Greg Epp

Building Better Manufacturers

where do I start with lean?

I’m overwhelmed and don’t know where to start

A former employer-turned-customer called me the other day.  They wanted me to come in and help them organize part of their business.  I had worked with the plant manager (Nick) before, implementing lean in their manufacturing department. At the time, we didn’t know we were applying lean – we were just doing what made sense to us. Clean, organize and improve efficiency. We called it, “making it sweet.”

Under new ownership, the company has moved a subsidiary business under the same roof; the process is like mixing a muddy river with a clean one. The new company is far from lean and very disorganized, and Nick has taken it upon himself to clean up the river. No small task, given the size and scope of the operation. After meeting with him, it was apparent he was overwhelmed at the prospect of beginning this project. Good for me, as “making things sweet” is what I do. Are you facing a similar situation? You’re trying to implement a new policy of lean but it’s impossible to know where or how to start? The aim of this blog is to come up with a plan of action, execute it, and track the improvements.

Selecting the team

Armies win battles because they are organized and work together, not because one man has a vision. Your lean mission is an all-out war on disorganization. One man can’t take on an army. You need your own if you’re going to win. Select those people who most want to make some changes to their workplace and explain to everyone why the change is necessary. Clearly outline the objectives.

However, even with a solid team of changemakers, the old guard is more likely to resist change, stating “this is how we do it” or “don’t rock the boat”. It’s my experience that some will dig in their heels and put up a fight. You need to be prepared for this and the conflict that will come of it. Depending on the organization, you might even need to let go of some people who are holding back the operation and your vision. You must be prepared for this and have the courage to do so, or you will fail at making the changes.

Selection and maintenance of the aim

I borrowed the above statement from the Canadian military’s principles of war. Now that you have your team, you need to discuss as a group and clearly define what the mission should be. This needs to be done with all stakeholders, as they need to make a commitment and own it. For example: we want to build x number of widgets per week, per day, per month, etc. A possible goal might be to decrease rebuild time to x. You can’t hit what you can’t see, so you must clearly define what winning looks like.


All armies conduct a recce (a military term short for reconnaissance) before any attack, and so should you. I would recommend building a flow chart to capture the work sequence.  Work with your team and have them construct it. It’s important they own the project as they will be making the changes, not you. The second step of the recce is to time each operation. Follow a product through each step of the manufacturing process until completion.  You can build a spaghetti diagram to assist you with this task. This process is challenging but it’s so important to collect this data.  You will use it to track and verify your improvements later. With a recce completed and understanding of the objectives, the team will feel more confident implementing changes.

An example of work sequence. Flow charts or spaghetti diagrams like this one clearly show how product moves from one operation to the next.

Problem countermeasure

The problem countermeasure sheet is key to operational success. You have conducted your recce and must come up with a plan of attack. You and your team must decide based on the data what the biggest problem is. Could be the time it takes to pick parts. Assembly of a particular piece. A pressure-testing phase. In truth, they are all likely problems, but the idea is to tackle one at a time.

In our example, you write down the problem: “welds failing the pressure test due to inconsistent welds”. You have determined that reworking the welds from failed parts is costing a lot of time and manpower. Your team has realized there are no standard operating procedures (SOPs) for machine settings. The weldors say they need new machines. They are old, but do they need to be replaced? Your countermeasure is to determine what the best setting for the welders should be before replacing the equipment.  

A problem countermeasure sheet can be an excel document showing what the problem is, what was your countermeasure and the solution. keep it simple. It’s a logbook of your progress.

Plan, Do, Check, Act (or PDCA)

Now that you’ve identified what you think is the problem, it’s time to run it through the Plan, Do, Check, Act model. The aim of this model is to determine the most appropriate course of action to correct the problem.


You have determined the problem based on the data and written it down in the problem countermeasure sheet. The team has come up with a plan of action (determine the best weld settings).    


At this state, you carry out your plan. Maybe working with the top weldor, you conduct a series of tests and determine your SOP for the welding process. You look at all the details of the process. Think like a scientist and run experiments. You need to test all the variables against a control.  


“Did it hit, did it work?”, we used to say in the army. You check your results at this stage. Back to the measurements, back to the recce. Did you achieve the aim of the mission? In our case, this was to improve the weld quality.

If you have made it this far, you will have learned more than you realize. The first time I went through this, I was astonished how much time we spent walking the shop floor counting paces, measuring cycle times, and discussing problems. It can be frustrating for those who want to just get stuff done. But I promise you, you will fail if you rush these steps.


You determined that the machining of the components to be welded was inconsistent. The gaps created from poor machining was causing the failed welds. You implement an inspection process that will catch any poorly machined parts before they are welded.

This was not what you expected to find. You thought the issue was with the welding equipment as the operators had claimed. As it turns out, your issue was with vendor-supplied components. By investigating the countermeasure, the PDCA process prevented you from throwing vasts amounts of money into new welding machines and greatly improved the cycle time by eliminating costly rework time. A huge accomplishment for you and your team!

It starts over again

It’s important that you record the solution to the problem in the problem countermeasure sheet. This needs to be tracked and logged. As the list grows, you will forget what you fixed and how you fixed it.

Key Points

So, to recap, when beginning a process improvement project, the following actions should be taken:

  • select the team
  • define the problem
  • define what winning is
  • capture the work sequence using a flow chart
  • create a problem countermeasure sheet
  • use PDCA to investigate the countermeasure
  • implement the corrective action
  • repeat until your shop is sweet!

Written by Greg Epp

For help and a great mentor on this subject, I recommend contacting Trevor Luciuk at Sousa Consulting Inc. He’s helped many clients with their business improvement needs & lean implementations – he was developed by the best, at Toyota and is a brilliant man with a huge wealth of knowledge on improving manufacturing.

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