What Is “Lean?”

I did a Google search on the terms [ lean manufacturing definition ]   . Here is a smattering of what I found on the first page of results. (I did not go on to the second page.)

On the lean.org site we get a page with about 10 paragraphs describing the general outcome, philosophy, and what it isn’t.

On a consultant’s web page we get a list of principles and terminology definitions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says “Lean manufacturing is a business model and collection of tactical methods that emphasize eliminating non-value added activities (waste) while delivering quality products on time at least cost with greater efficiency.”

Tooling U defines “lean manufacturing” like this: “An approach to manufacturing that seeks to reduce the cycle time of processes, increase flexibility, and improve quality. Lean approaches help to eliminate waste in all its forms.”

Another consultancy has a PDF of “Lean Sigma Definitions” that includes Lean Manufacturing or Lean Production: “the philosophy of continually reducing waste in all areas and in all forms; an English phrase coined to summarize Japanese manufacturing techniques (specifically, the Toyota Production

Let’s Rewind a Bit

What all of these definitions have in common is they are attempting to describe some kind of end state.

Over the last 10 years or so we (meaning those of us who are doing top drawer research) have put together a pretty comprehensive picture of how Toyota’s management systems are intended to work. (I say “intended to” because we are always dealing with an idealized Toyota. They have issues as well, just like everyone.)

What we seem to try to do is try to create a generic context-free definition of what Toyota is doing today.

But they didn’t start out that way. Everything they are, and do, evolved out of necessity as they struggled to figure out how to take the next step.

Toyota didn’t engineer it, so I don’t think it is something we can reverse engineer. Toyota evolved it organically. They applied a common mindset (a dedication to figuring things out) to a specific goal (ideal flow to the customer) in a specific set of conditions.

So What is “Lean?”

Mike Rother makes a really interesting attempt at resetting the definition of “lean” as being about the drive and the mindset that resulted in Toyota’s management system.

Give it a read, then let’s discuss below. (Since you are going to see it – when he sent it around for input, I passed along a thought which he has added verbatim in the last slide. Maybe that will spark a little more discussion.)


OK, are you back?

I like this because I think anyone who adopts the mindset that they (and I mean “they” as a true plural here) must take it upon themselves to figure out what they do not know, figure out how to learn it, figure out how to apply it, all in a relentless pursuit of perfect flow will end up with a nimble, empowering, relentlessly improving, formidably competitive team of people.

Focus on the process of learning, focus on the people, and keep them focused on the customer, and you’ll get there.

In my experience, the differentiator between organizations that “get there” and those who don’t comes down to the willingness to work hard to learn it themselves vs. wait for someone to tell them the answers.

Thoughts? Maybe we can take the “most comments” record away from the “Takt Time Cycle Time” post.  *smile*

10 Replies to “What Is “Lean?””

  1. I don’t think I like it. Your response hinted at my problem with it. I posted the slideshare in LinkedIn TPS Principles & Practice with the following response.
    It is definitely a better definition than many I have seen but I think it misses the target. In the slideshare it mentions that this definition “requires continuous improving and developing people’s improvement capability”. When I break the definition down, I don’t know if it does require those two things. To struggle is to constantly TRY to overcome a problem. It doesn’t mean that you do and it doesn’t mean that you will do it in a smart way. You can be in a permanent struggle without ever changing your mindset or developing new ideas.

    I kind of think that this definition comes from the wrong direction. It says that the struggle to flow value will “pull” the development of people. That feels a little bit like the old school mentality of implement the tools and the people side will come. I would rather define lean in terms of the people and “pull” the flow systems. For me, you start with Eiji Toyoda saying this: “A person’s life is an accumulation of time – just one hour is equivalent to a person’s life. Employees provide their precious hours of life to the company, so we have to use it effectively, otherwise, we are wasting their life.” If you have leaders that believe this, those leaders will be forced to eliminate all non-value added activities and the pursuit of flow will stem directly from that. The customer focus part of lean comes directly from the fact that a leader has to EFFECTIVELY use their employees time. To let an employee do anything other than work on what the customer wants is disrespectful. This is why whenever I have been asked to define lean in its simplest terms I boil Eiji’s words down into:

    Lean is respect for humanity.

  2. >Lean is respect for humanity.
    An interesting point.
    And here is where we get into the wordsmithing trap… because “respect” often has a very different meaning in common conversation than the way Eiji interpreted it. (I happen to agree with his interpretation.)

    Michael Balle put it well in The Lean Manager when he said (and I may get the quote partly wrong) “Respect doesn’t mean nice-nice.” I interpret his point as meaning that “respect” is being respectful enough to be clear about what is working, and what is not; and do so in a way that the person has an opportunity to improve himself in some way.

    But in our current business culture, without the baggage of these caveats, the default interpretation can result in dysfunctional behaviors like avoiding conflict; not being clear about the challenge; an unwillingness to teach or push (in a supportive way).

