What Tool of Lean Manufacturing Do You Use First?

By Jon Miller Published on October 23rd, 2008

Today we received a question from Konrad, one of our readers, on how to implement lean manufacturing (LM). He asked:
I tried to find if there is a particular way to implement LM. I found only this:
1. Factory tour & meeting with management
2. Current Condition Assessment
3. Solution design
4. Alignment & ownership of plan
5. Execution: Plan, Do, Check, Act
What tool of LM do you use first? Is it always VSM or 5S? Or is it based on assessment and TPM or SMED can be first tool to implement?

For the reader new to the lean terminology, here is a quick guide:
VSM is value stream mapping. It is a good overall assessment tool for gaining an understanding of the current processes and its weaknesses. With some familiarity of the other improvement tools, it is possible to determine where, when and what to do, or in other words to create a basic plan for implementing lean. But the assessment should not be focused only on which tool needs to be applied. This can be one of the weaknesses of value stream mapping, which looks at the material flow and related information flow, but takes into account the organization structure or organizational readiness elements, nor the overall leadership philosophy and cultural mindset of the organization.
SMED is single minute exchange of dies and is synonymous with quick changeover and set up time reduction. SMED is a well-established methodology based on observing the time and motion activity surrounding a changeover event to identify waste as well as internal time and external time elements. The work is reorganized in such a way as to minimize the down time of the process. SMED can be the right place to begin lean manufacturing implementation when the main desired benefit is inventory reduction, lead time reduction, or the regaining of capacity lost due to changeovers. It does require that the goal is clear in the beginning in order to avoid creating more waste, for example producing more (waste of overproduction) in the time saved by SMED instead of doing more changeovers and improving flexibility.
TPM is total productive maintenance and this can be a good place to start for any organization that relies on capable and available equipment in order to deliver their product or service. TPM is a comprehensive system that includes 5S, SMED and many other lean manufacturing tools in order to improve performance by reducing the six big losses and improving overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). TPM is not properly a “lean manufacturing tool” but rather a management system centered on measuring and improving equipment performance through total involvement and small group activities. It is the right place to start when equipment losses are the biggest opportunity but it also requires substantial commitment to start and sustain.
5S is workplace organization through sort, straighten, sweep, standardize and sustain activities. Many lean manufacturing implementations begin with 5S since it is simple to learn and do, can immediately involve everyone, and typically has a higher return in terms of safety, quality, delivery and cost improvements compared to the time invested. However we need to caution ourselves not to attempt 5S without a clear understanding of how it will be supported and sustained. As the saying goes “If you can’t do 5S, you can’t do lean,” and it may be better to think of 5S not as a tool but as discipline. Starting with 5S is a good idea so long as people are not too eager to “move on” to the next tool without demonstrating that 5S is part of the culture. In this sense 5S is best undertaken if understood to be part of a larger system (such as kanban, TPM or built in quality).
In reality, you probably cannot succeed by using only ONE lean manufacturing tool first. A balanced approach is needed which addressed the process aspects (layout, equipment reliability, quality or method standards, etc.), people aspects (basic discipline, morale, team structure and supervision, training level, etc.) and then problem solving tools and systems in parallel if not last. Such a three-prong approach requires understanding and leadership commitment beyond an process improvement project.
What tool of lean manufacturing do you use first? It probably does not matter. The only requirements are that 1) you have a high chance of sustaining its success, 2) it is clear how you can make a progression to the next tool or system, and 3) the purpose of using the tools is clear, i.e. there is a positive people, process or profit impact.

  1. Erik Stordahl

    October 23, 2008 - 7:09 pm

    If I may offer some help, I was in a situation similar to this not so many years ago and I asked the exact same question. In hindsight I can say that Taiichi Ohno once again had the best advice when he said, “Start at the point of greatest need.”
    This is wonderful advice but it begs the question, “Great. But what’s the point of greatest need for us?” To give a canned answer to this question would be to ignore two of the very pillars of TPS: 1) Genchi genbutsu 2) Problem identification/definition and problem solving.
    To put it another way; go spend (lots) of time observing the work for yourself/yourselves and looking for problems; especially problems that decrease safety, decrease quality, decrease on-time delivery and/or increase cost.
    As you spend time doing this you will begin to see a common denominator emerge; this is likely one (of many) starting points. Another good technique for finding problems is to ask your customers. If they say, “Quality is too low” or “Lead times are too long” this is clearly a good point to focus attention.
    I have greatly oversimplified this I’m sure. I apologize for that and invite Jon or anyone else for that matter to correct me if they see errors in my advice. I don’t claim this to be the only way or the right way, I can only tell you what has worked for me. But I can promise you this: knowledge gained on your own by solving problems out on the gemba, even if it takes ten tries and six false starts, will be better than any canned answer from me, a consultant, a book or a website. (no offense to consultants, books or websites)

  2. Jon Miller

    October 23, 2008 - 8:16 pm

    Experience is the best teacher. Thanks Erik

  3. Raman B

    October 23, 2008 - 8:54 pm

    Hi Jon,
    I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of weeks now. Its very encouraging and helpful, thanks!
    I’ve found that the best place to start is, very often, HR. No improvement activity can ignore the fact that undermotivated and suspicious people can derail any improvement effort, however well intentioned. Get the people and the HR policies right, and then move into 5S, VSM, SMED in any order. Engineers who ignore HR (policies, recruitment, compensation, hiring and firing practices, etc) will often face their improvement efforts going out of steam somewhere down the line.

