November 26

What Does Lean Manufacturing Tools Mean? (Plus 27 You should be Using)


You may often hear the term lean manufacturing tools. But many people ask, exactly what does lean tools mean? Here’s a guide to help clarify, as well as examples on some of the most popular tools.

[content_container max_width=’500′ align=’center’]What does lean manufacturing tools mean? Lean tools is simply a reference to a number of methods and applications used in pursuit of improving efficiency and reducing waste processes. Think of lean as a tool box. Within this toolbox are various methods or tools, used to reduce wasteful activities. Each one can be applied to different processes and scenarios to help make your business more efficient and provide your customers with value.[/content_container]

Not one thing can be used to ‘lean’ a business up. It’s rather a sequence of tools, that come together. When they are applied correctly, and followed, you get a lean transformation. Here are 27 lean tools that are common in transforming productivity, quality and competitiveness.

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1. Value Stream Mapping

Value Stream Mapping is usually the start for any lean project and the first of the lean manufacturing tools on our list. It allows you to walk the entire process from order to delivery of your product and service, and to then see process waste.

What a VSM does is illustrate the current and future state costs within a given process. It analyses the various steps and helps determine how a product or service is transformed into something the customer is willing to pay for (value).

It also allows us to see where the bottlenecks are and where the waste is (non value added activities).

Once seen, the objective of a VSM is to remove the waste and improve efficiency of the processes you’re analysing, by creating a future state version. Action is then taken over 6-12 months to achieve this value stream transformation.

Future State VSM Example

Above is an example of a VSM conducted to analyse the end-to-end process within a company.

When to Use It

It’s a very visual way of showing how things are currently done (current state VSM) and then how they should work in the future with an improved (future state) VSM.

Use VSMs to map out your processes, before you make improvements. They allow you to see the waste and how processes link together, so you can optimise and visualise these gains on paper, first.

Your future state value stream map should be a strategic document, to show how you’re going to improve it to deliver more value more efficiently.

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2. Pull Systems

Pull ensures that nothing is produced by the upstream supplier until the downstream customer signals a need. In this situation, you can’t over produce and make too much. This goes for administration processes as well as production.  You simply supply the next process with what they want when they want it, just in time, and at the pace your customers need it.

That’s why this is one of the critical lean manufacturing tools.

In pull, we release increments of work only when there’s a signal to make more. The most common type of pull system is called Kanban. It’s simply a visual trigger to tell the previous process to produce more…Only when they signal it.

It normally consists of a supermarket (to hold the inventory or finished goods), and Kanban triggers to tell the previous process to make what’s just been consumed.

Kanbans allow processes to be linked and work systematically with little questioning and planning and is a powerful tool in the lean toolbox to flow product through the business, using nothing more than visual triggers.

Lean Tools-Pull System

When to Use It

Use pull to link processes together. There’s no point cramming work onto one process, just for it to sit at the next process, whereby the operator feels overloaded.

Where you can’t flow from one step to the next, you must pull So try to create Kanban:

  • On suppliers
  • Between production processes
  • Within office processes
  • Anywhere where you see processes working in silos

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3. Flow

Flow is defined as movement of material or information from one value-added step to another, without transport time, storage in buffers or any other hold up and waste in between. It’s built around “make one – move one” principle. In a continuous flow environment, the rate of output is matched to  customer demand.

Flow is like an escalator at a supermarket or airport. You step on the conveyor belt, and it keeps moving, processing everyone, individually. Flow is achieved by processing each person as they need to use it.


This concept can be used for machines and people, and focuses on flowing from value add step to value add step. The simplest example is that of an automotive assembly line, and it’s one of the important lean manufacturing tools.

When to Use It

Where you have the opportunity to flow processes together, you should implement continuous flow (making one unit at a time). These can be some of the following:

  • An assembly line or cell
  • Processing multiple steps within an administration process, in one go
  • Making a part from start to finish where one piece can go through without any batching needed

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4. 5S & Visual Management

5S and visual management is another cornerstone of lean, and a fundamental of the lean manufacturing tools. It’s built around the visual workplace.

Items that are needed every day should be stored within arm’s reach… so it’s extremely quick to access.

All items are stored in specific areas and controlled as to how much should be held. There’s never over stocking or too much inventory, too.

5S Infographic

When to Use It

5S is a system to keep the workplace organised and in control. It’s also used to show status.

  • How are the processes performing?
  • Are we on plan or behind?
  • Does everyone know what to do?
  • Is our equipment working as expected?

