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The Meaning of Lean

By Sam Tomas, CFPIM, CIRM | N/A 2012 | 7 | 8

What is the definition of lean? If you were to ask 12 people, you would almost certainly get 12 different answers. Consider the following statements I have encountered when exploring the definition of lean:

  • “Lean is an emerging leadership philosophy at odds with the existing command-and-control structure. Many leaders and business schools feel threatened by its radically different approach.”
  • “Everybody has a customer and receives signals from those customers. It’s how you respond to those signals that determines if you are lean.”
  • “No organization is lean; it is an unreachable goal. Even Toyota’s leaders admitted the company was only about 30 percent lean.”
  • “It is an autonomous process that strives to satisfy customer demand by producing one-piece flow to takt time via a pull system.”
  • “Lean is about creating wealth, and perhaps only the banking industry can create wealth out of thin air. It is the banks we should be studying instead of the car industry.”
  • “In its purest form, lean is free market economics. The customer dictates quality and production, and everything else is waste.”

These viewpoints represent a vast spectrum of opinions and demonstrate that it’s not at easy to come to an agreement on the subject. Part of the problem is the tremendous scope of the word. Lean encompasses many different concepts, including minimizing waste, resources, costs, and lead times; embracing continuous improvement; the Toyota Production System; and improving quality, speed, and value to the customer while maximizing throughput. It also suggests a manufacturing philosophy, one that brings sweeping changes to company culture as employees are empowered to seek out improvements. It is, in short, a different way to think about manufacturing, but it is especially difficult to pin down.

At the very least, however, it’s necessary to have a common framework so that two people can be sure they’re talking about the same thing. Certainly, within a single company, a single definition is essential for getting everyone on the same page and avoiding misunderstandings. To achieve this objective, the following five steps are essential.

1. Perform an annual company performance review. This should consist of a SWOT analysis, which stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Additionally, examine the success or failure of last year’s review. The object of this process is to determine the company’s current competitive position, as well as its growth potential in old and new markets.

2. Determine the company’s goals. This includes survival goals such as correcting specific weaknesses and countering specific threats. It also includes performance goals, such as stronger growth in profitability or earnings. Finding success in performance goals may be contingent upon meeting survival goals.

3. Decide what steps must be taken to achieve the company’s goals. This requires evaluating your customers’ needs, desires, and expectations. Also look closely at your competitors and their products to see how well they satisfy their own customers. The capability to perform rapid innovation or product design and development is essential to meet ever-changing customer and market requirements.

4. Use lean techniques to meet goals. At this phase, agility and flexibility should be emphasized in company operations. Recognize what can be augmented or streamlined to improve sales and attain sustainable competitive advantage. Specific objectives should be set to enhance product design and development, such as better features, heightened performance, lower costs, or higher quality. The same goes for company and supply chain processes in areas such as lead time, cost, quality, and efficiency. Train and educate workers on lean and six sigma tools and techniques so they can take active roles in reducing variability, increasing efficiency, and innovating unique solutions.

5. Write a company statement on lean. This includes a definition and the benefits the company seeks from its application. It should be broadcast to all employees.
Michael Sears, former executive and chief financial officer at Boeing, said, “Our entire enterprise will be a lean operation, characterized by the efficient use of assets, high inventory turns, excellent supplier management, short cycle times, high quality, and low transaction costs.” Based on this statement, it’s clear that Boeing is focused intensely on company growth and creating value for its stakeholders, including customers, shareholders, and employees.

Michael Walters, vice president of materials management at Lockheed Martin, provides another example of the lean statement: “Lean manufacturing is a strategic choice for enterprises facing serious competition. It is now widely recognized that enterprises who have mastered lean methods will enjoy substantial cost and quality advantages over those that are still practicing large-scale production. The choice for enterprises today is simple: Improve or die.”

The companies had different goals at the time of those statements. Boeing was looking for a total enterprise solution to meet its goal of company growth, while Lockheed Martin prioritized cost and quality as improvement targets. As such, each company’s definition of lean was unique.

Based on this plan, it is most appropriate to think of lean as having a definition only in the context of a particular environment. Developing a common language is useful for an organization so that its members can communicate with each other and avoid ambiguity, but doing so also reinforces the company’s strategy and goals. Figuring out what lean means is the journey of figuring out what matters to your business.

Sam Tomas, CFPIM, CIRM, is a retired supply chain and operations management professional with more than 35 years experience at Motorola. He developed and taught courses in supply chain and operations management for corporate customers and at the University of Phoenix. Tomas may be contacted at stomas2@cox.net.

The editors of the APICS Dictionary are currently seeking suggestions for new terms and definitions. Submit any changes you'd like to see in the next edition at apics.org/dictionaryterms. 


