand how many of the work instructions I wrote were actually followed for more than one day.

At the automotive supplier, my manager and I took a different approach. When going to an area to document the work standards, we pulled several people off the floor across all shifts to help. The teamwork between everyone was fantastic and my eyes were opened in three ways: (1) How common it was for a job not to be done the same way by multiple people, (2) the incredible dialog created to combine ideas and determine a better process, and (3) how the new work process was being followed by everyone weeks and months later.

Lean implementers will talk non-stop about the importance of employee engagement in everything that is done. There is good reason for this. Every problem has a countermeasure. Those countermeasures mean a work process WILL BE changed. It may be for one person or many. It may be a small, simple change or it may be a large, complex change. But there will be a change to the standardized work.

Getting people involved early helps to expedite adoption of the new process and helps to ensure adherence.


  • Working with employees to create standardized work is critical to creating adoption and adherence to the new process
  • It is extremely common that no one does the same job, the same way and standardized work is needed
  • Standardized work is the foundation of improvement because it provides a baseline AND it DRIVES EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT.

Visual Board for Production Standards

I have been working with one group on how to make there work more visual.  Show production goals versus actual production.  Make safety standards clear.  Highlight any problems to help them improve.

The supervisor of the area was on person leave when I was helping the area.  Upon her return, she liked what we had done.  In fact, she liked the idea so much that she made a visual board for another area where she is the supervisor.

Click on image to enlarge

Click on image to enlarge

What was the problem she was trying to solve?  Employees were always asking what their goal for the day was.  Employees would leave their work station and abandon their work to find the supervisor just to ask what the goal was.  The supervisor posted this board in the work area.

This reminds of Gwendolyn Galsworth’s book Visual Workplace Visual Thinking.  One of the questions of the visual workplace is “What do I need to share?”.  Goals and standards were something this supervisor needed to share with her team.

The board is simple and effective.

What have you made visual? What do you need to share?

Guest Post: Initiative: Employee Empowerment

Today’s post is from Tony Ferraro, on behalf of Creative Safety Supply based in Portland, OR ( Tony strives to provide helpful information to create safer and more efficient industrial work environments. His knowledge base focuses primarily on practices such as 5S, Six Sigma, Kaizen, and the Lean mindset. Tony believes in being proactive and that for positive change to happen, we must be willing to be transparent and actively seek out areas in need of improvement. An organized, safe, and well-planned work space leads to increased productivity, quality products and happier employees.

Have you ever walked into a work facility and taken note of an atmosphere full of complaints and unmotivated workers? I have, and let me tell you first hand it’s not a fun place for anyone to be. In fact, it is basically the opposite of what is needed for growth and success. Why are these employees creating such a negative work environment? Or is the negative work environment caused by something other than employees? Well, many times the work atmosphere is a direct result of leadership. Great leadership can motivate employees, create an environment conducive to high levels of productivity, and create unparalleled levels of employee job satisfaction, while not-so-great leadership can single handedly flush an entire business down the tubes. Whether we want to believe it or not, good and strong leadership is essential to the success of a business.

Creating Good Leadership

Good leadership isn’t something that just happens on its own, good leaders have to be trained, empowered, and willing to help others reach towards success as well. By doing this, the leaders help to motivate and grow the employees by guiding and leading by example. In order to empower employees, there are some basic elements that contribute tremendously to creating strong and positive leadership:

*Create a Positive Work Environment: A productive work environment that yields high levels of success is similar to having rich soil in your garden. The richer the soil, the hardier and more desirable the harvest.

*Empower Others to Grow: Being a leader isn’t just about focusing on being a leader and growing oneself, but it is also about empowering others to grow as well. Good leaders take the time to discuss with employees where they would like their career to go and help them to develop and refine their skills to help them achieve their career goals. One of the most depressing things to an employee is to believe that they have no opportunity for growth and that they will be stuck in a dead-end job doing the same thing for the rest of their lives. When employees elicit this mindset, their levels of productivity drop significantly and they are attending work for only a paycheck and that is it. This is poison to the success of a business.

*Think outside the Box: According to Rita Mae Brown, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” Don’t harbor insanity, instead if you want to strive for different results, changes must be implemented. The same goes with leadership, when leaders embrace the practice of thinking outside the box and are willing to think creatively, the sky is truly the limit.

