Lean Thinking Questions

Question: “What Does Lean Thinking Mean To You?”

A recent post on a LinkedIn forum sparked some lean thinking questions and a discussion over what exactly phrases like “lean thinking” meant to other users. The author Tony Heath, started off discussion by asking what people thought of the constant use of terms like “lean,” “strategic,” etc., and whether or not there was really something inherently different in these mindsets that doesn’t simply come along with the general business smarts required to keep a company moving forward.

Lean Thinking Question by Tony Heath


For the most part, people seem to agree on a general definition of lean thinking or philosophy:

Lean Thinking Discussion and Answers


I thought I’d chime in as well and give you a couple of different perspectives on what exactly “lean thinking” should mean to a business owner.

Lean Logistics History

Lean thinking logistics has its roots in early, early car manufacturing, moving back through history to the time of Ford’s Model T.  At this point, however, lean thinking was both unnamed and completely unrefined – there was plenty of room for improvement. Lean ideas and strategies that resemble the ideology we have today first started to sprout up in the 1970’s and 1980’s, as it first came to light just how different car manufacturing in different nations, namely the United States and Japan, had become. Toyota, when its strategies and techniques were first looked at in-depth by the western world, would come to be seen as the founder of lean. Their waste-elimination and highly streamlined assembly lines were efficient to a ‘T’.  Even so, phrases like “lean” manufacturing, thinking, strategy, or philosophy would still not surface until the late 1980’s, and wouldn’t be popularized for a few more years, in the 1990’s. In fact, “Lean Thinking,” in 1996,  is a book widely credited with popularizing lean in the mainstream for the first time (though lean and related phrasing had been mentioned elsewhere in certain publications at this point in time).

Lean Thinking As A Philosophy

As most of the LinkedIn replies would indicate, lean is, at its core, a mindset or philosophy about how to streamline and improve production and business practices through the elimination of waste.

Thomas Scott a Process Engineer at Capital one said:

I believe Lean Thinking means looking for and finding non-value added steps in your process. My experience has taught me that it is like having a special set of glasses that allow you to see more clearly or a new tool in your toolbox – once you have it, you find ways to use it!

-LinkedIn – Lean Six Sigma

He rightly indicated that lean is about cutting out non-value adding parts of your work, but another user reminded him that lean was also about adding/maximizing value adding activities, not only cutting out waste – though that does remain a staple of the lean ideal.

Tomasz Lesniewicz said:

Eliminating waste is one thing but for me the Lean Thinking is also about adding value through knowledge creation and reusing. It’s about maximizing (value-waste).

-LinkedIn – Lean Six Sigma

Lean is both of these things, and in my opinion, can be most succinctly summarized as an ongoing attempt to maximize efficiency through the minimization of processes that add no value to your customer or end product.

Lean Methodology Overview

While lean at its core is indeed an idea, the active side of lean involves the various lean “strategies” and methods that have been created to achieve the desired efficiency. Rather than as a new “tool in your toolbox,” I think it’s best to think of lean as a new toolbox altogether, which contains specialized and separate tools inside for achieving its goals.

Here are just a few of the techniques that bridge the gap between lean thinking and lean action taking:

Kanban: Kanban is a type of inventory management “pull” system in which items in various stages of production are only progressed as customer demand, and the processes immediately after them, dictate. This helps to eliminate things like inventory buildup, and the wasted man hours spent creating products which a company has no initial use for.

Kaizen: Kaizen is a term associated with the ongoing improvement of a workplace. With Kaizen, managers are constantly looking for ways in which they can improve their business practices and achieve better overall efficiency. If you haven’t read the book, The Kaizen Revolution by Michael Regan, you need to pick it up. This is a great book that helps you get a better understanding about Kaizen events, eliminate non-value-added steps, and how to sustain the results over the long-term.

Gemba: Gemba, also referenced as Gemba walks, is another continual improvement activity. Unlike Kaizen (of which Gemba can be a sub-section), a Gemba walk is going to focus on a particular aspect of your business, zeroing in on observations, problems, and solutions for one small component of the overall machine that is your company. Another great book to read is the, Gemba Kaizen Edition 2 by Masaaki Imai. This book brings current case studies, clear and correct meaning of Gemba Kaizen, and also walks you through on how to apply Gemba within your business.

Waste Elimination: All of these activities, along with many others, have some aspect which seeks to eliminate waste. Waste, in the lean sense, can be more than actual physical waste (garbage, unused materials, etc.). Actually, there are seven primary areas in which lean thinkers generally recognize in their elimination and improvement efforts:

  • Transport time
  • Inventory
  • Personal movement (walking, reaching, etc.)
  • Wait time in between steps or tasks
  • Overproduction, which eventually results in more inventory
  • Over processing – the need for unnecessary steps in creating a product due to inadequate tools, machinery, or craftsmanship
  • Defects, products that must be thrown away or re-run through production stages

Some people have since added their own types of waste to eliminate to the list, including wasted talents from overly qualified or skilled workers, and goods that are produced without proper market research and evidence of demand; these products may not be defective, but they may also not be desired at all by your target market.

What lean is, most importantly, is a way to look at your business and see little tweaks and changes which you may have missed or which may have seemed insignificant before. Furthermore, it’s about taking quick action to execute these fixes and alterations, and recognizing that short term costs for lean adjustments are almost always, if properly evaluated, more than made up for in long term benefits and profit margin improvements.

Additional Resources