What is Lean?

The term “lean” was used to describe the Toyota Production System in the late 1980s by a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), explained in the book called “The Machine That Changed the World.” Here is an important quote from the book…

Lean production, a term coined by IMVP research John Krafcik, is lean because it uses less of everything, compared with mass production. Half the human effort in the factory, half the manufacturing space, half the investment in tools, half the engineering hours to develop a new product in half the time. Also, it requires keeping far less than half the needed inventory on site, results in many fewer defects, and produces a greater and ever-growing variety of products.

Learn more about the history of Lean at the Lean.org website.

Essentially, lean is a continuous improvement and employee engagement program, combined into one. The goal is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste for the products and services that an organization provides to their customers and stakeholders. Instead of laying off workers to save money, lean companies use the freed up resources to provide more value to customers, which will improve the business in the long term.

Companies that fully embrace lean concepts and principles can experience the following benefits through rapid improvement events:

  • Inventory reduction (why is inventory and batching bad?)
  • Floor space reduction and increase in capacity
  • Improved product and service flow and speed through your organization
  • Increased customer satisfaction
  • Quality/defect reduction
  • Cost avoidance (fewer capital purchases, fewer new hires, smaller problems to resolve)
  • Reduced labor costs
  • Reduced overtime costs
  • Better employee engagement
  • Improved visual management in each area (cleaner and more organized work spaces)
  • Less stress and heroics (“firefighting”)
  • Better environmental performance

How to implement Lean in my company?

I’ll give you some high level steps you can follow:

  1. Pick a product or service that has customer complaints or seems to constantly struggle to meet goals
  2. Get feedback from customers and employees on these problems
  3. Go and see the entire process of steps that create the product or service
  4. Document the 8 forms of waste when the process doesn’t provide value to the customer, wastes time, isn’t done right the first time, or are frustrating to complete
  5. Teach employees about lean tools and principles (see videos below) and engage them in improving the process
  6. Test out the new ideas and determine what works, or make adjustments
  7. When the process flows better with higher quality, document what is working, and move to the next problem

Why do we talk about Toyota so much? They are one of the most profitable and highest cash reserve companies in Japan decade after decade, even during recessions when their competitors lost money. They have bounced back from negative publicity. They have risen from a small manufacturer to surpass the Big 3 American automakers. They have achieved numerous quality and customer satisfaction awards. All of this while focusing on their workers and the processes, not by using creative financing or shorting their customers. To prove that it wasn’t some secret recipe applicable only in Japan, they partnered with GM to create the NUMMI facility and become one of GM’s most successful facilities, and now they have numerous locations spread across North America.

To learn more about Lean, we highly recommend watching these videos below, the best we have found on the internet. It will be well worth the time invested!

Applying Lean to nonprofits – Toyota and the NY Food Bank

8 forms of waste

3P process at Boulder Associates for validating a new workspace area

2-bin system at St Clair hospital to better manage inventory

5S workplace organization event at MSICU to clean up the workspace

5S at Irving (TX) Water Utilities to better organize service trucks

5S event at Cuyahoga Community College to better organize graphic and repro office area

Boeing 737 Manufacturing video using lean principles

Envelope stuffing video – why one piece flow is better than batching

Personal kanban boards to control your work in progress (WIP)

2 Second Lean with Paul Akers (download free book) to make simple daily improvements

Point kaizen improvements at FastCap with Paul Akers to show rapid process improvements cutting dramatic time from a process

Kaizen events at Japanese companies

Daily management system

Office Flow Layout

Training Within Industry (TWI) – Historic Video

Training Within Industry (TWI) – Job Instruction for T-shirt Folding

The Lean Post: TWI Job Instruction from Lean Enterprise Institute

Now that you’ve seen a few videos, let’s look at the main principles of Toyota (described in The Toyota Way and Toyota Talent) that make up the heart of how they make decisions

  1. Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.
  2. Create a continuous process flow to bring problems to the surface.
  3. Use ‘pull’ systems to avoid overproduction.
  4. Level out the workload (work like the tortoise, not the hare).
  5. Build a culture of stopping to fix problems, to get quality right the first time.
  6. Standardized tasks and processes are the foundation for continuous improvement and employee empowerment.
  7. Use visual controls so no problems are hidden.
  8. Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and process.
  9. Grow leaders who thoroughly understand the work, live the philosophy, and teach it to others.
  10. Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your company’s philosophy.
  11. Respect your extended network of partners and suppliers by challenging them and helping them improve.
  12. Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation.
  13. Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options; implement decisions rapidly.
  14. Become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement.



Want to learn more and participate in a fun simulation? Sign up for our FREE Lean Primer workshop in Portland, Oregon >>>

Don’t live near Portland? Consider taking the FREE Lean Six Sigma for the Environment online course >>>


Here are some book suggestions for digging deeper into Lean:

  • Toyota Way – explains the management principles and business philosophy behind Toyota
  • Toyota Kata – explains Toyota’s organizational routines (kata) that help move from current to future state
  • Toyota Way Fieldbook – How to implement Toyota Way book
  • Toyota Talent – How to train and develop people
  • Learning to See – How to perform value stream maps (VSM)
  • Kaizen Express – How to implement standardized work forms and templates
  • Lean CEO – Case studies on how top executives implemented lean within their organization
  • Gemba Walks – A summary of key lessons and observations from Jim Womack’s many tours of facilities implementing lean
  • The Lean Handbook – Comprehensive reference book for those wanting to learn everything they can about Lean and Six Sigma tools
  • Lean Six Sigma for Good (FREE) – How to use your Lean Six Sigma skills to improve the environment and your community

Lean Certifications

Unlike Six Sigma certifications, lean does not have a strong focus on certification. It is expected that people learn how to use the tools to improve their work, and not to achieve a level of proficiency. That being said, many organizations have combined lean into their existing Six Sigma certifications (calling it a Lean Six Sigma certification). There are a few organizations that offer some lean specific certification.


Be sure to check out Six Sigma references, articles and books…

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