Home > Gemba Coach> Got any recommendations for applying lean in the tool and die shop to stop our dies from crashing like crazy?

Got any recommendations for applying lean in the tool and die shop to stop our dies from crashing like crazy?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

We applied SMED to increase the flexibility in our production cells. Now our dies are crashing like crazy and disrupting production because maintenance can't keep up! Got any recommendations or experiences in applying lean in the tool and die shop?

Yes, this is not unexpected. Let’s reason it through. Why do we keep dies glued to the machine and do long batches? Because dies are hard to settle in until they make good parts.

Die changeover is measured from last good part to first good part. When you start changing dies more often, two things happen:

  1. First, you get a lot more start-up bad parts as you have to get the production right more often.
  2. Second, you handle the dies more and they can get damaged in the process.

"Die problems are not die problems – they are human problems. They are mental problems."In any case, it’s quite clear that changing dies more often is more hassle. Or is it?

In fact, the fragility of the dies has always been there, but as long as we’re doing long batches, it’s hidden deep in the process. Rather than paying for the weakness of the dies, we prefer to pay the cash layout of having parts in inventory and not meeting spot customer demand.

What you’re facing is a cost trade-off. Do you prefer to put your money in:

  • Inventories and late shipments
  • Die maintenance and operations

Of course, in the company, this will not appear so starkly because these costs come out of different budgets. inventory is still often considered as an asset, so the plant will be rewarded for having produced a lot of parts – even if we don’t sell them. Late deliveries are a bummer but don’t come out of any particular budget. On the other hand, spending money on operator training or die maintenance is a cold hard cash outlay, right now. Guess what most managers will prefer?

Changing dies more often is about learning to learn: it will teach you what you need to learn – if you’re listening.

Dies as Pets

Before we go any further in solving the problem, we need to look into it in more detail. The deeper question is “who needs to learn what?” No one would crash a die on purpose, so:

Die crash = something we don’t know

A learning curve is structured around mental steps:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: We don’t know what we don’t know – and often convince ourselves (and tell others) we don’t need to know more than we already do.
  2. Conscious incompetence: We’ve figured out what it is we need to know that we currently don’t know, and it’s rarely a happy prospect.
  3. Unconscious competence: Usually, just by opening a book, talking to an expert, looking into real cases, scratching our heads, things get better as we remember our basics and discover new ideas.
  4. Conscious competence: We know how to explain what we do better – and so can communicate it to others and standardize that knowledge.

Dies are crashing. Dies can’t learn. Only humans can do that. The first step is connecting every die with a person by creating a table with these headings:

Die Owner Most frequent problem Presumed cause Trial countermeasure Impact



















Treat your die as a pet. It’s ill, we need to figure out what’s wrong with it. That means watching it attentively and taking note of everything that could be wrong in its lifestyle:

  • Manpower: How does every person who touches the die actually handle it? Do they understand its soft spots? It’s cranky habits? Do they know what finishing touch to apply after each movement to make sure the die feels happy?
  • Materials: Is the material being pushed through the die appropriately? Are each of the die’s components, connections, and transport jigs OK? Are we close to the cliff edge by using dies in dodgy conditions or are we fine?
  • Machine: Is each machine applied to the die for its maintenance (and, yes, that means the cleaning cloth as well) operating as it should be? When did we last check?
  • Method: Is the theory to set the die in the press correct? Have we checked how we set the machine and thought about conditions of pressure and temperature? Are we reflecting on physical processes to understand what is going on?

Die problems are not die problems – they are human problems. They are mental problems. The place to start is your troubleshooting methodology. Get your guys together and ask them to share their sequence for troubleshooting – where they start to look and then where do they go,  and so on to see how they intuitively prioritize problems.

Then get them to compare sequences and explain why they go about it one way or another. Bear in mind that when two experts disagree, 1) they’re probably both right (but they’ve generalized specific conditions differently), 2) tempers may rise as thinking stirs up emotions and experts feel quickly challenged. So be sure we have frequent breaks for chit chat and sharing a coffee, a soda, or a soothing tisane (whatever works in your culture).

And then get everyone to leave with a commitment to a study topic – not a corrective action, just something to check. And a date to meet again.

Your question is really not about dies but how to handle technicians when things get rough. Our cultural reflex is to get them to diagnose the problem; then organize the issues; then come up with corrective action plans; and then monitor to see that these plans are followed. This usually makes things worse.

