Lean occasionally gets a bad name

How do you define Lean in your business?

Is it something that you have spent time on determining what it means for your team and your business?

Or, is it just a set of tools that you use to help drive efficiency that some people understand and some don’t?

If you fall into the latter camp then don’t worry, you’re in the majority.

The purpose of this post is to challenge your thinking around this topic. Putting an improvement methodology into context for your organisation tends to make it a more powerful toolkit.

I am hoping that you can do the same with Lean.

The essence of Lean

Most people define Lean as being the balance between Waste and Value creation. Value is what your customers are happy to pay you for, waste is everything else.

It is widely recognised (thanks to the excellent work of Womack and Jones) that there are five steps to a Lean transformation:

  1. Define ‘value’ for your business (what customers are happy to pay for).
  2. Map the value stream (what it takes to generate value, including all of the wasteful* activities).
  3. Move into a flow state (elimination of the waste).
  4. Allow your customers to pull your production or service (make on demand etc…).
  5. Work towards perfection.

It is a tried and tested system and it works. Many people, however, do try and jump towards points 4 onwards without addressing the first three points. Kanbans might be ‘sexy’ but you need to get an awful lot under control before you can deploy such a mechanism to coordinate and synchronise your teams.

* If you want to learn more about what constitutes ‘waste’, read this short article here.

What does this mean in your business

Defining Lean in this way is fine. It is practical and it details what people need to do.

But, what does it mean for your business?

What does driving out the waste really mean?

To give you a clue, it could be:

  • Ensuring the customer gets what they want, when they want it.
  • Driving out quality defects.
  • Having an easier life because the frustrations start to disappear.
  • Learning from your mistakes, truly, and becoming better.
  • Developing your ‘change agent’ skills and becoming more marketable.
  • Becoming the most productive business within your supply chain league table / group of companies.
  • About winning more business from your existing customers because you are so damned good!

Lean doesn’t just have to be a set of words and a sequence of tasks!

Create a meaningful picture of Lean

So, what would be a meaningful definition of Lean for you, your team and your business?

You might be reading this thinking “if I get this toolkit under my belt, I’ll be able to go for a better job in the near future”.

Or, you might be thinking “with less waste in our business processes, my team will be able to handle the increased workloads we have with less stress and hassle”.

Or, your thoughts might be along the lines of “just how good could this business be if we took away all of the silly diversions we have to deal with just to get the job done?”.

How you define Lean has to work for you, whichever hat you are wearing. Can you define Lean, its benefits, so that it means something for your teams and they can get onboard?

It has to be more than just a methodology. There needs to be a good reason.

Put Lean to work

Having a good definition, something that stirs you, is one thing. Putting it into action and getting the results, is another.

You’ll already know that it takes time to put a plan into action and that the plan will be beset with problems. That’s life and that is why so many improvements lay unfinished. It can be hard work and it can be difficult at times.

The results, the why, the definition that you have given to your Lean programme… that should give you the stamina you need to see it through.

After the improvement you will not be the same. Your team will be stronger and more capable. Your leadership will have strengthened. The results your team produces will be better.

Define Lean success

How do you define your Lean success?

Where will you be at the end of the part of the journey you are planning?

(That’s right, I didn’t fall for the end of the journey – continuous improvement is continuous after all!)

Can you define the performance characteristics of your business and its results?

Can you define the performance characteristics of your teams and their performance?

Can you define the performance characteristics of yourself and the outcomes you could achieve?

Defining Lean can be so much more than just the text book methodology. I hope that this article has challenged your thinking and that you can find that ‘special sauce’ that will give you a focus and stamina you have never had before.

Enjoy your Lean journey!


The following resources can help accelerate your journey to the Lean ‘winner’s circle’:

Giles Johnston

Giles Johnston is a Chartered Engineer who consults with businesses to improve their productivity and on time delivery performance. Giles is also the author of What Does Good Look Like? and the co-creator of the StreamLiner business improvement software program.