Lean Manufacturing

Still Learning the Meaning of Cleaning

By Jon Miller Updated on May 24th, 2017

Just when you thought you knew all you needed to know about cleaning the workplace as part of lean manufacturing, the universe sends you a day like yesterday. We visited a small, privately held company in rural Japan. This company was hit with hard times during the previous financial crisis in Japan and had tried all of the lean programs, tools and consultant advice with nothing to show for it.

The owner of this company then met a Japanese entrepreneur who built a billion dollar business who shared his secret of success: “I cleaned toilets for 30 years.”
Fast forward to today an this company has recovered from the previous financial crisis, survived the latest one and stands as an impressive lean benchmark in several regards. The level of workforce engagement was very impressive. Each department and section had business plans developed by the workers in the area detailing the improvement activities they would follow to help achieve the company’s goals. It wasn’t nothing fancy, just getting people involved in developing and deploying the hoshin plan. It’s just how they run their business, not at all self conscious that they are practicing a lean tool. They accomplished this through cleaning.

This company was the best practical application of TPM at a small company that I have ever seen. They have been able to extend the useful life of equipment that normally depreciates in 6 years to over 20 years through thorough daily cleaning, inspection, detection of flaws and repairs. This is all done by the people who work in each department. These are everyday people from the community, not highly trained maintenance people. The pride in the workplace was evident from the condition of the entire facility. How did this company achieve this level of engagement? Strong leadership vision, a commitment to training and developing people, and cleaning. Cleaning?

Everyone in this company spends about 30 minutes cleaning every day. Floors, walls, bathrooms, machines, windows, cars, the facility corner to corner. An experienced lean leader would argue that if it’s necessary to clean every day, the 5S is only superficial, not looking deep into the root causes of filth to eliminate those and reduce the need for cleaning. The financially minded leader would do the math and claim victory by cutting cleaning time in half, or less. And then there is the leader of the company who cleans for 30 minutes each day alongside his workers. Guess who wins this debate in the long-term?

I have seen large companies, particularly publicly traded ones with professional financial managers, struggle with daily cleaning. They can’t justify even 20 or 30 minutes of cleaning by thousands of workers. It’s cheaper to outsource it, or not do it at all. In the short term, the financial controller can’t see the benefit of cleaning, only the cost. Being measured on controlling unnecessary costs, and lacking a big picture assessment of the cost of steady deterioration, “clean enough” becomes the standard. This is unfortunate. These controllers can’t see long-term cause and effects of skipping daily cleaning because too often there is no clear connection between a smudge of grease that is found a few days early alerting the workers to a leak and averting a costly machine breakdown. But beyond the correlation of cleaning to early detection of flaws and prevention of breakdowns, there is a far greater benefit that is lost when companies don’t clean daily as an entire team. It has something to do with developing people.

The concrete benefits of daily cleaning include improved equipment up time, reduced accidents, lower insurance premiums, and improved quality but most importantly, organizational development. This last item was a most surprising revelation. The owner of this company explained that all of the kaizen efforts and lean manufacturing tools they tried before failed because they were not ready as an organization. They did not have the foundation of trust, communication and engagement by the people. This only came after the owner of the company began cleaning every day. This demonstrated humility by leadership, built open communication between the worker and the boss, and by going to gemba each day and seeing things up close allowed the boss to give better direction and support.

Today they have a very strong foundation and are able to build the lean system upwards with confidence. But they haven’t declared victory and stopped cleaning every day.

This was very inspiring, but one thing troubled me. How do I apply this to my own company? As a consulting and training company, we have limited real estate, physical assets or “things to clean”. Most of us work remotely, not face to face, much of the time. How can we clean together? We can sweep the floors for our clients, but it’s not quite the same. This may take some time to figure out but it’s worth doing. More generally, we all need to ask ourselves how we can get the same results in engaging people fully in continuous improvement, if we are not able to use the simple act of cleaning to build an organization that works towards co common purpose.

  1. Mike

    September 15, 2010 - 7:18 am

    Jon–examine your electronic real estate for cleaning opportunities, too. Folders, files, in-boxes, drives–all are fine opportunities for seiri-seiton. Offices, public meeting and work spaces, even your parking lot and restrooms offer additional opportunities. An early sensei of mine used to say he could determine the level of leadership and commitment of a company in just four minutes and without ever entering the manufacturing floor. He examined the parking lot, restrooms, and break room.

