Ultimate Guide to The Top Lean Tools

There are so many tools out there when it comes to lean production and may be difficult to remember all of them. If you have ever been in a meeting while having a discussion with a group of engineers, you probably know how easy it is to get lost when you hear complicated jargon that is hard to decipher.

Another thing to consider is that when you look at your process, you should be reminding yourself that the only thing the customer cares about is a high-quality product with fast delivery. To achieve this goal, you must remove any and all waste in time, money, and effort using one of these top lean tools to focus on what your customer truly cares about.


This is one of the most popular lean tools used by manufacturing companies today. This concept originates in the early Japanese Toyota Production System (TPS) as an organizational method for the production floor. Most factories commonly use 5S as a method of organization so that both workers and management know their specific roles. This process also exposes any waste that may be counterproductive to the continuous improvement process.

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The 5S System

The 5S System

5S is composed of a 5-step process:

1. Seiri (Sort) – When in doubt, move it out. This method also involves using red tags to eliminate unnecessary items or tools that are not in use.

2. Seiton (Set In Order) – A place for everything and everything in its place. Bring order to your workplace by assigning a set location for equipment and tools.

3. Seiso (Shine) – Clean and inspect or inspect through cleaning. Cleaning should be a routine process to prevent material deterioration and serve as a form of continuous inspection.

4. Seiketsu (Standardize) – Make up the rules, follow them, and enforce them. A culture should be established that reinforces a continuous development process.

5. Shitsuke (Sustain) – Make it a part of daily work, and it becomes a habit. This involves applying standardization to your factory by conducting routine audits, creating milestones and periodic goals for workers, and creating a self-sufficient environment.


This is a visual management system that gives a worker an alert when there is an issue that arises in the production cycle and used as a system of light indicators, audio alerts, and other signaling devices. The Andon system gives management the ability to identify abnormal situations in the production cycle visually.

Andon is a principal tool that is applied in Jidoka, also known as the autonomation principle, which means to highlight a problem exactly when it occurs to take immediate countermeasures to fix the problem and prevent recurrence. Alerts are activated using a pull cord or button which automatically halts production. Any worker on the line can pull the cord, and warning lights are incorporated into a signboard that is easily visible, so there is an easy identification of the workstation or area that has the problem.

Bottleneck Analysis

Performing bottleneck analysis requires an understanding of different factors that affect the performance of the system as well as the ability to identify the root-cause of an issue. A bottleneck is a place in your supply chain that is causing production to come to a halt. They can be caused by some different issues such as machine malfunctions, underqualified workers, or long process queues and waiting times.

The key to bottleneck analysis is uncovering which element of your production process is hindering or placing limits on the performance of your manufacturing cycle. It is important to implement to regularly recognize bottlenecks to increase throughput further. A bottleneck’s cost per hour is equivalent to the loss of one hour of the entire supply chain, and it also equals the loss of the throughput of the total supply chain. Recognizing bottlenecks and making direct improvements to the throughput of the entire supply chain will result in increased cash flow.

Continuous Flow

A continuous flow process is a lean manufacturing process that focuses on moving a single unit through each step of a process, instead of treating units as batches for each step. Often used in vehicle manufacturing, this process is advantageous in industries because continuous flow system maximizes the continuous production of new products. It provides another advantage by helping manufacturers keep up with high demand from consumers.

Once you begin producing a product, you want to keep a continuous flow moving along the value stream without placing it in a storage area for later processing. This helps to avoid an increase in inventory levels and helps to avoid batching. The ideal continuous flow system involves passing or moving a product along the production process independently and then immediately shipping it out upon completion to an awaiting customer.

Gemba (The Real Place)

This is a Japanese word that means “The Real Place, ” and it is also used in lean manufacturing terminology to describe the workplace and where the value is added. In manufacturing, the Gemba is the shop floor, and the philosophy was used by Toyota to mean all processes and actions are as transparent as possible. Toyota members conducted what is regularly known as Gemba Walks. This is where team members would step away from their day-to-day activities and would walk along the shop floor to identify wasteful activities and areas where there may be a need for improvement.

The Gemba philosophy helps by promoting a deep and thorough understanding of real-world manufacturing issues by reminding workers to get out of offices and spend more time on the plant floor; so that first-hand observations can occur where the real action is happening. It also helps to identify where potential improvements can be made and it also provides a better understanding of employee workloads.

Working in an open plan environment that is totally transparent is what Gemba is all about. It also helps leaders gain new understandings by collecting feedback from workers, observing scenery and equipment conditions, and checking on existing safety hazards.

Heijunka (Level Scheduling)


Heijunka is the Japanese term and core concept in lean manufacturing which means “Level Scheduling” or “Production Smoothing.” This principle works under the understanding that most businesses are cyclical and there will be increases and decreases in demand. These demand fluctuations require a need to create a Just-in-Time (JIT) system which is what Heijunka facilitates.

This principle is so important because it addresses the problems associated with batching. Batches are a root-cause of many quality problems and also cause disruptions to continuous flow. Heijunka minimizes the negative effects caused by batching to release enough orders at a time to meet takt time demand as well as spread orders throughout a shift as much as possible to eliminate excessive workloads on employees.

Heijunka improves production efficiency by leveling fluctuations of performance in operation. It also reduces mura (un-level workloads on people or machines), muri (unreasonable burden on people or machines), and muda (any form of waste in the process). When there is an uneven customer pull due to a change of demand, Heijunka converts the manufacturing process so that it is more even and predictable.

Hoshin Kanri (Policy Deployment)

Hoshin Kanri

Hoshin Kanri

Hoshin Kanri is translated in Japanese to mean “Policy Deployment, ” and this lean principle ensures that goals are evenly distributed throughout every level of the company. The goals of the company should be in exact alignment with plans and strategies that are created by middle management in addition to work that is performed on the shop floor. Company objectives and strategies are developed to detailed plans that can be deployed throughout the organization.

There are seven steps you should take in the Hoshin Kanri planning process, and they can be combined with other lean tools to complement the process to include SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, balanced scorecard, among other innovation and business development tools.

Step 1. Establish an organizational vision

Step 2. Develop breakthrough objectives

Step 3. Develop annual objectives

Step 4. Deploy annual objectives

Step 5. Implement annual objectives

Step 6. Perform a monthly review

Step 7. Conduct an annual review

By ensuring that strategic goals of a company drive action and progress at every level, waste that comes from poor communication and inconsistent direction is eliminated. Hoshin Kanri strives to ensure that every employee is pulling in the same direction at the same time by aligning company strategy with middle management tactics using optimal employee performance.

Jidoka (Autonomation)


Jidoka is a word that means autonomation to describe a feature of machine design that pairs human intelligence with innovative design. It is a form of automation that was created within the Toyota TPS system to grant supervisory functionality used in the production cycle. When implementing Jidoka, whenever an issue arises on the production line, a machine will automatically stop and wait for a worker to fix the problem.

This principle can be broken down into four steps:

1. Discover the problem/issue

2. Stop

3. Correct the immediate problem

4. Investigate and fix the root-cause of the problem/issue

Many machines used in manufacturing today have incorporated Jidoka ideals into their designs. Simple sensors are installed to detect abnormalities. Other machines include lights and other types of signaling devices that are used to alert operators. The purpose of implementing this principle is to separate people from machines and allows the operator to complete other tasks while the machine is running. When a problem is detected, the operator will immediately detect the abnormality, stop the line, and highlight the problem for everyone else to see on an Andon board. Countermeasures are also taken to prevent further occurrences.

This principle can be used in almost every aspect of lean manufacturing, and it is not confined to use with machines. It also allows companies to employ partial automation which is usually less expensive than full automation. In addition to reducing labor costs since workers can monitor multiple stations, it also helps to improve quality since issues can be detected immediately.

Just-In-Time (JIT)

Benefits of Just In Time (JIT)

Benefits of Just In Time (JIT)

Toyota first implemented this concept in 1938, and the name is interchangeable with lean manufacturing. It is a very simple idea but remains to be a key component within any modern form of supply chain management. Its goal is to eliminate costs by reducing the number of goods and materials the company holds in stock.

