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Lean Thinking

Lean process

Lean Thinking is nothing new! The term “lean” may only have been coined in the book ‘The Machine that Changed the World (Womack, Jones and Roos, 1990), but the concepts behind it have been around for many years including in the works of Henry Ford, W. Edwards Deming and the Toyota Production System.

The term “lean” refers to the fact that when the Japanese and Western automotive industries were compared it become obvious that the Japanese used less effort, less capital investment, less space and less time. Therefore very “lean”!

The question was how could the Western world learn from and adapt the Japanese way of working so that they too could benefit from improving the use of their resources. The book ‘Lean Thinking’ (Womack and Jones, 1996) introduced the philosophy of the five lean principles as key to achieving this.

The five lean principles put the customer at the heart of everything that we do. Ensuring that the product or service we produce adds value for our customer. This helps us to identify and eliminate the non value adding and wasteful activities that go into delivering that product or service to that customer.

Womack and Jones’ five principles are:

  1. Customer Value – understand from the customers’ viewpoint what is of value to them. This is about building a relationship around clear communication and shared understanding in a way that will allow you to deliver what it is that your customer needs.
  2. Value Stream – to be able to remove the waste from processes it is essential that all the activities, across all the areas, involved in delivering that product or service are understood.
  3. Create Flow – in order to eliminate the waste, processes need to be changed and reorganised so that the product or service flows through all the value adding steps in the most effective and efficient way possible.
  4. Customer Pull – by understanding the demand that customers put on your processes you can build your processes to meet that demand. Therefore, delivering what your customer needs, when they need it to the place that they need it.
  5. Pursue Perfection – the world you live in is constantly changing and therefore your processes need to continue to meet the changing requirements and demands. Through building in proper review mechanisms you ensure that you deliver what your customer needs not only now but in the future.

The removal of waste is the cornerstone to successful lean implementation and provides the biggest opportunity for performance improvement. Lean often starts by working to improve individual process steps but the gains become more powerful as all those steps link together. This means the organisation is moving towards the ideal, that every action adds value for the customer. It is for this reason that lean is seen as a journey of sustained process improvement and should not be regarded as a quick fix solution.