Andon Lights 101 – How to Use Andon to Improve Production Communication

In Japanese, the word ‘andon’ means a traditional paper lamp or light. Toyota, however, incorporated the word to also be the default term for a type of lean signaling process used on work floors; that’s what we’re going to learn about today.

What Is An Andon Light?

In many production facilities,  Andons are usually cylindrical lights attached to various machines or work stations. While a simple one-light system is sometimes used, in many cases Andons consist of two, three or even five lights, In a two-light system, green means machine or operation is running normal and red means stop; this can be modified to include a yellow light, which may be used to mean that a station is either not running at capacity or that it needs attention, even if it is not completely shut down. In some cases, Andon systems don’t actually use lights at all, but might use small pole-mounted plastic “flags” near each machine. Flags can be flipped outward to become visible and indicate the station’s status. While many Andon setups are controlled by the machine operator (for example, he or she might flip a switch to change the light color), automatic systems also exist in which a machine might change the light itself based on certain preset parameters.

Why Use Andon Lights?

There are a number of reasons to make use of Andon lights in your own operations, but here are just a few.

Employee-To-Manager Communication Becomes A Breeze

Management offices generally will overlook a work floor so that supervisors can keep an eye on many things at once. While this allows for a great general analysis, gathering any specific information or details can be troublesome. If something goes wrong and management can’t see or hear it, an employee will have to walk across the floor and report to their manager manually. Conversely, a manager could walk around constantly throughout the floor, waiting for someone to need their attention. Neither is a great use of time or resources, and Andon lights allow you to bypass these approaches altogether by simply seeing a light signal from just about anywhere in the room; managers are then free to work on other tasks in their offices until a specific concern arises, at which point they can go check it out. Lean is all about efficiency, and Andon lights further this by allowing for efficient and waste-free communication of events and problems.

Encourage Uniformity

One of the biggest problem in safety and maintenance communication in the workplace is inconsistency. With an Andon system, be it lights, flags, or some other signal, status indicators are well-known and universal, so no one has to guess what it means when, for example, a red light goes on at station four. This can help workers make active and quick adjustments as well, such as the diversion of materials and production from one stations or assembly line to another as soon as it is signaled that something might not be right.

Empowering and Encouraging Accountability

When an operator is given an easy way to communicate the status of their work station and is instructed to do so as per your training protocols, it shifts some of the burden (though not too much) of maintaining equipment status and communication on them. This does a couple of things: First, it gives the worker higher degrees of control over the efficiency and perception of “how well” their station is doing. Second, it gives them the tools to quickly take action when a problem occurs. One of the biggest problems with not using any sort of Andon-like signal system is that a problem that occurs might be ignored or overlooked when the process of getting someone’s attention, calling in the right people/equipment, correcting the problem, and getting things up and running again is a long and laborious one. The easier it is for employees to get the ball rolling when something is amiss, the more likely they are to actually do it in a timely manner – it’s literally as easy as flipping a switch with Andon.

Implementing An Andon System

One of the hardest parts about implementing any new kind of operations system is training. Luckily, Andon systems are dead simple and require minimal training in the first place. All you need at first is to layout for your employees an “Andon blueprint,” or a document that outlines which conditions of a work station are to be associated with which color on the light. In general, normal operations are green, a slow station or one that will need attention in the near future should illuminate its yellow light, and a fully stalled or broken station, or one in need of immediate attention should switch on its red light. Depending on your industry, you may also want to outline specific protocols for what a worker should do while waiting for assistance after flipping on a red light (are there basic troubleshooting steps they’re trained to perform? Should they remove materials from the machine while it is stopped? Etc.). Other than that, it’s next to no setup for a great set of benefits, have at it!

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