Top Lean Manufacturing Tools and Techniques Explained

Get Higher Quality Products to Market, Faster, For Less

The Lean Manufacturing approach is so popular because it helps organizations identify waste that eats into customer value and slashes profits. The approach rests on the simple principles that value is defined through the eyes of the customer, that value should flow to the customer, and that process can always be improved, with perfection and zero waste being the ultimate goal. Various tools and techniques that are used to support Lean manufacturing have been developed since the 1940’s when Japanese automakers wanted to overhaul production in order to improve product quality.

Modern hardware developers and their manufacturing service partners have a number of Lean tools and techniques that can be used to root out waste in all its forms and support continuous improvement. Some are useful in the product development phases, while some apply to manufacturing processes themselves. Here are some of the most popular.


A3 is a structured continuous improvement and problem solving technique. It was first employed at Toyota, but today is used by Lean manufacturing practitioners around the globe.  An A3 report is one page that documents the results from the PDSA cycle. A3 reports get their name from the A3-sized sheet of paper on which they are designed to fit. The A3 report typically contains 8 items:

  • Problem Definition
  • Problem Clarification
  • Goal (Desired State)
  • Results of Root Cause Analysis
  • Countermeasure Definition
  • Countermeasure Implementation Plan
  • Results Confirmation
  • Update to the Standard Work


5S is a workplace organization method that involves 5 phases that happen to begin with the letter S in both Japanese and English. They are: seiri (sort), seiton (set), seiso (shine), seiketsu (standardize), and shitsuke (sustain). The 5S system improves workplace efficiency and eliminates waste. Managers and workers achieve greater organization, standardization, and efficiency while reducing costs and boosting productivity.


DMAIC is an improvement cycle with five phases; define, measure, analyze, improve, control. These phases are used to help ensure that improvements are data-driven, measurable, and repeatable. DMAIC works to improve problem solving by providing structure to the task. Due to the fact that it is data-driven, it’s easier to identify the appropriate targets and root causes and to make sure that any implemented changes get better results than the previous method.

Gemba Walks

The term “Gemba” means, “The real place,” in Japanese. During a Gemba walk managers or supervisors go to the place where work gets done to observe and identify opportunities for improvement. They ask questions and observe both processes and workspaces. After the walk is complete and a period of reflection occurs, changes may be implemented.


Heijunka or Level Scheduling is a form of production scheduling that manufactures in much smaller batches by sequencing (mixing) product variants within the same process. This approach reduces lead times because each product or variant is manufactured more frequently and it reduces the waste of inventory since batches are smaller.

Hoshin Kanri

Hoshin Kanri (also called Policy Deployment or Strategy Deployment) is a strategic planning approach that ensures everyone in an organization is driving toward the same goals. Generally, organizations look for “breakthrough” goals that can be achieved in 3-5 years. It is also a technique for balancing the need to achieve long-term goals and necessity of address daily improvement opportunities at the same time.


Kanban means “billboard” or “shop keeper’s sign.” It is a technique that Toyota executives developed after observing the visual clues that grocery store managers use to keep just the right level of inventory on hand. The idea is to maximize the flow of goods and work. It is achieved by ensuring that work is visualized, work-in-progress (WIP) is limited, flow is not interrupted and that improvement is continuous.


Like DMAIC, PDSA is an improvement cycle. The acronym stands for Plan, Do, Study, Act. (It is also known as the Deming Cycle.) An idea for improvement moves through this cycle each step being carefully documented. After the cycle is complete, it starts over with a new plan for improvement.


Poka-Yoke, also known as Error Proofing, is the idea of designing error detection and prevention into production processes with the goal of achieving zero defects. This is desirable because it is difficult and costly to find all errors through inspection. Correcting defects typically gets significantly more expensive at each stage of production, so an error free design is ideal.

Standard Work

Lean leaders know that unless a baseline is established, improvement can’t be measured. Standard work makes this possible by define the exact current process for each task that will be consistently replicated by the people who do the work. In order for Standard work to be effective, it must be complete, accessible, and current.

Total Productive Maintenance

Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) is a holistic approach to maintenance that focuses on proactive and preventative maintenance to minimize the downtime of equipment. The distinction between maintenance and production is eliminated by TPM because a strong emphasis is placed on empowering operators to help maintain their equipment. The approach invites a shared responsibility for equipment that encourages greater involvement by front line workers.

The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys is an effective tool for finding the root cause of a problem. Practitioners define the problem and then ask “why” as many times as it takes to get to the underlying cause. It seems that 5 “whys” will usually do the trick, but sometimes it is more or less.

Value Stream Mapping

Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is a Lean manufacturing tool for documenting and questioning the steps of the end-to-end process that takes a product from its request to the customer. Leaders look at each step to determine whether (and how much) value is added. Steps that don’t add sufficient value are targeted for elimination whenever possible.

Whether or not you fully embrace all aspects of Lean, these Lean manufacturing tools can be helpful in keeping costs down, speeding time to marketing, reducing the number of defects, and solving any problems that do pop up. Continuous improvement should be a priority for product designers and manufacturers of all sizes.

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