LEAN AND SIX SIGMA
by Kate Jakubas
How 5S and kanban helped a small business grow fourfold in just two years
Quality knowledge isn’t widely considered a critical startup skill, but lean and Six Sigma helped me grow my manufacturing business over an order of magnitude in two years.
I founded Meliora Cleaning Products in 2013 after a decade of working for larger manufacturing organizations. During that time, I learned about and used lean and Six Sigma, and became an ASQ-certified Green Belt and Black Belt. The certifications were mostly an academic exercise. They ticked the “professional development” box and gave me something to feature on my résumé. Occasionally, I applied Six Sigma or lean tools to a project, saving the organization money or improving quality.
Now that I own a small business, eliminating waste and improving quality isn’t just an interesting exercise—it’s critical to the health of my business and paying my employees on time. I use my quality training every day.
5S and kanban
The tool and method that have helped me the most are 5S and kanban.
In our factory, 5S means keeping things as orderly as possible and making sure everyone knows where everything is. A bilingual production staff has been especially helpful in encouraging us to reduce the number of verbose written procedures in favor of photos, color coding and other visual factory management systems.
Kanban is our system for keeping product flowing. We do the bare minimum when it comes to scheduling production and don’t forecast based on anticipated product mix. Instead, we circulate labeled trays. Each finished product is stored on labeled trays. Trays are emptied to fill customer orders, and an empty tray indicates that it’s time to make more of that product. This allows us to use our time most effectively and only make enough product to keep up with current customer orders.
Our system is extremely basic, but also extremely effective. We improve our systems by adding, subtracting and adjusting kanban amounts. Rarely is there a day that colored electrical tape isn’t used to identify a storage area or product-specific piece of equipment.
Continuous improvement and continuous growth
In May, we moved from our original 1,500-square-foot factory to a space four times bigger, and we are fulfilling customer orders 10 times larger in volume than those just two years ago.
We recently had the pleasure of taking personal friends who also are lean manufacturing engineers on a tour of our plant. We are now implementing further changes based on their observations. Without a large staff to conduct internal audits, we are lucky to have outsiders evaluate our processes so we can continue improving.
We will continue to make improvements and look for ways to implement the best parts of big-organization quality at our tiny manufacturing facility.
Kate Jakubas is the founder of Meliora Cleaning Products in Chicago, and an advisor to William Hooper Consulting in Indiana. She earned a master’s degree in environmental engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Jakubas is a member of ASQ and an ASQ-certified Six Sigma Green Belt and Black Belt.