All of the above should be answered through visual management.

In a 5S environment, you should be able to see what you want to find within 30 seconds.

And understand how the area is performing (And answer the above bullet points) within 30 seconds, too.

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5. Standard Work

Standard work is the use of the right amount of people and equipment, working to a standard way… All of which is in time to a customer order rate (linking nicely to our flow principles).

As we all know, there are a hundred ways to do anything. Within these many variations, they’ll be an optimum way of working.

Standard work identifies the optimised way to run a process. It takes into consideration the best way to work, with as much wasteful activities removed as possible. In other words it’s built around flowing the process in a highly efficient way.

Standard Work

When to Use It

Use standard work to ensure everyone follows the same way of working within your key processes.

  • Use check-lists to ensure people follow critical to quality tasks
  • Use standard work to ensure you get consistent output and process times. People should know what to do, who’s doing it and how long activities should take.
  • Use standard work to train others, so everyone knows the new way of working.

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6. Lean Management

What’s normally missing in most businesses who adopt lean is management commitment and the ability to drive lasting culture change.

Lean management is a framework to allow managers and supervisors at all levels, to know how to lead in the organisation. In particular, managers:

  • Know what critical leadership tasks to follow every day to ensure the system is working
  • Drive the business using visual management and problem solving
  • Challenge existing processes
  • Empower teams and coach them to continuously improve
  • Use the teams to implement lean

Lean Management

When to Use It

Use lean management to:

  • Give your leaders a clear recipe on how to lead continuous improvement
  • Coach your employees so they take on lean improvements
  • Continuously improve and to ensure this culture becomes the norm

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7. Error Proofing

If there’s a defect in a product, a customer return, or just targets not being met, you need a standard system of reacting to them. And when i say reacting, i don’t mean the traditional method of getting around the problem and carrying on.

I mean a way to get around the problem now, and then to stop and fix it, so it doesn’t happen again.

A part of error proofing is to always look for process failures and fixes. Nearly all errors and problems can result from poor processes or systems.

Lean systems rely on right-first-time quality. And by achieving this, you can ensure that throughput and speed is as fast as it can be.

Error proofing allows you to process what’s needed, consistently, right first time.

Here are 7 steps to error proofing:

  1. Organise the workplace so it’s visual and controlled
  2. Share information and work together to agree the best ways of working, as well as discussing lessons learned
  3. Identify the standard ways of working
  4. Build these standards in the workplace, so everyone follows them
  5. Build in alarms that identify instantly when a problem is found at source
  6. Build quality into the process, so errors cannot be passed on
  7. Define error proofing into processes, so errors can’t be made.

Levels Towards Error Proofing

When to Use It

Use error proofing with the following:

  • On all your key processes that are critical to quality
  • Ensure that every problem highlighted is resolved and error proofed, every time you encounter one.
  • Look to design error proofing into your processes. Try to make errors impossible. And if mistakes happen, make them visible so you can spot them at source.

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8. Quick Changeover

Quick Changeover consists of the formula 1 pit-stop style of changing over machines and equipment fast. The time it takes to go from the last good part of the previous job to the first good part of the next job is dead time.

Quick Changeover allows you to shorten this time and therefore increase your machine’s up-time. This means more capacity and the ability to be more flexible in responding to customers.

The output of a good set up reduction activity is the creation of standard work for optimum changeovers, so everyone conducts them consistently fast every time.

Here’s an example of an old 1950’s Indianapolis 500 pit-stop to a modern day Formula 1 version.

When to Use It

Use quick changeover to:

  • Transform your critical machines’ capacity. Improving changeover times makes these machines more responsive and increases capacity
  • Standardise your changeovers so everyone changes jobs around the same way, every time.

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9. Takt Time

Takt time is a German term for drum beat. In lean, it’s used to understand the withdrawal pace of your customers. There’s no point producing too much too soon, and building in large batches.

Takt gives us the production pulse to allow us to make exactly what we need and when. Once we’ve found our takt time, we can build processes and standard work to support this pulse rate. By doing this, we’re efficient and optimised to suit our customers’ needs.


Takt can be calculated by the available production time divided by the amount you need to produce. For example, there are 10 hours in a working day and 20 units needed per day to meet customer demand. Takt is (10 hours divided by 20 units)= 0.5 hours or 30 minutes.

This can then be measured aand tracked through the day to ensure the business is keeping pace.

