Sometimes referred to as lean manufacturing tools, lean tools are processes and strategies that are used to identify issues in the production of goods or services, and resolve those issues in a way that increases the efficiency of the operation. A wide range of tools are used to evaluate situations and respond to them in a manner that helps to minimize waste and clear the way for earning greater profits. Businesses of all sizes can adapt these basic tools to any situation, whether the focus is on a production line or the way that tasks are carried out in an office setting.
Lean manufacturing in general has to do with making sure there is no waste of resources as quality products are created for eventual sale to consumers. Any action or set of circumstances that involves the use of resources in ways that do not aid in fulfilling this ultimate goal are considered wasteful, and must be eliminated from the operation. From this perspective, lean tools make it possible to continually evaluate what is happening with the company and make sure that nothing is being wasted.
Several types of lean tools have to do with identifying any reasons for defects in the quality of the goods produced, and ridding the process of those reasons as a way to offer a better product to consumers. An example would be an approach known as Six Sigma, where the use of a combination of statistical data, quality control measures that relate to employee safety, cycle time, delivery of product, and even the quality of raw materials. Originally developed and employed by Motorola, the Six Sigma approach has both supporters and detractors within the business community, with some finding it to be an excellent tool in lean manufacturing, and others feeling it is too highly structured to allow the approach to be adapted to certain situations.
The range of lean tools is extremely broad, allowing for many different combinations of strategies to be employed in order to achieve the desired effect. In some cases, the tools may focus on organizing the flow of production to better advantage by identifying where the flow is working well and where it can be improved by rearranging the placement of production machinery.
At other times, refining the process involves employing a tool known as activity-based costing. This and similar types of lean tools look closely at the return that is earned from different products offered as part of an overall product line. By investigating closely both the cost and the return related to the manufacturing and sale of a given product, it is possible to determine if that product is profitable, and if it could be made more profitable by addressing a few identified issues with the production process. Lean tools like activity-based costing also can make it possible to determine if the product should be discontinued in favor of expanding the production of goods that are more in demand, assuming the return is low and the demand small.
Some lean tools are not strategies, but are physical items used as part of a process. Labels used in color coding records or identifying stages in a production process can be identified as tools. Containers that are transparent or that are designed to stack securely are also examples of lean tools. As long as the item in question is aiding the company in producing a quality product at a reasonable price, and ultimately providing satisfaction to the customer, there is a good chance the item is a lean tool of some type.