What is Lean?
The core idea is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste. Simply, lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.
A lean organization understands customer value and focuses its key processes to continuously increase it. The ultimate goal is to provide perfect value to the customer through a perfect value creation process that has zero waste.
To accomplish this, lean thinking changes the focus of management from optimizing separate technologies, assets, and vertical departments to optimizing the flow of products and services through entire value streams that flow horizontally across technologies, assets, and departments to customers.
Eliminating waste along entire value streams, instead of at isolated points, creates processes that need less human effort, less space, less capital, and less time to make products and services at far less costs and with much fewer defects, compared with traditional business systems. Companies are able to respond to changing customer desires with high variety, high quality, low cost, and with very fast throughput times. Also, information management becomes much simpler and more accurate.
Lean for Production and Services
A popular misconception is that lean is suited only for manufacturing. Not true. Lean applies in every business and every process. It is not a tactic or a cost reduction program, but a way of thinking and acting for an entire organization.
Businesses in all industries and services, including healthcare and governments, are using lean principles as the way they think and do. Many organizations choose not to use the word lean, but to label what they do as their own system, such as the Toyota Production System or the Danaher Business System. Why? To drive home the point that lean is not a program or short term cost reduction program, but the way the company operates. The word transformation or lean transformation is often used to characterize a company moving from an old way of thinking to lean thinking. It requires a complete transformation on how a company conducts business. This takes a long-term perspective and perseverance.
The term "lean" was coined to describe Toyota's business during the late 1980s by a research team headed by Jim Womack, Ph.D., at MIT's International Motor Vehicle Program.
The characteristics of a lean organization and supply chain are described in Lean Thinking, by Womack and Dan Jones, founders of the Lean Enterprise Institute and the Lean Enterprise Academy (UK), respectively. While there are many very good books about lean techniques, Lean Thinking remains one of the best resources for understanding "what is lean" because it describes the thought process, the overarching key principles that must guide your actions when applying lean techniques and tools.
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"Just as a carpenter needs a vision of what to build in order to get the full benefit of a hammer, Lean Thinkers need a vision before picking up our lean tools," said Womack. "Thinking deeply about purpose, process, people is the key to doing this."
Purpose, Process, People
Womack and Jones recommend that managers and executives embarked on lean transformations think about three fundamental business issues that should guide the transformation of the entire organization:
- Purpose: What customer problems will the enterprise solve to achieve its own purpose of prospering?
- Process: How will the organization assess each major value stream to make sure each step is valuable, capable, available, adequate, flexible, and that all the steps are linked by flow, pull, and leveling?
- People: How can the organization ensure that every important process has someone responsible for continually evaluating that value stream in terms of business purpose and lean process? How can everyone touching the value stream be actively engaged in operating it correctly and continually improving it?