TAKT Time Defined

When to Use It

Use Takt across your business, to ensure that your entire value stream is working to the same drumbeat:

  • In administration processes; use it to identify how quickly you must pass information on and process paperwork
  • In production, use it to define your entire build rate
  • Create assembly cells, working to one-piece-flow and takt. This will ensure you’re highly efficient and maximise productivity to provide value to your customers

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10. Level Load

Level load is a way of increasing flow by reducing the size of batches that go through the business.

It also allows you to mix many different jobs in small bursts of time, so you’re processing in a little-and-often approach across a range of different types of product.

This in turn reduces lead time and increases flexibility. It’s the complete opposite to batch and queue production, where one entire job is released and processed before the next.

Level Load

When to Use It

  • Use level load when planning your production, so you can cycle through your products faster.
  • Use it in tandem with reducing your batch sizes, so you become more agile in your operations
  • Once you’ve reduced your changeover times of your machines, follow this up by implementing level load principles to increase output and flexibility – and make little and often across jobs

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11. Andon

An Andon signal is a visual control to show status. It simply answers the question, “Is every thing working as it should be?”

When it’s not, a red indicator or alert is raised, to show the business that there’s abnormality. The power of Andon is to empower the employees to stop the process when problems arise, and get the business to fix them.

Backed behind this is a standard way of working when an Andon alarm is raised. The business comes together to fix the problems and improve them there and then, using a stop the line policy, which everyone follows.


When to Use It

Add Andon to your processes, across the business:

  • In Manufacturing to show whether everything is working to plan
  • In the office to see status to plan (any customer returns, missed turnaround times, etc)
  • Use it as part of your visual management system to show status to plan.

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12. Line Balancing

Line balancing consists of levelling workload across a number of processes. It’s designed to remove wasted time and bottlenecks. By balancing tasks, people can work at the same time on a number of activities, using one-piece-flow methods.

The process of line balancing consists of mapping the process in question, stripping wasteful (NVA) tasks, and then distributing workload across people, based on the customer withdrawal pace (takt time). This then means that the process is designed to achieve the takt rate with the optimum resource and in the best way.

Operator Balance Chart Example

The above diagram shows a number of activities levelled across 4 operators. Each operator works in tandem with the other, processing work, one piece at a time…and working closely to takt.

When to Use It

Use line balancing when you are redesigning your future state value stream map, and have identified the Takt time for the products in question.

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13. Total Preventative Maintenance

Otherwise known as TPM, Total Preventative Maintenance is designed to keep your equipment and machines in peak condition, so they can run to the high standards you expect.

It focuses on a proactive way of maintaining equipment, in which operators are given the empowerment to help maintain them.

There are a number of elements to TPM, with the main elements being:

  1. Effective Maintenance
  2. Autonomous Maintenance

Effective maintenance: This is the consistent and robust yearly maintenance schedules. It also involves analysis of how long various parts last and a breakdown of the reasons for downtime this year. Actions are then put in place to eliminate these reasons and add to the maintenance plan.

Autonomous Maintenance: This is where the operator conducts regular checks and cleaning to maintain the daily uptime of each machine. They’re responsible for a number of agreed checks and tasks in line with the TPM programme. This means they can spot items that may be close to failure and report issues when they happen.

Under TPM, machines that are broken, leaking and generally in poor operation are a thing of the past.

TPM Tree

When to Use It

TPM should be used on all of your machines. It should be standard practice to use your operators to help maintain your equipment.

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14. Overall Equipment Effectiveness

Linking nicely to TPM is Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE). This is a metric, measuring the effectiveness of each machine. OEE tracks 6 big losses:

  1. Equipment breakdown
  2. Time lost to setting up and adjusting until correct
  3. Idling and minor stops
  4. Reduced speed of the machine
  5. Process defects
  6. Start up rejects

By measuring OEE and the 6 big losses, you can clearly see where the productivity losses are, and then create improvements to rectify.

It’s calculated by 3 key factors:

  • Availability %– Of the total time available to the machine, how long was it actually running for?
  • Performance %– Against this run time, how many units should it have achieved, based on the optimum speed of the machine?
  • Quality %– Of all the parts produced, how many were good?

Once you have data for all three, it’s just a case of multiplying each % together, to get an OEE score. Actions should then be put in place to improve the OEE score, consistently.

OEE Components

When to Use It

Use OEE measurement on all of your critical machines. World-class OEE is around 85%. By measuring your important equipment, you can see how efficient they are, and where they’re losing effectiveness.

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15. Process Wastes

Process wastes are otherwise called non value added tasks. They’re activities that don’t directly earn you money and which the customer doesn’t want to pay for. By observing the work environment, and identifying these wastes, you can take action across your teams to reduce and eliminate them where you can.

