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What Is Lean?

14130440462_d71969f36b_mWhile the original roots are from Toyota and the automotive industry, Lean is certainly more than just a better way of assembling cars and trucks. Lean, as a set of improvement methods, a management system, and a philosophy, has also been applied in recent years to varied settings including law firms, architecture firms, school districts, and higher education.

With roots in “Lean Production” and “Lean Manufacturing” has been extended over the past 25 years to include applications in different areas, including:

  • Healthcare

  • Services (including retail, travel, and other consumer sectors)

  • Government

  • IT & Software Development

  • Startups

Lean is about a new way of thinking, a new way of solving problems, a new way of leading, and a new way of planning and measuring the long-term success of an organization, focused on improving safety, quality, delivery, cost, and employee morale. Lean creates sustainable business success.


Pillars of the Lean Management System

One way of defining Lean is to look at the “Toyota Way” management system, in which there are two interrelated key pillars of equal importance:

  1. Continuous Improvement
  2. Respect for People

Mutual respect between leaders, staff, and customers is critical to creating a culture of continuous improvement in an organization. This element of mutual respect drives leaders to engage everyone in their continuous improvement efforts, with the belief that everybody takes pride in doing good work. Lean leaders strive to make continuous improvement part of everyone’s jobs, empowering their staff to improve their work in order to provide the highest quality goods and services at the lowest cost, with safety and satisfaction in mind.

Respect for customers is a critical component of a Lean organization, as well, as this is a motivator that causes leaders and staff to center their continuous improvement efforts around delighting the customer.


A Lean Management System is Based on Leaders That

  1. Ask employees to identify problems or Opportunities for Improvement

    In any organization, the front line staff are the ones that are closest to the work, and therefore the most likely to identify implementable Opportunities for Improvement. In fact, as Dean Schroeder and Alan Robinson wrote in “The Idea-Driven Organization,” the front-line staff has 80% improvement potential than executive leadership does. By asking employees to identify ways to make their work better, safer, and more efficient, Lean leaders successfully harness the collective brainpower of the entire organization.

  2. Quickly respond to their ideas

    It isn’t enough to just ASK for ideas, however; leaders must be prepared to respond quickly to ideas, too. When an employee takes the time to share an Opportunity for Improvement, Lean leaders must encourage their effort by following up in a timely manner, thus showing the staff that they value their contributions. This promotes further engagement in Lean efforts.

  3. Delegate improvement work back to the employees

    Leaders obviously can’t take on the responsibility of implementing every Opportunity for Improvement that their staff identify; there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Lean leaders understand that it’s critical to delegate the improvement work back to the employees, ensuring that the improvements are properly investigated and implemented by a team of people who are invested in the success of the idea. Sometimes they’ll need additional guidance, at which point the leader steps up and helps as a servant leader - collaborating, rather than commanding.

  4. Provide recognition for their improvement efforts

    When someone takes the time to suggest and implement an Opportunity for Improvement, Lean leaders reciprocate by taking the time to recognize that effort and impact. This lends employee support to the Lean efforts, promotes further engagement, and contributes to a positive culture of continuous improvement. Continuous improvement software platforms can help automate this process, both by providing virtual recognition and prompting leaders to engage offline by making it easy for them to see who is doing good work and the individual impact that employees are having.


Lean Methods and Lean Improvements

Lean principles are well-defined and documented in many books and websites. Here are some key practices and methods that many Lean organizations choose to follow:

Kaizen Events

Many organizations use formally-structured, team-based, week-long Kaizen Events as a way of demonstrating that improvement is possible. These are sometimes called “Rapid Improvement Events” or “Rapid Process Improvement Workshops” in healthcare. Kaizen Events are often continued as a way of solving more complex problems that an organization faces.

Kaizen or Daily Continuous Improvement

The most successful Lean organizations build upon Kaizen Events to start creating a culture of continuous improvement. Kaizen should be practiced by everybody as the entire organization strives to get a little better every day, using a structured Plan, Do, Study, Adjust (PDSA) process.

A3 and VSM

Most Lean organizations use the PDSA-based “A3” methodology for problem solving and tracking of projects. Some organizations also use the “Value Stream Mapping” approach to see processes and workflows in a more systemic way, ensuring the best overall performance from a customer perspective.

Standardized Work

One challenge associated with Kaizen is the need to communicate changes and improvements to the entire team. When improvement happens, Lean organizations update their standardized work and documentation. They strive to keep everybody on the same page by not just creating new documents, but also ensuring that they are seen and understood.

Strategy Deployment

Considered a more advanced Lean management practice, strategy deployment (sometimes called “policy deployment” or “hoshin kanri”) is used to create alignment throughout the organization - from top to bottom and across all departments.


For more information, we recommend these books: