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Lean Articles


What Lean is Not

Nicht die Großen werden die Kleinen fressen, sondern die Schnellen die Langsamen.

(It’s not the big who will eat the small, but the fast who will eat the slow.)

- Heinz Peter Halek

This somewhat obscure German saying is a great reminder of why companies should implement a lean program. Companies that implement lean typically become faster: They develop products faster, bring them to market faster, and start earning money for them faster.

Before we even define what “lean” means, it’s almost just as important to define what lean is not. I learned to do this after my very first lean seminar where a hand immediately shot up and its owner proclaimed that lean is all about eliminating jobs. So that is where I begin my list.

Lean is not about eliminating jobs

A lean implementation that results in layoffs should not be considered a successful lean implementation. There are always opportunities to re-allocate labor resources that may have become available as a result of realizing lean benefits. One can only imagine how the next Kaizen event would be received if the previous one produced the loss of fellow co-workers. In fact, since lean also requires culture change in most organizations, it’s a great idea to re-deploy personnel as champions in the process. Examples of jobs for which people can be re-deployed are trainers, milk runners / logisticians / water spiders, and Kaizen team leaders or participants.

Lean is not about removing all automation from the process

Not all lean implementations require a switch to manual processing. Two criteria to consider when analyzing a process are the quantity of products to be built and the product life cycle of the products. If large quantities of product need to be produced for many years, a fully automated solution with powered conveyors may make sense. However, if the quantity of products to produce is low and the product life is uncertain, as in the case of new product development, a manual cell oriented approach is best. Between these two cases lie other hybrids such as robot oriented cells and adaptive systems.

Lean is not about completely eliminating inventory or finished goods

Even with lean there may be a need to keep some finished goods on hand or some inventory in a supermarket. Things to consider are the demand of the customer and the time necessary to replenish the material. Implementing a Kanban system for the supermarket or finished goods helps to control the level and eliminates overproduction.

Lean is not just applicable to manufacturing

As with our last lean webletter on 5S in the office, any process can benefit by adopting lean principles. Whether it is lean manufacturing, lean office, or lean management, benefits can be realized throughout the company in inventory reduction, productivity improvement, and reduction in errors, to name a few.

Lean is not only about reducing waste

Systematic waste elimination is one of several lean principles. Begin by specifying value from the customer’s perspective and working backwards in the process. Once value is identified, things the customer is not willing to pay for (also known as waste) can then be eliminated. After waste has been reduced or eliminated, parts of the process should be sequenced to flow smoothly towards the customer. Then allow the customer to pull value from one upstream process to the next. Other lean principles include a strong organizational focus (i.e. communication, training, problem solving) and long-term sustainability. More will be written on this topic in future webletters.

Lean is not only for the automotive industry

Just because lean was founded in the automotive industry does not mean that other industries cannot benefit from the same principles and methods. Any company or organization with a process can realize significant improvements be it on the manufacturing floor or in the office.