Japanese Lean Manufacturing Terms

We often have people ask us about various Japanese terms that are used in lean manufacturing.  Since lean production was simply a term used to describe the Toyota Production System back in the 1980’s, Japanese words are used to describe certain principles and concepts.  We’ve created a cartoon video that talks about some of the Japanese Lean terms such as kaizen, kanban, heijunka, muda, mura, muri, andon, poka yoke, and others.


Lean Leadership

There has been a lot of buzz about lean leadership in the past year or so.  People are beginning to realize that, as author John Maxwell has said, “everything rises and falls on leadership.”  It takes good leadership to create an environment for kaizen to flourish.  We want everyone in the organization to be working toward improvement toward the next goal or target condition.  This is done by identifying problems that get in the way of achieving the target condition and then identifying and implementing countermeasures.

While the tools of lean are great (I am not one of those that say that the tools are unimportant- they are important!), leadership is critically important.   Following is a 3 minute cartoon that talks about the various aspects of lean leadership, including creating a lean culture, strategy deployment, and coaching and development.

Value Stream Mapping

Our April 2012 newsletter has just been released using our new, more streamlined format.  The focal point of this month’s newsletter is value stream mapping. To view it, please visit: http://www.emsstrategies.com/newsletter040112.htm. Following is a brief video that gives an overview of value stream mapping, including an explanation of the definition of a value stream, current state mapping, and future state mapping.

What is Lean Manufacturing?

What are Lean, the Toyota Production System, and Kaizen?

Lean manufacturing is the term most commonly used to describe the Toyota Production System (TPS). In the above figure, we have the TPS house. At the base, we have operational stability, which means creating consistency in methods and tasks, equipment, workplace organization, and output of work. There are two pillars that we speak of as well. Just-In-Time means providing the next downstream customer with what they need when they need it and in the right quantity. Built in Quality or Quality at the Source, the second pillar, essentially means never knowingly passing defective product or information to the next downstream customer. These concepts, combined with respect for people and a culture of continuous improvement, lead to the best quality, lowest cost, and shortest-lead-time products and services.

Lean manufacturing includes a set of principles that lean thinkers use to achieve improvements in productivity, quality, and lead-time by eliminating waste through kaizen. Kaizen is a Japanese word that essentially means “change for the better” or “good change.” The goal is to provide the customer with a defect free product or service when it is needed and in the quantity it is needed.


The Five Principles of Lean

The 5 principles of lean thinking that lean manufacturers employ are, according Jim Womack and Daniel Jones in their book Lean Thinking:

1. Specify Value.

2. Identify the Value Stream.

3. Make Value Flow.

4. Let the customer Pull.

5. Seek Perfection (Continuous Improvement of Quality and Productivity).

The Seven Wastes

Taichi Ohno, former Toyota Chief Engineer, identified the widely cited 7 wastes of manufacturing (muda):

  • Overproduction
  • Transportation
  • Unnecessary Inventory
  • Inappropriate Processing
  • Waiting
  • Excess Motion
  • Defects


These wastes should not be considered separate categories; instead, we should use these wastes as a teaching/learning tool to help identify opportunities to improve our work environment and focus on adding value for the customer. Wastes are non-value-added activities for which the customer would not be willing to pay.

Lean Concepts and Tools

There are many tools and concepts that lean companies employ to support the above principles and eliminate such wastes including:

Takt Time – The heartbeat of the customer; the average rate at which a company must produce product or execute transactions based on customer requirements and available working time.

Standardized Work – A description of methods, materials, tools, and processing times required to meet takt time for any given job.

One Piece Flow or Continuous Flow – A methodology by which product or information is produced by moving at a consistent pace from one value-added processing step to the next with no delays in between.

Pull Systems and Kanban- A methology by which a customer process signals a supplying process to produce product or information or deliver product/information when it is needed. Kanban are signals used within a pull system.

Five Why’s – A thought process by which the question “why” is asked repeatedly to get to the root cause of a problem.

Quick Changeover / SMED – A 3-stage methodology developed by Shigeo Shingo that reduces the time to changeover a machine by externalizing and streamlining steps. Shorter changeover times are used to reduce batch sizes and produce just-in-time.