Key principles of JIT are:

  • Manufacturing and delivering finished goods just in time to be sold to the customer
  • Partly finished goods are delivered just in time for assembly into finished goods
  • Parts just in time go into partly finished goods
  • Materials just-in-time are made into parts

The principal behind JIT is that production should be for specific customer orders (pulled through), instead of creating products that are based on batches or predictions. This approach requires more frequent delivery of stocks since they are delivered when they are needed. JIT is an approach that requires sophisticated planning and years of experience in this field.

Here are some of the benefits you can gain from the implementation of JIT:

  • Reduction in the order to payment timeline
  • Reduction in space required
  • Lead time reductions
  • Reduction in inventory costs
  • Reduced planning complexity
  • Reduction in handling and other costs
  • Productivity increases
  • Improved quality
  • Employee empowerment
  • Problems are highlighted faster


Kaikaku and Kaizen

Kaikaku and Kaizen

Kaikaku is Japanese for taking steps to make “radical improvement or change.” This lean technique involves rethinking the very foundation of the way people are valued in an organization. It is also innovation bringing new products, new processes, new concepts, and new machines. Kaikaku can also be a new management structure such as practicing an open door policy or using bottoms up management.

In lean manufacturing, Kaikaku is a method of attacking stagnation on the shop floor and overhauling production. This is required by companies in many different kinds of industries in order to remain competitive. Ways of improvement vary from making changes on an incremental basis, identifying traditional wastes from the production system, or encouraging a day-to-day regular amount of placeholder or quota changes that companies sometimes require from their leaders.

10 Steps for Implementing Kaikaku

  • Throw out traditional concepts of production methods
  • Imagine how the new method will work, not how it won’t work
  • Excuses are not acceptable, completely deny the status quo
  • You do not have to be perfect. A 50% implementation rate is better than zero
  • Mistakes should be corrected the moment they are found
  • You should not spend money on Kaikaku
  • Problems provide opportunities to think and solve those problems
  • Ask “Why” five times
  • 10 people brainstorming ideas is better than the knowledge of one person
  • There are no limits to Kaikaku

Kaizen (Continuous Improvement)

This is a Japanese term for “continuous improvement.” In the manufacturing industry, this process can be described as standardized activities that encourage employee engagement and continuous improvement throughout the workplace.

The principles of this lean method involve companies employing a strategy where employees from all levels of the company work together in a proactive manner to achieve regular, step-by-step improvements. These improvements occur throughout the manufacturing process. Kaizen also creates a powerful engine for improvement by combining the collective talents within a company.

There is a dual nature of Kaizen because it is part philosophy and part action plan. As a philosophy, Kaizen is about building a culture where employees stay actively engaged in implementing improvements and making suggestions to the company. It becomes a way of thinking for both workers and plant managers. As an action plan, events are organized to focus on improving specific areas within the company. These events will involve employees at all levels form teams, and there is a strong emphasis on ensuring all plant floor employees are involved.

Kanban (Pull System)

How Lean Manufacturers Use Kanban Cards

How Lean Manufacturers Use Kanban Cards

Kanban is Japanese for “Pull System” and it is a method of controlling and regulating the movement of goods both within the production plant and with outside customers and suppliers. This system is based on an automatic replenishment system using Kanban (signal) cards that provide indications to workers when more goods are needed. The system helps because it eliminates wastes from overproduction and excess inventory. In some cases, some manufacturers rely solely on signal cards to indicate when more goods need to be ordered; this eliminates the need for physical inventories.

Kanban is used as a visual method as a part of lean manufacturing and just in time to control production. Its purpose is to ensure that you only produce what the customer is asking for using a pull system. This pull system controls what is produced when it is produced, and the quantity that is produced. The system is designed throughout the value stream to pull product from customer demand back to raw materials.

Kanbans can take many forms and production facilities, and you will most likely see them in the form of Kanban cards or bins that are used to control the process and create a scheduling system. However, there is no limit to your imagination when it comes to how Kanbans can be designed and controlled.

KPIs (Key Performance Indicators)

These are metrics used to monitor and track the progress of critical milestones for a company. On the shop floor, KPI’s are often used as a motivational tool for employees to encourage progress because it is an incredibly powerful driver of behavior. The data that is provided gives companies a constant stream of feedback for how their operation is performing. Therefore, carefully selected KPI’s will drive desired behavior.

