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Yes! Henry Ford’s automated assembly lines are some of the earliest forms of Lean. Taiichi Ohno, the head engineer of Toyota, came over to study them before developing the famous Toyota Production System, another landmark in the development of Lean thinking. I’ll list a few of Lean Six Sigma techniques that are particularly applicable to assembly lines:

  1. Standard Work – This is a basic concept but important to reduce defects or variation in the products. If Standard Work has not been established, it’s time to conduct a Process (Gemba) Walk to determine what techniques are being used at each stage and what constitutes the “better” practice at present. There is an opportunity to engage the line in multiple rounds of tweaking and improving those practices in pursuit of perfection
  2. Single Piece Flow (Batch Size Reduction) – Getting as close as possible to single piece flow will help the process meet customer demand. If there is any current batching, review the real need for the batches and consider reducing the size to as small as financial feasible.
  3. Changeover Reduction – If there is more than one product being produced on the line, then there is some form of changeover taking place. There are always opportunities to reduce the time it takes to switch from one product to the next and reduce the non-value adding time when the line is idle.
  4. Cross Training – In case you have specific expertise required of some line workers, cross training increases planning flexibility for management as well as decreasing any worker boredom which increases job satisfaction.
  5. Kanbans, Supermarkets and Water Beetles – This trio can be very helpful if there are parts and materials that have to be present at any stage along the line to keep the line moving. The Kanbans are the signals (cards, etc.) that indicate when inventory is required, the supermarkets are shelving or storage along the line with parts and materials for the workers, and Water Beetles are the people checking stock levels in the SuperMarkets to ensure each station has the right level of supplies.
  6. 5S and Visual Management – Is the process easy to follow? Are tools and parts easy to find? Always in the same spot? Are there enough parts and tools but not too much? Is the signage on the walls up to date? Are parts and tools color-coded for correct use? Does everyone know the system? 5S and the resulting Visual Management are foundational and hi-impact techniques to make use of in an assembly line.

These are some of the most useful concepts for your area, but there are many more to consider. I hope this was helpful!

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Managing Partner & Executive Advisor at GoLeanSixSigma.com. For over 25 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Starwood Hotels & Resorts build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.