Lean & 5s

LEAN Manufacturing

LEAN Manufacturing is a term coined by James P. Womack in his famous book: The Machine That Changed the World. For many companies though, this term was part of business jargon and had no relevance to their organization. In fact, that was our perspective until January of 2009.

The history of LEAN Manufacturing dates back to 1914 when the entrepreneur, Henry Ford, developed a process of continuous flow to reduce the assembly time on the Model T Ford. Two years later, the company had reduced their assembly labor from 12-1/2 hours to about 1-1/2 hours per car.

In the latter part of the 19th century, Toyota, the Japanese auto-maker, developed the Toyota Production System. They not only reduced labor, but created the capacity to produce each vehicle per the customer’s order in color and style, while maintaining Henry Ford’s concept of continuous flow. Not until the turn of the century did many companies in the western world start looking at this manufacturing process as a tool to increase efficiencies and throughput.

This simple concept catapulted Toyota into the world’s leading automaker by year 2000. Not only were they the largest automaker, they were also the most profitable.

Lean & 5S Graphic

A 5S Based System

The first step to a successful LEAN journey begins with 5S implementation. 5S is a great tool for workplace organization and separates the tasks in bite size pieces. The term 5S stands for: Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain.

SORT – means to separate and scrap anything that is not absolutely necessary for your production system. Continue sorting until you have only the items you use to add value to your products.

STRAIGHTEN – every tool should have a place where it belongs. It should be in its place or in your hand. A place for everything and everything in its place.

SHINE – clean your work area. Eliminate causes of dirt. Maybe you can add some paint or light to make waste more visible. This will increase safety and create a more pleasant work environment.

STANDARDIZE – develop a standard process for routine jobs. The same job should be done the same way every time – no matter who is doing it. Standardizing prevents defects and lost time.

SUSTAIN – train, train, and train some more. This is the hardest part of 5S. Continue doing the previous four elements as part of your culture.

Applying 5S in all our departments had the greatest impact on our organization from all the Lean tools we used.

The 9 Categories of Waste

The 9 Categories of Waste is the next greatest tool derived from Lean. These will vary depending on the application. The ones listed below apply to a manufacturing plant. Notice the acronym “DOWNTIME” – plus the letter “A” which was added later. These 9 Categories of Waste apply to manufacturing in our business.

Pioneer Equipment Categories of Waste Icons_Defects Yellow Circle Black Outline


Product that needs rework or correction for errors is considered a defect and thereby becomes waste.

Pioneer Equipment Categories of Waste Icons_Overproduction Yellow Circle Black Outline


Producing more than customer requirements, or producing parts that are not needed short term, but machines or people are available.


Time delays or waiting to complete a job until you have the correct parts or more information.


Means not using the good ideas from your work force. Making process changes or buying a new piece of equipment without input from your workers.


Handling products multiple times or moving them between locations. This often leads to damage or delays.


Purchasing, storing, or processing material that is unnecessary to the customer. Remember: “The more inventory a company has, the less likely it is they have what they need.”


Walking, reaching, or bending – any excessive motion required to do your job. This is especially wasteful if you need to leave your work area to find tools, parts, etc.


Unnecessary processing steps or work being performed that doesn’t add value to the product. This is often the result of not listening to the voice of the customer.


Simply put; a bad attitude is a terrible waste. Quality will suffer and throughput will not reach its potential.

New PioneerIWS Facility

Our LEAN Journey at PIONEER

Fast forward to the spring of 2009 – Pioneer® was operating at our normal rate during the spring rush – wide open and in overdrive. We had lots of product, but seemingly not what customers were looking for. The shop was full with stacks of inventory ready to be waiting to be sold and material waiting to be processed. There was never enough space. Despite all of the above, we thought we had a rather efficient operation. All we could think of was a building addition or a new warehouse.

At our annual accountant review, we explained our need for an expansion. In response, we were introduced to LEAN Manufacturing. By applying these simple concepts, we created space where we previously thought there was none. Suddenly we were able to offer shorter lead times to our customers. Inventory was less but we had fewer backorders. Forklift time was reduced because machines were closer together and in the right order to match product flow. Employees were able to work at a more relaxed pace – yet their output increased with less defects.

This change also allowed space and time for a Research and Development department. We were able to hire more people, develop additional products, increase our showroom area, and still have more space than before – in the same building with no expansion. It all seems like a paradox, but our company is living proof that it can work.

Hospital cot assembly at the PioneerIWS factory

Lean manufacturing of hospital cots

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, our team used LEAN manufacturing techniques to quickly transform our facility to focus on manufacturing social distance barriers, temporary medical cots, and sanitizer stations. Read more about our COVID-19 response. SEE MORE.