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Lean methodology has been labeled a process improvement toolkit, a philosophy, and a mindset. At its core, Lean is a popular approach to streamlining both manufacturing and transactional processes by eliminating waste and optimizing flow while continuing to deliver value to customers.

The Lean Principles

Lean is built upon a foundation of 5 key principles. Together these tenets guide the mindset and approach to problem solving.

5 Lean Principles

  • Define Value: Do this from the customer’s perspective. Clarify what customers want, what they require and what they care about.
  • Map the Value Stream: Make the process and the problems visible by creating a visible map of key steps.
  • Create Flow: Determine where “the thing” is getting stuck and work to ensure units move through the process with ease. The goal is a continuous flow of products and services.
  • Establish Pull: Pull systems refer to producing units at the rate of customer demand. The opposite of a Pull system is a “Push” system where goods or services are prepared ahead of time potentially resulting in excess inventory and increased waste.
  • Pursue Perfection: Lean methodology is a journey where problem solvers continue to work toward the  complete elimination of waste where all activities create value for the customer.

All organizations are challenged to work against entropy. Even with process improvement efforts there’s the constant fight to maintain the gains. Lean forms a strategy to maintain process vigilance to prevent waste from making its way back into a process.

The Origins of Lean

Taiichi Ohno, who developed the Toyota Production System in the 1940s, is considered the father of what is known as Lean Manufacturing. Lean methodology makes PDCA as a process improvement method—Plan, Do, Check Act/Adjust—which was originally developed by Walter Shewhart and championed by Dr. Edwards Deming.


What Lean Is Not

There are a number of myths associated with Lean that persist in spite of evidence to the contrary. The most common misconceptions are:

  • Lean applies mainly to manufacturing processes: The latest data shows that transactional processes are benefitting from Lean at much higher rates than manufacturing.
  • Lean is too time consuming: The 8 Wastes, 5S as PDCA are examples of methods built to enable quick, high impact process improvements.
  • Lean is too hard to translate into layman’s terms: Although there are Japanese terms for many Lean tools, the translations are simple concepts such as removing wasted steps from a process.
  • Lean stands for “Less Employees are Needed”: This one is the most damaging since it works against everything Lean stands for.

Process improvement methods are often erroneously branded as shorthand for reducing the size of a workforce. LEAN does not stand for “Less Employees Are Needed.” The goal is never to eliminate people from an organization.

If leadership makes the mistake of using Lean methodology as a way to reduce headcount, their deployment will inevitably fail. They may achieve one round of improvement, but once layoffs take place, employees take notice and the transformation dies.

In contrast, a key “pillar” of Lean is respect for people. People are an organization’s most valuable asset and the core of the problem-solving culture.

The Goal of Lean

Lean focuses on enabling and supporting employees in their efforts to eliminate waste. Employee efforts are spent addressing unnecessary, outdated or unproductive processes in order to remove steps that block process flow and waste people’s time.

Waste—referred to as “muda” in Japanese—is a fundamental focus point in any Lean effort. The 8 Wastes create a strain on an organization’s time and resources. By definition these activities add no value for the customer. The more an organization can remove waste from processes, the better.

A Lean process:

  • Flows faster
  • Is more efficient and economical
  • Delivers on customer expectations

The Tools of Lean

Lean is associated with a robust toolkit of techniques such as the 8 Wastes, 5S, 5 Whys and Standard Work. These popular tools become a gateway for teams and individuals to see immediate impact in the workplace.

5S -

5S is a technique applied to both the physical and the digital world to create order and a workspace that is understandable at a glance. 5S is often one of the first tools used by Lean teams to bring standardization to processes.

5 Whys -

Another hallmark of Lean is the 5 Whys—a method of digging to the true causes of process issues. The 5 Whys encourage employees to continuously look past symptoms to dig to root causes so that problems are solved permanently. This simple tool remedies the time-wasting band-aid approaches common in so many organizations.

The People Side of Lean

Although it is widely known as an effective way to apply tools and methods to improve processes, it’s not simply a set of tools. It’s also a way to build a culture where process improvement can thrive.

Lean Culture—also known as Lean Management—is the foundation of the people side of Lean. Over time, improvement becomes an employee mindset. Problem solving becomes second nature. Process improvement is sustainable and continuous improvement can flourish.

It is a powerful combination of defining customer value, aligning around a common purpose, striving for perfection while at the same time respecting and developing people.

Learn more about the benefits and how combining it with Six Sigma provides the most robust system of improvement possible. This powerful combination of the two continuous improvement approaches blends a culture of problem solving with a system of operational excellence.

Learn More About Lean

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