Let Them Be Lean! – Um, What Does Lean Mean?

Over the years, I’ve come in contact with several different companies that say that they are “lean”. Yes, TPS (the Toyota Production System) is a great framework for production, with its teachings of one-piece flow, kanban, etc…but what about the actual implementation of the lean concepts at other companies besides Toyota?

I’ve seen desks with outlines of where the stapler and the computer monitor should go, yet with no sense of continuous improvement in the culture. I’ve also seen kanban implemented with min and max levels clearly marked, yet with no safety stock even left due to variation in production downtime. On the other hand, I have seen a really good “lean” production system operating every day as well, but that has been the exception.

What’s up here? It seems like that it is almost impossible to get to real ’lean’ operations unless you actually start up with a lean philosophy.

So here’s a burning question–

Overall, is “lean” a concept that is being actively implemented with success at “mass production”, or is it something that is being attempted by doing all of the easy things first while putting off the hard stuff?

As always, your input is always appreciated!

Comments 5

  1. michael cardus

    I think that even in asking the question you know the answer.
    With a poorly funded and time strapped organizational intitiative any org. initiative.
    The leadership always pushes the easy or low hanging fruit first. In the idea of "get them to say yes" then after the laughter dies down and the emloyees realize that drawing a box for your stapler is not lean.
    We can start the real work.

    YOU ARE RIGHT in the pyramid is upside down.
    The Philosophy, Principles, Psychology, must be in place before implementation of any initiative, although lean is a tough one.

  2. cheezer

    It seems some companies do lean for show while only a few understand that it should be done for value. I’ve interviewed at companies who have basically told me "we need a lean/six sigma program because our customer/owner/Wall Street demands it." They really only wanted something to show, not something to make improvements. They had no plans to make the necessary changes to better deliver value.

  3. Kosta Chingas

    Michael…I really don’t know what the clear answer is for the trends are out there regarding lean implementation, but I have a guess, and Cheezer confirms what I’m thinking….how widespread is this philosophy of "lean labeling"?

    I actually interviewed over ten years ago with a company that wanted me to put together their ISO quality manual, for the same reaons that Cheezer shows…because they had to (I didn’t take the job).

    That was over ten years ago…I was hoping that there has been more progress since then…..but I’m not too optimistic…

    Thanks for the input guys, looks like a start of a good discussion…

  4. JSchmedd

    This is an interesting discussion and one that I feel many improvement professionals have dealt with time and again. How do we get our organizations to fully commit to Lean? One of the hurdles that I face is changing an organization at the base level; making a culture change that fosters improvement from the ground level and gives full support from the top down.

    There is an answer to this question. I’m not entirely sure what that answer is, but I’m positive that it exists. Personally, I will continue to be the driver for this initiative and letting the benefits of the process speak for itself. If committment exists in any form, at any level, then change will come. Kicking and screaming maybe, but change will come if the organization and its proponents really want to grow.

  5. Kosta Chingas


    Never lose that perspective! Keep driving..

    From my perspective, one way to "sell" lean is by hands-on teaching….for example..

    Say you use legos to build a simple house on a ’mini’ assembly line. First you use ’push’ methodology, then you turn around and use ’pull’ with a kanban. I think you could show some of the benefits that way.

    The best way by far however is by showing the dollars…and that can be done as well I believe.

    From the shop floor level, participative management helps a lot. If you can engage the workforce, and let them have a stake in problem solving, you can drive change from the ground level as well.

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