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Lean Thinking… in all its forms


Lean ThinkingLean is an addictive drug.

But I’m not talking about the nasty mixture of cough syrup and soda that is hooking young Americans on codeine and promethazine.

I’m talking about the current favourite method for reducing corporate corpulence, which has been popular for nearly twenty years.

But don’t for one moment think Lean is a passing fad. Its day will come, for sure. But its pedigree is a rich one. And whatever will replace it must share many of its aspirations and principles, just as Lean shares much with TQM*, BPR* and much that has gone before.

Why Do We Need Lean Thinking?

The two key tenets of Lean Thinking are not new. Indeed, they are as old as commerce. You could even see them as the twin pillars of profitable business.

Organisations should add value

One of the core principles of Lean Thinking is identification of every activity that adds value, and reduction of everything that does not. So, the first challenge of a lean initiative is to define:

  • what value means, for your organisation
  • in whose eyes should the assessment of value take place

For simple commercial enterprises, the customer’s perspective reigns. For governmental organisations, it is the public, or clients of the services the organisation offers.

Organisations should strive for efficiency

Lean is also a means to reduce waste, and therefore cost. But if you do it well, you do so without sacrificing value-creating capabilities like:

  • quality
  • productivity
  • speed to market

We have covered this topic of waste in our earlier article, Muda: The 7 Wastes of Lean.

Muda is wasted effort. Lean also aims to reduce waste created through

  • Overload arising from unreasonable requirements: ‘Muri
  • Inconsistent approaches and the waste arising from the uneven work load it creates: ‘Mura

What is Lean Thinking?

Lean thinking is a systematic approach to structuring an organisation’s activities. The goals are to increase the benefits (or value) the organisation delivers, while reducing waste.

The ideal objective of Lean Thinking is:

  • Maximum value

  • Zero waste

Lean Thinking is Everywhere

The concepts of Lean Thinking started in automobile manufacturing (at Toyota), so Lean Production, or Lean manufacturing, is the most mature application of the ideas. But they have proved powerfully compelling. Now you will find lean thinking in just about every area of organised human endeavour. Some of the places where it has been most widely adopted include:

  • Services
  • Government
  • Product Development
  • Six Sigma
  • Project management – here’s a video I made about Lean Project Management

A Short History of Lean Thinking

I suspect the first real origins of Lean can be seen in the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, when he founded the idea of Scientific Management. He sought to reduce workload, to maximise productivity. And the principles he championed were an important feature of early production lines, like those of Henry Ford. There we can see the first systematic use of concepts like process flow and Just in Time.

But the lean management philosophy owes most to the Toyota Production System (TPS). This was primarily the work of Taiichi Ohno.  At its heart was:

  • The elimination of the seven wastes (‘ Muda’)
  • Producing components just in time for their use (‘JIT’)
  • Building quality in each part of a process (‘Jidoka’)
  • Creating one continuous process (the ‘Value Stream’)

John Krafcik wrote an article for his Master’s thesis, in 1988. It was called ‘Triumph of the Lean Production System’, and introduced the term Lean Thinking.

Krafcik worked at MIT, and three other academics there continued his research. James P. Womack, Daniel Jones, and Daniel Roos wrote ‘The Machine That Changed the World’ (US|UK). Later, Womack and Jones went on to write the massive best-seller, ‘Lean Thinking’ (US|UK).

There are Lean Enterprise Institutes all over the world now, that promote lean ideas. In 1997 Womack established the Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) in the United States. In 2003 Jones established the Lean Enterprise Academy in the UK.


How to do Lean: Some of the Thinking Tools

Regular readers of Pocketblog will be familiar with many of the thinking tools and ideas that power lean initiatives. The long list includes:

  • Muda (above)
  • Gemba (the place where inefficiency happens)
  • 5S (being organised and tidy)
  • Kaizen (Continuous improvement)
  • Kanban (Activity flow and Just in Time)
  • Poka-yoke (Error-proofing)


What is Your experience of Lean Thinking?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.

To learn more…

The Improving Efficiency Pocketbook is full of tips, techniques, and tools to improve your operation and reduce costs, by increasing efficiency and eliminating waste.


TQM: Total Quality Management

BPR: Business Process Re-engineering

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