Printing Lean

You say tomato, I say tomato

October 11, 2010

Several times over the past few years I have written, both here in this column and on my blog, that I consider myself to be a perpetual student when it comes to all things Lean. While the word Lean may be relatively new when applied to the business world, the underlying principles behind Lean have been around for a hundred years or more.

When Jim Womack, Dan Jones, and Dan Roos first published The Machine That Changed The World (Scribner, 1990), the book that is widely considered to have been the spark that ignited today's Lean movement, the word Lean didn't even appear on the cover. Instead, it was relegated to the inside of the back flap and it was referred to as "lean production." A quote from that cover flap states, "If Western companies and their managers and workers are to survive in the 1990s, they must learn and adapt to lean production." Within a year the reprint (Harper Perennial, 1991) would prominently feature the tagline "The Story of Lean Production."

Had the internet, as we know it today, been around in 1991 and you searched the phrase "lean production" you would probably have been hard pressed to find any hit other than the aforementioned The Machine That Changed The World. Search that phrase today and you will get 444,000 results in under a second. Search for "Lean Manufacturing" and you'll get 1,160,000 hits. A similar search of one popular internet book seller returns 392 titles, including one listed under "Children's Books" (don't ask me why).

You can even buy reprints of this column on this same site. The September 2008 column on "Becoming Lean" is ranked fourth out of 12 titles currently listed under Books Computers & Internet Lean Manufacturing.

A quick search of "Lean Manufacturing blogs" returns 2,750 results in just over one-tenth of a second! If you search for "Lean Printing blogs" you'll find all sixteen references to my blog and this column. Ok, it's barely even a ripple in the lean blog pond but hey, I'll take it.

So, with this explosion in recent years of books, CDs, DVDs, articles, blogs, seminars, presentations, all sorts of ways and means to communicate the powerful message of Lean, you would think that everyone gets what Lean is, that we're all lined up behind a common definition, theme and sheet of music. You would be forgiven for thinking that, but you would be wrong.

There has been much kerfuffle in the Lean community of practice (COP) in recent weeks over what Lean is and isn't, has not been and can be, did and did not do during this extended economic recession. A July article in the Wall Street Journal reported that "the drawbacks of lean manufacturing" were to blame for recent shortages at Apple and Nissan. Even the blame for Toyota's recent quality woes have been laid squarely on the shoulders of Lean.

Of course, shots fired across the bow of HMS Lean have not gone unchallenged. The Lean COP responded to each well publicized attack (and each perceived attack) with a few well aimed shots of their own. Indeed, the subject was even brought up in this column back in March.

But while Lean's defenders responded (as they should) to each argument made by Lean's detractors, the responses showed that there are nearly as many definitions, themes, and sheets of music in the Lean community of practice as there are Lean practitioners. Many of us in the Lean COP were left to wonder why.

To start to answer the question "What is Lean" we need to understand and agree on one very basic principle of Lean: There is no one standard for Lean. I and many others have stated time and time again that there is no one way to start out on and pursue a Lean transformation. So if there is not one standard way to "become Lean" then it stands to reason that there is no single answer to the question "What is Lean?" To me it's like trying to answer the question "What does it mean to be a good person?" There are an infinite number of ways that one can answer that question, and there are probably almost as many ways to answer the question "What is Lean?"

Sadly, many companies, probably the majority, view Lean only in terms of the tools that are familiar to them. Five S, SMED, kanban, point-of-use storage, and visual controls are commonplace in companies that are attempting Lean. Tools are great and are necessary, but they are not Lean in and of themselves. I can swing a hammer and use a saw but I am not a carpenter.

Some companies view Lean as a temporary fix, a band-aid to stem the flow of defective product and the losses associated with it. This, too, is not Lean. Lean is not a bolt-on to a current process or system. Random applications of Lean will never fix a failed system.

To me, Lean has at its core four very simple ideals. It is:


To me a Lean enterprise is one that strives to always be safer each and every day. It's been said over and over that respect for people is a key principle in Lean. Safety is inviolate. Every manager, every leader, every Lean organization must constantly do everything that can be done to ensure that employees are working in the safest environment possible and are not overly stressed physically or mentally.

A Lean enterprise is one that works to eliminate complexity in the workplace. Jobs and job functions should be challenging but not demanding. Lean organizations recognize that safety, quality and productivity all improve when complexity is removed from the tasks that their employees perform. One of the wastes in Lean is not using the combined education, experience, and desire to improve from each and every employee. Lean organizations learn to tap into this pool of knowledge and skill and uses both to remove complexity which, in turn, permits employees to perform their job functions more safely, more consistently, and without becoming physically and emotionally spent by the end of the work day.

A Lean organization is one that is always trying to improve the quality of the products and services that it offers. Think about it: Does any organization consciously try to underperform the competition? Of course not, but most don't make the effort to consciously outperform the competition, either. I'm not talking about innovation in new products or services. I'm talking about improving the products and services that are offered today.

A Lean enterprise looks to improve the safety of the work environment, to remove complexity and make the work day less taxing, to improve the quality of the products and services offered, and to do so with an eye on the bottom line. After all, we're in business to make money, not lose it. Many of the improvements in safety, complexity and quality can be made with minimal financial investment. What it does take, though, to be Lean is a complete investment in people, a complete investment in leadership, and a complete investment in the desire to continuously improve.

Tom Southworth is a Lean consultant with CONNSTEP, Connecticut's Manufacturing Extension Partnership. He is a Senior Member of ASQ, an ASQ Certified Manager of Quality & Organizational Excellence, a senior member of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, SME Lean Bronze Certified, and a certified TWI Job Instruction and Job Relations Trainer. He can be reached by email at tsouthworth@