The best manufacturing KPI’s:

  • Are readily influenced by people on the shop floor (so they can drive results)
  • Are aligned with strategic goals from top level management
  • Are highly effective at quantifying and exposing waste
  • Determine the current performance of the process being evaluated for the entire system
  • Evaluates the progress of process improvement and lean initiatives
  • Determines appropriate performance benchmarks

KPI lean tools are often used for understands the needs of businesses. They often ask following questions:

  • Where are we at today?
  • Where do we want to be?
  • Are we trending in the right direction?
  • Do we have honest data to make the best decisions?

Answering these questions can help you identify KPI indicators for problem-solving and identifying solutions.

Muda (Waste)

TIMWOOD - Transport, Inventory, Movement, Waiting, Overproduction, Overprocessing, Defects

TIMWOOD - Transport, Inventory, Movement, Waiting, Overproduction, Overprocessing, Defects

Muda is Japanese for “waste” and it is defined as anything that consumes labor or material and does not add value to the final end customer. Muda is considered as a non-value adding activity that takes space, resources, or time, but does not add to the value of the product itself. Also, a value adding activity is an activity that shapes or transforms information a raw material to meet customer requirements.

Here are the seven wastes in the Muda value stream (you can think of it as TIMWOOD):

1. Transportation

2. Inventories

3. Motion

4. Waiting

5. Overproduction

6. Overprocessing

7. Defects

Editor's Notes

We recommend you take TIMWOOD and print up a picture diagram on a single piece of paper. You place this all over the facility to remind people what waste is within your organization.

Lean companies rely on this principle that was invented by Toyota to help clients identify activities that are value adding and eliminate ones that are wasteful or non-value adding. Through this lean method, companies are able to see opportunities in the organization which impact the bottom line and provide opportunities for improvement. These opportunities are not only identified, but they are used to make an impact by reducing operating costs for companies.

Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE)

OEE is a “best practices” metric that measures the amount of productivity loss during a manufacturing process. Its main goal is to identify the percentage of production time that is actually productive. It is useful as a benchmark to compare the performance of a given production asset to industry standards to other assets that are produced in-house.

This comparison could also conclude results for different shifts that produce the same asset. When it is used as a baseline, it can be used to track progress over a period of time when there is a goal to eliminate waste from a production asset.

Losses are categorized and tracked in 3 ways:

  • Availability Loss = Run time /planned production time
  • Quality Loss = Good count / total count
  • Performance Loss = (Ideal cycle time x total count) / run time

A score of 100% represents excellence in production. This type of 100% OEE production operation that represents perfect production would only manufacture good parts with zero defects, in the fastest amount of time possible, with zero down time.

PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act)

This is a four-step problem-solving process that is used for quality control that revolves around the following method:

1. Find a change for a process (Plan)

  • ID the problem
  • Define the problem
  • Do you need a stopgap?
  • Set SMART goals
  • Collect data
  • Determine the root cause
  • Make a plan
  • Predict the outcome

2. Implement the change (Do)

  • Experiment
  • Pilot if needed
  • Implement changes

3. Measure the results (Check)

  • Focus on learning (there should be a large focus)
  • Confirm your predictions
  • Is the problem improved?

4. Take the appropriate action (Act)

  • If the problem persists, repeat PDCA
  • If the problem is resolved, fully implement, document, train, and communicate

This lean technique is a continual improvement methodology that was pioneered by Dr. W. Edwards Deming. It is approach that emphasizes that once improvements have been identified by employees and later implemented, the organization as a whole should look for additional ways to make further improvements and this process will always be continuous.

Poka-Yoke (Error Proofing)



This is a Japanese term for “error proofing,” “mistake proofing,” or “inadvertent error.” It is a mechanism used in the lean manufacturing process that helps equipment operators to stay away from yokeru (avoid) and poka (mistakes). A Poka-Yoke can be either a methodology or a device that ensures processes achieve 0% defects by placing specific limits on how operations can be performed in the workplace.

Normally, the poka-yoke is a simple device that highlights a defect or even prevents defects from being made. This technology will ensure that a product is not passed on to the next operation.

