Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
Lean thinking is elusive and calls for determination

Lean thinking is elusive and calls for determination

Andy Lin
April 7, 2015

ARTICLE - What is lean? We all like to think that we know. This personal story reminds us all of how elusive the methodology can be, and how determined a practitioner has to be to fully grasp it.

Words by: Andy Lin, Associate, Boston Consulting Group

I can’t count the times I have asked - and been asked - the question "What is lean?" As I look back, I realize that I have “learned lean” at least three times (and I know there will probably be a fourth or a fifth). I first tried to learn, for a while I even thought I had, and then I realized that I had only scratched the surface. This is a fantastic journey for me, in which I am guided by a kind friend, patient mentor, and true sensei – Marcus Chao, President of Lean Enterprise China. 


The first time I learned about lean was when I studied its tools during my course: kaizen, value stream mapping, kanban, A3, andon, heijunka, etc. I learned a lot from each of these concepts, but every time I finished studying one I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing the big picture.

A great realization came to me when I first met Marcus, who at the time was offering sessions of career counseling for Shanghai Jiao Tong University students.

I was expecting to hear a long speech on career building and to get some guidance. What I got instead was several questions: “What’s your past experience and how do you think about your future career?”; “What do you like to do?”; “Why do you like doing that?”; “Any specific plans for the next five years?”

I couldn’t answer many of these questions. Marcus smiled and said: “You guys always say you don’t know what you like, but the truth is that no one knows what they like until they try. Go get your hands dirty!”

That conversation triggered something in my mind - how do I get my hands dirty? I had so many questions, and Marcus seemed to notice. “Opportunities are already around you, you just need to look for them,” he said.

Back then I perhaps didn’t realize that what Marcus told me was in fact strongly connected to one of the key lean principles: understanding and challenging the current condition by facilitating thinking at the front line, which to me was my life and my career.

One day of the following summer I received an email from Marcus:

You need to meet this guy who is leading the program of customization of shoe production for a large organization. He is here in Shanghai.

Customized production is interesting: it allows customers to design as many details of a product as possible to achieve additional value. How does this Brennan guy design the process for large organizations? I met him for coffee and ended up agreeing to help him implement lean manufacturing and develop a pick-to-light system to manage process complexity at the company he was working for in China.

Work started the following week and, after reviewing all the lean and operations management concepts I had learned, I thought I was ready to go.

Once at the gemba, I realized I was totally overwhelmed: I saw the fast-paced production line with more than 30 stations and 100 people constantly working, and different machines for cutting, stitching, high frequency welding, and so on.

"Let me know if you need anything," my manager said before going back to work.

I realized I needed to know everything, including how to start with lean.

One day, my colleague William and I decided the best approach would be to start by drawing a value stream map. I was confident we could do it in a day, and suggested we delved right into it.

Unsurprisingly, three days later William and I were still working on the map - processes were not as standardized as I had been taught in class, and people moved up and down the process; the cycle time was more volatile than expected because every order was different. In short, all was new to us.

We finished the map in a week. Once printed in the smallest readable font, it spanned eight A4 sheets.

We were ready for some improvements, we thought. After going through the VSM, I was sure the printing process before stitching would lead to a quick win - it was a bottleneck with a very volatile cycle time because the worker often had to search for randomly arranged printing meshes. No doubt an easy standardization would bring improvements! Everything would be as easy as my process decomposition homework: I just needed to understand and break down the current process, optimize the arrangement of the meshes, and eliminate redundant movements.

Within a day, I finished my analysis and came up with a solution to re-organize the work unit and to change the worker's movements. Together, these promised to save 50% of the cycle time. I went to the lady at the front line and explained my plan. She looked pretty puzzled, but I persuaded her (or I thought I had) to re-organize everything and start her work again following my instructions. I was holding my watch and watching nervously: 1 second, 5 seconds, 15 seconds, 20 seconds… it did save time!

I was so happy and filled with pride, not knowing that a headache would come to me the following day. When, a day later, I passed by my "flagship station" I was surprised to find it changed back to its old appearance. The lady was working there like nothing had happened.

When I asked the woman who worked at that station for an explanation, she replied nervously: "I am sorry… it was not the way I normally like to do things. It felt odd and confusing, so I went back to the original one."

‘You are right, you don't understand, but I do,’ I thought. I had studied lean, and could not understand why she couldn’t just follow my lead.

I had gone to get my hands dirty, and realized I had only just started to learn about lean. Once was not enough.


