Lean Tools

Lean Tools Are For Managers, Too

Dec. 8, 2021
Admonitions to “eliminate the eight wastes” or “keep the plant better organized,” no matter how well intended, aren’t likely to change workers’ behaviors by themselves.

Lean methods are typically thought of by managers as tools designed to create and support behavior change on the part of employees. 

Yet how many times have you heard it said that the successful lean journey requires a change in culture? It’s a statement that makes it into the first chapter of every article, book, and text on lean.  Both of us (Rick and Ron) are fond of saying, “Lean tools are easy, it’s the necessary culture change that’s difficult.” 

It turns out that the lean tools themselves work well as supports for the culture change that the organization needs. Too often, though, managers see those tools as only intended to get employees to change their behavior. They don’t see their own behavior changing because of, say, installing shadow boards or implementing visual factory signals. Managers tend to view their own roles as communicating expectations, providing resources … and that’s about it.

Admonitions to “eliminate the eight wastes” or “keep the plant better organized,” no matter how well intended, aren’t likely to change workers’ behaviors by themselves. Rick once visited a prospective client who wanted “another round of 5S training.” The first pass at sending supervisors to 5S classes hadn’t led to any changes in their behavior. When I pointed out that another class wouldn’t likely have any better results than the first one did, the prospective client replied, “We just want more training.” Had the company been willing to discuss modifications to the work environment along with changes in management’s behavior, it would have realized more success.

There are many tools that we could discuss as being helpful in creating culture change by changing management’s own behaviors, but we’ll go over three to illustrate our point.

Red Tagging

Red tagging is the practice of identifying materials and items that are to be removed from the workplace entirely. The term derives from the routine of attaching a literal “red tag” to such items. Red tagging is a straightforward policy; if it’s not needed, it gets red tagged, if it’s needed, it doesn’t. And yet, in both our experiences, supervisors and employees seem to have a difficult time carrying out the procedure.   It’s easier to decide not to decide than to take the needed action. Excuses to keep obsolete materials and equipment abound:

  • “We might need it again someday.”
  • “That’s still on the books.”
  • “We worked hard to pull that together.”
  • “We don’t know what it is or who it belongs to but we might get in trouble if we get rid of it.”

Simply exhorting workers and supervisors to get rid of what they don’t need as a step in organizing their work area doesn’t work.

A better approach is to designate a specific area to which red tagged items are to be taken, provide workers with specific times when they’ll be expected to red tag items and materials in their work area.  A “red tag committee” is established that will visit the red tag area on a frequent and regular basis to dispatch items that are moved there, i.e., sell, scrap, repair, move to another area, etc. The red tags, red tagging schedule, the designated “red tag area”, and the “Red Tag Committee” all provide structure that facilitates behavior change.

Shadow Boards

Is there a more familiar lean tool than shadow boards?  They are ubiquitous, even in plants that haven’t gone very far on their lean journey.  It’s one thing to tell workers “Keep your tools organized”; it’s quite another to be able to tell them, “Return your tools to their proper places on the shadow board in your work area.”  Again, the shadow board provides a template that makes behavior change just a bit easier.

5S Area Self Audits

Self-audits are a tool that Rick introduces to clients by which work teams assess the status of 5S in their own work areas. On a regular schedule (weekly, perhaps) team members individually assess their areas using a form provided to them. (As they use the form, the team adjusts it to meet their own needs and circumstances.) In addition to grading their own area, the team members make notes as to corrective actions that they need to take or resources that management needs to provide.  The team then gathers to discuss their individual ratings and comments.  The completed forms are posted in the work area. 

Once again, the structure provided by the self-audit form and a regular schedule for completing it aids in generating and sustaining positive behavior change.

Managers’ Behavior Must Change, Too

Again, these and other lean tools are effective in creating changes in employee behavior.  But if managers’ behaviors don’t change, neither will workers’ behaviors. 

Some years ago, Rick persuaded a plant manager to install a shadow board on which changeover tools and tooling would be stored. On a subsequent visit, the plant manager indicated that Rick’s idea hadn’t worked so well. He took Rick out onto the plant floor to show him the empty shadow board.

Lean tools can provide structure that facilitates behavior change on the part of workers. They also provide structure that facilitates behavior change on the part of managers. Too often, that second element is missing.

Upon questioning the plant manager, Rick found that the plant manager had installed the shadow board but had not changed his own behavior. He hadn’t involved the operators in designing the shadow board.  He didn’t do much by way of communicating the purpose of the shadow board and its importance to improving flow and reducing operator frustration in the plant. Messaging was limited to “There’s the new shadow board. Use it.” Most important, he didn’t often check to see if the operators were actually using the shadow board and he never gave them (or their supervisors) any feedback as to their “shadow board performance”. 

Our point is that the behaviors of both workers and managers must change, and the structure provided by the tools make that change easier. A plant manager only needs to go to the red tag area to see if workers are removing items and materials from their work area. A supervisor need only needs to go to the work area and ask to see last week’s self-audits, to ascertain how well team members are participating.  A lead technician need only walk by shadow boards to see whether the requisite behavior change on the part of the workers is taking place.  The plant manager, supervisor and lead technician must make these changes in their own practices, or no changes in worker practices will be forthcoming.

Ron Jacques is a 35-year veteran within the lean, manufacturing and consulting arenas. He is a Certified Lean Practitioner who has delivered hundreds of kaizen and transformational solutions to clients and companies within the Pharma, Medical Device, Automotive, Food/Beverage, Electronics, Military Defense, Personal Care, Consumer Durables and Capital Equipment industries.

Rick Bohan, principal, Chagrin River Consulting LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in designing and implementing performance improvement initiatives in a variety of industrial and service sectors. He is also co-author of People Make the Difference: Prescriptions and Profiles for High Performance.

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