Andon (+7-min MP3, +6-Page PDF)
An andon light is one of the most common forms of visual management that is used in Lean. It is a staple in the bag of Lean tools because it is highly effective at keeping operations running smoothly.
In Lean, the term “andon” most often refers to a signaling system used to call for help when an abnormal condition is recognized, or that some sort of action is required. These andon lights are usually present on an assembly line as the cost of a problem is multiplied by the number of stations that sit idle if there is a line stop. These signals are generally a stack of colored lights that are used to request assistance. Each color signifies a different condition and a different required response.
In the Lean office, there are also signaling lights. For example, an andon will announce that a piece of equipment, like a fax machine or a printer, is having problems.
The term “andon” comes from an old Japanese word for paper lantern. An everyday example of an andon is the warning light on your car’s dashboard that indicates when the gas tank is getting close to empty.
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Andons are very powerful tools, if they are used correctly. The best andons are highly visual, and can be seen from at least ten feet away. They should also be accompanied by a clear reaction plan.
Andons need to do more than just point to a problem. An andon must go hand in hand with a plan for action. In the example of the car, the warning light tells you not only what the problem is, but is linked to a clear resolution. You know exactly what you need to do to fix it. In this case, you know you need to fill up at a gas station sooner rather than later.
In practice, you might see the following scenario take place:
Just remember a few things when using andons. First, there may be a reverse ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ condition. What happens if a worker pulls the andon cord to signal a need for help, and nobody ever comes to the rescue? The employee stops wasting his time pulling that andon cord! And if the cord is not pulled, the leadership team misses out on the opportunity to permanently fix the problem. Plus, the lack of early warning means that there will likely be more frequent line stops.
If you are a leader who has andons, ensure that there is a response when they are lit.
Also remember that you can build your standard work with problem resolution in mind. Let’s say that there is a work station with an easy task and a more difficult task that is prone to problems. Obviously, you want to work towards eliminating the problems, but until then, mitigate your risk. Do the harder task first. If the operator falls behind, he or she can call for help. The lead/supervisor/floater can then do the easy task and buy the operator a few more minutes. If the tough task was last on the standard work combination sheet, there would be very little the helper could do other than cheer the operator on.
Finally, make sure andon calls are tracked. More importantly, make sure the team figures out how to prevent problems in the future.
Make the andons a source of information for you to drive continuous improvement.
As a side note, workers generally should not have time included in their standard work to address problems. You are better off having a floater who can cover the line than adding buffer time to the standard work. Embedding extra time hides the problem in a hidden factory and it never gets the attention it deserves.
Some common andon configurations include:
Andon lights are your friends. Use them to make your job easier. In some companies, this is easier said than done. Line stops are closely associated with turning on your signal light, and, before a company truly embraces a continuous improvement culture, there often negative feelings associated with shutting down production.
The key is to help your leadership team focus on solving the problems that you identify when you pull the cord or press the button to call for help. After each time somebody comes to assist you, be diligent about writing down the incident. Hopefully this will be part of a formal process. If not, it still pays to write down the problems that happened. This record will help you present your case for getting improvement resources.
Leaders get busy and they manage multiple stations. They won’t be able to see or recognize the patterns that you do. By documenting what is happening…
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