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Part II: What Is Lean? Waste inspires improvement

For many practitioners, Lean is a way of life. With a focus on continuous improvement, its principles and tools can be applied to so many aspects of our lives, which is why I am such a firm believer and advocate.


Are you curious about Lean? Do you want to dig deeper into what it is and how it can serve you and your organization?


The following is a common definition of Lean, and it serves as an excellent framework on which to suss out the value of the approach:


Lean is a structured approach to empowering people to eliminate waste while striving for continuous improvement to achieve enhanced value to the Customer.

If you missed Part I: What Is Lean? True Team Empowerment, check it out to better understand the first two concepts of Lean in the definition. Here, we’ll look at the third and fourth concepts, of five total.


Concept 3 - To eliminate waste


There is waste in everything we do. This is a fact of life and to a Lean practitioner, it provides the inspiration to do better. To a Lean guy or gal, it is an acceptance that we are always striving for perfection, but we can never quite achieve it, and that’s OK. The value lies in the journey toward perfection, not in the arrival at the destination. By first accepting that there is waste in everything we do, we can humbly open the emotional and cultural door to continuous improvement.


Still having trouble visualizing waste in everything we do? Students in my Lean classes find the following analogies of imperfection helpful:

  • Batting less than 1.000 in baseball.

  • Seeing dust everywhere, as a scientist does.

  • Having an immaculate kitchen as you cook Thanksgiving dinner.


Examples of everyday waste include when a person is late for a meeting, reworks a process, orders the wrong part or holds excess inventory. All are considered waste.


The Lean community has identified seven types of waste. This is attributed to many sources, and likely originated with Taiichi Ohno of Toyota.


The Seven Types of Waste - Prime Vector
The Seven Types of Waste

With the above list of wastes, it can be easier to categorize waste — even in great processes — and create an action plan to reduce specific waste. Many functions have multiple elements of waste. Remember that waste is not found just in manufacturing (making stuff), but also in service (doing stuff).


Increasingly, it is hard to differentiate a pure producer of goods from a pure producer of services. Companies such as Xerox, GE, IBM and Boeing have famously pivoted from a focus on hardware to one of software and services, while most restaurants, Amazon and even Uber blur the two areas. The Customer experience is the Holy Grail.

Waste is the opposite of value. Taiichi Ohno, known for pioneering the Toyota Production System, defined waste as:


“Any activity that consumes resources but creates no value for the Customer. Anything that adds cost without producing a corresponding benefit to the Customer.”

Ohno was a leader at Toyota after World War II. One of his responsibilities was to revive the automobile business in Japan. Remember the state of Japan’s manufacturing infrastructure after the war. The market was extremely depressed, with death and destruction affecting consumers across the country. Japan’s GDP in 1945 was down 47 percent from its pre-war level.


Conversely, when the victorious Americans returned home from the war in 1945, their economy soared. The United States had a surging market, with demand for goods — cars, washing machines, all manner of products — following a housing boom. The annual production of automobiles quadrupled from 1946 to 1955. Companies like Ford were about to enter a rapid growth era.


It was in this environment that Ohno visited Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich. Ohno saw the massive, sprawling American auto plants, optimized for high volume. “If you build it he will come,” may well have been the adage of American manufacturing at that time. Ohno knew he could not replicate this in Toyota.


Lore is that Ohno, who liked a glass of warm milk to fall asleep, went to a local supermarket in Dearborn to purchase milk for his nighttime ritual. He approached the refrigerator, with the angled shelf behind the glass. He pulled a glass jug of milk from the shelf, and the remaining milk jugs slid down, as we all have experienced when grabbing beverage bottles from a similar rack at a convenience store. Ohno stopped to think about what had just happened, and stood there in thought, perhaps for as long as an hour. (Imagine the store assistants approaching him saying, “Sir, may I help you find something?” and him waving them away.)



The Ford Motor River Rogue Complex in Dearborn Michigan, 1944.
The Ford Motor River Rogue Complex in Dearborn Michigan, 1944.

It was at that point that Ohno thought of the just-in-time system. Just-in-time provides inventory at the exact time as the next step in the process needs it — in this case, as the next Customer in line selects a product. Like in a modern Wal-Mart, product appears at the freight door at the right time so it can be restocked on shelves immediately. There is no storage room in the back; the Customer shelves are the storage area. I know because as an operations consultant, I have been on my hands and knees stocking Wal-Mart shelves to understand the process. If a delivery arrived with excess inventory relative to what would fit on the racks, there would be nowhere to store it. And who initiates action in a big-box store or supermarket? The Customer.


Today, deliveries to Toyota plants by suppliers are timed to the minute, with penalties for early or late deliveries — if you see a supplier truck circling a Toyota plant, you can correctly guess they are adjusting their delivery time to arrive at the correct time. Pallets are put on conveyor belts directly from semis to the line, with colors and styles prearranged in the truck according to the delivery schedule.



Concept 4 - While striving for continuous improvement


It’s common for a professional Lean practitioner to introduce themselves as a student of Lean – one who is continuously learning. That is to emphasize the journey — that Lean is about a lifetime of learning. Lean practitioners use the term Current Best Approach (CBA) to emphasize that the current way is only a fleeting best approach, and that continuous improvement will hopefully make today’s best answer to the question obsolete.


The simplest concept of continuous improvement is the Plan-Do-Check-Act, or PDCA loop.



Plan-Do-Check-Act, or PDCA loop
Plan-Do-Check-Act, or PDCA loop

Have you ever worked at a company or been involved in a process that involved simply doing (D) and stopping after that? Certainly, all of us have. How about only planning and doing (PD) or perhaps even completing the PDCA loop, but only once. For critical processes, a good Lean practitioner will see the PDCA loop as an endless, virtuous cycle.


I often refer to the unsatisfactory but requisite first attempt at a process as the First Waffle — it is that first waffle that you make in the morning before the waffle iron is adequately hot. The soggy first waffle goes to the dog (or to the chef), but not the Customer. So it is with the PDCA cycle.


Erik Young

CEO, Prime Vector


Check out our other blogs in the series.

For even more information, you can also read or listen my book "The Power of Lean Process: Increase profits, delight customers and improve your company's culture"

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