The Lean Toolbox
5S--Adapted from five Japanese
words that start with “s,” they’re
rewritten as sift, sweep, sort, sanitize and sustain.
It helps organize what’s needed and eliminate
what’s not, allowing the organization to identify
5 Whys--A method of solving problems
by asking why the problem occurred, and then why that
cause occurred, five times until you get to the root
cause of a problem.
Andon--The ability for an operator
to pull a cord that triggers a horn and light which
tells the team leader or supervisor that he or she
needs help or support. Once provided, the team leader
can pull the cord to keep production moving.
Jidoka--Also referred to as autonomation,
jidoka means adding the human element of identifying
problems and either stopping for correction or self-correcting
before moving on to the next step.
Kaizen--A structured process to
engage those closest to the process to improve both
the effectiveness and efficiency of the process. Its
goals are often to remove waste and add standardization.
Kanban--A signal that a downstream
(customer) process can use to request a specific amount
of a specific part from the upstream (supply) process.
SMED--Single-minute exchange of
Visual management--Both a tool and
a concept. The ideal state is that all employees,
operators and managers should be able to manage every
aspect of the process at a glance, using visual data,
signals and guides.
Jidoka, kaizen, andon, kanban,
SMED, visual management, 5S, 5 Whys. We could fill up this
page and more with a list of lean tools, but is it the size
of our lean toolbox that really counts? Hardly. It isn’t
even the quality of the tools that makes a real difference.
The difference between companies that succeed at sustained
lean implementation and those that don’t is the level
of thinking driven by lean rules and principles. How we
think determines our behaviors--and no tool can fix that.
For example, ask yourself what’s the purpose of
5S? If you said, “to keep things clean and neat,”
then you have a good example of how a tool can be misused
without the right thought process. If 5S is implemented
throughout a factory to “clean it up” without
understanding that the principle behind it is to spot problems
instantly, it becomes nothing more than a housekeeping exercise
and will fail as a sustainable tool. To truly understand
5S, you must internalize the ability to immediately identify
problems to enable quick responses.
To illustrate this point, consider kanban. It has been
a major tool in many lean transformation efforts since the
1980s. The concept is pretty simple: A downstream process
uses parts from an upstream process. As those parts are
consumed, a piece of paper or kanban card is removed and
sent back to the upstream process. When a predetermined
number of cards is accumulated upstream, production may
begin to replenish the stock used by the downstream process.
Now look at this tool through the lens of lean rules and
principles. There are four lean rules adapted from Bowen
and Spears’ “Decoding the DNA of the Toyota
Production System” (Harvard Business Review, Nov.
1999), which guide improvement and implementation. Rule
No. 2 states that you should clearly connect every customer
and supplier, which begins by identifying the two. For example,
the upstream process is the supplier, and the downstream
process is the customer. They’re clearly connected
because the card means only one thing: They know whom it’s
for and why it works.
The card is the only method by which parts are requested.
And, it doesn’t mean ship “some” parts.
It means ship exactly the number of parts on the card. It
also means ship them immediately.
One look at the kanban card in light of rule No. 2 helps
those using it understand why and how it works because they
understand it as a request, not just a card. It isn’t
a piece of paper; it’s a clear customer/supplier connection.
More than half the companies I see implementing kanban systems
are not successful at getting the users to understand how
and why the tool works. And, what’s the most common
excuse? “Our people are dumb.” They won’t
say it quite like that, but that’s often what they
You can read about and understand the tools of lean in
just about any quality management book. You can delegate
the application and implementation to just about anyone--engineers,
hourly workers, lean facilitators and the like. But you
cannot succeed without internalizing the rules and principles
of lean throughout all of management--using that thinking
to guide not just the implementation, but daily decision
making, problem-solving and managing.
Lean practice and implementation has been around for quite
a while, so why has it taken so long for this to come to
light? The simple answer is that it’s hard to see.
Moreover, we didn’t even know to look.
If you have ever taken a Toyota plant tour, you’ll
easily see three to five specific things you could implement
at your own organization. However, because there are so
many visible examples, you might think the difference is
in what you see. What people sometimes fail to ask is why
all those ideas were created in the first place. This is
where lean thinking comes into play. Lean is not about what
you see; lean is about how you think.
Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and managing partner
of The Lean Learning Center (www.leanlearningcenter.com)
and has become one of the nation’s top thinkers and
leaders in lean transformation and lean manufacturing. Letters
to the editor regarding this editorial can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.