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My First Lean Assignment

Last time out on the InvisibleConsultant Blog we wrote about Project management Do’s And Don’ts aimed mainly at new project managers – you can see this article here. Today, I was thinking back to the first time I was engaged on a Lean assignment.


At this point I was engaged as a Lean Change Agent (one of many) rather than designing, developing and overseeing cultural change as we do today. This engagement was for a very large supermarket operation were I was an operational manager.


On first understanding my role for the programme I must say I was highly sceptical. We had issues with stock availability – partly stemming from resource issues on night shifts and from our ability to order the right level of stock in a timely fashion for our customers. So on hearing this ‘Lean’ programme would reduce the stock holding in our store warehouses and reduce capacity requirements on our night shifts, I was strictly a non-believer!

The approach

Despite my scepticism I had a job to do and was fortunate enough to be trusted as the change agent deploying out to our store (subsequently rolled out to other stores in the region). This involved the following:

  • Seeing Lean in action
  • Deploying standard work (Tasksheets, effective capacity planning, ways of working)
  • Implementing 5s & visual management
  • Performance Boards (Basic problem solving and team engagement)

Seeing Lean in Action

Lean methodology is best taught by deploying in practice (with the right coaching of course). Visiting a store which had begun their journey started to open up my eyes to what may be possible with Lean. As a group of change agents we were able to see and hear first-hand from those who implemented and now work in a Lean way.  There were a lot of positives, the warehouse was under control; colleagues knew what their targets were and the store was well presented.

However, I still left with a sense of ‘but it is OK for them’:

This is a relatively quiet store with big weekly shop customers and lower footfall, who no doubt have put on a bit of a show. Would this really work in our busy high street, high footfall store?

I left the store still sceptical.

Deploying Standard Work

As the Lean programme was being deployed across a retail estate a lot of the programme centred on standard work for consistency. Even the approach we followed as change agents was described from 12 weeks out – to 12 weeks in. This made the deployment structured and enabled a sense of are we on-track for delivery.

In terms of Lean deployment we implemented numerous elements of standard work, namely:

  • Tasksheets (split out by job role and down to time slots);
  • Capacity planning (of our night shift resources based on national task times);
  • New ways of working (literally how to stack shelves in the most efficient way)

Some of these items appeared to state the obvious (an often accused criticism of Lean), this lead to a little more scepticism. However, it soon became clear that stating the obvious was pretty good thing to do! 

The Tasksheets were made light of i.e. ”do you have a Tasksheet at home for your chores”, but they delivered consistency and held us to account. Everyone knew the critical items which needed to be complete and by when they needed to be completed. Managers were better equipped to assess performance, particularly of use when they had oversight for departments outside of their control. Our night shift manager had a better means of planning resource and could call out challenges ahead of time. The scepticism began to change to “Ok there might be something in this”.

Implementing 5s

If you are unsure what 5s is see our Lean A-Z Glossary for an overview of the term.

If deploying standard work was us (the retail colleagues) delivering Lean, then implementing 5s was the visual ‘aha moment’. One of the things I love the most about Lean are the tangible visual elements. The warehouse began to take shape, almost overnight – and the waste – that was literally everywhere to be seen. We stripped back the warehouse and everything had its place – literally everything. The tape went down on the floor, headings went up for sections and just visually we started to look in control. If a customer asked for an item from the warehouse we no longer stared at a jungle of stock, we went straight to the products home and responded to the customer in a fraction of the time of before.

At this point – naysayers of the Lean approach were championing the approach – some perhaps a little too aggressively informing other colleagues to follow the set standards.

We also deployed visual aids to show when areas of the warehouse had been worked. This meant we could easily see if we were on track and could set in place actions to get back on track were required.

If you are deploying 5s in an organisation I recommend a visit to a retail store who works to Lean principles or a warehouse. 5s contrary to popular belief can also be deployed effectively in an office setting – perhaps more on how to do that in a future post

Performance Boards

Most of what has gone before was a prescriptive “this is how we are deploying Lean” approach. The performance boards or more the dialogue, was the conduit to effectively engage our employees. All manner of things came out of the woodwork that were able to solve as a group and remove frustration and waste.

A simple fix

My favourite was such a simple fix I really do wonder why it took a ‘Lean programme’ to resolve. Our checkout colleagues would struggle to scan reduced items were the reduced sticker was placed vertically over the barcode, as sometimes the actual barcode would be picked up by the till or no barcode at all. The simple fix was for reductions to place all labels horizontally over the barcodes. So, in the grand scheme of things the ‘benefit’ of this change was negligible from a financial viewpoint but from an engagement perspective it was gold dust. Colleagues raised concerns, these were dealt with and the overall environment become a better place to work.

We were no longer managing a Lean programme but converting to working in a Lean way!

In conclusion

Without going into numbers and details this engagement was a great success. Warehouse stock holding reduced dramatically and out of stocks significantly reduced. We served our customers better, employees were more engaged and we were making more money a ‘win-win-win’ situation. This deployment of Lean stands out for us and not just for being the first engagement.

The key takeaway though is remembering how you felt or being mindful of how others may feel when starting off on a Lean journey. If deployed correctly even those cynical or biggest naysayers can just become your biggest Lean asset.

For more on Lean see

Until Next time






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