The Lean Manufacturing Cheat Sheet: The Holy Grail of Continuous Improvement

If you’re in manufacturing, you’re aware of the lean manufacturing movement.wordcloud
Called by many other things, like Kaizen and Continuous Improvement, it is the current culture of the industry. It’s the best practice for cost efficiency, productivity, and labor utilization. The problem is that there are so many ways to go about it that it’s confusing for a company to know where to start. How do you know the best way to approach lean? What practices make the most sense for your particular operation?

To help you answer those questions, we’ve put together an ever-expanding cheat sheet. This will summarize what each strategy is and how it’s best used. We’ve provided resources for you, too, so you can quickly access everything you need to get started.



If you’re a smaller company or just plain new to lean, these are the best first steps for you to take to make an immediate change.

8 Wastes:

Understanding the 8 wastes of lean is critical to driving any program of continuous improvement. Simply learning and understanding what the wastes are, you and your employees can start to identify them and work to minimize them. 8 Wastes is therefore action in itself, but most other strategies are used to eliminate these wastes, so it is not a final step by any means. The wastes are often listed by the acronym “DOWNTIME” or “TIM WOODS.”

Transport — moving people, products and information

Inventory — storing parts, pieces and documentation ahead of requirements

Motion — bending, turning, reaching, lifting and unnecessary walking

Waiting – for parts, instructions and equipment

Over-production — making more than is immediately required

Over-processing — tighter tolerances or higher-grade materials than necessary

Defects — rework, scrap, warranty and test failures

Skills — under-utilizing capabilities and delegating tasks with inadequate training

For a more in-depth explanation of the 8 wastes, go here.

5 S and 5C:

These are essentially the same strategies explained a little differently to be understood better. They are 5-step processes that whip your plant into shape so that you can see where the wastes exist. You can implement and benefit from them immediately. They should be practiced indefinitely and you can add other strategies to the mix when you’ve got a good groove going.

5S:                   5C:

Sort                 Clear

Set in order      Configure

Shine               Clean and check

Standardize     Conformity

Sustain                        Consensus

For more on 5S, click here.

For more on 5C, click here.



Also great to use for anyone new to lean, this takes you a little further into a lean lifestyle.

Value Stream Mapping (VSM):

When you create a value stream map, you basically create a blueprint of your entire operation. Everyone in the company can pitch in to ensure their areas of operation are well represented in your diagram. Once you have a visual representation of what goes on at your facility, you can identify where areas of improvement exist. This takes a lot more commitment than 5S, but it also takes you much farther. With a literal map of the business and plans for change, you tackle one area at a time until the entire project is complete. There is a great resource on VSM that includes a graphic of common symbols here.



Maybe you’ve identified an area or two that you want to apply lean to, but the other strategies don’t really seem applicable. Here is a great approach.

Six Sigma:

Six Sigma was designed to eliminate product defects. Manufacturers can use it for that or for something else, but Six Sigma is used to tackle really specific problems one at a time. It’s best deployed after other tactics have been used, like VSM, to flush out the exact issue you want to correct. It uses five phases:






You can find out more about six sigma here, or read our article on integrating lean and Six Sigma together here.



Many strategies can transform your process into one that is very different from where you started, but they don’t always necessarily result in that big of a change. If you want to look at every piece of your operation with a very specific goal in mind, this may be for you.

Just in Time Manufacturing (JIT):

This process may use any of the above strategies to analyze the workflow and identify wastes. However, at the end of it, the idea is to produce just what you need exactly when you need it and no more or less. JIT requires evaluation, planning, and execution. It can be highly beneficial, but it is a process.

Here is a beautifully in-depth article on everything you need to know about JIT.



The idea of continuous improvement is that everyone is consistently looking out for opportunities as well as sticking to any new protocols that have come along.

Kaizen Events/Blitzes:

These are week-long events that focus on specific areas you need to enhance. When carried out correctly, they can yield a 20% – 100% improvement in efficiencies. They’re designed to simplify or amp up your lean process.

We have a two-part guide you might find helpful here and here.

Gemba Walks:

These are somewhat similar to Management By Walking Around, except they are more purposeful. They get managers at all levels out on the floor to see how the processes work, get feedback, and identify opportunities to improve. They come complete with evaluation sheets to help guide the “walker” on what to look for and how to report his or her findings.

There is a great resource on Gemba Walks here.