The Lean Toolbox

Using the right tool is more important than how many you have.

The Lean Toolbox by Jamie Flinchbaugh

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. Simple, right?

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 mean.

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.

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 problems quickly.

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 die

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.

About the author

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and managing partner of The Lean Learning Center ( and has become one of the nation’s top thinkers and leaders in lean transformation and lean manufacturing.