Lean practitioners around the world will attest to the fact that if lean is to be implemented in an organisation, it must be spread across the entire company – nothing left out. this could never be more relevant than at north american company, FastCap. company owner Paul Akers explains how applying lean to the company’s toilets is the best way of setting the lean standards for the rest of the organisation.

At FastCap we have a lot of fun. One of the funniest things we do happens during the morning tours we give for visitors. We have companies come from around the world to tour our facility. It is required that the CEO or President of the company be in attendance. The reason for this is we know that unless the person at the top is driving lean, not delegating it, middle management feels powerless to make real change. As they file into FastCap, I make a few opening comments and explain to them what the tour will entail.

The first thing I do is hold up a toilet brush and tell them to follow me to the bathroom. They look at me like I am crazy and ask if I’m serious. To which I proudly reply, “We have the cleanest bathrooms in the world. All of our bathrooms are identical because our bathroom is the standard of what we think lean should look like in the rest of our facility.”

We break the group into teams of four-five people and one of our team members works with them on following our seven-step procedure to clean the bathroom. You could imagine the looks on their faces when they realise they are going to do the lowly job of cleaning our toilets. Honestly though, most have been warned and they embrace the opportunity to learn this new way of lean thinking.

We have been doing lean for 12 years, but it has only been in the past seven years that we have been building a lean culture. That journey started for us in our bathrooms. We were so overwhelmed at the state of our company after we toured some amazing Japanese organisations which had made lean fun, interesting and visual. From our perspective, we were in the dark ages of lean compared to what we saw in Japan. Even though we looked like a model company to others, we were in chaos compared to companies like Toto, Tanaka Tech, Hoks, Lexus and Omron.

We decided to keep it simple and we made our bathrooms the starting point for initiating our new way of lean thinking. We created a standard that was easy for everyone to understand. After all, the bathroom is one experience that unites all of us and most of us will see it at least three or four times a day during our working hours. When we say that everything should look like the bathroom, people know exactly what we are talking about.

The most efficient room in the house

Let me tell you what our bathroom looks like. Each bathroom has a stainless steel rack in it with all the necessary supplies – toilet plunger, toilet bowl scrubber, paper towels, Windex, wipes, a mop, aspirin, saline rinse – basically everything we use on a daily basis to maintain our bathrooms and keep them clean.

When we first began the transformation of our bathrooms, one thing we noticed was that we had several different kinds of cleaners and methodologies to get the bathroom clean. It was not a standardised process. Some people liked Windex, some people liked other brands. We had a variety of different cleaners and processes to clean the bathroom, which is absolutely the antithesis of lean.

Building a lean culture requires standardising and simplifying everything. We settled on Windex (because I am Greek and all Greeks know that Windex will heal and clean anything. If you don’t understand this joke, watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding for an explanation). We have a running joke at FastCap; if all else fails, get out the Windex. So we use Windex on our bathroom counters, we use Windex on our floors, and on our lunch tables. We use Windex on the countertop. We have one cleaner that does a great job for just about every surface. This is just one example of why the bathroom has been created as an excellent model of how to standardise and simplify. Keeping track of everybody’s favourite cleaner is craziness and adds too much complexity to a task that should be straightforward. Now, everything is standardised.

Diagrams and checklists are placed on every bathroom door to encourage responsibility and correct procedure.

On the door of every bathroom is a plastic laminated card that has pictures of the six steps necessary to clean the bathroom and a picture of the person who is responsible for cleaning it that day. At FastCap, we don’t have janitors. We all clean the bathrooms, including me. The bathrooms stay perfect all day long, because a consequential component of lean is respect for people. Leaving the bathroom cleaner than you found it is a very basic sign of respect and courtesy for others. The toilet seat is down, there is no pee on the toilet, no water spots on the mirror, and the sink is clean. This is the way every one of our bathrooms is left all day long. You can walk into any one of our bathrooms at any time of day, and they will look identical to what they looked like in the morning when they were first cleaned.

There are three principles in play which allow this to happen:

Number one (pun intended): Leave everything better than you found it. If that’s the case, everything is continuously improving.

Number two (sorry, I couldn’t help myself): Respect for people. A simple thing like leaving the toilet seat down is a basic courtesy that shows respect for others. When you leave everything better than you found it, you are naturally cleaning up after yourself, and therefore, making things better for others, which is a sign of respect for others.

Number three: Create a standard that is accessible to everyone. We created our standard using a very basic model that everybody can relate to: the bathroom. The bathroom is visual and easy to understand. What better place to begin building a culture of continuous improvement than the bathroom?

Every item used for cleaning is standardised and made readily available in every bathroom.

3S in the bathroom

At FastCap, we use the 3S’s; sweep, sort, standardise. The bathroom is swept and kept clean in a very simple way. It is sorted (we got rid of all the ancillary products) and it is standardised. We use the same product in all bathrooms and the same checklist. As a matter of fact, everybody cleans a different bathroom every week. It rotates around and they can perform the task perfectly, because everything is in the same place, no matter where you go and that’s 100% predictable. We made the process the expert, not the people. By doing this we can concentrate on more important and complex tasks, for activities such as continuous improvement and innovation. We do not clutter our minds and waste our time searching for mundane items like cleaning supplies and plungers.

While I was writing this article, a friend from a local manufacturing company stopped by to visit me at FastCap. His company is 40 years old and he and the leadership team are trying  to take it from the old way to the lean way. He and his leadership team have visited several times to observe and learn about our lean culture and I have even been to his facility to give ideas of how to implement lean. To be brutally honest, he has a difficult road to travel. I asked him how it was going and he replied that things were incredible. I asked why and he told me that he and his leadership team had been cleaning the bathrooms at the facility for the past three months. The bathrooms are immaculate, and the employees cannot believe the leadership team is setting such a great example. He says now when he asks others to make a change they don’t give any push back. Leading by example works. The employees see the benefits of lean every day, each time they use the bathroom. It is very difficult to argue with results.

My advice for people wanting to create a lean culture is to start in the bathroom and roll it out slowly from there. Start humbly and you will be surprised how everything else will take care of itself. Go ahead, do it in the bathroom.