Every act of eliminating process wastes has a direct impact on productivity and capacity to process more.

The 8 Types of Waste

When to Use It

Use it to observe your critical processes, particularly:

  • The processes that repeat every day – these should be like clockwork
  • On administration processes
  • In Production
  • Get your teams to spot the waste and empower them to make daily improvements to eliminate them

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16. KPIs (Key Performance Indicators)

KPIs help you track performance to critical goals. The added benefit is that well designed metrics can help drive the right behaviours across the business, too. There’s a saying that what gets measured gets improved.

Without measures, how can you ever make improvements?

With the use of the right metrics, teams can come together and discuss their performance and create actions to get back on track. And all individuals can be aligned in understanding what the key objectives are of the business and how they can influence them.

Here are some example KPIs:

KPI Examples

When to Use It

  • Use KPIs to provide meaningful targets to your teams, so they know what to focus on
  • Set goals for your lean improvement projects and at the start of every Value Stream Map
  • Understand what’s working and what’s not in every area of the business, so you can help the teams keep improving

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17. Go See

Go see (otherwise known as Gemba) is a simple lean approach to get out of the office and spend more time where the value-add is happening.

Often managers tend to fix problems and direct from the office. The lean leader regularly goes to their processes and simply observes. They check to ensure the processes are working as required, that people are following the standards, and to see opportunities for improvement.

During this Go see activity, leaders also coach their employees to drive new actions and give them empowerment to fix issues, too.

When to Use It

Use Go See in the following instances:

  • When you’ve just implemented a new process, to ensure that it’s being followed
  • Regular hour-by-hour checks to see if key processes are running to plan
  • Coach your employees in understanding lean and empowering them to fix issues
  • Look at processes that fail, so you can see in person, exactly what’s going on

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18. Voice of the Customer (VOC)

This has its roots from Six Sigma. It’s effectively a way to understand what your customers really want. Remember, lean is about identifying what your customers value. Once this is known, all effort goes into designing processes and systems to provide this value.

By asking your customers important questions, you gain a wide understanding of your market and their needs. Just as importantly, you’ll know what to improve and how you can stay ahead of your competition.

When to Use It

Use the concept of Voice of the Customer in some of the following situations:

  • Understanding their expectations and ideas of value
  • What they don’t like in current competitors and you
  • Understanding their perception of critical-to-quality
  • Understanding what would wow them and allow you to win more business

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19. Quality Check-sheets

Quality check-sheets are another important suite of lean manufacturing tools. With check-sheets, you can track why a process is performing the way it is. It’s a simple form, whereby it’s updated as problems are encountered and at the location where the problems are happening.

The great thing with check-sheets is their simplicity. Just count the number of times a problem occurs. This data can then get collated to define what the main problems are that are affecting the process in question.

Often, this information is used to create Pareto Analysis and root cause problem solving. You must get the data first. Check-sheets do just that.

Here’s an example of a simple check-sheet:

Quality Control -Checklist

When to Use It

When you’re seeing many issues affecting a process, get the operators and people working them to capture what actually is happening.

Use it  when:

  • You get repeat problems in your processes
  • To improve your process’s quality
  • To drive right first time quality across the whole business (by first seeing the issues before correcting them)

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20. Process Mapping

Whereas a Value Stream Map looks at the complete end-to-end processes and how your business creates value… a process map allows you to dive deeper and look at specific processes and how they actually work, in detail.

With process maps, you can see the following:

There are many ways to create process maps, but the tried and trusted version i use can be seen below:

current state process map with all metrics

When to Use It

I’ve previously created a step-by-step process on how to do it. But the process map is great for:

  • When you want to visualise your process and fix problems with quality
  • Analyse and agree where to improve the speed and throughput
  • Create a standard way of working that everyone follows

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21. 5 Whys

5 Whys allows you to quickly and effectively get to the root cause of problems. It’s built around asking why several times, until you get to process failures. These are often the causes of your process problems. Often, we go straight to what we feel is the issue, and never completely fix the problem… because we miss the analysis and questioning stage.

With 5 Whys, the team collaborate and go through this questioning framework. Here’s an example.

5 why example

By stopping to ask why, you can uncover issues that you never saw before.

When to Use It

Every time there’s an issue, get your teams to brainstorm ideas and take them through the 5 whys.

This whole questioning should be a daily habit for everyone. Use it for:

  • Quick questioning when something doesn’t go right
  • Bigger problems that may need more thought. Use the 5 Whys to drill down quickly to possible root causes

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22. Value Add Analysis

For more detailed information, take a peek at my guide on this very subject. 

In summary, Value Add Analysis is the process of observing everything that’s currently being done in the business and to identify if it adds value or not.

If an activity adds value, it’s a task that the customer is willing to pay for. If it’s not value, then it’s classed as waste or non-value add (NVA).

By seeing the NVA and training people to see this themselves, you can take giant strides into improving efficiency and productivity. This then allows you to process more with less resource; shorten lead times; improve the customer experience and your profitability.

How Can Business Processes be Improved?: Attack the majority Wasteful Steps

Expect to see that true value add steps to represent around 5% of all process time. The rest is NVA…. So there’s often a whole lot of opportunity to go after in your business.

When to Use It

Use it continuously. This should be a part of the day-to-day culture. Specifically, use it on your critical processes that get repeated every day. Ensure these systems are as efficient as they can be.

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23. Plan Do Check Act

Often referred to as PDCA, Plan-Do-Check-Act is a 4 step continuous improvement framework. It’s used to continuously improve processes and systems. It does this by ensuring teams constantly understand how they’re performing now; plan how they can improve this current situation; test the improvement, and see if it worked; then either lock it in (if it worked and make it the new standard), or try something else until you get an improvement.

pdca cycle with notes

When to Use It

Here are some key examples when to use the PDCA model:

  • To give empowerment to your teams and get them to focus on small improvements to their current processes
  • Continuously improve the end to end value stream performance
  • Trial ideas and actions from problem solving sessions

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24. Just in Time

In lean, everything should be supplied and delivered as close to when it’s needed as possible. In a great Just-in-time system, you’ll have:

  • Less finished goods holding as work is made only to when it’s needed
  • Less work-in-progress as you only make when it;s needed
  • Deliveries from suppliers are little and often, meaning there’s less stock holding
  • information is processed in a drumbeat fashion, rather than being stored and processed in large batches

The general theme here, is to process little and often and when the customer needs it. This impacts lead time, inventory, less delays, and less defects, too.


When to Use It

You should aim to use JIT across the business, specifically in the following:

  • Stock holding
  • Producing to customer orders
  • Processing information in the business
  • Supplying production with small lot sizes of work (as opposed to complete orders)

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25. Policy Deployment

Often referred to as Hoshin Kanri or Strategy Deployment, Policy Deployment helps the business create strategic goals and ensures that everyone in the organisation defines actions to support them. In this framework, everyone gets a chance to discuss plans and ideas to make an impact in targets. This approach goes back and forth between teams and managers until a clear action plan has been created.

Policy Deployment ensures that everyone works to the vision and goals of the business and reduces the chance of waste through people not knowing what to do through poor communication.


When to Use It

When you’re creating breakthrough targets and strategies for next year or over the next few years, use Policy Deployment to plan this initiative.

Use it too, to ensure everyone is aligned and takes ownership to support these goals at their level.

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26. Stand Up Meetings

Stand-up meetings are an important part of daily teamwork. In a lean business, each team conducts their stand-up meeting to discuss:

  • What happened yesterday to plan?
  • Any potential issues that may affect our performance today?
  • Anything else?

These 3 simple questions allow each team and the entire business, to get organised every day, as well as track important metrics. They also allow everyone to quickly know what the big issues are that need to be fixed.

It’s a great platform to raise ideas and concerns and use management to support completion of actions, too.

Daily stand up meetings

When to Use It

Use it for each team you have in the business, particularly to:

  • Highlight problems and fix them as part of continuous improvement.
  • Track performance to plan and understand where you need to improve
  • Increase communication and empowerment
  • Use management to support these improvements

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27. Cell Design

One of the biggest and simplest things to fix is how you lay your operational activities out. Most environments are not the leanest. With Cell Design, you redesign the layout to improve productivity and efficiency.

Cell design directly tackles the processes wastes, to ensure a more productive work environment.

It focuses on moving operations and tasks closely together, displaying the information you need and also the right products and equipment at the right time to produce what you need to produce.

When to Use It

use Cell Design to improve the layout of the work area. In particular, to reduce the time it takes to:

  • Search and find information
  • Search and find equipment, tools, etc
  • Eliminate the need for people to move around
  • Reduce the travel distance of work being passed around


You may also like

How to Begin Your Lean Journey: 5 Steps to Making an Impact

5 Reasons Why Continuous Improvement in Manufacturing Is Important

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