Guide: Pull System

A key idea in Lean Six Sigma, the “Pull” technique concentrates on streamlining workflow by matching production with customer demand. Organizations can decrease waste, increase efficiency, and boost customer satisfaction by implementing pull systems. You will be given a clear road map to follow as you are guided step-by-step through the “Pull” technique implementation process.

To successfully implement the pull technique in your organization, you must first understand the state of your processes. Then, you must design pull systems, establish standard work, and continuously improve the system. Each of these steps is covered in detail. You can achieve a customer-centric operation, a streamlined and effective value stream, the elimination of excess inventory, and overproduction by using the pull strategy.

Table of Contents

Step 1: Understand the Current State

It is crucial to have a thorough understanding of your organization’s current processes in order to implement the “Pull” technique effectively. In this step, a thorough analysis is conducted to find inefficiencies such as bottlenecks, surplus inventory, long wait times, and others. Here is a more detailed explanation of how to approach this step:


      • Gather Data: Collect relevant data related to your processes, such as cycle times, lead times, work-in-progress (WIP) inventory levels, and throughput rates. Utilize information from a variety of sources, such as operational reports, customer orders, and production records.

      • Analyze Process Maps: Construct flowcharts or process maps that show the current workflow from the start to finish of the value stream. Determine each step, each decision, and each handoff between departments or functions.

      • Conduct Value Stream Mapping: Apply value stream mapping techniques to analyze the flow of materials, information, and activities across your organization. The use of a comprehensive approach makes it easier to spot wasteful practices like excess production, inventory, or handoffs.

      • Identify Bottlenecks and Inefficiencies: Analyze the data, process maps, and value stream maps to find waste sources such as bottlenecks, long wait times, surplus inventory, and other issues. Keep an eye out for areas where work builds up or where cycle times vary noticeably.

    Step 2: Define the Customer Demand

    In order to use the “Pull” technique effectively, it is essential to comprehend customer demand. You can set up your processes to meet the needs of your customers by precisely estimating the quantity, variety, and timing of their requirements. How to define customer demand is as follows:


        • Analyze Historical Data: Review historical sales data, customer orders, and other relevant records to identify patterns and trends. Keep an eye out for changes in demand that are caused by seasonality, market trends, or particular events.

        • Gather Customer Feedback: Consult with your customers to learn more about their needs and preferences by conducting surveys, interviews, or focus groups. Recognize what they anticipate in terms of product availability, lead times, customization possibilities, and general satisfaction.

        • Conduct Market Research: Study the market conditions, competitors, and industry trends to gain insights into customer demand. Examine industry reports, consumer behavior studies, and market forecasts to comprehend the broader context of your customers’ needs.

      Step 3: Establish Pull Triggers

      The signals or indicators known as pull triggers are what cause the downstream process or the client to start working on the upstream process. Pull triggers make sure that work is only done when there is a need for it, thereby minimizing overproduction and surplus inventory. How to set up pull triggers is as follows:


          • Analyze Customer Demand: Determine the elements that indicate when work should be started based on the information about customer demand gathered in Step 2’s analysis. For instance, it might occur when the quantity of finished goods in stock drops below a predetermined level or when customer orders reach a predetermined level.

          • Share Pull Triggers: Ensure that the established pull triggers are shared with all pertinent parties, including the upstream and downstream teams. Provide training on how to effectively interpret and react to the pull signals as well as clear communication of the criteria.

        By understanding the current state, defining customer demand, and establishing pull triggers, you lay the foundation for implementing the “Pull” technique successfully. These actions offer a good place to start when developing a workflow that is both effective and customer-focused.

        Step 4: Design Pull Systems

        To ensure the efficient flow of work and materials, it is essential to design an effective pull system. There are many options available; pick the one that best suits the requirements of your organization and the pull triggers mentioned earlier. To learn more about this step, read on:


            • Consider Different Pull Systems: Explore different pull systems commonly used in Lean Six Sigma, such as kanban systems, continuous replenishment systems, or electronic pull systems. Consider their suitability in light of your organization’s level of automation, the complexity of your processes, and the trends in customer demand.

            • Establish Pull System Parameters: Once a pull system has been chosen, detail the specific parameters associated with it. If you’re putting a kanban system in place, decide on the replenishment amount, the number of kanban cards, and the card size, for example. These parameters ought to be in sync with the pull triggers and customer demand to guarantee a smooth flow.

            • Identify Information Flow: Choose the information flow that will occur within the pull system. Establish the channels by which customers or downstream processes will communicate their demands to upstream processes, as well as how those processes will respond to those demands. To ensure accurate and timely information exchange, establish clear communication channels and procedures.

          Step 5: Implement Visual Management

          Visual management is a crucial component of a pull system, as it facilitates communication and provides real-time visibility into the status of work. Everyone involved can better understand demand and value stream progress with the aid of visual cues and tools. The following information will help you implement visual management:


              • Select Visual Signals: Decide which visual cues will best convey the demand and initiate the required actions. As an illustration, kanban cards that are physically moved from one location to another can be used to indicate that replenishment is required. As an alternative, you can communicate information about demand and work progress using information boards or electronic displays.

              • Display Information Clearly: Ensure that the visual cues are easily visible and understandable to all value stream participants. Use visual displays to give a quick overview of the current situation and any deviations from the desired flow, such as charts, graphs, or color-coded indicators.

              • Establish Visual Controls: Implement visual controls to monitor and maintain the flow. Use Andon systems, for instance, to display alerts when there are problems or deviations from the usual flow. Visual controls aid in initiating prompt actions, facilitating quick problem-solving and ongoing improvement.

            Step 6: Establish Standard Work

            For a pull-based system to function consistently and predictably, work procedures must be standardized. Setting up standard work aids in removing variations, lowers errors, and guarantees a smooth workflow. This is how you can create standard operating procedures:


                • Define Work Instructions: Clearly describe the detailed procedures for each process that is a part of the value stream. Include information about the order of the tasks, the inputs needed, the tools or equipment to be used, and any quality or safety concerns.

                • Determine Cycle Times: Set specific cycle times for each process, indicating the expected time required to complete the work. To prevent bottlenecks or long wait times, cycle times should be in line with customer demand and the overall flow of work.

                • Establish Quality Standards: Specify the requirements for quality that must be met throughout each process. Defining acceptable defect rates, inspection standards, and any necessary quality control procedures are all included in this. Meeting these requirements regularly ensures the creation of high-quality output.

                • Train Staff: Provide standard work procedures training to all staff members involved in the value stream. Make sure they comprehend the guidelines, turnaround times, and quality expectations. Review and update the training frequently to reflect any modifications or improvements to the process.

              You build the necessary framework for a seamless and effective flow of work by establishing standard work, putting visual management into place, and designing pull systems. These steps help reduce waste, boost productivity, and increase customer satisfaction while providing the framework for successful pull-based operations.

              Step 7: Train and Engage Employees

              All value stream participants should receive pull theory and new process training. Make a point of highlighting the value of teamwork, communication, and problem-solving abilities in developing a successful pull system. Encourage employee feedback, involve them in the process of improvement, and deal with any issues they may have.

              Step 8: Continuous Improvement and Monitoring

              Establish a system for monitoring and continuous improvement. To find areas for improvement, periodically review key performance indicators (KPIs) like lead time, inventory levels, defect rates, and customer satisfaction. To improve the pull system, carry out routine gemba walks, gather feedback from staff and customers, and make any necessary adjustments.

              Step 9: Scale and Expand Pull Systems

              Consider scaling and extending the pull technique to other parts of your organization after you’ve successfully used it in one process or area. To maximize the advantages of the pull system, apply the same procedures to additional value streams, departments, or even the entire organization.


              Organizations can gain a lot from implementing the “Pull” technique in Lean Six Sigma, including decreased waste, increased efficiency, and improved customer satisfaction. You now have a thorough road map to successfully implement the pull technique in your company thanks to this step-by-step manual.

