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LEAN FAQs

What Is Lean?

Lean is a dynamic process of continuous improvement and learning by empowered associates, in a culture of mutual trust and respect, focused on eliminating waste and maximizing value for our customers.

What is the origin of Lean?

“Lean” is a term first used in the book, The Machine that Changed the World (1991), describing the Toyota Production System (TPS) as “lean manufacturing.” It describes principles used by Henry Ford, Toyota, Deming and arguably earlier adopters such as Benjamin Franklin.  Lean can be described as a culture based on a dynamic  process of continuous improvement and learning by empowered associates, in a culture of mutual trust and respect, focused on eliminating waste, and maximizing value for those we serve.

What is meant by “waste” in the definition of Lean?

Toyota’s scientist, Taiichi Ohno, created the seven forms of waste to help people identify waste.  He believed that it cannot be eliminated if it cannot be identified.  The original seven forms of waste are:

  1. Overproduction
  2. Waiting
  3. Transporting
  4. Overprocessing
  5. Unnecessary Inventory
  6. Unnecessary/Excess Motion
  7. Defects

Does Lean only apply to manufacturing organizations? 

No. Lean can be used in any size and kind of organization:  government, higher education, health care, energy, even dentist’s offices.  Any organization, large or small, can benefit from lean thinking and tools to improve customer service and employee engagement.

What is the ‘House of Lean’?

It has many versions and can be explained in this illustration:

What is Value Stream Mapping?

A “value stream map” lays out every step of the current state of what it takes to get a task completed.  Once the steps are visually identified, identification of waste is possible.  From there, a desired future state where waste has been eliminated/reduced is created.  Plans to tackle waste are developed and presented to management for approval.

  • Reducing or eliminating non-value adding activities is critical to have things flow well and a principle goal of Lean.  Upon examination of your processes through VSM, it soon becomes obvious where improvement opportunities lie.  This process is key to making things run faster, better and cheaper.
  • Value stream maps may be done on white board or using post it notes, allowing anyone in the organization the ability to map a current state and identify waste

What is 5S?

It is a 5-step repeatable system that makes things neat, clean, organized and efficient. It provides your organization with a rapid, visible achievement while preparing your workforce for other advanced improvement efforts. It is a great way to involve a team.

The five steps of 5S were originally in Japanese. The approximate English translations are:

  1. Sort
  2. Straighten
  3. Shine
  4. Standardize
  5. Sustain

5S is a powerful tool for helping people:

  1. Get a “gut level” feel for waste
  2. Operate as a team and reach consensus on issues
  3. Learn how to standardize non-standard work
  4. Create the foundation for continuous improvement

Why do people use the term “journey” when describing their implementation of Lean?

The goal of “lean” is organizational transformation where the culture is one of relentlessly pursuing continuous improvement.   Anyone who has undertaken this “journey” knows that it requires top management commitment and leadership to create the processes and understanding that allow the entire organization to join in identifying and eliminating waste. This is really a journey that never ends.


What does Lean mean in everyday terms?

Listen to a 5-minute podcast featuring 2012 MLC Chair Debra Levantrosser being interviewed on the Michigan Business Network. Click here to listen.


Where do I start?

Start with articulating why you are making the transition to lean and what business issues lean will address. Be sure to develop a vision, mission, key principles, a deployment plan, resource plan, change management plan.  Some organizations choose to not use the word ‘lean’ when describing the journey. Find what works best for your organization.

Once those strategic steps are taken (and occasionally in parallel),  it often makes sense to start with value stream mapping (VSM) and Five S (5S).

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