What is Lean?

Published on
September 8, 2022
René Aernoudts
René Aernoudts
René Aernoudts is director/owner of LMI
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Lean is a way of improving processes. The goal is to help customers as well as possible at the lowest possible effort and cost. Of course, you are also a customer and you want to be helped in the best possible way, whether in the hospital, in the supermarket or if you order something online. With Lean, you look at how to deliver your service or product to your customer in the smartest way possible, in the shortest time possible. When we talk about Lean, we often talk about the different Lean principles, Lean methods and Lean techniques with which you can improve processes and thus your work. We explain more about it in this article.

Lean originated in the Japanese automotive industry (Toyota), but has also been successfully applied for decades in a variety of organizations in the Netherlands.

Lean helps hospitals, nursing homes, municipalities and those kinds of organizations to do their jobs the best they can, within the available budget they have. And it helps commercial companies develop smart products and services so they can be profitable and get people to work.

The beauty of Lean is that you can learn how to do your own process improvements and make your own job as enjoyable as possible, without having to perform all kinds of unnecessary work. Want to know if Lean working is applicable in your type of work? At the end of this article we will give you some tools to answer this question. Want to know which issues in which industries we improve with Lean? Then take a look around at our industry pages, where we outline several example cases in various industries.

What are the benefits of Lean?

  • Everyone can participate in improving
  • You learn more and more how to do processes and your own work smarter
  • Processes run easier and faster
  • Mistakes are not bad, but an opportunity to learn
  • You do more meaningful work, and don't spend your time on unnecessary things (waste)
  • For your customers, quality and delivery reliability improve
  • Your clients are happier with you and the work you do as a result
  • So work becomes (even) more fun for you and your colleagues!

Lean principles, ideas, Lean methods and Lean techniques

In short, Lean is a collective name for a set of Lean principles, ideas, Lean methods and Lean techniques aimed at realizing maximum value for the customer with minimal use of resources and people. The focus is on improving processes to reduce lead time, increase quality and delivery reliability and reduce costs.

What is customer value?

Customer value basically means: what does your customer find valuable and is your customer willing to pay an appropriate price for it. It is wise to talk to customers about what they find valuable about your product and/or service. If your product or service helps a customer and solves his or her problem, then your organization has a right to exist. Your organization probably wouldn't exist if no one found your products or services valuable and wanted to spend money on them. Within Lean, customer value is an important concept: it looks at all the steps in a process and asks the question: does this step add value (is this a value-adding or value-creating activity?) for our customers or not? If the answer is no, then the next question is: can we skip or eliminate this step? And what do we need to do that?

customer value

Determining customer value is not always so easy, because customers often value different things, or it depends on the situation. But by asking the question you get a better understanding of which steps in a process are valuable to the customer and which steps are not. Customer value is also expressed in SQDC or Safety, Quality, Delivery and Cost. Customers want a safe product, of a certain quality, at a certain time and for an appropriate price. This helps to see more precisely what is a valuable step or not, or what you need to work on to create more or better customer value.  

Value is therefore the first principle of the five Lean principles, which we explain later.

Is Lean about reducing costs?

The purpose of Lean is not primarily to cut costs. Rather, the challenge within Lean is how to deliver as much customer value as possible for as little use of resources, time, energy and effort as possible. These resources can then be used to create customer value in other areas. Often, Lean does deliver cost savings, but that is a nice extra benefit. It is therefore about having as little waste as possible in the process. We will now explain this concept.

What are the Lean wastes?

If you're going to apply the Lean method to improving processes or your work, you're going to look for as many wastes as possible in the process or in your daily work. And you're going to try to eliminate these wastes. Wastes don't add anything for your customer: the customer is actually not willing to pay for these activities within the process. They don't add anything for the customer and therefore often not for your organization either. After all, waste always costs time (and money). Wastes are also called non-value-creating activities.

So if you want to start improving a process, you always look for the value-creating activities and the non-value-creating activities. And then you look at how you can eliminate those non-value-creating activities, combine them with other activities, do them at a different time or make them simpler.

Toyota originally named seven wastes that often occur in their processes. You can use these to take a focused look at various non-value-added activities. Read more about Lean's 7 wastes here .

What are the five Lean principles?

Daniel (Dan) Jones and James P. (Jim) Womack are the founders of Lean and developed a Lean management theory that revolves around five Lean principles. More on this in the book Lean Thinking. The five Lean principles guide organizations in any industry that employ Lean as a method for continuous improvement.

What are the five Lean principles?
The five Lean principles are:
  1. Define value from a customer perspective. We explained this concept of customer value above. Customer value thus gives direction in what you look at in the processes: what is value-added and what is not?
  2. Identify how the value streams (value streams) flow in your organization. That is, map all your process steps and eliminate the biggest wastes (or non-value-added activities) in your processes.
  3. Create Flow whenever possible, make the service or product flow through your organization in the shortest possible lead time. Make sure products or services flow smoothly to the customer, without interruptions, by executing the value-creating steps in quick succession.
  4. From push to pull: start delivering something only when there is customer demand and do not create unnecessary inventory. After all, this costs money and often comes at the expense of your flexibility and quality.
  5. Strive for perfection, or continuous improvement. Often you can already improve a lot by removing the three biggest wastes from your process. AND once that's succeeded you can tackle the next wastes. So you improve in several steps and do not try to achieve the perfect process all at once: this prevents your beautiful plans from becoming too complex to implement quickly. As an ideal, you try to achieve a situation where value is created for the customer without waste.

What can I do with Lean in my daily work?

A lot! The beauty of Lean is that you can start applying it both very big and very small. Of course, the answer to this question depends on your personal situation, but we try to give you some guidance here.

Have little experience with Lean?
  • Read the booklet Everything I know about lean I learned in first grade. In this thin booklet you will quickly learn the basics and what that looks like in an elementary school. Fun, educational and a quick read. Or continue reading in our Lean Lexicon or read articles about how Lean is applied in all kinds of organizations. You can get great ideas from that for your own work!
My best learning for Lean was elementary school
  • Examine how and where you or your team add value for the customer.
  • Which of your activities or your departmental process are value-added and which are not?
  • Try to eliminate non-value-added activities!
  • A fun way to get started concretely is to actually physically go through the process as it runs through your organization, or to visit your organization as a customer yourself. Often you then suddenly see very different things, and ask different questions... This helps you look at things with fresh eyes and you are more likely to see what wastes are in your processes. For example, ask the question: how many people does it take to go through this process? Or how many feet does this product travel through our facility before it goes to the customer? Or how many days do we have inventory for?
  • Discuss with your colleagues what problems you encounter in your work.  
  • Try to analyze and structurally solve these problems in a Lean way of problem solving, such as by creating an A3.
  • Take a Lean training or Lean workshop to learn more about Lean .
  • A good basic course is the Lean Yellow Belt that we often organize in an organization. This is because it is much easier to get started together with your colleagues than trying to do it on your own.
  • Or start immediately with the Lean Green Belt, which focuses on continuous improvement and problem solving within and with your own team.
‍Haveyou had more experience with Lean?
  • You can pursue advanced training to Lean Black Belt where you will tackle problems or improve processes that go beyond the boundaries of your department, involving other stakeholders.
  • Are you a manager of a department? How do you apply Lean Management or visual management or board discussions? We have several training courses available for this as well.

Besides training, we also help organizations in consulting projects where we help teams or companies to tackle their challenges in a Lean way. Take a look at our advice page and read more about the issues we have tackled in various industries. Here you will find various cases and articles explaining how we have helped clients and what the results were.

Any questions?

We are always willing to take a moment to spar with you about your Lean question! Feel free to contact us!

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