  2. Joseph

    September 15, 2010 - 1:43 pm

    If the MASTER asks for help we should all be honoured to assist.
    Let me suggest what I would clean if you gave me your company.
    The tools that your company uses to ply its trade is your computer files. People come and go but these files are the ongoing wealth of your company. Good Consultants should use them and ammend / add to them.
    All of your Team work from Powerpoint Presentations, XL Files / Forms, Word Documents, Videos, Presentation notes ect. ect.
    This material is the core of your business and like the man who cleaned the floor to show his people what was important you should all clean your company computer systems. You should have a standardised work sheet for how your people store and file current and new documents on their own data bases and your company data bases. So much of office peoples time is wasted searching for files that they have saved in a place that they have forgotten about. This is the DUST in the oil or grease. Your system for managing this date base should be like a Shadow Board in 5S.
    I woud make up a cleaning schedule / matrix for yourself and your Team to spend 30 minutes every day to trawl through these documents and propose any changes that they think are needed. (PDCA) In the light of their day to day work using these materials.
    The matrix should ensure that every one knows what files they should be reviewing on a day to day basis so they are not all doing the same file. On top of the matrix set files they could still amend files that they have found could be changed. I would say that changes should be managed very carefully PDCA with sign off’s. You should all be able to review proposed changes to files as some people may see a need for 2 or 3 levels of a document depending on their individual training styles. Better control will give you a better data base.
    The computer reporting system for your people based around the world could be filed giving you a short note plus a tick box matrix for items you need to know, followed by, OK. NOK. STRUGGLING. HELP. Kirk to Entreprise BEAM ME UP.
    I would have each of your consultants document at the end of each day what material they had taught that day and how it was recieved. I would want details like what line they were up to in what document. This would mean that if one of your work units fell ill or worse. You could put a replacement on a plane to be there the next day and the training / coaching would continue seamlessly as though nothing had happened. Total Productive Maintenance.
    Ps. The people that were not interested would soon be shown up by their lack of activity or poor quality of input.
    You could do some long distance KAIZEN by getting the Team to input their own ideas on how the NEW system could be improved. I would not recommend a “Standing In The Circle excercise”. As your eyes are not good enough to see them all.
    If there is a system in place then you could improve it to reach a new level of CONTROL. Standards are there to be challenged.
    Henry Ford once said ” If there is something in life that you want but do not have. It is because you thought the price was too high.”
    Does this help or is it the ramblings of a lunatic.

  3. Jon Miller

    September 15, 2010 - 3:38 pm

    Hi and thanks to both. These are great suggestions. I agree there is a lot we can do around “the daily basics” and tidying up information and communication. The hard part is for the leader of a global professional service company to do this by going to the physical gemba.

  4. Hiroaki Kokudai

    September 29, 2010 - 6:49 am

    Hi Jon:
    I know this japanese entrepreneur and here in Brazil, I am a active member of a similar NGO that takes care of public areas (sweeping and picking up recyclable garbages)every month. This man says that “30 years makes history”. In Tokyo they changed Shinjiku area, diminishing street violence, through cleaning. Once a year we clean public school toilets, together with some students and teachers. Before I joined this group I thought I knew 5S. It was a mistake.

  5. Ravi

    April 26, 2012 - 12:35 am

    Mark:Here’s a timely tale, from Bogote1 again Some mhotns ago when Mark Graban posted on designing facilities for lean operations, I told how we were designing our new production laboratory here on a forced time frame due to losing a lease. Since we hadn’t begun lean transformation in the lab yet, the managers and operators weren’t equipped to make design decisions from a lean frame of reference. I didn’t know the operation intimately yet, either, so we agreed on simply going for maximum flexibility: no bearing walls or fixed infrastructure except around the perimeter. Operations moved in 6 mhotns ago, we mapped the valuestream for the largest product family last month, and this week took our first major steps toward future state ( kaizen events , if you will for change and, equally or more important, training). What did we find? In the packing area (starting improvement as close to the customer as we could) someone had designed in a small, low wall projecting into the space a few feet built of bricks! Wouldn’t you know it, our first changes literally ran into a brick wall as the team set out to reconfigure the work space.Fortuntately, it was nothing that couldn’t be overcome with a sledgehammer and cold chisel! The unsolved mystery is who put the wall in the plans (or why). Anyway, it’s gone now.Regards,-ALB

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.