  4. Dwane Lay

    October 24, 2008 - 5:54 am

    But what if you are starting in HR?
    That’s the position I am in. When I joined my organization six months ago, they were midway through year two of their transformation, but still trying to find their stride. We went through a lot of Kaizen events, event a few LSS belt projects, but got very little traction.
    The solution, or at least the path we are traveling, is to start with the foundation of how you select areas of focus. We are working from our long range plans to identify the areas in which we are weak and focus on them in three or six month cycles, depending on the scope. I suppose this translates to the manufacturing world as a “go and see” approach, but it also helps our team understand why we are working on certain things and how their efforts impact the bottom line.

  5. Konrad

    October 24, 2008 - 2:11 pm

    Thank you Jon, thank you.

  6. chris nicholls

    October 27, 2008 - 10:21 am

    Dear Jon
    I feel that the techniques used to achieve lean really depend on what works best for you in your business or circumstances. But if I have to choose one in my opinion without any doubt 5S is the first thing to do. Because unless you put the work place in order and set a standard you have no basis on which to begin Kaizen. Promoting Kaizen activity is key to engaging everyone in the achievement of lean or any improvement. A clearly defined workplace is essential to highlight and visualise any abnormal conditions, 5S can do this. If the Gemba is a complete mess and there is no logic to the layout its impossible to see the problems or opportunities to improve. The first thing I was taught by my Japanses mentors was 5S actually in those days way back in the 80’s it was only 3S. (inflation I guess?). Performing 5S was closely followed by indentifying Baratzuki or variation this was key to controlling processes and the quality of the product. We also had great success from TPM but again the basis for TPM relied on 5S as a foundation.
    Best regards & thanks for the stimulation

  7. Ben Royal

    October 27, 2008 - 5:53 pm

    In the past 20 years I have worked for three companies that started down the lean path. One focused solely on kaizen (and did merely OK), the second never really figured out what to do (and went under) and the third struggled with a home grown version (and hit a plateau).
    The third company was recharged by a two-week visit from a consultant with a Toyota background. The result was extraordinary completely recharging our efforts. I realize there may be an anti-consultant bias among some, but there are times when the right consultant at the right time can make all the difference.
    The gentleman observed what we had done and were doing, made some thoughtful observations, and but mainly sat around and talked with team members. There were a lot of “duhs” and forehead slapping. For what it is worth.

  8. David levy

    October 29, 2008 - 1:43 am

    I’m sure there’s no ONE answer, but I would say that you won’t know where the biggest need is until you do a VSM (and maybe a spaghetti diagram as well). Once you’ve done that it’s easier to identify the bottle-necks and balance production accordingly.
    In some cases, you may want to get an average daily output from the production floor, and ensure that you issue less than that to TO the production floor. That ensures that WIP is lowered.
    Now you can start your 5S, because you will have gotten a lot of the WIP and inventory out of your way. Since you will then have a clearer picture of how your bottlenecks are constraining the flow of materials, you can decide to spend you time on SMED, or other process optimizations.
    Of course, you must spread the process to include warehouse, purchasing and shipping as much as possible. In My experience, it is done in that order.
    This is my experience. I’ve turned around two WIP choked, money-bleeding and highly dysfunctional factories in China partially by following a simplified but sweeping lean initiative. Different facilities will probably have different needs.
    Here are 2 blog posts which answer this question in different ways:

  9. Gertifty

    December 19, 2008 - 11:18 am

    May one start with a vision based on a model? Example: The Shingo Prize Model. Can it be used as an objective model of a Lean Enterprise, and therefore take components of it and begin activities in each area (workforce, management and culture, processes), and to aspire to progressive growth in each area?
    Is the SPM the best model for this type approach? Is there a better model? Does the Shingo Prize model have weaknesses?

  10. Jon Miller

    December 20, 2008 - 2:18 am

    A vision should be based on a business need, something that you have developed by actually going to see examples of excellence for yourself and also on proven best practices. In the past the Shingo Prize was criticized as being incomplete and just recently it has undergone a major update, which I believe is still being tested.
    Whatever you do start with the foundational elements first and get those right before trying to tackle too many things. Your vision will become more clearer as you progress. A model such as the Shingo is a good short-term bridge to get you started, but I would encourage you to thoroughly study and benchmark world class companies such as Toyota first.

  11. Harish

    January 30, 2009 - 7:46 pm

    Dear Mr. Miller,
    I am having a blast reading through your archives. 🙂
    I have a quick question about value stream mapping. This is something that I have not seen any of the Japanese authors’ books. I have learned that this is called as material and information flow in Toyota. Can you please throw some insight into this? Is this “tool” used and abused by lean manufacturing practitioners? Why is this tool not explained in Ohno, Monden or Shingo’s books? Shingo does talk about the process and operations flow. The closest I have seen is process flow in Suzaki’s books.
    Looking forward,

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