“Dealing with the problem itself seems easy, but dealing with people is really hard,” I told Marcus when I saw him after getting back to Ann Arbor to tell him about my experience working in China.

He did not comfort me, but started to ask a lot of questions (“Why did you do that?” “What’s the value?” “Does it save them time/effort?” “How much money is that worth?” “Why?”) When I found myself struggling to answer them, Marcus laughed and said, “Well, I am glad you tried and struggled. You just need to question yourself more and answer yourself ‘why’ more. That will make you more determined and confident.”

He then invited me to attend a lean summit in Dallas, Texas, in the spring. And what a great learning opportunity that was!

One of my biggest take-aways from the three-day event was to learn about the extent to which value stream mapping can be leveraged to understand both internal and external processes. In its presentation, metal processing company Acme, which supplies aluminum to equipment manufacturers, showed how they used this “super VSM” to find ways to optimize their value creation process through collaboration with business partners. The story deeply inspired me: I always thought that VSM was only for factory process flow optimization.

Ford Motor Company's lean product development efforts also impressed me. With a background in both electrical and industrial and operations engineering, I had it in my mind that product development cannot be structured using lean, but Ford proved how wrong I was. By developing the capabilities of R&D engineers to function as a whole team they could improve quality, reduce lead-times, and lower costs. I am most impressed by their efforts in designing a global R&D communication system, which greatly enhanced their ability to improve information sharing among engineers, identify critical paths as a team, and align everyone with the company's R&D goals. 

It was my first time experiencing the power of a well-designed flow of information – it occurred to me, lean is not only about improving machines, processes, and work.

I was surprised to find that every session of the summit refreshed my understanding of lean thinking and the idea of value. In just three days, I felt that lot of the dots in my mind were connected. I had just learned lean a second time.


Over time, and after helping Marcus with the translation of Jim Womack’s Gemba Walks in Chinese, I really thought I had finally got a good understanding of lean. But there was still something missing.

As I tried to embrace the 5 whys method, I realized I had a hard time questioning lean itself.

Here it goes…

Why do we do lean? Because we need to transform our operating models.

Why do we want to transform? Because that results in the creation of more value with the same resources.

Why do we need to create more value? Because it enables us to make more money and to be successful, and because it just feels right!

I normally get stuck after this third “why” and remain dissatisfied with this answer. Why does value creation feel right to us? How can this be explained more clearly?

Of the companies I visited with Marcus, office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller is certainly the one that had me the biggest impact on me — their transformation and their culture really showed me how a lean "seed" can grow over time. At Herman Miller, lean did not feel like a project or program anymore, but like a transformational journey towards becoming an environment where people support lean and are respected. And it just felt right.

Another epiphany, which I then related to my renewed understanding of lean as a transformational managing system (it was now the third time I learned it), had come to me at a dinner at the Dallas summit, during a conversation with a senior manager at a large Canadian bank. When asked what traits he looked for in the members of his lean team, he told me that the most critical factor to him is how well lean ideas are embedded “in people’s personal philosophy.”

This was really interesting for me to hear, and useful to further strengthen my understanding of what lean is all about. The word craftsmanship came to mind - this is the type of mindset that supports many excellent companies in Japan and other countries to improve and perfect their products or services, which they use to bring happiness, in the shape of value, to their customers. People enjoy working in these organizations because they can more easily relate to customer happiness.

At the same time, the concept of craftsmanship makes me wonder how deeply lean is embedded in my own philosophy! Do I get joy out of the transformation I lead? This question greatly influences the way I think about my career and my life these days.

Marcus never told me what lean is. He has only ever asked me what I think it is, and encouraged me to go and find that out for myself. It took me three years to understand, but today I know the word lean is a symbol for a philosophy that hides in the back, has value at its core, and countless concepts around it.

In different situations we look at lean from different angles, and each time it changes shape. It is elusive, and not rushing to understand it is the only way to connect the dots (improving processes and respecting people) and fully embrace the idea of value. After all, it took me three attempts to even begin to understand it!

I have seen many people learn, implement lean and teach lean, but I am not sure how many of them (how many of us, in fact) welcome it in their personal philosophy.


Andy Lin photograph

Andy Lin is an associate at the Chicago office of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). His work focuses on broad strategic topics covering operations, supply chain, post merger integrations, etc. Prior to joining BCG, Andy received his bachelor and master's degrees in Industrial and Operations Engineering from University of Michigan, where he first met Dr Marcus Chao and learned about lean. He is a fellow of Tauber Institute of Global Operations and Engineering Global Leadership Program.

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