Tuesday, December 08, 2009

What is Lean?

What seems like an easy, simple question may turn out rather difficult and complex to answer. If we are to embrace the lean approach isn’t it critical that we understand what it is we are embracing? If we don’t agree on what is lean, how do we know what action to take in becoming lean, determine if we are making progress and align everyone in the same direction?

Wouldn’t our definition of lean be important in a lean transformation? Determining scope, objectives, metrics?

If we asked the lean experts, consultants, practitioners, the CEO’s or our shop floor associates, what would be their answer? I bet each person we ask would give us a different answer. It seems to me that our answer to this question is highly dependent on our experiences on the subject. Our understanding on lean is formed by many factors including the influence of others, what we are told, what we read, along with our personal hands on experiences. In our mind, we collect all these inputs to formulate our viewpoint of lean.

Some would answer that lean is a set of tools to identify and eliminate waste. Waste (muda) elimination is the prime focus to shorten the leadtime from customer order to receipt of cash. Head count reduction and cost cutting can become the face of lean for many.

Others would answer that lean is improving the flow or smoothing work by eliminating unevenness (mura). Value stream maps will lead us to the promised land of the perfect work flow.

Another answer would be to simply focus on making all jobs easier and better by eliminating overburden (muri). Perhaps we think automation is the key to making jobs easier and we get the added bonus of head count reduction.

Some may say that we need to focus on all three (waste elimination, unevenness and overburden) together.

Another prospective is the only making what the customer needs, when the customer needs it, in the quantity the customer needs using minimal resources of manpower, material and machinery. This is the classic just-in-time thinking.

Some would say that instead of describing lean as a production system, it is better to describe it as either a business system or enterprise system. This is the beginning thoughts of a whole system approach to becoming lean. From there we could expand our thoughts to the entire supply chain including our customers, our suppliers, our supplier’s suppliers, etc. along with all transactional processes included.

Added to the mix is the focus on people development (we build people), quality focus, safety focus, problem solving, scientific thinking, long term thinking, A3 thinking, morale, kaizen events, kaizen mindset, lean accounting, new product development, contribution to society, customer focus, being flexible, being agile, being nimble and so on.

Beyond this we still have the culture and leadership of the company to consider.

With all these difference prospectives on what is lean, is it any wonder why so many stumble, struggle and eventually fail in becoming “lean”?

And would this also affect our opinion on what is not lean? Would this indeed influence our opinion on an individual’s knowledge of lean and determine how we rate a company’s leanness?

Is leanness measured only in results or does it included how we achieve results? Does the speed of getting the results impact our measure of leanness? Do we measure leanness on the number of lean tools being used? Let’s see, 5-S check, Kanban check, Regular kaizen events check, A3 no, TPM no, VSM no, (add as many tools to your checklist as your experience tells you)….sorry you are not lean.

Maybe we make things too complex and the answer is really simple.

What’s your viewpoint on what is lean and does it affect your effort on becoming lean?


Mark Welch said...

Ah Grosshoppa... If being lean is more about asking right questions than providing right right answers, then you a Masta!!! (Yes, I did love Kung Fu in the early '70's.)

Seriously, I'd have to say so much of what you said are elements of lean, but for me, personally, the simpler put, the better. So for me the definition is, "Providing value as perceived by the customer in the least wasteful way." However, there is no simple way to achieve it.

Good post, Mike.

Unknown said...

I like Mark's definition, but with a slight modification: "Providing increased value to the customer in a less wasteful way." Only because lean is continuous improvement-you never get there.

Rick Foreman said...

I think you have listed many reasons as to why lean can get a bad name by many looking into the lean biosphere. For us it truy entails the pursuit of excellence through continuous improvement in providing customer value. All excellence questions. I like the word continuous improvement because our organizational culture change is focused on improving. Sometimes the "lean" word can be somewhat mystical and confusing to those on the administrative side of our efforts. Thanks for lean reflection.

Anonymous said...

Mike, I would say all what you said defines lean. There is a time and place for everything. System needs are dynamic if you are continually improving. So the degree of which you might apply one or more varies. For me the bottom line is always the customer, and I would keep it simple to make sure the customer is satisfied or awed. And once one method is exhausted try another.

Rob said...

For me Lean is about a passion for value-added perfection, an attitude and empowerment of all personnel so that their behaviour positively influences product and service quality. I've got a post coming up on Leansigma.com on 28 December where I ask, can the philosophy, systems, disciplines, policies and tools of lean manufacturing be reduced to one word? Bottom-line: it's tougher than you think!

Jeff Hajek said...

I think many people get the 'how' confused with the 'what'. The tools and methods will change over time, but the consistent theme is that Lean is a quest to reduce waste and flow increasing value to the customer faster.
Good topic--next time, though, you might want to try something simpler, like 'What is leadership?' or 'What is the secret to happiness?'.
Jeff Hajek

Brian Buck said...

Excellent post Mike. Very thought provoking.

It made me question what the board of directors think Lean is. I wonder how people on the front line of my organization would define Lean. Do all of us in the Kaizen Promotion Office have a shared definition?

I think Lean is a set of principles to optimaly improve organizations and a basis for effective leadership.

Steve Halpin said...

Hi Mark,

An interesting question.
Many managers often embark on the lean journey as a way to cut costs. At some stage the workers feel like turkeys voting for Christmas.
The real goal of lean should be to grow the business by identifying value that the customer is willing to pay for.
As everyone says, this sounds easy but you have to work hard at it every day.