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A Simple Plan for Starting Your Lean Journey

By Steve Kane Updated on October 11th, 2022

There are many ways to lead a continuous improvement journey in an organization. A frequent question we get at Gemba Academy is, “Where do I start?” One strategy is to simply start eliminating pain-points in processes. “Fix what bugs you” is the way Paul Akers puts it. Many organizations have found great success with this approach. Other organizations have invested heavily in designing business production systems and management systems, then training their people to follow them. Here’s a simple four-point framework that lands somewhere in the middle. The intent here is to point you in the right direction to get started by focusing on fundamentals.

1. Set the Direction and Align Leadership

  • Genuinely care for the people you lead.
  • The senior leadership team sets a simple (not easy), measurable goal for the organization. What the organization will achieve by when is a fundamental necessity for an organization’s growth or transformation.
  • The goal is supported by the organization’s values and principles. Values and principles are often overlooked, which can be a big mistake. Values and principles aren’t negotiable. They’re filters. They help determine who should be part of the organization. People who share the organization’s values and principles are intrinsically motivated to uphold them and help the organization succeed.
  • Senior leadership aligns leaders at all levels of the organization on the goal, values, and principles. This is much more than a quick meeting or an email. Expect alignment to take time. It’s critical that all leaders are on board with what will be done and how.
    • The organization’s goals are broken down into individual goals for all leaders. Each leader will then break down measurable goals for each and every team member. Every individual needs to know what success is for themselves, their team, and for the organization.
  • Teach leaders to coach improvers. This is a critical skill. The leader’s job is to help others be successful through a thought-provoking questioning routine that keeps the improver in PDCA. Learn to master Toyota Kata, if you haven’t already.
  • Your priority is developing people to solve problems. Leaders need to embrace this because leaders get things done through other people. Do everything you can to help your people build skill and character.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate! Keep the goal front of mind for everyone. Measure and communicate results daily.
  • Resist the temptation to skip the steps in the framework. It’ll likely prolong your efforts. Have the professional discipline to stick to your plan.
  • This never ends. Improve every day.
  • Celebrate your achievements.

2. Stabilize the Work Environment

  • Address safety issues first. Build a robust safety system if it doesn’t already exist.
  • Organize the workplace (5S). This involves everyone, everywhere, every day. Remember, this isn’t just housekeeping. It is a practice of setting and meeting standards related to how the business operates. This is daily maintenance of your operations. Each person in the organization has specific 5S tasks to complete each day. Results are measured and reported through a simple audit system.
    • Everything needed to do the job is where it is needed when it is needed. Unnecessary items are removed.
  • Visual controls are in place to improve safety, simplify work, and answer questions before they are asked.
  • Visual management clearly communicates goals, current state (metrics), problems, and action plans.
  • Deeply understand value and waste. Eliminate waste through simple improvements every day.
  • This never ends. Improve every day.
  • Celebrate your achievements.

3. Stabilize Processes

  • Stabilize the work environment first. If you have resources available to standardize the process, but your work environment is problematic, you should shift your priorities to stabilizing the work environment.
  • Standardize processes. Fix critical problems. Be careful about trying to improve everything at this point. It could lead to getting bogged down in trying to improve without standards in place. “Where there is no standard, there can be no improvement” ~ Taiichi Ohno. Be careful that the team doesn’t lose sight of the goal of standardizing processes. Improving processes is a near-future goal.
  • Standardize training. Choose a single training method. TWI Job Instruction is simple and highly effective.
  • Adopt a simple process improvement methodology. TWI Job Methods, like Job Instruction, is simple and highly effective.
  • Have process owners break down processes, find the best way to do the work, standardize the process, and train all team members to do the work according to the new method.
  • Measure results and communicate daily.
  • This never ends. Improve every day.
  • Celebrate your achievements.

4. Make Value Streams Flow

  • Everyone understands where the value stream begins and ends.
  • Bottlenecks are identified and understood.
  • All steps in the value stream operate at the pace of the bottleneck operation. Working any faster creates nothing but waste.
  • Devote available resources to opening the bottleneck until it is no longer the limiting step in the operation.
  • Identify the next bottleneck and repeat.
  • Measure results and communicate daily.
  • This never ends. Improve every day.
  • Celebrate your achievements.

Excellence is a habit, as Aristotle put it. Success comes from what you consistently do well. Continuous Improvement takes discipline. It’s a way of thinking and a way of doing. Continuous Improvement is a way of being.

Fundamental methods, tools, and practices are critical. Excellence in fundamental practices is the shortest and smoothest path to long-term success. Unfortunately, it can also be the most mundane. Champions (in sports or any other endeavor) are those who can endure the drudgery of correct fundamental practice hour after hour, day after day.

Again, resist the temptation to skip steps in the framework. Trying to make your value streams flow before you have stable processes, for example, won’t work over the long term. Be patient and trust the process.




  1. Mackenzie Hough

    September 28, 2022 - 12:44 pm

    Great article, as someone who is a manager at Walgreens I definitely use those 4 ways to make the work environment much better and the way operation runs. When I interview people I assure them the values that Walgreens and also the goals that we reach for on a daily basis. In our workplace there’s always room for improving and I have a celebration board in our office to celebrate everyones achievements even if it getting a positive survey that a customer filled out. I as a manager have to improve and get better each day so I will definitely be going back to this article to get some pointers. Thank you so much for this article!

  2. Alyssa Figarsky

    September 28, 2022 - 12:58 pm

    Hi Steve, I am at the beginning of my green belt journey and I really enjoyed your post. You really detailed the “behind-the-scenes” process of lean manufacturing and continuous improvement. Not every project will be able to follow the black and white/step-by-step process that we are taught, so I am excited to come back to this post and follow your advice when the time comes.

  3. Julia Newell

    October 5, 2022 - 12:46 pm

    Hi Steve! I really enjoyed your post and introduction for those looking to begin their lean journey. The task can seem quite daunting, but solutions that analysts come across when reviewing their supply chain seem so simple once implemented. Making sure you have clear leadership, defined processes, and creating value are simple yet effective tactics in all businesses.

  4. Emily Pires

    October 12, 2022 - 1:33 pm

    I really liked this post because it outlines a simple plan for starting a lean journey. The four steps to this process are easy to follow and understand. I like the way Paul Akers puts it, “fix what bugs you”. This is obviously a good place to start. Setting the direction and aligning leadership is critical to get this project off on the right foot. Standardizing the work environment and stabilizing the process makes everything more safe and uniform. Looking at the value stream is important for finding and working through bottlenecks. This seems like a very simple and upfront process that companies shouldn’t have a problem implementing. It’s the steps after these where the steps become more specific to the project.

  5. Steve Kane

    October 28, 2022 - 3:16 pm

    Thanks very much, Mackenzie.

  6. Steve Kane

    October 28, 2022 - 3:17 pm

    Thanks for reading the post. Glad it’s useful.

  7. Steve Kane

    October 28, 2022 - 3:18 pm

    I think you hit the nail on the head with this, “clear leadership, defined processes, and creating value are simple yet effective tactics in all businesses.”

  8. Steve Kane

    October 28, 2022 - 3:23 pm

    “It’s the steps after these where the steps become more specific to the project.” I agree. The larger plan should be a general framework that allows flexibility for specific countermeasures.
    Thanks for commenting,

  9. kavya

    November 15, 2022 - 3:52 am

    nice post

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