001 – What is Lean Manufacturing?

Ep. 001 What is Lean Manufacturing



Welcome to the inaugural episode of the Lean Smarts Podcast! I’m your host Daniel Crawford and this is the show where I share simple and actionable lean tips and advice for starting, expanding, and leading a lean life, and a lean organization. In this first episode I’m going to introduce you to lean manufacturing by answering seven questions:

  1. What is lean and who is it for?
  2. What is the origin and history of lean?
  3. What is the goal of lean?
  4. What are some common lean tools?
  5. How does someone get started with Lean?
  6. What factors are necessary to be successful with lean?
  7. How do I learn more about Lean?

I will be naming resources and making references throughout the cast, but you can always check out the show notes online for easy access to them. Just go to leansmarts.com/001 to find this episode’s notes.

What is Lean and Who is it For?

Lean manufacturing is a body of knowledge used to continuously improve processes and deliver value to customers. It has a lot of overlap with industrial engineering and quality engineering, but it is not only for engineers and it is not only for manufacturing. Lean is for everyone and it affects and involves everyone–regardless of industry.

The first reason that lean is for everyone that all of us participate in processes every day of our lives. The moment I wake up in the morning, get out of bed, eat breakfast, brush my teeth, put on my shoes, and get dressed I am engaging in a process. If my kitchen is 20 yards from my bedroom, or if I’m out of inventory of food in the refrigerator, or my shoes are disorganized and one is lost, my process is going to be very time consuming, low quality, and frustrating.

To make the process more “lean” I would apply very simple concepts–many of which are rooted in industrial or quality engineering–to continuously improve my morning routine and deliver value. If getting ready in the morning is fast, effortless, and frustration-free, then I’m on the right track.

This same idea can be applied to any industry or area of life. Manufacturing, education, government, logistics, healthcare–you name it! Everything we do in life can be understood as a process that can be improved to deliver better value. And so lean applies!

The second reason that lean is for everyone is that all of us engage with customers. In the example I gave of getting ready in the morning, the first obvious customer is me. I am the customer. If the process sucks, I’ll deliver poor customer service. I won’t be fed, I won’t smell nice, I won’t look nice, and I’ll won’t be happy. That’s a recipe for a bad morning! But even worse, if I’m late to work I’ll disappoint another customer: my employer.

There is a customer relationship in every interaction you have with another human being–even if that person is yourself. It may not even involve the exchange of money. Sometimes it’s the exchange of information, services, raw materials, a piece of paper, medicine, or something else. Either way, somebody out there needs something and you’re trying to deliver what they want. That makes them your customer and requires that you are in the business of customer service.

So lean is for everyone. It is not limited to manufacturing. And we are participating with lean ideas every day whether we like it or not: because if you’re breathing you’re engaged in processes, and if you’re trying to help someone in this world–even yourself–you’re involved in customer service.

If you’ve been waiting for a definition for lean then I’ll give you one. There are actually a lot of definitions out there, which can make this topic confusing. There’s so many definitions for primarily two reasons:

  1. Lean is a lot of things, and it’s hard to define it in simple terms.
  2. Lean is influenced by lots of engineers and consultants with their own viewpoint and agenda.

But because we celebrate simplicity at Lean Smarts, I’m going to give you my simple definition.

Lean is a way of thinking that eliminates waste and makes life continually better.

We’ll unpack this more in this episode and in the ones to come.

What is the Origin and History of Lean?

This will be very brief, but lean is primarily derived from Toyota and the Toyota Production System, also called TPS. Now, it’s true that Toyota studied Henry Ford in the United States. They definitely learned a lot from him. But as Toyota evolved in the 1900s it created a production system the world had never seen before. By the 1980s they were absolutely crushing other carmakers in terms of speed, quality, and cost. The world started paying more attention and realized Toyota was doing things very differently. After a while the term “lean” was born and used to describe Toyota’s unconventional approach to manufacturing.

There’s one thing I should make clear at this point in time before moving onward. Lean is a generalized body of knowledge–most of which is based on Toyota. There are as many versions of lean as there are people practicing it–for better or for worse. On the contrary, there is only one TPS on earth and it’s the Toyota Production System. It’s the production system, practices, tools, and methods unique to Toyota. No one else can claim TPS. We can learn from them, and what we learn is typically added to the lean body of knowledge, but TPS and lean are not necessarily synonyms.

What is the Goal of Lean?

People could answer this question in many ways and state that there are many goals of lean. But the primary goal of lean is the perfect flow of value. So in four words the goal of lean is the flow of value.

The idea is conceptually simple, and we can use the getting ready for work in the morning example to illustrate it. Getting ready for work isn’t complicated. The finished product–or value–is to have food in your tummy, good hygiene, and a presentable appearance. How much time does that truly take?

If you have a disorganized home environment and are stumbling around finding a matching sock, a laundered shirt, or a clean fork or spoon, you might take a while. If your kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom are separated by hallways and other rooms, it may take you time to walk back and forth getting ready.

This is a simple example, but the concept should be apparent: there is a lot of wasted effort and activity that is interrupting the flow of value in your getting-ready-for-work process. The actual time spent swallowing food, brushing teeth, and tying your shoes (which is the value-added content) is likely a small fraction of the 20 or 30 minutes spent getting ready in the morning.

The goal of lean is to make the value-added steps flow uninterrupted by waste.