Experts need to be listened to, feel they are heard, and that their unique experience is valued. They’re rarely good at communicating what they know and the frustration of not making themselves understood makes them crabby. The first step to solving your die crash problem is to realize this is a social problem, not a SMED problem.

How can you create a social setting conducing to technicians being interested in why the dies crash rather than having to correct it immediately or cover it up? Start with “why?” Performance will follow.

5 Comments | Post a Comment
Peter Gardner May 9, 2019

Working in China, three items here that resonate with me from this post are:

Learning to learn.

Unconscious incompentence.

Die problems are not die problems - they are human problems.   

Too true. Most excellent post

Adrian Edwards May 10, 2019

Classic case of unexpected outcomes of improvement activities

We first need to understand what is / is not the problem. Why have the dies started crashing at an alarming rate? Is it, as Michael suggests, that the crashing problem has always been there but masked by the large batches – now exposed by this activity? Or, is it a new phenomenon – possibly linked to SMED actions – methods, processes, etc.? The only known is maintenance of dies is the bottleneck

We must approach the learning and potential countermeasures from two aspects – technical and human / social

The technical aspects are often the simpler to analyse and resolve – we rely on data and fact not emotion or gut-feel. Pareto enables us to focus on the biggest gains (most frequent problem / largest impact on production) by die, probable root cause and then countermeasure (as Michael’s chart). Technical people generally like solving technical problems but often lack problem-solving methodology and prefer to defer to their ‘experience’; keep asking why often exposes its worth, or potentially, its frailty in a non-confrontational manner

The human / social factors are always more challenging. The inference is that the tool & die shop are now the problem being unable to keep up… and lean will provide the solution. Without understanding the root cause of the problem, could this be reacting to the symptoms? There are potentially deeper-rooted human issues; were the tool & die team involved in the SMED improvement activity? If not, they may feel like they are to blame for current situation, with all the negative connotations that result. If yes, then re-focusing the multi-disciplined SMED team on the problem-solving activity will ensure much higher success rate and velocity – success breeds success. It can also enable ‘we are in it together’ camaraderie if positioned correctly

Chris BAker May 22, 2019

SMED is about reduciing the none productive  time of die changeover. The inference is, dies were already being changed over, now the idea is to do it quicker.

The discussion about inventory, hiding faults, learning is all good but I believe this comes down to understanding the process of die changeover.

I would ask, is there a step in the old NON SMED way that protected the dies from crashing in some way? and has been eliminated rather than moved to non production time.


Michel Baudin May 22, 2019

If you want actionable advice, you should provide more information. 

What kind of dies are you talking about? There are dies for stamping, casting, punching, extrusion, injection molding,... Some you can hold in your hand and others weigh tons. 

What do you mean when you say that dies are crashing? What specific problems are you experiencing?

What do you mean when you say that you have done SMED? It should mean that the time from completion of the last good part to start of the first good part is under 10 minutes. Many claim to have "done SMED" because they have reduced a setup time to 25 minutes. 

You also don't say what the setup times were before you started. If you brought it down from 15 to 9 minutes, it's not as if you had brought it down from 2 hours to 9 minutes. 

Did you modify the machine or the dies? 

Dan Caudill June 26, 2019

This post was of great interest to me, as I have been building and troubleshooting dies for many years.

I also think the die changeover process should be further analyzed. My main question is: are the dies set in the presses by a designated setup crew, or do the press operators perform double duty by doing both setup and run procedures?

Oftentimes, when an operator is asked to perform both functions, he/she will be less proficient at the setup procedures. It is possible, then, that a critical step in preparation was either deleted during SMED implementation, or operators have been skipping important steps to achieve some desired time savings.

Of course, this could happen with a setup crew as well. It also sounds like something as simple as clearing dies of slugs and scrap is not being performed---more than once have I seen slugs fall out of a die at setup, get stuck under the die shoe, and throw the die out of parallel when clamped in the press. It's a sure way to cause a crash or other anomalies.

These simple things are absolutely critical, and should not be overlooked or omitted. It not enough for people to know WHAT they are required to do---it is perhaps more important to know WHY they do certain things. Operator training and awareness is essential, with participation and support from tooling, engineering, and management.

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