Pillars of Lean, Part 2: Continuous Improvement

In a previous article, This is Your Brain on LEAN, we laid the foundation that we will build on for future articles about building a Lean culture.

In that article we established 3 pillars of Lean:


1. Eliminate Waste

2. Continuous Improvement

3. Adding Customer Value


Last week, we dove deep into Eliminating Waste. This week, we are tackling Continuous Improvement. Remember, understanding these pillars on a deeper level IS WORTH IT. Once you understand and see the implications of Lean in your shop, you will jump in with all you’ve got and NEVER look back.



In our start to become a Lean manufacturer we started by learning how to identify and eliminate waste. This step is actually pretty easy once you get rolling. This trick is to keep it going.  

In steps Continuous Improvement, or “kaizen”.  

At the root continuous improvement is the directive Paul Akers gives: “Fix what bugs you”. If you continually fix what bugs you then you will always be improving.  



Recently my father-in-law retired, for the second time, from a power line construction company. His latest position was the head of safety and training for all employees in the branch he worked.

He often talked about the jobs they were on and some of the crazy things that the employees would do but what stuck out to me was his focus on improvement. He always seemed to make it his goal to inject the employees with thoughts of getting better all the time.

"He always seemed to make it his goal to inject the employees with thoughts of getting better all the time."

What I learned from him is that there has to be someone in the operation that champions the cause of continuous improvement. Someone that pushes the people around them to not settle for OK but to strive for perfect.

Problem is, even if you know you want to be that someone, it can be hard to know how to start.

In this article we will layout 3 simple ways to start championing continuous improvement in your shop. Dedicate yourself to these and then get ready to see some serious results.


3 steps to Continuous Improvement

Here are just 3 simple ways to kickstart a culture of continuous improvement:

1: Morning Meeting

2: Ask ‘Why’ ... A LOT

3: Never settle


Step 1: Morning Meeting

If there is one core step to building a Lean culture it is maintaining a morning meeting. I learned this recently because we slacked off and missed meeting for a few days and I noticed a slight change in attitudes almost immediately.

"If you don’t define your culture, one will get defined for you."

As I have said in previous articles, if you don’t define your culture, one will get defined for you. For our box component company we have our meeting at 7:45 AM, immediately after 3s (Sweep, Sort, Standardize). We are still in the process of defining our daily agenda but right now it goes like this:


  1. Greeting

  2. Ask if there are any safety concerns or maintenance issues

  3. Ask someone to share an improvement or an idea for one

  4. Go over production numbers and discuss today’s goal

  5. Get feedback from employees

  6. Get to work!


Our daily meeting is a standup meeting and it normally lasts about 10 minutes. Maybe someday it will get longer but for now it works for us.  

*Hint* When introducing meetings, keep them quick, on point, and upbeat. You are trying to create an environment that makes it easy for everyone to adopt Lean principles.  


Step 2: Ask ‘Why’... A Lot

Asking ‘why’ is something that you will become very good at one you dive into Lean.  

You will find yourself challenging the norm and the notion of ‘that’s what we have always done’. Don’t be afraid to drill to the root of the problem by asking ‘why’, making a tweak, then ask why again and so on and so forth.



I have noticed that when we set out to improve a process we pick some blaring problems and fix them immediately. A couple days later we will visit that process with a little stronger magnifying glass. At this point we are done hacking at the low lying branches. Now we are pruning the small problem branches to thin out the tree. In other words, don’t get in too much of a hurry when changing a process.  

"You will find yourself challenging the norm and the notion of, “But, that’s how we’ve always done it.”"

You will notice that the first changes will make a dramatic improvement in output but the changes you make from that point on in an effort to continuously improve will take a process closer to its maximum high quality output.  

Never get so comfortable with a process that you quit asking why…. a lot!  As soon as you quit asking, waste will start creeping its way back into operations.

Step 3: Never Settle

There will be times along the way that you will get push back or employees that just don’t see the long term vision. Resist the urge to settle for OK and continue to pursue perfection.  

Remember, no matter where you start, as long as you continuously improve, you will one day be the best!  

"Resist the urge to settle for OK and continue to pursue perfection."

I also think that it is important, if not vital, to let employees establish some of their own improvements along the way. So, while keeping a watchful eye, let them try something even if you know it is a bad idea, but don’t settle in the end. Keep coming back to that issue or area and gently insert your option or let them create an even better solution on their own. Or revert back to step two and just start to ask why and more than likely the employee will see the flaw in their plan.  

Band-aid fixes need to be deleted from your vocabulary and instead replaced with the mentality that we don’t settle for anything but perfection.


Don't get bogged down

Follow these steps as a guide and change them to fit your company.

I have just found in our operation that the KISS (Keep It Simple Silly) method works the best. Refrain from making it complicated, full of metrics, tracking and everything else that bogs down real progress.  

*Hint* We track 2 numbers in our operation. Number of sheets cut per day on the CNC machines, and number of units completed ready for shipping. These numbers are literally tracked with a clicker. The numbers are written onto a paper at lunch and at the end of day. Weekly we enter these numbers into a Google Form that automatically creates a spreadsheet and graph.



Maybe someday we will find it important to track more but as of right now we are more focused on eliminating waste and improving than tracking a bunch of random numbers.


All Aboard! 

Are you ready to get on the Lean train and transform your business? Let me know where you are going to start. If you need help, then feel free to comment for a nickel’s worth of free advice.