Lean Thinking: Overview, Origins, Basic Principles, Benefits, and Applications Explained

When you hear about Lean thinking, chances are you think about a process. While this is fundamentally what lean thinking is, there’s more to it than just a process. Overall, lean thinking is a business philosophy that can be applied to any and every type of business or organization, pushing better results for more growth and success. 

Lean thinking is most well known in the manufacturing and engineering industries, but its principles are applicable in every business. In fact, most businesses in various industries use lean thinking concepts to improve their processes and bottom line. 

What Is Lean Thinking?

In short, lean thinking is a business methodology. It comes from the history of Japanese manufacturing techniques applied to industries and organizations around the world. Lean thinking is a mindset as well, as the name would suggest. It’s a worldview that approaches and handles work in a lean way, meaning value to the customer is given the utmost focus. 

Lean thinking is more than just employing specific tools or tweaking a few steps in a business process – it’s all about changing how you see your business and how you recognize business operations. It's a worldview that’s adopted to change the way you think about your business. 

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The Start of Lean 

Lean comes from the car manufacturing industry, specifically Toyota. 

The Japanese-owned and founded Toyota Production System created a sustainable, working environment for productive work where they were able to keep costs low, guarantee efficient processes, and ultimately sell excellent products at a competitive price.

Usually, when businesses have higher output, the quality of their products seems to drop. With lean thinking, however, this isn’t the case. Organizations can identify wasteful activities in their process, address them, and ultimately fix them for higher quality and less wasted time. By employing the lean mindset, Toyota came together with a whole new philosophy about hard work, prioritizing value to the customer, and striving to achieve that value in every product and service.

The Two Pillars of Lean 

To really understand lean thinking, you must understand the two pillars of lean, which provide you with a starting point to learn, understand, and grow: 

  • Continuous Improvement: This simply means that every member of your organization is actively trying to find opportunities and execute initiatives that change work for the better. What you define as “better” will depend on your unique industry, but you can rely on this pillar for better team productivity and job satisfaction.
  • Respect for People: Respect for others is the backbone of any thriving organization or team. When people are able to look at one another as individuals with goals, dreams, needs, wants, and fears, they’re able to practice true empathy. In a lean organization, having respect for people (workers, customers, and everyone in between) means you give everyone their autonomy to get the job done. In other words, it means you have confidence in the people around you, which lifts morale, shows trust, and goes a long way.

When business owners place their mindset on this foundation, they’re better equipped to formulate and ultimately execute smarter business decisions and strategies. In the end, adhering to the pillars of lean will result in more productive systems for your organization.

What Is the Goal of Lean Thinking?

The goal of lean thinking is to make business better, value one another, and focus on value to customers. When you can achieve these goals, lean thinking is fully in swing. 

Within a lean organization, employees actively respect their colleagues and superiors through collaboration, quality assurance, and clear communication. This means that every member’s skills, weaknesses, capacity, and output are managed equally so everyone bears the same burden (which really won’t feel like a burden at all). 

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Lean Thinking and its 5 Principles

The Lean Enterprise Institute and the Lean Enterprise Academy were founded by James Womack and Dan Jones, respectively. They were business colleagues who penned the book, Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation

Considered by many to be the “bible” of lean manufacturing, the 1996 publication was born from Womack and Jones’ intense study of the Toyota production system’s remarkable success. Within the book, the goal of Lean thinking and the five lean thinking principles are as follows:  

1. Value 

The first of the lean thinking principles is value, which begs organizations to really understand what value means for their customers. Once you identify value, you can provide it! Value is really the foundation of the five lean thinking principles, and without it, you can’t move on to the next four. 

2. Value Stream 

Once you can successfully identify value, organizations must next learn and define how to achieve that value. In other words, organizations must identify all the steps in the different processes that take raw ideas and materials and transform them into working products and services that customers can use.  

3. Flow

Once you identify the value stream, you can move on to the next lean thinking principle: flow. When flow has been established, it means that your work is not slowed or blocked in any way. Establishing flow is not an easy task, though. To do it effectively, you may have to introduce and implement changes within your organization that may be difficult and unpopular at first. This is the essence of lean thinking: continuous improvement pushed by a shared goal. Even if getting into your flow is stressful, it will always work out well for a unified organization. 

4. Pull

By the time you’ve eliminated waste and other problems and gotten your flow running smoothly, time to market will be low. This may sound bad, but it's actually a good thing. Instead of creating products that will sit in inventory, they’ll be “pulled” by customers right when they need them. Customers are now in a great position to pull what they need from your organization, satisfying their needs and saving you from unused products piling up in inventory.

5. Perfection 

The last principle of lean thinking is perfection. To reach perfection, your organization will have gone through a total lean transformation. This means you’ve correctly identified value, refined and streamlined your value stream, nailed down smooth flow, and met customer needs and demands with the right number of products at the right time. It’s important to understand perfection is a journey and not a destination – it’s something your organization is always working toward.

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