Sunday, November 15, 2009

What is Lean?

A reader studying quality management and researching Lean recently asked me, what is Lean really about? In realizing that I have never fully defined my view of Lean on this blog I thought I should.

Let me preface this by saying it is difficult to succinctly define Lean in way that would capture the breadth and depth of knowledge. There are volumes and volumes of written text on many aspects and concepts of Lean. I have been studying in this field for a dozen years and my learning will never be done.

Lean is all about respecting people while eliminating Muri (overburdening), Mura (unevenness), and Muda (non value added activity) in all business processes. It is a philosophy which embodies a manufacturing culture of continuous improvement based on setting standards aimed at eliminating waste through participation of all employees.

The originators of Lean include thinkers like Henry Ford but its most notable and well studied collection of thinkers comes from Toyota. The Toyota Production System (TSP) is comprised of two pillars being JIT and Jidoka. The JIT concept aims to produce and deliver the right parts, in the right quantity, at the right time using the minimum necessary resources. JIT includes but is not limited to concepts of flow, takt time, pull via kanban, and leveling (heijunka). Jidoka is all about building in quality at the process and separating man from machine. The goal is not to run continuously but to stop running automatically at the first sign of an abnormal condition. Jidoka concepts include standardized work, mistake proofing (poka-yoke), process control, and problem solving (six sigma techniques).

The Five Fundamental Principles:

1) Specify Value – End-use customer view

2) Indentify Value Stream – Activities that create value

3) Flow – Make value flow

4) Pull – Respond to customer demand

5) Perfection – Zero waste

The Lean Rules-in-Use:

1) Activity Rule – Specify all work to content, sequence, timing, and outcome.

2) Connection Rule – Customer-supplier connections must be direct & unambiguous.

3) Pathway Rule – Pathways for product/service must be simple & direct.

4) Improvement Rule – Improvements are made using scientific method (PDCA) at place of activity (Gemba) under the guidance of a teacher (Sensei)

It is the endless pursuit of perfection which I refer to in the title of this blog “A Lean Journey: A Quest for True North”. True North is making 1 by 1, defect free, on demand, immediately, safely, and at no cost. It is the ideal target condition not easily achieved. It is approached by eliminating waste, the opposite of value. Value-added activities are those activities that transform materials or information, increase the form or function of products or services, and the customer wants. All other activities are wasteful; add no value; and consume resources, time, and space. The eight wastes are characterized as:




Non-utilized Resources/Talent




Excess Processing

This is only made possible by believing people are the cornerstone. You must engage all human resources and provide knowledge. These two elements are the key drivers to the speed of continuous improvement.

Lean is creating and implementing processes throughout the entire organization that are highly responsive and flexible to customer demand. Lean paves the way for delivery high quality products and services, at the right location, at the right time, all in a cost effective and profitable manner.

Here are some other resources for Lean definitions:

Mark Graban's Lean definition

Lean Enterprise Institute's lean definition page

Lean Learning Center's definition

Wikipedia's Lean definition

Toyota's Production System defined

Art of Lean's learning page

This is a post that I will continue to reflect on (hansei) and update throughout my Lean Journey.

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