5 Foundational Improvement Tools for Manufacturers


One of the things I appreciate about Lean is that many of the tools are very simple and practical.

Thinking about it, putting them to practice can happen in a matter of hours. All it should take is understanding and the decision to take action. Of course, once application of the tools begins, other challenges arise, such as overcoming resistance and sustainment of improvements.

Leadership is paramount, and clear direction for improvement is necessary. There are other “Lean” tools that provide for this, such as: Value Stream Mapping, Policy Deployment, among others.

For the time being, let’s focus on tools that are simple, actionable and can get you significant wins:

5S – The 5S’s, or 6S’s, as many know the concept, is a systematic approach to implementing workplace organization. Each S is loosely translated from the words in Japanese for:

Sort: Separate the items in the work area that are used from the ones that are not used. Remove the items that are not utilized, and relocate, store, or discard them as appropriate.

Shine: Clean the area thoroughly, in order to promote cleanliness and organization.

Set in Order: Organize the remaining items in a manner easy to locate and use.

Standardize: Create visuals that help anyone understand where things belong and when they are out of place. Create new habits that will help your teams maintain the area; clean and organized.

Sustain: Maintain the improvements over time by measuring often. Coach employees, ensuring the standardized habits are executed frequently.

Girl in a jacket

Standard Work – A famous quote by Taiichi Ohno, the Father of the Toyota Production System, said: “Where there is no standard, there can be no KAIZEN.” What this means is that we must strive to create a process that would serve as the baseline for future performance. Otherwise, we can’t tell if we are moving forward or backward. A standard that we can all follow to create consistency, predictability, and a way to make our process repeatable, and therefore easier to learn, for trainees or employees, cross-training.

Visual Management – This is one of the simplest yet most powerful concepts in the “Lean” toolkit. Organizations should strive to create an environment that conveys information visually. Imagine being able to walk to your work area, and being able to tell whether there is a crisis happening and what specifically is the status of a certain job or task, among other things. Word of advice: use visuals to help make problems visible without penalizing employees, the intent is that if we all see the problem, we can begin attacking the root causes.

Setup Reduction – Even though it takes several steps, setup reduction is a simple tool. The steps consist of observing a changeover and identifying steps that can be done before the machine is shut down for the changeover, change the process to have those steps done before the shutdown, streamline the steps before and during the shutdown, eliminate wasteful activities, and document & standardize the process.

Asking Why 5 times – This is one of the problem-solving tools used in “Lean”. This is maybe as basic as it comes: When presented with a problem, just keep asking why until you find the root cause of a problem. Often, when we encounter a problem, we are discovering a symptom. As leaders, it is our duty, together with our teams, to peal the onion until we find the cause that, if addressed, will make the problem go away for good. The power of this tool, is that if your employees begin questioning things more often, they will begin to identify and implement improvements naturally.

Here is a good template for a 5 why analysis you can lead with your team.

If you are serious about implementing Lean and want to get the results that evade most leaders, schedule a time to discuss your situation and how we can help.

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