So, just what is “lean” and why is it relevant for us? If we’re already the most expert roofer, plumber, physician, or architect in our area, isn’t “lean” just more consulting mumbo jumbo? No! In fact, “lean enterprise” is a winning banner under which several supporting methods have been developed to drive superior performance and healthy long-term organizational development. This encompasses product development, supply chain management, project management, operations management, physical layout and housekeeping, equipment maintenance, capacity planning, processing of daily orders, employee training and motivation, and many other areas relevant to most companies.
Lean is extremely hands-on, straight-forward, visual and participative in its elements; attributes which commend it in nearly all types of businesses. Better yet, it doesn’t involve highly mysterious and expensive “black-box” systems. Lean principles apply to all businesses that have regular activities, process and workflows.
How can one system be so universal in its application?
Let’s look at a few key aspects of a lean enterprise. In many ways, lean thinking can be summed up as follows:
1) Time-Based Management: eliminating friction and waste to achieve fast, efficient, uninterrupted “flow” of products and services to customers. This contrasts with traditional “departmentalized” structures, which feature lots of “hand-off s,” poor coordination and communication (and, therefore, waste) and considerable waiting time between steps.
2) Team Discipline: using a “pull system” which responds, real-time, to customer demand by cascading back through preceding company operations with frequent/small replenishment orders (also applies to new product development). This contrasts with the traditional “push system” of scheduled “batch” activity according to imperfect forecasts.
3) Lifelong Learning: constantly seeking excellence and continuous improvement in all aspects required to pursue “perfection” in executing steps (1) and (2). This requires an overall vision and operating model to provide the framework for continual improvement and learning by all team members.
Sounds simple, right? This certainly doesn’t seem like something a “world class” company like Toyota would need to view as a never-ending, top priority pursuit. They’ve already devoted 60 years to “lean” and made incredible progress on becoming the world’s leading and best-managed car company. But, after all of this intense long-term focus, Toyota still views themselves as less than 25% of the way along their lean journey toward “perfect” execution according to their current understanding!