Mistake Proofing / Poka Yoke– A methodology that prevents an operator from making an error.

Heijunka / Leveling the Workload – The idea that, although customer order patterns may be quite variable, all of our processes should build consistent quantities of work over time (day to day, hour to hour).

Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) – A team-based system for improving Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), which includes availability, performance, and quality.

Five S – 5S is a five step methodology aimed at creating and maintaining an organized visual workplace.

A-3 Problem Solving / PDCA / PDSA – A system for identifying and solving problems to their root cause and then implementing countermeasures with monitoring. Typically these are reported using A-3 reports (on A-3 or 11 X 17 size paper).

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Lean Manufacturing Implementation

Because of increasing pressure from customers and competition to reduce costs , many companies want to begin lean implementations next year. Like other major initiatives, effective lean implementations begin with good planning. In this article, I will cover 5 key steps to planning for lean implementation.

1. Perform an initial lean assessment.The purpose of a lean assessment is to identify organizational strengths and weaknesses and determine how “lean” the organization is initially in different areas. It should include financial and operational analysis. It is important to select an employee or consultant with significant lean experience to conduct the assessment. While someone internally might have the necessary experience, an outsider might help to provide a new perspective that can prove to be very beneficial in the planning stage. It can also help in convincing members of the management team that might not initially be on board with the change.

2. Begin tracking metrics.The lean assessment will provide the baseline and answer the question “Where are we?” Tracking and posting metrics will show you where you are going during the lean transformation and will gauge how successful your program is. Develop a set of metrics that you will use to track your implementation efforts. It is important to select a reasonably small number of metrics and post them in the plant- metrics should not be reserved for management’s eyes only.

3. Develop a one year detailed implementation plan and three to five year plan.Based on the lean assessment and metrics selected, develop a timeline for implementing lean. It should include goals and milestones. The plan needs to be tailored to the unique circumstances of the organization- not all plans will look alike!

4. Develop a training plan.Companies commonly make two mistakes with regards to lean training- either they train too much too early or they fail to train. Both of these mistakes can prove to be costly. It is important to develop a training plan that coincides with the implementation plan. You should identify who should be trained, when they should be trained, and in what disciplines they should be trained.

5. Develop a communication and performance/reward plan.Communicating the plan to go lean to everyone in the organization and letting them know how this will effect them is critical to success. Part of the communication plan should include a plan to reward both teams and individuals for their successful participation.

As you plan your lean implementation in the future, keep these five keys in mind. They will help you to move more quickly toward successful implementation.

Does Lean Work in Any Industry

Many people think that lean is only for high-volume manufacturers. However, the Toyota Production System was born out of low-volume requirements (see our article: EPEI and Quick Changeover); that fact should put to rest this false assumption about lean. Lean is about finding ways to eliminate all forms of waste from an organization such that the customer is satisfied and profits and cash flow are increased. Lean can be applied to any organization: from high volume manufacturers to hospitals to restaurants to insurance companies. This is because just about every organization has these basic requirements:

  • The need to make money
  • Processes Products and/or Services
  • Customers
  • Waste in their Processes

It is the approach to lean that should differ from organization to organization. The principles of lean defined by Womack and Jones in Lean Thinking are general enough to be useful to any organization (Define Value, Identify the Value Stream, Create Flow, Let the customer pull, seek perfection); however, it is the interpretation and improper application of these principles that has led to failure for many and a false assumption that lean will not work for them becausethey are different.When people claim that their company is different, they are partially correct. The implementation process differs from organization to organization for this reason; however, no company is so different that they don’t need to make money by eliminating waste from their processes.

Let’s consider a high-mix, low-volume manufacturer attempting to implement lean. Let’s suppose they make highly complex electro-mechanical assemblies with demand for about one unit every other day across all varieties. They might read some books on lean manufacturing and attempt to implement the tools and principles in their organization. They might try to create one-piece flow cells and falsely conclude that they work only for low-mix, high volume situations. This is because they might have read that they need to calculate takt time, design the cell such that parts are delivered to the cell every 30 to 60 minutes, finished goods are removed from the cell every 30 to 60 minutes, etc. These “requirements” of lean are not really requirements but are specific applications of the concept of “one-piece flow” for a high-volume producer. These “requirements” will not work for a low-volume producer as presented. For example, if they need to produce one finished unit per day, they won’t need to deliver parts to the cell every 30 to 60 minutes. In fact, they might consider kitting parts (or at least those parts that are not common to each product) and delivering those parts to the cell daily based on customer requirements.

