The Continuous Improvement Blog

A-Z of lean tools and techniques

Written by Colin McArdle on 08 Nov 2017

lean_tools.jpgThe core idea behind Lean is to maximise customer value and minimise “waste” - tasks that absorb time and resources but add no value to the customer or the business.

Employing a Lean philosophy in your business opens you up to numerous tools and techniques for improving production speed, efficiency and quality. So you can better meet customer needs and maintain a competitive edge.

But with so many Lean tools, what does each one aim to achieve?

Here we provide a comprehensive list of the most commonly used lean tools and techniques so that when faced with a problem, you can pull on the relevant one to solve it.

Lean 5s

The main focus of Lean 5s is on reducing production downtime. A Lean 5s workplace is well-organised and clean. It reduces time spent looking for things, minimises risk of equipment stopping or breaking down, and stops people carrying out tasks in non-standardised ways. Implementation involves five ordered steps:

  • Sort - eliminate what is not needed;
  • Set In Order - arrange items so they can located quickly;
  • Shine - keep tools and equipment ready to use;
  • Standardise - implement standard ways of working;
  • Sustain - keep to the rules and continue to improve every day.

Bottleneck Analysis

Bottlenecks refer to the slowest part of a process. They determine the maximum throuput rate of a process. Analysis of bottlenecks illuminates critical issues hindering process speed and output. If you can reduce the time it takes to process at the bottleneck, the throughput and capacity will increase.

Continuous Flow

"Continuous Flow" means production that doesn’t stop moving once launched. All elements of the production system are examined, “waste” is removed (e.g. waiting time, equipment downtime, defects), and the remaining processes are streamlined, standardised, and synchronised.

Control Charts

Control Charts are used to monitor process stability and control parameters. A process input or output is tracked over time. These tracked measurements are visually or systematically compared to decision limits calculated from the actual process performance. The comparison between the decision limits and the performance data allows you to detect any variation in the process that might indicate a problem or change in the process.


Gemba is a Japanese term meaning “the real place” - i.e. where the work takes place. It's often used to stress that real improvement can only take place when there is direct observation of current conditions where work is done. It involves taking photos and videos, sampling parts, copying documents, and speaking to the workers so you know exactly how processes are operating.

Hoshin Kanri (Policy Deployment)

Hoshin Kanri (Policy Deployment) is a management process that works to align an organisation’s functions and activities with strategic objectives. An annual plan with specific goals, actions, responsibilities and measures is developed. It then becomes a top-down strategic tool, which is aligned to bottom-up process of implementation to achieve the strategic targets set.

Just-In-Time (JIT)

JIT is a management philosophy for increasing efficiency and decreasing waste. The idea is that goods or services are received only as they are needed in the process, thereby reducing inventory costs and ageing inventory risks.

Kaizen (Continuous Improvement)

Kaizen (Continuous Improvement) means breaking apart the current situation, analysing it, and putting it back together to make it better. Employees at all levels of a company work together to achieve frequent incremental improvements to the production process.

Kanban (Pull System)

Kanban (Pull System) is a scheduling system for regulating the flow of goods. Production takes place on the 'pull' of the customer so that waste is eliminated from inventory and overproduction.

KPIs (Key Performance Indicators)

KPIs are measures of how effectively a company is achieving key business objectives. They are leading indicators selected by identifying key process input that create process outputs. They are sligned to strategic objectives and used to monitor and control process performance. Correctly selected KPIs allow drivers of waste to be exposed. They are used to motivate employees so they can drive results.

Muda (Waste)

This is a key concept in the Toyota Production System (TPS). Waste, or “muda”, is defined as anything in the production process that doesn’t add value to the customer. Taiichi Ohno classified seven types of waste that should be eliminated from processes:

  • Defects/errors
  • Overproduction
  • Waiting
  • Inventory
  • Transportation
  • Motion
  • Overprocessing

Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE)

OEE is a supportive metric that measures how much planned productive time, is truly productive. It consists of three components that tie in well with Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) objectives:

  • Availability - illuminates breakdowns or delays beyond already planned downtime;
  • Performance - exposes any loss to speed that may arise during the running of a production process;
  • Quality - concerned with the defect-rate and ability of a process to produce high quality products the first time round, every time.

PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act)

PDCA is a four stage model for improving the quality and effectiveness of processes. It can be used in many areas of a business, including supply chain, HR, and project management.

  • Plan - establish the objectives and processes necessary to deliver results in line with requirements;
  • Do - implement the required objectives and processes planned;
  • Check - monitor and evaluate the results against initial objectives and report the outcome;
  • Act - apply any actions needed for improvement to the outcome. Review all steps above and modify processes as required and continue the next cycle of PDCA.

Poke-Yoke (Error Proofing)

Poka-Yoke is a Japanese term that means “error proofing”. It refers to a simple method for preventing and detecting defects. It has three functions:

  • Shutdown - stop when defect is predicted or detected;
  • Warning - signals that defect is predicted or detected;
  • Control - prevent defects from occurring or from passing to next process.

Root Cause Analysis

Root Cause Analysis is a method of problem solving used to identify the root cause of a problem or fault. By determining the root cause, you can make sure a problem or fault is eliminated for good.  

5 Whys

This is a simple method for solving relatively straightforward situational problems. It’s a great starting point when faced with a problem. The idea is that each time you ask ‘why’ a problem may have occurred you move closer to identifying a solution. For instance, the 5 Whys can be applied to Root Cause Analysis. With each why you get closer to identifying the root cause and therefore identifying a solution.

Single-Minute Exchange of Dies (SMED)

SMED provides a system for significantly reducing the time it takes for a manufacturing process to move from running the current product to running the next product. The aim is to reduce set up or changeover time to improve flow and eliminate productive hours downtime.

Six Big Losses

The Six Big Losses are a framework for reducing or eliminating the most common causes of equipment-based productivity loss in manufacturing. The six big losses are:

  • Equipment failure leading to unplanned stops
  • Planned stops for setup and adjustments
  • Idling and minor stops
  • Reduced processing speed
  • Production rejects and process defects
  • Reduced yield through start up rejects

Standardised Work

Standardised Work goes hand in hand with Kaizen. It identifies and documents the current best practices for a process. Standard work is audited and monitored to ensure best practice standards are being applied all the time. Kaizen then aims to find improvements for current best practices.

Takt Time

Takt Time is the rate at which a finished product needs to be completed to meet customer demand. Often referred to as the heartbeat of production in Lean manufacturing, it provides a simple and consistent method of pacing production. It’s calculated by dividing available time by the rate of customer demand.

Total Productive Maintenance (TPM)

TPM is a continuous improvement programme focused on maximising the operational efficiency of equipment. Emphasis is on empowering all workers to play an active role in preventative and predictive maintenance. TPM ensures no breakdowns, no delays due to slow running equipment, no defects, and no accidents. The result is increased productivity, profitability, and customer satisfaction.

Value Stream Mapping

Value Stream Mapping enables teams to visualise how the end to end process works, evidence actual performance, and identify waste for team process improvement. The key people, resources, activities and information flows required to make, build and deliver a product are depicted graphically to show a snapshot of performance. Potential opportunities to reduce waste can then be identified.

Visual Factory

Visual Factory is used to show data and information in a lean manufacturing environment. It makes the status of all processes transparent for everyone to see.


If you want to find out how you can implement these lean tools in your business, feel free to get in touch.


The Operations directors guide to improving performance eBook

Topics: lean

Colin McArdle

Written by Colin McArdle

Colin McArdle, the Founder and Managing Director of Kaizen Kulture is a Lean and Six Sigma Master Black Belt who has over 30 years industry experience. Kaizen Kulture's mission is to be true to the ethos of continuous improvement.