How to Jump-Start Improvement

How to Jump-Start Improvement

Many companies begin performance improvement initiatives with 5S, a Lean tool that involves workplace organization. 5S reduces clutter in offices, warehouses and manufacturing floors and creates quick, visible improvements to jump start employee engagement in the process.

The best initial workplace organization projects are designed to:

  1. Be highly visible – people need to see what is going on. This builds curiosity and a desire to become involved, so the effort can easily spread throughout the organization.
  2. Ensure success and build support – if you want support for the process, people need to see that it works! Be sure to pick a work location where success is ensured.
  3. Make work life easier – the best projects really make a difference to the people at the point of work by making the process easier and more successful.

5S is successful when it improves productivity, reduces defects and failure work, improves speed, and makes the workplace safer.


Another way to jump-start the performance improvement effort is simplification. Occam’s razor reminds us that when two options are available, the simpler one is better. In process improvement, first determine that the process is necessary (if not, eliminate it), and then simplify it.

With many of my clients, when I start an inventory reduction project, we begin with simplification by reducing the number of SKUs (stock keeping units, or part numbers), which frees up space, improves cash flow, boosts productivity, reduces the cost of holding inventory, cuts down on the number of purchase orders and other related transactions, and often dramatically reduces materials costs. Quality and speed often increase, as well.

Auto replenishment systems such as Vendor Managed Inventory or Kanban can also simplify materials management processes. When the system does the buying, the purchasing staff is freed up to develop supplier relationships and introduce new products, which increases speed and reduces costs.

Eliminate Unnecessary Processes

Some companies make the mistake of automating before they simplify, which can lead to huge investments to “improve” things that shouldn’t be done at all. Automation can become an inflexible monument that can’t adapt to future improvements. One small company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars buying an industrial robot to automate a process that wasn’t mature and probably could have been eliminated. Because of the debt undertaken to buy the machinery, the company eventually declared bankruptcy.

Streamlining Paperwork

Even reducing authorizations helps improve productivity, cut costs and increase speed. When I started as VP, Operations at a rapidly growing manufacturer, I had to approve all purchase orders for materials over a certain dollar amount. One day as I sat there signing a pile of POs, I asked myself, am I not going to sign any of these? Is there a better way to control the flow of materials than inserting myself as a roadblock? I never signed another PO again. If the PO was within the plan, it was issued. We made sure there were processes, reports and measures in place so we didn’t build inventory or buy parts we didn’t need, but otherwise, we let it flow.

Take It Easy

Most business leaders are familiar with Lean, but have you head of “Do Easy?” Sometimes attributed to Buddhism, it came to the forefront in the 1960s, and suggests that whatever you do, do it in the easiest, most relaxed way possible, which is also the quickest and most efficient way. As you become more familiar with Do Easy, you’ll find it eliminates many of the wastes of Lean – motion, transportation, defects, etc.

Best of all, Do Easy makes work easier, and workers see the benefits the performance improvement offers them. In one large client project, Do Easy got the local union on board with the process changes. They loved the idea of making work easier and safer.

The Take-Away

To jump-start performance improvement, eliminate unnecessary steps (authorizations, inventory, and processes), then simplify what’s left. That way you can begin to accelerate profit and growth.

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