More Wisconsin Lean


Lean manufacturing in action is a beautiful thing

The link above is a column in a Wisconsin newspaper. He visited a plant “a few months ago” and is just now writing about it. I guess the lead times in newspaper columns are that long?? Or, the writer is a slacker.

Not surprisingly, the columnist writes about Lean tools — that's what you can see when you tour a factory, 5S (or 6S*) and kanban. It's hard to tell, without talking to people and asking questions, if a Lean mindset is taking hold. Posters aren't a good indicator, necessarily:

“Ongoing awareness: From the moment I walked into the reception area, I began to see signs of lean — literally. They have 13 large posters that illustrate some concepts or principle of lean. They are visible examples to their employees and the visiting public (especially their customers) of what lean is all about.”

The problem with posters is that they might just be platitudes that management isn't willing to support, such as “Quality is YOUR Job.” Posters might just be empty slogans or platitudes that end up discouraging and frustrating employees, as Dr. Deming warned.

It's a fairly unremarkable column, but what made me take notice was the reader comment at the bottom of the page:

Yay, lets go lean. Lets use use, manufacturing processes innovated by Toyota 30yrs ago, because that will make us a world leader today. American manufacturing executives in general are ruining our juggernaut, by continuously playing second fiddle. But hey, turning a blind eye and patting ourselves on the back are far easier then actually putting the nose to the grindstone and becoming an innovator. I mean look at Henry Ford, his foresight and hard work did absolutely nothing for himself, or the country.


I can understand the commenter's point about “let's think for ourselves and not just copy others.” Not a bad point, at all. It's ironic that they mention Henry Ford, since the man and the company were indeed an inspiration for Toyota… and now we're all learning back in that direction.

* I don't like the “6S” terminology that adds “safety” to 5S. Not that I'm opposed to safety, far from it. I just don't like calling it out as a separate item. Safety should be incorporated into all we do, every day.

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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. Wisconsin, especially Madison, has a long history of what we might call “lean.” It was the center of the quality movement at one time, extending even to Madison city government. I blogged about it last spring,, and wrote an article recently published in AME’s Target magazine.

    Although the work done in the city of Madison 20 years ago, its veterans have spread out and accomplished some good things. Lesson? You never know what’s going to happen with knowledge?

    This drifts a bit from Mark’s post – I apologize. By the way, I agree completely that safety shouldn’t be a 6th S. It is a foundation of respect for people.

  2. There are some good things going on in Wisconsin – places like Airens, ThedaCare, and others. One thing I’ve founsd with dealing with the media, though, is that it’s difficult to get very deep with the understanding of what Lean is. Superficial knowledge – just enough to get the article written – leads to misleading conclusions and flip statements about what Lean and Toyota are.

  3. I find this article to be interesting in that the person who wrote it obviously isn’t on a lean journey. Also, even though any improvement regardless of its impact is considered Kaizen, I would not consider just doing 5s (or in this case 6s) kaizen. Isn’t 5s an activity that takes place after an improvement has been made?

    I also have a problem with using as part of the “S” structure…Safety is always the number one rule in lean and when you separate it out into the 6th “S” you are making it an after thought, where it should be a constant thought.

    I like the idea of the posters and keeping information prominent for the employees, but it sounds like too much of a good thing. I have a feeling that the posters in the plant are viewed more like artwork than their daily “beatitudes” in you will. On going awareness to me are Gemba Walks, Morning Market and talking with the people who actually do the work…you can’t achieve that in a poster.

  4. Posters can be great or useless. I believe the following makes them great:
    – they must support ideas and methods used in the workplace (of course)
    and here is the key:
    – management must be trained to stop talking and start walking and pointing
    When an employee asks a question, the manager should motion for the employee to follow, walk silently to the poster and point. Look at the employee and let the person answer their own question. Compliment the employee and walk away. Does this make sense to others?

  5. You had me until you gave an example. I would feel very degraded if my supervisor/manager did that to me. The posters are there for reminders (or decoration in some cases). Depending on the question asked it might be seen as an opportunity to coach or mentor and expand on the subject. A sensei would give the employee an opportunity to think through the problem they are facing and ask them questions and not just simply show it to them. Just reading what the poster says doesn�t mean they get the concept. When the question is being asked think about what they are really telling you�they are probably looking for further understanding.

  6. With the definition of “kaizen” meaning small, consistent, and continual improvement, how can 5S or 6S not be viewed as a kaizen? At the most minimal level it would be a “point” kaizen. It may not be an event but any continuous improvement effort fulfills the definition of kaizen. In addition, we have seen substantial results from having the 6th S as safety. Lean supports the discipline aspect to follow through and learning to see. The daily auditing of 6S has brought a higher level of focus on the need for safety in all areas and partners perfectly with our safety coordinator and associated practices. With all that said, it really depends on the culture existing in a work place as to what will work most effectively. Lean is also visual and if used effectively, the “right” posters can support the focus towards a cultural change. I think it helps if the poster can be used in training sessions before being posted and then we have seen the need to change them out after awhile.
    Great discussion!

  7. I’m with Angela. I think it would be rude to march an employee over to the poster to say, “here, read this.”

    At best, a poster should reinforce a message already taught. We cannot rely on posters as a primary teaching method. You need to engage in a dialogue with employees.

    At worst, posters are empty platitudes that management doesn’t believe in or live up to.

  8. Rick, I’m glad 6S works for you, that’s what really matters, I guess.

    But I would recommend to others that 5S be kept separate from safety. 5S is about reducing waste through workplace organization (including the waste of people getting hurt, I guess). You can have focus on 5S and ALSO have a strong focus on Safety. It seems a bit “too clever by half” that some seem to think “Safety also starts with S… so it’s the 6th S!”

    To me, it’s like saying you have four food groups and also water… water might be important but that doesn’t make it a food group.

    Daily auditing of (and continual focus on) safety can be done independent of incorporating it into 5S.

  9. Rick, very good points (and yes this is a good discussion). You are right; any improvement is considered Kaizen. Its literal meaning is, to take apart and make new. So knowing that you can’t really sort or set or shine etc…. until you have taken apart and made new your flow or process, because you don’t really understand what you will need.

    I try to live by rule of thumb of “remember you are in someone else’s living room”. So how you guys do things are a part of your living room and if it works for you OK then. I worry, however, that even if you are considering safety as part of the S’s that it is considered the 6th S and not the 1st S. Safety should always be first and foremost in lean, it just goes along with the whole respect for humanity concept.
    Thank you for this great discussion.

  10. I’ve found that things posted are often ignored unless they hold meaning. Using generic 5S or Lean posters is all too often window dressing. If you aren’t going to post METRICS, then posting pictures of actual onsite issues, made into posters, would be the next option. Many printing companies have the ability to make customized posters out of your files, which at least grab the attention of those walking by…especially when they see one of their own work area.

    Just a thought…

  11. Angela;
    Being the 6th S does not make it the 6th most important in our organziation. I’m in total agreement with you that it should always be a number one priority, which reiforces the respect for team members and their well being. And as Mark stated, the auditing can be completed separately but why not maximize the time spent on the floor to identify waste to also identify potential safety issues? Many safety issues represent break downs in a process not being followed.

    In addition, I agree that a poster is just a poster and should never be used to just walk and point. Yet, “training” posters, in “training” sessions can be valuable in presenting a solid “visual” for communication.

    Great points by all!


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