A problem interrupting workflow requires immediate help, but a strong case can be made that help for any problem should arrive immediately.

Right now, someone in your organization has a problem. What should this person do? How will this person get help to address the problem and, more importantly, would two individuals react in the same way? Answering these questions might help you determine whether you need a form of andon system.

Andon is the Japanese word for lantern or signal. In lean manufacturing, it is used as the signal to begin the help chain. The help chain is a standardized way for people with a problem to request help, and for appropriate people to respond. Standardizing this process is important! If one supervisor uses the andon signal, another says “just come find me,” another wants the problem in writing and yet another doesn’t want to hear about problems, what’s the safest thing for an employee to do? Nothing! If your organization has a standardized help chain, an employee knows exactly what to do when a problem occurs, regardless of shift, location, role or supervisor.

The first step in forging your help chain is to define what constitutes a problem or problems. Specific problems may require specific help chains, and a more technically specialized organization may require more varied help chains. Once you define the problems, you will need to define what type of help is needed for each specific problem, and how quickly that help is needed. The former is generally easer than the latter.

In fact, one of the toughest questions for organizations to answer is when help should arrive. If the problem will prevent the flow of work, it clearly requires immediate help. Other problems might not require immediate attention, but a strong case can be made that help should arrive immediately regardless. The helper is most effective when the current situation is deeply understood, and this insight is best achieved through observation of the problem while it is occurring. If the response from your help chain is not immediate, the possibility of direct observation is lost and with it, the best chance of analyzing the problem and identifying the cause. A lean company will eliminate barriers that prevent people from responding to the right place at the right time to observe the problem.

Once you’ve defined the problems, the help required, and how quickly the help is required, you need to design an appropriate way to connect the customer-the person who has the problem-with the supplier-the person who will provide the help to resolve the problem. There should be one single way for the customer to request help, and one acceptable response from the supplier. The common example used for making a request is pulling the andon cord, which turns on music-calling attention to the problem-and a light to identify the location of the problem.

But the “one way” for you can be anything that works for you-a specific pager signal, a hand signal, a light or a buzzer. Regardless, there should be one signal that means one thing-a customer needs help from a supplier. Whatever signal you use, make sure that the supplier will receive it immediately, regardless of where that supplier might be in relation to the customer! A request from the floor to a supplier in the office is likely to be missed.

The response of the supplier should be standardized as well. There should be only one response acceptable, because the person on the other end in need of help must know what to expect from the supplier when help is requested. Any ambiguity in the response will create resistance in requesting help.

Companies often say that leaders don’t have time to engage. If you design the help chain correctly, engagement will be a daily part of work.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, MI, and the co-author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road. He shares his successful and varied experiences of lean transformation as a practitioner and leader through companies such as Chrysler and DTE Energy. He also has a wide range of practical experience in industrial operations, including production, maintenance, material control, product development and manufacturing engineering. Jamie is a graduate fellow of the Leaders for Manufacturing Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his research thesis was on implementing lean manufacturing through factory design. He also holds a B.S. in Engineering from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, and an M.S. in Engineering from the University of Michigan. To contact Jamie directly, go to the web site www.leanlearningcenter.com.