What Lean Means – A Big Picture View

July 23, 2018
  • Jeff Fuchs
    By Jeff Fuchs
    Executive Director

jfuchs.jpgJeff Fuchs is Executive Director of the Maryland World Class Consortia, a lean learning collaborative in the mid-Atlantic. He is President of Neovista Consulting, providing lean transformation training and leadership coaching services.

What does “lean” mean? Over 25 years as a lean practitioner, I’ve offered various answers.

Lean can be described as a process focused on greater customer value and elimination of waste. If our aim is to mobilize people toward self-directed improvement, this definition can help get everyone to action. The book Lean Thinking described lean in terms of five key principles. This framework has helped people optimize around value streams that cut across the strong functional boundaries in business enterprises. Talking about lean as a “culture of continuous improvement” has helped many leaders appreciate their important role in lean transformation, and how they can better sustain lean efforts over time.

I’ve often emphasized that lean is an extension of the scientific method. The Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle at the heart of lean improvement is the same cycle at the heart of scientific discovery: Observe the world around us, develop hypotheses about how it works, conduct controlled experiments, compare actual and expected results that confirm or deny your hypotheses, and either develop better hypotheses or confirm your theories and build upon them.

Underscoring the linkage between lean and the scientific method has been particularly effective when someone asserts the belief that what they do is so unique that lean does not apply to them. The scientific method is a structured approach to discovering at the threshold of what we know. We are taking processes and performance levels to places they have never been before. It is universal: it applies to all industries, process types, and fields of knowledge. Regardless of how unique or commonplace your activity, the scientific method is a systematic way to develop the next better way.

Let’s stretch a bit further and consider the link between lean and evolution. We are all familiar with the theory of natural selection, the mechanism by which life evolves to become ever more fit for conditions. In a very real sense, lean is a form of process evolution. From a current process standard, we experimentally test a variant we hypothesize may deliver better performance. We compare the new and current performance and, if superior, the new process becomes the standard. The cycle repeats. Humans have successfully adapted these techniques to delivery route planning, production schedule optimization, structural design, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. They are time-tested ways to optimize any system toward a target. Lean is a way for you to systematically “evolve” your process into ever-better forms, more fit for their purpose. It is hard to argue that there is no use trying this approach in your work system.

I confess that I am very much a “lean wonk” and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the common threads between lean, learning, the scientific method, and evolution. Maybe too much time, because I see lean everywhere, it seems. But Lean Thinking is improvement thinking, and in a world that is constantly growing and changing, all processes must change, re-optimize, and improve. Therefore, I suggest, lean can be applied everywhere.

Download our white paper, “Lean In” to Continuous Improvement to learn how lean principles can create a culture of continuous learning and improvement for your organization.

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