How Lean Can Attract & Retain Younger Members of the Workforce



attract-workers.jpgIn its early years, Lean often got a bad reputation as a downsizing program. It was believed that if a company of 50 employees became Lean, they likely would not need everyone anymore, causing people to be let go. Today’s work environment is quite different. Many companies cannot find enough employees to fill their teams – and I don’t know anyone who has a “people closet” from which they can just pull more resources.  

To make this problem worse, many companies also suffer from the perils of the dreaded parking lot monster. You know the one: it’s the unseen beast that snatches up new hires when they go outside for their first break. For some unknown reason, they just disappear and never return. Why does this mystery monster seem to hang out in some parking lots and not others? How can organizations make sure their new employees stop disappearing like this? The answer may actually lie INSIDE the building rather than OUTSIDE.

To understand these workforce challenges, let’s start by considering the new hires of today and the generations they represent. Whether they're considered Millennials, Generation Z or beyond, what they're called isn't as important as what they need and value.

Today’s incoming workforce seeks to work for a company that provides a clear mission, authenticity, transparency and is committed to employee success. Younger workers also want open communication and clarification on what is expected of them. These aren’t really outrageous or impossible wants or needs, just basic fundamentals that should be found in any world-class organization. Too often, however, companies take these structural pieces for granted and fail to communicate critical goals, values and missions clearly throughout the entire organization, leaving workers confused, disengaged and, unfortunately, looking elsewhere for better opportunities.

If new hires were given the ability to see what they need to do, with tools and tasks presented in a clear manner, they could perform their jobs without hesitation or uncertainty – and with more confidence and satisfaction. Ideally, this starts with onboarding. When done correctly, new hires should leave the onboarding process with clear direction as to what is important to the organization and understand what standards they will be measured against. With clarity from both management and employees, everyone is on the same page.

Lean-work-environment.jpgIn contrast, is it any wonder why new hires choose to move on from work environments like the one in this photo, where the current workers reject any sort of change and say, “I know where everything is so don’t touch my stuff”? It’s nearly impossible for trainees to operate or even survive in such conditions, and they shouldn’t be expected to.

Understanding how all generations learn and thrive is vital to optimizing the efficiency of a team. Lean can be the answer to keeping new hires engaged and excited about their work.

At its core, Lean is about problem solving. Product variability, unnecessarily long lead times, excessive movement, long changeovers and unreliable equipment are all problems that Lean can eliminate. One foundational tool of Lean is 5S. This involves completing the following five steps to improve the organization of a workspace:

  • Sort – Remove unnecessary items from the workspace
  • Shine – Clean and inspect the work area for damaged equipment
  • Set-in-order – Organize the tools, parts and equipment
  • Standardize – Share best practices for maintaining the space through identification and labeling
  • Sustain – Monitor and audit practices to maintain the area

The ultimate goal of 5S is to keep an area clean, safe and organized. Often, employees spend excessive and unnecessary time looking for things they need to complete tasks, such as tools and parts. 5S helps eliminate this common form of waste, while also providing immediate impacts, results and gratification – all of which feed the needs of today’s newer workers.

This foundation of 5S should be established before other Lean programs can be implemented to further improve effectiveness and engagement among workers. Methods like Quick Changeover and Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) cannot succeed without a successful 5S program in place, as it is not possible to quickly address problems, find tools and complete changeovers in a disorganized workplace. By starting with a foundation of 5S, new workers are able to more easily train in new areas, optimize workspaces and ultimately find fulfillment in their job – leading to more engaged, loyal workers overall.

There are no downsides to having a clean and organized workspace. 5S enables companies to establish a cleaner, safer work area, but, more importantly, it enables companies to create happier, more involved workers. The secret to keeping your employees engaged is right in front of you – so stop blaming the parking lot monster!

For assistance with your employee engagement and Lean implementations, The Center’s experts can help. Learn more at or contact us at


spillson_j.jpgJohn Spillson, Food Business Development Manager & Lean Business Advisor
Since joining The Center in 2014, John Spillson has worked to mentor manufacturers on Lean and Leadership strategies as well as provide expert support to food processors. His experience in operating his own business has given him knowledge in production, sales, food safety, marketing, warehousing and logistics. As a Lean Business Advisor, John uses Lean tools such as Value Stream Mapping, 5S, Kaizen events, Standard Work and Problem Solving to help manufacturers of all types effectively reduce waste, improve efficiency, manage risk and improve corporate culture. John also provides a variety of Leadership training to manufacturing clients, including Supervisor Skills and Manufacturing Skills Development, and assists with conducting The Center’s Technology Opportunity Assessments. John is a part of the MEP National Network’s Food Service Working Group.


Since 1991, the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center has assisted Michigan’s small and medium-sized businesses to successfully compete and grow. Through personalized services designed to meet the needs of clients, we develop more effective business leaders, drive product and process innovation, promote company-wide operational excellence and foster creative strategies for business growth and greater profitability. Find us at

Categories: Continuous Improvement, Lean Principles, workforce