*Encourage Experimentation: This component of leadership is similar to thinking outside the box but this tactic is more about encouraging employees to engage in experimentation. Employees should be praised for coming up with new ideas to help enhance products and streamline processes.

*Always be willing to Help and Listen: A good leader should always be willing to help employees. Whether there is a disagreement between two co-workers or a machine that creates constant headaches, an effective leader is someone who will be there to help sort out the details and rectify any issues or problems.

Never underestimate the power of great leadership. However, it is a mistake to just assume that because someone is in a management position that he or she is or will be a great leader. Instead, a leader takes time to create and must be willing to learn the important and crucial elements that make a leader great.

Employee Engagement Starting to Be Recognized

It looks like others are finally catching on to something the lean community has been talking about for years.  Employee engagement benefits companies in many ways.  The article talks about how employee engagement does more than just boost productivity.  It helps with absenteeism, delivering company results and turnover rate.

Jim Harter Ph.D., a chief scientist at Gallup Research explained what engaged employees do differently in an email interview: “Engaged employees are more attentive and vigilant. They look out for the needs of their coworkers and the overall enterprise, because they personally ‘own’ the result of their work and that of the organization.”

Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?  If you are engaged and part of the solution and the work then you pay attention and take it personally.

Harter also reiterates things the lean community has been trying to get people to understand for year.

Engaged employees “listen to the opinions of people close to the action (close to actual safety issues and quality or defect issues), and help people see the connection between their everyday work and the larger purpose or mission of the organization.” When engaged employee do this they create a virtuous circle where communication and collaboration nurture engagement and vice versa.

I appreciate the studies Harter has done, but why do we need studies to know and understand all of this.  Lean organizations did read a study and then engage their people.  Lean organizations engaged their people out of respect.  Looking at people as more than just ‘hands and feet.’  When they did they saw all these benefits.  Lean organizations have been trying to tell others this for years.

It is amazing that studies have to be done to understand this ‘phenomenon’.

So how can we engage our people?

One way to simplify it is to focus on purpose. Communicate the purpose of the organization, and how employees’ individual purposes fit into that purpose. When employees “clearly know their role, have what they need to fulfill their role, and can see the connection between their role and the overall organizational purpose,” says Harter, that’s the recipe for creating greater levels of engagement.

Well said.

How are you engaging your people?

GE Appliances Going Lean

I have not been very high on GE as a company.  I have dealt with too many command-and-control managers that came from GE and Jack Welch I think is the single most overrated CEO in history.  He destroyed GE’s manufacturing to gain his golden parachute.

It has taken awhile but GE seems to be making strides in a great direction.  A year or so ago, GE announced the building of a manufacturing complex in Louisville, KY dedicated to building their appliance lines using lean manufacturing.

An article last week highlighted some of the reasons and the results from the first venture in GE’s new dishwasher plant.  My favorite heading in the article is “Washing Away Decades of Outdated Manufacturing Practices”.  AMEN!!!

So what did GE hope to accomplish by investing $150 million in the new facility?

When planning to make GE’s newest dishwashers, the manufacturing leaders had several challenges: to build new production lines in a space-constrained factory where existing lines would keep providing about one in every five homes with a dishwasher; to create a process that would leverage Lean manufacturing principles to reduce the time it takes to make each dishwasher; to reduce operational costs and unnecessary work for employees to improve productivity while increasing quality.

They needed to reduce cost and delivery time and increase quality.  Something lean can help improve all of.  Not one while sacrificing others.

How was lean going to help?

Relying on a new culture of continuous improvement and a collaborative work environment, fostered by Lean manufacturing principles, GE took employees from every discipline needed to design, build and operate the new lines and co-located them in one location so communication could be instantaneous and fluid. Each member of the team had a voice and a role–from engineering, to advanced manufacturing to the operators who assemble the products – all were on one team with a common goal – to improve the processes and products.

Great ideas and they seem to be working very well.  The results listed in the article are incredible.  Here are just one bullet point listed as a result.

Included production workers in the designing of work stations and processes, improving efficiency and ergonomics by reducing parts inventories and movements to complete tasks; in developing new job instructions to help eliminate quality issues and improve safety; and in improving the timely supply of parts to work stations. As a result, the overall production time per unit was reduced by about 65 percent.

Great to see the employees doing the work involved in the improvement process.  With all the great results this is what I was the most happy to read.

