Lean Principles 101
Lean is a business methodology, born of a manufacturing practice, that is transforming the world of knowledge work. Lean encourages a practice of evolutionary change, called continuous improvement, rooted in a fundamental respect for people. Unlike many business methodologies, Lean is not a prescriptive practice that comes with hard-and-fast rules, tools, and practices. Lean is a way of thinking, summarized by the seven Lean principles that will be outlined in this post.
These seven Lean principles can be applied to any team, in any organization, in any industry. Practicing Lean effectively is simply a matter of knowing how to apply Lean principles effectively in your environment. The challenge is knowing how to identify something properly — for example, being able to see that planning a piece of work months in advance may be considered waste, in a Lean sense.
When you identify something you’re doing or thinking that might not be Lean, use it as an opportunity to grow. Share it with your team. Share successes, but more importantly, discuss failures, too. This is how you practice continuous improvement in Lean. By sharing your learning with your team, you’re also demonstrating the Lean principle of Create Knowledge.
Read this page to learn the basics of the seven Lean principles. Refer back to this page when you’re facing a challenging decision, and you’re not sure of the “Lean thing” to do. Over time, you’ll begin to see how Lean thinking can guide you toward a healthier, more productive, more sustainable work environment.
The Seven Lean Principles
Every business represents a value stream — the sequence of activities required to design, produce, and deliver a product or service to customers. If our goal is to deliver as much value to our customers as quickly as possible, then we have to optimize our value streams to be able to do just that. To understand how to optimize our value streams, first we have to properly identify them. Learn more about value stream mapping here.
Lean thinking encourages this definition of waste: If your customer wouldn’t pay for it, it’s waste. Waste, in knowledge work, can be anything from context switching, to too much work in process, to time spent manually completing a task that could be automated. Lean thinkers are relentless about eliminating any process, activity, or practice that does not result in value for the customer.
As businesses grow, the limitations of homegrown systems expose themselves. Lean companies set themselves up for sustainable growth by practicing the Lean principle of Building Quality In. The concept is fairly simple: Automate and standardize any tedious, repeatable process, or any process that is prone to human error. This allows Lean companies to error-proof significant portions of their value streams, so they can focus their energy on creating value for their customers.
When a piece of work reaches your customer, it’s valuable. Until then, it isn’t. The Lean principle of Deliver Fast by Managing Flow is based on the idea that the faster we can deliver bits of value to our customers, the sooner we can begin to learn from customer feedback. The more we learn from our customers, the better able we are to give them exactly what they want. In order to deliver fast, we have to manage flow — by limiting work in process and maintaining a relentless focus on value delivery.
The Lean principle of Create Knowledge is related to the concept of Optimizing the Whole. A Lean organization is a learning organization — it grows and develops through analyzing the results of small, incremental experiments. In order to retain that information as an organization, the learning must be shared. The Lean principle of Create Knowledge says that Lean organizations have to provide the infrastructure to properly document and retain valuable learning.
Lean thinking is derived from the manufacturing philosophy of Toyota, which emphasized a just-in-time system of inventory management. The Lean principle of Defer Commitment says that Lean organizations should also function as just-in-time systems, waiting until the last responsible moment to make decisions. This allows Lean organizations to have the agility to make informed decisions, with the most relevant, up-to-date information available.
The success of any Lean initiative hinges upon one Lean principle: Respect People. Out of respect for the customer, we make decisions that will bring them the most value with minimal waste. Out of respect for our employees, we create environments that allow everyone to do their best work. Out of respect for our coworkers, we continuously strive to optimize our processes to allow everyone to deliver the most value they can provide.
To learn more about Lean principles, we recommend these excellent resources: