What is Lean? Delivering only what customers value.

Lean valueHow would you define Lean? You may hear definitions such as Kanban, 5s or PDCA. There are so many definitions that come out of the various Lean tools that it is confusing to those starting on the Lean journey. When I was initially thinking about Lean and applying it to the service industries such as Information Technology I considered how I can adapt the tools and methods that Toyota uses in their factories to IT. However, the key to understand Lean is to understand the philosophy or what is driving the use of the tools. I had missed the soft and invisible things that explain why Toyota had developed these tools and methods.

Toyota’s key value is to focus on its customers; satisfying the customer needs with the least amount of effort. Out of this came two key principles; Just-in-time and Jidoka. Just-in-time is to produce what the customers want when they want it and in the quantities they want it. It is to be able to react to the customers and the wants of the customers when they want it. Ultimately with Just-in-time you want to have a flow of work, where the item is continual having value added to it from the time the work comes in to the time it is completed. Jidoka highlights the cause of the problems at the point they occur by stopping the flow of work. This can be the foundation for continuous improvement. For Jidoka to be successful you need to be able to visualize the flow of work and create a clear picture of what is happening so that if anything goes wrong or disturbs the flow you can react to it and fix it.

However, what we see in most businesses is independent siloed areas that do not understand their work in relation to meeting the customer need or often in relation to the other silos in the organisation. You have the various siloed departments that are working as best they can on their tasks but not being linked in the flow of work. Think of a basketball team working together to get the ball into the goal. If they are working in silos even the teams made up with the best players will fail to score goals. Also if the team cannot see the current status of the end to end process to be able to react to issues and to changes then they will struggle to get a goal. In the Olympics of 2004, the US Dream basketball team was beaten by Puerto Rico. The coach of the US team at that time said that the Puerto Rico team “played as a team”. The US basketball team is known as the team of all stars, but were beaten due to not playing as a team. In the same way, you may have the best siloed team that have the best processes but do not play together well, that will be beaten by a team that do not have the best players but know the goal and can see the current state and react to that current state.

eliminating silos

Out of these key Lean principles come the method and tools. It shouldn’t be the other way around and it is unfortunate when companies just take isolated tools and apply them without understanding the reason these tools were developed. This is where the confusion on what is Lean comes from. The tools support the key values and principles. Just applying them without a clear understanding of your key principles will not provide long term results.

Returning to the question, what is Lean?  Lean is about understanding what the customer values and delivering this value to the customer with the least amount of effort by employing the key principles of just-in-time and Jidoka.