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Core Lean Tools

One of the attributes that managers and consultants like about Lean is that it has a plethora of tools and methods. Some are more useful than others, and some are straightforward, while others have nonsensical acronyms. Here are the core tools that we’ll use later on in this book.

Kaizen: The term means “to take apart” (kai) and “to make good” (zen), and is at the heart of continuous improvement efforts to reduce waste. The Kaizen Event has been popularized by multitudes of consultants who believe a week is the optimal time period to create a single significant change. Hogwash! As long as you thoroughly understand an organization’s current conditions and then develop, implement, and test improvements, you can create meaningful change over any period of time. (A week is most likely said to be the optimum time because it lets consultants be home on the weekends.)

Value Stream Map: A flowchart that shows the sequence of steps in a process, from which you can identify wasteful and value-added steps. Typically, 75% of the steps in a process are waste (remember, you are looking at it from the perspective of the customer, not what you think needs to take place).

Flow or Just In Time (JIT): Aligning and balancing the sequence of value-creating process steps to reduce inventory and create steady activity and throughput that is matched to customer demand.

5S: Five S refers to the English terms for the five steps of workplace organization: sort, straighten, sweep, shine, and sustain. By organizing the workplace, you reduce inventory and thereby required space. You also reduce the time it takes to find tools and parts. Organized workplaces are also safer, so some companies add safety as a sixth “S.”

Quick Changeover and Set-up Reduction: Reducing the time it takes to set up and change from one process to another by analyzing and reordering activities. Quick changeover was the first tool we implemented to get the medical device molding operation under control and back on schedule.

Standard Work: A very well-defined sequence of activities required to complete a process. For a shop floor operator, this can be the sequence of adding components to an assembly. For a manager, this can be the specific metrics to be reviewed. For someone at home, this can be the morning get-ready-for-work routine.

Go to the Gemba and Genchi Genbutsu: The term “gemba” means “the source.” In Lean terms, the gemba is where value is being created—the factory floor, a certain office process, or even in your kitchen at home. Genchi genbutsu translates as “go and see.” Lean stresses the idea that you should “see for yourself,” i.e., go to the gemba and see what is really going on. You cannot get all the facts and make the right decisions by sitting in a conference room away from the action.

Visual Management and Control: When you walk into a Lean factory, the first thing you see are lots of whiteboards and signs with metrics and status information. Team members are creating charts detailing rejects, capturing improvement ideas on flipcharts, and identifying processes by signs. Information truly is power, so giving workers more information enables them, creating respect for people.

Hoshin Kanri: In its simplest form, hoshin kanri is a method to align long-term strategies with intermediate-term objectives and short-term improvement programs. Many Lean organizations link hoshin kanri into strategic planning activities. We’ll talk much more about this later.

Mistake-Proofing or Poka-Yoke: Creating methods that prevent errors from occurring in the first place. A simple example is the USB port that is mechanically designed so the USB device can only be inserted one way.

Those are the core tools of Lean. Unfortunately, many organizations become “tool heads,” focusing on implementing the tools without understanding why. All of the tools can create improvements, but first you need to ask what problem you are trying to solve. Then, and only then, should you identify the most appropriate tool.

To compound the difficulty of choosing the right tool, many Lean tools are counterintuitive (e.g., one-piece flow being more efficient that batch processing). For example, if you had to send out a couple hundred Christmas letters, would you address one envelope, insert the letter, seal the envelope, and add the stamp before moving on to the next one? Or would you address all of the envelopes at once before inserting all the letters, etc.? Guess which process is faster with less chance for errors? Completing an entire stamped, addressed envelope with a letter, one at a time, is faster. Try it sometime.