What is Lean?

Lean is fundamentally about culture, i.e., ‘this is the way we do things around here’. That implies a range of issues for an organisation seeking to adopt Lean as a business improvement strategy. It focuses on dealing with the flow of information and materials between process steps, with a focus on waste, cycle time, process flow improvement and removing ‘non-value adding’ work.


  • Focuses on customer value
  • Eliminates process waste
  • Improves cost & delivery
  • Based on growth strategy

Lean principles have been enhanced and developed by Toyota to create the Toyota Production System. Toyota developed Lean in the 1950s based on the work of Frederick Taylor and W. Edwards Deming, both industrial engineers. Toyota does not refer to the term ‘Lean’, this was coined by Womack in ‘The Machine that Changed the World’. Toyota uses the term – Toyota Production System.

Lean is a strategic approach to change and improvement. Focusing just on the tools at an operational level and reducing costs will not obtain the full benefits, and is called LAME by Lean practioners. Lean means ‘using less to do more’ by ‘determining the value of any given process by distinguishing value added steps from non value added and eliminating waste so that ultimately every step adds value to the process’ (Miller, 2005).

It is relentlessly focused on the work and by definition the strategy becomes: focus on the work, learn from it and improve. That’s your strategy. The strategy is simply to learn.

Core elements of a Lean Improvement program

  1. All effort should be prompted by the organisation’s long term philosophy. Lean is not a short-term strategy; it bears results over the long-term.
  2. Get the process defined. Every process step must be deemed to ‘add value’ to the product or process, with a minimal amount of steps and/or handoffs. You can only make those judgements if you have gone to the effort to define – and agree – your process.
  3. Only make or do what is required and when it is required. Doing other activities to keep people occupied is a waste of resources. Activity should be prompted by need. And need is driven by the customer.
  4. Smooth the process so that work occurs at a measured pace – remove peaks and troughs. Build the drum beat into the organisation.
  5. Get it right first time – stop and fix the problem, remove the root cause. Challenge why problems are allowed to become institutionalised.
  6. Standardise wherever possible – this allows for easier ongoing continuous improvement and employee engagement around how to make the next improvement. It also makes it easier for your customers, your people and reduces costs, errors and turnaround times.
  7. Visual controls and prompts ensure everyone has the same understanding and that problems are exposed. They should be simple.
  8. Only use reliable technology – it’s a tool to assist your people, not replace them.
  9. Build your future leaders from within to lead by example – this allows you to build your own culture of success, and one that is consistent.
  10. Build strong teams of dedicated people – and they give a strong ability to leverage learnings to improve current processes.
  11. Understand and support your partners and suppliers – making them successful makes you successful.
  12. See for yourself what is going on – then you can truly understand barriers and opportunities for improvements. This also allows you to show organisational leadership around the change.
  13. Get right decisions made by right people. Clarity around accountability and authority ensure everyone knows who the ‘go to’ person is on a specific issue for complex or big issues. It also is about clarity on the decisions able to be made by your people as they work in the process – clear delegations. This makes for smoother and quicker decision-making.
  14. Build a culture of openness where anyone can – and should raise or flag problems. People should feel safe when raising issues and expect that the best person suited to take on an issue does so.
  15. Get the decisions right. Build consensus – but implement rapidly.
  16. Develop and improve continuously, by never sitting back and thinking that the journey is over.

Lean critiques

The critiques of Lean are summarised as (Hines et al., 2004):

  • lack of consideration for human factors
  • lack of strategic perspective (at least until recently)
  • relative inability to cope with variability
  • Lean means laying off people
  • Lean is only for manufacturing
  • Lean only works in certain environments – but it is more than manufacturing process design (a strategic approach).

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