The Five Forms of Lean


People keep asking: What are the five steps to lean so we can get started with lean right away without having to learn the whole thirty-years-to-make-a-sensei shebang?

We keep answering: there are no “five steps”, lean is organic, it’s not mechanic. Not very helpful.

I’ve been discussing this with my sensei from Taipei, Joe Lee. If we’re going to do organic, what would be the Five essential Forms to lean, as in Tai Chi – the Forms that you practice every day to become better and better at lean thinking. Here is what we came up with:

  1. Customer value: What do customers look for in our products and services that they won’t find anywhere else and that they really, really want? What annoyances can we also take out of our offering so that customers get what they want without being irked with usage problems or high costs? How can we reduce the environmental footprint of our products and services?
  2. Easier work: What practical steps can we take to make work easier and more fluid, so people succeed more easily? How can we better involve the people that do the work themselves in solving their own problems and designing a work environment that they find easier and more fruitful to work with?
  3. Visual workplace: What visual tricks can we learn to create Just-in-time conditions and Jidoka conditions in the workplace so that anybody working there intuitively understands what success means, how the work flows and what is a problem that needs stopping, calling a colleague and fixing it before carrying on?
  4. Reflexive relationships: What can we do now to deepen every working relationship by understanding each other’s problems and difficulties, trying stuff together and reflecting together on outcomes and how to find win-win smarter solutions?
  5. Staying foolish: What irreverent or core question can we ask to look at things differently and always remind ourselves that the part of the elephant we see in front of our eyes is never the full elephant? How can we always go and see into a greater technical detail? The how can we stretch our vision to see the big picture at an even higher level? How does new tech and new thinking change everything we thought we understood?

As with Tai Chi, every day we practice these basic forms, and as we do, we discover new insights, new ideas, better ways of doing all things, and truer friends. Work, it turns out, can be both meaningful and fun as we find out every day how to better benefit society by doing something useful with generating less waste – and make money from it!

Lean has no five steps any more than science has no five steps: these are exploration methods, not belief systems. The lean solution is unknown at the outset, just as the next scientific discovery lies over the horizon. We know where to look, we know how to look but we don’t know what we’ll find. It’s exciting!

No five steps, but maybe five forms to practice every day: try and think, try and think!

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