September 22, 2017

What is Lean?

By guest writer Carlos Pérez – Galica LLC

A term coined by MIT researchers in the 1980’s to describe the way the Toyota Motor Company operated, Lean has become synonymous with a set of process improvement tools modeled after the Toyota Production System (TPS).

Sometimes Lean is also referred to as Lean Six Sigma; it is commonly defined as a set of tools and techniques to:

  1. Specify value from the customer’s perspective
  2. Map the process of delivering value to the customer
  3. Create “flow” and “pull” (1)
  4. Reduce waste in all processes

The practice of implementing Lean methodology in the US over the last 30 years has focused on teaching the TPS in the form of tools to be applied to one’s operations, and the associated Japanese lingo (kaizen, muda, kanban, poka yoke, heijunka, others). Many industries in the U.S. have emulated the TPS practices with varying degrees of success. In my experience, the companies that have failed to generate long term improvements with lean have all committed the same error – They focused on what Toyota does, not on the basic philosophy behind what they do.

What most people miss is that Lean is based on the notion that the dignity of a human being must be respected in every aspect of their lives, including their work. It is not respectful to give a person a job in which they are not fully utilized, or wastes their time waiting for other parts of the process, or does not add value in the eyes of the customer. In lean philosophy, people are not the most valuable asset of an organization, they are the organization. If you are telling your employees what to do, you are not practicing Lean. The Lean enterprise trusts its employees to deliver value to their customers.

Lean methodology is designed to bring people together to solve problems by fully understanding the root causes of a problem, developing countermeasures to address them, implementing these, seeing if they worked, and learning from the implementation. This continuous understanding/ doing/ checking & learning is at the core of a respectful culture where bringing up problems is encouraged, participation and ownership is expected.


(1) These terms are part of the Lean lingo:
Flow is eliminating unevenness in the progressive tasks along a process.
Pull is only producing when there is a demand for the output downstream of the process.


About the Author

Carlos PerezCarlos Pérez, MBA is Lean Practitioner & Facilitator at Galica, LLC. He has over 15 years of experience implementing Lean & Six Sigma improvement programs in the US and Latin America. He is a Management Black Belt, Workout® Facilitator, and has a Lean Office Certification from the University of Michigan. His work developing and leading improvement strategies has given him the knowledge of how a practical approach can achieve business goals.