              You can establish a culture of continuous improvement and ensure a smooth flow of work by comprehending the current state of your processes, defining customer demand, establishing pull triggers, designing pull systems, implementing visual management, establishing standard work, training and engaging employees, continuously improving and monitoring, and scaling and expanding pull systems. Keep in mind that optimizing the pull system requires regular monitoring, gathering feedback, and making necessary adjustments. By embracing the pull approach, you can transform your organization into a lean and customer-focused operation.


              Additional Useful Information on Pull Systems

              CONWIP: A Specialized Pull System

              One of the specialized forms of a Pull System is CONWIP (Constant Work In Process). In a CONWIP system, a constant number of work items are allowed to be in the process flow, ensuring that there’s a cap on Work In Process (WIP) inventory. This is highly beneficial in environments where controlling WIP is crucial for cash flow and operational efficiency.

              Benefits of a Pull System

              1. Reduced Inventory Costs: Only producing items as they are needed minimizes inventory carrying costs.

              2. Improved Quality: With a focus on actual demand, there’s less rush, allowing for more time to focus on quality control.

              3. Flexibility: A Pull System is inherently flexible, enabling quick adaptation to changes in customer demand.

              Hybrid Systems: Pull & Push Combined

              It’s not always a case of either/or. Many organizations effectively utilize a combination of both Pull and Push systems, often referred to as a “Hybrid System.” In this model, certain elements are pushed through the system, while others are pulled based on demand.

              Integration with Other Tools

              Pull systems can be seamlessly integrated with other Lean Six Sigma methodologies such as:

              1. Kanban: This visual tool can be used to implement a Pull System effectively by visualizing workflow and work in process.

              2. JIT (Just-In-Time): JIT is essentially a Pull System at its core and aims to produce items exactly when they’re needed in the production process.

              3. Heijunka (Production Smoothing): In a Pull System, Heijunka helps to smooth the production flow, making it more predictable and manageable.

              A: The “Pull” technique aims to optimize workflow, reduce waste, and improve efficiency by aligning production with customer demand. It helps create a smooth flow of work, minimize overproduction, and reduce excess inventory.

              A: A pull trigger is a predetermined condition or signal that indicates when work should be initiated in the upstream process. It can be based on factors such as customer demand, finished product inventory levels, or specific time intervals. Pull triggers ensure that work is performed only when there is a need for it, reducing overproduction and waste.

              A: Common pull systems used in Lean Six Sigma include kanban systems, continuous replenishment systems, and electronic pull systems. Kanban systems utilize visual signals to trigger the movement of materials or work. Continuous replenishment systems monitor inventory levels and initiate replenishment based on predefined thresholds. Electronic pull systems use technology and real-time data to facilitate the flow of work.

              A: Visual management supports the implementation of the pull technique by providing real-time visibility into the status of work, demand, and progress. It helps communicate the need for upstream processes to produce more items and facilitates smooth workflow. Visual signals, such as kanban cards or information boards, make it easier for employees to understand and respond to the demand signals.

              A: Continuous improvement is important in implementing the pull technique as it allows organizations to identify and address inefficiencies, bottlenecks, and variations in the pull system. By regularly monitoring key performance indicators, conducting gemba walks, and collecting feedback, organizations can make necessary adjustments, drive innovation, and ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of the pull system.

              A: To scale and expand pull systems within your organization, assess the readiness of other areas or processes, adapt the steps used in the initial implementation, and communicate the purpose and benefits of implementing the pull system. Provide training, support, and resources for a smooth transition. Monitor the performance of the expanded pull systems, gather feedback, and continuously improve and adjust as needed.


              Daniel Croft

              Daniel Croft

              Daniel Croft is a seasoned continuous improvement manager with a Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma. With over 10 years of real-world application experience across diverse sectors, Daniel has a passion for optimizing processes and fostering a culture of efficiency. He's not just a practitioner but also an avid learner, constantly seeking to expand his knowledge. Outside of his professional life, Daniel has a keen Investing, statistics and knowledge-sharing, which led him to create the website, a platform dedicated to Lean Six Sigma and process improvement insights.

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