Definition of Lean

Depending on your background, you might have a very different definition of Lean than someone in another industry. Technically, you could both be right. Lean, in its purest sense, is a methodology that aims to organize human activities to deliver more value while eliminating waste.

There are several versions of Lean in the world today. Each of these sub-disciplines pays some regard to Lean principles, but some are more closely aligned with the original intention of Lean than others. Keep reading to learn about these Lean definitions and what they might mean for your Lean practice.

A Brief History of Lean

Lean thinking was developed by Japanese automaker Toyota in the mid-20th century, in a method called the Toyota Production System (TPS). TPS allowed Toyota to deliver more innovative products than its competitors with faster speed and less waste. Its competitors had no choice but to follow suit — and so Lean manufacturing was born, first in the auto industry, then spreading to manufacturing at large.

By the end of the century, businesses across the globe were trying to find ways to apply Lean to their industries to achieve similar results. This resulted in several manifestations of what we would now loosely refer to as Lean, including Total Quality Management, Theory of Constraints, Just-in-Time, and Six Sigma. These versions of Lean were generally prescriptive, structured, and focused on the elimination of waste. Over time, the definition of Lean has evolved, to become more of a flexible methodology than a regimented set of practices.

It’s important to understand how you define Lean, because this impacts how you practice Lean, how Lean impacts your business, and how you define Lean management and its role in your business.

TPS and the Evolution of Lean Definitions

The main objectives of the Toyota Production System (TPS) were to remove overburden (muri) and inconsistency (mura) from the system and to eliminate waste (mura). These objectives work together to create a system optimized for value delivery. This is based on the idea that a well-designed process (with little inconsistency) delivers a more predictable, consistent product. It’s critical that this process is flexible (not overburdened), since an overburdened system just creates more waste — which leads to less value and more inconsistency in the product.

In the process of applying Lean to knowledge work, the definition of Lean has evolved from the original application in manufacturing in two distinct ways. The first defines waste literally, and applies Lean manufacturing principles in a literal sense to justify eliminating this definition of waste. The second defines waste as anything that wouldn’t add value to the customer, which can come in many tacit forms. It uses an evolved definition of Lean principles to focus more on improving the flow of value to the customer through continuous improvement, rather than on the strict elimination of waste.

The Old Lean

Drawing influence from Lean manufacturing, the goal of this first definition of Lean is operational excellence, which is achieved by eliminating waste. This interpretation of Lean is more of a set of practices than a principled methodology. Most applications of Lean using this definition use a prescriptive set of rules, tools, and certifications to practice Lean.

This definition of Lean gave Lean thinking a bad reputation in the 80s and 90s, since it was mostly used to justify relentless cost cutting. The Western manufacturers that began using this type of Lean were incredibly inefficient, especially when compared to their Japanese rivals — so their practice of Lean immediately resulted in the cutting of jobs, departments, positions, and capabilities.

Although still practiced in companies around the world, this type of Lean is losing favor — in the process of reducing variance and inefficiency, many organizations find themselves losing innovation, and thereby agility, along the way.

The New Lean

Another application of Lean has evolved in recent years as a way to deliver value to customers at a sustainably fast pace, with a respect to organizational health lacking in the “old” definition of Lean. The goal of this practice of Lean is continuous improvement, not operational excellence. It’s about continuously optimizing the entire system for the highest level of value delivery, based on what is valued by the market at any specific point in time. This approach is more aligned with the intention of Lean principles, and takes a flexible, unstructured perspective on Lean thinking.

The new Lean addresses each of the three objectives of TPS (eliminating overburden, inconsistency, and waste), through the two pillars of Lean: respect for people and continuous improvement.

Respect for people means that we operate under the idea that people want to do their best work. We respect them by allowing them to focus, giving them the autonomy to make decisions, and by not overburdening them. By giving people this respect, we enable them to do their best work — and give them the ability to deliver the most value to the customer.

Waste, in this definition of Lean, is defined as anything that wouldn’t be valued by the customer. In knowledge work, waste can be anything from context switching, to unnecessary meetings, to excessive processing of work. The new Lean aims to relentlessly eliminate these kinds of waste, in an effort to continuously improve the flow of value to the customer.

There are no strict rules, tools, or certifications involved in this form of Lean. The goal is to practice continuous improvement and respect for people, and by doing so, continue to build an organization that’s optimized for value delivery.

This definition of Lean requires a new definition of Lean management, as well. The way we define Lean management requires a shift in mindset: from that of a commanding role, to that of a teacher and coach. Lean leaders must lead gently, by example, ensuring that Lean principles are being applied with the right goal in mind: To sustainably maximize the delivery of value to the customer. Learn more about how we define Lean management here.

Learn More

This post provided an overview of the two main applications of Lean in business. To learn more about Lean thinking, we recommend these excellent resources:

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