The Lean Office Blog

Five Lean Management Lessons from Spinning Plates

Today’s post highlights five Lean management lessons you can learn from observing someone spinning plates.

One of my favorite acts at the circus growing up (heck, even still today) is watching someone spin plates. The Lean Management Spinning Platebasic idea is you’ve got someone very good at multi-tasking who starts off by placing a plate on top of a thin rod and spinning it fast enough that the plate balances itself on top of the rod. The performer goes on to do the same thing with several more plates (or bowls, glasses, etc.), but around the fifth plate, something new happens to the routine. The first plate – the one that’s been spinning the longest – starts to wobble, and the performer has to go back to that plate and give it some additional velocity. Then, he has to do the same thing to the second plate, then the third, and on down the line. Hopefully there’s time to add another plate to the rotation before starting “plate spin maintenance mode” (not an official term) again. The act typically ends when one of two things happens – the performer runs out of plates, or he takes too much time adding a new plate to the rotation, and another plate slows down enough to wobble out of control and fall off the rod, crashing to the ground in a thousand pieces.

So, what does all this have to do with Lean management? Well, the two key activities for spinning plates (starting a new plate and maintaining the spin) closely resemble two key challenges of Lean management – continuous improvement and sustaining that improvement. There are tools available for both, but a big decision that often comes up is where to put your effort – should you work on improving the process, or sustaining that improvement? One thing becomes abundantly clear to Lean managers and plate spinners alike-the work of keeping a balance between these two activities can be both challenging and stressful. Keep reading to find out some lessons that apply for both plate spinning and Lean management.

Lean Management Lessons

  1. It’s much easier to start something than it is to keep it going. Don’t just “set it and forget it”. Make sure and review the processes you’ve already improved to ensure that they are still operating to standard. A tool like Leader Standard Work is made to do just that-create a proactive schedule for reviewing your processes.
  2. You have to keep your eye on all of the plates to avoid catastrophe. Visual management is an excellent tool for helping to uncover processes that are performing out of standard condition. Once you’ve improved your process, establish a new standard and use visuals to help identify which processes need attention.
  3. You have to achieve balance by spreading time across all the spinning plates. You may be tricked into thinking you can perfect a process by getting it spinning super-fast. The problem with this is while you’re spending a ton of time on one process, the other processes are starting to wobble. All processes will break down over time, so instead of spending an entire week once per year on a process, spend a little time every day where the work is being done, and you’ll achieve balance in your process, and more quickly identify the ones that need more attention.
  4. Calm and collected may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s the most effective approach. Early in my experience as a Lean manager, I spent a significant amount of time fighting fires because I thought it was the only way to manage the work. However, once I adopted Leader Standard Work, I realized there was a better, more purposeful approach to Lean management.PDCA Cycle
  5. You can’t get all the plates spinning the first time through. I’m sure that’s a lesson plate spinners have to learn the hard way when they first start training. In the same way, Lean managers often want to improve everything, immediately. Unfortunately, if you’re focused too much
    on the immediate changes brought on by improvement projects, you can quickly lose sight of how the process is going to be impacted as you make those changes. Instead, work on regular, incremental improvements to the process that are easier to implement and maintain. Also, it’s much easier to observe the impact of small improvements to determine if they were successful.

One last takeaway from this analogy-is there any wonder why the PDCA (plan-do-check-act) cycle is often portrayed as a circle? PDCA is the perfect tool for keeping all of your processes “spinning” at a manageable pace.


Is your Lean management style at a point where you find yourself constantly maintaining your existing processes, with no time for actually improving processes? Or do you have processes that are near-catastrophe and have returned to their old way? If so, The Lean Office can help!

The Lean Office is a software tool designed to help Lean organizations who have moved beyond tools and events, and are implementing their own Lean Management System. Click here to find out more!

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