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What is Lean Thinking?

Lean thinking is based on the idea of creating more value for customers with fewer resources. It’s a way of organizing human activities so that more benefits are delivered while waste is eliminated. The ultimate goal of Lean thinking is to provide perfect value to the customer through a perfect value creation process while creating zero waste.

Origins of Lean Thinking

Following the Industrial Revolution, we needed a way to improve the way we manufactured products. Through experimentation, we considered many techniques, but, in the end, Lean thinking rose to the top as it reduced cycle time, improved quality, and reduced costs. Henry Ford was one of the pioneers of this methodology as he was the first person to integrate an entire production process. He developed the first moving assembly line, dubbing it “flow production.” The Toyota Production System came about later but is another great example of the beginnings of Lean thinking with its focus on the elimination of all waste and a just-in-time philosophy (producing only what is needed by the next process in the flow).

Lean – Not just for Manufacturing

A process is a process is a process regardless of the industry or output. Although Lean was born in a manufacturing environment, it can be applied to any organization in any sector. The common misconception is that “Lean thinking doesn’t apply to my business.” That myth prevents countless companies from reaping the tremendous rewards of Lean and Agile methodologies.

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In 1990, James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos wrote a book called The Machine that Changed the World which provided an exhaustive description of the Lean system. They thoroughly documented its advantages over the mass production model pioneered by General Motors and predicted that Lean production would prevail. Interestingly, they purported that Lean would win in every value-creating activity from retail to health-care and everything in between. They knew that Lean was applicable to far more than just manufacturing.Womack and Jones went on to create the 5 Lean principles as a framework to be used by an organization to implement lean thinking – notice how nothing is specific to manufacturing:

  1. Specify what creates value from the customer’s perspective
  2. Identify all steps across the whole value stream; eliminating those that do not create value
  3. Make value-creating steps occur in tight sequence to flow smoothly to the customer
  4. Use a just-in-time approach; allowing the customer to pull value from the next upstream activity
  5. Strive for perfection by continually removing successive layers of waste

We are living in the middle of the Information Revolution – now, more than ever, we need to embrace the same thought process they did following  the Industrial Revolution. Lean thinking applies to improving processes – any processes – so we can apply Lean principles everywhere to create better ways to deliver great solutions. We now need to ask ourselves the same questions but applied to the digital age:

How can we improve the way we deliver solutions?

How can we deliver more value to the customer with less waste?

How can we smooth out the flow of products/services to the customer?

How can we tighten up our system?

What steps create value and what steps are wasteful?

We have uncovered countless ways to help our clients answer these questions and more through the adoption of Lean and Agile techniques. We encourage you to consider the questions above as they relate to your own business. And ask yourself…what do I need to improve today?

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About the Author: Dimitri Ponomareff

Kanban Coach Dimitri Ponomareff
Dimitri Ponomareff is a Coach. Transforming organizations to deliver value faster since 2005, using Agile, Scrum/XP first, and then blending Lean and Kanban. Dimitri has the ability to relate and energize people. He is consistently recognized as a very passionate and successful change agent, with an overwhelming capacity to motivate and mobilize teams on their path to continuous improvements.