What Is Lean?

What is Lean?

What Is Lean?

Lean is a way of thinking that eliminates waste and makes life continually better. Consultants and engineers make it very complicated, but the heart and spirit of lean is actually this simple. There are lots of tools and lots of jargon, but don’t be confused! It is really as simple as this:

  1. Lean is a way of thinking…
  2. …that eliminates waste…
  3. …and makes life continually better.

What do we mean by that? Well, continue reading on!

Lean is a way of thinking…

First and foremost, lean is a way of thinking—a philosophy and way of life. It is not limited to the workplace and is far more than a collection of tools. Lean is first something in your mind and in your heart as you learn to perceive the difference between value and waste.

Many companies fail to “become lean” because they use it as a shortcut to success—greater profit, lower costs, better quality, and faster delivery. But lean cannot be treated in this way. It will produce those results, but only if you focus on the process.

Lean is not a cutting-edge secret to success—or if it is, it shouldn’t be treated that way! It is a way of thinking that never ends and takes time to learn and embrace.

…that eliminates waste…

The central idea of lean is eliminating waste. Waste is the unnecessary motions, delays, problems, and other issues that bog down our processes and frustrate our lives. There are seven traditional categories of waste which you can learn about here.

These wastes are everywhere and easily consume 90% of everything we do. This means we have a large opportunity for improvement! Of all the tools known to lean, they all remove waste in one way or another.

…and makes life continually better.

When we eliminate waste we eliminate frustration, defects, problems, and even customer dissatisfaction. The activity we are engaged in actually begins to “flow” when waste is removed, and this brings great satisfaction to everyone involved.

A key phrase coined by Paul Akers is to “fix what bugs you.” The phrase works because waste is inseparable with the things that bug us. Have you ever been bugged by not being able to find your keys? How about a tedious process at work? Or maybe you’ve had the unhappy experience of running out of toilet paper. All these frustrations are the outcomes of waste. When we learn to see and solve the problem of waste, life just gets better.

Not only that, but there’s an inherent satisfaction in knowing that you’ve improved something, made it better, and eliminated a pesky waste-bug!

Therefore, lean benefits society at large. It makes life better for you, for those around you, and of course for customers.

What Else Is Lean?

If you ask us what lean is in one sentence, we’ll point you to the top of this page. Of course there are many other facets of lean culture and practice, but be careful not to get distracted by these miscellaneous ideas! Lean truly is a way of thinking that eliminates waste and makes life continually better.

That being said, lean is also other things.

Lean is a management system.

Even though the management system can be simple, it’s important to recognize that “becoming lean” requires that management makes changes.

Some of these changes come in the form of management structures like a daily meeting, daily 3S, and daily improvement periods (in the case of 2 Second Lean). At other companies these structures may look like simple visual management boards, 5S, and more.

Other changes come in the form of new management practices. Instead of having a results-focus, management must learn a process-focus. Instead of leaving employees out of touch with problem-solving and decisions (and therefore putting managers out of touch with reality), management must learn to become humble, engage others, and grow people.

Indeed, a “lean leader” is a rare individual.

Lean is a collection of tools.

The list of tools and terms is extensive (for better or worse): 5S, 3S, kaizen, TPM, heijunka, poka-yoke, andon, jidoka, just-in-time, OEE, PDCA, standardized work, takt time, VSM, visual controls, SMED, hoshin kanri, and more.

Don’t be distracted (or overwhelmed) by the list! Although the tools of lean are given great attention by others, you will never become lean if all you see in it is a collection of tools. Lean is very much an integrated system and a way of life!

Lean tools are inseparable from lean management systems and lean culture. If you divorce them, the tools will lack support and fail.

Lean is a culture.

Remember how we said “lean is a way of thinking?” Well, because lean is a philosophy and way of thinking, it also is a culture. A high-performing lean organization has a rich and deep lean culture. It affects how you think, how you see your world, and how you act.

“Becoming lean” means to change the very fabric and DNA of your organization (or yourself). This is why lean is hard. It’s easy to pick up the tools and change a process; it’s much harder to learn a new way of life and change yourself.

Therefore, the best lean maniacs out there are humble people who focus first on continuously changing themselves.

By the way, if you want to change your culture, the secret is in your senior leadership and in adopting a new management system. It’s not in the tools!

To Learn More…

If you want to learn more about lean we recommend visiting our resource list!

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