How to Tell If a Factory is Legitimately Lean in 30 Minutes

Did you know that Formaspace can help your manufacturing facility run more efficiently? We do more than just sell furniture to manufacturers. We also offer lean manufacturing consulting to help you increase your quality and productivity.


assembly line

Not Sure if Your Manufacturing Facility is Performing at its Best?

Perhaps you’re negotiating to acquire a factory and you need to determine if it’s running on all cylinders. Or maybe you’re about to place a major order with a supplier, and you wisely decide to visit their operations before signing the contract.

In all of these scenarios, the challenge is to find the answers — to determine if you are running a lean plant operation or not. And if not, where should you focus your efforts to make the key changes needed to operate more efficiently at higher levels of quality.

You’re probably familiar with traditional formal approaches used to quantify the productivity of a manufacturing plant. Typically, this involves tasks such as:


  • Downloading and analyzing production numbers
  • Reading detailed financial statements
  • Analyzing supplier data
  • Compiling formal due diligence reports


If you’ve done it before, you know this process can take anywhere from several days to a few weeks to pull everything together into an executive briefing.


“Rapid Plant Assessment” is the Quick-and-dirty Complement to Formal Due Diligence Reports

But what if your only opportunity to learn about the factory is to walk through the plant and talk to the employees?

How much could you possibly learn without pulling financial reports and the like?

Quite a lot, it turns out.

In fact, a small team of trained observers visiting a manufacturing plant can uncover enough insightful information in the first 30 minutes to determine if a factory operation is:


  1. A top-notch lean manufacturing machine.
  2. A diamond-in-the-rough that would benefit greatly by implementing a few key improvements in specific areas.
  3. A plant burdened by an unfortunate combination of planning, production, maintenance, management, or employee workforce issues.


So, you’re probably asking yourself: ‘How can you learn so much about a factory in as little as 30 minutes?’

The answer comes from a tried-and-true method — known as “Rapid Plant Assessment” — developed by Professor R. Eugene Goodson at the University of Michigan.  

Professor Goodson is the former chairman and CEO of Oshkosh Truck and leader of the Automotive Systems Group at Johnson Controls. He served as Chief Scientist for the U.S. Department of Transportation and was a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University for 18 years.


Take the 30 Minute Rapid Plant Assessment Challenge

We are believers in Goodson’s Rapid Plant Assessment approach. To be clear, it’s not a formal due diligence program; but, it can tell you important things in just a very short amount of time — things you might never pick up just by looking at a set of printed production reports.

Here’s a quick overview of how and why it works.

During a short factory tour, trained observers carefully note how material flows through the plant. They also ask some of the production workers on the line a few simple questions.

For example, in today’s modern lean manufacturing operations, best practices tell us there should be very little inventory or in-process material stored in the plant. If you see a large buildup of production goods waiting to be processed, something is wrong.

Workers on the production line can also be a source of useful information. Asking a production worker where their completed work goes next is a good indicator of worker training and involvement. If a plant worker knows the answer to your question without hesitation, it’s a good sign they are committed to the outcome. If, on the other hand, they respond that their work ‘travels to the next transport bin’, this is an indication that the factory isn’t fully engaging its workforce to their full potential.


Rapid Plant Assessment: Step-by-step

Jeff Turk - Formaspace CEO

Jeff Turk, Formaspace CEO on the right.

Here is how Rapid Plant Assessment works in practice.

First, it requires four or five trained observers to tour the production plant. Each of the observers will focus on specific aspects of the facility’s operations. The goal is to create a rapid audit of the factory’s current state of operations using a series of questions outlined below.

Immediately after the plant visit, the observers will confer on what they have seen.

They will compile their individual checklists into a matrix that will determine an overall rating for the relative leanness of the factory. Shortcomings will be noted and prioritized to create a prioritized list of needed improvements. From this, a management action plan is built to facilitate improvements.

