The term Lean is used inconsistently and even the basic definition seems to have become pretty confused (the wiki definition is here). Some people view it as synonymous with kaizen events. Others with value stream mapping and waste elimination. Many long time practitioners of Lean cannot fathom the use of it outside the factory, but many companies are doing just this and with great results. Common thoughts on Lean tend to share one attribute – they are all far narrower than the set of practices that might be considered Lean. There also seems to be significant misunderstanding about some of the original Toyota Production System (TPS) practices and their applicability in other environments (e.g. outside auto, outside manufacturing, etc.). We have also seen that while Toyota still probably makes the best cars, they are far from infallible. In fact, their current issues reflect a fundamental breakdown in management judgment at all levels. Note: This post has been updated to include an outline of key elements on March 12, 2010.
I realize that this attempt is far from perfect. While the wikipedia entry has many excellent aspects, it is written from a fairly narrow view point I would characterize as pseudo purist (my own term). There are more than a few ridiculous statements and no, Lean is not the panacea this entry makes it out to be and the consultants mentioned are not the keepers of Lean.
The term “lean production” was created by the MIT International Motor Vehicle Program in the late 80’s to identify the set of techniques employed by Japanese auto manufacturers in contrast with traditional mass production techniques used in American auto manufactures at that time. These techniques are described from an American perspective and are largely synonymous with the Toyota Production System (TPS). Lean includes additional tools that are viewed as helpful for Western companies implementing TPS techniques. There are also many details of TPS passed down through generations of Japanese mangers and workers that are absent from many definitions of Lean. Lean production is often simplified as “Lean” and now refers to all types of business processes, not just ones directly related to manufacturing.
Lean is a set of guiding principles and management techniques for simplifying and managing a business to deliver only what customers value. The guiding principles describe a process for improvement and a set of expected workplace best practices. The management techniques include taking a long-term view of the business and actively mentoring and engaging staff at all levels.
Lean Key Elements
1. Guiding principles
a. Process for improvement
- Focus on delivery of customer value (Value added versus non-value added)
- Evaluate the entire value stream, front to back
- Eliminate waste (things not valued by customers)
- Identify root causes
b. Expected workplace best practices
- Simple and timely performance measures (avoiding over measurement)
- Customer demand pull
- Visible workplace
- Standard work
- Continuous improvement (kaizen)
a. Respect and teamwork
b. Long term view of the business and continuous learning
c. Daily disciplines
d. Mentoring at all levels
e. Go to the source
I will add to this with my thoughts on the guiding principles and management techniques in a future post. I will also discuss the importance of mentorship, starting with the CEO and cascading down through an organization. Very few actually do this well but quite a few claim this as a strength in marketing their companies. I think that this is one of the areas where Toyota was very good and has seen performance break down more recently.
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