A brief introduction to the Lean toolkit

A brief introduction to the Lean toolkit

A brief introduction to the Lean toolkitNow that we have established that Lean and social business are at least somewhat compatible in their core, it is necessary to start looking deeper into the toolkits that have evolved from these values. In this post, I will present the basics of a Lean toolkit and also compare them to the value base of social business.

Lean has adopted a great deal of terminology from Japanese, but don’t let that intimidate you, the key terms are quite easy to learn. It can also be an advantage in that when using the Japanese term, it is clear that we are talking about the specific Lean concept and not using the word in a more general meaning.

Processes and basic stability

Before it is possible to start improving operations, it is vital to ensure that the processes are stable. Lean is based on process management, because it is through processes that systematic analysis can be applied to work.

Basic stability means that a process is both capable and available. Capable processes are able to produce the desired outcome every time they are operated. Available processes are able to operate every time they are called upon.

It is impossible to sustainably improve unless processes have this basic stability: unreliable processes always produce unreliable results.

5S as a method of building basic stability

5S is often mentioned as the first tool to use in a Lean transformation. It is a workplace organization methodology that aims at increasing productivity and improving visual control. The name 5S comes from five Japanese words (seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke) that have been translated into English, for example, as sort, straighten, shine, standardize, and sustain.

Sort (seiri): First, get rid of all the junk and identify which items are used the most so that they can be made most readily available.

Straighten (seiton): Arrange the remaining items so that they promote effective workflow, are in ergonomic positions, and that their places are easily recognizable.

Shine (seiso): Clean the workplace and all equipment. This serves multiple purposes:

  • Cleanliness increases work safety (reduces risk of slipping etc.)
  • Cleanliness increases the lifetime of equipment
  • Cleanliness increases quality (no dirt in parts during processing)
  • Most importantly, cleanliness promotes visual control by making leaks and such immediately apparent

Standardize (seiketsu): Establish standard practices and use them everywhere where the same work is performed.

Sustain (shitsuke): Finally, keep up the good work and focus on it so that disorder is not allowed to creep back in. Look for ways to improve the practices created in the first four S’s, and when improvements are found, modify the standard practice accordingly.

5S was created for a manufacturing environment, but it has also been applied to office processes, and it can also be applied to social business design. Designing platforms and applications that are fit for their purpose, with no unnecessary clutter, and with consistent ways to use them are some guidelines a 5S social implementation could follow. This is in stark contrast to a sandbox view of social collaboration, where useful patterns are expected to emerge once people are provided with proper tools.

There is nonetheless also some tension between 5S and social collaboration, as social collaboration relies in part on multiple ways of expression and on serendipity.

Activities that add value and activities that don’t (waste)

As Lean is very much focused on the elimination of waste, it is important to understand what constitutes waste. Waste is determined by understanding which activities add value ‑ the remainder is waste. One definition of value-adding activity consists of three parts:

  • The customer must be willing to pay for it: Money is a measure of appreciation, and if the customer is not willing to pay for something, it is therefore concluded that the customer does not appreciate it.
  • The activity must transform the product or service in some way: Transforming the product or service is considered in a great level of detail. For example, when tightening screws only the motion to actually perform the tightening is value-adding, picking up a tool is waste.
  • The activity must be done right the first time: Only activities that are done right add value. Consider car repair: if your car is not repaired properly and you need to take it back to the shop, the work on the first visit was waste. This is why Lean places great emphasis on ensuring quality in each process step and only delivering good stuff to the next step. Furthermore, even inspecting products is waste! You cannot inspect in quality, it has to be created through work.

Based on the three criteria above, activities are either value-added (VA) or non-value-added (NVA). Everything that is non-value-added is a candidate for elimination, with the ultimate goal that everything that is done at a company transforms the product with features that the customer wants. Fully grasping this concept reveals an abundance of possibilities for improvement, many of which are prone to be described as impossible. The real beauty is that most things are not impossible, but instead become viable after many other small improvements have been made.

A mental toolkit that helps identify undesirable activities and situations comes in the form of three concepts: waste (muda), variation (mura), and overburden (muri).

Waste (muda)

Taiichi Ohno, one of the creators of Toyota Production System, identified seven types of waste, which have been translated into English in various ways, but one mnemonic I have found useful is TWO DIME: Transportation, Waiting, Overproduction, Defects, Inventory, Motion, and Excessive processing.

Transportation: Whenever goods need to be transported to another location, it is waste. In an ideal state, the products are manufactured in one place. Recognizing this waste leads to using work cells for multiple operations and analysis of storage, supplier, and even factory locations. For internal logistics, spaghetti diagrams can help show unnecessary transportation taking place within a factory. In an office environment, this category can apply to information transfer between different data systems.

Waiting: Whenever people wait for materials or information, it is waste. Elimination of waiting includes finding bottlenecks in processes and eliminating them.

Overproduction: Whenever a process creates more things than are needed, it is waste. Overproduction leads to inventories of finished goods or work in process. Virtual work in process is also work in process the accumulation of which brings with it all sorts of trouble, even though it occupies no physical space.

