At its core, Lean is a business methodology that promotes the flow of value to the customer through two guiding tenets: continuous improvement and respect for people. Jim Benson of Modus Cooperandi defines Lean methodology in this way: “Lean is both a philosophy and a discipline which, at its core, increases access to information to ensure responsible decision making in the service of creating customer value.”

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Lean methodology’s success in the manufacturing process led to business applications.
Lean methodology’s success in the manufacturing process led to business applications.

Lean methodology is not a new concept, but its modern application to business is constantly evolving. Before Lean was known as a business methodology, it was an approach to the manufacturing process. Keep reading to learn more about the history and application of Lean, as well as key Lean methodology principles.

Roots in Manufacturing

Lean methodology originated with the Toyota Production System, or TPS, which revolutionized the manufacture of physical goods in the 1950s, ‘60s, and beyond. Lean maintains its hold in manufacturing, but has also found new applications in knowledge work, helping businesses in all industries eliminate waste, improve processes, and boost innovation.

Expansion into Software Development

Lean methodology’s first applications outside of manufacturing appeared in software development, in a discipline known as Agile methodology. Conceptually, Agile software development is a Lean development methodology for optimizing the software development cycle.

Software development is a natural application of Lean methodology because, much like manufacturing, it:

  • Generally follows a defined process
  • Has some defined conditions of acceptance
  • Results in the delivery of tangible value

Over time, the success of applying Agile and Lean principles to software development piqued the interest of other departments and other industries. Today, Lean development methodology is being applied to knowledge work that follows a process – which is essentially all knowledge work.

Pillars of Lean Methodology: Continuous Improvement and Respect for People

There are two primary concepts that guide all practice of Lean methodology, which we call the Pillars of Lean. They are: continuous improvement and respect for people.

Continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is one of the Pillars of Lean, which guide all Lean methodology practice.
Continuous improvement is one of the Pillars of Lean, which guide all Lean methodology practice.

When some people think of Lean methodology, they equate it with the elimination of waste. While it’s true that Lean organizations aim to eliminate waste (defined as anything that does not deliver value to the customer), the goal is not elimination – it’s value creation.

So how do we create value? We become learning organizations. We set out to learn what our customers want and need, and how to eliminate what they don’t. We work to continuously improve so that our value stream, from end to end, is continuously optimizing to create more value for the customer.

How do we learn what is valuable? We deliver quickly. When we deliver quickly, based on what we know about the customer, we are able to get feedback quickly. And whether what we deliver is a failure or a success (or somewhere in between), we gain valuable insight into how to improve. This is how we achieve business agility; this is how we, through the process of creating value, eliminate waste.

The continuous improvement cycle helps organizations practicing Lean methodology differentiate themselves from competitors.

Lean organizations are nimble, humble, and methodical. We encourage employees to foster a learning mindset, and more specifically, a testing mindset. We test ideas with our target market before we throw dollars at them. In this way, Lean methodology is as much of a path toward innovation as it is a form of risk management.

Respect for frontline workers

Often, the best ideas come from the people with their hands on the product. In most organizations, decisions are made at the top of the organization and trickled down to the frontline. Lean thinking encourages allowing everyone, especially those closest to the product and the customer, to have an equal voice, to ensure that the voice of the customer, and those doing the work, is heard. This is the Lean concept of going to the gemba – going to the place where the work is done – to get ideas for improving work and creating value. Lean thinking says that good people want to do their best work and are motivated to make decisions that optimize their time and talent to create the most value for the customer. Going to the gemba allows the organization to capture the best ideas and bring them to fruition.

Lightweight leadership

Elevating the voice of the frontline worker evolves the role of leadership. In an organization structured around a command-and-control form of leadership, the role of the leader is to set the course of what to do, but also how and when.

Lean leadership empowers employees with the autonomy to make decisions, the opportunity to master their craft, and the purpose (the “why” behind the work) to understand the value of their efforts. The role of the leader is to define the goal at hand, and then allow their talented employees to discover the most appropriate course of action toward that goal.

Leaders are charged with the task of bringing the best out of their employees and removing any obstacles that could prevent their team from delivering value to the customer. Lean leadership is better defined by what it is not than what it is. It’s not command-and-control, it’s not micromanaging, and it’s not driven by ego or the power of position. It’s leading in the truest sense.

Lean Methodology Summary

In short, Lean methodology is a way of optimizing the people, resources, effort, and energy of your organization toward creating value for the customer. It is based on two guiding tenets, continuous improvement and respect for people. Teams all over the world, from sales to software development, are using Lean methodology principles to sustainably deliver more value to their customers, while building healthier, more resilient organizations.