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What is Lean, Really? Taking a Step Back …

October 25th, 2012

What is Lean? How’s it different from Six Sigma?  Which one should I use?  How do I get started?   I get questions like this all the time.  To process aficionados… well, these questions just seem trivial.  Come on … How can anyone not know that?

Not so fast.  To a business person under real pressure to solve a real business problem … one who doesn’t have time to wade through the vast swamp of information and opinions out there … these are completely relevant questions.  And save the theoretical, academic stuff … just cut to the real-world chase … no time for a lecture … can it help me nor not?

What is Lean?

I know there are a lot of more complete definitions, but I like simple and straight forward so I boil it down to a relentless focus on the identification and elimination of waste.  But, let’s expand a little more:

  • Lean is about doing more with less
  • Lean is based on the premise that anywhere work is being done, waste is being generated … and should be minimized or removed
  • It should be team based process understanding business processes in a way that identifies and eliminates waste to increase efficiency and effectiveness.
  • It can be used at any level of the organization and applied to any process or work area

What Lean Isn’t …

At least the way we approach it here, it’s not a long, complicated process based on sophisticated data analysis, where projects take months and months to deliver results.  Now, to be clear, there are certainly projects/problems that need tools like Six Sigma to do this kind of analysis, but Lean approaches a different kind of problem (flow, throughput, cycle time, etc) in a simpler way, and, done well,  typically focuses on incremental improvements instead of big bang breakthroughs.  And, Lean is for everyone, from the lowest level operator to high level executives.  You don’t need a PhD to get stuff done.

How do I get started?

In my opinion, Lean should not be rolled out as a big, top-heavy initiative.  Lean can be effectively deployed in a grass roots, pay-as-you-go model that requires minimal up-front investment, and still delivers quick ROI.  See this post where I laid out such a pay-as-you-go approach.

How can Lean help me?

  • Faster. Removing waste, complexity, and bottlenecks improves process flow and assures that things can be done faster, and be more predictable
  • Cheaper. If there are fewer unnecessary steps, less complexity, and things get done faster because of better overall flow,  then fewer resources need be consumed
  • Better. Complexity = more opportunities for defects = reduced service quality. Reduce  complexity, and quality improvements often are a natural by-product

Difference between Lean and Six Sigma?

Difference Between Lean and Six Sigma

There you have it.  Simplistic, I know, but I hope this helps to answer some of the fundamental questions.  Contact me if you want to discuss in more detail.

  1. October 25th, 2012 at 16:32 | #1

    Interesting starting point articulating the tactical definintion of LEAN, but I would suggest that there are several other strategic components that are worthy of discussion. Pursuit of the LEAN Enterprise is a transformation of the entire management system, to include, but not limited to; (1) strategy deployment, (2) standard work for Leaders, (3) Defiintion and alignent to the Value Stream, by the entire organization. Simply offered as a starting point to expand the conversation….


    Bill Owad
    SVP, Operational Excellence
    Cardinal Health

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