Lean FAQs

What is Lean?

Lean is a term that describes an improvement system in which every employee strives for an ideal condition where 100% of their efforts can be devoted to providing a perfect product or service. The system is comprised of three parts which, like legs on a stool, are all critical to creating a Lean system and culture.

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What are the three parts of a Lean system?

The first is Lean Philosophy with a few simple but powerful ideas. Together these ideas articulate an ideal condition:

  • Provide the customer's exact order immediately with perfect quality
  • Employees are the most important resource
  • All improvement and problem-solving must be based upon direct observation (scientific method)
  • Improvement and problem-solving is part of everyone's job, every minute of every day

The second part of a Lean system is the Lean Management System: the strategy, organization, policy and measures by which an organization is managed. Conventional management systems are not supportive of Lean philosophy and therefore undermine implementation. A Lean management system provides policies and an organizational structure that encourage Lean improvement.

The third aspect of a Lean system is Lean Tools. Also referred to as "best practices" or "countermeasures," these Lean tools provide employees with reliable methodologies to close the gap between the current and ideal condition, and to constantly make small improvements to their jobs every day.

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What do you mean by improvement?

The improvement opportunity is the gap between the current condition and ideal condition described in Lean philosophy. In most cases this gap is huge, estimated typically at 95% of the elapsed time to provide a good or service. We call this waste. The crucial difference between Lean improvement and conventional improvement is that Lean focuses on things that get in the way of the work (waste) rather than the work itself. One reason that companies can make huge gains in profitability, quality, sales and service is because the gap between the current and ideal conditions is so large. A second reason is that - in a Lean organization - everyone is responsible to solve problems and make improvement suggestions.

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How can everyone be a problem solver and improvement maker?

The people who can see the waste in a process are the ones doing the work. In most cases these wastes are not visible to others. As waste is removed from a job, more work can be accomplished and the elapsed time to provide a good or service decreases. In this way, the job becomes easier as productivity increases. The name for these many small changes for the better is Kaizen.

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How can small Kaizen-type improvements make any difference?

While kaizen improvements may be small they add up quickly to huge gains. An eight hour workday contains almost 29,000 seconds, but more than 27,000 of those seconds represent waste! There are tens of thousands of small improvement opportunities. Further, if one department identifies an improvement opportunity and then shares it with three other departments, a sixty second savings can become a 180 second savings. When improvement ideas are shared, we call this Yoketen— peer to peer sharing of good ideas.

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Where do employees look for improvement?

If we understand the function of any job, then anything which is not purely in that function is called "waste." There are seven industrial engineering-type wastes that employees must be on the lookout for:

  • Motion— any movement of a person or machine that is not essential to jobs is a waste. For example, if a person must walk 10 feet to complete a task, that walking motion might be easily reduced to 5 or even 2 feet by rearranging the work. Or if an office worker must search a file for 20 minutes because of poor organization that motion waste might be cut to just seconds with proper organization of information.
  • Correction— any operation that must be corrected increases the elapsed time to provide the good or service. A sales order that is transmitted missing information is an office example. A factory example is part that must be reworked.
  • Waiting— when either employees or machines have time on hand this is an opportunity for productivity improvement.
  • Storage— material and information that are awaiting processing create a waste of space for storing.
  • Transportation— any time that material or information are being conveyed from one operation to the next is waste. In many organizations the transportation internal the site is miles and may take hours to move.
  • Processing— when an operation is examined carefully there are often unnecessary processing steps that add time but no value.
  • Over-production— this is the worst waste because when information or material are produced too soon or in a quantity larger than needed, all other wastes may be incurred. For example, excess production must be transported and stored, while resources are tied up making unneeded items, other jobs wait.
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What kind of gains should a company implementing Lean expect?

Documented results over many industries and occupations show that a consistent application of Lean practice and philosophy can produce year on year productivity gains of 25% or more while providing shortened lead-times and flexible, problem-free service to customers. These companies make thousands of improvements every year, each one identifying and removing waste in the process.

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How can companies find the time to implement thousands of ideas and still get their work done?

In Lean companies, everybody is a problem-solver and inventor of improvements. Many hands make light work. And every small improvement makes time by eliminating one of the seven wastes. Lean improvements create far more time than they expend.

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Why don't more companies take advantage of Lean?

Many companies try to use Lean Tools without understanding the need for the supporting Lean Philosophy and Management System. Because the environment is not favorable in those companies for creative thinking and improvement, the many small improvements are not appreciated and supported. Ultimately the process fails because management has not recognized the power of their most important creative resource: employees.

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