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.