How might such a low-volume manufacturer implement one-piece flow? They might create a cell that produces a variety of products using one-piece flow by designing standardized work for each product variety. They will meet the requirement of having a management time frame (pitch) using some form of visual control to show progress in the assembly process over time instead of moving finished goods from the cell every 30 to 60 minutes. These are just a few examples of how the tools need to be customized to meet an organization’s specific needs.

I encourage you to take the concepts that you read and learn about and think about how the concept might be modified for use on your company’s unique situation. This requires much more thought than reading a book and quickly dismissing the concepts just because your company is different; it requires thinking creatively. This is what makes lean implementation a challenge.

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Lean Leadership

Why do some organizations seem to find success on their lean journeys more quickly than others? Why does it appear that employees are eager to participate in lean at some organizations and are not so excited about lean at others? Based on my observations, I believe the single biggest factor in lean successes is leadership.

Let’s consider two companies, ABC Corporation and it’s biggest competitor XYZ, Inc.  Both of these organizations began their lean journey about 1 year ago, but one has found much more success than the other.

Both companies put together “lean” core teams that were thoroughly trained in the Toyota Production System methodologies, and both had the same lean (outside) teacher, who performed the training and facilitated the first value stream mapping and kaizen activities at each.

ABC Corporation, within the first few months, made substantial gains in productivity on the factory floor and reduced WIP by more than 80%; within the first six months, they had begun reducing finished goods and have a plan in place to reduce their FGI by 60% before the end of 2007. Employees at all levels were beginning to make suggestions for improvements and were asking when they would be able to participate in a kaizen event. The VP of Operations and factory floor employees are on a first name basis, and the VP of Operations has made a concerted effort to talk to employees about lean, it’s importance to the company, and it’s value to them as individuals. Not only did he do this in a formal setting, but he does this regularly on the factory floor.

XYZ, on the other hand, has completed some kaizen events that have identified improvements, but the improvements have not “stuck.” XYZ’s VP of Operations, after 3 months, had considered halting the program because he believed that the employees were not ready for lean. In contrast to his ABC Corporation counterpart, this VP almost never visits the factory floor, and many of the operators are not even sure who he is.

After studying both organizations, I’ve compiled a list of some examples of actions ABC’s management has taken that have contributed to their success in contrast to those things that XYZ has done.

ABC Corporation XYZ Corporation
Had all executives trained in lean; VP persuaded Division President of lean’s benefits. Held brief overview of lean for executives. Most were ok with the idea as long as it did not impact their organizations negatively.
Division President and VP of Operations attend kaizen event kickoffs and reports-out. President never interacts with low level employees. VP of Operations occasionally does but never on the shop floor.
Clearly communicated what lean means to all employees not only at formal meetings but on an on-going basis. Communicated lean benefits to the organization at employee quarterly meeting.
Rewards employees for their lean ideas and participation Expects participation from all employees; rarely recognizes an employees’ contributions to lean.
VP of Operations visits the factory floor daily and talks with operators VP of Operations rarely visits the factory floor.
Top management backs up their support of lean by stating that participation in lean events supersedes all other meetings/activities. Top management stated that lean was a high priority, but many kaizen events are cancelled or poorly attended due to more pressing issues.
VP of Operations actually participates in events on occasion, and the team members (including operators) are very comfortable with that. If the VP of Operations participated in a kaizen event, it would likely be a one-man show.
Management stated that no layoffs would occur due to a lean improvement, and they have backed up that claim. Management said that lean was necessary to keep the factory in the U.S. but made no promises. Employees are skeptical.

While both organizations had identical training and very similar business models, the results they achieved are markedly different. Leadership style and approach to lean are key to creating a lean culture. Without a lean culture, some success is possible; however, it is impossible to achieve the kind of breakthrough improvements you might read about in case studies.

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