Does Lean Equal Honesty?


Here is a story from my plant, where we are in the early stages of a company wide lean implementation. I think this story shows how “old habits” can be hard to break.

Inside the front door, we have a large freestanding traffic light that serves as a “visual control” of sorts for safety. If the light is green, all is good. Yellow means we had a recordable injury in the last day, and red means we had a lost work day case.

Our plant manager was fretting to a group of us that there was an ergonomic recordable injury (a carpal tunnel type problem). He was mostly concerned, it seemed, about all of the phone calls he was going to get and how they would have to explain away the injury.

More disturbing though, he made a comment, “that traffic light out front was broken for a few days… we should have documented the recordable when the light was out, we could have hidden it.”

Wow. I don't think he was joking, unfortunately. In a lean environment, isn't half the battle being honest about the daily reality and not covering things up or hiding problems? If we can't be honest about problems, how are we going to be honest about finding solutions and driving continuous improvement.

I'm starting to think our plant manager is one of these “concrete heads that I read about.”

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. This is a great example of how measuring the wrong thing can lead to unintended results.

    Measuring recordable injuries may only result in more unrecordable injuries.

    Measuring machine utilization may only create overproduction.

    Measuring customer complaints may only discourage documenting what the customer wants.

    People are smart, and will optimize their metric of performance.

  2. Most plants I’ve worked at go weeks and months without recordable injuries. Having a traffic light that is green 99% of the time doesn’t seem all that useful.

    And your plant manager sounds about par for the course, unfortunately.

  3. I think the traffic light is useful only in that it really does stand out when it’s yellow or red. It helps with communication about any incident that does happen, at least creating better awareness that somethinng happened.


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