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Thursday, November 15, 2007

What is Lean?

Lean, also known as Lean Manufacturing, and now morphing in the Lean Enterprise, Lean Supply Chain, the Lean Office, Lean Six Sigma, and more. But what is Lean? There was a discussion recently on LinkedIn when someone asked a question about implementing Lean in a Make-to-Order or Engineer-to-Order environment. That’s where a product isn’t made until customer actually orders one, or the product isn’t even designed until the customer orders it (think buildings or satellites or something like that). The questioner said that “traditional” Lean techniques didn’t work and was asking for advice.

To ask a question like that tells me you don’t really understand Lean and what Lean is. Lean, for those not familiar with it, is a management system that evolved from the Just-in-Time (JIT) system. JIT was an evolution of the Toyota Production System, which was an evolution, of sorts, of Henry Ford’s automobile production system. But that doesn’t really tell you much. What is Lean?

Lean is a philosophy. It is a business philosophy to operate your business or organization in the most efficient and effective way as possible. The term you’ll hear the most is Eliminate Waste. Waste takes many forms. Wasted time, wasted effort, and wasted resources are the biggies. Eliminating waste, improving processes, and becoming more successful and profitable are the goals. There are many tools, or techniques, associated with Lean. Things like 5S (Five S), which means to clean up and organize your work areas, Cellular Manufacturing, where you produce an item in a small, compact work cell, rather than moving things around to different departments, are used to make improvements.

Not every tool or technique will work, or work as well, in every situation or for every organization, but the basic philosophy is sound. Understand the philosophy, understand the tools, modify them for your organization, and reap the rewards. An instructor I had many years ago said “adopt and adapt”. Adopt the principles, and adapt them to fit your needs.

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