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The tools in the lean toolbox

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Operations Excellence by Sepp Gmeiner
Sepp Gmeiner is a partner with Lignum Consulting. For feedback, questions and/or suggestions please email


WMS 2011 was held in Toronto recently and the industry gathered to see what is new. But not just what’s new in products and services, but also who is still in business and who did not come to the show? One of the most frequently asked questions was: How is the show for you? Here we have the story of the glass being half full or being half empty depending on your point of view. Compared to WMS 2009, this year’s show was packed and we had no empty aisles. However compared to four and six years ago, it was still way behind in size and attendance.

Some say we will never reach those levels again. That might be the case. One thing is clear to me, the game has changed. This recession was different. Not like the ones before where you just waited out the storm, cleaned up and then continued to operate as you did before. This recession was a game changer. And it is not clear yet how the new game will be played. Regardless of how it will play out, it will not be easier. Companies need to become more efficient, more innovative and whatever they do, they must do it faster.

Working on the business, versus working in the business

Companies are not working enough ‘on the business.’ Their focus is working ‘in the business.’ Getting orders in and getting the daily shipments out is what they concentrate on. This is what I call working ‘in the business.’ But working on improving the way the business works, making the business run smoother and more effective gets neglected. There are different ways to work on this. The bookshelves are full of good books on how to improve and turn around the operations. But buying more books doesn’t to anything it just requires you to get a bigger bookshelf. Instead, what’s needed is action. All these improvement methodologies are like tools in a toolbox. They will not do the job. But if you know what you want and you have the will and commitment to make it they sure can help you to complete the project.

Lean Manufacturing toolbox

There are many books, training courses and presentations on lean manufacturing. (If you missed my presentation at the WMS 2011you can download it at: http://www.lig- I like what lean manufacturing has to offer and the lessons are suitable for our industry and for companies of all sizes. However, not all tools are suitable for every operation and company. Selecting the right tool for the job is important.


This tool is a basic tool for any operation. It is a formalized method to achieve good housekeeping. You can achieve a tidy plant without using 5S, however, the 5S-method provides a structured approach to the basic elements of housekeeping. I personally see housekeeping as a good exercise to achieve culture change and install an atmosphere of improvement. If you do not achieve the changes in the relative simple subject of house- keeping, do not start the next and more difficult project! This tool can be used in any manufacturing and office environment.


Kanbans are signal-driven inventory spots. The benefit is that it will not require elaborate computer driven, front-office controlled material requirement planning (MRP). Replenishment orders are initiated manually when certain criteria are met. Kanbans work best with items of relative steady usage and within a narrow range of items. The items can be raw material, work-in-process or finished goods. It works well in all sizes of companies.


Kaizen meetings are great to break down the reluctance to communicate that is so prevalent in some larger companies. As these continuous improvement meetings follow a certain format they minimizes the impact of politics in companies. Improvement projects in smaller companies are much more personality driven than in corporate organizations. The Kanban format is still useful and can be applied. Be aware however, that this more formal approach might feel a bit fake in very small companies.

S.M.E.D./Set-up reduction

This tool is a practical approach to reduce set-up time on machines and processes. The key is to use the reduced set-up time to reduce the batch size. Reduced batch sizes will result in reduced lead time and reduce inventory. This tool is most effective when analyzing and improving the bottleneck machines. The tool is useful for companies of any size.

Theory of Constraint

When identifying an area you want to improve, make sure you check if this process or machine is a bottle- neck in the overall process. If you are improving a process that is not a bottleneck, your benefit is just the process improvement. If you improve an identified bottleneck, your benefit is multiplied by all the effected operations (everybody was waiting...). Identifying and eliminating the bottleneck(s) is the key. It is important to realize that bottlenecks can also occur in the office or with a sup- plier. You need to look at the overall process. This tool is beneficial for all companies.

Value Stream Mapping

Value stream mapping is an effective tool to show the complexity of operations/companies. This tool works particularly well in large operations because there usually isn’t anyone who knows the entire process, how it works and how it should work. The value stream map shows the entire flow in a standardized way. In smaller companies it is too big of a tool for the task at hand. However, the basic principals of value stream mapping do apply to all companies.

Visual workplace

Communicating with visual tools works for all companies regardless of size. In this case the picture really is worth a thousand words. Using pictures, drawings, colours and symbols is a good way to effectively communicate internally and externally.

Key results indicators

What gets measured gets attention, and what gets attention will improve! It is important to create meaningful and specific measurements throughout the company. Well-designed measurements help employees understand what is important and the company can measure if the improvement activities are actually improving the performance.

We are just beginning

When asking companies with years of success in lean manufacturing on how far along they are in their implementation, their most common answer is that they are just at the beginning.

Lean is not a destination. It is a journey and a direction. It is not difficult. If you really want it, you can do it!


Sepp Gmeiner is partner with Lignum Consulting. For feedback, questions and/or suggestions he can be contacted at s.gmeiner@

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