The Real Meaning of Lean
LEAN, THE practice of continually identifying and eliminating waste in an organization, is very often a misunderstood term or phrase. Too many people associate it with the phrase “Lean and Mean,” which has become a euphemism for laying people off, working with too few staff, working staff long hours and micromanaging every activity to lower costs—often at the expense of quality. It’s ironic, then, that the practice of Lean is the exact opposite of the phrase “Lean and Mean. Many credit Henry Ford for inventing the Lean concepts. Others say you have to go back to the Greek or Roman Empires. Wherever it started is interesting, but somewhat academic. What is important is how to use this powerful methodology and philosophy to improve any organization. Whether it’s an in-plant, a hospital or a government agency, all can use Lean to give a better quality product or service at a low cost with on-time delivery.
The most famous organization utilizing Lean is The Toyota Motor Manufacturing Co. Toyota has been practicing and perfecting the concepts for more than 50 years and still maintains the continued improvement process. So if you are looking for a quick fix solution, Lean is not for you. But then again, we have seen what quick fixes and short-term thinking have done to our economy lately. Maybe we all need to have the long-term, mutual benefit mentality that is prevalent at Toyota.
There are many facets to Lean, but for simplicity let’s take a look at some fundamentals. First, let’s talk about the concept of non-value added (NVA). In Lean this means an activity that does not change the fit, form or function of a product or service but utilizes resources and therefore increases costs to the customer. These NVA are all classified as waste.