What is “lean”? Again…


Another day, another conference, and again the same debate… what is lean?

We are collectively so deeply conditioned by taylorism/fayolism that people present without a second thought “lean manufacturing?” “lean development,” “lean IT”, lean this and that. They are showing improvement project, yes. Mostly, without realizing they are showing neo-taylorist projects where a group of managers and engineers, with a few alibi operators, map a process, brainstorm new ideas and then implement an action plan – simply nothing to do with lean at all. And there the debate about “what is lean?” raises its ugly head again.


Face it: no new solution are ever going to come out of the same old thinking of experts thinking up better processes for operators to operate. Unless you do have a radical technique improvement, in which case it does make sense and you don’t need to label it “lean”, this is good old fashioned taylorism and please don’t label it “lean” because it’s confusing to everybody else.

Fact is, back in the early nineties, most of us in the lean movement didn’t learn lean directly from Toyota. We learned lean from Toyota’s drive to involve their key suppliers in their just-in-time supply chain – and, in the US from Toyota’s turn around of the GM Fremont plant.

The first thing Toyota was after at the time with key suppliers is VA/VE (Value Analysis/Value Engineering): how can we increase the quality of the part whilst reducing its total cost, with minimal reinvestment? A straightforward, sensible, but hard question.

It’s not hard to see that any company that relentlessly pursues this goal will do well.

the second question Toyota was dealing with, and probably why the TPS was put on paper in the first place, was to convince its key suppliers to join the Just-in-time supply chain, which meant showing them how to make money by supplying higher On Time Delivery with lower inventories.

The lucky thing is that the two mesh together.

The BIG LEAN SECRET of Toyota is that VA/VE makes engineering, production and supply chain WORK TOGETHER:

  • Value analysis is about solving problems (increasing quality, lowering costs) in products or services in production today, which requires both team level kaizen and engineering support.
  • Value engineering is about solving problems in the next generation products and services in development, which starts in engineering, but requires production and supply chain support.

TPS is a method to discover value analysis opportunities in current operations:

Stop and think: never willingly let pass a known defect but stop and fix it and then think deeply about what caused the problem.

Visualize and reduce lead-time: by visualizing every interface between work segments and reducing lead times, problems will appear at precise locations and need to be solved

Develop operators’ autonomy in solving problems: and make room for their talent and passion by supporting daily kaizen

Teach management to enhance mutual trust by building the organization around stable teams and giving them the means to succeed every day.

Giving people an objective without a method is cruel. But giving them a method without an objective is plain stupid.

The objective of lean is to improve customer value as function/cost through relentlessly pursuing VA/VE, which will make the company responsive to evolving customer tastes whilst seeking sustainable profitability.

The method is TPS, which is a structured way to support the learning curves needed to succeed in the finding, facing, framing and forming the VA and VE projects.

The reason it works is that by encouraging people’s creativity and commitment and trust relationship across the silos of engineering, manufacturing, supply chain and etc. you get rid of layers of bureaucratic muda and revitalize the business. What it needs to work is endless energy from management to pour into the vitality of the teams.

Lean is radically different from mechanistic taylorism/fayolism with a facelift. Lean is an organic approach to follow customers by constantly trying to find more value for them, profitably, and doing so by making jobs meaningful and encouraging people to succeed in their jobs, not just do the job.

“Real” lean was defined by Eiji Toyota back in the fifties when he introduced the creative ideas and suggestions system and an employee contest came up with the radical slogan “good thinking, good products.” THAT IS IT! The lean tools and methods are techniques to spur the insights born from a “studious and creative spirit”, another 1950s Toyota phrase, to focus skills and creativity. To create more value and generate less waste. For real. We mean it.

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