I will often get this question from someone who has not yet been exposed to “Lean Thinking”.  Just what is “Lean” anyway?  I thought it would be helpful to have a short definition / explanation to share.

At its core, “Lean” is about improving and optimizing your operations. An organization using lean thinking consistently provides greater value to its customers while consuming fewer resources to do so. Lean organizations do not focus on a single area of their business, they focus on the entire process flow to eliminate waste and create greater customer value.

Lean organizations require less effort, less space, less capital and less time to produce lower cost goods and services with fewer defects. Lean applies in every organization, every business, and every process. It is not a tactic or simple cost-reduction program; it is a way of thinking and acting for an entire organization.

Lean does not simply mean performing kaizens, using 5S programs, displaying Lean boards, using visual pull systems or the like. Those are all Lean tools, (which you may decide to use someday). However, these tools are not the true foundation of what it means to think and be Lean. You must do more than use a few tools and metrics to enjoy the true benefits of Lean thinking: You must create an enterprise-wide customer-focused learning organization to be successful in creating a long-term, sustainable Lean organization. You don’t get “Lean” or get “Leaned out.” Lean is not a destination – Lean is a continuous journey of self-improvement that takes place every single day that you walk through the doors of your business.  Lean is a culture change.

The term “Lean” was coined to describe Toyota’s business and production system (Toyota Production System – TPS) in the late 1980s by a research team at MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program. However, the Foundation for Lean Thinking and the Toyota Production System was born with Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company (as detailed in Henry Ford’s bestseller, Today and Tomorrow, published in 1926). Henry Ford’s strong belief in total process optimization and waste reduction drove the Ford Motor Company to produce the highest quality automobiles of the time at affordable prices, all while providing the highest wages in the industry. Henry Ford made the automobile affordable for everyone, using Lean thinking and Lean techniques, before they were formalized or systematized through the Toyota Production System.

Ford’s constant improvement and waste reduction focus also improved other industries (steel, glass, rubber) and created new products and components out of scrap. Large wood planks became floor boards and body coach panels. Smaller wood pieces became steering wheels and shifter knobs (wood used in steering wheels and shifter knobs on the Model T and Model A was later replaced by an early black plastic developed by Ford – Fordlite or Bakelite). Smaller yet, scrap pieces of wood were burned to provide steam and electricity at the plant. When the scrap wood burning proved to be fairly inefficient, Ford, working with a relative, developed a method to grind, heat and compress the scrap wood to form small black nuggets the size of a golf ball. These small black nuggets have since become the most popular form of fuel for cooking your hamburger on the grill: charcoal briquettes. This relentless quest for process optimization and waste reduction drove Henry Ford and his brother-in-law, Edward G. Kingsford, to create the charcoal briquette industry.

The learning process is the key to process improvement and the key to Lean. This is the one thing you must know to be successful in your Lean journey. If we do not figure out how to do our job better, then our competitors will.

Companies that have been around for a long time, such as Ford, DuPont, P&G, Timken, Harley-Davidson, and Whirlpool, have all learned the secret to survival.  By having a continuous improvement mind-set they constantly adapt their product or service to meet the needs of their customers.

“We have always done it this way,” is the silent killer in your organization. As the world rushes by, if you’re not moving with it, you’re holding fast to outdated ideas and principles. This guarantees that when you do open your eyes, you will be far behind the race, and catching up will be the hardest thing you ever do. Change is imperative; but not just any change – not change for the sake of change – but the correct change. You need to make changes that will solve problems, make improvements, and move you forward. You need to make changes that impact your bottom line.