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Lean Outside of Manufacturing

By Steve Kane Updated on September 23rd, 2022

There are so many examples of lean in manufacturing that it can be easy to understand how well-suited the methodology is for that industry.  Folks in other types of organizations and roles often comment that it is difficult to translate lean for non-manufacturing environments.  Here’s a great example of lean outside of manufacturing that was shared with us by our good friends at the Grand Rapids, Michigan Fire Department.

Starting With A3 and Scientific Thinking to Understand Problems

Brad Brown is Captain of the Planning Division of the Grand Rapids Fire Department.  He is also the City’s subject matter expert and trainer for A3.  Here’s a brief description of the Fire Department’s lean journey from his perspective:

The Grand Rapids Fire Department has been on a lean journey for almost a decade, incorporating several tools and methods to increase performance to the citizens that we serve. Struggling with budgetary issues, the city decided to implement an A3 problem solving tool for departments to utilize as they worked through their transformation process. The GRFD has produced over thirty A3’s, each requiring multiple revisions, meeting with involved parties and performing incremental improvements based upon the scientific method of plan-do-check-act.

View the A3Thinking course at Gemba Academy.

Moving Beyond Tools

Here is what Captain Brad Brown found with implementing tools without a lean culture:

Building upon that success, the department incorporated several other tools including 5S, process mapping, standard work and extensive planning. Although the tools work working well on a case by case basis, they were somewhat disjointed, causing extra work for employees that were already overtaxed with change. Moving beyond tools, lean needed to become a methodology in the GRFD and not be considered extra work, but how we work.

Project status and other visual tools in the Grand Rapids FD obeya.

Learn more about 5S, process mapping, and standard work in Gemba Academy’s School of Lean.

Managing for Daily Improvement

I’ve had the opportunity to visit the fire department for their morning meeting, which is led by the Fire Chief.  It’s a tremendously effective meeting that keeps a large organization, spread out over several locations, focused, and continuously moving forward.

Updating project progress in the Grand Rapids FD Obeya.


Morning stand up meeting at the Grand Rapids FD.

Here Captain Brown summarizes team member engagement using a daily improvement system.

The last several years have been spent addressing this gap through the creation of a managing for daily improvement (MDI) system. Key components include Personal Kanban to manage work, daily huddles to ensure team alignment and weekly intensive reporting of metrics to identify gaps and make adjustments. This has allowed the department and its members to become engaged through a highly interactive and transparent system that has resulted in increased employee morale, more frequent communication, rapid problem solving and the ability to keep work focused on the mission and vision of the department. This system has been presented at multiple national, state and local conferences and consistently receives high praise and a stream of visitors to view it in action.

The first step of the lean journey was to better understand the organization’s problems and current state.  While there is often a strong desire to get moving with process changes or transformation, it’s important to remember that understanding the nature of the problems faced–deeply understanding the current state–is progress.

Thank You Grand Rapids FD!

Thank you very much to Brad Brown and the Grand Rapids Fire Department for sharing their lean journey and this great example of lean outside of manufacturing with us.

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