Lean Thinking: The Foundation of Lean Practice
What is Lean Thinking?
Lean thinking is a term used to describe the process of making business decisions in a Lean way. It’s regarded as the foundation of any Lean practice. Of course, there is no single definition of Lean – however, there are a few concepts that guide the majority of Lean practices in the world today. We refer to that collection of concepts as Lean thinking.
Lean thinking can be broken down into these seven Lean principles that guide Lean thinking in businesses today. These principles are:
- Optimize the Whole
- Eliminate Waste
- Create Knowledge
- Build Quality In
- Deliver Fast by Managing Flow
- Defer Commitment
- Respect People
For an in-depth explanation of how these principles play out in organizations, see our page on Lean business development.
Origins of Lean Thinking
The origins of Lean thinking began on the manufacturing floor of Japanese automaker Toyota. Toyota developed a system of visual cues, decision-making practices, and guiding principles that was called the Toyota Production System (TPS). TPS is generally regarded as the origin of all Lean thinking, and is still used widely today to guide modern Lean manufacturing practices. Learn more about the origins and history of Lean thinking in this article.
Principles of Lean Thinking
Optimize the Whole
Lean thinking teaches us that the whole is worth more than the sum of its parts. In order to create the most value as an organization, with our limited resources, we have to optimize across our value stream. Of course, this requires us to understand how value flows through our organizations – which is easier said than done. We usually recommend that organizations undergo a value stream mapping exercise to get started, and then begin to find ways to optimize all activities across the organization.
Waste in manufacturing (where Lean thinking was developed) looks quite different than in knowledge work, and the way we identify waste is different, as well. The majority of the value – and the waste — in knowledge work is found inside the heads of the people doing the work, not on the shop floor. Waste in knowledge work can be context switching, inefficient information systems, poor tooling, bad communication practices across teams, etc. Anything that the customer would not willingly pay for is defined as waste in Lean thinking.
The Lean thinking concept of Create Knowledge is fairly simple: In order to scale, we have to build learning and teaching into our organizations, so that more people can add more value in more ways. Of course, to do this, we have to create environments that allow space for learning.
Lean thinking supports the notion that we have to devote as much focus to improvement efforts as we do to project work. We create knowledge, and thereby improve, by taking the time to have retrospectives, hold team meetings to discuss how work is being done, and taking the time to cross-train our employees. By creating knowledge throughout our organizations, we’re able to deliver faster with more value.
Build Quality In
In order to create a system that is built for growth, we need to error-proof our systems as much as possible. To do this, Lean organizations standardize and automate those things that are tedious, repeatable, or prone to human error, so they can focus the skills and efforts of their employees on innovation, growth, and continuous improvement. Building quality in looks different depending on your industry, but the general concept is the same: Create a system that is built for growth, by building a solid foundation.
Deliver Fast by Managing Flow
At the core of Lean thinking is the idea that focus produces higher quality work. When our environment isn’t designed to help us focus, we move slower and slower than we would if we all had fewer things on our plates.
Think of it like traffic on a road: If that road is at 90% capacity, it’s basically at a standstill. If it’s at 50% capacity, each car will reach its destination sooner — because there are fewer cars on the road.
How does this apply to knowledge work? It means we have to be more intentional about the way we work. Lean thinking encourages teams to visualize, manage, and continuously optimize their flow. If the goal is to deliver value to the customer at a sustainably fast pace, then we have to have control over how work gets done — we have to manage flow. Learn more about flow here.
Businesses often feel an artificial pressure to plan, make decisions, and complete work far in advance of when that specific value is needed by the market. This leads to a lack of flexibility that is necessary to continuously deliver value to customers.
The Lean thinking principle of Defer Commitment encourages organizations to make decisions at the last responsible moment, in order to continuously make decisions based on the most up-to-date, relevant, comprehensive information.
The reasoning behind this ties back to the concept of eliminating waste: If we plan and complete work before it’s needed, then how do we know it will still be relevant to the market when we release it? If we complete work before we truly understand the needs of the market, we could spend time, money, and energy on work that’s undesirable to the market — which then leaves us with the choice of either releasing something undesirable, or accepting that work as waste. Deferring commitment gives us the agility to continuously deliver value.
Lean thinking reminds us that the majority of the value created in organizations is in the heads of employees — and that in order to retain those employees, we have to create environments for employees to do their best work. Retaining quality talent is essential for sustainable value delivery.
The Lean interpretation of “respect” includes, of course, being a kind, courteous, and thoughtful employee — but it goes deeper than that. Lean organizations respect their employees by giving them what they need to do good work. They create environments where the best ideas can be heard. They encourage employees to pursue educational opportunities. They give employees the autonomy to make decisions based on what is best for the customer.
To learn more about how to practice Lean thinking, we recommend these excellent resources: