Lean Tools: Why, Which, When, and Why Not

Posted on by Paul Pejsa

One foundation of an organizational excellence transformation is making improvements: frequently, rapidly and with the team that performs the work every day. This is where the use of our lean toolkit comes in. In this context, we can ask ourselves: why use these tools? Which ones are most applicable to the problem we are trying to solve? When do we use them? When don’t we use them?

To answer these questions, we have to start with the most fundamental step in solving a problem that could use a lean tool: what is the problem we are trying to solve? As Albert Einstein once stated, “If I were given one hour to save the world, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute solving it.”

Once defined, we can better assess which tool(s) to use. Here’s a list of commonly used tools, with full acknowledgement that it is not exhaustive (and eminently debatable!). Are you trying to:

• Visualize process flow? Process flow or Value Stream maps help
• Understand largest contributor to a problem? Pareto charts aid
• Seek sources of root causes? Try using a fishbone diagram
• Better arrange a work area and keep it that way? Consider 5S
• Absolutely minimize mistakes? Poka-yoke (mistake proofing)
• Understand process timing? Takt time analysis can help
• Signal for help? Andons are one way
• Signal for more materials or supplies? Kanban may be tool of choice
• Create one way to perform a process? Think about standard work
• Level load a process / operation? Heijunka

The benefits to using lean tools are that we can standardize our approach to problem solving, and train others to solve their own problems too. It gives us a common language to use in our improvement efforts and makes sharing the resulting improvements with others in our organization easier.

When people ask which lean tool has been most useful in my experience, I usually respond that the visualization of a process is an important first step. Why? Like the fable of the blind men and the elephant, most of us working a given process have partial understanding of the process, and few if any of us understand the full picture. Just because a process is documented doesn’t mean it flows that way in reality. Conducting a value stream map exercise with a team can help to reach consensus on what is actually happening and can form the basis for improvement by identifying bottlenecks or breakdowns in the flow.

A few final cautions are in order, the primary one being this: the possessing of a hammer doesn’t necessarily turn everything into a nail. A typical example of this is trained, well-meaning 5S practitioners putting tape squares on our desks, so we know where to place the coffee cup.

Using the right lean tool, in the right place, at the right time, with the right team can accelerate our improvement efforts in support of an organizational excellence transformation.


Paul Pejsa, Director


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