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Are you Lean? Or are you Mean?

Lean was first coined in the book ‘The Machine that Changed the World’ written by Jim Womack and Dan Jones in 1991. In this, their first book in a series of bestsellers, they describe how Japanese manufacturing improvement capabilities, predominantly in the car manufacturing industry, led to the emergence of companies such as Toyota (primary focus of the book) as global competitors to the once dominant US car builders.

The authors define Lean [Manufacturing] by describing five core principles (more to come on these later):

· Maximise Customer Value.

· Understand Value Streams.

· Make value Flow.

· Customer Pull value from the business.

· Search for Perfection.

For many adopters, Lean is a focus on removing waste (muda). As waste is removed from a process ‘quality’ improves while production time/time to market and cost are reduced. Toyota take a slightly different approach in that they focus on improving the flow or smoothness of work (eliminating mura; "unevenness") through their system and not upon 'waste reduction' per se. This is common with ‘production line’ operations that are primarily measured in terms of movement rather than a set of activities. They believe (and are quite correct) that the removal of waste is a byproduct of improving flow. Whichever approach you take, improving flow or removing waste to improve flow, the ‘value’ capability of your process improves, i.e. you are able to increase the efficiency and the effectiveness of your value propositions.

The difference between these two approaches is not the goal but the prime approach to achieving it. The implementation of smooth flow, which is not easy, exposes quality problems which exist in the business but are hidden by people, large 'work-in-progress' and stock. The removal of these problems consequentially reduces waste. The major advantage of this approach is that it takes a system or companywide viewpoint whereas waste analysis provides only a limited perspective and can be narrow in its application. A 'tool-based' approach is often short sighted and limited in it’s effectiveness. Many companies have made significant improvements through a 'tool-based' approach however it should be the pre-curser to the development of a lean environment where all aspects of the 5 core principles of Lean are mastered.

In my next blog article I will address the challenges of identifying Customer Value.

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