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  1. Sam Tomas September 24, 2012, 02:19 PM

    The following is a more complete list of Lean definitions from many people, including some that appeared in the article. The wide variety of these definitions supports the suggestion that a universally accepted definition of Lean does not exist today. Note that the APICS dictionary doesn't have a definition of Lean by itself but instead directs people to see Lean Manufacturing. 

    - There have been so many additions, changes, and mostly deletions from Lean's original concepts that the resulting state, whatever you wish to call it, produces results that don't even vaguely resemble Lean's intent.

    -  Lean is a system framed in a collection of rules and principles that drive continuous improvement in all areas of a business.

    -   Lean is a standard and a discipline that subscribes to eliminating waste of resources in such an economical way that bottom line results are obtained in the most efficient and optimized fashion to the extent that customer value is continuously increased while cost is proportionately reduced.

    Lean is the support structure to produce what the customer wants, when the customer wants it, with the lowest cost and highest quality by utilizing whatever tools are applicable.

    -  I perceive Lean as a Business System and have developed the following definition. A Lean Business System is an autonomous process striving to satisfy customer demand by producing one piece flow to takt time via pull.

    - Every organization is lean. Everyone has a customer, everyone receives signals in regard to whether they are doing something right or wrong. It's how you react to those situations as they relate to customer focus and continuous improvement that determines if you are successful or not. It's life, evolution, competition - Its lean.

    - There is no organization that is "Lean." That's probably an unreachable goal. Even Toyota, at its best, admitted that it was only about 30% "lean."

    -  Lean is the art of mobilizing and pulling together the intellectual resources of all employees in the service of the firm so that it continuously delivers products of the highest quality to its customers, with the minimum use of  wasted resources

    - To me Lean is an emerging leadership philosophy which is at odds with the existing one of Command & Control. That's one reason why it's not popular with both current leadership and the majority of business schools who feel threatened by its radically different approach to leadership.

    - It has been shown that it can be dangerous for a new idea, such as Lean, to become fashionable because it then gets pulled in many different directions that changes its focus significantly.

    - In regards to lean, after some deeper thought, I think we use the automotive industry or manufacturing as the base of our experience, when in the end it is not the leanest industry. Lean is about creating wealth, and to my knowledge the only industry that can create wealth out of thin air is the banking industry. How do they do that? We should study that instead of Toyota, then we would all be lean. 

    - Why debate what Lean is? I would compare the debate to the one Copernicus must have had in regards to the Sun being the center of our solar system, against those that only wanted to teach and learn that the earth was the center of the entire universe. There is no learning without debate.

    -  Lean is best defined and approached from 10,000 feet, and that the details best flow from the wisdom, mentoring and learning abilities of the individual personalities within the ranks of the organization.

    - "LEAN" is abbreviation for "a LEArniNg organization". If you do nothing more than put the punctuation in the right place (Lea'n.), you'll have a perfectly succinct explanation of what Lean is.

    - I agree with other subscribers that lean has been marketed as a shop floor intervention and not a holistic way of doing business

     - Lean is a set of principles/tools that enables you to continuously identify, visualize and eliminate those things that are preventing you from achieving your goals and satisfying customer requirements.

    - Lean in its purest form is free market economics. The customer dictates quality and production. Anything else is waste.

    -  Lean is an operations strategy where everyone is required to take time every day, to improve the way we do things, and where the resulting competitive advantage is translated into superior value for customers.

    - Lean is a methodology of providing products and services that increases the welfare (economic and otherwise) of the producers, the customers, and all society.

    - Lean is a state of mind, a way of thinking and acting, where the coin of the realm is time and velocity, NOT cost and efficiency!

    - My personal definition is that Lean is the application of continuous learning.

    - Lean is a strategy of continuous improvement.

  2. Bill Conroy October 15, 2012, 02:18 PM
    Lean-  To always strive to accomplish tasks with the lowest amount of effort and time at every step of the process, and  to remove steps when all possible without effecting the customers perception of the finished product.
  3. Nutty Professor April 27, 2015, 12:10 PM
    The problem that I find with lean is many lean leaders are trying to support their own objectives.
    Reality is manufacturing businesses functions to make the ordered item at the least cost.
    There are method of continual improvement that help reduce reduce reduce cost through Kaizans quality circles etc.

    Everything else is verbage.  Takt time when used wrong is causing people to make rather unintelligent choices.
    Yes the comment about banks are something to see about creating wealth out of thin air, but in the real world people need to follow principles of materials management.
    Too many times companies put garbage in and expect a golden egg, reporting issues, inventory.
    Build foundation of strength before considering diving in to Lean Manufacturing.

    People need to study and learn from food industries where overstock is a killer to the bottom line.
    Methods of quality control, inventory control need to be evaluated from the Pharmaceutical industry because standards will far exceed the auto industry because of the importance and severity of errors.
    Work smarter not harder. 


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