Lean in short

1.     Lean

In the early days I got to know Lean, I wondered what made this something else than other leadership theories we had been through. What I discovered was that Lean was neither new, nor built on other theories than the ones we already knew. Lean is short and well modern management where leadership theories and working methods are built into everyday life so that it is used throughout the organization, based on the two principles: Continuous improvement and respect for people. The choice and design of methods, and the way the tools and methods were used, were based on these principles.

Many times, it can be frustrating that updated people in key positions explain Lean almost as a kind of cult phenomenon developed for car factories that do not apply to other industries or Western businesses in general. Lean comes basically from modern international research. American scientists were central to this development. That this was associated with the automotive industry was primarily because Toyota Motor Corporation was the ones who succeeded best in implementing this management philosophy, and who for decades showed that they by following it and developing it further, could become the best in the world in their field, even with a starting point that was not so strong. That a small car factory in Japan that produced a few hundred cars a year in the 1950s, during a couple of decades would pit itself against General Motors and Ford, who were undisputed world leaders was unthinkable for most.

2.    Lean is respect

We find that we have a society where respect for people is a natural thing – we believe. We talk about the customer in focus, the patient in focus, the involvement of employees and that we just want the best for the elderly, the students and the inhabitants. In Lean development, on the other hand, we find that respect for people is the most important and difficult challenge in good management. It is the culture and the way we behave. It is not obvious that we have one hundred percent trust in employees, politicians, managers and fellow human beings in every situation. We command and control to ensure that everyone is doing their job and that they follow written and unwritten laws and regulations that they should adhere to. In many cases, we take action and introduce regulations completely across wishes and interests. People in positions of power acquire advantages that goes beyond others and create dissatisfaction and problems. Lean assumes that all measures implemented are based on respect for the people affected.

3.     Everyone wants continuous improvement and Lean

In all organizations, we want to have a culture of continuous improvement. Many say they do not believe in lean, that this is a slogan that consultants and experts use to sell counselling and courses, and they would rather call their improvement initiative for continuous improvement. When we consider that Lean's main principle is just continuous improvement and respect for people, we can ask ourselves why we want to reduce this to only continuous improvement. If we take lean principles seriously, it is reasonable to assume that anyone who seriously want continuous improvement in their organization, or in society, in fact want Lean.

4.     What is Lean?

20th Century Lean: "A systematic approach to identifying and eliminating waste (non-value-added activities) through continuous improvement by flowing the product at the pull of the customer in pursuit of perfection”, Manufacturing Extension Partnership Lean Network.

21st Century Lean: “Lean is a permanent struggle flow value to one customer”, Mike Rother

Whether an organization is Lean or not is not about how much money they make, how good products they have, or how effective they are. Lean is defined by the dynamics of the organization. It is the daily little improvement throughout the organization that is Lean. This means that all employees work on small measures every day and improve their own processes. Practicing Go to Gemba or Genchi Gembutsu is a leader who goes out to his co-workers and supports them in their daily improvement work, shows them attention in the job they do, and coaches them in their improvement work. Or they go to the source and talk to the people when they become aware of a problem, rather than making decisions based on statistics and data. Lean is a fact-based philosophy rather than what many calls fact-based, but which are computer-based philosophies.

In a Lean culture, everyone works in teams, everyone goals themselves by defining their own goals and develop and follow up their own results. As all teams improve, so does the entire organization. No one can set goals for others and control them to good results. Everyone must build up their inner motivation by working together, setting goals and experiencing their success.


However, Lean is also teamwork, inner motivation, arenas, interaction, efficient workplaces and a plethora of process improvement methods, such as SMED, which is about reducing change-over times to reduce batch production and work for one-piece production, 5S that deals with efficient workplace by sorting, systematizing, shining, standardizing and sustaining or VSM (Value Stream Mapping) which is the big picture in the description of a value stream or process in an organization, etc. In order to achieve continuous improvement on a broad level, one must have continuous learning for all employees. This is not about constantly attending courses, but about the daily learning that is achieved in the job by training on tasks with the help of skilled mentors and coaches.

5.     Some people are skeptical of Lean

Many people are skeptical of, and outright opposed to, Lean. This can be for several reasons:

  • They have heard of Lean as something negative, and that it compromises the employees of an organization.
  • They have experienced previous improvement initiatives in the organization and experience Lean as only yet another project.
  • They believe things about Lean without having knowledge or experience in how Lean works.
  • They have been exposed to counsellors or teachers with a lack of Lean competence.
  • Strong forces in society, such as politicians, leaders and teachers talk negative about Lean and want us to believe that Lean involves problems and negative effects instead of a positive development.

6.     Strong forces in society are opponents of Lean

Lean bases improvement work on customer focus and long-term goals and visions. This does not seem to be suitable for today's economists, academic institutions or politicians. They seem to prioritize cases and projects based on professional focus and short-term financial gains. Media follows finance-experts and politicians for setting their agenda.

Lean is about respect for people, which involves trust in the employees of an organization and the delegation of power and authority from key leaders. Leaders at all levels, and especially key top executives, seem to have trouble give away so much power. We want to pick some goodies out of Lean and introduce things that fit with our own traditional thinking. Unfortunately, this entails projects where we do not practice respect for people, even if we call it Lean.

At Lean, it is important to develop good processes, as well as skills in following these and continuously improving them through learning. Academic teachers of Lean in universities and university colleges seems rather to focus on increasing knowledge, primarily by describing what Lean is and why it is important. They expect those who gain all this knowledge to start living by it without further ado.

In a Lean organization, it is the leaders who are the drivers in the process. Many consulting firms offer to introduce Lean into organizations, and many can undoubtedly provide great help in a Lean transformation. Nevertheless, the best consultants are the ones who quickly make themselves redundant, in that the organization is made self-driven, which can often conflict with the consultant’s business idea.

7.     Lean is modern management.

Whether we choose to use Lean as a term, or we call it something else, today we should make use of all the research and development carried out in modern management. "Cherry Picking" is about tending to pick out the goodies of what we learn, we want to adopt the elements we believe in and maybe become "a little Lean". But this does not entail any change, we simply replace old professional expressions with new words and continue as before. If we want to improve our results, we must accept that we must change our own behavior and let go of some of our old fads and obsolete beliefs.

Traditionally, we have heard that Lean is continuously focused on removing waste. Today, we define Lean as continuous striving to improve, which means that we do not spend effort on mapping what we are not going to do but concentrating on what we must do. As we improve our processes, the waste disappears. Focusing on removing waste is a waste of time. (Mike Rother)

A common approach has been to have a separate Lean organization with Lean Manager and navigators and the like, to drive the Lean transformation. Now it is emphasized that the driver in any Lean transformation is the organization's own management and middle management if it is to succeed. (Mike Rother)

What we have seen, and still see, is that breakthrough improvements, short term effort and projects are perceived as descriptions on organizations that are Lean. Now we have realized that it is the dynamics of the organization and the daily small improvements that are the driver of a Lean transformation, not individual examples. (Mike Rother)

What is most associated with Lean are tools and methods that are sourced from Toyota and described in books over decades. But copying these methods does not make any improvement. On the other hand, we must be able to learn how to see and analyze our own situation and our own potential, only then we can see what challenges we have and what solutions we must choose, with or without the use of well-known Lean methods from Toyota. (Mike Rother)