Tough Times Require Lean – and a Little Creativity

Tough times require lean – and a little creativity

ISE Magazine July 2020 Volume: 52 Number: 7

By Karyn Ross


Say the word “lean” and what immediately pops into many people’s minds is a set of tools to remove waste from processes and solve already known customer problems. However, lean and the Toyota Production System (TPS) are so much more than that.

It began during, and as a response to, tough times in Ja-pan after World War II. Japan’s economy was decimated and TPS was created not only in response to the need to rebuild Toyota to compete globally but as a way to rebuild Japan. With scarce resources, customers with many and varied needs and no past circumstances that were exactly the same, new ways of working were needed.

Today, most of us find ourselves in a similar situation. COVID-19 almost instantaneously changed the way we need to serve customers and the way we need to work in order for everyone to stay safe and well. And just like the situation Toyota was thrust into after World War II, we also have to rely on creating new ways. That’s where using lean principles as a basis can really help us because lean isn’t just a system to solve already-known problems. Its true strength and beauty is in its ability to bring people’s creative ideas together to create new and better ways. And in tough times, that’s exactly what we need.

So what can you and your organization do to help your customers and the people who work for you right now? Here are some simple ideas based on Toyota Way principles of respect for humanity and continuous improvement.

Rely on your purpose to guide you

On March 19, 2020, I got a call from my friend and former client, Noah Goellner, COO of Hennig Inc., a global manufacturer of machine protection products and services. Noah was calling to make sure that I was safe and well. Hennig is a family-owned business with a deep sense of purpose and connection to its local community. Deemed an “essential business,” Hennig was still using lean and quick response manufacturing (QRM) to serve customers by continuing to make its regular products.

However, I knew that as a community leader, Hennig could do more. So I challenged Noah, asking “How can we use Hennig’s lean expertise to help others? After all, that is what lean is for, to serve others.”

This got Goellner thinking. “Our mission is ‘Making Our Customers Successful’ and this phrase is at the center of our Hennig Star (the corporate graphic depicting the company’s core values),” he said. “Now more than ever our community is our customer. So the question became: How can we make our community successful?”

Goellner began reaching out to Hennig team members to see who had healthcare workers in their families and also contacted local hospitals, healthcare organizations and the mayor of Rockford, Illinois. In a short time, Goellner was able to connect with OSF St. Anthony’s Medical Center and found it was in need of face shields. Working together with the Hennig team across the organization to source needed supplies and to create the designs and process (while using lean and QRM to reduce costs), Hennig produced more than 500 face shields through mid-May. Even Goellner’s wife, Kristen, and children Cole (9) and Audrey (6) are involved, because making others successful and serving the community isn’t just Goellner’s company mission, but a personal purpose as well.

In this crisis, the first thing to do as an organization is review your purpose. Do you, as a leader, know what it is? Are you sure everyone on your team does everywhere in the organization? And what about your organization’s guiding values? The choices we make, the way we carry out our work and treat our customers and team members during this time (and always, really) depend foremost on a strong sense of our shared purpose and mission. To do this:

  • Check to see if everyone can say the mission without looking at the intranet.
  • Reference your mission and values during each meeting and ask all leaders to do so in meetings they lead as well.
  • Make sure the mission and values are visually displayed so that all team members can see them. Screen savers, remote meeting backgrounds and even sticky notes on computers work well for this.
  • Ask team members: According to our mission and values, what are some things we can do to serve our customers and community?

Your mission and values and your purpose are what will guide you and your organization through this crisis. It’s the basis from which you will create, and now is when you need its unifying power and guidance the most.

Safety first, both physical and psychological

Keeping team members and customers safe is always a first priority in lean. Whether we are dealing with physical safety in essential manufacturing plants such as meatpacking and food processing, or for our customers and team members as businesses reopen to the public, physical safety is of the utmost importance.

Psychological safety – people’s mental health and well-being – also needs to be considered. Although we may think about this less often during non-crisis times, in times of crisis it’s essential that we plan for psychological safety just as intently as we do for physical safety. Here are some ideas for you to consider:

Psychological safety. Review company values. Make sure that employees are being treated with respect by customers and other team members, supervisors and managers. In times of stress, people don’t always “act their best.” Make sure that values are visible and adhered to at all times.

Check in frequently with team members. It’s easy for people to become overburdened and over stressed with both work and home responsibilities, especially if they are having to take on extra tasks due to reduction in workforce size and home responsibilities such as caring for children and their schooling. Make sure you can see your people, either physically or by video chat. If you notice someone looks extra stressed and overwhelmed, help them to re-balance work or to seek counseling services.

Encourage people to ask for help. Often, people don’t want to ask for help as they feel they should be able to solve problems on their own. In today’s crisis, we face many problems no one has encountered. Encourage team members to reach out for help when needed. A great idea to try is an “emoji andon.” When a team member is having a problem or needs help, they can text or message their supervisor with the emoji and the supervisor can reach out right away.

Physical safety. Know and use your country’s federal, state and local guidelines to ensure that physical distancing and other safety standards are met at all times.

Create ways for people to work remotely. Challenge yourself and your team to come up with creative ways to work from home. Restaurants can install point-of-sale soft-ware on team members’ computers so that they can answer the phone and input orders from home. Change to online ordering and no-contact delivery. Try out changes in a small way first if you can. Then use plan-do-check-act (PDCA) to quickly make changes to close any gaps. And don’t forget to check on the process every day to see that it’s working for customers and team members.

Maintain physical distance according to guidelines. If your team can’t work remotely, make sure they are spaced properly according to your authority’s guidelines. Place physical barriers such as plastic or plexi glass separators to prevent customers and employees from getting too close (poka yoke). Add tape lines on the floor to make sure that people can easily see where it’s safe to be. Make sure they know what to do to react to customers who don’t want to follow distancing guidelines.

Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitizing supplies at point of use. Give each team member masks, hand sanitizer and extra cleaning supplies to keep in their space. Make sure supplies are replenished regularly.

Make sure everyone knows the proper way to use their PPE and to sanitize. Take time to train people carefully, have visuals and graphics easily accessible, and make use of video to show people exactly how to take off masks and gloves and wash their hands. Then make sure to check that people are following the standards properly at all times.

Leaders set targets: Prioritize the necessary, deselect the unnecessary

In times of crisis, the current situation changes quickly. New discoveries about the nature and transmission of CO-VID-19 are made constantly and government regulations can change almost daily. Customer needs change quickly, too. Shortages of toilet paper, cleaning products and flour and baking supplies were just a few examples of this. Be-cause every organization needs to be able to respond quick-ly to changing needs, it’s even more important for leaders to make decisions quickly, then communicate and follow up on needed actions efficiently and effectively. If you’re a leader in your organization, here are some things for you to try:

Make sure everyone knows the top three organizational priorities. Pre-COVID-19, many organizations had multiple priorities; some I’ve worked with have up to 20! To make sure that customers are getting what they need most, and that team members know what to work on first, leaders need to:

  • Select the top one, two or three priorities, and make sure everyone across the organization knows them – in order. Otherwise, people will continue to proceed with work they were doing before, even if it isn’t necessary now.
  • Deselect priorities and projects that were previously being worked on and make sure people know they should stop working on them now. This will help people be less overburdened by trying to complete new work as well as ongoing work.

Have frequent leadership check-ins so that every-one is on the same page. Create a central command center (“obeya” in Japanese) where leaders can review progress on priorities on at least a daily basis. Whether in person or virtual, meeting frequently will allow for quick decision-making and reduce time wasted on other communication forms, such as email.

Make sure there is an easy way to communicate changes in priorities and safety measures daily throughout the organization. Use real-time communication methods, such as instant messaging, huddles, and video or audio conferencing. Even good old-fashioned phone trees still work really well in this situation.

Constantly review your organization’s mission and values. Are you, as a leadership team, acting in accordance with your mission and values and modeling them for others? Determine what to do if team members and customers aren’t acting in accordance with your mission and values. What will your response be? How will you make sure your organization knows?

Ask yourselves, your customers and your team members what new services, products and ways of working are needed. Now is a great time for creativity, as customer needs are constantly changing, and we have the flexibility of not having to stick to “we’ve always done it this way.”

Make sure front-line team members have a simple way to communicate “up” to leadership. That way you can quickly respond to customer problems, supply shortages or quality issues affecting your organization.

Check in on people and the process frequently

One of the questions I’ve been most frequently asked before and during the COVID-19 pandemic is about whether checking in frequently either by “going to see” or “huddling” and the use of visual management is “micromanaging.” Here’s my answer: Frequently “checking-in” with people isn’t micromanagement – it’s caring. When people are in crisis, we need to make sure they are all right, both psychologically and physically.

Just like we’d check in with our family and friends more often if they were in crisis, we need to check in with our work team members more frequently. Because the current state is changing so quickly, we need to “check on” the process frequently as well to determine if there are supply chain or quality problems and to make sure the ways people are working meet customers’ needs in a safe and timely manner.

Whether your organization calls them “stand-ups,” “huddles” or some other term, having a way to check in with people and check on the process is more important now than ever.

Here are some suggestions about how you can do that in a caring way:

  • Increase the frequency of checking. If your teams huddled once a day before, change to two or three times a day with shorter duration. You could even huddle hourly if needed.
  • For remote workers, use video chat. Make sure you can see people as 80% or more of communication is nonverbal. Make sure people know that “video on” is required (you would see them at work, wouldn’t you?) so you can see how people are feeling while keeping a safe distance.
  • For work conducted in person, create ways to “go to the gemba to see” from a safe distance more frequently. Nothing is more frustrating to your front-line staff than to have to go physically to work while executives stay home.
  • Manage visually so everyone can “see.” This is one of the easiest and quickest things you can implement.
  • Create virtual boards so people can see their daily progress on priority initiatives. You can use Excel, Teams or pictures of whiteboards; it doesn’t have to be fancy.
  • Create checklists to help people see their progress on standard tasks. In times of stress, it’s even easier than normal to get distracted and make a mistake.

Remember, we are all in this together

The only way individuals, companies, countries and the world can get through this COVID-19 crisis is by working together and caring for each other. It’s a great time to ask team members for creative ideas about how to serve customers better and how to work in new ways. I guarantee they have lots of great ideas, or parts of ideas, that when put together and tried out quickly can lead to unexpected positive outcomes, like Hennig’s face shield project.

Before lean or TPS was created, Sakichi Toyoda, grandfather of the Toyota Way and known as “The King of Inventors” in Japan, worked to fulfill his purpose in accordance with his Five Precepts:

  • Always be faithful to your duties, thereby contributing to the company and to the overall good.
  • Always be studious and creative, striving to stay ahead of the times.
  • Always be practical and avoid frivolousness.
  • Always strive to build a homelike atmosphere at work that is warm and friendly.
  • Always have respect for spiritual matters and remember to be grateful at all times.

As you can see, creating practical new ways to work to benefit the overall good is of the essence. In today’s time of crisis, as well as looking outward for guidelines and ideas, ask your company to look inward to your purpose, mission and values and create forward from those. We’re in this together and we need everyone’s creativity and ideas to go forward.

References: IISE Magazine July 2020 (