    I saw this myself a couple of weeks ago. A supervisor who clearly understands 1:1 flow, and can articulate all of the reasons why it is better, yet is reluctant to hold an expectation for it – and thus, doesn’t teach his people to see and solve the issues it surfaces. I suspect this is, at least partly, grounded in an unwillingness to “impose” something that he might have trouble explaining well – and so, out of “respect” he allows the team to underperform.

    We’re working on that. 😉

    The question I would have, then, is if we were to define “lean” as something that hinted at focusing people’s energy toward learning how to flow value to the customer, would we be meeting the “respect” part without losing anything?

  3. First of all. The definition I gave isn’t one I would publish in a dictionary or an online summary. It is the definition I give when I’m communicating verbally in a setting of question and answers. It’s an open ended definition (if that is possible…) and I am trying to incite follow up questions. I’m poking the bear a little bit. If somebody is asking me what lean is, then they are inviting me to put on my lean sensei hat and start grilling them with socratic questions. Giving them an answer that is too well defined doesn’t invite that conversation. I want that conversation. I love that conversation.

    I do think that you have to start from the perspective of purpose in defining lean however. Purpose starts with people. The purpose of any organization when you boil it down is to engage people in meaningful work that improves there livelihoods. Lean really is doing whatever it takes to increase the amount of time employees spend doing meaningful work. That’s respect. It’s also why “Lean is eliminating waste” is a definition I accept readily. I just don’t like that definition because it sounds negative instead of enriching.

    Where I get in trouble in some lean circles is I don’t think lean HAS to mean a focus on flow. 1to1 flow is the ideal state that Toyota recognized as the physical state that would coincide with 100% engagement in meaningful work. At some point in your journey, you are going to have to address flow to get to ideal. Of useful note however is the fact that you can have perfect 1to1 flow and still not be engaging people in meaningful work. That should tell you that a portion of your lean journey will have nothing to do with focusing on flow.

    For some organizations (or groups within the organization), flow might not be the first thing to focus on. In other organizations understanding that we have to improve flow is important but you have to work on it indirectly by focusing on stability of equipment. For me, flow is important but it isn’t what is most important. What is most important is engagement in problem solving toward an ideal state. The methods and systems used to get this engagement vary widely.

  4. “I do think that you have to start from the perspective of purpose in defining lean however.”

    I have to agree with Kris, that a definition is most effective when “pulled” by the intended purpose.

    Dictionary definitions are different from textbook definitions, which are different from quickie magazine article definitions which differ from conversational definitions. While none should contradict, each would be chosen to be effective in the situation at hand.

    Personally, I really like
    – Lean is respect for humanity.

    But I find
    – Lean is the permanent struggle to flow value to one customer.
    – Lean is the permanent struggle to learn how to flow value to one customer.
    quite good as well.

    And if I may commandeer a piece of a phrase from Toyota’s Lexus marketing department, let me add
    – Lean is the relentless pursuit of perfection.

    All of these definitions are likely to trigger further discussion (or at least deer-in-the-headlight confusion). And without any discussion each risks serious misinterpretation.

    More often than not, I’ll start a conversation with a historical/literal definition.
    – Lean is a name coined by researchers for the way Toyota tries to do things.


  5. That ‘permanent impermance’ speaks powerfully to me. A culture that switches people on to constantly acting on the system they are a part of in order to make things flow better is both lean and engaging.

    About the only thing I’d change in that definition of lean is to add something human and positive about finding joy in that challenge:

    “The permanent *joyful* struggle to flow value to one customer”

    Now where’s Rich Sheridan when you need him…

  6. “Perhaps I am biased, but I have always liked the following definition of Lean, first passed on to me from Prof Norman Faull (Lean Institutue Africa CEO) over 10 year’s ago:

    “Lean is a system for creating thinking people”

    Since then I have tried to understand what this system looks like, and it is one of the reasons I continue to research and follow an adapted, integrated model that includes Purpose, Process, People, Problem Solving and Planet. In my mind, this is a well-rounded approach to change.

    Rose, Founder of Thinking People (South Africa) PS I really enjoy your articles”

  7. Why does everyone insist on making this difficult. Lean is the shortest time between order and payment. There are many versions of how to get there, but everyone needs to choose their own path to the destination. THe principles are what they are and they are what makes it work, but they are not the definition. All the other fluff is muda.

    1. CNCPRGR –
      I don’t think people are making it difficult, but neither do I think that “shortest time between order and payment” describes Toyota’s entire corporate culture and the resulting management systems. Nor does it sufficiently universal to describe its application in cases more general than the specific application of businesses that take orders and receive payments.

      In the end, though, the simple fact that two people disagree means there *isn’t* a settled-upon definition, just opinions, so it is worth discussing with the objective of learning from others’ views.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.