What Lean Really Means

Lean manufacturing is transformational. It changes an entire organization. 


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Some companies install one U-shaped work cell or put up a shadow-board for hand tools next
to a workbench and call that lean. Yes, these are small steps in the direction of lean manufacturing, but they hardly represent what lean is all about. Although striving for greater efficiency is
a part of lean manufacturing, the concept as a whole is far more comprehensive.

Lean manufacturing is more accurately characterized as a sweeping redirection of a manufacturing company’s focus. (Note that this refocusing usually occurs over time and can start on a comfortably small basis—one of the beauties of lean.) What the customer values has to become the prime motivation for everything the company does or refrains from doing. Every change that occurs as a part of a lean implementation has to be related to enhancing customer value. In lean parlance, "customer value" is usually defined as that which the customer is "willing to pay for."

The principles and techniques of lean manufacturing are well-established and refined. Numerous handbooks, training resources, Web sites and qualified lean leaders are accessible to companies that are serious about implementing lean manufacturing. It should be noted that there is no absolutely right way to implement lean. How a production plant implements lean may be very different from how a job shop implements lean.

Regardless of how differently various companies apply the principles and derive the benefits of lean, successful implementations of lean manufacturing have something in common. Everyone in the organization knows they are moving in a clear and certain direction and that this direction is the right one. There is no doubt about the path and no doubt about where it leads.

This is a paradox because lean manufacturing is often described as a journey with no end point, no final destination. This is true because the lean transformation is never complete. Companies can always reduce activities that do not add to customer value, or they can expand those that do add value. In fact, lean manufacturing provides a framework for creating certainty about the next steps to take. Lean removes much of the guesswork in these decisions. For example, lean manufacturing provides tools for defining current operations, identifying activities that do not add value and envisioning less wasteful procedures. Each step requires measuring and quantifying. These numbers are reliable—literally and figuratively, lean manufacturing is something you can count on.

However, as important as the "science" of lean manufacturing is, the cultural changes inherent in the lean transformation are even more important. Everyone in an organization is on the lean journey together; no one can be left behind and no one can stand aside and watch. Thus, the top leadership in an organization must not only support the lean transformation enthusiastically, but also they must be actively involved in it. The CEO has to be a believer and a participant. He or she must be as obsessed with customer value as the workforce on the shop floor is.

What happens when a manufacturing company is transformed by lean? It becomes more competitive. For example, imagine manufacturers as runners in a long-distance race. Each runner carries a sack that represents waste in the manufacturing process. The companies that are implementing lean will have lighter and lighter sacks to carry. They will have an advantage. The skills of their workers; the capability of their machines and processes; and the superiority of their product designs will be not be restrained by waste that would otherwise hold them back from delivering customer value. Being lean does not guarantee that a company will be a winner in the commercial marketplace, but it does make it more likely that the company has the best possible chance to succeed.

Finally, lean manufacturing is characterized by a sense of joy. For some reason, this aspect of lean gets the least mention, although it may be the best surprise of the lean transformation. Working in a cluttered area is dispiriting. Looking for missing tools is annoying. Waiting for the next step or the next piece is frustrating. Making mistakes or seeing good work scrapped downstream causes disappointment and anger. The waste that lean manufacturing seeks to find and remove is ultimately that which drains life energy from a workforce.

In a workplace that is progressing to less waste and to more activity that adds customer-defined value, the energy returns. It feels good. It’s fun. It’s gratifying to see effort and care making a detectable difference. It’s uplifting to be part of the movement to a future that is measurably better than the past. Of course, waste also diminishes a company’s potential to make money. It conceals opportunities to expand profitable production. Lean helps unlock this hidden capacity.

Individuals who have a genuine experience of lean manufacturing know what to look for and are not likely to call anything "lean" that isn’t truly so. They will respect and protect the meaning of the term