For small business owners or executives and managers in large companies, the world of Lean and Six Sigma can prove bewildering. It can be hard to determine where to start.

Lean, however, provides many strategies that leaders can put into play quickly in almost any operation. Many of the tools come with immediate results.Lean tools

They include the following seven Lean process improvement tools.


Kaizen represents one of the best places to start with Lean methodology. The concept behind Kaizen is that even small improvements in a process can lead to massive changes over time.

Putting Kaizen into practice involves analyzing a task and then making small changes to make that task more efficient. This can involve a Kaizen Event, in which five days (or less) are spent focusing on slight changes that improve a process and then quickly putting them into place.

A simple example of Kaizen thinking involves money. People worry constantly about their financial future, but don’t put money into savings routinely. A simple solution is to set aside 10% of every dollar made into a savings or investment account. Can’t do 10%? Try 5%. Over a period of years this one minor change will lead to substantial amounts of cash.

In the business world, a great example comes from New York-based retail display company Premiere Fixtures, which made subtle changes in its operations that led to simplified processes and more business for the organization.

Value Stream Mapping

A Value Stream Map is used to analyze a process and find areas of waste and inefficiency.

In practice, a map is created of every action within any work process. These actions are divided into three categories: value enabling, value adding and non-value adding. The focus is on eliminating those actions that do not add value. Another focus is on eliminating the wait time between steps in a process.

Common non-value-added sections of a workflow include unneeded, multiple approval steps and steps that are out of order – in other words, an action that does not enable value in the subsequent steps.


Takt Time

The work “takt” comes from the German word for “beat.” In this context, Takt Time is a measurement of the rate a project needs to be completed to meet consumer demand.

The first step is determining the average rate of consumer demand for a product or service. The cycle time needed to deliver that product or service is measured against demand. Workers can then adjust cycle time – speed it up or slow it down – to ensure they meet demand.

A cupcake shop offers a simple illustration. By breaking down the average customer demand over the course of a week, an owner can adjust the cooking supplies and workers needed (bakers, customer-facing employees) each day or at specific times of day based on demand.

That makes for happy customers by reducing their wait time for cupcakes. It also prevents the problem of overproducing cupcakes during a time when demand is lower, which leads to wasted time, money and resources.

JIT: Just-in-Time Production

This tool goes hand-in-hand with Takt Time. JIT, or Just-in-Time Production, refers to the concept of making products or delivering services only in the quantity they are needed at any specific time.

JIT has its roots at Toyota. There, engineer Taiichi Ohno developed a system where employees who worked on separate parts of the manufacturing process communicated with one another. The manager in charge of sales, with a finger on the pulse of customer demand, could let managers on the manufacturing floor know about higher demand for a certain product.

Production cycles could then be adjusted to meet demand. And in the decades since, no one has had to wait for their new Corolla.

The Five Whys

The Five Whys is a method of getting to the root cause defects in a process.Lean 5 Whys

In practice, the Five Whys involves identifying a problem and then asking “why” questions about it. Typically, five of these questions will lead to an answer. It’s a simple yet highly effective way to cut through the noise and get to the core issue of a challenge. Here are some examples of the Five Whys in action, both in the office and at home.


Poka-Yoke is a method for taking simple steps to mistake proof a process.

Again, this involves analyzing how a specific process is handled. In this case, it involves an area where mistakes are routinely made. The Five Whys tool could prove beneficial here. The idea behind Poka-Yoke is that often it is discovered that a simple step can eliminate a problem. A simple example of this from personal life would be taping a note on the front door to water plants before you leave for work, eliminating the problem of wilted, dying plants in your house.

Keep in mind that a simple Poka-Yoke solution cannot be found unless a process is examined thoroughly.


The idea behind Jidoka is that the person who does a task should be given the authority to halt that task when a problem arises.

Using Toyota again as an example, workers on the manufacturing line are given the authority to stop the assembly line when they see a problem – or indications of a future problem – with a piece of equipment. This involves training the employee to take on this responsibility. But it also delegates a task where it is best handled, and reduces the need for having quality inspectors or managers having to “helicopter” around every task performed.

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