Shigeo Shingo is noted for his three level hierarchy of effectiveness when comparing quality control and poka-yoke:

  • Judgment inspection – An inspector will inspect the product
  • Informative Inspection – Use of statistical process control (SPC) to measure, monitor, and evaluate process performance
  • Before the fact – Poka-yoke

The benefits of Poka Yoke implementation include:

  • Solutions that do not let an error in a process happen
  • Elimination of many operations related to quality control
  • 100% built-in quality control
  • Less time spent on training workers
  • A reduced number of rejects
  • Unburdening of operators from repetitive operations
  • Immediate action when a problem occurs
  • Promotion of the work improvement-oriented approach and actions

Root Cause Analysis (RCA)

Root Cause Analysis is a problem-solving methodology that is used to identify the underlying causes of an issue to prevent it from getting bigger or growing further. This method is opposed to performing quick fixes which only provide temporary solutions for the problem. Root Cause analysis applies corrective action to the root-cause of the problem so that the problem will be eliminated.

A root cause analysis can employ a wide range of quality methods to help you understand why an event occurred so that you can take the necessary steps to make sure that it does not repeat itself. This method will ultimately help you identify what, why, and how an event occurred. This process usually follows these four steps:

1. Gather relevant information about the problem. Ask "Why" Five Times

2. Chart causal factors

3. Locate and pinpoint the exact root causes

4. Brainstorm, develop and recommend solutions to address the root cause and take corrective actions

Problems are best solved by making attempts to correct or eliminate root causes. Instead of patching things up so that the same non-value problems occur again later, RCA helps to eliminate them.

Single-Minute Exchange of Dies (SMED)

Single Minute Exchange of Dies (SMED)

Single Minute Exchange of Dies (SMED)

This is an efficient method for decreasing the amount of time for a change over to occur on the production floor by performing elements of the changeover process; all of this occurs while the equipment is still running. Since the remaining steps are streamlined, the amount of changeover steps required to continue with the process is minimalized.

The goal of this technique is to reduce changeover time to less than 10 minutes using the following techniques:

  • Create standardized work instructions
  • Convert setup steps to be external (Should be done during actual operation of the process)
  • Simplify internal setup (e.g. replace bolts with knobs and levers)
  • Eliminate all non-essential operations

When implemented successfully, a SMED program will have the following benefits:

  • Smaller lot sizes (more frequent product changes are enabled by faster changeovers)
  • Improved responsiveness to customer demand (more flexible scheduling by enabling smaller lot sizes)
  • Lower inventory levels (Lower inventory levels from smaller lot sizes)
  • Lower manufacturing cost (Less equipment downtime due to faster changeovers)
  • Smoother startups (Quality and consistency is improved with standardized changeover processes)

Six Big Losses

These are six categories of manufacturing that are nearly universally experienced by everyone:

  • Breakdowns
  • Small stops
  • Setup/Adjustments
  • Startup rejects
  • Reduced speed
  • Production rejects

This lean tool is used by manufacturers today to gain a better understanding of a universal forms of waste that occur or exist within manufacturing operations. The detection methods of this system will expose bottlenecks that are a cash drain for the manufacturer and help streamline production.

Six Big Losses can also be broken down into three categories

1. Availability losses

2. Performance losses

3. Quality losses

Availability losses include breakdowns such as machine failure or general maintenance. Set up an adjustment also tells into this category to include changeover or material shortages. Performance losses include speed losses like operator or machine wear down. This also includes small stops and idling such as jams, blocks, or obstructions. Quality losses are production defects that occur during production and startup rejects that are identified before steady production. These losses result from product damages and expiration, scraps, improper assembly, among others.


This is an acronym for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Specific. This method helps to ensure goals are effective.

This goal setting and communication standard has the following characteristics:

In order to achieve a goal, it must be:

Specific – Clearly set out in a specified manner by referring to concrete figures and actual facts.

Measurable – The goal or results must be measurable; either in units or some other form of measurement.

Attainable – The goal must be within reach or achievable. It should not be something way out in left field or overly ambitious. Employee morale may suffer if a goal is so difficult that no one can achieve it.

Realistic – The goal is realistic in what it is intended to achieve within a given time frame and available resources.