Defects: Whenever things are not done right the first time, it is waste. Defects require rework, and if unnoticed may cause severe losses. Defects are eliminated, among other things, through mistake-proofing (poka-yoke) and defect-sensitive automation (jidoka).

Inventory: Whenever materials accrue, whether finished goods or work in process, it is waste. Inventory ties up capital and reduces the flexibility of production in that modifications cannot be done at any time.

Motion: Whenever people move unnecessarily, it is waste. For example, tools should be near the work area so that you won’t need to fetch them from far away.

Excessive processing: Whenever features that are not needed by the customer are added to the product or service, it is waste.

Variation (mura)

Variation is a central issue in Lean: flow cannot be achieved if there is sometimes a whole lot of work and other times nothing at all. Lean strives to eliminate variation, for example through production leveling (heijunka) and takt time: takt time is the rate of customer demand, and if the rate of customer demand is known, the manufacturing process can be adjusted to produce products at this rate even if the orders come in an uneven pattern.

Variation is of special interest when it comes to social business design, because many social collaboration solutions actually add to the variation of a process. It is important to determine when variation is harmful and when it is not.

Overburden (muri)

Overburden can take many shapes from actual physical overburden to too tight schedules. From a Lean perspective, all forms are bad, because working at the limit or in a hurry results in mistakes, which disrupt flow and cause significant costs.

Production flow

In order to constantly add value in all activities, production must flow through the system, ideally one item at a time, although that is a very difficult goal to reach. While this idea may seem strictly manufacturing-related, it has been used successfully in many fields, such as healthcare and software engineering, and it is an important part of what Lean has to offer for social business design.

Lean includes a number of tools aimed at creating and improving flow.

Value-stream mapping

A value-stream map is a visual depiction of the flow of materials and information that provide the customer with a product or service. It also describes the lead time of various operations and can be used as a starting point for analyzing necessary activities and the amount of waste in the value stream. A current state value-stream map depicts the current situation as is. A future state value-stream map depicts what the value stream should look like after planned improvements have been implemented. Value-stream mapping is a useful tool for grasping the current situation and for planning improvements.

Pull production

In order to create flow, Lean often implements pull production instead of traditional push production.

In push production, the production is based on estimates and new work is pushed into the system, often in the form of a scheduling software that utilizes earliest start dates and due dates to determine order priority. In push production, each operation continues production as long as it has materials and there is a valid order. Push production is a method for controlling the throughput of a system.

In pull production, on the other hand, work is pulled through the system as downstream operations complete their work. This happens via signals (Kanban) sent from downstream operations to the previous operation that authorize further production. In pull production, each operation is only allowed to work if it has received authorization. Therefore, sometimes a production line may stop even if only a single operation has failed – no excess inventory is built by the other operations. Pull production is a method for controlling the work in process (WIP) in a system.

The illustration below depicts push production and two alternative pull production systems, basic Kanban and CONWIP. The square boxes are operations, rounded boxes are buffers, and FG stands for finished goods. The arrows above the boxes depict material flow and the arrows below boxes depict authorization. In push production, production goes on like a train. In basic Kanban, each operation requires authorization from its downstream customer before work. In CONWIP, the authorization is sent to the first operation once a product has been completed.

Kanban, CONWIP, push

In order to see the difference between these production methods, we need to examine a case where not everything goes as planned. This can be as small as variation in performance, or it can be something more significant like a machine breakdown. In the picture below, differences begin to appear.

Kanban, CONWIP, push - failure

Push production can create significant inventory around the system, while some operations may starve for material elsewhere at the same time. Lead times vary, rush jobs need to be pushed past the inventory, and overtime is needed to reduce the inventory levels only for them to reappear when the unexpected happens the next time. Pull is not always the ideal solution, but it is something to keep in mind when improving processes and attempting to achieve production flow.

Continuous improvement and problem-solving

Continuous improvement is central to Lean. From a Lean point of view, the choice is between chasing after the ever-elusive perfection or succumbing to stagnation and entropy. Well, when put that way, it is not much of a choice, now is it? The present state can never be satisfactory. It is important to always remain at least a little dissatisfied with the present in order to keep improving.

Kaizen and the gemba

Kaizen is the practice of continuous improvement. In the more tool-based approaches to Lean, kaizen has been turned into a special kaizen event or a series of events called a kaizen blitz. In other Lean companies, kaizen is practiced everywhere, all the time.

According to Lean, the best place, and the only place, to practice kaizen is the gemba. Gemba is the place where the work is being done. It is only through direct contact with the actual work that improvements can be created with sufficient faith in their effectiveness.

Plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle

The PDCA cycle is a tool used in continuous improvement. It has wide applications from solving specific problems to launching strategic improvement projects. It is a fairly easy tool to use, but it has some deep implications, namely, always going for the root causes and correcting them instead of being satisfied with superficial changes.

