A reader questioned my post about the lean conference I recently attended where everyone was a rabid adherent of Paul Akers’s 2 Second Lean philosophy. He wondered whether these companies are truly practicing lean, or just kaizen. In fact, he argued that perhaps Paul should be calling it “2 Second Kaizen” rather than “2 Second Lean.”

He has a point. After all, many of the improvements people mentioned are relatively superficial. I don’t think the companies are doing much deep analysis of operations work using standard combination worksheets; I’m not sure if anyone reorganized their company along value streams; and I didn’t see any of the heavy math supporting kanban levels, etc. And while there’s nothing wrong with that—you’ve got to start somewhere, right?—there’s definitely more to lean than standardizing the bathroom cleaners. 

But I can’t agree with this reader’s argument.

For one thing, these companies consistently strive for one-piece flow and perfect quality, not just neat and tidy workplaces. 5S is certainly helpful in reaching that goal. And even if applying 5S in the bathroom and insisting that the president cleans the toilet seems trivial and superficial, I can’t help but think that there’s real power in those activities. The bathroom can serve as a “model line" that many consultants advocate and a place for everyone to learn. Employees might think, “Hey, I see how organizing and standardizing the bathroom cleaning supplies makes it easier for me to clean the place. . . I bet my workstation could benefit from the same approach." 

I also believe that when the president joins in cleaning the bathroom, it sends a powerful message that cleaning and taking ownership of one’s space is everyone’s job. We all know that when leadership doesn’t get involved in doing the same activities as the front line, it sends a message that it’s really not that important, whether that’s 5S, or gemba walks, or daily huddles, or whatever—and then it doesn’t stick. At a $100M electronics manufacturer in Japan, everyone participates in 5S for 30 minutes everyday. How do they sustain that commitment? At least partly because the president is on his hands and knees polishing the floors along with everyone else. To be fair, Art Byrne probably didn’t clean a lot of toilets at GE or Wiremold, but he was swinging a sledgehammer and helping move equipment. Not all the time, but sometimes. 

True to the spirit of lean, the companies at this conference have placed development of human potential at the core of their thinking. Learning more about lean and working hard to build a community of problem solvers is part of daily work, either during the morning meeting or during the daily time set aside for kaizen. Moreover, figuring out how to make work easier for employees, and how to increase value for customers, is on everyone’s mind, everyday.

As near as I can tell, as a result of this approach, they’ve overcome many of the cultural hurdles to lean that other firms struggle with. It may not be perfect, but I'd rather see everybody engaged in small improvements instead of the corporate wallpaper bullshit of 5S audit sheets that are posted and not used. Maybe that's all a company needs instead of a bureaucratic and ponderous lean “program.”