Creating a Lean Culture of Continuous Improvement

2018-bl-creating-a-lean-culture-page-image_(002) (1)When working on my bachelor’s degree, I had a memorable experience in a creativity and problem-solving course. In order to calm the growling of our starving student stomachs, the professor said he would reward us with a treat when we turned in our completed homework assignment at the next class period. 

That next class, as promised, the professor brought homemade chocolate chip cookies. We were invited to bring our completed homework to the front of the classroom and select a treat from one of two areas. On one side of a table was a silver tray with fresh cookies wrapped in cellophane bags and tied with a couple of strands of colored curled ribbon. On the opposite side of the table was a large wrinkled paper bag. Inside the bag were smaller plastic storage bags smeared with chocolate streaks from the cookies, which were tossed into the bags while still hot. Each of these bags held broken and crumbled cookies and were sealed with an unattractive wire tie. There were a few students who chose from the paper bag, but most students enjoyed cookies from the side with the elegant presentation. 

The cookies were baked using the same recipe but the presentations were very different. One had been set up with thought and care while the other was thrown together and unappealing. The professor used this object lesson to illustrate the point that when something new is being introduced and applied, it needs to be presented well, given some thought and planning and be rewarding for all involved. These same points are critical for long-term success when introducing lean methodologies into your corporate culture.

The process to implement a cultural change includes defining and generating a plan, making decisions ahead of time, implementing the plan, and finally, going back and evaluating the plan’s effectiveness.  The most difficult part of this process is gaining approval. This involves selling your ideas and then making the case for the change.

Before selling your ideas, prepare a document or presentation describing the following:

  • What you want to do
  • Why you want to do it
  • How you are going to do it
  • How your project will greatly benefit the people in your organization

Once you are prepared to sell your idea, make a case for the change. Following this six-step process will help produce approval while convincing employees of the need for change:

  1. Articulate the case for the change
  2. Prepare a vision of what it will be like after the change
  3. Identify skills needed to make the change
  4. Define incentives for change
  5. Identify the resources to implement the change
  6. Have an action plan[i]

Managing complex change requires all of the above elements for success. Missing just one will lead to employees feeling confusion, anxiety, resistance and frustration, or that they are on a treadmill going nowhere. 

Beginning Lean Integration

A good place to begin integrating lean into your corporate culture is the 6S program. Lean can be described as a group of techniques or systems which are focused on how to optimize quality processes through the philosophy of continual improvement.[ii] The 6S program is one of those continual improvement systems.  It can be seen peppered into diagrams, like the house of lean or the continuous improvement cycle. The 6S program gives you a small sample of each part of lean and provides teams a way to see some rapid wins and successes. In most lean materials, 6S is labeled as 5S. The five S’s are Sort, Set in Order, Shine and Inspect, Standardize and Sustain.[iii] The sixth S I’ve added is Safety. Not only does 6S sound like success, it’s also impossible to have success in developing a lean culture without involving safety. 

Safety is necessary for a successful infusion of lean into company culture. I am talking about not only keeping yourself physically safe but also mentally feeling safe. Workers who act safe and feel safe will be more engaged in their work, more attentive to the tasks they are performing and will create less human-caused waste and fewer human-caused defects. 

The many meetings on physical safety I’ve attended have shared similar agendas, including data about lost workday cases, fatalities and OSHA recordable injuries. Usually there is some sort of ratio linking those visible data points to the hidden or less visible data points involving near misses and at-risk behaviors. This ratio of data is broken down into a pyramid-style chart showing actions usually linked to the visible data as reactive. The less visible data located near the base of the pyramid is linked to more proactive behaviors. Regularly, this pyramid chart is linked to the now-cliché picture of an iceberg representing the large mass of the graph that rests below the water and how those often-unseen behaviors and actions influence and impact the smaller, more visible portion.

I’ve never seen it in the wild, but a similar pyramid chart could be created about mental safety. The more visible data points of people feeling mentally unsafe could include things like performance issues, attendance issues and separations. The less visible data at the bottom of the iceberg could be a bucket for issues involving aggressiveness, frustration, disengagement and reduced productivity. The base of the pyramid could hold the least visible data points on mental safety, which would be sorted into the lack of things, such as morale, motivation, fulfillment, creativity, friendships and confidence. 

2018-bl-creating-continuous-improvement-page-image (1)Next, I apply Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to 6S. This hierarchy is also often shown in a pyramid chart.  The pyramid top is self-actualization, followed by esteem, belongingness and love, safety, and finally, ending with a large base of physiological needs. Being an ‘80s kid and loving to fit things together Tetris- style, I turned Maslow’s pyramid upside-down and placed it evenly between the physical and mental pyramid charts that I already had.

With these three linked charts, I began to visualize the connection. When an employee’s self-actualization needs are being met, there is high morale, motivation, fulfillment, creativity, friendships and confidence. When these needs are met the employee engages in fewer at-risk behaviors, find himself in fewer dangerous situations and creates a safer place to work.

When the esteem needs of an employee are met, he or she is less aggressive and frustrated and more engaged and productive. This good self-image and positive mental change translates to employees being more attentive while performing their jobs, leading to fewer mistakes.

The next need sounds a little sappy in a business environment, but everyone wants to belong and feel loved. Employees that have a great mentor seek out opportunities to be a positive coach, and seek to show kindness and emotional intelligence through their actions that, in turn, creates a place where people feel they belong.[iv] The caring and inclusive actions employees exhibit toward one another lead to a reduced number of performance issues, which correlates to visible and recordable issues in the realm of physical safety. Belongingness and love begin the transition to more visible data.

Meeting employees’ needs for safety and security align with having fewer attendance issues and reducing lost workday cases. Having physiological needs met means that employees are less likely to separate themselves from the company or experience a workplace fatality—the secret to a sustainable culture using 6S is safety. Safety is generated by a leader exercising the skills of sacrifice, selflessness and service.[v] These motivational leaders set the tone, and they can come from any position or level in the company.  Just being an authority in your business will not get you followed. As author Simon Sinek have written, “When people feel safe, they work together to face outside dangers and the make remarkable things happen.  The natural reaction of people who feel safe is to trust and cooperate.” As you implement these processes and meet the physical and mental safety needs of your employees, I know that your organization will enjoy increased success.


Jared Evans has more than two decades of experience with quality engineering, training and internal auditing in retail sales and management and the high-volume semiconductor manufacturing industry.

Fortune 500 companies such as Intel, Micron, Target, and Macy’s have called on Evans. He has run thousands of training sessions and more than 550 internal audits, many involved ISO 14000 and ISO 9001, and safety audits. Evans also has extensive experience as an auditee for factory audits evaluating manufacturing practices and methods, focusing on safety, performance, and equipment processes covering manufacturing metrics and benchmarking.

Throughout his career, Evans has successfully facilitated innovation and change in technology-intensive environments using quality management, lean manufacturing and project management principles. His past projects include creating a leadership development curriculum and program, for which he generated formal process and course outlines and topics to enhance the skillset of emerging leadership in an organization. He has also developed team communication boards and business processes for decreasing job time, thus decreasing missed revenue each week.

Evans holds an associate degree in information systems and a bachelor’s degree in technology management. He is a member of ASQ, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and the Association for Talent Development.

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