Focused gains

A lesson from a weld shop on getting organized and staying focused


I have been a Lean practitioner for more than 30 years, having facilitated 350-plus Kaizen continuous improvement events all over the world. I have learned that the success (or failure) of these efforts depends on engaging and empowering people to solve problems that matter to them, and then using strong leadership commitment, putting in critical elements to sustain the solutions.

Over the years, new angles and approaches to Lean surface. Sometimes, these approaches to Lean target new industries (construction and healthcare) or use new terminology to get people’s attention (Agile and Scrum). And sometimes, those tactics work.

No matter how it’s packaged, there is so much opportunity in the overall idea of Lean that if we could just get people aligned and disciplined around it, then safety, productivity, quality and customer service would improve greatly.

So, how do we do this? Well, it starts by listening to people and getting their ideas on how to improve the problems that keep them from doing their work in the safest, least stressful and most productive way. We can do this in many ways, but my personal favorite is during a focused Kaizen event.

Reinventing the wheel

Kaizen means “change for the better,” so during a Kaizen event, we bring a team together and put a laser focus on a critical business problem. During the event, the team gets to experiment and try out their ideas to solve the problem. As they learn from their trials, they continue to improve their ideas until they get to a solution that is beneficial to the organization and its customers. Then, they must implement it in a sustainable way.

A cluttered welding station threatens worker safety and undoubtedly slows down productivity. A Kaizan event, however, can help a welding team get organized.

I use a system I call the Wheel of Sustainability, which has nine elements that work in concert to sustain any critical change:

  1. Leadership commitment – Giving the team the support and backing for all solutions during the Kaizen event.
  2. Notification – Presenting the change to the organization in a way that drives engagement and buy-in.
  3. Training and review – Providing one-to-one attention so that each member of the affected organization truly understands their role, expectations and accountability for the new standard to work.
  4. Visible evidence – The ability to visualize if the new standard is being followed and working from a long distance away.
  5. All tools available – Giving people what they need, where they need it in order to accomplish the new standard.
  6. Clear benefits – The new standard is personally beneficial to the people who must follow it. We achieve this through giving people the opportunity to try out the new standard, prior to implementing it.
  7. Layered audits – All levels of the organization engage with those following the new standard to reinforce the importance of it. If someone is following the standard, thank them. If someone isn’t, coach them.
  8. Accountability – Each leader takes personal responsibility and accountability to reinforce the new standard. This cannot be delegated to someone else.
  9. Recognition – Reinforcing the changes by finding positive correlation between the new standard and organizational results. Tell the stories of success.

One of my favorite uses of the Wheel of Sustainability involved a team of welders. They supported a consumer goods manufacturing plant and if their services were needed due to a significant equipment failure, it took them more than two hours to respond and then start repairs. This was unacceptable and was costing the company significant amounts of money. My sponsor told me that the team I was about to get was going to be a challenge.

hown here, Adam Lawrence conducts a Kaizan event where he discusses the benefits that come from removing clutter and keeping it that way. 

The first steps

Let me tell you about a typical craftsman on a Kaizen team. They think they’re there to support the team. They don’t always feel invested in the improvement process or the area being worked on. Most of the time, they participate in the Kaizen event and do great work. Sometimes, they aren’t interested in being there and would rather be doing their “normal” job.

Facilitating a team with some members who felt this way wasn’t new for me. But an entire team with this mindset was. The good news was the area to be worked on directly impacted the safety and productivity of all team members. The better news was that Craig was the team leader. He was the mechanical supervisor and was passionate about improving conditions in the weld shop. The best news was team pride and that the competitive nature of the team could be leveraged to turn the weld shop into a showplace. But that was only if the workers were willing to own and sustain the improvements.

When I facilitate a 5S Kaizen, I work one S at a time. On the first day of the Kaizen event, after training the team, we took a Gemba walk into the weld shop. I directed the team to identify things we could remove, i.e., the clutter. This is the first S, Sort, and we must have removed more than 80 percent of the items in the shop, filling a large scrap metal dumpster.

Next, we determined the optimal locations for anything remaining. Using a shared worktable as the focal point, team members demonstrated how each new location improved their safety and productivity. This is Set in Order, the second S.

