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Common Lean Questions


How does lean apply to non-manufacturing settings?
Every core lean principle applies just as strongly, if not more so, beyond the shop floor. In fact, many of the most exciting breakthroughs are taking place in areas such as services, healthcare and government.

As John Shook LEI senior advisor and co-author of Learning to See, says, "TPS is described as a manufacturing system, but the thinking of TPS or lean applies to any function. Whether you¹re dealing with 15,000 parts, 15 parts, or just providing a service, lean works. It works because it is a way of thinking, a whole systems philosophy. Techniques aside, lean thinking gives you a broad perspective on providing goods and services that goes beyond the bottom line, beyond the stodgy principles of mass-producing capitalism. It is a human system, customer focused, customer driven; wherein employees within and outside the workplace are also customers."

On the LEI site you can find a wealth of articles and resources documenting lean breakthroughs in all industries. Visit the Knowledge Center to access these resources.

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What are the most common mistakes in implementing lean?
To start with, lean must never be seen as a tool for headcount reduction or mindless cost-cutting. This fundamentally misses the purpose of lean, which is to create value through eliminating waste. As companies improve their processes they should be able to reallocate their productive resources to new value-creating work.

Another important attitude to avoid from the beginning is the impulse to implement individual lean tools without seeking to understand the system in which they fit. This is hard to avoid, since many tools, like 5S, deliver immediate payoffs. But ultimately all lean workers must understand the "why" behind the tools, or their value will be lost.

Lean beginners should also limit the scope of their initial project so as to better insure success, be sure that they have a leader with deep knowledge and a gemba attitude i.e. always base one's thinking on a close observation of the work itself, and never relax in their efforts. Indeed, one of the hardest challenges they will face is the degree to which individual lean successes will invariably uncover new problems and greater challenges. So in this regard, simply be aware of how difficult this work will be.

There are more detailed responses in the article Misunderstandings About Value-Stream Mapping, Flow Analysis and Takt Time about other common mistakes, by John Shook and Mike Rother.

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How does lean compare to other improvement processes such as Six Sigma or Theory of Constraints?
While there are many specific differences among the different schools of thought, Jim Womack cautions against getting lost in the competing schools. For veterans of each practice often get lost in finely detailed arguments over technical or even philosophical differences. In an e-letter outlining the key differences, he nonetheless grounds the discussion by saying, “At the end of the day we are all trying to achieve the same thing: The perfect value stream.” His letter gives a nice overview of how to view each approach.

Quality Progress magazine published an artcle How To Compare Six Sigma, Lean and the Theory of Constraints which offers a very good overview that can help you choose the best framework for your organization.

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How do I convince my leaders and associates to practice lean?
This paramount challenge transcends lean itself. Here’s how authors Michael and Freddy Balle respond to this question. (For more on this, read their book The Gold Mine.)

“We find it hard to distinguish “technical” issues from “people” issues. Indeed, the two cannot be separated. And so the real question that matters is this: what does it take for lean to become part of the company's culture? The answer is: a critical mass of people who both think lean and act lean. Regardless of how much has been published about the topic, thinking lean is not that obvious. Most people who observe their operations conclude that while they might understand this lean concept very well, it just doesn't apply to their particular circumstance. They need help in seeing the connection."

“One of the most powerful insights from Womack and Jones is that lean is not simply a toolbox, but a total perspective. In other words, you must trust people to solve their problems, regardless of the way the problem has been defined. A plant manager, for example, typically defines a problem as, Hit your numbers, keep the factory loaded, and avoid too much union or vendor problems. This effectively forces him to stay in his office, manage by the numbers, run large batches and so on. A lean approach redefines the problem completely. His new goals would be: produce only what has been consumed (or ordered), never by-pass a problem or let an operator face a problem alone and continuously improve all processes. This has dramatic implications for the work of the same plant manager. The only way to solve problems in this lean perspective is to spend most of his or her time on the shop floor trying to understand what goes on, and challenging teams to be more precise and to improve their operations."

“So the first real difficulty with lean deals with both technical and people challenges. The change begins by framing the problem, which one recognizes in the factory from a lean perspective."

In order to get started, people need to, in essence, develop a lean eye. John Shook and Mike Rother's book, Learning to See, refers to the genchi gembutsu, which is translated as “go see for yourself.” The Gold Mine starts from this perspective. Before being exposed to lean ideas, Phil Jenkinson (a co-founder of the example company) has to learn to see his factory in much greater detail and understand how the different elements affect each other.

Developing this discipline remains an extraordinary challenge for all individuals, regardless of their background or the lean level of the plant. This is what folks call a moving target. Consider a plant that has managed to achieve pull, flow, with a supermarket after the cell, a truck preparation area, kanban, and so on. All's well. Right? Now, imagine that the material handler comes to pick up a container from the supermarket with a kanban card, but the box isn't there. The truck still needs to be prepared, so the system now tells her to get the container from the safety stock. This choice, however, would not be using the principle of pull correctly. The properly operating pull system would in fact create the right tension that forces the individual to solve the root cause-in this case, to determine what caused the container not to be there in the first place.

However, it takes a sensei level of lean observation to see beyond what appears to be happening in the flow. Most of us would be impressed by the technique of lean, the kanban, the supermarket, the truck preparation, and not see that all of this is failing to do what it's supposed to, which is solve the problems. So learning to see is a pretty big challenge, both on the technical and people front, at whatever lean level you are.

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What are the best lean resources?
On this site we offer many of the best tools for learning about and implementing lean. We would recommend starting with the LEI workbooks and training. Of course there are many other terrific resources, many of which we carry in our online Store.  Over time we will expand on these selections. In the meantime, you might try asking other members in the Lean Community for their recommendations in our Forum pages.

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What are the best case studies and examples of lean practice?
This site has a wealth of resource. Visit the Knowledge Center for access to case studies, articles, success stories and more!

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