If you remember Jeannie in the old show “I Dream of Jeannie,” or a replicator in the show “Star Trek,” in a perfect ideal lean state a customer should be able to say or think, “I want a car,” and *poof* the car appears. But instead (in reality), it takes days, weeks, or months for a product or service to be created and delivered due to all of the waste in the production process.

The goal of lean is to continuously improve the flow of value–often called the value stream–so that value can be delivered perfectly and immediately. And it does this by attacking and eliminating waste.

What are Some Common Lean Tools?

There are lots of lean tools that have been discovered and popularized over the years. When talking about these tools I like to call them artifacts, because if you visited a company on a weekend or when it is shut down you’d be able to find all these lean tools. You’d find artifacts like paper kanban cards, 5S’ed workplaces or checklists, workcells, andons, or mistake-proofing poka-yoke devices.

I’ve already named a few, and there are a lot more. But the point is, there are lots of lean tools talked about and used in industry. It’s easy to become enamored with each one you discover. But in time your goal should really be to deepen your ability to see and think like a lean thinker. Your goal should never be to simply copy someone else’s lean artifacts; instead, your focus should be on learning scientifically and continuously improving your organization and practice.

Regardless, I’ll name a few of the most commonly known lean tools.

First is 5S. 5S stands for five disciplines that all start with the letter S: sort, straighten, sweep, standardize, and sustain. It will make your workplace look immaculate, but it’s not about looks. It’s about allowing work to flow and about detecting problems.

Next are the seven wastes of lean. These are seven categories of wasteful activities that don’t add value to a product or service. Lean wages war on these wastes to remove them from the value-creation process. They are over production, processing, transportation, motion, defects, inventory, and waiting. Some people add an eighth waste for unused human genius, representing the wasted potential of unengaged employees.

Another common tool is value stream mapping. This tool looks at the stream of activities in a product or product family and graphically represents them on paper. It identifies problems and waste on an organizational or enterprise level and can be used strategically to dramatically improve performance by focusing on bottlenecks.

Lastly, I’ll name a few more in quick succession. There’s kanban cards to control and schedule production. There’s total productive maintenance—a complex program to keep equipment effective and productive. There’s poka-yoke devices, or simple mistake-proofing devices. There’s andon lights to shut down production and identify problems. There’s also standard work, workcells, one piece flow, visual controls, leveled production, and more.

There’s no way to cover them all in this episode but this at least gives you a quick sampling of what’s out there.

How Does Someone Get Started with Lean?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. A lot of organizations start with doing 5S. Many others use value stream mapping to focus their efforts. Still more hire a consultant to determine what to do.

The truth is I can’t tell you or even recommend to you what to do, or at least not without deeply understanding your organization and it’s current state of people, processes, and products.

Lean is a comprehensive idea. The starting place for each organization will be unique and it will be more sophisticated then copy-and-pasting a lean tool.

One thing is for sure though: you don’t want to start doing lean blindly. Educate yourself as much as possible and get yourself around other businesses doing lean. You may or may not want to hire a consultant. But if you don’t, get other relationships with people or neighboring businesses with expertise. You will expedite your learning, practicing, and troubleshooting by doing so.

There is one somewhat off-the-shelf approach to lean. It’s not the complete package, but it’s a noteable contribution to the world of lean, and that’s 2 Second Lean by Paul Akers. I’ll talk about it more in other episodes, or you can learn more about it online.

If you’re asking the question “how to get started with lean” as an individual and not as an organization, then I have some simple answers for you.

First, read or listen to 2 Second Lean by Paul Akers, because he makes Lean simple and applies it to home and everyday life. Secondly, just start fixing one thing that bugs you every day. Eliminate the struggle in life and make your life more simple and more lean.

What Factors are Necessary to be Successful with Lean?

This is an interesting and worthwhile question. My answers in this episode are not scientific but based on my person observations, research, and experiences. For now I’ll boil it down to three things. You’ve got to be humble, hungry, and smart with people.

Humility is key because pride, defensiveness, or stubbornness is a barrier to continuous improvement. You cannot improve yourself or your organization if you’re blinded by ego. So if you want to keep getting better, you’ve got to continually shed your ego.

Hunger is crucial as well because you’ve got to have an appetite for learning. Continuous improvement is akin to continuous learning. If you’re hungry to learn what lean is and take your lean education seriously, you’ll become more effective.

The last I’ll say is that you’ve got to be smart with people, or “people-smart.” Lean involves people and often overlaps with the science of change management. To lead people and change well, you’ve got to be people smart. I often tell people I love lean because it’s the collision of people and processes. That intersection is fun, rewarding, and challenging. But to handle it well you need to work well and smart with people.

How do I Learn more about Lean?

Well, there’s a lot of resources out there for your lean education in many different media. If you’re a podcast nerd, keep listening to our podcast! When it comes to books, try The Toyota Way, or 2 Second Lean, or Lean Thinking to name a few. But just keep reading, too. Don’t assume you’ve seen it all after reading one book. For online resources or video training, we’ve got a few free or paid courses at Lean Smarts. Definitely check out our 5S course and Eight Wastes of Lean course if they are new to you. You can also reach out to your local community to find lean organizations in your area. Paul Akers has a lean hub you can visit online to identify a few as well. To make it easy locating all these resources I’ve named, visit the show notes for this episode online for links. Just go to www.leansmarts.com/001/.

Okay, well that’s it for this ambitious inaugural episode at Lean Smarts! In the next few episodes I’ll continue by introducing more fundamental lean ideas and tools. And hey, if you’ve enjoyed today’s episode don’t forget to subscribe or share the cast with a friend!