Now, their dishwashers will be loaded with more U.S. parts than ever before. In fact, about 85 percent of the parts in GE new dishwashers will be made in the U.S. — including an increased number made at Appliance Park in Louisville, Ky

It shows that manufacturing close to the consumer in a “high cost” country can be competitive in any industry.  Kudos to GE for attempting to change their manufacturing ways.

The Difference Between Kaizen and kaizen

Big K vs. Little k has different meanings depending on what you are talking about.  In baseball, big K means you struck out looking and little k means you struck out swinging (some use a forward k or a backward k too).  But in implementing lean thinking, my colleagues and I have used it to refer to the different types of thinking regarding continuous improvement.

‘Big K’ kaizen refers to the type of continuous improvement where everyone improves their work everyday.  Every employee is working to drive waste out of their work in order to improve the business on a daily basis.  This is the ideal state of lean that we would like to achieve.

While ‘Big K’ kaizen is a great future state, most companies starting a lean transformation do not have much employee engagement.  This is where ‘Little k’ kaizen can help.  ‘Little k’ kaizen is what most people refer to as a kaizen event.  An organized event where a cross functional team including people from the process, suppliers of the process, and customers of the process are sequestered, typically a week, to work on improving the process.

Most organizations have not had much employee engagement in the past.  This is usually due to many reasons that usually can be placed back on the shoulders of leadership.  The event based ‘Little k’ kaizen allows a way to kick start the employee engagement by gathering employees together to work on improving a process.  The key is to listen to the employees and let them implement their ideas with leaderships support.  ‘Little k’ kaizen is not a forum to push management ideas out onto the employees and have them execute it.

I have seen the ‘Little k’ kaizen process be very successful as I have helped organizations kick start the employee engagement.  The pitfall is treating ‘Little k” kaizen like it is the same as ‘Big K’ kaizen.  Most organizations are so happy with the ‘Little k’ kaizen process results and the employee engagement from the event that they plan more of them.  They continue to get these great results and before you know it they set a goal to have X amount of ‘Little k’ kaizen events per year.

The events are not what are important.  It is engaging the employees in problem solving.  The trick is to know your culture and build on the momentum from the ‘Little k’ kaizen event.  As leaders we must continue to engage our employees after the ‘Little k’ kaizen event and push them to make changes to improve the process as they come up with the ideas every single day, this is ‘Big K’ kaizen.  Don’t wait until the next ‘Little k’ kaizen event.  When employees are looking for ways to improve the process everyday and not waiting for the next event or management to make the changes, then you are getting to true ‘Big K’ kaizen.  It isn’t easy, but it is well worth it when it happens.

Indirect Employees Do Add Value

Lean as the cost cutting tool is a paradigm most of the lean community has to struggle against everyday.  Then the most common way is too reduce headcount.  The first comment I most commonly hear is, “Reduce the number of indirect employees.  We have too many.”

While a company may truly have too many indirect employees, it isn’t having too many, it is using them properly.  Most efforts I have seen go out and eliminate supervisors, material handlers, and clerks in one fail swoop.  What usually happens is the work they were doing must still get done and it gets put on the direct (or value-added) employees.  These are the employees that are working on the product or service directly.  When they pick up the duties of the indirect employees it takes time away from working on the product and therefore makes them less productive.  Management can’t figure out why this is happening.

My suggestion and a concept that Toyota uses is one team leader for every 4-7 team members.  The team leaders responsibilities are to provide immediate support to their team members each and every single time they have a problem and complete non-value added work like paperwork, finding parts, or getting someone to help with an improvement idea.

This structure takes the burden of non-value activities off the value-added team member so they become more productive.  The rapid response to problems allows for better understanding of what actually is happening and leads to more problems being resolved.  All-in-all this reduces the companies total cost by having these indirect employees.

I know going from a traditional supervisor structure to a structure mentioned above is not easy in most cases.  Usually, you don’t have extra employees sitting around that you can just train and insert.  One way to free up someone for this role is through improving the work of some indirect employees.  For example, improve the work of the material handlers so they are more efficient.  When they are efficient enough to do the same work with less material handlers, use that person to become the first team leader in an area.  As the area with the new structure gets more efficient then you may be able to free up some people to become team leaders in other areas.  And so on.

I have used this method before and it worked but it does take patience.  The good news is once results are shown the process seems to speed up.

So the next time you see indirect labor as $$$…..stop and think of how you can better utilize them to remove waste and cost from your process through continuous improvement.