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Lean Principles 101


Lean is a business methodology, born of a manufacturing practice, that is transforming the world of knowledge work. Lean encourages a practice of evolutionary change, called continuous improvement, rooted in a fundamental respect for people.

Unlike many business methodologies, Lean is not a prescriptive practice that comes with hard-and-fast rules, tools, and practices. Lean is a way of thinking, summarized by the seven Lean principles that will be outlined in this post.

These seven Lean principles can be applied to any team, in any organization, in any industry. Practicing Lean effectively is simply a matter of knowing how to apply Lean principles effectively in your environment. The challenge is knowing how to identify something properly; for example, being able to see that planning a piece of work months in advance may be considered waste, in a Lean sense.

When you identify something you’re doing or thinking that might not be Lean, use it as an opportunity to grow. Share it with your team. Share successes, but more importantly, discuss failures, too. This is how you practice continuous improvement in Lean. By sharing your learning with your team, you’re also demonstrating the Lean principle of Create Knowledge.

Here, you can learn the basics of the seven Lean principles. Refer to this page when you’re facing a challenging decision and you’re not sure of the “Lean thing” to do. Over time, you’ll begin to see how Lean thinking can guide you toward a healthier, more productive, more sustainable work environment.

The Seven Lean Principles

Optimize the whole

Every business represents a value stream, the sequence of activities required to design, produce, and deliver a product or service to customers. If our goal is to deliver as much value to our customers as quickly as possible, then we must optimize our value streams to be able to do just that. To understand how to optimize our value streams, first we must properly identify them (value streams).

Eliminate waste

Lean thinking encourages this definition of waste: If your customer wouldn’t pay for it, it’s waste. Waste, in knowledge work, can be:

  • Context switching
  • Too much work in process
  • Time spent manually completing a task that could be automated

Build quality in

As businesses grow, the limitations of homegrown systems expose themselves. Lean companies set themselves up for sustainable growth by practicing the Lean principle of Building Quality In.

The concept is simple: Automate and standardize any tedious, repeatable process, or any process that is prone to human error. This allows Lean companies to error-proof significant portions of their value streams, so they can focus their energy on creating value for their customers.

Deliver fast

When a piece of work reaches your customer, it’s valuable. Until then, it isn’t.

The Lean principle of Deliver Fast by Managing Flow is based on the idea that the faster we can deliver bits of value to our customers, the sooner we can begin to learn from customer feedback. The more we learn from our customers, the better able we are to give them exactly what they want.

In order to deliver fast, we have to manage flow, by limiting work in process and maintaining a relentless focus on value delivery.

Create knowledge

The Lean principle of Create Knowledge is related to the concept of Optimizing the Whole. A Lean organization is a learning organization; it grows and develops through analyzing the results of small, incremental experiments.

To retain that information as an organization, the learning must be shared. The Lean principle of Create Knowledge says that Lean organizations must provide the infrastructure to properly document and retain valuable learning.

Defer commitment

Lean thinking is derived from the manufacturing philosophy of Toyota, which emphasized a just-in-time system of inventory management. The Lean principle of Defer Commitment says that Lean organizations should also function as just-in-time systems, waiting until the last responsible moment to make decisions. This allows Lean organizations to have the agility to make informed decisions, with the most relevant, up-to-date information available.

Respect people

The success of any Lean initiative hinges upon one Lean principle: Respect People. Out of respect for the customer, we make decisions that will bring them the most value with minimal waste. Out of respect for our employees, we create environments that allow everyone to do their best work. Out of respect for our coworkers, we continuously strive to optimize our processes to allow everyone to deliver the most value they can provide.

Creating Lean Teams

The process of creating Lean teams involves forming teams around current processes, defining those processes, and then creating teams to focus on improving individual processes. The roles and responsibilities of each team, as well as the methodology for improving processes, must be clearly identified. Each team must be responsible for making reasonable changes without being required to move through a traditional hierarchical business structure.

Benefits of forming Lean teams include:

  • Improving communication among team members and teams
  • Empowering teams to make decisions and effect change
  • Cross-functional teams instead of silos based on skillsets
  • Improving the quality of your company’s products and services

When it comes to using Lean principles and teams in your organization, embrace the Lean mindset, consider your options carefully, and don’t be afraid to make organizational changes that fully support your initiatives. This will lay the foundation for a successful Lean experience.