March 30, 2012

The recent economic crisis that we find ourselves in has made it crystal clear that organizations have to be willing to change and improve if they hope to prosper and in some cases, survive. Because of the tough economic times we find ourselves in, customers are demanding better quality,delivery, and lower costs like never before. Lean is an Operational Excellence strategy that allows you to change for the better. In fact, the Japanese word Kazan means to change for the better. The true spirit of Lean is to work with a slow and steady purpose instead of quickly and recklessly. Another common definition is that Lean is the persistent pursuit and elimination of waste. Waste is considered to be any activity that is done but provides no real “value” to the product or service. Lean is not only about attacking waste, Lean is also very focused on improving the quality of products and stability of processes.

· History of Lean

It is a common misconception that Lean thinking started in Japan by the founders of Toyota. In 1574, King Henry III watched the vettage arsenal finish gala ships every hour using continuous flow processes. In 1910, Henry Ford moved his operations of his American empire, Ford Motor Company, to Highland Park. Due to the continuous flow of massive parts throughout the factory, it is often referred to as the birthplace of Lean manufacturing. One year later in 1911, Sakichi Toyoda traveled to the U.S. from Japan to study Ford’s revolutionary way to produce the model T. Shortly after this visit, Toyoda began to conceptualize what we now call the Toyota Production System(1).

As the Toyota Production System(TPS) matured and Toyota began to excel as a corporation, the rest of the world began to take notice. In 1975, the TPS was translated to English, enabling for the first time, non-Japanese speaking individuals the opportunity to learn about this operation system.

In 1990, a group of American researchers, led by Dr. James Womack, traveled the world to study the various manufacturing processes in use. They concluded that Toyota was by far the most efficient automotive company in the world. It was at this time that one Dr. Womack’s research assistants actually coined the phrase “Lean Manufacturing.” The term was then released to the world when Dr. Womack’s book “The Machine That Changed the World” was released to the public.

In present day, Lean is also spread to many others areas besides manufacturing environments. In fact Lean can be found in Office environments, where things such as reducing the time it takes to produce customer orders is very common. Another area is in hospitals, in things like reducing errors and the time it takes to find critical supplies. This has added tremendous value. The Military and Postal Service have also been known to utilize their respective forms of Lean processes in their work environment.

· Tools of Lean

The most popular Lean tool used today is 5S. When translated to English from Japanese, 5S stands for sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain. The purpose of 5S is to be able to identify abnormalities immediately. Another Lean tool is Value Stream Mapping which helps organizations “see” waste like never before. Another powerful Lean tool is Cellular Manufacturing, where product is past in a balanced manner one piece at time.

The ideal condition for all Lean companies is to receive orders at the start of the process and quickly flow the product through all of the processing steps with no delay. However that is not always the case. In some cases continuous flow is not always possible so that is when the concept of “Pull” is implemented. This basically means that an individual work area will not start production until a downstream process or customer tells it to. Other Lean tools that have been implanted in companies include, Andon Lamps, A3 Thinking, Practical Problem Solving, Error Proofing, 3P, Visual Controls, Supplier Development, Supermarkets, and Water Spiders(2).

· Philosophies of Lean

One of the philosophies of Lean is Kaizen. Kaizen is way of thinking that basically asks a question, “How can we improve something today?” Tha Kaizen mindest is one that never settles for good. Instead it’s always focused on finding a better way, even if it is just a little bit better. Another philosophy is Genchi Genbutsu, which literally means go and see what the problem is at the place where the work is done. In other words, if there is a problem on the production floor, the management team shouldn’t try to solve it from a board room, yet they should go the place where the work is done to see what the issue is with their own eyes(1).

Finally, the idea of learning from your failures is very important. In order to succeed at Lean, or any other improvement process for that matter, an organization must be willing to try and fail from time to time. Since Learning from these failures will be the most powerful teacher of all.

By: Wesley D. Sims


1. Gemba Academy – Introduction to Lean Manufacturing


2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lean_manufacturing

3. http://etd.library.pitt.edu/ETD/available/etd-05282003-114851/unrestricted/Abdullah.pdf


2 Responses to “LEAN”

  1. Lakevia Bibb said

    Great article. I think that more organizations are implementing or evaluating their processes to determine if they are lean. As you stated, with the economic crisis companies are forced to become more innovative and eficient in their business and how they serve their customers and I think that Lean is an excellent tool to assist with the evaluation process.

  2. Helen Todd said

    I agree, great article. I particularly liked the historical perspective. I was one who thought that Lean did originate in Japan, thanks for getting the record straight. And, whether intentional or not, companies are going to a Lean philosophy, is this where the term, “lean and mean” comes from?

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