Here are the eleven different areas of focus that make up the Rapid Plant Assessment. Each one includes a summary of the questions used to determine the rating for each focus area. You will note that certain questions are repeated across different focus areas – for example, the question “Would you (the visitor) buy the product?” is repeated for each of the focus areas.


1             Questions to Determine Customer Satisfaction

The Customer Satisfaction rating is based on three questions: Does the plant offer tours that make visitors feel welcome? Is there a prominent display of customer satisfaction ratings? Would you (the visitor) buy the product?


2             Questions about Safety, Environment, Cleanliness, and Order

The Safety, Environment, Cleanliness, and Order rating is based on four questions: Is the factory clean, orderly, and quiet? Does visual labeling identify everything? Is everything stored in its own dedicated place? Would you (the visitor) buy the product?


3             Checking on the Visual Management System

The Visual Management System rating is a composite of eight questions: Is there a prominent display of customer satisfaction ratings? Does visual labeling identify everything? Are performance goals displayed? Are production materials stored beside the line? Are quality specifications visible? Are charts for quality problem solving visible? Is there a central control room or status display? Would you (the visitor) buy the product?


4             Evaluating the Scheduling System

The Scheduling System rating is based on whether the production line schedules are controlled by a single pacing system; whether inventories are building up in certain areas; and, the question of whether you (the visitor) would buy the product.


5             Use of Space, Movement of Materials, and Product Line Flow

The Use of Space, Movement of Materials, and Product Line Flow rating is based on the answer to these questions: Are production materials stored beside the line? Is material moved only once and for a short distance (in appropriate containers)? Is the production flow a continuous line layout (not divided into ‘shops’)? Would you (the visitor) buy the product?


6             Evaluating Levels of Inventory and Work in Process

The Levels of Inventory and Work in Process rating is calculated based on whether production materials are stored at the side of the line; if inventory levels are appropriate at each stage; if there is a single production pacing process; and, the question of whether you (the visitor) would buy the product.


7             Rating Teamwork and Motivation

The Teamwork and Motivation rating is determined by whether the plant prominently displays current goals, performance ratings, charts on productivity, quality, safety, and problem-solving. Another deciding factor is whether teams are trained, actively involved in solving problems, and committed to making continuous improvements. Lastly, the question of whether you (the visitor) would buy the product?


8             Quantifying the Condition and Maintenance of Equipment and Tools

The rating for Condition and Maintenance of Equipment and Tools is based on whether timetables are posted for preventative maintenance of equipment; evidence of ongoing tool and process improvements; and, the question of whether you (the visitor) would buy the product.


9             Ranking the Management of Complexity and Variability

The rating for Management of Complexity and Variability depends on whether work instructions and product quality are posted prominently in all work areas; if there is a project management process in place to manage cost and timing for new product introductions; and, the question of whether you (the visitor) would buy the product.


10          Determining the Level of Supply Chain Integration

The Supply Chain Integration rating is based on whether the plant displays a certification process for suppliers that calls out specific quality, delivery, and cost performance metrics; and, the question of whether you (the visitor) would buy the product.


11          Understanding the Commitment to Quality

The Commitment to Quality rating is determined by how committed the workers are to making continuous improvements. Also, is there an effective project management process in place that establishes quality and production timing goals for each new product introduction? Does each product have its key quality characteristics defined? Are there fail-safe methods in place to stop propagation of any defects? Would you (the visitor) buy the product?


Formaspace rapid plant assessment

Jeff Turk – assessing manufacturing plant


Are You Ready to Try the Rapid Plant Assessment at Your Facility?

How lean do you think your manufacturing plant is today?

Rapid Plant Assessment can help you find out.

Here at Formaspace we have performed this Rapid Plant Assessment at numerous client facilities. The results are always invaluable.

The Rapid Plant Assessment can help you discover how lean your production process is and which areas you need to focus your efforts to improve your production efficiency.

Want to know more about how Formaspace can help you conduct your own Rapid Plant Assessment? Contact one of your Formaspace Consultants today.

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