The phases of the PDCA cycle are:


Planning is the most extensive phase of the PDCA cycle. There is a fine line to walk between carefully planning and rapidly implementing changes. While there are many things to consider during the planning phase, it does not necessarily take a long time for simple issues. However, it does force you to think the issue through and it may not be as simple as it first seems.

Things to do during the plan phase:

  • Grasp the current situation: Simply understanding the situation can point out the solution. In order to fully grasp the current situation, it is necessary to go to the gemba and see for yourself.
  • Identify the root cause: This can happen through various tools, such as 5 whys, fishbone diagrams, process flow charts, and value-stream mapping to mention a few. Try to select the simplest possible tool that gets the job done.
  • Devise countermeasures and visualize the future state: Countermeasures are designed to prevent the problem from happening again. It is advisable to come up with multiple possible countermeasures and consult all stakeholders to determine the final path to pursue.
  • Create implementation plan: In order to make the future state a reality, an implementation plan needs to be drafted and agreed with all the people involved in the implementation. Use the 5W1H principle: Who is going to do What, Where, When, Why, and How. An implementation plan has to include a schedule.
  • Create follow-up plan: In order to ascertain that the achieved state is desirable, a follow-up plan needs to be drafted. Determine observable criteria for judging the success of the effort and a plan and schedule on how and when the observation is carried out.
  • Discuss with the affected parties. Discussion with the affected parties is an ongoing part of the problem-solving project. Maintain constant contact with the affected parties throughout the project.


When activities are well-planned, carrying them out is simple. Simply carry out the implementation plan.


The check phase is often misunderstood. It is more than simply observing and crossing an item off the list. It is sometimes also called the study phase, which is a more apt name. In this phase, the effects of changes are studied and conclusions are drawn based on this.


The act phase is also often misunderstood. The purpose of the act phase is to decide what to do based on the conclusions reached in the check phase. It is sometimes also called the adjust phase. If the targets were met, take the improvements into use everywhere where they apply. If the results were not satisfactory, restart the cycle.

5 whys

5 whys is perhaps the most common problem-solving technique used in Lean. It is also a good example of the Lean way of preferring the most simple solution that works.

The actual activity in the 5 whys technique is simply to keep asking “Why?” until the root cause is found. The actual number of questions is not limited, although the name of the technique is meant to encourage the investigator to ask at least five times in order to dig deep enough. While this method has some weaknesses (can the investigator ask the right questions; how does he know when to stop asking; only one root cause can be found) it is nonetheless a powerful troubleshooting tool, especially when used in conjunction with the Lean principle of going out to where the work takes place to see for yourself and asking the questions from multiple people involved with the process.

If more a more robust approach is needed, 5 whys can also be used in conjunction with fishbone diagrams (Ishikawa diagrams) to depict a more complex scenario with multiple root causes.

Coaching people, and the Shuhari learning system

Because improvements need to be made on the gemba, it is of vital importance to get all employees to participate in kaizen. This is why managers need to spend much of their time coaching others towards improved process mastery and problem-solving skills. One framework within which this happens is the shuhari.

Shuhari describes the journey towards mastery that consists of three steps:

  • Shu, copying from the master
  • Ha, beginning to experiment on your own
  • Ri, transcending the teachings and becoming a master yourself

This is the concept of seeing further away by standing on the shoulders of giants. By first learning the current way, meaningful experiments are made possible, and finally a completely new way can be found.

Arno Koch has noted that Japan’s rise to industrial power can be viewed through the shuhari concept: their reverence of Henry Ford, W. Edwards Deming, and Joseph Juran as well as the cheap Japanese copy products of the mid-twentieth century formed the shu phase of the learning cycle, from which they have since progressed to the subsequent phases.

Some other Lean improvement tools

Lean solutions for quality include mistake-proofing (poka-yoke, creating the product or process in a way that it cannot be done wrong, such a designing parts so that they can only be assembled the right way), defect-sensitive machinery (jidoka, machines that stop processing and alert the operators in case of errors – the founder of Toyota actually invented the first automated loom that was able to recognize when a thread was cut), and in some cases also traditional inspections, especially at points such as just prior to shipping, after which correcting errors would be very difficult.

Further reading

The tools of Lean could easily be discussed for the length of an entire book, and there are indeed lots of books on Lean, many of which I can warmly recommend if you want to dig deeper into Lean thinking and its traditional applications. Here are some recommendations:

  • If you only want to read one book on Lean, I would recommend Jeffrey Liker’s The Toyota Way as a good overview.
  • A good introduction to the Lean toolkit and concepts (but not necessarily the philosophy) is Natalie J. Sayer’s and Bruce Williams’ Lean for Dummies.
  • Good books on the continuous improvement culture are Masaaki Imai’s Gemba Kaizen and Mike Rother’s Toyota Kata.
  • A good book on the PDCA problem-solving process is Durward K. Sobek II’s and Art Smalley’s Understanding A3 Thinking.

Photo: Talbot Avenger production line by Ben Sutherland @ Flikcr (CC)

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at consulting@kilkku.com or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Finland, but work globally.