Lean manufacturing is a well-known and proven management system that has been implemented in thousands of companies and organisations across a huge range of industries worldwide. Here Tim McLean of TXM Lean Solutions shares five simple Lean tools that you can try.

Plenty of people out there will say you won’t need a consultant at all to implement Lean, but the reality is there are a lot of consultants meeting a real need in helping businesses to get started. Implementing Lean manufacturing has its challenges and most companies engage or employ experienced experts or Lean consultants such as TXM to get their Lean transformation underway. However, there are many Lean tools and principles that you can do yourself, without the need for a Lean consultant or hiring an internal expert. You can even try the following five tips at home – they are that safe!

  1. Kamishibai – Red-Green Tee Card Boards.

One of our favourite and simplest Lean tools is the Red-Green Tee Card board, or Kamishibai. These are a really effective tool to make sure that everyone can see whether everyday tasks in your factory or office are getting done. A red-green task board is a slotted metal rack into which are inserted tee-shaped cards that are printed red on one side and green on the other. Typically the columns on the rack will represent days of the week (though other time intervals such as hourly, weekly or monthly tasks can also be scheduled), and the cards are then inserted underneath the corresponding day on which they are due. Each card is labelled with a task on the front and back. The cards are inserted in the rack with the red side facing out and are then rotated to show green as each task is completed. You can then see at a glance whether you are up to date with this week’s tasks.

  1. 5S

The most famous Lean tool is also one of the easiest ones to use. Simply pick an area and start to apply the five S’s. Remove everything from the area except for fixed items, and SORT out the items by frequency of use (the things that you use every day, every week, every month or not at all). Get rid of obsolete items and place items you are not sure of away from the work area in a designated “red tag” area. Then work out where you want to place the items that you do regularly use. SET IN ORDER by placing most commonly used tools, materials and consumables in designated areas close to where they are used. Mark the areas where the items are to be stored with line markings and signs so it is clear where everything needs to returned after it is used. Then SHINE the area by giving the area the best possible clean. Remove all dirt and rubbish and fix obvious damage to machines and the workplace. Once everything is in its place and the area is shining, take a photo. That can become your visual STANDARD. You then need to organise a regular routine to SUSTAIN your 5S by inspecting the workplace regularly to make sure that everything is staying in place. Almost anyone can get started on 5S and make a difference. Really sustaining and improving it may take some expert help, but why wait – get sorting today!

  1. Leader Standard Work (for yourself)

Leader Standard Work can be pretty demanding to implement as most leaders are reluctant to comply at the start. However, if you implement Leader Standard Work for yourself, the excellent example you set and increased performance you achieve can then be a model for others! Simply make a check list of the things that you need to do and see each day. Work out how long each of these tasks take by measuring your own time to complete them. Make sure that you do not allocate more than about 30% of your day to these tasks and avoid too many tasks at fixed times.

I did this when I was the manager of a blowmoulding plant 20 years ago. The list was on the inside cover of my diary. Fixed tasks might be to attend the daily production meeting or the planning meeting; however, most tasks were variable. Two or three times a day I did a full walk of the factory to observe how things were going. How were machines running? Were leak-testing machines calibrated and working correctly? What was in the waste bin? Were supervisors and team leaders in the area and supporting their people? I would observe the various visual performance boards around the factory and take note of on and off-target performance. I would observe compliance with 5S standards (or red green tee card boards if I had had them back in those days). When I found problems, I would ask questions to understand the underlying issues.

Simply locking in this routine every day had a huge impact on the plant. Once technicians saw me personally testing leak testers, they made sure that they were always calibrated and working correctly. When team leaders had to explain large piles of defects or large lumps of purging material in the waste bin, they were more focused on avoiding defects and excessive purging. Consider setting up a red-green task board of your own to track your own tasks.

  1. Five Whys and Concern strips

A key tenet of Lean is that we solve problems using the scientific method or the PDCA (plan-do-check-act or plan-do-check-adjust) cycle. To solve problems we have to find the root cause and to find the root cause we have to ask why. Five whys is incredibly simple. Firstly we define the problem. What exactly is the problem, what is its extent, and why does it matter? Clear definition makes problem solving easier. Then simply ask: why did the problem occur? Keep asking “why” until you believe you have got a root cause that you can address.

You then need to agree to a countermeasure that will address this root cause. To record this and track the implementation of the countermeasure, you can use a concern strip. This is a simple and practical method to ensure that the countermeasure is fully implemented; that the problem is followed up; that the countermeasure works; that the problem doesn’t occur again; and that the countermeasure is locked into standards.

  1. Andon

Andon is a system that allows front-line operators to signal a problem in the process. By pushing a button, pulling a cord or raising a flag (literally), operators signal to their team leader that they need support with a problem (such as a defect, material shortage or faulty machine). The team leader must then come and assist within an agreed time or the operator can stop the production line.

Andon may not be an obvious choice for “tools that you can implement yourself”, because many would see Andon as a higher-level Lean tool. However, according to a colleague from Toyota Australia, the Andon system was the first thing that Toyota implemented when it first took over its plant in Port Melbourne, Victoria. This is because Andon highlights problems in any process by empowering operators to raise those problems.

It is also quite easy to set up. Simply providing a button next to the work station and wiring that up to a light or buzzer is well within the scope of most businesses. Even if this was too tough, making up some flags and a holder for the operator to insert the flag when he or she has a problem is even simpler. You will be amazed by the change that Andon can create.

Continuous improvement

With this list you can make quite a bit of improvement yourself. The five items above do not represent a whole Lean production system, but they make a good start and prepare the ground for more improvement. However, some Lean tools are really best implemented with the support of a Lean expert or a competent Lean consultant.

I believe Value Stream Mapping is a good example of this. While there are lots of good books on Value Stream Mapping, the technique can require a major paradigm shift for your business and therefore is best supported by someone such as a Lean consultant, who has applied the technique before. Extending Leader Standard Work and the Lean management system beyond yourself can also be challenging because most managers are not enthusiastic at the start. Other Lean tools such as Kanban, One Piece Flow and FIFO can require some technical knowledge to get right and specialist help from a Lean expert or Lean consultant can also be valuable.

Nonetheless, if you make a start by yourself, then by the time you do need some help, you will have a good understanding of Lean and what it can do. You will have hopefully recorded some successes (and perhaps some failures, which is fine) and will be ready to really make some major change.

Tim McLean is the Director of leading Lean consultants TXM Lean Solutions, and author of ‘Grow Your Factory – Grow Your Profits: Lean for Small and Medium Sized Manufacturing Enterprises’.