Time-based – Set a due date for when the goal must be achieved. The due date or timeline for the goal must also be achievable and realistic.

Standardized Work

This is a key element to success in any lean manufacturing environment. Using a set method that is repeated over and over, improvement opportunities become more apparent, and the process is more organized. The process is centered on human action by ensuring that repetitive tasks are ergonomically correct. There are four main elements of standardized work: line balancing, work sequence, standard in process stock, and takt time.

Standardized work is often used with lean companies in the form of simple procedural documentation that is posted at each workstation. These documents help to ensure that workers are performing their job tasks correctly even as they transition and move from one job to the next.

It is important that documented procedures for manufacturing include best practices means the documents should also show the time it takes to complete each task. Documents that are easy to change and conform to changes in the work environment are also more effective. Standardized work helps lean organizations by forming a baseline for future improvement activities. It also eliminates waste by consistent application of best practices.

Takt Time

This is a pace of production that aligns production with customer demand. It helps lean companies by providing a consistent, intuitive, yet simple method of implementing the proper pace of production. This lean technique can also be easily extended to provide workers with an efficiency goal on the shop floor. (Target pieces / Actual pieces)

This word is derived from the German language and it means “pulse” in English. It is also the calculated maximum amount of time that a certain product must be manufactured in order to satisfy market demand. The formula for takt time is as follows:

Available production time / Customer demand

Production operations that function poorly and do not work at the same pace create a chaotic work environment. Takt time provides definition to the relationship between available work time and customer demand; it also enables lean companies to become aware of the time available to finish the job.

Total Productive Maintenance (TPM)

Total Productive Maintenance (TPM)

Total Productive Maintenance (TPM)

This is an approach to preventative maintenance where the goal is to get workers involved in maintaining the equipment they use. There are eight principles that make up TPM to help lean companies maximize operational time of equipment:

1. Focused improvement

2. Planned maintenance

3. Cost deployment

4. Autonomous maintenance

5. Quality maintenance

6. Training and education

7. Early equipment management

8. Safety health management

This approach to maintenance features a focus from a holistic point of view. It concentrates on preventative and proactive maintenance to maximize equipment operational time. Perfect production is achieved through:

  • No small stops or slow running
  • No breakdowns
  • No defects

In terms of safety, TPM also values a safe working environment by ensuring there is no accidents.

By empowering operators to maintain their equipment, TPM erases the distinction between production and maintenance. When this program is implemented successfully, it encourages greater involvement by shop floor workers as well as a sense of shared responsibility for equipment. In the right lean manufacturing environment, TPM can be a very effective tool for improving productivity regarding eliminating defects, increasing up time, and reducing cycle times.

Value Stream Mapping

Also known as “material and information flow mapping”, this is a management method for analyzing flow production throughout the manufacturing facility. This is a mapping technique that is designed to highlight individual elements of the production process to interpret both current and future states of the manufacturing facility.

Visually, it is used as a map to show the flow production and seeks to map your process from supplier to customer. This map will show the current and future state processes in a manner that allows management the opportunity to highlight ways to improve. Not only does it highlight the flows of product information, but also non-value adding processes and delays.

This map is a huge eye-opener for top management because it provides a top-level view of your company rather than a detailed look at specific processes within the production process. It is one of the most powerful tools that can lead to rapid and significant improvement of your business if corrective action is taken to create an ideal value stream.

Visual Factory

These are visual indicators such as displays and controls that any factory or manufacturing plants can use to create a leaner environment. A visual factory uses signs, charts, labels, infographics, and other communication tools to supply data in a very effective manner. When this information is conveyed properly, it visually reduces the time needed to invest in reading, processing, and making interpretations of text-based instructions.

Information that is conveyed includes:

  • Information employees need to complete their tasks
  • Work processes
  • Key access areas and the general layout of the job site where the information will be most useful to an employee (entrances, aisles, and paths)
  • Information about employer’s goals, strategies, and accomplishments by implementing a visual factory

A visual factory helps lean companies because it makes the state and condition of each step in the manufacturing process very clear and easily accessible to everyone.

Author: Eric Raio

Eric Raio is one of the founders of Factory Solutions. When he isn't plotting new ways to create awesome software. He likes to geek out about flying drones and technology.

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