Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
Defining lean is useful, lean definitions are useless

Defining lean is useful, lean definitions are useless

Russell Watkins
May 16, 2019

FEATURE – In this article, the author reflects on how his understanding of lean thinking evolved over time – as did the way he defined it.

Words: Russell Watkins, lean coach – United Kingdom

Starting a conversation on Twitter or LinkedIn about the definition of “lean” is a little like taking the top off a beehive. Many in the lean community fiercely defend entrenched positions around the differences between Lean, TPS and OpEx. This isn’t an article in that vein, it’s more of a personal journey of how my definition of “lean” has changed over 20 years of gemba learning.

My children are 18 and 16 respectively and they still struggle to explain what I do for work. This is my failing, not theirs. The latest offering came from my son as we ate dinner:

“Is it about looking at a process and working out how to make it more efficient and use materials better and make it easier for employees?”

Not bad given that he’s formed that view by osmosis. This is what got me reflecting on how my personal definitions have altered over time. I’ve spent most of my waking life in factories since 1994 and have worked for almost a decade consulting to Toyota Group and non-Toyota companies.

I’ve periodically reflected on my “current” definition of lean as a kind of loose PDCA. The nine definitions below span 20 years and they’ve evolved to reflect my many plateaus in understanding.

Before I launch into it, hat tips all round people who have influenced me – Japanese Toyota trainers through the years (Muraoka-san especially), the work of Jones, Womack, Shook, Smalley and Dennis, plus others too numerous to name.

It started, as it does for many I think, in 1998, with this:

Profit and cost in lean thinking

Definition 1) the elimination of waste to reduce cost...

A decent entry-level answer before a broader understanding came into view, away from purely cost and towards flow. This shows me starting to consider the flow of value but in a very basic way.

Definition 2) the elimination of waste to reduce cost... and reduce lead-time.  

I started to focus on collapsing the timeline between “paying” and being “paid” i.e success comes from whipping material rapidly through the factory so that the money sits in your bank rather than somebody else’s. Working capital improves through having less inventory on hand and dispatching rapidly to raise an invoice on your customer.

I got bamboozled, like everyone else, by the apparent panacea of VSM at this point and then took a diversion into VSM for non-production environments to really think about value. So, my definition morphed into something like…

Definition 3) adding more value using fewer resources.

I’m certain I pinched this definition from somewhere in the sphere. I’ve liked it for a long time because it ties us end-to-end from the customer (as a consumer of the product/service) all the way through the customer again (as all of us trying to conserve finite natural resources).

One drawback of 3), however, is its failure to mention “people”. I had been training and coaching hundreds of people in the gemba but hadn’t fully grasped “monozukuri wa hito zukuri” (make good people to make good things, broadly). My apologies but the next definition was a wordy one.

Definition 4) adding more value using fewer resources and developing the capability of people to run the right experiments in the right way, for their span of control.

There were several steps forward here as I started to understand PDCA deeper, rather than just parroting the words and coaching a weak version. Look anywhere in TPS and two things are required for a high level of capability:

  • the ability to self-diagnose the gap (in your gemba and your skills);
  • and the ability to run a decent, directionally sensible experiment to fill it.

This is why Kata is so fashionable. Put another way, (a) + (b) = self-reliance – a state of thinking-and-doing that I try to coach people towards. The beauty of “self-reliance” lies in its fractal quality for different spans of control at different levels of the business. At the top level we get to… lean as a strategy. Hat-tip again to the likes of Ballé et al for their recent work articulating this.

The next definition is when I hit peak wordiness:

Definition 5) adding more value using fewer resources by developing the capability of people to run the right experiments in the right way, for their span of control, for the benefit of the organization given current and future market conditions.

Then I got to thinking about hoshin and the fact that almost everyone in a business has more work to do than time available, a basic load vs capacity issue.

Of course, the load side of the equation is overstated by significant chunks of muda, muri and mura. But, for today, if you’re facing 11 hours of apparent work to do in a 9 hour day, your time to kaizen is limited.

Time has always been scarce, so any kaizen effort yields more power if it contributes, with others efforts, to a common goal. I frequently draw an alignment picture that my old Manufacturing Director sketched some years ago (see below). It visualizes the power of hoshin alignment to harness many small improvements.

Hoshin kanri and kaizen

These two arrows led me to another definition:

Definition 6) Alignment of effort from customer to shop floor and everyone in between.

Interestingly the definitions are coming thick and fast these days, the more I think about it. I restated 6) to 7) below:

Definition 7) lean is about connecting your gemba to the customer in a flow of value kind of a way.

The key skill to make definition 7) a reality is “sensitivity”, I think. “Sensitivity” and “gemba sensitivity” have a very specific meaning when you spend time around strong Japanese manufacturing businesses. It’s about being attuned to your area, being present and alert, understanding the process and product to the point where you grasp deeply the SQDCP risk points and change points in whatever work you are doing.

Thus, my next stop, as a definition, was:

Definition 8) “lean is about developing sensitivity”.

Still, I wasn’t happy as, although we’re considering people now, there’s no mention of collaboration across functions. Successful lean transformation requires us to look left and right, up and down in the organization to better understand how we fit, and who we need to service better.

I don’t see much harm in developing the ability to recognize the challenges of your internal customers to understand their perspective; as long as it spurs action through mutually beneficial collaboration and kaizen. Which brings us to…

Definition 9) “Customer aligned gemba sensitivity and collaboration to deliver value”.

Ironically, I’m not sure I like the way this one sounds. In trying to prune it back I fear that it sounds like management double-speak!

In reality, I’m not sure a definition matters but the act of reflecting every so often on your lean understanding is probably useful.

Dwight D Eisenhower once said a profound thing: “planning is useful, plans are useless”. Lean is similar, I think: “Defining lean is useful, lean definitions are useless”.


Russell Watkins is a lean coach based in the United Kingom. You can find him on Twitter at @leansempai

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