“What is Lean?” may seem a strange question to be asking 15 years after the approach gained recognition in manufacturing and began its progressive spread to other industries. But Lean has suffered from an identity crisis that isn’t over. And before it will deliver the promise companies put stock in, we need to clear about what Lean is—and what it is not.
Our introduction to Lean was framed as five key principles: define value, understand the value steam, eliminate waste, createflow, and seek perfection (Jim Womack, Lean Thinking, 1st edition, 1996). This was a solid and valuable perspective to start from.
In 2003, Jeffrey Liker deepened our understanding in what has become the “bible” of Lean, The Toyota Way. Here we learned that Lean wasn’t merely about principles and tools but that core practices played an essential role in transforming organizations. But, by then, the tools train had left the station, our paradigms had been formed, and many missed the key word in Liker’s subtitle, “14 Management Principles from the World’s Leading Manufacturer.”
Most organizations using Lean or a variation of Lean operate from the “improvement methodology” space. I, too, have been guilty of this in the past. But recognizing that Lean is an all-encompassing business management approach versus an improvement approach—and calling it that—is the key to helping everyone understand that you won’t become Lean by merely eliminating waste. You won’t become Lean by teaching a few people how to use PDSA to solve problems and make pretty A3 reports. And you won’t even become Lean by finallycorralling your leadership team and brow-beating them into supporting Lean activities. All of this work is for naught if leaders view Lean as an improvement methodology that should be handled by “improvement experts” – those black belts and Lean champions that are technically proficient but are largely unskilled in running a business.
Done well, Lean shifts how a company selects the goods and services it will offer, how it prices them, how it recruits employees to deliver value and support the delivery of value, and how it operates, etc. Lean is FAR more that process redesign, which is the simplistic place it often gets diminished to.
Words matter. The labels we attribute to complex and holisticconcepts sets the trajectory for how the thing we’re referring tois viewed by the world-at-large. And how the way we view things creates our own version of reality. What we need todecide—right here and right now—is that we’re no longer going to devalue Lean by referring to it as an improvement methodology.
Lean always has been and always will be a business management approach. Now let’s see if THAT gets your leaders’ attention.