How Lean Can Attract & Retain Younger Members of the Workforce

This article appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.

In the beginning, Lean manufacturing was known as a downsizing program. If a manufacturer became Lean, they would not need everyone anymore, causing people to be let go. Today’s work environment is different, and companies cannot find enough employees to work. How many companies have a “people closet” where they can pull more resources?

Many also suffer from the dreaded parking lot monster. You know, the unseen beast that snatches up new hires when they go outside for their break. For some reason, they disappear and never return. Why does this mystery monster seem to hang out in some parking lots? How can organizations make sure their new employees stop disappearing? The answer may lie inside the building rather than outside.

Understanding the Needs of Today’s Workforce

To understand these challenges, let’s start by considering the new hires of today. Whether they’re 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 authenticity, transparency and is committed to employee success. Younger workers also want communication and clarification on expectations, fundamentals that should be found in any progressive organization. Too often, however, companies take these pieces for granted and fail to communicate goals, values and missions throughout the entire organization, leaving workers confused, disengaged and looking for better opportunities.

If new hires were given tools and presented with tasks in a well-defined manner, they could perform their jobs without hesitation or uncertainty. When done correctly, new hires should leave the onboarding process with a clear direction as to what is important to the organization.

Get Lean to Get Workers Engaged

Understanding how generations learn is vital to optimizing the efficiency of a team. Lean can be the answer to employee engagement.

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

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

The goal is to keep an area clean, safe and organized. 5S helps eliminate common forms of waste, while also providing immediate impacts and gratification — all of which feed the needs of today’s workers.

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

There are no downsides to having a clean and organized workspace. Lean techniques enable companies to establish an efficient workspace, but, more importantly, it supports companies in creating more positive, more involved workers. The secret to keeping your employees engaged is in front of you — so stop blaming the parking lot monster!

About the Author

John SpillsonJohn Spillson is a Lean Business and Leadership Advisor for the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center. He can be reached at 734-645-6696 or

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