We made sure everything was in the best possible condition. We cleaned and inspected all tools, equipment, materials, surfaces and storage spaces. If something was in disrepair, we fixed or replaced it. Everything had to work at peak performance. This is Shine, the third S.

The first three S’s – Sort, Set in Order and Shine – are the most physical, dramatic and fun parts of the Kaizen event. The space was dramatically different from the morning of the first day.

As an example: Prior to the event, employees entered the weld shop and walked 30 ft. in the dark to turn on the lights. They navigated through clutter in the hope of finding the switch without banging into or tripping over something.

The light switch was hidden behind large metal sheets leaning against the wall. At the end of the second day, we relocated the switch to the entrance of the weld shop. Lights could now be turned on before entering the shop, eliminating a critical safety risk. The team went home on a high note. I planned to introduce Standardize and Sustain, the fourth and fifth S’s, the next morning.

When trying to land new contracts, business owners will give potential customers a tour of their shop. A dirty, unorganized facility, however, doesn’t exactly instill confidence.  

Taking ownership

The team had everything in the shop as they wanted it. The challenge was to create a managing system to keep it that way. Requirements had to be established and followed by everyone using the weld shop in the future.

This was not a physical exercise. It was to be accomplished using visible evidence and layered audits. To the team, it was just paperwork.

This was the last thing the team wanted to work on, and I knew it. But it was a critical step. Improvements would deteriorate if we didn’t take Standardize and Sustain seriously. The key was for the team to own their solution and not just go through the motions. I had a plan, but it was risky: If necessary, facilitate an emotional event to drive the team to create and own their managing system.

When the team arrived on the third day, I congratulated them for their achievements. Next, I explained it was “Standardize and Sustain Day.” Grumpy faces met my review of checklists and audits developed by other Kaizen teams.

They weren’t impressed. They didn’t believe paperwork would keep people from destroying their good work. I explained that teams made these documents visible and established responsibility and alignment all the way up to leadership. They still weren’t buying it. I needed to push them further.

I displayed a PowerPoint slide of an example audit. As I reviewed requirements line by line, there was discomfort and frustration on their faces. On line six of the audit, Sammy, the lead welder and area owner, stood up. His face was beet red.

“Adam, we’ve had enough of your paperwork,” he said. “We’re going to the Smoke Shack, and you’re not invited. We’ll figure it out, and then we’ll tell you what we’re going to do.”

They stormed off. I had facilitated an emotional event. Although this was my plan, I wasn’t sure they’d come back. If they did, what would they decide to do? I hoped they’d return soon.

It felt like hours, but it was only 20 min. later when they returned. They looked proud of themselves. Craig declared, “Adam, we’ve come to a decision. We’ll talk, you type.”

They listed 11 requirements for their audit. Although it was similar to what I’d presented earlier, it was in their words. That’s all that mattered. I thanked them for coming up with a strong audit and then challenged them to develop the system to ensure it would be used properly and not “pencil-whipped.”

Great results

Now enthusiastic and focused on the win, the team developed an area owner board with required documents that were easy to find and use. They included a photo of Sammy to drive their ownership and accountability message. They developed a three-layered audit with requirements for the area users, Sammy and members of the leadership team.

At the report out, results were shared with the plant leadership team and visiting executives. Mechanics typically resist presenting in front of an audience, but in this case, they didn’t. Everyone spoke from their hearts and explained how important it was to support and sustain their good work. It improved safety and productivity for them and the rest of the employees in the plant. They asked the executives to hold leadership accountable to keep this good thing going and expand the effort to other areas of the plant.

After the presentation, I spent time with the team, listening to their feedback on their week. Happy with the results and most aspects of the Kaizen event, they told me they wished I had been more assertive. They laughed when I told them I wasn’t sure they were coming back after storming out of the meeting room. They told me it was the motivation they needed to reach their solution.

Three years later, the weld shop looks and functions better than it did at the end of the Kaizen event. Rather than taking two hours to respond to critical downtime, it now takes less than 3 min. There wasn’t any technology or new approaches to Lean required. All it took was engaging and empowering people to solve the problem that mattered to them. Then, through the application of the Wheel of Sustainability, their changes live on.

Process Improvement Partners LLC

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